Clippings: Afghanistan ’11, Julian Gollop, Video Game Photography, and more

Strategy gamers are in for a treat this week with the release of Afghanistan ’11, the sequel to Vietnam ’65. Like its predecessor, Afghanistan ’11 captures the experience of waging counterinsurgency warfare against an unseen foe. The Taliban lurk, place IEDs, ambush convoys, and occasionally emerge in force. Just as important are logistics and the need to shore up political support. On “normal” difficulty, I find the game rather punitive (which is probably appropriate to the theme), and I’ve encountered some annoying bugs. Overall, I would still recommend it to those interested. Update: I would recommend it once the bugs have been addressed; I’ve encountered several crashes and – infuriatingly – an already-met victory condition resetting itself, preventing me from winning a campaign map on which I’d spent hours. For more details, check out Tim Stone’s review in his Flare Path column.

Julian Gollop, of X-COM fame, has conducted a Q&A about his upcoming game Phoenix Point. His stated ambition is to realise the vision he first set out to create X-COM: Apocalypse, involving multiple factions and alien monsters that mutate to counteract the player.

Micah Dutro at Explorminate gives a positive review to Battle Brothers, a low-fantasy tactical RPG.

Nadia Oxford at USGamer discusses Zelda: Breath of the Wild as a post-apocalyptic game

Simon Parkin at Eurogamer discusses video game photography from Final Fantasy XV to Zelda: Breath of the Wild.

Meanwhile, Robert Purchese from Eurogamer meets Andrzej Sapkowski, the author of the Witcher books.

Finally, fantasy fans might be amused by this analysis of the frequency of braid-tugging in Wheel of Time.

In search of Cathay: exploring historical strategy games set in China

This post discusses some of the notable games that explore the history of China – a fascinating subject crying out for more attention.

Romance of the Three Kingdoms

Any discussion of strategy games set in China must begin with KOEI’s Romance of the Three Kingdoms series, whose first game dates to the NES.

Set amidst the civil war that followed the fall of the Han Dynasty — the same period that inspired the Chinese classic novel, the Dynasty Warriors games, and assorted movies, TV shows, and anime — these games are mechanically as well as thematically notable.

Along with KOEI stablemates such as Nobunaga’s Ambition, and Paradox’s Crusader Kings, these are some of the very few character-driven strategy games in existence. Every action in ROTK, from building a granary to leading an army, is assigned to (and performed by) named characters. ROTK’s characters form a cast of thousands, taken from history and the pages of the novel (there is also the potential to create custom officers)

Within the series, individual games vary. I have very fond memories of playing ROTK XI, a micromanagement-intensive but engaging game whose cel-shaded graphics and hand-drawn art remain lovely today.

Unfortunately, I was disappointed by ROTK XIII, the latest in the series. Like some of its predecessors, XIII is a RPG/strategy hybrid that allows players to play as low-ranking officers or governors, as opposed to faction leaders, and work their way up. In theory, this is brilliant. In practice, life as a junior officer in ROTK XIII plays out as Ancient Chinese Workplace Simulator. I spent my time clicking through menus to fulfil orders, waiting for progress bars to fill up, and occasionally networking with fellow officers. (More subjectively, I didn’t like XIII’s art style compared to its predecessors, or for that matter, Nobunaga’s Ambition.)

For those interested in the ROTK series, I would recommend XI, which is available for digital purchase.

Completing a task in Romance of the Three Kingdoms XIII.

Oriental Empires

Flawed and fascinating, Oriental Empires (currently in Early Access) is a bundle of interesting ideas that — based on a playthrough in late September/early October 2016 — fail to cohere into a good game. In particular, it feels caught between two conflicting paradigms. Its overall structure is that a conventional 4X game like Civilization, depicting the Warring States of pre-Imperial China. Hidden inside is a more radical idea: a game about maintaining the internal stability of an empire.

On its surface, Oriental Empires is very much about the Warring States. The map is filled with multiple civilizations, each of which represents a kingdom or tribe that existed before the unification of China. Nobles are still implied to be a powerful force within society, as they were in the Warring States. Most of the game’s tech tree is pre-imperial — a thousand years of imperial history are relegated to the final era.

The trick is that the other players aren’t the real challenge: I won a cultural victory without going to war against a single other player. Instead, Oriental Empires’ most interesting mechanic (and its greatest challenge) is the way it handles internal dissent. Each city has a separate unrest level for nobles and commoners, and while the nobles are easy to keep happy, the commoners are dangerous. Drought — a random event — produces unhappy commoners. Famine produces unhappy commoners. And crucially, whereas most 4X games encourage the player to build and improve their cities, doing this in Oriental Empires produces unhappy commoners: when tile improvements and buildings go up, Oriental Empire assumes that the work is done by commoners drafted for corvee labour.

When rebellions do break out, they can be very dangerous. The game has several types of military unit, including nobles, regulars, and militia; while militia are cheap, they tend to defect to nearby rebels. On top of that, multiple unhappy cities can set off a chain reaction. Once, I had to reload after being bankrupted by a death spiral. The parallels to history — including the fall of China’s first imperial dynasty, the Qin — felt strong.

Unrest can be defused through different national policies; happiness-boosting buildings such as theatres, temples, and courthouses; favourable random events (such as good harvest); maintaining a garrison – of regular troops, not militia – assigning a city governor, or a slow cooldown. It can be better not to overbuild in the first place. The take-away is that there is a trade-off between growth and stability, and a wise ruler will avoid making the historical mistakes of the Qin.

