Wargame: European Escalation – The Verdict

This entry is part 3 of 12 in the series Wargame: European Escalation/AirLand Battle/Red Dragon
This British Chieftain tank destroyed 8 enemy tanks, 3 armoured cars, a jeep, a personnel carrier, and a helicopter. Give the crew a VC!

 

Summing up Wargame: European Escalation, Eugen Systems’ latest real-time strategy game, is easy. It’s designed to do two things: evoke the modern (1970s-1980s) battlefield, and give the player choice. Picking it up is easy. But mastering it – that’s hard.

 

Playing Wargame is about putting the right troops in the right place at the right time. Unlike Eugen’s earlier RUSE, there is no base-building and almost no economic management – more dangerous parts of the map are worth more reinforcement points, that’s it. Instead, tactics are king. The basics are simple: use recon units to size up the foe; recognise that in an equal fight, the defenders will win; attack where the odds are unequal in your favour; and defend or fall back where they’re not. The tricky part is the “how.  With 361 units in the game, who are the right troops for a given situation? On large maps, laden with forests and swamps, highways and towns, where is the right place to attack, hold, lay an ambush? On battlefields this fluid and lethal, when is the right time to act?

 

And that is the beauty of Wargame. From a thematic perspective, while the game is a long way from a realistic simulation, it borrows enough to feel believable (think Total War or Panzer General). Simply but clearly, Wargame illustrates the importance of scouting, flanks, supply lines, terrain, and more. Its huge arsenal helps bring the setting to life – it’s addictive to compare an Abrams to a Leopard 2 to a Challenger, or a Marder to a Bradley to a BMP!  From a mechanical perspective, it epitomises Sid Meier’s definition of a strategy game as a “series of interesting choices”, beginning with which units to unlock and which of those unlocked to take into battle; and culminating in the myriad of decisions made during a match.

 

The right unit, in the right place, at the right time: Flamethrowers at point-blank range

 

Unfortunately, the game’s single-player campaign can’t do justice to its design. I’m not convinced that linear campaigns and scripted missions fit a game built around choice, and while I did get past the introductory campaign (5 missions out of 22), the next mission I tried prompted me to abandon this mode out of frustration*. I think enjoying the campaign would require a taste for scripted (and difficult!) RTS levels, one which I don’t share. The game’s skirmish mode is much better suited to its design, and decently implemented: I can beat the computer player almost every time, but barring the odd off day, it’s usually good enough to give me an exciting fight. The bigger problems with skirmish are a lack of customisation options and a failure to tie into the metagame: skirmish is limited to 1v1 matches (in a game where most maps are intended for >2 players), you can’t save skirmish replays, and you can’t unlock new units by playing this mode. (Update: Eugen has now added a comp stomp mode to Wargame, and you can now unlock new units via skirmish, albeit more slowly than via the campaign or PvP multiplayer.) As such, I would love to see a expansion that added a dynamic campaign, a la Dawn of War: Dark Crusade or Rise of Nations. It’s in multiplayer where Wargame really shines.

 

(A couple of quick notes about multiplayer. The community is mostly civil – I think Wargame benefits from not being the kind of title that draws the ‘l2p nub’ crowd. And while forum discussions are filled with complaints about unit balance, exploits, and immersion-breaking tactics, my actual experience could not have been more different: 95% of my matches have featured well-rounded armies deployed in reasonable ways. I have no doubt that exploits exist, but Eugen’s track record makes me confident it’ll patch the remaining holes.)

 

Lastly, I should warn that Wargame’s plethora of units has a downside: I’m sure it would steepen the learning curve for players new to the period. The game’s manual provides brief descriptions of each category of unit, and detailed stats are available in-game. However, short of poring over those, there is precious little guidance as to which tool to use for which job. How would a Leopard 1 fare against that T-80 coming down the road? (Badly.) Is the Challenger or the Chieftain the high-end British tank? (The Challenger.) What’s the difference between the Dragon and TOW anti-tank missiles?  (The Dragon is carried by infantry, the more powerful TOW is carried by vehicles.) While surmountable, this could well be an early stumbling block.

 

Driving into the sunset

 

At the end of the day, Wargame won’t be all things to all players. For someone who isn’t interested in the period, an offline gamer, or both, my advice would be to wait for a demo, a sale, or perhaps new features in a patch – the campaign is just too taste-dependent, while skirmish is a bit limited. (Update: The new features have come, and Eugen has added comp stomps, which should enhance Wargame’s appeal to non-PvPers.) But for a gamer who is interested in Wargame’s subject – say, someone who grew up playing Gunship 2000 and M1 Tank Platoon, or reading books such as Nato and the Defence of the West, Red Storm Rising and Jane’s Modern Tanksand who enjoys multiplayer, this will be a dream come true. Highly recommended to the latter, and a candidate for Game of the Year.

 

* This mission placed me in command of an American force stuck behind enemy lines, low on fuel and ammo, and reliant on captured Soviet supply depots. Very cool concept, but wearyingly implemented.

 

You can buy Wargame: European Escalation from, amongst other vendors, Amazon US and Gamersgate.

 

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

 

Resources

 

Fan wiki

 

The basis of my review

 

Time spent with the game: I estimate 20-25 hours. Steam says almost 50 hours, but this includes a lot of time away from the computer. Meanwhile, the game’s figure of 18-plus hours seems to underestimate time spent in single-player,  checking unit stats, etc.

 

What I have played:  A lot of unranked multiplayer games (mostly team games – 2v2, 3v 3, 4v4), one ranked 1v1 multiplayer battle, a fair number of skirmish games, the first campaign (5 campaign missions out of 22 total). This has mostly been as Nato.

 

What I haven’t played: The remaining campaign missions; the Warsaw Pact (much).

Shogun 2: Fall of the Samurai first impressions

This entry is part 6 of 10 in the series Total War: Shogun 2
"The Battle of Hakodate", c. 1880. Artist unknown. Courtesy Wikipedia.

