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It is impossible for me to play Expeditions: Conquistador without making a comparison to Legends of Eisenwald.

Both are historically-themed games which fall somewhere between role-playing, strategy, and adventure. Themewise, they take place only a few decades apart. In contrast to Legends, Expeditions works harder to anchor its details in history.

You are a leader of a small expedition of adventurers from Spain who have set sail for the colony at Hispaniola with the intention of exploring mainland Mexico. Upon landing, you are told it is May 14th, 1518. There are two campaigns. Completing the Hispaniola campaign unlocks the Mexico campaign. Within the game’s narrative, the Governor of Hispaniola will not allow you to take on your Mexican expedition until you’ve helped him resolve issues on that island, and he seizes your ship until you do so.

Like Legends, Expeditions cites Heroes of Might and Magic as a primary inspiration. You move your figure (representing your “army”) on a strategic map, where you might encounter locations with associated events or enemy units, also moving about the map. Unlike the other two games, Expeditions depends far more on triggered events than on computer-controlled armies.

When a battle does occur, the game transitions to a tactical map. In Expeditions the game dictates a maximum number of your entourage, based on the type of encounter, that can be deployed into battle. Before the battle begins, you must select a subset of your followers to fight it out. As the leader, you have no representation in battle – the combat only uses your followers. Said followers specialize as soldiers, scouts, hunters, doctors, and scholars. These specialties dictate how they perform in battle and also grant them special abilities. For example, hunters are good at ranged attack and not so good close up whereas soldiers are the opposite. Doctors are not particularly good with either combat style, but have the ability to restore lost damage during a battle.

The fighting is turned based and, while again Heroes is cited as the inspiration, there is some very Jagged Alliance mojo in this implementation. The tactical map is hexagonal and quite variable. Sometimes there is an open battle area between the two lines, sometimes engagements are fought around a camp, and sometimes you face each other through a narrow gorge. The maps can also be quite large (as far as this sort of tactical battle resolution goes). The terrain is made up of obstacles, which impact not only movement but also line-of-fire. In addition, the player (during a setup phase, if initiative allows it) can place additional traps or “barricades,” which are destructible during the fight.

hispantacts

In the heat of battle, literally. One of the interesting features during a fight is the ability to toss a burning oil lamp at the enemy. The fire spreads and then dissipates over a few turns, leaving some lasting burn damage in its wake

The strategic map and tactical map are both done with the same basic graphics look, using what I assume is the same engine but at a different scale. Contrasted to Legends, Expeditions is a chunkier, more colorful 3D rendering that I tend to associate with the Russian graphics teams – for example Nival’s Heroes V graphics engine (itself derived from the Silent Storm engine). On the other hand, Legends renders a much finer looking 3D that, particularly with its particle effects, seems to me to be much more realistic and aesthetic. And unlike Legends, which as I said can be handled well with my older computer, Expeditions really gets the graphics fans cranking during play. Like Legends, the strategic map is still the area “visible” to your expedition’s avatar, with a minimap showing the overview of the entire island. Fog of War is handled very similarly.

hispanstrats

The strategic map, just before the battle depicted above. It looks like the same graphical engine at both levels

One complaint I’ve seen repeated in a couple of the reviews was the steep learning curve of the game. There is quite a lot to manage and, while there is the ability to automatically take care of details, one has to at least know that this is an option. I started out on the “default” settings which was the “normal” difficulty. Unlike many strategy games, this is an option that you set in the “Options” menu, not when you are setting up a new game. As a result, I never really ran across the the choice to play my first game on the easiest level. Design wise, the decision makes sense in that (I assume) it allows you to vary the difficulty during a game, as opposed to only at startup. The point being, I played my first game on “normal” and really took it on the chin.

mexitemple

Tactical fights can also take place indoors. Here I have ten turns left to eliminate the natives from a winding tunnel complex below an abandoned jungle temple.

It was a frustrating game. Again, I contrast to the Legends of Eisengard. There too, one can make some bad decisions and get to point where the game becomes unwinnable. The solution in Legends usually is to just go back an autosave or two, before critical mistakes were made, and then play forward avoiding whatever disaster ended the game. In Expeditions, on the other hand, I was slowly ground down over the course of the game to where I simply couldn’t win any more battles, I couldn’t buy enough supplies, and I realized there were just no more options to move forward. Finally, after trying a restart or too, I realized my only viable option was to restart the game from the beginning. I also figured I had better try it this time on easy.

Between the easy settings (and they are, by the way, customizable in detail with plenty of finer choices between “easy” and “normal”) and the fact that I had started to learn the importance of checking all the details, I found my second playthrough to be no longer frustrating. I’ve had a few close battles, even losing one round, but found myself generally able to advance through the missions.

Return back to the two-game comparison, like Legends, the time of day is important. Night fights include factors for reduced visibility and the location of torches and campfires factors heavily into the combat results. Unlike Legends, your player actually must sleep, and in fact must do so every night. There is a very critical part of the game surrounding making camp each night. Exploration party members must be allocated to one of a half-a-dozen tasks. Shorting any one invites disaster. It is at this time that doctors can be allocated to healing the injuries suffered in recent battles. This means neither the doctor nor the patient is available to be working on other important tasks (such as guarding the camp or hunting for food). If the doctor does get sent out on guard duty and fails to treat wounds, those wounds can get worse from turn to turn, eventually resulting in death for the injured character.

