Sunday, July 30, 2017

Game 256: MegaTraveller 2: Quest for the Ancients (1991)

I wasn't a fan of Paragon Software's first attempt to adapt the MegaTraveller RPG to the computer in 1990, and apparently neither were a lot of other people. The company had also made a hash out of another Game Designers' Workshop property, Space: 1889, the same year. Thus under a bit of pressure when it came time to develop the sequel, Paragon got help directly from the source: Marc William Miller, primary creator of the original Traveller tabletop RPG (1977). Miller wrote the plot and designed the game world for the sequel, suggested a number of interface changes, and wrote a letter to the player for the game manual.

The result is less than a sequel and more a second try. The game takes place in a different era than the original and doesn't reference it. The backstory, while setting up perhaps a more epic plot, is still pretty silly. Half a million years ago, a winged race called the Droyne came to dominance on a planet called Eskayloyt. The most intelligent of these beings came to rule his race and extend their reach into the galaxy, making all kinds of scientific discoveries and developing advanced technology. He fathered his own dynasty of immortal sons and grandsons and became known as Grandfather. Although his offspring helped him with his projects at first, in later years their goals began to clash, so Grandfather naturally decided to exterminate his lineage. Thousands of years of war followed, with entire planets destroyed and entire races wiped. Eventually, Grandfather was victorious but he mysteriously disappeared shortly afterwards.

Hundreds of thousands of years later, the ruins of the ancients awe and puzzle humanity. Humans are organized into the Third Imperium, which governs the space around hundreds of planets in a neo-feudal style, complete with an emperor, nobility, and knights.
The main mission begins: save a plant from encroaching slime.
The lead character is on vacation on the planet Rhylanor, touring an Ancients ruin, when the ruin suddenly comes to life and starts spewing a deadly slime. (Two mysterious figures are seen running away from the ruin about this time.) The slime flows across the land like lava, killing everything it touches. The Duke of Rhylanor offers a half-billion credit reward to anyone who can stop the slime from spreading. The lead character shows his video of the event to four fellow adventurers, and together they agree to team up, solve the mystery, and collect the reward.
The party gathers to embark on their altruistic mission.
The manual promises a much bigger game than the original, with hundreds of worlds and cities to visit and lots of side-quests to complement the main quest. Of course, the first game had that, too, but the "side-quests" were just somewhat boring ways of making money. I'm not sure if that's true here or not.

As with anything Traveller-related, a huge part of the game is character creation. Characters aren't rank amateurs but rather seasoned veterans who have developed skills and resources over long careers. You begin by choosing between human and "Vargr" races (the latter genetic manipulations of dogs with human hands) and then the character's sex. The game rolls randomly for strength, dexterity, endurance, intelligence, education, and either social standing (humans) or charisma (Vargrs).
Character creation begins with basic attributes. You can immediately re-roll.
The first game only had navy, marines, scouts, army, and merchants, but this one has 27 career paths, some specific to humans, some to Vargrs, and some shared by both. They include raider, scientist, aristocrat, pirate, rogue, doctor, hunter, and law enforcer along with all of the original military and paramilitary branches. It's practically paralyzing.

You also choose your character's homeworld, including the option to make up one on your own, which further limits your service choices. The manual helps you not at all with this. 

After choosing your branch of service, your character goes through one or more "terms" with the branch, picking up some skills automatically and choosing others. The game offers nearly 200 skills, with options such as artisan, auto rifle, carousing, computer, energy weapons, engineering, history, interrogation, large blades, legal, navigation, pilot, ship's boat, trader, and zero-g environment. You can also spend skill slots improving attributes. One improvement here is that you can actually select the skill that you want and not just a skill "category" from which the skill is then chosen at random.
Selecting skills learned during training.
The manual tells you frankly that about 60 of the skills aren't used in the game, but suggests you still might want to develop them for future games. MegaTraveller 1 said that, too, and then didn't allow importing those characters into MegaTraveller 2. Anyway, you just know that among the roughly 140 skills that are theoretically useful in this game, some of them will never be called upon. A blind, first-time player has no idea what these are.

As I start out, I'm not sure whether skills can be acquired during the game itself or whether you have to learn them all during your training period. I'm also not sure how they develop. Both were a bit of a mystery in the original game, too. One thing that is a bit easier here is a "PAL system" (turned on by default), which causes characters who have a particular skill to pipe up when the skill might come in handy.  I would have killed for that in Wasteland.
The training center says this, but I noted that it didn't offer me any training in the "ATV" skill even after I drove one around for days.
Some characters can keep reenlisting, trading youth and vitality for more skills and benefits; others are mustered out automatically after a term or two. Either way, depending on how long you served, you can select from a variety of benefits, which include weapons, money, and additional skills.

