Old World: a pathbreaking historical 4X game

This entry is part 1 of 1 in the series Old World

Old World is a 4X strategy game set during classical antiquity that I have played on and off since it launched on Steam, back in May 2022. It is, hands down, the most unique and innovative historical 4X game I’ve played (the other recent ones being Humankind and the Civilization series):

  • First, for how it blends 4X game mechanics with other genres.
  • And second, for its own, novel ideas.

These ideas successfully come together to make Old World one of the best 4Xs in any genre.

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Blend of 4X strategy + narrative elements

In many ways, Old World feels like a cross between a classic 4X game, narrative games like King of Dragon Pass,and, to some extent, grand strategy games:

  • The basic mechanics are those of a turn-based 4X: explore the map, settle and develop cities, research new technologies, train units and march them to war, and build Wonders of the World, all in pursuit of defined victory conditions.
  • Other mechanics are closer to a GSG or a narrative game:
    • Rulers and officials are named characters with traits, lifespans, opinions, and relationships to one another.
    • Narrative events frequently pop up: characters scheme, fall in love or quarrel; emissaries show up to present trade deals, marriage proposals, or demands; children take after or rebel against their parents; sages appear in court to offer their services; noble houses clamour for favour; exiles and escaped captives ask for sanctuary; and many more.
Sending an ambassador to negotiate trade deals with a friendly empire can be fruitful. Imported luxuries keep cities and noble families happy.

These “layers” of mechanics tie back to one other. For instance, character traits matter beyond simple “+1” bonuses. Rulers have different abilities depending on their character class: Diplomats can form alliances, Orators can hire tribal mercenaries, Scholars can re-roll available technologies, and more.

Pericles was a powerful starting leader – his ability to hire mercenaries jump-started my early expansion.

Novel 4X mechanics

On top of these building blocks, Old World adds its own unique ideas. For example:

  • The ambitions system, which lets players choose and shape victory conditions on the fly.
    • While Old World offers traditional victory conditions such as points, the main way for human players to win the game is by completing 10 ambitions — goals that the player chooses for each ruler.
    • Ambitions last the life of the current leader plus a short grace period, and each leader will typically only live long enough to achieve a handful. As such, this makes it important to choose ambitions that are achievable and that align with the intended play style. I prefer playing 4X games as a peaceful builder, so I aim for ambitions like “build three universities” and “control six cities with Legendary culture”.
  • The orders system: the player can take a finite number of actions each turn, limited by the number of “orders” available (as the game progresses, better-developed empires with appropriate laws will have more orders).
    • This naturally creates “interesting decisions”, as what happens every turn will reflect the player’s priorities.
    • It also means that certain decisions have opportunity costs — in particular, fighting a war will absorb a lot of orders that could have been used to move workers around and develop buildings.
Orders in action: moving the nearby horseman (left) to kill the red barbarian unit will only use a single order. On the other hand, moving the distant camel archer (right) into position will use 3 orders. Multiply this by several units, and a military campaign will rapidly drain the available orders.
  • The role of chance: in several places, the game randomly determines the available options.
    • For instance, there are different choices for educating the royal heir, each of which unlocks several potential classes. When she or he grows up, I can choose between two of the available classes — but not which two. So, I can increase the odds of getting a Diplomat or Orator in the next generation by choosing a political education, but I can’t guarantee it.
    • Other examples include the game randomly determining which techs are available to research out of those unlocked; or which Wonders will be available in any given game.

Successfully bringing it together

The result is a fluid, dynamic game where the situation and the appropriate strategy evolve over time1. Events can open up unexpected opportunities: in my last game, when my ruler died in the midst of a long-running war against the Gauls, the Gauls sent a delegation to my new ruler offering to bury the hatchet. I took them up on it — and with my new, Diplomat ruler, I eventually negotiated an alliance that let me peacefully settle on Gaulish lands.

The ambitions system helps keep the late game interesting. Once, I came from far behind and still won by focusing on achievable ambitions (and staying away from any that required me to go to war — something that wouldn’t have been feasible against larger, more powerful empires). Instead, I triumphed as a builder and lawmaker via ambitions such as “build four Wonders, one of them Legendary” and “make all noble families friendly while enacting all laws”.

The combination of events, characters, and gameplay also leads to memorable emergent narratives:

  • In my first game, my ageing ruler and his wife had a miracle child late in life after praying to the gods.
  • In my last game, a brother returning from distant lands brought a Gaulish wife and drama in his wake as I played out different saved games: once he went insane after his wife’s death, and another time he murdered his nephew.
  • In my current game, an ambitious “rising star” courtier demanded a royal marriage (I said yes) and another one demanded that I abdicate and hand over the throne (I said no … emphatically)2.
What did she think was going to happen?
  • Romulus & Remus hate each other, so if playing Romulus, it can make sense to follow the myth and take out Remus first3.
  • And more — I’ve just scratched the surface.

Incidentally, while I’ve focused on the unique aspects of Old World’s design, it also gets the basics right. My favourite example here is that while military AI is a frequent bugbear in strategy games, Old World’s computer players are ruthless and effective at waging war. They muster large armies in safe territory and then commit them en masse, hunt down weakened units, and aren’t fazed by the “one unit per tile” (1UPT) rule. 

The trade-off is that being unique comes with a learning curve. Old World has a detailed PDF manual, a good tutorial, and plenty of tooltips that explain what I can do. Knowing when to do something is trickier. Even as an experienced player, every time I come back after a break, I find myself Googling strategy questions or browsing Discord to refamiliarise myself.

Conclusions

Old World is the historical 4X game that I wish more genre fans — and especially, more strategy and 4X developers — would play. It is rich in new ideas, from specific mechanics such as orders & ambitions to the overarching concept of enriching a 4X game with characters and events. And it uses these ideas to keep the late game feeling fresh.

Other developers could learn a lot from Old World’s approach, and if you’re interested in similar games, check it out — I promise you it will be original.

Further reading

Design Director Soren Johnson’s blog, “Designer Notes”, has a wealth of content about Old World’s design, including this post on victory conditions.

Note: I received press copies of two DLC — “Wonders and Dynasties” and “The Sacred and The Profane” from Hooded Horse, the game’s publisher. I bought the base game and the other DLC myself.

  1. Contrast the modern Civ games, which require picking a victory type and strategy before even starting.
  2. The latest DLC, “Behind the Throne”, added this mechanic. Rising stars have excellent stats but also tend to have designs on the throne. Giving them the opportunity to shine can be a calculated risk.
  3. Most of Old World’s starting leaders are historical figures; the mythical Romulus of Rome and Dido of Carthage are exceptions

Dune: Part Two thoughts

This entry is part 2 of 2 in the series Dune

Dune: Part Two is really good.

It answers the question, “how do you film an unfilmable book?” by distilling it down into a human, character-driven story focused on the relationship between Paul and Chani. In the process, it hacks away much of the book, significantly changes what’s left — and still manages to stay true to Frank Herbert’s central theme.

Visually, it’s spectacular once again; a special mention goes to the monochrome sequences on Giedi Prime. Aurally, it benefits from being in the cinema.

The two Dune movies, Blade Runner 2049, and Arrival cement Denis Villeneuve as the master of science-fiction movies. Can’t wait to see what he does next.

