The Lantern Bearer: revisiting Crusader Kings II

CK2 Karen Game Over

I thought I’d cracked it.

Over and over again, I attempted one of the greatest challenges in Crusader Kings II – play a Zoroastrian and restore the Persian Empire. Over and over again, I fell prey to larger, stronger neighbours. Proud independence seemed impossible.

Now, it was time for one more approach. I pledged fealty to a weak king — and set myself up as the power behind the throne. It worked: I kept my dynasty, the House of Karen, alive for a hundred years. And one day, I overreached. Playthrough after playthrough had been cut short by the vast armies of the Abbasid Caliphate. Why not switch my allegiance to the Caliph, undermine his rule from within, and pick up the pieces after his fall?

Seventy years later, after my umpteenth rebellion, the Caliph stripped my dynasty of its last lands. I had forestalled fate, not changed it.

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Observations on Xenonauts

Xenonauts is a generally inspired homage to the Gollop Brothers’ X-COM, let down by repetitive ground combat. After six or seven hours back in September, I loaded up Firaxis’ XCOM: Enemy Within… and since then, I’ve haven’t looked back.

Comparing Xenonauts and Enemy Within made me appreciate what Firaxis did right. Because soldiers in Firaxis XCOM can move quite far and still shoot, and because cover, flanking, and line of sight are so important, Firaxis ground combat is extremely fluid. In the very first Enemy Within battle I played after Xenonauts — “just for comparison, then I can write this article” — my soldiers started on one side of a convenience store. First the aliens came from the east, along the street. Then they emerged from the north, through the store, onto my flank! My squad ran, and climbed, and hid on the roof — all but the poor Support trooper who couldn’t make it in time. The aliens emerged from the store. And my survivors took revenge:

XCOM Firing from roof Continue reading

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“Wilderness” (Crusader Kings II), composed by Andreas Waldetoft

After giving up on my dream of restoring the Persian empire in Crusader Kings II – believe me, I tried every strategy, half a dozen characters, and many, many times – I decided to try a Norse ruler instead. And wow, the Norse music (contained in the “Hymns to the Old Gods” DLC) is pretty good. The example below is lovely and mellow – enjoy! EDIT: It’s also mellower than the image would suggest – I only just noticed the dangling bodies. Yikes!

 

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Now THIS is how you make a memorable faction: Endless Legend’s Vaulters

In several ways, Endless Legend feels like the game Civilization: Beyond Earth wanted to be. The two games share several design choices, such as non-linear tech trees and a unit system that consists of upgrading a few basic designs. The difference is that Beyond Earth felt bland and boring, whereas Endless Legend brims with personality.

My favourite example is the Vaulters – the only Endless Legend faction I’ve tried so far. The Vaulters are the descendants of ancient spacefarers, marooned after their starship crashed. As the game opens, quakes have driven the Vaulters out of their subterranean cities and to the surface, whence they compete with the other empires of the world.

The first thing I noticed about the Vaulters is that their basic unit is called the “Marine”. This, I absolutely love. It conveys their heritage with one word: it makes perfect sense that space-going marines would have been the protectors of the original Vaulter settlement, and I can imagine generation after generation of Vaulters brought up to think of their warriors as “marines”, long after the origins of the word faded into myth.

The marines’ appearance fits the backstory, too. Here’s some official art of the Vaulters — the marines are the crossbowmen in the foreground. Look at their bows:

Vaulters Official Art The marines’ crossbow stocks are made from — or perhaps patterned after — futuristic assault rifles. Either the Vaulters recycled their rifles once they stopped working, or else they deliberately crafted their crossbows to resemble ancient weapons of myth. Both explanations make sense given the backstory. How cool is that?

Incidentally, that hulking construct in the background is a titan – a higher-tier Vaulter melee unit, fashioned from an ancient robot. And I believe the woman brandishing an axe is the starting Vaulter hero — judging from their leader art and their heroes (all female), the Vaulters are a matriarchy.

Once in-game, the Vaulters have a great special ability: they can teleport armies between friendly cities. On the defence, this is as useful as it sounds. And the ability to instantly warp reinforcements into a newly captured city obviates the need for lengthy supply lines back to the homeland… and makes conquest that much easier. Again, how cool is that?

As a final note, the Vaulters are just one of eight factions in Endless Legend. Even leaving aside the more generic (such as omnicidal insectoids), that still leaves unique choices such as the Roving Clans, a merchant nation that can’t declare war, and the Broken Lords, a cursed nation that eats mystical energy instead of food. I suspect I may just have scratched the surface!

