Six Ages: Ride Like The Wind is a gamebook — an interactive story about leading a clan in a world of myth and magic. Alongside its predecessor, King of Dragon Pass, Six Ages is almost unique in its intersection between storytelling and a resource-management game. And like King of Dragon Pass, Six Ages brings its setting to vibrant life, encouraging the player to stay in-character in a world where the divine is never far away.
Much of Six Ages is spent managing the day-to-day business of the clan: which gods to propitiate that season, where to send emissaries and scouting parties, whom to raid, whether to focus on herding, crafting, or sharing stories, and so on:
This is essential stuff — a clan that’s short on cows isn’t much of a clan — but by itself, not terribly exciting. The heart and soul of Six Ages is the illustrated story events that pop up, like the one below. Some are one-offs. Some are part of ongoing subplots. Some are major story beats. And one sequence turns out to be the path to winning the game. Each offers a choice:
The key is to think like your people, the Riders. Understand their ways, their portents, their rituals. Tradition is a good guide, though not infallible. When in doubt, conducting a divination is usually a good first step, and sacrificing to the gods a good second step. Your advisors, at the bottom of the screen, will chip in with their own opinions (more skilled advisors give better advice).
Six Ages’ design goals are clearest in the rituals in which you send a hero into the gods’ world to seek a boon (in a clever touch, the mortal and divine worlds are drawn in different styles and by different artists – see the image below). The ritual unfolds as a reenactment of the chosen god’s myth, Choose Your Own Adventure-style: how should Ernalda, goddess of trade, win the trust of geese? What should Busenari the cow-mother ask from her counterpart the horse goddess? Your clan can do several things to prepare, for instance, allocating points to ritual magic, requesting worshippers from friendly clans, and sending the right hero. And you, the player, can prepare by going to the game’s “lore” section and reading the myth. It’s not a test of rote knowledge — I have succeeded by going off-script, and I’ve read a developer interview (linked below) indicating that these quests were designed to be flexible. At the same time, I would not go in blind, and the act of reading and preparing brings me one step closer to the characters and the world they inhabit.
And that’s what Six Ages does so well. It’s a game about peoples, mythologies, and the mindset that connects the two; and a story that takes advantage of its medium. I would like to see more like this, and I look forward to the planned sequels.
Victory and Glory: Napoleon is a simple, elegant PC strategy game that places players in charge of France during the Napoleonic Wars. It bears a heavy boardgame influence, namely a design philosophy that emphasises clever abstraction over detailed simulation.
The strategic layer is a race against time: Napoleon must crush his rivals before Britain can build up an overwhelming coalition. Attrition is the player’s enemy: France starts with the finest troops in Europe, but reinforcements are scanty (and spawn all the way in Paris), friendly German and Italian levies are weak, and the other Great Powers will eventually reform their armies to match France’s standards. And while Napoleon is the most formidable general in the game, he can only be in one place at one time…
The tactical layer, while simple, rewards period tactics. Infantry will automatically form squares to repel horsemen – and in so doing, make themselves vulnerable to artillery. Cavalry get a bonus when counter-charging tired opponents. A special rule incentivises the player, like Napoleon, to keep the Imperial Guard in reserve.
Simplicity should not be confused with easiness. Not understanding the game mechanics, I defeated Austria in the 1805 scenario but lacked the manpower to finish off a newly hostile Prussia or force Russia to the negotiating table. Like a cornered lion, Napoleon and his last remaining army crushed several attempts to invade France, but when the odds grew too overwhelming, I abdicated quit.
Overall, I like this game – it’s both entertaining, and a good example of how a designer can capture the feel of a period without bogging down in detail. I’m looking forward to returning from Elba my next game as L’Empereur!
Two different emperors prepare to defend their worlds. In Western Europe, circa 400 AD, a Roman emperor inspects his comitatenses and scholae, the successors to Caesar’s legions. A universe away, a different emperor raises his magic hammer, and beckons his griffon into the skies. They are united by circumstance — and the design of their respective games.
There is no one Total War design; there are several, differing by structure and scope. This is why different players prefer different entries in the series — the designers were trying to accomplish different things. (How well they succeeded is a different question.) I’ve created the following diagram to illustrate this:
Structure is measured along the Y-axis of the chart. Games towards the top (Attila, Warhammer I, Shogun 2) have a more defined structure, typically ushering the player towards a do-or-die endgame. Games towards the bottom are more open. Meanwhile, the chart’s X-axis measures scope. Games towards the right (Shogun 2) are smaller and more focused. Those towards the left are geographically larger, encompass more factions, or have more complex game mechanics.
The rest of this post explores, first, the categories that emerge, second, the ones that I prefer, and third, how this system relates to the future of Total War.
I divide the Total War games in the chart into several main categories:
Rome II & Empire: the big, world-spanning games. These offer faction diversity and vast, exotic settings: Romans play very differently from Scythians, who play differently from Macedonian successor states. There are two downsides. The first is a less interesting late game, due to the lack of structure. The second is that these games appear harder to get right: both were plagued with problems at launch. Overall, they’re perhaps better as “toys” (something you play with) than as “games” (rules-based, win/lose activities). (Many of the older, pre-Empire games also fall into this category.)
Napoleon: the little brother. Napoleon: Total War shed much of Empire’s scope by confining itself to Europe and the Mediterranean. While it added several features that became standard in later games, it still lacked the defined endgame that became increasingly common in its successors.
