Fantasy General is a somewhat obscure offshoot of SSI’s venerable Panzer General series. It’s a game I’ve been playing on and off since I was very young, but have yet to play to completion (maybe this time!). While I wouldn’t characterize my relationship to the game as “love/hate,” I do have mixed feelings about it and am keenly aware of some of its more glaring flaws. There are great things about it that always draw me back, even after years of not playing it. There are flaws that always push me away before I can get through the campaign.
I keep coming back to Fantasy General in part because there aren’t many fantasy-themed turn-based strategy games, or at least, not many which operate on the army level as opposed to the squad level. One of the great things about Fantasy General is that it doesn’t use the fantasy setting as an excuse to give you super-powered heroes that become the focal points of your army. While there are heroes, they are only marginally more powerful than standard units when you get them and often less powerful than top of the line units; their appeal is in the way they bolster the morale of your troops or fill utility roles. They support your army, not the other way around. In addition, the short narrative tidbits that precede each battle and new continent fill in an interesting, if bare bones, narrative for the campaign. All of this layered on top of classic strategy gameplay including zones of control, terrain modifiers, and interesting maps.
One of the main reasons I always lose interest before finishing the game is because it is just so damn long. The campaign consists of a few dozen battles, each of which takes a couple of hours to complete, and that adds up. I’m not one who usually has trouble finishing a game that lasts 30 or 40 hours, but with Fantasy General the issue is exacerbated by a severe lack of variety in battles. Every single battle boils down to either killing 80% of the enemy army or capturing certain objective points to force a surrender. This generally involves your army starting on one end of the map, and slowly proceeding to the other, killing any units you find along the way. Every once in a while, they’ll try to shake things up by putting you in a defensive position, usually by limiting your initial deployment and giving you objectives to protect. Unfortunately, the AI just isn’t aggressive enough to actually threaten these positions unless you are utterly careless, and so those battles quickly revert to the “methodically destroy the enemy” model.
The lack of variety in the campaign creates a corresponding lack of variety in your own army. There are ten unit types, but depending on the core strategy of your army, as many as half of them will be useless or marginal. Light Infantry are flat out useless, being overshadowed by Skirmishers. Archers and Siege Engines are slow and only really useful in rare situations. Archers are mainly useful defensive, but objectives rarely require you to hold ground as opposed to taking it. Siege Engines can be handy against fortifications, but significant fortifications only show up once or twice a continent, and you can handle them without Siege Engines fine. Then there’s Spellcasters, who are expensive, fragile, slow, and provide only minor utility effects. In the end, the battles almost universally favor a hard-hitting mobile strike force, meaning your army will be mostly Heavy Infantry, Skirmishers, and Sky Hunters supported by cavalry and a smattering of other unit types included on a whim.
Fantasy General falls into that “beautiful, but deeply flawed” category in my head that so many of the old games I enjoy belong to. If someone announced that they wanted to make a spiritual successor to it, I’d be pretty excited, but the game is probably too obscure for that kind of treatment, and turn-based strategy isn’t exactly a burgeoning field in games. Hell, part of me thinks that nostalgia is the real reason I keep coming back, and without that I wouldn’t find the game interesting at all. Still, it’s nice to think about what someone could do with a modern fantasy TBS game.