Conquest of Elysium 3: The Verdict

This entry is part 2 of 3 in the series Conquest of Elysium



One look at Conquest of Elysium 3, the new fantasy turn-based strategy game from Illwinter Game Design, and you would think you’d stepped into a classic 4X. You begin by choosing a faction (one of 18 character classes) and a map type (one of six eras), and when you start play, the following screen is straight out of every 4X ever made:


Humble beginnings


One citadel, two commanders (lose all your citadels or commanders, and it’s game over), a handful of guards, and a whole, randomised, unexplored world. Now go out and conquer it!


However, the truth is very different. While COE3 wears the trappings of the 4X genre, it boils down three of the genre’s four elements into something that’s not just simpler and faster to play, but also distinct in emphasis and feel. As such, this is to 4X games what 30-second RPG Half-Minute Hero was to Final Fantasy; the parallels are there, but they point in a different direction.


Explore and expand


To begin with, unlike a 4X game, you won’t even be able to build anything at the start of COE3. Early on, troops are expensive – too expensive to afford with just your starting citadel! So how do you expand your army?


The answer lies with the useful locations that dot Elysium. Some will provide resources to fund the expansion of your army. Some will count as new citadels, allowing you to recruit troops in the field as well as moving all your eggs out of one basket. Some will let you power up your mages, and so on. So the first order of business is to find, and then secure, those locations.


Even within a category, not all locations are created equal. For starters, different classes need different resources. Settlements and mines provide gold and iron, which everybody needs. If you’re playing a vanilla human class, the Baron or the Senator, those are all the resources you need: go bury the world in knights and legionaries! However, most classes will need other resources to unlock their special abilities: the Troll King gathers fungus from forests for magic rituals, the Dwarf Queen and the Warlock collect magic gems from mines, and so on. Different classes might also get bonuses/penalties to specific locations: the Senator makes more money from everything, while the Dwarves make more money from mines and less from settlements.


On top of that, different locations are also guarded by independent forces of varying strength. Generally, a prize will be commensurate with the difficulty of taking it: you might find one or two spearmen defending a farm that brings in 1 gold per turn, while a city bringing in 5 gold and 2 trade (allowing you to buy/sell other resources) might be held by 20 men with zweihanders and longbows. Still, that’s only a general rule. No two locations of the same type will have exactly the same defenders, so stumbling across a soft, juicy target is a big part of the thrill of exploration.


Once you’ve taken a location, you’ll then need to hold it. Even leaving aside other players, Elysium is packed with wandering independent monsters (deer, bandits, snakes, undead…), and more will spawn from their lairs. These will constantly raid your possessions, and movement in the game is slow enough that you likely won’t want to circle your main force back to recapture lost ground. But detach too many men for garrison duty, and you could slow your expansion.


Early expansion, then, is a constant, delicious trade-off between risk and reward (do I have enough troops to take that mine?), followed by a juggling act between offence and defence (how many troops can I safely leave behind to garrison it)? For me, the game is strongest in this phase, when every turn is filled with curiosity about what may lie over the next hill; excitement when I discover my El Dorado; and a stream of interesting decisions.


A tale of two cities


The above screenshot illustrates this aspect of COE3. In this game, I hit the jackpot: two cities nearby, one of which was held by a mere eight men! Unfortunately, I promptly squandered it: when I rushed in to attack, those eight men were plenty to wipe out my attacking force, including my only two commanders. Game over.


Hey, what happened to “Exploit”?


Why were those cities such a big deal? Could I have established my own? Well, no. Importantly, there is precious little economic or empire management in COE3. For example, research is important in Civilization or Dominions, but in COE3 there is no research and no tech tree. If you want a magician to learn a new spell, you conquer a library, sequester him/her for several turns, and watch as he/she emerges with a new entry in the spellbook. Similarly, there is virtually no “guns or butter”, virtually no way to invest in one’s economy now for a future payoff, and little terrain improvement.