Attila & Warhammer I: the pre-apocalyptic games. These games are structured around beating back a vast, powerful invader: the Huns in Attila, Chaos in Warhammer. Between the two, Attila offers a huge map—almost as large as Rome II’s—and complex empire management, while Warhammer dials this back to focus on conflict.
Shogun 2: the most focused game. Shogun 2 combines limited scope with extreme polish, and I don’t think that’s a coincidence. The map is geographically more confined—and that makes it easier for the computer to put up a fight. There are fewer units — and each of them has its own useful, distinct niche. It also has the most structured endgame in the series, with the campaign culminating in a march to Kyoto against almost all of Japan.
Warhammer II: still deciding…Warhammer II’s campaign is a race to cast a series of magic rituals, very different from Warhammer I’s struggle against impending doom. As of 100 turns, it feels more like the space race in Civilization— a defined goal that leaves the “how” up to the player. It also feels broader than its predecessor — the world is vast, intricate, and filled with varied factions.
My favourites are structured around a challenge… I love Shogun 2 for its polish and elegance, its ruthless AI and climactic showdown. I also love the far more sprawling Attila for its “rage against the dying of the light” zeitgeist, the sense that I was defending civilisation by the skin of my teeth.
… at the same time, I appreciate the others. For all its flaws, Empire still holds a place in my heart for its depiction of the globalising early-modern world. Post-patch, Rome II also appeals when I want a taste of classical antiquity.
The future of Total War
I expect both “broad” and “focused” titles. One of the next two historical Total War games will take the series to a new setting — my guess is this will be large. The other will be the first “Total War Saga” — geographically smaller and focused on a “key, pivotal point in history”. No matter which scope you prefer, I expect there will be something for you!
Strategy gaming is vibrant and multi-faceted; that’s my take-away from mapping out selected strategy game publishers, developers, and games.
Here are three observations:
The first is what a broad tent the chart represents. Some of these publishers (Paradox, Slitherine) have a strong overarching brand as strategy game houses, while for generalists such as SEGA, the strategy brands rest at the studio level. Looking at individual titles, we see a broad mix of sub-genres: wargames; fantasy, historical, and space 4X; grand strategy; city-building; squad tactics; and more.
The second is how different this — and strategy gaming itself — would have looked 10 years ago. Firaxis owned the dominant strategy game franchise (Civilization), yet the XCOM remake was many years away. While SEGA acquired Creative Assembly back in 2005, its next strategy acquisition wasn’t for another 8 years (Relic, in 2013). Paradox and Slitherine were highly niche. Shrapnel Games was another contender in the wargame publishing space.
Finally, this is not a comprehensive list. For example, I haven’t shown companies such as Iceberg Interactive (the original publisher of the Endless series), Focus Home Interactive, Stardock (Gal Civ), Eugen Systems (Wargame, Steel Division), Illwinter (Dominions), Haemimont (the Tropico remakes), KOEI (Romance of the Three Kingdoms, Nobunaga’s Ambition), and many of the wargaming studios in Slitherine’s orbit.
All this adds up. Multiple publishers and developers — some genre specialists, other generalists — have established themselves in the strategy space, producing a rich variety of games. Things have come a long way since the genre was dismissed as “not contemporary”!
Amidst the brightly shining stars, the Mushroom Domain’s legacy shall endure. The Mushrooms were not the galaxy’s most populous species. They did not control its largest empire. Yet they were its most influential. It was a Mushroom-created federation that brought peace to the galaxy and defended it against an invading scourge, and it was a Mushroom battle fleet that fired the final, victorious shot.
One year after launch, Stellaris remains best approached as a science-fiction story generator. Its strengths and weaknesses are recognisable from launch: in Jesse Schell’s “toy vs game” classification scheme (a toy is something you play with, a game is a problem-solving activity approached with a playful attitude), Stellaris is still more of a toy than a game — not uncommon in the 4X and strategy genres, where a rich experience such as Total War or Master of Magic can represent more than the sum of its parts. Stellaris is not a balanced set of finely-honed decisions, and I wonder if it ever could be one without jeopardising what it does do well: providing a sandpit to enact grand sagas of galactic ambition.
More detailed thoughts below:
At a design level, this is still one of the most interesting 4X titles around. Thematically, Stellaris‘s well-written flavour events, randomly generated species (peer empires, brooding precursors, upliftable pre-spaceflight worlds, and more), and abundant science-fiction homages combine to produce a galaxy that is “ancient and full of wonders”. Later on, the galaxy begins dividing into blocs, precursor races awaken, and intergalactic invaders emerge, representing radical potential changes to the game board: when the victory screen popped up, my Mushrooms and their federation partners were defending against a mighty “Awakened Empire”, a once-dormant precursor now turned aggressively expansionist.
Mechanically, Stellaris is still strongest early on. Since the Utopia expansion came out, I’ve started four campaigns, shelved three after reaching the mid-game, and finished one. Early-game exploration remains the highlight; the mid-game is weakened by bland mechanics such as planetary construction and ship design. Patches and DLC have helped to some extent, providing new mid/late-game foes (Leviathans DLC), internal politics that feel rewarding instead of punitive (the 1.5 patch), buildable megastructures (the Utopia DLC — I’ve only built a few so far), and a Civ 5-style traditions system (Utopia again).
