Clippings: Tropico-ld War

Hope everyone has been well! I’m back home now; while I was away, E3 came and went, while we also saw the launch of several strategy games: Distant Worlds: Universe, Tropico 5, and Xenonauts.

After completing my first game of Tropico 5, I must say I’m a little disappointed — I found Tropico 4 both funnier (I realise this is a very subjective complaint) and, in some ways, a sharper satire: the building options in T4 allowed players to brainwash schoolkids or back specific factions, and T5 seems to have fewer of those inspired little touches. From a mechanical standpoint, the new era system seems better on paper than in practice — it does produce more organic city development, as the initial colonial town gradually sprouts new factory districts, but the problem is that there just isn’t much to do in the early eras.

On the other hand, T5 seems better at capturing a dictator’s mindset — there is now a larger incentive to invest in one’s military, since (a) rebellions seem more frequent and (b) being invaded by a foreign power is no longer an automatic Game Over. (In fact, foreign invasions are now a semi-regular occurrence.) At one point, “soldier” was the second most common occupation on my island, after “farmer”! That said, I’m still learning the game, so my conclusions aren’t yet set in stone.

Speaking of the Cold War, GMT Games is Kickstarting a digital version of well-rated board game Twilight Struggle. The asking price is $10 for an Android copy, $25 for a PC copy, or $30 for one of each. Personally, I’ve wanted to play Twilight Struggle for a long time, but that PC price strikes me as a little expensive — for $25 I could buy Xenonauts. Has anyone tried the board version?

From the archives: A game that could have been: Emperor of the Fading Suns

Emperor of the Fading Suns was a mid-1990s PC strategy game from the days before the space 4X genre calcified into Master of Orion 2 wannabes. It was ambitious, sprawling, buggy, flawed — yet I remember it fondly. In 2011, I set out to explain why.

 

If I had a penny for every game set in outer space, I’d be writing this post from somewhere sunnier and sandier. How many first-person shooters have cast us as Angry McShootsalot, the space marine? And how many RPGs and 4X games have treated us to  “classic space opera” universes, the sort familiar to anyone who’s seen Star Trek or Star Wars, or read a Larry Niven novel? This extends to gameplay conventions. If you’ve played Master of Orion, Sword of the Stars, Galactic Civilizations, or Space Empires, you know the formula – players start with a single world at the dawn of the age of interstellar travel, then colonise virgin territory until eventually the whole galaxy is claimed. Technology progresses in a smooth upward line. The real fighting is all done in space; ground combat is abstracted to ‘bring troop transports and roll the dice’. Everything is clean and crisp and futuristic.

 

If I had a penny for every game set in an original version of outer space… well, at least I’d have one cent, courtesy of Emperor of the Fading Suns (EFS), the 1996 turn-based strategy game from Holistic Design, Inc (HDI). Set in the same universe as Fading Suns, HDI’s pen-and-paper RPG,  EFS falls into the broad 4X genre defined by classics such as Civilization and the games I listed above, but carved out a space all its own. In EFS, the main conflict was human against human, though there was an alien menace in the background. And there was nothing crisp or clean or futuristic about its universe, filled with princes, priests, psionics and peasants in what’s usually described as “a cross between Dune and Warhammer 40,000”.

 

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Musical Monday: “War Situation” (Tactics Ogre), composed by Hitoshi Sakimoto

This week’s song I’ve known and loved for years — it plays between chapters of Tactics Ogre, as the narration explains how the characters’ actions have affected the broader war raging around them. Quite simple, but catchy and effective. Enjoy!

 

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From the archives: Conquest, Plunder and Tyranny: Explaining Dubious Morality in Strategy Games

I originally wrote this post around the time Civilization V came out, and it’s interesting to look back in light of subsequent releases such as Crusader Kings 2 and Europa Universalis IV. One of my arguments was that 4X games depersonalise victims, but that doesn’t seem to have stopped players from being just as vicious in Crusader Kings 2!   On the other hand, I tried to play EU4 in as “enlightened” a manner as possible – abolishing slavery, instituting a constitutional monarchy, etc. No developer encouraged me to do that; that was just my self-imposed goal. In any case, enjoy!

Why do we play strategy games in ways that, in real life, would land us in the dock for crimes against humanity?

 

Three Moves Ahead, Troy Goodfellow’s strategy game podcast, recently discussed the ethics of wargames, but to me, wargames have a largely innocuous focus on how to manoeuvre troops within an already-existing war. However, the question remains for the broader strategy game genre – in particular, 4X games in which you decide whether and why to go to war, and how to govern your nation: Civilization, Alpha Centauri, Master of Orion, Master of Magic, Galactic Civilizations, Space Empires, etc. Indeed, the very name of the sub-genre makes it clear that there’s an issue: “4X” is short for “eXplore, eXpand, eXploit and eXterminate”.

 

There is, of course, the historical/human nature explanation. I do not think any empire through history – regardless of religion, skin colour, or geographic origin – ever arose except through conquest. Why should a game that casts you as an emperor be any different? When I send out my Roman legions in Civilization to claim the land of the fellow unlucky enough to start the game next to me, I’m just doing what Caesar and his countrymen did in real life. This explains why brutality makes thematic sense, but we have to look at other factors to explain why it pays off and why it doesn’t repel players in the first place. I can think of three such reasons: the zoomed-out, distant scale of most strategy (including 4X) games; the zero-sum nature of most games; and the economic model used by most 4X games.

 

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From the archives: Storytelling in Star Control II: Playing space detective

Star Control 2 is a classic of the early 1990s, with a great sense of humour, robust gameplay, and unique, non-linear story progression — the player had to gather clues and do his or her own footwork in order to work out where to go next. That last was the subject of this piece, which I wrote back in December 2010. It became the site’s first hit article, with almost 7,000 views in one month, and I’m quite pleased with how it turned out. Enjoy! 

 

If you were a hero, tasked with saving the world from an overwhelming menace, how would you go about it? You would gather information about your foe. You would arm yourself with the best weapons possible. You would recruit allies to your banner. And while you might wish for these things on a platter, in order to find them, you would have to explore the world. You would seek out clues and piece them together, one hint leading you to the next, until you found what you were searching for.

 

No game captures this experience as well as Star Control II (SC2), the 1994 game from Toys for Bob (rereleased for free as The Ur-Quan Masters). SC2 cast you as a starship captain from a long-lost settlement, given command of a rediscovered ancient wonder weapon. As far as you know at the start of the game, your objective is simple: journey to Earth with your starship, rejoin the fleet, and help defend humanity against the alien Ur-Quan. And after one of the best opening plot hooks I have seen in a game, the stage is set for you to explore the galaxy in pursuit of that goal. Along the way, expect a fantastic storytelling experience, delivered through a combination of (a) top-notch writing and (b) gameplay mechanics that place the responsibility for uncovering that story in your hands.

 

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