A plethora of PC strategy game companies

Strategy gaming is vibrant and multi-faceted; that’s my take-away from mapping out selected strategy game publishers, developers, and games.

Selected strategy game publishers and studios.

Here are three observations:

The first is what a broad tent the chart represents. Some of these publishers (Paradox, Slitherine) have a strong overarching brand as strategy game houses, while for generalists such as SEGA, the strategy brands rest at the studio level. Looking at individual titles, we see a broad mix of sub-genres: wargames; fantasy, historical, and space 4X; grand strategy; city-building; squad tactics; and more.

The second is how different this — and strategy gaming itself — would have looked 10 years ago. Firaxis owned the dominant strategy game franchise (Civilization), yet the XCOM remake was many years away. While SEGA acquired Creative Assembly back in 2005, its next strategy acquisition wasn’t for another 8 years (Relic, in 2013). Paradox and Slitherine were highly niche. Shrapnel Games was another contender in the wargame publishing space.

Finally, this is not a comprehensive list. For example, I haven’t shown companies such as Iceberg Interactive (the original publisher of the Endless series), Focus Home Interactive, Stardock (Gal Civ), Eugen Systems (Wargame, Steel Division), Illwinter (Dominions), Haemimont (the Tropico remakes), KOEI (Romance of the Three Kingdoms, Nobunaga’s Ambition), and many of the wargaming studios in Slitherine’s orbit.

All this adds up. Multiple publishers and developers — some genre specialists, other generalists — have established themselves in the strategy space, producing a rich variety of games. Things have come a long way since the genre was dismissed as “not contemporary”!

Civilization V: One year on

This entry is part 3 of 4 in the series Civilization V
The eve of my invasion of the Aztecs


Last night, I sat down to play Civilization V for the first time in most of a year. There have been a lot of patches in that time, and I’d grown pretty rusty. How well does it stand the test of time?


What happened during the game


I played as Siam on a Tiny map (four players, eight city-states), Continents, on King level. As it turned out, the other three players all ended up sharing the main continent while I had a large island/small continent to myself (big enough for three of my cities plus one city-state, and I could have shoehorned another city or two in there if I really wanted to).  Throughout the game, I followed my classic Civ play style by building a small but rich and technologically advanced nation, and eventually won a diplomatic victory.


However, my game wasn’t wholly peaceful. Montezuma, just across the sea from me, spent the game slowly gobbling up the other civs and city-states on the main continent. He knocked out Japan and one of my allied city-states, as well as grabbing some territory from Russia. So in the modern era, I decided to do something about it. I somehow made my way to Electronics (which allows mechanised infantry) when all the other AI players were around a generation or two behind militarily, so after training a small force of mechanised infantry and constructing a few battleships, I invaded the Aztecs*.


And I pulled it off. Between my technological superiority, the Aztec army being at the wrong end of the continent fighting the Russians, and my city-state allies gnawing at the Aztecs’ flanks, I went through Montezuma’s heartland like a hot knife through butter. Mounting unhappiness from my conquests, and the need to rest the troops,  made me settle for a peace treaty in which I took all of Montezuma’s cities except for the ex-Japanese Kyoto; that spiked my unhappiness even further, so I donated several of the Aztec border cities to my ally Russia. With the exception of a second, brief war later on that saw Russia gobble up the Aztec remnant, after that it was pretty much just a countdown to the diplomatic victory.


My observations


The naval AI really is broken: No invasions, no colonisation, minimal fleets. This meant once I had wiped the barbarians off my continent, I could safely neglect my military until it was time to invade the Aztecs. When that occasion came, I encountered absolutely no naval resistance…


… but I wouldn’t be so quick to rag on the land AI: My ground war didn’t last long , and mostly consisted of me besieging cities defended by entrenched artillery rather than fighting Montezuma’s armies in the field, so I can’t comment on how good the AI’s unit deployment is. However, judging by the large, artillery-supported armies I saw the Aztecs and later Russia pushing around, their sheer weight of numbers would have given me a much harder time if I’d spawned on the main continent.


Improved build times: Even on Quick speed, IIRC it took ages to build anything in the earlier versions of Civ V. In contrast, build times feel very reasonable now.


At first glance, I like the use of empire-wide happiness as a check on conquest: … although this really is only a first glance, since it only arose for me towards the end of this game and I don’t remember it being much of an issue when I originally played.


Diplomacy still feels rudimentary, but it has its moments: Russia and I were best buddies for most of the game, but once the fall of the Aztecs left the two of us sharing a land border as the last civs standing, Catherine’s attitude cooled very quickly. Shades of the Cold War…


My overall conclusions haven’t changed. Civ V was decent to start with, and it’s better than it was a year ago, mostly due to the faster build times. But while I had fun, I still don’t consider it a great game. Even without the dysfunctional naval AI, the patches have done nothing to address my fundamental gripes with the game. In particular, diplomacy and the lack of religion make it feel more soulless than Civ IV or even Alpha Centauri (note, for example, this podcast discussion on the importance of faction personalities in that game). Back onto my Steam shelf it’ll go for now, I think…


* Appropriately enough, the  great general who spawned after my first couple of victories was named “Hernan Cortes”.

Take to the skies with these upcoming indie games: AirMech and Guns of Icarus Online

Sometimes, sequels and remakes are exactly what the doctor ordered. In recent weeks, two upcoming air combat-themed indie games have caught my attention: AirMech and Guns of Icarus Online.




The further advanced of the two is Carbon GamesAirMech. This is basically a modern remake of one of my childhood favourites, Herzog Zwei:



Never played Herzog Zwei or Brutal Legend, another game it inspired? AirMech is an action/RTS hybrid where you fly about in your plane, purchase units and then transport them to the front, and drop down into robot mode to engage enemies on the ground. But watch out for surface-to-air missiles! Up to four humans or AIs can play at a time, and victory goes to the player whose army can destroy the others’ starting strongholds.


I’ve spent about an hour with various alpha builds of the game, and from a presentation standpoint, it’s already impressively polished. I particularly like its bright, colourful and slightly stylised art – this is how an updated Herzog should  look! The gameplay and interface are still being tweaked – the latest build plays very differently to the one I tried just a couple of weeks ago – but based on what the developers have achieved so far, I’m optimistic that the game can reach its potential. This just cries out for a Stompers of Comps multiplayer AAR, so stay tuned post-release…


Guns of Icarus Online


The other title to catch my eye is Muse Games’ Guns of Icarus Online, a steampunk airship MMO shooter. No actual gameplay in the following trailer, but it does look cool:



Critics were unimpressed with the original Guns of Icarus (which I never played), but the developers have acknowledged that “our ambition outstripped our schedule” for the original game; for the sequel, Muse is apparently better resourced and has benefited from its experience developing other games. While there will be PVP, I’m more interested in the “exploration” promised for the cooperative mode. At this stage there isn’t enough information to judge whether the developers can execute on this vision, but if they can, this could just turn out to be the steampunk airship Pirates! that I’ve been calling for. Worth keeping an eye on.

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.

A game that could have been: Emperor of the Fading Suns

If I had a penny for every game set in outer space, I’d be writing this post from somewhere sunnier and sandier. How many first-person shooters have cast us as Angry McShootsalot, the space marine? And how many RPGs and 4X games have treated us to  “classic space opera” universes, the sort familiar to anyone who’s seen Star Trek or Star Wars, or read a Larry Niven novel? This extends to gameplay conventions. If you’ve played Master of Orion, Sword of the Stars, Galactic Civilizations, or Space Empires, you know the formula – players start with a single world at the dawn of the age of interstellar travel, then colonise virgin territory until eventually the whole galaxy is claimed. Technology progresses in a smooth upward line. The real fighting is all done in space; ground combat is abstracted to ‘bring troop transports and roll the dice’. Everything is clean and crisp and futuristic.


If I had a penny for every game set in an original version of outer space… well, at least I’d have one cent, courtesy of Emperor of the Fading Suns (EFS), the 1996 turn-based strategy game from Holistic Design, Inc (HDI). Set in the same universe as Fading Suns, HDI’s pen-and-paper RPG,  EFS falls into the broad 4X genre defined by classics such as Civilization and the games I listed above, but carved out a space all its own. In EFS, the main conflict was human against human, though there was an alien menace in the background. And there was nothing crisp or clean or futuristic about its universe, filled with princes, priests, psionics and peasants in what’s usually described as “a cross between Dune and Warhammer 40,000”.


The princes were the players, competing to become emperor of the 40 “known worlds” that were all that was left of a once-thriving interstellar society.  40 worlds might not sound like a lot… but unlike other 4X games, where a world would be defined by a few numbers, in EFS each had its own unique, Civilization-sized hex grid map. Each had its own layout of continents, islands, oceans. Each had its own assortment of resources: fertile farmlands, oil-rich deserts and seas, mountain ranges containing ore and gemstones. They had different terrain palettes, and a very different feel – you would not mistake snowy Delphi, capital of the Atreides-knockoff House Hawkwood, for the jungle world Severus, capital of the Harkonnen-knockoff House Decados.


EFS’ combat system also emphasised the planetary level. Ground and space battles were fought Civ-style (without tactical combat) between stacks of up to 20 units at a time, with different units excelling at different phases of battle – for example, artillery could shoot first and target any unit, but would be vulnerable in “direct” or “close” combat. While there were relatively few types of space unit, the game’s lavish technology tree offered ground units aplenty, starting with basic tanks and self-propelled guns, and culminating in power-armoured assault legions, genetically engineered warbeasts, and hover tanks. Capital spacecraft (cruisers and dreadnoughts) could bombard enemy stacks before you sent in the ground troops, but they couldn’t hit every unit, and planet-to-space batteries – perhaps protected by the planetary shield! – could shoot back. Thus, to invade a world, gaining space superiority wasn’t enough – you had to land troops to establish a beachhead and fight your way across the surface, all the while keeping up a flow of new ground units from your homeworlds. As a result, EFS, better than any other game I’ve played, captures just how colossal an undertaking a planetary invasion would be.


EFS’ uniqueness extended to its victory conditions. To start with, players could trade favours to win control of what was left of the Imperial ministries (space fleets, spies, border garrisons) – every 10 turns, the players would elect one of their number to be the regent, the one in charge of handing out these offices. To win the game, you had to first be voted regent, then declare yourself emperor. Instead of putting you through the tedium of steamrolling every other claimant to the throne, EFS “just” required you to be confirmed by a final vote after another 10 turns.


And this was when the game was at its most exciting. To vote for regent or emperor, you needed two things. First, each player’s voting rights were represented by five sceptres – actual units on the map – and these could be stolen from one another (or from certain NPC factions). More sceptres, more votes. Second, you needed a noble in the capital to cast your vote. You started with five nobles – four on your homeworld, one in the capital – and if they all died, it was game over. Now, for most of the game, the capital was a neutral zone where assassins could strike, but overt conflict was forbidden. But once the regent crossed the Rubicon, that prohibition was lifted. Rival armies would converge on the capital to slaughter each other’s nobles while safeguarding their own. Battle fleets would take up position to stop the armies arriving. Blood would run in the streets, as neglected garrisons were overrun by their more prepared rivals. And hanging over your head was the looming deadline of that second vote. That was how a race for the imperial throne should feel. And that was how a strategy endgame should play.


To cap things off, EFS was also highly moddable: it had a map editor and it stored rules and unit data in Notepad-editable files. If you thought the common artillery unit was too powerful, or that special forces legions should be able to live off the land, you could change it yourself. But this was just the tip of the iceberg. Ambitious mods upped the challenge, reshaped the game’s economy, changed the combat rules, added whole new classes of units that could fight in space or on the ground.


Unfortunately, EFS also had its fair share of flaws. The game was quite clearly not a finished, let alone a polished, product.  Vestigial, unimplemented features remain to tantalise the player – for example, you could throw your weight behind one Church sect or another, which had absolutely no effect but implies that the designers intended players to stack papal elections in their favour. And while the game did come with multiplayer, its AI barely knew how to play. Rather, my most challenging single-player experience came from a fan-made scenario that lumbered me with internal foes (a frail economy and a rebellious populace), in a prophetic flash-forward to 2005’s Rome: Barbarian Invasion.


