Jomungur: on strategy, history and online gaming!

Interview by Swolte: Januari 2005

Jomungur has been part of the Age of Wonders (online) gaming community since Aow1 and is regarded one of the best players around. He is widely known for his strategy guides, that are not only educational to newbies, but useful to experienced players as well! This interview will focus on strategy and online gaming!


How did you discover Age of wonders and what made you get hooked?

I’ve always been a fan of TBS (Turn Based Strategy) games, starting from chess when I was a kid and playing those great board games like Axis and Allies, and then card games like bridge. I played multiplayer online in Warlords III before AoW. In 1999, there was some buzz in the gaming community about a new turn-based strategy game that incorporated elements from Heroes of Might and Magic, Warlords and Master of Magic. Fantasy TBS, of course, is a small genre so I was immediately interested. I tried the demo for AoW and bought it when it first become available.

I started playing online AoW1 the first week it came out. Back then nobody knew what they were doing. Everyone played with leaders on, and a lot of games just came down to a colossal showdown between two Rambo type leaders with cold strike, lightning strike, holy strike, regeneration and 50 movement points. Still it was tons of fun, and as people eventually started playing with leaders off, the strategic part of the game became more interesting.

AoW1 did not really have anything revolutionary in terms of game design, but it did have tremendous atmosphere and all the parts worked pretty well together. (Although the concept of simultaneous turns was actually pretty revolutionary back then- I think AoW1 was the first game to use it successfully in MP). The game really played really well online and in MP. There was a significant MP community for AoW1 back in the early days, and a well established ladder called Starlance. Note that TBS games that are great in single player do not always make great multiplayer games. Many TBS games that are great in single player do not translate well into multiplayer, because they take too long to finish, like Civilization. I played AoW1 online for almost a year before I stopped playing.

Since I liked AoW1 so much, getting AoW2 and SM was a no brainer. A lot of friends that I made who had played AoW1 (Archmage Sun and Argammon, among others) were anticipating AoW2, so the online community was better established for AoW2 right from the start. Now, even a year and a half after Shadow Magic’s release, people still play online in Gamespy, which I think is a significant accomplishment on part of the developers. AoW is a niche game and will never have the legions of players that the big RTS games get, but there are still enough to get some great games when you want them.

What type of play do you prefer, pbem, online or single player?

Online is my favorite. I like playing against human players, and in online you can finish games in one day. The other great thing about online is you can use tactical combat versus other human opponents. I feel that AoW’s strongest suit is tactical combat- it is surprisingly rich and complex. You can really only see this richness if you play against human players. It is almost like a game in itself. It is also very difficult; I see veterans, including myself, make mistakes all the time in tactical combat. A lot of units (units with phase, special abilities, etc.) do not really shine unless you can use them in tactical combat. The bad part about online is lag can affect play, and if you click slowly you are at a disadvantage- no getting around that. However, this is just on the strategic map; in tactical combat, lag is irrelevant and you can take all the time you want to plot your moves in key battles. Online gaming can also be pretty social with the chat window, especially during battles. Watching peoples’ reactions, comments and jokes during a combat is lot of fun, and I know that is part of what makes people keep playing.

I’ve played some PBEM, and enjoyed it. The games take a long time to finish, of course, and I miss the tactical combat against human players. That’s the worst part for me; the most important battles in PBEM will be resolved through autocombat. The great thing about PBEM, though, is that the long time between turns lends itself to intense strategizing that you can’t get in online games. You have the time to set and lay out layered traps (traps within traps) for your opponent. Also, if people take the time and effort to put up interesting stories in their posts, that can be almost as fun as the game itself.

Although I prefer online, I think having a PBEM community is important and I do appreciate PBEMers. PBEM players tend to stick around longer, since their games take a long time to finish. They are also more likely to post in the forums in general if they come to website to post their logs. Having a healthy and active online community is essential for the long term viability of a computer game these days, especially for a niche game like AoW that does not attract the types of crowds that a big RTS game might.

I don’t play single player after I finished the campaigns, so I can’t say much about it.

You have a unique position, in that you have played all parts: AoW1, AoW2 and AoW-sm! What, in your experience, are the main differences between those?

AoW1 has the best atmosphere. I can’t exactly place why; it is partly the artwork, partly the unit descriptions, partly the music, but it’s also something more. I think it had a freshness and almost naivety to it that gave it a wonderful feel. You really could feel like you were in another world.

Still, I wonder how much of that is just nostalgia. The players I know who picked up Shadow Magic first and then go to AoW1 find that AoW1 feels outdated and awkward. It is true that AoW2 and Shadow Magic are better designed from a game design standpoint, and are much better games for multiplayer. The limited retaliation rules and the ability to move and fire shots adds a lot of tactical depth that make it hard to go back to AoW1. Domains are another great addition from a strategy perspective, although the tie-in to wizards restricts story-telling and role-playing.

