Strategy games that built to climactic endings

How does a strategy game provide a satisfying late-game experience?

This, I think, is a two-pronged problem. Part 1 is avoiding the things that actively drag on the endgame: micromanagement (see my previous post) and the snowball problem, when someone – usually the human player in a single-player game – runs away with the game early on, turning the endgame into a tedious exercise in mopping up. In this post, though, I’ll focus on Part 2, which is the reverse: designing the game so that it builds to a tense climax, much like the traditional three-act plot.

Here, I think the highly open-ended nature of Paradox games works against them. In contrast, I can think of at least three games that set the player a clear victory condition that could only be triggered during the endgame: the Civilization series, Emperor of the Fading Suns, and Rome: Total War (if you played a Roman faction):

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Strategy games and the grind of micromanagement

Grindy late-game micromanagement is an endemic issue with strategy games, especially 4X and TBS games. Normally, this is “simply” a matter of having to look after too many cities, provinces, and/or units. If I never have to spend another hour scripting dozens of mages in Dominions 3, it will be too soon.

But several games throw additional busywork at you. Pollution, in the earlier Civilization games, was a great example of this – populous, industrialised cities would emit pollution from time to time, which you then had to detail workers to clean up. As your cities grew richer and richer, and in turn, filthier and filthier, so did your workload multiply. I am not sorry to see the back of that mechanic – I much prefer Civilization IV’s “health” metric, which is simply a city malus that doesn’t need to be constantly babysat.

However, I think the prize for my least favourite exercise in micromanagement has to come from Paradox games (Europa Universalis, Victoria, etc). You see, when citizens are angry in these games, they form an armed rebellion that appears in one or more provinces. Individual uprisings usually aren’t dangerous, but they do require your time and attention to swat. But when you control dozens of unhappy provinces – say, because the Protestant Reformation is sweeping Europe, or you conquered a large empire – the game turns into a relentless exercise of whack-a-mole. Move the army to crush a rebellion in Kent! Move it back north to crush a rebellion in Edinburgh! Oh no, the people of Kent are rising up again! It’s enough to, in these games, make me play small countries and create puppet states rather than embarking on massive land grabs – the sheer hassle of constantly suppressing uprisings is just more trouble than it’s worth.

(Note: I’m in the midst of listening to this episode of strategy game podcast Three Moves Ahead, on which Chris King, the lead designer of Paradox’s Victoria 2, is a guest. Hopefully they’ll bring up my issue of concern!)

EDIT: Well, I listened to the podcast, and Chris did talk about making rebellions rarer, but stronger and nastier when they do occur. That makes sense, and it calls to mind Sid Meier’s definition of a game as a “series of interesting decisions”: “how to deal with a once-in-several-decades civil war” being a much more interesting decision than “march them up to Edinburgh, march them down to Kent…”  The other idea I’ve seen, and I think it was on the Quarter to Three forums (link to the right), was to use economic/production maluses to represent lower-level unrest, similar to the Civ IV example I mentioned above.  I suspect it’s way too late to implement such a feature in the present generation of Paradox games — such as the upcoming EU3: Divine Wind — but it’s one I would like to see in future games. Maluses are less work than spawning enemies!

Freebie highlight: “Firstborn”, by Brandon Sanderson

There is a lot of good, free fiction (and games, and other media) on the Internet, and from time to time, I’ll highlight something that I particularly enjoyed.

Our first freebie is “Firstborn“, a piece of short fiction by Brandon Sanderson (author of novels such as Elantris and the Mistborn series, and the guy who’s completing the Wheel of Time series after Robert Jordan’s death). We’re used to galactic empire space operas, and we’re used to the swaggering, invincible heroes who normally populate the genre. In this story, Sanderson very neatly subverts the formula, and does so in a way that has a little bit of personal resonance for me. Check it out!

Art imitates life – how do your gaming habits mirror your real-world ones?

When we play games, we use the same brain that controls all our other behaviour. So it’s not really surprising that a bunch of my real-world quirks carry over to the way I play games. To name just two examples:

1.     I have a horrible sense of direction in real life, and as far back as the original Doom, I remember becoming hopelessly lost in a maze of crates. So while others gripe about mini-maps, objective arrows, etc “making games too easy”, I thank my lucky stars.

