Round, red icon, with a grey line. Hadn’t noticed it before. Cursor over it. “Rubies. 13. (+1 per month.)” There’ll be a use for rubies, no doubt. Months roll by. Tiny, tiny, precious halflings are murdered by cowards. Winter ruins the weed. The rubies now number 18. Left click on the rubies. They’re coming from the coal mine.
Summer starts the weed growing again. Autumn passes with a whisper. New halflings replace halflings lost. The rubies stop. The mine is liberated from slingers, at great cost, and the rubies resume. Eventually, the Ancient Forest is won, the Guardian of the Hoburgs summoned, 100 weed is consumed in one action. Tiny halflings, 2 HP apiece, shelter under its branches of 310 HP, safe for now.
Are you feeling that? It’s a gamer at peace. Conquest of Elysium 3 doesn’t bother you with loud production. There is barely even any instruction provided, beyond short tooltips here and there. It is simply an invitation to interpret a game through gentle exploration, in your own way and at your own pace. It’s flexible enough to send your imagination to places of your choosing, rather than forcing story.
From the makers of Dominions 3, CoE3 is deep strategy realised in a manner that embraces experimentation, rather than intense micromanagement. The player controls movement, recruitment, capturing/keeping tiles, exploration and a host of special functions per faction, without having any hand in combat or building/upgrading dwellings for the most part. It has a combination of strategy and roguelike characteristics, which results in an underlying, welcoming chaos.
With 16 diverse factions, given only a handful of units apiece, initial strategy relies on observation. As you combine units into stacks, are you mindful of positioning within the army, composition of troops and special characteristics any one unit may have? As you move stacks in the world, are you protecting what is required not to trigger a fail state? Are you capturing, keeping and using resources specific to your faction? Who are your enemies? What can they do?
From the map, an enemy stack can be right-clicked to reveal army composition (unless it is stealthy/invisible) and each unit can then be examined for a rundown of its stats. From this analysis, the player makes a judgement as to whether their stack can win, before initiating an attack, or retreating.
Next, the game becomes about troop preservation and developing strategies to suit faction/opponents. Necromancers, for example, might be more suited to an early, decisive strike, whereas the Hogmeister can be played defensively to great effect. Can your faction grow mushroom defenders in key locations, escape from an approaching army by moving underwater or just rely on its queen to give birth to a new troop each month?
Randomised maps come in 5 sizes and 6 eras, which subtly alter environment and lore. Small descriptive passages, suggestive of a grand world, are found here and there. Don’t expect gentle progression. If a powerful stack spawns nearby, so be it. As you learn factional strengths and weaknesses, you may want to use the Map Editor to create scenarios, or attempt the Pro-challenges on the CoE official forum.
Overall, the AI seems strongest, cheeky even, when it comes to you. It rarely attacks outright, instead harassing tiles you want to hold. We found, however, that when you are the aggressor, it seems to play a strategy related to its faction. Surely CoE3 is made for multiplayer in a way more hilarious/chaotic than, for example, Civilization V, in which players mostly only execute optimal strategies. At the time of writing, multiplayer matches were difficult to find, however.
The absence of almost any instruction/feedback is refreshing, but aspects of the game’s UI are unnecessarily awkward. As each commander finishes movement, for example, the game doesn’t prompt for the next, making it difficult to keep track of many concurrent stacks. Every stack also moves incredibly slowly and may universally have benefitted from something as simple as one extra movement point apiece.
That you shouldn’t be allowed to load from the main game has merit, committing you to your course, but if you’ve forgotten to select a dozen troops individually before moving your commander, quitting to load is a drag. Finally, the $30 price tag might seem steep for a game with such basic production values, but what you are paying for is gameplay, variety, flexibility, experimentation and imagination.
So, whatever happened to those halflings in the introduction? They amassed nearly a hundred rubies before they finally ceased operations forever, wiped out by an AI army of undead. Poor things were barely strong enough to repel the wildlife from surrounding villages, anyway. Even when the necromancers went insane during Winter, their advance ceased only momentarily. During that game, the rubies remained enigmatic and unused, but somehow infinitely precious.
Several entirely different games later, after swimming with lecherous gods and playing cannibal, the Dwarven faction is collecting exactly no rubies. After inscrutably consuming fifty diamonds, however, the great, immovable Dvala commander gives birth to a Rune Smith. He needs rubies to make Furnace Armour. With surrounding human cities too well protected, trade for rubies is out. No mines are close by. Perhaps things will mystically come together, next map.