Stars in Shadow interview, with Sven Olsen and Jim “Arioch” Francis

This entry is part 2 of 2 in the series Stars in Shadow

I am very pleased to present an email interview with Jim “Arioch” Francis and Sven Olsen. Sven and Arioch are the creators of Stars in Shadow — a clever, elegant indie space 4X game. Read on to learn about their design philosophy, what makes good AI, a final tip about the game’s difficulty, and much more.

I’d like to begin by asking you about the origins of Stars in Shadow. What was the genesis of the project, and how long did you work on it?

Arioch: Sven first contacted me around 2008 about doing some concepts for a space game that he had in mind. Over the course of several years, the project continued and became gradually more and more serious. As a former programmer myself, I was dubious about the ability of a single programmer to tackle a project of this scope, but Sven proved my concerns wrong. The project progressed to a point where we got a Steam greenlight, and a publisher showed interest, and we released the game in 2017.

Sven: I played a lot of moo2 back in the 90’s and early 2000’s, and I always knew there were things I really liked about that gameplay experience, but also big areas I thought could be improved.  I also started reading Arioch’s Outsider comic around the start of its run in 2002.  As a fan of the comic, I quickly concluded that Arioch’s art style would be a perfect fit for the reworked moo2-like experience I wanted to create.  I found myself with the time and money to start working seriously on the project in 2010, and fortunately Arioch was willing to help out.

Tactical battle – raining missiles on a luckless marauder base.

I particularly liked three aspects of the game: its design philosophy, AI, and charm. The design’s simplicity and elegance stood out for me — a throwback to Sid Meier’s rule about “a game being a series of interesting decisions”. Can you tell us more about your philosophy?

Arioch: We started working before the recent glut of 4X space strategy games, and I think both Sven and I thought that the releases up to that point didn’t really scratch the same itch that our favorite games in the genre did — Master of Orion and Sword of the Stars. It seemed clear to us where the “fun” factor existed, and it was not in an expanding list of features, but rather in a focus on tactical combat. Once we were far enough into the project that the possibility of release became serious, there was suddenly a glut of new 3X space games. But they all had one thing in common: they completely ignored the tactical combat that we thought was so vital to the genre. Even our own publisher recommended that we discard our focus on tactical combat. Apparently this was the consensus at the time.

Sven:  I think Civilization-style strategy games all suffer from an escalating micro-management problem.  Choices that are fun and significant in the early game become tedious and needlessly time consuming by the late game.  I wanted to try to design the game in such a way that that would be less true — and stripping the planet management component back to something more moo1-like, while keeping the tactical battle component relatively complex, seemed like a sensible route to doing that.  Part of the design challenge for me was that I knew I didn’t want to go all the way to a moo1/SotS style highly abstract planet management system.  In particular, I really enjoyed the species-specific population management element from moo2, and knew I wanted to build on and expand that idea.  Getting a blend of all these elements that felt right took a long time.  The initial drafts of the game that beta-testers had access to didn’t even include mines or farms or markets — planets just had factories and labs.  Metal and food were relatively late additions to the game, but I felt like they were important ones.  And I think we managed to implement them in a way that made planet management more interesting, without triggering as much of a late-game slog as you’d see in a more typical Civilization-style strategy experience.

The planetary construction screen.
Continue reading “Stars in Shadow interview, with Sven Olsen and Jim “Arioch” Francis”

Clippings: the history in historical strategy games; the siege of Gondor; AOE IV

Fans of historical strategy games should check out this recent episode of the Three Moves Ahead podcast, which features Dr Bret Devereaux – a gamer and historian – discussing the assumptions and worldview behind games such as Europa Universalis IV. The episode ranges widely, from Mount & Blade‘s depiction of medieval politics, to the difference between Civilization‘s uninhabited world versus how agrarian societies expanded in real life. Well worth a listen.

Dr Devereaux’s blog, which analyses pop culture’s (games, movies, TV) depiction of history, is also well worth a look — for example, here is his take on Lord of the Rings‘ Gondor campaign, seen through the lens of military history.

In strategy game news, the highest-profile recent release has been Age of Empires IV. Reviews indicate it is a well-executed take on the traditional RTS genre (IGN, PC Games N, Game Informer). For now, it’s too traditional for me – I haven’t played past the tutorial.

Finally, in site news, keep an eye out for an upcoming interview with the creators of Stars in Shadow – a very good indie space 4X game.

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Around Japan in Microsoft Flight Simulator in 317 days

Today, I finished my on-and-off project in Microsoft Flight Simulator: flying from one end of Japan to the other, one hop at a time. It has taken me nearly a year, since last Christmas; my flights began a few days apart, then became a few weeks apart, and eventually a few months apart. Now, I’ve done it!

I took this picture of the Japan Alps on a flight between Toyama and Matsumoto, before I began my tour.

My journey took me across all four of Japan’s major islands, starting from the far south of Kyushu and culminating in today’s flight across Hokkaido, from Sapporo to Kushiro. Along the way I stopped in cities such as Kobe, Tokyo, and Sendai, saw sights such as Itsukushima Shrine, and enjoyed the countryside from above.

A dramatic sky as I departed Sapporo.

There has been the odd mishap — flying from Sendai to Sapporo, I crashed because I didn’t realise I had to manually toggle from an empty fuel tank to a full one. (As I made it most of the way, I skipped to the landing on my second try!) That was the exception — mostly I took off and landed in one piece.

What struck me was the diversity of the Japanese landscape. Flying over major cities such as Tokyo, it was urban sprawl as far as the eye could see:

Tokyo sprawled out as I approached Haneda airport.

Soon afterwards, I flew over remote mountain forests, seemingly devoid of human beings; and marvelled at the difference. Following the coast north from Sendai, I saw what I think were fishing towns — how important must the sea be to those communities?

This morning, I flew in opaque fog over mountains (wondering if my little plane could safely make it across), before the skies cleared to reveal lowland fields. Panning the camera around rewarded me with a view of my plane emerging from the fog, with the mountains behind:

It was a great feeling when I emerged from the mountains and reached the safety of the lowlands.

I’ve seen beautiful sunsets:

The Japanese coast at sunset.

… flew through snow during the last northern winter (how time flies!), and felt the thrill when the runway came into view at the end of today’s flight. At last, I was at journey’s end.

Taxiing to park at Kushiro airport.

While my tour might be over, this won’t be my final flight, over Japan or in Flight Simulator. I’m sure I’ll have more scenes to see.

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Reading list update, October 2021 – Aviation memoirs

As promised, I have added an aviation section to the recommended reading list. It includes four memoirs about civil aviation: Beryl Markham’s West with the Night, Mark Vanhoenacker’s Skyfaring, Ernst Gann’s Fate is the Hunter, and Rinker Buck’s Flight of Passage. It also includes one memoir of the US space program, Michael Collins’ Carrying the Fire.

I read most of these books over the last 12-18 months (the exception being Skyfaring, which I read several years ago). Together, they tell a wide range of stories, from Markham’s childhood in colonial Kenya to Collins’ experience with the Apollo program, and cover a period from the early 20th century to the last decade. Enjoy!

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Meeting the Queen Chum in Sable

This entry is part 2 of 2 in the series Sable

In most games, a giant alien queen living in an abandoned building would spell trouble. Not in Sable, where there is nothing menacing about the Chum queen: a large, luminous pink creature with two large eyes, two winglike antennae, no visible mouth, and the manner of a gracious fairy godmother.

Nice to see you too!

Bring the queen Chum eggs, so her brood can grow up at home, and she will improve Sable’s stamina. The eggs themselves are Sable’s equivalent to Breath of the Wild’s korok seeds — collectible items scattered around the world to reward exploration, often on rooftops and ledges. When I see one, I pick it up; by now I’ve upgraded stamina twice.

For me, the queen’s real importance is thematic. She’s another example of the game’s worldview — this is a world where exploring a curious-looking building can reveal a giant, friendly, telepathic alien; where that alien wants nothing more sinister than to look after her species’ young; and where kindness is met with gratitude. As with last year’s A Short Hike, it’s nice to play a positive game!

Aw, that’s great to hear!

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Clippings: Old World coming to Steam, and more

I thought I’d give a “where are they now?” update on two games I wrote about earlier this year, Highfleet and Humankind. Both are on hold, for slightly different reasons:

  • I made good progress in Highfleet and defeated all five of the enemy’s mobile strike groups, only to bog down afterwards — the game’s map is big, and clearing out the remaining garrisons, juggling logistics, and fighting my way towards the capital turned into a slog. I still think it’s a great example of what indie games can do in terms of originality, atmosphere, and challenge, and I would like to finish it one day. Here is a good interview with the developer, who highlights how important the interface is to the game’s atmosphere.
  • After winning Humankind on my third try, I put it down, well pleased — by then, the developers had already patched the bugs I encountered at launch. The next patch is due on 28 October — that may be a good time to jump back in.

In other game news, Hooded Horse Games recently announced it will publish Soren Johnson’s Old World. The game, currently an Epic exclusive, will come to Steam and GoG in mid-2022, together with an expansion.

In the meantime, Soren’s blog hosts some fascinating designer notes about the game. Here is the latest entry, about how the design team approached victory conditions, which doubles as an interesting discussion of the broader genre.

In site news, I have drafted most of the next update for the Recommended Reading list, which will cover aviation memoirs. Stay tuned.

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A theory of fantasy

Great fantasy gets its power from one of two sources: myth, history, or both. By this, I mean drawing on themes such as the rise and fall of empires, the struggles of individuals against fate and the gods, and the way in which cultures are shaped and formed by the interactions of different peoples — not copying the originals 1:1. The author’s imagination is either a third ingredient in its own right, or the next step in the process that transforms mythical and historical inspirations into a finished product.

