Clippings: Victoria 3; Mario Rabbids: Sparks of Hope; Anno 1800 DLC; Shadow Empire DLC; delays

Hi, everyone.

Earlier this month I finished, and loved, the first season of Lord of the Rings: Rings of Power. Despite a few rough edges, it’s my favourite show in years. I also finished the Silmarillion last month, and went on to read Tales from the Perilous Realm, a collection of Tolkien’s short fiction. Now I need something else to watch — and read. Easier said than done; Tolkien set a high bar!

I’m still extremely positive on hard science fiction strategy game Terra Invicta, although I’ve put it on hold pending another update or two. I watch the beta patch notes like a hawk and the developers have addressed the AI issue that I encountered, so I don’t think it will be long until I resume my game. Lessons learned the hard way: terrestrial militaries are in the game for a reason…

Forming Australia 50 years early in Victoria 3.

The highest-profile recent PC strategy release is Paradox’s Victoria 3. I’ve had my ups and downs with the series — I played a lot of the original Victoria back in the day, but liked the ideas behind Victoria 2 more than the actual game. So far, I’m more positive on Victoria 3. I’m playing a practice game as New South Wales -> Australia, and now that I’ve learned the basics, I’m enjoying it. Should the game measure up, there are a few countries I’d like to try, such as Meiji Japan or Habsburg Austria.

On the Switch, Ubisoft has released Mario Rabbids: Sparks of Hope. The details are quite different from the first Mario Rabbids, but the overall effect is similar. It’s a low-stress, fairly easy tactical RPG – even on hard difficulty, only one battle has given me any trouble so far. Worth checking out for fans of the first game.

Anno 1800 is still my perennial game. The game’s latest scenario, “Clash of Couriers“, arrived as part of the most recent DLC. It’s very charming, with the premise being delivering mail, collecting stamps, and solving city-building challenges along the way. So far, I also find it easier than the previous scenario — although it’s still early days, so this could turn out to be a case of famous last words.

In the video below, Shadow Empire developer Vic Reijkersz explains the upcoming “Oceania” DLC, which will add ocean planets and NPC maritime trading houses. I’m a big fan of SE and once the DLC is out, I look forward to jumping (diving? swimming?) back in.

Finally, a few upcoming games have been delayed:

  • The Front Mission remake is now due out for Switch in November, per Nintendo’s website.
  • Amplitude and Aspyr have delayed the console port of Humankind indefinitely, which doesn’t sound good (hat tip to frogbeastegg).
  • Matrix will publish Rule the Waves 3 by the end of the March quarter of 2023. The game will also come to Steam — a first for the series.

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Tinykin: household exploration has never been so charming

Tinykin is a short, delightful indie game about exploring a house and solving puzzles as a miniature person. 

What I like about Tinykin is its focus on low-stress exploration. Each level is a different room of the house — such as the living room or kitchen — connected by a couple of hubs. The residents of each room are intelligent, talking insects such as ants, dragonflies, shield bugs, and mantises, usually with punny names and entertaining dialogue. Each room’s goal is to help its residents with a quest, be that activating an old CD player, or baking a cake. Achieving that requires the help of even smaller creatures  — the tinykin.

Tinykin carrying corn down a ramp made by other tinykin.

Different tinykin have different abilities, such as strength (purple), conducting electricity (blue), or allowing you to climb higher (green). Achieving each room’s objective needs a certain number of tinykin — for example, assembling enough purple tinykin to carry a large object — and these can be found around the room. While Tinykin is a 3D platformer, navigating around is quite easy. The trick is usually working out what to do or where to go next, rather than  how to make a jump. The cost of messing up is low — there are few hazards, and dying returns you to where you just were. Instead, I could discover the environment at my own pace.

Yes, that’s a CD.

And that environment is clever and charmingly designed. The joy is in seeing how the insects have repurposed everyday household objects for their miniature society, such as a matchbox used as a bed, thumbtacks used as restaurant seats, a river bank made out of kitchen sponges, and a castle made out of Lego bricks. Even after fulfilling each room’s objective, I enjoyed combing the environment, solving side quests, and picking up collectibles.

Insects enjoying themselves at a venue.

I think the greatest compliment I can pay Tinykin is that I wish it were longer. (Normally, I complain that games are too long!) This is a game I had to ration so that I wouldn’t finish it too quickly. I would love to see a sequel.

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Terra Invicta: An Early Access strategy game that reaches for the stars

Terra Invicta is the game I’ve wanted for years. Currently in Early Access, it is a hard science fiction exploration of first contact with aliens, humanity’s response, and our subsequent expansion into the Solar System. It will not be to everyone’s taste. I find it remarkable, and I think it’s worth a look if you, like me, are its target audience.

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At its heart, TI will appeal to players who:

  • Enjoy complex, simulationist strategy games, such as grand strategy games
  • Are interested in real-world and near-future space travel
  • Don’t mind ambitious, slow-burning, and occasionally rough games

I could best describe TI as two games in one — the first on Earth and the second in space. On Earth, humanity has split into seven factions, each advocating a different response to the aliens — from resistance through to an alien-worshipping doomsday cult. As the leader of one faction, you send out agents to rally countries to your cause, mobilise their resources, and build up their space programs. In space, you develop bases on other planets, moons, and asteroids, mine them for resources, and build stations and spacecraft.

What links the two layers is the economy. Lofting resources and equipment from Earth to space costs “Boost”, an abstraction of your supporting countries’ space launch capabilities. Building directly in space saves on Boost, but requires offworld mines to supply the necessary resources. Spacecraft and bases, especially large ones, need money and “Mission Control” to maintain; early on, these come from Earth.

How does this play out? Here’s an example, from early in my game. I chose France as my first country to recruit — it’s large enough to contribute to the cause, small enough to be achievable at the start, and home to the Guiana Space Centre. Countries with space programs or launch sites in real life begin with Boost in-game 1:

France became the inaugural member of the Terran Accords, my custom name for the “Resistance” faction. The Resistance is the equivalent to XCOM or Stargate Command; they defend Earth from the invading aliens. Note the “1.1” next to the rocket icon on the left (this is France’s Boost) and the “1” next to the satellite dish (Mission Control).

From there, I moved into Canada, the Czech Republic, and the US. Offworld, I began with a mining base on the moon, which supplied water and ores. I then used those resources to start mining Mars:

I chose a Fissiles-rich site to set up my first mining base on Mars. Fissiles (represented by the green radioactivity icon) are important for running nuclear reactors in space.

Now, the year is 2031. I’m ahead on Earth. In space, I plan to use Mercury’s abundant solar energy to fuel command centres and nano-factories2, while mines on Mars and Ceres feed the eventual shipyards.

I used my very first spacecraft to set up bases at Mercury. Ion drives gave it the delta-v (a terrestrial equivalent would be “range”) to get there, although it took a while.

The missing part is space technology. My early spacecraft are good enough to putter around Earth or Mars orbit and bully the other human factions. They are nowhere near good enough to challenge the aliens.

The Protectorate advocates surrender to the aliens. I didn’t want to leave them in control of a valuable Martian outpost, so I took it over using a spacecraft loaded with marines.