And that makes me glad. After the years I’ve spent whingeing about unimaginative video game settings, Endless Legend is a breath of fresh air. Other strategy designers, take note!

Endless Legend art taken from the official site.

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Crusader Kings II: Snowballing on the Steppes

After many attempts to restore the Persian empire in Crusader Kings 2, I have learned two things.

First, playing a Zoroastrian is hard. The first three times, I tried playing Persian Zoroastrian lords: Vandad Karen, an independent lord in 867 (twice), and Shorzan Bavandid, a vassal of the Abbasid Caliphate in 769. I didn’t last long: Vandad is surrounded by hostile neighbours, and Shorzan and his heirs live at the mercy of the Caliph. The fourth time, I chose Wakhushakk1, a tribal chief who rules over a single province in 769 – and this time, after many saves and reloads, I was able to carve out (albeit not keep) a kingdom along the Silk Road. In the process, I made my second discovery: the game has a pretty cool model of tribal societies, as distinct from feudal proto-states.

The key difference2 is that in my experience, feudal armies are predictably sized and only grow gradually. Bigger and more developed realms can raise more troops, but newly conquered territories don’t contribute troops for some time, and developing holdings takes time and money. In contrast, tribes use the leader’s prestige as their main currency. Given a sufficiently prestigious leader, tribal armies can spring up overnight: if a tribe is at war, the player can cash in 500 prestige points in exchange for a 2,500-strong army. On the steppes, that is a big deal. For context, Wakhushakk’s starting levy is only about 350 men!3 The army will disappear in peacetime – but you can keep it around indefinitely by starting a new war before the old war is over.

The trick is getting that 500 prestige. There are several ways to accumulate prestige. One is passage of time: I spent the early years of my tribal game with the speed turned up to maximum, waiting for my prestige to hit the magic 500 mark. A faster way is to win wars. Hit 500 prestige, raise one army, win a few wars and earn another 500 prestige, raise a second army and add it to the first… it’s possible for a tribe to erupt out of nowhere and take its neighbours by storm.

But while tribes are powerful, they’re also brittle. Tribes are the antithesis of “rubber banding”: just as success feeds on success, defeat – and the consequent loss of prestige – can leave the tribe vulnerable. At best, defeat still meant twiddling thumbs while I waited for my prestige to recharge. A second vulnerability is the tribe’s reliance on a prestigious leader. Whenever one of my chiefs died, passing leadership onto an unproven son, my neighbours would pounce. In the end, after spending 50 years in “conquest” mode, I decided that boom-and-bust tribal mechanics had outlived their usefulness. It was time for my people to put down roots and switch to feudalism.

From a mechanical perspective, tribes in CK2 can be a little frustrating – and also exhilarating. From a thematic perspective, I love their representation as warrior societies reliant on charismatic leaders. It seems a very elegant way of representing real-world tribal conquerors  who burst onto their neighbours like a bolt from the blue, while tribal limitations give players a reason to eventually settle down. Give the tribes a try!

Crusader Kings 2 base game and some DLC supplied by Paradox. I purchased the more recent DLC, including The Old Gods and Charlemagne, which made the abovenamed characters playable.

  1. In-game, Wakhushakk comes from the “Sogdian” dynasty. The Sogdians were a people dwelling along the Silk Road, so presumably he’s meant to represent independent Sogdian rulers.
  2. There are several more differences – see this dev diary for more detail
  3. I suspect Wakhushakk is one of the weaker tribal rulers – there’s a Norse chief in 769 AD who starts with a much more impressive 2,000+ men. Still, even in this case, 2,500 tribal warriors would double his army.
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Musical Monday: “Desperate Fight” (Valkyria Chronicles), composed by Hitoshi Sakimoto

Here’s another gem from the Valkyria Chronicles soundtrack. It’s one of the game’s more iconic battle themes (despite the name, it plays in regular rather than boss battles); to me, this is VC. Enjoy!

 

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Clippings: Holiday Edition

Just a short update this week, as I’m away on holiday:

  • Before Call of Duty became shorthand for “blockbuster, mass-market games that I’m too cool to play”, there was Modern Warfare. Eurogamer takes a look back at COD4: MW.
  • USGamer previews Code Name: STEAM, a 3DS tactical RPG that it describes as “Valkyria Chronicles, XCOM and Silver Age superhero comics [having] a baby”.

Hope you’re having fun, and I’ll see you in a week’s time.