Applying mods and experimenting with custom game settings let me address the game’s weaknesses, build on its strengths, and tailor the experience to my preferences. In 4X games, I hate micromanaging large empires — I prefer a smaller scale where every settlement matters — and I prefer to play as a peaceful builder. I was able to achieve this in my completed Mushroom Domain game, a relaxing experience in which I let federation allies extend our control across the galaxy while I focused on building and exploration. To do so, I opted for a small galaxy with the proportion of habitable worlds set to 25% of the default. Meanwhile, I installed the More Events Mod (more to discover), Megastructures, Improved Megastructures, and Stellar Expansion (more to build), and assorted quality of life mods (AutoBuild). For future games, I intend to install Guilli’s Planet Modifiers (more planet variety) and perhaps The Zenith of Fallen Empires (ambitious endgame options).
I have mixed feelings following my first game of Endless Space 2. I went in with high hopes: after bouncing off Endless Space 1, I went on to love Endless Legend. At first, I had a great time. Six hours later, by the time I finished my beginner game, I was bored.
Its strengths and weaknesses are those of Endless Legend at launch. Re-reading what I wrote about Endless Legend in 2015, much of my critique applies equally well here. Endless Space 2‘s headline strengths are gorgeous art and imaginative worldbuilding, while several aspects of nuts-and-bolts gameplay deserve praise – spaceship design is simple and elegant (I set up two main ship classes: one fast and powerful for my field forces, and the other well-armed, slow, and cheap for my garrisons), while building up planets is pleasant and satisfying. Its weaknesses include bugs, what seems like an AI inability to upgrade spaceships, and something more fundamental: the late game is a slog. While I was willing to forgive Endless Legend at launch, and that game went on to take significant strides, I’m a little disappointed that after several years, Endless Space 2 has gone back to square one.
Stellaris presents an interesting comparison. Both games enliven early exploration with quests, events, and anomalies to investigate. Both games reflect their developers’ pedigree – Endless Space 2 has superior ‘4X’ mechanics (ship design, planetary buildings) while Stellaris has more interesting diplomatic options (a successful military campaign in Endless Space 2 took me over my planet limit, at which point I wished I could set up unwanted planets as a vassal buffer state). Both suffer in the mid-to-late game, although Stellaris tries to address this with endgame crises and the War in Heaven.
… highlighting underlying issues in 4X game design. Most 4X games are built around the player acquiring more stuff, and with it, more to do (more units to push around, more cities or planets to manage). Mechanics that work in the early game, such as managing city build queues, fail to scale in the late game. At the same time, the late game loses much of its challenge as the player snowballs across the map. A handful of games address these problems: the recent Total War games add powerful late-game foes (the rest of Japan in Shogun 2, the Huns in Attila, Chaos in Warhammer); Imperialism centralises all production in the capital city, reducing micromanagement; similarly Armageddon Empires restricts the player’s production to whatever is in his/her hand of cards.
What next? While I’d like to play more of Endless Space 2, I’m not whether I’ll do so as-is (perhaps on a higher difficulty setting or playing a different faction) or whether I’ll put it back on the shelf for now. If Endless Legend is any indication, I may well be more positive in several months.
This post discusses some of the notable games that explore the history of China – a fascinating subject crying out for more attention.
Romance of the Three Kingdoms
Any discussion of strategy games set in China must begin with KOEI’s Romance of the Three Kingdoms series, whose first game dates to the NES.
Set amidst the civil war that followed the fall of the Han Dynasty — the same period that inspired the Chinese classic novel, the Dynasty Warriors games, and assorted movies, TV shows, and anime — these games are mechanically as well as thematically notable.
Along with KOEI stablemates such as Nobunaga’s Ambition, and Paradox’s Crusader Kings, these are some of the very few character-driven strategy games in existence. Every action in ROTK, from building a granary to leading an army, is assigned to (and performed by) named characters. ROTK’s characters form a cast of thousands, taken from history and the pages of the novel (there is also the potential to create custom officers)
Within the series, individual games vary. I have very fond memories of playing ROTK XI, a micromanagement-intensive but engaging game whose cel-shaded graphics and hand-drawn art remain lovely today.
Unfortunately, I was disappointed by ROTK XIII, the latest in the series. Like some of its predecessors, XIII is a RPG/strategy hybrid that allows players to play as low-ranking officers or governors, as opposed to faction leaders, and work their way up. In theory, this is brilliant. In practice, life as a junior officer in ROTK XIII plays out as Ancient Chinese Workplace Simulator. I spent my time clicking through menus to fulfil orders, waiting for progress bars to fill up, and occasionally networking with fellow officers. (More subjectively, I didn’t like XIII’s art style compared to its predecessors, or for that matter, Nobunaga’s Ambition.)
For those interested in the ROTK series, I would recommend XI, which is available for digital purchase.
Flawed and fascinating, Oriental Empires (currently in Early Access) is a bundle of interesting ideas that — based on a playthrough in late September/early October 2016 — fail to cohere into a good game. In particular, it feels caught between two conflicting paradigms. Its overall structure is that a conventional 4X game like Civilization, depicting the Warring States of pre-Imperial China. Hidden inside is a more radical idea: a game about maintaining the internal stability of an empire.
On its surface, Oriental Empires is very much about the Warring States. The map is filled with multiple civilizations, each of which represents a kingdom or tribe that existed before the unification of China. Nobles are still implied to be a powerful force within society, as they were in the Warring States. Most of the game’s tech tree is pre-imperial — a thousand years of imperial history are relegated to the final era.
The trick is that the other players aren’t the real challenge: I won a cultural victory without going to war against a single other player. Instead, Oriental Empires’ most interesting mechanic (and its greatest challenge) is the way it handles internal dissent. Each city has a separate unrest level for nobles and commoners, and while the nobles are easy to keep happy, the commoners are dangerous. Drought — a random event — produces unhappy commoners. Famine produces unhappy commoners. And crucially, whereas most 4X games encourage the player to build and improve their cities, doing this in Oriental Empires produces unhappy commoners: when tile improvements and buildings go up, Oriental Empire assumes that the work is done by commoners drafted for corvee labour.