As this suggests, TI is a slow burn:

  • In-game, long lead times make it necessary to plan ahead. Just starting a Mars base, for example, takes about a year of in-game travel time with early tech.
  • Out of game, it’s taken me about a week to reach this point — and I suspect I’m only in the midgame. I could probably have finished a shorter 4X game in that time.

It’s also large and complex. There are hundreds of individual locations in the game — regions on Earth and celestial bodies in space. There are many sub-systems: the Earth and space economies, cloak-and-dagger conflict and outright wars on Earth, spacecraft design, research, and more. The tech tree is really a forest. At a design level, this will appeal to some players more than others.

Moving from design to execution, some of TI’s issues are what I’d expect from an Early Access game, such as buggy tooltips and values that need to be tweaked. I’m not worried about these. The developers have already started fine-tuning the game based on player experience; for example, it’s now tougher to subvert space stations.

I think the biggest area for improvement is the way the game presents information. The worst culprit is research. Here is an example:

Terra Invicta’s tech tree. This isn’t even the most detailed view!

In this case, I can see that researching “Nuclear Fusion in Space” will allow me to develop muon spikers and fusion piles. But is that a good idea, or not? What are their advantages? What do they even do? Will it help me reach my goal of developing better spacecraft drives? I have to look up out-of-game information — for example, this guide on Steam — to get a better idea. It would be much easier if I could check the details in advance.

Another example is simpler — it would be really helpful if in-game lists had some of the same features as real-life spreadsheets. Here is a list of all the space habitats (stations and planetary bases) I control. I can filter by location and faction control (in this case, me), but I’d love a way to sort it by resource production:

The Habs screen. Hermes Base is close to the Sun, which grants a giant bonus to solar energy production. I plan to use it for energy-intensive modules such as command centres and nanofactories.

TI does let me sort the “Prospecting” screen. But I can’t filter it:

The Prospecting screen, which lets me view celestial bodies in terms of potential resource production. I control two of the top three Fissiles-producing sites.

A final example is the events log — the vertical list of icons on the left-hand side of the screen. As is, it’s not very useful. The icons are cryptic and I have to mouse-over each one to bring up a tooltip in tiny font. As such, I think the developers have scope to improve the clarity of the game’s interface before a full release.

Ultimately, I think a decent litmus test of whether you’d enjoy Terra Invicta is whether you like similarly complex, ambitious games such as Shadow Empire, Dominions 5, or even X4: Foundations. I love its premise, I admire its uniqueness, and, even as is, I enjoy its execution. While it won’t be for everyone, it may well turn out to be one of my all-time strategy greats.

  1. For this reason, Kazakhstan, home to the Baikonur cosmodrome, is another popular starting country for players.
  2. These generate, respectively, Misson Control and money, which are at a premium on Earth

Regiments: elegant, focused Cold War tactics

Regiments is a Cold War real-time tactics game that I could best sum up as an indie spiritual successor to Eugen’s Wargame series, and in particular, the first game in the series — Wargame: European Escalation. Overall, it stands as a testament to the “tight, focused” school of strategy game design.

An incoming East German force (red, top) drives into a crossfire from my defending West Germans (blue). I usually play zoomed out, but it’s possible to zoom in to watch individual vehicles.

Regiments’ overall philosophy is elegance1.  Like Wargame, Battle Academy, and Panzer General, it operates at the beer-and-pretzels end of the wargaming spectrum — instead of detailed simulation, it aims to capture the “feel” of its subject. And compared to its most obvious forebear, Wargame, there is less “stuff”: fewer units, less micro-management, and a tighter focus2. The smallest controllable unit is now a platoon of several vehicles, which means units die less quickly, and introduces an interesting trade-off — when should a depleted platoon hang on, and when should it retreat to be replenished? Infantry have been abstracted; they and their transports move and fight together as a single unit. Press a button, and the infantry disembark. Press it again, and they remount.

Regiments is single-player only, with the focus being on the campaign3. This comprises seven individual campaigns, played in order: East German, two West German, Soviet, Belgian, Soviet again, and finally the US.

Between battles in the US campaign. I augmented my core force (top) with a mechanised infantry unit, an artillery unit equipped with powerful DPICM ammunition, and an aviation unit equipped with Cobra gunships. Given the size of the later maps, the mobility of Apache and Cobras made them invaluable as my reserve.

Campaigns are linear, each comprising 1-4 maps, and several battles (20 minutes each) per map. Between maps, players juggle scarce resources to call in reinforcements, replenish depleted units, top up supplies, or increase the deployment limit in battle. I liked the campaign progression:

  • On Normal, I found the difficulty about right. After the easy opening campaign, the difficulty ramped up quickly, without becoming frustrating4.
  • The difficulty culminates with the last two campaigns. The US campaign gives players the most powerful equipment in the game, and then after a couple of relatively easy maps, pits us against a vast Soviet offensive. It was a fittingly climactic clash of the titans.
  • There is an “anti-frustration” feature: you can skip a campaign and move onto the next one if you’re stuck!
Calling in an off-map MLRS barrage using Tactical Aid points. One of the available campaign upgrades allows TA points to recharge faster.

Battles usually involve capturing or defending objective zones. A few introduce a wrinkle, such as defending a friendly convoy, stopping an enemy convoy, or hunting down special enemies (HQ or artillery units). Generally, I like the fluid way in which they play out:

  • “Take and hold” missions alternate between pushing forward and holding ground against counterattacks. Sometimes, I had to scramble when an enemy counterattack threatened to roll up my exposed lines of communication and cut off my spearhead.
  • On the defence, there’s a balance between holding entrenched positions and waging a mobile defence. Part of the skill of playing Regiments is knowing when to stand and fight; when to hold on and buy time; and when to bug out.
  • The exception was several “raid” missions, which I found too gamey compared to set-piece battles.
The power of an ambush: I hid an M3A2 recon Bradley platoon in the woods and set it to ‘hold fire’ (top right). From behind, it devastated the Soviet vehicles passing by.

Part of Regiments’ appeal is brevity5. Individual campaign battles are 20 minutes each, which allows several to be played in one sitting. According to Steam, I finished the entire campaign in 25 hours (probably less, after taking AFK time into account). I prefer shorter, finishable games, so this was a plus for me.

Now that I’ve finished the campaign, what’s next? More armies, features, and campaigns are planned for the game, and I’d be interested in any DLC. There’s a strong foundation here — I’d like to see where the game goes next. And I’m sure it will be on my year-end list of 2022’s highlights.

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  1. Perhaps not coincidentally, it is the work of a solo developer
  2. Regiments does offer one feature missing from Wargame — night battles. These generally favour NATO, given their superior night vision equipment.
  3. There is also a skirmish mode, which I haven’t tried yet.
  4. Eugen could learn from this —  I never finished the European Escalation and Steel Division: Normandy 1944 campaigns, both of which thought it was fun to beat the player’s head against the wall.
  5. With a price tag to match — it’s pretty cheap at US$30. It was even cheaper at launch.

