So, given how fan-ish I was in my previous post on Waving Hands (aka Spellcaster, aka Warlocks), it shouldn't surprise anyone that I've continued playing the game in the interim (though a little less frequently now that my boss has figured out what the strings of random letters on my monitor are), and I think it's time to return to what makes the strategy feel particularly deep.
In particular, it's occured to me that several of the elements I discussed before are enabled by a single feature - finite resources. In this case, your primary resource is your HP, which you "spend" for better position and the chance to complete major spells. The key here is that your HP starts off at a set number (15), and generally only decreases. I mean, there are healing spells, but they're less efficient than their analagous damage spells, and in any case your HP can't go above 16. The healing spells have their uses, but in general, the game is about gradually moving toward 0 HP.
Why does that matter? First of all, it keeps the game from dragging out - every turn that passes brings you closer to the conclusion because resources are always being spent faster than they're generated. More importantly, perhaps, it prevents either player from establishing an unbeatable advantage, like you can achieve in many real-time strategy games. In Age of Empires III, if I played the Dutch and survived to the Imperial Age, I got an economy going that was so absurdly efficient that it was virtually impossible to defeat me (because I could replace units as fast as they died without putting any significant dent in my resources). In warlocks, you can't build up your resources and then steamroll your opponent - you only have the resources you started with, and even if you have a clear HP advantage, you can always be defeated by a single Finger of Death or permanent enchantment, so you're never safe.
Now, in order for this to work, it doesn't require that there is actually no resource generation at all, just that resource generation is limited. In addition to healing, I would count monster summoning as "resource generation," in which case it might seem possible to build resources (by summoning endless hordes of monsters). The fact of the matter, though, is that getting out multiple summoned monsters is hard. Not only can your opponent disrupt or dispel you, but once you have a monster summoned, you have to pay attention to them, or they might be charmed by your opponent, and become their ogre or troll. Monsters are a good investment, but they have to be maintained, and can be expensive to cast in the first place, so the decision to bring out a monster is itself an important strategic decision. While summon ogre is a popular opening spell, you can win a match without ever summoning anything.
And that's what really matters here - that every decision is meaningful. In most RTS games, resource gathering is so central, that it single-handedly determines the outcomes of the game, and decisions like army makeup and where and when to deploy units are secondary. While I immensely enjoyed AoE3, over time the games start becoming identical - the game was about perfecting my rapid development strategy. Games of Waving Hands, on the other hand, are wildly different and unpredictable, and that's what keeps me fascinated with it.
Speaking of strategy games, I just got my hands on a copy of Valkyria Chronicles, so now I have something other than Valentine's Day dinner on my to-do list this weekend.