My favourite works of fantasy, across different media, exemplify this. To pick a few examples:

  • Lord of the Rings combines myth, history, and in some ways, a very modern take on its subject. Its themes include temptation, sacrifice, the triumph of the meek — it’s notable that the heroes are the hobbits, Frodo and Sam, not Aragorn or Gandalf — and the fading of an enchanted world. The world itself changes, as peoples migrate and kingdoms rise and fall. At the same time, it’s also about the pity of war, the inevitability of change, and in Frodo’s case, the difficulty of returning home afterwards.
  • His Dark Materials is about a revolt against the heavens, while also drawing on the author’s imagination to create a wondrous world where a person’s soul takes animal form; talking, armoured bears rule the north; and balloonists ply the skies.
  • Princess Mononoke is about a conflict between peoples with very different worldviews and agendas, each protecting their own home. It’s also a story about human ingenuity pitted against the awesome powers of nature and the gods.
  • Moribito: Guardian of the Spirit is a stand-out for how well it blends myth and history. Its premise is out of myth: protecting a boy who houses a spirit that can save the land from drought. Its details are grounded in history: the land has a dynamic past and is populated by multiple ethnic groups, with distinct material cultures, belief systems (from village shamans to court astrologers), and traditions. The characters live in a waterwheel-powered mill and pay at the market with strings of cash. Everything feels well-thought out.

The converse of my theory is that I can’t stand generic fantasy settings that take themselves seriously. By ignoring the original foundations of myth and history, and aping bestselling modern works instead, they become devoid of awe, wonder, and originality.

A final, rather meta implication is that, just as fantasy settings often posit a world that declined from a golden age, so I tend to prefer older works and, in some cases, authors who wrote before the modern emergence of fantasy as a commercial genre:

  • Out of my favourite fantasy authors, the most modern is Daniel Abraham, whose Long Price Quartet dates to the 2000s.
  • Going back a generation or two are Terry Pratchett (my favourite Discworld novels were published between the 1980s and early 2000s), Lois McMaster Bujold (active from the 1980s; The Curse of Chalion, my pick for her best fantasy, was published in 2001), and CJ Cherryh (who published the books I have in mind in the 1970s-1980s).
  • Before that are Roger Zelazny (1960s onward, with the Chronicles of Amber, my favourite, published in the 1970s), of course Tolkien (1930s-1950s), and perhaps Dunsany (1900s) or Kipling (the 1890s, if you consider the Jungle Book fantasy).

Now, I am not saying that fantasy creators cannot be inspired by, or conduct a dialogue with, others. Discworld started as a parody, His Dark Materials was written as a rancorous response to Narnia, Cherryh’s Morgaine books bear the influence of earlier authors such as Moorcock, and Daniel Abraham’s Dagger and Coin series (written after the Long Price Quartet) both plays with and subverts the genre. The point is that these works had something interesting to say.

And that’s the value that myth and history bring to fantasy fiction — they make it interesting. They offer primal, powerful themes; conflict to drive the characters; and verisimilitude — the sense of an immersive and convincing world. I don’t think the genre would exist without these wellsprings, and to this day, they enrich works of fantasy.

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Game Pass impressions, one year on

After nearly 12 months subscribing to Microsoft’s Game Pass PC program, I wanted to share my experiences.

Overall, subscribing was an excellent decision. I’ve benefited in three ways:

Saving money on titles I would have bought otherwise: notably Microsoft Flight Simulator and Humankind.

Discovering titles I wouldn’t have tried otherwise: mostly indies, with the standout being the brilliant and imaginative Subnautica. Others have included Slay the Spire, Nowhere Prophet, Carto and River City Girls.

Removing the risk from the “maybes”: such as Bloodstained (my first Metroidvania) and the remaster of Final Fantasy XII (a game I originally played on the PS2). Yakuza: Like a Dragon and Sable might also belong here.

The service is better for some types of games than others. Besides Microsoft first-party games, there are plenty of indies. Third-party publishers can be hit or miss — the most prominent is EA, but I had already bought Star Wars: Squadrons on Steam by the time it came to Game Pass. The main one for me has been SEGA (Yakuza: Like a Dragon, Humankind).

Similarly, niche genres such as strategy seem less well represented, with the main exceptions being Microsoft (Age of Empires), SEGA (Humankind and the other Amplitude games), and Paradox. Most of my strategy collection is likely to stay on Steam and, for older titles, GoG. Conversely, there are plenty of indie card games — Slay the Spire, Nowhere Prophet, and more I haven’t played, such as Monster Train. Prospective subscribers may wish to browse the catalogue first.

With that proviso in mind, I think Game Pass makes sense for most PC gamers. With its breadth of games, it represents both a way to save money and a tasting plate to try new things — I plan to keep subscribing for the foreseeable future.

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Sable early impressions: a journey of discovery

This entry is part 1 of 2 in the series Sable

I’m already enchanted by Sable, a newly released open-world exploration game whose young protagonist leaves home to embark on her tribe’s rite of passage. Three things have stood out:

How pleasant and relaxing it is — There are no enemies, no combat, no violence, and no ways to die or be hurt. Other characters are kind and encouraging, the music is peaceful and mellow, and the mood is positive: Sable is out to discover her world just as much as the player is. It’s the perfect game with which to relax in the evenings.

Sable’s opening area, a land of mesas and rock formations.

Its debt to Breath of the Wild — which is very clear in how Sable traverses the world. Link’s glider has become a magical bubble that Sable uses to float to the ground, and the horse has become a bike, but they control the same way. There’s even a button to summon the bike, much like whistling for a horse in Breath of the Wild. And I love both games’ shared emphasis on exploration.

It looks good!Sable’s art style is beautiful and — amongst games — unique. The world is bright and colourful in the daytime, with the colours falling away at night.  It looks even better in motion, as clouds drift past, little puffs of smoke come out of the hand-me-down tutorial bike, and light plays off Sable’s bubble.

Admiring the view. I mistook the tower ahead for a quest location – the real one was much bigger.

So far I’m still early on — Sable has set off on her journey, I’ve found the first settlement after the opening area, and received a batch of quests. Where will the journey lead next?

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Reading list update, September 2021: The Pacific War trilogy (Ian W Toll)

In January 2015 (over six years ago!), I posted a “recommended reading” list (which you can view here, or via the link at the top of the page). I love historical games and writing about historical games, so books exploring those periods seemed a natural fit for the site.

Now, I’ve begun adding to the list. First up is Ian W Toll’s Pacific War trilogy, in the military history section — I read this over late 2020 and early 2021 and loved it. Expect more soon, on topics such as aviation (taking up flight simulation has inspired me to read plenty of aviation memoirs), science fiction & fantasy, and video game development.

Enjoy, and happy reading.

Brigandine: The Legend of Runersia — an atmospheric console strategy/RPG

This entry is part 1 of 1 in the series Brigandine: The Legend of Runersia

I’m about halfway through Brigandine: The Legend of Runersia, which released for Switch in June 2020. At the time, its reviews were good rather than great, and its price tag was rather steep. I kept an eye on it ever since being intrigued by the demo, and my patience was rewarded with a recent sale. I’m glad I took a chance on it.

Brigandine takes place on two levels: a strategic map and tactical battles. The strategic layer is rather light, and resembles a simplified version of a KOEI grand strategy game. There is no base or city building — rather, the focus is on managing Rune Knights and their squads of monsters, sending them to train or quest, moving them between bases, and attacking enemy bases. The key is to carefully manage borders, to avoid having to spread the limited pool of Rune Knights amongst too many fronts.

Brigandine’s strategic map. I took advantage of depleted enemy forces to attack along multiple fronts.

The game’s main focus is the tactical battle layer, which plays out on a hex grid. The goal is to either defeat all enemy Rune Knights, or to control the objective hex (the local castle) when the turn count runs out. Generally, I try to bring a balanced force that includes tough melee monsters for the front line, together with ranged or support monsters which can safely hang further back. Terrain adds a further wrinkle, as some units specialise in certain terrain — for instance, mermaids and giant snakes do best in the water — and incur penalties on other terrain. Victory involves grinding down the enemy front line, clearing a path to attack vulnerable rear-line monsters or Rune Knights, and, often, concentrating fire on the enemy Rune Knights — forcing a Rune Knight to retreat will also remove his or her entire squad from the battle. When up against very tough Rune Knights, sometimes it’s better to go for their monsters instead, as the AI will retreat its remaining Rune Knights when sufficiently outnumbered.

Advancing in formation, with dragons in front, Rune Knights and other monsters in the second row, and spellcasting monsters towards the back.

Where this becomes interesting is in the variety of monsters (and Rune Knights) in the game, the interplay on the battle map between terrain, armies, and unit abilities, and the interplay between the two levels of the game. As each Rune Knight is a unique character, “A” and “B” teams tend to naturally form: the best Rune Knights and their squads go to the most important fronts and see the most action, which gives them the most experience. Stacking limits — a maximum of three Rune Knights per side can fight in a battle, and each Rune Knight only has a certain capacity to bring monsters — mean that in any given battle, quality generally beats quantity. At the same time, I do try to spread out experience. There are too many fronts for a single doom-stack to cover; and a roster should have enough depth to survive losing a few high-level units (a principle that will be familiar to XCOM players). The trick is to wear down enemy factions by eliminating their high-level monsters, while keeping most of my own alive.

While mages are vulnerable in melee and can’t move & cast spells in the same turn, their ability to inflict damage and de-buffs at a distance is invaluable. Here, Augustus gets ready to pick off Tilda, which will also take her units off the battlefield.

While the game’s AI came in for some criticism at launch, it has since been patched, and I find it’s good enough. The computer tries to keep melee units in front and support units behind, and likes to stack buffs on powerful melee Rune Knights, turning them into wrecking balls. It also seems fond of picking off vulnerable support units if I leave an opening. One weakness is that it sometimes commits forces piecemeal: I’ve seen three Rune Knights and their squads march up separately instead of forming up, which let me defeat them in detail. Still, while I have won every battle, even easier ones (where I have a more powerful army) typically make me work for victory, and some have been utter nail-biters.

There isn’t much scripted narrative in Brigandine, but some Rune Knights have unique dialogue when they fight alongside or against each other.

The result has been a engaging experience, complete with the kind of unscripted narratives that tactical RPGs and squad-based strategy games can deliver. Here are some memorable moments from my campaign:

Holding the line at Cornwern: The border castle of Cornwern, where I keep a mix of “A” and “B” squads, has repeatedly held out against the best that the neighbouring kingdom can send. Fortunately for me, a river running through the battlefield gives a large advantage to the defender. Even with this advantage, it hasn’t been easy: in two battles out of three I barely hung on until the turn limit (in one case, falling back from the riverbank). Hold on, Cornwern! I’ll send reinforcements soon.

