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Monthly Archives: December 2021

Heroes of Might and Magic

The Heroes of Might and Magic series of fantasy strategy games was an anomaly during its period of peak popularity at the turn of the millennium: it remained defiantly turn-based in an industry that had gone almost entirely real-time, and it likewise continued to rely on lovingly hand-drawn pixel art in lieu of trendy 3D graphics. All of this gave the series the feel of — dare I say it? — a board game, at a time when such things were deeply out of fashion with digital gamers looking for the latest and greatest in immersive whiz-bang pyrotechnics. And yet it sold millions upon millions of copies.

When we dig a bit deeper, we find that the origins of Heroes‘s retro tabletop sensibility are as explicable as its popularity is inexplicable. As we learned in the last article, its principal creator Jon Van Caneghem was a tabletop gamer long before he became a computer gamer, much less a computer-game designer and programmer. Heroes of Might and Magic was as heavily influenced by the delightfully tactile boards, cards, counters, and dice which had marked his adolescence as it was by anything he had seen or done on a computer since. More specifically, it was the belated fruit of what had once seemed a quixotic attempt on his part to bridge the analog-versus-digital split in gaming — a venture which dated back to more than seven years before the first game in the Heroes series arrived in late 1995.



One of the young Jon Van Caneghem’s favorite tabletop games was Star Fleet Battles, a “simulation” of outer-space combat in the Star Trek universe. His love for it persisted even after he decided to become a computer-game entrepreneur. Indeed, the self-described Star Fleet Battles “fanatic” found time amidst the run up to the release of the original Might and Magic to win the game’s biggest tournament in 1986, thus securing for himself the status of best player in the world as of that instant in time.

The publisher of Star Fleet Battles was an Amarillo, Texas-based outfit known as Task Force Games. Two plucky freshly minted Texas Tech graduates named Stephen Cole and Allen Eldridge had founded Task Force in 1978, whereupon they had managed to acquire a license for one of the biggest science-fiction properties in the world by employing a circuitous — not to say dubious — stratagem: they had sub-licensed the intellectual property from Franz Joseph, the author of a tome called the Star Trek Star Fleet Technical Manual. Task Force would eventually secure a more direct contract with Paramount Pictures, the owners of Star Trek, but their game would always live on precarious legal ground, entirely at the sufferance of a corporate overlord which seemed only intermittently to realize that it existed. The tortuously circumscribed contract which allowed Task Force to make their game stipulated that they could use the ships and hardware and the various alien societies and races from the television show, but that they couldn’t mention specific characters or plot lines. Nevertheless, Star Fleet Battles has survived if not always thrived right up to the present day, even as countless other, higher profile efforts to make interactive versions of Star Trek have come and gone.

In 1983, Cole and Eldridge parted ways to some extent: the former started a new company called Amarillo Design Group to conjure up fresh Star Fleet Battles rules, scenarios, and supplements, while the latter continued as the head of Task Force, which in turn remained the publisher of the aforementioned game line and others. Some five years later, word reached Jon Van Caneghem at New World Computing, now flush with the commercial success which Might and Magic was enjoying, that Eldridge was interested in selling Task Force. It struck Van Caneghem as a chance to become a new type of gaming mogul, uniting the worlds of tabletop and computer gaming under a shared umbrella for the very first time. The dedicated grognards at Task Force could become a “proving ground for systems” on the tabletop before they were implemented on the computer, and product lines too could cross and recross the digital divide in pursuit of synergies no one had yet dared to imagine.

So, New World purchased Task Force and moved them into their offices in Van Nuys, California. Stephen Cole insisted on retaining control of the Amarillo Design Group and keeping it in its namesake city, but he did agree to continue to provide Task Force with their most prominent product line. To run the tabletop side of his empire, Van Caneghem hired one John Olsen, a board-gaming insider with an impressive resume; he had most recently headed the major British tabletop publisher Games Workshop’s American operation.

The whole scheme appealed greatly to a dedicated old-school gamer like Van Caneghem, but it was in reality muddle-headed in the extreme. He had bought into the tabletop industry when it was smack in the middle of a brutal downturn, prompted largely by, ironically enough, computer games. Avalon Hill, the old king of hobbyist wargames, was bleeding money, and even the likes of Dungeons & Dragons was rather less than it once had been. It would be some years yet before collectible card games and a new breed of ruthlessly balanced abstract board games known as “Eurogames” would breathe life back into the tabletop market. In the meantime, it was a disheartening place to be, where the only people making any real money were the big conglomerates marketing hoary family staples like Monopoly. “We really made a go at board games, but compared to the dollars and profitability of software… there was just no comparison,” Van Caneghem would later admit. “It didn’t make any sense.”

But that realization would take some time to fully dawn on him. Thus the output of New World Computing immediately after 1988’s Might and Magic II was dominated by the tabletop-to-computer (or vice versa) synergies Van Caneghem hoped to create. Granted, Task Force’s biggest property of all was a nonstarter here: there was no way that Paramount was going to allow Star Fleet Battles onto computers to compete with other efforts to bring Star Trek to the digital realm. But Task Force also had a long-established relationship with the Arizona game maker Flying Buffalo, and now served as a conduit for bringing some of the latter’s designs to the computer. First came a credible port of the venerable satirical card game Nuclear War. And then came a more ambitious project, a computer game based on Tunnels & Trolls, Flying Buffalo’s simpler would-be rival to Dungeons & Dragons. The system being very popular in Japan, this project became a trans-Pacific collaboration: a design document was written by the Flying Buffalo regulars Elizabeth Danforth and Michael Stackpole (both of whom already had a track record with computer games as well), then passed to a team in Japan for implementation. Finally, said team sent it sent back to New World to be made presentable in its original language. Unsurprisingly, the finished product felt more than a trifle schizophrenic, while its audiovisuals captured the charmingly pulpy, low-rent feel of its tabletop source material perhaps a bit too well for the presentation-driven contemporary computer-game market. “It didn’t go over all that well” in its native country, admits Van Caneghem, although it did do somewhat better in Japan.

But the most interesting of all the products of this rather confused period in New World Computing’s history is also the one which came closest to being a truly synergistic effort. Rather than being a tabletop game ported to the computer, King’s Bounty had one foot planted squarely in each realm from first to last.