There are exceptions. The Burgmeister, who presides over a nation of diminutive, weed-growing humanoids, can spend money to “colonise” farms and transform them into more productive hoburg villages. A couple of the other classes can transform the map to increase their unit production: the Troll King’s allies can spend resources to haunt forests, which makes them spawn friendly wandering monsters, while the Dwarf Queen has to invest gems and gold to set up new daughter colonies. Still, this game’s emphasis is firmly on fighting wars, not winning the peace.




When you do march into an independent city, you’re counterattacked by monsters, or when another player’s army shows up, it’s time to fight. You have no control over combat once it starts; instead, the game will show you a turn-by-turn replay of the fight. The following screenshot shows my late-game army in action against a computer player:


Fight it out!


Note that each army is lined up in rows. The concept is a little like Ogre Battle or Disciples: a unit’s abilities depend on which row it’s in. Melee units in the back rows will be unable to attack, archers in the front row will attack with daggers instead of their primary weapons, and so on. Here, though, you don’t choose who goes into which row – archers and crossbowmen are always in the middle, swordsmen always towards the front, and so on. On its turn, each unit then picks a random target, usually limited to the enemy’s front row (certain attacks are an exception).


As a result, army composition is where much of the game’s strategy lies. For example, multiple rows of ranged units can all shoot while only the front row of melee units can attack. But those melee units at the front must survive to shield the archers. So how might I best divide my army between the two? Returning to the above screenshot, my front rows comprise the most heavily armoured infantrymen I can recruit, plus hulking fire, earth and water elementals – ordinary grunts have the life expectancy of mayflies. Behind them I have two rows of archers and crossbowmen (the soldiers in the red trousers), plus a lightning-throwing air elemental (the cloud/tornado in the middle). At the very back are my leaders: the Great Warlock of Water (in blue) and his apprentice (in saffron). This combination worked like a dream: the infantrymen and elementals held fast, the crossbowmen compounded my firepower, and the Great Warlock laid waste to whole rows of the enemy army with his high-level magic.


My army would probably have looked quite different had I been playing another class. My Warlock started with a roster of generic human soldiers (paid for with gold and iron), supplemented these with elementals (paid for with gems), and boosted his own magic (gems again). By contrast, the Troll King fields a handful of powerful, expensive behemoths (himself foremost among them!), accompanying mages who can scry out their next target, and goblin cannon-fodder. Playing the Warlock feels like leading an army; playing the Troll King feels like leading a small but elite raiding party, marching to a soothsayer’s tune. Not every army is as distinct as the Troll King’s, but that still leaves variety: for instance, the Senator relies on row after row of legionaries, armed with javelins for ranged combat and gladii for melee. No need to worry about separate spear- and crossbowmen for him!


Eventually, it’s time to take the war to the other players (if they haven’t been destroyed by other AIs or the independent monsters). Unfortunately, for me this is the least satisfying part of the game. True, it’s fun to finally unleash late-game units and magic, and there are still some interesting decisions to be made. Do I go for an early attack or a late one? (For example, from what I’ve seen the Troll King is much better suited to rushing; early on he can clean out entire villages by himself, but he can’t solo even a mid-sized army.) Do I split my forces to raid the enemy’s settlements? Can I beat that army or do I fall back on my citadel and wait for reinforcements? But in my experience, this all boils down to who has the nastier stack of doom. Either I show up with a bigger army and steamroll the other player, or the other player shows up with a bigger army and steamrolls me. No control over battles means no scope for superior tactics, and no economic management means precious few levers to pull to ensure I have a bigger army in the first place. This is fine when I’m playing explorer and stomping independents; less fine when the other players can try to stomp me back. Presumably the player with the better army did a better job of exploring and securing the map earlier on, had a better grasp of army composition, had a luckier starting position, or all of the above. But for whatever reason, victory or defeat too often feels like a black box to me.


After winning or losing, it’s time to start another game. This is feasible in a way it wouldn’t be in the typical 4X game: you can finish a COE3 “large” map in maybe an hour or two, and smaller maps in significantly less. The best analogy is skirmish mode in an RTS – something you can keep replaying in bite-sized sessions – but with random maps.