The Shinobi campaign: The forest-dwelling Shinobi, many of whom have bonuses in that terrain, are a pain to invade. To defeat them, I loaded up my Rune Knights with forest-specialist monsters, and attacked on two fronts to take advantage of my superior numbers.

Clash of the titans: knowing I would be up against the formidable Rudo, I brought Darian, whose high physical defence would let him go toe-to-toe.

The fall of Mana Saleesia: Mana Saleesia is the resident fantasy evil empire, led by the fearsome Rudo — probably the strongest melee fighter in the game. When he marched into one of my provinces, held by a “B+” squad, I was very glad I had the third-most powerful (behind Rudo!) melee Rune Knight, who could stall him while the rest of my army pelted him with spells. During my grand offensive, I advanced along a broad front, taking care to avoid Rudo himself. And for the final confrontation, I sent in my highest-level, most powerful force. Cornered, Rudo was still dangerous — he one-shotted one of my luckless high-level casters — but even he could not stand before my army.

The coup de grace – an archdemon (a rear-line spellcasting monster) prepares to dispatch Rudo. The attack power was almost doubled by taking advantage of his elemental weakness.

Now, I’ve defeated two of the five enemy factions, and a third is on the ropes. The main risk, I think, is that the remaining game turns into a slog. Still, I’m looking forward to sending my best troops, fresh from their victory over Mana Saleesia, to lead a counterattack on the Cornwern front. Time to give the computer a taste of its own medicine!

Food as worldbuilding in Yakuza: Like a Dragon

I’m gradually making my way through Yakuza: Like a Dragon, my introduction to the long-running series. One of the first things that struck me was the game’s vivid sense of place — convenience stores and pharmacies feel like their real-life counterparts — and I think this is clearest with food, which is characterised with a remarkable level of detail.

Eateries come in lifelike variety: there are bars, cafes, mum-and-dad family restaurants, Western restaurants, high-end dining, and everything in between. They have distinct menus, and ordering certain dishes will trigger a party conversation — though clearly I need to use a FAQ, as I haven’t encountered one yet!

Here are a pair of fast food outlets. Note the prices on the signboard:

For contrast, this is a sushi restaurant. The difference in ambience is night and day:

And this is the menu at a pricey Western restaurant. The selected dish restores 4,500 HP — that’s ten times more than my party members even have!

A final observation is Like a Dragon’s use of food as a character motif. Two major characters are represented by dishes at the opposite end of the culinary spectrum: the protagonist treats himself to beef bowls, a cheap, ubiquitous fast food. Another man is fond of Peking duck, and promises of duck recur through the game: some kept, others not.

As this highlights, food is an important part of Like a Dragon’s world. And who knows, maybe I will find a use for that 4,500 HP steak!

Humankind impressions: off to a promising start

This entry is part 1 of 1 in the series Humankind

I’ve finished two games of Humankind, the new historical 4X strategy game from Amplitude. It’s really good — better than I had expected. It’s also a lot more challenging, and I think that’s why I’m enjoying it.

Comparisons to Civilization will be inevitable — I’ll go out on a limb and say that at a design level, I think Humankind does Civ better than the most recent Civ games. While I play and enjoy Civilization VI as a “numbers go up” game where the fun is in designing and building powerhouse cities, that game’s AI is simply not aggressive or tactically competent enough to feel like a true rival. If I do lose a game of Civ VI, it’s because I did a poor job of making the numbers go up, hence allowing the computer to reach the victory conditions first.

Victory in Humankind goes to the player with the most fame points, which are awarded for reaching goals in each era. These goals relate to science, enemy units destroyed, money and influence earned, population size, number of territories, and the number of districts built. So far I find it very easy to accumulate points for science and (when at war) destroying enemies, and harder to accomplish the other objectives.

By contrast, playing on Empire difficulty (5 out of 7 — I agree with the consensus that experienced 4X / strategy gamers should crank the difficulty up), Humankind consistently puts me under pressure — I have yet to win a single game. In my first game, I barely scraped into #2 place on the final turn. In my second game, I came a more distant #3 — and I consider that an accomplishment, given that at one point, I was dead last! This kind of game is all about snowballing — setting up a virtuous cycle of more food, production, and science, which allows more upgrades, which allow more food, production, and science — and it’s notable that the computer knows how to do that. In my second game, one AI player built a gigantic lead by playing as a series of agrarian cultures, amassing a huge population (at one point its cities were size 40+ at a time when mine were in the 20s), and conquering a neighbour early on. It hit the final era well before me, and won by a commanding margin.

Not only is the computer capable of building strong empires, it’s perfectly willing to muster its armies and batter down my gates, just as Civ IV‘s AI did back in the day. My first game was very military-focused — the computer was much more bellicose than I expected, and from the ancient through to the early modern eras, I was almost constantly at war. An early-game rush from the neighbouring player made me fight for my life — the computer cleverly took advantage of my neglecting the military. Subsequently my neighbours hated me for most of the game, until something changed and most of them suddenly wanted to be my friend — my best guess is that when I converted to the dominant religion on the continent, that removed the main source of friction.

The setup for the first battle I (blue) ever fought against a rival empire (yellow), which rushed my capital early in the ancient era. I only had a single professional military unit, so most of my force comprised city militia. Fortunately for me, the canyon channelled the enemy army, and it took a further penalty from having to cross the rivers.

Combat itself is solid and the individual battles are generally interesting to play out. Early on, the rule is “strong melee units in front, archers behind”. New eras introduce new wrinkles — for instance, early gunpowder units can’t move and attack in the same turn, so my Medieval-era Varangians were still extremely useful for flanking and charging enemies even once I started fielding arquebusiers. By the modern era, battleships and bombers can deliver devastating bombardments to support land battles. I really like that cities generate freespawn militia (this is what saved me from that first rush!), and the clever way in which sieges gradually shift the advantage from the defender to the attacker over time, as powerful siege engines go up. Choke points are important, and help a defender against a numerically superior attacker. I do find it unintuitive to read the terrain — it’s often unclear to me which differences in elevation can be traversed by units.

The setup for a later battle – this time, I was on the offensive against the purple city. I put my tough melee fighters, the Varangian Guards, up against the wall, while my trebuchets were further behimd.

So far I have a pretty good grasp on the military aspects of Humankind, to the point where I can consistently beat the computer on the battlefield. In contrast, I’m still learning how Humankind’s economic “engine” works — the key seems to be a combination of territorial expansion; placing districts to take advantage of adjacency bonuses; and savvy use of each culture’s powerful unique buildings. It seems easier to amass science than the other resources — is that actually the case, or is that simply because my playstyle focuses on science? There are other systems I have yet to engage with, such as religion and cultural influence — I don’t know how important or deep they are.

One area that could do with fine-tuning is the final, modern era. The foundations are there and the ideas are interesting – for instance, when pollution caused a penalty to food production on each tile of a large city, I sat up and took notice. When it comes to implementation, the numbers feel as though they still need tweaks: science costs in the final era seem a little low, production costs seem a little (or more than a little) high, and the pace feels a little too brisk, as if the developers overcompensated in a bid to avoid Civilization’s sluggish late game.

Humankind’s space race is less important than Civilization’s – it grants bonus points but doesn’t trigger victory. I won the space race in my second game, but still finished in third place.

One thing I do like is the game’s signature mechanic: the player chooses a new culture for each era, instead of being locked into one for the entire game. The decision to change culture plays into what is required at any given moment. In my first game, I started as the Zhou in the ancient era to take advantage of their science bonus. When it became clear that I’d be locked into brutal wars, I needed the toughest fighters I could find — I chose the Romans, and steamrolled my foes with Rome’s unique units. After that I continued as the Byzantines — with their equally impressive Varangians — in the medieval era, then finished with a string of science cultures: Joseon, industrial-age France, and modern Japan. I love that these options all feel cool and powerful — this is the right way to implement a philosophy of “interesting decisions”.

Each culture in Humankind receives a passive bonus (which carries forward to future eras), a unique city district, and a unique military unit. At first I picked the Byzantines for thematic reasons after earlier playing as the Romans, but I soon became glad for their powerful Varangian Guards.

Edit: I haven’t found bugs to be too bad. So far I’ve encountered 2 crashes (not a big deal, as the game auto-saves each turn) and a couple of cosmetic glitches. The most concerning is that the computer player in a particular slot (purple) reportedly receives automatic influence upon independent minor factions — hopefully Amplitude will address this soon.

A final point is that the art lives up to Amplitude’s typical high standard. Special mention for the art that illustrates each technology in the game — with a quick scroll left and right along the tech tree, I can see Humankind’s (and humankind’s) progress from the pyramids to the space age.

Overall, I’m very positive so far. Humankind already has the “just one more turn” magic backed by solid strategic gameplay, and I expect it will have room to grow via DLC and patches. I look forward to my next game!

I love that the ending narration congratulates you on your achievements.

Highfleet: challenging, rewarding, and unique

This entry is part 1 of 1 in the series Highfleet

Highfleet is one of the most original, interesting, and challenging games I’ve played lately. Much like 2020’s Shadow Empire, it feels like a throwback to the 1990s philosophy of game design: both in its sheer uniqueness, and in its uncompromising difficulty. And just like the best 1990s games (or, more recently, the Souls series), the payoff comes from climbing the learning curve and watching each piece of the design click into place.

Landing a ship – one of Highfleet’s many minigames. Screenshots don’t really convey how good the game looks in motion.

I could best sum up the game’s premise as a cross between Dune and Star Control 2, if Dune had giant flying battleships. You are the heir to an imperial house, brought low by a noble rebellion. Commanding a ragtag fleet of airships, you must fight across the map, rally independent captains to your cause, and win the war. Mechanically, Highfleet combines action, strategy, simulations, and roguelites. On the strategic layer, you send out ships, watch your sensors, order long-ranged missile or air strikes, and evade or challenge enemy fleets. Individual activity become minigames: landing at cities, 2D arcade battles (which resemble a horizontal Star Control 2), intercepting enemy radio transmissions, and recruiting allies. The map is randomised each run, and a custom ship designer allows for plenty of options when choosing the starting fleet.