For whatever reason, EFS did not succeed in the marketplace, and ultimately it made little impression on the genre. You will see plenty of Civilization or Master of Orion retrospectives and sequels, but none for EFS. Years later, the potential of the franchise glimmered again when HDI announced a spin-off project, Fading Suns: Noble Armada. Rather than being a 4X title, Noble Armada followed in the footsteps of “freelance starship commander” games such as Elite. Set during the peace following the emperor’s accession, it would have allowed players to venture into unknown space, trading, fighting, exploring and questing at the head of a small fleet. And Noble Armada made it quite far through the development process: I remember playing a pre-release demo, buggy and crash-prone but tantalisingly fun. But sadly, this flicker of hope never came to fruition. Noble Armada bounced from one publisher to another, before finally dying, never to see the light of day. With it died the Fading Suns franchise on the computer.


Nowadays, Emperor of the Fading Suns is a dusty entry on abandonware sites, and a fond memory in the minds of fans. It’s a sad fate for a game that, with a bit more polish and a better AI, would have been one of the best strategy games ever made. As it is, it’s still a gem, albeit a flawed one. It’s a unique experience, both in terms of game mechanics and flavour. And for a player looking for immersion rather than a competitive single-player experience, it still holds up very well. I wish it were both better known and more widely imitated. I can’t do anything about the latter, but with this post, I hope I can do something about the former.




Video tutorial (Nova mod)

Hyperion mod – my mod of choice when I played EFS

Nova mod – no personal experience with this but a lot of players like it


I hope you enjoyed this post! To quickly find this post, and my other feature articles, click the “features” tab at the top of this page.

Spoiled by Greatness

When we want to praise a well-made device, a skilful cook, a more convenient way of doing things, anything, we commonly say, “It’s spoiled me.” Usually this is just a figure of speech. But as with many other clichés, there is a literal truth at the heart of this: sometimes, we really do find something so good that it takes away our ability to enjoy inferior alternatives. And I think this is the case with two of my preferred forms of entertainment, games and books.


My most recent gaming example is Total War: Shogun 2 (my verdict here); in mechanical terms, the best strategy game I’ve played in years. Shogun 2 didn’t just fix much of the Total War series’ traditional bugginess. It also fixed two endemic problems with the strategy game genre: the boring late game, and pointless diplomacy. Now, when I think about other games in the genre, I have a much more critical eye for those two issues (especially the former) after seeing them done correctly. One studio that might suffer as a result is Paradox Interactive. I’ve loved Paradox’s historical simulations for years and I have plenty of cool stories to tell about them (see, for example, my Byzantine adventures in Europa Universalis III), but they are not particularly fun after the early- to mid-game. So Paradox’s upcoming Crusader Kings 2 and especially Sengoku will have to surpass a bar that Shogun 2 set pretty high, and Paradox will have to work that much harder to convince me to buy them.


Something similar may have happened to me in books, although here it may simply have been that my taste improved as I grew up. When I discovered fantasy fiction in my early teens, I loved Raymond Feist’s tales of orphans-turned-sorcerers and swashbuckling young heroes. Then, over the years, I read George R R Martin, and Glen Cook, both of whom specialised in taking apart the traditional fantasy novel. Martin needs no introduction; Cook’s Black Company series depicts a traditional fantasy world, with centuries-old wizards capable of destroying armies in the blink of an eye – but from the perspective of the underdog, the common foot soldier. Now I can’t even remember the last time I glanced at my Feist collection. My tastes in space opera tell a similar story. I used to happily read military science fiction novels that were little more than glorified after-action reports. Then when I was 17, I discovered Lois McMaster Bujold’s space opera novels – character- rather than explosion-driven, hilarious, moving, brilliant* – and I didn’t look back.


You can even see my own writing reflect the above trends in my literary tastes, albeit, it seems, with a lag. The first decent story I wrote, back around 2005 or 2006, was a heroic fantasy Tale of High Adventure, set in a world awash in magic and starring a hero who’s stronger, more cunning, and more superpowered than his foes. By late 2008/early 2009, when I wrote the first draft of The First Sacrifice, things had come down to earth. Artorius of Cairbrunn, the main character of The First Sacrifice, might be tough, clever, and a spirit to boot, but he’s decidedly short on superpowers. (To stretch an analogy, Artorius is the Daniel Craig to my earlier imagined Conneries and Moores.)


I’m not so sure whether I’ve experienced the same phenomenon, of discovering the good and being unable to return to the mediocre, in other media. Anime went in the opposite direction –  I discovered most of my favourite anime within the first few years after I started watching the medium. While I am unable to enjoy the majority of anime, I think this is more because common anime tropes annoy me than because I’ve been “spoiled” by watching the cream early on. And I don’t really watch enough movies or TV, nor am I sufficiently analytical when I do, to be spoiled for lesser works.


Is this phenomenon a blessing or a curse? Often it feels like the latter, when I just can’t find anything that interests me. On the other hand, bypassing the uninspired is what allows us to have time for the truly good. And if being spoiled is the price that must be paid to encounter greatness, well, I think it’s one well worth paying.


* You can legally read most of Bujold’s space opera series, the Miles Vorkosigan saga, for free here. Highly recommended if you like space opera at all.

Let’s Play the Empire: Total War Multiplayer Campaign – Episode II: Havoc on the High Seas, Losses in the Low Countries

When we left off with the first instalment of the Empire: Total War multiplayer campaign, Great Britain had held off the French at sea, while on land, the Dutch had driven a mighty French invasion force out of their homeland. What could possibly go wrong for Great Britain? (Wondering what this series of writeups is all about? Here’s the introduction.)


Read my  writeup, below, to find out…




The War of the World


At the start of the game, I had sent Britain’s shipyards into overdrive producing warships and merchantmen, and that pays off. With the defeat of the French fleet at the end of the first turn, this leaves the Royal Navy – and accompanying British ground forces – free to go on the global offensive, ready to make the world safe for tea, cricket and British trade.


Britain's targets in its initial Caribbean offensive


Britannia’s might lands most heavily in the Caribbean. The pirates, in their lairs at Antigua in the Leeward Islands and San Jose de Oruna in Trinidad & Tobago, learn that His Majesty’s soldiers do not know the meaning of the word “parley”. The undefended Spanish – formerly French – colony of Martinique surrenders without a shot.


To be sure, the Spanish computer player ensures that the naval campaign is not a one-sided affair. The Royal Navy takes its fair share of losses in a series of largely auto-resolved skirmishes in the Caribbean and in the East Indies. But when the smoke clears, the Spanish navy has been driven from the East Indies, leaving British trade fleets free to move in.


What’s Spanish for “‘tis only a flesh wound”? The Battle of the Invincible Frigate


When the Spanish fleet finally shows up in force in the Caribbean, my luck looks like it’s run out. Against my fifth-rate frigate and sloop, the Spanish have brought a frigate and sloop of their own, plus a galleon that tremendously outguns anything else on the field. My first response is to panic. And then, once the battle starts, I breathe a sigh of relief: the Spanish ships are damaged and missing most of their guns. It’s still not a done deal – even in its weakened state, the galleon is able to blow away my sloop when it strays too close.  Still, the frigate duel is as one-sided as I could have wished. I shoot away the Spanish frigate’s masts, destroy many of its remaining guns, leave its hull blackened and punctured. Yet the crew neither flees nor surrenders in the face of volley after volley of cannon fire. And, to add insult to injury, their morale remains high even as the ship rides lower and lower in the water.


The Ship of the Black Knights?


I am left wondering, over the in-game chat, what the Spanish sailors are eating for breakfast. It takes the outbreak of fire for the crew to abandon ship, by which time I am convinced that if they had been around 120 years earlier to man the Spanish Armada, history would have taken a very different course.


Disaster in the Low Countries (I): Never rely on a computer-controlled ally


Back in Europe, though, things don’t go quite as smoothly. When we left off, the French had been repelled at the gates of Amsterdam and John Churchill, the Duke of Marlborough, was leading a mid-sized force into what is today Belgium. The small Spanish garrison in Brussels falls quickly, and I turn the territory over to the Dutch. I feel well pleased with my raid! While my army doesn’t have the movement points to make it back to the sea on the same turn, I am able to withdraw my army so that it’s close by a friendly, smallish Dutch force. What could possibly go wrong?


As it turns out, plenty. The French army – numerically superior, even after its defeat at the walls of Amsterdam – moves in to attack Marlborough. The Dutch computer player, instead of taking up a good defensive position, charges out into the open field, and I follow suit, fearing the piecemeal annihilation of the allied armies. My infantry-short army lacks the numbers to shoot it out with the French, and I botch the timing of a cavalry charge at the French flank. When the dust settles, the British army in Europe is reduced to Churchill, a single artillery battery, and a handful of horsemen who escaped the rout. In an eighteenth-century version of Dunkirk, they slink back across the channel, and with them goes any thought of a quick land victory in Europe for Great Britain.


That did not go according to plan


Disaster in the Low Countries (II): Le Roi, Jeeeenkins!


Still, when the French army follows up on its victory by marching into the Netherlands and laying siege to Amsterdam for the second time, I am less than fazed. True, the Dutch are outgunned – the professional garrison is small, so most of the defenders consist of hastily armed townsfolk.  But as the first battle of Amsterdam showed, even armed civilians can put up a good fight from within the fortresses protecting the city.   “No problem,” I shrug. “I held off the French once, I can do it again.”


The turn ends. And the Dutch AI player abandons the shelter of its walls to attack the French.


The ill-fated Dutch sally


The resulting battle, trained and experienced French soldiers versus the Amsterdam mob on an open field, goes predictably. The best thing about the fight turns out to be a bout of unintentional comedy, when one Dutch regiment, retreating from the massacre, climbs the walls of its own fort to get back inside after the gates refuse to open.


Amsterdam falls soon after. And with that, Britain’s strongest ally is now out of the war. (Portugal remains in the fight, but is too far away to threaten France.) With the French in force across the channel – over the coming turns, they march out of Amsterdam and briefly lose control of the city, but retake it soon afterwards – and a mighty Spanish fleet of galleons crawling up towards the English Channel, I’m getting nervous. For all my successes overseas, the European theatre isn’t looking too good for the British Empire…


Unfortunately, at this point, we had to switch French players, as PC issues forced Peter Davies, our original France, to drop out of the game.  Stay tuned for the next update!

Frozen Synapse: A good first impression

Over the weekend, I picked up Frozen Synapse, a new, cyberpunk-themed indie squad tactics game, and so far I’m quite impressed.


First off, the actual game seems pretty cool. It’s stylish, with its green-and-red outline soldiers, blue backgrounds and futuristic music. It’s minimalist: there are only five unit types in the game. And it’s quick-to-play, due to the extreme speed at which units die off. But the real genius of Frozen Synapse is that turns execute simultaneously: the players input their orders, trying to guess what the other will do, and then they see just how little of their plans survived contact with the enemy (this synergises really well with the lethality of combat; one foe unexpectedly lying in wait can cut down half your squad). As a result, I get the impression that this is one of those “minute to learn, lifetime to master” titles.


The second area in which Frozen Synapse has impressed me is its multiplayer. This is one game where the basic concept – trying to anticipate what the other guy will do – is just tailor-made for playing against other humans, and the designers have taken advantage of that. The game’s multiplayer is asynchronous – i.e. players can take their turns at any time, upload them to the server, and load the latest turn when it’s ready – which makes it easier to work around clashing real-life schedules. And the designers were also shrewd enough to integrate a touch of Web 2.0 – at the end of a multiplayer match, there’s a handy button to upload a replay to Youtube.


The experience so far hasn’t been flawless. The documentation is practically nonexistent, even by my “never read the manual” standards; I had to visit a forum to find answers to basic questions such as “what are the units good for?” and “who shoots first if two units spot each other? Correction: the game is in fact pretty well documented by the readme file in the game directory. The playerbase is currently split amongst several different servers (which the designers have said is just a stopgap), and the servers themselves have a tendency to go down (for maintenance?) when I’m free to play in the evenings after work. Still, none of these issues has been a game-breaker for me – now I have found answers to my questions, and I could also play the single-player campaign or botmatches.