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2023: My gaming year in review

This entry is part 11 of 11 in the series Gaming year in review / Game of the Year Awards

Happy New Year!

2023 was a “quality over quantity” year for me, dominated by a Big Three — Elden Ring (a 2022 release) in the first few months of the year; Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom after its release in May; and then Jagged Alliance 3 from July to November. All three were Game of the Year material.

Apart from the Big Three, 2023 saw:

  • My usual fare of PC strategy releases: Rule the Waves 3, Age of Wonders 4, and Dwarf Fortress.
  • Odds and ends: a deck builder (Cobalt Core), a homage to 16-bit JRPGs (Octopath Traveller II), Bayonetta Origins: Cereza & the Lost Demon, Vampire Survivors, and Venba.
  • Old favourites such as Shadow Empire, Humankind, Fire Emblem: Three Houses, and Expeditions: Rome.

Finally, at the end of this post, I’ll touch on upcoming games in 2024 that look interesting.

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The big three: Zelda, Elden Ring, and JA3

The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom (Switch, 2023) — My Game of the Year for 2023. The beautiful, ambitious successor to one of my favourite games of all time didn’t disappoint; according to Nintendo’s Year in Review, I have spent 170 hours with it. And I’m still not done! TOTK offered:

  • Spectacular set-pieces such as the Lightning Temple;
  • Moment-to-moment wonder and delight, such as exploring the Depths, peacefully resting on a sky island, outwitting would-be Yiga ambushers, or riding a dragon;
  • A satisfying worldbuilding follow-up to BOTW, as we got to see how Hyrule and its inhabitants had moved on and rebuilt.

Elden Ring (Xbox Series X, 2022) — 2023 saw my return to returned to Soulsborne and From Software games after taking a break since the original Dark Souls. Elden Ring took the Souls games’ traditional strengths (combat, “tough but fair” challenge, localisation, drop-in multiplayer) and added a vast, often beautiful, and occasionally horrifying open world to discover and explore. While rather stressful to play, it was worth every minute. I made it as far as Leyndell, the Royal Capital, and still have further to go.

Jagged Alliance 3 (PC, 2023) — 2023 finally saw a worthy sequel to one of the classics of the 1990s. JA3 combined great turn-based tactics, a cast of lovable rogues, and surprisingly good (and often laugh-out-loud funny) writing & worldbuilding. I picked it up on launch day and the risk paid off. Also the only one of the Big Three that I finished.

Other PC strategy games

Rule the Waves 3 (PC, 2023) — A “more of a good thing” sequel. This is one of the few series that looks at defence from a policy and force structure perspective (given my country’s geography, objectives, and budget, what is the appropriate navy for my circumstances?). RTW3 extends the timeline to 1890-1970, allowing more time with pre-dreadnoughts in the early game and adding missiles to the late game. Good enough to distract me from Zelda: TOTK!

Age of Wonders 4 (PC, 2023) — My favourite AoW game. It sells the illusion of being a wizard (or in my case, a dragon lord), discovering and taming a beautiful, intriguing, and dangerous world, and fighting off rival armies. The aesthetics and production values help sell the experience. A final bonus is that the game plays very well on a Steam Deck.

Dwarf Fortress (PC, 2023 for the Steam version) — My first time with the legendary — and legendarily intricate — colony management game, which turned out to be much more approachable than its reputation suggested. I think it’s also ruined similar titles such as Rimworld for me — I prefer DF’s simulationism and greater focus on building.

Odds and ends

Octopath Traveller II (Switch, 2023) — A tribute to classic SNES JRPGs, with beautiful pixel art, good music, and some pretty decent turn-based battles. Unfortunately, in some ways it was too faithful to its inspirations — I could have done without random battles in 2023.

Cobalt Core (PC, 2023) — A charming deck-builder that became my go-to game when I need something short, or when I’m tired and I just want to relax. Love its colourful characters.

Bayonetta Origins: Cereza & the Lost Demon (Switch, 2023) — A beautiful fairy-tale experience, seemingly inspired by Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons. Cheshire the soft toy turned demon is an adorable co-protagonist. Slightly repetitive.

Venba (Game Pass, Xbox Series X, 2023) — A clever game with a unique premise: using cooking minigames to tell the story of an immigrant family. Unfortunately, that story being rather cliched held it back.

Vampire Survivors (Game Pass, Xbox Series X, 2022) — Another notable short-form game, an arcade palate-cleanser that went back to the roots of gaming and added a modern progression system.

Revisiting old favourites

I revisited Shadow Empire after the launch of its “Oceania” DLC and wrote up my adventures here. Still a great game, and it still receives plenty of support.

I also revisited Humankind — I still like it, but I’m a little disappointed by the lack of progress in its design since it launched a few years ago. While it still has the same strengths that endeared it to me at launch, it also has the same weaknesses, un-addressed by its DLCs. Contrast, say, Civilization V, which benefited from Gods and Kings, or the various Paradox games over the last decade.

In December, I dusted off two tactical RPGs: Fire Emblem: Three Houses on Switch and Expeditions: Rome on PC. In the case of FE:3H, I started the game in 2019, back before the COVID-19 pandemic! I am so close to the end of Edelgard’s route in FE:3H now — just a little further to go…

Finally, around the same time, I got back into Crusader Kings III via its total conversion mods. The highlight has been The Fallen Eagle, a mod that transports the game back in time to late antiquity and the collapse of the Western Roman Empire. Fighting for survival as the Romano-British descendants of Ambrosius Aurelianus has been an exciting challenge, albeit one that has required patience, persistence, and a tolerance for “fun” in the sense of the Dwarf Fortress meme.

Upcoming 2024 releases

The beauty of writing this in January is that I have a better sense of what’s coming up and what will interest me.

Playing Suzerain, the politics-themed interactive fiction game, this year brought the upcoming Suzerain: Kingdom of Rizia DLC onto my radar. I loved the base game and look forward to more content in the setting.

Microsoft Flight Simulator 2024 is an obvious pick: I liked its predecessor and it will be on Game Pass.

I’m intrigued by The Brew Barons, a Porco Rosso-inspired game about flying a seaplane, gathering resources, brewing beer, and fighting villainous air pirates. It will be nice to have more arcade-style games for my HOTAS.

Finally, Eiyuden Chronicle: Hundred Heroes, a Kickstarted spiritual successor to Suikoden, remains on my watch list. Again, it will be on Game Pass.

Age of Wonders 4 first impressions: Living the dragon dream

This entry is part 1 of 1 in the series Age of Wonders 4

Two games in, I really like Age of Wonders 4. It sells the illusion of being a wizard (or in my case, a dragon lord), discovering and taming a beautiful, intriguing, and dangerous world.

So far, I’ve focused on exploration and PvE gameplay — roaming the map; discovering interesting locations; fighting guardians, wandering monsters, and the odd hostile free city; and only clashing with enemy empires as an afterthought. I think this was possible because of the maps I played:

  • The first time, I played the suggested introductory map. I took my time, played slowly as I learned the game, and won a score victory when the turn limit ran out. The computer-controlled empires weren’t particularly tough. Instead, high-level site guardians were probably the most powerful enemy I faced.
  • I played my second game on a story map added by the new DLC, “Empires and Ashes”. This time, I won by following the story quests. The quests also let me mollify the computer players. There was still plenty to do, such as fighting off a marauding monster that reappeared as part of the story, or tackling a quest battle that required me to go in solo.
Chappos the Dragon, fighting a powerful recurring enemy on the new story map.