Clippings: Middle-Earth; new Humankind expansion; Victoria 3; Two Point Campus; Sherlock Holmes; Regiments; Expeditions: Rome

My 1994 HarperCollins edition of the Silmarillion. Finally being read!

Hi, everyone. I’ve been on a Middle-Earth kick, beginning with a rewatch of the Extended Edition LOTR movies, this time with the director’s/writers’ commentary on. For the first time, I’m watching the “making of” discs, and they are fascinating. I particularly love seeing the process of choosing locations, designing the visuals, and bringing them to life.

Since then, I’ve begun watching the new Rings of Power streaming series. No spoilers from me – so far, so good.

I’ve even finally started the Silmarillion (after several failed attempts — the trick was skipping the opening chapter). I like it! What strikes me is the unflattering view it paints of its characters. Much like the characters in real-world mythologies, the folk of Tolkien’s First Age might be immortal, but they are also petty and not very wise. The Valar bicker over turf; Feanor is rash and petulant; Morgoth and Ungoliant fall out over loot like a pair of common thieves. They’re a far cry from the wise elders we meet in LOTR.

In 4X gaming news, Amplitude has announced “Together We Rule”, the first expansion pack for Humankind. This is great news for me – I played Humankind last year and found it excellent. I’ve been waiting for an expansion before playing again.

Separately, Humankind will also come to console in November this year. The Xbox version will also be on Game Pass, which will be good – sometimes, I want to play on the big screen.

On the grand strategy front, Paradox announced Victoria 3 for October. I’ve always loved the idea of the series. In practice, my history with it is mixed — I had a lot of fun with Victoria 1 back in the day, but repeated failed attempts to enjoy Victoria 2 made me conclude it wasn’t for me. I hope Vicky 3 does work out, because there are a few countries I’d love to try in that period.

An incoming Soviet assault in Regiments, spearheaded by multiple platoons of T-80BVs. They demolished my first line of defence, but I halted them with a defence in depth.

Meanwhile, I’m slowly playing two new releases (Two Point Campus, Regiments) as well as a release from earlier in the year, Expeditions: Rome, and a 2021 release, Sherlock Holmes: Chapter One.

Two Point Campus looks and feels pretty similar to Two Point Hospital. It does seem easier, especially early on – I found the first few levels too easy. Now that I’ve hit the mid-game, it is more challenging to achieve 2-star and 3-star goals; but so far I haven’t had to scramble to stay afloat the way I did in some Two Point Hospital levels.

I was a big fan of 2014’s Sherlock Holmes: Crimes and Punishments. Chapter One feels a little clunky – especially when navigating menus on console – but its setting is a labour of love.

Regiments and Expeditions: Rome both deserve posts of their own. I like them for opposite reasons: Expeditions: Rome is big, sprawling, and could have done a better job of presenting information to the player; but what it gets right, it gets RIGHT. It’s atmospheric, its characters are engaging, and the tactical battles are very satisfying now that I understand the system.

By contrast, Regiments is a study in elegance. It’s an indie spiritual successor to Eugen’s Wargame series, trimmed down to focus on a tight single-player campaign. There’s less micro, fewer units, no multiplayer, and generally less “stuff” than Wargame, but it executes well, navigates the line between “fun” and “frustrating”, and overall delivers a strong experience. It even includes one feature that Wargame lacked, night battles (which generally favour NATO’s superior technology). Recommended to old Wargame hands.

Clippings: Upcoming releases; Dune: Spice Wars early access impressions; Around the World in 80 Days

Atreides! ATREIDES! ATREIDES!!!

Hi, everyone. While reviewing upcoming games that interest me, I realised that the next few months are surprisingly bare, before the calendar picks up again towards the end of the year:

  • Two Point Campus is due out in a few weeks (August 2022).
  • Rule the Waves 3 (previously announced as an expansion pack for Rule the Waves 2; since promoted to a standalone release) is due out this October.
  • Mario + Rabbids: Sparks of Hope is also due out in October.
  • Beyond that, Slime Rancher 2, the Switch remake of Front Mission, and Terra Invicta are set for indeterminate windows — (northern) summer 2022 for Front Mission, northern autumn 2022 for Slime Rancher, and “2022” for Terra Invicta.

I’m pretty confident in the sequels — I think it would be hard to mess them up! Terra Invicta will come down to execution — it is an extremely ambitious, unique design. At the same time, I have always wanted a game built around that concept, and I do have a soft spot for ambitious indie strategy games.

I have tried the early access version of Dune: Spice Wars, which seems pretty decent for this stage of its development. It feels very distinct to “traditional” RTS games. Instead, it has a much greater emphasis on economic management, building out settlements, and juggling resource flows. It shares that economic emphasis with Northgard, but the details are very different (for instance, there’s no worker placement in Spice Wars) — this is no reskin. Based on my first skirmish match, its overall flow and pacing remind me a little of Sins of a Solar Empire. So far, the rough edges (units walking through dangerous areas, having to manually deploy and re-deploy spice harvesters) are the things I’d expect to be smoothed out during early access. And while it feels slightly bare-bones for now, the roadmap looks promising. Worth watching as it heads towards release.

Storming the Harkonnen capital in Dune: Spice Wars. Playing on easy, the Harkonnen AI managed to get into a death spiral so bad that NPC soldiers (dark grey, bottom left) would spawn every few minutes to attack them.

Meanwhile, fans of Amplitude (Humankind, Endless Space, Endless Legend) might be interested in this interview with the studio’s co-founder and Chief Creative Officer, Romain de Waubert. There’s an interesting discussion of his history as a modder, his attitude to mods, and his pre-Amplitude games — I never realised that he’d worked on the Battlefield and Might and Magic series.

In television news, I’ve started watching the new version of Around the World in 80 Days. It has strong raw material — acting, visuals, music. The issue is that, so far, it takes itself too seriously. It’s much better when it remembers to be a fun adventure story!

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Computer-generated art: The whimsy and wonder of DALL-E

Hi, everyone.

The coolest toy I’ve tried lately isn’t a video game — it’s OpenAI’s DALL-E. Type in a one-line description and DALL-E will create a set of 6 images at a time. Specifying different styles (“as ukiyo-e”, “as a children’s book illustration”, “by JMW Turner”) will produce strikingly different results.

My experience is that photorealistic images tend to dip into the uncanny valley. The image generator really shines when asked to create art, “paintings”, and illustrations, the more whimsical the better. Here are a few examples:

This is one of my favourites, “Elephant doing accounting”. DALL-E was clever enough to create these in highly whimsical styles:

And a variant – “Elephant doing accounting, ukiyo-e”:

I was a little surprised when DALL-E opted to do this in a photorealistic style, “Lost cockatoo reading a map to get home”. At first glance the results are impressive, complete with shadows, although closer inspection reveals the details (eyes, crests) aren’t always right:

Spelling out the style produced this – “A cockatoo with luggage going on an overseas holiday, children’s book illustration”. I love that unprompted, it almost always gave the cockatoo a passport:

The really cool thing is when I asked for “Penguins at the airport going on holiday”, DALL-E generated all 6 images in this style – I suppose it “understood” that this is what you’d find in a children’s book:

“A penguin bing measured for a suit” (DALL-E understood what I meant despite the mis-spelling):

I have noticed that DALL-E struggles with lengthy, multi-barrelled descriptions. This was the result of “Stained glass window depicting a king parrot checking into a hotel”. The parrot came out extremely well, but what happened to the hotel?