All in all, Frozen Synapse is definitely worth a look if you’re a fan of the game’s genre.  Check it out on Steam, Impulse or the developer’s website!

Let’s Play the Empire: Total War Multiplayer Campaign – Episode I: The War Begins (France)

The following post, by Peter Davies (aka Beefeater1980), playing France, is the belated first instalment in the Empire: Total War multiplayer campaign write up! Click here to see what it’s all about.


In this episode, Britain and France go to war on the high seas and in the Low Countries. Will one side score a knockout blow early on? Or will the war turn into an early stalemate?


Over to PD…




Here they come (Crick! Crack! Bang!), those red-coated, black-booted, musket-toting minions of a mercantile empire, flags waving and cannons bristling. In ETW, Britain has advantages to make a royal weep and hang up his ius primae nocti: unassailable home regions in Europe that can each churn out a land unit or several every turn; high-value ports, ready to knock out those sleek and deadly fifth-rate ships that will demolish the sixth-raters I can build in the time it takes to say ‘Hornblower’; and the most powerful alliance in Europe at its beck and call.


Against them stands France and my enviable record of five defeats and no wins against the campaign AI on ‘Normal’. Oh, and Spain as an ally: 10/10 for machismo but, in deference to Real Historical Fact, her glory days are behind her and she will lose interest a few years in, only to spend the rest of the game swigging Sangria and reminiscing about Pizarro and Cortes. Gentlemen, place your bets!


And yet. PS may have more and better ships and an invulnerable home base but the British army starts the game small and unimposing: France on the other hand has a solid core of infantry, cavalry and artillery in Europe itself and a huge income from her home regions – after a couple of turns I was pulling in around 8000 income per turn net despite a comprehensive trade blockade. If anyone can save the world from the fate of British hegemony, association football and the expression ‘eff off’, it is La Grande Nation.


Empire: Total War - The War Begins

LE PLAN: France is likely to fall behind Britain diplomatically early on, since my fleet is made up of a couple of bathtubs floating in the channel with only three one-eyed gunners between them. Unfortunately, the one thing CA didn’t mess up in programming this game was making the AI a vicious little jerk whose sole aim is to kick hard in the unmentionables the human player it judges to be weakest. Naval strength is a major component of that determination. Left to their own devices, Britain’s AI allies (Portugal, Netherlands and Austria) will declare war on me in the first few turns, leading to a three-front war on sea and land and a very, very short LP.


However, I have a cunning plan. Because my position starts uncertain, Peter S (who is a solid strategist) will probably expect me to try for a boom, building a couple of grant continental armies – he’ll never suspect a pre-emptive attack. This isn’t as crazy as it sounds: attacking in turn 1 will force Britain’s scary allies to make a snap decision on whether to join the war at a time when the calculus is more likely to be more favourable to me. This is why my first action in the game is to move my leaky little fleet to attack the nearest British armada, a move which goes swimmingly in the sense that the remains of my navy are now doing the breast-stroke back to Le Havre.


Empire: Total War - We are sinking, we are sinking


A SHAMEFUL DISPLAY! Over the next couple of turns, PS moves his fleets into both of my northern ports, leaving them smoking ruins. However, what we lose on the swings, we gain on the roundabouts. Austria and Hanover – the only land powers in Britain’s coalition – decided that they had better things to do than get in a bust-up with my army and have said ‘Nein’ to this war.


On the home front, while conventional wisdom is to tear down those religious schools as soon as possible and replace them with hotbeds of radical study so as to speed off down the tech tree. I want to see if the additional tax and stability I get from keeping Europe Catholic can outweigh this, so I’m following the Jesuit path for now. It will be interesting to see how this pans out.


DIPLOMACY: Diplomacy? Diplomacy! I’m worried about protecting my American colonies, since I need all my resources for the struggle in Europe. To get around this, I sell a few of my less wealthy colonies to Spain for 1000 / turn over 10 turns. It’s probably not a great deal, but it’s better than trying to extract income from provinces I can’t reliably hold.


Over the next couple of turns, I start my army marching on Amsterdam. My initial plan was to carry out the siege for the full 5 turns, but immediately after deciding to end turn 4, I get a bad case of invader’s regret; now that he’s smashed my fleet, PS probably has an army inbound and, while it’s not going to be as big as France’s, if it catches our force at the walls of Amsterdam, my only army is going to be ground into so much mincemeat. Since I have more artillery than the defenders, I will try an assault next turn, and hope that it it goes badly I’ll have enough of a force intact to hold off a British counterattack until reinforcements get there.


Drawn up before the walls of Amsterdam. Imposing, aren’t they.


Empire: Total War - The French at the gates of Amsterdam 


Onward for France! They charge, they charge…


Empire: Total War - Here Come the French

…and they retreat, as natural to my troops as eating frogs and cruelty to geese.


Empire: Total War - The French Retreat
So, yeah. That went well. At least the army didn’t get totally smashed. To add insult to injury, as my battered soldiers flee in disarray from the walls of Amsterdam, PS has landed a large army under the command of John Churchill, aka 1st Duke of Marlborough, aka the Mindelheim Murderer, who eats Parisian babies with his morning breakfast and cleans his teeth with toothpicks made from the bones of French grenadiers, to besiege Brussels. I try to console myself with the knowlege that it would have been even worse if the army had attacked while I was besieging Amsterdam, but it doesn’t help.


Things are looking bleak for L’Hexagone.


Next up, in Episode II, the Royal Navy goes on the offensive around the world  — but closer to home, events proceed a little differently…

Xenonauts, the fan X-Com remake, draws closer to completion

One indie game project I‘ve followed for a while is Xenonauts, essentially a fan remake of one of my favourite games: X-Com (which I played under its UK title of UFO: Enemy Unknown), the strategy game where you led a secret government organisation against an alien invasion. Many of Xenonauts’ bullet points seemed promising, from a backstory tweaked to explain the familiar X-Com starting position, to the addition of a feature I’d always wanted, allied NPC human soldiers. Still, I was cautious. Would the project simply turn out to be vapourware? Even if it did come to fruition, well, X-Com clones generally haven’t been well received.


Well, today, I saw a developer diary on PC Gamer that highlights the current state of one of the two main game modes, ground combat – and I was impressed. The basic gameplay – moving your soldiers around, taking cover, shooting it out with aliens, using tanks and rocket launchers as support – is in place, although the art assets aren’t all there and the game balance is still a work in progress. I’m not a huge fan of the tile graphics, but the unit sprites themselves look pretty good. And a glance at the Xenonauts website, which I hadn’t visited in some time, indicates that much of the game’s other key component, the world map, is also in a playable state (for example, air combat, base building, and R&D are all present).


The finished product could still fail to work out, but after seeing the latest coverage of Xenonauts, I do have more confidence that it will see the light of day. For fans of the original X-Com, this is one title to keep an eye on as it draws closer to release.


(Link to PC Gamer courtesy of No High Scores)

Total War: Shogun 2 – The Verdict

This entry is part 3 of 10 in the series Total War: Shogun 2

This is the third post in my series on Shogun 2. You can find my early impressions here and my write-up of the game’s diplomacy here.



Total War: Shogun 2 is the latest entry in Creative Assembly’s grand strategy, conquer-all-before-you franchise, and its core strengths are those of the series as a whole. Play Shogun 2 for making you feel a master strategist as you build cities; develop farms and mines; raise armies and march them across a beautifully drawn map of Sengoku Japan. When those armies meet, play Shogun 2 for making you feel a natural general as your samurai flow across the battlefield with an easy click of the mouse. Play Shogun 2 for the tension as you wonder how long your beleaguered men can hold, and for the thrill of triumph as you tilt the balance with one well-timed charge.


But unlike its predecessors, Shogun 2 offers more than that, for this is the game where Creative Assembly applied the lessons learned from earlier missteps. Where previous Total War titles started strong but wore out their welcomes with boring late games, Shogun 2 is about planning and preparing and gathering momentum for a decisive endgame showdown. Where previous Total War titles were aptly named because diplomacy was so dysfunctional, Shogun 2 makes diplomacy not only viable, but a vital part of the preparation for that showdown. Where previous Total War titles were buggy and often crash-prone, Shogun 2 seems much more stable. Where previous Total War titles suffered from risibly inept AI, Shogun 2’s computer opponent appears more capable (though it still sends generals on suicidal cavalry charges, while failing to repair ships). Last but not least, where it was painful to keep track of a growing empire in previous Total War titles, Shogun 2 offers a far more user-friendly and better-documented experience.


In technical terms, then, Shogun 2 is a very good strategy game, one from which other developers could learn, and one that benefits from being built upon the foundations of previous mistakes. It even nails pacing and diplomacy, two elements that strategy games struggle to get right. The question of whether it is a great game is more subjective. As a game, Shogun 2 is so much better implemented than Empire: Total War that it makes me sad for the wasted potential in the latter, but I will still cherish how Empire brought to life a pivotal historical period and the real-world importance of seapower. Shogun 2 sheds no such light for me, but this is more a function of my own interests* rather than being any fault of the game’s. All in all, I would recommend Shogun 2 to any strategy gamer (especially one interested in the Sengoku era!) who would like to see the series’ core mechanics at their most refined.


*  While I am interested in Shogun 2’s subject matter, the Sengoku era in Japan, I am even more interested in Empire: Total War’s scope and subject matter: the Enlightenment, the wars of the eighteenth century and the dawn of the modern world.


You can buy Total War: Shogun 2 from Amazon here.



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



The basis of my review



Length of time spent with Shogun 2: Roughly 29-30 hours’ playtime (adjusted for time spent away from the keyboard).


What I have played: Two short campaigns (one aborted as the Oda, one won as the Shimazu), two historical battles, several custom battles, several “classic mode” multiplayer battles.


What I haven’t played: The avatar conquest multiplayer mode, the multiplayer campaign.

Total War? Only for the undiplomatic: the lessons of Shogun 2

This entry is part 2 of 10 in the series Total War: Shogun 2

Update: You can find my verdict on Shogun 2 here.

Total War: Shogun 2: A diplomatic victory, but not in the way you’d think

I’ve now finished the Total War: Shogun 2 campaign (short length, Hard campaign difficulty and Normal battle difficulty, playing as the Shimazu), and I can update one of my earlier impressions. In my previous post, I mentioned that getting too close to the finish line would trigger “realm divide” – a final showdown, with “almost every single computer player in the game [declaring] war” on the human.  It turns out this is not quite correct: even after realm divide I was able to stay on good terms with several allies both large and small. How did I pull this off?

You see, realm divide’s effect is indirect – it works by lowering the human player’s relationship with the AI  players. This negative modifier is big to begin with, and grows turn after turn after turn (there is a cap, but it’s ridiculously large). When that relationship becomes sufficiently negative, the computer will declare war1.

The trick, then, is to pile on every positive modifier possible. Research techs (such as the tea ceremony) that grant a bonus to diplomacy, and keep your daimyo’s honour high so everyone will be more fond of you. Then bribe your chosen buddies to get the ball rolling. Once they’ll agree to it, wed their daughters (or vice-versa) for another, large positive modifier. Strike an alliance for a further boost to relations. Exchange hostages – in my case, an eight-year-old grandson – for yet another boost. And for good measure, declare war on their current enemies (you’ll fight them anyway once the realm divides) for a final bonus.

The net effect: I never had to take on more than a handful of enemy factions, and the ones I did fight were usually busy with wars on other fronts as well! Good relationships bought me the time to win the game before my allies, too, turned on me.  In other words, diplomacy made the final war manageable before I fired the first shot. That is how it should work in a game like this.

