Shield of civilisation: Thoughts on Total Warhammer

This entry is part 1 of 1 in the series Total War: Warhammer

Total Warhammer - the emperor strikes backI am the shield that guards the realms of man. When the Vampire Counts marched west into the fragmented, bickering human principalities, it was the recently crowned Emperor, Karl Franz, who came to the rescue. And when the battle hung in the balance, the weary human warriors struggling against the Vampire Count himself, it was the Emperor who charged up on horseback to deliver the final blow.

When the forces of Chaos swept south and west, razing all before them, it was the Empire that rallied resistance. My first pitched battle against Chaos was Pyrrhic, as charging Chaos monsters trampled my infantry. Only weight of numbers saved the day. I rebuilt, and with help from the free peoples of the world, my new, improved armies – bristling with greatswords, knights, and artillery – defeated the last Chaos hordes.

And finally, when Chaos was no more, and the orcish hordes to the south were beaten back, it was time to settle the final score with the Vampire Counts.  An uneasy peace had prevailed in the face of the common enemy, Chaos. Now it was the Vampires’ turn to experience the power of the human war machine. Sandwiched between me to the west, Chaos to the north, and orcs and dwarfs to the south, the Vampires had lost their chance to expand, so my campaign was anticlimactic. My troops swept the Vampires aside, fought off an orc army eager for a rematch, and occupied the last settlement required to win. Victory!

Game of the Year contender. A triumphant fusion of theme and mechanics, Total War: Warhammer is intense, challenging, and often spectacular1.  From the early game, when I plotted how to bring a wealthy city-state into the imperial fold, to the mid-game, when I juggled human and inhuman foes, to the late game, when I led a Lord of the Rings-style alliance that saw armies marching from the far corners of the earth to help fight Chaos, Total Warhammer cast me as the star of a fantasy epic about uniting humanity against the coming darkness. This was the experience promised before release, and wow, did the game deliver.

More detailed thoughts below:

Continue reading “Shield of civilisation: Thoughts on Total Warhammer”

  1. I played on Hard campaign difficulty, Normal battle difficulty.

Space Opera, Act I: Thoughts on Stellaris

This entry is part 1 of 2 in the series Stellaris

Stellaris ESS startHumanity triumphant! My first game of Stellaris was a short one, as my fledgling humans were ground to dust by a nearby computer player. My second was more successful. Under the banner of the Empire of the Shimmering Stars, humanity spread out from the Deneb system – befriending the pre-spaceflight Immathurans, bringing more species and more worlds under its sway.

Stellaris - Immathurans encounteredSome of humanity’s neighbours turned out to be friendly, or at least benevolent neutrals. I signed migration treaties, allowing us to populate one another’s worlds. Some were hostile. When my first spacefleet was destroyed in a bid to protect my Immathuran proteges, I built a second one, the Remembrance Fleet. The Remembrance Fleet went on to turn the tables, and the would-be aggressors became first vassals and then subjects.

On and on the human tide rolled, until finally I stretched too far. The Ubaric Progenitors, an ancient “Fallen Empire” (ornery precursor races populating the Stellaris galaxy), objected to my colonies near their borders. The Remembrance Fleet fought them off – just. I attempted to take the war to the Ubari capital, an ancient ringworld. It was a disaster: the combined Ubari forces crushed mine. In the ensuing peace treaty, the Ubari forced me to abandon a swathe of colonies, and to add insult to injury, assassinated my leader.

Fortunately, the Shimmering Stars had the size and strategic depth to recover. Rebuilt newer and stronger, my Grand Fleet fought off an extra-galactic invasion (one of Stellaris’ “late-game crises”)… and returned to unfinished business. Once again, a human fleet, supported by allied and vassal contingents, appeared above the Ubari ringworld.

Stellaris grand fleet 2This time, the allies outgunned the Ubari several times to one. One by one, the Ubari warships and starbases winked out. The Ubari leaders surrendered. The bronze eagle flag of the Shimmering Stars flew over a ringworld that was already old when the first humans rubbed sticks together to make fire.

Stellaris defeated UbaricHumanity now presides over the galaxy’s dominant empire. No threats remain. The empire itself is home to many species, most co-existing happily, and its highest offices are open to leaders from all species. That, for me, is victory!

Stellaris end mapGood game, 1-2 expansions away from potential greatness. Stellaris’ appeal rested on two promises: (1) a vibrant science-fiction universe, and (2) blending Paradox’s specialty, the grand strategy game, with the established space 4X genre. It delivers on the first; I am not convinced it delivers on the second, as its limited internal politics feel more like a traditional 4X. I suspect players will enjoy it to the extent they’re looking for an interactive science fiction epic rather than a crunchy GSG. Overall, I enjoyed my 20 hours with Stellaris, and I look forward to playing again several patches down the road. (Update: the developers have posted their roadmap for the next few updates, which look great! They address many of my issues with the game.)

Below, I elaborate:

Continue reading “Space Opera, Act I: Thoughts on Stellaris”

Thoughts on XCOM 2

This entry is part 12 of 12 in the series XCOM: Enemy Unknown/XCOM 2

XCOM 2 victoryWorthy successor. XCOM 2 is game of the year material for me, building on what worked in XCOM: Enemy Unknown and Enemy Within. I look forward to what Jake Solomon and team do next!