And asking for animals of different species in the same image rarely works. Usually DALL-E creates multiple animals of the same species — for instance, asking for a hippo and three piglets once gave me 4 hippos instead. When asked to create “echidna, wombat, and cockatoo having a tea party”, it failed and gave me monstrous chimaeras, and once, a koala instead.

While not perfect, DALL-E is both entertaining and impressive. It’s also free – I registered and waited slightly over two weeks for approval. Why not check it out?

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Clippings: Top Gun: Maverick; Old World; back to Hades

Hi, everyone.

Since my last update I finished Triangle Strategy – very good! It more than lived up to my impressions. The grounded, low-fantasy setting was a breath of fresh air, the story was interesting, and the battles were challenging – I ended up turning down the difficulty from “hard” to “normal” for the final quarter of the game. I’ll be first in line for any DLC or sequels.

I also really liked Top Gun: Maverick, which lived up to its rave reviews. It succeeds because it tells a human story: Maverick is older, wiser, and sadder than he was in the original movie, and a much more interesting character as a result. The creators understand when to homage the original, and when to acknowledge it’s been decades since then. (They also homage the broader world of aviation books and movies – one scene feels inspired by The Right Stuff.)

Meanwhile, Old World, the 4X strategy game set in classical antiquity, launched on Steam after a stint as an Epic exclusive. Designwise, I quite like it — although I found the learning curve much steeper than Humankind‘s. Its focus on named characters, like Crusader Kings, creates memorable emergent moments, from succession crises to miraculous births.

I did my part for palaeontology.

My main complaints are technical — on my PC, the late game became sluggish and the AI turn times dragged. I think the UI could also do with some work — for instance, it’s hard identifying resources (unlike Humankind and Civ, which flag them with a little icon).

Here is a recent Three Moves Ahead interview with Old World‘s developers – Mohawk Games CEO & Creative Director Leyla Johnson and Design Director Soren Johnson (of Civ IV fame). Here is a slightly older interview with the History Respawned podcast.

Finally, I’m revisiting Hades, 2020’s surprise indie hit, which is as good as ever. The art is striking, the gameplay excellent, the writing snappy, and I love mythology. Now up to eight successful runs and counting!

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I’ve been published! Andromeda Spaceways Magazine, Issue 86

I’m very pleased to announce that my poetry, “Seasons on an Alien World”, has appeared in Issue 86 of Andromeda Spaceways Magazine, an Australian speculative-fiction magazine published quarterly. There are over 100 pages of content from a plethora of authors, so head over to the ASM website to check it out!

I’m just one of the many contributors to this issue. Check it out!
Image source: Andromeda Spaceways Magazine

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The Scenarios of Anno 1800 – adding a new side to the game

This entry is part 1 of 1 in the series Anno Series

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Anno 1800 is one of my favourite perennial games. It’s the ultimate toy — an open-ended delight where I can build beautiful cities, set up intricate production chains, and pamper my residents with coffee, chocolate, cars, and champagne from the four corners of the earth.

Building a town while preserving the environment in Eden Burning – a free scenario added to Anno 1800.

Anno 1800’s scenarios are a different experience. They are games — self-contained, win-lose experiences with defined rules. So far, there are two:

Building a hydroelectric dam – the win condition in Eden Burning.

Eden Burning is a unique take on the city-builder that charges players with rebuilding an island ravaged by a fire cult, while preserving the local environment. The trick is playing slowly and conservatively: rotating fishing grounds to avoid overfishing, building gradually to avoid degrading the soil, water, and air beyond their capacity to recover, and replanting trees along the way. (The scenario’s writing is also surprisingly dark, especially for an Anno game. The occupying cultists were not good or kind people.) In the end, I won on my first try, island intact.

The desolate start of Seasons of Silver. The ruins are an appropriate touch, given I’m on my second try…

Seasons of Silver is the opposite — a race against time. Playing an exiled nobleman, now the challenge is to build a city in the barren wilderness, mine silver, and process it to meet increasingly punishing deadlines from the king. The mines and processing plants need workers. The workers need food. The crops need irrigation, as the land lurches between drought and monsoon. All this infrastructure needs vast quantities of timber & bricks — fast! My first attempt fell flat on its face. Oh well, at least now I know what’s coming up.

This scenario deserves special mention for its background music and voice acting — the main character sarcastically reading out the mission briefing is hilarious.

For Anno 1800 owners, I highly recommend the scenarios. They’re short — much shorter than the main game — well-designed, and challenging. Eden Burning is free, so why not try it out?

Shadow Empire interview, with Victor Reijkersz

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

Shadow Empire is one of the most interesting & unique strategy games I’ve played in the last few years. It’s the brainchild of one designer, Victor Reijkersz. Below, I am very pleased to present my interview with Vic. Read on for his thoughts on indie game development, simulation, and what he’s working on:

Hi, Vic, and welcome to the site.

Shadow Empire is a science fiction 4X game, whereas your previous titles were historical wargames. Can you tell us more about the origins of this project? What were some of your inspirations?

In fact that is not completely true. My first game was People’s Tactics and it was followed by two Advanced Tactics game. These games were all procedural hex&counter wargames. In many ways Shadow Empire is a mix between the things I learned (to be fun) in my recent historical Decisive Campaigns series and my earlier Advanced Tactics games. So though not sure on the inspiration question, my aim from the start was really to make a game that feels historical, but is in fact largely procedural in nature.

I took this screenshot in my first ever Shadow Empire game. Rochoyes had a mild climate and plenty of rainfall, so it exported food and water to the rest of my territory.

Shadow Empire is one of the most unique games I’ve ever played. It combines empire building, a wargame logistics system (which is also used to transport resources in the civilian economy), internal politics & personnel management, “hard science fiction” world generation, and more.

I’m really curious about this mix of features. What made you decide to include them, and what were some of the challenges behind getting them in the game?

What made me include all those? A little bit of hubris and a lot of bad planning and way more imagination than time. Yes… I was way too ambitious designing Shadow Empire. In the end I have to say it is a small miracle I managed to finish so much of my original plans. It took years longer to finish the game than planned, almost gave me a burn-out, but in the end I managed to properly interconnect and fine tune the dozens of features and launch a truly unique game.

Can you tell us anything about your design process, as the solo developer behind a large, ambitious game?

See Q above.

Congratulations on pulling it together – I really liked the final product.

What would be your advice for other indie developers?

Be very aware of the enormity of the competition! You are not only competing with the other 300 games released each week, but also with the back catalogue of over a 100.000 games already released in the recent past. You must be a good judge of your own strengths and weaknesses. As I see it you have only three options…  (1) make sure you’ll be lucky… or (2) be a total genius with design and/or graphics… or (3) find a niche where there is demand but less competition. Option 3 is where I put my money (time). Keep in mind that niche’s are not static things and you can create new niche’s as well.