Both times I played as a dragon, another feature enabled by DLC1. This lent itself well to my play style — a dragon is very good at clearing out monster lairs or defeating quest enemies.

But more importantly, playing as a dragon is cool. With a few upgrades, the dragon can drop meteors on the battlefield, send enemies flying with a swipe of its tail, or rip them to shreds in melee. It can bide its time and then charge in, like ultra-heavy cavalry, or trade blow for blow in the front line. Defensive spells and healers can keep it in the fray. And it’s unique — other than the dragon pretenders in the Dominions series, I can think of very few fantasy strategy games that allow this.

The aesthetics and production values help sell the experience. I think this is the first time an Age of Wonders game has really looked and sounded impressive — the world is attractive and the monsters sound ferocious in battle.

A final bonus is that the game plays very well on a Steam Deck:

  • On a technical level, performance is good, the visuals and interface are clear and legible, and the default control scheme lends itself well to the Deck.
  • I also suspect that as a turn-based 4X, it’s inherently well-suited to portable gaming. I can play a few turns at a time, explore the map or build up my cities, save the game, and feel I’ve made progress.

At least for now, I plan to keep playing in the current vein — I think I prefer my current PvE play style to the more traditional, symmetrical, empires-versus-empires fantasy 4X experience in previous Age of Wonders games. While writing this post, I just fired up another story map (this time, the first map from the original launch campaign), and I’m already interested in the quests on offer.

Now after I hit “publish”, I wonder if I can squeeze in just one more turn…

Further reading

I wrote quite a bit about Age of Wonders 3, both at launch and after release.

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  1. In this case, the game’s first DLC, “Dragon Dawn”.

Jagged Alliance 3: A blast

This entry is part 1 of 1 in the series Jagged Alliance 3

I greeted the announcement of Jagged Alliance 3 with some caution. In the lead-up to release, I felt a mixture of excitement and trepidation: could it bring back the old magic?

I needn’t have worried — JA3 is excellent. It builds on its predecessor’s strengths, while adding new features that reflect the last 25 years of tactical RPG design.

As with the previous games in the series, JA3 unfolds over two layers:

  • A strategic map containing (initially enemy-held) towns, garrisons, & diamond mines, and the country in between;
  • Turn-based tactical battles on hand-crafted maps — the meat of the game.
The heroes of our story. The main menu screen shows my current squad – from left to right: Buns (markswoman/medic), Tigris (custom character), Ivan (one-man army), Livewire (hacker/mechanic), Barry (sapper), and Scope (markswoman par excellence).

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The stars of the show are a roster of unique characters with whom players build a squad or squads. As in an RPG, it’s important to hire individuals with an eye to the team’s overall skills. Some are more directly combat-focused. Others are oriented towards support. Each has his or her own stats, personality, required wages, and — new to the series — a unique ability. For instance, Livewire the hacker is a valuable support character — she’s a poor shot, but will automatically reveal every enemy in battle if the player has intel for that location.

Also new is that characters gain new abilities as they level up — my current favourite is the ability to move further when wearing light or no armour. Scope the markswoman, who starts with that ability, can easily move to a new firing position each turn.

Battles place a premium on planning. If everything goes according to plan, they can be easy or anticlimactic. If the plan misfires, or if the enemy is particularly strong or alert, things become “exciting”. As of the time of writing (soon after the release of the 1.03 patch), the most popular playstyle is a combination of stealth and aimed, single-shot rifle fire, which aligns pretty well with how I play:

  • Plan A usually involves picking off lone sentries, navigating to high ground or good vantage points, and then opening up on the unwary enemy.
  • If that fails, Plan B involves explosives and a machine gun.

The ebb and flow of battle lends itself to emergent narratives. Once, my idea of sneaking into a city district turned out to be impossible: I walked into the middle of a set-piece battle between a large enemy squad and a handful of friendly NPCs protecting a public building. I used my scarce handful of 40mm grenades to thin out the enemy squad, before moving in to clear out the remnants. But as I was at the cusp of victory, an enemy soldier — nearly the last survivor of his squad — ran behind a civilian, creating an unscripted human shield situation — and prompting a save-reload so I could safely get rid of him. Rather than being frustrated, I loved the resulting narrative.

In another case, I played a different battle — a counterattack on a harbour I had liberated — three times, trying to keep my NPC allies safe. Again, rather than frustrating me, each replay held my interest as I tried different tactics and watched the battle unfold different ways. One ally, a machete-wielding woman, had a habit of getting herself killed charging machine gunners. On the third try, she manoeuvred between market stalls to stay out of sight, hacked down the first gunner, climbed up a nearby roof to stay safe, climbed back down, and outflanked the second gunner. Wow!

The strategic map. Camp la Barriere will probably be my next target – it controls passage along the river. By taking it, I can speedily move upriver by boat, and protect my downstream settlements from attack.

The strategic map is where the squad prepares for future battles — repairing gear; treating wounds; training militia to defend friendly settlements; and — this is new — crafting ammunition or explosives. All this takes time, and with the need to pay wages, time is money.

Early on, when money was tight, I found there was a trade-off between an easy tactical game and a harder strategic game. I started with Ivan, one of the best, most iconic characters in the franchise — and whom JA3 prices to match. Ivan single-handedly carried the team through the tutorial area, averting multiple squad wipes. But the need to capture enough territory to pay his wages meant I had to play very aggressively on the strategic map.

Ivan is so good, people have beaten the game using him alone. He has high stats and the unique ability to recover action points after a kill.

Progression in JA3 is faster than it was in JA2. In JA3, there are multiple rifles available in the tutorial area, so the “ineffectual pistols and SMGs” phase only lasts for the first couple of battles, rather than dragging on as it did in JA2. Instead, the limiting factor in JA3 is ammunition availability. There is no more Bobby Ray’s — the online weapon store in JA2 — so reliably sourcing ammunition requires either crafting it, or visiting shopkeepers in town.

Between this and a damage penalty that applies to burst and automatic fire, I find I rarely use these weapon modes — better to fire single shots instead. This is probably my main niggle about balance — while I could easily mod out or reduce the damage penalty, I’m interested in how the developers will approach the issue 1. And to be fair, this isn’t new to the series — burst fire was too inaccurate to be useful in JA2.

The music deserves a final shout-out. I like the main theme, performed by orchestra, so much that after wrapping up the game for the night, I usually linger on the main menu to listen.

So far, JA3 is everything I’d hoped for. I’m playing slowly; nearly one month after release, I’d guess that I’m about 40% through. If it holds up just as well in the late game, it will be a genre classic.

  1. Strengthening burst and automatic fire would probably also strengthen enemies, who have a habit of blazing away in these modes from too far away

Rule the Waves 3: Still rules

This entry is part 1 of 1 in the series Rule the Waves
The strategic map screen at the end of my French campaign in RTW 3. The yellow column in the top-right indicates high tension (and a high risk of war) with the UK. The coloured bars in each region show the strength of each country’s fleet there.

The highest praise I can give Rule the Waves 3 is that, for two weeks, it was the one game that I played alongside Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom.