In another similarity between the two games, “hit points” don’t equal injuries. In Legends, injuries are tracked (and healed) separately from hit points. Each character is allowed three wounds before being killed. The hit point loss, on the other hand, does carry over into the next battle if not healed. In Expeditions, any hit point loss automatically clears when a battle is over – even more clearly than in Legends, it seems to represent a form of fatigue rather than injury. Actual injuries are then allocated to the characters based on what happened during the fight, and a lingering injury (just like a zero hitpoint level in Legends) keeps that character out of subsequent battles. It’s a mechanism of trying to reconcile the game accounting ease of hit points with the disconnect of it being a realistic description of fighting and injury. As I said in my Legends note, I doubt this stuff it new to gaming – but it is new to me.

A final contrast between the two games. I mentioned that Legends, while a mix of different styles, has a lot of grounding in the “adventure game” genre. The game, while presenting decisions and challenges, wants to guide the player through the story. In Expeditions, the critical genre may be the role playing game. While I’ve not tried to explore the consequences of different decisions, this seems to be at the core of the gameplay. A player who empathizes with the natives and tries to work with them will likely experience a very different game than the one wholeheartedly playing the role of conquistador. In another twist, decisions can meet with the approval or the scorn of your followers. If you are accompanied by a bunch of racist xenophobes, working with the natives is going to reduce morale. If your followers have a variety of backgrounds (as they would tend to do), whatever you do is going to piss somebody off.

If I had to pick the one I like better? It’s a tough call. I like the package of Legends of Eisengard – the look and feel, and the fact that it all runs very smoothly (both technically and play-wise). Expeditions is much more of a challenge, and the battles themselves have quite a bit of depth – particularly compared to the inspirations like Heroes. The depth also extends to much of the strategic-level interaction, although much of it, as I said, tends to be event driven.  Right now, I’d say it is a toss up.

Once Upon a Time

To accompany the game, I found myself a copy of The Fair God; or, The Last of the ‘Tzins: A Tale of the Conquest of Mexico. This is the first novel by Lew Wallace, author of Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ.

He began writing the book well before the Civil War, in 1843 when he was seventeen years old. The book was not published, however, until 1873. The book did well enough on its own, but sales were greatly enhanced when the popularity of Ben Hur caused readers to seek out his earlier work.

Like in Ben Hur, he makes a point to ground the story in the historical details. He used William H. Prescott’s History of the Conquest of Mexico as the basis for much of those details and the narrative is frequently punctuated by historical citations via footnotes. Of course, it is not clear that the 1840s historical details coincide with the current understanding.

The book has its oddities. It leaves me to wonder how many of those can be blamed on Victorian sensibilities as opposed to an author’s first novel or the fact that it was written over a 30-year span. The story, initially, is told from the point of view of a mesoamerican hunter from Tihuacan (possibly Teotihuacan?) who, notably, travels with an ocelot. The first few chapters I found particularly opaque. The characters name is not given, and it can often be hard to figure out who is the subject of what sentence. In the second chapter, several more central characters are introduced, again described largely by where they are from. More confusingly, the important characters are mixed in with minor characters and, for a reader that can’t quite follow all the place names, the references can become quite baffling. Eventually, we settle in on a handful of (mostly) noble and historical characters, in addition to said hunter, who become the basis for the story. Even still, throughout the novel I was occasionally thrown by the use of “the Tihuacan” or “the Texcuacan” used in place of a name.

The book jumps around between characters, following one for a chapter or two, or maybe even for only part of a chapter. The device is certainly used in modern fiction as well, but in The Fair God, the transitions can be pretty rough. One also assumes that when one encounters a new character, that person is going to be important to the story. Instead, the author here seems to throw in characters and situations just to give the reader a particular angle on the story, and then complete discards this central figure in the next chapter. That ocelot, which seemed so central to the plot in the first chapter, is nowhere to be found by the middle of the book.

The use of language is also interesting to me. While native words are used to describe certain Aztec concepts and items, the natives speak in “contemporary” language, often using Western descriptions of their surroundings. It really stands out to a modern reader, when the Victorian concept is both archaic and from the wrong culture. As a contrast, the Spanish seem to speak a “King James” English.  It is an interesting device, both reminding the reader that these “Westerners” are a 400-year-old culture that “isn’t us,” while developing an empathy for the truly alien culture of the Aztecs. There are also some fascinating word choices that, again, I can’t tell what is Victorian language and what is the author. For example, a priest is observed to have clomb the steps of a temple.

Once Cortes’ expedition arrives in Tenochtitlan, the story begins to shift back and forth, sometimes using the Spanish as a focus of the narrative and sometimes the Aztecs. Often the transition occurs with no warning. Somewhere in here, the author starts breaking the fourth wall, commenting on his own lack of skill as a writer and how someone else might have told the story differently. Fortunately, by this point the writing and the story has hit its stride, and it is not as distracting as it could be. Still, it is hard to imagine any contemporary work, particularly one meant for popular consumption, having so many quirks.

As to the story’s merits, I’ve read worse. The author seems to put a little bit of everything into his saga – fencing, fighting, torture, revenge, giants, monsters, chases, escapes, true love, miracles… Well, maybe not the giants and monsters, but indeed the idea seems to include any plot point that might make for popular reading. For me, the narrative is at its best when it describes the strategy and the fighting. Perhaps a retired General does best with what he knows? Considerably weaker are the romantic plot lines but, again, it is hard to separate the author from the times.

Both the game and the book stand out as a rare depiction of the Spanish Conquest of Mexico. While games have touched on this subject, most have not done so very well. The developers cited this as a reason they chose the subject for their game. Likewise, except for the Mel Gibson film Apocalypto and its Mayan setting, I’m pressed to think of any historical fiction that does this subject justice.