Shadow Empire goes to a lot of scientific detail, and this affects the player’s strategy — e.g. needing to secure fresh water in drier climates, or not having access to fossil fuels on worlds without a biosphere. Can you tell us more about your approach to science & simulation?

I have always wanted Shadow Empire to at least feel as a simulation. Partly because that way the game world will feel more real to the player (and thus be more immersive) and partly because I just love modelling interesting things as planetary genesis, evolution, history, warfare, etc…  I have always felt it is okay if in the end Shadow Empire is of course not really a scientific simulation…  The important thing has always been making enough of an effort to move it in that direction.

The start of planetary generation – there are many planet types to choose from.

Yes, I thought Shadow Empire was an example of how to do simulationism “right” – if something makes sense in real life it’s probably a good idea in the game, and vice versa. That helped my learning curve as I could apply real-world logic to game situations (e.g. don’t order infantry to charge machine guns).

One thing that impressed me was how differently the game plays based on different map settings & game options. My first game (on a high-population Siwa world) saw huge armies of tanks and infantry clashing across an entire continent. It was completely different playing a co-op game on a Medusa world with 600,000 people, where the main challenges were the alien wildlife and trying to build an industrial base with a limited population.

Do you have a favourite or recommended set of game options (e.g. best for beginners, most interesting simulation, or just one you like to play)?

My favourite it is the “Unclassified Planet”. Mostly because it is the only method of Planet creation that doesn’t push or force the algorithm in any particular direction. So using this class gives the most realistic results imho. Playing it with full fog of war on it also really drops you in the complete unknown.

The culmination of planetary generation in Shadow Empire.

Do you have a favourite feature of the game, or favourite in-game story you’d like to share with us?

I think the feature I have really enjoyed the most is the “Alien Critter” one. The sheer scope of different Planets you could find yourself on is already large, but the procedural created on-map animal life really brought it further to life imho. There are over 120 different critter graphics used, each in different colorations and sizes. Some lifeforms can even reach a level of civilisation and “minor Regime” status and thus be bargained with.

The border in that succession game. Note the computer’s troops (yellow) holding the line against the wildlife to their north. Those were 5-metre predators – no joke!

Yes, the alien critters are one of the most memorable features of the game. I’ve seen some that needed tanks and anti-tank weaponry to defeat!

Another feature that stood out to me was logistics (and the way it’s used for civilian resource management as well). It’s critical for both the military and the civilian parts of the game. Early on, the need to build infrastructure limits development, and as the player expands, the road/rail network needs to be extended to connect new territory to the rest of the empire.

It also makes frontier wars against minors & alien critters feel very different from wars against another major empire. On the frontier, where infrastructure was limited, I fielded small forces of buggies and motorised infantry, unlike the large conventional armies I deployed along my borders with other empires.

Finally, it’s one of the features that made Shadow Empire feel so unique – I can only think of a handful of other 4X games with comparable civilian logistics (Frog City & SSI’s Imperialism games in the 1990s).

I’m really interested in your thinking behind logistics. What was your design intent, and what gave you the idea to use it in the civilian economy as well? Did it grow out of your previous games? And did you originally intend all the cool ways in which it affects the player’s strategy, or did they emerge during development?

There has been quite some iterative design, especially with the logistics. The Private Economy has been something I planned from the beginning. Primarily it’s there for the same reason as the Militia’s… It allows the player’s empire to grow without doing a thing. The philosophy here was that it would help learning the game if some parts (economy, recruitment) could be optionally neglected by the player.

Buildings in a city in Shadow Empire. The two grey-background ones on the left were public-sector, while the brown ones were built and operated by the NPC private sector.

How have you found the reception of Shadow Empire after it released?

I’ve seen the game spread through word of mouth, reviews, streamers & Youtubers – it looks to have found a fan base amongst the 4X community.

In many ways Shadow Empire is a wargame-turned-4X and I am happy that I have managed to reach a wider audience with it than with my Decisive Campaigns series. That being said it’s also a hell of a lot of work compared to ww2 simulations :)

What are your future plans for Shadow Empire? You’ve previously mentioned oceans being the next major feature planned for the game.

I still have a lot of plans for Shadow Empire and am still slowly coding and designing away on a number of topics. Not at the initial breakneck speed as I have some other titles to develop as well, but I am not planning to stop development. I feel Shadow Empire deserves more polish and even more immersion where possible.

A lot of people have criticised Shadow Empire’s graphics, saying they look like they come straight from the 1990s. Well if this is so the advantage for me is that Shadow Empire will age quite well… because lets be honest does it really matter if the graphics look 25 years old or 30 years old?

At the moment I am indeed working on opening up Ocean Planets to the player. I love these Ocean Planets I am currently seeing generated on my development build. Islands, large seas, more wet climates… it all brings something vibrant to me. Hope I will have something to share on the open beta in at most a few months.

That sounds great – I’m looking forward to playing on an ocean planet.

Do you have any final thoughts for the readers?

Thank you for your time! And have a nice day today!

Shadow Empire is available for PC on Steam, GoG, direct from the publisher, and on other storefronts.

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Triangle Strategy: off to a promising start

This entry is part 2 of 2 in the series Triangle Strategy

Over a decade ago, Tactics Ogre for the PSP combined a branching story, a serious, low fantasy setting, beautiful art, and engaging battles to become one of my favourite games.

Triangle Strategy, I think it’s fair to say, aspires to succeed Tactics Ogre and the genre’s other classic, Final Fantasy Tactics. It takes many of the same elements and adds its own twists, such as a morality system and more intricate rules for positioning, while simplifying others, such as character classes. So far, it’s very good; after 12-13 hours, I’m up to chapter 7, the sequence featured in the game’s first demo, last year. Whether it achieves greatness will depend on how the story plays out.

Here’s what I like, and here’s where I see room to improve:

The pros:

Art, aesthetic, atmosphere — The beautiful, moody art of Triangle Strategy is integral to the experience. Character portraits are striking and evocative. The sprites and the overall “look and feel” call to mind Final Fantasy Tactics and Tactics Ogre, and make the implicit promise that this will tell a similar story.

The backgrounds are sumptuous and even the little sprites are detailed enough to convey mood and personality.

Tactics matter — This includes positioning and using character abilities to support one another. For instance, one fairly tight map channelled combatants down three paths, with a group of enemies along each path. I held one flank using an ice mage and a durable melee fighter: I ran the melee fighter at them, used his special ability to draw the enemies’ ire, and had the mage retreat while lobbing ice at enemy soldiers who had bunched up to attack his friend.

The pathways broke this map into several sections. Two characters held down the left oath, but I found myself bottlenecked in the middle, and an archer shooting from the platform on the right was a royal pain.

Difficulty feels about right — Playing on Normal, I’ve never been stuck. I did lose a couple of battles as a result of becoming careless; afterwards, it was obvious what I did wrong (rushing a mission-critical character into positions where he could be swarmed). I may even turn up the difficulty to Hard, and see what happens…

Frederica’s fire magic is devastating against bunched-up groups.

