Thoughts on Cities: Skylines

Skylines - Sterling Park

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.

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Clippings

  • Sid Meier’s Starships is now out, and reviews are mixed. Apparently, it places a bit too much emphasis on the “light” part of “light strategy”; I will probably give it a miss.
  • The developers of Endless Legend are planning a new free update, to be followed by an expansion pack in April.
  • Another new expansion has been announced for Age of Wonders 3. It will add the Necromancer class and two new species, the Frostlings and the Tigrans,
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Remembering Terry Pratchett, 1948-2015

I discovered Terry Pratchett when I was a teen.

I knew of him before then. I spent a lot of time in bookshops, haunting the fantasy & science fiction aisles, and the garish, glorious covers of his books stood out. I think I even played one of the spin-off adventure games. It wasn’t until The Last Hero, released in 2001, that I actually read one of his books. I’ve been a fan ever since.

Pratchett was very funny. I still laugh when I think about the unhygienic frying pan (containing one single nutrient, crying because it was all alone). As observed in many obituaries, he was also remarkably humane. Fantasy and science fiction are packed with unreasoning monsters — “always chaotic evil”, in the old parlance of Dungeons & Dragons. Not Pratchett. Everyone in his novels is a person: sometimes good, sometimes bad, sometimes bigoted or stupid, never mindless. Sometimes, Pratchett played this for laughs, as with vampires who’ve given up drinking human blood. Sometimes, it could underpin an entire story, as in the case of troll vs dwarf racism. And his talents extended beyond Discworld. Readers of this blog might be interested in Only You Can Save Mankind, a clever riff on Wing Commander (and video games more generally). What happens when the aliens decide they’ve had enough of being slaughtered by the player?

Individual Pratchett books were hit or miss. As a whole, his work was great. If asked to pick favourites, I would name two from Discworld: Guards! Guards! and Night Watch, written thirteen years apart. Both star the same character, veteran policeman Sam Vimes. When we meet Vimes in Guards, he’s a pathetic drunk, worn down by a thankless, dangerous career; amongst other things, Guards is the story of Vimes rediscovering his duty. Guards isn’t very deep, and it doesn’t delve into the serious themes that the later books do. It’s also, for me, the single funniest thing Pratchett has written, spoofing everything from secret societies to heroes who always win when the odds are a million to one. Night Watch, in which an older, tougher Vimes finds himself caught up in a revolution, is a different beast — topical, in light of the last few years, and far more serious. The Vimes of Night Watch wears a lilac to commemorate fallen friends; I thought it would be appropriate to use a picture of a lilac to accompany this post.

We are the poorer for Pratchett’s death. I find myself thinking of his take on the afterlife, and specifically, what happens (spoiler warning) to an old schoolteacher who tags along with a group of ageing barbarians. The deceased barbarians can look forward to Valhalla, the teacher knows, but he’s rather surprised when after dying a hero’s death, the Valkyries carry him away to the barbarians’ afterlife. I’m sure the Muses themselves would have showed up for Pratchett.

RIP, Sir Terry. By now, I bet you have the Muses crying with laughter.Lilac

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Musical Monday: “Swanky Maximino” (Grim Fandango), composed by Peter McConnell

This week’s song is another of my favourites from Grim Fandango. It’s possible to miss it entirely — it plays in one teensy, tiny, optional room — and that would be a shame. It’s so great that I lingered to listen. Enjoy!

Note: I’ve decided to change the format again – the site’s been lagging, and I suspect this because there are too many videos on the front page. Click through for the video.

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Clippings

This has been a great few weeks for strategy gaming; we’ve seen the launch of Total War: Attila (very good) and Homeworld: Remastered (on my ‘to play’ list), and Cities: Skylines and Sid Meier’s Starships are imminent. I’ve been playing a review copy of Skylines, so keep an eye out for my thoughts.

