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

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

 

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

This entry is part 1 of 2 in the series Endless Legend

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Endless Legend art taken from the official site.

Crusader Kings II: Snowballing on the Steppes

This entry is part 1 of 4 in the series Crusader Kings II

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Musical Monday: “Desperate Fight” (Valkyria Chronicles), composed by Hitoshi Sakimoto

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

 

Clippings: Holiday Edition

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

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

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

Sherlock Holmes vs the Cat-Hair Moustache

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

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

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

Sherlock Holmes CP - NPC
This never gets old.

Continue reading “Sherlock Holmes vs the Cat-Hair Moustache”