Not grindy! — There is hardly any grinding in Triangle Strategy — a big change from the very grindy Final Fantasy Tactics and Tactics Ogre. Enemies’ levels are fixed, under-levelled characters are very quick to gain experience, and conversely, over-levelled characters gain very little experience. Thus, there’s no need to spend too much time in practice battles.

The intriguing:

How will the story develop? — One of Triangle Strategy’s headline features is the branching story, with decisions settled by a vote among the party members. The player can try to persuade other characters to change their minds, but may not succeed. It’s even possible for persuasion attempts to backfire — I once saw a previously “undecided” party member do the opposite of what I wanted, after my dialogue choices fell flat. I’m interested in what the game will do with this system — can its narrative live up to the classics?

This unanimous vote came early in the story. A later one was much closer.

The mixed:

Voice acting — This isn’t a blanket case of English vs Japanese voices (I’ve listened to both):

  • In both languages, the heroes sound pretty good.
  • I think the female characters generally sound better in English — a couple of the Japanese VAs sound a bit too girlish. Conversely, some of the male characters sound too hammy in English and better in Japanese.
  • I am not a fan of the exaggerated voice acting for the villains, who range from “cartoon supervillain” to “oleaginous, obvious traitor”.

The gripes:

Save game slots Triangle Strategy has 10 save game slots. I’d like more, especially so I can explore different dialogue choices while preserving old saves.

Did the otherwise good English localisation have to owe such an obvious debt to ASOIAF? — I am heartily sick of “sers”.

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Authors worth reading: Alan Furst

This entry is part 1 of 1 in the series Authors worth reading
Part of my Alan Furst collection on Kindle.

As I watch the images of recent weeks — war, devastation, trains and platforms packed with fleeing civilians — I find myself reminded of the works of Alan Furst. I’ve been meaning to write more about my favourite authors, so this is a good place to start.

Furst’s novels are set in the 1930s and the 1940s, amidst the shadows of Europe: they deal with espionage, occupation, and resistance. The books are episodic; short on plot; and long on atmosphere. At their best, their writing is beautiful and evocative; consider the opening scene of Dark Voyage, in which a radio operator hears the final call of a distressed merchant ship, or Warsaw’s defenders in the opening scene of The Polish Officer. Eventually, Furst went downhill; his later books crept towards self-parody, to the point where I never picked up his latest.

His earlier books have lost none of their power:

  • The first in the series, Night Soldiers, is probably my favourite — certainly the most sweeping (and sprawling). It follows one man’s story across the years, from the terror and paranoia of Stalin’s Soviet Union in the 1930s, through the Spanish Civil War, and eventually, World War 2 itself.
  • I also really like the more focused Dark Voyage, about a single merchant crew recruited into the Allied cause.

And there are gems throughout the series: an Italian journalist ghost-writing the memoirs of an anti-Mussolini colonel; a one-time film producer helping a RAF pilot unload arms for the French Resistance; the titular Polish officer leading a trainload of people to safety.

The books are almost all standalone, so my recommendation would be to start with Night Soldiers and see where you go from there. If you like it, you probably can’t go wrong with books from the first half of the series.

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Clippings: Triangle Strategy; Elden Ring; new Daniel Abraham novel

I haven’t felt much like playing games lately — but there are notable releases, so let’s cover them.

Triangle Strategy, the tactical RPG for Nintendo Switch, has just come out. I really like the little I’ve seen so far – I’ve nearly wrapped up the first stage, which was surprisingly engaging for an introductory battle. The difficulty feels just right so far, playing on “normal” (the second-hardest of four difficulty settings). Reviews are positive and I liked last year’s demo, so I’m optimistic for the rest of the game.

The bigger news is the release of From Software’s Elden Ring. Reviews have been glowing – I’m particularly interested in the focus on exploration and the comparisons to Breath of the Wild, one of my favourite games (my favourite game?) of all time. Unfortunately, with next-gen consoles out of stock whenever I check the shop, it will be some time before I play this.

Following the recent release of Flight Simulator‘s Australia world update, the Stormbirds blog flew from Sydney to the Gold Coast and took some nice screenshots along the way. I can confirm that the Sydney CBD is fantastically true-to-life now – I was able to recognise several of the office buildings where I’ve worked (sadly, the photogrammetry doesn’t extend out to the suburbs).

Finally, Daniel Abraham, my favourite fantasy author of the last couple of decades (and one half of James SA Corey, the duo behind The Expanse), has released the first book in a new trilogy – Age of Ash. This will probably be the next fantasy novel I pick up.

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Clippings: Nintendo announcements; Expeditions: Rome; Nebulous: Fleet Command

My heavy cruisers prepare to open fire on enemy sensor contacts in Nebulous: Fleet Command.

The latest Nintendo Direct had a big announcement for me – new Mario Kart 8: Deluxe DLC, which will add 48 tracks to the game. Given how much I’ve played the existing tracks, more variety is what I need!

The rest of the announcements were “wait and sees”. Notably, a bevy of classic RPGs & tactical RPGs, including Chrono Cross, Front Mission, and Live-A-Live, will come to Switch. I quite liked Front Mission 3 back in the day, and the new graphics in the Front Mission remake look great (for that matter, so do the new graphics of Live-A-Live) – the question is time.

I could say much the same for Triangle Strategy, the upcoming tactical RPG – I quite liked the demo last year. My main question is whether the writing will measure up to Final Fantasy Tactics and Tactics Ogre, the two obvious inspirations for the game.

Between the new announcements and the release dates for already-announced games (for instance, Two Point Campus comes out in May), I think it will be a good year for the Switch.

In PC news, Expeditions: Rome – the latest in the series of tactical RPGs that began with Expeditions: Conquistador – has launched to positive reviews. The Three Moves Ahead podcast has a good discussion, also positive. I quite liked Expeditions: Conquistador, and the thought of crossing swords with the likes of Mithridates of Pontus in Expeditions: Rome is very tempting to my inner classical history buff. My main concern is the game’s reported length – at 60 hours, it may be challenging to finish.

Meanwhile, Nebulous: Fleet Command has launched in Early Access. Nebulous is a space real-time tactics game with heavy influence from wargames & milsims (it reminds me a little of Cold Waters, the sub sim, and Eugen’s Wargame). Controlling units in 3D is taking some getting used to; the game itself, however, has some really interesting ideas. Sensors, detection, and electronic warfare are important. Enemy jammers create false contacts all over the screen. You can hook missiles around asteroids to hide them from enemy radar, or direct them to come in from multiple angles. The current build includes a tutorial and skirmish mode; a single-player campaign is due to come later. This will be one to keep an eye on.

Finally, I recently started playing Rimworld, the science-fiction town building game. Even in peaceful mode, it’s an engaging challenge – and I like how it captures the rhythm of pre-industrial life, as my little settlement grows crops, preserves food, and makes warm clothes to prepare for winter. No wonder it’s so popular.

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Sable: concluding thoughts

This entry is part 3 of 3 in the series Sable

After recently finishing Sable, I still like it. The game follows through on its initial promise: it has good writing, a striking & unique art style, and a lot of heart. In one particularly relaxing session, I decided to fill in the remaining corners of the map, and that objective led me to spend a few hours immersed in the world, exploring, solving quests, and earning a flurry of masks (the objective of the game being for Sable to choose the mask she will wear in adulthood). Looking back, that was a wonderful example of flow.

