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 Wargamers glowing review put Shadow Empire on my radar.

  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?

Touching history in Mount & Blade II: Bannerlord

Mounted archery in Mount & Blade II: Bannerlord. I downloaded a Pikachu banner to use as my clan emblem.

After playing around 20 hours of Mount & Blade II: Bannerlord, I am convinced it is a superb game, for all that it is still (very) Early Access. Bannerlord’s magic is that, while it does not take place in a historical setting, it lets me imagine what history felt like.

This is clearest / most obvious at the micro level — individual battles. Whether fighting as a horse archer in swirling cavalry engagements, or peering out from behind a mantlet to exchange arrows with castle defenders, Bannerlord conveys the chaos, confusion, and spectacle of a medieval battle.

More than that, it sells the illusion of being my character. As I progressed from glorified vigilante to marcher lord, my concerns — and the gameplay — evolved at each step. Chasing bandits at the head of my posse, responsibilities were few: Make payroll and keep the soldiers fed. After I had earned a name for myself, and taken service as a mercenary captain with the Southern Empire, my horizons expanded — and so did the worries. Now I rode as part of the imperial armies, and my opponents were the armies of other kingdoms. I had to help win battles (and hope the general did not get over-confident), look for isolated enemy forces I could pick off, and preserve my own troops — my critical stock in trade. At last, when the Empress Rhagaea granted me lordship of a newly liberated border city, I had a rich reward — and a precarious one. Now it was up to me to strengthen my garrisons, keep the city fed, and watch the frontier like a hawk, lest an enemy army snatch away my prize. My days of criss-crossing the map were over.

Helping this is the game’s sharp distinction between the money and resources available to a landed lord and those available to a landless adventurer. At the start of the game, it was a victory every time I scraped together enough cash to buy a better piece of armour. Saving up 900 or 1,000 coins to hire my first companion seemed as feasible as flying to the moon. As a lord, I pulled in thousands of coins a day. What was the cost of war horses and top-of-the-line armour for my companions?

As a final note, Bannerlord generates the kind of set-pieces that would belong in an Akira Kurosawa movie. At one point during my mercenary career, the army that I’d joined was defeated. My character was taken prisoner, escaped, was caught by bandits, and escaped again. Taking no chances, I limped back to the nearest friendly village and decided to rest and heal. I was still there when a dozen marauding horsemen showed up. And so when the village militia took up arms to defend their homes, one mercenary horse archer fought alongside his hosts. Seven Samurai? There was only one of me!

My favourite games that I played in 2019

This entry is part 7 of 7 in the series Game of the Year Awards

What were my favourite games that I played for the first time?

If 2018 was the year in which I bought a Switch and rediscovered the joys of Nintendo games, then 2019 has been a wonderful year for new releases. I played three excellent new games, any one of which would qualify to be Game of the Year: Dragon Quest Builders 2, Total War: Three Kingdoms, and Fire Emblem: Three Houses:

  • Dragon Quest Builders 2 has been my unexpected hit of the year. I love building towns, rooms, fields, even defensive walls. I love DQB2’s charming, cheerful characters and world. And even after finishing the story months ago, I love tinkering with my island in the postgame: adding spas, barns, irrigation, and a rail network, fleshing out floor plans, and renovating my early projects with everything that I’ve learned since. I am pretty confident this will be my evergreen Switch game for the foreseeable future.
  • Total War: Three Kingdoms is beautiful, challenging, and immersive — a return to form after the hit-and-miss Rome 2 generation. Whether desperately battling to save my capital from a superior invader; planning elaborate, multi-pronged campaigns; haggling with computer players that finally act believably and in-character; or simply admiring the aesthetic, this was almost everything that I hoped for.
  • Similarly, Fire Emblem: Three Houses is my favourite in its series. It rewards careful planning — both in battle, and when strategising how to recruit, train, and develop my crew of heroes — with triumphant satisfaction when those plans come together. And its epic narrative, closer to Legend of the Galactic Heroes than to traditional fantasy, has me intrigued. I estimate I’m 70%-80% through my first run, and I look forward to seeing how it will conclude.
  • Honourable mentions go to three more games: Rule the Waves 2, which challenges players to design, build, and command not the shiniest navy — but the one that’s most appropriate and cost-effective; and Wargroove and Crying Suns, which show what indie strategy games can do with a striking aesthetic and solid gameplay.

Incidentally, this marks a change from the last couple of years. My favourite games of 2018 were mostly Switch titles that had been released in 2017, such as Super Mario Odyssey, Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle, and one of my all-time favourites, Zelda: Breath of the Wild. And my favourite game of 2017 — Shadow Tactics — was likewise released in December 2016.

What are some games that I revisited?

I also revisited, or kept playing, a number of games that I’d played in previous years. Sometimes, this followed the release of new DLC or updates — as with various PC strategy games. Other times, it was about continuing an existing play-through. Some I particularly enjoyed were:

  • Continuing to explore Hyrule in Zelda: Breath of the Wild. I’m still not finished, but with Breath of the Wild 2 announced, a brand-new copy of Link’s Awakening awaiting me, and the DLC a tad too hard for me, perhaps I should just move onto the final battle with Ganon.
  • Playing through the postgame of Super Mario Odyssey;
  • Exploring alien archaeological sites and building a galactic empire in StellarisAncient Relics DLC;
  • Saving the world from fascism for the umpteenth time in Hearts of Iron IV: Man the Guns – and leading the NCR in the Fallout total conversion mod;
  • Trying out new civilisations and winning the space race again in Civilization VI: Gathering Storm.
  • Playing Battletech’s career mode — aka Galactic Mercenary Hand-to-Mouth Simulator — in ironman.

