Majesty — The Fantasy Kingdom Sim

A review by Martijn van Steenbergen
Submitted on wednesday September 21st, 2004
For the course Game Design
Taught by Mark Overmars
At Utrecht University

Game Information

Developed by Cyberlore
Released in 2000 by MicroProse/Hasbro Interactive
Strategy Game

Introduction

Majesty: The Fantasy Kingdom Sim is an interesting combination of a role playing game and a strategy game. Role playing, because you play the sovereign of a small kingdom in the land of Ardania, and because you indirectly control Tolkien-esque fantasy characters such as warriors, mages, elves and dwarves, with statistics such as strength and intelligence. Strategy, because you do not directly control these characters, but instead encourage them to do what you want them to do by rewarding them with gold, trying to achieve some higher goal you have, depending on what level you are playing. The game consists of several levels, of which every one presents you with a problem to solve, wrapped in an in-theme story. The levels partly depend on each other: you cannot play certain levels before you have solved others. You compete against time, having the option of replaying the levels over and over, trying to complete them in a smaller period of time.

Story

The story is explained in the instruction booklet provided with the game: the land of Ardania is big and chaotic, consisting of several small independent kingdoms, each with its own interests. You are the sovereign of one of those kingdoms, responsible for the prosperity of your kingdom and its peoples. The instructions in the booklet are interspersed with small in-theme stories, in the first of which you visit an old, wise seer who names you souvereign and blesses you with your job: "I sense that you have it in you to rule wisely. It's in your blood."

When you start the game, a small, nice movie is played in which you fly like a bird over the land of Ardania and are (again) introduced to it by a Sean Connery-like voice. Heroes live in Ardania, some of which are motivated by gold, some of which strive for fame and honor by being loyal to their sovereign. Fantasy creatures realm Ardania, some curious, some deadly. In the end you see yourself standing on the balcony of one of the towers of your palace, being given the crown. Although this makes the game appealing to fantasy-lovers like me, it is really just a piece of wrapping paper around the game itself. This is apparent in several ways:

When you start the game, you are presented with a map of Ardania. Visible on the map are the levels from which you can choose. Does that mean that every level is played in a different part of Ardania? Am I the sovereign of a different kingdom in each level? Although these questions are not answered in the game, this is not really a problem, since reality is clearly not something the game aspires after.

The levels are short stand-alone stories, but again these stories are just wrapping papers around level goals repeated throughout the game: destroy a building, gather a certain amount of gold, or slay all enemies. Sometimes this has to be done within a certain amount of time. In Deal with the Demon for example, a demon terrorises your kingdom, and you have to please it by making 100,000 gold coins and giving it to the demon within forty days.

Thirdly, although some levels have to be played for another level to become available, there is no apparent reason for this. The levels interact with each other in no way other than that the level that is unlocked is usually harder than the levels that need to be completed for that level to unlock. Then what is the use of making levels dependent on each other? Well, I can imagine that if this was not done, the map would just be a collection of levels and it wouldn't matter in what order you played them. It would probably make the game more boring.

Graphics, sound and music

I feel the graphics suit the game very well: they're playful, fantasy-like, as if hand-drawn. The fonts used are playful yet still easily legible. The graphics are not very detailed and appear pixelized because the 600x800 screen is enlarged to fit my entire screen, but this adds to the feeling of 'oldness' in the game. After all, the game is not played because of the amazing graphics, but because of the strategy and roleplay elements.

There is no music in the game. There is however enough sound to make up for that: your personal assistant continually tells you that construction of a building has finished, that your research at your library has completed, or that you need more gold or heroes to prosper. A sound is played whenever you select a unit on the map. For example, you hear the clashing of swords whenever you select a warriors guild, or the sounds of a crowded room whenever you select an inn. Then there are the sounds for the currently visible part of the map. You can hear the chopping of a minotaur's axe, the rushing sound of a mage's fireball, the tax collector collecting the taxes, death cries when something or someone dies and cheers whenever a hero gains a level.

I felt this got a little out of hand after playing it a while. The voices of the characters are quite childish and repetitive. Heroes often level, or run away from a fight, or die, and everytime the same sounds are played, and the sounds can become annoying. Fortunately, these can be turned off.

Gameplay

I found the learning curve of this game to be very steep. Whereas you can just start playing most games and learn gradually, you had to read the instruction booklet for the most part to be successful in this game. I spent four hours on the first level (The Bell, the Book and the Candle) without much success. Then I learned from a chapter halfway in the booklet that marketplaces produce the most income, and not much later I had completed the level.

