Buy Armageddon Empires, one of my favourite strategy games, for $1

The main map of Armageddon Empires. My hand of cards is visible at the bottom.
The main map of Armageddon Empires. My hand of cards is visible at the bottom.


Heads up — Armageddon Empires (together with several other games) is $1 at Humble Bundle for another four days.

AE is a 4X post-apocalyptic turn-based strategy game, overlaid with a CCG. Before each match, players choose units, heroes, and buildings for their deck, and the cards on hand determine what can be built on any given turn. I described AE as something that “every strategy aficionado, and certainly every strategy designer, should play” – it’s unique, quick to play, and marvellously evocative of pulp science fiction. At this price, there’s no better chance!

A gaming convention in Sydney! EB Expo, October 2012

Compared to our Northern Hemisphere friends, Australia is relatively short on video game (and anime, and science fiction, and geek…) events — hence why I haven’t been able to talk about conventions on this blog. No longer! In a little over a month’s time, I’ll attend the EB Expo (Sydney Showground, 5 to 7 October) as a member of the press. I’ve copied and pasted the list of games to be exhibited below:



That selection is rather console/action-heavy, but that’s fine — I’ll still be interested in taking a look at the two prominent strategy games on the list, XCOM (just a few days before it unlocks…) and Company of Heroes 2. As someone who’s gotten a lot of value out of his PSP, I’ll also be very interested in an up-close look at the Vita — that’s one platform I intend to buy once it acquires a decent stable of RPGs (squad-based or otherwise). And there’s bound to be other titles of interest, so I’ll be sure to keep my eyes open!

Stacking – The Verdict

This entry is part 2 of 2 in the series Stacking
A journey with dolls


Double Fine Productions’ adventure game, Stacking, has an illustrious pedigree: Double Fine founder Tim Schafer’s resume is littered with genre pillars, from Monkey Island to Grim Fandango. Born out of an internal Double Fine game jam, Stacking debuted on consoles in 2011, and has now reached the PC. How does it stack (sorry) up? Pretty well, thanks to two distinct strengths.


The first is its original premise: the residents of Stacking’s world aren’t humans, they’re Russian matryoshka dolls. Your character is the tiniest of all, but “stacking” into a small doll will allow you to jump into a medium-sized doll, which will allow you to jump into a large doll, and so on. Each doll has its own ability, which you can use while stacked into it. As such, instead of the usual “fiddling with every item in your inventory”, solving puzzles is a matter of working out which doll’s power to use – or, sometimes, which dolls’ powers, as some puzzles require the combined use of more than one. (Using multiple dolls is Stacking’s equivalent of “use every item with every other item”, but thankfully, the puzzles are more sensibly designed than that!) It’s fresh, it’s quirky, and at first, it’s a delight to stack into every doll in sight, in search of the next new ability.


Yes, you can stack into all those bicyclists


The second is how neatly it avoids the traditional sin of adventure games: the ease of getting stuck. Normally, adventure game puzzles have one solution, and if you can’t guess it, tough luck (short of resorting to GameFAQs). This is especially bad when the game expects you to, say, make a moustache out of cat hair. While Stacking does offer an in-game hint system, it also addresses the root of the problem: in this game, puzzles have anywhere from three to five solutions. One or two will usually be obvious… but the challenge comes from trying to work out the rest. This is a much better way of designing an adventure game: it lets you set your own pace (do I want to blast through, or tick off every solution?) and gives a good reason to be completionist (some of the solutions are laugh-out-loud funny).


Stacking’s greatest limitation is that its characters and plot aren’t very deep – not deep enough to carry the game. Without the compelling stories of, say, The Longest Journey or Gabriel Knight, Stacking relies on novelty value. And eventually, the novelty wears off: by the time I finished, I found the game less amusing and enjoyable than when I began. (I also stopped bothering with every solution: I just wanted to wrap up!) But Stacking is short enough for this not to be a serious problem – I finished it in ~8 hours, before it outstayed its welcome.


At the  end of the day, Stacking isn’t a great game, but it is a good one: the video game equivalent of a healthy snack. Cute, imaginative, and sometimes hilarious, it’s especially well suited for quick breaks – if you’re tired or short on time, you can dip in, solve a puzzle or two, and call it a day. Worth a look for genre fans.


You can buy Stacking (PC) from Amazon US.


We hope you enjoyed this post! To quickly find this post, and our other reviews, click the “reviews” tab at the top of this page.


