Peter Molyneux… Hmm, it is quite astonishing, what an ordinary name his parents had given him. If they had known, that their son would acquire an almost divine status amongst computer game designers later in his life, they would probably have thought about a more appropriate name. Why I use the term ‘divine’? Well, if you come up with such a question, you seem to be an occasional gamer, because any hardcore gamer would instantly know what I’m talking about. No offence, though – Peter Molyneux is simply a god, that’s why. Even if his name doesn’t ring a bell, the games he is responsible for, design-wise, will certainly do.
Populous, Syndicate, Dungeon Keeper and Black & White are only a few famous ones worth mentioning…and of course: Powermonger!
Bullfrog Productions released this game in 1992 for PC, Amiga and Atari ST. It was one of the first productions to offer real-time strategy gameplay and multiplayer support. Like nearly all of the games Peter Molynex was responsible for, Powermonger lets you take the role of a supreme commander with the task of leading your people through a richly simulated world in order to gain control over competing parties.
Your former kingdom has been destroyed by an enormous earthquake, forcing you and your surviving fellow people to leave this devastated land. So you set sail and travel the ocean to seek for a new home. After weeks, you manage to land on the coast of an uncharted territory,
which seems very promising, for it’s rich in nature and vast in its extents – but unfortunately you are not alone there!
The new world you have arrived in is intersected into 195 territories, which you have to conquer one after another until you can claim yourself king of this empire. There are three other tribes against which you have to compete - the yellow, the red and the blue tribe, while you are leading the white tribe. You begin each map with a limited number of followers and you have to command your people carefully and wise in order to make them strong enough to withstand all challenges you will be facing. You must conquer other settlements, get new men and supply them with food and weapons, so they are equipped to serve you well. After you have brought 2/3 of the population of the current territory under your control, you have effectively control over it. Then you can move to the next one and so on.
The interface consists of several elements which let you observe the world you play in and manipulate the people you’re controlling. On the left part of the screen, there’s an overview map, in which the current realm is displayed. This map lets you scroll over the country and via the map icons right above it, you toggle specific details such as topography, food or settlements.
The main part of the interface is represented by the close-up map, where the action takes place. This map is presented in 3D perspective, that can be rotated and zoomed in/out using the red arrows on the left. The buttons underneath the close-up map are used to give orders to your people, set your political posture and get into the game/file menu. You control the game mainly by mouse, but there are also some hotkeys you can use in addition.
Powermonger offers a living world, which is presented very detailed and diverse. The maps have their own, unique appearance. Nature and geographical aspects have been constructed with many elements, including mountains, planes, rivers, forests, animals, roads and different sizes of settlements. Each individual has a home and an occupation, and you can watch how they interact accordingly to their given tasks. Anything is nicely animated to add a very realistic touch to the game - even the seasons are simulated, and influence the flow of life in some repects.
But of course, the beautiful scenery is only the background for what’s taking place in it. Most important for the gameplay are the orders that you assign to your followers. Your spectrum of command can be separated into four categories: movement, food, inventions and strategic actions. The movement orders let you distribute your people to certain locations, the food orders let them collect food or supply some to places where it is lacked, while the invention orders tell your followers to develop items such as weapons or boats, to equip these items or to drop them. The strategic orders however are more complex. Besides the option to command your troops for an attack on enemy settlements, you’re given the possibility to spy on them first or – if you want to try on more peaceful alternatives – propose an alliance and trade. An important parameter for most of these actions is how you set your posture (I have mentioned this option earlier in this review).
The posture can be set in three different levels: passive, normal and aggressive. Depending on what posture has been chosen, the outcome of any interaction such as invention, battle, trade or alliance is influenced. For example, an aggressive captain will take no prisoners in battle, whereas a passive one tries to capture and recruit as many subjects as possible. With inventions, aggressive posture leads to the development of weapons, such as cannons, swords or bows, while passive posture will have pots, plows or boats invented. So you see, the posture settings are an essential factor for your strategy.
As for the captains, these are the ones who work as sub-leaders for your people. When you start of a new game, there’s only one captain at your command, but as you progress a map and conquer new settlements, there will be more captains that comply to you. They will be displayed as figures standing around the close-in map. Any of them can be assigned to different tasks, so while one captain is having his people inventing something, the other ones can command their followers to collect food or to attack the enemy.
Now that I have hopefully given you an useful overview on the most important aspects and functions within the game, I will continue by outlining the technical issues Powermonger is offering.
As Powermonger is a very deep-going game, providing many ways to develop strategies, you will notice soon, that its gameplay can be extremely addictive. You could literally replay the maps forever and still get play value from them. Unfortunately, there are no difficulty levels to be set for the game, but after having played it several times you will gain a feel for what processes and tactics are necessary to enable a good approach on the challenge.
In general, the handling of this game is pretty comfortable. The interface is laid out clearly and there are no disturbing menues to bother with. The VGA graphics are nicely done and satisfy due to the numerous and lovely details, although the graphical elements tend to appear relatively pixeled. So sometimes, it might be hard to identify clearly what’s going on on the close-up map when you are not zooming in thoroughly, but as soon as you’ve gotten used to the smaller details within the graphics, it’ll be fine, though.
You can enjoy music only during the start-up screen, the rest of the game is merely synchronized by digital sound effects. These are quite well done, but you might want to turn them off after a while since they tend to become a little annoying, depending on your taste.
You’re given the possibility to save the game any time you want, and in case playing against the computer does not really match your needs feel free to challenge a human opponent, either via modem or by linking two computers directly using the serial ports. For your convenience, the manual for this game is available for download, too, so if you should encounter any problems you could use it for troubleshooting. At least in technical concerns, there most probably won’t be any, for the game works very good with Dosbox.
Finally, it is time to sum up my opinion about Powermonger. Although this game has aged a little, I can clearly remember how much fun it was playing it back then, on my Amiga. First, I was afraid that my expectations were set higher than the game would be capable to satisfy, for I didn’t know about the quality of the PC version until now. The reason why I give the game only a 4 is because I think, that the graphical details (on the maps) are sometimes a little rough and furthermore I would have loved to listen to some in-game music and slightly better sound effects.
But let me assure you, Powermonger still is a milestone of strategy computer game history. It’s very well designed, offers a complex and addictive gameplay and will chain you to the screen for a long time. That’s guaranteed! Gamers who have already got in touch with Populous or Mega-Lo-Mania, which are rather similar in structure, will certainly love this one. Even if you have never heard of those games, Powermonger is a strategy experience you will not regret, except you miss it! Thank you, Peter Molyneux! If I was your father, I’d have named you ‘master’ as second pre-name :)