Part of the reason that the process takes so long is that it's meant to serve as a character creator for the tabletop version of the game, too. In fact, there's an "advanced character" mode that allows you to choose from even more options, including pre-career education and training and more options for trying to get promoted and such during your career. There's even an option to print the character sheet.

Overall, creating a party, including dumping characters whose careers go off in the wrong direction, can take hours. This what I came up with:

  • Callahan, a human male with highest statistics in intelligence and education, but pretty high in almost everything. He spent a couple terms in law enforcement, learning skills like forensics, gambling, interrogation, interview, "jack of all trades," leader, linguistics, and "streetwise." (Unfortunately, he didn't learn any weapons!) He mustered out with 25,000 credits, a "low passage" ticket for travel, and a forensics kit. He's the party leader.
  • Gant, a male Vargr "explorer" with high strength, education, and dexterity but low endurance and charisma. He only served one term in his profession, learning gravity vehicles, laser weapons, navigation, pilot, and sensor operations before retiring with 9,000 credits and a "high passage" ticket. He'll be the pilot.
  • Corvina, a human female who spent one term as a scientist. High in just about everything but dexterity. I built her as the engineer/computer nerd of the group, with skills in computer, electronics, engineering, laser weapons, and vacuum suit. She ended up with a laser pistol.
  • Jennings, a human female with a couple terms as a navy lieutenant. High statistics (9 or above) in everything. I built her up as the crew doctor, but also someone skilled in some of the ancillary functions of a ship: laser weapon, medical, ship's boat, turret weapons, and vacuum suit. She got out with 55,000 credits and a laser rifle.
Jennings' completed character sheet.
  • Highway, a human male. I meant him to be something of the combat brute of the group, but he ended up getting his highest statistics in education and social standing (while still getting 8s or above in everything else). He was a pirate for 6 years, learning battle dress, brawling, demolitions, turret weapons, and zero-g maneuvering. He ended up with 50,000 credits and a "low passage" ticket.

The game begins with the crew on Rhylanor, looking to speak with Trow Backett, an expert on the history of the Ancients. The interface has been generally improved. Instead of a bunch of confusing symbols that you need experience with the game to interpret, you have fairly clear pictures of your 5 characters and their health meters, plus a few icons with clear symbols that lead to a variety of sub-options. Unfortunately, it's almost all mouse-driven. The only keyboard support just mimics a mouse, allowing you arrow through the options, since it clearly would have been too hard to map "search" to the "S" key and "use" to the "U" key and such.
Starting out. Those little dots are my guys.
Also unfortunately, too much depends on color. The character icons on the screen are tiny--even smaller than in the first game, where they were pretty small. You match up their colors with the color of their names at the top of the screen, which is great except I can't tell the difference between the first three. NPCs wandering into the party just confuses things more. Oh, and you can zoom out a couple of levels, which allows you to see more of the city but turns your character icons into single pixels.

The game does a useful thing with the coloring of NPCs. Those who still have something to say to you, or business to conduct with you, appear in green. Those who are just random background appear in white. The green ones turn to white when you're done with them. The contrast is enough that I can tell the difference.
The NPC in the lower-right still has something to say.
I ultimately visited three cities on Rhylanor (though I later reloaded), and all of them had roughly the same layout. They could have been a little smaller--75% of each city (so far) is just non-descript buildings that you can't enter. Each city seems to have a hospital, a library, a weapons shop, a police station, place to create new characters if necessary and train existing ones, a travel agent offering passage to other cities, Travelers' Aid Societies (I'm not a member and it costs 1 million credits to join), a bank, and a place to rent local transport vehicles.

In the first city (Rhylanor Startown), I bought weapons for all the characters who didn't retire with them, plus flak jackets and a medical kit for my doctor.
A wandering NPC sold me a ticket for the planet Fulacin, which is apparently "interdicted." He said I could get more passes to such planets on Jae Tellona.

Eventually, I found Trow Backett standing outside his university (a large and complex building that, for some reason, I couldn't enter). He said that the slime would cover the planet in 7 years, which I suppose gives a time limit of 2,555 days to my quest. He also related that his grandfather was an an expert on the Ancients, and that he himself is a member of the Ancients Collector's Society, a group of rich people who buy Ancients artifacts. He gave me one such artifact, a "Locator," found at a site on Inthe. He also gave me his grandfather's diary and 6 "coynes." Finally, he promised to reward me for new artifacts or news of new sites.
The first major NPC.
The diary lists 10 Ancients sites by letter only--most could refer to several possible planets. But it mentioned two planets by name--Inthe and Lablon--and an NPC named Clieve Senchur who knows more about the "coynes." I don't know where to find him, but one of the Ancients Collector's Society members is named Beckett Senchur, on the planet Enope.
The diary imparts some clues.
I also met another NPC, Lord Hollis, "administrative assistant to Duke Leonard of Rhylanor," who gave me either a side quest or another aspect of the main quest. He thinks the saboteurs who triggered the Ancients site are in league with a larger conspiracy, which has also made moves against the Imperiallines, Tukera Lines, and Naasirka mega-corporations. He asked me try to uncover the conspiracy.