2.     I’m happier about hoarding items, whether they be dated computer peripherals or old reports, than I am about throwing them out again. Guess what my inventory in RPGs looks like?

How about you?

Civilization 5 doesn’t forget the little guys

Civilization V’s release is imminent, which means turn-based strategy gaming is probably headed for its biggest launch in years. Firaxis has just released the manual, if you’d like to study the rules for yourself. And early impressions are positive.

If you’re reading this, you probably know about the changes, such as the new combat/stacking system, the inclusion of city-states in addition to fully-fledged civilisations, the fact that each resource tile can now only support a limited number of units, the new use of gold to purchase  tilesone at a time, even the ability of ground troops to embark directly onto sea tiles (so you don’t need to build separate transport ships). The two that stand out most vividly for me are combat, which I think most people would agree with me is a big change… but also, oddly enough, also the city-states. I’ve always liked minor civilisations in games such as Galactic Civilizations II and Space Empires IV and I’m glad to see they’ll be in Civ 5, for several reasons.

First, they add to the possibilities in the diplomatic game. Reading the manual, it looks as though you’ll be encouraged to pull city-states into your sphere of influence or even fight wars to keep them out of the hands of rival Great Powers. If you don’t want to shed the blood of your own troops, you’ll  be able to transfer units directly to the city-states, which raises the possibility of using a city-state to fight a proxy war. Of course, I’m not sure how well competing for the affections of city-states would work against an AI — anything involving diplomacy would work much better with other human players — but it does throw up some interesting possibilities for multiplayer.

But they also add to the feel of the world, much like the cops in X-Com: Apocalypse or the nameless background bystanders in an RPG. There have always been smaller tribes, kingdoms, and nation-states nestled in between large empires; why should Civ be any exception?

A wretched hive of SCUMM and villainy

Remember the classic LucasArts SCUMM adventure games, such as Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis, Monkey Island and Manic Mansion? This entry in the Star Wars Uncut project (fifteen-second fan enactments of individual scenes from Star Wars) is an awesome homage.

If you liked it, you can see the main Han Solo Adventures project here, and the Star Wars Uncut project here.

Tytania, Legend of the Galactic Heroes, and a focus on factions

Lately, I’ve resumed watching Tytania, a space opera anime about the conflict between the four dukes of the Tytania clan on the one hand, and happy-go-lucky, Irresponsible Captain Tylor-esque rebel Fan Hyulick on the other. The two sides are parallel protagonists rather than protagonist/antagonist; each gets its own point of view and plenty of screentime. Tytania’s distant forebear, Legend of the Galactic Heroes, follows a similar structure: on one hand, ambitious young Imperial nobleman Reinhard von Lohengramm; on the other, Yang Wen-li, champion of democracy and arch-slacker extraordinaire.

But…

Normally, I love what a talented storyteller can do with multiple points of view. But in the case of both Tytania and LOGH, I wish they’d stuck to only showing us the respective Imperial side in each anime. In the case of LOGH, this is pretty simple: I find the Imperial characters, and their story arcs, far more interesting than their foes. In the case of Tytania, though, that’s only part of it.

Tytania, you see, features a lot of in-fighting between nominal allies. For the four dukes, defeating the rebel is as much about winning glory as it is about neutralising a threat. So they backstab and sabotage one another, in between more prosaic squabbles about whose idiot brother punched whom first. That is a subject matter I’d like to see much more of, in anime, games (I would love to try the board game Republic of Rome sometime), and other media. I can always find plenty of stories about rebels and evil empires; stories about competition within the imperial elite are a rarer beast. And that is why I wish Tytania had focused more on the latter and less on the former.

Valkyria Chronicles and unintended consequences

Famitsu magazine has confirmed we’ll see a Valkyria Chronicles 3, apparently for the PSP. On the one hand, I’m glad: the world can always use more TRPGs, and I love the hands-on unit control that is the selling point of the VC series. Running a soldier out of harm’s way or lining up a shot with the joystick adds so much to the experience, compared to the “click on square to move, click on rifle, click on target” of other games in the genre.