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Sherlock Holmes vs the Cat-Hair Moustache

Sherlock Holmes: Crimes and Punishments is an adventure game that doesn’t feel like other adventure games.

Typically, adventure games give the player several tasks: exploring the environment, gathering items, talking to NPCs, and solving puzzles. The challenge comes from the last element, solving puzzles. Sometimes, this becomes a problem. Either the solution to the puzzle makes no sense (making a moustache out of cat hair), or the puzzle itself is out of place.

Crimes and Punishments contains several of these elements. There is a fair amount of exploration and talking to NPCs (both accompanied by a sort of “Holmes vision”, triggered at the touch of a button):

Sherlock Holmes CP - NPC
This never gets old.

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Clippings: Valkyria, Valkyria, may the bloodline live forever!

Back in 2009, Valkyria Chronicles was the game that made me buy a PS3. It was innovative, beautiful, and grossly under-appreciated by consumers – the sequels moved to the PSP, and the third game never even came out in English. Now the original game is coming to PC, and for fans of tactical RPGs who missed it the first time, it’s well worth a look. Yes, there were balance issues. Yes, the plot was disappointing. But I can forgive that, because at VC‘s heart rested an insight: squad-based tactical TBS can have the spectacle and excitement of shooters. You can see that idea recur in XCOM, and I believe the Xenonauts developers will follow suit with their next game.

Here’s some gameplay footage of Valkyria Chronicles on the PS3. Skip to 3:00 to see the actual battle. Note that whenever you see the player taking a shot, whether it hits is determined by the soldier’s accuracy (as in an RPG or strategy game) rather than the player’s skill:

(Edit to add: USGamer has a good overview of the Valkyria Chronicles series’ history.)

In other news:

  • Something I forgot to mention last week – I tried on an Oculus Rift for the first time (in a non-gaming context). The technology isn’t quite there yet… and all the same, it was impressively realistic. The obvious gaming applications are first-person shooters, space sims, and the like; I think it could also work well for an adventure game such as Sherlock Holmes: Crimes & Punishments. I’d love to see how it looks in a year or two.
  • When I learned that Platinum was developing a Legend of Korra tie-in game, I thought this was a match made in heaven. In the end, reviewers panned the game — but word of mouth is much more positive. Check out the user reviews on Steam.
  • The studio behind King of Dragon Pass is working on a sequel!
  • Panzer Front Ausf B, a reportedly excellent 2004 PS2 tank sim.
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Musical Monday: “Gabriel Knight Main Theme” and “St George’s Bookstore” (Gabriel Knight: Sins of the Fathers), composed by Robert Holmes

This week, I present two variations on the same theme. The main title theme of Gabriel Knight is forty seconds of tension, followed by two minutes of intensity. It pops up again, this time a gentle guitar piece, as the ambient music in Gabriel’s bookstore. It’s stuck in my mind all these years, and below, I’ve linked the remastered versions from the new remake. Enjoy!

 

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Civilization: Beyond Earth first impressions

CivBE - Victory

I’ve just won my first game of Civilization: Beyond Earth1, and I have to say, I’m a little disappointed.

The problem is not that this is “Civilization V in space” – in fact, it’s missing some of the features I liked in Civ V (on which more below). The problem is that my first game contained too much busywork for too little payoff. I can tell you cool stories about Beyond Earth’s progenitors, Civilization V and Alpha Centauri. In fact, I could probably tell you cool stories about every Civ game from I to V. I’d be hard-pressed to do the same for my Beyond Earth run.

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  1. I played as Daoming on medium (Vostok) difficulty, on a small map, using standard game speed.
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The Milkweed Triptych, by Ian Tregillis

One of the best speculative fiction covers I’ve seen in a while. Sadly, the US publisher switched cover artists after the first book.
One of the best speculative fiction covers I’ve seen in a while. Sadly, the US publisher switched cover artists after the first book.

The Milkweed Triptych, by Ian Tregillis, comprises three novels: Bitter Seeds, The Coldest War, and Necessary Evils. Together, they form proof that a good author can outshine the most hackneyed premise.

The trilogy takes place in a world where Nazi Germany fields superpowered warriors and a desperate Britain responds with forbidden magic. In the hands of 99% of authors, the result would have been pulpy, campy, trashy. Not here. While the three books are quite different (in tone and even in genre1) from one another, they nonetheless form a clever, often dark, and surprisingly restrained story – and it is a single story; each book is one part of the greater whole, not a standalone.