It all started when Jon Van Caneghem began musing one day about how to bring some of the flavor of another of his old tabletop favorites to the computer: a board game known as Titan, one of those gloriously messy experiences from the heyday of Avalon Hill, the sort of game in which half the players might be eliminated in the first hour while the other half grind away at one another for five or six hours more. In Titan, players move their “stacks” of monsters over a highly abstracted map, trying to recruit additional monsters to add to their legions even as they also try to outmaneuver and attack the other players’ stacks when the advantage is with their side. When two players’ armies do bump into one another, the focus shifts to a tactical battle map representing the terrain in which the clash is occurring. The ultimate goal is to defeat each of your opponents’ titans — their super-units, the equivalent of the king in chess — as this is the only way to force them out of the game; you must also be careful to protect your own titan, of course. Getting to the end of a game of Titan can be a long journey indeed, one that can be by turns riotously entertaining and numbingly tedious.

Fond though he was of the game, Van Caneghem felt it would be problematic to bring a similar experience to life on the computer, mostly because of the difficulty of implementing an opponent artificial intelligence able to challenge a human player; at the time, New World was still making their games for 8-bit platforms with as little as 64 K of memory, which didn’t leave much scope for such things. But then Van Caneghem happened to talk to John Olsen about a concept Task Force had in development, with the working title of Bounty Hunter. Designed primarily by one Robert L. Sassone, it cast its players as the titular vigilantes for hire, moving around a board trying to nab more fugitives than their opponents. Van Caneghem thought the idea was brilliant in a big-picture sort of way, but a trifle under-baked in the details. But what if they combined it with some of the themes and mechanics of Titan? And what if they then made it into both a computer game and a board game?

The resulting game of King’s Bounty first appeared on computers in 1990, beginning with versions for the Apple II and for MS-DOS machines. Living in the hazily delineated borderlands between the CRPG and strategy genres, it was a refreshingly light-hearted, fast-playing change of pace from the more ponderous epics which dominated to either side of it. You start out by picking one of four protagonists to guide: the Knight, the Paladin, the Barbarian, or the Sorceress. Then you proceed to wander the four continents of its world, fighting some monsters and recruiting others, visiting towns, besieging castles, looting treasure chests, and, yes, capturing villains for bounties, growing steadily stronger all the while. In addition to a cash reward, each successfully hunted bounty reveals another piece of a treasure map, an idea cheerfully stolen from Sid Meier’s Pirates!. Said map points the way to the King’s Sceptre, the recovery of which ends the game in victory. Rather than competing directly against a computer opponent who tries to accomplish the same goal as you, you battle the calendar: you have between 200 and 1000 days to complete your quest for the Sceptre, depending on the difficulty level you choose. By this means was New World able to dodge the problem of creating an artificial intelligence capable of going head to head with a human player.

A complete game of King’s Bounty generally takes only a few hours, making it a positively snack-sized offering in comparison to the 100-hour-plus likes of a Might and Magic. Yet it provides a compressed version of the same satisfying power fantasy — what Alan Emrich, reviewing King’s Bounty for Computer Gaming World magazine, called “expanding megalomania.”

There is some sort of intangible “charge” that comes out of seeing one’s character become a more powerful warlord, leading bigger armies, gaining an ever-increasing commission, subduing ever larger foes, and so forth. While this is hardly an original concept (it dates back to the first games of Dungeons & Dragons), it still holds an endearing appeal when done well. In King’s Bounty, this “Monty Haul” brand of adventuring is exquisitely executed, rewarding the player with plenty of strokes on his way to finding the Sceptre.

Unlike the typical one-and-done CRPG, the computer game of King’s Bounty is designed to be played multiple times, as one would a board game. Not only are there four protagonists and four difficulty levels to choose from, but the placement of monsters, treasures, bounties, and the Sceptre itself are randomized with each new game. If it isn’t a hugely deep game even by the standards of its day, it can be an entertaining one for far more hours than a rundown of its simple mechanics might suggest. As we’ll soon see, this trait along with many of its other, more prosaic qualities would return years later in the more famous series of games for which it served as something of a prototype.

In the here and now of 1990, however, King’s Bounty on the computer proved a modest commercial success but not a sterling one. By the time it appeared, Jon Van Caneghem had reluctantly acknowledged that it was tough enough for his company to survive as a maker of computer games alone, and was in the process of divesting New World of Task Force Games: he sold out to John Olsen, who then moved Task Force back to Amarillo. In 1991, Olsen’s Task Force finally published the board game of King’s Bounty. It preserved most of the key elements of the computer game in forms modified to suit the tabletop, but it attracted little attention in a moribund marketplace, and quickly went out of print. (Task Force itself would continue to release new products until 1996 and to market the best of the old ones until 2004.)

Meanwhile, with the dream of making analog and digital games side by side now consigned to the past alongside other follies of youth, Van Caneghem retrenched and refocused on New World Computing’s core commercial strength: namely, the Might and Magic CRPG series. New World made a slick new engine that left behind 8-bit machines like the Apple II, then made three new Might and Magic games with it between 1991 and 1993. During this period, as these games were garnering strong reviews and equally strong sales, it was easy enough to see King’s Bounty as just one more misbegotten sign of a confused time.

But by 1994, the Might and Magic line seemed to be losing momentum, in tandem with a dramatic downturn in the CRPG market in general. The new standard bearers for narrative-oriented games were tightly scripted “interactive movies” like Under a Killing Moon, along with 3D-rendered slideshow adventures like Myst; many had come to see the sort of sprawling, open-ended high-fantasy CRPGs which New World made as relics of the past. New World stood at a proverbial fork in the road. Their second-generation Might and Magic engine too had now passed its sell-by date. Did they damn the torpedoes and surge ahead with the expensive task of making a new one for a genre that had fallen so badly out of fashion? Or did they try something else entirely? Van Caneghem looked around and weighed his options.

The enormous success of id Software’s Wolfenstein 3D and DOOM had heralded the emergence of a less highfalutin and more visceral, action-oriented strand of computer gaming to challenge the artsier experiments of the period. Yet computer gaming as a whole has never been a monolithic or even a bifurcated beast. Along with the likes of DOOM and Myst, that yang and yin of the era, strategy games were enjoying a quieter golden age in the wake of such classics as Railroad Tycoon, Civilization, and Master of Orion. Further, some of the latest explorations of the genre almost seemed to have taken a lesson from King’s Bounty about the appeal of CRPG-style character building within a strategic framework: X-COM and Master of Magic remain famous to this day for the intense personal bonds they forge between their characters and the players who control them. Perhaps, mused Van Caneghem, King’s Bounty had just been a bit too far ahead of the curve, implemented using technology that couldn’t quite do justice to its concept. Perhaps he should try again.