Do you have a certain preference for a race?

This is an interesting question, because to a large extent, the races and units that a player prefers to use say a lot about what type of game that player enjoys. I really like using all of the races, as each race offers some units that I find fun. But I do not use all of the untis within each race, especially if the units do not encourage the type of game that I find enjoyable.

I like games that require creative movement of armies on the strategic map, and at least several big tactical battles. Consequently, I prefer races with lots of fairly straightforward units like humans, archons, nomads and dwarves. That gives my opponent a chance to see my units on the strategic map; if I want to surprise I have to come at him from an unexpected angle or misdirect him with a false attack. Because he has a chance of seeing my units approach, there is a greater chance of having some nice tactical combats. This sort of straightfoward style is also one I like role-playing: direct line attacks, no tricky stuff or hiding in the woods, move forward and crush your enemy with superior tactics, etc.

On the other hand, I do not like using units (like leprechauns, gladerunners, etc.) that rely on concealment or invisibility to win games. If you can see your opponent’s troops, and he does not have the ability to see yours, you can win even if your army is just a fraction of his size. Imagine playing a game of chess in which your opponent’s queen was invisible. It’s a tremendous advantage when exploited by a good player, and I find concealment/invisibility kills not very satisfying at all (you surprise an opponent not because of some clever strategy but because he doesn’t have the ability to see you- bravo!). Concealment is like salt; a little bit can spice up the game, but too much of it spoils it.

As far as trends in online, the most powerful races in AoW2 were the elves, archons, tigrans and draconians. If a good player chose one of those races, you would usually have to pick another race within that group to be able to compete. Shadow Magic has helped balance things quite a bit, and I think you see a lot more variety online as almost every race can do well. I think for awhile the most popular race online in Shadow Magic was the dark elves. This was because they are usually considered the best race in the game, and many players would simply mass bladedancers or spider queens (especially before version 1.3). There was a time when it seemed like at least half of the players online would choose dark elves. So I tend not to pick the dark elves. The orcs were considered the weakest race among veterans for awhile, because of their lack of speed and flyers. Lately, however, as people started using the under-estimated shamans instead of warlords to form their core army, people are starting to see them as formidable in their own right.

You have always been kind to new players to the game! What are the most important tips you’d give people that start playing online?

Hmm…lots of things to say here. I think the most common newby mistake is to play too passively. Every unit and every city on every turn should be doing something productive that is part of a larger plan, even if it’s just exploration or producing housing. When facing a skilled opponent, you have to threaten him and make him think there’s a possibility of being attacked. That way, he won’t feel comfortable and will keep some forces at home for defense. Ironically, if you do this successfully, and force your opponent to spend some of his resources on defense, you will have more time to develop and upgrade if you like that approach. The best antidote for a rusher is to give him some of his own medicine, and he will back-off a bit and become more cautious as he worries about his own skin.

The second thing I would advise newbies is to plan for bad luck. There is a significant random component in AoW battles, and you will sometimes win battles you should have lost, and lose battles you should have won. It’s easy to get frustrated when you see your beautifully planned army suffer a patch of terrible luck, but that’s how the game is designed and things rarely go as planned in a big tactical combat fight. I think one of the things that makes a good player is the ability to swallow those tough losses due to bad luck without being disheartened, and still be able to come up with effective back-up plans.

The third thing I would advise newbies is that, in standard rules, all you need is one strong stack to have a shot of winning the game. I’ve seen lots of games where a player with superior resources has lost to someone who managed to take him by surprise with a concentrated attack, even though that player had a smaller army. For sure, it is a big disadvantage if your opponent has far more cities than you, or if your opponent has more resources. If your opponent has more resources, he will win if he makes no mistakes and has average luck. But the odds are that he will make a mistake at some point in time. As long as you have one strong stack, you still have a shot if you get a little luck and/or surprise your opponent. Don’t give up too easily or be scared by the power ratings.

The fourth thing I would advise is to really think about how unit statistics work and practice evaluating units before building them. (This is also a valuable skill if you end up using or making mods). Many beginning players just pay attention to attack and defense values when evaluating a unit. But the two most important statistics are actually gold price and movement points. Remember, the game is all about how fast you can put units on the map and how fast you can move them once they’re on the map. Gold price affects the former factor because it determines production time, and movement points affect the latter factor. If a unit takes too long to produce, it might be cute when you make them, but your opponent will overrun you on the map and likely win in the end. Good players will produce units that are great buys for their cost to quickly build an effective army, and stay away from overpriced units. As a general rule, try to stick with units you can build every other turn, or 1 every 3 turns. Don’t forget to use hurry production to quicken your production rate.