 

Note: my final review can be found here.

 

With its promise of firearms, ironclads, and railroads, I was eager to leap into Fall of the Samurai, the nineteenth century-themed expansion to Shogun 2. After getting ~70-80 turns (up to 1867) in my abortive first campaign on “hard” difficulty, starting a second hard campaign, and then reaching the mid/late game (1866) of a third campaign on “normal” (all three times as the Nagaoka clan), here are my early thoughts:

 

I like the balance between firearm and traditional units. At first, cheap spear levies should remain the core of any army – early muskets are inaccurate and slow-firing, which makes levy musketeers better suited to manning fortress walls than to the open field. However, it doesn’t take long (~12 turns) to unlock modern rifles, which shoot much faster and more accurately than the muskets. Train up a decent force of riflemen (again, this doesn’t take long; they’re not too expensive, and they only take a single turn to recruit), and you can safely relegate the spearmen to anti-cavalry support or castle wall fodder. And not only does better technology unlock new units, it also grants bonuses to the basic ones, so those basic riflemen remain useful later on. In my first game, it was a delight to give a whole army of charging samurai a lesson in modern warfare.

 

Fortress assaults are even more lethal, due to the ubiquity of guns. Against well-defended castles, artillery seems to be essential.

 

I have yet to get the hang of naval warfare. Unlike Empire and Napoleon: Total War, all the ships are steam-powered, so the wind doesn’t play as big a role as it did in those games. For now, it seems to be a matter of bringing the most (and the most technologically advanced) cannon, engaging broadside to broadside, and praying one of your ships doesn’t blow up to a lucky hit. I have not yet unlocked the high-end naval units (ironclads and torpedo boats), so these might shake up the equation.

 

Naval bombardments are cool without unbalancing the game. If a land battle takes place near a friendly fleet, you can call in up to two barrages. While powerful, they have a very long cooldown and aren’t especially precise, so navies aren’t the “I win” button.

 

Money is harder to come by. There are no more trade nodes, so to obtain goods for export (silk, tea, etc), you have to seize the provinces where they’re produced. As such, resource-producing provinces are now far more valuable than in the base game. This is even more pronounced when playing on “hard” difficulty, in which everything is more expensive.

 

On “hard”, the AI loves to dogpile you – especially if you’re at war with its allies. You do get significant diplomatic bonuses with clans that share your allegiance (pro-shogun or pro-imperial), but that, by itself, is no guarantee of your safety. In this regard, Fall feels similar to the previous expansion pack, Rise of the Samurai.

 

The in-battle voices have deteriorated. No more Japanese voice acting from your units, no more “yari ashigaru de gozaimasu!”, and no more advisor yelling, “shameful display!” Instead units acknowledge orders in accented English a la Rome: Total War, and the battle commentary now comes from a hammy, booming-voiced, all-American sort (“The enemies’ allies run like he-eathens from a preacher, sir!”). I liked things better in the original. Still, this is a relatively minor problem for me.

 

The “hard” difficulty setting lives up to its name – after a while, I found it more frustrating than fun. “Hard equates to more demands on less money (costlier buildings + more enemy armies to fight), and the overall difficulty is closer to Rise of the Samurai than to the base game. Unless you’re a lot better than me at Shogun 2, I don’t recommend Hard for your first game.

 

Meanwhile, “normal” turned out to be pretty easy once I  hit the midgame. It would be nice if there were a difficulty setting in between. (Of course, realm divide could shake me out of my complacency!)

 

Apart from the difficulty, though, so far so good. I missed Empire’s gunpowder warfare, and I’m glad to see it back in Shogun’s more polished form. Watch this space for more!

 

UPDATE: So as of late 1867, I can state that on “normal”, the short campaign is quick enough to finish in a single day. I haven’t finished… yet. But I’m two provinces away from fulfilling the victory condition (14 provinces, plus Kyoto and Edo in the hands of Shogunate-aligned clans), and standing on the cusp of realm divide. I could easily have won the game any time in the last hour and a half; I’ve just been holding off so I can unlock the endgame units (Gatling guns!).

 

UPDATE 2:  Went back to an earlier save and won the campaign, on “normal”, in one day! Hurray!

 

UPDATE 3: Reflecting on my campaigns as Nagaoka, I feel disappointed with Fall. While as noted above, I really like Fall‘s basic building blocks, the difficulty and pacing have prevented my early experiences from becoming the sum of their parts. I’ve described above my problems with the “hard” campaign, and “normal” turned into a pushover once I got past the early game — all the nearby clans were either friendly, too small to be a threat, or both. And since I was playing the short campaign, realm divide wasn’t a serious danger: this only kicked in after I took 13 provinces, and only needed one province more to win! (The victory thresholds, at 14 provinces for the short campaign and 26 for the long, are far lower than for the base game.) However, I’m willing to give Fall another chance: it’s possible I was (A) unlucky*, (B) playing a less fun faction, (C) unwise to play a short campaign, (D) not experienced enough for my first, “hard” campaign (when I was still learning how Fall worked) and too experienced for the later, “normal” campaign, or (E) some/all of the above. I look forward to reporting back once I’ve tried another campaign.

Attack, defence, and the art of Wargame

This entry is part 2 of 12 in the series Wargame: European Escalation/AirLand Battle/Red Dragon
I wish I were as good as this guy: Zhuge Liang, the original strategist

It’s pretty clichéd to describe inventions – military, cybersecurity, maybe even medicine – as a race between offence and defence: I invent a weapon, you invent armour, I invent a bigger weapon.  But that could almost sum up how my approach to Wargame has evolved. It’s not just that I’ve learned how to counter unit X, or how best to use unit Y. My overall strategy, the way I look at a map and lay my plans, has shifted: first from overly-aggressive to overly-defensive, and now hopefully to a happy medium.

 

This is how I learned.

 

1. Never believe everything you read on the internet

 

The "I win" button?

