Six Ages: Ride Like The Wind is an interactive story bringing myth and magic to life

Six Ages: Ride Like The Wind is a gamebook — an interactive story about leading a clan in a world of myth and magic. Alongside its predecessor, King of Dragon Pass, Six Ages is almost unique in its intersection between storytelling and a resource-management game. And like King of Dragon Pass, Six Ages brings its setting to vibrant life, encouraging the player to stay in-character in a world where the divine is never far away.

Much of Six Ages is spent managing the day-to-day business of the clan: which gods to propitiate that season, where to send emissaries and scouting parties, whom to raid, whether to focus on herding, crafting, or sharing stories, and so on:

This is essential stuff — a clan that’s short on cows isn’t much of a clan — but by itself, not terribly exciting. The heart and soul of Six Ages is the illustrated story events that pop up, like the one below. Some are one-offs. Some are part of ongoing subplots. Some are major story beats. And one sequence turns out to be the path to winning the game. Each offers a choice:

An event in Six Ages.

The key is to think like your people, the Riders. Understand their ways, their portents, their rituals. Tradition is a good guide, though not infallible. When in doubt, conducting a divination is usually a good first step, and sacrificing to the gods a good second step. Your advisors, at the bottom of the screen, will chip in with their own opinions (more skilled advisors give better advice).

Six Ages’ design goals are clearest in the rituals in which you send a hero into the gods’ world to seek a boon (in a clever touch, the mortal and divine worlds are drawn in different styles and by different artists – see the image below). The ritual unfolds as a reenactment of the chosen god’s myth, Choose Your Own Adventure-style: how should Ernalda, goddess of trade, win the trust of geese? What should Busenari the cow-mother ask from her counterpart the horse goddess? Your clan can do several things to prepare, for instance, allocating points to ritual magic, requesting worshippers from friendly clans, and sending the right hero. And you, the player, can prepare by going to the game’s “lore” section and reading the myth. It’s not a test of rote knowledge — I have succeeded by going off-script, and I’ve read a developer interview (linked below) indicating that these quests were designed to be flexible. At the same time, I would not go in blind, and the act of reading and preparing brings me one step closer to the characters and the world they inhabit.

The outcome of a successful ritual in Six Ages.

And that’s what Six Ages does so well. It’s a game about peoples, mythologies, and the mindset that connects the two; and a story that takes advantage of its medium.  I would like to see more like this, and I look forward to the planned sequels.

Further reading

How Six Ages builds a game around the power of myth (also discussing King of Dragon Pass)

80 Days, a steampunk retelling of the Jules Verne novel, is another fun interactive story

The joys of Picross

The perfect game to unwind. In the last few weeks, Picross S2, the latest in a long-running family of puzzle games, has become a regular part of my gaming. It is relaxing and at the same time, challenging enough to keep me entertained. Each puzzle is an iterative process, beginning with a few clues. The numbers on the sides tell me how many squares should be filled in each row or column. At the start, there’s enough information to identify the first few squares that I should (or shouldn’t) fill in:

Near the start of a Picross S2 puzzle.

After marking the relevant squares, I can use this new knowledge to identify the next set of squares, and repeat. This is the same puzzle, almost complete:

The same puzzle, nearly complete.

Manageable, and manageably bite-sized. Most of the puzzles I’ve played take around five minutes to solve. There are several ways to increase the challenge: turning hints off (as I did in the screenshots), trying different game modes, and playing larger, more complex puzzles. So far, I’ve been content to gradually work my way up — I prefer my puzzles on the soothing side!

And it is soothing. There is logic to this game, and routine, and the knowledge that those routines will ultimately solve the puzzle. I expect this to be my “quick break” game for some time to come.

Clippings: Strategy game quarterly, June 2018

Hello, and welcome to the latest Clippings. This one focuses on quarterly news in the strategy game genre – stay tuned for future updates.

New releases (games I’ve played marked with an asterisk)

Battletech* — my “new release of the quarter”, a turn-based tactical RPG built on two solid pillars: (1) customising ‘Mechs that complement one another and are strong in their own right; and (2) taking them into battle, a test of your design and tactical skill.

Total War Saga: Thrones of Britannia — this one has sat in my Steam backlog since release (notwithstanding the appeal of its setting, the ninth-century British Isles). I’ve been daunted by reports of lacklustre AI and sluggish late-game pacing, the traditional banes of Total War games. Next time, I’ll wait for reviews…

Surviving Mars — this science-fiction city-builder launched to a rough reception. Since then, several patches have reportedly improved it.

Frostpunk — well-received survival/city-builder game set in a steampunk world overrun by the cold.