The library helped turn these clues into specific places to visit. I kept track on a notepad of all the planets, cities, and people mentioned. Searching for ANCIENTS COLLECTOR'S SOCIETY gave me a list of all 8 members and their cities. Searching for the names of the mega-corporations victimized by the conspiracy gave me a list of 7 individuals worth speaking with.
The library fills in the game world by offering encyclopedia entries on a variety of topics.
I rented an ATV to explore the rest of the planet, but days passed swiftly as I roamed the surface. Since there's a time limit to the game, it seems like a better approach is to visit specific cities only when you have a reason to be there, and use the travel agent to do that (it's faster and cheaper), renting an ATV or "grav vehicle" only when you must go outside.
We take a look at the slime spreading across the planet.
Miscellaneous notes:

  • I was happy to note that the game offers some basic item descriptions for each piece of equipment--these are still rare in the era. Of course, it would be nice if they had some statistics on the screen, too.
I like when items have in-game textual descriptions.
  • Interior buildings are full of items that look like you ought to be able to interact with them, but the only command to do so is "search," and it never produces anything. Was the point of this whole enormous building just the one NPC in a corner?
I never do.
  • The police station had warrants for a couple of dozen fugitives, but I'm not sure if the locations listed are where they are, or where they're wanted.
This seems to be a good way to make money, but not if you have to search each planet exhaustively for them.
  • Is it just me, or is the main quest sounding a bit like Starflight?
  • Wandering around a city doesn't seem to cause any time to pass. Only messing around outside seems to tick the days away.
  • I wonder if the game records that you've received various pieces of intelligence, or if you can reload after getting some information and save yourself the time. 
  • There's something that looks like a casino in each city, but I can't find the door to get in!
How do you enter this building?
I had hoped to check out a combat for the first entry, but nothing came along during my explorations of Rhylanor. (Partly a good thing, since weapons are confiscated on civilized planets.) So I decided it was time to leave the planet. I had a list of 17 planets and cities to visit for various reasons. Checking a map, I found the closest was Jae Tellona, right next door to Rhylanor. But my only reason to visit there was to buy passes for interdicted planets, and I had no reason to visit any of them yet.

The closest next planet with something to do was Zivije, where one of the Ancients experts lives in Kafka town. That's where I headed. I soon found that buying a ship is far outside my price range (2 million credits vs. the 150,000 I have now), so I went with commercial transport.
Maybe we could work out a timeshare deal?
I bought "low passage," which involves freezing the characters in cryopods and putting them in cargo, but honestly, wouldn't you prefer to travel that way? I'd pay extra if I could go to sleep in Boston and wake up in Los Angeles.
Keep your stewards and fancy cabins. This is how I want to travel.
My funds are already starting to dwindle, so clearly I'm going to have to start making some money to finance these journeys.

Overall, not a bad start to the sequel, but I can already see a way that it could go wrong: if the core gameplay is just a bunch of tedious traveling between planets and walking around hoping to get the next clue, with essentially no character development. By the end of the next session, I should have a sense if that is, in fact, the case.

Time so far: 4 hours

Friday, July 28, 2017

Revisiting: Wizard's Crown (1985)

The title screen establishes Wizard's Crown as a game oriented towards numbers, not graphics.
Wizard's Crown
United States
Strategic Simulations, Inc. (developer and publisher)
Released in 1985 or 1986* for Apple II, Commodore 64, and Atari 8-bit; 1987 for Atari ST and DOS
Date Started:  13 June 2010
Date Ended: 20 July 2017
Total Hours: 51 (includes 10 hours from 2010)
Difficulty: Moderate-Hard (3.5/5), although adjustable on the main screen.
Final Rating: (to come later)
Ranking at Time of Posting: (to come later)
*The copyright on the game is 1985 but the earliest ads I can find are from very early in 1986. MobyGames says 1986; Wikipedia says 1985. It seems likely it was released very close to the turn of the year. It's remaining on my list as a 1985 game until I find something conclusive.

By 1986, Strategic Simulations had already made a splash in the RPG market by publishing Charles Dougherty's Questron (1984) and Winston Wood's Phantasie (1985), but the company was far better known for its detailed wargames, some based on historical battles (e.g., The Battle of Shiloh, The Battle of the Bulge), some fantastical (e.g., The Warp Factor, The Cosmic Balance). Wizard's Crown was the first major effort to unite the two genres; "a role-playing game with tactical combat," as promised by the box.
(1983's Galactic Adventures technically precedes Wizard's Crown in offering detailed tactical combat in an RPG, but it was only published, not developed, by SSI.)

