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TC Retrospective Review: Sword of Aragon (1989)

TC Retrospective Review: Sword of Aragon (1989)

Review - posted by Crooked Bee on Tue 9 September 2014, 09:09:30

Tags: Strategic Simulations Inc.; Sword of Aragon

[Written by Deuce Traveler; edited by Infinitron]

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Released in 1989 by Strategic Simulations Inc., Sword of Aragon defies exact classification. It features CRPG, city management, and strategic wargaming elements in equal amounts. There is a ton of game lore to read before you can dive in, but I'll give you the Cliff's Notes version. All of the human lands were once part of a greater human empire, but through wars and other crises the empire was shattered, ushering in a dark age from which humanity is just beginning to recover. Humanity is broken up into various city-states, which are divided further by the geographical separation between the western and eastern halves of the continent of Aragon. You are the new ruler of Aladda, a city-state with a relatively small population - especially when compared to the much larger and more advanced city-state of Tetrada, which is ruled by an eastern Emperor who seeks to conquer his neighbors and rule the continent under his iron fist. You only became the ruler of Aladda due to the recent death of your father, a wandering knight who was elected to the position of Duke by the people of Aladda. Before he died, your father told you a secret: you are a descendant of the original Aragonian Imperial line, meaning you have a greater claim of rulership over the continent than does the Emperor of Tetrada. It is now up to you to protect your government of Aladda, grow a kingdom in the western half of the continent, and face the growing power of the eastern Empire, with the final prize being a united Aragon ruled under your banner. Before you get too comfortable, have I mentioned that your father and his generals died in an ambush against an orc horde, and that the very army that slew him is about to throw itself at the gates that you and your young friends are defending? This attack happens at the end of the game's first turn.

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The graphics and sound effects are simple, as you might expect in an SSI game from 1989. The interface also takes some getting used to, so you'll probably want to play a couple of short practice sessions and save frequently. In particular, you'll want to practice moving units into positions, learn how to correctly select units in a hex, and get used to how options such as entrenchment, firing arrows and spellcasting function. The game manual is a huge help here - I highly recommend you give it a read from cover to cover before you try to get far into the game. The manual does more than just telling you the story of the game and offering basic instructions - it also has detailed information on each of the city-states, with demographic statistics and commentary.

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In the cities of Sword of Aragon, you can raise troops, hire heroes, improve the fortifications, and grow the city and its economy. Growing your city city geographically is good for the morale of your increasing populations. Morale is important because a happy population volunteers for military service in greater numbers, while lower morale can cause civil unrest. Actions such as lowering the tax rate can also improve city morale, while actions such as forcibly conscripting the population into the military anger the people and lower it. Improving the economic situation of your city (in industries such as lumber, mining and commerce) is costly in the short term, but will help your financial situation over time. Improving agriculture is a necessity if you want to avoid starvation over the winter months, which normally last from December through February (except when there's an unnaturally long frost season). Oh, and don't even think about moving your military forces during the winter unless you're willing to accept the severe attrition they will suffer.

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In Sword of Aragon, you do not just play a ruler sending out various heroes and armies to fight for him, like in King Arthur: The Roleplaying Wargame. You also get to create a character for yourself, who starts out at a higher level than your other beginning heroes. The character classes you can choose from are Mage, Priest, Warrior, Knight and Ranger. The Warrior is a more defensive character, who is able to hit hard and take hits in return, but lacks the mobility of the Knight. The Knight also hits hard and has greater mobility, but can't take the same amount of damage that the warrior can soak up. The Priest is a warrior-like spellcaster who you have to be careful using. He's not as tough as the other melee characters, and his buffs and healing spells can only be cast upon the units that occupy the same hex he's in. The Mage should always stay away from the front lines as he lacks armor and hit points, but his arcane offensive spells can be cast from quite a distance away. Finally, there is the Ranger, who is similar to the Ranger class from the original Dungeons & Dragons. The original D&D Ranger was a mix of fighter, druid, and magic-user instead of the bowman we envision today, and so in Sword of Aragon the Ranger class is a weaker horseman who can cast some spells from both the Priest and Mage spell lists.