The second-highest praise I can give is that it’s a brilliant depiction of strategy. Like its predecessors, Rule the Waves 3 puts the player in command of a navy — designing ships, building fleets, and commanding them in battle. This involves several trade-offs:

  1. Objectives vs resources — It’s the player’s job to design a fleet that can bridge the gap between the nation’s requirements and its available resources. These are very different for each country in the RTW series. For instance, the UK and France have to patrol large empires while fending off powerful enemies in Europe. Japan starts with a smaller industrial base but benefits from isolation. The US has a huge economy and is an ocean away from major threats. What force structure and doctrine are suitable for each?
  2. Current vs future capabilities — There is never enough money to go around. Building new ships takes time & money. Maintaining existing ships also costs money. When is it best to upgrade old ships? And when is it best to bite the bullet, scrap old ships, and put the money into new ships that won’t be ready for a few years?

Adding to this is the player’s position. While in-game events allow us to give advice, the government makes the big decisions: war & peace, naval funding, and naval treaties. Sometimes the government will also intervene in the details, by demanding X number of new battleships or destroyers. Regardless, when a war breaks out, the player has to get the job done.

This makes the RTW series almost unique in its focus on policy and force structure — an area I’d like to see more games explore.

The ships list – the companion screen to the strategic map. I spent most of my time looking at this screen. With my battleships undergoing modernisation, the carriers and cruisers were the largest ships in service when the game ended in 1970. A larger force of destroyers and ASW corvettes supplemented them.

Whereas the previous RTW games covered shorter periods, Rule the Waves 3 extends the timeline to 1890-1970. Over this time, naval technology evolves through:

  • The pre-dreadnought age (1890s-1900s)
  • The age of dreadnought battleships and battlecruisers (1900s-1930s or 1940s)
  • The carrier age (roughly 1930s-1950s)
  • The jet & missile age (newly added, 1950s-1970)
A game-changing technology. SAMs are much, much effective than AA guns.

Over the course of a successful French campaign, I fought against, alongside, or sometimes both (at different times) the navies of Italy, Germany, Austria-Hungary, the UK, and the US.

Some wars were one-sided — on two occasions, Il Duce sued for peace almost as soon as the war began. Others were less so — I lost a two-ocean war in the North Sea & Mediterranean against Germany and Italy in 1914-1915. The “final boss” of the campaign was a Franco-US war against Italy and the UK in the early 1960s — I hung on by the skin of my teeth before the diplomats managed to negotiate peace on the status quo ante bellum.

Some of my ships became legends. The four Aquitaine-class battleships entered service in the early 1930s as battlecruisers, were redesignated as fast battleships in the 1940s, and periodically received the latest radar and fire control. They were murderously effective against German heavy cruisers as late as the 1950s, before finally meeting their match in the form of modern Anglo-Italian missiles and torpedoes in the 1960s. Two survived to the end of the game in 1970.

The game ended before the final incarnation of the Aquitaines came online. This would have complemented the 16″ guns by adding surface-to-air missiles and CIWS missile defences.

Other designs were less successful. At the other extreme, the guided missile age made my last big gun cruiser, the Gloire, obsolete while under construction. I hastily refitted her to incorporate surface-to-air missiles, only for the Italians to sink her in her first battle.

The ill-fated Gloire.

Like its predecessors, RTW3 won’t be for everyone. The interface is a little fiddly, the graphics are rudimentary, and there is no music. Players need to come armed with their imagination.

The tactical battle view. I think this was the Gloire’s first and last battle.

For players who don’t mind this, RTW3 offers rich rewards. I plan to try another campaign some time. After France, perhaps Japan might be an interesting change of pace…

Further reading

I wrote about Rule the Waves 2 in 2019 and Rule the Waves 1 all the way back in 2015.

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Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom first impressions: flying high

This entry is part 1 of 1 in the series The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom
An early flight in Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom.

The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom was a day 1 purchase for me — its predecessor, Breath of the Wild, might be my favourite game ever. So far, I’m having a great time.

I think the running theme so far has been the balance between the familiar, the changed, and the new. Tears of the Kingdom contains many echoes of, and homages to, the original — but the details are very different, giving it a distinct identity.

A good example is the role of verticality. In both games, gliding from a height makes it possible to travel farther, faster, and more safely than travelling at ground level. But the details differ.

  • In Breath of the Wild, reaching those heights required a difficult, time-consuming climb.
  • In Tears of the Kingdom, while climbing is still needed, in many places Link can teleport upwards, launch himself from giant towers, or reverse time to ride a falling rock back up to the sky.

Using these techniques, I was able to cover a large amount of ground (and fly over difficult terrain) — although I still had a panicky moment when I had to escape a lynel. Thankfully it was unaware…

Another example is narrative. Old friends are still around, but they’re in different locations and in different stages of their lives. The story takes us to familiar places, but in a different order and different circumstances. It’s still Hyrule, but it’s changed over the intervening years.

Returning to an old home-away-from-home in Tears of the Kingdom.

Other differences, I think, come from me rather than the game. I’m dying less in TOTK than I did at this stage of BOTW. Is that because the game is easier? I’m not sure. Link is fragile — many of the early enemies can kill him in two hits — and even near the starting area, I had to run from a couple of bosses. Or is it because I’m more skilful and experienced? Coming from Elden Ring has made me confident and aggressive in combat, even when I have nothing better than a stick.

My plan is to go broad before I go deep. In other words, I want to explore, map out the early areas (either on horse or by glider), and maybe travel to the various hub towns before I attempt major quests. Hyrule is still a beautiful world, and I want to see more of it. And more experienced or not, I want better equipment and more health before I fancy my odds in tougher areas!

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Let’s Play Shadow Empire: Oceania — Part 2: War of the Machines

This entry is part 4 of 4 in the series Shadow Empire

Welcome back to my Let’s Play of Shadow Empire.

This was the situation at the end of Part 1, with my army fighting the militarists of Panzerraum:

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ENEMY CAPITAL IN SIGHT!

War over by Landing Day?


As Part 2 opens, the vehicle designers bring good news. Despite only incorporating a limited amount of new technology (side skirts that increase protection against infantry anti-tank weapons), the Bedwyr II has significantly better stats than the original. Extensive use in battle has improved the Bedwyr’s design stats, benefiting subsequent iterations.

To the west (around the middle of the map, above), Panzerraum digs in around the city of Errisspring. This was originally the capital of one of the farmer city-states that began the game next to me — Panzerraum conquered them not long after declaring war on me.

Unfortunately, the AI has chosen the wrong place to make a stand. The Lantern Bearers advance from the north. The Sarmatians, the Swords at Sunset, and a lot of militia advance from the south and west. Between them, they trap and encircle the defenders.

The siege of Errisspring becomes a foregone conclusion:

To the east, the Companions follow the road northeast and discover the Panzerraum capital, Hirschstein. The possibility of a knock-out blow is irresistible.


SETBACK!

Editorial: Dangers of overconfidence?


I send the Companions forward. They reach the suburbs of Hirschstein, but the defenders hold. And this time, massed tank battalions emerge on my flank, poised to cut off my spearhead. As the enemy tanks advance, I retreat to safety:

This is how the Panzerraum AI should have fought from day one — machine against machine, and manoeuvre against manoeuvre. (Possibly it didn’t have the resources at the time — armoured brigades are not cheap. Or possibly it was distracted by a multi-front war — besides me, Panzerraum is at war with at least one minor faction.) And current circumstances — a much shorter front — favour the AI’s use of fewer, larger units, making it harder for me to punch through overstretched lines.

