Now that’s original: Gettysburg Armoured Warfare, a steampunk Civil War game

So just days after I complained about a glut of high fantasy and space opera games, and a corresponding lack of other settings such as steampunk, what should make its way through the blogosphere but this: Gettysburg Armoured Warfare.

 

The name pretty much says it all: this game, newly unveiled at the Paradox Convention 2011, is kind of like Harry Turtledove’s The Guns of the South on steroids. Currently under development, it’s a free-to-play, steampunk American Civil War MMO RTS/shooter, where time travellers have armed the Confederates and the Union with tanks and airships. There’s a more in-depth preview here; this blog post at Malaysian Gamer allows you to see both preview videos on a single page; and Ep 101 of the Flash of Steel podcast discusses it at 29:40.

 

What do I think? Steampunk American Civil War has been done (e.g. Cherie Priest’s novel Dreadnought, which I have not read), but, as far as I know, it’s wholly new to gaming. And combined with time travel and the game’s fusion of genres, the premise is so original, so cool in a bonkers way, that I want to see how it turns out. Pity it’s an MMO, because I’m a primarily offline gamer…

 

Gettysburg: Armored Warfare is due out later this year, in the northern summer.

 

(Credit for the original link – Tom Chick at Quarter to Three)

Mass Effect: Thoughts on the Paragon/Renegade system

Right now, I’m about halfway through the original Mass Effect, an RPG whose morality system was one of its signature innovations. Traditionally, RPGs have a good/evil scale; your decisions push you up or down that scale; and those decisions, all too often, take the nature of “save puppy / ignore puppy / kill puppy and wave its corpse in its owner’s face” (the last option becoming known as “chaotic stupid”/ “stupid evil”). Mass Effect tried to move past this by giving you the choice as to whether to be a conventional, violence-as-a-last-resort, squeaky-clean hero (Paragon), or a ruthless antihero (Renegade). And furthermore, it put Paragon and Renegade points on two separate axes – they can only go up, never go down – which, in theory, allows you to react in different ways to different situations. So, for example, I could pile up Paragon points by using non-lethal means to overpower a swarm of mind-controlled enemies, then earn some Renegade points by summarily executing a prisoner. Unfortunately, the implementation isn’t quite perfect.

 

First, being a Renegade still sometimes involves (verbally) kicking puppies. Sometimes, the distinction between being Paragon and Renegade conversation choices breaks down along one of two axes:

 

  • Are you polite and understanding, or are you an abrasive jerk?

 

  • Are you open-minded towards aliens (whom, by and large, the game depicts as Folks Just Like Us) or do you hate anyone who’s not a human being?

 

Most “reasonable” people, in-universe, would take the Paragon route under those circumstances.  And this weakens the concept that “Renegade” simply means you’re willing to take nasty decisions for the greater good.

 

Second, it still punishes players who don’t want to respond in the same way every time. The bigger a Paragon or Renegade you are, the more points you can invest in your Charm and Intimidate skills (respectively). These skills are what actually matters for game purposes: to get the optimum outcome from various conversations and quests, you’ll typically need sufficient Charm or sufficient Intimidate. The problem is that, as a result, you have an incentive to exclusively focus on one or the other: there are no prizes for having a little bit in each. So while I’ve pumped my Charm skill almost to the max, I have just a handful of points in Intimidate, and from a powergaming perspective, it would have better if I’d ignored Intimidate entirely. I want to play the game as a hero to most and a merciless menacing brute to those who deserve it, but having to split points between Charm and Intimidate discourages me from doing so.

 

Now, neither issue is a gamebreaker. There are plenty of Renegade options that are pragmatic or blunt rather than outright nasty; plenty of Renegade and Paragon points to go around (apparently, you can get to 75% in each on a first playthrough); and I could still be both Charming and Intimidating (to a certain extent, determined by just how many P/R points I had) if I were willing to sacrifice combat effectiveness by pouring my precious skill points into those two areas instead. But they’re still flies in an innovative ointment.

