Kim Q&A, with Jeremy Hogan

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

 

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

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

 

 

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

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

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Shining in the darkness: playing the Eastern Romans in Attila

Attila - ERE at nightThe 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.

Attila - ERE map turn 28Below, I have a few more thoughts:

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The site in 2015

Happy New Year!

2015 was a quiet gaming year for me, reflected in the site. In terms of writing, it was a year of two halves. I opened with a Let’s Play of Total War: Shogun 2, followed by coverage of Total War: Attila, Cities: Skylines, and a second look at Endless Legend and Age of Wonders III following the release of their expansions. I also wrote most of a Europa Universalis IV custom nation LP.

During the second half of the year, real-life obligations kept me busy. I did write about adventure games, Nobunaga’s Ambition: Sphere of Influence, the Crisis of the Confederation mod for Crusader Kings 2, and over the holidays, the Age of Charlemagne expansion for Attila.

Over the year, I posted three interviews: one about China-themed 4X Oriental Empires, a follow-up with the developers of Guns of Icarus Online, and in my first modder interview, a discussion about Crisis of the Confederation.

Traffic was largely unchanged during 2015 — the site received around 80,000 page views, versus 77,000 the previous year. The most popular posts remained fairly constant; the top post was my guide to the Wargame series, while another three related to Paradox games (including Crisis of the Confederation) and one was an old post about Tactics Ogre.

In the next week or so, keep an eye out for my 2015 honours list, plus more posts about Nobunaga’s Ambition and Attila. Over 2016, I plan to cover Hearts of Iron IV (pushed back from 2015) and Stellaris; I’ll also observe XCOM 2, Sherlock Holmes: The Devil’s Daughter, The Last Guardian, No Man’s Sky, Total War: Warhammer, Dishonored 2 and Deus Ex: Mankind Divided. And I may well write some retrospectives and Let’s Plays of older games – Valkyrie Profile, Final Fantasy Tactics, Alpha Centauri, and Emperor of the Fading Suns (as a narrative LP) have been on my to-do list for years.

Thank you for reading. I look forward to seeing you around.

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Age of Charlemagne – a worthy complement to Attila

Attila - AoC Cavalry croppedAge 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:

AoC - Charlemagne start Continue reading

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Clippings: settling in for the season

Heading into December, my gaming time has been split between recent releases (Fallout 4, Thea: The Awakening), other purchases from Steam’s November sale (the British DLC for Company of Heroes 2), and finishing off my Nobunaga’s Ambition campaign. I’m looking forward to more time with the newly released Charlemagne DLC for Total War: Attila – it’s well-regarded, doesn’t look too big, and, based on my short and ill-fated first campaign, offers a good challenge. I’d also like to finish Tales from the Borderlands and try Life is Strange, which I also picked up during the Steam sale.

Meanwhile, we’re learning more about next year’s major strategy releases:

  • Paradox is broadcasting a weekly staff multiplayer game of Hearts of Iron IV, pitting the UK against Germany. You can find episode 1 here; as at the time of writing two episodes are out, and a third is due to air tomorrow.
  • While Paradox is more circumspect with Stellaris footage, the dev diaries are promising. I’m particularly interested in the research system, which presents a dynamic choice of technologies rather than a static tech tree, and about interactions with pre-spaceflight species, which players will be able to uplift.
  • XCOM 2 footage is also out – I like this video from Eurogamer, which showcases the base screen, soldier customisation, and tactical combat, accompanied by developer commentary. Also check out USGamer’s interview with Jake Solomon.

In other news:

  • Fallout: New Vegas Tour is a really cool look at the places that inspired the game. I had no idea they were so rooted in fact.
  • This USGamer article has done a lot to pique my interest in Yakuza 5. Mini-games built around serving ramen and talking to taxi passengers? That is unique.
  • And this is an interesting discussion of violence in Rise of the Tomb Raider. In some ways, it echoes my thoughts about the 2013 reboot.
  • With Xenoblade Chronicles X just out, Eurogamer examines the career of its creator.
  • Finally, Gimmen Gong, who composed much of the soundtrack for Guns of Icarus Online, has written in to tell me that an expanded album is now available. It’s dominated by slow, mournful ambient music, of which my favourites are “The Last Spirits of Time Forgotten” and “Original Main Theme”. There are also several faster-paced tracks; I like “Captain’s Maneuver” and “Grand Skyway of the Armada”. If you liked the GoIO soundtrack, the samples are worth a listen. Note that this album excludes the main menu theme and the drumbeat that plays when going into combat (“Adventure” and “Battle”, respectively), which were composed by Zain Effendi and are included with the collector’s edition of the game. It does include 3 tracks towards the end that overlap with the collector’s edition.
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Fallout 4: Early impressions

The deal was done. The merchant would trade me a stimpak; I would trade junk and a handful of cash. We agreed. The goods changed hands. And moments later, gunfire ripped through the night sky.

