EB Expo 2015: Lego Steals the Show

EB Expo - Vault BoyThe EB Expo is an annual gaming event held at Sydney Olympic Park, traditionally featuring a mix of AAA games and local indies. For me, that makes it a great opportunity to venture beyond my traditional stomping ground, PC strategy games.

This year’s event appeared far more focused on the major brands. Sony, Nintendo, and Microsoft were all there, along with publishers such as EA, Ubisoft and Warner Brothers. Compared to previous years, there were fewer indies present — a bit of a disappointment, as chatting to each year’s indies is one of my favourite things about the show.

This year’s highlight was a Lego exhibition, organised by the same people behind Sydney Bricks (the Sydney Lego User Group). Seriously, check this out – it’s a retro arcade constructed out of Lego, complete with a little diner:

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Crisis of the Confederation Q&A, with Gregory Hayes

COTC Interesting CharactersI am pleased to present an interview with Gregory “Galle” Hayes, project lead for Crisis of the Confederation – the “Crusader Kings II in space” mod I recently covered. Below, we discuss COTC‘s inspirations, the interplay between game mechanics and a space-feudal theme, where new players should begin, and more. Enjoy!


Development of the mod

Peter Sahui: Hello, and welcome to the site!

Crisis of the Confederation is one of the most interesting mods I’ve encountered, a homage to science fiction classics such as Dune and Foundation. What made you decide to translate those influences into a total conversion for Crusader Kings II?

Gregory Hayes: I happen to like applying game mechanics to new story concepts in general, and I’m a firm believer that everything is better in space, but COTC specifically actually had its origins in a game mechanic idea that I was never able to implement. Way back when I was working on A Game of Thrones, I was struck by the idea of using the Investiture mechanics to represent martial law versus civilian law. That created the need for a setting in which the spread of martial law made sense, which inspired the civil war backstory, which in turn led to me to think back to the great science-fiction cliche of the rebellious space colonies.

Another factor that probably influenced my decision was that I was replaying Emperor of the Fading Suns at the time. EotFS is a lot like CK1 – a broken mess of a game that is nevertheless fun because of how great its central ideas are. COTC isn’t really that much like EotFS in gameplay, but the desire for a good space feudalism game was definitely a big influence.

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Musical Monday: “Song of the Fields” (King Arthur: The Roleplaying Wargame), composed by Gergely Buttinger

This week’s song is one of the world map pieces from Neocore’s King Arthur, an interesting if imperfect game that I briefly played. This song’s ethereal vocals (and another similar-sounding theme) were a highlight. Enjoy!

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Clippings: Strategic September

Skylines - After DarkSeptember saw several notable strategy releases:

  • The PC version of Shenandoah Studios’ Battle of the Bulge;
  • After Dark, the first paid DLC for Cities: Skylines;
  • The English version of KOEI’s Nobunaga’s Ambition: Sphere of Influence; and
  • Act of Aggression, the latest RTS from Eugen Systems (Wargame).

Battle of the Bulge is the only one I’ve played enough (3 playthroughs1, totalling several hours) to assess. The iPad version has drawn a lot of praise, from the likes of Troy Goodfellow and Bruce Geryk, and wow, does the PC version live up to the hype. It’s the kind of quick-playing, evocative, elegant strategy game I love to evangelise2 – the panzer divisions will run wild for the first few days, while the outgunned Americans buy time, hold strongpoints, and maybe launch the odd spoiling attack. Once the skies clear, and Allied reinforcements arrive, it becomes the Allies’ turn to bludgeon their way back across the map.

As much as I like the game’s design, its implementation suffers from two flaws. First, the AI has the bad habit of overextending itself. On several occasions, I was able to cut off isolated German spearheads, leaving the once-fearsome panzers stranded without fuel or ammo. Second, the game is a bit buggy3 – on a couple of occasions, the screen began shaking and I was unable to give orders, forcing me to quit and reload. Still, the underlying design is so strong that I look forward to seeing the sequels on PC.

While I haven’t had the chance to play much of Nobunaga’s Ambition: SoI or Skylines: After Dark4, I’m optimistic about both. I’m looking forward to unlocking the new entertainment and tourist precincts in After Dark – tourism was rather bare-bones at launch – and the new day-night cycle (added via free patch) is gorgeous. Check out the image at the top of the page!

