Why am I controlling an army of grey pigs?
Type: Single-player, Multiplayer
Developer: Strategic Studies Group
Publisher: Slitherine Ltd.
Release date: 1993
The warlords franchise seems to, these days, be better known for its spinoff series, Battlecry, than the man series. The franchise is actually still alive, though the more recent games hardly have anything in common with the games that started it all, with Puzzle Quest: The Legend Returns arguably being the latest Warlords game. Arguably.
Warlords started its life as a series of streamlined turnbased strategy games that lacked the complexity of many of their contemporaries, but were easy to pick up and play, even with little prior strategy experience. The main series only ever received four entries, and the first three have been released on GOG, with the fourth one, Heroes of Etheria, never receiving a re-release.
This is a review of the GOG version of Warlords II Deluxe, which comes bundled with Warlords 1. I had, prior to playing the GOG release, never played Warlords II before, so this review should be mostly nostalgia-goggle free.
The story in Warlords II is weird, particularly as the in-game intro and the manual don’t seem to quite agree with each other about what’s going on. According to the intro warlords from across the land has been called to aid in the conquest of different worlds. Portals have been opened to these worlds and now it’s the job of these warlords to take these alien lands through military might.
In the manual on the other hand they talk about how the land of Illuria is finally at peace and a new golden age has begun, but the heroes and soldiers who fought in the past war are now without a job, and have taken to causing ruckus, fighting who they will and generally being a thorn in the side of anyone who does not want to fight. So the sages just cast a mighty spell that transported all the rowdy fighters to the land of Ethería, so they could have something to conquer.
The story in Warlords II is in other words not one of its strengths, and there’s no story campaign in the game either. Instead the game comes with 60 different pre-made scenarios that at best have a short writeup explaining what’s going on. These scenarios have little in common, and the developers seem to have been allowed to do what they wanted to do with them, which results in some truly odd ones. You do of course have some classic fantasy scenarios where orcs and elves fight each other, but then you have a scenario that’s about tribes of pigs fighting over a pigsty, and another where urban planners fight using garbage trucks, blimps and limousines in order to take over a city. Some have historical roots, like a scenario based around the time of napoleon or Alexander the Great.
Warlords II is a game from 1993, and so it’s not a graphical powerhouse by modern standards. For a 1993 game though, Warlords II looks fine. It’s not the best looking game released this year (1993 saw the release of games like DOOM, MYST, 7th Guest and Sam & Max Hit the Road), but it’s not bad looking either.
The world map is made up of repeating tiles representing different terrain types, and is overall not very detailed. It can at times have a somewhat cluttered appearance, particularly with certain types of tiles, though most of the time it looks fine. Cities stand out from the rest of the landscape and will often have unique looks depending on the scenarios.
There are a lot of different units in the game, and they all have their own sprite. These sprites are not animated, and vary considerably in quality. Some look pretty good, others are hard to tell what they’re even supposed to be, and some just look goofy. Different scenarios seem to have sprites drawn by different people, as there’s little artistic cohesion between the scenarios, but they tend to, for the most part, be internally consistent when it comes to unit designs.
The GOG version sadly does not come with Roland MT-32 support. With an MT-32 Warlords II would sound quite good, though it would still not be up there with the best of the games from its era. As it stands the music has that distinct first half of the 90’s DOS game sound, with some slightly unnatural deep yet twangy music. It’s not bad, but it’s not the best it could be. The compositions are for the most part pretty good though. People who are nostalgic for this era of DOS games will likely love the way the music sounds.
You can often tell when a game is from by just looking at its interface, and the same is true for Warlords II. It has an interface that feels slightly outdated, with a reliance on icons over text. The interface is not bad, it just suffers from a lack of good tooltips, and the need to memorize a few icons. Luckily with how easy Warlords II is to get into to begin with there’s not a lot of icons you need to memorize.
In Warlords II your goal is to conquer enough cities for the AI to realize that you’re so overwhelmingly powerful that it offers to surrender. This is the goal in all the scenarios, and what differs are the armies and the map layout.
