Game 35: Wilderness Campaign (1979)

From CRPG Adventures

The manual cover

Just under four years ago I posted about Dungeon Campaign, the first game from Robert Clardy. It was a decent (for 1978) maze exploration RPG, where the player controls a large party of adventurers trying to escape the dungeon alive while loading up with as much treasure as possible.  One year later, in 1979, Clardy and Synergistic Software released his follow-up, Wilderness Campaign. I’m playing this on an Apple II emulator, and as far as I can tell the Apple II was the only platform that this game was ever released on.

A look at the manual gives the following backstory: the once-great kingdom of Draconia has been reduced to poverty and decay due to the influence of the Great Necromancer, who seized power ten years ago. The goal of the game is to lead a small band of men to organise the Necromancer’s overthrow. It’s boilerplate stuff, but looking back at the CRPGs I’ve played for the blog, I was surprised to see that this is the first one with a “kill the wizard” plot. Literally every other game before this has been a treasure hunt of some sort (even the sci-fi game Space was about amassing wealth). So it’s not just the adventure games that have been recycling the same goal over and over again.
While I’m on the topic of firsts, this is also the first CRPG on the blog that takes place in an expansive wilderness. Only two other CRPGs (of the thirteen I’ve played) before this even take place outside of a dungeon: Space and Sword & Sorcery. I’d hardly qualify the galaxy of Space as a wilderness, and while Sword & Sorcery takes place in a succession of forest arenas, those are randomised and quite restrictive. Wilderness Campaign has a map that remains the same every time you play, and Draconia has a decent claim on being the first “world” (“land” would probably be more accurate) depicted in a CRPG.
The title screen (a big step down from Dungeon Campaign’s epic dragon)

As with Dungeon Campaign, you are in control of a band of adventurers rather than a single character. When the game begins, you have 10 fighters. All of them are unarmed and unarmored, but they’re carrying around 1,000 gold coins and a small supply of food. The first goal is to make it to a village to buy some supplies, and after that to find enough treasure to hire and equip an army large enough to defeat the Great Necromancer’s forces. The manual recommends that you have 50 to 75 well-armed fighters before tackling the end battle (although I was able to beat it with a smaller force than that).

Mercenaries can be hired at any of the villages dotted about the land, but you have to pay them on a regular basis, and they come with no weapons or armor.  The number of mercenaries you can hire varies depending on how much gold you offer to pay them. Offering them a high amount will attract more troops to your cause, but if you don’t have enough money when payday rolls around they will abandon you instantly. Far more reliable are the soldiers that can be found at the castles. Sometimes when you visit a castle, the lord will give you some of his troops, as well as a donation of gold. These troops never abandon you, and come equipped with weapons and armour of the highest strength. Unfortunately, some castles are empty ruins, so you can’t always rely on getting enough of these soldiers to beat the game.

In addition to your army, a magical weapon is required to penetrate the barrier around the Necromancer’s fortress. This is also mentioned in the manual, which says that it can be found in the Sanctuary of the White Mage. You can stumble across the Sanctuary while exploring, or an agent of the White Mage known as the Oracle might show up and direct you. I never found it by accident, as the difficulties of wilderness travel and food consumption stopped me from doing much wandering at random. Eventually though, the Oracle appears, and the location of the Sanctuary will flash on the screen for a short time, giving you it’s location.  Once you find the Sanctuary, the White Mage offers you a choice of two magic items. Two of those on offer (the Staff of Power and the Lightningrod) can destroy the barrier and allow you to attack the Necromancer’s fortress.

The map of Draconia. The various villages, castles and dungeons are
placed randomly at the start of each game.

