2023: My gaming year in review

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

Happy New Year!

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

Apart from the Big Three, 2023 saw:

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

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

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The big three: Zelda, Elden Ring, and JA3

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

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

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

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

Other PC strategy games

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

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

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

Odds and ends

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

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

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

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

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

Revisiting old favourites

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

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

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

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

Upcoming 2024 releases

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

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

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

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

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

Age of Wonders 4 first impressions: Living the dragon dream

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Further reading

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

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

Jagged Alliance 3: A blast

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rule the Waves 3: Still rules

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The ill-fated Gloire.

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

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

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

Further reading

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

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Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom first impressions: flying high

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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ENEMY CAPITAL IN SIGHT!

War over by Landing Day?


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

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

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

The siege of Errisspring becomes a foregone conclusion:

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


SETBACK!

Editorial: Dangers of overconfidence?


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

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

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

And so the war drags on.


ISLAND GETAWAY!

Visit Avalon’s newest member city


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


INVENTOR DEMONSTRATES FLYING MACHINE!

General Staff sends observers


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


AMMUNITION PRODUCTION RAMPS UP!

Big push imminent?


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

A new Bedwyr model arrives just in time:

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

The exhausted defenders give way:

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

I give the ruined city a new name:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let’s see how I fare.

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WELCOME TO AVALON!

Our planet’s last beacon of hope


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

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

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

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


AMBASSADORS ARRIVE!

Linguists assure public that aliens are friendly


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

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

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

As for the fourth…


BORDER CLASHES ESCALATE!

Army deploys new superweapon to northeast frontier


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


WAR!!!

Enemy armies pour across eastern frontier


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


FRIENDS IN NEED!

Neighbours receive a hero’s welcome


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

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

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

Avalon will remember this.


TWIN VICTORIES!

Prime Minister announces “end of the beginning”


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To accomplish this, I have:

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

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

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

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

Terra Invicta: winning the long war

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Game progression: through struggle, to the stars

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

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

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

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

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

What the game did well

The long game highlighted two strengths of Terra Invicta.

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

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

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

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

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

What could be better

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

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

1. High threshold to win

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

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

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

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

There are several sub-issues here:

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

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

2b. AI tweaks

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

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

Conclusions

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

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

2022: my gaming year in review

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

Happy new year, everyone!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Old World has a plethora of … interesting events.

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

Short and sweet: Tinykin and Li’l Gator Game

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

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

Tinykin carrying corn.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The elegant tribute act: Regiments

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

A Bradley platoon poised to ambush the Soviets in Regiments.

Odds and ends

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

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

What older games did I first play in 2022?

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

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

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

What older games did I revisit in 2022?

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

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

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

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

Looking forward to 2023 releases

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

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

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

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

Tinykin: household exploration has never been so charming

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

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

Tinykin carrying corn down a ramp made by other tinykin.

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

Yes, that’s a CD.

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

Insects enjoying themselves at a venue.

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

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

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

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

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At its heart, TI will appeal to players who:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As this suggests, TI is a slow burn:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Regiments: elegant, focused Cold War tactics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shadow Empire interview, with Victor Reijkersz

This entry is part 2 of 4 in the series Shadow Empire

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

Hi, Vic, and welcome to the site.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

See Q above.

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

What would be your advice for other indie developers?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The culmination of planetary generation in Shadow Empire.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Do you have any final thoughts for the readers?

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

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

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Triangle Strategy: off to a promising start

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

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

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

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

The pros:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The intriguing:

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

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

The mixed:

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

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

The gripes:

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

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

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Sable: concluding thoughts

This entry is part 3 of 3 in the series Sable

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

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

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

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

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What makes some games resemble 1990s designs?

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

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

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

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

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

So for instance:

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

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

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

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

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2021: my gaming year in review

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

Happy New Year, everyone!

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

Build deck, fail, try again

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

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

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

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

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

Discovering new worlds

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

Challenging myself

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

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

Revisiting the 4X genre

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

Defending my capital against an early predator in Humankind.

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

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

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

Returning to narrative RPGs

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

I love the localisation in the Dragon Quest games.

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

What were my favourite new games of 2021?

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

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

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

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

What were my favourite discoveries from previous years?

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

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

Honourable indie mentions include:

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

The perennials

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

Looking forward to 2022

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

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

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

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

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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”

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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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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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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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.

Project Triangle Strategy – Demo impressions

This entry is part 1 of 2 in the series Triangle Strategy

The newly-revealed Project Triangle Strategy is a clear homage to two of my favourite games of all time — Tactics Ogre and Final Fantasy Tactics. After playing the demo, I’m cautiously interested.