Overall, while Oriental Empires is difficult to unconditionally recommend (unless it’s improved as a strategy game since I played it), I found it sufficiently intriguing (and aesthetically pleasing) not to regret my purchase.

Emperor: Rise of the Middle Kingdom

Recently listed for sale on GoG, this is a charming entry in the City-Building series best known for Caesar I-IV. I’ve enjoyed the limited time I’ve spent time with it.

Mechanically, Emperor is close to what I remember of Caesar III. City-dwellers’ houses, which upgrade into progressively grander forms as citizens’ needs are met, are serviced by walkers sent out from nearby buildings. To keep the walkers on track, the player can even deploy roadblocks and walls. The city’s needs include food, water, entertainment, religion, commodities, and more – the standard building blocks of a city builder.

What lends charm is the game’s flavour. The introductory campaign begins in prehistoric China, where the player’s settlement cultivates millet. New commodities such as wheat and jade are introduced through trade with other settlements, representing the development of the material culture we think of as “Chinese”. Within the city, instead of Caesar III’s lion tamers, there are acrobats and musicians. Throwing a festival for New Year will result in a lion dance making its way around town.

From my time so far, this is a solidly executed example of the city-builder formula; worth a look for those interested in its theme.

Building a town in Emperor: Rise of the Middle Kingdom

Musical Monday: The Music of Zelda: A Link to the Past

In honour of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, this week’s music is a blast from the past. I’ve chosen three very distinct songs from 1991’s A Link to the Past – the Hyrule Overture, LttP‘s upbeat, “we’re off on an adventure” world map theme; second, the imposing Hyrule Castle theme; and perhaps the most interesting of the three, the Dark World theme, which for me always conjures up memories of Link standing atop that ziggurat, the sunset in the background. Enjoy!

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Clippings: the design philosophy of Breath of the Wild, building a career out of mods, subscription gaming, Tooth & Tail

This week’s top read is Chris Thursten’s (Eurogamer) analysis of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, which frames its design in the context of games such as Far Cry 2 and Morrowind. These titles expanded the list of available verbs and then encouraged the player to experiment–a philosophy that, the article argues, goes on to guide Breath of the Wild.

Joe Donnelly at PC Gamer profiles two Cities: Skylines modders whose hobby transformed their lives — one now works for Arkane, while the other overcame depression and returned to creating art. Inspiring stuff.

Rob Fahey at GamesIndustry discusses the subscription models being pursued by Microsoft and Sony.

Finally, Tom Marks at PC Gamer previews Tooth and Tails, a short-form action-RTS. While the preview likens it to a condensed Starcraft II, it reminds me more of Herzog Zwei.

Musical Monday: “Super Mario Bros Theme”, performed by the London Philharmonic Orchestra

In honour of the release of the Nintendo Switch, this week’s theme is the Greatest Video Game Music orchestral version of the Mario theme. Enjoy!

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Clippings: Frog City’s Imperialism, Ubisoft’s VR, Kickstarter, Persistent Video Games, Steel Division: Normandy 44

Last night, I fired up Imperialism, the classic 1997 strategy game casting the player as a nineteenth-century Great Power in pursuit of world domination. It holds up remarkably well. There are two notable features about its design: (1) it’s elegant, with much less micromanagement than a Civilization or a Paradox game; and (2) it captures its subject very well. Early in the game, the world is a liberal, free-trading place; if you need raw materials you can easily buy them. Later on, the Great Powers carve up the world market and you can’t depend on anyone other than your colonies. Colonialism becomes a matter of “eat or be eaten”. It’s a cynical view of international relations… and one suited to the game’s theme. (If I have a complaint, it’s the military side of the game, which–at least for this rookie player–tends towards stalemate.)

The news of the week is Nintendo’s launch of the Switch – GamesIndustry has a good round-up. For me, the Switch is the reincarnation of the Vita – a way to play high-quality “core” games on the go – and I hope it will enjoy better fortune!

Ubisoft discusses its VR approach with GamesIndustry. The key takeaway is that the company views its early forays into VR as experiments, rather than profit drivers. I’d argue that this is exactly the right approach for a technology as nascent as VR.

The headline and subtitle of this GamesIndustry post say it all: “”You need a community before doing something like Kickstarter: Press coverage doesn’t result in more backers, indie developers say, so it pays to have your own community before you start.” I’d be interested in a study as to the characteristics of successful Kickstarter campaigns over time — anecdotally, backers have less appetite for taking a punt on untried creators (I know that I’ve become very selective, and typically prefer to back creators with a track record).

At Eurogamer, Alexis Kennedy discusses the notion of persistence in video games – from the early days of persistence-free ‘drop a coin in the machine’, through the saved game and the MMO, and to modern designs such as Elite: Dangerous. It’s an interesting topic, although personally I doubt I’d have the energy/stress tolerance for a highly “persistent” game.

Finally, two of my favourite companies in the industry have teamed up: Paradox will publish Steel Division: Normandy 44, a real-time tactics game from Eugen Systems, the developer of the Wargame series. Based on TJ Hafer’s preview at PC Gamer, the new game looks like an evolution of the Wargame formula (as visible in the screenshot below, the interface is straight out of Wargame). The differences appear to be a greater focus on morale, a new front-line system replacing Wargame‘s sectors, and a new mechanic whereby different units unlock in different phases of a match. I’m excited!

Steel Division: Normandy 44. Image supplied by Paradox.