Nobunaga's Ambition - Map of JapanSpeaking of gorgeous, I love the aesthetic of Nobunaga’s Ambition: SoI (above). KOEI’s strategy franchises, such as Nobunaga’s Ambition and Romance of the Three Kingdoms, have great art, great music, and the only character-driven 4X/grand strategy mechanics outside Crusader Kings. I suspect SoI’s campaign will take quite a while to play – RotK 11 suffered from “strategy late game” syndrome. If I do dig further in, I’ll be sure to report back.

The only one of the four I haven’t picked up is Act of Aggression. First, I’m not sure it’s my cup of tea – it’s a homage to the ’90s, C&C-style RTS (and a spiritual sequel to Eugen’s earlier Act of War), a genre on which I burned out many years ago. Second, its reception has been mixed. On a happier note, Eugen is working on a free map patch for Wargame: Red Dragon –  that might be my cue to jump back into the Cold War.

In non-strategy news:

  1. The Race to the Meuse scenario twice and the randomised campaign once, all three times as the US.
  2. See also Vietnam ’65.
  3. Apparently the bugs are worse on iPad.
  4. Paradox supplied me with a review copy of the Cities: Skylines base game, and I bought After Dark out of my pocket.
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The OTHER space grand strategy game: Crisis of the Confederation

COTC - Coup

Grand Admiral Wei Luo is about to betray everything for which he’s fought.

For the last fifteen years, the Admiral has headed Confederate Space Command – the crowning glory of a life devoted to the Terran Confederation. He stood by Earth when the frontier broke away. His son Tao would, he hoped, have followed in his steps. While they didn’t see eye to eye on politics, he knew Tao was brilliant – the finest admiral in the galaxy. One day, he thought, Tao could have led Earth to victory.

Tao’s death broke his father’s faith. Accident or “accident”? Whatever1. In public, the Admiral mourned, and commissioned a clone. In private, he decided that since his son would never have the chance to restore order to the galaxy… perhaps he could.

The plotters fell into place. The warships of the Confederate Space Command formed up in Sol. The stage was set for a coup. I clicked the “Send Ultimatum” button, and the Admiral transmitted his message to the government of Earth: hand over power to me, or else.

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  1. By the way, I checked the save game file. It really was an accident.
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Musical Monday: “The Battle of Hoth” (The Empire Strikes Back), composed by John Williams

Or, to give it its full title, “The Battle Of Hoth (Ion Cannon/Imperial Walkers/Beneath the AT-AT/Escape in the Millennium Falcon)”. This is 15 minutes long; I believe it’s the actual background music used in the movie. Sit back and enjoy!

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Point, Click, Solve Puzzle: Reflections on the Adventure Game

Kings Quest hatchet

Traditionally, adventure games have been defined by two elements: (1) reliance on narrative; and (2) solving puzzles in order to progress. While the former has always been the genre’s strong suit, I would argue that puzzles have been a mixed success. Puzzles can be too obtuse, necessitating a trip to GameFAQs to obtain the solution, or may clash with the narrative. Particularly problematic puzzles, such as the infamous cat-hair moustache, can be guilty of both. Developers have tried to combat this problem in several ways, and interestingly, their approach appears to be evolving over time.

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Clippings: New and Shiny

Kings Quest startI’ve just picked up the first episode of the new King’s Quest, which came out at the end of July. As a newcomer to the series, I like what I see! One hour in, it’s a pleasant, charming fairytale that has made me laugh out loud a couple of times. My only complaint was a single, reflex-based action sequence – I’m horrible at those things! – and even then, it was manageable. KQ was well-received back at launch, and I look forward to playing more.

Meanwhile, Satellite Reign, the cyberpunk strategy game, is now out to positive reviews (Metacritic link here). From the few minutes I’ve played, I am not entirely impressed by the game’s technical performance – my high-end gaming laptop sees frame rates in the 10-30fps range regardless of whether I set the graphics to low, medium, or high. But when my plan broke down at the end of the tutorial area, and my agents fought for their lives, technical issues melted away in the thrill of the moment. Cautiously optimistic.