Upcoming releases

Total War: Three Kingdoms has been delayed until 2019 (it was previously scheduled for later this year). The first glimpse of gameplay appeared at E3, and previews are starting to go up.

Business

Paradox Interactive has acquired Harebrained Schemes, the developer of Shadowrun Returns and Battletech. This deal will strengthen Paradox’s RPG line-up and (presumably) its ability to develop new RPGs in the future, consistent with an increasing focus on the genre.

Why Zelda: Breath of the Wild is one of the best games I’ve ever played

Soaring over Lake Hylia in Zelda: Breath of the Wild.

A magical experience. Here is what I accomplished in a little over an hour with Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild: I soared over a desert, and swam a lake. I explored a desolate mesa, and followed the path of a shooting star. I plucked a scale from a dragon, and battled past monsters to offer it up at a shrine. And I did all this in one session.

Easily in my top-ten list. After playing Breath of the Wild for the last five months, my appreciation is undimmed. The game sets overall goals and leaves it up to the player how to achieve them. It encourages exploration, whether to gather resources, find the next objective, or simply marvel at the game’s world. And it backs up its design with strong execution, from game mechanics to worldbuilding and story.

Continue reading “Why Zelda: Breath of the Wild is one of the best games I’ve ever played”

Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind is manga’s answer to Dune

The Nausicaa boxed set. Source: Amazon

Hayao Miyazaki’s Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind is a magnificent science-fiction manga, richer and more complex than the movie of the same name. Both the manga (1982-1994) and the movie (1984) chronicle the adventures of Nausicaa, a courageous young princess and aviator who becomes the saviour of a devastated world. While the movie is better-known, the manga benefits from being able to explore its world and characters at greater length — and in greater depth.

The closest Western equivalent is Dune, in terms of themes, epic sweep, and at times, a penchant for the surreal. Both stories are concerned with ecology and the environment: the desert and its sandworms in Dune, a poisonous forest and its guardian insects in Nausicaa. Both stories involve prophecy, the fall of empires, and a vast, often geographically separated cast. What distinguishes Nausicaa is Miyazaki’s worldview: there are few truly wicked characters in his works. Even scheming, selfish characters often discover a hidden side. Instead, the true villains are hatred, anger, and sometimes, sheer stupidity.

The multi-layered story permits multiple characters to shine. Like Paul Atreides in Dune, Nausicaa is a messianic figure who rallies downtrodden tribes, benefits from prophecy, and forms bonds across species. Unlike Paul, Nausicaa is a pacifist, and her concern for all living beings — plants, insects, and humans of every nation — is her defining trait throughout the story. Meanwhile, the most interesting character is Princess Kushana, promoted from the movie’s villain to the hero of a parallel plotline. Where Nausicaa operates on the level of the mythic, Kushana concerns herself with temporal power. Where Nausicaa benefited from a loving family, Kushana has been hardened by vicious court intrigue. And where Nausicaa’s circle of concern touches the whole world, Kushana’s initially focuses on the men under her command. Kushana’s story arc makes her both a useful foil to Nausicaa and my favourite character.

The first page of Nausicaa. Source: Viz Media 2012 edition

Art occasionally difficult to follow. While factions are distinguished by garb (and in one case, by speech bubbles in a different font), I found similarly dressed minor characters difficult to tell apart. Meanwhile, action scenes often required me to page back and forth to work out what was going on. This is one area where the coloured, animated movie has an edge over the manga.

Recommended for science fiction fans. Epic, engrossing, and imaginative, the Nausicaa manga is available in English as a handsome two-volume hardcover boxed set (Viz Media, 2012).

Nintendo Switch: all I wished for, and more

A much-anticipated treat. The Nintendo Switch is a technological marvel: docked and connected to a TV, it offers the power of a traditional console; unplugged, it offers the flexibility of a portable device. I’ve kept an eye on the Switch since before launch, and when I saw a good Boxing Day deal from Amazon Australia, I pounced. So far, I am delighted, both with the Switch and the two games I’ve bought: Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle and Zelda: Breath of the Wild.

Impressions below:

Sizing up the field in Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle. Source: Author

Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle is a colourful, charming tactical RPG. The game is an odd beast — developed by Ubisoft using the Mario IP — and at first glance, the influence of Firaxis’s XCOM is clear, as Mario peers from behind cover and runs up to take flanking shots. Two things distinguish Mario + Rabbids. First is the importance and ease of movement: characters can dash into enemies, extend their movement range by trampolining off allies, and traverse large distances by diving into pipes. Second is the sense of joy, as pronounced as in any Nintendo first-party game: the world is bright and vibrant, and the animations are delightful — right down to Mario’s exaggerated, panicky body language when an enemy flanks him. So far the game has been easy; I understand that it becomes much harder later on. I look forward to playing more!