Something flared red. Was that a rocket? Whatever it was, as the merchant yelled, instinct took over. I ran for cover. When I reached safety, I stopped. Regained my cool. Looked for the raiders. Fought back.

When I combed through the bodies afterward, I realised the raiders had been armed with nothing better than home-made pipe guns. In the surprise and confusion of the ambush, I’d assumed far worse. In that unscripted moment, Fallout 4 brought its world alive.

A minute later, I approached the merchant, as well as another group of civilians that had blundered past. They reacted as though nothing had happened. And understandable though that was — should I have expected an unscripted response from characters in a video game? — it yanked me back out of the game’s world.

That episode sums up my experience so far with Fallout 4, about five hours in. As a moment-to-moment experience, it’s very good. Creeping through a underground raider camp, going room-to-room in a building harbouring raiders and incongruous Revolutionary War mannequins, and scavenging building material from rubble felt natural and immersive. In addition to the unscripted moments, scripted set-pieces seem fairly common so far. I can already feel the lure of crafting and settlement-building, although it’s too early to tell how much depth the settlement system has, and I have some concerns about the UI for settlement management. Is there some way of assigning settlers to tasks from a central screen, or do I have to walk around town and assign them one by one?

While I’m pretty happy with Fallout 4’s mechanics, I do have a couple of concerns about the writing. I loved Fallout 3’s opening (growing up in the Vault), and I loved Fallout: New Vegas’ opening, “reverse Western” setting, and plot hook. I liked Fallout 4’s opening — but this was followed by a moment of mood whiplash, and an early plot hook that felt contrived. To give due credit, Fallout 4’s protagonist benefits from being voiced, which allows him/her to respond to the environment in a believable and, at one point, sympathetic way.

A few more quick points: Character appearances have improved from previous games, although people still look odd when they run. I like the balance between VATS and ordinary actions — it looks like it’s better to use VATS up-close or against fast-moving enemies. And I like the diegetic interface that appears when you wear power armour. EDIT: Oh, and the UI seems to have been designed around a gamepad rather than a keyboard & mouse.

My tentative impression is that Fallout 4’s combat is at least as good as that in Fallout: New Vegas, while crafting and settlements are promising. Conversely, in terms of writing, New Vegas appears to have the edge. Overall, I like what I’ve played of Fallout 4 and I suspect it will come in as, at least, “good” to “very good”. Time will tell if it can pip its great predecessors.

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A Return to Adventure: Thoughts on Conquest of Elysium 4

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.

CoE4 Ballista vs HeliophagusBy 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.

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From the archives: Tactics X-COM: Jagged Ogre Chronicles, or a guide to squad-level strategy/tactics/RPGs

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.

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Guide to TRPGs - Matchsticks for my Eyes

This is a good time to be a fan – as I am – 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.

Read more here.

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From the archives: What five games say about violence

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

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

– Terry Pratchett

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

violence-games-table-v2Read more here.

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Friends in Need: Diplomacy in Nobunaga’s Ambition

Akechi Mitsuhide did not have long to gloat.

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:

Nobunagas Ambition - Coalition at war

Mitsuhide was squashed flat:

Nobunagas Ambition - Naomasa Defeats Akechi

Two years after Nobunaga’s death, my armies marched into Mitsuhide’s final stronghold:

Nobunagas Ambition - Coalition Destroyed Akechi

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What I’ve been reading

Tyrant

Tyrant: Storm of Arrows

Tyrant: Funeral Games

by Christian Cameron (historical fiction)

Entertaining and immersive – this is sword-and-sandals fiction the way it should be. The first two books in this six-book series, Tyrant and Storm of Arrows, follow an Athenian cavalry officer who journeys across the Eurasian steppe. The third book, Funeral Games, passes the torch to a new generation: exiled twins flung into the wars of the Diadochi.