With the possibility of a coup de main gone, I settle in for a war of attrition. I look for opportunities to encircle and pick off a regiment here, or whittle down a tank battalion there. The AI returns the favour, with occasional bloody pushes.

And so the war drags on.


ISLAND GETAWAY!

Visit Avalon’s newest member city


While the war rages, life goes on across the rest of the planet.

I invest in infrastructure — with my armies far from home, I pour metal and industrial production into building railways from my capital, Albion, to nearer the front.

Across the western sea, I diplo-annex the island city-state of Belhors:

  • First, another city is always welcome.
  • Second, I can use this to practice the newly added maritime logistics in the Oceania expansion. I pay for a rather expensive shipping contract, allowing me to send materials back and forth. The idea is to get resource production off the ground in Belhors, so it becomes self-sustaining.
  • And third, Belhors is just across a narrow strait from Polyshelf — the empire that extorted me back in Part 1. If the time comes for payback, their territory will be useful.

I also pay for reconnaissance of the ocean — and the surrounding shores — north of my continent. Across the ocean, at least two empires are fighting a war of their own:

Finally, I meet another major empire nearby, the theocracy of Monterra. Located northeast of Panzerraum, Monterra is tenuously connected to the rest of the continent by a narrow isthmus. For the moment, we have no border in common.

Like Panzerraum, Monterra instantly takes a dislike to me. Random event pop-ups give me the chance to support the peace party within their government. So far, this hasn’t paid off — I suspect I will have to fight them eventually.


INVENTOR DEMONSTRATES FLYING MACHINE!

General Staff sends observers


Instead of the brute-force approach — raising more brigades — I decide to try other approaches against Panzerraum.

I begin fielding my first aircraft — the Merlin light helicopters:

Unfortunately, the Merlin underwhelms in practice. I suspect the issue is size — it’s too small to carry a meaningful bomb load.

Now that the war has become more static, I start fielding artillery. Taking advantage of custom military formations — a feature that wasn’t in the game at launch, and which I’d never tried before — I modify my standard light tank brigades, the Companions and the Sarmatians, to add self-propelled artillery.

The big guns devour ammunition, but gradually whittle down the enemy:

And I hit the military technology jackpot with the introduction of polymer armour. This is a step-change — for a given weight, it is far, far stronger.

In this example, I upgraded my “Cai” medium tanks from 50mm of steel armour to 100mm of polymer armour. The polymer armour had 3.5x the strength and still weighed less:


AMMUNITION PRODUCTION RAMPS UP!

Big push imminent?


Turn after turn, the artillery fires. Turn after turn, the little Merlins sortie. And turn after turn, my army creeps closer to Hirschstein, Panzerraum’s last city.

A new Bedwyr model arrives just in time:

When it comes, the final push into Hirschstein is an anticlimax.

The exhausted defenders give way:

Fighting has devastated the city — there are zero upgrades left standing. No truck depots, no farms, no government offices, no private-sector amenities, nothing. I’ll need to invest in infrastructure as a priority.

I give the ruined city a new name:

With this, the war against Panzerraum is effectively won. A large Panzerraum army remains in the field, but without a city to provide supplies, I expect them to wither away.

Here is the victory tally. I remain well in front:

After this, my priority will be to consolidate. I want to upgrade my production buildings at home, while rebuilding and integrating the new territories. The question is whether events will get in the way.

Let’s Play Shadow Empire: Oceania! Part 1: The Rise of Avalon

This entry is part 3 of 4 in the series Shadow Empire

With the release of Shadow Empire’s new DLC, “Oceania”, I’ve jumped back into the game — and chronicled my adventures in an LP.

In this, I aim to convey the feel of the game and why I like it so much. Every time I play, I find something new to appreciate. Sometimes it’s the science-fiction worldbuilding, which can make two games play very differently. Sometimes, it’s the strategic depth; there are many levers, and it’s important to choose the right one for the circumstances.

Let’s see how I fare.

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WELCOME TO AVALON!

Our planet’s last beacon of hope


I begin by choosing one of the new planet types — a Gaia world. The first Oceania game I played, on “Hard”, was a slog — I started on a tiny island, hemmed in by marauders, hostile alien wildlife, pirates, and an enemy empire.

This time, I set the game to “Normal” and generate a continental map. Eraliria Minor, the planet for this game, is home to nearly 6 million people, plus sentient aliens. It has a breathable atmosphere and a pleasant, Earthlike climate:

Here is my starting position — the country of Avalon.  In the middle is Albion, my capital. (My previous Oceania game randomly named my capital city “Albion”, which fit the “Avalon” naming theme, so I kept the name for this game.) Following my usual playstyle, Avalon is a democracy with an emphasis on scientific research. On a post-apocalyptic world, there are far worse places to live!

I start on the lowest tech level, which requires me to research nearly everything. I also opt to start with a single infantry brigade, which I name the Lantern Bearers.


AMBASSADORS ARRIVE!

Linguists assure public that aliens are friendly


The first few turns are tranquil: no marauders and no giant, hostile wildlife. I send out explorers and — mostly — establish friendly relationships with the neighbours:

  • To the west are two tribes of hunters — I agree to peace with them.
  • To the south, east, and north-east are four separate city-states of farmers.
  • To the north are my most exotic neighbours, the Obaran Territory — a group of native Cephaloids, 4-metre tall sentient herbivores with rifles. I quickly agree to peace, then start investing in learning their language.

I invest early on in setting up a Foreign Affairs Council, which unlocks advanced diplomacy. Out of the four farmer neighbours, two agree to come under my protection, and a third agrees to peace.

As for the fourth…


BORDER CLASHES ESCALATE!

Army deploys new superweapon to northeast frontier


The peaceful start ends abruptly when the fourth neighbouring farmer city-state, Votherum, declares war on me. (Reloading the save to inspect the details, it looks like I provoked them by driving scouts too close to their capital. But they still fired the first shot…)

In response, the Lantern Bearers march out. Their starting equipment is little better than Votherum’s, and other events in the northeast are concerning. I receive word that the Britmountain Clan, a hunter tribe just past Votherum, is hiring mercenaries. But with my hands full, I can’t do much about it.

After a number of turns, I pull an ace from my sleeve — a single battalion of newly designed Bedwyr light tanks.

The ability to field light tanks is the first military inflection point in Shadow Empire. Early infantry can do little more than hold the line against marauders and minor factions. The arrival of tanks tips the balance.

By early-game standards, the Bedwyr is a superweapon: it has a powerful gun, enough armour to shrug off small arms fire, and a high “structural design” score that future-proofs it when the time comes to upgrade.

When the Bedwyrs arrive, the Lantern Bearers press on towards Micatown, the capital of Votherum.

Just as they’re about to take Micatown, the conquest of which knocks Votherum out of the game, a rogue cabinet official from my own government orchestrates a rebellion (magenta) back in the south — barely a few hexes away from Albion itself.

I quickly raise a second infantry brigade in the capital, the Swords at Sunset, to meet the threat. With support from a second battalion of tanks, they bring the rebellion under control.