 

How could Bioware have implemented the system differently? Making politeness and xenophobia separate from Paragon/Renegade would have been the easy way to resolve my first complaint. The second complaint is a little thornier: Bioware could have used a single Speech skill a la Fallout; or made Charm and Intimidate complements instead of substitutes (i.e. I can charm person A but I have to intimidate person B).  As it turned out, Bioware did neither for Mass Effect 2 – based on what I’ve read, ME2 does away with Charm/Intimidate entirely and instead simply uses your Paragon/Renegade level, modified by a “Negotiation” bonus.

 

Now, I’m having enough fun with Mass Effect, and I’ve heard enough good things about the sequel, that I’ll probably pick up ME2 once a PC version with the DLC quests becomes available for a cheap price. But I am curious as to how well ME2 addresses my issues. Any impressions, folks?

Magicka demo impressions: sadly, it’s the little things that count

Update: Following a patch, Magicka now allows you to save and quit at checkpoints (previously, quitting in mid-level would lose your progress). I now own the full game.

 

After hearing about Magicka, a newly-released game, on the Quarter to Three forums, I was intrigued. After reading this writeup of the game, courtesy of Rock Paper Shotgun, I had to try its demo. After actually playing the demo… well, I’m glad I tried before I reached for my wallet.

 

The gameplay itself is, no pun intended, a blast. Think of it as a Lina Inverse simulator: the game is about fighting off hordes of goblins, trolls, and other nasties by tapping out different magic elements on your keyboard/gamepad to produce different spells. So tapping earth will fling rocks at your foes. Tapping earth and fire will lob a fireball. Lightning and fire together will jump from foe to foe and set them alight. Cold and arcane will produce a beam that freezes enemies in their tracks. Water will make enemies (or yourself!) more vulnerable to subsequent lightning magic… The devastation you can unleash is enormous, and the gameplay, as you mash the spellcasting buttons, is suitably frantic.

 

No, the problem is the technical package in which the gameplay is wrapped. You can’t just save anywhere you please. At least during the demo, the game isn’t as generous as I’d like with checkpoints, so I can clear out a room, die on the next room, and have to play the first room all over again. But that pales in comparison next to the fact that you can’t save midway through a level, exit, and resume where you left off. And we are not talking about five-minute levels here –30-40 minute sessions weren’t enough for me to finish the first level. You can remap the keyboard and gamepad controls, and return the keyboard to its default – but I haven’t yet seen any ability to return the gamepad to its default. And multiplayer, a major selling point of the game, reportedly doesn’t work.

 

I understand the developer and publisher are aware of the complaints. A patch has already been released, and more are on the way. That said, I was not encouraged to read, on the Steam forum:

 

“A save option can’t be added without some serious investement in coding time.

we’d much rather spend that time on fixes, more polish and other requested features.”

 

I hope Magicka’s developer will quickly tidy up its infuriating problems, because I want to fully enjoy its potential. ‘Til then, I’m saving my $10.

Let me play a cyborg! The prevalence of high fantasy & classic space opera in games

Elf, dwarf, dragon, tavern.

 

Space pirate, FTL jump, space cruiser, space junk.

 

I’ve just summed up the settings of 50% of the science fiction and fantasy novels in existence. And I’ve also summed up the settings of 90% of Western* science fiction and fantasy video games.

 

These numbers are fictitious, of course, but I choose them to illustrate a point. High fantasy and space opera** are probably what most people associate with fantasy and science fiction, respectively, but they are a long way from comprising the entirety of the broader genres. On the other hand, they dominate gaming both old and new: to name just a few examples, consider Heroes of Might and Magic; Warcraft and its spinoffs; Master of Orion; Star Control 2 (as I discussed here); and Mass Effect, which I have running in the background as I write. These traditional settings can be done very well – Star Control is among my favourite games – but it should still be asked: why are they so prevalent?

 

In the case of fantasy, I suspect this is because the influence of D&D still runs strong, particularly in the RPG genre. And in any case, the situation is getting better; game developers are increasingly looking to the “modern” crop of epic fantasy authors for inspiration. At the AAA end of the spectrum, Dragon Age is pretty obviously influenced by George R R Martin; at the indie end, not only is Dominions 3 based off real-world mythologies (as I described here), but there’s even a minor spell inspired by the T’lan Imass from Steven Erikson’s Malazan series.  In another ten years, we might well see games inspired by Scott Lynch, Joe Abercrombie, or Patrick Rothfuss.