The splendours of Hyrule in Zelda: Breath of the Wild. Source: Author

Zelda: Breath of the Wild captures the majesty of exploration — and the danger. Unlike other open-world games I’ve played, which revolved around combat, Breath of the Wild is about exploration for its own sake. Combat, quests, and NPCs do exist, but so far, in limited quantities. Instead, my time has been mostly spent roaming the wilderness, solving the odd puzzle, and using my wits to survive. I’ve used my powers to cross a lethal, fast-flowing river; cooked up (literally – there is a crafting/cooking system) dishes to protect against the cold — and ran from monsters until I found a decent weapon. I’ve also marvelled at sunsets, climbed up trees to pluck apples, and stood at a campfire experimenting with recipes. As a child, I loved Zelda: Link to the Past; over 20 years later, Breath of the Wild has brought that magic back.

Some interesting releases set for 2018. I’m particularly interested in tactical RPGs, of which at least two are due out this year: Valkyria Chronicles 4 and an unnamed Fire Emblem game. I’ll also keep an eye on RPGs (including 16-bit JRPG homage Project Octopath Traveller and Shin Megami Tensei 5) and a turn-based strategy game (Wargroove). Between these and the games already out, I expect my Switch to get plenty of use this year.

Further reading

Wikipedia offers a comprehensive list of Switch games (sort by release date to see upcoming releases)

The movies I saw in 2017

Hello, and welcome to the first part of my 2017 wrap – the movies I saw at the cinema. In a later post, I’ll discuss the notable games I played.

The movies can be divided into several tiers, from great to bad:

 

The Greats

Blade Runner 2049 – Overall, my movie of the year. An excellent piece, succeeding on multiple levels: (1) as a cyberpunk thriller; (2) as a thematically rich story about one person’s search for identity; and (3) as a commentary on humanity’s relationship with technology.

La La Land – My surprise hit of the year: beneath the catchy songs, I found a deeply resonant story about what it takes to fulfill a dream: hard work, setbacks, and ultimately, sacrifice.

 

Honourable mentions

Dunkirk – A war movie that eschews bombast for quiet heroism.

 

Entertaining time-killers

Star Wars: Rogue One

Star Wars: The Last Jedi

While not very deep, Rogue One succeeds as an action-oriented return to the original timeline. The highest compliment I can offer is that it made me yearn for a good Star Wars game!

Like The Force Awakens, The Last Jedi is a remix of the original trilogy, but compared to its predecessor, it’s smarter, more self-aware, and more willing to diverge from the originals. It does stretch on too long.

 

Valiant defeat

Ghost in the Shell – Visually striking anime adaptation (drawing especially on the 1995 movie and the Second Gig TV series), brought down by a reliance on cyberpunk cliche.

 

Avoid

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets – A mess of a movie, missing much of the original comics’ charm.

 

 

Clippings: Strategy Gaming in November; Discounted Wargames

Hello, and welcome back to the site! It’s been a bit of a break as I juggle real life and other projects; however, I still keep one eye on what’s going on in strategy games.

November is set for a number of releases, including:

  • Empire Divided, an expansion for Total War: Rome II that depicts the Crisis of the Third Century. This is a very significant period in Roman history – the dividing line between the early Empire (the Principate), and the later Empire from Diocletian onward (the Dominate, familiar to players of Total War: Attila). Rome II itself has come a long way from its deeply flawed launch and I’m eager to play this latest expansion.
  • Dominions 5: Warriors of the Faith, the latest in the long-running myth/fantasy series. Looking at the features list, I suspect this will be evolutionary rather than revolutionary. Given all the delight that the Dominions games have given me over the years – they feel like epic fantasy should feel, magical and awe-inspiring, in a way that bigger-budget games have struggled to match – this looks like another early purchase for me.
  • Jade Dragon and Cradle of Civilisation, the latest DLCs for Crusader Kings II and Europa Universalis IV, respectively. Central Asia is one of my favourite regions to play in CK2, and so I’m particularly interested in Jade Dragon, which adds China as an off-map power with significant influence over the Silk Road.

Meanwhile, Fanatical – the renamed Bundle Stars – is currently running a sale that features a significant number of Slitherine’s wargames. I picked up two games from opposite ends of the complexity scale – the incredibly detailed  Command: Modern Air and Naval Operations, and the biere-et-bretzels Victory and Glory: Napoleon. Both seem promising so far – see my Victory and Glory impressions here – and I look forward to spending more time with them!