Movement points and mobility are extremely important factors in AoW, and for that matter, in almost any turn based game (to see an exaggerated example of this, try playing chess where your opponent can make 2 moves for your every 1 move). If the unit is very slow (say under 25 movement), it had better be damn good or it will not be worth making. If your units are twice as fast as your opponents, it’s almost as if you have twice as many units as he does. That is the main reason why slow, powerful units like warlords and runemasters impress beginners with their high melee stats, but veterans stay away from them in competitive games. The other thing that people often forget is that movement points are critical not only on the strategic map, but also in tactical combat. If you have slow units in tactical combat, they have to take extra rounds of barrages by enemy archers in a siege, or perhaps extra rounds of being blasted by spells.

After looking at the gold price and movement points, then turn your attention to the combat stats and special abilities. Always consider attack and damage together, and defense and hit points together. This gives you a better sense for how the units will perform. For example, look at the elephant, a unit I don’t see used much online. Although it has only 8 attack, it has 11 damage + charge. That is an unusually high damage rating for a level 2 unit- in fact it’s better than double strike on a 5 damage unit. And though it only has 8 defense, it has 24 hit points. That’s a lot of meat- in fact, it has more hit points than most level 3s. It’s effective attack and defense are thus actually significant better than its attack and defense ratings would indicate by themselves. And at a price of 80 gold, you can make 1 every turn 2 turns. Put that all together, and you have a superb rushing unit that is a little underpriced. And, indeed, I have found that elephant armies do extremely well, and are great not only for opponents but for taking out neutral sites. They perform surprisingly well against level 3s when considering army sizes of equivalent gold cost.

Of course, analyzing units becomes a lot more complicated once you take in consideration special abilities, and match-ups. But it’s a vital skill for a new player. And it’s one of the things that makes AoW fun!

Now the question we’re all waiting for... According to you, what is the best race/sphere combination to start a game with?

I think the game is well balanced in the sense that there are lots of effective strategies to choose from. But as far as the best race/sphere, you would have to pick a combination that has the best chance of working in all possible map types, and not just for special situations. If I were playing for my life on a random map, I would take goblins, 3 air and 3 earth, pacifist, constructor and explorer. Wyverns are a little underpriced at 100 gold (compare to the manticore which isn’t that much better but 150% the gold cost). A hasted wyvern rush is probably the most effective strategy in the game in the sense that, no matter what your starting position is, you can use it and sneak kill your opponent. Level 1 towers have domains of 15 hexes, and hasted wyverns with explorer can travel 16 hexes in one turn, so you can park a stack of 5-8 wyverns just outside your opponent’s domain, and be able to attack his capital the next turn as long as you are not blocked by mountains. He probably won’t see you coming, since the level 1 tower vision range is 8 hexes. This is not really a fun strategy unless you want to quick-kill your opponent (which is why I don’t really use it), but it is effective.

Assuming you start with a level 3 town as your capital, if you have a moderate gold income you should be able to crank out 2 wyverns every 3 turns due to the goblins’ expansion bonus. If you have tons of gold, you might be able to get away with 3 wyverns every 4 turns. By turn 15, you should have a fast flying army with vision II that can swoop in on your enemy and take him out. By turn 30, your wyverns will be flying all over the map.

Playing the goblins also give you strong alternatives: you can use seekered, stone skinned trolls which are brutally effective if you need to use ground troops. And if comes to a level 4 game, stone skinned karaghs with haste are tough to beat.

You have consistently proven to be an exceptionally good player. What do you think has given you a certain edge, even over other experienced players?

I think it’s mainly just experience in turn based games, starting from chess and then moving to card games. Turn based games are really just an elaborate race, and once you really understand that small advantages in the early game can build up over time, and understand how to take small advantages and snowball them into decisive ones, you will have the edge over many opponents who don’t think from a global perspective during their individual turns.

The other thing is to keep trying new units, new races and new strategies. Often you will lose games because of this, but you will be benefited a lot by a general increase in game knowledge. The advantage of this approach is it gives you a bigger arsenal of strategies to choose from so you can adapt to your opponent and pick the race/unit/strategy that gives him the biggest match-up problem. Your opponent is going for silver medalled sphinxes? Use hordes of cheap level 3 flyers to overwhelm him. Your opponent likes to rush? Rushes aren’t hard to counter if you know they’re coming, and if you repel it, it usually demoralizes your opponent. Your opponent loves to use flyers? Charioteers with haste, seeker and free movement will tear up flyers, including dragons. If you like using city built armies and enchanting them (like me), try using a summon based army and seeing how it works. Even though you may not use that approach as a long term strategy, it will help you use summons more effectively with your standard armies.