 

Science fiction, on the other hand, doesn’t have that excuse. Sure, there’s probably a good reason why we don’t see hard science fiction games, but that still leaves a huge gulf. Where is the post-apocalyptic (other than Fallout and its predecessor, Wasteland), the near-future Mundane SF, the cyberpunk, the post-cyberpunk? Even when it comes to space opera, we mostly see the “classic” variety featuring a dozen alien species, but humans who are exactly the same as they are now, just with FTL drives. Where are the transhuman space opera games, with societies characterised by mass use of biotech (e.g. Lois McMaster Bujold’s Cetagandans; and the Abh from Crest of the Stars), AI, and/or cybernetics?

 

As a result, there’s a lot of untapped potential. Imagine a Ghost in the Shell knockoff where, like a 2050s version of 2K’s upcoming remake XCOM, you had to solve cybernetic/AI-related crimes around the country, gathering evidence of a master scheme along the way. Or a Europa Universalis-style strategy game where you had to manage political cohesion across an interplanetary, or even interstellar, nation, in the face of social change driven by biotech/AIs/the Singularity. Or, as I mooted a few months ago, a steampunk version of Space Rangers 2 in which you could fly an airship around the world, fighting pirates, embarking on quests, and playing mini-games. Originality wouldn’t even be the commercial kiss of death, if Dragon Age (over in the fantasy realm) is any indication.

 

Again, game developers, I throw down the gauntlet. You’ve let me play Aragorn and The Lady, Johnny Rico and Han Solo and Mon Mothma. Now let me play Motoko Kusanagi and Miles Vorkosigan and Prince Alek of Hapsburg. You’ve already created so many worlds of wonder for me; surely you can show me a few more varieties?

 

* Japanese games might have their own clichés, but they’re not the same as those favoured by Western developers.

 

** For the purposes of gaming, I’m lumping together military science fiction and space opera.

The appeal of common sense: Intuitive gameplay

I’ve played video games for 21 years. Adventure, rhythm, role-playing, platformer, first-person shooter, and of course strategy – I’ve played virtually every genre, with the notable exception of sports games, at one time or another. But for all that, there is one slight problem.

 

I’m not actually that great at playing games.

 

Oh, for platformers and shooters and whatnot*, I have a ready-made excuse: I have poor reflexes and hand-eye coordination. But even when it comes to RPGs and strategy games, if I’m playing single-player, my skill level plateaus out at “pretty good”. I’m not terrible: I’ve won Civilization V on the second-highest difficulty, Immortal (which, according to the Steam achievements page, only 1% of players have done) and I’ve won on the third-highest difficulty, Emperor, with just one city. But you won’t see me recording speedruns, or going for the really extreme self-imposed challenges, such as beating games without using special abilities or researching better weapons. Why?

 

The surface explanation is very simple. As with anything else in life, learning how to play video games very well takes a lot of work — and for me, that defeats the whole point of playing games.  But that can’t be the whole story, because plenty of gamers do take the effort to reach that level of skill, whether it’s by practicing aiming and movement in a shooter or by poring over the equations that govern a strategy game.  So again, I have to ask, why?

 

The answer is that, even when it comes to strategy, I don’t treat games as systems to be mastered; I treat them as stories to be acted out through my decisions.  Instead of, say, examining the rules in minute detail, or whipping out a spreadsheet to optimise a character build, I will just opt for choices that seem both cool and intuitively reasonable. Anecdotally, I’m not alone in this, judging by the number of other people who also like to play as “builders” in the Civilization series (which, to my knowledge, has historically rewarded rushing on higher difficulty levels).  And once I realized this, several game design choices fell into place for me.

 

Consider the use of shooter mechanics in RPGs such as Mass Effect and Fallout 3. Which is more intuitive: using elaborate D&D rules, as in the case of Neverwinter Nights, or “hide behind cover, aim gun at target, fire gun”? Seen in this light, Bioware’s choice to make Mass Effect 2 (which I haven’t played but which I have read about) an action-RPG, streamlining away traditional RPG elements in the process,  makes sense as a way to take the game further down the “intuitive” path.

