Warlock: Master of the Arcane is a fantasy-themed 4X (explore, expand, exploit, exterminate) game set in the world of Ardania. It was developed by Ino-Co Plus, which was also responsible for the Majesty 2 games (but not the so-so Defenders of Ardania tower defense title, which was developed by Most Wanted Entertainment). In Warlock, after the Great King disappears for 74 years, the gods decree that the Great Mages must duke it out to see who will take control of the land, and so it's up to you, playing as a pre-generated or custom-made Great Mage, to lead your faction to victory.
If you've never played a 4X game, then here's basically what you do (in Warlock or any of the others): starting with a single town, you build up your economy so you can support an army, you use that army to explore the world around you so you can settle new towns or capture existing towns, and you use research, diplomacy and military might to put your faction in a position where it can win the game. Most 4X games give you various avenues to victory, but in Warlock you pretty much have to crush your enemies, and so for it the battles are the most important component of the game.
When you start a game of Warlock, you'll have to pick your Great Mage. This is an overseer character. It can cast spells, and it might give your faction some passive bonuses (such as extra gold or food each turn), but it doesn't actually take the field for you. The game comes with some pre-generated characters that you can use, or you can create your own by spending a handful of points on spells and perks.
Next up you'll need to choose the race of your faction. Warlock comes with three factions: humans (warriors, rangers, clerics and more), monsters (ratmen, werewolves, trolls and more), and the undead (zombies, vampires, ghosts and more). If you've played the Majesty 2 games, then these creatures should be familiar. But during the game you can capture and develop cities belonging to other races, and so regardless of the race you start with, you'll probably end up using creatures from all three.
Finally, before you can start your game, you'll need to set some parameters for the world. Each game of Warlock uses a random map, and you can set things like the size of the map, how much water there will be, how many opposing Great Mages you'll face, how many portals to alternate planes (where you'll find good rewards but tough enemies) you'll find, and whether the world will be "cylindrical" (where the western side of the map connects to the eastern side) or "flat" (where it doesn't). You'll also need to set a difficulty, from "relaxed" to "impossible."
Once you're in the game, you'll find that Warlock, like most 4X games, is turn-based. On your turn, you might build a structure in a city, move your armies and perhaps attack something, research a spell, and/or cast a spell. There is also a diplomacy screen where you can negotiate with your rival Great Mages, but it is fairly basic, and mostly it's just where your opponents will declare war on you.
The world in Warlock uses a hexagonal grid. Each town starts with a castle on one hexagon, and it gains influence over the five hexagons surrounding it. Then as the city grows in population, it gains influence over at most two more "circles" of hexagons around it, and you'll be allowed to place building on these hexagons. Some hexagons in the world allow for special buildings (such as mines on gold veins and temples on holy ground), so you'll have to plan ahead when creating your cities to maximize their potential and also make sure that they won't overlap too much. The buildings you place can't be attacked (except for defensive structures like forts), and so enemies have to attack the starting castle to capture the city.
You're given lots of options when putting together a city. Each faction has 30 or more buildings available to it, many of which (like farms) can be repeated, but each city tops out somewhere around 15 buildings total. Plus, there are hierarchies to the troop and economic buildings, where the best buildings have numerous prerequisites that need to be filled before you can use them. That means you have to plan ahead what you want each city to do, and you're better off specializing them rather than trying to have each one be a jack of all trades. For example, for the human faction, you might place down a marketplace (+4 gold per turn), which grants access to a tax office (+50% gold), which grants access to a mint (+100% gold), which grants access to a treasure house (another +100% gold). If you put this town in range of a silver mine (+6 gold per turn) or a gold mine (+12 gold per turn) or a gem mine (+20 gold per turn), then that one city might be able to supply your faction with a good chunk of the gold that it needs, and allow your other cities to supply troops, food, and mana.
Armies in the game get a maximum number of movement points per turn, and they can attack as long as they have movement points left, but attacking will use up the remainder of their points, and so they can only attack once per turn. Armies deal different types of damage and have resistances to each (including melee, ranged, death magic, life magic, spirit magic and elemental magic), and they get experience for dealing and receiving damage. When armies gain a level they get to select a perk (a passive bonus), and they can also gain perks from some of the buildings in your cities (such as foundries on iron veins). However, these latter perks need to be purchased, and some are quite expensive, and so you might not be able to afford them for all of your armies.
Battles generally involve two armies -- the attacker and the defender. Melee armies can attack any army adjacent to them, while ranged armies can hit enemies a hexagon away. Battles aren't played out on a special map or anything. The attacker and defender just take and deal out damage, and if one of them dies, then they disappear from the map. Forts and castles act just like regular armies, except for the fact that they can't move. Defensive structures like these don't need to have an army stationed inside of them to function, but if they do then the damage received is split between them, making them tougher to kill.
Spells in the game are defined by what they do (damage, heal, bless, curse), how much mana they cost, and how long they take to cast. You have to research spells before you can use them, which makes research important so you have as many spells available as possible. Interestingly, many spells take longer than one turn to cast, which gives enemy Great Mages an opportunity to cast "Counterspell" and disrupt them. Counterspelling sounds like it might be a good mechanic, but it ends up being sort of annoying, and among other things it means that the "Unity" spell, which supposedly allows you to win the game, is almost impossible to cast because it requires 20 turns to complete, and your opponents would have to be completely oblivious not to disrupt it.
In general, Warlock offers what you want to see in a 4X game. It follows the Civilization blueprint pretty closely, it gives you a lot of things to see and do, and it requires a certain amount of thought and strategy. However, it's much more casual than the Civilization games, which might be a good thing or a bad thing depending on your experience with the genre, and it's more than a little sloppy, which is always a bad thing.
Consider the interface. For some reason, despite the fact that Warlock is a PC-only title, it barely uses any hotkeys. You can press the WASD keys or the arrow keys to move the camera, but that's it. For everything else you have to use the mouse to click on buttons, which gets more than a little tedious -- not to mention tiring -- after a while, especially on the large maps. The game also over-relies on the left mouse button, which is used for selecting units as well as giving them orders, and it's far too easy to move a unit by mistake when you're trying to select something. Warlock also has annoyances like a long and unsorted spell list that can't be bookmarked in any way, a diplomacy screen that is only useful to see what spells your opponents are casting, and the inability to demolish buildings in your cities (which is mostly a problem when you capture a city and want to develop it differently).
The enemy AI also isn't especially good. Enemies will build up their cities and explore and attack you, but they're not always well organized. It looks like each city is developed independently, so enemies rarely unlock their highest tiered armies, and instead they try to swarm you with more basic units (which works fine early in the game but not so much later). They never bother to dispel curses you put on them. They never go into portals to other planes. And they have no idea how to manage sea battles. If you play on a standard world with continents, and if you purchase a few galleons, then you're guaranteed to win. Unfortunately, computer-controlled opponents are your only option at the moment, because Warlock doesn't have any sort of multiplayer mode yet, although a patch for it is supposedly in the works.
All that being said, I sort of enjoyed Warlock, which might have something to do with the fact that I rarely play the 4X genre (I usually stick to story- or campaign-based games), and so it was a nice change of pace for me. But Warlock is colorful and entertaining, and it's budget-priced, so as long as you can stand some bugs and quirks, and as long as you don't mind that it doesn't break any new ground, then Warlock might be a game for you to consider, perhaps after waiting for a patch or two to come out first.
This review is based on a digital copy of Warlock: Master of the Arcane for the PC provided by Paradox Interactive.