It's pretty hexciting
Is it weird that I have a favorite shape? Probably. Regardless, I have one, and it's the hexagon. It's all Heroes of Might and Magic's fault, really, and I can't look at the shape without thinking about kicking the living daylights out of a griffon. I once found myself in a courtyard where the ground was made up entirely of hexagonal slabs -- I was there for days.
So, the premise of WarMage Battlegrounds was more than a little bit enticing; I'd be doling out orders to fantasy creatures and heroes on a hexagonal map, while also launching all manner of devastating spells at my foes. In that respect, it is a great deal like HoMM, but exploration is out, and even more focus has been put on battles, particularly of the multiplayer persuasion.
WarMage Battlegrounds (PC)
Developer: Burst Online Entertainment
Publisher: Burst Online Entertainment
Released: Q1 2013
WarMage's core concepts and mechanics are not tough to wrap one's head around, though there are tutorial videos, a detailed battle tutorial at the start of the game, and hints that crop up afterwards (they can be turned off). By the time I was able to start picking my fights, something I was rather eager to do, I was a well-trained killing machine.
Battles are selected from the map, with different regions representing different levels of challenge, and within those regions are a variety of missions that make up the game's scraps. There are villages that need defending, wilderness begging to be explored, NPC Mages to do battle with, and waves of monstrous enemies to slaughter.
Each mission type comes with a cooperative option, which ramps up the challenge, but lets you fight with another player by your side. Then there are the ranked PvP matches, also available in cooperative mode. Completion of these missions rewards players with currency -- which can be spent at the in-game store -- new items and spell scrolls, and experience points. After only a few missions and ranked matches, I'd managed to accumulate a rather large inventory and a decent amount of gold and experience; so there's still a strong sense of progression even should you only want to jump in for a few hours a week.
Before a mission can be undertaken, a squad and loadout must be selected. Initially, Mages begin with a few handy scrolls and spells, along with a basic human fighting force that covers most of the bases like melee and ranged damage, healing, magic, so on and so forth. It's actually a pretty reasonable squad, and will certainly be more than adequate for tackling the first region and some ranked battles.
The randomized battle maps are, while simple to look at, filled with obstacles, aid, and terrain with plenty of tactical application. Ruins, trees, and rocks litter the landscape, and though they can halt progress, they can also create bottlenecks or provide cover from ranged attacks. Some of the spaces have magical properties, giving special bonuses when stood on, or even regenerating mana -- a resource constantly in demand during fights. Unit placement is, then, of the utmost importance, and is often the deciding factor in a battle between evenly matched adversaries.
On top of a unit's basic abilities (move, attack, defend), there are special "morale" powers; potent spells and strong attacks that consume morale, a resource gained from using regular attacks. Players start with a little stockpile of the resource at the beginning of a battle, but once that's spent, they will need to generate more through combat.
There's a huge list of units to choose from, although most must be purchased through the store. One can do this either by spending real money, or spending gold earned through completing missions and competing with other players.
While the broad range of potential soldiers gives rise to experimentation and testing out different squad builds, having the freedom to do this requires a bit of investment, either time or cash. I've tried out a few different combinations, but I've mainly stuck with my Dragonkin army. They are a weak bunch when it comes to ranged assaults, but up close they can be rather deadly. Dragons, ever the intimate monsters. Most of my units have area-of-effect morale abilities, with plenty of damage-over-time spells and debuffs.
To make up for my squad's lack of ranged strength, and to augment their DoTs and debuffs, I've put together a rather dangerous spell and scroll loadout that deals a lot of direct damage, more DoTs, and most of them cover a large area. A Mage's spells can turn the tide of a battle, but are reliant on mana which regenerates over time, and faster if a unit stands on a mana hex.
When I was playing with a ranged squad I had constructed, I'd usually try to lock down as many mana generators as possible, but my Dragonkin's melee focus meant that I had to keep moving them forward, ignoring a mana hex should I pass one.
The purchase or discovery of artifacts may also greatly aid your squad, improving specific types of magic, increasing damage against particular races, or providing certain racial boons, like greater defense for Dwarves, as if they weren't stalwart enough. Tiny buggers. There are also one-shot spell scrolls that can be discovered or bought; great for the Mage who likes to keep a trick or two up their sleeve.
The diversity of the items and units adds a great deal of depth to what is a rather simple -- though no worse off for it -- game. It opens up a wealth of tactical options, and makes every battle a chance to test new rewards or purchases. During battles, there's a lot of information to devour, from the abilities, strengths, and weaknesses of your opponents army to the affect of the spells used against you, and at the end of every fight I'd immediately begin to tinker with my squad all over again, trying to find the perfect combination -- which doesn't exist, of course.
Making my trials and battles all the more enjoyable was an excellent community, far more welcoming than one might expect from a free-to-play title focused on conflict. I'd barely been playing for ten minutes before random players started offering sage advice and plenty of hints and tips. It's still in beta at the moment, though I hope that even when new waves of players join, the community will remain as warm.
There's been no dearth of fantastic f2p titles lately, so hopefully WarMage doesn't get overlooked. It's a huge amount of fun and should appeal to strategy and HoMM fans like myself, as much as those looking to dip their toes into the world of turn-based PvP for but a few hours a week.