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Starting the game as a Warrior allows you to recruit infantry in the game for cheap, while the Knight gets a discount on cavalry. In the end I decided to go with a Mage, since I wanted to try out the game's various spells. The game manual warns you against this, claiming that the Mage is difficult to play for beginners, though powerful by the game's end. I didn't realize what that meant until later in the game, when my character got to level 15, but oh, how true it was.

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After you've created your character, the game begins. You spend your first turn preparing your military and heroes. If you are not yet comfortable with creating your own force, you can start with a default army consisting of hero generals and three companies of infantry, javelin-armed infantry, and bowmen, respectively. Alternatively, you can start the game with a load of money, hire your own selection of officers and create your own units. I suggest creating at least one unit of infantry if you do go this route, as a force consisting of only cavalry or archers will be quickly slaughtered. When defending your city from the orcs, you will be able to place your units inside the walls, giving them a defensive bonus. You also have various other tactics at your disposal, such as entrenching your men which gives them a further defensive bonus as long as they do not move from their positions. To engage the enemy in melee, you have to move a unit into the hex being occupied. Some units, like cavalry, have the option to charge instead of fighting in normal hand-to-hand combat, which is effective against archers out in the open, but can be disastrous against entrenched infantry.

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As mentioned earlier, movement on the battlefield in Sword of Aragon is hex-based, although you cannot see the actual hexagonal lines, which may seem awkward to those not familiar with maps that employ the system. However, those like myself who grew up playing tabletop Battletech and pre-3rd Edition Dungeons & Dragons wilderness maps will feel right at home. The outcome of battles is determined by a simplistic paper-rock-scissors method similar to that often used to simulate Napoleonic-era warfare. Entrenched infantry is the bane of cavalry, cavalry smashes bowmen, and bowmen will have a field day on stacked infantry. The individual heroes, companies, and armies each have effectiveness ratings based on how much damage they've taken.

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The enemies in Sword of Aragon are a diverse bunch. Orcs are damned tough and employ suicidal tactics where they charge directly at your forces, which is great when you have infantry that can form and entrench before the howling orcs slam into you, but not so great when your archers and cavalry are at the wrong place at the wrong time. Goblins mix up infantry tactics with javelin throwing. It's a mistake to stay entrenched against goblin forces - instead you want to spread your forces out and mix it up with them in melee. Thankfully, they're weaker in melee than orcs and will surrender much earlier when under pressure. Your human opponents are even more varied, and can consist of all sorts of mixtures of melee units and ranged units with varying capabilities.

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Archers and mages can attack enemies from a distance. They usually strike for less damage than units engaged in melee, but their attacks impact every unit or hero stacked in a hex. Reducing the effectiveness of an enemy unit with ranged attacks is vital to the success of your infantry and cavalry when they engage that unit in melee. At the end of each battle, you gain a percentage of the treasure possessed by the enemy army that is the inverse of the army's overall effectiveness at the time of surrender. So if an army with 10,000 gold pieces surrenders at 20% effectiveness, you earn 80% of the gold, or 8,000 gold pieces.

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Defeating rich enemies can be a good strategy for funding your progress through the game. Conversely, throwing your forces too often against tough but poor enemies can become quite costly, as troops are expensive to replace, and slain heroes are lost forever. Fighting battles also gives you experience points that level you up, which in turn affects the number of hits your soldiers and heroes can take, as well as the amount of damage heroes can dish out. Your spells will also improve as your characters level up. Priests gain abilities ranging from refreshing exhausted units at early levels, all the way up to reviving men who are at the brink of death towards the end of the game. Rangers gain the ability to affect the environment, starting from growing vegetation at early levels, all the way up to creating bridges and impassable terrain on the the battlefield later on. Mages go from simple light spells to raining down fire over entire cities. At the beginning of the game, you are limited in how many such heroes you can recruit, but many more will join you past this limit as you win victories and solve quests.