 

Meanwhile, in the strategy space, the Total War games are the poster child of intuitive game design. The visually splendid way they present combat, with lovingly detailed armies of 3D soldiers marching and swinging their swords, isn’t just a way to bamboozle players into not noticing bad AI – it allows us to play using common sense. When I can see a line of heavily armoured knights galloping toward a clump of men on foot with their backs turned, I don’t have to look up a rulebook to predict what’ll happen next. And I think that is a major part of the series’ appeal.

 

Intuitive gameplay is harder to deliver in some settings than in others. The classic example is science fiction: in Civilization, it’s not hard to guess what inventing the wheel, or the concept of chivalry, or gunpowder, will give me. In a science fiction game, on the other hand, how would I instinctively know what “moleculartronics” is good for? As a result, I think science fiction games can’t afford to leave details under the hood: one of my complaints with Sword of the Stars, the space opera 4X game from Kerberos,  was how uninformative the game was. Determining how exactly a cruiser equipped with “meson cannons” would fare against one with a “particle beam” was the exact opposite of my earlier example of the knights and infantry.

 

Does intuitive gameplay mean there’s no element of skill? Of course it doesn’t. Returning to Total War as an example, there’s still skill involved in planning a campaign, deploying and manoeuvring troops, timing a charge, and so on. But it does mean that, again, a player can generally rely on common sense and “generalist” skills, such as the ability to assess the situation on a map and then choose the appropriate terrain to make a stand, rather than on deeply game/ruleset-specific skills.

 

As a game design goal, then, “intuitive” gameplay is a worthy one. It makes learning curves less intimidating, and it helps gamers like me have fun: we can play to win at the same time that we create stories from our gameplay experiences. After all, “I swung my knights around and rolled up his line!”  is a much more exciting tale than, “I applied a +2 modifier to my knights, then multiplied it by 1.5x, at the same time he was suffering from a 15% penalty!” It’s not for everyone or for every genre, but it’s still something that belongs in a designer’s toolkit. And it helps explain the appeal of many games, such as Total War, that can’t just be explained away by “ooh, look at the pretty graphics”.

 

Returning to the original question of my skill: am I any better at intuitive games than I am at their fiddlier, crunchier brethren? Probably not, but at least I can pretend I am…

 

* These are the genres at the “Action” spectrum of the Escapist magazine’s genre wheel, which I discussed a while back.

Tactics Ogre – European release only a month away

To my pleasant surprise, Square Enix has announced that Tactics Ogre for PSP will come out in Europe on 25 February, a little over a month away and only ten days after its US release. (press release courtesy of Gamershell). As an added bonus, it’ll come in a “premium edition” with an artbook and a mini-soundtrack CD. As I plan to import the game from a UK retailer (assuming, of course, favourable reviews and/or word of mouth), it’s encouraging to hear I won’t have to wait too long.

Mass Effect: That guy looks familiar…

I’ve played a little bit more Mass Effect, enough to start growing fond of some of the game’s characters, dialogue and alien species but nowhere near enough to give a definitive verdict on the game. But one thing has already jumped out at me.

 

This is a volus, the game’s obligatory space merchant species:

 

And this is a toy depicting Dogbert from the Dilbert comic strip:

 

 

The resemblance is striking. Who’d have thought that megalomanical Terran cartoon dogs had managed to propagate across the galaxy?

I can see my base from here! Strategic zoom in RTSes

There have been many innovations in the RTS genre since it crawled out of the Garden of Herzog Zwei. But when I recently played a number of pre-2007 games, there was one innovation in particular that I sorely missed: the ability to zoom all the way out to see the entire map at a glance.

 

 

This is what Supreme Commander 2 (2010) looks like, fully zoomed out:

 

 

And this is what Sins of a Solar Empire (2008) looks like:

 

 

In both cases, I’ve zoomed out to see the whole play area. There is no minimap in either screenshot, because one isn’t needed: Sins doesn’t even have a minimap, while SupCom 2 allows players to call one up (see the top right-hand corner) but leaves it off by default. While fully zoomed out, I can easily give commands to buildings and even to groups of units (note that individual units are represented as radar blips in SupCom 2, and, even more abstractly, as horizontal bars in Sins).