 

Internet forum threads made multiplayer mode sound so easy. Most players are careless, the forumites boasted. They don’t guard their backs with anti-aircraft units, they’re heedless of the dangers that can lurk in forests. All I had to do was:

 

i. Fly over a few Black Hawks, loaded with the toughest troops money can buy.

ii. Drop off my men in forests near enemy HQs.

iii.  Laugh as they roll over unsuspecting targets.

 

Why learn the intricacies of commanding tanks, infantry, artillery? Chop off the head (eliminate all of a team’s command units) and the body dies (that team loses the game). It worked against the computer, when I tried it once! The war would be over by Christmas!

 

As it turned out, most players were not that careless. Anti-aircraft fire swatted away helicopters that flew too close, and a few tanks or flamethrowers could usually swat away commando raids. Meanwhile, I found myself regularly outplayed in the nuts-and-bolts ground war.

 

2. The art of defence; or, David vs Goliath

 

Ambush by anti-tank missile team

 

Out went the tactical gimmicks, which sounded so good on paper and were so easily countered by simple precautions. In came a focus on learning the basics of the game – down to defending against frontal assaults. Since I usually play Nato, this meant “how not to be overrun by cheap, powerful, abundant Eastern Bloc tanks.”

 

This was when I learned the value of cheap anti-tank missiles, carried by infantry (as in the above screenshot), or as in the screenshot below, jeeps and French Gazelle helicopters.

 

How to stop unsupported tanks

 

Cost of a jeep with an I-TOW missile launcher: 25 deployment points

Cost of a Gazelle with HOT missiles: 45 points

Cost of a high-end Soviet tank, such as those they demolished: 60 to 110 points

Satisfaction of gutting the enemy assault: Priceless

 

True, in this case, the opposing team had played exceptionally poorly, driving tanks down a highway with no recon; no anti-aircraft support (this had been left in the next village over, where it was completely useless); and inaccurate and mis-targeted artillery. But a victory was a victory!

 

3. The last argument of kings

 

Find good defensive position, dig in with infantry and jeeps with anti-tank missiles, support with other units as needed, massacre attackers. Win?

 

Fighting in the shade

 

The above screenshot shows my troops being rocketed by one of the most powerful artillery units in the game, the Soviet Smerch. It wasn’t quite as devastating as it looks: my column was on the move, and many of my units (e.g. the tanks) were armoured. But infantry and jeeps with anti-tank missiles are not armoured. And if they’re in a defensive position – i.e. not moving – that leaves them frightfully vulnerable to well-aimed artillery.  Guess what I encountered more and more often?

 

Clearly, finding one spot to turtle was not the answer.

 

4. The art of attack; or, know thy battlespace

 

Around the same time I realised I was placing too much emphasis on defence and not enough on manoeuvre, I watched a Youtube replay of a match between top-10 players. The contrast could not have been more stark. These guys made full use of the large map: they spread out their troops, they sent out raiding parties, they tried to flank each other using side roads, they were proactive.

 

Back to the tactical drawing board I went. It was time I rediscovered the offensive – or, to be precise, time I learned how to balance offence and defence. Time I moved freely instead of pinning myself down; time I learned to strike along one front while defending along another. And to my frequent joy, I discovered that while most players know to watch their backs against aircraft, only the better ones seem to watch their flanks.

 

A successful attack

 

The transition wasn’t instant. In my first ranked battle, I crushed my opponent with a small but powerful flanking force of tanks supported by an infantry-heavy anvil*.  Soon afterwards, in the exact same forest on the exact same map, I focused too much on the anvil only to have the enemy blast it to bits. One match exemplified this – I pushed ahead with scouts, realised the other team had left their entire flank open, and bulldozed their artillery – and while our team lost by a hair, we might just have won if I’d brought more tanks (good on attack and defence) and fewer infantry (best on defence).

 

But the trend was there. And it reached its most satisfying point in the last match I played, the source of that Smerch screenshot above. The other team brought enough artillery to blot out the sun, enough to wipe me out if I’d turtled.

 

I did not turtle.

 

A target-rich environment: enemy artillery & supply depots

 

 

When that Smerch barrage came in, my armoured column was already halfway to the other team’s artillery. My soldiers regrouped; drove on. And once they arrived, revenge was sweet. The battle wasn’t the pushover I’d hoped: the other team called in more and more tanks to defend. But slowly, surely, it went my way. When my first wave went up in flames, my second wave picked up the slack. The enemy reinforcements slowed to a trickle. And my third wave started rolling in. Our team’s score had been well behind the enemy; now it leapt up and up. We fired the last shot, and when the match finished, we were ahead in points.

 

The game called it a draw, but I know who really won.

 

* I won despite accidentally buying the wrong infantry unit to support my tanks in the “hammer”!

How to lose Crusader Kings II: a very short guide

This entry is part 3 of 5 in the series Crusader Kings II game diary, by Rachel McFadden

 

Being a small collection of ways to lose:

 

Not Enough Relatives

 

1. Lack of male heirs. No sons, no other applicable males, and no time to rush through that female inheritance law.

 

2. Failure to read the fine print. Matrilinear. Important word. If your heir is female, it’s the single most important word in the English language after “tea”. It means that her offspring will inherit her dynasty name, i.e. you can play as them. Marry your little princess off in a standard marriage – in which she joins her husband’s family – and it’s the end of your line, no matter how many bratlings she produces.

 

3. Mass death. So you’ve done your duty and provided for the succession. Then the plague/Mongols/assassins/tournament come to town, and before you know it, people are dropping dead left, right and centre due to freak bad luck.

 

Too Many Relatives

 

4. Ill-considered gavelkind. You succeed, overwhelmingly. Title after title falls into your sweaty little hands. Heirs pose no problem: you’ve got sons and to spare. Then, your character dies. Suddenly your realm fractures – and you discover that under gavelkind law, the eldest heir only receives a single “copy” of the highest level title. All “duplicates” at that level will be handed out to the younger heirs. Where before you were the King of England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland, you are now the King of England, with neighbourly Kings of Scotland, Wales, and Ireland. Back to square 1; say hello to fraternal in-fighting, and freshly predatory neighbours.