Unfortunately, it’s hard to explain what’s so clever about the series without getting into at least mild spoilers. Here’s the spoiler-free version: the action, which is spectacular in both senses of the word, is just the tip of the iceberg. The world is well-drawn – I have seen utterly unconvincing works where the author dumped superpowers, or magic, or the paranormal into a real-world setting without the least bit of thought about how this would have affected history 2. Tregillis doesn’t make the same mistake – it helps that his prose and research are both generally good 3. And his characters are vivid. When one managed to find happiness after a lifetime of misery, I wanted to cheer. When a particularly unlikeable soul found himself the butt of the author’s black humour, I laughed. When the tension mounted, I was almost afraid to find out what would happen next.

Beyond that, I do recommend going in blind. Trust me – they’re good! I look forward to Tregillis’ next project, a “fantasy clockpunk trilogy that has an element of alternate history”.

  1. The third book is more of a conventional action/adventure story than the earlier two, right down to the generic “angry man with a gun” cover art. This has earned it a number of lukewarm reader reviews; I think it’s still pretty good, and it derives emotional heft from the first two books.
  2. The most egregious culprit I can think of, offhand, would be Daniel O’Malley’s The Rook.
  3. Based on other reviews, I understand that the author messed up several details of daily life in Britain. I also found the worldbuilding more convincing in book 1 than in book 2. Other than that, I thought the research in the first book, in particular, was excellent. The author nailed a very minor detail that I only picked up because I read some crunchy, specialist WW2 histories earlier this year.
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Clippings: Countdown to Planetfall

Heads up! Civilization: Beyond Earth pre-loads are now available – the game will unlock on the 24th (Friday), just in time for the weekend. The download is 2.7GB.

Not much to report otherwise. I’m pecking at XCOM: Enemy Within and Sherlock Holmes: Crimes and Punishments on the PC, both of which I enjoy – in fact, I fired up XCOM so I could compare something with Xenonauts, and after rediscovering the joys of Firaxis’ game, I can’t go back. On PS3, I’m playing Okami HD, the port of one of my favourite games of all time. And on Vita, I’m slowly progressing through the marathon that is Persona 4: Golden.

In this week’s links:

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The problem with espionage in strategy games…

… is that it tends to boil down to a single die roll.

The key word is “single”. Consider spies in Civilization, agents in Total War, and paid assassinations in Crusader Kings. Even in games without tactical combat, where battle is ultimately a matter of rolling the dice, the player can determine the outcome of a war through superior numbers, technology, or manoeuvre on the strategic map. Since armies comprise multiple units, a single unlucky die roll won’t be decisive.

By contrast, spy actions in strategy games have traditionally been determined by a single, all-or-nothing roll. If it succeeds, wonderful. It it fails, the player’s lack of control over the outcome makes it a temptation to reload – especially as failure may incur the loss of an experienced, irreplaceable asset.

In the last few years, designers have grown wise to this. Now, it’s common to see spies and agents grant a passive bonus, or a gradual effect that builds up over time. For example, in the more recent Total War games, agents have both a “passive” ability (such as granting bonus experience to friendly troops, or extra income in a town) and an “active” ability (such as assassination or sabotage).

Personally, I think this is a big step forward. I find passive, predictable bonuses to be less fiddly and more conducive to planning. And by limiting the number of agents that can be deployed, relative to the number of potential opportunities, designers can require players to make “interesting decisions” about where to deploy their scarce agents1. I look forward to seeing what designers come up with.

  1. Consider spies in Civilization V, who can increase the player’s influence in a given city-state. Since there are far more city-states than spies, which ones do you choose?
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Clippings: The Sherlock Scan, Part 2

Sherlock Holmes: Crimes and Punishments is now out, and emboldened by generally favourable reviews, I snagged my copy. Two hours in, it’s really good!

The key is that Crimes and Punishments sells the illusion that I’m experiencing a Holmes adventure. Its production values are pretty good, and the writing and voice acting are very good. It also has a sense of humour. For all the cool authority Holmes projects, Watson is clearly the one who has to put up with him on a daily basis, and their banter is laugh-out-loud funny. The traditional adventure game “examine everything” mechanic makes perfect sense in a game about Sherlock Holmes, a man renowned for his powers of observation. And uniquely, it’s possible to reach the wrong conclusion on the basis of the evidence. My one gripe – there is no “save anywhere”. There isn’t even “save and exit”. Instead, the game uses a checkpoint system.