But, this being an older and wiser Jon Van Caneghem, he would do some things differently this time. Whatever the current state of the CRPG market, the Might and Magic name still had the benefit of widespread familiarity. Why let that go to waste? Why not make the new game a spinoff of Might and Magic rather than a completely new, completely unfamiliar thing?

And so Heroes of Might and Magic was born. Van Caneghem could hardly have imagined how successful it would prove on every level, from the crass commercial measure of units sold to the more idealistic one of hours of fun delivered to millions of people all over the world.



At this point, I owe it to those readers who aren’t among said millions to explain just what Heroes of Might and Magic is all about. It has ironically less to do with the CRPG series whose name it borrows than it does with King’s Bounty. Beyond sharing a fantasy theme that involves plenty of monster killing and leveling up as a reward for it, and some halfhearted efforts to tie it into the CRPG series’s universe, it has almost nothing to do with its older namesake. “If not for copyright lawyers, Heroes of Might and Magic could as easily have been called Heroes of Ultima, Heroes of Wizardry, or Heroes of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons,” noted Jason Kapalka accurately in his review of the first game in the series for Computer Gaming World.

But even the influence of King’s Bounty shouldn’t be overstated. For all that its roots so plainly lie there, Heroes is at bottom a very different sort of game; there’s far more distance between King’s Bounty and the first Heroes than there is between the latter and any of the subsequent entries in the series. Heroes abandons the business about bounty hunting in favor of being a true strategic wargame, complete with computer and/or human opponents who are trying to conquer the same map that you are. Rather than guiding a single hero, you can now recruit and control up to eight of them, along with the sedentary garrisons you collect to defend your castles against the other players whose heroes are also roaming the map with their armies.

Newbies to the series today are often advised to skip the first game, on the argument that everything it does is done bigger and better by the later ones. This is true enough as a statement of fact; those games are packed full of much more stuff — stuff which, in contrast to that found in many sequels, really does make an already compelling game that much more compelling. Still, I don’t really agree with the argument that this fact makes Heroes I extraneous. On the contrary, it strikes me as a perfect place to start with the series. It introduces the core concepts that carry through all of the subsequent games, leaving those successors free to layer their additional complexities and nuances onto its sturdy frame. So, this article will focus exclusively on the often neglected first game. There will be plenty of time to praise the others in later articles.

At the time of its release in the fall of 1995, Heroes I seemed merely the latest exemplar of what was already a long tradition of fantasy strategy on the computer. The most notable recent game of this sort had been Steve Barcia’s Master of Magic. It and Heroes of Might and Magic share many similarities: both are games of conquest that expect you to recruit and nurture individual heroes to lead your armies, even as you also guide the development of the castles and towns that spawn the soldiers who fight under them; both prominently feature the magic that is found in both their names; both shift between a strategic map where the big decisions are made and a tactical view used for battles. Yet the two games’ personalities are markedly different, so much so that no one who has actually played both of them could ever confuse them. Master of Magic is a gonzo, ramshackle creation, stuffed with so many spells, monsters, treasures, and general flights of fancy that it doesn’t really matter that a third or more of it all doesn’t really work, on a design or even sometimes a purely technical level. Heroes, by contrast, is a much finer honed creation, replacing the fascination of Master of Magic‘s multitudinous sprawl with its own brand of fiendishly addictive playability.

One difference between the two stands out above all the others: while Master of Magic trusts in its random world generator to create interesting dilemmas for the player, Heroes embraces set-piece, human-crafted scenarios. These fall into two categories: there are standalone scenarios you can play — no fewer than 34 of them in the version of the game found at digital storefronts today — and also an eight-scenario campaign which you can play through from the point of view of any of the four factions in the game. This campaign lacks most of the bells and whistles that came in the sequels: each successive scenario is introduced by a bare few sentences of text rather than one of the elaborate cut scenes that came later. As a result, it inculcates little sense of narrative momentum and still less of a sense of identification with the faction leader you’re meant to be playing; if the campaign scenarios had merely been shoveled into the mix as yet more standalone scenarios, no one would likely have been the wiser. Still, it’s a start, the germ of an idea which New World later took to much more ambitious heights.

Whether standalone or a part of the campaign, a scenario generally gives you one hero with a few units under his command and one partially developed castle with which to start. Fog of war means that only a tiny portion of the full map is revealed to you at the beginning. In the example shown below, we’ve started as a Barbarian, one of the four possible factions; the others are the Knights, the Sorceresses, and, replacing King’s Bounty‘s Paladins, the Warlocks. One player of each faction is found in each scenario. All of the factions have their own strengths and weaknesses, but in general the Barbarians and Knights are better suited for physical combat while the Sorceresses and Warlocks are better at casting spells.

Each of the four factions has its own style of castle, with its own roster of structures to be built up. Each castle can provide different types of units to fight for you — up to six types in all after you build the appropriate “dwellings” for them by spending your gold and other resources. We’ve been given a very generous start here; we already have four of the six possible Barbarian units types — namely goblins, wolves, orcs, and ogres — available to join our legions. Only trolls and the fearsome cyclopes are still to go.

In fact, we find that we have the necessary resources — 20 ore and 4000 gold — to build a bridge that will produce trolls already. A few of the creatures in question become available to hire as soon as a dwelling is built, followed by more at the beginning of every week; each turn consists of one day.

We can also recruit additional heroes at our castles, at the cost of 2500 gold each. Two are shuffled to the top of the pool for our consideration at any given time. Note that, although our starting faction is the Barbarians, we need not confine ourselves to recruiting only Barbarian heroes; nor must individual heroes “follow suit” in terms of the types of units which join their armies, although there is a morale advantage to grouping units of the same faction together.

With money tight, resources scarce, your armies weak, and your heroes unproven, the early game is always a race to scout out as much of the map as possible in order to better understand your strategic position, whilst also grabbing up any loot you find lying about. (Luckily, our Barbarian hero is particularly well-suited to this stage of the game, being the fastest mover of the four types.) There’s so much that is tempting: gold and other resources to replenish our scant stocks, sawmills and mines that can provide a constant supply of resources, magic artifacts which our heroes can carry around to aid them, obelisks which reveal pieces of a treasure map to an ultra-powerful Ultimate Artifact (a legacy of King’s Bounty‘s King’s Sceptre), even some places where we can recruit new units to join our ranks without having to pay for them, as we must at our castles.