When rebellions do break out, they can be very dangerous. The game has several types of military unit, including nobles, regulars, and militia; while militia are cheap, they tend to defect to nearby rebels. On top of that, multiple unhappy cities can set off a chain reaction. Once, I had to reload after being bankrupted by a death spiral. The parallels to history — including the fall of China’s first imperial dynasty, the Qin — felt strong.
Unrest can be defused through different national policies; happiness-boosting buildings such as theatres, temples, and courthouses; favourable random events (such as good harvest); maintaining a garrison – of regular troops, not militia – assigning a city governor, or a slow cooldown. It can be better not to overbuild in the first place. The take-away is that there is a trade-off between growth and stability, and a wise ruler will avoid making the historical mistakes of the Qin.
Overall, while Oriental Empires is difficult to unconditionally recommend (unless it’s improved as a strategy game since I played it), I found it sufficiently intriguing (and aesthetically pleasing) not to regret my purchase.
Emperor: Rise of the Middle Kingdom
Recently listed for sale on GoG, this is a charming entry in the City-Building series best known for Caesar I-IV. I’ve enjoyed the limited time I’ve spent time with it.
Mechanically, Emperor is close to what I remember of Caesar III. City-dwellers’ houses, which upgrade into progressively grander forms as citizens’ needs are met, are serviced by walkers sent out from nearby buildings. To keep the walkers on track, the player can even deploy roadblocks and walls. The city’s needs include food, water, entertainment, religion, commodities, and more – the standard building blocks of a city builder.
What lends charm is the game’s flavour. The introductory campaign begins in prehistoric China, where the player’s settlement cultivates millet. New commodities such as wheat and jade are introduced through trade with other settlements, representing the development of the material culture we think of as “Chinese”. Within the city, instead of Caesar III’s lion tamers, there are acrobats and musicians. Throwing a festival for New Year will result in a lion dance making its way around town.
From my time so far, this is a solidly executed example of the city-builder formula; worth a look for those interested in its theme.
Vive l’Entente! My first “proper” game of Hearts of Iron IV was a journey from desperation, through grind, to eventual triumph. Playing as Britain, World War II began a year early, in 1938, when I backed Czechoslovakia at Munich. This defiance came to little avail, as the German war machine rolled over Czechoslovakia, and British workers raced to equip an unprepared military.
Finally, the Axis marched into the Balkans — and stalled in the face of dogged Yugoslav, British, and Commonwealth resistance. As British troops helped stabilise France’s Alpine front, and the United States entered the war, I dared to think Germany’s days were numbered. Would the Soviet Union take advantage of German preoccupation to march on Berlin?
The Soviets entered the war, all right — on the wrong side. Stalin sent an ultimatum to British-aligned Romania. The Romanians refused. Now, the Allies were at war with both the Axis and the Soviets. Stalemate — and a little frustration on my part — set in.
In time, I broke the stalemate. In Europe, I unleashed the “Brits-krieg”: my armoured spearhead, now lavishly equipped with tanks, trucks, and self-propelled artillery, shattered the totalitarians’ lines. In the Pacific, British marines and aircraft carriers pushed up towards Japan. After a long, gruelling war, final victory came in 1946.
Vive la France! Several more attempts, this time as France, went less well. In one game, I defeated Germany single-handed, only to be bulldozed by the Soviets pushing from the east and Spain coming from across the Pyrenees. Eventually, the stars came into alignment. Shielded by an extended Maginot Line, I built up my strength, overpowered Germany, and sat down with Stalin to determine the fate of Europe. Then when World War III broke out in response to a Soviet attack on Turkey, I did it all over again, pushing the Red Army back from the Rhine and avenging Napoleon’s defeat.
Possibly the best Hearts of Iron game yet. I’ve played this series for over a decade, since the original Hearts of Iron, and for most of that time my affections have belonged to Hearts of Iron 2. Now, I can’t imagine going back: HOI4 combines great alternate-history potential with a solid underlying design and improved quality of life. At present, as is so often the case with highly complex strategy games, its greatest limitation is the AI 1.
I am the shield that guards the realms of man. When the Vampire Counts marched west into the fragmented, bickering human principalities, it was the recently crowned Emperor, Karl Franz, who came to the rescue. And when the battle hung in the balance, the weary human warriors struggling against the Vampire Count himself, it was the Emperor who charged up on horseback to deliver the final blow.
When the forces of Chaos swept south and west, razing all before them, it was the Empire that rallied resistance. My first pitched battle against Chaos was Pyrrhic, as charging Chaos monsters trampled my infantry. Only weight of numbers saved the day. I rebuilt, and with help from the free peoples of the world, my new, improved armies – bristling with greatswords, knights, and artillery – defeated the last Chaos hordes.
And finally, when Chaos was no more, and the orcish hordes to the south were beaten back, it was time to settle the final score with the Vampire Counts. An uneasy peace had prevailed in the face of the common enemy, Chaos. Now it was the Vampires’ turn to experience the power of the human war machine. Sandwiched between me to the west, Chaos to the north, and orcs and dwarfs to the south, the Vampires had lost their chance to expand, so my campaign was anticlimactic. My troops swept the Vampires aside, fought off an orc army eager for a rematch, and occupied the last settlement required to win. Victory!