These are all vital to success. There is only one save slot per run, ironman/roguelite-style. Being good at combat is table stakes — it’s possible to win almost every battle and still lose the war.  Repairing and refuelling take time and money. Loiter too long and the enemy will become aware of your location, in which case prepare for a barrage of cruise missiles followed by multiple capital ships. Fleet composition is an art, and one that depends on play style. Some players swear by light, fast, unarmoured raider corvettes — but I simply can’t dodge well enough to avoid enemy fire. On subsequent runs, switching to armoured medium frigates yielded much more success — especially when I modified them to add more fuel, so I didn’t constantly have to top off.

An air strike goes in against the enemy strike group ATLANT, which I’ve caught on the ground.

As my experience highlights, this is a game built around trying, failing, learning, and trying again. Most of my encounters with enemy strike groups have rapidly led to the game-over screen. My current run is a different story. When one of my raiding parties was mauled by a salvo of cruise missiles from a rebel strike group, it could have been another game-ending moment. I quickly pulled the survivors back to my hidden sanctuary to repair — and watched my sensors. I knew the enemy was along a certain bearing; their radar emissions, and their radio transmissions, gave it away. I launched a blind air strike along that bearing — and hit the jackpot, as my planes pummelled the enemy with bombs and rockets. Now it was time for revenge. I sent my fleet to counterattack, while the enemy cruisers were still repairing the damage from the air strike. The hunted became the hunter; the enemy cruisers tumbled from the sky in ruins; and soon afterwards, I repeated the trick on a second strike group that made the mistake of following the first. That was the moment I felt I was beginning, just beginning, to master the game. And what a great feeling it was!

The coup de grace: a Spartacus-class frigate (one of my custom designs) goes up against the weakened strike group ATLANT. The enemy Kormoran-class cruiser is larger and more powerful, but several earlier rounds of air strikes, and buying upgraded ammo, are a great equaliser.

This attitude to difficulty will not be for everyone. In my case, I keep coming back: this is an experience that reminds me of playing the original 1994 XCOM as a child. Highfleet’s unique combination of mechanics is both deep and fascinating, and as tough as it is, it’s also fair. Even if I don’t succeed with this run, I’m sure I can learn, apply those lessons, and do better next time.

Further reading

PC Invasion’s review sold me on the game.

I come not to bury but to praise TW: Three Kingdoms

Following Creative Assembly’s surprising — and, frankly, disappointing — announcement that it is done with Total War: Three Kingdoms, I wanted to look back at this game and take stock of my experiences.

From launch, Three Kingdoms was my favourite Total War game since Shogun 2. Here was a game that challenged me to use every tool at my disposal — generalship, empire management, diplomacy — and trounced me if I got things wrong. It was deep, challenging, beautiful, and managed to achieve the Holy Grail of empire-building strategy games — creating computer opponents with personality.

Since then, my journey continued with the DLC campaigns. They gave me two of the finest experiences I have had in a Total War game: flinging young Sun Ce’s outnumbered band of brothers in 194 AD against superior foes in a race against the clock; and Cao Cao in the 200 AD campaign, which involves coordinating multiple armies across a gigantic front from turn one. Altogether, I’ve finished five campaigns in Three Kingdoms — Cao Cao twice (190 AD and 200 AD), Ma Teng, Liu Chong, and Sun Ce — and I think that is my record in any Total War game.

I think the highest praise I can give Three Kingdoms is that it has spoiled the rest of the series for me — I can no longer go back to any of its predecessors (except, perhaps, Shogun 2). Any successor will have big shoes to fill.

Project Triangle Strategy – Demo impressions

The newly-revealed Project Triangle Strategy is a clear homage to two of my favourite games of all time — Tactics Ogre and Final Fantasy Tactics. After playing the demo, I’m cautiously interested.

The debt to FFT and Tactics Ogre is clearest in the aesthetics. The sprites look just like those in the classic games, right down to the way mages raise their arms over their heads when casting spells, and the character portraits are also gorgeous.

Based on the two levels in the demo, the gameplay seems solid. Positioning, elemental vulnerabilities, and terrain all matter. I cleared the second level by the skin of my teeth, with only one melee character and a few casters left standing. Using terrain, and a spell that created temporary ice walls on the ground, I was able to channel the second level’s boss into a chokepoint where my last melee fighter could stall her long enough for the mages to bring her down. Disappointingly, mounts seem cosmetic — a horseman can climb ladders (?!) and a bird rider doesn’t seem able to fly over obstacles — but that issue is fairly minor.

My biggest concern is the writing. What made the narratives of FFT and Tactics Ogre so great wasn’t convoluted plots or warring lords. What made them great was the themes and character arcs revealed by those plots — what happens when youthful idealists find themselves betrayed by reality, and how those idealists respond afterwards. In the short demo, I saw nothing comparable, although conclusions will have to wait for the full game.

Overall, I liked the demo enough to keep an eye on this game. Release is set for 2022 — hopefully it will fulfil its promise.

Stars in Shadow — a hidden indie 4X gem

This entry is part 1 of 2 in the series Stars in Shadow

Stars in Shadow is a 2017 space 4X game that bears more than a passing resemblance to the classic Master of Orion 2. It succeeds through focus and polish — this is a game that captures the essence of 4X strategy in a clever, colourful, and relatively quick-playing experience.

The first thing that stands out about SiS is its combination of speed, pacing, and elegance. This is very much a game about “interesting decisions”, with minimal micromanagement. Planetary management is simple (much simpler than in Civilization, MOO2, and most other 4X games), allowing the focus to remain on the galactic map. Ship design is also fairly straightforward, with ships having a fixed number of hardpoints rather than giving the player a freeform tonnage “budget” a la MOO2. Perhaps the most in-depth sub-system is tactical battles: I’ve pulled off nail-biting victories against superior fleets, which let me seize the initiative against depleted opponents.

My Phidi fleet (right) defends an allied world against an invader. Note the mix of my own designs (yellow) and the assorted mercenary ships (grey, red-and-yellow).

The second thing that stands out is the challenge — if there was ever a computer player that read Machiavelli, this is the one. Smaller computer players will league together in balance-of-power alliances. Larger ones will opportunistically demand worlds along the border; launch limited wars if the player defies them; then smugly suggest peace once they achieve their objective. At war, they field large doomstacks of technologically sophisticated designs. Playing on Hard, I have to use every trick at my disposal: making good use of diplomacy, splitting my fleet into smaller raiding parties, and designing ships with the range to strike at unexpected parts of the map.

My current game of Stars in Shadow. I (Phidi – orange, in the top left and centre of the map) am the #1 economic power in the galaxy and the #2 military power. I am waging a successful campaign against the Gremak (yellow – top right) that I must bring to an abrupt end – the Ashdar Imperials (purple, bottom of the map – the #1 military power) have launched a surprise war to take the border system of Vega. The AI is ruthless when it thinks it has the upper hand.

Third is the game’s charm and character. The art is vibrant and colourful, and the different playable species are qualitatively distinct — thematically and in their mechanics. For example, here is my favourite species, the ever-optimistic Phidi:

The Phidi seem optimised for a diplomatic rather than a conquest victory.

The Phidi prefer trade, friendship, and negotiation to violence, which makes them a perfect fit for my 4X playstyle. They receive extra income relative to other species, and can hire mercenaries from other empires with whom they have a trade agreement. Counterbalancing this, they have fewer, and inferior, warship designs; and as an aquatic race, they find many planets inhospitable. As the Phidi, I have to play to their strengths — Friends! Money! Lots of money! — and aim for a diplomatic victory. Along the way I hire lots of mercenaries to supplement my indigenous fleet, and use citizens of other species to settle the land.

The best praise I can give Stars in Shadow is that I’m currently on my 6th game, after 3 earlier victories and 2 defeats/abandoned games. It’s rare that I play a 4X so many times before considering myself done, yet this game has the magic that keeps me coming back. It frequently goes on sale for very cheap — I paid around A$8 for the game plus DLC — and if you enjoy the 4X genre, this is well worth a look.

My journey into flight sims

My latest rediscovery has been the flight sim genre. In the early 1990s I grew up on Microprose and Origin titles, such as Gunship 2000 and Chris Roberts’ Strike Commander (at the same time that I played lots of space sims, such as the Wing Commander series). Late last year I began to drift back into the hobby, and it has been a rewarding experience.

I’ve divided this post into two parts. In the first part I share my adventure to date, across civilian and military sims. In the second part, I summarise what I’ve learned in a FAQ for anyone else wanting to get into the hobby.

The adventure so far

I can divide my time with flight sims into three phases:

  • Phase 1. Seeing the world from my desk with Microsoft Flight Simulator;
  • Phase 2. Testing the waters in War Thunder; and
  • Phase 3. Learning modern military aircraft with a HOTAS & DCS World.

Phase 1. Seeing the world from my desk with Microsoft Flight Simulator

My journey began last October, with the latest edition of Flight Simulator. Flight Simulator is an ideal gateway into the hobby: it’s beautiful, accessible, and affordable. It’s available via a Game Pass subscription; controls well with a gamepad; and includes a good tutorial and numerous toggle-able realism options. Flying small aircraft is easy and pleasant: it’s hard to mess up in training aircraft such as the Cessna 152 and 172, and aerobatic designs such as JMB Aviation’s VL-3 can dance across the sky.  (Airliners are harder, although a recent patch just added two airliner tutorials, which I haven’t tried yet.)

For me, Flight Simulator also worked as a gateway into military flight sims. Knowing how to fly a plane is transferable — I think my proudest sim moment to date is landing a damaged fighter in War Thunder using what I learned in Flight Simulator.

As to where I’ve been in Flight Simulator, it’s already a long list. I’ve explored regional Australia, followed the roads and parks near my house, flown above world cities from Paris to Kuala Lumpur, and seen the sights from the Hoover Dam to Hawaii. My current project is a hop-by-hop tour of Japan, inspired by this post on the Stormbirds blog. Starting at the southern tip of Kyushu, I’ve flown to the northern tip of the island, then to western Honshu, and across to northern Shikoku. Here are my snaps of Itsukushima Shrine:

Phase 2: Testing the waters in War Thunder

After Flight Simulator, I gave War Thunder a try. What I found was a really, really good game held back by its F2P revenue model.