Musical Monday: “Restoration” (Battletech)

Battletech has excellent music, and below is one of my favourite tracks — “Restoration”, the main menu theme. I love the balance it strikes — it sounds heroic and epic, without bombast. Enjoy!

Continue reading “Musical Monday: “Restoration” (Battletech)”

Risk, reward, and mission design in Fire Emblem: Three Houses

This entry is part 2 of 2 in the series Fire Emblem: Three Houses

Juggling knives — In an ideal world, I wouldn’t have split my forces. But faced with multiple objectives — rescue civilians, spread around the perimeter of the map; recover treasure chests; go after the boss —  I’ve had little choice. My party is split across the entire map: some straggling through a thicket towards the boss, others flying on pegasus- or wyvern-back towards the civilians, one man on horseback battling his way up a narrow lane. And now, a powerful optional boss has thundered onto the field, trailed by several lackeys. Fortunately, my strongest character is close enough to intercept. Unfortunately, her best backup – the two people who can hard-counter the new arrival – are on the wrong side of the map.

It’s time to improvise.

I really like Fire Emblem: Three Houses’ mission design.  The game’s rules are fairly basic: most battles are won by defeating all enemies or the boss; and enemies usually activate when someone gets too close. By itself, this produces an optimal way to play: be cautious, cruise across the map in a giant blob, and pick off enemies a few at a time. What the game does well is adding extra layers of complexity, such as mission-specific twists and optional objectives. Here are a few examples:

  • Three-way battles offering a reward if you can defeat more characters than the other two factions, or a race to defeat a specific character to claim a treasure.
  • Optional bosses with rare drops.
  • A reward for keeping waves of spawning pirates out of a village, even as your main force presses on to defeat the boss.
  • A map populated by fast, powerful roving enemies … and a treasure chest in the middle.

This pushes me to vary my tactics, and adds challenge even when my party is over-levelled. It has also delivered memorable set-pieces, such as the one at the top of this post.

Firaxis’ XCOM makes an interesting contrast — I think giving the player a risk/reward decision in Three Houses works better to shake up playstyles, compared to a hard cut-off such as XCOM 2’s controversial mission timer. The XCOM series itself has been through several approaches — Three Houses is closer to picking up MELD in XCOM: Enemy Within, although with greater variety (granted, Three Houses has the advantage of hand-crafted missions, whereas the XCOM games rely on random generation). Comparing these three games, I would argue that carrots work better than sticks.

Musical Monday: The Mongolian Themes of Civilization VI

It’s been more than two years – Musical Monday is back! While Civilization IV‘s “Baba Yetu” is still my favourite Civ theme, for my money Civilization VI has the best in-game music since Civ II. Below is Genghis Khan’s theme as it evolves through the ages — enjoy. It is also available on Spotify if you search for the Civilization VI: Rise & Fall soundtrack.

Continue reading “Musical Monday: The Mongolian Themes of Civilization VI”

More CJ Cherryh: Chanur & The Paladin

Chanur

The Chanur series is intelligent space opera that combines chases, imaginative alien races, and social commentary. Or, alternately, “FTL with less shooting, more talking, and ten times the backstabbing.” Recommended for space opera fans —  and also my safest recommendation for new Cherryh readers.

There are five books in the series and it is best read in order:

  • Book 1, The Pride of Chanur, is a standalone following an alien merchant crew who encounter a strange being, a “human”, and find themselves chased across the galaxy as a result.
  • Books 2-4, beginning with Chanur’s Venture, are a trilogy of the “one story cut into three” kind.
  • Book 5, Chanur’s Legacy, is another standalone, with a different lead character and a more humorous tone than most of Cherryh’s work. It deserves special mention for a prescient joke about email inboxes — not bad for a novel published in 1992!

The Paladin

I love The Paladin. Like my other favourite Cherryh, the Morgaine saga, it’s a story about the relationship between a man and a woman — in this case, an exiled sword-master and his apprentice, a young woman on a quest for revenge. Thus begins their adventure, which takes them through training, danger, and eventually, a brush with their own legend. Don’t be fooled by the lack of a high concept — this is a fine stand-alone, sometimes humorous, more often exciting, and brought to life by its two leads. Well worth a look.

Further reading

Jo Walton’s write-up of The Paladin

Fire Emblem: Three Houses impressions — The best of all worlds

This entry is part 1 of 2 in the series Fire Emblem: Three Houses

Uh oh. I’ve overcommitted. This map has enemies positioned in a “U” shape, with the party starting on one map edge and the enemy lining the other three, and I’ve gone for the aggressive approach — charging straight down the middle. Now I’ve pushed several of my characters too far ahead — and I’m playing with permadeath on! The mighty Princess Edelgard, so capable in a clash of arms, has met her match in an enemy mage. Then Petra the swordswoman goes down, targeted by multiple enemies. Argh.