How Shogun 2’s diplomacy stacks up to other games

Seeing diplomacy done properly in Shogun 2 underscores how weak it was in the previous Total War games. Afterwards, I loaded up Empire: Total War – from 2009, just two years ago – to compare the available diplomatic options, and boy, has Shogun 2 come a long way since then. Empire has barely any tools I can use to influence a relationship – I can give gifts, I can return land, and, uh, that’s about it – and the options which are there, in my experience, do not work nearly so well as they do in Shogun 2. Suicidal computer players, ahoy!

Shogun 2 also showed up the weakness in the diplomatic system of another game, one you might not immediately think of: Civilization V. Its predecessor, Civ IV, is much like Shogun 2 in that it provides plenty of ways to butter up a computer player, from trade to missionaries and shared faith to open borders. Civ V is a big step back from that. It offers a bare handful of ways to influence a relationship (I can sign “declarations of friendship”, denounce people I don’t like, and… what else?); those features present are poorly documented; and the computer’s attitude can feel infuriatingly random. This was not helped by a design decision to make diplomacy feel more like interacting with other humans – who are explicitly out to win, who are harder to read, and who are more prone to treachery – and less like the application of a game system. Firaxis undid some of the damage in a patch that allowed you to see some of the factors underlying the computer’s attitude, but the lack of diplomatic tools remains. The overall result, as I wrote around Christmas 2010, is an unpleasant throwback to Civ I, a game that’s 20 years old this year.

In contrast, Shogun 2 does appear to owe something to another game renowned for its diplomacy: Galactic Civilizations II, the 2006 4X game from Stardock. I only played a moderate amount of GalCiv2, but I did observe that like Civ IV and Shogun 2, it offered plenty of tools to influence relationships – including techs that conferred a bonus to diplomacy, an idea that Shogun 2 may well have picked up from here.

What makes Shogun 2’s diplomacy work – lessons for other strategy games

What underpins the successful diplomacy in Shogun 2 is the clear link between investment and payoff. In an RPG, if I spend points on my speech skill, that visibly pays off when I unlock new dialogue options. In Shogun 2, if I spend my money raising an army, that visibly pays off when I take my new recruits and use them to conquer my neighbour. And in Shogun 2, if I spend my money on bribes/gifts to other factions, my in-game time researching the tea ceremony when I could be researching gunpowder, and my real-world time messing around in diplomacy screens, that visibly pays off in a secure border and healthy profits from trade.

In turn, this is the result of both successful design and execution. From a design perspective, Shogun 2 provides players with a whole menu of options, most of which involve a tradeoff of some kind (the “investment” part of the equation), while making it very difficult to take on everyone at once in the endgame, especially in the absence of trade income (the “payoff” part of the equation). And from an execution standpoint, these tools work because the diplomatic AI in Shogun 2 is not – at least, in my experience so far – the spiteful and bloody-minded brute that it is in so many other games. Offer a good enough deal, and it will accept. Treat it well enough, and it will be your staunch ally for years.

The benefits to gameplay are real. Good in-game diplomacy means less whack-a-mole, more choices, more strategy. More intangibly, it contributes to immersion and suspension of disbelief. RPGs have party members and non-violent quest solutions, adventure games and shooters have sidekicks and snappy dialogue, Gondor had Rohan, and strategy games should have proper alliances. If even so martial a game as Shogun 2 can succeed here, then other strategy games should follow suit and offer us the rewards of jaw-jaw.

  1. I believe, but do not know for a fact, that realm divide makes the computer more willing to go to war when the relationship is negative (whereas pre-realm divide, a computer player that hates my guts may be more willing to keep the peace). This is conjecture, though, based on how quickly the computer is willing to attack, post realm-divide, once the relationship becomes low enough.

Let’s Play the Empire: Total War Multiplayer Campaign – Introduction

The Total War series of PC strategy games does not dream small. Players choose a nation – a sweeping empire, ambitious upstart republic, barbarian horde, or anything in between – and set out to conquer all before them. On the games’ strategic map, players move around armies, spies, and generals; form new alliances and break outdated ones; and sink their money into economic development or raising fresh troops. When those armies clash, the game swoops down to put the players in control of a 3D battlefield showing hundreds or thousands of men at a time, charging, fighting, dying, fleeing. Set in periods such as the late classical world (Rome: Total War), Sengoku Japan (Shogun: Total War), and the Middle Ages (Medieval: Total War), the games wear a veneer of history, but ultimately they are not about accurately representing the past. They are about bringing toy-soldier childhood play to thrilling life.


The series’ ambition reached its zenith in Empire: Total War (my writeup here). Set in the 1700s – a century which started with a war over who should become king of Spain, and culminated with the American and French revolutions – Empire propelled the series into the age of gunpowder. And instead of tasking the player with the conquest of Europe or Japan, Empire broadened its scope to the whole world. In Empire, players can fight in three main theatres (Europe, North America, and the Indian subcontinent) and send ships to four lesser ones (the coasts of Brazil, West Africa, and the East Indies, and the straits of Madagascar). British redcoats can square off not just against French regulars in the fields of Flanders, but Iroquois warriors in the Thirteen Colonies, Maratha cavalry in India, or those same French in Quebec. Empire also plunges into naval warfare, allowing players to command their ships in battle and using overseas trade as a carrot to reward players for achieving command of the seas.


Unfortunately, Empire has a particularly noticeable Achilles’ heel. As with many other strategy games, the computer player cannot keep up with a human over the course of the campaign*.


The option to play the campaign in multiplayer alleviates this problem.


And this is what Peter Davies, aka beefeater1980 (edit: later replaced by Shane Murphy, aka Talorc), and I are doing. Each of us manages his respective kingdom and commands his troops and ships on the battlefield. And the way the Empire multiplayer campaign works, each time one human player fights a battle against a computer player, the other player is given the chance to take over for the computer. The result should be a game that’s exciting and epic in equal measure, and so far, it has lived up to our hopes.


The game: Empire: Total War.


The rules: The winner of the game will be determined by Prestige, which as far as we can tell is awarded for researching certain technologies, and building fancy public buildings ranging from infrastructure to palaces. We have set the campaign difficulty to Hard (which gives a boost to the computer players) and the battle difficulty to Normal.


The two sides: Peter Sahui (PS) as Britain (that’s me!). Peter Davies (PD) and later Shane Murphy as France.


Our game begins in 1700; historically, this was the eve of the War of the Spanish Succession. Great Britain** is allied to Portugal, the Netherlands, Austria and Hannover. France is allied to Spain. Britain controls the British Isles, Jamaica, the Bahamas and Prince Rupert’s Land; France controls metropolitan France, the Windward Isles and what, today, is eastern Canada. Each of us also has certain American possessions represented by a computer-controlled ally: the Thirteen Colonies for me, Louisiana for the French. Geography presents several obvious potential flashpoints for the two powers. But while conflict is inevitable, when it will break out, and the form it will take, are not set in stone.


And now, over to France…



* Based on my personal experience playing as the British in single-player.

** In real life, England and Scotland did not come together to form Great Britain until the Act of Union in 1707;  however, the game represents them under the British banner from the start.

Dawn of War Dark Crusade: The promise and peril of pacing

The original Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War came out to rave reviews all the way back in 2004, but I didn’t play it until a few months ago, when I jumped into the Dark Crusade expansion. And I liked it! But it wasn’t perfect. In the process, Dark Crusade showed me how one element of gameplay should work… and how the very same element shouldn’t.


By way of background, most of the levels in the Dark Crusade campaign are just ordinary skirmish-style matches against one or more computer opponents. Here, the AI is more or less playing the same game as the human. A few, in contrast, are “stronghold” battles, which are more in line with traditional RTS campaign levels. The stronghold battles are hand-crafted affairs featuring special victory conditions, scripted events tied to particular locations, and more puzzle-like computer opponents.


Now, based solely on “ordinary skirmish” vs “hand-crafted affair”, you might think that the stronghold battles offer the superior gameplay experience and that the other campaign levels are just filler. But my experience was Dark Crusade was the complete opposite: I had the most fun with some of the skirmish-type battles, while the strongholds left me groaning. Why?


In a word, pacing. By “pacing”, I don’t just mean the game speed, although that is part of it. I mean the structure of a given match, how it unfolds, when it’s most exciting or challenging, and when it’s least.


Played on the right map, against multiple computer opponents, the pacing of the ordinary maps* in Dark Crusade was marvellous. If there were two computer players and only one of me, this forced me to quickly locate my foes, and then either successfully rush one, or keep them both bottled up while I out-teched them. If I took too long, either the superior enemy numbers would overwhelm me or else the second computer player would tech up and roll over me with top-tier units while I was still dealing with the first one. The actual speed of the game was also just right: fast enough to have a sense of urgency, fast enough for the match not to take too long, fast enough so that I could replay a stage if I lost. At the same time, it wasn’t so fast that I found it unmanageable, and in particular, it didn’t require me to split my attention amongst 20 different things (and thus it avoided the fate of Company of Heroes, from the same developer, which ended up as an exercise in frustration for me).


In contrast, I found that the strongholds fell flat for several reasons. The basic structure of the stronghold mission is that you have to fight off an onslaught in the first 30 seconds, when your forces are at their weakest… but after that the enemy attacks die down to a constant, annoying trickle. The computer players in stronghold missions didn’t build bases, they didn’t tech up, they didn’t come at me in increasing force. But (appropriately enough) they were very well-entrenched. And so, after I survived that initial rush, the strongholds degenerated into (1) maxing out my forces while fending off the continuing trickle, then (2) laboriously rolling over the excessively large maps. To put things another way, the challenge in the normal maps was high and stayed that way throughout the entire 30 minutes, or however long it took me to play; the challenge in the stronghold missions started high, plummeted after 30 seconds, and stayed boringly low for the rest of the loooong maps.


All in all, I really liked the Dark Crusade campaign and I walked away from the game thinking, “So that’s what all the fuss was about!” But that was no small thanks to the fact that the campaign has many more ordinary than stronghold missions. The former were tense, exciting, well-paced; the latter too long, too grindy, and an example of the complaints I often hear voiced about RTS campaigns. The combination of the two, I think, makes the Dark Crusade campaign a lesson in the importance of pacing to a strategy game.



* I only played one skirmish and one comp-stomp game of Dark Crusade, but from what I saw, they lived up to the high standard of the ordinary campaign maps.

Pricing AI War and Tidalis: Chris Park of Arcen Games speaks

A few weeks ago, I wrote about the differing pricing strategies that Matrix Games, Shrapnel Games and Paradox Interactive use for their respective catalogues of niche strategy games. Matrix and Shrapnel keep prices high and discounts rare, while Paradox titles are discounted far more frequently and have a lower base price once they’ve been out for a while. But I was also curious about the pricing strategy followed by another company, Arcen Games. AI War, Arcen’s first title, is deep, intricate and indie, but it and its expansions also frequently sell at a discount, and AI War’s base price of US$20 is also much lower than the typical price for AAA retail releases. So I decided to ask Chris Park, the founder of Arcen, about how useful Arcen finds discounting. With his permission, his reply is quoted below:


“Hi Peter,

Good to hear from you. I think that a variety of models can work, as you yourself pointed out, but in the case of Arcen we’re pretty much dependent on the occasional discount sales in order to stay in business.  Not to put too fine a point on it. ;)

In an average month with no discounts, we tend to bring in anywhere from 33% to 90% of our operating costs, which at best means we’re still losing money.  In the months where we do a discount, we tend to bring in between 300% to 550% of our operating costs, which more than makes up for it.  We tend to do discounts every 2-3 months, as you may have noticed, which keeps us usually on a growth track and quite comfortable.  Last summer when we had some financial difficulties, it was partly because our summer discounts had fallen to about 200%, which was not what we needed.

In a broad sense, it’s definitely true that the discount sales help to keep ongoing visibility for our games, but I think that’s only possible when it’s also paired with the free-for-existing-customers updates.  That lets people feel like the game is something current that they are buying (which it is), rather than just a game from 2009 that we are wringing out the last drops of money from.  For us, this has meant that in terms of AI War revenue, our 2010 income was slightly more than 4x our 2009 AI War revenue.  So far, our 2011 revenue for AI War is already about 1.5x our 2009 numbers, so it’s growing even faster now.