The Verdict


Ultimately, a food metaphor might be the best way to sum up Conquest of Elysium 3. Its big brother, Dominions 3, is like learning how to cook: difficult and time-consuming, but blissfully rewarding in the end. The typical 4X game, say Civilization or Master of Magic/Orion, resembles a meal at a buffet restaurant: enjoyable, filling, and replete with choice, but not something you can quickly consume. COE3, with apologies to Forrest Gump, is more like a box of chocolates. Like a box of chocolates, it’s filled with variety, courtesy of its 18 factions, six eras, and imaginative developers. Like a box of chocolates, it’s better at the start (this is a good game about exploration) than at the end (when I have to fight other players with a toolkit better suited to the player-vs-environment gameplay of the opening phases). And, just like a box of chocolates, COE3 is better suited for snacking than for full meals. If you’re after a light, quick-playing game, one that encourages you to reach in, take a bite, and come back later to sample different flavours, COE3 is worth a look.


Hopefully Illwinter will release a demo soon, but for now, you can download its predecessor (Conquest of Elysium 2, 1997) as freeware here; or buy the full game from Desura. Update: there is now a demo available.


The basis of my review


Time spent with the game: I estimate at least 10-15 hours.


What I have played: The Warlock, Senator, Baron, Troll King, Dwarf Queen, Enchanter, Burgmeister, and Barbarian characters.


What I haven’t played: Multiplayer; the remaining characters; any difficulty level that gives the computer a bonus.


Note: the above comments are based on a review copy supplied by the game’s developer, Illwinter Game Design.


I hope you enjoyed this post! To quickly find this post, and my other reviews, click the “reviews” tab at the top of this page.

Conquest of Elysium 3 first impressions: Not quite a chip off the old block

This entry is part 1 of 3 in the series Conquest of Elysium

Dominions 3, Illwinter’s 2006 magnum opus, is one of my all-time favourite games, but its depth and complexity make it a time-consuming beast. And so I jumped when I heard Illwinter’s latest title, Conquest of Elysium 3, was simpler and quicker-to-play. Dominions Lite, here I come! Instead, I found something very different.


My very first impressions of COE3 were misleading. Setting up a new game was an experience straight out of Dominions: I chose which era I wanted to play in, chose my leader (COE3’s equivalent of a Dominions faction+pretender combination), and emerged on the map screen to see sprites, and hear sound effects, taken straight from Dominions. It was only after playing a few games that I realised how dissimilar COE3 felt.


You call that a treasury?


Dominions 3 is about the clash of empires. Your resources are vast, but so are the claims on them. Every turn, tax revenues and magic gems will flood into your treasury, and even though you will never have enough of each, you will typically have enough to spend on something. You will raise enormous armies across dozens of provinces; script elaborate orders for your sorcerers; constantly research new and better magic. And your rival pretender gods do the same. They are the main threat, not the independent provinces meekly waiting to be bulldozed.


COE3, in contrast, is about scarcity. Your handful of commanders, and their retinues, must explore the map in search of farms and villages and mines, then fight their independent defenders tooth and nail – or, frequently, just move onto easier targets. Once you’ve taken the sites, you can’t just abandon them: wandering monsters are a constant threat. But if you leave 3 men to hold this village, and 5 to hold that gold mine, sooner or later those garrisons start adding up. Then it’s time to march back to your castle to pick up fresh recruits, if you can afford them – early on, amassing enough coin to recruit 5 or 10 soldiers is a big deal. Even later on, an army of 100 human soldiers (a modest task force in Dominions 3) would be an awesome host in COE3. The overall feel is of leading a few small bands through a savage land; think Mad Max or Fallout: The Strategy Game.


The net effect is that Dominions 3 fans shouldn’t go into Conquest of Elysium 3 expecting more (or less?) of the same. After playing heaven knows how much Dominions 3, my early experiences with COE3 have been rather like meeting the child of an old friend. The resemblance is there in the eyes and nose; but the soul behind them is entirely its bearer’s own.


Stay tuned for more!


Note: the above comments are based on a review copy supplied by the game’s developer, Illwinter Game Design.