Rewind one turn. Try again. The advantage of going down the middle is that I’m fighting along interior lines, and now I rush characters from one flank to shore up the other with their healing magic. I pull back my most exposed party members, weather the storm. And lesson learned, I push onto victory.

An early battle in Fire Emblem: Three Houses. The togglable purple overlay marks squares that are in range of enemies. And by selecting an enemy, I can see (bottom left) their target.

Excellent tactical RPG so far. I’m 10-15 hours into Fire Emblem: Three Houses, or up to the start of the game’s fifth chapter. As a lapsed series fan who walked away in frustration from Fire Emblem: Radiant Dawn on the Wii, I was cautious about Three Houses. Instead, it’s exceeded my expectations. I am having a great time with Three Houses’ turn-based battles, the bedrock of the Fire Emblem series; I appreciate the new, anti-frustration features; and I like the new Persona-style explorable hub.

Tense, intelligent turn-based combat Fire Emblem veterans (and XCOM players) will be familiar with the basic rhythm of each turn: a patient, methodical exercise in determining where to move each character, who should attack whom, and in what order. The trick is to minimise incoming damage, both from counterattacks and on the enemy’s turn. This might include:

  • Using a ranged character to soften up a melee enemy so a melee character can safely finish them off.
  • Eliminating enemies before they get the chance to move and attack.
  • Sending forward one character as bait to lure enemies into range.
  • Positioning characters where the fewest number of enemies can reach them.

And because this is an RPG, individual characters’ strengths and weaknesses matter. If there are three magic-users ahead, then it’s best to bait them using someone with high magic resistance. Conversely, magic may be the best option when attacking a heavily armoured knight. Attention to detail is important!

New features mitigate against frustration — There are two: the ability to rewind to an earlier turn (similar to Tactics Ogre’s Chariot system), and the ability to see which characters will be targeted by which enemies when previewing a move (a little like Into the Breach). They serve different functions:

  • Rewinding time is a safety net. I play with perma-death on, so being able to rewind a turn or two is much, much better than having to replay a battle from scratch.
  • Seeing enemy attacks in advance is a planning tool, making it easier to take calculated risks.
Talking to party members between battles in Fire Emblem: Three Houses.

Taking a leaf from Persona was inspiredThree Houses benefits from adding a hub area, where the player can explore and interact with NPCs between battles. Like Persona, this runs on a calendar system, with a finite number of actions available each week. I like this for a couple of reasons:

  • First, it adds another layer of decision-making — I have to prioritise which characters to recruit and which skills to train.
  • Second, a large part of my enjoyment of games comes from puttering around well-designed worlds.

Hybrid vigour. So far, I appreciate both Three Houses’ execution and its new features. The game has breathed new life into the series for me — I look forward to playing more.

Clippings

An oldie but a goodie: The Wargamer’s Joe Fonseca compares how three games (Shogun 2, Sengoku Jidai, and Nobunaga’s Ambition) depict the battle of Nagashino, one of the great engagements of Japan’s Sengoku era.

Alister MacQuarrie at Eurogamer reflects on the philosophy and worldbuilding of Alpha Centauri, still one of the best science fiction games ever made after two decades.

Tim Stone, the Flare Path columnist at Rock, Paper, Shotgun, recently wrapped up a marathon play-by-comment game that challenged readers to lead an outnumbered NATO force to safety. Read on for a tale of courage, reversal, and desperate last stands.

What I’ve been reading and playing — from the Three Kingdoms to the Alliance-Union Universe

Since my last update, I’ve been lucky to play three excellent (and very different) games, all Game of the Year material: Total War: Three Kingdoms, Rule the Waves 2, and Dragon Quest Builders 2. I also reread an old favourite, Lord of the Rings, and ploughed through a new favourite, the works of CJ Cherryh.

Games

Total War: Three Kingdoms is the Shogun 2 successor I’ve awaited for the last 8 years, and the best Total War game to date. Everything I loved about Shogun 2 is back: the challenge, strong execution on both the campaign and battle layers, and a beautiful aesthetic. The challenge hit me very early on — playing Cao Cao (the recommended starting character!), I crashed and burned twice before succeeding on my third try. Even with that experience under my belt, it took me two tries to win as the Ma clan of Western China.

Against stronger opponents, ambushes are the great equaliser. The computer knows how to use them, too…

The campaign layer is immersive and well-designed. Each province is distinct, so geography matters. AI-controlled warlords play like believable characters: they have distinct personalities — Liu Bei will stand by his friends, while Yuan Shu is a treacherous opportunist — and act sensibly, for instance, by bending the knee to stronger powers. Interface improvements make even large empires manageable.

Sturdy shielded infantry make a good anvil on which to break enemy attacks…

The same attention to detail is visible on the battle layer. Each individual battle feels like poetry in motion; even one-sided battles made me consider how I could best win while minimising casualties.  Siege battles are interesting and dynamic for the first time in the series’ history. (Granted, after a certain point the challenge mostly comes from the campaign layer — the computer prefers recruiting cheap early-game troops, no match for a late-game human army.)

… while cavalry is a devastating hammer.