In other news:

  • Eurogamer profiles Fredrik Wester, CEO of Paradox. For a more in-depth account of how the Paradox team ended up packing Crusader Kings 1 boxes themselves, check out this Polygon article from 2013 – that has always stuck with me as an example of the travails that come up in small business.
  • Here is an interesting piece about the implicit urban philosophy of Cities: Skylines. Note that I disagree with the old cliche, briefly referenced in that article, that The Sims is an exercise in materialism. That hasn’t been true since Sims 2, which added lifetime desires and an underlying ambition (such as Fortune, Family, or Knowledge) for each sim.
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Musical Monday: The Battle Themes of Sins of a Solar Empire

This week, I’ve chosen to highlight the soundtrack of Sins of a Solar Empire, the game that enticed me back to real-time strategy after almost a decade of burnout. I associate the three pieces below with the phases of an engagement: “Battle 8”, with its opening drumbeat and ominous brass, makes me imagine the rival fleets jumping in, their admirals manoeuvring into position. “Battle 12” makes me think of the battle itself. And the triumphant “Upbeat 3” makes me think of the moment of decision, when the TEC Marza-class dreadnoughts unleash their missile barrage, when the enemy fleet crumbles and the survivors flee for the edge of the gravity well. Enjoy!

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Clippings: Steam and Stars

Several interesting interviews this week:

Space Game Junkie has a Q&A about Paradox’s upcoming Stellaris. Some interesting tidbits — Victoria-style internal politics sound long overdue for the space genre.

The Wargamer interviews the designer of Rule the Waves, the Dreadnought-era naval simulator. Did you know that Master of Orion inspired the ship design in RtW? If you ask me, RtW makes better use of that mechanic than 90% of the space 4X games that followed MOO’s footsteps.

Meanwhile, the Flare Path’s write-up of Pike & Shot: Campaigns has prompted me to add the game to my wishlist. Between QuadrigaVietnam ’65, and Rule the Waves, that column has become hazardous to my wallet…

A retrospective of Circle of Blood/Broken Sword, the classic adventure series.

In non-game news, here is an interesting article about the rise of ebooks on mobile phones, buoyed by larger screen sizes. The article doesn’t discuss “cell phone novels”, which have been around for some time in Japan, complete with a prose style adapted to the medium.

Finally, check out this high-resolution concept art from Endless Legend. Beautiful!

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Clippings: Gamescom & Guesses

Update: Paradox has officially unveiled Stellarishere is RPS’ preview, the best I’ve found. It is neither related to Coriolis, nor like EFS. Instead, it sounds more like Distant Worlds, with a dash of the procedural generation that characterised Paradox’s abortive Runemaster. A galaxy populated by randomly generated species, an emphasis on discovery and exploration that will last throughout the game, new factions popping up… I look forward to finding out more.

Gamescom has kicked off, with the big news – for me – yet to come. If my guess is correct, Paradox may be about to announce a new space game!

The facts: Paradox is working on “Project Augustus”, a new mystery game that will be unveiled at Gamescom. Pending the announcement, it has released a number of cryptic hints, which you can find here.

The speculation: Based on the arguments in this post, plus the subsequently released hints, I’m convinced the game will be set in space. Paradox has published an ebook named Coriolis: Dark Between the Stars, apparently set in the universe of a Swedish tabletop RPG. And it has recently registered a new trademark, “Stellaris”.

The wishful thinking on my part: Could Project Augustus be a spiritual successor to the sadly underappreciated Emperor of the Fading Suns? “Dark Between the Stars” is a term from the Fading Suns setting, and a Crusader Kings-style character-driven game would be perfect for a “feudal future” setting such as EFS. I’d love a remake – EFS was one of the most unique games I’ve ever played.

In other news:

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Quick Impressions: Vietnam ’65

2015-08-01_00003Vietnam ’65 is an iPad/PC strategy game with a deceptively simple concept: patrol villages on a randomly generated map (above) and prevent the Viet Cong & North Vietnamese Army from doing the same. It’s simple, short, and sweet; after two matches, I am impressed.

V65 is built on extreme asymmetry. When all goes well, US infantry can race from village to village in their transport helicopters, while tanks, gunships, and howitzers dominate the countryside as far they can reach. Not everything will go well:

  • There are 10 villages to cover, and too few soldiers and helicopters to protect them all.
  • There are a lot of demands on those helicopters – ferrying troops, resupplying them (out-of-supply units are eventually destroyed), and evacuating injured units.
  • The helicopters have finite fuel, limiting the time they can spend away from base.
  • Enemies can be difficult to find, spawn continuously, and lay ambushes of their own…

At times, there were moments of panic: when supply convoys came under RPG fire, making me wonder if my distant troops were cut off; when the Viet Cong emerged at 2-3 points and I only had enough firepower to respond to one; when my only helicopter gunship came crashing down.