More detailed thoughts below:

This is how to balance a single-player game — “give the player interesting decisions” means “give the player an impressive choice of tools” 1 The punishing early game teaches several lessons: Protracted shootouts are dangerous. Guaranteed damage is better than relying on the odds. Stack the odds wherever possible. By the mid-game, we’ve unlocked enough abilities to put those lessons into practice. Every XCOM 2 class can do something cool: rangers can stealthily scout, sharpshooters can engage multiple targets on overwatch, grenadiers can choose between high single-target damage or area-wide de-buffs & damage over time, specialists can heal from a distance or inflict guaranteed damage, and psionics can do most of the above. (While XCOM: Enemy Unknown and Enemy Within also had plenty of impressive tools — snipers in Archangel armour, run-and-gun plus rapid fire, using Mimetic Skin to sneak heavies in range for an explosive barrage — I feel XCOM 2 does a better job of making every class feel powerful, with psionics the big winner.) Balance is driven by limitations on what the player can deploy, not by making the player feel weak.

Successful fusion of strategy and RPG. At a tactical level, the Firaxis XCOM games revolve around choosing one’s favourite tools (equipment and especially character abilities), understanding how they interact, and applying that knowledge to solve individual problems — a description that could also apply to a well-designed party RPG. In turn, those problems involve multiple dimensions, such as the number and type of enemies, terrain, positioning, the mission timer, and the resources already expended (health and consumables, plus any abilities on cooldown) — factors usually associated with the strategy genre. That interplay gives these games their richness.

Music the biggest let-down. I like XCOM 2’s visuals — the architecture of the new human/alien civilisation is surprisingly lovely, masking the iron fist beneath. The ADVENT soldiers’ big, imperious arm gestures cement them as pulp baddies. XCOM operatives’ animations are as satisfying as ever, from shimmying down drainpipes to whipping out pistols, and late-game equipment looks fantastic. Set against this, the music is merely decent — a big step down from the great soundtrack of XCOM: Enemy Unknown.

XCOM lategame characters

  1. Contrast Civilization: Beyond Earth, which gave the player underwhelming choices instead.

XCOM2 first impressions: Good luck, Commander. You’ll need it!

This entry is part 11 of 12 in the series XCOM: Enemy Unknown/XCOM 2

XCOM2 Briggs Misses His ShotI did it! I finally did it! At the start of my third campaign, I finally beat the aliens with no fatalities — on ironman “Commander” difficulty, the new name for “Classic”, no less! The stars aligned, the aliens walked into my operatives’ sights, and I breezed through the campaign’s first mission.

On the next mission, my operatives never even made it as far as the objective. There was a time limit; I took too long to dispatch the first two groups of aliens; and with one turn to go, the third group of aliens gunned down my point man, the only one in range to reach the objective. It was a lost cause. I called for evac. My survivors slunk home, empty-handed.

On the third mission, I ran. My soldiers tore through the aliens, losing one veteran in the process. They ran for the prison cell where their target, a friendly scientist, was held. Two more aliens appeared. My squad fought through. As the mission timer hit its final turn, and an alien transport disgorged reinforcements, my soldiers — and the rescued scientist — made it to the evacuation point.

Whew. Welcome to XCOM 2, a tense, exhilarating, thrilling ride. In fact, I may well drop my campaign down to a lower difficulty — I think I’d rather play a relaxing game than a tense one. Several factors make it harder than the original:

*Mission timers, which force more aggressive, dare I say reckless, play. They’re the most controversial aspect of the game — there are already mods that extend or remove them. Personally, I like the idea; I’m reserving judgment on how well they work until I have the chance to play more.

*Alien health. Gone are the days when explosives were a guaranteed kill. On Commander difficulty, even the lowliest ADVENT trooper (4 health) will often survive a single grenade (3-4 damage). The new, improved Sectoid has 8 health and appears from the second mission on!

*Alien abilities — Sectoids can use mind control and panic from the start, allowing them to incapacitate one member of a 4-soldier squad1. Another alien disguises itself as a civilian during retaliation (the renamed terror) missions. And I haven’t even made it past the first game month…

Wish me luck! I look forward to posting more detailed thoughts.

  1. The counter is flashbang grenades, which interrupt Sectoid psionics; however, every soldier carrying a flashbang is a soldier not carrying a regular grenade. There is also a rumour that flashbangs are bugged and give aliens a 100% critical chance; I don’t know if this is correct.

Nobunaga’s Ambition: late-game observations (and reflections on AI automation)

This entry is part 3 of 3 in the series Nobunaga's Ambition: Sphere of Influence

Nobunaga's Ambition - VictorySurprisingly satisfying. Now that I’ve finished my campaign, I thought I’d comment on the late game of Nobunaga’s Ambition: Sphere of Influence, a topic on which I initially reserved judgment. Strategy endgames are plagued with two problems, (1) snowballing and (2) micromanagement, and NA illustrates how AI automation can help with the second.

