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Game Design Essentials: 20 Mysterious Games

January 14, 2008 Article Start Previous Page 19 of 21 Next

18. King's Bounty and Heroes of Might & Magic

Piecing together the map.

Developed by New World Computing/3DO

Designed by Jon Van Caneghem

Reason for inclusion:

The game that inspired the Heroes of Might & Magic series is a relatively little-known game from New World Computing called King's Bounty that, until HoM&M, had little to do with its more famous siblings. Both are games that involve exploration, economics, some chance, magic and strategic, turn-based combat... but there's also a cool over-puzzle to both the original and some of the later games that makes discovery, and a good memory, perhaps the most important player skills of all.

The game:

Might & Magic games sometimes pose interesting challenges to the player upon conclusion. Might & Magic II ends with a timed, randomized cryptogram, and after finishing World of Xeen's quest, the player can go back in to explore a dungeon that's also a crossword puzzle.

King's Bounty is another game that New World Computing created around the time of Might & Magic I and II. Originally it had little to do with the M&M games, but it was used as a basis for the spin-off Heroes series when its creators decided to diversify the franchise. And the coolest thing about King's Bounty, which also made it into some versions of HoM&M, is the over-puzzle. I'm most familiar with how the puzzle works in King's Bounty, so that's the game I'm going to describe.

The object of the game is to find a scepter that has been stolen from the king of the realm, and by restoring it to said ruler, end the rebellion that resulted from its loss. The evil dragon boss what swiped it has hidden it somewhere in the realm, and it is the player's task to find it. He's taken the map showing its location, divided it into a grid of five by five squares, and distributed the pieces to his 24 lieutenants, keeping the center piece for himself.

The realm is composed of four huge continents, each with a good number of lieutenants to fight. Each has taken up residence in one of the land's many, many castles with an army themed around that boss's personality. The player's job is to recruit mercenary troops from the many towns and lairs in the land, take over castles to provide periodic income with which to pay them, then go out and capture the villains. Some defeated villains yield artifacts which aid the player's progress, but most importantly, each villain removed from the game gives up a piece of the map.

When the big boss hid the scepter, he didn't follow standard Evil Overlord protocol, stashing it away in the deepest dungeon or strongest fortress he could find. Instead, he stowed it on a random square on one of the four continents. It's well-hidden, so the player doesn't see it while walking around; it could be stashed in the least accessible corner of the last continent, or it's possible that he'll walk over its location a hundred times during the game.

The only way the player can find it is to search the square it's hidden. But not only are there far too many spaces to just try every spot, there is an overall time limit to the game. If the player runs out of days the quest ends in failure, and searching without the center piece of the map (the one held by big boss Arech Dragonbreath himself, by far the toughest villain) causes a search to take 10 days instead of 1.

If the player searches on the right spot he'll find the scepter and win the game immediately. Not only is this an instant win, it's the only way to win. If the player collects every map piece but can't match the picture to a spot on one of the game's continents he still loses. But if the player can figure out where it's hidden after getting the map pieces from just the weakest villains, he can win the whole ballgame without much bloodshed. The combat, the economic game, the exploration, recruiting armies and buying spells, and so on -- all of this exists only as a means.

The real game to King's Bounty is a picture-matching puzzle. Everything else just makes it easier. But the right spot is practically impossible to find without finding at least one map piece, and to usefully narrow it down requires several. The harder villains also happen to be the ones with map pieces in the center. The game, thus, is a game about gathering information. Or put another way, it's about solving a mystery. How about that?

Design lesson:

King's Bounty engages in some clever misdirection, with all the game's combat mechanics built in service of a kind of shaggy dog design. In practice players will usually have to defeat most of the villains anyway, but a player who doesn't like to fight could conceivably win a different way. It rewards players who are good explorers by letting them use that skill for something other than navigation. "Role playing game" is nearly always effectively a synonym for "fantasy combat simulation," so it's nice to see a game where the mechanics of exploration play a larger role.


Article Start Previous Page 19 of 21 Next

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