And Three Kingdoms is the best-looking Total War game since Shogun 2. Gone are the dark, muddy graphics of the Rome 2 generation, in favour of vibrant colours. The battle music is good (if not quite “Jeff van Dyck at his best”), and the strategic layer music is lovely and relaxing — the best in the series. I love this game, and I’m so happy that the developers did this period justice.

Flaming shot from trebuchets lights up the night sky.

At the other end of the strategy spectrum is Rule the Waves 2, an indie game covering naval warfare between 1900-1955. What makes it so brilliant is how it captures the essence of strategy — reconciling objectives to limited resources. You are in charge of a Great Power’s navy, whether that be mighty Britain or nearly landlocked Austria-Hungary: you design ships, build them out of a finite budget, and command them in battle, a bit like an oceangoing version of a space 4X game. But unlike a 4X, you are not the leader of your nation. You cannot control world politics, or the rise and fall of international tensions. You cannot control the nation’s economy: the US will always be larger and wealthier than, say, Italy. You cannot control the government, which tweaks the naval budget, makes demands, and if you do badly enough, sacks you — the “game over” condition. You can influence these things – for example, ostentatiously warning of war will give you a bigger budget at the cost of higher world tension – but at the end of the day, it is up to you to make the most of what you are given. I’ve had spectacular results as Austria-Hungary, frugally upgrading my ageing battleships, focusing my meagre budget on fast, modern destroyers trained for night actions, and only picking fights I could win. I’ve had an equally spectacular rise-and-fall as France, building up a proud oceangoing fleet and dominating the Mediterranean, only to be crushed by enemies out of my league — first the British and then the Germans. I was a big fan of the first Rule the Waves, and its sequel has lived up to my expectations.

Dragon Quest Builders 2 illustrates what’s possible by combining the structure and narrative of one genre, the RPG, with the verbiage of another, the builder game. Like an RPG, it’s an epic voyage that takes the heroes across many lands. Like an RPG, you progress by solving NPCs’ quests in each location. But unlike an RPG, those quests typically involve gathering material and building towns.

An early town in Dragon Quest Builders 2. Note the crops and perimeter wall.

It is a pleasure to make each area come to life with homes, workshops, kitchens, dining areas, and defensive walls. Add a localisation brimming with puns and wordplay, and the result is a blend of creativity with charm. I don’t have much experience with the builder genre — beyond bouncing off Terraria years ago — so this has been my pleasant surprise of the year.

Completing a building in Dragon Quest Builders 2.

Books

A few months ago I re-read The Lord of the Rings, accompanied by the Extended Edition movies, and rediscovered my appreciation for Tolkien. Intricate, mythic, and at times moving, LOTR is a masterpiece. It is a book that could only have grown out of its author’s lived experience. It makes no pretensions to realism; yet has something important to say. It richly deserves its status as the foundational text of the fantasy genre.

I’ve also finally become a CJ Cherryh fan, after previously finding her books (Downbelow Station) too dry and dense. Her specialties are alien cultures (in both senses of the word) and driven, desperate protagonists; both themes run through my recent reads. The Morgaine saga follows a woman on an obsessive quest, seen through the eyes of her loyal companion. The hero of Merchanter’s Luck is a traumatised space smuggler pushing himself to the edge of endurance. The Faded Sun trilogy tells the story of two tradition- and taboo-bound aliens searching for their homeworld, and the human veteran who helps them. I’ve just picked up another of her series (The Dreaming Tree), have another on my shelf (the Chanur trilogy), and saved the final Morgaine book for later; I look forward to digging in.

What I’ve been playing

A mission in Wargroove’s campaign

Hello! Since it’s been a while since I wrote about games, I wanted to cover off the notable titles that I’ve played in the last few months. Some of these are new releases — Wargroove, Steamworld Quest. Others are old favourites — Firaxis or Paradox games, benefiting from recent DLC. With much of my gaming moving to Nintendo Switch, I’ve broken out Switch and PC games — in general the PC games have focused on strategy, while the Switch games have been more varied.

Nintendo Switch

Wargroove was probably my standout game for the first few months of the year, with its combination of elegant mechanics, a charming aesthetic, and a generally well-designed campaign. A map can be finished in an hour; but that hour can see quick land-grabbing dashes, a meticulous dance as you yield ground or search for weaknesses in the enemy line, and the final decisive moment when your dragons swoop on the enemy stronghold, or you manage to trundle your trebuchets in range. The game is held back by poor skirmish AI – which limits replayability and makes one of the three gameplay modes, a series of linked skirmish maps, rather pointless – and I do wish the last couple of campaign maps offered depth instead of artificial challenge. Overall, though, it succeeds both as an Advance Wars spiritual successor and as its own game – I will be very interested in any DLC or sequels.

Meanwhile, Steamworld Quest has turned out to be very good. It’s built around one of the best turn-based RPG combat systems I’ve come across, both well-designed and well-executed. I think I’m about two-thirds through, and I have a longer blog post half-written, so stay tuned….

Steamworld Quest in action

Temporarily on the back burner is the Donkey Kong DLC for Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle (I finished the base game last year). It’s more of a good thing, and often laugh-out-loud funny; presumably I’ll return after playing more Steamworld Quest.