Game of the Year contender. A triumphant fusion of theme and mechanics, Total War: Warhammer is intense, challenging, and often spectacular1. From the early game, when I plotted how to bring a wealthy city-state into the imperial fold, to the mid-game, when I juggled human and inhuman foes, to the late game, when I led a Lord of the Rings-style alliance that saw armies marching from the far corners of the earth to help fight Chaos, Total Warhammer cast me as the star of a fantasy epic about uniting humanity against the coming darkness. This was the experience promised before release, and wow, did the game deliver.
Humanity triumphant! My first game of Stellaris was a short one, as my fledgling humans were ground to dust by a nearby computer player. My second was more successful. Under the banner of the Empire of the Shimmering Stars, humanity spread out from the Deneb system – befriending the pre-spaceflight Immathurans, bringing more species and more worlds under its sway.
Some of humanity’s neighbours turned out to be friendly, or at least benevolent neutrals. I signed migration treaties, allowing us to populate one another’s worlds. Some were hostile. When my first spacefleet was destroyed in a bid to protect my Immathuran proteges, I built a second one, the Remembrance Fleet. The Remembrance Fleet went on to turn the tables, and the would-be aggressors became first vassals and then subjects.
On and on the human tide rolled, until finally I stretched too far. The Ubaric Progenitors, an ancient “Fallen Empire” (ornery precursor races populating the Stellaris galaxy), objected to my colonies near their borders. The Remembrance Fleet fought them off – just. I attempted to take the war to the Ubari capital, an ancient ringworld. It was a disaster: the combined Ubari forces crushed mine. In the ensuing peace treaty, the Ubari forced me to abandon a swathe of colonies, and to add insult to injury, assassinated my leader.
Fortunately, the Shimmering Stars had the size and strategic depth to recover. Rebuilt newer and stronger, my Grand Fleet fought off an extra-galactic invasion (one of Stellaris’ “late-game crises”)… and returned to unfinished business. Once again, a human fleet, supported by allied and vassal contingents, appeared above the Ubari ringworld.
This time, the allies outgunned the Ubari several times to one. One by one, the Ubari warships and starbases winked out. The Ubari leaders surrendered. The bronze eagle flag of the Shimmering Stars flew over a ringworld that was already old when the first humans rubbed sticks together to make fire.
Humanity now presides over the galaxy’s dominant empire. No threats remain. The empire itself is home to many species, most co-existing happily, and its highest offices are open to leaders from all species. That, for me, is victory!
Good game, 1-2 expansions away from potential greatness. Stellaris’ appeal rested on two promises: (1) a vibrant science-fiction universe, and (2) blending Paradox’s specialty, the grand strategy game, with the established space 4X genre. It delivers on the first; I am not convinced it delivers on the second, as its limited internal politics feel more like a traditional 4X. I suspect players will enjoy it to the extent they’re looking for an interactive science fiction epic rather than a crunchy GSG. Overall, I enjoyed my 20 hours with Stellaris, and I look forward to playing again several patches down the road. (Update: the developers have posted their roadmap for the next few updates, which look great! They address many of my issues with the game.)
Worthy successor. XCOM 2 is game of the year material for me, building on what worked in XCOM: Enemy Unknown and Enemy Within. I look forward to what Jake Solomon and team do next!
More detailed thoughts below:
– This is how to balance a single-player game — “give the player interesting decisions” means “give the player an impressive choice of tools” 1 The punishing early game teaches several lessons: Protracted shootouts are dangerous. Guaranteed damage is better than relying on the odds. Stack the odds wherever possible. By the mid-game, we’ve unlocked enough abilities to put those lessons into practice. Every XCOM 2 class can do something cool: rangers can stealthily scout, sharpshooters can engage multiple targets on overwatch, grenadiers can choose between high single-target damage or area-wide de-buffs & damage over time, specialists can heal from a distance or inflict guaranteed damage, and psionics can do most of the above. (While XCOM: Enemy Unknown and Enemy Within also had plenty of impressive tools — snipers in Archangel armour, run-and-gun plus rapid fire, using Mimetic Skin to sneak heavies in range for an explosive barrage — I feel XCOM 2 does a better job of making every class feel powerful, with psionics the big winner.) Balance is driven by limitations on what the player can deploy, not by making the player feel weak.
– Successful fusion of strategy and RPG. At a tactical level, the Firaxis XCOM games revolve around choosing one’s favourite tools (equipment and especially character abilities), understanding how they interact, and applying that knowledge to solve individual problems — a description that could also apply to a well-designed party RPG. In turn, those problems involve multiple dimensions, such as the number and type of enemies, terrain, positioning, the mission timer, and the resources already expended (health and consumables, plus any abilities on cooldown) — factors usually associated with the strategy genre. That interplay gives these games their richness.
– Music the biggest let-down. I like XCOM 2’s visuals — the architecture of the new human/alien civilisation is surprisingly lovely, masking the iron fist beneath. The ADVENT soldiers’ big, imperious arm gestures cement them as pulp baddies. XCOM operatives’ animations are as satisfying as ever, from shimmying down drainpipes to whipping out pistols, and late-game equipment looks fantastic. Set against this, the music is merely decent — a big step down from the great soundtrack of XCOM: Enemy Unknown.
Contrast Civilization: Beyond Earth, which gave the player underwhelming choices instead. ↩
I did it! I finally did it! At the start of my third campaign, I finally beat the aliens with no fatalities — on ironman “Commander” difficulty, the new name for “Classic”, no less! The stars aligned, the aliens walked into my operatives’ sights, and I breezed through the campaign’s first mission.