Getting about the wilderness presents a number of difficulties, depending upon the terrain.  Draconia has five distinct areas: the Plains to the south-east, the Swamp to the west, the Jungle north of those, the Mountains that cut across the map even further north, and the Desert beyond. (The Necromancer’s fortress is in the far north-west.) The plains are the quickest to traverse, while the mountains, swamps and jungles take more time.  Each of these terrains has monsters that are unique to that area: Sand Serpents, Stingwings and Ghouls in the Desert; Orcs, Cyclops and Rocs in the Mountains; Gorgons, Dragons and Werewolves in the Jungle; and Allosaurs, Pterodactyls and Lycanthropes in the Swamp (the manual doesn’t note any monsters unique to the Plains).

Combat involves trading attack and defense round after round, using a formula that I don’t entirely understand. First strike is probably affected by your Speed score.  Weapon and armour types (each ranked from 1 to 5 in strength) are definitely factored in, as are your Strength score and experience (which goes up the more fights you win). Various other factors grant bonuses: positioning (one of your combat options involves getting into a more advantageous position), attack and defense spells, and using the appropriate weapon for your foe (bows and spears against flying enemies, crosses and holy water against Vampires, etc.). All of this is modified by a Luck roll which flashes on the screen until you stop it by hitting the Space bar. The numbers flash by too fast for any skill to come into it. Once I was decently equipped I found that combat was easy, with most rounds going by with no casualties, but occasionally the enemy would cast an Evil Spell that raised their attack total just high enough to kill one or two of my guys. The most annoying part was that I never seemed able to kill more than about half of my remaining foes, even when I overwhelmingly outnumbered the enemy.  It’s all fairly simplistic, and tactically speaking there aren’t any decisions to make except whether to reposition for advantage or flee when things start turning against you. Thankfully the combat isn’t too difficult once you’re well-equipped, and it goes by pretty quickly.

In addition to random encounters with monsters, there are environmental hazards that can block your path, such as gorges, bogs, cliffs, and overgrown areas. To get past these you require at least one of the necessary item (such as an inflatable raft to traverse the bog, a wooden plank to get over the crevasse, rope to climb the cliff, a machete to cut through trees, etc.). These can be purchased at the villages markets. If you don’t have one, there’s nothing else to do but backtrack and try to find a path around. A couple of times I got stuck in areas that I couldn’t escape from (particularly when leaving a castle), so it’s a good idea to load up with these items as early as possible. Each village only sell a limited selection of gear, so you have to visit a few before you can buy everything you need.

Blocked by some brambles. Note the pointless Yes/No question; you can
answer Y as often as you like, but you’re not getting past
without the right gear.

There are also dangers such as avalanches and wildfires which can kill your men. Casualties are determined by a combination of your Dexterity score and a random roll. Most of the time I was able to get through these without losing anybody, but every now and then they would kill one or two of my men. For the most part this was merely an annoyance, but when I you’re carrying a full load of equipment losing one or two men becomes one of the most infuriating parts of the game. More on encumbrance later.

Treasure is mostly found by exploring temples, tombs, ruins and abandoned castles. The type of structure being explored doesn’t seem to make much of a difference, although I suspect that different types of monsters may be encountered in each.  A light source of some kind, such as a torch or a lantern, is required to enter most of these places.  Treasure is sometimes guarded by monsters, but can also be found unguarded.  Eventually you will explore all of the safe areas in the dungeon, and every round spent searching will have a chance that you are caught in some kind of a trap or hazard, which works much the same as those in the wilderness.  Once you leave one of these dungeons it closes up behind you, so you can’t keep raiding the same one over and over again. This means that you can’t keep raiding those dungeons that are close to the villages, forcing you to go further afield as the game progresses.

Treasure comes in gold, silver and copper coins. One gold coin is equal to 10 silver and 100 copper.  There are also magic items to be found. The most useful of these is the crystal ball, which warns you of nearby monsters and allows you to flee before entering combat. The magic rug is another great one, allowing you to move to anywhere on the map without worrying about hazards, obstacles or resources, but it can only be used once.  There’s also a magic lamp and a magic ring, each of which allows you to choose one of three stats you’d like to raise (Strength, Dexterity, Speed, Charisma or Experience). All of these items can be destroyed by hazards such as wildfire or avalanches. You can also find Attack and Defense spells, which I think are always active once they’re in your inventory, or at least that’s what the game told me when I tried to use one before a combat.