I have mixed feelings about Bomber Crew, a game sometimes compared to FTL. Individual missions are very good: enjoyable, often frantic, in the same way as FTL’s encounters. The problem is the overall structure. FTL playthroughs were short: if you died, it was back to square one, but you didn’t lose much time. Bomber Crew is more like XCOM, and not in a good way. There is an ongoing campaign and if you are shot down, you continue with a new plane and crew – the problem is that they will not have their predecessors’ upgrades. I don’t like grinding to re-upgrade the plane and re-level the crew, and I don’t think it makes for a good loop.

Finally, Worms: WMD is a solid franchise game – while the basics remain similar to previous 2D Worms games, I like the additions — vehicles and crafting. The vehicles’ destructive power is classic madcap Worms, while crafting gives the player extra options during a match.

PC

Perhaps the recent standout has been Hearts of Iron IV: first the Man the Guns expansion, then a brief return to the Kaiserreich mod, before moving onto a Fallout: New Vegas total conversion mod, Old World Blues. In general, HOI4 becomes steadily better with each version — Man the Guns and its accompanying patch are solid, without the AI problems that dog the most recent version of Stellaris, and while the new naval system takes a bit of work to set up, I like the power and flexibility that it allows. I doubt any expansion can address several problems with HOI4’s underlying design – the flawed transition between peace and war, the lagging and grindy late game – but for all that, this is a game that’s provided me with significant enjoyment over the last three years.

Old World Blues deserves a highlight for several reasons. First, there’s its sheer ambition: a whole new map, tech trees, and custom factions. Second, I love New Vegas’ setting. And third, it’s functioned as something of an expert-level class in HOI4. For instance:

  • I’ve usually found supply to be trivial in HOI4, except when fighting in remote areas such as the Andes or Central Asia. It is not trivial in Old World Blues. The awful infrastructure of the post-apocalyptic West Coast, unless upgraded, imposes severe attrition on massed troops – a problem when playing as the NCR, a “quantity over quality” faction.
  • Similarly, playing this mod made me realise that historical hindsight let me paper over the gaps in my knowledge of HOI4 mechanics. Yes, a long-ranged escort fighter is a good idea. Yes, armoured divisions should be built around combined arms. Yes, there’s something to these newfangled aircraft carriers. Without this advantage, I’ve struggled. I know the difference between a P-51 and a B-17, but should I build NCR salvaged power armour or Protectron robots? How important is the “Breakthrough” stat? How are supply lines calculated? I think I need to pay more attention to the underlying numbers – and that will make me a better base-game player as well.

Meanwhile, I’m currently nearing the end of my first Civilization VI: Gathering Storm run – it’s been enjoyable, even without making much use of the new features. Sadly, I don’t think I’m going to win! I also made several unsuccessful attempts as Dai Viet in Europa Universalis IV – I think I’m out of practice after not having played for several expansions.

A few non-strategy games stare at me from my Steam library. Yakuza 0 and Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey, both picked up on sale last year; the former unplayed, the latter barely scratched. Heaven’s Vault has beautiful art, and I love its premise – you play a science-fiction archaeologist and the gameplay seems built around dialogue and deciphering alien languages – but I haven’t quite been able to get into it. Next time…

Further reading

Write-up of Old World Blues

Jumping for joy: the delightful world of Super Mario Odyssey

Super Mario Odyssey bursts with charm. Nintendo has always done colour and whimsy well, and Mario Odyssey is no exception. Filled with an imaginative array of creatures and clever little touches, it’s one of the most cheerful games I’ve played.

Super Mario Odyssey bursts with charm. Nintendo has always done colour and whimsy well, and Mario Odyssey is no exception. Filled with an imaginative array of creatures and clever little touches, it’s one of the most cheerful games I’ve played.

I can pinpoint the moment when Mario Odyssey won my heart. In the first hour of the game, I came across a sleeping Tyrannosaurus rex lying on a small hill in the Cascade Kingdom, a colourful island of waterfalls and soaring cliffs. By now, I’d encountered the island’s hostile creatures — spiky little swarming monsters; big, snarling Chain Chomps — and down the hill from the T-Rex, there were more Chain Chomps up ahead. The game’s “capture” mechanic had already been introduced — Mario can transform into other characters by throwing his hat at them. So I took control of the T-Rex.

Mario’s hat and moustache appeared on its face.

The T-rex roared.

This was going to be good.

A T-rex under Mario’s control

A vivid and varied cast. Each level of Mario Odyssey is full of weird and wonderful inhabitants such as the snoozing dinosaur; while some are hold-overs from previous Mario games, many are new. For example:

  • A stronghold modelled after Japanese castles is defended by jingasa-hatted warrior birds – you need to capture the birds, jab their sharp beaks into walls, and vault upwards to climb the walls.
  • The fastest way around a desert temple complex is to ride a galloping jaguar statue summoned from bus stops.
  • At one point you need to compete against rotund racers who bounce up and down along the course.

Little touches seal the deal. There are the local outfits Mario can acquire as he travels from level to level, ranging from samurai armour (pictured below) to a pin-striped suit:

One of the many costumes Mario can unlock

There’s the conceit behind the level maps — they’re not just a convenience for the player, they’re taken from in-universe tourist brochures. And there are the tourists themselves — check out the screenshot below, featuring a group of visitors to the desert level.