In terms of quality, Funeral Games is decent to good, a solidly executed adventure story in an original setting, with elements we’ve seen before. But the first two are something special, a vivid epic that blends prophecy, military campaigns, and the cultural intersection between Greeks and Scythians, beneath the looming shadow of Alexander the Great. Highly recommended for period/genre fans, and players of Total War: Rome 2.

 

Armored Champion: The Top Tanks of World War II, by Steven Zaloga (non-fiction)

A highly readable book, covering tanks from inter-war designs to the Pershings and Comets of 1945. For me, it stands out due to: (1) its plethora of period photos; and (2) its emphasis on practicalities. Until reading this book, I never appreciated the importance of vehicle reliability; consider this comment from a British officer:

“It is evident that the commander of a unit equipped with Shermans can be confident of taking 99% of his tanks into battle, at any rate during the first 2,000 miles of their life. On the other hand, if he were equipped with Cromwells or Centaurs he would be in a continuous state of anxiety as to whether enough of his tanks would reach the battlefield to carry out the normal tasks expected of the unit.”

This is reinforced by the author’s “ranking” system. Each chapter includes a “Tanker’s Choice” for that year — the best vehicle on the battlefield, such as the Tiger in 1943. Each chapter also includes a “Commander’s Choice” — a cheap, reliable, “good enough” vehicle, such as the StuG III in 1943, the T-34/85 in 1944, or the M4A3E8 Sherman with HVAP ammo in 1945. I don’t think the popular imagination makes this distinction enough.

Recommended for subject matter fans.

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Nobunaga’s Ambition: Strong First Impressions

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:

Nobunaga's Ambition - Pre Honnoji 1And this is the situation immediately after Nobunaga’s death:

Nobunaga's Ambition - Post Honnoji 1The 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.

Below, I have a few more thoughts:

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EB Expo 2015: Lego Steals the Show

EB Expo - Vault BoyThe EB Expo is an annual gaming event held at Sydney Olympic Park, traditionally featuring a mix of AAA games and local indies. For me, that makes it a great opportunity to venture beyond my traditional stomping ground, PC strategy games.

This year’s event appeared far more focused on the major brands. Sony, Nintendo, and Microsoft were all there, along with publishers such as EA, Ubisoft and Warner Brothers. Compared to previous years, there were fewer indies present — a bit of a disappointment, as chatting to each year’s indies is one of my favourite things about the show.

This year’s highlight was a Lego exhibition, organised by the same people behind Sydney Bricks (the Sydney Lego User Group). Seriously, check this out – it’s a retro arcade constructed out of Lego, complete with a little diner:

20151002_102259 Continue reading

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Crisis of the Confederation Q&A, with Gregory Hayes

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

 

Development of the mod

Peter Sahui: Hello, and welcome to the site!

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

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

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

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Musical Monday: “Song of the Fields” (King Arthur: The Roleplaying Wargame), composed by Gergely Buttinger

This week’s song is one of the world map pieces from Neocore’s King Arthur, an interesting if imperfect game that I briefly played. This song’s ethereal vocals (and another similar-sounding theme) were a highlight. Enjoy!

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Clippings: Strategic September

Skylines - After DarkSeptember saw several notable strategy releases:

  • The PC version of Shenandoah Studios’ Battle of the Bulge;
  • After Dark, the first paid DLC for Cities: Skylines;
  • The English version of KOEI’s Nobunaga’s Ambition: Sphere of Influence; and
  • Act of Aggression, the latest RTS from Eugen Systems (Wargame).

Battle of the Bulge is the only one I’ve played enough (3 playthroughs1, totalling several hours) to assess. The iPad version has drawn a lot of praise, from the likes of Troy Goodfellow and Bruce Geryk, and wow, does the PC version live up to the hype. It’s the kind of quick-playing, evocative, elegant strategy game I love to evangelise2 – the panzer divisions will run wild for the first few days, while the outgunned Americans buy time, hold strongpoints, and maybe launch the odd spoiling attack. Once the skies clear, and Allied reinforcements arrive, it becomes the Allies’ turn to bludgeon their way back across the map.

As much as I like the game’s design, its implementation suffers from two flaws. First, the AI has the bad habit of overextending itself. On several occasions, I was able to cut off isolated German spearheads, leaving the once-fearsome panzers stranded without fuel or ammo. Second, the game is a bit buggy3 – on a couple of occasions, the screen began shaking and I was unable to give orders, forcing me to quit and reload. Still, the underlying design is so strong that I look forward to seeing the sequels on PC.

