What a fantastic game. About a year ago the Brainy Gamer recommended Might & Magic: Clash of Heroes. Ever since, I've kept an eye out for this game. After a sweet Gamestop Black Friday deal and 42 game hours later, I find myself writing this glowing review. For a pretty good general review of the game, check out this video by Co-op. The official website also explains the basics well.
The best part of Might & Magic: Clash of Heroes (CoH) is the depth/balance of the combat. Then there's the variation/coverage of the design space and the presentation (story, sound, visuals).
You should know by now what a big puzzle game fan I am. I've heard that CoH is an evolution of Capy's previous title Critter Crunch. It seems like the pickup-place mechanic, the vertical lanes, and the matching of colored units are the three main features that carried over. Though I've already stated that "the difference between a puzzle challenge and a normal gameplay challenge is hazy and flexible at best," I feel that CoH's gameplay is more strategy than puzzle. Because there's so much interplay to each battle, you'll spend more time responding to your opponent than executing some kind of optimized one-sided attack.
The combat is turn based. Unlike Advance Wars where players can move/attack with all their units on the map in one turn, in Clash of Heroes players are restricted to 3 moves per turn. Breaking a wall, summoning more units, deleting a unit, and moving a unit each take a turn. Turn based gameplay is great for creating very clear interplay. Anticipating being helpless on the opponent's turn helps focus players into thinking strategically. From Chess to Advance Wars, setting the tempo is a great way of pressing one's advantage. If you can force your opponent to constantly respond to your moves, you can control the battle.
Each turn is defined by a limited set of moves the player can make. Interestingly, by creating chains (when units "fall" into place making formations) more moves are earned. This design feature naturally creates a balance between making simple formations now, or setting up the field for big chains later. The more turns/moves you use to set up formations, the longer you delay your offenses and defenses. Furthermore, the longer you wait, the opponent gets more time to execute a counter strategy or set the tempo. Remember, CoH is a game of open information. All of your moves are visible to the opponent.
Skill based turn sizes help add variation of strategy and of battle tempo. But the charge design feature pushes the depth, variation, and spatial dynamics to the next level. Attacks are made by creating formations. All formations charge at least one turn before launching. Generally, the longer a unit charges the more powerful their attack. As a unit charges, it builds HP (which is both offensive and defensive like in Advance Wars). This charge design is beyond genius. By charging a unit you make a very clear statement to the opponent like "HERE I COME!... in 2 turns," or "block this or perish." Because you can't move or cancel a charging unit in anyway, both players know that in X amount of turns, that unit will attack.
See how the big blue knights are charging? Both will launch in 4 turns.
To stop a charge, you can do many things. You can build walls in front of it, put units in its path to absorb some of the damage when it does attack, or attack it to weaken and possibly kill it. Smart player can use incoming attacks to destroy walls/units in order to free up space or help create chains. Because you can see charging attacks coming from as far away as 6 turns, you can very precisely plan out a counter strategy that thinks 6 turns ahead.
The core dynamics are space (arranged in an 8x6 field per player) and decay. The reason Chess is deep is because of the turn based design, variety of movement/capture ability for units, and the slippery slope of decay as units are gradually removed from the game. In Clash of Heroes moves and space decay. If you turtle up and build a bunch of walls, you may be safe from attacks for a few turns, but you'll also have very little space to work with. If you have too many units charging (always in vertical formations), you might not have enough units/space left to do anything until they attack. Or your field may be too lumpy to make horizontal formations to create walls. Chains that give you 2+ extra moves can only be made by linking vertical (attacking) and horizontal (walls) formations. This means, if you try to set up complex chains to increase your moves, you'll also create walls that will limit the space/unit resources. In a dynamic game, everything is give and take.
Another resource is your unit count. Each wall, idle unit, or charging unit on your field counts as a unit. When units attack, are killed, or are deleted your reinforcement unit count goes up. Every few turns, you'll have to summon units back into you side of the field. Hit the button, and random units will rush into the field. This element of randomness forces player to adapt just like in many puzzle challenge modes of many puzzle games (Tetris, Planet Puzzle League, Boxlife, Precipice, etc). There are ways to influence the random arrangements. Because a random unit will never fill in and create a formation, and a unit cannot fill in where there isn't room (in a particular column) you can set up the field and hedge your bets.
Layer on top of this system character Spell attacks and artifacts (items that augment player abilities). The MP gauge is like the CO meter in Advance Wars (up through Dual Strike). The meter is filled when you attack and when you get attacked (weighted to benefit offensive players). These features add more variety, depth, and punctuation to the combat. As far as Sid Meier's thoughts go on how good games are "a series of interesting choices" the dynamics, the layers, and the interplay of CoH's combat make all decisions potentially good or bad, but certainly interesting.
Seeing and hearing is believing. This is a video (with commentary) I made using my cellphone of a quick battle.
In part 2, I'll cover the variation of gameplay elements and end touching on the elements that could use repair.