A group of tourists in Super Mario Odyssey’s post-game

A treat for all ages. While Mario Odyssey is mechanically satisfying, what kept me coming back was how much I enjoyed its world. I enjoyed exploring each level; I enjoyed dressing Mario up in new costumes; I enjoyed wandering around in the post-game, seeing what had changed. Here’s to Nintendo, and its sense of joy.

Six Ages: Ride Like The Wind is an interactive story bringing myth and magic to life

Six Ages: Ride Like The Wind is a gamebook — an interactive story about leading a clan in a world of myth and magic. Alongside its predecessor, King of Dragon Pass, Six Ages is almost unique in its intersection between storytelling and a resource-management game. And like King of Dragon Pass, Six Ages brings its setting to vibrant life, encouraging the player to stay in-character in a world where the divine is never far away.

Much of Six Ages is spent managing the day-to-day business of the clan: which gods to propitiate that season, where to send emissaries and scouting parties, whom to raid, whether to focus on herding, crafting, or sharing stories, and so on:

This is essential stuff — a clan that’s short on cows isn’t much of a clan — but by itself, not terribly exciting. The heart and soul of Six Ages is the illustrated story events that pop up, like the one below. Some are one-offs. Some are part of ongoing subplots. Some are major story beats. And one sequence turns out to be the path to winning the game. Each offers a choice:

An event in Six Ages.

The key is to think like your people, the Riders. Understand their ways, their portents, their rituals. Tradition is a good guide, though not infallible. When in doubt, conducting a divination is usually a good first step, and sacrificing to the gods a good second step. Your advisors, at the bottom of the screen, will chip in with their own opinions (more skilled advisors give better advice).

Six Ages’ design goals are clearest in the rituals in which you send a hero into the gods’ world to seek a boon (in a clever touch, the mortal and divine worlds are drawn in different styles and by different artists – see the image below). The ritual unfolds as a reenactment of the chosen god’s myth, Choose Your Own Adventure-style: how should Ernalda, goddess of trade, win the trust of geese? What should Busenari the cow-mother ask from her counterpart the horse goddess? Your clan can do several things to prepare, for instance, allocating points to ritual magic, requesting worshippers from friendly clans, and sending the right hero. And you, the player, can prepare by going to the game’s “lore” section and reading the myth. It’s not a test of rote knowledge — I have succeeded by going off-script, and I’ve read a developer interview (linked below) indicating that these quests were designed to be flexible. At the same time, I would not go in blind, and the act of reading and preparing brings me one step closer to the characters and the world they inhabit.

The outcome of a successful ritual in Six Ages.

And that’s what Six Ages does so well. It’s a game about peoples, mythologies, and the mindset that connects the two; and a story that takes advantage of its medium.  I would like to see more like this, and I look forward to the planned sequels.

Further reading

How Six Ages builds a game around the power of myth (also discussing King of Dragon Pass)

80 Days, a steampunk retelling of the Jules Verne novel, is another fun interactive story

The joys of Picross

The perfect game to unwind. In the last few weeks, Picross S2, the latest in a long-running family of puzzle games, has become a regular part of my gaming. It is relaxing and at the same time, challenging enough to keep me entertained. Each puzzle is an iterative process, beginning with a few clues. The numbers on the sides tell me how many squares should be filled in each row or column. At the start, there’s enough information to identify the first few squares that I should (or shouldn’t) fill in:

Near the start of a Picross S2 puzzle.

After marking the relevant squares, I can use this new knowledge to identify the next set of squares, and repeat. This is the same puzzle, almost complete:

The same puzzle, nearly complete.

Manageable, and manageably bite-sized. Most of the puzzles I’ve played take around five minutes to solve. There are several ways to increase the challenge: turning hints off (as I did in the screenshots), trying different game modes, and playing larger, more complex puzzles. So far, I’ve been content to gradually work my way up — I prefer my puzzles on the soothing side!

And it is soothing. There is logic to this game, and routine, and the knowledge that those routines will ultimately solve the puzzle. I expect this to be my “quick break” game for some time to come.

Clippings: Strategy game quarterly, June 2018

Hello, and welcome to the latest Clippings. This one focuses on quarterly news in the strategy game genre – stay tuned for future updates.

New releases (games I’ve played marked with an asterisk)

Battletech* — my “new release of the quarter”, a turn-based tactical RPG built on two solid pillars: (1) customising ‘Mechs that complement one another and are strong in their own right; and (2) taking them into battle, a test of your design and tactical skill.

Total War Saga: Thrones of Britannia — this one has sat in my Steam backlog since release (notwithstanding the appeal of its setting, the ninth-century British Isles). I’ve been daunted by reports of lacklustre AI and sluggish late-game pacing, the traditional banes of Total War games. Next time, I’ll wait for reviews…

Surviving Mars — this science-fiction city-builder launched to a rough reception. Since then, several patches have reportedly improved it.

Frostpunk — well-received survival/city-builder game set in a steampunk world overrun by the cold.

Upcoming releases

Total War: Three Kingdoms has been delayed until 2019 (it was previously scheduled for later this year). The first glimpse of gameplay appeared at E3, and previews are starting to go up.