A lot of that comes from our expansions, or our ongoing updates, or our ongoing periodic discounts that let us get floods of new players that are excited about the game.  For our company specifically, I don’t think this would work without all three of those factors, honestly.  That puts us… in a really unusual situation as a game developer, anyway.  Normally sales start way higher and then trend off after a month or two, but ours is backwards and spread out over two years so far.”


This made me wonder whether there was any difference between AI War and Arcen’s other title, the casual/puzzle game Tidalis, when it came to the effectiveness of discounting. Surely, going by the Matrix/Shrapnel logic, discounts would be more effective for the “mass market” title than for the deep strategy game? But the answer to my follow-up question came as a surprise:


“My pleasure, and I’m glad the info was useful. Bear in mind that not nearly every indie game developer is in this sort of situation.  We are one of but dozens of successful business models I’ve seen, and I can’t claim that one is really better than another.  Instead, I think it’s a matter of each indie finding what works for their specific titles and their development style.

And that can even vary by title, too.  Case in point: the effectiveness of discounts has indeed been quite lower with Tidalis compared to AI War.  Being casual-on-the-surface and having a price point of $9.99, which people already associate with being low, are I think the two key things that make that not work as well.

Or another way to look at it, I suppose, is that it’s simply not that big a hit with the “Steam crowd” or the other hardcore distribution sites.  So putting it on discount makes a lot less difference there since that audience that is so discount-reactive is less interested in the game to begin with.  The depth is there, but it’s masked by a surface that is off-putting to many hardcore gamers, we found.

I don’t mind if you quote the whole thing, that’s just fine — just bear in mind that I don’t speak for all indies, and a lot of them that I know use business models that are utterly at odds with mine.  Indies are a very non-homogeneous part of the industry in practically every way, heh!”


Now, as Chris points out, Arcen is just one data point, taking my total to four (including the original three of Matrix, Shrapnel and Paradox). But it’s a fascinating data point, and I found it a real eye-opener as to the factors that can influence both the choice and the effectiveness of pricing strategies.


(Incidentally, I own both AI War+its expansions and Tidalis, some of which I bought at a discount and others of which I bought at nearly full price. I haven’t yet played AI War beyond its tutorials, but Tidalis has been love at first sight from what I’ve played so far, and I think it would be a shame for hardcore gamers to overlook it without even a glance. I hope to write more about Arcen’s titles as I play further.)


I hope you enjoyed this post! To quickly find this post, and my other feature articles, click the “features” tab at the top of this page.

New Sins of a Solar Empire expansion: Rebellion – I’m looking forward to the new victory conditions

Stardock has just announced Sins of a Solar Empire: Rebellion, a standalone expansion (quasi-sequel?) to Ironclad’s 2008 space opera RTS. Here are some of the promised features:


“New Factions: Players decide whether to become Loyalists or Rebels, which unlocks a unique new tech tree granting them new technologies and ship variants.


New Titan-class ships:  Massive warships for each race that dwarf capital ships, these deadly new monsters are capable of wiping out entire enemy fleets single-handedly.


New Capital Ships:  A new capital ship class arrives, giving players new strategic options.


New Corvette-class ships:  Small, highly maneuverable light ships that are adept at a variety of tasks…. (Snip)


… New Victory Conditions to allow for more variety, differing strategies and shorter game sessions.”


Of all these, the one that really excites me is “new victory conditions”. New units are well and good, and I’m sure the Titans will be as cool as the developers intend, but a dearth of units was never one of my complaints. On the other hand, I do think Sins could do with more ways to win, and I can think of two possibilities that would be particularly suited to the game*:


1. Territorial victory a la Company of Heroes – hold X key points on the map long enough to win. Since the entire game design is built around territorial control (you derive your income from planets, which are discrete locations on the map connected by jump lanes, and hence choke points also become very important), territorial victory is the logical extension of this.


2. Wonder victory – build a megaproject, or megaprojects, and defend them while a countdown timer ticks down to victory. Such a pure “builder” victory condition would be consistent with Sins’ grand scope – and be a welcome import from the 4X genre into a game whose stated ambition is to be a “RT4X”.


The beauty of both these win conditions is that they add tension to the late game – can I break through player X’s defences and tear down his/her Wonder, or snatch enough victory points, before I lose? This tension (at least, in single-player) is something sorely lacking from the basic “kill ‘em all” victory condition once the player reaches the “tipping point” where victory is inevitable, but still requires long, hard fighting. Sins already took some steps down this path with the diplomatic victory introduced in the Diplomacy expansion, and it would be great to see this continued.


No launch date announced yet that I can find, but I look forward to further details, particularly on the victory conditions. Here’s hoping Sins of a Solar Empire: Rebellion will live up to the promise of its predecessors.

Total War: Shogun 2 – Demo thoughts

The demo for Shogun 2: Total War Total War: Shogun 2 is out, and I’ve spent a little bit of time with it. What do I think? Well, I saw absolutely nothing that would change my expectations for the finished game. The demo consists of the campaign tutorial plus a single battle scenario, Sekigahara, which is really not enough to judge the actual quality of the game. So what are those expectations?


At the design level, I’m reasonably confident that the finished game will be great on paper. The demo reveals that a bunch of the improvements in Empire: Total War (maritime trade posts and the trade route system; the ability to automatically route reinforcements to an army instead of having to manually play deliveryman after every battle; the income-producing structures, such as rice paddies and ports, scattered across the map…) are still present, and that gives me hope for the game’s strategic layer. The series’ main design flaw is the typical strategy game problem of a drawn-out, grindy and ultimately boring late game, but I’ve lived with that before, and it wouldn’t prevent the early game from theoretically being a blast.


My skepticism, rather, concerns execution. The Total War series is infamous for inept AI — just ask anyone who’s seen AI armies happily milling around in front of the player’s archers — and bugs. The most splendid graphics, the finest tactical battle engine, the broadest variety of units are utterly useless if the computer opponent just does not understand how to play, or if the game crashes repeatedly. And this is the kind of problem that will not become apparent until after people have spent days or weeks with the full version of the game, not a highly restricted and scripted demo.


Will I get this game eventually? I’m sure I will — but I’ll give it a year or two to wait for patches, expansion packs or DLC, and mods. By then, I hope, the game will be close to the spectacle promised on paper.

Pricing Niche Strategy Games: Matrix, Shrapnel and Paradox

For some time, I’ve kept my eye on a space-opera 4X game by the name of Distant Worlds, developed by Code Force and published by Matrix Games. This game (based on what I’ve read) could best be described as Master of Orion III done right. As is typical for the genre, Distant Worlds casts you as an aspiring galactic emperor, out to subjugate the galaxy through the efforts of your colonists, scientists, businesspeople, and when all else fails, your soldiers. Less typically, the game expects you to delegate much of your authority to a computer-controlled viceroy, which apparently allows it to aim for an especially epic scale. It apparently even does a good job with little touches such as minor species that can be swept up into the larger empires, and with establishing backstory through in-game events. But for all my interest, I’ve never bought Distant Worlds. Why? Because it usually goes for its full price of $40, on top of which there’s also a $20 expansion pack. And that money would buy me a whole lot of other games or books instead*.


Admittedly, Distant Worlds is a new game; it only came out in March 2010. What about older titles? Here, we can consider Dominions 3, developed by Illwinter and published by Shrapnel Games, which sells for $55 despite being released back in 2006. Now, I love Dominions 3. It’s one of my all-time favourites, and well worth the money I paid for it. But $55 is still a fair bit of money, comparable to the price of a brand-new AAA game.


Whenever I see this topic come up, the standard response is that the Matrices and Shrapnels of this world charge the prices they do because their customers are a small, but price-insensitive, niche. In other words, if I am so hardcore a strategy player that I’ll buy Dominions 3 in the first place, then I’m so hardcore that I’ll pay $55 for it; on the other hand, if I wouldn’t play that kind of game at all, then no discount would help. And this is a reasonable point. While, say, Recettear managed to sell over 100,000 copies with the aid of heavy discounting, (A) Recettear is far more mainstream than Dominions 3, and (B) many of those cut-price sales brought in very little money. (If you’re interested in the maths behind price, units sold and revenue, I have a brief writeup in an appendix at the bottom of this post.)


But a third company, Paradox Interactive, would seem to disprove the “our game will only appeal to a few people, so we need to charge a premium price” approach. Paradox’s games are also very deep, very dense, and very niche, yet Paradox takes a very different approach to pricing and discounting. Paradox’s latest title, Victoria 2 (2010), also currently has an official price of $40 – but one site offers it (in download form) at a temporarily discounted price of $20, and another offers it (as a boxed copy) for a regular price of A$19.50. And Victoria 2 is by no means unique. I regularly see Paradox-published games (both internally and externally developed) go on sale with hefty discounts, often but not always to coincide with the launch of a new game. Paradox’s older games also have much lower base prices (Europa Universalis III Complete goes for $20, though it’s missing the latest two expansion packs.) So the Paradox brass certainly seems to believe that it makes more money this way.


Why might Paradox’s approach be so different from that of Matrix and Shrapnel? I can think of several explanations.


  • One, as I understand it, both Matrix and Shrapnel are primarily wargame publishers, but from what I can tell, wargames are generally also pretty expensive. (I’m not a wargamer, but this is based on my looking at the prices of wargames and hearing periodic complaints on the subject.) Perhaps Matrix and Shrapnel are accustomed to pricing for that market, and just apply the same principles to other strategy games? Perhaps their usual audience is accustomed to paying higher prices even for non-wargames? Perhaps it’s both?


  • Two is the nature of Paradox’s product offering compared to the other two. Shrapnel doesn’t publish that many games in the Dominions series (in addition to 3 itself, there’s just Dominions 2, which seems to be no longer available), and Distant Worlds is its developer’s only game. In contrast, Paradox has plenty of games in its historical series, which complement rather than replace each other, and it constantly releases new titles and expansion packs. So by discounting, say, the Renaissance/Age of Discovery/Enlightenment game Europa Universalis III, Paradox is building brand awareness for its medieval game, its Roman game, its Victorian-era game and its World War 2 game. To some extent, this is supported by my observation that games that Paradox publishes, but doesn’t develop, don’t seem to go on sale as often as Paradox’s own titles. Given that, say, there are only two titles in the externally developed Mount & Blade series (plus a third one in the works) and the first game was made obsolete by the second, and that there’s only one Sword of the Stars game (plus an upcoming sequel), there’s less need to promote these by discounting. (That said, their base prices are also cheap – Sword of the Stars Complete goes for just $20.)


  • The other remaining alternative, of course, is that one business or another is mistaken: either Paradox is leaving money on the table with its lower-priced back catalogue and frequent, large discounts, or Matrix and Shrapnel are losing business with their high prices and infrequent, small discounts.


I have my own suspicions as to the answer: I’ve bought a bunch of cheap or heavily discounted titles from Paradox that I would not have bought for full price, so Paradox has forgone little or no revenue from me. In contrast, as mentioned above, Distant Worlds’ price tag is what has kept me from buying it. And my instinct tells me that pricing games in the belief they’ll only appeal to a tiny niche may end up being a self-fulfilling prophecy. But I’m just one customer; I’m biased (cheap games benefit me!); and most importantly, I don’t have any hard data (for the Matrix/Shrapnel/Paradox end of the gaming spectrum) to verify my guess. So at this stage, I think, the jury is still out.


If anyone reading this is from one of the abovenamed publishers, or has experience with pricing niche video games, please leave a comment! I’d love to hear your thoughts.


* To be fair to Matrix, I just discovered that the game had gone on sale (down to $27) over Christmas 2010.


** If the data’s available, there are plenty more examples of niche games I’d like to hear about. How has, say, Arcen Games done with its frequent sales on AI War?



Appendix: Product pricing, sales revenue, and profit

How much should we charge to maximise profit? (This isn’t the same as maximising revenue, as we’ll see.)


At the revenue line, revenue = price * number of units sold. So I should be indifferent between selling 5 items for $20 each or 2 items for $50 each, a ratio of 2.5:1.


