Fantasy games always provide a refreshing alternative to the interminable mud and metal of the Second World War, but it's unusual for a fantasy war game to be as complex as a simulation of a historical battle. It's probably not that authors are incapable of making up detailed statistics, landscapes and backgrounds - more likely they believe that people who want to play fantasy games are less concerned with such fiddly details and want simple combat, lots of D&D-inspired races, and the chance to throw fireballs around.
But I for one would love to see a fully-fledged war-gamer's fantasy war game - and with Sorcerer Lord the ever-enterprising PSS makes a gallant though flawed attempt.
So don't be put off by the box, which declares that Sorcerer Lord is by the author of PSS's Battlefield Germany, a game I found almost unplayable (it was credited to Cybercon Enterprises).
Inside the box is a player's manual, a glossy PSS catalogue almost as large as the rulebook, a reference card listing the control keys and the meanings of the symbols, and an extremely well-drawn map of the lands Of Galanor on sepia fake parchment.
The detailed rulebook opens with The Scenario. And, naturally, sinister and evil twisted ghostie things from the north are marching southward from their wastelands to do battle with the clean-limbed, upstanding, civilised races in the south. It's one of the great mythological patterns of computer war-gaming that the enemy marches from the east if it's historical and the north if ft's fantasy.
The citizens of a mysterious region called the Shadowlands have, after several unexciting millennia, acquired a new Shadowlord. His predecessor was a peace-loving sort, but the newcomer wants to stir things up.
The ambitious new Shadowlord has sent his Shadow Legions - not people, but magically-engineered Wolf riders and warriors commanded by misguided humans - to invade the Lands Of Galanor and recapture the enchanted rune rings which were created there by the magic people of the Shadowlands long ago.
The player's task - as the clean-shaven men of Galanor, of course - is to repel the Shadow Legions, preventing them from capturing and holding fortresses and rune rings for more than 12 consecutive days (if they manage to, they achieve victory.) The fortresses are also the player's only sources of reinforcements, so the more that are in the power of the Shadowlord the less chance Galanor will have to raise troops to recapture them.
There are five different races in Galanor, and all have special characteristics. Elves move and fight well in woodland, of course; the Men Of Rovanium (the most southerly and so naturally the most civilised nation) are skilled in sorcery; and the Mountain Warriors Of Morgalion are adept at fighting in mountainous terrain.
After the opening menu (where you choose one of three skill levels, and can load a previouslysaved game), Sorcerer Lord launches abruptly into the Shadowlord's first movement phase. In fact, three phases quickly tumble across the screen and the Shadow Legions are already streaming southward before the players gets a chance to intervene.
Anyone who has played Battlefield Germany will recall waiting for 15 minutes while the computer plodded through its turn. I lavished scorn on this appalling piece of programming (it got 42% Overall in Issue 40), and so I'm almost ashamed to admit that Sorcerer Lord goes to the opposite extreme with an effect almost as damaging to playability.
The Shadowlord whizzes through his movement phase like Battlefield Germany 20 times faster and then - which is more serous - resolves battles so quickly that it's extremely difficult to follow what's going on. A summary of the riders and warriors lost by each side is flashed on the message area for just a few moments.
But most maddening of all is the war report, a full screen of detailed and interesting Information about the state of each army and the ownership of the many fortresses and rune rings. This is the sort of thing that one would wish to study at leisure, and frequently. On some versions of Sorcerer Lord you can summon it with a key-press at any time; but on the Spectrum, it appears for two seconds - literally -at the end of each combat phase. It's as if the author realised that Battlefield Germany is too slow, changed a few variables to a lower value picked at random, and never checked whether the new speed is any more convenient.
The screen map is hexagonal, as in Battlefield Germany. The Sorcerer Lord map is a little more attractive, though the ragged edges made inevitable by the hexagonal layout are untidy and the contours of the land are blocky. The fortresses, citadels and rune rings are set in a varied landscape of forest, mountains, plains, deserts and the occasional patches of wasteland.
Though there are several hundred riders and warriors stationed in every fortress, they cannot be mobilised without a leader (here Sorcerer Lord resembles Lords Of Midnight). As the player starts off with about 20 unmanned fortresses and just three leaders under his command, things are rather discouraging. But fortunately, every turn there is a Galanor Alliance phase, when new leaders wake up to the imminent danger and materialise for use in their own fortresses.
Fortresses also generate extra troops at random. And any leader can build up a huge army simply by going round the map recruiting warrior and riders, but this takes time - and meanwhile the Shadow Legions will have taken over the undefended fortresses and rune rings.
The abilities of each army are defined by four factors: the value of its leader, its leader's skill in sorcery, its fatigue level, and its movement rate. Combat between adjacent enemy units is not inevitable; the player can decide to attack by moving onto the enemy's square, which is then marked with a battle sign.
Combat is resolved after the player ends the movement phase, and various factors, including leadership values and terrain type, determine the result.
The most novel factor is Sorcery. If the battle takes place near a rune ring - and the nearer the better-the side which controls the rune ring can take power from it to summon Sorcery. The strength of the Sorcery cannot be predicted, but is affected by the leader's Sorcery skill and distance from the rune ring.
Weak Sorcery merely alters the weather conditions in the caster's favour (perhaps it only rains on half the battlefield...), but Devastating Sorcery brings down a whole host of screaming demons on the enemy.
Despite all the imagination that has gone into Sorcerer Lord, and the obvious potential for varied and thoughtful tactics, the gameplay is awkward and dull (though technically it's a great improvement on Battlefield Germany). The game lacks atmosphere, for all the care that has been put into the packaging.
But some people will find a lot to enjoy in Sorcerer Lord, and it's encouraging to see this sort of fantasy war game released at all.
The packaging is superb, the programming gauche.
Attractive, though rather characterless.
Difficult to enjoy.
Interesting aspects, but try it out before investing.