Business

Paradox Interactive has acquired Harebrained Schemes, the developer of Shadowrun Returns and Battletech. This deal will strengthen Paradox’s RPG line-up and (presumably) its ability to develop new RPGs in the future, consistent with an increasing focus on the genre.

Why Zelda: Breath of the Wild is one of the best games I’ve ever played

Soaring over Lake Hylia in Zelda: Breath of the Wild.

A magical experience. Here is what I accomplished in a little over an hour with Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild: I soared over a desert, and swam a lake. I explored a desolate mesa, and followed the path of a shooting star. I plucked a scale from a dragon, and battled past monsters to offer it up at a shrine. And I did all this in one session.

Easily in my top-ten list. After playing Breath of the Wild for the last five months, my appreciation is undimmed. The game sets overall goals and leaves it up to the player how to achieve them. It encourages exploration, whether to gather resources, find the next objective, or simply marvel at the game’s world. And it backs up its design with strong execution, from game mechanics to worldbuilding and story.

Continue reading “Why Zelda: Breath of the Wild is one of the best games I’ve ever played”

Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind is manga’s answer to Dune

The Nausicaa boxed set. Source: Amazon

Hayao Miyazaki’s Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind is a magnificent science-fiction manga, richer and more complex than the movie of the same name. Both the manga (1982-1994) and the movie (1984) chronicle the adventures of Nausicaa, a courageous young princess and aviator who becomes the saviour of a devastated world. While the movie is better-known, the manga benefits from being able to explore its world and characters at greater length — and in greater depth.

The closest Western equivalent is Dune, in terms of themes, epic sweep, and at times, a penchant for the surreal. Both stories are concerned with ecology and the environment: the desert and its sandworms in Dune, a poisonous forest and its guardian insects in Nausicaa. Both stories involve prophecy, the fall of empires, and a vast, often geographically separated cast. What distinguishes Nausicaa is Miyazaki’s worldview: there are few truly wicked characters in his works. Even scheming, selfish characters often discover a hidden side. Instead, the true villains are hatred, anger, and sometimes, sheer stupidity.

The multi-layered story permits multiple characters to shine. Like Paul Atreides in Dune, Nausicaa is a messianic figure who rallies downtrodden tribes, benefits from prophecy, and forms bonds across species. Unlike Paul, Nausicaa is a pacifist, and her concern for all living beings — plants, insects, and humans of every nation — is her defining trait throughout the story. Meanwhile, the most interesting character is Princess Kushana, promoted from the movie’s villain to the hero of a parallel plotline. Where Nausicaa operates on the level of the mythic, Kushana concerns herself with temporal power. Where Nausicaa benefited from a loving family, Kushana has been hardened by vicious court intrigue. And where Nausicaa’s circle of concern touches the whole world, Kushana’s initially focuses on the men under her command. Kushana’s story arc makes her both a useful foil to Nausicaa and my favourite character.

The first page of Nausicaa. Source: Viz Media 2012 edition

Art occasionally difficult to follow. While factions are distinguished by garb (and in one case, by speech bubbles in a different font), I found similarly dressed minor characters difficult to tell apart. Meanwhile, action scenes often required me to page back and forth to work out what was going on. This is one area where the coloured, animated movie has an edge over the manga.

Recommended for science fiction fans. Epic, engrossing, and imaginative, the Nausicaa manga is available in English as a handsome two-volume hardcover boxed set (Viz Media, 2012).

Nintendo Switch: all I wished for, and more

A much-anticipated treat. The Nintendo Switch is a technological marvel: docked and connected to a TV, it offers the power of a traditional console; unplugged, it offers the flexibility of a portable device. I’ve kept an eye on the Switch since before launch, and when I saw a good Boxing Day deal from Amazon Australia, I pounced. So far, I am delighted, both with the Switch and the two games I’ve bought: Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle and Zelda: Breath of the Wild.

Impressions below:

Sizing up the field in Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle. Source: Author

Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle is a colourful, charming tactical RPG. The game is an odd beast — developed by Ubisoft using the Mario IP — and at first glance, the influence of Firaxis’s XCOM is clear, as Mario peers from behind cover and runs up to take flanking shots. Two things distinguish Mario + Rabbids. First is the importance and ease of movement: characters can dash into enemies, extend their movement range by trampolining off allies, and traverse large distances by diving into pipes. Second is the sense of joy, as pronounced as in any Nintendo first-party game: the world is bright and vibrant, and the animations are delightful — right down to Mario’s exaggerated, panicky body language when an enemy flanks him. So far the game has been easy; I understand that it becomes much harder later on. I look forward to playing more!

The splendours of Hyrule in Zelda: Breath of the Wild. Source: Author

Zelda: Breath of the Wild captures the majesty of exploration — and the danger. Unlike other open-world games I’ve played, which revolved around combat, Breath of the Wild is about exploration for its own sake. Combat, quests, and NPCs do exist, but so far, in limited quantities. Instead, my time has been mostly spent roaming the wilderness, solving the odd puzzle, and using my wits to survive. I’ve used my powers to cross a lethal, fast-flowing river; cooked up (literally – there is a crafting/cooking system) dishes to protect against the cold — and ran from monsters until I found a decent weapon. I’ve also marvelled at sunsets, climbed up trees to pluck apples, and stood at a campfire experimenting with recipes. As a child, I loved Zelda: Link to the Past; over 20 years later, Breath of the Wild has brought that magic back.

