War--what is it good for? In Warlock: Master of the Arcane, war is good for absolutely everything. Warlock focuses on the "exterminate" portion of the 4X (explore, expand, exploit, exterminate) strategy formula, with rudimentary diplomacy and research systems, leaving a fun and sometimes intense turn-based strategy game that's all about throwing armies of high-fantasy creatures into conflict. While the game's enemy great mages (aka the "AI") could use a better grasp of their own systems, Warlock provides a satisfying challenge, provided you play on its higher settings.
These hills give the archers a bonus. Too bad simply clicking on the space doesn't tell you this.
The turn-to-turn gameplay is similar to and other 4X games--you send out units across the map, build and expand cities, or fight (or all three, depending on the turn). Warlock is set in Ardania, the land of the series of fantasy sim games. Your goal is to become the strongest of the great mages and establish a mighty empire. The game has three factions: the humans, which feature units such as warriors, archers, and mages; the monsters, who have goblins, ratmen, trolls, and the donkey knights (yes, donkeys are one of Warlock's many resources); and the undead, who sport the usual assortment of skeletons, ghosts, and vampires that you'd expect--along with ghost ships like the Flying Galleus. Each turn, you decide where to explore, move units, attack, and, depending on where you are, research new spells or construct new buildings.
The game looks and plays a lot like , with hexes, one unit per hex, similar-looking formations, and so on. But where it diverges from Civ is in management; all you need to worry about (besides the enemy and aggressive neutrals) are four resources: gold, food, mana, and research. You don't have to worry about pollution, about happiness, about diplomacy--just maintaining and providing for your army. And this makes Warlock refreshing. The game puts you into combat quickly, generally starting your first city near some sort of enemy, be it a neutral city (which can be any of the three factions) or a neutral monster generator that spews enemies on a regular basis (such as cockroaches, rats, and spiders--and even stronger creatures, like bears and ogres).
Warlock works because of balance--each faction has strengths and weaknesses. Take the undead. Their death magic makes them powerful, and their ghosts are immune to most forms of damage. But this is counterbalanced by the life magic of the human faction, which can shred through the undead. The monster faction has strong units that use spirit magic but are costly to maintain.
What's great about the faction is that while they're balanced well against one another, they each feel different. When you're playing as the monsters, your tanklike trolls feel different from the other factions' heavy melee units. The Flying Galleus of the undead is distinct from the galleon of the humans. One thing that helps make the units and factions distinct is voice-overs. A number of units speak when you click on them, and each line fits the faction. The lines of many of the monsters are funny (goblin archers sometimes screech "Best archers in the world!"), and most of this dialogue adds flavor, such as the ghostly captain voice of the Flying Galleus. It doesn't grow tiresome, even after dozens of hours of playtime.
Hmm...building a craftsmen district boosts gold production, but a group of minotaurs could help bash someone's brains in.
A group of neutral units may also complement your armies. You may recruit minotaurs and halberdiers--and even dragons--by building on spaces that spawn such creatures. Spells let you summon some low-level monsters and, later, elementals. When you take over a foe's city, you can't raze it. You instead make it yours, but you keep the other faction's buildings and units (which is how you may end up with mages of the human faction backing your ghosts). You may also set up your game with portals to other worlds. These planes are stocked with powerful monsters, but if you establish a foothold, you can recruit some of the most powerful units in the game. This variety is invigorating: you may play the same faction several times in a row but wind up relying on different unit makeups.
Your units also gain access to various upgrades and perks. Combat earns experience, and when a unit reaches a new level, it receives a new perk. These can boost offense, defense, range, sight, or the rate at which you regenerate life or acquire experience. Be savvy in how you use these perks--if you choose carefully, you can develop low-level units into threats. Upgrades come from special buildings you construct on resources, such as iron and magic nodes. It costs some gold to implement an upgrade, but it's worth it; like with perks, you can buff your units in a variety of ways.