War Thunder offers three air battle modes of increasing realism: Arcade, Realistic, and Simulator Battles. I had plenty of fun with Arcade mode, which offered instant action, cinematic set-pieces such as canyon runs and frantic furballs, and a smooth sense of flow: respawns were quick and I typically waited <20 seconds between battles.

At its best, War Thunder is a fun, cinematic experience.

Meanwhile, WT’s Simulator mode let me dip my toes into the water to see if I’d enjoy realistic military flight sims. While it was much harder than Arcade mode — even staying straight and level was a challenge — I found it intriguing, and I wanted to learn more.

Any landing you can walk away from is a good landing. This was a good landing.

The issue is that while the game itself tries to nurture a sense of flow, the F2P mechanics break it up. Repairing damaged aircraft requires a lengthy cooldown between battles — but oh, if you have in-game currency, you can skip it. Unlocking new aircraft through research takes quite a bit of time once you get past the early-game 1930s aircraft — and then they need to be bought using in-game currency. I thought seriously of paying for premium time or aircraft (which speed up the rates at which research and currency accumulate), but in the end decided to spend my money on other sims.

Lest I frighten you off, I should say that I enjoyed my time with WT and I think it would be an excellent first step into the world of military flight sims. While I’ve moved on from the game for now, I’m grateful for the fun that it gave me; for the variety of aircraft that it showcased; and for letting me test my hypothesis that I was interested in sims — all for free.

Phase 3: Learning modern military aircraft with a HOTAS & DCS World

The third phase began during the Christmas and New Year sale periods, when I picked up:

  • One space sim, Star Wars: Squadrons.
  • One WW2 sim, IL-2: Battle of Stalingrad and the Battle of Bodenplatte module.
  • Two modern-day military sims:
    • DCS World — first a free trial, then a paid module.
    • Falcon 4.0 and the Falcon BMS overhaul mod.
  • And crucially, hardware: I was fortunate enough to find a great post-Christmas deal on my first HOTAS, the Logitech X-52. While Flight Simulator and Star Wars: Squadrons control well enough with a gamepad, and War Thunder’s arcade mode was designed around mouse control, the HOTAS was the key that unlocked realistic military sims for me.
A night-time take-off in DCS World’s F-15.

Out of the military sims, the one I’ve played the most of is DCS World. DCS offers a sandpit where players can fly instant action missions, play official campaigns, design their own missions and campaigns, and fly missions or campaigns designed by other players. It is modular in that different aircraft, maps, and campaigns are sold separately — out of the box it includes a Caucasus map and two free aircraft (the Su-25T and an unarmed trainer version of the P-51). Other maps and aircraft modules are available for purchase, although even on sale, one typically costs as much as an entire game.

My DCS journey really began when the HOTAS arrived. During DCS’ free trial period over Christmas, I tried and loved the F/A-18 Hornet, and eventually bought the much cheaper F-15C module together with a campaign, “The Georgian War”. While the F-15 lacks an in-game tutorial, I’ve been able to learn using several fan-made resources (refer bottom of this post for the list). Now I can take off, fly around, (sometimes) land, and intercept targets, such as cargo planes and helicopters, that don’t shoot back. Challenging other fighters tends to end with me floating back down to earth in a parachute — but oh well, practice makes perfect!

Does this still count as a landing?

As this suggests, learning military sims requires patience. Learning how to fly the plane and operate its systems is the easy part — learning tactics is the hard part. Add to this the need to track down player-made resources, and rough edges in the software: last evening I managed to get past a campaign mission after what must have been 8 or 10 tries, only for DCS to fail to register my progress! Did I hit the wrong button? Was I supposed to do something after the “mission complete” message? Should I have landed instead of assuming my progress would be saved? Or was it a glitch in the game? Whatever it was, I was extremely frustrated: I ended up using a text editor to manually update my pilot profile and unlock the next mission.

The other main military flight sim on the market is IL-2. I haven’t played much of this as I find WW2 aircraft much harder to fly than modern ones. In an F-15 or F/A-18, the onboard systems will do their best to prevent me from crashing the plane, whereas I find it all too easy to enter a fatal spin (… or fail to take off due to engine torque wrenching the plane off the runway…) in IL-2’s P-51s and Tempests (and, for that matter, War Thunder’s P-40s in Simulator mode).

Even with these challenges, I’ve greatly enjoyed my flight sim journey. It’s been a pleasure to see my skill gradually improve, across different aircraft, games, and settings. It’s helped me “reach out and touch history” by allowing me to better understand and relate to aviation memoirs. And flying is one of the great marvels of our world: I will never tire of seeing the sun rise over a horizon, or of watching sunlight turn the sea to shining silver. I’m glad I can do it from my desk.

Getting into flight sims: a FAQ

What should I get if I want to fly WW2 planes?

You probably want the IL-2 series:

  • Cliffs of Dover: Blitz Edition is a fan-overhauled version of an early 2010s game — as the title suggests, it focuses on the Battle of Britain. A more recent DLC takes place in North Africa.
  • The Great Battles entries are the latest in the series. On Steam, look for IL-2: Battle of Stalingrad, the base game; other modules (including Battle of Bodenplatte, which shifts to the late-war Western Front) are available as DLC.

What should I get if I want to fly modern planes?

DCS World or Falcon BMS.

What should I get if I want a dynamic campaign?

Falcon BMS. DCS has none, although one is currently under development.

I’m not sure if I’ll enjoy flight sims. How can I test the waters without spending too much money?

Microsoft Flight Simulator is probably the best starting choice. For military sims, there are several options:

  • War Thunder, especially its Simulator Battles mode.
  • IL-2 becomes very cheap on Steam sales.
  • Falcon BMS — the original Falcon 4.0 is very cheap on GOG and Steam — although I find it harder to learn than DCS.
  • While DCS comes with two free aircraft (the Su-25T and the TF-51), I don’t think the free Su-25 is a very good introduction to the game. I think a better bet would be waiting for a free trial event, or buying one or all of the Flaming Cliffs 3 aircraft — a much more affordable selection of aircraft (such as the F-15) that are controlled using keyboard/HOTAS shortcuts instead of clicking switches in the cockpit.

I don’t have a HOTAS. What can I play using a keyboard, mouse, or gamepad?

Microsoft Flight Simulator has an excellent default gamepad control scheme.

War Thunder’s Arcade Battles and Realistic Battles (not Simulator Battles) use mouse controls.

My experience with the “realistic” military sims — Il-2 and DCS — is that they need a HOTAS. Gamepads are possible but I found I needed the finer controls provided by the stick and throttle. In the case of DCS, the hat switches also it much easier to control important functions such as radar.

Which HOTAS should I consider?

I’ve seen plenty of recommendations for VKB sticks, but they may not be available where you live. They were not available for me.

Other than that, the “big name” brands offer several mid-priced products:

  • Thrustmaster T16000
  • Logitech X series (X52, X52 Pro, and X56) – I went for the X52.

What resources would you recommend to learn the F-15 in DCS World?

As the F-15 does not come with an in-game tutorial. I learned using these:

For other aircraft, refer to the very detailed Chucks Guides.

What resources would you recommend to learn IL-2?

Oddly enough, IL-2 lacks in-game tutorial missions. Fortunately, a fan-made set of training missions is available here. Chuck’s Guides (above) also include a few for IL-2.

Chrono Trigger: a blast from the past

This entry is part 1 of 1 in the series Chrono Trigger
It was!

Chrono Trigger is one of my favourite games of all time, and after recently treating myself to the piano sheet music, I found myself wanting to replay the game as well. The Steam Christmas sale provided the perfect opportunity — and I’m glad I took it.

My main worry was the quality of the PC port, which was panned at launch. Thankfully, it’s fine now. The interface is clean, not at all like a mobile game. The music and sprite work shine through. The localisation is effective — I like it better than the original SNES prose. The sprites seemed to move too fast at first, but this problem corrected itself after loading the game for the first time.

The game itself holds up magnificently. Playing through, I have a constant smile on my face: it’s as good as I remember. It’s charming, imaginative, and briskly paced, with likeable characters, great music, and remarkable attention to detail. With the Steam sale still ongoing, this is a great time for established fans to revisit Chrono Trigger, or for new players to discover it — I’m happily revisiting faraway times.

What I played in 2020

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays, everyone! I hope you’re all safe and well.

This year I played the usual new and new-ish strategy games. XCOM: Chimera Squad, Shadow Empire, and Crusader Kings III were all strong releases. Amongst 2019 games, Age of Wonders: Planetfall was a solid combat-focused 4X and Planet Zoo was a charming and pleasant management game.

My great discovery was the Anno series: I’ve put almost 150 hours into Anno 1800 alone, a game that combines gorgeous production values, engrossing city management, and Paradox-like depth and replayability. On some evenings, I tinkered with coffee production chains or proudly set up new tractors. At other times, I found myself plunged into a city-building version of the Empire: Total War successor I’ve always wanted, as my trading empire fought for its life across multiple continents. Whether trying to inaugurate a World’s Fair, or ensuring that the chocolate must flow, there is always something more to do. And I think the Anno series’ central idea — that society depends on long, elaborate production chains — felt especially relevant this year.

I also replayed many classic strategy games, ranging from the 1990s to the 2010s. These included Supreme Commander: Forged Alliance  Jagged Alliance 2, and a raft of 4X titles: Imperialism 2, Master of Magic, Age of Wonders III, Civilization IV, and Alpha Centauri.

The standout was Alpha Centauri, which I would argue is still the best 4X game ever made: it has some of the best science fiction worldbuilding in any game, while also shining on a mechanical level. With Alpha Centauri, 1990s strategy game design reached its peak: it offered the player a dazzling range of toys without falling into the pitfalls that afflict modern games, such as bloat or an over-emphasis on “balance”. And it could teach the modern Civilization series how to handle warfare: armies, navies, and air forces are punchy and interesting to use, without either the problems of Civilization IV‘s stacks of doom or the subsequent one-unit-per-tile rule.

Transcendence victory in Alpha Centauri! I achieved this via a science/economic boom as the Peacekeepers, backed by a powerful air force and navy, and an alliance with the Gaians.