You’ve played on a highly competitive level. How did you deal with the emotions, fair play and accompanying rules?

Well, I lose my cool occasionally and have said things I’ve regretted later on, so I can’t say I’m the best person to ask about this. As for what’s fair and what’s not, there’s a lot to say about this subject, and I think Zombie-Eater’s post covers it pretty well. There are a lot of tactics and tricks that fall into a gray area in which reasonable people can disagree as to whether they are fair or foul.

I think the main sources for arguments and bad feelings is when players join a game with different expectations for what they want out of it. Some players (including myself) just feel that certain tactics in online, like double-moving or taking advantage of split stacks, are cheap and should not be used. They encourage a type of game that does not involve thinking and creativity, but simple reflexes- which is the sort of game I personally find less enjoyable. A guideline I try to use for my decisions with stuff like this is asking myself: is the behavior in question something that promotes intelligent play, creative play and smart tactics- the type of game that I enjoy playing? A game of AoW’s complexity will always have features that are possible in the rules, but that players agree not to use. For example, it is possible for someone whose army is faster than his opponents to perpetually run in circles in tactical combat, forcing a draw. This is permitted by the rules, but does that sort of behavior encourage the type of game that people will set aside time for? Not for most, and that is why you almost never see people doing that online.

As for hidden rules and features (like the racial migration trick), it’s inevitable that experienced players will know more about these than newbies. The antidote for this is full disclosure. Not only does it encourage other people to disclose their tricks, but honestly, what wins games is not usually a few tricks but solid play throughout the game. I think that no information should be hoarded or hidden, especially if a new players shows interest in improving his game.

Thank you for the interview! As a last question; how do you see the future of Age of Wonders?

I think the future of the game will be in mods. I don’t know how long the community will be active and interested, but since fantasy TBS games are rare, I think people will stick around for awhile, especially if they can experiment with mods that offer a different style of play. The game, although great, definitely has room for improvement. From what I hear online, the main complaints are:

1) Too much luck involved in the game.

2) Under-utilization of many units.

3) Lack of city development.

4) High level units dominate the game.

5) The magic system is limited.

Mods can solve these problems, especially #1-#4. #1 may seem unfixable, but actually, if you design a mod that encourages lots of big battles (as opposed to a single level 3 or 4 confrontation that decides the game), it spreads out the random factor and makes it more likely that lucks evens out during the course of the game. #2, #3 and #4 can be fixed by adjusting unit stats and prices. #5 is the hardest to fix, but it can be helped by tweaking spell prices and effects.

I’ve been experimenting with the Dwiggs mod online and have to say that, although it is not perfect, it produces online games that are more enjoyable than those produced under standard rules. It encourages larger armies of lower level units, which makes for more interesting fights. Units also have less self-sufficiency, so you need combined arms. As a general rule, the more lower level units in a fight, the greater the role that skill plays in tactical combat. High level units tend to need no assistance, while low level units tend to depend on other units for support. It doesn’t take much brainpower to take a stack of 4 enchanted red dragons on a rampage in TC. But it does take skill and subtletly to properly coordinate an army of 24 archers, infantry and cavalry to win a tactical combat. That’s why Dwiggs fights tend to be more enjoyable. There are other reasons why players like Dwiggs mod as well, but I mention the mod because it is an example of how one mod has helped a group of players stay interested in AoW longer than they would have by addressing some flaws in standard rules.

Like many other people, I would love to see an AoW3! I think that the devs will come back to the series eventually- it has name recognition and some guaranteed sales. But I can imagine that they’re tired of thinking about Age of Wonders for now.

Turn based games in general are at an interesting stage. Although big developers are focussing on RTS games, and more generally, console games, it does seem like there are more and more independent small scale developers that are crafting TBS games of good quality. Many people expect this trend to keep increasing and that TBS games will eventually be produced only by independent developers who love the genre. I have a friend who is in the software industry who told me that one of the problems with TBS games is that the fans who buy them not only have very high standards and are hard to please (maybe because they are more discriminating?), but they also tend to stick with games for a longer time before moving to the next one. RTS fans, on the other hand, are seen as more likely to tire of the latest game and move on to the next big item, thus generating more sales for the industry as a whole. So big developers prefer to spend their resources on strategy games on the RTS market.

Still, I don’t think it as bleak for the TBS industry as it may seem. Interestingly, card based turn based games (look how many card games are at the Wizards of the Coast Website, not just Magic: The Gathering, but GI Joe, etc.) are becoming more and more popular, especially among kids. I find this encouraging, because young players who pick up these card games will love the analytical style that characterizes turn based games and that can’t be matched in an RTS game (I do like some RTS games, by the way, so I have some perspective on this.) This could provide a solid base for TBS demand in the computer industry. We’ll see..