The debt to FFT and Tactics Ogre is clearest in the aesthetics. The sprites look just like those in the classic games, right down to the way mages raise their arms over their heads when casting spells, and the character portraits are also gorgeous.

Based on the two levels in the demo, the gameplay seems solid. Positioning, elemental vulnerabilities, and terrain all matter. I cleared the second level by the skin of my teeth, with only one melee character and a few casters left standing. Using terrain, and a spell that created temporary ice walls on the ground, I was able to channel the second level’s boss into a chokepoint where my last melee fighter could stall her long enough for the mages to bring her down. Disappointingly, mounts seem cosmetic — a horseman can climb ladders (?!) and a bird rider doesn’t seem able to fly over obstacles — but that issue is fairly minor.

My biggest concern is the writing. What made the narratives of FFT and Tactics Ogre so great wasn’t convoluted plots or warring lords. What made them great was the themes and character arcs revealed by those plots — what happens when youthful idealists find themselves betrayed by reality, and how those idealists respond afterwards. In the short demo, I saw nothing comparable, although conclusions will have to wait for the full game.

Overall, I liked the demo enough to keep an eye on this game. Release is set for 2022 — hopefully it will fulfil its promise.

Stars in Shadow — a hidden indie 4X gem

This entry is part 1 of 2 in the series Stars in Shadow

Stars in Shadow is a 2017 space 4X game that bears more than a passing resemblance to the classic Master of Orion 2. It succeeds through focus and polish — this is a game that captures the essence of 4X strategy in a clever, colourful, and relatively quick-playing experience.

The first thing that stands out about SiS is its combination of speed, pacing, and elegance. This is very much a game about “interesting decisions”, with minimal micromanagement. Planetary management is simple (much simpler than in Civilization, MOO2, and most other 4X games), allowing the focus to remain on the galactic map. Ship design is also fairly straightforward, with ships having a fixed number of hardpoints rather than giving the player a freeform tonnage “budget” a la MOO2. Perhaps the most in-depth sub-system is tactical battles: I’ve pulled off nail-biting victories against superior fleets, which let me seize the initiative against depleted opponents.

My Phidi fleet (right) defends an allied world against an invader. Note the mix of my own designs (yellow) and the assorted mercenary ships (grey, red-and-yellow).

The second thing that stands out is the challenge — if there was ever a computer player that read Machiavelli, this is the one. Smaller computer players will league together in balance-of-power alliances. Larger ones will opportunistically demand worlds along the border; launch limited wars if the player defies them; then smugly suggest peace once they achieve their objective. At war, they field large doomstacks of technologically sophisticated designs. Playing on Hard, I have to use every trick at my disposal: making good use of diplomacy, splitting my fleet into smaller raiding parties, and designing ships with the range to strike at unexpected parts of the map.

My current game of Stars in Shadow. I (Phidi – orange, in the top left and centre of the map) am the #1 economic power in the galaxy and the #2 military power. I am waging a successful campaign against the Gremak (yellow – top right) that I must bring to an abrupt end – the Ashdar Imperials (purple, bottom of the map – the #1 military power) have launched a surprise war to take the border system of Vega. The AI is ruthless when it thinks it has the upper hand.

Third is the game’s charm and character. The art is vibrant and colourful, and the different playable species are qualitatively distinct — thematically and in their mechanics. For example, here is my favourite species, the ever-optimistic Phidi:

The Phidi seem optimised for a diplomatic rather than a conquest victory.

The Phidi prefer trade, friendship, and negotiation to violence, which makes them a perfect fit for my 4X playstyle. They receive extra income relative to other species, and can hire mercenaries from other empires with whom they have a trade agreement. Counterbalancing this, they have fewer, and inferior, warship designs; and as an aquatic race, they find many planets inhospitable. As the Phidi, I have to play to their strengths — Friends! Money! Lots of money! — and aim for a diplomatic victory. Along the way I hire lots of mercenaries to supplement my indigenous fleet, and use citizens of other species to settle the land.

The best praise I can give Stars in Shadow is that I’m currently on my 6th game, after 3 earlier victories and 2 defeats/abandoned games. It’s rare that I play a 4X so many times before considering myself done, yet this game has the magic that keeps me coming back. It frequently goes on sale for very cheap — I paid around A$8 for the game plus DLC — and if you enjoy the 4X genre, this is well worth a look.