But on the other hand, I do wonder if they’ll address two of the glaring gameplay issues with the original game. (Note: I have not played VC2 beyond the demo, so I only have word of mouth to rely on with regard to that game, and I can’t testify as to whether these issues have already been fixed.) First are the balance issues, :an overpowered class, scouts, and such as overpowered unit buffs. Second, and linked to the first, is the game’s scoring system, which is dominated by the speed taken to finish a level. The combined effect of the two is that, while the first game gave us so many tactical tools to play with – five classes, two tanks that could be customised, support weapons ranging from flamethrowers to rifle-grenades – it rewarded a madcap dash by your scouts for the other side’s flag.

Now, this was not a game-breaker for me. I really enjoyed VC nonetheless; I could regularly post decent (if unspectacular) scores by playing a methodical, combined-arms game; and I treated the speed-driven scoring system as a fun way to challenge myself when I replayed levels in skirmish mode. But a flaw is a flaw, and anecdotally there were people who were bothered far more than I.

However, the interesting thing is the development team’s rationale for focusing on speed. You can see it on page 3 of this Gamasutra interview. My interpretation is, the developers wanted you to take a ruthless, damn-the-casualties approach to promptly achieving your objectives. This is a good, or at least an interesting, idea on paper. In practice, it falls flat for the reasons discussed above.

But there’s one more design feature which obviates the need to even be ruthless in the first place. Similarly to Final Fantasy Tactics, VC gives you a three-turn grace period to call in a medic for a fallen party member before he or she is killed off for good. Story characters escape even more lightly – they’re simply immune to perma-death. There are exceptions – if an enemy soldier reaches your fallen squaddie first, that will also lead to perma-death*. But by and large, this is no X-Com, a game where horrific casualty rates were the price that had to be paid for defending Earth against a technologically superior, vastly powerful foe. And while I certainly appreciate the fact that VC is a pretty forgiving game, it does undermine what appears to have been a goal of the designers.

* Which gives me the rather chilling mental image of enemy soldiers finishing off wounded PCs with a bullet to the head…

RPG humour, part II: I’m taking my toys and…

If you know the phenomenon of characters in RPGs taking all their gear with them when they leave the party, you’ll get the joke in this issue of the webcomic Stolen Pixels.

Is A Song of Ice and Fire really that bleak?

Now that HBO has released a new teaser, a behind-the-scenes video and a “making of” subsite for A Game of Thrones, and since I had my copy of AGOT autographed by George R R Martin today, this seems an opportune time to ask: is A Song of Ice and Fire really as grim as it’s made out to be?

I know — this seems like a crazy question at first blush. ASOIAF is one of the defining series of modern, gritty low fantasy. Its signature shtick is that characters who would have escaped the consequences of their own stupidity in any other work, by virtue of protagonist plot armour, here pay the price. GRRM has gone on record as saying that he set out to avoid the “roller coaster” feel of novels that create the illusion that their characters are in danger, but where you know the heroes will ultimately be all right.

But stopping there would overlook one vital point. In the novels, trying to do the right thing can get you killed – but when a characters does choose to take a stand, it is held up and celebrated all the same. Characters do change for the better. Life in Westeros is filled with tears – but also moments of joy and triumph. And GRRM has declared his goal of a bittersweet ending, not a horrific one. Compare this with, say, Richard K Morgan’s rage against the world, or Joe Abercrombie’s unrelentingly cynical view of human nature. Who is the bleaker?

Stargate SG-1 and the importance of creating a believable world

I’ve seen the first five seasons of Stargate: SG-1, and so far, I quite like it. The pilot episode was as close as we’ll ever come to a TV adaptation of UFO: Enemy Unknown/X-Com: UFO Defense, and although the following filler episodes were a big step down in quality, the series eventually regained its stride. It’s moved past Pre-Industrial Society / Monster / Mysterious Alien Plague Of The Week and now, it seems to be striving for epic space opera. That it does well, and intelligently.

The secret, I think, is how many things – some little, some large – make the world feel believable. The show avoids familiar howlers such as the “Always Chaotic Evil” alien species (admittedly, it is guilty of a few of its own). The characters are generally pretty intelligent when it comes to solving problems – and sometimes, this backfires, when they do something that makes in-character sense but turns out to be wrong, because they don’t know the full story.