Quick impressions: Victory and Glory: Napoleon

Victory and Glory: Napoleon is a simple, elegant PC strategy game that places players in charge of France during the Napoleonic Wars. It bears a heavy boardgame influence, namely a design philosophy that emphasises clever abstraction over detailed simulation.

The strategic layer is a race against time: Napoleon must crush his rivals before Britain can build up an overwhelming coalition. Attrition is the player’s enemy: France starts with the finest troops in Europe, but reinforcements are scanty (and spawn all the way in Paris), friendly German and Italian levies are weak, and the other Great Powers will eventually reform their armies to match France’s standards. And while Napoleon is the most formidable general in the game, he can only be in one place at one time…

The tactical layer, while simple, rewards period tactics. Infantry will automatically form squares to repel horsemen – and in so doing, make themselves vulnerable to artillery. Cavalry get a bonus when counter-charging tired opponents. A special rule incentivises the player, like Napoleon, to keep the Imperial Guard in reserve.

Simplicity should not be confused with easiness. Not understanding the game mechanics, I defeated Austria in the 1805 scenario but lacked the manpower to finish off a newly hostile Prussia or force Russia to the negotiating table. Like a cornered lion, Napoleon and his last remaining army crushed several attempts to invade France, but when the odds grew too overwhelming, I abdicated quit.

Overall, I like this game – it’s both entertaining, and a good example of how a designer can capture the feel of a period without bogging down in detail. I’m looking forward to returning from Elba my next game as L’Empereur!

Further reading

Developer interview on Slitherine forums

Classifying the Total War games

Two different emperors prepare to defend their worlds. In Western Europe, circa 400 AD, a Roman emperor inspects his comitatenses and scholae, the successors to Caesar’s legions. A universe away, a different emperor raises his magic hammer, and beckons his griffon into the skies. They are united by circumstance — and the design of their respective games.

There is no one Total War design; there are several, differing by structure and scope.  This is why different players prefer different entries in the series — the designers were trying to accomplish different things. (How well they succeeded is a different question.) I’ve created the following diagram to illustrate this:

Classifying the Total War games by scope and structure. Source: Author

Structure is measured along the Y-axis of the chart. Games towards the top (Attila, Warhammer I, Shogun 2) have a more defined structure, typically ushering the player towards a do-or-die endgame. Games towards the bottom are more open. Meanwhile, the chart’s X-axis measures scope. Games towards the right (Shogun 2) are smaller and more focused. Those towards the left are geographically larger, encompass more factions, or have more complex game mechanics.

The rest of this post explores, first, the categories that emerge, second, the ones that I prefer, and third, how this system relates to the future of Total War.

The categories

I divide the Total War games in the chart into several main categories:

  1. Rome II & Empire: the big, world-spanning games. These offer faction diversity and vast, exotic settings: Romans play very differently from Scythians, who play differently from Macedonian successor states. There are two downsides. The first is a less interesting late game, due to the lack of structure. The second is that these games appear harder to get right: both were plagued with problems at launch. Overall, they’re perhaps better as “toys” (something you play with) than as “games” (rules-based, win/lose activities). (Many of the older, pre-Empire games also fall into this category.)
  2. Napoleon: the little brother. Napoleon: Total War shed much of Empire’s scope by confining itself to Europe and the Mediterranean. While it added several features that became standard in later games, it still lacked the defined endgame that became increasingly common in its successors.
  3. Attila & Warhammer I: the pre-apocalyptic games. These games are structured around beating back a vast, powerful invader: the Huns in Attila, Chaos in Warhammer. Between the two, Attila offers a huge map—almost as large as Rome II’s—and complex empire management, while Warhammer dials this back to focus on conflict.
  4. Shogun 2: the most focused game. Shogun 2 combines limited scope with extreme polish, and I don’t think that’s a coincidence. The map is geographically more confined—and that makes it easier for the computer to put up a fight. There are fewer units — and each of them has its own useful, distinct niche. It also has the most structured endgame in the series, with the campaign culminating in a march to Kyoto against almost all of Japan.
  5. Warhammer II: still deciding… Warhammer II’s campaign is a race to cast a series of magic rituals, very different from Warhammer I’s struggle against impending doom. As of 100 turns, it feels more like the space race in Civilization— a defined goal that leaves the “how” up to the player. It also feels broader than its predecessor — the world is vast, intricate, and filled with varied factions.