Guest post: One hour with Crusader Kings II, by Rachel McFadden

This entry is part 1 of 5 in the series Crusader Kings II game diary, by Rachel McFadden

History is good. Games are good. Vivid, memorable characters are good. Could a historical game packed with vivid, memorable characters, Paradox’s Crusader Kings II, be best of all? In the following guest post, the first of a series, Rachel McFadden (aka frogbeastegg) sets out to answer this.


Note: the following comments are based on a review copy supplied by the game’s developer, Paradox Interactive.



My first hour with a new PC game follows a time-honoured pattern. I read the manual whilst the game installs. In the days of 20GB installs and pamphlet manuals, I usually need to add a chapter of my current book to fill the downtime. Next, I dutifully check for patches. When the game’s finally ready to launch, I do so and watch any opening cinematics. After that, I fiddle with the options screens. If there’s a tutorial, I’ll go there next, whether it looks useful or not. Only after all of this rigmarole do I settle down with a cup of tea to start playing the game proper.


Boring! Traditional. Traditionally boring?


In Crusader Kings II, I spent my first hour running around the game set-up screen whilst my inner history geek squealed with joy.


It all began innocently enough. I scouted around the map a little, looking at the various kings and independent rulers in the ‘William the Conqueror 1066’ scenario. After locating most of the famous names from the period and chuckling at their portraits, I started to look at their vassals. Sure enough, I spotted the obvious names. There’s this king’s brother, here’s that duke’s nephew, there’s that famous daughter, and oh my gosh that’s pseudo-saint Waltheof of Huntingdon prior to his little mishap with a headsman’s axe! Selecting the vassals meant I could see their courts, and another round of name-spotting swept across Europe. Then I did the same thing with the other bookmarks.


Having exhausted the scenarios, I looked speculatively at a certain control which is in most Paradox games, one I’ve seldom found useful as it mainly makes minor changes to national borders. I cautiously clicked on a button. I grinned. Ladies and gentlemen, CKII features a fully functional time machine!



The scenarios act as bookmarks that store specific dates. Using the time machine you can choose your own starting date, right down to the very day. It turns out that CKII has historical data for the entire time range, not just the specified starting points. As you play with the dates the world shifts and changes – characters age or grow younger before your eyes, titles rise and fall, and all sorts of extra historical personages appear onto the scene. Start in 1066 with William the Conqueror and move forward, there’s William II, forward, Henry I, forward, Stephen I, forward, Henry II – the line will continue in historically correct form up to the latest date the game supports, January 1st 1337. It’s not only the English royal line that does this. Every single title on the map will do the same, from the mightiest of Sultans to the most minor of counts. Their vassals and courts will likewise update.


Needless to say, I spent another half hour with this new toy.


With the discovery of the time machine, I pushed the game to what I expected to be its limit. I went in search of my favourite historical personage. First I located King John of England, then worked through his vassals until I found a certain Countess Isabelle, an heiress with huge tracts of land. Selecting her I scanned through her court and … yes, there he was, the husband who derived most of his landed status through her. William Marshal, aka The Greatest Knight. An old man with a bevy of historically accurate children, still wearing his armour with pride.


At this point my inner medievalist had a meltdown. William Marshal is in the game and playable! If ever there was an occasion where the internetism “ZOMG!!” applies, surely this is it.


When you start a campaign, there’s more detail available on the historical characters. You can see the traits they have been assigned by developers and grumble that so-and-so wasn’t that, or nod approvingly because it’s plainly apparent that what’s-his-face was a this. And then I noticed the range of ancestors. Yes, this means you can go on a paper chase to locate personages of the non-landholder variety, including a vast array of female characters.


Might I humbly suggest Paradox start working on a Pokemon-esque sub-game centred around locating historical people in CKII? I’d buy that as £1.59 DLC, especially if I can train my Anna Comnena to breathe fire and shoot ice beams from her fingertips, or make Frederick Barbarossa hurl lightning.


Rachel McFadden (aka frogbeastegg) has been gaming since she discovered the original Prince of Persia on the IBM 286sx PC. Whilst strategy and RPGs are her preferred genres, she is a multiplatform gamer who will play almost anything provided it isn’t sport, car racing, or multiplayer only. Under the frogbeastegg name Rachel has written guides for many of the Total War series, various AARs for strategy games, and a few pieces of fiction. When not engaged in reminding various virtual populaces that she is in fact the Supreme Ruler of the Universe and the One True Hero, Rachel can typically be found with her nose in a book. 