The basis of my review


Time spent with the game: Around 8 hours.


What I have played: The main game.


What I haven’t played: The DLC adventure (“The Lost Hobo King”) included free with the PC version.

Europa Universalis III: The price of freedom is deficit spending

This is part 2 of an irregular series on Europa Universalis III.


Part 1: The Byzantine Empire and puzzle-like gameplay.

Part 2: The Manchus, hordes, and the consequences of deficit spending.



I recently picked up Divine Wind, the Asian-focused expansion for Europa Universalis III, and I’ve had a lot of fun playing the Manchus, the people who would eventually conquer China and constitute its last imperial dynasty. The screenshot above shows the Manchu starting position in 1399 AD. To the south is the game’s sleeping giant, Ming China, and Korea.  To the east, Japan. To the north, unclaimed wilderness. And to the west, the nomadic hordes of the steppe.


This last point needs a bit of explanation. Divine Wind introduced a new type of nation to the game: the “horde”. Whereas sedentary nations are at peace with each other by default, they are automatically at war with hordes, broken only by temporary truces. Those truces must be bought with either prestige (via an admission of defeat) or tribute, from one side to the other. And rather than exchanging land as part of a peace treaty, possession is ten-tenths of the law – to claim land from the horde, first you have to occupy it with soldiers, then send in colonists who will eventually bring the province under your control. The hordes on the Manchu border are small and weak, but as we’ll see, even a small enemy can be dangerous in unexpected ways…


When starting a game of EU3, it’s usually necessary to cut military funding to the bone during peacetime, and so I did that. This worked out just fine, as for the first few decades I played like an East Asian Netherlands or Switzerland – colonising unclaimed patches of land such as Taiwan and bits of Siberia, sending out merchants to Nanjing and Malacca, and building up my infrastructure. What I didn’t realise was during that time, my game was affected by a glitch that prevented my armies from moving – and I strongly suspect this also prevented computer-controlled armies from moving, thus effectively enforcing world peace. In other words, things should not have been so easy for me. Eventually I cleared up the glitch, but I was able to enjoy a few more years of peace as a result of the Ming armies marching out onto the steppe to deal with the nomads.


Then the Ming struck a truce with the hordes. And the hordes, now free to attack me, flooded across the border, crushed my small standing army, and sacked half the Manchu kingdom.


But I still held half the nation. And in that half, I rebuilt the army, making it larger, stronger, more cavalry-heavy. This cost money, and lots of it, but I didn’t care. I wanted the invaders out! And with my new army, I was able to drive them back, before eventually settling for a truce that would get them off my land.


Five years later, the truce expired. But I was ready. My expanded, and now lavishly funded, army surged onto the steppe. This time, the shoe was on the other foot – the nomads stood no chance. And behind the soldiers came the settlers. The hordes had started this mess, but I was going to end it.


Well, I did end it – but not for the reasons I envisioned. Raising my new model army cost money. Maintaining that army cost money. Starting those colonies cost money. Maintaining those colonies, before they became self-sustaining, cost money. Sending out more colonists to make them self-sustaining cost money. When there was no money, I borrowed it. But paying the interest on the debt… cost money.


In the end, my budget was being chewed up by interest payments. My inflation* was dangerously high, far higher than I would have let it get had I been playing a Great Power. My technology and infrastructure were suffering. I could no longer afford my campaign. So I opted for peace, though this time I was able to exact tribute from the nomads.


In due course, I turned around my economy and paid down the debt, and my future campaigns were much more affordable. But for me, that episode – the diciest so far – will be the high point of the Manchu game. Historical strategy games tend to be about the extraordinary: extraordinary conquests, extraordinary empires.  (Just look at the victory conditions in most of the Total War games – historical kings would have given their right arms to rule over that much land.) Even EU3 is no exception, once you get past the early game. It’s far rarer that they convey a sense of limitation, of why these conquests and empires were so exceptional in the first place. But that costly steppe campaign was one of those rare cases. The limitations imposed by the game helped to drive home why civilised emperors, from Rome to China, opted to throw tribute to the barbarians rather than sending in the army**. It was an example of games allowing me to “reach out and touch history”, and I’m glad to have had the chance.


* In real life, inflation would reduce the value of my debts, but I don’t think that’s represented in the game.


** For example, every year, Sung China (circa-11th century AD) sent 300,000 bolts of silk and 200,000 ounces of silver to the neighbouring Liao dynasty – and the Liao were just one of the two nomadic states on China’s frontiers.