Finally, this was the year in which I tried new and different types of games, both on PC and on Switch:

X4: Foundations and the early access version of Mount and Blade II: Bannerlord made me realise how much I love dynamic worlds, where I can set my own objectives and carve out a niche alongside a map full of NPC factions trying to do the same.

I returned to flight sims for the first time since childhood with the beautiful, accessible Flight Simulator. Within a few hours, I was confidently taking off, flying, and landing Cessnas; now I’m sightseeing around the world. Flight Simulator proved to be my gateway back into the genre: I went on to test the waters of combat sims with War Thunder. In the last week, I bought Star Wars: Squadrons and IL-2, and I’m currently eyeing DCS World’s modern aircraft.

Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night is my first real experience with Metroidvanias (I played Symphony of the Night many years ago but didn’t get far). Now that I’m nearing the end, I see why people love this genre! The blend of combat and exploration reminds me of a much easier, 2D version of Dark Souls — I love working out where to go next, based on the latest ability I’ve unlocked — and its goofy, over-the-top cast and setting are far from what the ominous title suggests.

Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey was my first Assassin’s Creed game since AC4: Black Flag. Its much better, more mobile combat and gorgeous depiction of Classical Greece won my heart. I just need to play more…

The cheerful, colourful Slime Rancher benefits from being in first person and in 3D. This gave it a satisfying physicality when puttering around the ranch or exploring the wilderness — something I found missing in top-down games such as Stardew Valley. It’s also very, very cute.

The Twinkle Slime wishes you a Merry Christmas, too.

After casually playing Mario Kart games for years, and never doing well on anything faster than 100cc, this was the year in which I set out to master Mario Kart 8 Deluxe. Along the way, my admiration grew for how well-designed MK8 is — its balance of skill and luck, its charm and character, how well it eases the player into a state of flow. MK8 also became the first game to get me back into online multiplayer since Eugen’s Wargame series, years ago. Just don’t ask me to do well on Rainbow Road…

First place in every race in this 150cc cup in Mario Kart! I managed this after playing 200cc races and gaining experience online.

Nintendo has the knack of making me try even genres I don’t normally play: Mario Galaxy is delightful, although I’m still at the button-mashing stage in Mario Tennis Aces. Animal Crossing: New Horizons offered a pleasant experience that easily fit into my Switch routine.

My most notable Switch release of the year was a third-party game. Hades combines fast-paced action with good writing: the more I played, the more I realised how cleverly it blends a modern interpretation of Greek myth with the original themes. I cleared it for the first time on my 17th attempt, and narratively this is just the end of the beginning.

Hard-earned victory in Hades.

Amongst other third-party games, Two Point Hospital was an excellent port and a good game, albeit one that dragged on slightly too long. I enjoyed improving my virtual swing in Golf Story — while practicing for the final course, I revisited every previous course and consciously made an effort to use every tool the game placed at my disposal. Finally, the delightful A Short Hike was my favourite short-form game in years.

Best wishes to all of you for 2021, and I’ll see you next year.

Why do historical strategy games under-value seapower?

Maritime trade is central to the Anno games – here is my bustling home-town harbour in Anno 1800. An oil tanker is in the foreground, while several sailing warships are on the left.

This question popped into my mind while reading Lincoln Paine’s The Sea and Civilization: A Maritime History of the World earlier this year. Navies are important in history; and for the last few hundred years, the world’s leading power has also been a naval power. This is not reflected in historical strategy games such as Civilization, where navies are often optional unless playing on an island map.

I think the answer lies in these games’ economic and resource models. Consider the Civilization series:

  • Food, wealth, and industrial production come from working the countryside.
  • Cities use a generic “production” resource to build everything from cathedrals to tanks.
  • While more recent games introduced strategic resources which can be traded (such as oil), these resources instantly teleport across the map.

The result is that Civ emphasises control of territory and population, rewarding large land empires. There is no equivalent to Ancient Rome’s reliance on Egyptian grain or WW2 Britain’s Atlantic convoys.

In contrast, seapower becomes critical in games with detailed production chains, such as Imperialism and Anno 1800. Their economies run on foods, minerals, and luxuries that are found around the world and shipped home. Navies are necessary to protect transports and cut off enemy trade.

While not every game can be built around a detailed, Anno 1800-style resource model, Empire: Total War offered an elegant solution. Trade was by far the best way to make money in that game; and that relied on sending out a navy to capture and defend trade nodes.

I think the lesson is that seapower matters once players have an incentive to contest the seas. Give sea lanes their historic importance as the arteries of commerce and wealth; and the importance of navies will follow.

A short, sweet Hike

Puttering around in A Short Hike.

A Short Hike is a brief, delightful experience: what you would get if you took Breath of the Wild’s emphasis on verticality and exploration, and channelled them into a rather different story about exploring a park, having fun, and making friends. The objective is to climb to the top of a mountain; the joy is in exploring branches off the trail, stumbling upon hidden sights, and discovering what else there is to do. The world is warm and inviting; the NPCs are friendly and kind; and the mechanics are solid, whether climbing a cliff-face, gliding down, or trying to hit a ball. And it can be completed quickly: I finished in a couple of hours, although I seem to have missed a fair bit of side content. It left me smiling, laughing, and at the end, wanting more.

Crusader Kings III — a worthy heir

This entry is part 1 of 1 in the series Crusader Kings III

Crusader Kings III is a successful evolutionary sequel to the game I called “the most significant strategy game of the last decade”. I’ve played three games —  two unsuccessful in 867, the first as Alfred the Great and his descendants, the second an attempt to establish a Norse realm in India; and a final, successful run that took me from King of Scotland in 1066 to emperor of Britannia and Francia. And once I learned my way around CK3’s new, improved UI, I found a familiar experience: this is still a character-driven game about the rise and fall of dynasties, in which a loyal son can become the next generation’s rebellious brother; and a well-placed friendship can be worth thousands of swords.

The end of my CK3 playthrough as the House of Dunkeld, who started as kings of Scotland and finished as the most powerful monarchs in Europe.

The core of the game is recognisably the same as Crusader Kings II. Most of the mechanics are similar, the overall flow is the same, and lessons from CK2 still carry over. New rulers are most vulnerable when they ascend; just because you control territory on a map does not mean you command the obedience of the people who actually run the place; it is worth accepting setbacks — such as conceding to powerful vassals — if doing so strengthens your hand in the long run; and strategic marriages, opportunistic expansion, and shrewd vassal management are still the keys to a long and successful reign. The world feels similar, too: Northwest Europe is still a Viking playground in 867; large AI empires still grow until they sprawl over the map; and in the hands of a human player, Haesteinn of Nantes can still make it all the way to India1.

My final character in my CK3 Dunkeld playthrough. Note the Genius and Hale traits, together with the monster stats!

CK3’s new mechanics, such as stress, the lifestyle tree, and the hooks system, and its significant tweaks to existing rules such as succession, come on top of this familiar core. I think what the new mechanics do best is represent Machiavelli’s dictum that rulers need to be loved, feared, or ideally both. Playing generally benevolent monarchs, I found the most powerful button in the game was the “befriend” interaction: vassals who are also your friends will not join factions against you. But neither do vassals who are terrified of you, and so fear has its place too. Vassal management is particularly important as CK3’s succession rules make it harder to keep a gigantic demesne intact until fairly late in the game — with fewer lands of your own, you are closer to first among equals; and it becomes harder to overawe the realm’s magnates through sheer size alone.

Conversely, some of the nuance from CK2 is missing from CK3. For example, imperial government is gone; the Byzantines are back to generic feudalism; and there are no more special mechanics for the Silk Road or interacting with China. Without viceroys and the need to rein in an overly powerful council, there doesn’t seem to be as much sense of a progression from medieval to early modern government. And no Silk Road affects the gameplay in the East, where I usually played in CK2. Still, I can live with this — there is plenty to do as-is — and I assume these mechanics, or their replacements, may return in DLC.

Investing in a quality army pays off! I spent a lot of money on buildings that gave a bonus to spearmen. By the endgame, my Scots schiltrons (a mid-game upgrade to regular spearmen) fought 5 times better than un-boosted schiltrons, 7 times better than ordinary spearmen, and a whopping 15 times better than generic levies.

The area of the game that feels weakest to me is warfare. Army management and individual battles are better than CK2: they are clearer, less fiddly, and easier to understand; and the game heavily rewards the player for investing in better troops or a more defensible demesne. The problem is the intermediate level, that of manoeuvres or campaigns — wars tend to degenerate into a race to see which side can siege down the other’s capital and demesne first. I think this is due to several reasons. There is no sense of geography or strategic depth: there are no zones of control, minimal logistics, and movement is easy by land or sea. War score is overwhelmingly awarded for sieges, territory ownership, and capturing key characters, with battles making up a relatively small part. And seizing the capital is particularly important, as this is where enemy leaders often reside, and capturing them is an automatic win. The result is farcical campaigns where the enemy army runs away, jumps onto a boat, sails to my capital, and tries to capture it before I can capture theirs; and the overall effect is a slightly less extreme version of Crusader Kings 1, where the fate of a kingdom could be settled by the capture of a handful of demesne provinces.

This guy was an absolute beast – note his kill count (346). His Prowess stat, which governs personal combat, was a whopping 44. By comparison, a decent fighter has 10-15 and an “exceptional” fighter has 20.

With that exception, I am quite happy with CK3. More of the same, in this case, has not been a bad thing. Whether setting up balance-of-power alliances; regaining the imperial throne from which I was deposed; or boggling at the giant, berserk Norse champion who killed 300+ of my men2, CK3 has generated both engaging strategy and memorable stories. I look forward to many more to come.

  1. Although surviving there seems to be harder. I did it in CK2 and earned the “Legacy of the Indo-Norse” and “Saint Thomas’ Dream” achievements, but went down in flames after several generations in CK3.
  2. This immediately made me picture the Vinland Saga manga’s version of Thorkell the Tall.

Remembering the greatness of Crusader Kings II

This entry is part 5 of 5 in the series Crusader Kings II

With the release of Crusader Kings III imminent, I wanted to revisit Crusader Kings II, and touch on why I consider it the most significant strategy game of the last decade. While other games (XCOM, FTL) were more influential, I would argue it was CK2 that pushed the boundaries of what a strategy game could do. It succeeded on three levels: as a character-driven story generator, as a game, and as an exploration of historical forces.