Guest post: Writing and Worldbuilding in Final Fantasy XII: Story Isn’t Enough, by Matt Bowyer

A key part of a story’s appeal — whether it be a book, a game, or a movie — is its ability to transport me to a world of wonder, and almost as fascinating is peering behind the curtain to see how the creator pulled it off. In the following guest post, Matt Bowyer breaks out the magnifying glass for a look at Final Fantasy XII (2006, Square Enix). Enjoy!




“Where is this taking place, again?”

“I can picture your characters and their actions very well, but I have no idea what this area is like.”

“Make these backgrounds interactive versus static.”

“This is quite the featureless white room your characters are in.”


I feel like I do a pretty good job in building the world of my attempted novels. A lot of time and effort goes into figuring out why this country grew up around the church while this neighboring country is almost agnostic, and what conflicts would have arisen between these two lands as time passed. I regularly add to a document, filling in bits of legend and mythology alongside the evolution of trade routes and what racial slurs are used among less refined city-dwellers. And then I let my characters run all over it and forget to use that worldbuilding for anything more than a backdrop. I can get away with this if I want; a story is only as good as its characters as far as I’m concerned, and that’s where most of my focus in writing goes. It’s not something that’s acceptable in video games, though, and that’s why I have this soapbox here.


Final Fantasy XII is one of the best games ever made, and absolutely the best of the Final Fantasy series. One of its strongest qualities is its worldbuilding; the bustling desert capital Rabanastre is full of people at all times, a constant buzz of activity on every screen. It’s the most alive city I’ve seen in an RPG. The entire game is full of these incredible locales; the thick heat of the Golmore Jungle, the floating majesty that is the Skycity of Bhujerba, the quiet power at the sacred site of Mt. Bur-Omisace.


Final Fantasy XII’s bestiary adds to this deep world — kill one enemy and you are treated to a beautiful painting plus a page or so of detail about it, the migratory patterns of rotund cockatrices or the hunting habits of sand-dwelling crocodiles. But if you kill another 5-10 of that creature, you get a bit of Sage Knowledge about the world of Ivalice. It may be a legend about a specific item that drops from that creature, it may be a passage from a holy book, it may be why magick power has flourished while electricity did not, it may be a bit of sell copy for a nearby shop. It’s fantastic stuff, and I found myself drastically lowering the local lizard population so I could learn more about their teeth. But that’s not enough. A deep bestiary and a great deal of supplemental in-game writing is wonderful, but anyone can do that with enough time and a decent writer supporting their worldbuilding efforts. It’s much harder, but I feel much more important, to build that world identity in-game, in a way that engages your players more deeply than words on a screen.


Final Fantasy XII excels at this. The Skycity of Bhujerba is a set of floating islands built around a magicite mining colony founded by moogles, the earliest airship builders and pilots. Bhujerba is valuable because of the skystone magicite produced in its mines — those stones are what allow the islands to float high above the ground, and they give that same power to the many airships that sail the skies of Ivalice. The Arcadian Empire’s recent expansionism has increased the pressure on Bhujerba, and now the Skycity is officially allied to Archades – but though the city grants the Empire access to its magicite mines, anti-Imperial tension boils within.


The most important visual aspect of Bhujerba is the fact that it is a series of floating islands. Most fantasy games don’t have much need to explain this — a wizard did it, are we ordering out for lunch? — but Final Fantasy XII builds the reason for this into the plot itself, and your first trip to the city deals with its most important aspect. Your first visit to Bhujerba takes you inside the mines, where you meet a character who talks of the Empire’s interest in the skystone. The end of the excursion in the mines gives the party a particular kind of magicite which breaks the rules, placing more importance and emphasis on the role magicite plays in the game, and further underlines Bhujerba’s importance to the Empire. The player does not just read this in a document three menus deep, he learns it while exploring the mine behind the political drama. The player learns of the power of magicite when the player acquires some, and the player learns of the boundaries of the world so when those boundaries are pushed later on, that change actually means something.