Continue reading “Nobunaga’s Ambition: late-game observations (and reflections on AI automation)”

Shining in the darkness: playing the Eastern Romans in Attila

This entry is part 4 of 4 in the series Total War: Attila

Attila - ERE at nightThe East endures. I closed out 2015 by returning to the grand campaign of Total War: Attila, this time as the Eastern Roman Empire. Like its Western sibling, the ERE is beset with enemies. Unlike my WRE game, I’ve been able to fight them off, a journey both exciting and memorable.

When the Visigoths rampaged through Thrace, and wiped out (at great cost) the first army I sent against them, I hunkered down, raised a new army under the Emperor’s personal command, and caught their weakened force in a night battle, depicted in the screenshot above. The survivors paid an indemnity for peace.

When a column of Huns razed a town along the Danube, I mustered an army four times their size, tracked them north, and brought them to ground.

Since then, I’ve fought off an invasion of North Africa. I’ve maintained an uneasy peace with Sassanid Persia, plying them with gifts while keeping a legion close to hand. I’ve built farms, aqueducts, and barracks; encouraged religious tolerance; and kept the Empire mostly in one piece.

Ahead, I see danger — and opportunity. With the Goths on the march again, and my WRE allies collapsing, I’m preparing a new campaign in the west. Against that, I’ve unlocked higher-tier units, my economy has stabilised, and to the east, the Sassanids are distracted by enemies of their own. If the situation can hold a little longer, I should be well-placed for the midgame. And all this has taken just 28 turns.

Attila - ERE map turn 28Below, I have a few more thoughts:

Continue reading “Shining in the darkness: playing the Eastern Romans in Attila”

Age of Charlemagne – a worthy complement to Attila

This entry is part 3 of 4 in the series Total War: Attila

Attila - AoC Cavalry croppedAge of Charlemagne offers the basics, done right. If Rome II was about conquering a huge empire, and Attila was about defending it, Age of Charlemagne offers a tight, focused campaign that can be finished in a reasonable time. In this regard, it reminds me of Shogun 2 and particularly its expansion Rise of the Samurai, the most elegant and pared-down of the Total War campaigns.

More details below:

Fun challenge. Playing as Charlemagne on Hard campaign difficulty/Normal battle difficulty, my initial situation resembled a smaller, less dire version of that facing the Western Roman Empire. Charlemagne starts with long borders, an awkwardly shaped empire, and enemies at either end, in the southwest and northeast:

AoC - Charlemagne start Continue reading “Age of Charlemagne – a worthy complement to Attila”

Fallout 4: Early impressions

This entry is part 1 of 1 in the series Fallout 4

The deal was done. The merchant would trade me a stimpak; I would trade junk and a handful of cash. We agreed. The goods changed hands. And moments later, gunfire ripped through the night sky.

Something flared red. Was that a rocket? Whatever it was, as the merchant yelled, instinct took over. I ran for cover. When I reached safety, I stopped. Regained my cool. Looked for the raiders. Fought back.

When I combed through the bodies afterward, I realised the raiders had been armed with nothing better than home-made pipe guns. In the surprise and confusion of the ambush, I’d assumed far worse. In that unscripted moment, Fallout 4 brought its world alive.

A minute later, I approached the merchant, as well as another group of civilians that had blundered past. They reacted as though nothing had happened. And understandable though that was — should I have expected an unscripted response from characters in a video game? — it yanked me back out of the game’s world.

That episode sums up my experience so far with Fallout 4, about five hours in. As a moment-to-moment experience, it’s very good. Creeping through a underground raider camp, going room-to-room in a building harbouring raiders and incongruous Revolutionary War mannequins, and scavenging building material from rubble felt natural and immersive. In addition to the unscripted moments, scripted set-pieces seem fairly common so far. I can already feel the lure of crafting and settlement-building, although it’s too early to tell how much depth the settlement system has, and I have some concerns about the UI for settlement management. Is there some way of assigning settlers to tasks from a central screen, or do I have to walk around town and assign them one by one?

While I’m pretty happy with Fallout 4’s mechanics, I do have a couple of concerns about the writing. I loved Fallout 3’s opening (growing up in the Vault), and I loved Fallout: New Vegas’ opening, “reverse Western” setting, and plot hook. I liked Fallout 4’s opening — but this was followed by a moment of mood whiplash, and an early plot hook that felt contrived. To give due credit, Fallout 4’s protagonist benefits from being voiced, which allows him/her to respond to the environment in a believable and, at one point, sympathetic way.

A few more quick points: Character appearances have improved from previous games, although people still look odd when they run. I like the balance between VATS and ordinary actions — it looks like it’s better to use VATS up-close or against fast-moving enemies. And I like the diegetic interface that appears when you wear power armour. EDIT: Oh, and the UI seems to have been designed around a gamepad rather than a keyboard & mouse.

My tentative impression is that Fallout 4’s combat is at least as good as that in Fallout: New Vegas, while crafting and settlements are promising. Conversely, in terms of writing, New Vegas appears to have the edge. Overall, I like what I’ve played of Fallout 4 and I suspect it will come in as, at least, “good” to “very good”. Time will tell if it can pip its great predecessors.

A Return to Adventure: Thoughts on Conquest of Elysium 4

This entry is part 3 of 3 in the series Conquest of Elysium

When the giant demon attacked my fortress, I cursed.

