Heroes of Might and Magic is a long running series of turn based strategy games initially published in 1995, with new games being developed to the present day. The first in the series Heroes of Might and Magic: A Strategic Quest (better known simply as Heroes of Might and Magic I or HoMM 1) was developed by New World Computing as a spinoff to their Might and Magic roleplaying games. Although rough around the edges, it is the game that established the genre rules that would be used for all of its sequels and clones.
In Heroes of Might and Magic I there are four factions that you can play as: Knight, Barbarian, Sorceress and Warlock (represented in the campaign as Lord Ironfist, Lord Slayer, Queen Lamanda and Lord Alamar respectively). Each faction has a unique starting castle with its own roster of troops. Furthermore each of the Hero types belonging to the faction have their own specialities. Knights and Barbarians, for example, are ‘Might’ Heroes – meaning that their Attack and Defence stats are comparatively higher (Knights tend to have better Defence while Barbarians are better with Attack). Contrastingly the Sorceress and Warlock are ‘Magic’ Heroes with higher Knowledge and Spellpower (Sorceresses have higher Knowledge and thus more spells to cast while Warlocks have more Spellpower and as a result stronger magic). Your choice of faction has only an effect on the early game; any Hero type may be recruited at your castle and any unit can be recruited (and mixed into your army) so long as you capture another type of castle.
The game rules are rather simple. Each player starts with one castle and one Hero of their chosen faction. Castles may construct one building per day and recruit troops from recruitment buildings (additional troops are available at the start of every week). Units, frequently known in the Heroes of Might and Magic games as ‘creatures’, will remain as a castle’s garrison unless assigned to a Hero to lead them. Heroes can move across the world map: claiming mines (which provide a set amount of resources per day), gathering treasures and fighting enemy Heroes. Through combat or specific interactions on the map (treasure chests and gazebos both can give experience) Heroes will level up, granting them a random stat – with a slight priority towards their preferred stat mentioned earlier. Once you end your turn a day passes and all Heroes’ movement points are once again replenished. Victory is achieved by the last man standing, and Heroes will abandon your cause after a week of losing your last castle.
Combat is initiated between Heroes, approaching a neutral army camp or laying siege to a castle. It is still turn based, with a hex based battlefield. Depending on who instigated the battle, the attacking army is positioned on the left while the defenders are on the right. Initiative is based on creature speed, alternating turns if both sides have units with the same speed (the first move is always given to the attacker provided that the defender doesn’t have a faster creature). A round of battle is over after the slowest creature has done its turn at which point initiative loops back to the fastest unit, prioritising the attackers once again. Although Heroes do not directly engage on the battlefield, once per round they may cast a spell during any of their creatures’ turn. These range from blinding an enemy unit (thus skipping its turn) to casting Armageddon and dealing heavy damage to every creature on the field. Artefacts that may be found on the world map may increase the chance of good morale (randomly granting a creature an extra turn) or good luck (creatures will randomly deal double damage). Additionally any attack and defence that a Hero has is added to all of their creatures’ stats.
In Heroes of Might and Magic armies are represented by one sprite, with a number underneath them indicating how many of that creature are in that army. When that creature attacks its damage is therefore multiplied by however many are in the stack (although creatures have a damage range, which is only fixed when they are blessed or cursed). With a few notable exceptions (Sprites, Rogues and Hydra evade retaliation), a defending creature will strike back against the first creature that attacks them. On a more defensive level, if the creature’s hit points drop to 0 they lose one unit from their stack – potentially more if a creature has low hitpoints and has been hit for high damage. If the last creature in a stack dies it disappears from the battlefield in a cloud of blood.
Although the ancestor of all Heroes of Might and Magic games, HoMM 1 unfortunately doesn’t stand the test of time. Many of these issues stem from the combat system rather than the overworld. Although the battlefield is based on hexes, there is no easy way of distinguishing where they are. This means that calculating creature movement (and in the case of creatures that occupy two hexes it includes positioning) is an ambiguous process which is mostly learned through trial and error. Balance also leaves much to be desired, primarily in castle sieges. Since neither side may pass the walls until the catapult destroys them (which may take several rounds of combat), armies comprised of ‘walkers’ fare significantly worse than ranged or flying armies – Sorceress armies are queens of siege warfare. This may have been more of an issue if the AI wasn’t so mediocre. There were countless moments where an AI Hero would cast blind on a high priority creature, only to immediately attack it and remove the debuff. Again, this would not be as significant if multiplayer was a viable alternative but, although there are both hotseat and network options, due to faction choice being randomised for skirmish maps this brings the balance issue forth once more.
That’s not to say the entire game is abysmal. As mentioned at the beginning, Heroes of Might and Magic I establishes many of the fundamental concepts that would become commonplace in the series. The world map, aside from receiving graphical updates, remained relatively unchanged all the way up to the present games. The short text adventures that your Heroes come across while interacting with artefacts and other buildings add a very light but much appreciated roleplaying segment to the game. Although some of the graphics are disappointing, many of the faction creature concept owe their thanks to HoMM 1 – being rather unchanged for years. The Hero portraits in particular would resurface once again for the sequel (Sandro becoming one of the most infamous Heroes present in almost every game henceforth), most of them needing only a little touch up. Finally, credit should also be given to Paul Romero and Rob King for their amazing music, setting the precedent for future games to have their own inspiring themes for each faction and terrain tileset.
Ultimately although it may never hold the title of being the best of the series, Heroes of Might and Magic I was the inspiring spark that launched a franchise and for that it will forever hold our respect. The retrospective continues with Heroes of Might and Magic II: The Succession Wars.