My favourites

My favourites are structured around a challenge… I love Shogun 2 for its polish and elegance, its ruthless AI and climactic showdown. I also love the far more sprawling Attila for its “rage against the dying of the light” zeitgeist, the sense that I was defending civilisation by the skin of my teeth.

… at the same time, I appreciate the others. For all its flaws, Empire still holds a place in my heart for its depiction of the globalising early-modern world. Post-patch, Rome II also appeals when I want a taste of classical antiquity.

The future of Total War

I expect both “broad” and “focused” titles. One of the next two historical Total War games will take the series to a new setting — my guess is this will be large. The other will be the first “Total War Saga” — geographically smaller and focused on a “key, pivotal point in history”. No matter which scope you prefer, I expect there will be something for you!

A plethora of PC strategy game companies

Strategy gaming is vibrant and multi-faceted; that’s my take-away from mapping out selected strategy game publishers, developers, and games.

Selected strategy game publishers and studios.

Here are three observations:

The first is what a broad tent the chart represents. Some of these publishers (Paradox, Slitherine) have a strong overarching brand as strategy game houses, while for generalists such as SEGA, the strategy brands rest at the studio level. Looking at individual titles, we see a broad mix of sub-genres: wargames; fantasy, historical, and space 4X; grand strategy; city-building; squad tactics; and more.

The second is how different this — and strategy gaming itself — would have looked 10 years ago. Firaxis owned the dominant strategy game franchise (Civilization), yet the XCOM remake was many years away. While SEGA acquired Creative Assembly back in 2005, its next strategy acquisition wasn’t for another 8 years (Relic, in 2013). Paradox and Slitherine were highly niche. Shrapnel Games was another contender in the wargame publishing space.

Finally, this is not a comprehensive list. For example, I haven’t shown companies such as Iceberg Interactive (the original publisher of the Endless series), Focus Home Interactive, Stardock (Gal Civ), Eugen Systems (Wargame, Steel Division), Illwinter (Dominions), Haemimont (the Tropico remakes), KOEI (Romance of the Three Kingdoms, Nobunaga’s Ambition), and many of the wargaming studios in Slitherine’s orbit.

All this adds up. Multiple publishers and developers — some genre specialists, other generalists — have established themselves in the strategy space, producing a rich variety of games. Things have come a long way since the genre was dismissed as “not contemporary”!

Westerado: a short, sweet journey into the Wild West

Short, clever homage to Westerns. Westerado: Double Barrelled uses a simple premise — find the gunman who murdered your family — to take the player on a romp through the genre’s tropes: bandits, six-shooters, a crooked tycoon, a cowardly sheriff, horseback chases, blue-coated soldiers, and a protagonist who looks awfully like the Man with No Name. Mechanically, it’s a short-form open-world game, mostly top-down, although the occasional horseback sequences are viewed side-on. Solving quests earns clues as to the murderer’s identity; in between quests, the player can hunt bounties, explore the map, and tussle with bandits. That fits the premise, given that the archetypal western is about the stranger riding into town to solve a problem.

Brevity is part of Westerado’s appeal — I clocked in at 4 hours per Steam, after finishing many (not all) the side quests. That, to me, felt about right. First, I don’t think the game’s mechanics could support a much longer run; by the time I wrapped up, I had more than enough clues to find the murderer and was anxious to trigger the final showdown. Second, the designers set up the game to encourage multiple playthroughs — the player can ally with one of several different quest-givers, and following different quest lines will produce different endings.

Strong indie aesthetic — the pixel art can be striking (see above screenshot), and the soundtrack is twangy, catchy, and atmospheric.

Recommended. Since finishing the game a couple of weeks ago, I’ve been digging through spaghetti Western soundtracks on Spotify and contemplating re-watches of genre classics. It’s a good sign when a game prompts me to engage with its source material — especially when that game is a homage!

Further reading

PC Gamer and USGamer offer more detailed discussions of gameplay.

Musical Monday: “Fuego de Pasion” (Tropico 4), by Alex Torres & His Latin Orchestra

This week’s theme is another jaunty favourite from Tropico 4. As with the rest of the game’s soundtrack, it’s licensed music – the original can be found on the “Elementos” album. Enjoy!

Continue reading “Musical Monday: “Fuego de Pasion” (Tropico 4), by Alex Torres & His Latin Orchestra”

Musical Monday: “The Secret of Monkey Island” (composed by Michael Land)

This week’s song is Video Games Live’s performance of “The Secret of Monkey Island” theme (a studio recording is also available as part of VGL’s “Level 3” album). Enjoy!