While I haven’t had the chance to play much of Nobunaga’s Ambition: SoI or Skylines: After Dark4, I’m optimistic about both. I’m looking forward to unlocking the new entertainment and tourist precincts in After Dark – tourism was rather bare-bones at launch – and the new day-night cycle (added via free patch) is gorgeous. Check out the image at the top of the page!

Nobunaga's Ambition - Map of JapanSpeaking of gorgeous, I love the aesthetic of Nobunaga’s Ambition: SoI (above). KOEI’s strategy franchises, such as Nobunaga’s Ambition and Romance of the Three Kingdoms, have great art, great music, and the only character-driven 4X/grand strategy mechanics outside Crusader Kings. I suspect SoI’s campaign will take quite a while to play – RotK 11 suffered from “strategy late game” syndrome. If I do dig further in, I’ll be sure to report back.

The only one of the four I haven’t picked up is Act of Aggression. First, I’m not sure it’s my cup of tea – it’s a homage to the ’90s, C&C-style RTS (and a spiritual sequel to Eugen’s earlier Act of War), a genre on which I burned out many years ago. Second, its reception has been mixed. On a happier note, Eugen is working on a free map patch for Wargame: Red Dragon –  that might be my cue to jump back into the Cold War.

In non-strategy news:

  1. The Race to the Meuse scenario twice and the randomised campaign once, all three times as the US.
  2. See also Vietnam ’65.
  3. Apparently the bugs are worse on iPad.
  4. Paradox supplied me with a review copy of the Cities: Skylines base game, and I bought After Dark out of my pocket.
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The OTHER space grand strategy game: Crisis of the Confederation

COTC - Coup

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.

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  1. By the way, I checked the save game file. It really was an accident.
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Musical Monday: “The Battle of Hoth” (The Empire Strikes Back), composed by John Williams

Or, to give it its full title, “The Battle Of Hoth (Ion Cannon/Imperial Walkers/Beneath the AT-AT/Escape in the Millennium Falcon)”. This is 15 minutes long; I believe it’s the actual background music used in the movie. Sit back and enjoy!

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Point, Click, Solve Puzzle: Reflections on the Adventure Game

Kings Quest hatchet

Traditionally, adventure games have been defined by two elements: (1) reliance on narrative; and (2) solving puzzles in order to progress. While the former has always been the genre’s strong suit, I would argue that puzzles have been a mixed success. Puzzles can be too obtuse, necessitating a trip to GameFAQs to obtain the solution, or may clash with the narrative. Particularly problematic puzzles, such as the infamous cat-hair moustache, can be guilty of both. Developers have tried to combat this problem in several ways, and interestingly, their approach appears to be evolving over time.

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Clippings: New and Shiny

Kings Quest startI’ve just picked up the first episode of the new King’s Quest, which came out at the end of July. As a newcomer to the series, I like what I see! One hour in, it’s a pleasant, charming fairytale that has made me laugh out loud a couple of times. My only complaint was a single, reflex-based action sequence – I’m horrible at those things! – and even then, it was manageable. KQ was well-received back at launch, and I look forward to playing more.

Meanwhile, Satellite Reign, the cyberpunk strategy game, is now out to positive reviews (Metacritic link here). From the few minutes I’ve played, I am not entirely impressed by the game’s technical performance – my high-end gaming laptop sees frame rates in the 10-30fps range regardless of whether I set the graphics to low, medium, or high. But when my plan broke down at the end of the tutorial area, and my agents fought for their lives, technical issues melted away in the thrill of the moment. Cautiously optimistic.

In other news:

  • Eurogamer profiles Fredrik Wester, CEO of Paradox. For a more in-depth account of how the Paradox team ended up packing Crusader Kings 1 boxes themselves, check out this Polygon article from 2013 – that has always stuck with me as an example of the travails that come up in small business.
  • Here is an interesting piece about the implicit urban philosophy of Cities: Skylines. Note that I disagree with the old cliche, briefly referenced in that article, that The Sims is an exercise in materialism. That hasn’t been true since Sims 2, which added lifetime desires and an underlying ambition (such as Fortune, Family, or Knowledge) for each sim.
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Musical Monday: The Battle Themes of Sins of a Solar Empire

This week, I’ve chosen to highlight the soundtrack of Sins of a Solar Empire, the game that enticed me back to real-time strategy after almost a decade of burnout. I associate the three pieces below with the phases of an engagement: “Battle 8”, with its opening drumbeat and ominous brass, makes me imagine the rival fleets jumping in, their admirals manoeuvring into position. “Battle 12” makes me think of the battle itself. And the triumphant “Upbeat 3” makes me think of the moment of decision, when the TEC Marza-class dreadnoughts unleash their missile barrage, when the enemy fleet crumbles and the survivors flee for the edge of the gravity well. Enjoy!