On the next mission, my operatives never even made it as far as the objective. There was a time limit; I took too long to dispatch the first two groups of aliens; and with one turn to go, the third group of aliens gunned down my point man, the only one in range to reach the objective. It was a lost cause. I called for evac. My survivors slunk home, empty-handed.
On the third mission, I ran. My soldiers tore through the aliens, losing one veteran in the process. They ran for the prison cell where their target, a friendly scientist, was held. Two more aliens appeared. My squad fought through. As the mission timer hit its final turn, and an alien transport disgorged reinforcements, my soldiers — and the rescued scientist — made it to the evacuation point.
Whew. Welcome to XCOM 2, a tense, exhilarating, thrilling ride. In fact, I may well drop my campaign down to a lower difficulty — I think I’d rather play a relaxing game than a tense one. Several factors make it harder than the original:
*Mission timers, which force more aggressive, dare I say reckless, play. They’re the most controversial aspect of the game — there are already mods that extend or remove them. Personally, I like the idea; I’m reserving judgment on how well they work until I have the chance to play more.
*Alien health. Gone are the days when explosives were a guaranteed kill. On Commander difficulty, even the lowliest ADVENT trooper (4 health) will often survive a single grenade (3-4 damage). The new, improved Sectoid has 8 health and appears from the second mission on!
*Alien abilities — Sectoids can use mind control and panic from the start, allowing them to incapacitate one member of a 4-soldier squad1. Another alien disguises itself as a civilian during retaliation (the renamed terror) missions. And I haven’t even made it past the first game month…
Wish me luck! I look forward to posting more detailed thoughts.
The counter is flashbang grenades, which interrupt Sectoid psionics; however, every soldier carrying a flashbang is a soldier not carrying a regular grenade. There is also a rumour that flashbangs are bugged and give aliens a 100% critical chance; I don’t know if this is correct. ↩
Surprisingly satisfying. Now that I’ve finished my campaign, I thought I’d comment on the late game of Nobunaga’s Ambition: Sphere of Influence, a topic on which I initially reserved judgment. Strategy endgames are plagued with two problems, (1) snowballing and (2) micromanagement, and NA illustrates how AI automation can help with the second.
The East endures. I closed out 2015 by returning to the grand campaign of Total War: Attila, this time as the Eastern Roman Empire. Like its Western sibling, the ERE is beset with enemies. Unlike my WRE game, I’ve been able to fight them off, a journey both exciting and memorable.
When the Visigoths rampaged through Thrace, and wiped out (at great cost) the first army I sent against them, I hunkered down, raised a new army under the Emperor’s personal command, and caught their weakened force in a night battle, depicted in the screenshot above. The survivors paid an indemnity for peace.
When a column of Huns razed a town along the Danube, I mustered an army four times their size, tracked them north, and brought them to ground.
Since then, I’ve fought off an invasion of North Africa. I’ve maintained an uneasy peace with Sassanid Persia, plying them with gifts while keeping a legion close to hand. I’ve built farms, aqueducts, and barracks; encouraged religious tolerance; and kept the Empire mostly in one piece.
Ahead, I see danger — and opportunity. With the Goths on the march again, and my WRE allies collapsing, I’m preparing a new campaign in the west. Against that, I’ve unlocked higher-tier units, my economy has stabilised, and to the east, the Sassanids are distracted by enemies of their own. If the situation can hold a little longer, I should be well-placed for the midgame. And all this has taken just 28 turns.
Age of Charlemagne offers the basics, done right. If Rome II was about conquering a huge empire, and Attila was about defending it, Age of Charlemagne offers a tight, focused campaign that can be finished in a reasonable time. In this regard, it reminds me of Shogun 2 and particularly its expansion Rise of the Samurai, the most elegant and pared-down of the Total War campaigns.
More details below:
Fun challenge. Playing as Charlemagne on Hard campaign difficulty/Normal battle difficulty, my initial situation resembled a smaller, less dire version of that facing the Western Roman Empire. Charlemagne starts with long borders, an awkwardly shaped empire, and enemies at either end, in the southwest and northeast:
When the giant demon attacked my fortress, I cursed.
The fort was my newest and proudest conquest, wrested from a nearby computer player. I left a small garrison, stiffened by two ballistae, to hold the walls while my main army subdued the nearby hinterlands. Now that demon, with its vast pool of health and huge spell list, was going to snatch away my prize.
The battle began. Because it was a siege, my ballistae were allowed a number of free shots. A bolt slammed into the demon. A big chunk of its health disappeared. And that was just the start.
By the time the perforated demon limped up to the castle gates, a humble bowman was able to administer the coup de grace. Ballistae (and Human Ingenuity) 1, Demon 0.
I originally wrote this post in 2012 during the lead-up to Firaxis’ XCOM: Enemy Unknown, proposing a classification system for squad-based games and tactical RPGs across PC and consoles. Since then, to my delight, the genre has gone from strength to strength. XCOM: Enemy Unknown turned out to be superb – it was definitely a hybrid, by the way, combining the lethality and dynamic campaign of Type 1 games, the Type 2 emphasis on careful movement and not triggering too many enemies, and the soldier customisation of Type 3. XCOM 2 is due out next year for PC. The Fire Emblem series is posting strong sales on 3DS, and Valkyria Chronicles has been ported to PC. Indie titles such as Expeditions: Conquistador have added spice. Welcome back, old friends – we missed you.