Continue reading “Musical Monday: “The Secret of Monkey Island” (composed by Michael Land)”

Stellaris, one year on

This entry is part 2 of 2 in the series Stellaris
Victory!

Amidst the brightly shining stars, the Mushroom Domain’s legacy shall endure. The Mushrooms were not the galaxy’s most populous species. They did not control its largest empire. Yet they were its most influential. It was a Mushroom-created federation that brought peace to the galaxy and defended it against an invading scourge, and it was a Mushroom battle fleet that fired the final, victorious shot.

One year after launch, Stellaris remains best approached as a science-fiction story generator. Its strengths and weaknesses are recognisable from launch: in Jesse Schell’s “toy vs game” classification scheme (a toy is something you play with, a game is a problem-solving activity approached with a playful attitude), Stellaris is still more of a toy than a game — not uncommon in the 4X and strategy genres, where a rich experience such as Total War or Master of Magic can represent more than the sum of its parts. Stellaris is not a balanced set of finely-honed decisions, and I wonder if it ever could be one without jeopardising what it does do well: providing a sandpit to enact grand sagas of galactic ambition.

More detailed thoughts below:

At a design level, this is still one of the most interesting 4X titles around. Thematically, Stellaris‘s well-written flavour events, randomly generated species (peer empires, brooding precursors, upliftable pre-spaceflight worlds, and more), and abundant science-fiction homages combine to produce a galaxy that is “ancient and full of wonders”. Later on, the galaxy begins dividing into blocs, precursor races awaken, and intergalactic invaders emerge, representing radical potential changes to the game board: when the victory screen popped up, my Mushrooms and their federation partners were defending against a mighty “Awakened Empire”, a once-dormant precursor now turned aggressively expansionist.

Mechanically, Stellaris is still strongest early on. Since the Utopia expansion came out, I’ve started four campaigns, shelved three after reaching the mid-game, and finished one. Early-game exploration remains the highlight; the mid-game is weakened by bland mechanics such as planetary construction and ship design. Patches and DLC have helped to some extent, providing new mid/late-game foes (Leviathans DLC), internal politics that feel rewarding instead of punitive (the 1.5 patch), buildable megastructures (the Utopia DLC — I’ve only built a few so far), and a Civ 5-style traditions system (Utopia again).

Applying mods and experimenting with custom game settings let me address the game’s weaknesses, build on its strengths, and tailor the experience to my preferences. In 4X games, I hate micromanaging large empires — I prefer a smaller scale where every settlement matters — and I prefer to play as a peaceful builder. I was able to achieve this in my completed Mushroom Domain game, a relaxing experience in which I let federation allies extend our control across the galaxy while I focused on building and exploration. To do so, I opted for a small galaxy with the proportion of habitable worlds set to 25% of the default. Meanwhile, I installed the More Events Mod (more to discover), Megastructures, Improved Megastructures, and Stellar Expansion (more to build), and assorted quality of life mods (AutoBuild). For future games, I intend to install Guillis Planet Modifiers (more planet variety) and perhaps The Zenith of Fallen Empires (ambitious endgame options).

Musical Monday: “Together to the Stars (United Empire Theme)” (Endless Space 2), composed by FlyByNo

This week’s song is another case of “the music is better than the game”. While I was disappointed with Endless Space 2, this track is stirring, evocative, and — as an imperial leitmotif — suitably bombastic. Enjoy!

Endless Space 2 impressions

I have mixed feelings following my first game of Endless Space 2. I went in with high hopes: after bouncing off Endless Space 1, I went on to love Endless Legend. At first, I had a great time. Six hours later, by the time I finished my beginner game, I was bored.

Its strengths and weaknesses are those of Endless Legend at launch. Re-reading what I wrote about Endless Legend in 2015, much of my critique applies equally well here. Endless Space 2‘s headline strengths are gorgeous art and imaginative worldbuilding, while several aspects of nuts-and-bolts gameplay deserve praise – spaceship design is simple and elegant (I set up two main ship classes: one fast and powerful for my field forces, and the other well-armed, slow, and cheap for my garrisons), while building up planets is pleasant and satisfying. Its weaknesses include bugs, what seems like an AI inability to upgrade spaceships, and something more fundamental: the late game is a slog. While I was willing to forgive Endless Legend at launch, and that game went on to take significant strides, I’m a little disappointed that after several years, Endless Space 2 has gone back to square one.

Stellaris presents an interesting comparison. Both games enliven early exploration with quests, events, and anomalies to investigate. Both games reflect their developers’ pedigree – Endless Space 2 has superior ‘4X’ mechanics (ship design, planetary buildings) while Stellaris has more interesting diplomatic options (a successful military campaign in Endless Space 2 took me over my planet limit, at which point I wished I could set up unwanted planets as a vassal buffer state). Both suffer in the mid-to-late game, although Stellaris tries to address this with endgame crises and the War in Heaven.