And most importantly, the show has a sense of continuity, most obvious in its overarching story arc. But it operates in so many smaller, yet vital, ways as well. Real people remember what happened to them a week ago, or two, or three, or ten. They gripe if it was bad, crow if it was good. So do the characters of SG-1. Real people remember how they previously solved problems, and make preparations if they think they’ll encounter the same issue again later. So do the characters of SG-1. When the show needs minor characters – an ally has come with vital information; the heroes are saved because “the enemy of their enemy” has provided a distraction; a red-shirt to accompany the heroes – it draws on the world it’s already established instead of creating a wholly new disposable character.

And yet, it only takes this so far. Earth itself is locked in stasis; SG-1 never recovers any artifacts that would dramatically shake things up; alien technology never leaks out into the wider world; society remains unchanged. For all I know, this was intentional and the creators weren’t interested in telling a story about how contact with alien societies/advances/species, even in a gradual trickle, might change the modern world. But it disappoints me all the same.

Cyclic history?

Cyclic history – and specifically, the notion that empires will inevitably rise to galaxy-spanning heights, then decline not to mediocrity or middling-power status but to utter oblivion – is deeply embedded in the DNA of science fiction. Asimov did it in the Foundation series, of course, but you see it everywhere in space opera: the backstory of Niven & Pournelle’s The Mote In God’s Eye, Poul Anderson’s Flandry series, any number of David Weber novels, the Traveller tabletop RPG,  the Tough Guide to the Known Galaxy (http://www.rocketpunk-observatory.com/spaceguideF-L.htm)…

Yet, to the best of my knowledge, it has nothing like the same prominence in fantasy. Why’s that?

Just what runs through the mind of random-encounter enemies in RPGs?

This webcomic strip is specifically about Fallout 3, but it should be familiar to anyone who’s ever dealt with trash random encounters in an RPG.

Recettear: An Item Shop’s Tale

Have you played RPGs? Then you know how it feels to be gouged when you come into town to buy potions or stimpaks or shotgun shells. You know how it feels when you can barely scrape by selling hard-won rats’ tails, wolves’ pelts and +2 Vendors’ Trash. And most of all, you know that, “But I’m on a quest to save the world!” cuts no ice at the local item shop.

Recettear: An Item Shop’s Tale puts the shoe on the other foot. As town shopkeeper Recette, you buy low, sell high in an effort to meet loan repayments (game over if you can’t pay on schedule!), and in a second, action-RPG mode, hire heroes to go dungeon-crawling in search of rare merchandise. You can only take a certain number of actions per day, and the challenge seems to be how to manage your finite time to  amass the most money before the next loan instalment comes due. I’ve played the demo and found it charming enough to pre-order the full version (which you can do through Steam, Gamersgate or Impulse), notwithstanding I lasted about twenty seconds in the dungeon mode.

Check out the demo, and have fun!

Empire: Totally Better Than I Expected

I went into Empire: Total War (“Empire”) with very low expectations. I had read the horror stories about bugs and horrendous AI, heard the jokes about “Empire: Total Crap”. My interest in the game’s concept made me throw it in at a hefty discount when I bought my new PC, but even as I sat down to install it, I wondered why I had been so quixotic.

 

I was very pleasantly surprised.

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Book review from my archives: Bridge of Birds

Bridge of Birds


Barry Hughart

 

This is a fabulous novel, a plot-coupon quest fantasy done right. It takes place in ancient pseudo-China, where the protagonist must go for help after the children of his village mysteriously fall ill. Help arrives in the form of the sage Li Kao, brilliant but “with a slight flaw in his character” (read: he’s a born con man who once sold an emperor shares in a mustard mine to win a bet). Together, the two make their way across the land in search of a cure, lying, cheating, and stealing (all in a good cause), escaping from the clutches of evil warlords, and eventually, uncovering a thousand-year-old evil.

 

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A book review from my archives: Declare

DECLARE
Tim Powers

The year is 1961, and the Cold War is at its peak. Andrew Hale ekes out a modest living as an academic in England, but a call from an old acquaintance triggers his abandonment of middle-aged obscurity, and his reentry into a world he abandoned when he was a young man, fresh from WW2 and the start of the Cold War: a world of dimly remembered spycraft, old lovers, and above all, a mission left incomplete…

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