At the profit line, it becomes a little trickier because now I have to deduct the incremental cost of selling each additional unit***: Profit = (Price – Variable Cost) * number of units sold. If each item I sell costs me an incremental $10, now I have to sell 8 copies for $20 each (making a $10 profit on each) to make the same profit as I would from two $50 sales (which would give me a $40 profit on each, for $80 total), a far less favourable ratio of 4:1.


However, when it comes to games distributed in download form, I think it’s reasonable to assume that, other than the retailers’ (Steam, Impulse, etc) fee, there is a minimal cost to sell additional units. (And in any case, my understanding is the retailers’ fee is typically a variable amount – say, 40% of the item’s price – rather than a fixed sum.) So for present purposes, we can probably treat revenue maximisation as the sensible policy to pursue.


*** Strictly speaking, when I talk about “profit” in this section, I’m referring to “contribution margin” – that is, revenue minus variable cost.


I hope you enjoyed this post! To quickly find this post, and my other feature articles, click the “features” tab at the top of this page.

Crusader Kings: Even medieval morality has its limits

The Middle Ages! An era when life was supposed to be “nasty, brutish, and short”. An era associated with war and famine and massacre. A era, supposedly, in which might made right. Not knowing much about medieval history, I can’t comment about whether it was, in fact, that bad in real life. But I can say that, at least in Crusader Kings, even such a hard-bitten period has its limits.


I briefly discussed Crusader Kings a while back – it’s a dynastic grand strategy game where players take the part of a noble family as it conquers territory, marries into titles, and deals with rebellious vassals (or relatives!) over the centuries. In my present game, I started as Robert Guiscard de Hauteville, tough-guy duke of Apulia in southern Italy. In less than 20 years, the de Hautevilles had made themselves the effective hegemons of Italy – they had conquered Sicily and Robert had crowned himself King, while northern Italy’s most powerful ruler, Matilda of Tuscany, had voluntarily sworn fealty to the de Hautevilles. When old age finally took Robert Guiscard to meet his maker, I wasn’t too fazed. His son Roger Borsa, the new King of Sicily, wasn’t the prodigy his old man was (much lower stats in game terms), but neither did he seem utterly hopeless—


Uh oh.


Roger had picked up a rival, none other than his wife, and her loyalty was at rock-bottom. I don’t have a huge amount of experience with the game, but I had read enough horror stories to know just how dangerous it was to have a vassal or a courtier who was a rival and whose loyalty was nil. As a self-respecting medieval monarch, there was one obvious course of action.



And would you believe it, the hit men bungled the job. They tried and failed not once, not twice, but three or four times, sinking the king’s name deeper and deeper into the mud each time. The king ended up excommunicated and loathed by his vassals. Yet the queen still lived.


At last, I hit upon the idea of packing her off to the provinces with a token fiefdom of her own. And it was there that the assassination attempts finally succeeded. The rebellious queen was dead. But what did King Roger’s vassals think of him now?


Uh-oh again. They were furious.


I went to check Roger’s profile to see why. And there I saw he had picked up this unsavoury trait…


“Kinslayer: The Character has been known to kill off relatives that were not in league with their ideals. This is an extremely negative trait, causing family members to avoid them like the Plague.”


And not just family members. At this rate, all of de Hauteville senior’s accomplishments would be undone in a few months by a tide of angry vassals. I reached for the button to abandon my game and reload, and with that the soap opera on the banks of the Mediterranean came to an end. But not before I had a good laugh at a game that had turned into a farce worthy of Blackadder.

Now that’s original: Gettysburg Armoured Warfare, a steampunk Civil War game

So just days after I complained about a glut of high fantasy and space opera games, and a corresponding lack of other settings such as steampunk, what should make its way through the blogosphere but this: Gettysburg Armoured Warfare.


The name pretty much says it all: this game, newly unveiled at the Paradox Convention 2011, is kind of like Harry Turtledove’s The Guns of the South on steroids. Currently under development, it’s a free-to-play, steampunk American Civil War MMO RTS/shooter, where time travellers have armed the Confederates and the Union with tanks and airships. There’s a more in-depth preview here; this blog post at Malaysian Gamer allows you to see both preview videos on a single page; and Ep 101 of the Flash of Steel podcast discusses it at 29:40.


What do I think? Steampunk American Civil War has been done (e.g. Cherie Priest’s novel Dreadnought, which I have not read), but, as far as I know, it’s wholly new to gaming. And combined with time travel and the game’s fusion of genres, the premise is so original, so cool in a bonkers way, that I want to see how it turns out. Pity it’s an MMO, because I’m a primarily offline gamer…


Gettysburg: Armored Warfare is due out later this year, in the northern summer.


(Credit for the original link – Tom Chick at Quarter to Three)

The appeal of common sense: Intuitive gameplay

I’ve played video games for 21 years. Adventure, rhythm, role-playing, platformer, first-person shooter, and of course strategy – I’ve played virtually every genre, with the notable exception of sports games, at one time or another. But for all that, there is one slight problem.


I’m not actually that great at playing games.


Oh, for platformers and shooters and whatnot*, I have a ready-made excuse: I have poor reflexes and hand-eye coordination. But even when it comes to RPGs and strategy games, if I’m playing single-player, my skill level plateaus out at “pretty good”. I’m not terrible: I’ve won Civilization V on the second-highest difficulty, Immortal (which, according to the Steam achievements page, only 1% of players have done) and I’ve won on the third-highest difficulty, Emperor, with just one city. But you won’t see me recording speedruns, or going for the really extreme self-imposed challenges, such as beating games without using special abilities or researching better weapons. Why?


The surface explanation is very simple. As with anything else in life, learning how to play video games very well takes a lot of work — and for me, that defeats the whole point of playing games.  But that can’t be the whole story, because plenty of gamers do take the effort to reach that level of skill, whether it’s by practicing aiming and movement in a shooter or by poring over the equations that govern a strategy game.  So again, I have to ask, why?


The answer is that, even when it comes to strategy, I don’t treat games as systems to be mastered; I treat them as stories to be acted out through my decisions.  Instead of, say, examining the rules in minute detail, or whipping out a spreadsheet to optimise a character build, I will just opt for choices that seem both cool and intuitively reasonable. Anecdotally, I’m not alone in this, judging by the number of other people who also like to play as “builders” in the Civilization series (which, to my knowledge, has historically rewarded rushing on higher difficulty levels).  And once I realized this, several game design choices fell into place for me.


Consider the use of shooter mechanics in RPGs such as Mass Effect and Fallout 3. Which is more intuitive: using elaborate D&D rules, as in the case of Neverwinter Nights, or “hide behind cover, aim gun at target, fire gun”? Seen in this light, Bioware’s choice to make Mass Effect 2 (which I haven’t played but which I have read about) an action-RPG, streamlining away traditional RPG elements in the process,  makes sense as a way to take the game further down the “intuitive” path.


Meanwhile, in the strategy space, the Total War games are the poster child of intuitive game design. The visually splendid way they present combat, with lovingly detailed armies of 3D soldiers marching and swinging their swords, isn’t just a way to bamboozle players into not noticing bad AI – it allows us to play using common sense. When I can see a line of heavily armoured knights galloping toward a clump of men on foot with their backs turned, I don’t have to look up a rulebook to predict what’ll happen next. And I think that is a major part of the series’ appeal.


Intuitive gameplay is harder to deliver in some settings than in others. The classic example is science fiction: in Civilization, it’s not hard to guess what inventing the wheel, or the concept of chivalry, or gunpowder, will give me. In a science fiction game, on the other hand, how would I instinctively know what “moleculartronics” is good for? As a result, I think science fiction games can’t afford to leave details under the hood: one of my complaints with Sword of the Stars, the space opera 4X game from Kerberos,  was how uninformative the game was. Determining how exactly a cruiser equipped with “meson cannons” would fare against one with a “particle beam” was the exact opposite of my earlier example of the knights and infantry.


Does intuitive gameplay mean there’s no element of skill? Of course it doesn’t. Returning to Total War as an example, there’s still skill involved in planning a campaign, deploying and manoeuvring troops, timing a charge, and so on. But it does mean that, again, a player can generally rely on common sense and “generalist” skills, such as the ability to assess the situation on a map and then choose the appropriate terrain to make a stand, rather than on deeply game/ruleset-specific skills.


As a game design goal, then, “intuitive” gameplay is a worthy one. It makes learning curves less intimidating, and it helps gamers like me have fun: we can play to win at the same time that we create stories from our gameplay experiences. After all, “I swung my knights around and rolled up his line!”  is a much more exciting tale than, “I applied a +2 modifier to my knights, then multiplied it by 1.5x, at the same time he was suffering from a 15% penalty!” It’s not for everyone or for every genre, but it’s still something that belongs in a designer’s toolkit. And it helps explain the appeal of many games, such as Total War, that can’t just be explained away by “ooh, look at the pretty graphics”.


Returning to the original question of my skill: am I any better at intuitive games than I am at their fiddlier, crunchier brethren? Probably not, but at least I can pretend I am…


* These are the genres at the “Action” spectrum of the Escapist magazine’s genre wheel, which I discussed a while back.

The Stompers of Comps #1: Sins of a Solar Empire 2v2 AAR, with Josh

I’m pleased to present this blog’s first cooperative after-action report (AAR)/Let’s Play (LP)! For today’s post, The Stompers of Comps #1, we played one of my preferred timekillers, a polished and, I’m glad to say, profitable space-opera RTS from a small developer that punched well above its weight.


The game: Sins of a Solar Empire, with the Diplomacy expansion.


The rules: Two human players versus two Hard AI players. Locked teams. Diplomatic victory DISABLED.


The teammate: Josh.


Continue reading “The Stompers of Comps #1: Sins of a Solar Empire 2v2 AAR, with Josh”

Puzzle or strategy? Byzantium in Europa Universalis III

Note: Europa Universalis IV is now out! You can find my EU4 coverage here.


This is part 1 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.


One of the supposed sins of strategy game design is making a game, or a level, that feels like a puzzle. In this situation, players don’t win because they were creative, or because they were skilful and flexible planners; they won because they precisely followed the One Right Sequence Of Events. Now, while I intellectually knew what this meant, I didn’t quite grasp why it was a problem. Couldn’t you still have fun playing that one right way?


Then I tried my hand at playing the Byzantine Empire in Europa Universalis III (with the Heir to the Throne expansion). EU3 opens in 1399, and as the following screenshot illustrates, by this point the Byzantines are a pitiful shadow of the glory that was Rome:



In 1399, Byzantium (purple) is a two-province rump, comprising Constantinople and the southern tip of Greece. What was once its empire is now held by various one-province statelets such as Achaea and the Knights of Rhodes; the Venetians (teal)… and the Ottoman Empire (green). In real life, the Ottomans would finally destroy the Byzantines in a little over fifty years’ time. Could I do any better?

The answer, it turned out, was yes. This is my Byzantine empire about a century later, in the 1490s:



The one-province minors are gone, absorbed into the Byzantine fold. The Ottomans are no more. Venice has been reduced to a Byzantine vassal state. And the Byzantine writ now even extends to southern Italy. How did I, a player of mediocre skill, pull this off?

The answer is, by following the One Right Way To Play Byzantium (per EU3’s official forum). As the game begins, the Ottoman Empire might be much larger than the Byzantine, but it has a distraction on its eastern border: the fearsome Tamerlane (whose Timurids are dark red in the first screenshot). This gives Byzantium a couple of years’ grace to build up its forces, possibly mop up some of the one-province statelets, and then hit the Ottomans during that narrow window of opportunity. Everything hinges on the success of that first Ottoman war, which in turn depends on two conditions:

  1. Has the Ottoman army been withdrawn from Europe to fight the Timurids, in which case Byzantium will face minimal opposition on land?
  2. Is the Byzantine navy strong enough to prevent the Ottomans from re-crossing into Europe?

The outcome of the war then becomes binary. If the answer to both questions is YES, then the Byzantines can reclaim the western half of their empire at a stroke. Otherwise, the Ottomans will wipe Byzantium from the face of the earth. And there is no margin for error.