This is a good time to be a fan – as Iam – of games that mix squad-level strategy and RPG mechanics. Last year saw the PSP release of the excellent Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together, a labour of love that blended fine-crafted gameplay, a mature story, and gorgeous production values. This year won’t lack in quantity: it’s already seen a Jagged Alliance remake for PC and the recent PSP launch of Gungnir. Two more titles are due out in a few months (Firaxis’ XCOM: Enemy Unknown for PC, and Atlus’ Growlanser: Wayfarer of Time for PSP) and we may well see a third soon, Goldhawk’s Xenonauts (PC).
The above names suggest this is a pretty broad genre, and in fact, I don’t think there is a single squad-level strategy/RPG genre so much as there are several distinct subgenres, spread across PCs and home and portable consoles. As such, this is also a good time to review each subgenre – which games it contains, what makes it distinctive, how it compares to the others, and how it’s faring.
After he betrayed and killed Oda Nobunaga – per historical event – I rallied a coalition of Nobunaga’s generals and surviving sons against him. From the west came Hashiba Hideyoshi, the man better known to history as Toyotomi Hideyoshi. From the northeast came the Oda remnants. And from the southeast, my own Tokugawa forces. I coordinated a three-pronged attack – you can see allied (green) military units in the southwest and northeast of the following screenshot, with my own (blue) units in the centre:
Mitsuhide was squashed flat:
Two years after Nobunaga’s death, my armies marched into Mitsuhide’s final stronghold:
In Nobunaga’s Ambition: Sphere of Influence, opportunity comes in many forms.
When my Tokugawa clan was small and insignificant, sandwiched between the rival Imagawa clan and our mutual ally Oda Nobunaga, opportunity came when the Imagawa let their alliance with Oda lapse. My armies marched against Imagawa — and true to the Oda/Tokugawa pact, Nobunaga himself came south to fight by my side.
When the Imagawa were defeated, and I found myself locked in bloody stalemate against the much larger Hojo clan for 15 years, my hopes turned to an alliance with a third power — the Takeda. When scripted historical events derailed the Takeda alliance — not once but twice — my first reaction was frustration. My second reaction was to think outside the box. The Oda were pressing the Takeda further away. The Hojo were quiescent. Why not bury the hatchet with Hojo and descend on the distracted Takeda?
Messengers went out. I gifted the Hojo with a precious tea set, reversing their opinion from “hostile” to “friendly”. The Tokugawa armies crossed the border into Takeda territory, seized their first castle…
… and another event popped up. Oda Nobunaga, my faithful ally from the start of the game, was dead, murdered by a treacherous vassal. The Oda domain – the huge blob that both anchored my northern flank, and blocked my expansion – dissolved, its settlements going to Nobunaga’s kinsmen and generals.
This is the situation a couple of years before Nobunaga’s death – I (Tokugawa) am the yellow-on-green faction towards the south of the map. Oda is red-on-white:
And this is the situation immediately after Nobunaga’s death:
The game has gone from “deadlock” to “wide open”. Where I had been on the verge of restarting, now I see — opportunity.
After spending the weekend with Nobunaga’s Ambition, my impressions are positive. I’d say it’s a very promising grand strategy game, combining solid execution, interesting mechanics, and a great aesthetic. So far, worth what I paid at launch! My main question is how well the mechanics will scale to large empires, the traditional 4X/GSG late game problem – my own empire is quite modest.
Grand Admiral Wei Luo is about to betray everything for which he’s fought.
For the last fifteen years, the Admiral has headed Confederate Space Command – the crowning glory of a life devoted to the Terran Confederation. He stood by Earth when the frontier broke away. His son Tao would, he hoped, have followed in his steps. While they didn’t see eye to eye on politics, he knew Tao was brilliant – the finest admiral in the galaxy. One day, he thought, Tao could have led Earth to victory.
Tao’s death broke his father’s faith. Accident or “accident”? Whatever1. In public, the Admiral mourned, and commissioned a clone. In private, he decided that since his son would never have the chance to restore order to the galaxy… perhaps he could.
The plotters fell into place. The warships of the Confederate Space Command formed up in Sol. The stage was set for a coup. I clicked the “Send Ultimatum” button, and the Admiral transmitted his message to the government of Earth: hand over power to me, or else.
Vietnam ’65 is an iPad/PC strategy game with a deceptively simple concept: patrol villages on a randomly generated map (above) and prevent the Viet Cong & North Vietnamese Army from doing the same. It’s simple, short, and sweet; after two matches, I am impressed.
V65 is built on extreme asymmetry. When all goes well, US infantry can race from village to village in their transport helicopters, while tanks, gunships, and howitzers dominate the countryside as far they can reach. Not everything will go well:
There are 10 villages to cover, and too few soldiers and helicopters to protect them all.
There are a lot of demands on those helicopters – ferrying troops, resupplying them (out-of-supply units are eventually destroyed), and evacuating injured units.
The helicopters have finite fuel, limiting the time they can spend away from base.
Enemies can be difficult to find, spawn continuously, and lay ambushes of their own…
At times, there were moments of panic: when supply convoys came under RPG fire, making me wonder if my distant troops were cut off; when the Viet Cong emerged at 2-3 points and I only had enough firepower to respond to one; when my only helicopter gunship came crashing down.
Eventually, I won both games1 with a two-pronged strategy: I carpeted the map with outposts, extending the range of my helicopters and artillery, while training enough South Vietnamese troops to hold the line. Now, I feel that I have a good enough grasp of the basics that I can experiment with different game modes, or just move onto another title.