 

 

Now, if we go back just a few years, things are very different. Take a look at Rise of Legends (2006):

 

 

Note the minimap in the lower-left hand corner. My field of vision, the white trapezium, only covers a tiny proportion of the play area. And remember, this is fully zoomed out! If I’m watching point A on the map and something happens at point B, I have to dart over to B using the minimap, click a bunch of units, and then find my way back to A again.

 

 

Being able to fully zoom out, as seen in Sins and SupCom 2, is clearly a boon. It makes a game easier, and quicker, to control; vital in a genre where, by definition, multiple things happen at once. Just as importantly, it helps the “feel”  of the game. When I can survey the whole battlefield or star system with just one flick of my scroll wheel, that contributes to the illusion that yes, I really am an interstellar warlord, not a mere glorified platoon commander.

 

 

So it surprises me that this is such a recent development – it seems to have been pioneered, under the name “strategic zoom”, by the original Supreme Commander (2007). Like many innovations, it does seem obvious with hindsight. Perhaps the technology didn’t support it prior to then*? But the important thing is that it’s hard to go without it. I miss it in old games, such as Rise of Nations and Rise of Legends. And I’d miss it in new games that have a restrictive zoom (Starcraft 2, from what I’ve seen, fits this bill). In that regard, too, it’s like so many other successful innovations: couldn’t imagine it beforehand, can’t live without it afterwards.

 

 

*  Apparently the Supreme Commander engine “was built from day one with this technology in mind”, according to “Servo” from Gas Powered Games. And in this forum thread, Ryan McGechaen (aka “tribalbob”) from Relic, the developer of Company of Heroes, explains: “Supreme Commander’s high-altitude camera zoom works because as you zoom out; assets are replaced with lower res assets and then eventually become dots.  Unfortunately, the Essence engine does not support this LOD (Level of Detail) swapping; we can’t increase the zoom distance without increasing min spec requirements.

Game of Thrones – news round-up

The last few days have seen quite a few Game of Thrones-related news items. A recap below:

  1. A Game of Thrones will premiere in the US on 17 April.
  2. HBO has released new publicity photos, visible here.  I particularly like the bottom-most picture, which is of Catelyn; it makes her look wise, sad, and strong.
  3. Courtesy of Winter is Coming: a list of stations outside the US which will broadcast the series. In Australia, the series will be on Showcase, “possibly in July”.
  4. Also from Winter is Coming, a summary of a fifteen-minute, non-public preview video (SPOILERS for the first few episodes).

The Stompers of Comps #1: Sins of a Solar Empire 2v2 AAR, with Josh

I’m pleased to present this blog’s first cooperative after-action report (AAR)/Let’s Play (LP)! For today’s post, The Stompers of Comps #1, we played one of my preferred timekillers, a polished and, I’m glad to say, profitable space-opera RTS from a small developer that punched well above its weight.

 

The game: Sins of a Solar Empire, with the Diplomacy expansion.

 

The rules: Two human players versus two Hard AI players. Locked teams. Diplomatic victory DISABLED.

 

The teammate: Josh.

 

Continue reading “The Stompers of Comps #1: Sins of a Solar Empire 2v2 AAR, with Josh”

What I’ve been playing over the 2010 holidays; impressions of King Arthur & Far Cry 2

Over the last couple of weeks, while I’ve played a fair bit of Civilization V, on the whole I’ve taken the scattergun approach and spent a little bit of time on a lot of games instead of focusing on a couple of titles. Some of the games I played are old favourites: I returned to Fallout 3 in order to blast through the Broken Steel DLC before I wrote my feature on storytelling in Fallout 3; and I tried my hand at what seems to be the most popular challenge for Europa Universalis III veterans, rebuilding the Byzantine Empire. Some were titles that I hadn’t played before, but which I’ve owned for some time. And some were new games, largely purchased during Steam’s recent holiday sale. Here are my impressions on some of the games in the two latter categories:

 

  • King  Arthur: The Role-playing Wargame (new game): So far, I’m impressed by the production values of this game, its dark, brooding art and ethereal vocal music, and I love the premise that King Arthur and his knights live in a world filled with giants and faeries both “seelie” and “unseelie”, Christians pushing back against the old gods, and where half of England is covered by a mystic forest where time passes differently. However, I haven’t got the hang of the actual gameplay yet: more often than not, my battles seem to degenerate into confused brawls in the woods.