Around this time, I diplo-annex another one of the neighbouring farmer city-states (to the east in the above screenshot). This takes me to three cities in total (Albion, the captured Micatown, and the newest city, Hessen) — a strong start.


WAR!!!

Enemy armies pour across eastern frontier


A side effect of Hessen joining Avalon is that I now have a border with the nearby empire of Panzerraum — a militarist regime that takes an instant dislike to me.

It comes as little surprise when Panzerraum eventually declares war, around the time I finish off the last rebels. Despite their powerful army, I’m not that worried. First, I have several times their population. Second, their army has several weaknesses I can exploit:

  • The Panzerraum infantry have better small arms, but very little in the way of anti-tank weaponry.
  • And while they have a handful of pre-apocalypse Romulus tanks, whose technology is far beyond anything I can build, they have only a few tanks of their own manufacture.

On the other hand, I have a good tank design — the Bedwyr — together with the industry and the metal to scale up production.

My plan, then, is to play for time and eventually, fight a war of machines against men. In the meantime, I rush the Swords at Sunset to hold the line in the east.

On the same turn that Panzerraum declares war, I receive a second declaration of war — from Britmountain. This time the shoe is on the other foot: after Britmountain grabbed land, I refused to agree to their borders.

And so, while Panzerraum occupies my main attention, the Lantern Bearers find themselves fighting an economy-of-force action against Britmountain in the northeast. As a minor faction, Britmountain is far less dangerous than Panzerraum. But their large, numerous mercenary “Shadow Regiments” come as an unpleasant surprise. Even with basic, improvised gear, Britmountain’s sheer numbers let them overwhelm two Lantern Bearer battalions.


FRIENDS IN NEED!

Neighbours receive a hero’s welcome


This is when my early investments in diplomacy pay off. I diplo-annex another minor to my south, giving me a fourth city (Ziemerfeld) and their giant army of militia. The sea of militia flows east, to join the fight against Panzerraum.

Meanwhile, the friendly Cephaloids agree to send a small contingent of mercenaries. I deploy them to reinforce the Lantern Bearers against Britmountain.

Not every neighbour is so helpful: the nearby empire of Polyshelf demands tribute. Out of all the major empires in the game, Polyshelf is the runt of the litter. Stuck on a small island, they have neither a large population nor significant territory. But, not wanting to risk a three-front war, I pay up.

Avalon will remember this.


TWIN VICTORIES!

Prime Minister announces “end of the beginning”


In the east, casualties are high as Panzerraum pushes against my militia and regular infantry. But they buy the time that my strategy needs. Equipping my infantry with newly-designed combat armour mitigates Panzerraum’s firepower advantage, while metal mines, oil wells, and paved roads let me field and supply a powerful armoured force.

If fielding tanks is the first military inflection point in Shadow Empire, then massing tanks is the second inflection point. I raise an entire armoured brigade (comprising five light tank battalions) — the “Companions”. Before, I had two tank battalions. Now, I have seven.

The Panzerraum AI has organised its army into what looks like a small number of large units. Their size makes them dangerous, but it also leaves them with too few units to hold a long front. And with an army of mostly infantry, they don’t have the mobility to manoeuvre, outflank, or do anything other than frontal assaults.

At the same time, I have a lot of militia, plus a critical mass of tanks. This lets me hold the line, probe for gaps in the Panzerraum line, and use the tanks’ speed and firepower to cut off stragglers.

Panzerraum’s anti-tank units turn out to be less dangerous than they seem — being organised into discrete units rather than sprinkled into combined-arms formations (perhaps the AI didn’t research these?) makes them easier to cut off and destroy.

In the far southeast of the front, where there are few Panzerraum troops, I score my first major victory of the war. Spearheaded by the Companions, my army captures the city of Reunionforest — from the looks of it, a formerly independent city-state that succumbed to Panzerraum.

Meanwhile, in the northeast, the Lantern Bearers, their Cephaloid allies, and a single battalion of Bedwyrs begin to see success against Britmountain.

Punching through and encircling enemy forces thins out the survivors to the point where I can advance up the road and take Britmountain proper, knocking them out of the game.

This is the current situation. The Lantern Bearers and the former territory of Britmountain are in the north. In the middle, Panzerraum (green) faces off against militia and the Swords at Sunset. The Companions are in the far south:

Victory against Britmountain has freed up the Lantern Bearers to strike south, although I need to beware unidentified enemies to the northeast (marauders?). Meanwhile, I may able to encircle and destroy several Panzerraum units, or else dart around behind them to cut off their supply lines.

To accomplish this, I have:

  • A lot of militia
  • Cephaloid auxiliaries — the original contingent, plus the rest of their tribe, who joined me later
  • 2 infantry brigades (total 10 battalions) — the Lantern Bearers and the Swords at Sunset
  • 12 light tank battalions — the Companions; a second, newly raised armoured brigade, the “Sarmatians”; and two independent battalions
  • A single battalion of medium tanks on the Panzerraum front
  • 2 independent recon battalions

Further west, the homeland is peaceful and already bearing the fruits of development:

Longer term, the outcome of this game already looks like a foregone conclusion — I have the largest population of any empire. Panzerraum is a very distant second:

The priority is to defeat Panzerraum, then see what else is out there. Are there any other major empires on my continent? Or will it be time to look across the oceans?

Terra Invicta: winning the long war

This entry is part 2 of 2 in the series Terra Invicta

In September 2022, in the Terra Invicta timeline, humanity made first contact with aliens.

A decade later, in the 2030s, the aliens landed ground troops on Earth. They cut a swathe of destruction through Earth’s armies before succumbing to superior human numbers. A second wave landed in 2036, attacked several world capitals, and fell prey to the computer players’ nuclear weapons — after I reloaded.

On 25 November 2047, alien fleet Victor-104 swept into its usual hunting grounds, low Earth orbit, and prepared to swat the newly built Oliver Hazard Perry Station out of the sky. Instead, they met the eleven human spacecraft of Earth Command — seven battleships and four armed troop transports. When the dust settled, Earth Command did not lose a single spacecraft. Victor-104 took nearly 100% losses.

On 25 November 2057, exactly ten years later, humanity’s larger, more technologically sophisticated Second Expeditionary Fleet destroyed the aliens’ main fleet in orbit of Makemake, in the Kuiper Belt. And several weeks later, on 1 January 2058, humanity ended the alien threat once and for all.

The Second Expeditionary Fleet closes in on Alien Station Able above Makemake. Alien stations mount a ferocious array of defences – which can be countered with long-range energy weapons and lots of armour.

I previously wrote about Terra Invicta about a week into Early Access. Now that I’ve finished my campaign, I’m very glad I took a chance on the Early Access release. I like how the game proceeds through distinct phases, and how it conveys the feel of an ebbing, flowing war, rather than a diagonal line up and to the right. At the same time, there is room to improve challenge & pacing in the late game. Overall, I think the game is very well placed to fulfill its potential once it comes out of Early Access.