But soon the easy pickings around our starting castle have all been scarfed up, and it’s time to start fighting some of the monsters scattered about the map, who guard things that we want and block passes that can take us farther afield. The hero who commands each of your armies is a typical armchair general: he doesn’t fight directly, but rather stays in the rear, adding his Attack and Defense scores to those of his troops, and casting spells that can become devastating by the late game. (For this reason, Barbarians and Knights tend to do best in the earlier stages of a scenario, but can be in for a rude shock if they don’t eliminate their spell-casting rivals before they grow too powerful.) In a testament to the old adage that heroes never die but only fade away, a hero whose army is defeated is merely returned to the pool of his colleagues that are waiting to be hired; if you’re not careful, you might find yourself fighting against a hero who was once one of yours, whom you spent a long time lovingly parenting for the benefit of one of your opponents.

The turn-based combat is as conceptually simple and fast-playing as the rest of the game, but nevertheless boasts surprising tactical subtleties. Each unit type has its own initiative value, movement speed, attack type (melee or ranged), attack potency, armor class, and hit points, and sometimes its own special strengths and weaknesses on top of all of these basic ones. Learning to build and use your armies most effectively, and learning how best to counter the various types of enemies you meet, takes quite some complete games, but doing so is very rewarding.

Sooner or later, you’ll come into contact with one of the other players — sooner if you’re playing on a smaller map, later in the case of a larger. Once that happens, exploration begins to compete with military strategy in your ranking of priorities. In most scenarios your goal is simply to capture all of your enemies’ castles, although a few of the campaign scenarios do mix things up a bit by asking you to be the first to recover the Ultimate Artifact or to capture a specific neutral castle. Regardless, Heroes shares with King’s Bounty a quality of brevity that sets it apart from most strategy games of the mid-1990s. Even its largest maps seldom take more than a few hours to explore and conquer. (Of course, this doesn’t mean that you won’t immediately start on another scenario…)

Such is a very, very broad overview of Heroes of Might and Magic. Yet it hardly begins to explain what makes it such a great game. This is every critic’s dilemma: it’s always easier to identify the flaws that keep a given game from greatness than it is to capture that peculiar kismet that yields a game as compulsively playable as this one. Still, it’s part of what I’m paid to do here, so I’ll do my best.

Like so many of the great ones, Heroes is perhaps most of all a tribute to its designer’s willingness to test and test and iterate endlessly until he gets it right. Jon Van Caneghem:

Any time you’re creating a new game — a game that has mechanics people haven’t seen before — there’s a lot of resistance to it. They’re used to something they’ve been playing all the time, and now you’re giving them something new. It’s foreign, so the first reaction is, “I don’t like it.” And if the game isn’t really good, that makes it even worse. If it’s not balanced or it’s not playing right, it becomes, “I don’t like this at all.”

So, my testing department on Heroes was not liking the game. They didn’t like the mechanics; it had a lot of imbalance to it; it was too slow; it was too different. And I just kept hammering at it. I said, “I know this is going to be fun. This is gonna work.” I really analyzed what they were doing and what was bothering them. The length of the turns was too long. If I made the distance that the heroes got to move on the map [in a single turn] too short, they didn’t like it. The same if I made it too long. There was a sweet spot. I made all these little tweaks, and said, “Try it again. Try it again. Try it again.”

All of a sudden, they started getting into it. They started battling each other. Then they started arguing over strategies. That’s my usual moment of clarity in game development. The moment QA is arguing over which strategy is best to win, you’re ready to ship.

This willingness to take every scrap of feedback seriously placed its stamp on every aspect of the game, from the interface, which is as well-nigh perfect as the technology of 1995 could possibly have allowed, to more abstract questions of playability and balance. Consider, for example, the limit of eight heroes per player. Such a number gives you a wealth of possibilities each turn by the late game, but keeps the game’s scope from exploding to the point where keeping track of everything becomes a daunting chore rather than a pleasure, as tends to happen in such predecessors as Master of Magic.

The opponent artificial intelligence is another case study in the ruthless pursuit of fun. It’s a virtual given that the computer will be allowed to cheat somehow in a game of this sort stemming from this era; it simply wasn’t possible at this time to program opponents that could give a decent human player a run for her money on a level field. But instead of merely increasing all of the computer players’ relevant numbers by 50 percent or more, as so many strategy games of the 1990s did, Heroes cheats in a way that isn’t so obviously egregious: its computer players suffer from no fog of war, meaning they know where every resource and castle is on the map from the start and can react accordingly. The resulting competition remains decidedly asymmetrical, but it feels like a struggle against deviously clever opponents rather than blatantly cheating ones. And at the end of the day, the subjective feel of the experience is all that matters. (Then again, if you really want a challenge, you can play against up to three human friends in hot-seat mode, or against one friend over a network. These too are options that surprisingly few turn-based strategy games of Heroes‘s era offer.)

In the final analysis, there is no magic bullet that makes Heroes so much fun, just a long string of small decisions, decided almost invariably correctly thanks to Van Caneghem’s willingness to listen to what his first players told him. The result is a game that’s addictive for all the right reasons — one that’s simple and approachable on the surface but is full of unexpected depths, a possibility space that’s enormously rewarding to explore and learn how to optimize. You’ll feel as if you’re leveling up like one of your heroes as you learn how to play on the Easy scenarios, polish your skills on the Normal ones, and at last find ways to triumph even over the Tough and Impossible ones. You might occasionally slam down your computer’s lid in frustration along the way, but you’ll always come back the next day to try again.

To all of this must be added the game’s immensely appealing presentation, which makes its world a nice place to be even when the tide of war is going against you. One similarity it does share with the CRPG series which gives it its name is its eschewing of the “dark, gritty” aesthetic of so many drearily serious fantasy games of its own era and later ones. Heroes is serious about being fun, but it never takes itself all that seriously in any other sense. Its world is one of bright primary colors that pop right on your monitor screen, of cartoon-style monsters duking it out without ever shedding a visible drop of blood. Its stories and settings don’t make a lick of sense, being a pastiche of whatever mythologies, fairy tales, and pop-culture tropes happened to be lying around the offices of New World. Why do the Sorceress’s glitter-splattered sprites, unicorns, and phoenixes look like an explosion at a My Little Pony factory? And why on earth do cyclopes spring forth from Mesoamerican-style pyramids, and what has any of that got to do with Barbarians anyway? Nobody knows and nobody cares. Heroes succeeds to a large degree through its sheer giddy likability, a reflection of the personality of the man who conceived it. No game less pretentious than this one has ever been made.