Conversely, the game’s rough edges became clearer as I spent more time with it. Traversing its world is simply not as pleasurable as in Breath of the Wild, the obvious comparison. On the one hand, frequent hills limit one of the central mechanics, puttering around on a bike. On the other hand, climbing can be a hassle — especially when trying to follow a specific route to reach an objective or a NPC. Summoning the bike itself is hit-and-miss, which added a little bit of hassle every time I fast-travelled to a location, called the bike, and waited for it to arrive so I could set off on my next expedition. I suspect a lot of this reflects the resource constraints of an indie team; if the developers ever create a follow-up, the mechanics are the biggest area I see for improvement.

I do appreciate Sable’s brevity: I clocked in just under 20 hours, having completed almost every side quest and earned almost every mask.

Overall, I like Sable and appreciate what the developers set out to create: a peaceful, imaginative exploration game with a positive theme. If that premise appeals, I recommend it.

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What makes some games resemble 1990s designs?

I’ve been thinking about this after playing games such as Shadow Empire and Highfleet – what makes them feel like throwbacks to the 1990s?

For me, three interlinked factors stand out about classic 1990s games: originality, difficulty, and their attitude to game balance.

Originality: The 1990s classics tended to either pioneer their genres, or blend genres in a way that’s rare in newer titles.

Difficulty: They demanded skill from their players, and were unforgiving on learners.

Balance: The flip side is that they also let skilled players break or exploit the game, in ways that would be rapidly patched away in the modern era of multiplayer, GameFAQs, discussion boards, and digital distribution.

So for instance:

  • The Master of… games pioneered the space and fantasy 4X genre — and half the fun was coming up with overpowered custom races, and creative uses for magic spells (casting “flight” on warships to produce heavily armed galleys that could fly over land).
  • The Gollop brothers’ original X-COM (UFO: Enemy Unknown) defined the combination of squad-based strategy and strategic-level management; it was extremely tough for a beginner, but experienced players could trivialise the difficulty by using psionic operatives: make the first alien spotted drop its weapons, turn around, and scout for the second alien; mind control the second alien; and repeat. (That’s even before getting into outright exploits, such as generating infinite money by manufacturing items for sale.)
The Spartacus-class – my workhorse in Highfleet. I customised the Gladiator-class frigate to add extra armour, fuel, engines, and anti-missile defences.

Looking at the games I mentioned earlier, Highfleet perhaps comes closest. It mixes arcade, sim, strategy, and roguelite elements, and while difficult, it becomes much easier once players master the rules or learn the intricacies of custom ship design. Its community is marked by an thriving exchange of custom ships — from min-maxed flying cubes of armour to themed collections with their own backstory.

Shadow Empire stands out for its originality: it blends a 4X game, a wargame, and a logistics or resource management game. It also can be challenging, especially at first — I remember how quickly my first game went from “how do logistics work?” to a desperate struggle against a gigantic empire.

An interesting question would be how many of these elements it takes before a game feels like a throwback to the 1990s. Are some more important than others? In the early 2010s, the Souls games, Firaxis’ XCOM reboot, and roguelites such as FTL made difficulty fashionable again. They are all great, they have influenced design to the present, and FTL’s retro pixel-art graphics wouldn’t have been out of place in the ‘90s. Do they feel like 1990s games? Would I say they felt like ‘90s games, if I were playing them now? One to consider, next time a difficult, genre-blurring game comes along…

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2021: my gaming year in review

Happy New Year, everyone!

My gaming resolutions for 2021 were to try new things, and write more for this site. I wrote about several games — notably Humankind, Highfleet, Sable, Stars in Shadow, Brigandine: The Legend of Runersia, and assorted flight sims — and interviewed the developers of Stars in Shadow. I delved into deck-builders, sampled various indie games (mostly on Game Pass), and tried unique experiences such as Highfleet and Subnautica. I also kept playing one of my mainstay genres, the 4X strategy game, and revisited a genre from which I’ve lapsed, the narrative RPG.

Build deck, fail, try again

In 2021, I played three deck-building, card-battling roguelites:  Slay the Spire, Nowhere Prophet, and Fights in Tight Spaces.

At the time I would have called Nowhere Prophet my pick of the three, based on its emphasis on worldbuilding and (emergent) narrative. You lead your tribe across a post-apocalyptic colony planet in search of a promised land, managing supplies and battling rival factions along the way. Managing a desperate turnaround to win the final battle was one of my coolest gaming moments all year; and I loved that the ending reflected my choices along the way.

Right now, my favourite would be the more replayable Slay the Spire — I liked it enough to pick up the Switch version after first beating it on Game Pass for PC. It’s quick, satisfying, and never leaves me frustrated — even when I frequently die. And the game’s art style and quirky charm have grown on me.

I love Slay the Spire’s sense of whimsy. Where else would you fight a final boss shaped like a giant, dancing doughnut?

An honourable mention goes to Fights in Tight Spaces, a stylish Bond/Bourne/action movie-themed game where, with full visibility over the enemy’s upcoming turn, you use cards to manoeuvre your agent around the battlefield and strike back.

Discovering new worlds

Subnautica is one of the best science-fiction experiences in game form. It captures what it must be like to explore a new world: marvel, mixed with terror. Over time, as I build bases, upgrade my equipment, and learn more about the surrounding seas, the terror abates — but it never quite goes away, not for voyages into the unknown. If I have a complaint, it would be the “needle in a haystack” progression. I estimate I’m in the late midgame, so there should be plenty left to discover.

Challenging myself

Highfleet deserves special mention for its approach to difficulty. This is a game that demands the player learn how it works, understand systems such as detection, and learn the tools available, such as how to strike from long range. Then it throws the player in the deep end against superior enemy fleets, and early on, before I learnt, those fleets pounded me to bits. That made it all the sweeter when I turned the tables.

Flight simulators — and in particular DCS World, the modern military flight sim — might also belong here. I don’t think I will ever master the intricacies of a modern fighter in DCS. At the same time, DCS at its best is a flow experience: flying, working the radar, manoeuvring and shooting, and once, seeing a glorious sunrise as my reward.

Revisiting the 4X genre

In 2021, I played two 4X games that shine at the clash of empires: Humankind and Stars in Shadow. Humankind is at its best when I’m fighting for my life against army after enemy army, desperately buying breathing space, and then grimly preparing for the next war. Meanwhile, Stars in Shadow strips away the bloat from the 4X formula with a focused design, an emphasis on ship design & tactical combat, an AI that knows how to challenge the human, and an overall sense of charm.

Defending my capital against an early predator in Humankind.

Replaying Civ VI (this time on Switch) shortly before the release of Humankind let me compare them side-by-side. I think they’re very different, with Civ VI being better for tile and city optimisation, enlivened by great music, whereas Humankind is better with conflict and the threat of conflict. Overall, I like both, with a preference for Humankind.

I’m proud of building the Opera House in its correct city in Civ VI!

Last but not least, I had a great time replaying Shadow Empire, via a co-op succession game with a friend.

