Author Q&A: Django Wexler, author of The Thousand Names and The Forbidden Library

The Thousand Names UK coverI am pleased to present my first author interview. Django Wexler is the author of the Shadow Campaigns, a “gunpowder fantasy” series where clashing armies echo the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, while magic-users wage a covert war in the shadows. After reading the first book, The Thousand Names, I was hooked. His other works include The Forbidden Library, a young adult series.

Read on for more:

 

Hello, and welcome to the site!

 I’d like to begin by asking about your journey as a writer. You got started via an interest in table-top RPGs, then wrote a number of novels before bursting onto the scene with The Thousand Names in 2013. How has your writing developed, during and since?

The state of my writing is a very hard thing for me to track from the inside, as it were.  The first thing to realize is that I wrote a lot of stuff that never has (or will be) published, so by the time Memories of Empire, my first small-press book, came out, I’d had a lot of practice with trunk novels or fan-fiction.  The Thousand Names was another three or four novels later, and close to five years, so it’s quite a jump!

One thing I’ve definitely observed is I’ve lost my taste for grand, over-complicated plots.  I had a real yearning all through my gaming years to do something enormously epic in scope, and at one point I actually tried writing it — it was going to be nineteen books long, with huge continental maps and oceans of backstory, and one of those timelines that starts with “0: The Gods Create The World”.  Fortunately I was dissuaded after only one novel from going on with it, because it would have been impossible to sell, but the further I come the less I really want to do something like that.  I have too many different ideas to spend twenty years on one of them.

However!  Nothing is every truly wasted.  The whole Shadow Campaigns series actually came from one minor thread that was supposed to be woven into this mega-project, and another thing that I’m working on came from another.

 

How would you describe your current books? And what can you tell us about the other project that you’re working on?

The Shadow Campaigns is a fantasy loosely based on the Napoleonic Wars.  It originally began as a project to do a fantasy retelling of the story of Napoleon Bonaparte, inspired by S.M. Stirling and David Drake’s The General series, which is the story of Belisarius.  After I started writing it, though, it changed a lot, so it’s now only very vaguely a historical analogue.  I pitched it as “A Song of Ice and Fire with guns” — a military/political fantasy set in the age of muskets and cavalry charges.

As for the next project, I have to remain fairly close-mouthed about it.  There are quite a few on the horizon, though!  More when I’m allowed to say.

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Arcadian Atlas Q&A, with Taylor Bair

Screen Shot 2016-03-31 at 7.50.35 AM copyUpdate: Arcadian Atlas‘ Kickstarter campaign is now live and can be accessed here.

Arcadian Atlas is an upcoming indie tactical RPG inspired by two of the greats – Final Fantasy Tactics and Tactics Ogre. Read on for a Q&A with Taylor Bair, one half of the brother-and-sister team behind the game:

 

Hello, and welcome to the site! Please introduce us to yourselves and Twin Otter Studios.

I’m Taylor, the one typically found at the computer or walking my dog as I think of story details or gameplay tweaks for the game.

And Becca is the one with her graphic tablet working feverishly on art assets for our game.

We’re brother and sister living in Dallas and Austin, TX respectively, and we make up Twin Otter Studios.

 

Your current project, Arcadian Atlas, is a tactical RPG inspired by Yasumi Matsuno’s 1990s classics, Final Fantasy Tactics and Tactics Ogre. (The art and narrative themes — the choices people make in pursuit of the things they love, and the havoc it wreaks on a kingdom” — give me a particularly strong Tactics Ogre vibe.) What drew you to these titles? Were there any other notable inspirations?

We have a lot of inspirations, probably too many to count, though we definitely played Final Fantasy Tactics like crazy growing up. As kids we were pretty steeped in video games, particularly classic RPGs like Chrono Trigger, Breath of Fire, and Super Mario RPG.

Something about investing in a character is probably what drew us to RPGs most. We love characters, and our story in Arcadian Atlas is very character centered – about how people become saints or monsters because of the choices they make and the ripple effect that has on Arcadia.

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Sherlock Holmes: The Devil’s Daughter Q&A, with Wael Amr

2016 is due to see the release of Sherlock Holmes: The Devil’s Daughter, the next entry in Frogwares’ long-running series of Sherlock Holmes adventure games. As a fan of 2014’s Sherlock Holmes: Crimes & Punishments — which I called an “interesting, ambitious example” of thematic puzzle design — I reached out to Frogwares to find out more. Read on for my interview with Wael Amr, Frogwares CEO, in which we chat about The Devil’s Daughter and the broader adventure genre:

 

Hello, and welcome to the site!

Frogwares is perhaps best known for its Sherlock Holmes series of adventure games, most recently 2014’s Sherlock Holmes: Crimes and Punishments. How did you come to work on these games, and how has the series evolved?

We started to work on the series in 2001. Our first game was a very traditional adventure game at that time.

Every game we made since was different, in technology, scenarios, control scheme and gameplay.

The versatility of Sherlock Holmes allows to have more than one kind of gameplay or controls scheme.

Our last game, The Devil’s Daughter features probably the wider range of game mechanic we ever created.

 

The next Sherlock Holmes game will be The Devil’s Daughter, due for release in 2016. What can you tell us about its new features, and which do you consider the most significant?

I would say that the most significant is the rhythm of the game, that is rather dynamic. It is due to new mechanics of course, but not only, the new character controller, the removal of loading, make the overall pace more dynamic and active. Focus tests showed it was a very welcomed change. The heart of the game is cases investigation and it remains so.

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My games (and memorable moments) of 2015

This entry is part 6 of 6 in the series Game of the Year Awards

Welcome back to my Games of the Year list. This year, I’ve highlighted notable achievements, as well as favourite moments from games old and new.

Favourite aesthetics: Several games deserve a mention: Apotheon, for sheer uniqueness (below); the vibrant, colourful Tales from the Borderlands; and Nobunaga’s Ambition: Sphere of Influence, with its evocative art. Nobunaga’s Ambition also has great ambient music — I still listen to it on loop.

Apotheon - graphicsFavourite characters: Rhys and Fiona, the heroes of Tales from the Borderlands. Fiona is sharp and capable and funny; Rhys is a loveable bumbler, dreaming nebulous dreams of wealth and power. When his ridiculous get-rich-quick scheme collides with Fiona’s, the plot is set in motion. Throughout the game, I did my best to play them as decent people — loyal to their friends and, where possible, respectful of human life — and was rewarded with satisfying, sympathetic leads. They gave me many laughs, several moments that resonated with me, and a triumphant scene where Rhys demonstrates his character growth.

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Kim Q&A, with Jeremy Hogan

Rudyard Kipling’s Kim is one of my favourite classic novels, a picaresque set in nineteenth-century India. When the Secret Games Company launched a Kickstarter for a video game adaptation, I was keen to find out more. Read on for my interview with developer Jeremy Hogan:

 

Hello, and welcome to the site! Please introduce yourself and The Secret Games Company.

Hi, I’m Jeremy Hogan, I’m a game designer from London, where I’ve worked in the games industry for the last 8 years. I founded The Secret Games Company to release two indie projects, board game Dreaming Spires and video game Rise: Battle Lines. A year ago, I left my job to work on indie projects full-time so I could start the development of our latest game, Kim, which has been Greenlit on Steam and is now on Kickstarter.

 

 

Please tell us about your adaptation of Rudyard Kipling’s Kim. Based on the gameplay trailer, it looks like you’re translating Kim’s adventures into an open-world game reminiscent of Sid Meier’s Pirates or Space Rangers 2. Is this a fair reflection of what players can expect?

Yes those are fair comparisons; it’s a mix of genres so get ready for a long description… An RPG with branching dialogues, simple survival mechanics and light combat and stealth action in pause-able real time. I loved reading Kim and learning about colonial India and when I found out that Kipling’s work was in the public domain, I thought it was a unique opportunity to put such great writing into a game. Our gameplay was inspired by Expeditions Conquistador, FTL and Don’t Starve, another game it has a lot in common with is Sunless Sea.

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From the archives: What five games say about violence

I originally wrote this in 2013, contrasting the approach taken by five big-name games towards violence. Arguably, recent years have seen greater awareness of what’s possible for a non-violent game, such as “walking simulators”, a renaissance in adventure games, the growing popularity of creation-focused games such as Kerbal Space Program, and outright subversive titles such as This War of Mine.  I look forward to seeing what options are available in another two years.

***

“They may be called the Palace Guard, the City Guard, or the Patrol. Whatever the name, their purpose in any work of heroic fantasy is identical: it is, round about Chapter Three (or ten minutes into the film) to rush into the room, attack the hero one at a time, and be slaughtered. No one ever asks them if they want to.”

– Terry Pratchett

I’ve been thinking lately about violence in entertainment; my response to such; and what creators themselves have to say about it. In the last twelve or so months, I’ve played five games that symbolise different attitudes to violence: three “traditional” shooters in which there is no non-lethal option (BioShock Infinite, Tomb Raider, and Spec Ops: The Line), and two stealth/action games (Deus Ex: Human Revolution, Dishonored) that permit a gentler approach.  Below, I table their key differences.

violence-games-table-v2Read more here.

Crisis of the Confederation Q&A, with Gregory Hayes

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

COTC Interesting CharactersI am pleased to present an interview with Gregory “Galle” Hayes, project lead for Crisis of the Confederation – the “Crusader Kings II in space” mod I recently covered. Below, we discuss COTC‘s inspirations, the interplay between game mechanics and a space-feudal theme, where new players should begin, and more. Enjoy!

 

Development of the mod

Peter Sahui: Hello, and welcome to the site!

Crisis of the Confederation is one of the most interesting mods I’ve encountered, a homage to science fiction classics such as Dune and Foundation. What made you decide to translate those influences into a total conversion for Crusader Kings II?

Gregory Hayes: I happen to like applying game mechanics to new story concepts in general, and I’m a firm believer that everything is better in space, but COTC specifically actually had its origins in a game mechanic idea that I was never able to implement. Way back when I was working on A Game of Thrones, I was struck by the idea of using the Investiture mechanics to represent martial law versus civilian law. That created the need for a setting in which the spread of martial law made sense, which inspired the civil war backstory, which in turn led to me to think back to the great science-fiction cliche of the rebellious space colonies.

Another factor that probably influenced my decision was that I was replaying Emperor of the Fading Suns at the time. EotFS is a lot like CK1 – a broken mess of a game that is nevertheless fun because of how great its central ideas are. COTC isn’t really that much like EotFS in gameplay, but the desire for a good space feudalism game was definitely a big influence.

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Oriental Empires Q&A, with Bob Smith

This entry is part 2 of 2 in the series Oriental Empires

OE1

Oriental Empires is an upcoming 4X strategy game that will cover most of Chinese history, from 1500 BC to 1500 AD. My interest piqued, I conducted an email Q&A with developer Bob Smith. Read on:

 

About the developers

1. Hello, and welcome to the site! Please tell us a bit about yourselves.

Development of Oriental Empires is being led by R.T. Smith and John Carline, two veteran strategy game developers with more than 30 years’ experience between them. Previously they worked together on the Total War series of games, in roles including Project Director and Lead Artist, and have credits on many other AAA titles from studios including Crystal Dynamics, Pandemic, Frontier Developments, and Slightly Mad Studios.

 

2. Your best-known previous work was Total War. What lessons have you learned from your experience with those games?

That you can’t please everyone, that you’ll never ship the perfect product, and that the bigger your team, the more features you’ll have that don’t quite join up.

 

About Oriental Empires

3. At first glance, Oriental Empires looks like a cross between Civilization V, Endless Legend, and Romance of the Three Kingdoms XI. What are your influences and how have they shaped the game?

The initial inspiration was to create a civilization building game based on Eastern civilization, and having an interesting combat system. Superficially this is similar to Civ, but I don’t think the games feel alike to play. The battles obviously have some similarity to Total War games, but again, the resemblance is superficial as you don’t directly control them. History, reality, space 4X games, and miniature and board games are also influences.

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Guns of Icarus Online: Adventure Mode Follow-Up Q&A

This entry is part 3 of 3 in the series Guns of Icarus Online

Guns of Icarus Online is one of the most unique games I’ve played – a team-based dieselpunk airship game, in which rival crews try to shoot each other out of the sky. When it launched in 2012, it was strictly PvP. The following year, developer Muse Games launched a Kickstarter campaign to add PvE (“Adventure mode”), and it seems to be coming along nicely.

Read on for my follow-up email interview with Howard Tsao, CEO of Muse Games, about Adventure mode:

Peter Sahui: Hello, and welcome to the site!

When I last spoke to Muse Games in 2013, you were running a Kickstarter campaign for “Adventure mode” — a large expansion pack that would add PvE and co-op to the game. How is that coming along?

Howard Tsao: It’s been a long journey, with the scope of the expansion arguably larger than the original game, but we’re constantly making progress. Right now, in addition to iterating on some of the game modes and honing AI director as well as AI enemy movement and behaviour, we’re also doing work on player, faction, and world progressions. A lot of the in mission or in match feedback and progression are being designed and worked on as well. We’re creating factional airships, boss ships, and wardrobe as well, and we’ll soon move into designing more maps and game modes as well.

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Let’s reunify Japan in Total War: Shogun 2! Part 3 (Final): Ride Forth Victoriously

This entry is part 10 of 10 in the series Total War: Shogun 2

Welcome to the final instalment of my Let’s Play of Shogun 2.

Previously, I stood on the verge of Shogun 2’s endgame — “realm divide”, in which most of Japan joins forces to stop the player. My armies were ready. My treasury was bursting. And so, I resumed the offensive after a long period of peace. Here is the situation, shortly before the end of Part 2:

S2 power blocs

In the east, my armies had just won their first victory against the Hatekayama clan (green). In the west, I was at peace; I shared my border with an allied clan, the Imagawa (grey), and a former ally, the Jinbo (light blue). Further west, past the Jinbo and Imagawa, was the single largest computer player: the Otomo clan (blue, also my ally).

Once I resume the game, Takeda Shingen and his son Nobushige lead my eastern armies against the Hatekeyama’s remaining force.

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Let’s reunify Japan in Total War: Shogun 2! Part 2: Patience and Preparation

This entry is part 9 of 10 in the series Total War: Shogun 2

Welcome back to my Let’s Play of Shogun 2.

When we left off, my Takeda clan controlled a modest slice of Japan, to the north and west of modern Tokyo. To the east were my enemies: the Satake and Satomi clans. Further north were my old foes, the Uesugi clan; an uneasy peace prevailed between us, ever since I crushed their last invasion attempt.

My previous victory against the Satomi in Part 1 gave me a window of opportunity. and so, my first order of business is to march east. Takeda Shingen, lord of the clan, is off on another frontier. Command falls to his two brothers: Takeda Nobushige in the north, leading his army out of North Shinano province, and Takeda Nobukado in the south, crossing the river from Musashi.

S2 pt1 end North S2 pt1 end SE Continue reading “Let’s reunify Japan in Total War: Shogun 2! Part 2: Patience and Preparation”

Let’s reunify Japan in Total War: Shogun 2! Part 1: Awakening the Tiger

This entry is part 8 of 10 in the series Total War: Shogun 2

Introduction

Hello, and welcome to my Let’s Play of Total War: Shogun 2.

Shogun 2 casts players as a daimyo, one of the regional warlords of sixteenth-century Japan. The ultimate goal is to march on Kyoto, at the centre of the map, and enthrone oneself as shogun. Along the way, the player must manage a realm, raise armies, and command them in battle. The game triumphs on every level — as an exercise in strategic decision-making; as an epic come to life; and as an aesthetic treat. It is my favourite strategy game of all time.

For this run, I have opted to play as the Takeda clan, led by one of the most renowned warlords of the period — Takeda Shingen. This is, in fact, my second Takeda attempt — I abandoned the first after painting myself into a corner. I turn the game’s difficulty up to “Hard”, which affects both the strategic map and the tactical battles. My intent is to turn down the battles to “Normal” — the computer cheats on higher battle difficulties. Instead, I forget. As a result, the game so far has been entirely played on Hard.

I’ve chosen the Takeda for two reasons. First, their location in central Japan will make for a nice change — I won my last Shogun 2 campaign (using the Fall of the Samurai expansion pack) as an outlying island clan. Second, I’ve been meaning to make more extensive use of cavalry in Total War games, a job for which the Takeda are well-suited — all their horsemen receive a bonus.

Here is the opening cinematic for the Takeda:

And here is the situation at the beginning of the game:

S2 Takeda startThe Takeda start in Kai province, a landlocked mountain pass that runs north/south. All cavalry trained in Kai will receive a bonus, courtesy of the province’s superior horse pastures; this stacks with the innate Takeda bonus to cavalry.

To the north of Kai is North Shinano, also landlocked. It is home to the Murakami clan, who begin at war with me — you can see a small Murakami army near the border. To the south are Musashi province, home to modern-day Tokyo, and Suruga province, home to the allied Imagawa clan.

To win the game, I have to hold 25 provinces, including Kai, Kyoto, North Shinano, and three other provinces all to the north of Shinano. Before then, I must face one of Shogun 2’s most distinctive challenges — realm divide. When I draw close to victory, most of the remaining computer players will declare war on me; I’ll need to build my empire around surviving that final difficulty spike.

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My Games of 2014

This entry is part 5 of 6 in the series Game of the Year Awards

Welcome back to another Game of the Year list. This year, I’ve tweaked the format again — many of the games I played in 2014 were released in previous years. Sometimes, I played the old game “as is”; sometimes, I played a new port or an expanded version of the old game. So I’ve broken this post down into two parts. First, I review the accomplishments of 2014. And second, I take a look back at the notable games I played, whether or not they were originally released that year.

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The Qing in the North: Reflections on Europa Universalis IV: Art of War

This entry is part 10 of 12 in the series Europa Universalis IV

The Manchu conquest of Ming China, in which a much smaller, younger state managed to overthrow the greatest empire in the world, is one of those episodes in history that seems tailor-made for a grand strategy game. After recent versions of Europa Universalis IV (the Art of War expansion, the accompanying 1.8 patch, and the subsequent 1.9 patch) fleshed out East Asia and Siberia, I was eager to give the Manchu a spin.

Here are the Jianzhou Jurchens at the start of the game. Historically, their leaders forged a new “Manchu” state and went on to establish China’s final imperial dynasty, the Qing:

EU4 Jianzhou Start

It took me three attempts1 to successfully follow in their footsteps. Similar to my pre-Art of War Ayutthaya game, there was a nice progression:

1. Building a power base to the north of Ming China. I began by subjugating the other Manchu tribes, Siberia, and chunks of Korea, and by the 1510s, I was strong enough to fight off a Ming invasion attempt. My counterattack took the northern tip of China, around Beijing. I took the screenshot below shortly before my war with Ming:

EU4 Jianzhou Phase 1

2. Pushing into China proper, and Westernising. As early as the 1560s, I was planting outposts on the west coast of North America while simultaneously fighting the Russians to a standstill. Decades later, the Ming were still a paper tiger: after a second war, I briefly held all of coastal China down to the wealthy Yangtze delta. A vicious burst of revolts in occupied China was only a temporary setback: by 1630 I had picked up Western technology (courtesy of my American colonies). The screenshot below depicts the situation a couple of decades later, by which point  it was simply a matter of…

EU4 Qing Phase 2

3. Mopping up. Once I controlled a decent chunk of China, my manpower, wealth, and technological edge allowed me to snowball through the rest. I spent the rest of the 1600s and 1700s absorbing the remainder of China, fighting the odd war against Europeans, and bullying nearby minnows.

Here are my borders at the end of the game (note that Siberia was a client state of mine). Had I wanted to, I could have pushed much further — I had a standing army of over 180,000 men, manpower reserves of another 300,000, maximum technology, and the most provinces of any nation in the world:

EU4 Qing EndgameOverall, I had great fun, perhaps more so in the first half of the campaign. I think the second half was held back by a common genre problem — EU4’s mechanics don’t scale well to large empires. Otherwise, I am very pleased with the current version of the game, which addresses one of my longest-running complaints with the series. Even with its late-game problems, I think EU4 is a very good strategy game; and I particularly appreciate that the developers have fleshed out my favourite aspect — the world beyond Europe. If you haven’t played EU4, or if you played back at launch, this would be a great time to jump in.

I’ve divided the rest of this post into several sections. Below, I elaborate on EU4‘s design (and the state of the game). If you’d like to try forming the Qing, skip to the mini-guide at the end of this post.

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  1. For all three attempts, I played in Ironman mode, which prevents save/reload, gives selected European AI countries a “lucky nations” bonus, and enables Steam achievements. Perhaps Paradox could consider making AI Jianzhou a lucky nation. They fit the description as well as any of the others – France, England, etc.

Offworld Trading Company interview with Soren Johnson

Offworld Trading Company Logo

Offworld Trading Company is an upcoming RTS where, to quote developer Mohawk Games, “money, not firepower, is the player’s weapon”. Its stated inspirations include board games, Railroad Tycoon, and conventional real-time strategy.

Below, I am very pleased to present an email interview with Soren Johnson, the lead designer of OTC. Soren has previously been co-lead designer of Civilization III, lead designer of Civilization IV, a senior designer and programmer of Spore, and lead designer of Dragon Age: Legends.

 

Peter Sahui: Hello, Soren – welcome to the site!

Offworld Trading Company is one of the most unique strategy games I’ve encountered. Even after finishing the tutorial and playing several rounds against the AI, it still feels unfamiliar.

Does that affect your work as a designer? Has OTC’s novelty posed any particular challenges?

Soren Johnson: We are purposely making a game unlike any other. As a small studio, our games will never be able to compete with established strategy franchises from big publishers, so we have to be different to stand out. Offworld is an RTS game that uses tycoon game mechanics, instead of combat mechanics, to create conflict between players. The only well-known video games somewhat similar are M.U.L.E. or Railroad Tycoon, which are both quite old and also not really competitive RTS’s. What makes Offworld unique will hopefully get the game attention, but we are aware that it could also put off people who are unsure what they would be buying. Thus, as a designer, I am trying to ground Offworld as much in the conventions of RTS games as possible – from game length (30 minutes) to number of players (2 to 8) to game options (multiplayer matchmaking, single-player skirmishes, dynamic campaigns, etc). We are hoping to develop some type of cooperative mode for team play or just fighting the AI. We want people to understand that it is still a competitive RTS at the core – just one without guns.

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Ayutthaya Universalis: Building an Empire in Southeast Asia

This entry is part 9 of 12 in the series Europa Universalis IV
Ayutthaya (dark green) at the start of the game.
Ayutthaya (dark green) at the start of the game.

The Kingdom of Ayutthaya was the major power in Southeast Asia in the 14th and 15th centuries. Based in the capital of Ayutthaya on the Chao Phraya River, this decentralized Thai kingdom managed to exercise hegemony over the area for many years. Trade rivalry with Malacca and constant wars with neighboring Burmese and Khmer kingdoms typified the history.

EU4 developer diary 38

At the start of Europa Universalis IV, Ayutthaya is a big fish in a small pond. As the largest and strongest state in Southeast Asia, it is still a minnow compared to Ming China and the eventual European invaders. Over the 350 years of the game, I set out to change this. With patience, luck, and the odd save/reload, I succeeded:

Final score.
Final score.

My journey took me from Southeast Asian minor to Asian power; from an Asian power to the Asian power; and from Asian hegemon to one of the world’s Great Powers. This was one occasion when EU4 shone as an “empire-building game”, and I’ve given some thought as to why.

The starting point lies in EU4’s (and, by extension, the entire Europa Universalis series’s) choice of subject. Every Paradox game is about the struggle for power: Crusader Kings is about the struggle between individuals, Victoria is about struggle between states and struggle within states, and Hearts of Iron and Europa Universalis are almost entirely about the struggle between states. The player’s tools in EU4 reflect that focus: you fight wars, colonise territory, befriend (or antagonise) other states, send out explorers, merchants, and trade fleets, and unlock bonuses via technology or National Ideas. Other aspects of the period are abstracted or, in the case of the emerging gap between European and non-European powers, taken for granted.

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The Beginner’s Guide to Wargame

This entry is part 12 of 12 in the series Wargame: European Escalation/AirLand Battle/Red Dragon

Wargame is one of my favourite RTS series. It can also be daunting — I know several readers have picked it up on sale, only to bounce off. I hope the following guide will help.

 

Introduction to Wargame

 

Wargame is a series of real-time military tactics games (European Escalation, AirLand Battle, and Red Dragon) set during the Cold War. Like Total War or a real-time Panzer General, Wargame bridges the gap between dedicated simulations and traditional real-time strategy games such as Company of Heroes. It’s also really, really good.

 

If you don’t own any of the games, I don’t recommend the original game, European Escalation, which has been superseded by its sequels. Instead, I recommend starting with the middle game, AirLand Battle. First, AirLand is much cheaper than the latest game, Red Dragon. At the time of writing AirLand regularly goes on sale for <$10, while Red Dragon, even on sale, is seldom cheaper than the mid-$20s. Second, AirLand introduced many of the series’ best and most distinctive mechanics — the jump to Red Dragon is more modest. If you plan to play a lot of competitive multiplayer, you may wish to start with Red Dragon, where the multiplayer community has migrated. Otherwise, start with ALB, and if you enjoy it, upgrade to Red Dragon later.

 

The rest of this guide assumes you are playing either AirLand Battle or Red Dragon. The guide is current as at v564 (DLC 1) of Red Dragon.

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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The Last Story: not the least

wii_laststory_bundlebox_ps_3d_-_smallIf the necromancer hits me with one more fireball, I’m toast.

 

He’s the toughest boss I’ve faced so far, and the good news is, I’ve whittled him down to his last chunk of health. The bad news is, I’m on my last life, my AI teammates aren’t doing much better, and the next fireball that hits will probably finish me off.  If I can close in with my sword, before the necromancer’s spell timer counts down, the battle will be over. The trick is lasting that long.

 

There he is! The necromancer has spent the fight teleporting around the room, but I see him now. I fumble with my bow, spray a few Wizard Slayer arrows his way. If I hit, I’ll interrupt his spell, buying myself a few precious seconds. And I hit. The timer disappears. I charge in, ignore the skeleton bodyguards, raise my sword…

 

… and the screen erupts in flame.

 

But this fireball comes from the party sorcerer, controlled by the AI, and it could not have come at a better time. The fireball took the necromancer to his last sliver of health. One last slash, and it’s over. I’ve won. More accurately, to give full credit to my AI-controlled teammates: we’ve won.

 

Welcome to The Last Story, a 2012 Wii action-RPG from Japanese developer Mistwalker (1). TLS never managed to replicate fellow Wii RPG Xenoblade’s jump to cult classic – but if you ask me, TLS is both the better of the two, and one of the most underrated games in years.

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Ni no Kuni: a tale of Mite and magic

NNK - Mar Mite
Oliver is the ostensible protagonist of Ni no Kuni, but his familiars are the game’s heart and soul.

 

 

Ostensibly, PS3 RPG Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch is about the adventures of Oliver (pictured, right), an ordinary boy who becomes the wizard-saviour of another world. But it’s not, not really. Meet one of Ni no Kuni’s real heroes (on the left): Mar Mite, melee fighter, bane of enemies from the Winter Isles in the west to Teeheeti in the east, and utterly adorable. Together, Mar Mite and friends represent what is best about Ni no Kuni – and what is worst.

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Hearts of Iron IV Q&A, with Dan Lind

This entry is part 2 of 3 in the series Hearts of Iron

HeartsofIronIV_logo_R_NormalI am a long-time fan of Hearts of Iron, a grand strategy series in which players control all aspects of a World War II nation, from armies and fleets to research, production, and diplomacy. So when developer Paradox Development Studio took the wraps off the upcoming Hearts of Iron IV, I was eager to find out more. Read on for my email Q&A with project lead Dan Lind, in which I ask about his vision for the project and how it will fit into the series:

 

Peter Sahui: Hello Dan — welcome to the site!

 

It’s been five years since Hearts of Iron III launched, and in your first developer diary, you talk about lessons learned from Crusader Kings 2, Europa Universalis 4, and HOI3. What inspiration have you drawn from other sources — other games, books, etc.?

 

Foto: Oskar KullanderDan Lind, Project Lead: As you know, Hearts of Iron is, like most Paradox Development Studio titles, a grand strategy game in an open sandbox and victory is determined by the goals you set up for yourself during the WWII time-span. The Hearts of Iron series is all about taking control of your nation in the years around World War II and leading it to victory – a wargame where you have to look at the entire war and take decisions in a multiple of aspects to reach victory. So Hearts of Iron IV is at its core is not a pure old-fashioned wargame.

 

Therefore, to be frank, there are not a lot of other grand strategy wargames to look at unfortunately. But I’m personally fan of World of Tanks as well as War Thunder and I hope we can bring in more of their flavor and attention to detail. My team also really liked Unity of Command when we tried it since it is a pretty different game that shows how you can make a fun historical strategy game and still keep things easy to understand. When it comes to books, we have tried to have both a top-down and bottom-up approach. So we take a lot of inspiration from Winston Churchill’s books on WWII as well as writings by Otto Carius (a famous German tank commander) as well as memoirs of Russian artillerymen.

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The Banner Saga: Turn-based tactics with a twist

This entry is part 1 of 2 in the series The Banner Saga

“The gods are dead.”

 

So opens Stoic Studio’s The Banner Saga, a low-fantasy tactical RPG with a cool and unique combat system. It’s so different as to be divisive; but the more I play it, the more I like it.

 

By way of overview, Banner Saga follows two separate groups as they trek across a land ravaged by shadowy, armoured monsters called dredge (second from the right). Between battles, the current group’s caravan rolls through the countryside (see below), banner streaming behind, and gameplay consists of text events: how do you respond to stubborn villagers, or a troublemaking drunk, or a fire in the distance? These choices affect caravan morale and hence stats in combat, but more importantly, party members can join, leave, or permanently die in these events. And clearly, the developers meant decisions to have consequences, a la XCOM ironman – there is only one quicksave slot, and save ‘checkpoints’ are widely spaced. This is perhaps too effective: I’ve started looking up guides after discovering that I neither enjoy character loss, nor have the time or patience to reload.  The actual writing is clunky at first (why are quasi-Vikings saying “OK”?), but picks up steam. As at the 60% mark, I find the story interesting, albeit not the main draw.

 

The Banner Saga's lovely overworld.
The Banner Saga’s lovely overworld.

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Games of the Year: 2013

This entry is part 4 of 6 in the series Game of the Year Awards

1st Place Award RibbonAs promised, here is my list! As with last year, I’ve highlighted noteworthy achievements, as opposed to trying to single out favourites (so you will see some that I thought were more interesting than fun). I’ll kick off with what I thought were the year’s overarching themes:

 

Theme of the year I: march of the small games. Every year has its notable short and/or cheap indie games, such as FTL in 2012, and in 2013 these included Skulls of the Shogun, Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons, Papers: Please, and Gone Home. However, the year also saw a large publisher, Ubisoft, throw its hat into the ring with Call of Juarez: Gunslinger and Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon. Ubisoft is set to continue this trend with Child of Light, and it’ll be interesting to see the extent to which other publishers follow – especially after Tomb Raider missed Square Enix’s expectations, sparking the latest bout of soul-searching about the future of AAA games.

 

Theme of the year II: iteration. In 2012, my favourite games (XCOM, Wargame: European Escalation, Analogue: A Hate Story), as well as other notable titles (FTL, Journey) were all quite novel. Even XCOM, while thematically faithful to the 1994 original, was mechanically unique. 2013, though, was more like 2011 in its preponderance of evolutionary rather than revolutionary games, from the big end of town (Assassin’s Creed IV) to the little guys (Dominions 4), plus expansion packs (Civilization V: Brave New World, XCOM: Enemy Within). That said, we’ll see exceptions below.

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I played, I thought, I wrote: a design analysis of Rome II, the Total War series, and what makes a good 4X game

This is not a review of Creative Assembly’s Total War: Rome II, but if it were, my opinion would be, “Worth a look… but wait for the <$10 Steam sale.” I’m around 30 hours into Rome II, spread across two campaigns and multiple stand-alone battles. I’ve had enjoyable times, and some spectacular moments. I’ve thundered elephants through the flank of a distracted foe, raised last-ditch armies, and marched from the Tiber to the English Channel, but the whole of my experience has been less than the sum of its parts. And the really interesting question is why.

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Dominions 4 Q&A, with Johan Karlsson and Kristoffer Osterman

This entry is part 2 of 4 in the series Dominions 4
Dom4 Virtue
Dominions depicts clashes between pretender gods, such as the Virtue seen above.

Johan Karlsson and Kristoffer Osterman of Illwinter Game Design are the creators of indie masterpiece Dominions 3, a strategy game of near-unrivalled imagination, depth, and player choice. With Dominions 4 about to launch (and following my July preview), I am very pleased to present my email interview with Johan and Kristoffer, in which we talk about Illwinter’s history, its inspirations, the future of Dominions, and more. Did you know that Illwinter even considered adding real-time battles and a 3D map? Read on:

 

Peter Sahui: Hello, and welcome to the site!

 

I’d like you to start by telling us about Illwinter Game Design. How did you get started developing games?

 

Johan: My first game was a long time ago just before I moved out to go and study computer science. My favorite old game was Chaos, a game for Spectrum 48 where up to 8 wizards battled it out in a very simple fashion. I got my Atari ST computer after that and felt that you could make a much better Chaos game on that computer. So my first attempt at a game was to create a Chaos clone for the Atari ST, written completely in basic. It got to a playable state and was better than the original in many ways, monsters had hit points and there were more of them as well. But it was not good enough to be sold, so it never got played by other than me and my friends.

 

When I started my Computer Science education I began to create a more sophisticated game that was called Conquest of Elysium. That’s also when I met Kristoffer who joined in and took over the graphics part. Being 2 people helped a lot I think and we managed to finish the game and sell it as shareware. Shareware was the thing back then and I remember that it was really bothersome and crappy compared to how it works today with Desura etc.

 

Illwinter Game Design had started to exist now and we continued to create a new game every few years until we had 3 CoE and now 4 Dominions as well.

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Occult Chronicles Q&A, with Vic Davis

OC Poltergeist Mission

 

I am very pleased to publish an email interview with Vic Davis, the indie game designer behind Armageddon Empires (one of my favourite strategy games), Solium Infernum, and Six-Gun Saga. Read on for our conversation about Vic’s latest title, roguelike/board game hybrid Occult Chronicles, in which we discuss his inspirations, his lessons learned, the challenges of indie development, and more.

 

Peter Sahui: Hello Vic – welcome to the site! Occult Chronicles is your fourth game, after Armageddon Empires, Solium Infernum, and Six-Gun Saga. What lessons from your previous games came in handy for this project?

Vic Davis: Well from a technical standpoint I have over a decade of experience with the development environment that I use (Adobe Director).  I’ve also got a huge library of code for doing everything from creating drop down menus to path finding for any AI.  On the design side it has helped a lot to have shipped previous games.  Even though attempting a rogue like is a new direction for me, I was able to draw upon the experience that I had gained while designing turn based strategy games.  In the end my new game is really just an adventure strategy game so it shares a lot of the same elements.