The fort was my newest and proudest conquest, wrested from a nearby computer player. I left a small garrison, stiffened by two ballistae, to hold the walls while my main army subdued the nearby hinterlands. Now that demon, with its vast pool of health and huge spell list, was going to snatch away my prize.

The battle began. Because it was a siege, my ballistae were allowed a number of free shots. A bolt slammed into the demon. A big chunk of its health disappeared. And that was just the start.

CoE4 Ballista vs HeliophagusBy the time the perforated demon limped up to the castle gates, a humble bowman was able to administer the coup de grace. Ballistae (and Human Ingenuity) 1, Demon 0.

Continue reading “A Return to Adventure: Thoughts on Conquest of Elysium 4”

From the archives: Tactics X-COM: Jagged Ogre Chronicles, or a guide to squad-level strategy/tactics/RPGs

I originally wrote this post in 2012 during the lead-up to Firaxis’ XCOM: Enemy Unknown, proposing a classification system for squad-based games and tactical RPGs across PC and consoles. Since then, to my delight, the genre has gone from strength to strength. XCOM: Enemy Unknown turned out to be superb – it was definitely a hybrid, by the way, combining the lethality and dynamic campaign of Type 1 games, the Type 2 emphasis on careful movement and not triggering too many enemies, and the soldier customisation of Type 3. XCOM 2 is due out next year for PC. The Fire Emblem series is posting strong sales on 3DS, and Valkyria Chronicles has been ported to PC. Indie titles such as Expeditions: Conquistador have added spice. Welcome back, old friends – we missed you.

***

Guide to TRPGs - Matchsticks for my Eyes

This is a good time to be a fan – as I am – of games that mix squad-level strategy and RPG mechanics. Last year saw the PSP release of the excellent Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together, a labour of love that blended fine-crafted gameplay, a mature story, and gorgeous production values. This year won’t lack in quantity: it’s already seen a Jagged Alliance remake for PC and the recent PSP launch of Gungnir. Two more titles are due out in a few months (Firaxis’ XCOM: Enemy Unknown for PC, and Atlus’ Growlanser: Wayfarer of Time for PSP) and we may well see a third soon, Goldhawk’s Xenonauts (PC).

The above names suggest this is a pretty broad genre, and in fact, I don’t think there is a single squad-level strategy/RPG genre so much as there are several distinct subgenres, spread across PCs and home and portable consoles. As such, this is also a good time to review each subgenre – which games it contains, what makes it distinctive, how it compares to the others, and how it’s faring.

Read more here.

Friends in Need: Diplomacy in Nobunaga’s Ambition

This entry is part 2 of 3 in the series Nobunaga's Ambition: Sphere of Influence

Akechi Mitsuhide did not have long to gloat.

After he betrayed and killed Oda Nobunaga – per historical event – I rallied a coalition of Nobunaga’s generals and surviving sons against him. From the west came Hashiba Hideyoshi, the man better known to history as Toyotomi Hideyoshi. From the northeast came the Oda remnants. And from the southeast, my own Tokugawa forces. I coordinated a three-pronged attack – you can see allied (green) military units in the southwest and northeast of the following screenshot, with my own (blue) units in the centre:

Nobunagas Ambition - Coalition at war

Mitsuhide was squashed flat:

Nobunagas Ambition - Naomasa Defeats Akechi

Two years after Nobunaga’s death, my armies marched into Mitsuhide’s final stronghold:

Nobunagas Ambition - Coalition Destroyed Akechi

Continue reading “Friends in Need: Diplomacy in Nobunaga’s Ambition”

Nobunaga’s Ambition: Strong First Impressions

This entry is part 1 of 3 in the series Nobunaga's Ambition: Sphere of Influence

In Nobunaga’s Ambition: Sphere of Influence, opportunity comes in many forms.

When my Tokugawa clan was small and insignificant, sandwiched between the rival Imagawa clan and our mutual ally Oda Nobunaga, opportunity came when the Imagawa let their alliance with Oda lapse. My armies marched against Imagawa — and true to the Oda/Tokugawa pact, Nobunaga himself came south to fight by my side.

When the Imagawa were defeated, and I found myself locked in bloody stalemate against the much larger Hojo clan for 15 years, my hopes turned to an alliance with a third power — the Takeda. When scripted historical events derailed the Takeda alliance — not once but twice — my first reaction was frustration. My second reaction was to think outside the box. The Oda were pressing the Takeda further away. The Hojo were quiescent. Why not bury the hatchet with Hojo and descend on the distracted Takeda?

Messengers went out. I gifted the Hojo with a precious tea set, reversing their opinion from “hostile” to “friendly”. The Tokugawa armies crossed the border into Takeda territory, seized their first castle…

… and another event popped up. Oda Nobunaga, my faithful ally from the start of the game, was dead, murdered by a treacherous vassal. The Oda domain – the huge blob that both anchored my northern flank, and blocked my expansion – dissolved, its settlements going to Nobunaga’s kinsmen and generals.

