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

Atreides! ATREIDES! ATREIDES!!!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hi, everyone.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hi, everyone.

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

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

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

I did my part for palaeontology.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shadow Empire interview, with Victor Reijkersz

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

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

Hi, Vic, and welcome to the site.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

See Q above.

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

What would be your advice for other indie developers?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The culmination of planetary generation in Shadow Empire.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Do you have any final thoughts for the readers?

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

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

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Triangle Strategy: off to a promising start

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

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

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

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

The pros:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The intriguing:

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

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

The mixed:

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

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

The gripes:

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

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

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Authors worth reading: Alan Furst

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

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

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

His earlier books have lost none of their power:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Sable: concluding thoughts

This entry is part 3 of 3 in the series Sable

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

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

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

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

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What makes some games resemble 1990s designs?

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

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

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

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

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

So for instance:

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

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

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

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

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2021: my gaming year in review

Happy New Year, everyone!

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

Build deck, fail, try again

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

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

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

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

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

Discovering new worlds

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

Challenging myself

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

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

Revisiting the 4X genre

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

Defending my capital against an early predator in Humankind.

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

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

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

Returning to narrative RPGs

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

I love the localisation in the Dragon Quest games.

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

What were my favourite new games of 2021?

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

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

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

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

What were my favourite discoveries from previous years?

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

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

Honourable indie mentions include:

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

The perennials

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

Looking forward to 2022

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dune (2021) impressions

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

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

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

Thoughts below:

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

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

Continue reading “Dune (2021) impressions”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tactical battle – raining missiles on a luckless marauder base.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Around Japan in Microsoft Flight Simulator in 317 days

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

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

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

A dramatic sky as I departed Sapporo.

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

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

Tokyo sprawled out as I approached Haneda airport.

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

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

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

I’ve seen beautiful sunsets:

The Japanese coast at sunset.

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

Taxiing to park at Kushiro airport.

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

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Reading list update, October 2021 – Aviation memoirs

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

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

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Meeting the Queen Chum in Sable

This entry is part 2 of 3 in the series Sable

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

Nice to see you too!

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

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

Aw, that’s great to hear!

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Clippings: Old World coming to Steam, and more

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

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

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

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

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

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A theory of fantasy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Game Pass impressions, one year on

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Sable early impressions: a journey of discovery

This entry is part 1 of 3 in the series Sable

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Enjoy, and happy reading.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Food as worldbuilding in Yakuza: Like a Dragon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Humankind impressions: off to a promising start

This entry is part 1 of 1 in the series Humankind

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Highfleet: challenging, rewarding, and unique

This entry is part 1 of 1 in the series Highfleet

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Further reading

PC Invasion’s review sold me on the game.

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

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

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

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

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

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