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Game progression: through struggle, to the stars

My game progressed through many phases. My earlier post covered the first two:

  • Getting started on Earth
  • The early race into space, when I established bases on the Moon, Mars, and Mercury in the 2020s
Humanity resorted to drastic methods to defeat the alien armies.
  • Fending off the alien ground invasions in the 2030s one timeline (in another, abortive timeline, the aliens captured the Russian nuclear arsenal, making it impossible to completely clear them off Earth. Unable to find a solution, I eventually reloaded)
Until I fielded a “proper” fleet in the 2040s, defence modules – on planetary bases and space stations – were my main protection against the aliens.
  • The long, painful contest of endurance in the 2030s and 2040s. The aliens waged a bombardment campaign against my offworld stations and mining bases. I slowly researched the fusion drive technology that would form the backbone of my space fleet, while fighting constant wars on Earth as alien infiltrators subverted world governments
Discovered in the late 2030s, Z-pinch fusion technology took years to apply to spacecraft design. Eventually, Z-pinch reactors powered the human fleet at Oliver Hazard Perry Station, nearly a decade after the initial breakthrough.
  • Turning the tide in the 2040s, first tentatively committing my new fleet and then going all-in over Earth in 2047
The battle of Oliver Hazard Perry Station, the turning point in the space war.
  • Going on the offensive, first in the asteroid belt in 2049, and then pushing the aliens off the moons of Jupiter at the start of the 2050s
Clearing a large alien fleet from around Ganymede, where the aliens loved to bombard my mining bases. Note the large alien mothership in the top left.
  • Finally, fielding antimatter-powered fleets for the push into the outer Solar System in the 2050s
The assault on Able was the final space battle I fought before victory.

In-game, one of my starting characters died of old age, Earth’s political map changed as I unified swathes of the planet, humanity became a multi-planet species, and technologies such as fusion power and genetic engineering would presumably have transformed life on Earth.

Decades after alien contact, Earth’s political map would look very different to someone from 2022.

In real life, this unfolded over months since the game’s initial early access release in September. The developers released numerous updates for the game, which fixed bugs, tweaked balance, and improved quality of life. I upgraded my PC, which drastically improved performance — a previous bugbear.

What the game did well

The long game highlighted two strengths of Terra Invicta.

First, the phases of the game felt distinct and interesting. In the early game, alien fleets felt like an invincible force of nature. In the middle, they were destructive and dangerous, but I could bleed them white. By the end, they were pests to swat. The Moon went from a crucial first step into space to a backwater. Flying from Earth to Mars went from a major undertaking to a routine patrol. Resources that were in short supply become abundant once I secured the Jovian moons.

This was one of my early fleets – a handful of spacecraft loaded with nuclear torpedoes. They became obsolete very quickly.

Second, Terra Invicta made it enjoyable to play through ups and downs. This is a Solar System-wide war where losing fleets, bases, armies, and countries is inevitable — the trick is recovering afterwards.

Here, the game does better than most of the genre. Strategy games can suffer from a cascading effect where defeat tips the player into a death spiral — losing experienced characters in Firaxis’s XCOM is a good example.

In contrast, Terra Invicta is generally good at giving the player tools to deal with setbacks (the main exception being the nuclear-armed alien administration on Earth), while the sheer scale of the game provides players with strategic depth. There’s even a Steam achievement for winning as the Resistance, Terra Invicta’s XCOM equivalent, after one of the pro-alien factions has already won.

What could be better

Terra Invicta has room to improve its late game, which is lengthy and exhibits the same inverted difficulty curve as XCOM. Once I went on the offensive, the outcome became a foregone conclusion, yet I still had to go a long way before I won.

The issues are solvable — I’d put them into two major categories:

1. High threshold to win

This is easy to solve. I had a unique story objective, which was fine. However, most of the work came from a quantitative victory condition —  reducing the relative strength of the alien fleet below a percentage threshold. The solution is, reduce or allow players to customise these quantitative objectives.

This would probably be even more helpful for other factions in the game, some of whom have very grindy objectives.

Clearing out the fleet defending Alien Station Able – essential so I could reduce the aliens’ fleet strength relative to mine.

2. The aliens can’t keep up in the late game

There are several sub-issues here:

2a. Do the aliens need more late-game tools?

Alien capabilities reach a plateau long before humans reach the end of the technology tree. This is tricky to solve: it’s a design issue and probably thematic. But perhaps the aliens would benefit from additional technologies or equipment tiers, unlocked once they take humans seriously. Or, since going to “total war” mode already raises the cap on the number of alien bases, perhaps the increase could be larger.

2b. AI tweaks

A stronger AI would keep the alien fleets competitive for longer. Some of these fixes, I think, would be relatively simple:

  • Stay in formation instead of breaking formation at the start of every battle
  • Increase the amount of armour on ship designs
  • Move away from easily-countered missile spam to plasma weapons
  • Mass fleets in friendly territory and commit them en masse, instead of dribbling reinforcements in piecemeal. This was the mistake the aliens made after I wrested away the Jovian moons — they wanted to counterattack but came in dribs and drabs
This alien mothership had a plasma main gun and – for the AI – relatively heavy armour. (Human players typically add much more armour.) Perhaps the AI should design more ships this way.

Conclusions

Several months ago, I wrote that Terra Invicta ”may well turn out to be one of my all-time strategy greats”. Now that I’ve finished the game, I’ll go further and say it may become one of the all-time strategy greats, up there with the pantheon of the 1990s. It is not perfect, and it remains a work in progress. But in a few months of Early Access, the game has already taken great strides, and I’m confident it will be even better by the time it reaches its 1.0 release.

Would I replay it? Given the time required, I can’t see myself playing another grand campaign. But if the developers add shorter scenarios, I might return to the fray.

2022: my gaming year in review

This entry is part 10 of 11 in the series Gaming year in review / Game of the Year Awards

Happy new year, everyone!

2022 was an excellent year for new games. Unlike previous years, where I spent more time on older games, my favourite games of 2022 were almost entirely new releases. I had a clear #1 — Terra Invicta — followed by a string of titles that all did at least one thing well. In site news, I interviewed Vic Reijkersz, the developer of Shadow Empire.

The year’s releases fell into several major categories for me:

  • Vast strategy epics
  • Short, delightful indies
  • Turn-based tactics
  • Others

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The grandest of strategies: Terra Invicta, Old World, and Total War: Warhammer 3

2022 was a great year for new strategy games. Most notably, Terra Invicta was unique and brilliant. Old World marked a master’s return to the 4X genre. And Total War: Warhammer 3’s Immortal Empires campaign felt like a return to form for me after the disappointment of the Eye of the Vortex campaign in Warhammer 2.

Terra Invicta (PC, early access, 2022) – Sprawling, ambitious, and slow-burning, Terra Invicta is the game I’d looked forward to for years. It’s a hard science fiction strategy game that presents a more grounded take on XCOM and Stargate: SG-1 – what if humanity made first contact with a hostile alien species, mastered their technology, and clawed our way into space? The game unfolds across Earth, where different factions rally countries to their causes, wage shadow wars with agents, and eventually fight overt wars with armies; and in space, where humans progress from the Moon, to Mars, Mercury, the moons of Jupiter, and beyond.

There has never been anything like this, and I feared the developers might be unable to execute on their vision. They exceeded my wildest dreams. Even in Early Access, it is playable and extremely fun. With the necessary polish, this could become one of the greatest strategy games of all time.

This was also the game that made me break my rule about “no Early Access games for GOTY”.

The battle of Oliver Hazard Perry Station, in Earth orbit, was the pivotal moment in my Terra Invicta game. This was when my technology and ship design (zeta boron fusion drive battleships with coilguns) proved their decisive superiority over the aliens.