Some interesting releases set for 2018. I’m particularly interested in tactical RPGs, of which at least two are due out this year: Valkyria Chronicles 4 and an unnamed Fire Emblem game. I’ll also keep an eye on RPGs (including 16-bit JRPG homage Project Octopath Traveller and Shin Megami Tensei 5) and a turn-based strategy game (Wargroove). Between these and the games already out, I expect my Switch to get plenty of use this year.

Further reading

Wikipedia offers a comprehensive list of Switch games (sort by release date to see upcoming releases)

The movies I saw in 2017

Hello, and welcome to the first part of my 2017 wrap – the movies I saw at the cinema. In a later post, I’ll discuss the notable games I played.

The movies can be divided into several tiers, from great to bad:

 

The Greats

Blade Runner 2049 – Overall, my movie of the year. An excellent piece, succeeding on multiple levels: (1) as a cyberpunk thriller; (2) as a thematically rich story about one person’s search for identity; and (3) as a commentary on humanity’s relationship with technology.

La La Land – My surprise hit of the year: beneath the catchy songs, I found a deeply resonant story about what it takes to fulfill a dream: hard work, setbacks, and ultimately, sacrifice.

 

Honourable mentions

Dunkirk – A war movie that eschews bombast for quiet heroism.

 

Entertaining time-killers

Star Wars: Rogue One

Star Wars: The Last Jedi

While not very deep, Rogue One succeeds as an action-oriented return to the original timeline. The highest compliment I can offer is that it made me yearn for a good Star Wars game!

Like The Force Awakens, The Last Jedi is a remix of the original trilogy, but compared to its predecessor, it’s smarter, more self-aware, and more willing to diverge from the originals. It does stretch on too long.

 

Valiant defeat

Ghost in the Shell – Visually striking anime adaptation (drawing especially on the 1995 movie and the Second Gig TV series), brought down by a reliance on cyberpunk cliche.

 

Avoid

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets – A mess of a movie, missing much of the original comics’ charm.

 

 

Clippings: Strategy Gaming in November; Discounted Wargames

Hello, and welcome back to the site! It’s been a bit of a break as I juggle real life and other projects; however, I still keep one eye on what’s going on in strategy games.

November is set for a number of releases, including:

  • Empire Divided, an expansion for Total War: Rome II that depicts the Crisis of the Third Century. This is a very significant period in Roman history – the dividing line between the early Empire (the Principate), and the later Empire from Diocletian onward (the Dominate, familiar to players of Total War: Attila). Rome II itself has come a long way from its deeply flawed launch and I’m eager to play this latest expansion.
  • Dominions 5: Warriors of the Faith, the latest in the long-running myth/fantasy series. Looking at the features list, I suspect this will be evolutionary rather than revolutionary. Given all the delight that the Dominions games have given me over the years – they feel like epic fantasy should feel, magical and awe-inspiring, in a way that bigger-budget games have struggled to match – this looks like another early purchase for me.
  • Jade Dragon and Cradle of Civilisation, the latest DLCs for Crusader Kings II and Europa Universalis IV, respectively. Central Asia is one of my favourite regions to play in CK2, and so I’m particularly interested in Jade Dragon, which adds China as an off-map power with significant influence over the Silk Road.

Meanwhile, Fanatical – the renamed Bundle Stars – is currently running a sale that features a significant number of Slitherine’s wargames. I picked up two games from opposite ends of the complexity scale – the incredibly detailed  Command: Modern Air and Naval Operations, and the biere-et-bretzels Victory and Glory: Napoleon. Both seem promising so far – see my Victory and Glory impressions here – and I look forward to spending more time with them!

Quick impressions: Victory and Glory: Napoleon

Victory and Glory: Napoleon is a simple, elegant PC strategy game that places players in charge of France during the Napoleonic Wars. It bears a heavy boardgame influence, namely a design philosophy that emphasises clever abstraction over detailed simulation.

The strategic layer is a race against time: Napoleon must crush his rivals before Britain can build up an overwhelming coalition. Attrition is the player’s enemy: France starts with the finest troops in Europe, but reinforcements are scanty (and spawn all the way in Paris), friendly German and Italian levies are weak, and the other Great Powers will eventually reform their armies to match France’s standards. And while Napoleon is the most formidable general in the game, he can only be in one place at one time…

The tactical layer, while simple, rewards period tactics. Infantry will automatically form squares to repel horsemen – and in so doing, make themselves vulnerable to artillery. Cavalry get a bonus when counter-charging tired opponents. A special rule incentivises the player, like Napoleon, to keep the Imperial Guard in reserve.

Simplicity should not be confused with easiness. Not understanding the game mechanics, I defeated Austria in the 1805 scenario but lacked the manpower to finish off a newly hostile Prussia or force Russia to the negotiating table. Like a cornered lion, Napoleon and his last remaining army crushed several attempts to invade France, but when the odds grew too overwhelming, I abdicated quit.

Overall, I like this game – it’s both entertaining, and a good example of how a designer can capture the feel of a period without bogging down in detail. I’m looking forward to returning from Elba my next game as L’Empereur!

Further reading

Developer interview on Slitherine forums