Strategy games and the grind of micromanagement

Grindy late-game micromanagement is an endemic issue with strategy games, especially 4X and TBS games. Normally, this is “simply” a matter of having to look after too many cities, provinces, and/or units. If I never have to spend another hour scripting dozens of mages in Dominions 3, it will be too soon.

But several games throw additional busywork at you. Pollution, in the earlier Civilization games, was a great example of this – populous, industrialised cities would emit pollution from time to time, which you then had to detail workers to clean up. As your cities grew richer and richer, and in turn, filthier and filthier, so did your workload multiply. I am not sorry to see the back of that mechanic – I much prefer Civilization IV’s “health” metric, which is simply a city malus that doesn’t need to be constantly babysat.

However, I think the prize for my least favourite exercise in micromanagement has to come from Paradox games (Europa Universalis, Victoria, etc). You see, when citizens are angry in these games, they form an armed rebellion that appears in one or more provinces. Individual uprisings usually aren’t dangerous, but they do require your time and attention to swat. But when you control dozens of unhappy provinces – say, because the Protestant Reformation is sweeping Europe, or you conquered a large empire – the game turns into a relentless exercise of whack-a-mole. Move the army to crush a rebellion in Kent! Move it back north to crush a rebellion in Edinburgh! Oh no, the people of Kent are rising up again! It’s enough to, in these games, make me play small countries and create puppet states rather than embarking on massive land grabs – the sheer hassle of constantly suppressing uprisings is just more trouble than it’s worth.

(Note: I’m in the midst of listening to this episode of strategy game podcast Three Moves Ahead, on which Chris King, the lead designer of Paradox’s Victoria 2, is a guest. Hopefully they’ll bring up my issue of concern!)

EDIT: Well, I listened to the podcast, and Chris did talk about making rebellions rarer, but stronger and nastier when they do occur. That makes sense, and it calls to mind Sid Meier’s definition of a game as a “series of interesting decisions”: “how to deal with a once-in-several-decades civil war” being a much more interesting decision than “march them up to Edinburgh, march them down to Kent…”  The other idea I’ve seen, and I think it was on the Quarter to Three forums (link to the right), was to use economic/production maluses to represent lower-level unrest, similar to the Civ IV example I mentioned above.  I suspect it’s way too late to implement such a feature in the present generation of Paradox games — such as the upcoming EU3: Divine Wind — but it’s one I would like to see in future games. Maluses are less work than spawning enemies!

Art imitates life – how do your gaming habits mirror your real-world ones?

When we play games, we use the same brain that controls all our other behaviour. So it’s not really surprising that a bunch of my real-world quirks carry over to the way I play games. To name just two examples:

1.     I have a horrible sense of direction in real life, and as far back as the original Doom, I remember becoming hopelessly lost in a maze of crates. So while others gripe about mini-maps, objective arrows, etc “making games too easy”, I thank my lucky stars.

2.     I’m happier about hoarding items, whether they be dated computer peripherals or old reports, than I am about throwing them out again. Guess what my inventory in RPGs looks like?

How about you?

Civilization 5 doesn’t forget the little guys

Civilization V’s release is imminent, which means turn-based strategy gaming is probably headed for its biggest launch in years. Firaxis has just released the manual, if you’d like to study the rules for yourself. And early impressions are positive.

If you’re reading this, you probably know about the changes, such as the new combat/stacking system, the inclusion of city-states in addition to fully-fledged civilisations, the fact that each resource tile can now only support a limited number of units, the new use of gold to purchase  tilesone at a time, even the ability of ground troops to embark directly onto sea tiles (so you don’t need to build separate transport ships). The two that stand out most vividly for me are combat, which I think most people would agree with me is a big change… but also, oddly enough, also the city-states. I’ve always liked minor civilisations in games such as Galactic Civilizations II and Space Empires IV and I’m glad to see they’ll be in Civ 5, for several reasons.

First, they add to the possibilities in the diplomatic game. Reading the manual, it looks as though you’ll be encouraged to pull city-states into your sphere of influence or even fight wars to keep them out of the hands of rival Great Powers. If you don’t want to shed the blood of your own troops, you’ll  be able to transfer units directly to the city-states, which raises the possibility of using a city-state to fight a proxy war. Of course, I’m not sure how well competing for the affections of city-states would work against an AI — anything involving diplomacy would work much better with other human players — but it does throw up some interesting possibilities for multiplayer.