One of the first things you are told upon entering Bhujerba and talking to everyone that you can — the only acceptable action in a new town in an RPG — is that no one has died falling off of the city into the water below. A bit of flavor lets you know why people live here, why they apparently have no qualms about sitting on the side of a wall inches from freefall, and also offers a bit of knowledge that will help the player solve a side quest later in the game. You will also hear rumors about mutated creatures, ghosts haunting the mines, and other bits of background flavor that lead into eventual side quests later on — again, informing the player through action, not just reading. It’s not just worldbuilding for worldbuilding’s sake, it directly involves the player. It makes the world more than just a backdrop, it makes it a place.


There are more examples of this throughout the game. The three-tiered caste structure in Archades, a city built from the ground up to the sky: the party has to navigate the politics of the city’s elite to make it to that lofty status themselves. Giza Plains: the game tells you early on about the torrential rains that wash through every season, then buries you under those rains hours later when you return, opening up new areas and closing off old ones. The Mosphoran Highwaste, full of ancient shrines to forgotten gods: later those shrines open up pathways to new, previously unreachable areas.


Nearly every area in Final Fantasy XII was built with the player in mind. The developers considered how their design of Ivalice would impact the player. Even the weather changes make a difference; blistering heat in the desert brings out fire elementals who drift lazily in the sunlight, but are quick to react to magic cast in their vicinity. The Nabreus Deadlands feature a fog that obscures enemies until they are already upon you; that fog is a result of the Mist pouring out of ravaged Nabudis, and inside Nabudis are unspeakable horrors twisted by the incredible energy unleashed upon that city before the game began. That event is also referenced by an important NPC later on in the game, another way the game involves the player in what happened.


Compare this to the more recent Final Fantasy XIII, which has incredibly beautiful locations with stunning music supporting them, and which have no more impact on your gameplay than wallpaper. Lake Bresha is a gorgeous frozen lake that Lightning and the other protagonists land in after a boss encounter, but you do nothing but run from Point A to Point B — nothing here makes any impact on your gameplay experience. There is no difference in navigating the Fifth Ark versus navigating the Gapra Whitewood — your location does nothing but change the color of the enemies you fight. For all the importance these areas have in your gameplay experience, you might as well be playing in a featureless white room.


That might work in a book, where the strength of the characters and the story can overcome ignoring the world. That will not work in a game, because there is no story in games worth telling that ignores the player.

Matt Bowyer is an aspiring author living in Kansas City who spends too much time playing video games and playing armchair designer. He can be found at in between chapters and loading screens.

Postcards from Sengoku Japan: The Mori’s Last Stand

This entry is part 5 of 10 in the series Total War: Shogun 2

Making a game’s visuals spectacular is a technical achievement. Making them beautiful is an artistic one, and at its best, Shogun 2 delivers both. Here, as a vastly superior enemy army marches out of the fog, the Mori clan prepares to make its last stand. (To be precise, my last stand. This is what happens when I attempt an econ strategy before securing my borders.)

Book review: Empire in Black and Gold, by Adrian Tchaikovsky

The city states of the Lowlands have lived in peace for decades, bastions of civilization, prosperity and sophistication. They have been protected by treaties, trade and a belief in the reasonable nature of their neighbours.

But meanwhile, in far-off corners, the Wasp Empire has been devouring city after city with its highly trained armies, its machines, its killing Art . . . And now its hunger for conquest and war has become insatiable. Only the ageing Stenwold Maker, spymaster, artificer and statesman, can see that the long days of peace are over. It falls upon his shoulders to open the eyes of his people – as soon a black-and-gold tide will sweep down over the Lowlands and burn away everything in its path.

But first he must stop himself from becoming the Empire’s latest victim.

– Official blurb for Empire in Black and Gold


Empire in Black and Gold, the first book in the Shadows of the Apt series, is a promising epic fantasy novel by Adrian Tchaikovsky. While Tchaikovsky uses the genre’s basic building blocks – a formidable danger, an oblivious civilisation, plucky heroes between the two, and cool set-pieces – he creates something new and fresh by dragging those old tropes into the industrial age.


