Thea: The Awakening
Playing Time: Not shown, but probably 150-200 hours
Well, this was an interesting impulse purchase. I got it a long time ago, and I didn't play much of it for most of that time (since Age of Wonders 3 had me covered for those times when I wanted to play a strategy game), but I decided to give it a whirl a few months ago, and it proved to be a pleasant surprise.
The thing about Thea that caught my attention initially was that it was based on Slavic mythology. It's so rare to see a game that focuses on a single real world mythology other than Greek, Roman, Egyptian, Norse, or maybe Celtic. That had no real bearing on how much I enjoyed playing the game itself, but it was a neat bit of variety that made it stand out from the other games that GOG was offering in whatever sale was going on when I bought this.
Incidentally, Thea is one of those rare strategy games that's actually aimed at being a single-player game. As someone who has no interest in competitive gaming, I appreciate that decision, but it's worth noting that it feels closer to an RPG than to the likes of StarCraft or Age of Empires.
Anyway, Thea is basically about running a village that's trying to restart human civilization after an apocalypse. You're the leader of a group of people who were saved from extinction by the grace of your deity, so of course, it makes sense that the first thing you have to do is pick which deity you worship out of the pantheon of Veles, Svarog, Zorya, Horos, Mokosh, Morena, Lada, and Perun, only there's a twist: only 2 of them (chosen at random and never including Lada or Perun) are available at the start. As you play, you gain experience points towards ranking up your deity's boons, and each one that reaches level 3 also unlocks another random deity, with the exceptions of Lada (who is unlocked after completing the main story quest) and Perun (who unlocks when all of the others are unlocked). As you might expect, Lada and Perun are far more powerful than the others, which makes it a little unfortunate that it's so easy to unlock Lada. Then again, it's pretty easy to unlock any of them (perhaps aside from Perun), due to how experience points are accrued.
See, experience comes from all sorts of things you can do in play, from how many fights you've won or how many hexes you've explored to how many things you've researched or what the most valuable item you've crafted is. Each individual category tends to make gains fairly slowly, but collectively, it's not too hard to rack up a decent total. This is further aided by having a multiplier to your experience based on your difficulty settings. The standard difficulty actually comes with a penalty (I think it's about a 75% multiplier), but there's a whole host of options you can adjust; such as map size, AI aggressiveness, or the maximum number of units that can be put in a single stack; which affect that to varying degrees. These aren't balanced particularly well, so it's quite easy to get a multiplier in the area of 165%-175% without appreciably increasing the actual difficulty. I can't say whether this was an intentional design choice to make it easier to unlock more deities or just a case of the developers having a horrible sense for the impacts of the various settings, though I'm inclined to lean towards the former, given that it probably would've been patched by now if it wasn't intentional.
The deity choice has a noticeable impact, since it affects whether you have faster gathering, faster research, or faster experience gains for your units (well, unless you pick Lada or Perun, who get multiple categories, or unless you pick Horos and get his unique "increased damage during nighttime" boon), and as they gain levels, they start providing other boons like increased stats, bonus items, special starting units, and so forth. It's not as big of a deal as the leader race/class/specialization choices in Age of Wonders 3 or your faction choice in StarCraft, but at least it's more than just a superficial difference like your leader choice in Civilization 2.
I mentioned this in passing already, but in another departure from how most strategy games work, there's a quest that you're trying to fulfill which goes beyond "conquer everyone else" or "hold victory points". You need to find out about what happened to the world to cause the apocalypse and then make a choice between restoring an age of myth and magic or sparking the awakening of an age of knowledge and science. The neat thing about this is that which one is the "good" choice actually depends on your deity, which is also the case for the deity-unique divine quests. Granted, there's nothing stopping you from choosing what you want rather than what your patron would support, but making the choices that would please them can result in getting extra rewards. I haven't played with all of the deities, but from the ones that I have used, it seems common to get a very powerful special unit from making the correct choices in their divine quest, and you also tend to get showered with long-lasting temporary stat bonuses to help with minimizing downtime once you've decided to go ahead with finishing things.
I stated that in that way on purpose, because it's very easy to get distracted with side endeavors. There are tons of random events and a good number of optional quests which can force some action onto you (the poisoned water event is a particularly horrible one that comes up with annoying frequency), but even just exploring the map and clearing out random dens of spiders, goblins, or strigoi in search of rare materials to craft into powerful equipment can be a lot of fun.
There are other victory conditions than completing the main quest, by the way, but they take so long to achieve that you're unlikely to fulfill them unless you go out of your way to do so.
Thea also makes a design choice that I don't think I've seen before in an exploration-based strategy game: you don't get to make multiple bases/cities/etc. You get your one village at the start, and that's all you ever get. Sure, you can send out expeditions to set up camps for gathering distant resources, but crafting and building structures is only possible in your village, and losing the village to random wandering monsters is basically the only way of actually losing the game.
On the topic of resources, that's another neat element in this game. There are only certain basic things like fruits, raw meat, or normal wood which can be gathered by your people at the start of the game. All of the better materials have to be researched before you can actually pick them up from the environment, though you can always use whatever you find in random caches or from breaking down excess items. Each type of resource belongs to a category (like metals, woods, threads, or gems) and provides slight differences from others of the same category when used for crafting or building. For instance, weapons made with ancient wood will inflict poison damage, armors made with scaled leather provide some shielding, or buildings constructed from gold have a chance of attracting a dwarf each turn. Using materials further up the research tree usually improves the results, though of course such materials also tend to be rarer to find from gathering points. Interestingly enough, simply researching a new material will give you a small quantity of it and will reveal a gathering location on the map, so it can be worthwhile to research them before actually finding a possible place to gather them.