Another thing to love about the game is the fact that its roster of heroes consists of women and men in nearly equal proportion. The former are every bit as cool and capable as the latter, without ever being over-sexualized in order to please the male gaze. This level of enlightenment was sadly rare among mainstream strategy games of the 1990s. Heroes stands almost alone in being so welcoming to absolutely everyone.

Complaints? Any critic worth his salt must come up with a few, I suppose. So, I’ll note that some of the more difficult scenarios are as much exercises in puzzle solving as pure strategizing, almost demanding that you fail a few times before you can piece together the correct route to victory. Then, too, despite all the extensive play-testing it received, Heroes is no paradigm of balanced game design by modern lights. The Warlock faction is much more powerful than any of the others. Its top-end units are dragons, the best in the game by far. They have an absurd number of hit points, are completely immune to magical attacks, and can kill two stacks of enemies in one shot thanks to their fiery breath; the first player able to start purchasing significant numbers of dragons is all but guaranteed to win. And Heroes by no means resolves what has long been the biggest conundrum in wide-angle strategy-game design: that of the anticlimactic mopping up that follows that tipping point when you know you’re going to win. The need to optimize your play and weigh every decision carefully — do I spend my precious resources on a dwelling that will produce better units or on an addition to my mage guild that will give me better spells? — goes away after this point. All of the most interesting choices and the most nail-biting drama are front-loaded.

On the other hand, none of these things are necessarily unadulterated negatives.”Solving” a difficult map that’s been giving you fits can be a thoroughly satisfying accomplishment in its own right. And any faction can capture a Warlock castle and thereby gain a pathway to dragons, meaning that the starting Warlock player is most definitely not guaranteed to win — and then as well, the sheer joy of romping across the landscape with a ridiculously overpowered army of dragons shouldn’t be taken lightly when considering these matters. Much the same riposte heads off complaints about the anticlimactic endgame. It usually doesn’t take that long to win once the tipping point is reached, and doing so always warms the heart with megalomaniac joy.

I’ve used the word “addictive” a couple of times already in relation to Heroes of Might and Magic. And indeed, the word seems unavoidable in any review of it. The “one more turn” syndrome these games provoke has long been infamous. I’m not overly prone to gaming addiction myself — unlike some of my friends, I have no stories to tell of playing Civilization or Europa Universalis for 48 hours straight — but Heroes of Might and Magic is the closest thing to my personal gaming Kryptonite. Playing Heroes — solo or, even better, with your friends — is so much fun that it can be downright dangerous to your life balance. I do believe I’ve spent more time with this series than any other in the quarter century since I first encountered it. Heroes is just that engaging, even as it remains hard to explain exactly why. Chalk it up to the ineffability of interactive flow.



Upon its release in September of 1995, Heroes of Might and Magic reaped all of the commercial rewards it deserved. It became the biggest hit in the history of New World Computing to that point, and was pronounced Strategy Game of the Year by Computer Gaming World. His CRPG series forgotten for the moment, Jon Van Caneghem went right to work on a Heroes II, which he would make bigger, richer, and even more addictive than its predecessor. I will, needless to say, be writing about that one as well once we reach that point in our journey through time.

(Sources: the books Might and Magic Compendium: The Authorized Strategy Guide by Caroline Spector and Designers & Dragons Volumes 1 and 2 by Shannon Appelcline; Computer Gaming World of October 1988, November 1990, December 1995, and April 2004; Retro Gamer 49; Space Gamer of August 1981; XRDS: The ACM Magazine for Students of Summer 2017. Online sources include the CRPG Addict’s final post on Might and Magic: Darkside of Xeen, Matt Barton’s interviews with John Van Caneghem and Neal Hallford, Julien Pirou’s interview with John Van Caneghem, the RPG Codex interview with John Van Caneghem, and The Grognard Files interview with Tim Olsen.

Heroes of Might and Magic can be purchased as a digital download at GOG.com.)

 
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Posted by on December 24, 2021 in Digital Antiquaria, Interactive Fiction

 

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Might and Magic

Wizardry and Ultima were great inspirations for me. But I wanted to make my own vision for a CRPG. I wanted more of an open-world feel, with quests, puzzles, and an emphasis on exploration and discovery. I wanted party-based tactical combat, tons of magic items to find, and an ever-increasing feeling of power as you leveled your characters. Most of all, I wanted players to feel free to experiment with all of the “tools” I put in the game, so that they could enjoy playing any way they wanted to.

— Jon Van Caneghem

The long-running Might and Magic CRPG series is an easy thing for a project like this one to overlook. These games were never obviously, forthrightly innovative, being content to rework the same high-fantasy territory over and over again. Meanwhile their level of commercial success, although certainly considerable at times, never became so enormous as to make them sit up and demand our attention.

What Might and Magic consistently did have going for it, however, was the quality of being fun. Jon Van Caneghem, the series’s guiding light, was himself a lifelong compulsive gamer, and he stuffed his creations full of the things that he himself enjoyed: quests to fulfill, dungeons to explore, loot to collect, and an absurd variety of monsters to fight, all couched inside a non-linear, open-ended philosophy of gameplay that eschewed the sort of (overly?) elaborate set-piece plots that had begun to mark many of his series’s peers by the dawn of the 1990s. Might and Magic games, in other words, weren’t so much stories to be experienced as places to be explored.

Chet Bolingbroke — better known as The CRPG Addict — names “generous” as his defining adjective for Might and Magic.

The Might and Magic games have always been generous. Jon Van Caneghem clearly had a history with tabletop RPGs and early CRPGs, but he envisioned worlds of bounty where those titles were sparse and unyielding. In Wizardry, Might and Magic’s most obvious forebear, a 16 x 16 map might only hold a couple of fixed combats and two textual encounters. Van Caneghem’s strategy was to give you something in every row and column. I have maps from the first game in which I had to go into the double letters to annotate everything. A Dungeons & Dragons module might take you from Level 2 to 5 over the course of 30 hours of campaigning. Van Caneghem had no problem offering games in which you hit Level 100 or more. Where Dungeons and Dragons and Wizardry regarded attributes as closely policed within a 3-18 range, you might start at 15 strength in Might and Magic and end at 500.