Meanwhile, Jane Jensen informs me via email that the soundtrack for the Gabriel Knight remake will not be sold separately:

Hi, Peter – no, it is only available digitally as a gift with the pre-order of the game.  It will not be sold separately due to our licensing agreement with Activision.

In other news:

  • Impressions seem favourable for Age of Wonders III‘s expansion pack, Golden Realms, and for Endless Legend. Both are on my “buy on sale” list. Reviewers are generally positive on Endless Legend‘s artwork and original world, with the caveat being the game’s AI. And it sounds as though Golden Realms addresses pacing, my main concern with the base AOW3.
  • Hands-on previews are trickling in for Civilization: Beyond Earth and This War of Mine. I wonder how much depth there will be in This War – its premise is certainly great.
  • And speaking of premises, check out SWAP, a capture-the-flag FPS minus the shooting, and upcoming indie tycoon game Big Pharma.
  • The newly announced Zodiac is a Vita and iOS game that owes a clear debt to FFT (name and music), and to Valkyrie Profile and other side-scrollers (gameplay). I am a little concerned by the possibility it might be free-to-play – we’ll see if that’s confirmed.
  • Finally, USGamer takes a look back at Resonance of Fate, a PS3/X360 JRPG that I’d like to finish one day.
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Musical Monday: “Triumph” (Frozen Synapse), composed by Paul Taylor

Frozen Synapse has recently been ported to Vita (as Frozen Synapse: Prime), so for this week, I thought I’d highlight my favourite track from the original game. Together with the visual design, the music is key to the game’s cyberpunk atmosphere – I suspect it’s especially important given the minimalism of the rest of the game. Enjoy!

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EB Expo 2014: Bloodborne, Far Cry 4, Lara Croft & the Temple of Osiris, and more!

I spent Friday at the EB Games Expo in Sydney, walking the floor, playing games, and keeping an eye out for what seemed interesting. For me, it was a chance to catch up with the “AAA” space and chat to some Australian indies. It was also a chance to learn about games that I would otherwise have missed. Read on for more!

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Offworld Trading Company interview with Soren Johnson

Offworld Trading Company Logo

Offworld Trading Company is an upcoming RTS where, to quote developer Mohawk Games, “money, not firepower, is the player’s weapon”. Its stated inspirations include board games, Railroad Tycoon, and conventional real-time strategy.

Below, I am very pleased to present an email interview with Soren Johnson, the lead designer of OTC. Soren has previously been co-lead designer of Civilization III, lead designer of Civilization IV, a senior designer and programmer of Spore, and lead designer of Dragon Age: Legends.

 

Peter Sahui: Hello, Soren – welcome to the site!

Offworld Trading Company is one of the most unique strategy games I’ve encountered. Even after finishing the tutorial and playing several rounds against the AI, it still feels unfamiliar.

Does that affect your work as a designer? Has OTC’s novelty posed any particular challenges?

Soren Johnson: We are purposely making a game unlike any other. As a small studio, our games will never be able to compete with established strategy franchises from big publishers, so we have to be different to stand out. Offworld is an RTS game that uses tycoon game mechanics, instead of combat mechanics, to create conflict between players. The only well-known video games somewhat similar are M.U.L.E. or Railroad Tycoon, which are both quite old and also not really competitive RTS’s. What makes Offworld unique will hopefully get the game attention, but we are aware that it could also put off people who are unsure what they would be buying. Thus, as a designer, I am trying to ground Offworld as much in the conventions of RTS games as possible – from game length (30 minutes) to number of players (2 to 8) to game options (multiplayer matchmaking, single-player skirmishes, dynamic campaigns, etc). We are hoping to develop some type of cooperative mode for team play or just fighting the AI. We want people to understand that it is still a competitive RTS at the core – just one without guns.

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Ayutthaya Universalis: Building an Empire in Southeast Asia

Ayutthaya (dark green) at the start of the game.
Ayutthaya (dark green) at the start of the game.

The Kingdom of Ayutthaya was the major power in Southeast Asia in the 14th and 15th centuries. Based in the capital of Ayutthaya on the Chao Phraya River, this decentralized Thai kingdom managed to exercise hegemony over the area for many years. Trade rivalry with Malacca and constant wars with neighboring Burmese and Khmer kingdoms typified the history.

EU4 developer diary 38

At the start of Europa Universalis IV, Ayutthaya is a big fish in a small pond. As the largest and strongest state in Southeast Asia, it is still a minnow compared to Ming China and the eventual European invaders. Over the 350 years of the game, I set out to change this. With patience, luck, and the odd save/reload, I succeeded:

Final score.
Final score.