But they also add to the feel of the world, much like the cops in X-Com: Apocalypse or the nameless background bystanders in an RPG. There have always been smaller tribes, kingdoms, and nation-states nestled in between large empires; why should Civ be any exception?

A wretched hive of SCUMM and villainy

Remember the classic LucasArts SCUMM adventure games, such as Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis, Monkey Island and Manic Mansion? This entry in the Star Wars Uncut project (fifteen-second fan enactments of individual scenes from Star Wars) is an awesome homage.

If you liked it, you can see the main Han Solo Adventures project here, and the Star Wars Uncut project here.

Valkyria Chronicles and unintended consequences

Famitsu magazine has confirmed we’ll see a Valkyria Chronicles 3, apparently for the PSP. On the one hand, I’m glad: the world can always use more TRPGs, and I love the hands-on unit control that is the selling point of the VC series. Running a soldier out of harm’s way or lining up a shot with the joystick adds so much to the experience, compared to the “click on square to move, click on rifle, click on target” of other games in the genre.

But on the other hand, I do wonder if they’ll address two of the glaring gameplay issues with the original game. (Note: I have not played VC2 beyond the demo, so I only have word of mouth to rely on with regard to that game, and I can’t testify as to whether these issues have already been fixed.) First are the balance issues, :an overpowered class, scouts, and such as overpowered unit buffs. Second, and linked to the first, is the game’s scoring system, which is dominated by the speed taken to finish a level. The combined effect of the two is that, while the first game gave us so many tactical tools to play with – five classes, two tanks that could be customised, support weapons ranging from flamethrowers to rifle-grenades – it rewarded a madcap dash by your scouts for the other side’s flag.

Now, this was not a game-breaker for me. I really enjoyed VC nonetheless; I could regularly post decent (if unspectacular) scores by playing a methodical, combined-arms game; and I treated the speed-driven scoring system as a fun way to challenge myself when I replayed levels in skirmish mode. But a flaw is a flaw, and anecdotally there were people who were bothered far more than I.

However, the interesting thing is the development team’s rationale for focusing on speed. You can see it on page 3 of this Gamasutra interview. My interpretation is, the developers wanted you to take a ruthless, damn-the-casualties approach to promptly achieving your objectives. This is a good, or at least an interesting, idea on paper. In practice, it falls flat for the reasons discussed above.

But there’s one more design feature which obviates the need to even be ruthless in the first place. Similarly to Final Fantasy Tactics, VC gives you a three-turn grace period to call in a medic for a fallen party member before he or she is killed off for good. Story characters escape even more lightly – they’re simply immune to perma-death. There are exceptions – if an enemy soldier reaches your fallen squaddie first, that will also lead to perma-death*. But by and large, this is no X-Com, a game where horrific casualty rates were the price that had to be paid for defending Earth against a technologically superior, vastly powerful foe. And while I certainly appreciate the fact that VC is a pretty forgiving game, it does undermine what appears to have been a goal of the designers.

* Which gives me the rather chilling mental image of enemy soldiers finishing off wounded PCs with a bullet to the head…

Recettear: An Item Shop’s Tale

Have you played RPGs? Then you know how it feels to be gouged when you come into town to buy potions or stimpaks or shotgun shells. You know how it feels when you can barely scrape by selling hard-won rats’ tails, wolves’ pelts and +2 Vendors’ Trash. And most of all, you know that, “But I’m on a quest to save the world!” cuts no ice at the local item shop.

Recettear: An Item Shop’s Tale puts the shoe on the other foot. As town shopkeeper Recette, you buy low, sell high in an effort to meet loan repayments (game over if you can’t pay on schedule!), and in a second, action-RPG mode, hire heroes to go dungeon-crawling in search of rare merchandise. You can only take a certain number of actions per day, and the challenge seems to be how to manage your finite time to  amass the most money before the next loan instalment comes due. I’ve played the demo and found it charming enough to pre-order the full version (which you can do through Steam, Gamersgate or Impulse), notwithstanding I lasted about twenty seconds in the dungeon mode.

Check out the demo, and have fun!

Empire: Totally Better Than I Expected

I went into Empire: Total War (“Empire”) with very low expectations. I had read the horror stories about bugs and horrendous AI, heard the jokes about “Empire: Total Crap”. My interest in the game’s concept made me throw it in at a hefty discount when I bought my new PC, but even as I sat down to install it, I wondered why I had been so quixotic.

 

I was very pleasantly surprised.

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