And, boy, was the combat tactical. RPG players used to Ultima or even Wizardry must have been a little baffled. "Enough options to give a migraine to Sun Tzu" is how one reviewer described it. With battles taking up to an hour--and, of course, no guarantee of victory for all that time--I suspect most players used "quick combat" most of the time. Eventually, SSI realized that while RPG players may want tactical combat, they probably don't want to micro-manage which parts of their bodies their shields are covering, and thus adopted a much simpler system for Shard of Spring (1986). It was this less complicated approach that, coupled with Dungeons & Dragons rules, gave us the superb combat systems in more than a dozen Gold Box titles. Wizard's Crown also directly influenced the excellent tactical combat of Disciples of Steel (1991).

Such an important step in RPG evolution deserved more attention than the three short posts I wrote on the game in 2010 (starting here) before giving up because it was too hard. (Honestly, how did I keep any readers back then?) I tried to revisit it last year but got frustrated when Blogger ate my draft. But I always knew I'd give it another shot before attempting its sequel, The Eternal Dagger (1987). This time, I played it on the Apple II, since Dagger was only published for that platform and the Commodore 64.

Wizard's Crown is far more attuned to its strategy/simulation sources than its RPG sources. (I gather from interviews that lead designers Keith Brors and Paul Murray--both of whom went on to Pool of Radiance--both loved tabletop RPGs but came from more of a wargame programming background.) It is minimalist in graphics and sound and heavy on logistics and numbers. Even the title screen is text-only. Success is heavily dependent on developing a couple dozen magic, combat, and adventuring skills, on which you directly spend experience. Instead of just a pool of hit points, there's an injury system and a bleeding system. There's a morale system, an encumbrance system, an ambush system that is influenced by which character you have "on point." Armor doesn't just have an "armor class"; it has separate defensive ratings against each type of attack. This is, in short, a hard-statistics RPG.
The ability to spend experience directly on skills distinguishes Wizard's Crown from typical "level-based" games.
The backstory concerns the Crown of the Emperor, which grants power and wisdom to whoever wears it. For centuries, the Fellowship of Wizards governed the land of Arghan by passing the crown from wizard to wizard every so often--until Tarmon, Wizard of Thunder, refused to give it up. The resulting civil war left the land leaderless, the wizards exiled, and monsters roaming the land. Tarmon locked himself and the crown in his laboratories and was never seen again. Now, one of the old wizards, Kaitar, has convened a group of adventurers to recover the crown and return peace to the land. [Edit: as Tristan Gall points out below, the story owes a lot to Steve Jackson's Sorcery! gamebooks (1983-1985), where the goal is also to retrieve a crown that bestows leadership abilities.]
Later in the game, you find that Tarmon has a different take on the backstory.
The party consists of 8 members drawn from 5 classes: fighter, ranger, thief, mage, and cleric. Each class requires a minimum intelligence between 3 (ranger and thief) and 11 (sorcerer). You can multi-class, but to do so, the character has to have the combined minimum intelligence for both classes; for instance, a sorcerer-thief would require 14. The manual suggests having a character of each class, that only 1 or 2 characters should be non-fighters (I assume it includes multi-class fighters, too), that you should have 2 priests, and that one of them should be a ranger-priest. I'm not sure what the rationale is for that last bit.
Allocating attributes during character creation.
I dumped the default party (I guess a lot of people loot them for their weapons first) and created a new one, using the long names the game allows to remind myself of the character's profession and chosen weapon:

  • 2 fighters: Marek the Slicer and Axe Thaxler
  • 2 fighter-priests: Lyria the Blunt and Florian the Flailer
  • 1 fighter-sorcerer: Paengo Closecutter
  • 1 ranger-priest: Talonias the Thrower
  • 1 thief: Laeu the Lifter
  • 1 sorcerer: Drachmar the Dark

You start with 20 experience points to spend on skills. At the outset, knowing which skills to prize and which are completely useless is difficult. Since there are separate skills for each weapon type, it makes sense to have each character specialize in only one weapon, or perhaps two if you want to fight a lot of tactical combat and switch between melee and missile weapons. (I basically ignored missile weapons for my playthrough.) The game is frank that "Hunt" isn't used in Wizard's Crown, but it doesn't bother to tell you that neither is "Track" or "Treat Disease." I don't think I ever found more than two traps for "Disarm Trap." I was never quite sure what "Combat Awareness" was doing for me. "Shield" seems like an important skill, but later you find that the best weapons are two-handed. And while I understood the uses of "Scan," "Stealth," and "Alchemy" in tactical combat, I was never sure if they made a difference in quick combat.
One of about 5 places were "Read Ancient Writings" is important.
The game starts off easy enough as you try to clear the town itself. There is one side-quest involving rescuing a maiden from some brigands, after which you can visit her family mansion and get some gold and a broadsword +2. Wandering around the town at night continues to provide battles against brigands and thieves for a while, but eventually you clear all of them and get a gold reward from the mayor. From then on, the town is safe to wander around in, and you only have to enter the small wilderness north of town or the ruins south of town to find enemies to fight.
The town offers a temple, an inn, a tavern, and various shops.
From my experience 7 years ago with the DOS version, I remember an extremely sharp difficulty curve once the characters leave town and start exploring the ruins. It was so hard, in fact, that I stopped playing. I was sick of having to reload after 5 out of 6 combats. I didn't encounter that at all with the Apple II version, making me wonder what the difference is.