Eventually, I won both games1 with a two-pronged strategy: I carpeted the map with outposts, extending the range of my helicopters and artillery, while training enough South Vietnamese troops to hold the line. Now, I feel that I have a good enough grasp of the basics that I can experiment with different game modes, or just move onto another title.

Overall, V65 turned out to be precisely what I wanted from a strategy game: quick to play (a few hours per match), simple to pick up, and at the same time, fresh and thematically evocative. For $10, this is well worth a look for genre fans.

Further reading (and listening)

The Three Moves Ahead episode that sold me on V65. Contains a great discussion of the game, its depiction of its topic, and some really handy tips.

Tim Stone’s review.

Rob Zacny’s review.

  1. One on “regular” difficulty, the other on “veteran”.
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Clippings: Rule the Waves!

Amateur admirals, ahoy! This week’s highlight is Rule the Waves, a dreadnought-era naval strategy game. In RtW‘s strategic layer, the player designs new ships, pays for them out of a limited budget, juggles crises, and last but not least, appeases the politicians. In the tactical layer, the battleships, cruisers, and destroyers come out to play. Now that I’ve found my way around the interface, I find the game pretty elegant to play, and after two campaigns, I can report that the game is cracking good fun. My only wish is for a way to automate tactical battles and just focus on the strategic layer.

Here is the Flare Path’s write-up. Here is a Let’s Play over at the official forum. You can purchase the game here – note it takes a little while for the serial number to arrive. A few tips, if you pick it up: (1) submarines are great value – they’re dirt-cheap and seem very effective at forcing enemy countries to the negotiating table, (2) you will need a lot of hulls for coastal patrol/ASW duty as the game goes on – I like building cheap patrol boats on a minesweeper chassis, and (3) playing as the US, most of my battles were cruiser vs cruiser skirmishes (I guess I was too remote for other countries to justify sending in the battleships) – it paid off to invest in outsized heavy cruisers.

This week’s other links:

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Let’s Play EU4: Common Sense! Pt 2: East Meets West

Report of the Spanish ambassador to Meiguo, 1600

In the three months since I departed Your Majesty’s presence, I have travelled first to our colony of New Spain, then thousands of miles north overland. I write to you now from the court of Meiguo, on the shores of another sea.

Like ourselves, the rulers of Meiguo are not native to the New World. They trace their ancestry to a deposed emperor of China, who fled his home near two centuries ago. Since arriving, they have extended their reach far south and east: they abut our colonies in Mexico, and also along the Rio Grande.

While Meiguo’s domains are vast, they are sparsely populated. I saw few towns during our journey north; I will be surprised if these lands contribute much to the Meiguo purse.

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Clippings: From the Horse’s Mouth

A mix of interviews and retrospectives this week:

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Clippings: Post-E3 Edition

No EU4: Common Sense update this weekend, I’m afraid – real life has intervened. The adventures of Meiguo will resume next week.

Between Dishonoured 2, Fallout 4, and The Last Guardian, this E3 was my favourite in years. You’ve probably already seen the high-profile stories; here are a few that slipped through the cracks:

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Musical Monday: “Drunken Sailor” (Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag)

One of the things I love about AC4 is its use of … well, not quite period music – Wikipedia dates this song to the 1800s, well over a century after the game takes place – but pre-existing folk music and shanties. For me, that does a lot to root the game in a sense of time and place. Enjoy!

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Oriental Empires Q&A, with Bob Smith


Oriental Empires is an upcoming 4X strategy game that will cover most of Chinese history, from 1500 BC to 1500 AD. My interest piqued, I conducted an email Q&A with developer Bob Smith. Read on:


About the developers

1. Hello, and welcome to the site! Please tell us a bit about yourselves.

Development of Oriental Empires is being led by R.T. Smith and John Carline, two veteran strategy game developers with more than 30 years’ experience between them. Previously they worked together on the Total War series of games, in roles including Project Director and Lead Artist, and have credits on many other AAA titles from studios including Crystal Dynamics, Pandemic, Frontier Developments, and Slightly Mad Studios.