My journey took me from Southeast Asian minor to Asian power; from an Asian power to the Asian power; and from Asian hegemon to one of the world’s Great Powers. This was one occasion when EU4 shone as an “empire-building game”, and I’ve given some thought as to why.

The starting point lies in EU4’s (and, by extension, the entire Europa Universalis series’s) choice of subject. Every Paradox game is about the struggle for power: Crusader Kings is about the struggle between individuals, Victoria is about struggle between states and struggle within states, and Hearts of Iron and Europa Universalis are almost entirely about the struggle between states. The player’s tools in EU4 reflect that focus: you fight wars, colonise territory, befriend (or antagonise) other states, send out explorers, merchants, and trade fleets, and unlock bonuses via technology or National Ideas. Other aspects of the period are abstracted or, in the case of the emerging gap between European and non-European powers, taken for granted.

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CA announces Total War: Attila (updated to add video)

Creative Assembly has announced Total War: Attila, a sequel in all but name to 2005’s Rome: Barbarian InvasionEurogamer, IGN, and USGamer (amongst others) have previews up. (Update: I have added a gameplay video above – skip to 4:12. Hat tip to frogbeastegg.)

By way of background, the original Barbarian Invasion was my favourite Total War game until Empire and Shogun 2. If 99% of strategy games are about going from rags to riches, Barbarian Invasion (played as the Romans) was the exception: a game about staving off and ultimately reversing decline. The Western Roman Empire begins with an empty treasury, rioting cities, and mutinous generals – I remember looking at an FAQ, reading that I should have used a certain general to lead my counterattack, and then realising that guy had already rebelled. And after that, they still have the barbarians to worry about! By the time I stabilised the situation, stopped the Huns at the river crossings into Italy, and began my grand counterattack, I felt like a cross between Augustus and Diocletian. Even though I never finished that campaign – my hard drive died partway through – it remains one of the most memorable, unique experiences I’ve had with a strategy game.

Based on the previews, CA understands how much Barbarian Invasion relied on that apocalyptic mood. Here’s a particularly interesting comment from IGN – it suggests that the player must race to prepare for an endgame showdown:

A few turns after the start of the campaign in 395 AD, Attila will be born. Once he grows to adulthood, he’ll lead a nearly unstoppable army of Huns in a terrifying march to the west, steamrolling everyone in his way. Your job, as the ruler of one of the powers in his way, is to prepare your defenses and alliances in order to hold out as best you can or to divert Attila to your weaker neighbors.

Over the game’s 60 to 70 year campaign, which is played out in seasons, certain portents of doom will herald Attila’s coming. These portents coincide with a gradual shift in the snow line, which moves south, pushing Germanic tribes with it. It gets so bad, that some of the toughest towns in the north have three seasons of snow per year. Attila and his forces are not a faction in the traditional sense and can’t be played. They’re more like a force of nature that sweeps across the map, destroying and spoiling everything they touch…

For Attila to succeed, CA will have to avoid its traditional pitfalls – bugs, bad AI, late-game pacing, and sprawl. These problems ensnared Rome II — though from what I hear, a year’s worth of patches have finally turned it into a good game. There’s a lot of potential here… but time will tell if it can be realised.

 

This painting seemed appropriate: "The Course of Empire - Destruction", by Thomas Cole, 1836

(I’ve used the above painting before, during my interview with Jon Shafer about At the Gates. The time seemed ripe to haul it out again.)

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Clippings: Xenos and Wastelands

I haven’t forgotten about that Europa Universalis IV piece! I have half of it written, along with half of a first impressions piece about Xenonauts. The short version is, Xenonauts is a clever homage to the original X-COM, and my first seven hours have been a blast – but I wonder if the next seven will be as fun. Perhaps it’s the rose-coloured glasses talking, but Xenonauts‘ ground combat seems slower and more grindy than X-COM‘s. It’s definitely slower and more grindy than Firaxis’ XCOM: Enemy Unknown.

Just a few links this week:

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Musical Tuesday: “Walls No Man Has Seen” (The Banner Saga), composed by Austin Wintory

This week’s song begins slowly, and it’s not as “attention-grabbing” as, say, the music that plays during the finale. Give it 30 seconds. I love how it builds to a higher, hopeful note. Enjoy!
 

 

Change of format this week – I’m including the video on the front page. I’ll revert this if it ends up lagging the page; otherwise, it should spare the need to click through. 