Throughout its long history as a series, Might and Magic never strayed far from this gonzo approach. It remained always that which it had first aspired to be: an exercise in exploring spaces, killing the monsters you met there, and taking their stuff so that you could use it to kill even tougher monsters somewhere else. But within that template, it did find room to innovate — to do so, in fact, in more ways than it’s generally given credit for, including a few innovations that have become staples of the CRPG genre today. If it was no poster child for games as art, it had arguments of its own to make for games as pure fun.



Jon Van Caneghem was in some ways the last of a breed: the last of the living-room gaming entrepreneurs who dominated at the very start of the industry, with their self-coded products, their homemade packaging, and their naïve gumption that took the place of business plans and venture capital.

Van Caneghem grew up as a child of privilege in the 1970s near the heart of Hollywood, the stepson of a prominent neurologist. His parents had high ambitions for him; he attended grade school at the elite bilingual Lycée Français de Los Angeles. But he never quite fit the mold his parents had cast for him. A slow reader and reluctant student, he was obsessed with games from a very young age, beginning with checkers, then moving on to chess, Risk, and Diplomacy, then to Avalon Hill’s wargames and finally, inevitably to Dungeons & Dragons. He entered UCLA as a pre-med student in 1979, but becoming a doctor was his parents’ dream for him, not his own. Once there, he continued to devote the bulk of his energies to playing games, as well as another, more dangerous obsession: racing cars on the legendary Mulholland Drive.

Van Caneghem discovered computers and computer games during his middle years at university, just as many of his friends were finding jobs and significant others, and were left with less time for game nights as a result. “Then a friend of mine showed me an Apple II, and he was playing a bunch of simple games on it,” he remembers. “This was great! I could play any time I wanted and didn’t have to wait for anyone to get together. So, I immediately got one.”

Like at least half of the Apple II world at the time, he was soon in the throes of a full-blown Wizardry addiction; he guesses he must have finished it “seven or eight times.” The original Ultima also consumed plenty of hours. It was ironically the flaws in these pioneering but technologically limited early CRPGs that drove him to go from being a game player to a game maker.

Everyone started to tell me, “You’re always complaining about these games. Why don’t you make your own?” And I said that I didn’t have the slightest idea how to program. But it intrigued me. I switched from being a pre-med student to a math and computer-science major at UCLA and just started delving into the Apple II, absorbing every magazine and piece of information I could find. Everything I was learning at school was just ancient history as far as the computer was concerned, with punched cards and mainframes. There was nothing about personal computers. So I pretty much had to teach myself everything.

Much to his parents’ relief, he finished his Bachelor’s program at UCLA in 1983, albeit not in the major they had planned for him. Then he dropped a bombshell on them: he wanted to make his own computer game and sell it. They reluctantly agreed to give him a couple more years of room and board while he chased his dream.

In the end, it would take him almost three years to make the grandiosely titled Might and Magic: Book One — The Secret of the Inner Sanctum. In what Van Caneghem still calls the most satisfying single creative experience of his life, he designed and programmed the whole thing himself. He drew the graphics with some help from a pair of outside artists he hired, and outsourced some of the writing to his wife. But at least 90 percent of the sprawling final product was his work alone.

When he began to shop the game around to publishers at last in 1986, he found they were very interested; CRPGs were enjoying a boom at that time, with Ultima IV and The Bard’s Tale having been two of the biggest hits of the previous year. Yet he was sadly underwhelmed by the terms he was offered, which might allow him to earn $1 per copy sold at a retail price of $35 or more.

So, having come this far alone, he decided to self-publish his game. Being a self-described “ultimate Star Trek nut,” he chose New World Computing — as in “strange new worlds and new civilizations” — for the name of his new company. He recruited friends to draw the art for a box and a rather handsome map of his game’s land of Varn, then bought himself a PO Box and a toll-free order line along with advertisements in Computer Gaming World and A+, respectively computing gaming’s journal of record and one of the most popular of the Apple II magazines. Having been taught from a young age that success in life often hinges on looking like a success, he pulled out all the stops for the advertisements. Instead of the quarter-page black-and-white ad with fuzzy stick-figure art that was typical of home-grown software entrepreneurs like him, he convinced his parents to splash out one more time for a professionally laid-out, full-page, full-color spread that looked as good as any of those from the more established competition and better than most of them; this was an advertisement that couldn’t help but get Might and Magic noticed.

The first Might and Magic advertisement, which came complete with veiled jabs at The Bard’s Tale. It’s amusing to see how it describes pencil-and-paper map-making as a virtue rather than a necessary evil. Most gamers apparently didn’t agree: the very next game in the series would feature one of the CRPG genre’s first simple auto-maps.

And it did get noticed: it was a case of the right game at the right time putting its best foot forward, and the response exceeded all of his expectations. The order line which he’d installed in his bedroom rang all night long, and Van Caneghem, who had no intention of missing a single sale, turned into a sleep-deprived zombie thanks to it. Relief came in the form of another phone call, this one from Jim Levy, the CEO of Activision. Levy explained that Activision was starting something they called an “affiliated-label program” to help small developers get their products to market, and he thought that New World Computing would be an excellent candidate. (He may have been motivated to atone, to Activision’s stockholders if no one else, for his infamous rejection of Interplay’s The Bard’s Tale as “niche-ware for nerds” — a rejection which had delivered to Activision’s arch-rival Electronic Arts their biggest hit to date.) Activision could take phone orders and, much more importantly, distribute Might and Magic to stores all over the country, all while taking a smaller cut than a traditional publisher and leaving the New World logo as the only prominent one on the box; they could even put Van Caneghem in touch with people who could port it to other platforms. It sounded very good indeed to the young entrepreneur.

Within weeks of this conversation, Levy was fired from Activision, but the deal he had made with Van Caneghem remained in place. Might and Magic‘s arrival in stores in early 1987 was heralded by a glowing review in Computer Gaming World from Scorpia, the magazine’s longstanding adventure and CRPG columnist. She called it “world touring on a grand scale”: “There is so much to learn and enjoy in Might and Magic because its scope and complexity are amazing.” Ports to the IBM PC and Commodore 64 (the latter done by none other than John Romero of later DOOM fame) were available well before the Christmas of 1987. While it would never quite manage to join Ultima, The Bard’s Tale, and, soon, Pool of Radiance and the other SSI Gold Box games in the very top commercial tier of late-1980s CRPGs, it did become the leading name among the second tier, more than enough to get New World off the ground properly and create high expectations for a sequel.