2. Your best-known previous work was Total War. What lessons have you learned from your experience with those games?

That you can’t please everyone, that you’ll never ship the perfect product, and that the bigger your team, the more features you’ll have that don’t quite join up.


About Oriental Empires

3. At first glance, Oriental Empires looks like a cross between Civilization V, Endless Legend, and Romance of the Three Kingdoms XI. What are your influences and how have they shaped the game?

The initial inspiration was to create a civilization building game based on Eastern civilization, and having an interesting combat system. Superficially this is similar to Civ, but I don’t think the games feel alike to play. The battles obviously have some similarity to Total War games, but again, the resemblance is superficial as you don’t directly control them. History, reality, space 4X games, and miniature and board games are also influences.

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Clippings: Belisarius, Dolphins, and Woolly Dinos

Big week in strategy game news – CA has announced The Last Roman, the first add-on campaign for Total War: Attila. TLR will cover Justinian and Belisarius’ attempt to reconquer the West; here is the announcement video (complete with developer interviews) and here is Rob Zacny’s summary.

Meanwhile, a new round of Hearts of Iron IV previews is up; Three Moves Ahead has a detailed discussion; and quill18 has posted almost 30 minutes of gameplay footage. My take-aways are: (1) the current (alpha) build needs a lot more work; (2) beneath the glitches, there is a lot of potential; and (3) I’m glad the game has been postponed until 2016.

In other news:

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Let’s Play EU4: Common Sense! Part 1: Welcome to Meiguo

In 1402, the Ming Emperor’s uncle usurped the throne.

The imperial palace burned.

According to one legend, the Emperor survived, and fled overseas; Zheng He’s fleets were dispatched to hunt him down.

What if the Emperor made it further than Zheng could have dreamed?

Hello, and welcome back to my coverage of Europa Universalis IV. Since I last wrote about EU4, it has received a further two expansions – El Dorado, which added a custom nation designer, and the newly released Common Sense. For my current game, I will play as Meiguo, a Chinese custom nation on the west coast of North America.

This is Meiguo in 1456, 12 years after the game began:

EU4 Welcome to Meiguo

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Very Early Impressions: Battle Academy

So far1, I’m impressed by Battle Academy, the 2010-vintage World War 2 TBS. The vibrant, comic-book aesthetic charmed me straight away, while the game mechanics present tactical concepts in a clear, elegant manner. Light tanks are zippy and thinly armoured, making them best suited for reconnaisance or mopping up. Infantry is horribly vulnerable in the open, and lethal when striking from ambush. Armour and artillery can suppress defenders, allowing friendly infantry to safely close in. Bunkers and concealed anti-tank guns are potent force multipliers – in the screenshot below, my entrenched Tommies gutted an Afrika Korps charge:

Battle Academy - 8th Army DefenceCurrently, the base game, which includes three campaigns (North Africa, Normandy, Ardennes) is available for $1 as part of the weekly Humble Bundle. For those interested, that price makes it a screaming buy.

  1. I’m three missions and 2-3 hours in.
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Clippings: Special Strategy (and RPG) Sequel Edition

The big news is 2K’s announcement of XCOM 2, due out for PC (and only PC) this November – IGN has the details. Highlights include randomised maps, secondary mission objectives (hopefully this will make missions a bit less grindy), various refinements to combat, and a novel premise – XCOM lost the war; Earth was overrun by aliens; and decades later, the remnants of XCOM are continuing the fight. I will most probably cover the game – although this time, I might turn the difficulty down!

Meanwhile, Paradox has announced a new Crusader Kings 2 expansion focused on Mongols, nomadic tribes, and the Silk Road; you can read the first dev diary here. From what I can see, reactions have divided into four categories: (1) “Woo! Mongols!”; (2) “Woo! Dothraki for mods!”; (3) worries that the larger map will lag the game; and (4) “Paradox should deepen/refine the existing mechanics instead of enlarging the game’s scope”. Personally, I loved the time I spent on the steppes in CK2, and I’d like to see how Paradox can build on that.

Speaking of Paradox, a press preview event is currently on for Hearts of Iron IV. The preview embargo lifts next week, so I’d expect to see articles and footage then.