In this week’s links:

  1. Here is a great Hearts of Iron IV preview from Rob Zacny at PCGamesN.
  2. Oreshika, a Vita RPG high on my watch list, has released to generally positive reviews. Its premise is unique and intriguing – you command a clan with fixed lifespans. They’re born, they adventure, they gain experience, they die, they pass their abilities and heirloom items onto their kids. This sounds about as close as JRPGs will get to XCOM (and Training Roulette) – I plan to pick this up.
  3. Still on the subject of JRPGs, here is a retrospective of Tri-Ace — the studio that developed one of my favourite series, Valkyrie Profile. Now that Tri-Ace has been acquired by a mobile games developer, I guess I can finally bury my dreams of Valkyrie Profile 3
  4. A love letter to Grim Fandango‘s Rubacava (spoiler warning).
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What I’ve been reading

  1. An Elephant for Aristotle, by L Sprague de Camp (novel) A troop of horsemen from Alexander the Great’s army transport an elephant from India back to Greece. Unfortunately, this is one more historical novel whose premise is better than its execution. A long way from the author’s best book; it could really have done with the humour and charm that characterise his speculative fiction.
  2. Girl Genius (webcomic) – For the last couple of weeks, I’ve binged on this long-running “gaslamp fantasy”, whose heroes inhabit a world where seemingly every mad scientist trope is true (at one point, two characters agree that the best way to cure a third is to kill him… and then bring him back to life); the heroine herself is the heir to the maddest, baddest scientists there were. GG is colourful, imaginative, and often funny. It also labours under the weight of a rambling plot, with a new complication or cliffhanger every few pages. I suspect part of the problem is that GG is an ongoing, serialised work, and hence not constrained by the need for concision! Still, worth a look for speculative fiction fans.
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Only a Flesh Wound! Total War: Attila impressions

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.

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

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

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

S2 power blocs

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

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

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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.

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Inside The Art of Total War

As promised, here are photos I took of The Art of Total War.

Here is the table of contents. The book focuses on three branches of the Total War family — Shogun 1 & 2, Empire & Napoleon, and Rome 1 & 2. There is less on Medieval & Medieval 2, and less still, a bare few pages, on Attila and the spin-offs (Battles, Arena).

20150214_101205 The art itself ranges from unit sketches to concept paintings, and even some of the original maps that the developers used as inspiration. Read on:

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Clippings

After the disappointment of Beyond Earth, early videos of Sid Meier’s Starships are a bit more encouraging. Start with this overview (skip to about 33 minutes in):

Then watch this video (complete with Sid in Starfleet cosplay) for a more in-depth look at gameplay:

This preview contains a bit more information.

In other news:

  • Still in space, here is a preview of Homeworld Remastered.
  • Not having an N64, I missed The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask when it first came out. This review of the new 3DS version doubles as a retrospective.
  • USGamer lists the essential last-generation console RPGs. It’s a good list, with the proviso that it excludes portable games — my one addition would be The Last Story (for Wii; my writeup here). Including portables, I would add several excellent PSP games — Tactics Ogre, Valkyrie Profile: Lenneth, and Final Fantasy Tactics: The War of the Lions.
  • Previews (PCGamesN, RPS)are popping up for Act of Aggression, the upcoming RTS from Wargame developer Eugen Systems.
  • A retrospective of Deus Ex: Human Revolution. My take would be: disappointing narrative, great aesthetic, great fodder for a Ghost in the Shell fan, very good overall experience. I even enjoyed the boss battles!
  • The real XCOM underground base?
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Let’s reunify Japan in Total War: Shogun 2! Part 2: Patience and Preparation

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

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Clippings

I’ve been juggling several games, lately. On the PC, the run-up to Attila‘s release has seen me replaying older Total War titles: Shogun 2 for my Let’s Play (Part 2 coming soon!), Shogun 2: Fall of the Samurai, and Napoleon: Total War. And happily, I’m enjoying Fall of the Samurai and Napoleon a bit more this time around.

On the Vita, I’m a little way into the original Suikoden (pretty decent), Grim Fandango Remastered (still delightful), and Rogue Legacy (courtesy of Playstation Plus).  I don’t think you could go wrong with these if you enjoy their respective genres.