Despite Scorpia’s rapture over it, this first Might & Magic game was, like all of the ones that would follow it, disarmingly easy to underestimate. It wore the influence of Wizardry and its successors, The Bard’s Tale among them, prominently on its sleeve: it too was an exercise in turn-based, grid-based exploration, which you navigated from a first-person point of view despite controlling a party of up to six characters. (The oddity of this has led to its sub-genre’s modern nickname of “blobber,” for the way it “blobs” all of your characters together into one octopus-like mass of sword-wielding arms and spell-casting hands.) Its technology verged on the primitive even in 1987, the year which saw the introduction of real-time gameplay to the CRPG genre in Dungeon Master. Nor was it any paradigm of balanced design: the early stages, when your newly created party consisted of naked, penniless club-wielders, proved so difficult that Van Caneghem grudgingly added a slightly — slightly, mind you — more hardy pre-made starting party to later releases. Even once your characters made it to level three or so and were no longer as weak as infants, the difficulty level remained more jagged than curved; monsters could suddenly appear on some levels that were an order of magnitude more powerful than anything else you’d met there, killing you before you knew what had hit you. This was an especial problem given that you could only save your game from one of the nine adventurer’s inns scattered around the sprawling world, a result more of technical limitations than designer intent. Meanwhile the story was mostly nonexistent, and silly where it did exist, culminating in the revelation that the entire world of Varn you’d been exploring was really a giant artificial biosphere created by space aliens; “Varn” turned out to be an acronym for “Vehicular Astropod Research Nacelle.”

If you could get past all that, however, it was a surprisingly rich game. Caneghem has noted that, though he became a pretty good programmer in the course of making Might and Magic, he was always a game designer first, a game programmer second: “I wasn’t a programmer who knew a neat graphics routine and then turned it into a game. I think most people at the time, except for a few, came from that end of it.” As one of the few who didn’t, Van Caneghem took a more holistic approach. Here we have to return to this idea of generosity that the CRPG Addict broached for us at the beginning of this article. Primitive though it was, Might and Magic was still crammed to bursting with stuff, enough to fill a couple of hundred hours if you let it: 250 different items to collect, 94 different spells to cast, 200 different monsters to fight, 55 individual 16-square-by-16-square areas to map. It boasted not only dungeons and towns, but a whole grid-based outside world to explore. The lumpy amalgamation was riddled with cheap exploits as well, of course, but discovering them was half the fun. One should never dismiss the appeal of building a group of adventurers from a bunch of babes in the woods who fall over dead if a goblin looks at them sideways to a six-person blob of terror that can annihilate a thousand of the little buggers at the stroke of a key.

For all its manifest derivativeness in the broad strokes, Might and Magic wasn’t without a smattering of genuinely new ideas, at least one of which became quietly influential on the future course of its genre. As you explored its maps, you often met people who gave you quests: tasks to accomplish apart from revealing more territory and collecting more experience points. These could range from such practical affairs as delivering a letter to another town to more, shall we say, whimsical endeavors, such as climbing every tree in a given area. Completing these side-quests provided rewards in the form of additional experience points and riches. More importantly, it added an additional impetus to your wanderings, a new dimension of play that was different from methodically lawn-mowering through a sometimes numbing procession of dungeons and monsters. In time, sub-quests like these would become an essential component of many or most CRPGs.

Jon Van Caneghem took advantage of his first game’s success to set up a proper office for New World in Van Nuys, California, and hire a staff made up of people much like himself. “A lot of our employees had met at game conventions, and all of our roots were in gaming,” he says. “At 5:30, the office would shut down and the gaming would start. Everyone was always there until all hours of the night, playing games.” He noted in a contemporary magazine profile that he wished above all to keep the New World offices “loose, friendly, and creative.”

He and his fellow travelers shipped Might and Magic II: Gates to Another World in December of 1988. Although clearly of the same technological lineage as its predecessor, it was a big step forward in terms of the details. Not only did it offer an even vaster profusion of stuff, spread over 60 different discrete areas this time, but it came with some significant quality-of-life improvements, including a reasonably usable auto-map if you chose to invest in the Cartography skill for at least one of your characters. Another subtle but welcome improvement came in your ability to set a “disposition” for your party, from “inconspicuous” to “thrill-seeker”; this allowed you to set the frequency of random monster encounters to your own liking, depending on whether you were just trying to get someplace or were actively grinding for experience points. But the most obvious improvement of all was the revamped graphics, courtesy of the full-time artists Van Caneghem had now hired; a version for the Commodore Amiga, the audiovisual wundermachine of the era, looked particularly good. The story was as daft as the last one, taking place on another world… err, alien biosphere called Cron instead of Varn. (The stories of Might and Magic do rather tend to satirize themselves…) But, just like last time, it really didn’t matter at all in a game that was all about the joy of exploration and exploitation.

The improved audiovisuals of Might and Magic II highlighted another aspect of the series that had perhaps been obscured by the primitiveness of the first game. In keeping with Van Caneghem’s sunny, optimistic personality — writer and designer Neal Halford, who came to work with him at New World during this era, calls him “terminally mellow” — the environs of Might and Magic would always be bright, colorful, fun places to inhabit. The series would never embrace the “dark, gritty” aesthetics that so much of the games industry came to revel in as the 1990s wore on.

Jon Van Caneghem the businessman seemed to live a charmed life not out of keeping with his vaguely fairy-taleish visual aesthetic. For instance, he dropped Activision in favor of becoming an affiliated label of Brøderbund in 1989, just before the former company — by this point officially known as Mediagenic — imploded, defaulting on their payments to their entire network of affiliated labels and destroying many of them thereby. He even escaped relatively unscathed from a well-intentioned but financially ill-advised venture into the board-game market, which I’ll cover in more detail in my next article.