Oh, there is a little leeway as to the details: as the link to the forum thread shows, the Byzantine player does have the choice as to whether to mop up a few of the little principalities and maybe the Venetians, before going after the Ottomans. And to pay for all the troops and ships it’ll need, Byzantium can either run a mildly inflationary monetary policy, or go for fully-fledged Mugabenomics*.

But strategy games, by definition, are about making tough choices, and there’s no choice as to that do-or-die Ottoman war. If the Byzantines miss their opportunity, then the Ottomans will raise a new army in Europe (or bring their troops back across from Asia) and declare war first – as I found out the hard way.  And if the Byzantines don’t have a bigger army in Europe and enough ships to bottle up the Ottoman fleet, they’ll be in for a very short game. If the Byzantines win, on the other hand, the rest of the game is downhill: they can use the manpower and revenue base of Europe to reconquer the eastern part of the empire, and keep snowballing from there.

Oh, I had a lot of fun rebuilding the Byzantine Empire, and it might be interesting to see just how far I can push my success – should I revive Justinian’s dream of a reunited Roman empire? But before I arrived at that fun, I had to reload at least four or five times to perfect my technique. And I think that, in a nutshell, explains why puzzles and strategy don’t mix.



* Given that the game takes place in the days before paper fiat money, I assume the option to “mint” money, at the cost of inflation, represents debasing the currency by using less and less precious metal in coins. Please feel free to correct me if I’m wrong!


Update: for an interesting discussion of strategy games and puzzle-like gameplay in general, I refer you to these posts by Troy Goodfellow.

2010 is so 1991: thoughts on Civilization V

This entry is part 2 of 4 in the series Civilization V

I’ve played Civilization V for 32 hours, according to Steam, and I’ve won my first King (hard)-level game. And with that, I think I’m ready to formulate my opinion: I like Civ V, but I don’t love it.

I would be the first to admit that I have not seen everything Civ V has to offer. I’ve only played as a bare handful of civilisations. I haven’t even touched the highest difficulty levels.  I haven’t had a proper dust-up with modern-day units yet. I have yet to achieve a cultural or space race victory. And I haven’t played the conqueror – my one domination victory, in my first practice game, came about as a result of the AI attacking a city-state in my sphere of influence (described here). But I have seen enough to evaluate how well the game caters to my preferred playstyle, as a peaceful builder who guides small, compact empires to prosperity. And from that perspective, Civilization V (2010) reminds me a bit of an updated version of the very first Civilization (1991).

Don’t take this too literally. There are many ways in which Civ V resembles IV more so than I: the effort put into discouraging players from over-expansion (via maintenance in IV, via happiness in V); the presence of culture, and national borders; different civilisations having different special abilities; levelling up military units, etc.  And there are features unique to V, such as the nifty city-states; and the use of Social Policies that are locked in at purchase, versus civics/forms of government that can be changed at any time.

But in several ways, Civ V feels like a throwback to I. One obvious similarity is the absence of a “religion” mechanic from both games: instead, it’s abstracted out to temples/cathedrals in I, and temples and Social Policies in V. Another is the diplomacy system. Civ IV gave me an easy-to-see list of all the other players in the game, together with what they thought of me and why: perhaps “-2: our close borders spark tension”, but on the other hand, “+3: our trade relations have been fair and forthright”. In Civ V? Even after the patch, I only see a bare handful of modifiers, with no numbers that would allow me to quantify their effect. And there are far fewer levers I can pull to influence my fellow leaders. “‘Til death do us part” declarations of friendship and denunciations are no substitute for the tapestry of relationships (trade, open borders, religion, common enemies, vassalisation at gunpoint, outright bribery…) in Civ IV. No, diplomacy is one aspect of Civ V that’s ripe for an expansion pack.

The other is the “one unit per hex” rule, and this I actually like. “Peter,” I can hear you point out, “‘one unit per hex’ is new to Civ V! What are you talking about?” Well, yes, it is – as a formal limit. But in practical terms, the effect is to abolish the stack of doom – and the stack of doom itself never existed in the early Civ games. Remember what happened in Civs I and II, if you stacked more than one unit in a tile (other than a city or a fortress) and they were attacked? If one defender died, they all died. So at most, you might stack artillery with something that could defend it. But that was it. You would not march around with invincible stacks of doom. So in this regard, Civ V is actually returning to the roots of the series. And it’s a welcome change: combined with the general overhaul of combat mechanics,  it allows tactics to move beyond “grab a bunch of troops and fling them at the enemy.”

Then there are other things. Cash – or, rather, gold – is king in Civ V. I can use it in diplomacy. I can use it to bribe city-states. And in particular, I can use it to rush-buy buildings and military units from day one. This is another welcome throwback to Civ I. In contrast, Civ IV only let you use gold to hurry production in the late game, and then only if you used a certain civic. The net effect was to marginalise the importance of gold in Civ IV  – sure, you didn’t want to be broke, but it was more of a “negative” constraint than a “positive” tool. Now, in Civ V, I constantly have hard choices about what to do with my gold stash. Do I use it to buy this building over here, which will allow me to speed up research/production/expansion? Or do I use it for my foreign policy, which could bring in food and culture from allied city-states? This is an interesting decision, the crux of a good strategy game. It’s another blast from the past that I’m happy to see.

But in the end, the magic of “just one more turn” is losing its hold on me, and my backlog beckons ever more invitingly. Perhaps it’s Civilization V’s fault. Perhaps it’s my fault: am I growing jaded to the series? For all the things that V did right – production values, city-states, gold, one-unit-per-hex combat, naval warfare – I still miss IV’s diplomacy and religion. At the end of the day, I get the impression that Civ V represents an experimental “bridge” beyond IV, and that it’ll take a future Civ VI to build on the concepts and changes introduced by V. I’m sure I’ll keep playing V over the coming days and weeks and months, and that any expansion packs will rekindle my interest in the game. Civ V gave me my fair share of “that’s cool” moments, and I do feel that I got my money’s worth from it. But for now, I think I can pronounce it good rather than great.

And on that note, I’d like to thank you all, the readers of Matchsticks for my Eyes, for your support! I hope you all enjoy a Merry Christmas, a fantastic holiday and a Happy New Year.

Designing victory conditions: lessons from Company of Heroes, Rise of Nations and Sins of a Solar Empire: Diplomacy

I’ve talked about how a strategy game should ideally build to a dramatic climax, a point also made by the most recent episode of Flash of Steel. I gave several examples: Civilization, Emperor of the Fading Suns, and (going by what I’d read) Rome: Total War. The first two are turn-based strategy games, and the third uses its turn-based strategic layer to determine if you’ve won the game.

But lately, it struck me that three of the real-time strategy games I played this year, Sins of a Solar Empire with the Diplomacy expansion, Company of Heroes, and Rise of Nations, are also great examples. Other than being in the same genre, these games seemingly have little in common. But each provided a victory condition that tried to keep the late-game competitive and tense, while mitigating the usual cause of bad endgames. And each was a richer game because of it.

Start with the common problem with strategy endgames. If the only way to win is to wipe out everyone not on your team, what happens when one player pulls ahead just far enough to make the game a foregone conclusion, but not far enough to end it with a single shattering blow? The answer is, the late game turns into a long, slogging mop-up campaign, drawn out and all too often, deadly dull. All too often, this is exacerbated by micromanagement, the other bane of strategy endgames. True, you don’t always have to literally annihilate your foes to the last man. Sometimes, as in as Sins of a Solar Empire, computer opponents will capitulate when they’re almost dead. Or you may be able to win by conquering most of the world (e.g. the domination victory in Civilization IV). But getting to that “almost” can still be all too grindy.

Yet the RTS genre has already overcome these problems. My favourite example is Company of Heroes, Relic’s WW2 RTS. CoH matches default to “Victory Point Control” mode, where both sides start with a certain score (which you can select at the start of the match – higher starting scores equal longer games). And there will be an odd number of key objectives called victory points scattered around the map.  When one side has secured the majority of the VPs on the map – and because of the odd number, this will always be the case once all the VPs have been claimed – then the other side’s score will go down. Whoever’s score hits zero first is the loser.

Now, CoH’s system might not be new (objective locations have been a feature of board games and wargames for a very, very long time), but it works on so many levels. It’s thematically consistent: CoH is a game about playing WW2 commander, and the VP system forces players to get out and tussle over the key locations of the battlefield – presumably, just as real military officers would. It’s consistent with the rest of the game design, controlling key points on the map in order to win the game is the logical extension of controlling key points to get more bullets, manpower and fuel. And it automatically rules out the possibility of a grind, a slog, or a stalemate: whoever has fewer VPs, and therefore is haemorrhaging score, will lose the game unless he or she does something, fast! The Germans are dug in with machine guns and artillery near the VP? Your vanishing score says, “Tough.” It’s a nice, simple, elegant way of deciding the match, and it imposes urgency and excitement upon the late game. It’s a feature I love, and a feature I wish more games would emulate.

Other games in the genre provide “builder” victory conditions that allow players to win by diverting enough resources into their civilian economies. For example, while I haven’t played as much as I’d like of Rise of Nations, the historically-themed RTS from Big Huge Games, I have observed its Wonder victory condition. (RoN, in turn, took this concept from the Age of Empires series.) Building Wonders of the World, from the Terracotta Army to Versailles and the Space Program, is a vast undertaking. They take a lot of time, they take a lot of money, and they require you to divert your workforce from other ends. But building a Wonder then gives you, in addition to various other bonuses, Wonder points – and amassing a sufficient lead in Wonder points will trigger a countdown to victory. If the other players haven’t eroded that lead by the end of the countdown, either by tearing down your Wonders or by building Wonders of their own, then you win.

Not quite the same, but along similar lines, is Sins of a Solar Empire: Diplomacy (the last expansion to Ironclad Games’ space opera RTS), which awards a diplomatic victory to the first player to rack up a certain number of “diplomacy points”. To accumulate diplomacy points, you have to boost relations with the other players in the game, by (A) fulfilling their missions and (B) building and deploying envoy ships to their territory. Either way, you must juggle your normal priorities with the demands of diplomacy. Do I divert my fleet to hare off on a mission? Do I use my precious resources to build envoy ships instead of frigates and cruisers and if so, how many? And do I use those resources to research bonuses for my envoy ships, instead of better weapons? (Admittedly, this has its own issues: as I discovered here, high-level computer players get such massive bonuses that turning on the diplomatic victory under those conditions can be a recipe for frustration.)

Now, out of these victory conditions, my favourite is Company of Heroes’ simple territorial control model. But the “builder” victory conditions in Rise of Nations and Sins of a Solar Empire: Diplomacy also have their merits: they allow for different playstyles, and they force players to make hard choices about when, and whether, to pursue those forms of victory. And ultimately, the victory conditions give two key advantages to each of these three titles. They avoid drawn-out “kill ‘em all” games, and they provide tension in the form of a race: a race to capture and hold the map’s VPs, a race to build and defend enough wonders, a race to complete enough missions and send out enough envoy ships. They are lessons relevant throughout the strategy game genre.

I hope you enjoyed this post! To quickly find this post, and my other feature articles, click the “features” tab at the top of this page.

Distant lands, national interests, and cold steel: impressions of Civ V’s city-states

This entry is part 1 of 4 in the series Civilization V

I’ve now won two practice games of Civilization V, and while it’s still early days for me, so far the new city-states system (which I blogged about back before the game came out) has already given me some “wow, this is cool” moments. And in the process, the game gave me some food for thought, especially in light of the news stories of 2010.

My first game was a simple two-player affair, myself as the Siamese against AI-controlled Askia, the ruler of Songhai. We started on the same continent, and the mountain range dividing our two holdings was impassable except in two locations. I quickly secured one and packed it with soldiers. The other was held by a city-state, whose loyalty I bought with showers of gold. And while I was at it, I paid off every other city-state in the game. One fine day, Askia thought it would be a good idea to attack my strategically situated ally, and to cap things off, went on to goad me: “I just declared war on your little friend – what are you going to do about it?”