 

  • Bioshock and Mass Effect (backlogged games): Both these games intrigue me, and on paper, I should love both of them: one reputedly has fantastic writing and themes, the other is supposed to be a well-executed space opera pastiche. But neither has really grabbed me after the first hour or so, and again, the gameplay looks to be the culprit. Which takes me to…

 

  • Far Cry 2 (new game): This is the stand-out of the games I’ve dabbled in. When the game opened with a bumpy jeep ride through sub-Saharan Africa, with the driver telling stories about brush fires, bribing mercenaries at a checkpoint, and pointing out the last plane out of the country, I knew I was in for a distinctive, original setting. And when I lost my car in game, trudged along for a little while, realised why people find a car so essential to get around, and decided to raid a mercenary outpost just so I could loot a new one, I knew I was in for a distinctive play experience.

 

I still have many more titles I need to dig more deeply into (AI War, Rise of Nations, Rise of Legends, The Sims 3, Resonance of Fate, Dragon Age…) and something else may well capture my attention. But just based on what I’ve played so far, I suspect Far Cry 2 will end up booting Bioshock and maybe Mass Effect back down into my backlog. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that I like Far Cry 2, given that I also enjoyed STALKER: Shadow of Chernobyl, another atmospheric open-world shooter. And as a result, I suspect those shooters I buy in the future will likely be in the same vein.

Carpe Fulgur’s next game is Chantelise; Recettear sells 100,000 copies

Carpe Fulgur’s next release will be Chantelise, a 2006 hack-and-slash game from EasyGameStation (more details on Chantelise here). I have to wonder whether it’ll enjoy the same success as Recettear, given that Recettear had a unique premise to hook RPG players who otherwise may not have taken notice of “an indie game from Japan”. Still, worth keeping an eye on. Chantelise is just one of the titles Carpe Fulgur has planned for 2011, so maybe we’ll also see an English release of Territoire? (According to Google’s translation, the Territoire demo is already available in Japanese – check out the EasyGameStation website here, click Download and then the first link.)

 

Meanwhile, Recettear has now sold over 100,000 copies! Granted, most of those sales were heavily discounted – for example, during the Thanksgiving Steam sale, Recettear was effectively being sold for $1 ($5 spread over five games in a bundle pack), but 100,000 people playing a niche indie game is still pretty impressive.

 

What does this mean in dollar terms? A while back,  I estimated Carpe Fulgur would have seen a little under ~US$500,000 in revenue (based on 26,000 units sold, half at $18 and half at $20), so if I update my numbers to assume 13,000 pre-orders @ $18, 17,000 sold for the full price of $20, 60,000 @ $1, and 10,000 @ $10 (the current Steam sale price – it was $5 on a daily sale, but let’s keep things simple), this gives us total ex-Japan revenue for Recettear of $700,000. Carpe Fulgur also mentions that its share of Recettear sales proceeds – in other words, its gross profit margin – is slightly under 25% (vs my earlier guesstimate of 33%), with the bulk of the money going to EasyGameStation. If we assume, say, 22.5%, then multiplying by $700,000 leaves $157,500 to pay salaries, tax and any other bills. Assuming minimal expenses, that equates to $52,500 for each of Carpe Fulgur’s three members. This isn’t that far from my earlier estimate of ~$55,000 from 26,000 copies, because the higher number of (mostly discounted) sales netted out against my too-high gross margin, and is still a respectable figure.Of course, the most important thing is how it affects the viability of the business, and there, Carpe Fulgur sounds pleased as punch.