This is the situation a couple of years before Nobunaga’s death – I (Tokugawa) am the yellow-on-green faction towards the south of the map. Oda is red-on-white:

Nobunaga's Ambition - Pre Honnoji 1And this is the situation immediately after Nobunaga’s death:

Nobunaga's Ambition - Post Honnoji 1The game has gone from “deadlock” to “wide open”. Where I had been on the verge of restarting, now I see — opportunity.

After spending the weekend with Nobunaga’s Ambition, my impressions are positive. I’d say it’s a very promising grand strategy game, combining solid execution, interesting mechanics, and a great aesthetic. So far, worth what I paid at launch!  My main question is how well the mechanics will scale to large empires, the traditional 4X/GSG late game problem – my own empire is quite modest.

Below, I have a few more thoughts:

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Crisis of the Confederation Q&A, with Gregory Hayes

This entry is part 4 of 5 in the series Crusader Kings II

COTC Interesting CharactersI am pleased to present an interview with Gregory “Galle” Hayes, project lead for Crisis of the Confederation – the “Crusader Kings II in space” mod I recently covered. Below, we discuss COTC‘s inspirations, the interplay between game mechanics and a space-feudal theme, where new players should begin, and more. Enjoy!

 

Development of the mod

Peter Sahui: Hello, and welcome to the site!

Crisis of the Confederation is one of the most interesting mods I’ve encountered, a homage to science fiction classics such as Dune and Foundation. What made you decide to translate those influences into a total conversion for Crusader Kings II?

Gregory Hayes: I happen to like applying game mechanics to new story concepts in general, and I’m a firm believer that everything is better in space, but COTC specifically actually had its origins in a game mechanic idea that I was never able to implement. Way back when I was working on A Game of Thrones, I was struck by the idea of using the Investiture mechanics to represent martial law versus civilian law. That created the need for a setting in which the spread of martial law made sense, which inspired the civil war backstory, which in turn led to me to think back to the great science-fiction cliche of the rebellious space colonies.

Another factor that probably influenced my decision was that I was replaying Emperor of the Fading Suns at the time. EotFS is a lot like CK1 – a broken mess of a game that is nevertheless fun because of how great its central ideas are. COTC isn’t really that much like EotFS in gameplay, but the desire for a good space feudalism game was definitely a big influence.

Continue reading “Crisis of the Confederation Q&A, with Gregory Hayes”

The OTHER space grand strategy game: Crisis of the Confederation

This entry is part 3 of 5 in the series Crusader Kings II

COTC - Coup

Grand Admiral Wei Luo is about to betray everything for which he’s fought.

For the last fifteen years, the Admiral has headed Confederate Space Command – the crowning glory of a life devoted to the Terran Confederation. He stood by Earth when the frontier broke away. His son Tao would, he hoped, have followed in his steps. While they didn’t see eye to eye on politics, he knew Tao was brilliant – the finest admiral in the galaxy. One day, he thought, Tao could have led Earth to victory.

Tao’s death broke his father’s faith. Accident or “accident”? Whatever1. In public, the Admiral mourned, and commissioned a clone. In private, he decided that since his son would never have the chance to restore order to the galaxy… perhaps he could.

The plotters fell into place. The warships of the Confederate Space Command formed up in Sol. The stage was set for a coup. I clicked the “Send Ultimatum” button, and the Admiral transmitted his message to the government of Earth: hand over power to me, or else.

Continue reading “The OTHER space grand strategy game: Crisis of the Confederation”

  1. By the way, I checked the save game file. It really was an accident.

Point, Click, Solve Puzzle: Reflections on the Adventure Game

Kings Quest hatchet

Traditionally, adventure games have been defined by two elements: (1) reliance on narrative; and (2) solving puzzles in order to progress. While the former has always been the genre’s strong suit, I would argue that puzzles have been a mixed success. Puzzles can be too obtuse, necessitating a trip to GameFAQs to obtain the solution, or may clash with the narrative. Particularly problematic puzzles, such as the infamous cat-hair moustache, can be guilty of both. Developers have tried to combat this problem in several ways, and interestingly, their approach appears to be evolving over time.

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Quick Impressions: Vietnam ’65

2015-08-01_00003Vietnam ’65 is an iPad/PC strategy game with a deceptively simple concept: patrol villages on a randomly generated map (above) and prevent the Viet Cong & North Vietnamese Army from doing the same. It’s simple, short, and sweet; after two matches, I am impressed.

V65 is built on extreme asymmetry. When all goes well, US infantry can race from village to village in their transport helicopters, while tanks, gunships, and howitzers dominate the countryside as far they can reach. Not everything will go well:

  • There are 10 villages to cover, and too few soldiers and helicopters to protect them all.
  • There are a lot of demands on those helicopters – ferrying troops, resupplying them (out-of-supply units are eventually destroyed), and evacuating injured units.
  • The helicopters have finite fuel, limiting the time they can spend away from base.
  • Enemies can be difficult to find, spawn continuously, and lay ambushes of their own…

At times, there were moments of panic: when supply convoys came under RPG fire, making me wonder if my distant troops were cut off; when the Viet Cong emerged at 2-3 points and I only had enough firepower to respond to one; when my only helicopter gunship came crashing down.