Returning to narrative RPGs

I used to be a big fan of RPGs, both Japanese and Western, before drifting away over the last decade. In 2021, I powered through Dragon Quest XI and finished the main game, after playing on and off for several years. At its best, it tells a story about character growth and resilience, wrapped up in a charming, whimsical world.

I love the localisation in the Dragon Quest games.

I also started on the Yakuza series with Like a Dragon, and replayed a decent chunk of Final Fantasy XII.

What were my favourite new games of 2021?

Out of the few new releases I played in 2021, Humankind is my pick for Game of the Year. Other notable releases included:

  • Highfleet, with its combination of imagination and uncompromising difficulty.
  • The cheerful, charming Sable.
  • Unpacking, a satisfying puzzle game that traces a person’s life over the decades by unpacking her belongings after each move.
I love the details in Unpacking, such as the boxy beige CRT monitor in the early years, and the faithful pink toy pig.

I’d like to spend more time with two games whose fluid combat and striking graphics made a good first impression on me:

  • Record of Lodoss War: Deedlit in Wonder Labyrinth — a retro Metroidvania.
  • Death’s Door — an isometric action game.

What were my favourite discoveries from previous years?

During 2021, I discovered a lot of games that had originally released in previous years, from a wide array of genres. The highlights included:

  • Subnautica — survival and exploration
  • The digital version of Wingspan — a relaxing, delightful board game about attracting birds to a sanctuary.
  • Stars in Shadow — space 4X
  • DCS World — military flight sim
  • Slay the Spire — deck-building roguelite
  • Nowhere Prophet — deck-building roguelite
  • Brigandine: The Legend of Runersia — console strategy-RPG
  • Good Job — an often hilarious physics puzzler
  • Northgard — a clever variation on the RTS, with a greater focus on building and manning a settlement. If only the font on the Switch version were larger…
  • Carto — a puzzle game with a unique mechanic: rearranging pieces of a map to change the world around you
  • Troubleshooter: Abandoned Children — an indie squad-based tactics game with some interesting twists on the XCOM formula, such as a greater focus on melee combat
  • PGA Tour 2K21 — my first ever “realistic” sports game, after I previously enjoyed Golf Story

Honourable indie mentions include:

  • River City Girls — a beat-em-up
  • Silence: The Whispered World 2 — an adventure game, short on narrative coherence but with some striking “scary fairy-tale” moments

The perennials

I revisited some games due to new DLC (Anno 1800, X4: Foundations, Total War: Three Kingdoms), updates (Shadow Empire), or buying on a new platform (Civ VI). Majesty was a childhood favourite whose HD version I replayed on Steam — after two decades, I finally beat the campaign. And Mario Kart 8: Deluxe is an evergreen favourite.

Looking forward to 2022

2022 should be exciting for 4X lovers: Distant Worlds 2 is scheduled for March, while Soren Johnson’s Old World will come to Steam in Q2.

Two of Old World’s stablemates from Hooded Horse Games, Terra Invicta and Falling Frontiers, are also scheduled to release in 2022. Both are space combat strategy games, with Terra Invicta also adding an element of “XCOM: Council Simulator” as players compete for influence and resources on Earth.

Two upcoming Early Access titles look interesting: Eugen’s WARNO, a spiritual successor to the Wargame franchise; and Nebulous: Fleet Command, another space combat strategy game. Both are due to enter Early Access in early 2022 (January and February, respectively).

And finally, Slime Rancher 2 was the highlight of E3 for me. The original game was colourful, cheerful, and by virtue of being first-person and 3D, satisfyingly tactile to explore. I look forward to the sequel bouncing onto my screen in 2022!

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Clippings: the Fighter Pilot Podcast; new Dune RTS; Anno 1800 DLC

My great audio discovery this year has been the Fighter Pilot Podcast, an interview series about military aviation. Some episodes discuss a general topic, such as callsigns or what military pilots do after retirement, while others (most?) focus on a specific aircraft.

Perhaps my favourite aspect of the podcast is how it preserves an oral history of military aviation, from WW2 to the modern day. In each episode, what stands out for me is the human element. A great example is the show’s interview with a retired Air Commodore in the Indian Air Force, who first flew the MiG-21 over 50 years ago – and whose enthusiasm shines through all these years later. For subject matter fans, the show is well worth a listen.

In gaming news, Northgard developer Shiro Games has been announced as the studio behind a new Dune RTS. I quite liked Northgard when I played it earlier this year – it’s a clever, elegant variation on the RTS,with a greater focus on building a town and managing villagers. It also has one of the rare RTS campaigns that I finished. While detail is scant, the developer’s track record suggests the new game will be in good hands.

Other than that, Anno 1800 players may be interested by Ubisoft announcing an upcoming fourth season of DLC – not bad for a game that was originally only going to have two seasons of DLC. I’m interested in the upcoming scenario mode – the first scenario is due to launch together with a patch in a few days’ time. As much as I love Anno 1800, it is a mammoth game that takes Paradox or Total War levels of time to reach the late game – I’ve been playing my current save since last year, through multiple releases of DLC. Shorter scenarios will add welcome variety.

Dune (2021) impressions

I liked it — both as a movie and as an adaptation.

Going in, I had high hopes. I am a long-time fan of the setting: I have read the books, years and years ago — long enough that I remembered the outline of events, not specific details. (That, I think, is an advantage when watching adaptations: I understand what’s going on, and at the same time, I don’t have to worry about purism.) And Denis Villeneuve has a strong track record with science fiction: Arrival and Blade Runner 2049 were both excellent.

I wasn’t disappointed. Dune is an entertaining story, well-told, and it does the setting justice. I will be back in the cinema to watch Part 2 when that comes out.

Thoughts below:

  • The movie really benefited from watching it in the cinema. It’s visually and aurally spectacular, and that served a point — the sights and sounds are important to the overall experience and particularly the worldbuilding.
  • The worldbuilding is great: it clearly and efficiently conveys the alienness of the setting, as well as the distinctions between the various groups within the universe. This is a society with a very different ethos to ours, built around pomp, ceremony, and displays of military might. Even our heroes, the Atreides, are a paranoid warrior aristocracy — and they have good reason to be.
  • The different factions can be clearly distinguished by their material cultures; for instance, the Fremen’s robes make them stand out even in silhouette.
  • While Arrakis is the focus of the story, my standout location was beautiful, rugged Caladan — I wouldn’t mind going for a holiday there.
  • Machinery and equipment, such as the harvesters and carryalls, feel tactile and real — I think the sound helps.
  • The sandworms are done right: they’re titanic forces of nature, not cheap monsters.
  • For a 2.5 hour movie, the pacing felt brisk — more thoughts below.
  • I liked the characterisations, with the members of the Atreides household — Gurney & Duncan — standing out.
  • I also loved the little details. The practicalities of a move are still the same, tens of thousands of years in the future: I appreciated the quick shots of the Atreides servants packing up the family belongings for the move to Arrakis.

More thoughts, with spoilers for the movie & book, follow:

Continue reading “Dune (2021) impressions”

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 3 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 3 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.

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