The game is quite small geographically. The ruins south of town (about 60 x 90 squares) hold exactly three "dungeons": the old thieves' guild, Gozaroth's Mansion, and Tarmon's castle, which are two, three, and six levels respectively. There's also a "dungeon" of sorts inside the city--the Rusty Nail tavern--but there isn't much to do there unless you want to attack people for no reason. If you just explored the dungeons and hit the quest points, you could complete the game in only a few hours.
Approaching Tarmon's Palace in the outdoor ruins.
But the dungeons--particularly the final one--hold nigh-impossible combats that you have to prepare for, which means a lot of grinding. I'd say that at least 80% of the game is grinding. You spend it running back and forth within the ruins, fighting monsters, gaining experience, collecting gold and items, and returning to town to sell your loot and improve your characters. I spread this process out over several months or I would have gone crazy. Every time I thought my characters were pretty damned powerful, I'd head into the ruins, which get more difficult the further south you travel, and get slaughtered by half a dozen gargoyles or a couple of ancient vampires, and realize I still had a long way to go.
My party, who I thought was powerful, meets a group of dragons who show them what "powerful" is.
Given that grinding is so vital to the game, at least it grinds very well. Character development is constant and rewarding. Every battle imparts a dozen or so experience points that you spend directly on your skills--no need to wait for "leveling" as in most RPGs. If you can save 100 of them, you can increase strength, dexterity, or life points by 1. When I first started the game, I thought I'd never even get my primary skills to their maximums, let alone save enough experience to increase attributes. I was wrong about that. By the end of the game, everyone had hit 250 in their primary weapons, 250 in their spellcasting abilities, even 250 in tertiary skills like "luck," and a couple of them hit the dexterity maximum of 30.
Looting items after a battle. A strong "Evaluate Magic" skill helps identify the important stuff.
The equipment and economy systems also play a vital role in character development. You can't buy most of the best equipment: you have to loot it from slain high-level enemies. Magic armor starts at +1 and goes to +5 and occasionally comes in rare "elven," "dwarven," or "reinforcing" varieties. There are also necklaces, bracelets, crowns, rings, and cloaks at various "+" levels that impart various types of protection. Magic weapons come in three varieties: those that have a "+" (up to +5), those that do extra magic damage (proceeding in order through magic, frost, flaming, lightning, and storm), and those with a draining effect (dark, doom, soul, demon, and death). There's even a rank of non-magic but still-cool weapons that goes fine, very fine, sharp, very sharp. And any item can have some extra random enchantment on it that raises a skill or offers special protection. Almost every expedition brought me a new and useful piece of equipment.
A "flaming" weapon does a lot of magic damage in addition to its normal thrusting damage.
Meanwhile, the economy remains relevant throughout the game for two reasons. (Most of your money comes from sale of looted magic items, and the "Haggling" skill is vital.) First, you can spend money on training skills, up to 100. It's a good way to build lesser-used skills to a minimum baseline. More important, a series of mages' shops will increase the level of your magic gear for 50 gold pieces. This will, for example, take your +3 mace to a +4, or increase your flaming sword to a lightning sword. 50 gold pieces is about as much as you can raise in one day of fighting and looting from random enemies, and with so many inventory slots for 8 characters, you really never run out of things to improve.
50 gold pieces turns a +1 great axe into a +2 great axe.
Still, it gets pretty boring after a while, and I'm glad I spread out the gameplay. If I had played this in my normal sequence, instead of over a few months getting ready for this entry, you would have had a succession of about 14 entries describing how I had done a bunch of grinding, improved my characters a little more, and found a chain mail +3. Most of the 40 hours it took me to win the game involved the same sequence of activity: leave the inn for the ruins; wander around fighting random combats and picking up treasures until my priests' karma was all gone or until my inventory slots were full; return to town and visit the temple to restore karma and get everyone healed; visit the tavern to restore morale; equip new items and sell excess items in the market; visit the magic shop and increase the "+" of one or two items; return to the inn, spend my experience, and rest.