Eventually, I won both games1 with a two-pronged strategy: I carpeted the map with outposts, extending the range of my helicopters and artillery, while training enough South Vietnamese troops to hold the line. Now, I feel that I have a good enough grasp of the basics that I can experiment with different game modes, or just move onto another title.

Overall, V65 turned out to be precisely what I wanted from a strategy game: quick to play (a few hours per match), simple to pick up, and at the same time, fresh and thematically evocative. For $10, this is well worth a look for genre fans.

Further reading (and listening)

The Three Moves Ahead episode that sold me on V65. Contains a great discussion of the game, its depiction of its topic, and some really handy tips.

Tim Stone’s review.

Rob Zacny’s review.

  1. One on “regular” difficulty, the other on “veteran”.

Let’s Play EU4: Common Sense! Pt 2: East Meets West

This entry is part 12 of 12 in the series Europa Universalis IV

Report of the Spanish ambassador to Meiguo, 1600

In the three months since I departed Your Majesty’s presence, I have travelled first to our colony of New Spain, then thousands of miles north overland. I write to you now from the court of Meiguo, on the shores of another sea.

Like ourselves, the rulers of Meiguo are not native to the New World. They trace their ancestry to a deposed emperor of China, who fled his home near two centuries ago. Since arriving, they have extended their reach far south and east: they abut our colonies in Mexico, and also along the Rio Grande.

While Meiguo’s domains are vast, they are sparsely populated. I saw few towns during our journey north; I will be surprised if these lands contribute much to the Meiguo purse.

Continue reading “Let’s Play EU4: Common Sense! Pt 2: East Meets West”

Oriental Empires Q&A, with Bob Smith

This entry is part 2 of 2 in the series Oriental Empires

OE1

Oriental Empires is an upcoming 4X strategy game that will cover most of Chinese history, from 1500 BC to 1500 AD. My interest piqued, I conducted an email Q&A with developer Bob Smith. Read on:

 

About the developers

1. Hello, and welcome to the site! Please tell us a bit about yourselves.

Development of Oriental Empires is being led by R.T. Smith and John Carline, two veteran strategy game developers with more than 30 years’ experience between them. Previously they worked together on the Total War series of games, in roles including Project Director and Lead Artist, and have credits on many other AAA titles from studios including Crystal Dynamics, Pandemic, Frontier Developments, and Slightly Mad Studios.

 

2. Your best-known previous work was Total War. What lessons have you learned from your experience with those games?

That you can’t please everyone, that you’ll never ship the perfect product, and that the bigger your team, the more features you’ll have that don’t quite join up.

 

About Oriental Empires

3. At first glance, Oriental Empires looks like a cross between Civilization V, Endless Legend, and Romance of the Three Kingdoms XI. What are your influences and how have they shaped the game?

The initial inspiration was to create a civilization building game based on Eastern civilization, and having an interesting combat system. Superficially this is similar to Civ, but I don’t think the games feel alike to play. The battles obviously have some similarity to Total War games, but again, the resemblance is superficial as you don’t directly control them. History, reality, space 4X games, and miniature and board games are also influences.

Continue reading “Oriental Empires Q&A, with Bob Smith”

Let’s Play EU4: Common Sense! Part 1: Welcome to Meiguo

This entry is part 11 of 12 in the series Europa Universalis IV

In 1402, the Ming Emperor’s uncle usurped the throne.

The imperial palace burned.

According to one legend, the Emperor survived, and fled overseas; Zheng He’s fleets were dispatched to hunt him down.

What if the Emperor made it further than Zheng could have dreamed?

Hello, and welcome back to my coverage of Europa Universalis IV. Since I last wrote about EU4, it has received a further two expansions – El Dorado, which added a custom nation designer, and the newly released Common Sense. For my current game, I will play as Meiguo, a Chinese custom nation on the west coast of North America.

This is Meiguo in 1456, 12 years after the game began:

EU4 Welcome to Meiguo

Continue reading “Let’s Play EU4: Common Sense! Part 1: Welcome to Meiguo”

Very Early Impressions: Battle Academy

This entry is part 1 of 1 in the series Battle Academy

So far1, I’m impressed by Battle Academy, the 2010-vintage World War 2 TBS. The vibrant, comic-book aesthetic charmed me straight away, while the game mechanics present tactical concepts in a clear, elegant manner. Light tanks are zippy and thinly armoured, making them best suited for reconnaisance or mopping up. Infantry is horribly vulnerable in the open, and lethal when striking from ambush. Armour and artillery can suppress defenders, allowing friendly infantry to safely close in. Bunkers and concealed anti-tank guns are potent force multipliers – in the screenshot below, my entrenched Tommies gutted an Afrika Korps charge:

Battle Academy - 8th Army DefenceCurrently, the base game, which includes three campaigns (North Africa, Normandy, Ardennes) is available for $1 as part of the weekly Humble Bundle. For those interested, that price makes it a screaming buy.

  1. I’m three missions and 2-3 hours in.

Endless Legend & Age of Wonders 3: One Year On

The two expansions to Age of Wonders 3 have brought new races, a new character class, and (together with patches), assorted features and balance tweaks. They have also addressed my single biggest complaint with the game: the victory conditions (and their effect on pacing).