In this week’s links:

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What I’ve been reading

  1. The Janissary Tree, by Jason Goodwin (novel). Great concept – detective novel set in 19th century Ottoman Istanbul/Constantinople. Somewhat patchy execution; the resolution of the central mystery is contrived even by the standards of the genre. I think it works best as a love letter to a vanished world.
  2. The Classical World: An Epic History from Homer to Hadrian, by Robin Lane Fox (non-fiction). I want to like this book, yet I can’t  make much progress. It feels… detached, perhaps a consequence of trying to cover so much ground. Oh, well, I’ll soldier on.
  3. Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman, by Robert Massie (non-fiction). Now this is more like it. The first few chapters bring the young Catherine and her world alive; I look forward to consuming more! Worth a look for Empire: Total War and EU4 fans.
  4. Lest Darkness Fall, by L Sprague de Camp (novel – the first Amazon link goes to my paperback edition. There also looks to be a newer Kindle omnibus).  A time traveller journeys back to Ostrogothic Rome, on the eve of the Dark Ages. Luckily, he just happens to have the historical  knowledge to turn the tide. I’ve enjoyed this alternate history romp since I was a teen; it’s clever, funny, and the characters are a blast. Clearly, the author was having the time of his life! Here is a more detailed writeup.
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Let’s reunify Japan in Total War: Shogun 2! Part 1: Awakening the Tiger

Introduction

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

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

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

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

Here is the opening cinematic for the Takeda:

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

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

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

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

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What I’ve been reading

The first post in a planned series!

  1. Predictably Irrational, by Dan Ariely (non-fiction): A breezy, entertaining romp through one of my favourite topics — behavioural economics. Still, I’d rank this second to Professor Ariely’s free online course – he is a very good presenter, and in his hands, the subject comes alive on screen. Watch out for the course the next time it comes up.
  2. Southeast Asia in World History, by Craig Lockard (non-fiction) – A brief overview of Southeast Asian history, about the only one I’ve found. As one Amazon reviewer points out, it possesses the usual strengths and weaknesses of its kind —  trying to cover a lot of history in a very short book will provide a quick background… wrapped up in a dry list of dates and names. I am only halfway through the book (up to the eighteenth century); I’ll see if the second half picks up.
  3. The Cuckoo’s Calling and The Silkworm, by Robert Galbraith (novels) – JK Rowling’s pseudonymous crime fiction. Solid, entertaining stuff — I like it better than Harry Potter. The main characters are fun to be around, although the secondary characters (especially in Silkworm) are a bit too grotesque. I look forward to the next book.
  4. Song for a Dark Queen, by Rosemary Sutcliff (novel) – The story of Queen Boadicea of the Iceni, narrated by her harpist. Beautifully written, and utterly bleak.
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Musical Monday: “Binary Sunset” (Star Wars), composed by John Williams

For this week’s song, I was spoiled for choice — ever since playing Empire at War, I’ve been in the mood for Star Wars music. In the end, I opted for the hopeful, yearning piece below. Enjoy, and may the Force be with you, gentle reader!

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Announcing my recommended reading list

Inspired by similar lists created by Tim Stone of RPS and Bruce Geryk, I am very pleased to unveil my recommended reading list for fans of this site! You can access it here, or by clicking the “recommended reading” list at the top of the page.

At this stage, the list is dominated by history and historical fiction, with a bias towards my interests — economic, military, and world histories (by subject), and the early modern period to the present day (by era). Please let me know if you’d like more recommendations on a particular era — I had to prune quite a few books, especially for the early modern period onwards.

Over time, I will add to the list (this will be noted on the front page). I hope you find it useful.

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Clippings: Upcoming Strategy Releases

Total War: Attila previews are trickling out, comprising a mix of write-ups and Youtube videos. Here are the more useful ones I’ve found:

I’m not worried that Attila will launch as poorly as Rome 2 — after that fiasco, the previewers are falling over themselves to be cautious, and so far I haven’t seen reports that Attila is broken. I am a bit worried that the game will turn out like Fall of the Samurai — a brilliant concept that needed a few more months in the oven. Either way, keep an eye out for my thoughts once the game is out.