 

5. Uncles. Your new character is a 2-year-old with the ‘drooling moron’ trait. He’s rated at 0 in every stat. Even his twin sister hates him. Thanks to dear Daddy’s martial exploits, the treasury is empty, the armies are dead, and family authority shaky. Along comes dear uncle with his shiny blood claim, and it all goes like the proverbial fairytale. In no time at all moron-boy is reduced to count of a single African province which provides no income and no levies thanks to being recently conquered. Did I mention kindly Uncle has a different dynasty name to his darling nephew? Control will not pass to him should Tiny Tim have a tragic accident…

 

 

Own Petard, Hoist By

 

6. Wives. So your wife hates you, you’ve got no children, and she’s just gained the ambition to become your spymaster? She’s got a good intrigue score, and fulfilling her ambition will make her happy. What’s the worst that could happen? This could be the turning point of your relationship, the start of many years’ happy contentment and, more importantly, the source of a child or three. Two months later you notice your wine tastes funny…

 

7. Wives II: The Revenge. After 20 years of marriage you still haven’t got a child. A beautiful young courtier looks at you in a certain way, and something pops up. No, not that, thank you! An event offering you the chance of an affair. The tooltip says you have a chance at producing a bastard child! You click “Woohoo!” as quickly as your mouse will allow, brain already alight with plans for legitimising your bastard and using it as an heir. Score – one baby on the way! Then you die. Belatedly you recall that your wife has a high intrigue rating and a jealous disposition. Since it’s a mite difficult to rule a kingdom whilst in the womb, game over.

 

8. Being too liberal. Your son and heir is now a grown man. Capable of making his own decisions. Right? You give him some titles and off he goes, leaving your court to establish his own and begin building his prestige. Wait – you did marry him off before you let him go, right? You didn’t?! Now he’s free to choose his own wife. Next thing you know, you’re pasting a fixed smile on your face, shaking the hand of your chaste, octogenarian daughter-in-law and wondering how much it will cost to get her removed. Then you notice your son’s spymaster is way better than yours, and you’ve no chance of killing her. Oh well, at that age nature will soon take its course, right? Amazingly, this elderly lady out-lives both her husband and her father-in-law.

 

9. Marriage. You marry your daughter to the son of a powerful neighbour. It’s all good, right? You’ve got a powerful ally, and the next generation on that throne will have your blood – oh crap! Your blood! Thanks to your current laws, that means a claim on your titles, and their army is like ten times bigger than yours! Kill the happy couple? It’s the only hope! Assassin fail, assassin fail, assassin fail, bankruptcy, discovery, pissed off marriage-ally, train headed down tunnel right at your face.

 

10. Getting too clever for your own good. Family tree grown a bit messy? Too many people got blood links and claims to your shiny stuff? The future could get scary. Why not tidy things up a little with the aid of your good friend, Mr Assassin? Yay! Now the tree is all nice and neat, like a pretty little bonsai. Then your heir discovers he prefers other men, your daughter-in-law takes to religion in a hardcore way, and your sole grandkid dies of the plague. Whoops!

 

 

Live By The Sword…

 

11. Pope-assisted suicide. So you’re the lord of a tiny realm with an income of three goats and a sheep per year? Life’s sweet – in another 70 years you will be able to afford that rickety wooden palisade castle upgrade which you’ve been eyeing for the last 2 generations! Then along comes Il Papa with his talk of glory, religious duty, and sweet, sweet loot, and off you rush on Crusade, eyes a-gleam at the thought of funding a new chicken coop with liberated gold. Only to realise that one province target has a whole alliance network, meaning half of the Muslim universe is now coming to visit you at home. Peace? They don’t want peace – they want your chickens, your palisade fund, and your sole title! Meanwhile, the rest of Christendom wisely decided to sit this one out.

 

12. Ambitious AI lords. When your liege, King Suicide McDeath III, declares war on a more powerful kingdom for the twentieth time that decade, you’d better find a get-out clause in that vassalage-contract, or you’re going down in a flame of bankruptcy, rebels, stress, battle wounds, and angry mercenaries.

 

13. HRE. That’s Holy Roman Empire for those of you who don’t have the game. You are a minor lord. You’re outside the HRE. The HRE think that by rights you should be part of it. They declare war. Approximately 100,000,000,000 soldiers are now headed your way, supported by the wealth of half Europe. Your army of 11 people and a pig stand no chance! Swiftly, you send a grovelling peace offer. Denied! They want your title, without you attached. And since you can’t give away your last title, that means…

 

14. Pagans. Hi, I’m the King of Poland. My realm is compact, and pretty, and peaceful, and rich, and it’s got some nice armies too. Life is happy! Oh look, one of my neighbours is a one-province pagan dude with no allies. He will be easy to crush. Based on the number of soldiers I get from my provinces, he should have around 250 soldiers. War time! Let’s loot – er, convert the savages. Argh! Where did they all come from, the thousands of angry pagans, with the anger and the pointy weapons, and did I mention that there’s thousands of them!? Gah! My armies are all dead without so much as denting the hordes! Now all my other pagan neighbours are declaring war on me too! God? I need some help spreading Your word (and not dying) here. God? Are You there? God? God!?

 

Being a small collection of ways to win:

 

1. Survive over 300 years and reach the end date. You’ll get shown your score, and probably be told you did worse than various historical dynasties.

 

2. Lose.

 

3. I mean it: lose.

 

4. Losing is far more fun than building a huge kingdom and holding it until 1453. Thus, winning is losing by another name. Losing, now that’s a whole pile of win!