At launch, there was one way to win AoW3: destroy all opponents. This made the endgame a slog. Now, there are several other options:

  1. Beat down the AI players to the point where they surrender (added via patch). Per the developers, this is meant to happen after the “epic final battle… in situations where the AI is substantially outmatched and just lost a great number of its forces in a battle.” Based on the two AI players who surrendered after I crushed their multi-stack main armies, this works as promised!
  2. Territorial control, added in the first expansion. Similar to the Thrones mechanic in Dominions 4, this requires the player to take several “seals of power” defended by independent monsters, and hold them while progress towards victory ticks up. As the monsters periodically respawn, the seals have to be garrisoned – I suspect this is a risk/reward mechanic. Do you grab many seals, and risk spreading yourself too thin? Encouragingly, AI players do realise the importance of the seals; I lost my second game post-expansion when the AI flattened my armies and then captured the seals.
  3. A new, Wonder-style victory condition, added in the second expansion. I’m still getting a handle for this one; the developers describe it as “a great option for more defensive players”. Unlike the seals victory, aiming for this will provoke the AI players into declaring war, so it’s a defensive victory rather than a peaceful one.

Continue reading “Endless Legend & Age of Wonders 3: One Year On”

The Roman Experience in Total War: Attila

This entry is part 2 of 4 in the series Total War: Attila

After 100 turns, I threw in the towel on my attempt to save the Western Roman Empire. The legions, and my treasury, had finally reached their limit. The barbarians never stopped flooding in, from the north, east, and the hitherto quiet south. City after city had gone up in flames. The Roman Empire was dying by a thousand cuts, and there was no more point in slogging on.

I had a great time.

Continue reading “The Roman Experience in Total War: Attila”

Thoughts on Cities: Skylines

This entry is part of 1 in the series Cities: Skylines

Skylines - Sterling Park

My first city made as much sense as a noodle-bowl.

At one point, I went nuts building high-rise apartments without ensuring adequate road access. The result was a mess. Commuters clogged the roads. Fire engines, delivery vans, garbage trucks, and even hearses couldn’t get in. Burnt-out buildings, rubbish and dead bodies accumulated. I had to demolish much of that district and build it all over again.

I learned my lesson. Sterling Park, my new high-density district, would be a marvel of urban design. Before the first resident moved in, I ensured all my infrastructure was laid out. New subway lines connected Sterling Park to the rest of my city (and let residents move from one end of the district to the other). Parks and gardens provided green space. A new freight train ensured that the shops could receive goods. I even built a new university campus — my existing one was all the way at the far end of the map. The towers went up. The citizens moved in — and loved it. The land value shot up. I was delighted.

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Only a Flesh Wound! Total War: Attila impressions

This entry is part 1 of 4 in the series Total War: Attila

29 turns in, the Western Empire is still clinging to life.

War has come to Rome.

Lands that were Roman for centuries are now desolate or in enemy hands. Northern Spain and the tip of Italy are smoking rubble. The empire’s leading general, Stilicho, is dead with all his army — though they managed to take Alaric, King of the Visigoths, with them. While the legions can notch up the odd victory, the stream of enemies seems endless.

And yet, all is not lost. Sacrificing the frontier bought me fifteen or twenty turns to pour every coin into rebuilding the Empire’s economy — its farms, cities, and waterworks. When a legion is mauled, I can afford to raise a new one; I think I can replenish my ranks faster than the barbarians can replenish theirs. Let us see who lasts longer.

29 turns into the game, the Western Roman Empire is battered, bleeding — and so far, unbroken.

Welcome to Total War: Attila. I expected a tough, fair challenge, and so far, it’s delivered. The Western Empire begins in crisis — its treasury is bleeding, its people are restive, and it’s surrounded by enemies. I’m still surrounded by enemies… but I’ve staunched the bleeding. With the right strategy and a bit of luck, I can see how I might be able to dig myself out. And I think that by avoiding mistakes, I could have done better still.

As this suggests, Attila is much better than its predecessor Rome 2 was at launch. So far, I have suffered one crash; annoyingly, this came right after I won a battle. Other than that, Attila seems polished and stable. The AI is shrewd and aggressive — perhaps a little too aggressive. Multiple AI factions have ignored nearer prey in favour of dogpiling me; I’m trying to defend Spain against three stacks that sailed all the way from the British Isles!

At this stage, I’d say Attila is very good. The caveat is that I’ve only experienced the early game, and only tried a single faction – the Western Empire. If the rest of the game lives up to the start, I think it’ll be one of the stronger entries in the series.

Attila - Ostrogoths surging uphill

Appendix: starting tips

At the start of the game, the Western Empire has too few legions and too much frontier to defend. As such, the standard opening seems to beabandoning swathes of the Empire and falling back — sometimes all the way to Italy.

My strategy was somewhat less extreme. I pulled back to the shores of the Mediterranean – Spain, Italy, and southern Gaul. (I did not raze entire settlements behind me, as that increases unrest. I just demolished buildings instead.) Putting every penny into the economy seems to be key; otherwise the funds just will not exist to support a military buildup. If necessary, demolish buildings that cost upkeep.