In other news:

  • Firaxis has announced its latest project, Sid Meier’s Starships. Out of the several previews I’ve read, by far the most informative is Eurogamer’s (hat tip: frogbeastegg). Firaxis stumbled last year with Civilization: Beyond Earth; nonetheless, with Sid himself helming up Starships, I will keep an eye on this one.
  • Hearts of Iron IV has been delayed until late in the June quarter. I can’t say I’m surprised — given that it’s already late January and the game still isn’t in beta, there was no way it could have been finished (and polished!) in time for its original March-quarter release.
  • Finally, here is another quirky Ubisoft gameGrow Home. The trailer doesn’t make it quite clear what the gameplay will involve; given that Ubisoft’s last “small” games (Valiant Hearts and Child of Light) were flawed-but-interesting, this might also be worth a look.
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Star Wars: Empire at War — Quick Impressions

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.

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Clippings: Blasts from the Past

My first clippings for the new year! This week, I have two fun pieces about retro games:

  • Here is a piece by Rob Zacny on how TIE Fighter moved past Star Wars’ traditional black-and-white morality. No joke, now I’m itching to write revisionist Star Wars fanfic…
  • And here is a profile of Marc Ericksen, who did the cover art for a host of 1980s and 1990s games. I didn’t realise one person was responsible for so much of the art from that era — he did everything from Tetris to Mega Man 2 and my childhood favourite, Herzog Zwei.
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Musical Monday: “Pierre de Lune”/”Wizard Stones” (Endless Legend), composed by Flybyno

This year, I kick off with one of my favourite pieces of ambient music from Endless Legend, a game that has a lot of good ambient music. (Confusingly, the song goes by two different names.) Enjoy!

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My Games of 2014

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

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Another year of blogging

Happy New Year!

2014 was a quieter year for the site than 2013. There were 77,000 page views, down from 92,000 the previous year. That’s still a little bit above the 71,000 in 2012. Again, the most popular posts (the top 3, in fact) related to Paradox strategy games. #4 was my guide for Wargame: AirLand Battle and Wargame: Red Dragon – quite pleasing after the work I put into it! And #5 was an old post I wrote about Tactics Ogre. Visitors came from as far afield as Iran, Nepal, and Papua New Guinea.

During 2013, I’d focused on new games, and in particular, new strategy games. For 2014, one of my goals was to write more about everything else — especially my other great love, JRPGs. So while I wrote about several new strategy games (Age of Wonders III, The Banner Saga, Civilization: Beyond Earth, Endless Legend, Warlock 2, and Xenonauts), I spent more time discussing Crusader Kings 2, Europa Universalis 4, Child of Light, Final Fantasy X HD, Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch, Sherlock Holmes: Crimes and Punishments, The Last Story, Valiant Hearts, Transistor, and Tearaway.

Breaking down content by type, there were no Let’s Plays s this year. I’d thought of writing one for Beyond Earth; when BE turned out to be subpar, I scrapped the idea. I did interview two developers about upcoming strategy games — Soren Johnson about Offworld Trading Company and Dan Lind about Hearts of Iron IV. I wrote my first ever game guide, for Wargame, and wrote a couple of brief pieces about genre problems — JRPG random battles and espionage in strategy games. I even wrote my first ever piece about gaming merchandise — the piano sheet music of Final Fantasy VI.

During 2015, there is one game I will almost certainly cover: Hearts of Iron IV. Whether it’s good or bad, expect me to have a lot to say! I’ll also keep an eye out for the Grim Fandango re-release; No Man’s Sky; Persona 5; Satellite Reign; Total War: Attila; and The Witcher 3.

For now, look forward to my ‘notable achievers of 2014′ honours list, which is about 3/4ths complete. I’m also cooking up a recommended reading list, containing novels, history books, and science fiction that you might find worth a look.

Thank you for reading, and I hope to see you around.

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Endless Legend: a better toy than game

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.

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

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

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

EU4 Jianzhou Start

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

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

EU4 Jianzhou Phase 1

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

EU4 Qing Phase 2

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

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

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

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

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