 

Rachel McFadden (aka frogbeastegg) has been gaming since she discovered the original Prince of Persia on the IBM 286sx PC. Whilst strategy and RPGs are her preferred genres, she is a multiplatform gamer who will play almost anything provided it isn’t sport, car racing, or multiplayer only. Under the frogbeastegg name Rachel has written guides for many of the Total War series, various AARs for strategy games, and a few pieces of fiction. When not engaged in reminding various virtual populaces that she is in fact the Supreme Ruler of the Universe and the One True Hero, Rachel can typically be found with her nose in a book.

 

Note: the above comments are based on a review copy supplied by the game’s developer, Paradox Interactive.

Book review: Dragonfly Falling, Blood of the Mantis, and Salute the Dark, by Adrian Tchaikovsky

 

Dragonfly Falling, Blood of the Mantis, and Salute the Dark are respectively books 2-4 in Adrian Tchaikovsky’s Shadows of the Apt series, and the quickest way for me to describe them would be “more of the same”. Together with book 1, they constitute a distinct story arc within the overarching series, and as #2-#4 in particular feel like one giant novel, I have chosen to review them in a group.  (You can find my review of book 1, Empire in Black and Gold, here.)

 

These books are “more of the same” in a literal sense: they follow the same protagonists along the same story arc begun in Empire in Black and Gold. They are epic fantasies, and they offer an imaginative world with some spectacular set-pieces. And they represent an improvement over the first book in one small but noticeable way – no more head-hopping!

 

Unfortunately, they also offer too much of the same in one key way. Where Empire’s plot was strong and tightly focused, its sequels introduce a common genre problem: sprawl. Over these books, the characters fan out across the world, meeting new faces, discovering new locations, and getting into subplot… after subplot… after subplot. I didn’t care for all of these, but I’m willing to concede that’s a matter of taste; besides, I loved one particular subplot, almost Miyazaki-like in its evocation of a brotherhood of aviators. The problem isn’t so much the quality of the subplots as their quantity: they slow down the story to a crawl, culminating in a weak book 3/early book 4.  It doesn’t help that the sequels fall into another genre trap, noticeable character plot armour, that the first book cleverly sidestepped.

 

In the second half of book 4, though, Tchaikovsky rediscovers his muse. The subplots come together, the action speeds up, the story arcs incubating since book 2 finally come to fruition, and the plot armour vanishes. And this is what redeems these books. At that magic moment in book 4, I went from dissatisfied to newly enthralled, and that momentum carried me through to the end.

 

Ultimately, these books aren’t quite what I’d hoped: compared to his debut, I think Tchaikovsky took two steps forward and one big step, labelled “PACING”, back. Nonetheless, they finish well enough to be worth a look for people who enjoyed book 1. I do plan to check out the next book at some stage, and I hope Tchaikovsky learned his lessons.

 

You can buy Dragonfly Falling, Blood of the Mantis, and Salute the Dark from Amazon US.

 

 

The Panzer General’s grandson: an introduction to Wargame: European Escalation

This entry is part 1 of 12 in the series Wargame: European Escalation/AirLand Battle/Red Dragon
Going into action

 

It took a lot to drag me away from Crusader Kings 2; “ a lot” came in the form of Wargame: European Escalation, the Cold-War-gone-hot RTS from RUSE developer Eugen Systems. I’m still climbing its learning curve, but I’ve played enough to get a decent taste of its campaign, multiplayer, and to a lesser extent, skirmish modes. Several things stand out:

 

Simulation meets accessibility

 

Just as Panzer General did for the mid-nineties, Wargame: European Escalation does for 2012. Specifically, it’s a beer-and-pretzels wargame, a title that combines real-world principles such as morale, logistics, visibility, and flanking with a sleek, approachable RTS veneer. Terrain matters: driving along a highway is faster, but leaves you vulnerable to anyone lurking nearby, while forests can provide shelter for special forces raids. Think a deeper version of the tactical battles in Total War, one that also allowed you to call on reinforcements in mid-battle.

 

For example, take the above screenshot, from the second level of the campaign. My units are blue; the computer’s, in brown. My attack is occurring along three prongs: I have tanks pushing up from the left and the centre, but on the right, hidden by the forest, I have another mixed force of tanks and infantry ready to move up and hit the enemy in the flank. Tanks have much weaker armour on their sides than on their fronts, so this works just as well as it does in Total War. This was a huge risk, because I’d have been unable to see anyone hidden in the middle of the forest – and tanks are horribly vulnerable to point-blank ambushes – but it paid off! If I’d simply charged up the road in the middle, things would have gone much less well. Note the enemy tanks in the hedgerow at the upper middle of the picture – a frontal assault may very well have led to me being the one taking fire from the sides.

 

Just as important are the other supporting units. Recon units, the ones with the binoculars next to their names, are vital to spotting ambushes and keeping an eye on the enemy’s movements – and in this game, if you can see a unit, you can probably kill it. Anti-tank missile teams can make short work of even the most expensive tanks, but tend to carry little ammo and can’t shoot on the move. Artillery is horribly inaccurate when fired blindly, but when someone – such as those guys with binoculars! – has a line of sight on their target, an artillery barrage can stun, panic, or disorient defenders, and kill the lightly armoured ones outright… such as, say, those anti-tank crews. Helicopters are target practice if you have good anti-aircraft units, and murder if you don’t. What happens if I aim my best artillery not at the other guy’s tanks, but at his AA? Supply trucks and helicopters are unglamorous, but resupplying fuel and ammunition is vital.

 

Unit variety/unlocks

 

The tip of the iceberg: some of the game's tanks

 

Real-world tactics demand real-world units, and Wargame’s metagame revolves around unlocking these. Completing campaign objectives or playing multiplayer (not skirmish!) matches will earn stars, and different units have a varying cost in stars to unlock. Normally I would not be a fan of this; however, earning stars is quick enough for me not to mind.