Puzzle or strategy? Byzantium in Europa Universalis III

Note: Europa Universalis IV is now out! You can find my EU4 coverage here.

 

This is part 1 of an irregular series on Europa Universalis III.

 

Part 1: The Byzantine Empire and puzzle-like gameplay.

Part 2: The Manchus, hordes, and the consequences of deficit spending.

 

One of the supposed sins of strategy game design is making a game, or a level, that feels like a puzzle. In this situation, players don’t win because they were creative, or because they were skilful and flexible planners; they won because they precisely followed the One Right Sequence Of Events. Now, while I intellectually knew what this meant, I didn’t quite grasp why it was a problem. Couldn’t you still have fun playing that one right way?

 

Then I tried my hand at playing the Byzantine Empire in Europa Universalis III (with the Heir to the Throne expansion). EU3 opens in 1399, and as the following screenshot illustrates, by this point the Byzantines are a pitiful shadow of the glory that was Rome:

 

 

In 1399, Byzantium (purple) is a two-province rump, comprising Constantinople and the southern tip of Greece. What was once its empire is now held by various one-province statelets such as Achaea and the Knights of Rhodes; the Venetians (teal)… and the Ottoman Empire (green). In real life, the Ottomans would finally destroy the Byzantines in a little over fifty years’ time. Could I do any better?

The answer, it turned out, was yes. This is my Byzantine empire about a century later, in the 1490s:

 

 

The one-province minors are gone, absorbed into the Byzantine fold. The Ottomans are no more. Venice has been reduced to a Byzantine vassal state. And the Byzantine writ now even extends to southern Italy. How did I, a player of mediocre skill, pull this off?

The answer is, by following the One Right Way To Play Byzantium (per EU3’s official forum). As the game begins, the Ottoman Empire might be much larger than the Byzantine, but it has a distraction on its eastern border: the fearsome Tamerlane (whose Timurids are dark red in the first screenshot). This gives Byzantium a couple of years’ grace to build up its forces, possibly mop up some of the one-province statelets, and then hit the Ottomans during that narrow window of opportunity. Everything hinges on the success of that first Ottoman war, which in turn depends on two conditions:

  1. Has the Ottoman army been withdrawn from Europe to fight the Timurids, in which case Byzantium will face minimal opposition on land?
  2. Is the Byzantine navy strong enough to prevent the Ottomans from re-crossing into Europe?

The outcome of the war then becomes binary. If the answer to both questions is YES, then the Byzantines can reclaim the western half of their empire at a stroke. Otherwise, the Ottomans will wipe Byzantium from the face of the earth. And there is no margin for error.

Oh, there is a little leeway as to the details: as the link to the forum thread shows, the Byzantine player does have the choice as to whether to mop up a few of the little principalities and maybe the Venetians, before going after the Ottomans. And to pay for all the troops and ships it’ll need, Byzantium can either run a mildly inflationary monetary policy, or go for fully-fledged Mugabenomics*.

But strategy games, by definition, are about making tough choices, and there’s no choice as to that do-or-die Ottoman war. If the Byzantines miss their opportunity, then the Ottomans will raise a new army in Europe (or bring their troops back across from Asia) and declare war first – as I found out the hard way.  And if the Byzantines don’t have a bigger army in Europe and enough ships to bottle up the Ottoman fleet, they’ll be in for a very short game. If the Byzantines win, on the other hand, the rest of the game is downhill: they can use the manpower and revenue base of Europe to reconquer the eastern part of the empire, and keep snowballing from there.

Oh, I had a lot of fun rebuilding the Byzantine Empire, and it might be interesting to see just how far I can push my success – should I revive Justinian’s dream of a reunited Roman empire? But before I arrived at that fun, I had to reload at least four or five times to perfect my technique. And I think that, in a nutshell, explains why puzzles and strategy don’t mix.

 

 

* Given that the game takes place in the days before paper fiat money, I assume the option to “mint” money, at the cost of inflation, represents debasing the currency by using less and less precious metal in coins. Please feel free to correct me if I’m wrong!

 

Update: for an interesting discussion of strategy games and puzzle-like gameplay in general, I refer you to these posts by Troy Goodfellow.