The tactical combat system is both a highlight and key problem with Wizard's Crown. Given all the fighting that you have to do, only an utter lunatic would fight every combat on the tactical screen. Even fairly ordinary battles against half a dozen enemies can easily take 20-30 minutes. I would say that a true master of the tactical combat system is more likely to succeed in a given combat than someone using "quick combat"; among other things, you have to use tactical combat if you want to cast particular spells, use potions, swap weapons, or change fighting styles.

However, the edge offered by tactical combat isn't that high. In the time it takes to fight one battle, you could reload and try "quick combat" about 20 times. Given that, it's hard to justify spending the time on tactical combat unless you just really like it. These same considerations govern Roadwar 2000, released the following year.
Tactical combat outdoors. It's tough to keep all the icons straight.
I'm quite curious what's happening behind that "quick combat" screen. I assume it's not simulating the terrain on the tactical map. I have no idea if it really simulates casting spells or just uses your magic ability as a force multiplier. Similarly, I have no idea if it ever simulates actions like "Fall Prone" or "Shield Bash" or sneaking. It does seem to make effective use of skills like "Turn Undead," but it never has priests heal injured characters. As noted before, it never changes weapons or attack styles even if the defaults are ineffective.
"Quick combat" gives you the results much faster.
It would have been nice to have more defaults and quick-key options. Every time you leave camp, for instance (which includes after every battle), you have to specify who takes point and how far away from the party he'll scout. It's almost enraging that you can't just set this as a default. Post-combat healing could also have really benefited from a Gold Box-style "Fix" command.
Post-combat healing. The game uses a complex system of basic and severe bleeding and injuries, in addition to hit points, with a variety of priest "prayers" that cure different conditions.
I never got used to the movement system, which has you press "1" to go north, "2" for northeast, "3" for east, and so on. I realize the Apple II didn't have a keypad or a full set of arrow keys, so there weren't necessarily any better options. It still sucks.

The movement system becomes more of a problem when characters enter dungeons and become individual icons. You can set each character to act independently or to follow a lead character. But "follow" means "crowd around" more than literally "follow," and I found when I tried to move the party en masse, the active character would routinely get blocked and everyone got hopelessly hung up on corners and in narrow corridors.
Half my party failed to round the corner and ended up getting stuck in the water. Meanwhile, when my thief wants to turn around and head back, he's going to have to get those two fighters out of the way first.
The temptation, then, is to leave everyone behind and just roam around with a single active character. But I found that no one character had all the skills I needed. My thief, with his "search" capabilities, was the obvious choice, but inevitably he'd run into a lock he couldn't pick, and I'd have to call up a sorcerer to cast "Unlock" or to make sense of some ancient writing.

Keeping the party split also makes tactical combat nearly impossible, since everyone starts at his or her actual position in the dungeon level. "Quick combat" seems to assume the party is all together when combat begins, although I was never 100% sure about that.
Tactical combat is tough in a dungeon if one character has been doing all the scouting. Most of my party is trapped in an earlier hallway.
One interesting thing about dungeon exploration is that it all occurs on Disk 2, and the game saves your progress there, yet you can only save the party on Disk 1. The odd result is that you might trigger an encounter on Disk 2, lose, reload from Disk 1, and find the encounter not present when you return to the same area. This is positive if the encounter was a difficult battle you didn't want to fight, but it's negative if you were supposed to get an item or a piece of intelligence. Fortunately, the game's main screen allows you to "reset" a dungeon level. This could be abused to reclaim a nice piece of treasure again and again, except that I never found treasure in dungeons that was notably better than the random stuff I got outside.

The dungeon levels tend to be small and easy to explore without mapping. They have frequent textual descriptions of rooms and textual encounters, possibly inspired by SSI's own experiences with Phantasie.
The game mimics a tabletop session with detailed room descriptions as you enter.
A variety of hints, including some ramblings of an old man in a party and/or an encounter with the thieves' guild master, leads the party first to the old thieves' guild. The dungeon is two levels--you have to use a rope to climb from one to the other--and there isn't much to do there except to find an Emerald Key that you need for the rest of the game. You also find a clue where to find a secret area in the next dungeon.
This thief searches a lot more thoroughly than I would.
Gozaroth's Mansion is opened with the Emerald Key and consists of two regular levels and one small one. You follow clues overheard from ghosts to find the three pieces of the Golem Staff, which I carried for the rest of the game but never found out what it did. Ultimately you find the undead Gozaroth, who tells you the password needed to enter Tarmon's Palace (ROBIN) in exchange for one of your priests praying to release his soul.
Meeting Gozaroth in his library.
Tarmon's Palace is six levels and extraordinarily difficult. I kept thinking I was strong enough to make it this time, only to die repeatedly at one of the mandatory combats with various types of demons. It has one type of enemy--"wardpact demons"--who are immune to all but one attack type (bash, cut, and thrust), determined at random for each group. "Quick combat" doesn't cycle these options, so you have to fight them in tactical combat to survive them.
A typical message in Tarmon's fortress.
Level 3 of the palace has a maze of invisible walls and traps, but you can find a map to navigate it on Level 1.
A map helps you figure out where it's safe to walk on an otherwise-blank screen.
Level 4 has a central room with doors in each cardinal direction. Various combinations of opening and closing these doors allow you to progress through the level; fortunately, there's a code key on a pillar on the previous level, but it takes a while to interpret what it's telling you.