 

So, how many units are there in all? According to Eugen, the answer is over 350: light tanks, heavy tanks, old tanks, new tanks, jeeps, scout cars, mortars, artillery, rocket artillery, recon helicopters, attack helicopters, infantry in personnel carriers, infantry in transport helicopters… These vary across a range of dimensions: weapons, armour, accuracy, speed, fuel/ammo capacity, and cost in deployment points. Even accounting for duplicates and units that occupy the same niche, that is a lot of choices. Some are clearly over- or under-powered for their cost, but Eugen’s balance patches are chipping away at this list. Most are situational, and this is the beauty of the unlock system. Stars are abundant enough for me to have lots of cool toys to play with, but not so abundant that I have every cool toy to play with, which forces me to make interesting decisions even before I begin a match.

 

The single-player campaign

 

Wargame includes a 22-mission campaign, divided into four smaller sub-campaigns (which you have to play in sequence). So far I’m up to the fifth mission, and I think the best way to describe these would be “challenges”.

 

The campaign missions are challenges in two senses. First, they’re difficult. Usually, but not always, they require driving the computer from specified locations; this can be tricky for several reasons. First, the computer is often well dug in. Second, while there is no formal time limit to attack (though winning in X time can be a bonus objective), finite supplies impose a practical limit – turtle too long and you could run low on ammo. Third, you have to keep casualties down: there are only finite troops available in each mini-campaign, and keeping units alive from mission to mission allows them to gain experience (once again, a la Panzer General). Fourth, the computer can counterattack – in one mission I didn’t cover my flanks, leading to the enemy rolling up my supply lines and almost wiping me out! I won that mission in the end, but it was by the skin of my teeth: a crazy drive by a single command jeep to the victory objective*. The net effect is that after the first mission (effectively a tutorial), I’ve really had to work for each victory.

 

Second, the campaign feels as though the game designers have set me a string of problems, each of which is meant to teach me something. “Peter,” Professor Wargame says when I play the campaign, “the computer is dug into positions A, B and C, and it’s scripted to do X, Y, and Z. Given this set of tools, how would you achieve your objective?” And it succeeds at this. At the end of each mission, win or lose, I tend to walk away feeling as though I’ve learned something about modern military tactics. There is an element of hindsight involved when I replay missions, but so far, I feel as though I could have won the first time through with better tactics. For example, the three-pronged attack in the screenshot at the top followed my belated discovery of the perils of a frontal assault, and “okay, I’ll come under attack from this direction, so I’d better place some tanks over there!” could have been avoided had I kept scouts on all approaches. (I’m avoiding the word ‘puzzle’, which implies there’s only one solution to each mission; in a game with this many units, there has to be more than one.)

 

Note that the campaign is effectively story-less. A brief cutscene outlines the premise of each mini-campaign, but from mission to mission the context is limited to a narrator intoning that the BAOR has entered the fray or that NATO forces are attempting to encircle the Eighth Guards Army. I don’t mind; RTSes aren’t known for their writing anyway.

 

Skirmish and multiplayer

 

The skirmish and multiplayer modes feel very distinct from the more rigid campaign. Here, each team starts on opposite sides of the map, with an equally-sized pool of deployment points. There are objective areas scattered around the map, but ultimately the goal is to kill more of the enemy than you lose yourself – victory goes either to the side that first kills X points of units, or to the side with the greater kill score when the timer runs out. Lastly, whereas the campaign specifies the unit types available but lets you add as many as you can afford, skirmish/MP limits you to taking up to 25 different types (your “deck”) into a game.

 

The skirmish mode (limited to 1v1 matches) is passable, from what little I’ve seen. The skirmish AI plays a lot like an inexperienced human! I’ve seen it drive tanks too close to potential ambush locations, and I recently saw the AI open by spamming helicopters –terrifyingly effective against my initial line-up, but a game-loser once I responded with massed anti-aircraft units. However, these are the sorts of things that newbie players do – I know I’ve made the same mistakes – and as such, I’m not going to cast stones at the AI quite yet. The bigger problem with skirmish, as noted above, is that this mode doesn’t award stars for unlocking units. In other words, you cannot play this as a pure skirmish game. You’ll have to earn stars via the campaign, multiplayer, or both. This has been changed in a patch.

 

Multiplayer is where I’ve spent the most time. Rather annoyingly, the game often crashes while I’m trying to find/start a match, though it’s rock-solid once play begins. However, the quality of the MP gameplay is good enough for me to forgive the developers. The variety of units, the unlock system, the large map sizes, and the emphasis on tactics combine to create a plethora of interesting decisions: if I unlock this and that, could they form the hammer and anvil of an attack force? Do I hold at this juicy objective, or do I look for a more defensible position that brings in fewer deployment points? How do I ensure my deck can counter this common tactic? Hey, that guy rolled over me with an army of this! What should I unlock to counter it? And what do I have to jettison from my deck in order to make room?

 

Note that comp stomps aren’t currently in the game – for now MP is strictly PvP. However, Eugen has stated that it’ll patch this feature in within the month, so I look forward to trying it out. Comp stomps have now been patched in.

 

At this stage, I expect I’ll focus more on multiplayer than on the campaign. While the campaign feels cerebral, so does a maths lesson; I personally prefer the fluidity of multiplayer. However, the campaign’s style of gameplay could be more to others’ liking.

 

Stay tuned for further updates!

 

* It’s for this reason that I don’t believe the common forum assertion that the AI is omniscient. If it were, surely it would have pounced on my poor jeep?

Sins of a Solar Empire: Rebellion beta – my first look & postcards

This entry is part 1 of 2 in the series Sins of a Solar Empire: Rebellion

When the Sins of a Solar Empire: Rebellion beta opened to pre-order customers, I jumped at the chance to give the game a test-drive. I played a single 1v1 game vs AI (both of us as the TEC Loyalists, the game’s specialist turtle faction) on a small map. Here are my quick observations:

 

This is still recognisably Sins of a Solar Empire: Compared to the base game, the UI is the same, 95% of the units are the same, and the overall “look” and “feel” are the same. As a stand-alone expansion, it’s probably best to think of this as Sins of a Solar Empire: Deluxe.