Getting treasure is easy, but keeping it is another matter entirely. Not only do you have to use it to feed, pay and equip your troops, but you also need to be able to carry the stuff. Encumbrance is by far the most important, and irritating, factor in the game. Thankfully you can hire porters in any of the villages, in much the same manner that you hire mercenaries. They can still die in combat though, or from other various dangers.  And when you’re loaded up after a dungeon expedition and trying to haul your treasure back to the nearest village, there’s nothing more aggravating than losing a couple of guys in a skirmish, or a wildfire, or to starvation. Every single death means you have to drop some gear. Obviously the copper and silver coins will be the first to go, but I spent far too much time in this game staring at my inventory screen, agonising over what to leave behind.

The most hated screen in the game

I never was quite able to master the balance of resource management in this game. I was lucky enough, however, to fluke a win on my third attempt. There were three castles on the map, and all of them had friendly lords who bolstered me with loyal, well-equipped troops. With a mere 35 soldiers, I took my chances attacking the Necromancer’s fortress, and was successful. Alas, I forgot to take a screenshot, so I only managed to grab the final victory screen.

I really should have typed a message at the prompt as
proof of a legitimate victory

Feeling a little unsatisfied I tried to win again, and I never managed it. Every time I found myself battling against the game’s resource economy, never having quite enough gold to feed my troops, hire a large army, and get around the map without starving to death. I also had games where I had a lot of trouble finding the Great Sanctuary; you get a general sense of where it is when its location flashes up on the map, but finding the exact spot where it is can still be frustrating. In general I found getting around the map, and navigating the obstacles and hazards, to be a laborious process.

The Oracle shows me the location of the Sanctuary: in the mountains
east of the Necromancer’s fortress

The Necromancer’s fortress is situated in the far north-west, and once you have one of the items from the Sanctuary you can go there whenever you feel you’re strong enough.  The final battle is with around 50 or 60 of the Necromancer’s troops, who have decent weapons, but I’ve never seen them with weapons and armor of the highest level.  The first time I fought against them, with 35 soldiers equipped with the very best gear, I made very quick work of them.  The second time I got there with only nine guys, and did not go so well.

The combat screen, upon which the Necromancer’s
army is about to kick my arse.

Once you’ve beaten these soldiers you get a screen telling you that you’ve killed the Necromancer, and then another that says you won before dumping you back to the prompt. It’s all very perfunctory, but that was how all games ended in those days.

I nicked this screenshot from Chester.

Final Rating

Story and Setting: It’s tempting to give this game some bonus points for originality here. The story is a simple “kill that evil wizard over yonder” plot, but at least in CRPGs there’s a chance that it might be the first “kill that wizard” plot.  The land of Draconia is little more than a wilderness map, backed up by the scantest amount of lore, but it might the first wilderness map in a CRPG. In the end, I still had to go with the minimum score, as the content here is still very basic. There’s a category for innovation down below, after all. Rating: 1 out of 7.

Characters and Monsters: There are no characters of note in this game; the Necromancer is little more than a name, and the lords of the various castles are also non-entities.  There’s a good selection of monsters to be found, but none of them are appreciably different in combat.  Some of them are vulnerable to specific types of weapons (i.e. Vampires and holy water) but I never noticed that it made much of a difference. Rating: 2 out of 7.

Aesthetics: The Apple had some of the prettiest graphics of its day, but when you’re talking about 1979 that doesn’t count for much. The wilderness map is well drawn, but little more than serviceable, and the rest of the game is nothing more than drab grey and black menu screens. There’s no music, and the sound effects are simple beeps that had me reaching for the mute key (although the squidgy noise when you destroy the Necromancer’s barrier is pretty good). Rating: 1 out of 7.