I declared war, of course. There was no way I could let an ally in such a vital location be conquered. And in a touch that impressed me, all my other city-state allies followed me to war in a “coalition of the willing”.

In the second game I won, the city-states initially didn’t play so dramatic a role. For most of the game, my city-state allies kept me well supplied with food and culture: crucial to my nation’s prosperity, yes, but individually not life-and-death stuff. But then the modern day rolled around, and along with it the need for oil and aluminium. Oil in case I needed to build up a war machine; aluminium not just for my military, but also so I could build hydro plants and spaceship factories. I had neither in my territory. But luckily, two of my city-state allies did. And so concerned was I to protect my supply that I placed defensive forces in their territories and invested in a modern, oceangoing navy that could, if needed, sail to their aid. Nobody attacked them in this game, but I know what I would have done if war broke out.

And therein lies the beauty of the city-states concept. With one simple, abstract game mechanic, Firaxis has captured a little bit of the feel of great-power diplomacy and geopolitics. Civilization V made me build and deploy expeditionary forces not for simple territorial aggrandisement – as I would have in the previous games – but so I could protect my national interests overseas. And it made me willing to treat any attack on flyspeck countries halfway around the world as an act of war directed against myself. It’s one thing to intellectually consider why real-life world leaders make the decisions they do; it’s another to understand at a gut level. And for a few hours this month, Civilization V put me into their shoes.

The joy of playing with other people in Worms Reloaded

While I have been in no great hurry to play single-player Worms Reloaded, the recently-released (August) entry in Team 17’s long-running series,  multiplayer is a different story. Anyone living with me should be able to tell when I’m playing multiplayer Worms, simply by listening to how much delighted laughter rings out from the room. Of course, any game is better in multiplayer (for example, adding other humans turns diplomacy into a key element of the gameplay experience – and Worms is no exception), but there are a couple of factors in particular which stand out for Worms.


First is the slapstick tone of the action in a multiplayer game, as  each player’s worms open up on their foes with bazookas, grenades, and more exotic weapons such as Holy Hand Grenades and flying explosive sheep. Half the fun is when worms blow themselves up with explosive weapons, or conversely pull off utterly implausible shots across the length of the map. Here I think the turn-based nature of the game helps, because it builds up tension – oh no, what could that guy be up to on his turn? He’s lining up a shot… Can he hit? Will he hit? Will he hii— The length of each turn is just right (a minute, give or take). The bloodless but grotesquely exaggerated, Looney Tunes-esque violence is just right: explosive-but-inaccurate weapons have far more potential for comic misuse than precise ones. The colour palette is vivid and cheery (see this screenshot on Giant Bomb). But the humour is conditioned on knowing that there is an actual human being behind every one of those moves. Against the computer player, the tension might still be there, but the game now becomes a straightforward man-against-machine test of skill. Bad AI is when a computer-controlled worm blows itself up; laughter is when another human player’s worm blows itself up.


Second is the way in which multiplayer Worms Reloaded allows players to showcase their imaginations. Players can customise the worms on their team in a variety of ways: names, hats, tombstones, voices. So in a multiplayer match, one of my little pleasures is seeing the theme that everyone has come up with. My worms are named Julius, Brutus, Scipio, and SPQR; wear Hollywood Roman helmets; and proclaim things such as, “Am I not merciful?” (when they miss a shot), “I would rather be first in a village than second in the empire!”, and, when I dawdle too long in taking my turn, “You procrastinate like the Senate!” I’ve seen teams of worms modelled on robots, varieties of cheese, even German generals, with voices to match. And I am eager to see what players could do with some of the other Worms voice sets, such as the cod-Shakespearian (“A donkey, a donkey, my kingdom for a donkey!”).


Now, neither factor is unique to Worms. There are other over-the-top, goofy games out there – that said, while I am sure ones oriented towards multiplayer exist, offhand I can’t think of any. And there are other games that allow players to show off their creativity – I’m thinking of the ability to share families and lots in The Sims 3, plus character customisation in MMOGs.  But combining those two features into something approximating the simple joy of childhood play, plus good nuts-and-bolts gameplay (beyond the scope of this article, but check out the reviews for more details), worked very well for Team 17.


Hmm, maybe I should set aside some time this weekend for some multiplayer Worms…

Victoria 2: Now THAT’s detail

Victoria 2, Paradox’s historical simulation of the nineteenth-century world, is a game to which I have to take off my hat. Now, I have not played the full game — just the first game in the series and the demo of Vicky 2. I didn’t even have that much fun with the demo! But even from the demo, its ambition and detail were amazing to behold. The game models pension costs, migration driven by employment opportunities, the whole spectrum of political and religious beliefs across an entire nation, the gradual process by which government can subsidise, educate, and nurture a workforce. Raising an army is not done overnight, but requires that you spend months or years encouraging your young men to join the army through better military funding. Most strikingly, this is a game which actually tracks the flow of money through the world economy, starting from the moment gold is dug out of the ground and proceeding via the profits earned by the mine-owners and the wages paid to the miners.

Does this actually make for a good game? I don’t know, and neither do the critics. But it was enough to sorely tempt me when I saw the game being offered for 30% off at Impulse.

Storytelling in Dominions 3 – now up at Flash of Steel!

My Storytelling in Dominions 3 post, part of my Storytelling in Games feature series, is now up at Flash of Steel! Check out my guest post to see how Dominions 3, from Illwinter and Shrapnel Games, illustrates the techniques a strategy game can use to tell an effective story and bring across the feel of an epic, high-magic fantasy novel, all without dialogue or cut-scenes.


Meanwhile, if you came here via Flash of Steel: welcome, and I hope you liked my guest post! You can navigate this site in chronological order, but if you’d like to see what I have to say on a specific topic, you can click the relevant category on the right-hand side of the page. You can also click the “reviews” and “features” tabs at the top of this page to see. I plan to keep writing “Storytelling in Games” features over time, so check back at this blog from time to time, or subscribe to email updates at the right-hand side of this page.


Whichever category you’re in, I hope you have fun!

Conquest, Plunder and Tyranny: Explaining Dubious Morality in Strategy Games

Why do we play strategy games in ways that, in real life, would land us in the dock for crimes against humanity?


Three Moves Ahead, Troy Goodfellow’s strategy game podcast, recently discussed the ethics of wargames, but to me, wargames have a largely innocuous focus on how to manoeuvre troops within an already-existing war. However, the question remains for the broader strategy game genre – in particular, 4X games in which you decide whether and why to go to war, and how to govern your nation: Civilization, Alpha Centauri, Master of Orion, Master of Magic, Galactic Civilizations, Space Empires, etc. Indeed, the very name of the sub-genre makes it clear that there’s an issue: “4X” is short for “eXplore, eXpand, eXploit and eXterminate”.


There is, of course, the historical/human nature explanation. I do not think any empire through history – regardless of religion, skin colour, or geographic origin – ever arose except through conquest. Why should a game that casts you as an emperor be any different? When I send out my Roman legions in Civilization to claim the land of the fellow unlucky enough to start the game next to me, I’m just doing what Caesar and his countrymen did in real life. This explains why brutality makes thematic sense, but we have to look at other factors to explain why it pays off and why it doesn’t repel players in the first place. I can think of three such reasons: the zoomed-out, distant scale of most strategy (including 4X) games; the zero-sum nature of most games; and the economic model used by most 4X games.


Firstly, as mentioned in the Three Moves Ahead podcast: at the scale at which 4X games (and probably most other strategy games) take place, you never come face to face with your victims. Nowhere is the saying that “one death is a tragedy, but a million are a statistic” truer than in gaming. Any RPG worth its salt will drive home the consequences of your evil actions, whether they be acts of mass murder such as detonating a nuclear bomb or planting a biological weapon, or “merely” kidnapping a baby. But in Civilization, an atrocity really is just a statistic. In Civilization IV, there’s a civic (social system) named “Slavery” which allows you to speed up a city’s construction by sacrificing population. You can probably imagine what this means in human terms: overseers flogging slaves bloody, monuments rising in the background as exhausted and half-starved labourers breathe their last. In game terms? Your city’s population goes down by a few points. The same goes for wars of aggression and dispossession.


Conversely, the squad-level strategy games (X-Com) and tactical RPGs (Valkyria Chronicles, Final Fantasy Tactics) do not have this problem, at least when it comes to your own soldiers. In these games, instead of a vast empire, you only control a few, very distinct characters at one time. As a result, you grow attached to your soldiers. You’ll move heaven and earth to rescue an injured member of your squad, sometimes even at the expense of your objectives (as memorably described here by Rob Zacny). If all else fails, there is always the “reload” button, and I assure you I’m not the only one who abuses that. Feeling bad for leading my soldiers to their deaths in TRPGs resembles agonising over moral choices in RPGs, but is far removed from gleeful conquest sprees in 4X games. And that is a direct consequence of the scale of each of these genres.


Secondly, strategy games (and 4X games) are usually zero-sum. The game runs for a finite time before coming to an end, and ultimately there can be only one winning player or team. If my rival in Civilization IV is close to winning the space race, and thus, the game, it is in my interest to unleash a barrage of nuclear missiles to slow down his/her progress. The folly of this approach in real life is obvious. But in Civilization, I don’t care how much suffering I cause so long as I meet my victory conditions, because then the game will be over. This also applies to domestic policy. Because strategy games, unlike real life, are not open-ended, the well-being of my citizens is irrelevant except insofar as I enjoy playing a benevolent ruler, or to the extent that it contributes to my win.


Thirdly, crime, in this context, does pay. The size of a national economy in real life is determined by factors including the amount of labour employed (how many people have jobs and how many hours are they working?), the amount of capital employed (what tools, plant and infrastructure are they using?), and, crucially, the productivity of each hour worked and of each dollar of capital (one person with modern machinery can probably do the work of 100 Bronze Age labourers; bridges to nowhere might cost a lot, but they don’t contribute much to productivity). Games, though, tend to make raw population the most important metric, and they tie the population an empire can support to how much territory it controls. This has many consequences for the way in which they model reality, some of which I’ll discuss in future posts. But for current purposes, the key implication is that if a larger nation is richer, more successful, and ultimately more likely to win the game, then I have an incentive to gobble up as many neighbours as I can in a quest for Lebensraum (subject to any checks and balances in the game, such as badboy/infamy in Europa Universalis or corruption/upkeep in Civilization).


In conclusion, several things explain why we so often resort to conquest, aggression, slavery, and tyranny in strategy (especially 4X) games. Saying “it’s just a game” is no answer, because it fails to explain why we play other genres that offer moral choice, such as RPGs, more humanely than we play strategy games. And just because these things happened in real life, and they are presented as options in the game, doesn’t itself explain why we then choose those options. But we can point to other factors that do answer that question: we choose them when our victims are depersonalised and reduced to numbers on a map screen; when the game has a definite end, so we don’t have to worry about ongoing or long-term consequences so long as we win; and when aggression does, in fact, make it easier to win because the game’s economic model places territory and population foremost in determining national power.


Do these factors set our behaviour in stone, then? Not necessarily. Each can be addressed by other genres, and even by merely changing the way we design grand strategy and 4X games. Depersonalisation is not an issue with squad-level strategy and tactical RPGs, and even when the game takes place at a scale where we never encounter individuals, developers can try to make us aware of the toll of our actions – that is my limited understanding of Introversion Software’s DEFCON. The players don’t care about anything except victory? I would think that ongoing games, such as MMOs, would require a more long-term attitude – and even though most games can’t be ongoing, why not set up a scoring system to give bonus points to happy, well-managed empires (Civilization actually does this), or to players who refrain from wars of aggression? Your economic model encourages territorial expansionism? Play up the role of technology, institutions, governance and human capital to reward players who invest in nation-building as opposed to nation-grabbing. For the player of a strategy game (particularly a 4X game), power often corrupts. But by understanding why, we can design games so as to reduce that temptation, provide players with more interesting choices – and encourage them to build empires that deserve to stand the test of time.



To quickly find this post, and my other feature articles, click the “features” tab at the top of this page.