 

… but some of the graphical effects have been improved. Missiles, in particular, look far prettier, which benefits the Marza and the Javelis. Incoming barrages have never looked so spectacular:

 

For what we are about to receive…

 

Titans are powerful but not unstoppable: These super-ships are one of Rebellion’s most heavily-promoted additions; however, while formidable, the TEC Loyalist titan (pictured in the foreground of the two screenshots in this post) is no instant death machine. While my titan fought an upgraded AI starbase to a standstill (yes, I know, I should have brought torpedo cruisers, but I wanted to test the titan in action), it couldn’t damage the starbase quickly enough for me to keep my fleet in-system once enemy reinforcements showed up.

The new victory conditions seem geared to larger maps: Rebellion contains four new victory conditions: (1) lose your homeworld; (2) lose a starting special unit; (3) science; and (4) hold a victory location. I felt the original Sins could really have used (3) and (4), so I enabled those two in my test game, but I found it simpler to just steamroll the computer player. The science victory requires 8 civilian research labs and that you research 50 techs first, preconditions not likely to be met except in a very long game; and the independent fleet guarding the victory location – including a starbase and a titan! – looked like a tougher nut to crack than any of the AI worlds. As such, I expect the new victory conditions to be most useful on larger maps or in games with more than 2 players.

 

As the in-game loading screen reminds us, Rebellion is still very much a work in progress – for instance, the Advent and the Vasari aren’t even in the current beta yet – so for now I’ll probably hold off until it’s closer to release. I look forward to writing a more detailed preview at that time.

 

For now, here’s another screenshot from my Rebellion game. At the same time as my titan was shooting it out with the starbase (foreground), my conventional fleet was exchanging missiles with the enemy (background). I’ve played Sins for so long that its visuals have lost their awe for me; Rebellion has restored some of that magic.

 

Now, witness the firepower of this fully armed and operational Titan!

Crusader Kings II: Feudalism: domain thing?

This entry is part 2 of 5 in the series Crusader Kings II game diary, by Rachel McFadden

As everyone and their pot plant will be aware, Crusader Kings II is a medieval-themed strategy game. What comes as a surprise to many people is that it’s a medieval-themed game, not a knights-and-kingdoms themed game. Let me explain.

 

Your average medieval strategy game is akin to a theme park view of history. You select one of the major kingdoms and, using knights and other period-themed units, seek to kill everyone who is not you. Change the paintwork and the same template is used for Three Kingdoms China, Victorian Europe, Ancient Rome – anywhere. Alternatively, you’re placed in command of a settlement and need to build up breweries and bowyers whilst killing the naughty macemen attempting to knock your settlement down. Meanwhile, Crusader Kings II isn’t afraid to deploy words like “agnatic primogeniture”.

 

The gameplay structure responsible for much of CKII‘s difference in medieval tone is its incorporation of the feudal system. Or, as the old historian’s joke goes, the feuding system. Whilst much recent debate has occurred on how the feudal system worked, the game uses the classic template favoured by generations of earlier scholars. It’s one many children will have encountered in their text books and which is simple to grasp. Society forms a big pyramid. Emperors sit at the top, then kings, then dukes, then counts, then barons, then the teeming masses of ignoble birth. The church hierarchy mirrors the secular, with the Pope at the top as an honorary king. All land is owned, usually by the person at the top of the title chain. Parcels of land were granted to followers, partly to ensure their loyalty and partly to cope with the administrative difficulties involved in ruling during the period. Anyone holding land from another person is termed a “vassal”.  Land ownership is not transferred to the vassal. It’s easiest for the modern mind to view it as rented, with the rent paid by provision of troops, personal loyalty, and political support. A vassal will expect to pass his lands on to his heir, however, and society views this as a reasonable and just expectation. Go against it at your peril, tyrant! Stripping a vassal of his titles will cause large amounts of ill-feeling across the realm, no matter what the vassal has done to upset you. Far safer to imprison them, wait for them to die of neglect, and hope that their heir is more reasonably disposed towards you. A vassal with a large amount of land may create vassals of his own, using people one step below him on the pyramid.

 

For the sake of simplicity CKII pairs each parcel of land with a set title: if you have the title then you have the land, if you have a claim on the title then you have a claim on the land and can attempt to win it to your control, and if you lack both then that parcel of land is out of your reach unless it belongs to a non-Christian ruler. Religious warfare does not require legal rationalization; the right of the sword is sufficient justification. The correct name for these parcels of land varies depending on the culture of the people living there, so many players use the old standby name of the strategy genre: provinces. One province gets you a count title, or its regional equivalent. Two or more provinces can join together to create a duchy or equivalent. Multiple duchies form a kingdom, or one of the two possible empires. On the province level, the game takes a lean to the detailed side, and introduces sub-holdings inside each province. A province will start with a city, religious foundation, or castle as its controlling sub-holding. After that, there are up to 6 slots for further settlements of these types inside the province. Each of these sub-holdings can also be handed out to a vassal, giving the holder a minor title like mayor. In the event of conflict, capturing the controlling castle will give an invader partial control over a province. Full control is only gained when every single sub-holding has been taken.

 

 

 

The pictures above and below show a quick example. The entire island forms the Kingdom of Ireland. Each of the green patches with a label is a duchy. Provinces are the smaller divisions visible within each duchy. The second screenshot shows the province view for Thomond, part of the Duchy of Munster. The castle at the top next to the person’s portrait is the controlling castle. Below, two boxes are filled in with settlements and one shows only an empty field, ready for the owner to construct a new sub-holding of his choice. The empty grey space below will gradually open up so that further sub-holdings can be constructed.