Tchaikovsky’s prose, characterisation, and plotting are solid. None of these will win any awards, but they get the job done. I cared about the protagonists – the beautiful swordswoman and her plain sister, the nerdy engineer and the laughing dandy, the ageing mentor and the few surviving comrades of his generation. I was intrigued by their antagonist, a spy/secret policeman. I wanted to know what happened next, and when I powered ahead, the prose mostly stood out of my way. Tchaikovsky does have a jarring habit of head-hopping (switching from one point-of-view character to another within the same scene), but I grew used to this after a while. Otherwise, his writing carries the book through both fight scenes and quiet moments.


Where the book shines is in the power of the author’s imagination; with seemingly every page, right to the very end of the book, I would find something new to delight me. Two things exemplify this. First, the fusion of magic and technology. Smoke-bellowing, tank-like battering rams pound city gates into the dust; winged infantrymen drop down amidst hot-air balloons; ballista operators shoot it out with fireball-throwers. It’s a breath of fresh air in a genre that, even after breaking out of D&D pseudo-medieval settings, is still stuck largely in a pre-industrial age. Second, its assortment of fantasy races: not elves and dwarves, but humans who took on the aspect of totem insects.  Winged, child-sized Flies are excellent couriers and scouts, Beetles are unglamorous but inventive, Spiders are attractive but devious, Ants share a telepathic link, and so on. This is the originality with which good speculative fiction is made.


Overall, Empire in Black and Gold isn’t the best fantasy book ever, but I had a lot of fun with its combination of (a) external conflict, (b) a weird and wonderful setting, and (c) decent execution. Recommended to genre fans, and I look forward to reading the rest of Tchaikovsky’s work.


You can buy Empire in Black and Gold from Amazon US here.


Tropico 4: The ingredients of a successful Caribbean holiday

The week and a half I’ve played Tropico 4, the Latin American-themed city-builder, has been time well spent. I haven’t started the game’s campaign, but I’ve played enough of the sandbox mode to know I like it – and to know why. Tropico 4 does a number of things right, and while none of them is individually ground-breaking, each of them illustrates a principle of successful design. They are:


1. Difficulty – let me build in peace!



Difficulty in a game can come from two sources. In many (most?) games, from Shogun 2 to Dark Souls, the primary challenge comes from trying to make progress or avoid failure. If the Game Over/You Died screen is a constant companion, then we can say the game is “challenging”. However, even when the player is not at risk of game-ending failure, difficulty can still arise from self-imposed goals. If the game requires skilful play in order to meet those goals, then this is another form of challenge.


When it comes to city-builders, I’ll take the second type of challenge over the first. To me, these titles exemplify gaming as a “narrative of continuous progress”, and as such, I prefer them nice and relaxing. Oh, it’s one thing to have failure lurking in the background. The fear of failure keeps players on their toes – training enough heroes to fight off monsters in Majesty, building apartments and clinics to prevent an uprising in Tropico 4 – but as far as I’m concerned, actual game-overs should be easy to avoid.


And in this regard, Tropico 4 is perfect for me: with the default settings, it takes a lot of doing to lose a sandbox game. Instead, I like to see how effectively I can develop the island of Tropico (thriving economy, good healthcare, clean environment, educated populace, etc) within the constraints of money and time. After finishing five or six sandbox games, most as a benevolent leader and one as a brutal kleptocrat, I think I’m done with this play mode, but it was a lot of fun while it lasted. And there are options for players who want more or less of a challenge, ranging from a weaker/stronger world economy, to a more or less fractious populace, to a de facto god mode. The important thing is, I can tailor the game to meet my preferred play style.


As a contrasting example of what not to do in the city-builder genre, I offer city-builder/RTS/digital ant farm Majesty 2, which was built around an often rock-hard campaign. I would never use the word “relaxing” to describe that game, and while I did enjoy it, I’ll take Tropico 4 any day. (The original Majesty, which I preferred, was closer to Tropico 4 in that it offered a customisable skirmish mode where I could sit back and build, build, build.)