For now, though, suffice to say that it was a big part of the reason that Might and Magic III: Isles of Terra wasn’t released until 1991. Like its predecessors, this latest entry in the series tossed you into another new world and let you have it. Still, while philosophically and even formally identical to the first two games — it remained a turn-based, grid-based blobber — it was a dramatic leap forward in terms of interface and presentation. Designed on and for a 32-bit MS-DOS machine instead of the 8-bit Apple II, it sported 256-color VGA graphics that replaced many of the older games’ numbers with visual cues, a lovely soundtrack composed for the new generation of multi-voice sound cards, and a mouse-driven interface. But its most gratifying improvement of all was more basic: it finally let you save your progress inside dungeons or anywhere else you liked. I would venture to guess that this change alone cut the number of hours the average player could expect to spend finishing the game in half, in spite of the fact that its number of individual areas actually grew slightly, to 64.

Veterans of the series could and sometimes did complain that the new level of professionalism and polish came at the cost of some of its old ramshackle charm, and Van Caneghem himself has confessed to being worried that people would notice how the new game’s average completion time was more likely to be in the tens than the hundreds of hours. But he needn’t have been: gamers ate it up.

In his review for Computer Gaming World, Charles Ardai captured how impressive Might and Magic III was in many ways, but also made note of the ennui that can come to cling to a series like this one — a series which is dedicated to doing the same thing better in each installment rather than doing anything dramatically, holistically new.

Unfortunately, Might and Magic III is also a remarkable exercise in water-treading, which does not advance the genre one inch in terms of plot, event, or ontology. Here we are again, one realizes, a band of hardy adventurers — elves, gnomes, dwarves, clerics, paladins, sorcerers — tramping about the wilderness and facing off against assorted orcs, rats, bugs, and other stock uglies.

Here we are, once more mapping a corner of Middle-earth, or a reasonable facsimile thereof, in pursuit of yet another necromatic ne’er-do-well with a faux-mythic name and a bad disposition. Here we are again — will we never be somewhere else?

On the other hand, there is a market for this stuff. David Eddings rewrites the same high-fantasy novel over and over again and never fails to hit the bestseller lists with it…

Ardai concluded that “the gamer who wants to be surprised by discovery, conversation, and story is likely to be disappointed in Might and Magic III, while the gamer who simply wants to play [emphasis original] may be ecstatic with the game.” Few sentences sum up the Might and Magic series as a whole more cogently.

The next pair of games in the series pushed the boundaries in terms of size without even attempting to address Ardai’s complaints. (After all, if it worked for David Eddings…) The name of 1992’s Might and Magic: Clouds of Xeen reflected a sudden games-industry conventional wisdom that numbered titles could actually be a drag on sales, being a turn-off to the many folks who were acquiring home computers for the first time in the early 1990s. “I felt strongly that everyone wants to see the next James Bond movie, but no one wants to see Rocky IX,” says Van Caneghem. “So off came the numbers.” This sentiment would die away as quickly as it had flared, both inside and outside of New World.

Both Clouds of Xeen and the would-be Might and Magic V, which was known simply as Might and Magic: Darkside of Xeen upon its release in 1993, took place, as you might have guessed, in yet another new land of adventure known as Xeen. More interestingly, when combined they represented another of New World’s subtle experiments with the nuts and bolts of the CRPG form if not the substance. If you installed them both on the same computer, they turned into World of Xeen, a single contiguous game encompassing no less than 201 discrete areas. Outside of its central gimmick, World of Xeen continued the Might and Magic tradition of careful, compartmentalized evolution. It was, for example, the first CRPG I know of that included an automatic quest log as a replacement for the dog-eared, hand-written notebooks of yore. It also added a global difficulty setting. Van Caneghem:

I added a feature when you first start the game where you’re asked if you want an Adventurer game or a Warrior game. This was my wife’s idea. She really liked the game, the adventure. But she wasn’t into combat. She was like, well, you know, monsters are fun, but let’s get on with the story. I said, “Okay, well, I’m sure there’s plenty of people out there just like you, who aren’t into the numbers and the hit points. They just want to get on with the story.” There’s a lot of quests, a lot of fun things to do. So I put the choice in, and what Adventurer does is it makes it easier to win all the battles. So you get through that part of the game a lot quicker.

There’s other stuff to do, and we want to expand our audience, to bring in more and more people who wouldn’t normally play this kind of game.

But this notion of “expanding our audience” was becoming a sticking point for Might and Magic by the time the conjoined World of Xeen appeared in the inevitable single box in 1994. Some of Charles Ardai’s criticisms appeared to be coming home to roost; the market had been flooded with fantasy CRPGs over the last half decade, most of which appeared all but indistinguishable from one another to the casual browser. It was extremely difficult even for a well-done example of the form, such as Might and Magic had always been on the whole, to stand out from the competition. The new generation of gaming neophytes to whom Van Caneghem imagined his Adventurer mode appealing didn’t have the likes of Might and Magic and its peers on their radar at all; they were buying things like The 7th Guest, Myst, and Phantasmagoria. The CRPG genre had transitioned from boom to bust, and was now deeply out of fashion.

This reality left Jon Van Caneghem and his company facing some hard questions. The engine which had powered the last three Might and Magic games was several years old now, its once-impressive VGA graphics looking a bit sad in comparison to the latest high-resolution Super VGA wonders. Clearly it would need to be rethought and rebuilt from scratch for any possible Might and Magic VI. But was there really a business case for taking on such an expensive task in the current market? Or had the franchise perhaps run its course, as such venerable rivals as WizardryThe Bard’s Tale, and Ultima seemed to have done?

Van Caneghem’s solution to this dilemma of what was to be done with a respected CRPG franchise in an era when CRPGs themselves seemed to be dead on the vine would prove as unexpected as it would refreshing, and would spawn a great rarity in gaming: a spinoff franchise that became even more popular than its parent.

(Sources: the book Might and Magic Compendium: The Authorized Strategy Guide by Caroline Spector and the individual hint books published by New World Computing for each of the first five Might and Magic games; Compute! of May 1993; Computer Gaming World of December 1986, April 1987, October 1988, March 1989, May 1989, May 1991, January 1992, September 1993, and April 2004; Retro Gamer 49; XRDS: The ACM Magazine for Students of Summer 2017. Online sources include the CRPG Addict’s final post on Might and Magic: Darkside of Xeen, Matt Barton’s interviews with Jon Van Caneghem and Neal Hallford, and the RPG Codex interview with Jon Van Caneghem.

The first six Might and Magic CRPGs can be purchased as a digital bundle at GOG.com.)

 
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Posted by on December 10, 2021 in Digital Antiquaria, Interactive Fiction

 

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