… highlighting underlying issues in 4X game design. Most 4X games are built around the player acquiring more stuff, and with it, more to do (more units to push around, more cities or planets to manage). Mechanics that work in the early game, such as managing city build queues, fail to scale in the late game. At the same time, the late game loses much of its challenge as the player snowballs across the map. A handful of games address these problems: the recent Total War games add powerful late-game foes (the rest of Japan in Shogun 2, the Huns in Attila, Chaos in Warhammer); Imperialism centralises all production in the capital city, reducing micromanagement; similarly Armageddon Empires restricts the player’s production to whatever is in his/her hand of cards.

What next? While I’d like to play more of Endless Space 2, I’m not whether I’ll do so as-is (perhaps on a higher difficulty setting or playing a different faction) or whether I’ll put it back on the shelf for now. If Endless Legend is any indication, I may well be more positive in several months.

Further reading

Troy Costisick at Explorminate has a positive and very detailed review.

Chris Thursten at PC Gamer argues that the game needs more polish.

Musical Monday: “Through the Gates” (Conquest of Elysium 3), composed by Mattias Westlund

I encountered this week’s song a number of years ago in Illwinter’s Conquest of Elysium 3. To me, it’s a very “high fantasy” song, conjuring up images of bold heroes riding out into the great wild. Enjoy!

Clippings: Total Warhammer 2, Nintendo’s Mobile Business Model, Fallout 4 Mods

Creative Assembly has announced Total War: Warhammer 2press release here. Notably, it will allow owners of the original Total Warhammer to play a “mega-campaign” that combines the maps of the two games, a feature I remember being discussed when the first game was still in development. Eurogamer has an excellent interview here. PC Gamer and PCGamesN add some details about, respectively, victory conditions and retrospective tweaks to the first game’s factions.

Masashi Isawa at the Nikkei newspaper highlights Nintendo’s respective experiences with Super Mario Run and Fire Emblem Heroes. Although revenue from SMR “did not meet expectations”, Nintendo still prefers its premium pricing model over the more lucrative F2P model of Fire Emblem: Heroes.

Finally, Christopher Livingston at PC Gamer highlights Sim Settlements, a Fallout 4 mod that makes settlements dynamic places that inhabitants build up and furnish. Very cool!

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!

Continue reading “Musical Monday: The Music of Zelda: A Link to the Past”

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!

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

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.

 

Clippings: JRPG Translation, Stagnant 4X Games, CK2 Retrospective

US Gamer interviews two of the people who localised Playstation RPG Vagrant Story. Notably, one of the interviewees is the superb Alexander O Smith, who subsequently worked his magic across titles such as Phoenix Wright, Final Fantasy XII, and the PSP remake of Tactics Ogre. Well worth a read for JRPG fans and those interested in video-game translation.

In a 2016 article, Rob Zacny argues that the problem with 4X games is that “they are ultimately games about progress that nevertheless have nothing whatsoever to say on the subject”; he then goes onto Alpha Centauri and Victoria 2 as games that did this right. Rob is one of the best strategy game writers today, and his analyses usually make for an interesting read.

Five years and many expansions after the release of Crusader Kings 2, its designers take a look back at what worked, what didn’t, and what had to be cut.

Clippings: Counterinsurgency, Mars, RPGs

Several years ago, I wrote about Vietnam ’65, one of the most interesting asymmetric strategy designs I’ve encountered (and a fine “short-form” exception to a genre typified by sprawl). Now, Tim Stone at the Flare Path has posted a good preview of its upcoming sequel, Afghanistan ’11. I look forward to picking up the game when it’s out.

Remember Take on Mars, the space simulator from the developers of ARMA? PC Gamer has now posted a review. While my initial reaction was “huh?”, it turns out that the game has evolved significantly since its Early Access days; an interesting read.

How should the RPG evolve? PC Gamer asks several developers.

 

Musical Monday: “The Hyperion Overture” (Starcraft II), performed by the Eminence Symphony Orchestra

Musical Monday kicks off for 2017 with an orchestral performance of the Terran theme from Starcraft II. Enjoy!

Continue reading “Musical Monday: “The Hyperion Overture” (Starcraft II), performed by the Eminence Symphony Orchestra”

Clippings: low-spec strategy gaming, what Nintendoes, and 4X sales

Welcome back to Matchsticks for my Eyes!