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Clippings: Sims, Space, and Seedless

The good news is that The Sims 4 is out. The bad news is that reviews are lukewarm. Read one review, and you’ve pretty much read them all. The consensus is that TS4‘s new features, such as the ability for Sims to multi-task, don’t make up for the loss of TS3 features such as a wide-open neighbourhood. As someone who’s loved The Sims ever since the first game, this is a bit of a disappointment – I think I’ll stick with 3.

One game that has come out of nowhere is space-opera RTS Ancient Space, developed by new studio Creative Forge and published by Paradox. Beyond a couple of good-looking videos, details are scanty. I don’t think I’ve seen a single hands-on preview, and this for a game due out next week. For now, I’m cautious. Once the game’s out, I would love to hear impressions.

Did you know that there was an ill-fated attempt in the ’90s to create a Witcher video game? Meanwhile, The Witcher 3‘s release date – next February – has crept up on me. I still haven’t finished the second game…

What I have finished is my Ayutthaya run in Europa Universalis IV. Good fun! I’m also this close to finishing Final Fantasy X HD, which is very good despite a few flaws. I’ve written part of a follow-up article about EU4, and I will probably post some concluding thoughts on FFX, so stay tuned. And I’m fiddling with a preview build of  Offworld Trading Companyif you have any questions you’d like me to ask Soren Johnson, please leave them in the comments.

In book news, I’ve been reading quite a bit by fantasy author Daniel Abraham. Most recently, I’ve been reading his Long Price Quartet: the first two books are decent and original, the third book was a WHOA, and I hope the fourth will be as good. Here is a good write-up of the series. I hope to add my own write-up about Abraham once I’ve finished the last book.

Lastly, if anyone wants a free copy of the original Warlock: Master of the Arcane, please comment during the next week – I picked up several copies from Humble Bundle promotion. They’ll expire if not redeemed by the 22nd.

 

 

 

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Buy Armageddon Empires, one of my favourite strategy games, for $1

The main map of Armageddon Empires. My hand of cards is visible at the bottom.
The main map of Armageddon Empires. My hand of cards is visible at the bottom.

 

Heads up — Armageddon Empires (together with several other games) is $1 at Humble Bundle for another four days.

AE is a 4X post-apocalyptic turn-based strategy game, overlaid with a CCG. Before each match, players choose units, heroes, and buildings for their deck, and the cards on hand determine what can be built on any given turn. I described AE as something that “every strategy aficionado, and certainly every strategy designer, should play” – it’s unique, quick to play, and marvellously evocative of pulp science fiction. At this price, there’s no better chance!

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Musical Monday: “Cherry Blossom Color Season” (Katamari Damacy), composed by Yu Miyake

This week’s song is a great, quirky, happy piece from a great, quirky, happy game. It’s perhaps my single favourite from the Katamari soundtrack – no small feat, given how strong the other songs are. Enjoy!

 

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Clippings: The Sherlock Scan

 

Above is a trailer for Crimes and Punishments, Frogwares’s upcoming Sherlock Holmes game, which showcases Holmes’ fabled ability to size up a person in a single glance. I do see the risk that the Sherlock scan will turn out to be an unintuitive guessing game, or a glorified pixel hunt, and from what I recall, the previous Frogwares games received lukewarm reviews. Still, my interest is piqued — the trailer looks pretty cool, and the separate gameplay trailer made me chuckle. The game will come out on September 30, and looks like one to watch.

 

In book news, I’m slowly going through the superbly readable The Guns of August. Good if you want an introduction to the opening days of World War 1… although I should note that it doesn’t have much to say about why the war broke out. I’ve also recently read a couple of very good specialist books on World War 2, Adam Tooze’s  Wages of Destruction and Gerhard Weinberg’s A World at Arms. All three books are candidates for the reading list I’d like to create for this site.

 

I can also report that the Android version of King of Dragon Pass is mostly good. My play-through was marred by two bugs – one minor, with the interface, and one major, which interfered with my choice of difficulty and game length. As at the time of writing, the game length option has now been fixed, while the difficulty settings are still bugged. The game itself is still very good, and its interface otherwise works well on my Note 8, so I would recommend it once the bugs are gone.