The level also has a key textual encounter with the mummy of Melos the Seer, who magically recorded his voice as he died, to be replayed when someone opened the door. He warned me that attacking Tarmon with any magical weapon would result in that weapon being destroyed, and he suggested that I find non-magic versions of my favorite weapons to use against him. (Fortunately, regular weapons drop frequently from most combats.) He also gave me the password (DORVAL) to the demon who guards the Wizard's Crown, and he told me that I could find it in a secret compartment on the floor of Tarmon's laboratory.
The game doesn't have a lot of text, but it occasionally goes overboard.
Level 5 looks like a maze, and I spent an embarrassingly long time running into dead ends before I realized that you can just walk over the ruined walls. It culminates in a huge battle against demons that I kept failing, resulting in yet another few hours spent on grinding.
Level 6 starts with another huge demon battle, followed by a stream that fully heals the party, followed by a block-and-tackle puzzle where you need at least 150 feet of rope (three individual items) to open a secret door. I must have traipsed back and forth between the entrance to the palace and this level 15 times, at first because I couldn't defeat the demons and needed to go back and grind, and then because I had to get more rope.
At least Tarmon doesn't pretend that we "fell into his trap" or something.
Beyond this door is the big fight with Tarmon and a host of demons. First, Tarmon gives you the opportunity to join him, but if you do, he just immediately poisons you.
You know, I think my characters would have been smarter than to drink that wine.
I figured I'd need to fight the battle tactically, since I'd want my magic weapons to kill the demons and my non-magic ones to attack Tarmon. But I couldn't do it. I spent over two hours on a couple of tactical battles that ended in full-party death.
I aim a "Fireball" at a pack of demons in one of my ill-fated attempts to win the battle tactically.
On a lark, I tried "quick combat," and I won on the first try, albeit with 2/3 of my characters' magic weapons destroyed and most of the characters dead. I assume what happened was that my characters broke their weapons against Tarmon and ended up killing him with their fists.

I was able to raise and heal everyone but I hardly had any karma (priest spell points) left when I was finished. I retrieved the Crown from the next room and had my sorcerer wear it (it has some pretty good stats), and began the long process of retracing my steps through the fortress and to the exit.
My thief finds the crown.
All was fine until I reached the entryway on Level 1, and demons burst out of statues and attacked. Although I was victorious, I didn't have enough karma left to heal everyone. I had to use bandages and my ranger's "First Aid" skill just to stop the bleeding (if you leave camp with characters still bleeding, they automatically die). I hoped my party would be unmolested returning to town.
This was not a nice surprise.
Ha. In fact, once you have the wizard's crown in your possession, there's about a 50/50 chance of a random combat every step through the ruins. I didn't stand a chance. I ultimately had to adopt the strategy of saving with every step that didn't result in a combat and reloading when it did. I eventually made my way to a temple about 40 steps away. (Resting at temples restores karma points to priests.) There, I was able to get everyone healed and mince my way through vampires, dragons, skeletons, demons, hell hounds, goblins, scorpions, bandits, giant spiders, adventurers, and so forth to the exit.

Upon reaching the end, I got a series of screens imparting the following in text only:
As you walk through the gate, Kaitar meets you with a wide smile and watery eyes. He speaks to you with eloquent pride: "You have fared well, mighty adventurers. You have returned with the treasure we have so long awaited."

Kaitar turns and shouts to the air. "Behold! The crown has returned, bought through the skill and courage of these adventurers!" From nowhere, the wizards of the fellowship appear and gather in a circle about Kaitar. The crystal in the crown glows brightly. "These gallant souls have rescued the crown from evil and chaos. Its power will once again guide the fellowship in wisdom and truth. Such a gift cannot be matched, but we must attempt to show our gratitude to these honored friends. Therefore, let us join hands and cast the enchantment of champions!"

With that, the wizards form a circle around your party. As they link hands, they begin to chant. The light from the crown pulses with the rhythm. Almost, you can understand the words. Visions of great deeds fill your mind and you see yourself performing these deeds. A sense of power comes to you. Nothing can stop you! Finally the chant stops and the visions fade...but the sense of power remains.

Kaitar takes the crown from you and gently, slowly places it on his head. As he rejoins the circle, he looks at you and says, "I see many more adventures for you and your companions. For myself and the fellowship, we thank you once more. Now we must begin the rebuilding of Arghan."