Crafting and construction options also have to be researched, though those are simply done by type (e.g. 1-handed swords, light armor, or jewelry for crafting options or well, watchtower, or smithy for construction options), with the actual result depending on the specific materials that you spend. All research choices are made from a common pool of research points which are gained primarily from doing crafting/construction, and you gain points more quickly by using rarer materials for crafting/construction, so the whole research system has a nice feedback loop that actually encourages using advanced materials instead of hoarding them forever.
Combat is handled in a sort of simple card game. Each unit in a stack is represented by a card that can turn up in either an active pile (which is used to attack and defend only) or a support pile (which can trigger special effects or simply make a delayed attack). The units are split randomly between those piles for each hand of combat, and since turning off the option to reshuffle at the start of a hand is an easy way to boost the difficulty multiplier, I just got used to always having randomized piles. This isn't nearly as bad as it might sound, since gatherers, craftsmen, medics, and other non-warrior people tend to have very useful special traits that make them just as useful in combat as warriors. Additionally, actual physical combat is only one type of combat in Thea, and it's generally the worst option, since that's the only mode where you risk accruing mortal wounds even if you win. It's often far safer to try talking, sneaking, doing physical challenges, or otherwise avoiding actually crossing blades (in fact, some events force you into picking such options).
The combat card game itself is rather simple, though not without some depth. Active cards each have an armor rating and an attack rating, though which stats those are derived from depends on which type of combat you're engaging in. They can also have special damage types: piercing does a half-powered attack immediately upon being played, blunt allows excess damage to spill over to the next available enemy if the target is slain, poison deals double damage to an injured target, and leech restores some armor when it hits. Support cards can also be used for special effects such as eliminating one of your enemy's unplayed cards for a hand, confusing an enemy unit so that it can't attack on the first turn, shielding an ally, or moving an ally to the start of the hand's resolution order. Making good use of those special properties and effects is a key part of doing well in tougher fights, and since the available options come from different stats for different types of combat (similar to armor and attack ratings), it pays to have a variety of units in any given stack.
Gatherers, craftsmen, and warriors are the basic units available at the start (though there is always a chance of starting with a more advanced unit like a medic or ranger), with more units being gained at random when a baby grows up. You get to decide which type of unit the baby becomes, although you need to construct certain buildings to unlock the better types. There's also a small chance each turn of having a unit just show up at your village, with the type depending again on what buildings you have. Lastly, there are some events that will end up with getting a unit, which is usually the way that you'll end up with special units like ghosts or demons. Those usually can't wear as much equipment as humans or humanoids can, but they tend to have such good stats that they're still fantastic even when they're just limited to one or two accessories.
There is a downside to Thea, though, which is that playing through a game takes so long that the simplicity starts to become wearing. Don't get me wrong; there's a lot of depth and very high replay value in the early part of the game. Once you get a few dozen turns into a given game, though, you'll probably have one or two main stacks that you're using to do everything around the world while the rest of your units sit back in the village to do crafting/construction, along with a couple of gatherers getting just enough fuel and food to keep things sustained indefinitely. The various types of combat are a neat idea, but after a while, you'll settle in on always trying to pick one from the two or three that your units are best-suited to handling. Your equipment crafting capabilities rarely take long to outpace what wandering monsters are capable of matching, meaning that your village is almost never in danger of falling, leaving you with all the time in the world to gather the best materials and build up a force that's geared out to roll over all opposition.
Well, perhaps aside from the Rise of the Giants DLC. That triggers near the end of the main quest, and it does present a significant step up in difficulty. It's not enough to really feel hard on an absolute scale, but at least it was designed to be aimed at what an endgame set of characters can handle.
Graphically, the game has a lot of ups and downs. The line art on the unit cards is generally really nice (though there are some pretty goofy ones, especially some of the gatherers), and events comes with a sidebar piece of full color art that's usually solid, sometimes incredibly beautiful (like the wandering elfin goddess), and sometimes absurdly silly (like the cabbage baby). The actual map graphics are pretty much par for the course, but at least they are very clear and never get in the way of important information. The fact that some of the topography is visible through the fog of war is a nice touch that can aid in directing exploration, though I can imagine that only works well because this isn't a competitive game.
Things are generally better in the audio department. There's a limited variety of music tracks, which are pretty much all ambient music that's enjoyable without being obtrusive. I would've liked some more energy to the music during combat, but it's not bad, and the idyllic music for the main map does a nice job of evoking a pastoral village fairy tale feeling.
On the whole, Thea is a very fun game. However, I think it works best as a diversion rather than as a main focus to sink your teeth into. Playing it too much in a short span of time runs the risk of overexposing the lack of lasting variety and general repetitiveness that settles on the game after some length of time, and the lack of any real pressure to keep play moving makes it all too easy to just sit back, craft all of the best equipment, and then dominate any potential challenges. If you keep it limited to being a change of pace (either from other games or just other hobbies in general), on the other hand, the mechanical simplicity works well for being able to make progress in small bursts, which can turn into prolonged sessions all too easily if you lose track of time, but which can also be stepped away from easily if it starts to feel tedious. I would recommend it, in any case.
Playing Time: Not shown, but probably 150-200 hours