Overall, V65 turned out to be precisely what I wanted from a strategy game: quick to play (a few hours per match), simple to pick up, and at the same time, fresh and thematically evocative. For $10, this is well worth a look for genre fans.
Further reading (and listening)
The Three Moves Ahead episode that sold me on V65. Contains a great discussion of the game, its depiction of its topic, and some really handy tips.
In the three months since I departed Your Majesty’s presence, I have travelled first to our colony of New Spain, then thousands of miles north overland. I write to you now from the court of Meiguo, on the shores of another sea.
Like ourselves, the rulers of Meiguo are not native to the New World. They trace their ancestry to a deposed emperor of China, who fled his home near two centuries ago. Since arriving, they have extended their reach far south and east: they abut our colonies in Mexico, and also along the Rio Grande.
While Meiguo’s domains are vast, they are sparsely populated. I saw few towns during our journey north; I will be surprised if these lands contribute much to the Meiguo purse.
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.
In 1402, the Ming Emperor’s uncle usurped the throne.
The imperial palace burned.
According to one legend, the Emperor survived, and fled overseas; Zheng He’s fleets were dispatched to hunt him down.
What if the Emperor made it further than Zheng could have dreamed?
Hello, and welcome back to my coverage of Europa Universalis IV. Since I last wrote about EU4, it has received a further two expansions – El Dorado, which added a custom nation designer, and the newly released Common Sense. For my current game, I will play as Meiguo, a Chinese custom nation on the west coast of North America.
This is Meiguo in 1456, 12 years after the game began:
So far1, I’m impressed by Battle Academy, the 2010-vintage World War 2 TBS. The vibrant, comic-book aesthetic charmed me straight away, while the game mechanics present tactical concepts in a clear, elegant manner. Light tanks are zippy and thinly armoured, making them best suited for reconnaisance or mopping up. Infantry is horribly vulnerable in the open, and lethal when striking from ambush. Armour and artillery can suppress defenders, allowing friendly infantry to safely close in. Bunkers and concealed anti-tank guns are potent force multipliers – in the screenshot below, my entrenched Tommies gutted an Afrika Korps charge:
Currently, the base game, which includes three campaigns (North Africa, Normandy, Ardennes) is available for $1 as part of the weekly Humble Bundle. For those interested, that price makes it a screaming buy.
The twoexpansions to Age of Wonders 3 have brought new races, a new character class, and (together with patches), assorted features and balance tweaks. They have also addressed my single biggest complaint with the game: the victory conditions (and their effect on pacing).
At launch, there was one way to win AoW3: destroy all opponents. This made the endgame a slog. Now, there are several other options:
Beat down the AI players to the point where they surrender (added via patch). Per the developers, this is meant to happen after the “epic final battle… in situations where the AI is substantially outmatched and just lost a great number of its forces in a battle.” Based on the two AI players who surrendered after I crushed their multi-stack main armies, this works as promised!
Territorial control, added in the first expansion. Similar to the Thrones mechanic in Dominions 4, this requires the player to take several “seals of power” defended by independent monsters, and hold them while progress towards victory ticks up. As the monsters periodically respawn, the seals have to be garrisoned – I suspect this is a risk/reward mechanic. Do you grab many seals, and risk spreading yourself too thin? Encouragingly, AI players do realise the importance of the seals; I lost my second game post-expansion when the AI flattened my armies and then captured the seals.
A new, Wonder-style victory condition, added in the second expansion. I’m still getting a handle for this one; the developers describe it as “a great option for more defensive players”. Unlike the seals victory, aiming for this will provoke the AI players into declaring war, so it’s a defensive victory rather than a peaceful one.
That is my initial impression of Oriental Empires (press release here), a newly announced 4X game that will be set in China between 1500 BC and 1500 AD. The bullet points and especially the screenshots remind me of Endless Legend/Civilization V meets Romance of the Three Kingdoms XI – it looks like all combat takes place on a hex-based strategic map, rather than being divided between a tactical and a strategic layer. The developers, R. T. Smith and John Carline, do have experience – both men have previously worked on the Total War series, with Smith’s experience stretching all the way back to the original Shogun. With the game scheduled for Early Access in ‘summer 2015’ (northern summer, I assume), the finished product is still some ways off.
Personally, I think the idea has potential. I’m always up for a novel setting, and China is badly underused in (Western) games. I’m trying to line up an interview with the developers, and will report back with any findings.
After 100 turns, I threw in the towel on my attempt to save the Western Roman Empire. The legions, and my treasury, had finally reached their limit. The barbarians never stopped flooding in, from the north, east, and the hitherto quiet south. City after city had gone up in flames. The Roman Empire was dying by a thousand cuts, and there was no more point in slogging on.
My first city made as much sense as a noodle-bowl.
At one point, I went nuts building high-rise apartments without ensuring adequate road access. The result was a mess. Commuters clogged the roads. Fire engines, delivery vans, garbage trucks, and even hearses couldn’t get in. Burnt-out buildings, rubbish and dead bodies accumulated. I had to demolish much of that district and build it all over again.
I learned my lesson. Sterling Park, my new high-density district, would be a marvel of urban design. Before the first resident moved in, I ensured all my infrastructure was laid out. New subway lines connected Sterling Park to the rest of my city (and let residents move from one end of the district to the other). Parks and gardens provided green space. A new freight train ensured that the shops could receive goods. I even built a new university campus — my existing one was all the way at the far end of the map. The towers went up. The citizens moved in — and loved it. The land value shot up. I was delighted.
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.
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.