Elemental: War of Magic is a PC turn-based strategy game with a sweet map and a marriage alliance system that sounds like something from George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire series.
That's no accident because developer Stardock's CEO & President, Brad Wardell is way into A Song of Ice and Fire – as am I, and so most of my time with Elemental was spent talking about the marriage alliance system, the story elements and a potential novelization of the game that's currently being negotiated with Del Rey (publisher of A Song of Ice and Fire).
In Elemental, you control a single avatar, called a sovereign, imbued with magic. The sovereign can raise cities, gather armies and command all the resources a Tolkien-esque world would have to win a war (magic, dragons, ancient lore, etc.). The sovereign can also walk around maps and explore dungeons with your armies to acquire even more resources. The goal – as with most strategy games – is to build up enough resources to sustain a well-equipped army or bribe an enemy into being an ally that can lead to total domination of the map – and the death of all the other sovereigns via your army or badass spells.
However, there's more to Elemental's strategy than researching the most powerful spells, buying the best armor or obtaining the most farmland to feed the biggest army. The sovereign can also amass vassal families as a resource. Members of the family can join the army with special stat buffs, be appointed to run cities or married off to other players' vassals to create alliances. Different factors within families affect how well they do each job. For example, a son might be weak in battle, a marriage might be childless so the alliance falls apart, or maybe the daughter is just too unattractive to marry off. Either way, the families loyal to your sovereign evolve throughout the game into various generations – and they might even change sides if you marry off one too many children. Also, they can die and will stay dead.
The world in which Elemental takes place is like J.R.R. Tolkien's Middle Earth in that it has history. Any map you play on is a part of that history, whether it's one of the small ones you could complete in a couple of hours or the massive maps that take months to play. Del Rey helped Stardock put the history of the world together so that no part of the story drags, reads poorly or smacks too much of Tolkien fanfiction.
Beyond that, Elemental is also about accessibility. Wardell said that the game should be able to run on most machines and still look fabulous so that even laptop-owners can join in the fray. The key to this is Stardock's level-of-detail engine that determines how much you can see in any view of the map. The game supports both a third-person, overhead view that looks sort of like Diablo and a massively pulled back view that converts the map to a stylish "cloth map" with your sovereign enlarged to giant size so you can still see him or her. As you zoom in or out, the engine will add or subtract detail. Zoom in from the cloth map and the land suddenly becomes realistic, with clumps of dark green forest and blue lines of rivers. Zoom in farther and you can make out crop lines on farmland and walls around cities. Farther still and you begin to see little stick people farming the land and walking between buildings in towns. And at the closest level, each individual farmer looks distinctly different and even has its own shadow.
In the long term, Wardell looks to the modding community to make Elemental a robust world of fantasy and strategy. He said Stardock learned from Sins of a Solar Empire that sometimes modders have a much better idea for how something should look, or are able to craft an item that changes the dynamics of a conflict in awesome ways. To encourage this kind of creativity, Elemental provides modding tool with the game and an upload system similar to Spore's Sporepedia creature library. Users can upload their player-made tuff as "non-canon" items for other users to download for their own games – and if the developer likes the item enough and it doesn't totally unbalance gameplay, they can promote the items to "canon."
Sadly, I didn't get to see the modding stuff – mostly I spent time ogling the map views and discussing the specifics of the family alliance system. For example, I asked if it were possible to create a potion with the modding tools that will produce only sons in a marriage and Wardell laughed, saying it was possible , but probably non-canon. He did say that you could research potions in the game to make vassal family members more attractive so they'd be easier to marry off – but he wasn't quite sure yet how the succession of children from a vassal marriage would work.
Like, if both parents die, does the oldest child automatically become head of the house, or will it pass to the firstborn son? These are questions that probably only interest me, Wardell and any Song of Ice and Fire fan who thinks Myrcella should get the Iron Throne instead of Tommen (incest notwithstanding). But the answers to those questions will make Elemental a richer strategy game in the long run.
Elemental: War of Magic is due out in early 2010. Here are some screens and concept art: