Only a Flesh Wound! Total War: Attila impressions

This entry is part 1 of 4 in the series Total War: Attila

29 turns in, the Western Empire is still clinging to life.

War has come to Rome.

Lands that were Roman for centuries are now desolate or in enemy hands. Northern Spain and the tip of Italy are smoking rubble. The empire’s leading general, Stilicho, is dead with all his army — though they managed to take Alaric, King of the Visigoths, with them. While the legions can notch up the odd victory, the stream of enemies seems endless.

And yet, all is not lost. Sacrificing the frontier bought me fifteen or twenty turns to pour every coin into rebuilding the Empire’s economy — its farms, cities, and waterworks. When a legion is mauled, I can afford to raise a new one; I think I can replenish my ranks faster than the barbarians can replenish theirs. Let us see who lasts longer.

29 turns into the game, the Western Roman Empire is battered, bleeding — and so far, unbroken.

Welcome to Total War: Attila. I expected a tough, fair challenge, and so far, it’s delivered. The Western Empire begins in crisis — its treasury is bleeding, its people are restive, and it’s surrounded by enemies. I’m still surrounded by enemies… but I’ve staunched the bleeding. With the right strategy and a bit of luck, I can see how I might be able to dig myself out. And I think that by avoiding mistakes, I could have done better still.

As this suggests, Attila is much better than its predecessor Rome 2 was at launch. So far, I have suffered one crash; annoyingly, this came right after I won a battle. Other than that, Attila seems polished and stable. The AI is shrewd and aggressive — perhaps a little too aggressive. Multiple AI factions have ignored nearer prey in favour of dogpiling me; I’m trying to defend Spain against three stacks that sailed all the way from the British Isles!

At this stage, I’d say Attila is very good. The caveat is that I’ve only experienced the early game, and only tried a single faction – the Western Empire. If the rest of the game lives up to the start, I think it’ll be one of the stronger entries in the series.

Attila - Ostrogoths surging uphill

Appendix: starting tips

At the start of the game, the Western Empire has too few legions and too much frontier to defend. As such, the standard opening seems to beabandoning swathes of the Empire and falling back — sometimes all the way to Italy.

My strategy was somewhat less extreme. I pulled back to the shores of the Mediterranean – Spain, Italy, and southern Gaul. (I did not raze entire settlements behind me, as that increases unrest. I just demolished buildings instead.) Putting every penny into the economy seems to be key; otherwise the funds just will not exist to support a military buildup. If necessary, demolish buildings that cost upkeep.

With hindsight, I think I was a bit too hasty to fall back. What I should have done was combine several of the understrength Roman armies, then squash my smaller enemies early on, before they could join forces. That would solve my current problem — too many enemies! It would also be less gamey, and make it more feasible to hold the original frontier.

Whatever you choose, good luck, Imperator.

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.

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

Total War Rome II DLC Campaigns: The Buyer’s Guide

Matchsticks for my Eyes is pleased to present the latest guest post by Rachel “frogbeastegg” McFadden, author of Frogbeastegg’s Guides to Total War. Rome II has smartened up considerably since its release; the article below discusses its add-on campaigns.

I have seen a lot of people asking about the various DLC campaigns for Total War: Rome II lately. Here’s a brief run-down of them all, in order of release.

Caesar in Gaul

Caesar in Gaul is my current favourite out of the Rome II campaigns which I have played.

This is the smallest scale out of all of those available. The map is a very zoomed-in version of France with a bit of Germany, Italy and Britain on the edges. The map comprises of around 50 cities in total, so it’s more than capable of portraying the geography of the area. The victory requirements are low at only 28 cities for victory instead of the more usual 50. The smaller scale makes the map very intimate, and each new advance feels like a good step forward. The map is the most Shogun II-esque in terms of providing choke-point geography and interesting routes.

Caesar in Gaul is small in scale in terms of faction variety as well; it’s Romans versus Gauls with a smattering of Britons and Germans. If you do not enjoy fighting against lots of Gauls you will hate this because most of the factions on the map are, unsurprisingly, Gauls. Playable factions include Rome, Suebi, and two Gaulish factions. Not the Britons, disappointingly; I’d have liked to go fully Reverse-Caesar and this is the one area where I feel let down by this DLC.
Special mention needs to go to the season system; the version seen in the other campaigns is a watered-down version of Caesar in Gaul‘s. Winter? It hurts. Set foot outside of your cities when the bad weather arrives and you will take losses as you march. Spring, summer and autumn all have interesting, if less pronounced, effects. You need to be aware of the time of year and plan for it in a way which the Total War series has never previously asked of the player.

The research system is has a small yet nice modification: you can buy half of the techs for immediate bonuses. It adds a third choice into the spending decisions and in my opinion that makes the strategy portion fly in a way which the others do not. Do I want to build new units, new buildings, or get a useful tech? The economy is quite reasonable on hard mode too, not too restrictive and not overly generous. I recommend building lots of farms and farm boosters because trade is less of an option.

History buffs may appreciate the little quotes from Caesar’s Gallic Wars which appear throughout the campaign.

Note: there is no civil war in this campaign. It is disabled. Instead you will encounter something similar to Shogun II‘s realm divide once your imperium grows high enough. Either the Romans will send Caesar massive reinforcements, or the Gauls will band together to throw you out. For this reason a lot of players consider this to be one of the hardest campaigns.

This campaign also makes three new barbarian factions playable in the Grand Campaign, the Nervii, the Boii, and the Galatians.

Hannibal at the Gates

If Caesar in Gaul is a small campaign, this is a medium-sized one. The geographic area of the map is considerably larger, although there are only a few more cities on the map. The range of factions is larger, and there are more cultures represented. At 50 cities, the victory requirement is midway between Caesar in Gaul‘s and the average faction’s Grand Campaign goal.

Hannibal at the Gates does not have any particular stand-out features of its own so it mostly plays like a smaller version of the Grand Campaign. That makes it easier to know what to expect if you’ve played Rome II already. If you want a smaller, faster-to-finish version of that, then Hannibal is an excellent place to look.

Carthage and Rome both have access to extra legions above the normal cap; if I remember correctly, it’s 2 more each. This makes them more dangerous and helps set the stage for a show-down with a mighty foe.

Diplomacy is relatively pre-set. Rome and Carthage are locked into perma-war, and each have allies assigned at the start. The allies can and will desert their masters, and sometimes change sides if they are hurting badly enough. There can be no negotiation between the Big Two, however. No truces, no temporary trade, nothing; Carthage (or Rome) must be destroyed!

There seems to be an element of luck to the difficulty of this campaign. Depending on what the AI does you will either have a hard fight on your hands, or the main enemy will fail to grow in pace with the player. I suspect that this campaign’s AI is more vulnerable than usual to patch changes. I had an enjoyable, challenging game as Carthage facing an aggressive Rome and an increasingly fraught Spanish situation. I couldn’t get my hands on enough money or manpower to meet my ideal needs until the final third of the game. Conversely, my Rome campaign, also played on hard difficulty, was a complete cakewalk from start to end. I had money overflowing my coffers from turn 1 and that fuelled everything else, although I admit that this might be due to my choosing to disband my starting mercenaries and thus double my income right off the bat. The two Spanish factions reportedly have a tougher time, and Syracuse is considered the most difficult faction of the selection.

This campaign makes two Spanish factions and Syracuse playable in the Grand Campaign.

Imperator Augustus

Imperator Augustus is the FreeLC (as CA call it) campaign which came with the Emperor Edition. If you own Rome II, you own this. It’s basically the Grand Campaign with fewer but larger factions at the start, a few tweaks to city placement on the campaign map, slightly different technology, a different diplomacy set-up, and inevitable war between the assorted Roman factions. Fine, fun, very large in scale and breadth. Huge and time consuming. I have not finished a campaign in it yet, although I have one in progress as Pompey’s Rome.

Wrath of Sparta

This is the newest DLC and I have not had the time to play much of it yet. It’s an interesting twist on the formula … more deliberate, I suppose you could say. Things like recruiting take longer than usual, and as a result each decision carries more weight than normal.

Like Caesar in Gaul, the map is very zoomed-in and geographically intimate. Seasonal gameplay is implemented once again, as is the ‘end-game challenge’, this time in the form of a Persian invasion. Capturing the major factions’ capitals will impose a large diplomacy penalty on the player, so expansion needs to follow a different pattern to the usual “I’ll expand outwards and keep my borders secure, killing one opponent at a time.”

Proviso: you must like hoplite v hoplite warfare. If you find that too slow and static, you will hate this campaign unless you auto-calc all of the battles. Unit types are at their most limited in Wrath of Sparta; hoplites, light cavalry, assorted skirmishers, and that’s pretty much your lot unless you hire mercenaries from the northern areas of the map. The DLC’s store page info boasts of 50 new units; be aware that most of those are minor tweaks on existing units.

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.

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

Star Wars: Empire at War — Quick Impressions

This entry is part 1 of 3 in the series Star Wars franchise

Every so often, I play a game that’s more fun than its mediocre mechanics would suggest. Ni no Kuni was one such. Star Wars: Empire at War is another.

Empire at War was a 2006 RTS whose Galactic Conquest mode, a freeform campaign, had clear pretensions of being Total War in space — without the depth. I walked away disappointed.

I found EaW’s skirmish mode more appealing. Unlike Total War skirmishes (or, for that matter, Galactic Conquest, where all recruitment occurs on the strategic map), EaW skirmishes play out as a more traditional RTS. Each side starts with a starbase, which produces new units and can be upgraded to unlock new build options. Asteroid belts are scattered around the map; once secured by fighter squadrons, they can be mined for income. There are a handful of unit types: fighters, bombers, anti-fighter ships, and capital ships of varying strength, such as Victory-class Star Destroyers, Imperial Star Destroyers, and Mon Calamari cruisers. There are also various hero units drawn from the Star Wars franchise, such as Vader in a TIE Advanced, the Millennium Falcon, and Admiral Ackbar.

This adds up to produce a simple, decent strategy game. It’s important to build up the starbase and unlock higher-level units. It’s also important not to be overrun here and now, and upgrading the starbase is expensive and will tie up production for a long time. The result is an interesting short-term versus long-term trade-off.

Above all, EaW‘s saving grace is its ability to channel the Star Wars experience. When the John Williams music blares, and a Star Destroyer emerges from hyperspace onto the Rebel flank, and Vader and Boba Fett sweep the field clear of X-wings, the dated graphics fade away; and I forget all my quibbles with game design.

One episode can sum up my relationship with EaW. In my first few minutes with the game, Han and Chewie in the Falcon managed to solo (no pun intended) four of my TIE Interceptor squadrons and drive off their supporting cruiser. Was that an example of finely balanced strategy design? Perhaps not. Was that a cool Star Wars moment? You bet.

Endless Legend: a better toy than game

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

EDIT: This post contains my updated thoughts on Endless Legend, one year on.

Back when I wrote about Tearaway last January, I quoted Jesse Schell’s distinction between a toy (something that’s fun to play with) and a game (a problem-solving activity approached with a playful attitude). Using these definitions, I would argue Endless Legend is a good game and a better toy.

As a toy, Endless Legend is a fresh, colourful take on 4X strategy, enlivened by one of the most imaginative settings in the genre. I love its diverse factions, its aesthetic and music, its unique mechanics. I also appreciate that there’s an option to enlarge the font – Paradox and Matrix, take note! As a game, Endless Legend shines early on. The first 50 to 100 turns are an exciting competition, in which I race to expand, weigh different research priorities, or struggle to hold a distant region that produces essential raw materials for my army.

Eventually, Endless Legend runs into a familiar problem with the genre — a tedious late game. Individual city build queues, a staple of the 4X genre, don’t scale well to large empires. Late-game units are just early-game units with bigger numbers. And once one player stakes out a big enough lead, the rest of the game is all downhill. There is a “rubber band” happiness mechanic reminiscent of Civ V (larger empires are more restive than smaller ones); it doesn’t seem to be enough.

The runaway leader syndrome is exacerbated by a diplomatic AI that’s so capricious, it might as well not exist: I remember one AI player tearing up our brand-new trade agreements at the same time it was being devoured by another, larger opponent (which went on to win the game). In a different game, the AI players tried to team up on me when I pulled ahead — except that I was so far ahead that their declarations of war were utter suicide. After I absorbed them, I was even stronger than before.

With a few patches or perhaps an expansion, something to spice up the late game, I think Endless Legend could become a classic of the genre. As is, it’s one of the most original strategy games in some time, and still worth checking out for fans of the genre.

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.

Continue reading “The Qing in the North: Reflections on Europa Universalis IV: Art of War”

  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.

The Lantern Bearer: revisiting Crusader Kings II

This entry is part 2 of 4 in the series Crusader Kings II

CK2 Karen Game Over

I thought I’d cracked it.

Over and over again, I attempted one of the greatest challenges in Crusader Kings II – play a Zoroastrian and restore the Persian Empire. Over and over again, I fell prey to larger, stronger neighbours. Proud independence seemed impossible.

Now, it was time for one more approach. I pledged fealty to a weak king — and set myself up as the power behind the throne. It worked: I kept my dynasty, the House of Karen, alive for a hundred years. And one day, I overreached. Playthrough after playthrough had been cut short by the vast armies of the Abbasid Caliphate. Why not switch my allegiance to the Caliph, undermine his rule from within, and pick up the pieces after his fall?

Seventy years later, after my umpteenth rebellion, the Caliph stripped my dynasty of its last lands. I had forestalled fate, not changed it.

Continue reading “The Lantern Bearer: revisiting Crusader Kings II”

Observations on Xenonauts

Xenonauts is a generally inspired homage to the Gollop Brothers’ X-COM, let down by repetitive ground combat. After six or seven hours back in September, I loaded up Firaxis’ XCOM: Enemy Within… and since then, I’ve haven’t looked back.

Comparing Xenonauts and Enemy Within made me appreciate what Firaxis did right. Because soldiers in Firaxis XCOM can move quite far and still shoot, and because cover, flanking, and line of sight are so important, Firaxis ground combat is extremely fluid. In the very first Enemy Within battle I played after Xenonauts — “just for comparison, then I can write this article” — my soldiers started on one side of a convenience store. First the aliens came from the east, along the street. Then they emerged from the north, through the store, onto my flank! My squad ran, and climbed, and hid on the roof — all but the poor Support trooper who couldn’t make it in time. The aliens emerged from the store. And my survivors took revenge:

XCOM Firing from roof Continue reading “Observations on Xenonauts”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Endless Legend art taken from the official site.

Crusader Kings II: Snowballing on the Steppes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sherlock Holmes vs the Cat-Hair Moustache

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

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

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

Sherlock Holmes CP - NPC
This never gets old.

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

Civilization: Beyond Earth first impressions

This entry is part of 1 in the series Civilization: Beyond Earth

CivBE - Victory

I’ve just won my first game of Civilization: Beyond Earth1, and I have to say, I’m a little disappointed.

The problem is not that this is “Civilization V in space” – in fact, it’s missing some of the features I liked in Civ V (on which more below). The problem is that my first game contained too much busywork for too little payoff. I can tell you cool stories about Beyond Earth’s progenitors, Civilization V and Alpha Centauri. In fact, I could probably tell you cool stories about every Civ game from I to V. I’d be hard-pressed to do the same for my Beyond Earth run.

Continue reading “Civilization: Beyond Earth first impressions”

  1. I played as Daoming on medium (Vostok) difficulty, on a small map, using standard game speed.

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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CA announces Total War: Attila (updated to add video)

Creative Assembly has announced Total War: Attila, a sequel in all but name to 2005’s Rome: Barbarian InvasionEurogamer, IGN, and USGamer (amongst others) have previews up. (Update: I have added a gameplay video above – skip to 4:12. Hat tip to frogbeastegg.)

By way of background, the original Barbarian Invasion was my favourite Total War game until Empire and Shogun 2. If 99% of strategy games are about going from rags to riches, Barbarian Invasion (played as the Romans) was the exception: a game about staving off and ultimately reversing decline. The Western Roman Empire begins with an empty treasury, rioting cities, and mutinous generals – I remember looking at an FAQ, reading that I should have used a certain general to lead my counterattack, and then realising that guy had already rebelled. And after that, they still have the barbarians to worry about! By the time I stabilised the situation, stopped the Huns at the river crossings into Italy, and began my grand counterattack, I felt like a cross between Augustus and Diocletian. Even though I never finished that campaign – my hard drive died partway through – it remains one of the most memorable, unique experiences I’ve had with a strategy game.

Based on the previews, CA understands how much Barbarian Invasion relied on that apocalyptic mood. Here’s a particularly interesting comment from IGN – it suggests that the player must race to prepare for an endgame showdown:

A few turns after the start of the campaign in 395 AD, Attila will be born. Once he grows to adulthood, he’ll lead a nearly unstoppable army of Huns in a terrifying march to the west, steamrolling everyone in his way. Your job, as the ruler of one of the powers in his way, is to prepare your defenses and alliances in order to hold out as best you can or to divert Attila to your weaker neighbors.

Over the game’s 60 to 70 year campaign, which is played out in seasons, certain portents of doom will herald Attila’s coming. These portents coincide with a gradual shift in the snow line, which moves south, pushing Germanic tribes with it. It gets so bad, that some of the toughest towns in the north have three seasons of snow per year. Attila and his forces are not a faction in the traditional sense and can’t be played. They’re more like a force of nature that sweeps across the map, destroying and spoiling everything they touch…

For Attila to succeed, CA will have to avoid its traditional pitfalls – bugs, bad AI, late-game pacing, and sprawl. These problems ensnared Rome II — though from what I hear, a year’s worth of patches have finally turned it into a good game. There’s a lot of potential here… but time will tell if it can be realised.

 

This painting seemed appropriate: "The Course of Empire - Destruction", by Thomas Cole, 1836

(I’ve used the above painting before, during my interview with Jon Shafer about At the Gates. The time seemed ripe to haul it out again.)

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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Transistor: concluding thoughts

This entry is part 2 of 2 in the series Transistor

Transistor is a clever game, let down by its ending.

 

At first, Transistor resembles a reflex-driven action-RPG, with the emphasis on “action” (a la Bastion). Within minutes, the combat system reveals itself as something else. To borrow my earlier analogy, the best comparison is an isometric version of Fallout 3 or New Vegas. Instead of moving and fighting in real-time mode, I spent most of my time in Turn(), a VATS-like mode where I could plan attacks in suspended time. With the press of another button, my plans sprung into action. There is no distinction between normal and special attacks; every attack in the game is an ability of some kind, and levelling up will grant a choice of new abilities. These abilities can be used on their own, or combined to produce a single, upgraded ability. For example, Crash() is a short-ranged attack that stuns enemies, and Breach() is a long-ranged beam attack. Using Breach() to upgrade Crash() will extend Crash()’s range, while using Crash() to upgrade Breach() will produce a long-ranged beam that stuns targets. There are sixteen different abilities in the game, which produces a lot of possible combinations — “interesting decisions” in a nutshell.

 

In a further incentive to experiment, Transistor reveals a little bit of backstory with each new ability equipped. This is indicative of its overall approach to story. Very little is spelled out: you are in a futuristic city, robots are attacking, and that’s about all the setup there is. Neither is there much of a plot. Instead, Transistor gradually reveals bits and pieces of its setting and backstory, and much of the fun lies in piecing together what’s going on. This minimalism would probably outlast its welcome in a longer game, but it works in Transistor, which I finished in five or six hours. I do have one minor complaint — since the player chooses the order in which abilities are unlocked, I never picked up certain abilities, and hence I never saw their blurbs. Upon looking them up online, they turned out to be important to the backstory. Perhaps those particular abilities should have been mandatory.

 

The bigger problem is Transistor’s ending, where I disagree — sharply — with the creators’ decisions. To explain why, I have to resort to spoilers:

 

Spoiler Inside SelectShow

 

Compare this to Bastion, where a particular sequence near the end has stuck with me for years (spoilers):

 

Spoiler Inside SelectShow

 

Exclude the ending, and Transistor is pretty good. It and Bastion share much of their appeal: art and an interesting world. Transistor is more innovative, mechanically. The decisive factor is that I like Bastion’s message far more, and to me, that makes it better both as a story and overall.

Transistor: 33% off on Steam for one more day

This entry is part 1 of 2 in the series Transistor

Very quick heads-up; Transistor, the latest game from the studio behind Bastion, is 33% off on Steam ($13.39, down from $20) for another 30 hours. I started Transistor tonight and after a couple of hours, I’m impressed. Transistor offers gorgeous art (it goes well with Steam Big Picture!), a unique combat system – the closest analogy would be an isometric version of Fallout 3/New Vegas‘ VATS – and an intriguing “mix and match” approach to special powers, layered over a subtly horrific world. I’ll post a more detailed write-up once I’ve spent more time with the game, but for now, I think <$14 is a steal. Check it out!

Valiant Hearts: concluding thoughts

This entry is part 2 of 2 in the series Valiant Hearts

Valiant Hearts wants to tell the truth about war. To do so, it uses puzzles, humour, and a goofy villain. That is the language of adventure games, but it is not the language of war, and the resulting contradiction has divided reviewers. My response was mixed – I appreciated the first half of the game, but found it “frustratingly inconsistent”.

After finishing Valiant Hearts, I’m a bit more positive – its second half features better puzzles and is truer to its themes. In the first half of the game, battle is sometimes terrifying, but just as often turns into pulling levers and carrying gears. The second half is cleverer. It reserves its baroque puzzles for sequences away from the front, where they feel much more appropriate. The second half also evokes a wider and, I think, more accurate range of emotions. Combat in the first half is uniformly negative. Combat in the second half is mostly negative – and sometimes thrilling.

Overall, Valiant Hearts receives my qualified endorsement: the less you mind the contradiction, the more you will like the game. Sometimes, it’s laugh-out-loud funny. Sometimes, it’s exhilarating. Sometimes, it’s nerve-wracking. Ultimately, it says, the war was monstrous and unjust. It strikes me as a sincere attempt to convey the emotions of World War 1, and if you can forgive its flaws, I think it’s worth a look.

Valiant Hearts: half full

This entry is part 1 of 2 in the series Valiant Hearts

Valiant Hearts - Wasteland

I’m halfway through Valiant Hearts: The Great War, Ubisoft Montpellier’s adventure game set during World War 1.  Billed as a “story of crossed destinies and a broken love in a world torn apart”, VH‘s heart is in the right place — but its execution can be frustratingly inconsistent.

As with Ubisoft sibling Child of Light, VH‘s most noticeable strength is its presentation. The art is as lovely as its subject is grim: in eight hours, I’ve already taken 286 screenshots (several are at the bottom of this post). Environments are packed with detail, from the lights of pre-war Paris to a lonely skeleton buried beneath a trench, not far from a rusty shovel. Since that sequence calls for you to tunnel under the same trench, the shovel is a sobering touch. Who was that luckless sapper? We will never know — and that, I think, was the developers’ point.

Continue reading “Valiant Hearts: half full”

Warlock 2 and the 4X

This entry is part 3 of 3 in the series Warlock

A few years ago, I linked to an alternate genre classification system for games, as proposed by Russ Pitts and Steve Butts in The Escapist magazine. I paraphrased their system as follows:

  • Action vs Strategy deals with how you play the game. Action games emphasise the player’s physical skill at controlling his/her on-screen avatar. Strategy games, on the other hand, are about planning, analysis, and working out how to get the most out of the avatar(s), rather than about direct control.
  • Exploration vs Conflict, meanwhile, focuses on what you have to overcome. Does the challenge in the game come from defeating opponents who are playing the same game you are, with the same objectives? Or does it come from discovering  and overcoming the environment? The former, what Soren Johnson might call a “symmetrical” game, is Conflict. The latter is Exploration.

You can see this in the following chart from the Escapist article: games that require reflexes (such as shooters, racing games, and platformers) are at the top of the circle, while those that don’t are at the bottom. Citybuilders, which pit the player against an impersonal environment or ruleset, are on the left; Civilization is on the right.

 

 

I thought of this while playing Warlock 2: The Exiled, a game that looks like fantasy Civilization V but is really — to quote Rachel’s guest review — about “mage versus world”. The AI players in my game have been passive, content to march their armies back and forth and beg me for alliances; in Civ, this would have been a recipe for boredom, but in Warlock 2 the slack is taken up by wave after wave of wandering monsters, all the way up to dragons!

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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”.

 

Read more…

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.

 

Read on…

Warlock 2: Mage Versus World

This entry is part 2 of 3 in the series Warlock

2014-05-21_00003

 

My first scout killed some cockroaches and some wolves, then was mauled by a giant bear.

My second scout found some demonic trees and was turned into fertilizer before he could retreat.

My third scout killed some wolves and some weak spiders, reached level 3, and was immediately eaten by the giant killer spider lurking behind the weak spiders.

My fourth scout was diverted to help clean up a rogue infestation near my second city. After that he headed out into the fog and had dinner with some angry zombies. He was the main course.

My fifth scout killed the bear that killed my first scout, and discovered ogres. This was not a fortuitous discovery.

My sixth scout survived until the end of the game despite some hairy moments involving fire elementals, imps, vampire lords, sand golems…

My seventh scout found a trio of polar bearmen.

 

As the sequel to 2012’s Warlock: Master of the Arcane, Warlock 2 builds on that foundation and manages to make its predecessor all but obsolete. Warlock 2 offers most of 1‘s content, along with a bevy of new features, systems, modes, options and content. Unfortunately it also inherited the first game’s biggest flaw: weak AI opponents. As such, the game’s world is your main opponent, and what a hostile, merciless opponent it can be! The list above is a fairly standard record of the first 20 turns of my Warlock 2 games.

 

When I reviewed Warlock 1 at release I found it to be enjoyable, and a little unusual. It looked like Civilisation V, a similarity which only ran skin-deep. Far from being a 4X empire builder, it was a tactical wargame powered by copious magic, a hostile world, and unhinged comedy. Warlock 2 is no different, and in the crowded turn-based fantasy strategy game market of 2014 that’s all the more important. Warlock 2 is not directly comparable to Age of Wonders III, Endless Legend, Elemental, Eador, or any of the other releases which we’ve seen in the last year.

 

Continue reading “Warlock 2: Mage Versus World”

If your Wargame ain’t broke…

This entry is part 11 of 12 in the series Wargame: European Escalation/AirLand Battle/Red Dragon

WRD Gunboat

The US Marines came ashore to find their enemy in disarray.

 

Before the first marine set foot on land, their escorting frigate swept the skies clear. Naval gunfire and wave after wave of Marine helicopters established a safe zone around the shore. Now, as the helicopters darted inland to cut off enemy reinforcements, the first Marine tanks lumbered off the beach, while their officers set up a command post behind them.

 

Everything was going to plan – better than planned. There was just one question: what were Swedish Navy gunboats doing in the Marine task force?

 

Welcome to Wargame: Red Dragon, the follow-up to my favourite game of last year, Wargame: AirLand Battle. Whereas AirLand Battle represented a huge upgrade from the first game in the series, European Escalation, Red Dragon is much more incremental, arguably closer to a stand-alone expansion than a whole new game. It offers plenty of new toys for the toy box, as well as some quality of life improvements (more details below), but the core mechanics are little changed from AirLand Battle.

 

As such, most of what I said about AirLand Battle still applies – this is a “beer and pretzels” Cold War military tactics game, comparable to a real-time Panzer General in the way it bridges the gap between traditional RTS (such as Company of Heroes) and dedicated simulations. Visually, it’s more spectacular than ever – see my above screenshot. Mechanically, it’s still the best RTS on the market, albeit weighed down by a steep learning curve and poor documentation (1). At this stage, AirLand Battle is more polished, and if you already own ALB, you can safely wait for a sale unless you are a series devotee like me. But taken in its own right, Red Dragon is a fantastic game that’s already given me many hours of enjoyment, whether in skirmish mode, the campaign, multiplayer (co-op or PVP), or simply theory-crafting in the armoury.

 

(1) The developers try their best, and they have made advances from game to game, but after three Wargame titles I feel safe saying this is not one of their strengths.

 

For series veterans, I elaborate below on what’s new:

Continue reading “If your Wargame ain’t broke…”

Firaxis announces Civilization: Beyond Earth

This deserves a post of its own: Firaxis has announced Civilization: Beyond Earth, a spiritual successor in all but name to Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri. PC Gamer has run a detailed interview with the developers, while beneath the cut, I’ve embedded the official announcement trailer (complete with a narrator who sounds like SMAC‘s Deirdre).

Update: The official press release is now available here.

BE is due out later in 2014, which seems likely to make it one of the highest-profile strategy releases (alongside The Sims 4) in the second half of the year. This will be one to watch.

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Age of Wonders III: Slog and counter-slog

This entry is part 4 of 4 in the series Age of Wonders III

While I like a number of things about Age of Wonders III, one problem holds it back – pacing.

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