Mechanics: The combat is rudimentary, and the process of exploration is frustrating, but those aren’t the core of the game. The real core of Wilderness Campaign is all of those fiddly little things that most Dungeons & Dragons tabletop games ignore: encumbrance, rations, and equipment. Wilderness Campaign is a game of logistics, and on that score it does pretty well, with a decent number of systems that balance well against each other. Yes, it can be frustrating, but it’s rarely unfair. I am going to dock it a point for those times when I got trapped in an inescapable part of the map, though. Rating: 3 out of 7.

Challenge: I’ve mentioned before that this game can be aggravating, but I think a lot of that comes down to the fact that I have little patience for these types of games. Give me a dungeon to map, and I’ll be at it for painstaking hours. Give me logistics to manage, and my eyes glaze over. Checking over at The CRPG Addict, I see that Chester found this game to be pretty easy, confirming that as a gamer and a blogger I’ll be forever in his shadow. Overall, I’d say that the game is pretty well balanced: combat becomes easy in short order, but the process of building up an army to take on the final boss is something I found pretty hard – in about ten attempts, I managed it once. Sounds about right to me. Rating: 5 out of 7.

Innovation and Influence: The plot and setting elements are innovative, albeit in a very minor way that probably shouldn’t influence this score. The gameplay is moreso, being one of the earliest examples of a CRPG that gives you command of an army, and the logistical challenges that entails. As for influence, it’s difficult to say. It bears little resemblance to what CRPGs will look like going forward, and any influence it might have had was probably more focused on strategy games. (I’ll leave the question of whether Wilderness Campaign itself qualifies as a CRPG alone.)  Rating: 3 out of 7.

Fun: Despite finding various aspects of the game annoying, I’ve had more fun with this than some of the more recent games I’ve played. Just now I had another crack at it in the middle of writing this post, which ended when I assaulted the Necromancer’s fortress with an army not quite strong enough to prevail. If only it was just a little more forgiving with encumbrance, and featured slightly fewer environmental obstacles, with one or two more ways to influence combat… It’s almost there, but I can’t in good conscience rate it higher that Temple of Apshai. Rating: 3 out of 7.

The above scores total 18, which doubled gives a score of 36. Normally this is where I would award the coveted Bonus Point, but I’m amending that as described below:

The Bonus Point (Amendment): The bonus point is for games that I would happily play again.  I’ve been awarding it before doubling the score (which I realise is a worthless conceit just so that I can have scores out of 100 rather than 50, but I’m still sticking with it because I like it better).  From now on, I’ll be awarding the point after doubling the score.  A game will get 1 point if I can maybe see myself playing it again in the future.  It will get 2 points if I can definitely, absolutely, 100% see myself playing it again in the future.  This should give a little bit more variation in the scores on the list, and open it up to actually having odd numbers. I won’t be going back to change any of the previous games I’ve rated; if I open up that floodgate I’ll end up changing all of my ratings, and I’d rather not do that.  I’m aware that CRPGs in general have more replayability than adventure games, and are more likely to get the bonus point, but guess what? I don’t care. CRPGs rule, you guys.

Anyway, Wilderness Campaign gets the double – 2 bonus points! I will absolutely give it another shot in the future, if only because I feel like I fluked the one win I got.  That gives it a Final Rating of 38 – equal 13th overall and 8th out of 14 CRPGs. It’s sitting right on the line separating the games I enjoyed from the ones I didn’t: Sword & Sorcery is just above it on 40 points, and Moria is just below it on 36.

NEXT: Something called Battlestar, which seems to be an adventure/exploration game based on the Battlestar Galactica TV show. Much to my dismay it’s a mainframe game, which could make it a long one. Hopefully it’s more Sword & Sorcery, and less Moria. I see that Renga in Blue knocked it off in four posts, which is somewhat heartening.

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