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Yes, there are quests in this game, which are all combat-based. A few examples: rescuing hostages being held by monsters, defeating a guardian who is blocking the advancement of your army, restoring the rightful rulers of a kingdom to their thrones by defeating the despot who overthrew them, discovering the location of wraiths who are killing the townsfolk at night, finding a lost artifact that will bestow blessings on a town, and wiping out a cabal of cultists who are using black magic against the lords of a nearby city. Usually your armies will be with on your quests, but on some occasions your men will become superstitious and frightened, and you and your heroes will be forced to take on the challenge alone. Succeeding in these quests will gain you followers, gold, artifacts, the vassalage of neighbouring cities, and on one occasion, even an offer to move into a city and rule over its grateful populace.

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Neighbouring cities are ruled by beloved nobles or hated despots, and quests involving them will often involve some choice and consequence. For example, early on you might decide to aid the embattled elves against a conquering overlord. Doing so successfully will gain you elven allies, and the possibility of absorbing the overlord's cities into your own growing empire. Or you can take the overlord up on his offer to kill off the elves, and sell him their ears for greater profit. In another example, you can support a nomadic horseman chieftain in his attempt to unite the clans, or you can side with his rebelling clans and ensure the nomads are never united as one nation.

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Every choice you make has a consequence, including the amount of time it takes you to complete your missions. Taking too long to rescue a merchant's kidnapped son, send an army to help a vassal against invaders, or aid your dwarven allies against an orcish city will lead to expected results. One thing I really loved was how events in the world happen at random times, making each playthrough unique. Have I mentioned how this game predicted the rise of Codexian trolls? You'll have to play it to understand.

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The first two thirds of Sword of Aragon are a real treat. In the first third of the game, you face neighboring humans, orcs, goblins and other humanoids. Each of these factions uses different tactics, forcing you to adjust your own tactics to the changing circumstances. In the second third of the game, you begin to see more hero units and spellcasters among your enemies, and the terrain maps become more complex, with your opponents laying out ambushes and using flanking maneuvers. This middle part is the true highlight of Sword of Aragon.

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Unfortunately, the game's final third falls a bit on its face. Your final battles against the Tetrada Empire result in them turtling up in their cities with long range archers and spellcasters. As you approach, they can see you coming before you see them, and they will strike so hard that further approach is suicidal. This results in you having to use your mages and archers to slowly wipe out the forces along the edges of their army until the enemy is so reduced in effectiveness that they have no choice but to surrender. Because of this I found the final third of the game boring and uninspired, especially when you consider that my mage had grown so powerful that his Pyro spell covered entire armies from a much further distance than the enemy AI could respond. They just sat there as they were bombed repeatedly until capitulation. If the enemy AI had been programmed to split its forces and attack (which it was smart enough to do in the middle portions of the game) this finale would have been much more challenging.

So, despite these disappointing final battles, do I still recommend the game? Emphatically, yes. Sword of Aragon is a linear enough affair that it is fairly obvious to the player which problems need to be be tackled first, yet with enough randomness in how events unfold to ensure replay value. It has enough flexibility to allow you to play as a benevolent ruler or as a terrible tyrant. The quests are varied enough to be interesting, with choices and consequences that must be taken seriously. Sword of Aragon is an experience like no other, and since there don't appear to be any Kickstarters or indie developers intent on reviving it, the only way you are going to be able to experience it yourself is if you suppress your prejudices against older games with primitive UIs and limited graphics and sound, and download it today from your favorite abandonware site.

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For more information, check out my Let's Play of Sword of Aragon here on RPG Codex: http://www.rpgcodex.net/forums/index.php?threads/sword-of-aragon-with-a-codexian-war-council.93069/

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