Ask most players what stood out about their CK2 experience and the answer would be the characters — and their hijinks. Even now, almost 10 years later, CK2 is virtually unique in making individuals the building block of its world. Those individuals, and their plots, schemes, dreams, and desires were the material for the rich stories that CK2 generated. I remember the sullen vassal who put aside his differences with my character to fight off a Seljuk invasion, and gave his life defending the realm; the aunt who invaded with a band of adventurers to press her claim; the Christian Norse I led to India; and the dynasty of Sinicised Persian exiles who finally — finally! — carved out a lasting home for their faith in Central Asia.

Underpinning these stories was that CK2 was a pretty good strategy game as well — skill, and a detailed understanding of the rules, paid off. My Persian exiles only survived against the odds because I learned how to pull every lever available: rushing east to seize lucrative trading hubs along the Silk Road; using the resulting income to keep mercenaries on permanent payroll; hiring Chinese strategists to train my outnumbered army; and learning the intricacies of the battle system — this was the campaign that taught me the importance of grouping cavalry retinues on the flanks. There is satisfaction in mastering the game’s systems.

Finally, CK2 brought to life one of the most important historical forces of the last millennium — the rise of centralised government. There is a quantum leap between a tribe, which falls apart every time the leader dies, and a feudal proto-state. There is a more gradual progression, over the course of the game, from feudalism to monarchical authority. Over time, levies, hereditary vassals, and a council jealous of its prerogatives give way to standing armies, viceroys appointed at the ruler’s pleasure, and absolute power. It’s a wonderful example of how gameplay mechanics can illustrate how and why something happened in the real world.

Ultimately, CK2 became my favourite Paradox game and one of the greatest games of the 2010s. With CK3 reviews promising, I look forward to this series giving me many more stories to tell.

When the X-Universe gives you lemons…

This entry is part 1 of 1 in the series X4: Foundations

I’ve been playing X4: Foundations, a game that feels like a cross between Freelancer, Mount & Blade, and a tycoon game. On the surface, this resembles Freelancer: a space sim with mouse-based controls. Its underlying structure is closer to Mount & Blade — it drops the player into a living universe, whose factions mine, trade, and battle on their own; and within this world, my character has gone from solo adventurer to galactic magnate. Finally, the details resemble a tycoon or Anno game — I have spent most of my time building factories, juggling elaborate production chains, and keeping my bases stocked with a network of freighters.

This has been a wonderful setting for emergent, self-directed gameplay; and as the galaxy evolved, my goals changed, too. My X4 campaign began with odd jobs, such as dropping off satellites and retrieving cached goods. From these humble beginnings, I scrimped, saved, and bought my first few mining ships. I sent a ship to mine silicon in the resource-rich space of the Argon Federation, only to find some time later it had stopped selling to the refinery. What happened? It turned out there was no more refinery: a hostile fleet had pushed into Argon space; blown up the refinery; and destroyed the Argons’ space fighter production, too.

Well — here was my new objective. Roleplaying a patriotic Argon businessman, I decided to help the Argons rebuild, and earn a living in the process. Now there was a gap in the Argon economy, and I plugged it by building my own silicon refinery. That refinery became the cornerstone of my empire: I turned it into an electronics factory, supplying the surviving Argon shipbuilding facilities, and it became the cash cow that funded my expansion across the galaxy.

My Argon electronics factory, seen from the cockpit of one of my mining ships. I designed and built that over hours, module by module. Note the two NPC crew.

Now after 160+ hours, my bases span the map, producing spaceships of every size; a network of smaller factories feeds my shipyards with parts; and a swarm of miners and traders keep everything supplied. The Argon are restored; and I still have a soft spot for the territory where my character made his fortune.

As that timeline suggests, the most unique thing about X4 is its pacing. It takes significant real-world time to gather minerals or produce goods; hours to build up a station; and time compression is gated behind in-game requirements. I treated X4 as something closer to a real-life hobby, perhaps gardening or baking: every so often I would come by, check on my empire, tinker a bit, and order new construction. Then I went away, and let the game run in the background while I did other things. So while my Steam playtime is impressive, I have spent only a handful of the nominal 160 hours actually in control! The fun, for me, was in devising a system that could run smoothly on its own.

A fast corvette docked with my flagship, the carrier Morgaine. X4 can be a spectacular game.

Occasionally X4 can be a bumpy experience. The game is very playable as of the current version (3.3), but I have encountered the odd bug — I once had to sell several freighters that refused to do anything, no matter what I tried. And its presentation — gorgeous universe, beautiful music, evocative system names such as “Fires of Defeat”, “Grand Exchange”, and “Second Contact” — is periodically marred by swathes of missing flavour text.

My biggest problem is the way X4 presents information. At heart, it is a complex tycoon game, and it should give the player the appropriate tools to manage this. There were many times I wished I had a sortable “empire overview” screen, similar to Civilization (or to the sidebar in Total War games): this should outline the player’s ships and stations together with appropriate data such as profit or loss, goods carried or produced, and goods currently in inventory. It would be better still if I could drill down from that hypothetical overview screen, like a pivot table. Instead I had to click station by station, eyeballing the production figures. The developers could learn a lot from strategy games — 4X and tycoon — and from real-world spreadsheets.

Planet Zoo is my current gold standard for laying out information in a game. At a glance I can see which staff are busy; how the animals are doing; where my money comes from; and where it is going. In this example, I have broken out my zoo’s income from shops. X4 could learn a lot from this.

At the end of the day, though, X4 is a unique game that sells the “space opera” fantasy better than any other space sim I’ve played. This is the only game where I can stand on the deck of my own shipyard, and watch the traffic come and go; build a carrier at the yard; and command my fleet from its bridge. I can forgive it for also being the only game that makes me periodically wish for an accountant.

Shadow Empire: a 4X where professionals talk logistics

This entry is part 1 of 1 in the series Shadow Empire

For the past week I’ve happily been playing Shadow Empire, a new indie game that straddles the 4X and wargame genres. Now that I’ve won my first game, I think Shadow Empire resembles the Dominions series in its early incarnations: a remarkable game, rough-edged but deep, unique, and all the more remarkable for being the work of one man.

I could best describe Shadow Empire’s premise as a crunchy, simulationist wargame version of the classic Armageddon Empires. Centuries after the fall of the Galactic Republic, civilisation is beginning to re-emerge, and you lead a band of survivors in their fight for control of a post-post-apocalyptic planet. As in 4X games, you build up cities, research new technologies, and expand the empire.

What defines Shadow Empire is its central, wargame-inspired mechanic: logistics. Logistics is central in that it binds together the empire management (4X) and military (wargame) halves of the game, and central in that it is critical to each half. Armies need food, fuel, and bullets, and as in many wargames, there is a supply system that determines whether they receive these — supply flows from HQ, is carried along roads and rail lines, and ultimately reaches the troops. What makes Shadow Empire unique in the 4X genre is that the same system is used for the civilian side of the empire — those same roads and rails are used to ship resources from province to province. Logistics matter!

My front line in Shadow Empire: my units (a mix of armour, mechanised infantry, and motorised infantry) are in blue, the computer’s are in yellow. Supply (the green line) comes in via the highway and railway that lead to the northeast. The supplies get unloaded from the railhead in Dead Steppe, transfer to trucks, and then benefit from an additional truck stop in Mono Ocean. Eventually the supply trains will be unloaded in Hamburg, the selected (and recently conquered) city, once the train station is complete.

This has multiple implications. Provinces need infrastructure investment: truck depots, train stations, roads, and railways (and the capital, as the default supply nexus, needs a lot). Campaigning on the frontier, or at the end of a tenuous supply line, is difficult until that infrastructure is in place. Large empires — and large armies — are vulnerable to having their lines of communication severed.

As this highlights, logistics are both a natural “rubber band” mechanism and an important driver of strategy. Early on, my empire was a long, thin, snaky thing, connected by a single railway. My tiny field army was off on the frontier, having just subjugated a band of Mad Max-style raiders. When a major AI empire declared war, and their hordes swarmed towards my heartland — the capital and the railway — my eyes popped. If they had taken the railway, they could have cut my empire in two! I frantically raised new troops and rushed my existing armies home, abandoning the newly conquered raider territory. In time, I pushed the invaders back; and either I did a good job of cutting them off from supplies, they recruited more troops than their economy could support, or something went badly wrong on their home front, because their troops were consistently “hungry” or “starving”. But as I drove them further and further back, now it was my turn to run into supply issues: my vanguard would sometimes have to pause until the supply infrastructure could catch up.

Once a secure supply line is in place, the rest of the military side of the game is relatively straightforward. There is a lot of maths under the bonnet, but the basics feel familiar and sensible: infantry doesn’t do well at charging machine guns; tanks and artillery are much better at breaking through; and encircling enemy armies is much better than trying to grind them down in a war of attrition. My playbook from other wargames, such as Unity of Command 2, worked a treat: break through the front line, cut enemies off from their supply, and seize cities by coup de main. And I could do this because my army was smaller than my AI opponents’, but better equipped with tanks and motor transport1.

As this highlights, I think Shadow Empire is a lot less complex, or at least much easier to understand, than it seems at first glance. There are a lot of systems running in the background, but cause and effect follow clear, intuitive logic. So for example, during setup, the game generates different biomes and climactic conditions across the world, which affects rainfall across the map. This sounds complicated … but it makes intuitive sense that my population needs to be fed, and that crops need water to grow; so building farms in a lush coastal province is better than building them in the desert. Similarly, tanks need fuel to run. So if I’m running low on fuel — say, because my enemy has conquered my oil wells — I can cut civilian consumption by adopting renewable energy; cut military consumption by researching more efficient tank engines; or increase production by drilling new wells and investing in bio-diesel. The challenge comes from first, the “quirky” user interface, and second, the sheer novelty of the game’s concepts.

The – finally – peaceful seaside province of Rochoyes. With a pleasant climate, it exports plenty of food and water to the rest of the empire.