Finally, at the time of writing, Bethesda is a few hours away from a Fallout-related announcement. Here is a 2010-vintage interview with the developers of Fallout: New Vegas, an excellent game that I still need to finish!

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What I’ve been reading

I’ve taken a break from European political/military history (Iron Kingdom, Frederick the Great: A Military History, Britain’s War Machine) to power through several fantasy books:

  • A Natural History of Dragons, by Marie Brennan – the adventures of a young woman who sets out on an expedition to study dragons. Continued in The Tropic of Serpents. I quite like these – decent, easy reads with a distinctive first-person voice. I also like their meandering tour of the setting, which seems analogous to early nineteenth-century Earth.
  • Throne of the Crescent Moon by Saladin Ahmed. Fast-moving sword and sorcery yarn, in which an ageing, world-weary monster-hunter battles necromancers in a fantastic Middle East. Would make a great game.

I’ve also started The Early Chinese Empires: Qin and Han, the first book of the Chinese history series whose Ming Dynasty entry I included in my recommended reading list. Very good so far… with one exception. Kindle readers be warned – the ebook edition is missing most of the illustrations! “To view this image, refer to the print version of this title,” it says – and had I known that, I’d just have bought the print version.

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Musical Monday: The Byzantine Empire (Crusader Kings II), composed by Andreas Waldetoft

Last Christmas, I spent some very pleasurable hours in the shoes of Alexios Komnenos, Emperor of Byzantium, trying to rebuild my battered empire. This week’s song, added as part of the “Songs of Byzantium” DLC for Crusader Kings II, formed part of that experience. Enjoy!

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Strategy Games and the Post-Apocalypse

Just as I associate post-apocalyptic video games with one franchise, Fallout, so I associate post-apocalyptic strategy with one game, Vic Davis’ Armageddon Empires. It’s an excellent game, whose design I dissected several few years ago. It’s also a unique game – both in the sense that it’s original, and in the sense that it’s the only “strategic level” post-apocalyptic game I can think of. Even adding a few strategy games that take place at smaller scales produces a very short list1.

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  1. Fallout Tactics is a squad-based tactical RPG. Convoy is a new (and apparently flawed) indie game billed as FTL meets Mad Max. And if zombies count, Sarah Northway’s Rebuild was a Flash game that took place in the aftermath of a zombie invasion.
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In the last few weeks, I’ve dipped into a variety of games, without spending much time on any one:  Assassin’s Creed 4; Shadow of Mordor; Counterspy; Order of Battle: Pacific; Kerbal Space Program; and Castlevania: Dracula X Chronicles.

Mostly, I like them. AC4 is as enjoyable as ever. Kerbal captures the wonder of spaceflight when I see the horizon before me, and the terror when I try to get my Kerbonauts back down. After a few hours, I’m comfortable calling it one of the best science fiction games I’ve played. Mordor, Counterspy, and Order of Battle: Pacific, so far, live up to their strong reviews and word of mouth. (Or, in one case, live down – I agree with the consensus that OOB: Pacific‘s naval battles are the weakest part of an otherwise strong game.)

Dracula X is the odd one out. I had never played a Castlevania game before, and I wanted to see what the fuss was about. Unfortunately, I think I started with the wrong one. I am not good at platformers… and this is a difficult platformer with limited continues. After beating my head against the first two levels, I am about ready to download a saved game that will unlock the other included Castlevania release, the well-regarded Symphony of the Night.

In this week’s news:

  • The Witcher 3 is out, to rave reviews. Pick your favourite gaming site, and odds are it’ll have a favourable review.
  • Logic Artists has announced Expeditions: Viking, a sequel to Expeditions: Conquistador. This is great news! Conquistador was an original game in an original setting; I’d love to see what the developers do with Vikings.
  • Firaxis has announced Rising Tide, an expansion for Civilization: Beyond Earth – here are interviews with PC Gamer and RPS. After being disappointed by Beyond Earth, I am reluctant to part with any more money…
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Musical Monday: The Faction Themes of Endless Legend (composed by Flybyno)

I love Endless Legend‘s soundtrack, and I love its imaginative, distinct factions. This week, I thought I’d bring them together. Below, I highlight one theme from each of the three factions that I’ve played (there are eight factions total, each with two themes). Enjoy!

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