 

Other than that, I’ve been re-playing, re-reading, and re-watching old favourites. Europa Universalis IV as Ayutthaya – a Southeast Asian nation located in modern Thailand – has been a lot of fun, as I’ve progressed from middle power to the new top dog in Asia. The Wargame: Red Dragon campaign has also been a lot of fun, if sometimes hair-pullingly difficult; managing to stop modern Soviet tanks with 20-year-old relics, a handful of helicopters, and a lot of rocket artillery has been a lesson in improvisation. I’m also re-reading, for the umpteenth time, Lois McMaster Bujold’s The Curse of Chalion – the book I linked to last week. It’s as good as I remember, and for two more days, it’s still pay what you want! And I’m slowly rewatching my favourite anime, Moribito: Guardian of the Spirit – a warm-hearted tale of adventure, loyalty, and parenthood in one of the best fantasy worlds I’ve seen.

 

This week’s other links:

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The Beginner’s Guide to Wargame

Wargame is one of my favourite RTS series. It can also be daunting — I know several readers have picked it up on sale, only to bounce off. I hope the following guide will help.

 

Introduction to Wargame

 

Wargame is a series of real-time military tactics games (European Escalation, AirLand Battle, and Red Dragon) set during the Cold War. Like Total War or a real-time Panzer General, Wargame bridges the gap between dedicated simulations and traditional real-time strategy games such as Company of Heroes. It’s also really, really good.

 

If you don’t own any of the games, I don’t recommend the original game, European Escalation, which has been superseded by its sequels. Instead, I recommend starting with the middle game, AirLand Battle. First, AirLand is much cheaper than the latest game, Red Dragon. At the time of writing AirLand regularly goes on sale for <$10, while Red Dragon, even on sale, is seldom cheaper than the mid-$20s. Second, AirLand introduced many of the series’ best and most distinctive mechanics — the jump to Red Dragon is more modest. If you plan to play a lot of competitive multiplayer, you may wish to start with Red Dragon, where the multiplayer community has migrated. Otherwise, start with ALB, and if you enjoy it, upgrade to Red Dragon later.

 

The rest of this guide assumes you are playing either AirLand Battle or Red Dragon. The guide is current as at v564 (DLC 1) of Red Dragon.

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Pay what you want for a great book: The Curse of Chalion, by Lois McMaster Bujold

Bujold - Curse of ChalionThis week’s Humble Bundle offers a fantastic deal – pay what you want for Lois McMaster Bujold’s The Curse of Chalion (and several other ebooks).

If most fantasy – and most adventure – fiction (such as Bujold’s own Vorkosigan series) is about the bold young (wo)man who saves the day through his/her prowess, Chalion is the opposite. Its middle-aged hero saves the day through courage, and decency, and self-sacrifice. As a teenager, that left me lukewarm. As a grown-up, I love it.

If that interests you, the current offer is a bargain. You can even have the book emailed to your Kindle – I just tested this! If you enjoy fantasy, or if you liked Bujold’s other books,  check this one out.

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Clippings: Post-Gamescom Edition

Over the weekend, I finished the last episode of Telltale Games’ seriously underrated Back to the Future series. I wrote about the first episode last year – they’re good, funny, and strike a balance between riffing off the movies and establishing a character of their own. Well worth a look for adventure gamers.

In this week’s news:

  1. Relic announced Ardennes Assault, a single-player standalone expansion for Company of Heroes 2. AA will feature a dynamic campaign with persistent units – two of the coolest features in Wargame.
  2. Amongst other Gamescom announcements, Paradox showed ten minutes of Hearts of Iron IV gameplay. The new footage includes our first good look at HOI4‘s “battle plans” system. The battle plans look great – you paint objectives and movement paths on the map, then assign divisions to each objective with a simple drag-select. If this works properly, it will be a very welcome UI innovation.
  3. And speaking of Paradox, here is a post-apocalyptic America mod for Crusader Kings 2. Features include a “Mouse Tribe” near the remnants of Disneyworld, mercenary companies named after old sports teams, and invading, red-coated soldiers who worship a sinister queen. Cool!
  4. Here is a trailer for a remake of Gabriel Knight: Sins of the Fathers, the ’90s adventure game. What made me sit up was the music – I wonder if the soundtrack will be sold separately?
  5. Eurogamer previews a PS3, PS4, and Vita tactical RPG named Natural Doctrine. What makes me leery is the preview’s mention of “a no-nonsense defeat condition that sees the death of one friendly unit bringing the whole mission to a close“. That sounds like a recipe for frustration…
  6. Lastly, US Gamer observes that police games are almost never about policing. This sounds like a specific instance of a broader problem – video games are almost always about combat, even when that doesn’t really suit the theme.
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