 

 

 

Each feudal lord, be he count or king, has what is known as a “demesne” (pronounced “demain”, natch), which counts the total amount of land he can personally control. A player returning from the original Crusader Kings might expect demesne to be measured in provinces. It is not. Instead it is measured in sub-holdings. If the game says you can hold 7 items in your demesne, it does not mean 7 provinces, it means 7 castles or cities. The size of your demesne is influenced by your laws and by your character’s stats. With the right set of circumstances you can hold a lot more land than usual, with all the benefits that brings. Benefits? Land held in demesne will contribute the full amount of troops when you summon your levies. You also gain tax income, which varies considerably depending on your technology level, buildings, and laws. Cumulatively, this demesne limit introduces two new feudal factors. Firstly, it’s possible for a character who holds a lot of titles to have his personal demesne scattered across a wide area. This is as advantageous or detrimental as you make it. Wise demesne selection will let you keep your armies in key locations, and give you control of the richest provinces. Poor selection can leave your forces scattered and your coffers struggling. Sometimes it is better to centralise your holdings. The second factor is that it ensures the creation of sub-vassals, and this keeps the feudal system flourishing throughout the game. It is not possible for a player to blot out half of the game in order to play as a complete control freak.

 

Simple enough, right? You want to be on the top of the pyramid, and better than your peers. You want to hold the juiciest sub-holdings in your demesne, and to pass the whole conglomerate on to your chosen heir in the hopes he may add to it, in turn passing an enriched realm on to his own heir. That is, in a nutshell, the game.

 

It’s the systems arising from this that make the game so gripping. Without the feudal system, the game wouldn’t need characters, dynasties, inheritance, or laws. Without claims, intrigue would be much less important, and war would lose its main limiting factor. Without vassals, it wouldn’t need inter-character relationships, and intrigue’s remaining usage would be removed. In short, without the feudal system this would be another game about pushing shiny knights around a map for world conquest. Not terribly medieval.

 

Some of these topics deserve articles of their own, instead of being stapled onto the end of this one. Character relationships, dynasties, warfare, intrigue – these and more will be covered in the future. For the time being I shall limit myself to two areas which tie in most strongly with the legalities of feudalism: levies, and laws.

 

Levies are fairly straightforward. Each sub-holding has a pool of men which can be summoned to arms. That pool is determined by a variety of factors, but mainly by the type of sub-holding and its upgrade level. A castle will emphasise heavy troops like knights, whereas a city will produce more militia-grade soldiers, such as bowmen. Each sub-holding can be upgraded with various buildings, increasing the number of soldiers available for the levy. As previously mentioned, when a sub-holding is in the demesne of a character, they can summon the entire levy. If your character personally holds a castle which has 500 men available, you will be able to use all 500 of then. If the sub-holding is held by a vassal, then the overlord only has access to a percentage of the total levy. The percentage is decided by the laws which are applicable to the province where the holding is located, and on the vassal’s feeling towards his overlord. The more a vassal likes his lord, the more troops he is willing to provide. A kingdom might have massive military potential, yet still be hamstrung by an extremely unpopular king using weak crown laws. If such a kingdom ended up at war, the king would need to hire mercenaries or hope his vassals took up arms of their own accord. The classic feudal requirements historically used in most of Europe called for the vassal to do 40 days of military service each year. Anything after that was not required, and performed either out of personal loyalty or in return for pay. The game reflects this, with vassals slowly becoming unhappy if you keep their levies called up for too long. As many historical kings discovered, sometimes 40 days is not even enough time to get the soldiers to the battlefield! If you needed another reason to keep your vassals happy, this is it. Deeply unhappy vassals may well judge abuse of their levies to be the final straw.

 

Laws split into two main categories: inheritance and realm. Inheritance laws are best saved for another article. Realm laws govern how many troops you can summon from each vassal, the taxes vassals must pay, and how strong crown authority is. The first two are self-explanatory. The third is … interesting. At low crown authority, a king is helpless to prevent his vassals squabbling amongst themselves, even to the point of them taking up arms against each other. The best he can do is support one side or the other. At higher levels of crown authority, private warfare is banned and vassals can only choose to fight outside entities. At the lowest level of crown authority, it is completely impossible to revoke a vassal’s title even if you are willing to be seen as a tyrant. The third drawback to low crown authority is perhaps the most tolerable; you are not permitted to choose the generals in command of your raised armies. In the current build of the game, generals have very little influence over combat results, so it’s not the end of the world when the Earl of Sidethorn insists on placing his cousin Cowardly Noskill in command of his contribution to your feudal levy. I expect future builds will increase the importance of good generals, and this will then become a harsher penalty. At the highest levels of crown authority, vassals can barely sneeze without permission! Naturally they hate this – each increased level of crown authority causes a relationship hit with a character’s vassals.

 

If after reading this you are thinking that the game sounds complicated, well, it is and it isn’t. Provided you can remember the simple feudal pyramid, and accept that you should be thinking in terms of medieval lords working to improve their family’s circumstances in a world filled with AI-controlled characters seeking to do precisely the same, you shouldn’t have much trouble. If you are under someone’s thumb, work to get free by climbing the pyramid so that you stand at the same rank as your overlord. If you have others under your thumb, work to keep them there and to add to your vassal collection. As you play and see the Crusader Kings II feudal system in action, you will start to pick up the more advanced aspects. Until then it’s possible – and enjoyable – to play the game almost like an RPG, picking options and making decisions according to what you think sounds coolest.

 

Rachel McFadden (aka frogbeastegg) has been gaming since she discovered the original Prince of Persia on the IBM 286sx PC. Whilst strategy and RPGs are her preferred genres, she is a multiplatform gamer who will play almost anything provided it isn’t sport, car racing, or multiplayer only. Under the frogbeastegg name Rachel has written guides for many of the Total War series, various AARs for strategy games, and a few pieces of fiction. When not engaged in reminding various virtual populaces that she is in fact the Supreme Ruler of the Universe and the One True Hero, Rachel can typically be found with her nose in a book.

 

Note: the above comments are based on a review copy supplied by the game’s developer, Paradox Interactive.

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