Review: Elemental Wars

In light of last week’s interview, I’ve decided to take a slight detour from our usual menu to review a concept AoS called Elemental Wars (erwtenpeller, 2007). This was never made into a playable map, but is unique in several ways that I feel are worth discussing. The concept was originally posted here on wc3c.net, but I’ll run through the main points below anyway.

Elements:

As the title suggests, the game heavily involves ‘elements’, which are the theme for the game’s grid of armour and damage types. As can be seen below, there are five damage types, each of which is strong against two armours, and weak against two armours. The grid is symmetric: Earth damage is strong against Fire armour, while Fire damage is strong against Earth armour.

Each hero in the game represents a pair of elements, one offensive and one defensive. The offensive element determines the damage type of their auto-attack, while the defensive element determines their armour type. The hero’s abilities are also matched to their elements, two offensive abilities themed with the offensive element, and two defensive abilities to the defensive element. Let’s look at an example hero which, for simplicity’s sake, has abilities¬†adapted from Warcraft III rather than a unique custom set:

We can see that all of Keeper of the Grove’s offensive capacity is aligned with the Storm element, while his defence is aligned with Earth. Even before we look at the specifics of his abilities, he has a natural advantage against certain heroes, and a natural disadvantage against others.

In total, there are 20 distinct elemental pairs (we don’t allow heroes to have the same element twice). There are two teams in the game, and each gets exclusive access to 10 heroes. Heroes with the same pair of elements but swapped offence/defence are assigned to opposing teams: so Keeper of the Grove (offence: Storm, defence: Earth) would oppose Far Seer (offence: Earth, defence: Storm). Therefore, each team is guaranteed a good variety of pick options.

Hero Progression:

Heroes may acquire additional Fire Power, which increases their attack damage (if they have fire as an offensive element), or armour (if they have fire as a defensive element). It will also increase the effectiveness of fire-themed spells, by increasing damage, healing, or any spell-specific value. So if a hero has defensive fire, then Fire Power improves almost everything defensive that they can improve. Of course, there also exists Spirit Power, Frost Power, etc. for the other elements, which behave in the same way.

Generally, the design document favours boosting the power of a hero’s offensive element rather than increasing its attack damage directly. Cutting out attack damage as a separate axis shoehorns heroes into only two real builds: offensive element or defensive element. However, the item system itself is quite versatile. There are three classes of item:

  • Consumables: Items granting an active ability, but only for a limited number of uses. Mentioned are temporary boosts to elemental powers and healing potions, as well as a temporarily switching offensive and defensive elements. I think it would be plausible to let players buy element-aligned spells as well, providing they didn’t scale with elemental power (as then players could build very defensively but still enjoy strong offence via consumables).
  • Gems: These items are cheap and offer small bonuses. They are cost-efficient, but not very useful on their own.

  • Artifacts: These are more expensive, and offer more substantial bonuses. They also have up to four slots into which any gems may be placed. Once all of an artifact’s slots have been filled with gems, an secondary bonus will be unlocked.

    There is a good deal of opportunity to have interesting items here, such as an artifact which has no basic bonus, but a powerful secondary bonus once all the slots are filled. Or consider an artifact which starts with a defensive bonus, but later unlocks an offensive bonus.

Gameplay:

As can be seen in the sketch terrain at the beginning of the article, each team has two bases at opposite corners of the map, with neutral creeps scattered around the centre. At the beginning of the game, each base is assigned a random element (one stays benched), and will spawn troops of that element for a fixed number of waves. This is followed by a brief downtime, before the next “round” and random allocation begins.

Due to the symmetry of the damage type chart, the lanes won’t push on their own, but troops from both sides will die faster/slower in some element matchups. Also, heroes will much prefer to be on a lane where they deal more damage to enemy units, and take less!

The overall theme of Elemental Wars is that there is always advantage and disadvantage somewhere, both within team compositions and on the lanes. The skill of the game is in exploiting those advantages while they exist, and attempting to kite your opponents while they don’t. Implicitly there’s a lot of teamwork required, both in the initial stage of composing a team, and also when adapting to the frequent, drastic changes to the environment that define the game. I really like this aspect of the design.

Reflections:

There are some interesting things to take away from all this. Firstly, balancing would be very tricky, since heroes can counter each other not just with abilities, but also by elemental typing. This creates a much more complex web of dependencies, which might offer a lot of depth to explore, but also take a long time before reaching equilibrium. That said, maybe a little imbalance isn’t such a bad thing.

Secondly, this is a game with a fixed hero pool, by design. There is no other AoS I’m aware of that shouldn’t add another hero, because no other game has such strict typing. This limits the game’s growth, though there are other ways to keep players interested, such as new arenas or items. Sadly, I doubt any commercial venture would try to set sail towards such a “closed” design goal. I accept that new heroes could be introduced by limiting teams to not picking two heroes with the same pair of elements, but that skews the picks until there’s two of each ordered pair, then three, etc.

Finally, while the item system feels a bit limited, I think the introduction of more formalised stats like cooldown reduction (common in most modern mobas) would help a great deal towards making build options more dynamic.

This is a game I’d personally really like to play, because I feel adapting your team’s approach to each round’s lanes would be a consistently enjoyable experience. Couple that with modern hero design and I’m sold!

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2 thoughts on “Review: Elemental Wars

  1. I feel like the concept of elements countering one another is interesting only from the facade. In the game it essentially just becomes “far seer (earth) counters fire lord (fire)” rather than earth counters fire. Stat switching would be practically worthless due to ability typing, too. The fact that the map has 4 corner bases also seems arbitrary with respect to the game design (what does that have to do with element countering? nothing)

    Also, you mentioned that it “creates a web of dependencies” but I don’t think that’s true. It seems that in game it would hardly make a difference on the outcome of a team fight. There’s something positive to be said about elemental typing and having offense/defense counters like this, but it seems that the design faced some fatal flaws and (for a good reason) was never considered further.

  2. I was actually the terrainer on this map back in the day. The terrain itself was tiny compared to most AoS maps and the plan was to encourage constant combat and being able to figure out where there were strengths to be pushed and weaknesses to be avoided very quickly and dynamically. However, it also made the lanes very short (particularly with four bases) which allowed less time for units to really press their elemental advantage.

    Dusk, Erwt, and myself unfortunately never got much further than concepts, icons and a few drafts of the terrain. I think that some of the things that Blake mentions are certainly true in that the elemental abilities of heroes countering one another makes the element switching on units far less viable. If what we were encouraging was hero combat (and we certainly were with the small map), having the heroes with innate advantages over one another seems like it diverges from the idea of dynamically shifting advantages/disadvantages.

    Ultimately, I would have loved to see how the map played out if it had gotten past the conceptual stage. There was a lot of outside the box thinking done on this one (another idea that was incorporated into one of the terrain drafts was having no fountains inside the bases and one exclusively in the center of the map) and I think a period of thorough testing to figure out which were good ones and which just conflicted with the concept would have produced a pretty awesome map.

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