Dragons can be good guys. One fire-breathing flying lizard can be if you're the dragon. In Hoard, princesses and happy towns are on the wrong side of history.
The Penny Arcade Expo was in overtime last Sunday when I reached the folks at Big Sandwich games and convinced them to ignore any approaching forklifts. I hoped they would show me their downloadable PlayStation 3 dragon game. These folks were lead designer Tyler Sigman and his friend who was dressed as a princess.
(Pictured at left, Annie the princess, mistaken on PAX day 1 as a cosplayer).
Sigman started a three-player match of Hoard between me, him and the princess. The game is played for high scores over matches that last a set period of time. We played a 10-minute match. Such a long match would bravely keep us playing long after everyone else around us had their TVs turned off, their consoles unplugged and their cables coiled. We were playing as minor rebels, fittingly as we were playing as terrorizing dragons.
Hoard is played from an overhead perspective, as if you are playing a board game that has become infested with dragons. Each player controls a dragon of a specific color, their movement mapped to one control stick, flame breath to another. You can only breathe fire when you stay stop flying, meaning Resident Evil is no longer the only game still using that design.
A winning dragon collects a winning hoard of gold. How does one get gold? By burning towns, burning caravans and burning knights. But there are subtleties:
-You can only carry a finite amount of the gold you collect, which you must deposit in your lair. But as you play through a round, you accrue experience points and can upgrade your dragon's load-bearing might (or his speed, or his fire breath or other things).
-You can spare towns so that they improve, Sim City-style into better towns, towns with extra buildings that you can burn while keeping the central town intact. You can assume that improved towns will send fancier and fancier caravans onto the game level's roads, affording you greater targets to burn and plunder. But improved towns will also build taverns, whose thieves will try to steal your gold.
-You can steal princesses, bringing them back to your lair, attracting knights you must fight. Hold those knights off long enough and you can ransom the princess back to her town.
-You can terrorize towns, keeping them on the brink of destruction with enough finesse that they will pay you extra.
Hoard has a single-player mode, which pits the player against computer controlled-dragons and will get you hunting for Trophy/Achievement-style badges. The game has several maps featuring different shapes, town and road layouts. Mode variations include a Hoard horde mode that lets you go up against waves of enemies and a "princes rush" mode that challenges you to ransom 15 princesses. The game has a sufficient layer of strategy and feels like something from an arcade, where points matter most and competition is best against people.
Dragon games aren't always hits. But developers keep trying. Is Hoard the right approach? In over-time at PAX, I enjoyed it. It'll be out soon, available for PlayStation 3 download in early October.