Old World (PC, 2022 on Steam) – Nearly 20 years after Civ 4, Soren Johnson revisited the 4X genre with Old World. Set in the ancient Mediterranean, Old World moves the historical 4X genre forward with a plethora of interesting ideas, such as limited moves per turn; using different production resources for soldiers, buildings, and city workers; and adding a character-driven touch in the form of the player’s dynasty. Its cut-throat AI is leaps and bounds ahead of the recent Civ games.

Several negatives held me back from playing more when it released on Steam: the learning curve was steep (I think exacerbated by the game’s novelty), the aesthetic and UI were somewhat dated, and the game was surprisingly system-intensive.

Since then, Old World has grown on me, and a new PC alleviated the system issues. I look forward to playing more.

Old World has a plethora of … interesting events.

I started Total War: Warhammer 3 (PC, 2022) in the last few days of the year. I loved Warhammer 1 (and the historical Total Wars), and after being disappointed by Warhammer 2’s campaign, I’m enjoying the freeform Immortal Empires campaign in Warhammer 3. Cathay — WH3’s fantasy interpretation of China — is an interesting mix of human soldiers and artillerymen; immortal dragon monarchs; giant terracotta warriors; and intrepid caravaneers. I’ve hit the “short” victory conditions, but still feel like playing more. And I’d love a spin-off game about the caravans!

Short and sweet: Tinykin and Li’l Gator Game

At the opposite end of the spectrum, two short, delightful indie games stood out for me in 2022: Tinykin and Lil Gator Game.

Tinykin (Game Pass, Xbox Series X, 2022) – A charming game about solving puzzles as a miniature person in a full-sized house, with the help of the titular tiny creatures. I loved its focus on exploration, its quirky insect characters, and its whimsical world design.

Tinykin carrying corn.

Lil Gator Game (Switch, 2022) – Heavily inspired by Breath of the Wild and A Short Hike, both of which I loved, Lil Gator Game is about the joy of being a kid and the inevitability of growing up. No combat, no death, and a focus on verticality and exploration made it a great low-stress experience.

The protagonist’s relationship with Big Sis is at the heart of Lil Gator Game.

Turn-based tactics: Triangle Strategy, Expeditions: Rome, and Mario + Rabbids: Sparks of Hope

During 2022, I played three newly released turn-based tactical RPGs. They excel at different things: Expeditions: Rome has my favourite characters, narrative, and atmosphere. I found Triangle Strategy the best at presenting information to the player (certainly better than Expeditions: Rome), and requiring the player to convince party members added a unique twist to the branching story. Finally, Mario + Rabbids: Sparks of Hope is a solid evolutionary sequel.

Expeditions: Rome (PC, 2022) – Third (and, it seems, last) in a series of historically inspired tactical RPGs. It commits a couple of major sins in terms of UI and player-friendliness — it’s very hard to tell which tiles enemies can reach, and I can’t find a way to tell what enemies can do with their special abilities. But it is extremely atmospheric — great art and voice acting made this a case of “love at first sight” — and despite the UI failings, the battles became very satisfying once I got the hang of things. For bonus points, it gives a prominent role to Lucullus, my favourite under-appreciated Ancient Roman. I’ve finished (most of) the first act and I’d like to finish the rest.

A boss battle in Expeditions: Rome. This guy hit like a Carthaginian war elephant, but was susceptible to knockdowns.

Triangle Strategy (Switch, 2022) — I see this as a spiritual successor to one of my favourite games of all time, Tactics Ogre. Like TO, Triangle Strategy is a turn-based tactical RPG with a branching story, set in a grounded, low fantasy world. I don’t think the writing quite rises to the level of Tactics Ogre, but it has a great art and aesthetic, and it gave me some fantastic battles.

A unique map in Triangle Strategy involves boarding an enemy ship.

Mario + Rabbids: Sparks of Hope (Switch, 2022) — I liked the first Mario + Rabbids (one of the first two games I bought for Switch), and Sparks of Hope refines the series formula by making the characters and their abilities more distinct, and adopting a “free movement” system. As with the first game, the setting, tone, story, and characters are so silly that there’s no narrative tension. Still, a mechanically solid game, recommended for fans of the first.

A boss battle in Mario + Rabbids: Sparks of Hope. Rabbid Rosalina’s weapon is terrifying at close range, Luigi is long-ranged, and Rabbid Peach can ignore low cover.

The elegant tribute act: Regiments

In a category of its own is Regiments (PC, 2022) — a tightly designed, elegant “Cold War gone hot” real-time tactics game. Inspired by Eugen’s Wargame series, Regiments adds its own twist to the formula. It offers a good single-player campaign, which starts small with the East German army fighting pro-democracy mutineers, before building to a “clash of titans” between the US and Soviet armies. In December, it received a free content update, and I expect more to come.

A Bradley platoon poised to ambush the Soviets in Regiments.

Odds and ends

I thought Victoria 3 (PC, 2022) had promising foundations — and I enjoyed it more than Victoria 2 — but after a bad design decision ended my practice game, I shelved it. This will be one to revisit later; I’ve always liked the idea of the Victoria series, and I’d like to explore several countries in this era.

Two Point Campus (Game Pass, Xbox Series X, 2022) was as charming as its predecessor, Two Point Hospital, but I found it a bit easy and simple.

What older games did I first play in 2022?

Sherlock Holmes: Chapter One (Xbox Series X, 2021) – A game that was clearly developed on a budget, but with a lot of heart. I loved Sherlock Holmes: Crimes & Punishments; Chapter One moves from discrete cases to an open-world format. I’m not quite sure the change of format works, but I like the writing, the developers’ interpretation of Holmes, and the work that has gone into the setting. Another one I’d like to finish.

Cold Waters (PC, 2017) – An elegant and quick-to-learn Cold War submarine sim. I didn’t play much, but enjoyed my time. As with other milsims, I also found it educational.

Rimworld (PC, 2013) – A well-known colony management game. I enjoyed the rhythm of pre-industrial life – preparing for winter, storing a surplus, and planning the next season’s harvest. Quite engaging and challenging, even with enemies turned off.

What older games did I revisit in 2022?

I revisited Humankind (2021), as well as my two perennials, Anno 1800 (2019) and Mario Kart 8: Deluxe (2017), after they all received new DLC in 2022.

I finished the Donkey Kong DLC for the original Mario + Rabbids, in the lead-up to Sparks of Hope.

Finally, I reached the credits on Hades (Switch, 2020) — finding the “right” build for my play style made all the difference.

The Adamant Rail is hands down my favourite weapon in Hades.

Looking forward to 2023 releases

After how much I loved Breath of the Wild, The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom is my most anticipated game of 2023. Details are scanty, so let’s wait and see.

I also loved the Suikoden games, so am curious whether Eiyuden Chronicle: Hundred Heroes, a Kickstarted spiritual successor, will measure up.

Rule the Waves 3 slid from 2022, and should be a fairly safe bet given that I liked the first two games.

Finally, I’m interested in upcoming expansions and DLC for existing titles, such as Shadow Empire’s “Oceania” DLC and X4: Foundations’ next expansion, “Kingdom End”.

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

This entry is part 1 of 2 in the series Terra Invicta

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 4 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

This entry is part 9 of 11 in the series Gaming year in review / Game of the Year Awards

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.