 

Peter: Compared to Armageddon Empires, random chance seems to play a much bigger role in Occult Chronicles. What made you emphasise luck, and how did you balance it?

Vic: Yeah, without any of the map or positional elements that most TBS games offer, the conflict resolution elements really pop out to the fore. And Occult Chronicles has a lot of rpg baggage so you have this paradigm of stats/abilities being used to influence some probabilistic outcome matrix.  Calling it luck though is something of a misnomer in my opinion.  Chance plays a big part but I tried to craft a system of mechanics where smart playing could nudge the scales in your direction.  In the Occult Chronicles you need to weigh risk versus reward when you encounter various “challenges” in the game. You are usually given various options that key off of your attributes so it might be better to talk to an encounter rather than attack it.  Similarly, sometimes it’s better to run away or postpone a choice. I do admit that the way I designed the results phase for the game where you basically pick random cards to determine your rewards or penalties for an encounter, does serve to really accentuate the idea that the game is really random.  And I’m not sure random is really bad especially in a rogue like.  It’s something that is demanded for the map generation and figures prominently in many other aspects like what you encounter on a level or whether you hit it.  Coping with the random elements is really supposed to be part of the fun. But then so is dying a lot so go figure.

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Race to Mars Q&A, with Szymon Janus

ea628dec4e69fbbbccb3b223ca0bca11_largeInspired by tycoon games and the classic Buzz Aldrin’s Race into Space, indie developer INTERMARUM is raising funds on Kickstarter for its upcoming turn-based strategy game, Race to Mars. RTM will task players with helming a private space company, with the end goal of establishing a base on Mars. Read on for my email interview with INTERMARUM CEO Szymon Janus:

 

Peter Sahui: Hello, and welcome to the site! Could you please tell us more about your team & your previous experience?

Szymon Janus: Hello Peter. My name is Szymon and I am the owner and founder of INTERMARUM, a game development studio in a small little city called Opole. Right now there are 12 people working on Race To Mars with different levels of involvement. Up until now we did mostly contract work and this is our first independent production. We cooperate with many different developers from known Polish companies though.

 

PS: How will the typical Race to Mars campaign will play out? It looks like the basic “flow” of gameplay will be: (1) accept simple contracts, (2) use the profits to develop new facilities and technology, (3) use the new capabilities to take on more ambitious contracts, and so on, until you finally have enough money and technology to settle Mars and win the game.

SJ: Roughly speaking – everything is correct ;) . Adding to that is making sure the tech has a good enough degree of quality or the safety level. It will also be important to deal with random events or training your team.
What it will definitely NOT feature is being able to choose just any contract – we will compete with different companies and, for example, we will not be able to compete with them on price at a certain stage, which will force a change in expansion strategy.

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Europa Universalis IV Q&A, with Thomas Johansson

This entry is part 2 of 12 in the series Europa Universalis IV

EuropaUniversalisIV_Coverart_lowrez_shrunkEuropa Universalis IV is an upcoming grand strategy game by Paradox Development Studio, set during the early modern era of world history (roughly 1450 to 1800). When it was announced last year, it immediately caught my eye: I’m a long-time player of Paradox games (including the previous Europa Universalis titles); and to me, the game’s period is one of the most fascinating in history – its rich mix of global interactions ultimately laid the groundwork for our modern, industrialised world. So with the game due out in August 2013, just a couple of months away, the time seemed ripe for a chat with the developers. Read on for my email Q&A with Thomas Johansson, project lead for Europa Universalis IV.

 

Europa Univeralis IV and other Paradox games

 

Peter Sahui: Paradox Development Studio’s last major release, Crusader Kings II, has also probably been its most successful to date (both critically, and in terms of its ability to break out beyond the traditional PDS niche). What lessons did you learn from CK2’s success, and how are you applying them to EU4?

 

Thomas Johansson, Project Lead of EU4
Thomas Johansson, Project Lead of EU4

Thomas Johansson: Crusader Kings II’s two biggest strengths were that it was well polished and we had worked hard on improving the interface. We worked hard with the tutorial, the hint system and to make it a very polished release. With Europa Universalis IV, we are aiming to do even better! Our goal is our most polished release to date and have the best interfaces we have ever created. The main focus of the whole development team is polishing the game and refining the interfaces.

What I also believe has really helped Crusader Kings II is that it was a breakthrough for gamers to realize that the game creates stories that you want to tell other people about. So the simple answer would be that it is a game that makes people talk about it, because they want to share their dramatic events, the intrigue, backstabbing and romances with their friends. Because it constantly surprises you. Just when you thought you had everything going and an easy road to power, money and conquering new territories – then you get stabbed in the back, your wife gets murdered and your sister steals your throne. Just like life… ;)

So the fact that the storytelling came across strong with Crusader Kings II, we hope that people can see that Europa Universalis IV also allows you yourself to create the stories when playing the game. You attack your neighbours, alliances gets broken, you get an incompetent ruler and need to get creative on how to handle his/hers strength and weaknesses while keeping your territory hungry opponents at bay. Continue reading “Europa Universalis IV Q&A, with Thomas Johansson”