Once more, the fellowship begins to chant. Slowly, the circle fades. The last thing seen is the crown of the emperor, then all is gone. You and your friends turn and enter the inn.
The "enchantment of champions" raised everyone's strength and dexterity by 6 and life by 30. The game saved the party for use with The Eternal Dagger and allowed me to continue playing. I feel like the party members are so overpowered at this point that I can only expect that the sequel will find a way to take them down a notch.
You don't have many screens in the typical RPG where the developers speak directly to the players.
In 2010, not having played much beyond the town, I gave it a GIMLET of 32. Let's see how it does today:
  • 3 points for the game world. The setup is decent enough and the world, though small, shows an internal consistency. There just isn't much in it.
  • 6 points for character creation and development. This is clearly the high point of the game. The game gives you a lot of leeway with party composition and the way you develop their skills and abilities.
  • 2 points for NPC interaction. There are only a handful of them, and they're more "encounters" than NPCs, but they do tell you important things about the game world. 
An old man who tells hint-filled stories in the park sort-of serves as an NPC.
  • 4 points for encounters and foes. The game's bestiary is just D&D standard, but it still does a good job with their special attacks and defenses. One of my criteria here is "areas respawn," allowing for grinding, and that's certainly true. Unfortunately, there are only a couple of puzzles and no role-playing encounters.
  • 5 points for magic and combat. Wizard's Crown errs on the side of making tactical combat too complicated, while quick combat is mostly just boring. The spell list isn't very long or impressive, with almost nothing except light spells and "Unlock" useful out of combat.
Fighting tactical combat as rarely as I did, I didn't really explore the nuances of all these spells.
  • 6 points for equipment. With so many characters and so many different options per character (weapons, shields, armor, headgear, bracelets, necklaces, cloaks, potions), you're constantly finding item upgrades. The best stuff is randomly distributed, and you can pay to improve it.
My fighter's equipment list towards the end of the game.
  • 6 points for economy. It's not very complicated, but there's an extraordinarily useful money sink.
  • 3 points for the quest. There's one main quest and a quasi-side quest early in the game. No options or role-playing choices, though.
An early "side quest." It's too bad there aren't more of these.
  • 1 point for graphics, sound, and interface. Easily the lowest point of the game. They didn't even try on graphics--no title screen graphic, no winning graphic, and bland icons and environments along the way. The Apple II version doesn't even have sound. And I covered issues with the interface above. (The Atari ST version, released in 1987, does have a title graphic, better iconography, and some in-game sound effects and would get another 2 points here.)
  • 2 points for gameplay. Despite its strengths, in the end the game is a bit too long, too linear, and too hard, requiring far too much grinding. I should add, though, that I didn't experiment with the difficulty slider on the main screen. Perhaps "4" or "5" would have produced a shorter, less grindy game.

This gives us a final score of 38, 6 points higher than I rated it in 2010. This feels better. It still ranks lower than Phantasie, which it should, but a notch above The Bard's Tale. It would be a nominee for "Game of the Year," but this was the same year as Ultima IV, so it didn't really stand a chance there. I did, however, correct a longstanding deficiency by adding Wizard's Crown to my "must play" list. You absolutely need to experience this game to understand the SSI games that followed, including the Gold Box series.
An early promotion advertises Wizard's Crown next to Rings of Zilfin (1986). The two games couldn't be more different in their approaches to role-playing, character development, and combat.
Scorpia's review from the September-October 1986 Computer Gaming World concludes that it is "recommended, although a little less hack and a little more puzzle would have been better." She also notes the lack of meaningful NPC interaction, and she has some of the same comments that I do about tactical combat versus "quick combat." Still, I was surprised that she didn't make more of the sheer complexity of the tactical combat; then again, she does mention the earlier Galactic Adventures (1983), and perhaps she was more versed than I am in the strategy side of SSI's portfolio.

The August 1986 Compute! called Wizard's Crown "the most unusual fantasy game to hit the market in some time," and warned that it was much more difficult than SSI's other offerings, coming "very close in flavor to the actual Dungeons and Dragons role-playing game." You couldn't imagine a better review for SSI to have in hand when, hoping to acquire the license to design D&D games, they pitched themselves to TSR the following year.
Resting at the inn, my party prepares to enter the sequel.
I'm glad to finally convert this to a "Y" in the "Won?" column, but I mostly did all this to set the stage for the sequel, The Eternal Dagger, which I understand plays mostly the same but keeps the party to one icon, even in dungeons. I was going to jump right to it, but I probably need a few days off from this kind of gameplay, so let's get started on MegaTraveller II first.


Further reading: Read about the titles directly influenced by Wizard's Crown, including Shard of Spring (1986), Roadwar 2000 (1986), Pool of Radiance (1988; the first Gold Box game), Disciples of Steel (1991), and of course its own sequel, The Eternal Dagger (1987).