Then I got the hang of it. The second level went quite good, and more successful completions of levels followed. At later levels, different guilds, heroes and buildings became available, keeping the game interesting. Then I started to notice the similarities between the levels (as I described before): each time, you just had to find a building hidden on the map and destroy it, or make a considerable amount of money, sometimes within time limits. I have not had enough time to finish all the levels, but I can imagine that it gets tedious after a while to do yet another find-the-building-holding-the-crown-and-destroy-it-quest, and that the levels only get harder because your options are limited or because the time in which you have to complete the quest gets shorter and shorter.

Still, the interaction between the various buildings and characters is complicated enough to keep you busy for quite a while. It takes a while before you discover what buildings give your characters the right advantages to make them successful in combat, or what buildings produce the most money, or what the precise effect of a library is on your kingdom. There are also nonsensical effects, such as the fountain, which gives you an extra tax collector, or the royal gardens, which give your heroes random beneficient spells. Sometimes it seems that some less sensical objects were introduced to keep the game balanced: when a lot of heroes die, a graveyard appears which spawns undead enemies which attack your heroes and buildings. Another example: in the reference appendix in the instruction booklet, the effect of a house is described as 'occupies land near your Palace' land on which you could have put useful buildings'. I'm sure that with a little more creativity, a more in-theme description could have been made up.

There's a small issue with saving your game. One of the buildings you can order constructed is a gambling hall, where you can use your money to bet and either multiply or lose it. Save the game before you bet, and if you win, save again, and if you lose, reload your game. In levels where you have to make a certain amount of money, this is an easy trick to win. I'm not sure why the game designers did not solve this unintended problem. It's a well-known issue with being able to save your game at any time you like.

I found money to be the most important resource in the game. I am usually out of money, waiting for more and more. It really was the only factor that was limiting me to do the things I wanted to do. Apart from that, decisions made in the game are never really crucial. It doesn't really matter whether you buy building one first instead of building two, and where exactly you put them. You will probably finish the level anyways.

User interface

The user interface consists of many buttons which are relatively hard to learn and can be confusing. It is impossible to see whether a button is a toggle button, or a button that pops up another window. You can only guess from the text on the button.

The main screen consists of your main map in which most actions take place, an overview map (top left part of your screen), an options pane (central left part of your screen) which shows options specific for the selected building or hero, and a tracking pane which tracks a certain character or enemy (bottom left). I found I rarely use the tracking window, and I think it just uses space which could have been used for the map or other more useful purposes. Actually, some option panels are too large to fit in the small option panel, and then the tracking window disappears and that space is used to display all the options. Apparently the game designers realised the tracking window is the least useful part of the screen.

There are many buttons that are never used in a quest: those that let you cast sovereign spells. There is a row of twenty-two buttons on the bottom of the screen, and usually only an avarage of six buttons becomes available during a quest. Perhaps the game designers could have made the unused buttons invisible, so that more space can be used for the main map.

Despite the many buttons, the user interface is appealing, with its colourful icons and decorations, and keyboard shortcuts are available for the more advanced users to more quickly respond to events in the game.

Artificial intelligence

You cannot directly control the characters in the game. Instead, you have to lure them to places or buildings by offering a reward of gold coins. From the game design point of view, this can be dangerous: will your heroes respond appropriately to your rewards? It should not be the case that no hero responds to a reward flag, but all heroes responding to a reward flag is also not what you want. I feel the game handles this quite well.

One specific thing I found curious is that rogues — whom are known for their lust for gold — are even willing to attack their own guildhall if I put a reward flag on it. That causes them to become homeless and be removed from the map.

The heroes are not extremely smart, sometimes wandering around aimlessly, but they are smart enough, and the same goes for the enemies.

Summary

Overall, Majesty is a fun game. It's hard to get into it, but once you've done the first level, it gets addicting. There are many different buildings and classes that interact in subtle ways, making the game very interesting. The game looks very attractive, although the large amount of buttons can be intimidating.

I think the game can easily do without the tracking window. It takes up valuable space, and continually distracts me from my main map because it always shows an animation. Although the characters' speech adds a nice atmosphere to the game, it can get annoying too.

I think that if the levels had more to do with each other, the game would become more interesting story-wise. There seems to be no relation between different levels and their depencies now, and I think this can be added without too much effort.