At present, my gaming comprises what’s playable on an ultrabook with Intel integrated graphics.  Over the last couple of months, this has included:

  • Hearts of Iron IV – following the launch of Together for Victory, the Commonwealth-themed DLC, I had a great time leading (the newly expanded) India to independence and victory over the Axis, although by this stage, I know HOI4 well enough for the AI cracks to show. Playable on “medium” texture quality and 1920×1080 graphics, although definitely more so in the early game (lag was painful by the late game).
  • Shadow Tactics – I have started, and really enjoy, this Sengoku Japan stealth tactics game. For the best write-up of the game, check out Tim Stone’s review at Rock, Paper, Shotgun. Playable, although this required turning down the graphics to low and shrinking the resolution to 1600×900.
  • Armello – I dabbled with this gorgeous, fairy tale-themed game (refer to this Three Moves Ahead podcast for a good discussion). Comfortably playable on “medium” graphics and 1920×1080 resolution.
  • Games on the Battle Academy engine, including the original Battle Academy and Sengoku Jidai: Shadow of the Shogun, unsurprisingly run fine.
  • Wargame: Red Dragon – I returned to its single-player campaign, which was comfortably playable on low/medium graphics and 1920×1080 resolution.
  • Other games I intend to try on this machine: Civilization VI, the original Dishonoured, and Sins of a Solar Empire: Rebellion.

In other news, GamesIndustry rounds up Nintendo’s latest investor Q&A (the full text can be found here). It’s an interesting read; topics range from Nintendo’s mobile strategy to the trade-off between expanding the company and maintaining Nintendo’s culture.

Finally, eXplorminate analyses 4X sales data on Steam over 2016. Out of the year’s new releases, Civ 6 and Stellaris dominated, with the new Master of Orion running a very distant third. Interestingly, Endless Legend has had strong legs since its initial release in 2014.

My gaming year: 2016

Hello, and welcome to my gaming wrap for 2016.

For me, the year was defined by five new PC strategy games — Stellaris, XCOM 2, Total War: Warhammer, Civilization VI, and Hearts of Iron IV, each of which I really enjoyed. I also dabbled with a few new releases in other genres (Titanfall 2 and House of the Dying Sun), replayed several older games (Crusader Kings II, Europa Universalis IV, Sins of a Solar Empire: Rebellion, Total War: Shogun 2, and a little Dishonored), and discovered the joys of iPad gaming (Eclipse: New Dawn for the Galaxy, 80 Days, Desert Fox, and the mobile version of FTL). Two final notable releases were Dishonored 2, which is waiting in my Steam library for me to finish the DLC for the original Dishonored, and The Last Guardian, which I intend to eventually buy alongside a PS4.

Digging more deeply into the five new strategy games, it’s interesting to see how they represent different blends between innovation and execution:

– XCOM 2 is the excellent, evolutionary, sequel to one of my favourite games. In terms of game mechanics, it’s probably the strongest on the list: it is a delight to mix and match the complementary abilities of a late-game squad.

– Stellaris is imaginative, beautifully scored, and has the potential to become one of the most significant 4X games in the last 20 years. I am particularly interested in the extent to which future updates flesh out internal politics, an area where the 4X genre could learn a lot from grand strategy games.

Hearts of Iron IV and Civ VI are built on strong underlying designs, combining the best elements of their respective predecessors (HOI 2-3 and Civ 4-5) with new innovations; I expect both games to be stronger after AI tweaks and expansions.

– Finally, Total Warhammer successfully adapts the apocalyptic, “rage against the dying of the light” experience of Total War: Attila to a fantasy setting.

In the broader game industry, the most interesting development for me has been Nintendo’s counterattack across multiple fronts: (1) the Switch announcement, aimed at the traditional console/core gamer market; (2) well-received moves to bring Nintendo IP to mobile, through licensees (Pokemon GO) and  outright development (Super Mario Run, supported by mobile specialist DeNA); and (3) laying the groundwork to take that IP beyond gaming by partnering with Universal Parks. I love the concept of the Switch — playing core games on the go is a big draw — and I look forward to learning more in 2017. While I’m also very interested in VR, I expect this to be more of a medium/long-term story.

Other releases I’ll watch in 2017 include Frozen Synapse 2, Persona 5, and Final Fantasy XII: The Zodiac Age (especially if it’s ported to PC).

Note: I will soon be travelling overseas and won’t have access to my gaming PC for several months — during that time, I expect to survive on a diet of Paradox, Slitherine, independent, and classic games. I wish all of you Merry Christmas, Season’s Greetings, and all the best for 2017!