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Clippings: Steam and Stars

Several interesting interviews this week:

Space Game Junkie has a Q&A about Paradox’s upcoming Stellaris. Some interesting tidbits — Victoria-style internal politics sound long overdue for the space genre.

The Wargamer interviews the designer of Rule the Waves, the Dreadnought-era naval simulator. Did you know that Master of Orion inspired the ship design in RtW? If you ask me, RtW makes better use of that mechanic than 90% of the space 4X games that followed MOO’s footsteps.

Meanwhile, the Flare Path’s write-up of Pike & Shot: Campaigns has prompted me to add the game to my wishlist. Between QuadrigaVietnam ’65, and Rule the Waves, that column has become hazardous to my wallet…

A retrospective of Circle of Blood/Broken Sword, the classic adventure series.

In non-game news, here is an interesting article about the rise of ebooks on mobile phones, buoyed by larger screen sizes. The article doesn’t discuss “cell phone novels”, which have been around for some time in Japan, complete with a prose style adapted to the medium.

Finally, check out this high-resolution concept art from Endless Legend. Beautiful!

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Clippings: Gamescom & Guesses

Update: Paradox has officially unveiled Stellarishere is RPS’ preview, the best I’ve found. It is neither related to Coriolis, nor like EFS. Instead, it sounds more like Distant Worlds, with a dash of the procedural generation that characterised Paradox’s abortive Runemaster. A galaxy populated by randomly generated species, an emphasis on discovery and exploration that will last throughout the game, new factions popping up… I look forward to finding out more.

Gamescom has kicked off, with the big news – for me – yet to come. If my guess is correct, Paradox may be about to announce a new space game!

The facts: Paradox is working on “Project Augustus”, a new mystery game that will be unveiled at Gamescom. Pending the announcement, it has released a number of cryptic hints, which you can find here.

The speculation: Based on the arguments in this post, plus the subsequently released hints, I’m convinced the game will be set in space. Paradox has published an ebook named Coriolis: Dark Between the Stars, apparently set in the universe of a Swedish tabletop RPG. And it has recently registered a new trademark, “Stellaris”.

The wishful thinking on my part: Could Project Augustus be a spiritual successor to the sadly underappreciated Emperor of the Fading Suns? “Dark Between the Stars” is a term from the Fading Suns setting, and a Crusader Kings-style character-driven game would be perfect for a “feudal future” setting such as EFS. I’d love a remake – EFS was one of the most unique games I’ve ever played.

In other news:

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Quick Impressions: Vietnam ’65

2015-08-01_00003Vietnam ’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.

Tim Stone’s review.

Rob Zacny’s review.

  1. One on “regular” difficulty, the other on “veteran”.
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Clippings: Rule the Waves!

Amateur admirals, ahoy! This week’s highlight is Rule the Waves, a dreadnought-era naval strategy game. In RtW‘s strategic layer, the player designs new ships, pays for them out of a limited budget, juggles crises, and last but not least, appeases the politicians. In the tactical layer, the battleships, cruisers, and destroyers come out to play. Now that I’ve found my way around the interface, I find the game pretty elegant to play, and after two campaigns, I can report that the game is cracking good fun. My only wish is for a way to automate tactical battles and just focus on the strategic layer.

Here is the Flare Path’s write-up. Here is a Let’s Play over at the official forum. You can purchase the game here – note it takes a little while for the serial number to arrive. A few tips, if you pick it up: (1) submarines are great value – they’re dirt-cheap and seem very effective at forcing enemy countries to the negotiating table, (2) you will need a lot of hulls for coastal patrol/ASW duty as the game goes on – I like building cheap patrol boats on a minesweeper chassis, and (3) playing as the US, most of my battles were cruiser vs cruiser skirmishes (I guess I was too remote for other countries to justify sending in the battleships) – it paid off to invest in outsized heavy cruisers.

This week’s other links:

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