At the start of a new scenario you’ll have a small army consisting of one hero and at least one more unit. You then have to expand outwards from there, conquering other cities and fighting anyone who gets in your way. Most of your expansion will be done by taking over the cities that are scattered across the map. Once one of your armies bump into an enemy city or an army out in the wild combat will start.
Combat is extremely simple, and you don’t have any control over it once it’s been initiated. Your creatures will simply fight until one side is dead. When it’s a creatures turn to attack the game will make a dice roll and compare the stats between it and the enemy, and the looser dies. Creatures will fight in order from the weakest to the strongest. Strong creatures obviously have a better chance of winning the dice roll, but the weaker ones still always have a chance, and because of this it’s entirely possible to overwhelm a powerful unit with trash. Many creatures will also get modifiers based on different factors, like terrain, or if they’re attacking an enemy city, and having a hero in the group will strengthen all creatures.
Cities are used to produce units, and unit production happens automatically until you tell a city to stop, and change its production. Each city has a limited number of slots for possible units it can make, and you can install new units until this is full. The more powerful the unit, the more expensive it is to install in a city, and the stronger units will also, generally, take more turns to make. Weak units can be made in a single turn, and the strongest take up to four turns to make.
Heroes are a bit of a special case. They count as a unit, and are capable of fighting, but you can’t recruit them normally. Instead over the course of a game you’ll be offered their services, in exchange for a decent amount of money. Heroes are powerful, so you really want them, but the price of a new hero can be steep. Heroes on their own are also not all that good at fighting, instead their primary purpose is to make the armies they’re attached to stronger.
And that’s pretty much it for core mechanics in Warlords II. It’s not a particularly complex game. There are a few other things you can do, like you’ll get quest objectives that gives you some kind of reward, and heroes level up with use. When conquering a city you can also decide if you want to leave it in a pristine shape, remove installed units (in return for money), or raze it to the ground. At higher difficulty levels you might also have to deal with things like Fog of War, whereas on lower ones everything will be explored from the start.
If there’s one place the game does suffer a bit it’s with the AI. The AI opponents are dumb and will gladly just throw away their armies for no real gain. It is pretty good at spotting weak spot in your defenses though, and will attack any cities left undefended, but the AI is somewhat easy to exploit as it sometimes gets laser focused on your undefended cities, and throw away their valuable heroes in order to get them, not really considering the fact that you might have a powerful army nearby.
There are in total 60 scenarios that come with the game, that have different themes, but even if the exact units vary, and they can have different kinds of terrain and layouts, the core mechanics remain unchanged. Beyond that there’s also a random map generator, where you can set the parameters, decide what kind of armies will be used and so on, and then the game will generate a map for you. The random map generator is surprisingly good, and the maps it makes are often nearly on par with the hand-crafted ones.
Speaking of handcrafted levels, there’s a level editor in this version of Warlords II. It is pretty intuitive, yet powerful, and you can edit pretty much everything you want to, including the way units look. In order to access the editor on the GOG version you need to navigate to it manually using Dosbox though, there’s no pre-configured shortcut set up for it that will launch it for you.
Warlords II is an easy and straight forward strategy game, and it would have been a great entry point into the genre back in 1993, when it was first released. These days it’s still quite playable, even if it shows its age in some regards, with the UI being the biggest offender. The graphics and sound quality does of course not hold a candle to some more recent games either, but I never thought either was so bad that it ended up being distracting.
If you like strategy games, and you’re looking for something new (or old) to play, then Warlords II is a pretty decent option. It’s not a must play though, and I think its sequel, Warlords III: Darklords Rising, is a better game overall, but if you’ve already played Warlords III and are looking for something similar, then Warlords II is well worth getting. Particularly if you’re fine with the style and themes of the game to be all over the place (nothing wrong with craving a bit of variety!), with many scenarios having themes that really don’t make much sense. If you’re lukewarm on strategy games, or if you can’t stand a dated UI, then skip Warlords II. It’s a decent enough game, but it’s not so good that it will change your mind about the genre, or about old games.