And there really are a lot of novel concepts. There’s a Distant Worlds-style private sector. There’s the hard science fiction world generation at the beginning of each game, which determines climate, habitability, the edibility of local plant life, the hostility of wildlife, the extent of pre-fall ruins, the amount of radiation in the environment, and more. I’ve seen screenshots of other players’ games with giant 6m-tall wildlife rampaging around.

There are also a lot of rough edges. Now that I’m becoming used to the UI, my main complaint is extremely slow late-game turn times. By around turn 100, it took 5 to 10 minutes to process the AI’s turn! I resorted to streaming TV, while periodically alt-tabbing to check on whether the game was ready. The developer has been very active with patches — one week since release, it’s already up to version 1.03 — so hopefully this can be addressed2.

I think the ultimate compliment is that I want to return to this game. It looks to have the replayability of good 4X and grand strategy titles: I want to try high-tech starts, tropical worlds with hostile life, and more. With luck, it will have the same longevity as the genre’s greats.

Further reading

The Wargamer’s glowing review put Shadow Empire on my radar.

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  1. At first I thought this was an AI failing — the two empires I fought relied mostly on gigantic human wave armies. But on the final turn of my game, I encountered another empire that was small, but well-equipped and technologically superior. So perhaps the AI has different play-styles?
  2. There has already been one bugfix that addressed turn speed. I started playing with the launch version of the game so I don’t know if this was fixed by the patches, or if I would need to start a new game.

Why XCOM: Chimera Squad succeeds as science fiction

This entry is part 2 of 2 in the series XCOM: Chimera Squad

… because it asks “what if”, and then answers that question.

Chimera Squad takes as its premise something established by the previous XCOM games: most of the alien species that invaded Earth are victims too, twisted and warped into weapons of war. Then, it builds on this. What if their masters’ defeat left the alien army free from slavery, but stranded on Earth? And what if humanity responded by extending a hand to its former enemies?

I love the illustrations of daily life that we see between missions, such as a Viper using an ATM at the bank (right), humans and aliens watching TV together (bottom), at the shop (bottom left), and in the workplace (top), aliens waiting for the bus (left centre), and a Sectoid radio host in his studio (top left).

The result is what we see in game. Once you accept that this is soft science fiction – the sort where aliens wear clothes, work in offices, and eat fast food – this is a remarkably well thought out world; I would go so far as to say this is possibly Firaxis’ best writing since Alpha Centauri (and definitely since Civilization IV). Some of this can be seen in the plot; more can be seen in the background flavour.  Images of daily life, and in-universe posters, show how aliens have adopted human customs: we see aliens on holiday, watching TV, going to cocktail parties, rescuing cats from trees, starring in movies, and wearing make-up. One poster even exhorts them to “dress like humans… [it] will help you fit in!” Is its audience aliens looking to fit in, or humans who need to be convinced? Regular ads for fast food are funny, but also clever: not every species can eat every food, and society has had to work out how to keep diners safe. And not everybody, human or alien, is happy with the new arrangements: there are alien protesters who worship spaceships, and human protesters who want to start a fight. On a slightly meta level, there is even an in-universe buddy detective show featuring an alien and a human lead1.

And just as science fiction can serve as a commentary on the real world, it’s impossible for me not to read meaning into Chimera Squad. The squad is a group of former enemies – in one case, two agents fought on opposite sides of the same battle – who have put the past behind them. A deliberate choice, in response to current times? I can’t help but think so.

That intent, and that willingness to adopt the ethos of “what if”, are why Chimera Squad works. Here the science fiction is not window dressing, but central to the premise. The result is a memorable setting and a world where I’d like to see more stories.

  1. We never see this, but there’s an excerpt from its script at one point.

Video Games and the Law of Conservation of Complexity

While replaying Imperialism II recently, I realised how it illustrates the role of complexity within strategy game design. For every game there is a “right” amount of complexity, and it’s up to the developer how to allocate it.

Resources near my capital in Imperialism II. They are connected by road or rail and I don’t need to use my limited shipping capacity to bring them in. Overseas resources must be connected to a port and then shipped in.

The key is that simplifying one aspect of the game frees up complexity to be used elsewhere. Imperialism and Imperialism II exemplify this. On one hand, they make city management much simpler than in other 4X games: there is only one to manage, the capital. On the other hand, their resource model is much more detailed. Instead of generic “production”, every unit needs specific resources, such as steel, bronze, and cloth for uniforms. Every one of these has its own inputs, and every input resource (coal, iron, timber, wool, multiple types of food…) is represented on the map. They need to be discovered, exploited, and connected to transport; and then there have to be enough ships to bring the resources back  home. Going to war has a real opportunity cost; every ship carrying troops or participating in a blockade is one ship that can’t feed the capital.

This principle can be seen elsewhere. Civilization famously has no tactical battles, because they would interrupt the broader flow of the game. Master of Magic and the Age of Wonders series look very similar at first glance, but playing them back-to-back reveals the extent to which Age of Wonders streamlines city-building in exchange for much more detailed combat.

Even Sid Meier had to watch out for this. As recounted by Soren Johnson, he realised “it’s better to have one good game than two great ones” after falling victim to this when developing Covert Action, a spy game whose management and action layers distracted from one another.

Ultimately, just as the player has to manage finite resources within the game, complexity is a finite resource that the designer must manage outside the game. And as with other types of resource management, the benefits are substantial when done well.

Further reading

Soren Johnsons elaboration of why “one good game is better than two great ones” — and when mini-games can succeed.        

Where do the armies come from?

Many kinds of armies have marched through history: regulars, militias, mercenaries, tribal and aristocratic warriors, and more. Yet while historical strategy games feature a colourful panoply of different troops, with distinct equipment and morale, they have typically skated over the question of how these soldiers were organised and paid. Usually, troops hang around indefinitely after being recruited; this system can be seen in games from Civilization to Europa Universalis and Total War. That said, there have been games with an interesting treatment of this subject.

Alexios Komnenos’ Byzantine army in Crusader Kings II. Currently active are retinue troops and “mercenaries” (as the game represents standing Byzantine units – the Scholae and the Varangians).

The most detailed portrayal can be found in Crusader Kings 2. Realms field four different types of troops: levies, vassals’ levies, mercenaries, and personal retinues. With enough money, the last two can be turned into a de facto standing army, and thus a small but wealthy realm — say, one well-positioned on the Silk Road — can field a fighting force out of proportion to its size.

The genius of CK2 is how it incentivises players to follow history and professionalise their army. Levies take time to muster, and vassal levies have another disadvantage — the player is only entitled to them for a certain number of days. It’s better to ask for taxes to be paid in cash, and use the money to hire troops who are always on call.

Another clever example can be found in the Age of Charlemagne DLC for Total War: Attila. Charlemagne used the Total War series’ traditional systems for upkeep, recruitment cost, and recruitment time to encourage players to build a core of professional soldiers: professionals were slow to recruit but powerful and reasonably affordable to maintain, so it made sense to keep them as a standing force. By contrast, levies were cheap and easy to recruit, so there was no point keeping them around between wars; and mercenaries were easy to recruit but very expensive to maintain, so were too costly in peacetime.

As this highlights, mercenaries are quite common in Paradox and Total War games, where they are treated distinctly from regular troops. Typically they are very expensive in exchange for being available immediately. In Europa Universalis IV, mercenaries don’t drain national manpower; and in Total War games, they offer foreign troops who wouldn’t otherwise be available.

Finally, quite a few games allow the player to invest in militia, who then appear as free-spawn local defenders. These include Imperialism, the Total War series from Empire onwards, and fantasy and science fiction games such as the Dominions series and Age of Wonders: Planetfall.

Personally, I think this is fertile territory for the genre to explore further. From a gameplay perspective, this is ripe for trade-offs and interesting decisions: do you strengthen local defences, at the price of also strengthening local leaders? And from a flavour perspective, this would be another way to differentiate factions. I’d love to see more games follow the trail blazed by CK2.

This post is indebted to the late John Keegan, whose classification of armies in A History of Warfare has stuck with me all these years.

XCOM: Chimera Squad impressions – Really good so far

This entry is part 1 of 2 in the series XCOM: Chimera Squad
A Chimera Squad agent arrives on the scene.

Seven hours in, I really like Chimera Squad, both from a mechanical and a narrative perspective.

The game is what I hoped it would be: a brisker, more elegant interpretation of XCOM’s tactical combat. The new turn system means that the old XCOM playstyle, “mow every enemy down in one round”, no longer applies. Instead there are new abilities, and new interesting decisions. With a few upgrades, Axiom, the Muton, can charge across the room and pummel multiple enemies; but is it worth leaving him exposed? Shelter, the psionic, can teleport and swap locations with an enemy. That enemy will become out of position and likely easy prey for the rest of the squad, but Shelter will be surrounded by his remaining foes. Is that worth it? Should I roll the dice on a 70% shot; or go for a guaranteed, low-damage melee attack that will ensure my next character can land a KO? Calculations such as these keep each battle interesting.

The strategic layer is simple but effective: there are too many things I’d like to do, and not enough agents to do them with. I would love to accelerate my research into new equipment; my agents are becoming out-gunned. I would also love to put my agents through advanced training; send them off to gather more resources; or rehabilitate them after injuries. But I only have so many agents, and each of them can only be in one place at one time.

In an inspired touch, Chimera Squad’s tutorial battle takes place in a museum chronicling the events of the previous games. Here the squad shelters behind a model of the Skyranger, XCOM’s transport plane.

The unexpected delight has been the worldbuilding — hands down my favourite in a Firaxis XCOM game. Humans and aliens living in uneasy peace makes for a great setting, and Chimera Squad brings it to life with details that range from the serious (the agents’ biographies hint at the horrors of the alien occupation) to the absurd (an in-universe ad for breakfast food is both hilarious and underscores the extent to which aliens have integrated into human society). I don’t even mind the wise-cracking dialogue, a clear homage to the “buddy cop” genre.

What could be next for the XCOM franchise? If Chimera Squad sells well, I wouldn’t be surprised to see it become its own spin-off series: so XCOM 3, Chimera Squad 2, etc, with each having its own distinct mechanics. I also wonder if, like Chimera Squad, XCOM 3 will borrow a leaf from Julian Gollop’s XCOM: Apocalypse. We now have a multi-species squad in an urban setting; what else could be in store?