2. A sense of personality



Uninspired video game settings are a subject I’ve bemoaned before. How many generic high fantasy, WW2, or science fiction games do we really need? Luckily, Tropico 4 bursts with character. There’s a sense of place, of course – cheerful Caribbean music accompanies you throughout the game; your island’s key products include pineapples, papayas, sugar and rum; Tropicans speak in Spanish when you click them; and you attract tourists to your island with promises of sun and surf, plus booze for the spring-break crowd or native ruins for the eco-tourists.


But there’s more than that. Almost from the get-go, Tropico 4 is also defined by its – usually black – sense of humour. After clicking past the main menu, the first thing you’ll see is a loading screen, emblazoned with an irreverent (“Politicians are the same all over – they promise to build a bridge even where there is no river.”), bleak (anything from Augusto Pinochet), or, occasionally, off-the-wall (“If surviving assassination attempts were an Olympic sport, I would win the gold medal.”) quote. And that cheerful cynicism permeates the entire game. It’s visible in the choice of traits for El Presidente – the screenshot above shows what the game thinks of “men of the people”. It’s visible in the flavour text for almost every action you take; my favourite is the ethnic village, an utterly bogus tourist trap that you can still show off via a “Geographic TV special”! And it’s visible right to the very end of the game, where one of the objectives on the scoring screen is filling the Presidential bank account. (The game doesn’t stint on ways to go about this. Embezzlement? Artifact-smuggling? Taking kickbacks on construction projects? All of the above?) It’s not the most heartening humour, but it’s distinct.


3. A little bit of real-world resemblance goes a long way



By no stretch of the imagination is Tropico 4 a serious political or economic simulator. But as goofy and abstracted as it is, you can still see the bones of real-life policies embodied within its systems.


My favourite example is the game’s economic model. Almost all businesses on Tropico are owned by the government, and the only tangible goods consumed by Tropicans are food and imported luxuries. (They do, however, consume a wide array of services.) As such, almost everything to come out of a Tropican farm or factory goes straight to the export market, the resulting dollars go straight to government coffers, and the reverse is true – imports deplete the government’s pocket. Making trade surpluses the main source of government income – there are no taxes on Tropico – is quite the abstraction!


However, the net effect is to encourage the player to pursue mercantilism, encouraging exports while minimising imports of consumer goods*. Specifically, it encourages the player to focus on exporting manufactured goods, since these are far, far more profitable than raw materials. In other words, the game effectively leads you down the path of export-led growth pursued by such countries as post-WW2 Germany, Japan, Taiwan, Korea, and of course, China. While this is almost certainly a coincidence**, it’s still a thrill to play the game and realise I’m re-enacting a page out of modern history.



Other aspects of gameplay echo our world. Tropico’s education system isn’t just opiate for the masses – it takes a skilled labour force to operate those factories. (“Skilled”, in this context, meaning “high school educated”. I do wish the game offered more high-end export jobs for university-trained workers.) Building, then subsidising, apartments banishes shanty towns, which are both unsightly and bad for the people’s morale. This even extends to the superficial: one of the game’s silliest white elephants is a rotating golden statue of El Presidente (pictured above)… which happens to be lifted from real life. For folks with an interest in nation-building (or nation-ruining), Tropico 4 can feel like a basket filled with Easter eggs.




If I had to pick just one of the above strengths as a stand-out, it would be #3, seeing elements of real life reflected in the game. Just as there’s a joy in “reaching out to touch history” when playing Europa Universalis 3, so there’s a joy in reaching out to touch issues that could have come from the pages of a newspaper, or an interview with a statesman. But this is not to take away from the game’s other strengths. I laugh at its building descriptions and silly radio conversations, and settling down to develop my island in sandbox mode has been a pleasant, satisfying experience. Tropico 4 won’t hold my interest forever – I’m now ready to move on from the sandpit, either to the campaign or to another title. But even after I shelve the game, I may well read an article on postwar development months or years from now, look back, and smile when I remember my stint as leader of a Caribbean Tiger.


* Except for food. In-game, it’s often more efficient to export cash crops and manufactured goods and just import relatively cheap food.


** Supply-chain management is part and parcel of the city-builder genre, and manufacturing has been a path to virtual riches at least as far back as Colonization.