With hindsight, I think I was a bit too hasty to fall back. What I should have done was combine several of the understrength Roman armies, then squash my smaller enemies early on, before they could join forces. That would solve my current problem — too many enemies! It would also be less gamey, and make it more feasible to hold the original frontier.

Whatever you choose, good luck, Imperator.

Let’s reunify Japan in Total War: Shogun 2! Part 3 (Final): Ride Forth Victoriously

This entry is part 10 of 10 in the series Total War: Shogun 2

Welcome to the final instalment of my Let’s Play of Shogun 2.

Previously, I stood on the verge of Shogun 2’s endgame — “realm divide”, in which most of Japan joins forces to stop the player. My armies were ready. My treasury was bursting. And so, I resumed the offensive after a long period of peace. Here is the situation, shortly before the end of Part 2:

S2 power blocs

In the east, my armies had just won their first victory against the Hatekayama clan (green). In the west, I was at peace; I shared my border with an allied clan, the Imagawa (grey), and a former ally, the Jinbo (light blue). Further west, past the Jinbo and Imagawa, was the single largest computer player: the Otomo clan (blue, also my ally).

Once I resume the game, Takeda Shingen and his son Nobushige lead my eastern armies against the Hatekeyama’s remaining force.

Continue reading “Let’s reunify Japan in Total War: Shogun 2! Part 3 (Final): Ride Forth Victoriously”

Total War Rome II DLC Campaigns: The Buyer’s Guide

Matchsticks for my Eyes is pleased to present the latest guest post by Rachel “frogbeastegg” McFadden, author of Frogbeastegg’s Guides to Total War. Rome II has smartened up considerably since its release; the article below discusses its add-on campaigns.

I have seen a lot of people asking about the various DLC campaigns for Total War: Rome II lately. Here’s a brief run-down of them all, in order of release.

Caesar in Gaul

Caesar in Gaul is my current favourite out of the Rome II campaigns which I have played.

This is the smallest scale out of all of those available. The map is a very zoomed-in version of France with a bit of Germany, Italy and Britain on the edges. The map comprises of around 50 cities in total, so it’s more than capable of portraying the geography of the area. The victory requirements are low at only 28 cities for victory instead of the more usual 50. The smaller scale makes the map very intimate, and each new advance feels like a good step forward. The map is the most Shogun II-esque in terms of providing choke-point geography and interesting routes.

Caesar in Gaul is small in scale in terms of faction variety as well; it’s Romans versus Gauls with a smattering of Britons and Germans. If you do not enjoy fighting against lots of Gauls you will hate this because most of the factions on the map are, unsurprisingly, Gauls. Playable factions include Rome, Suebi, and two Gaulish factions. Not the Britons, disappointingly; I’d have liked to go fully Reverse-Caesar and this is the one area where I feel let down by this DLC.
Special mention needs to go to the season system; the version seen in the other campaigns is a watered-down version of Caesar in Gaul‘s. Winter? It hurts. Set foot outside of your cities when the bad weather arrives and you will take losses as you march. Spring, summer and autumn all have interesting, if less pronounced, effects. You need to be aware of the time of year and plan for it in a way which the Total War series has never previously asked of the player.

The research system is has a small yet nice modification: you can buy half of the techs for immediate bonuses. It adds a third choice into the spending decisions and in my opinion that makes the strategy portion fly in a way which the others do not. Do I want to build new units, new buildings, or get a useful tech? The economy is quite reasonable on hard mode too, not too restrictive and not overly generous. I recommend building lots of farms and farm boosters because trade is less of an option.

History buffs may appreciate the little quotes from Caesar’s Gallic Wars which appear throughout the campaign.

Note: there is no civil war in this campaign. It is disabled. Instead you will encounter something similar to Shogun II‘s realm divide once your imperium grows high enough. Either the Romans will send Caesar massive reinforcements, or the Gauls will band together to throw you out. For this reason a lot of players consider this to be one of the hardest campaigns.

This campaign also makes three new barbarian factions playable in the Grand Campaign, the Nervii, the Boii, and the Galatians.

Hannibal at the Gates

If Caesar in Gaul is a small campaign, this is a medium-sized one. The geographic area of the map is considerably larger, although there are only a few more cities on the map. The range of factions is larger, and there are more cultures represented. At 50 cities, the victory requirement is midway between Caesar in Gaul‘s and the average faction’s Grand Campaign goal.

Hannibal at the Gates does not have any particular stand-out features of its own so it mostly plays like a smaller version of the Grand Campaign. That makes it easier to know what to expect if you’ve played Rome II already. If you want a smaller, faster-to-finish version of that, then Hannibal is an excellent place to look.

Carthage and Rome both have access to extra legions above the normal cap; if I remember correctly, it’s 2 more each. This makes them more dangerous and helps set the stage for a show-down with a mighty foe.

Diplomacy is relatively pre-set. Rome and Carthage are locked into perma-war, and each have allies assigned at the start. The allies can and will desert their masters, and sometimes change sides if they are hurting badly enough. There can be no negotiation between the Big Two, however. No truces, no temporary trade, nothing; Carthage (or Rome) must be destroyed!

There seems to be an element of luck to the difficulty of this campaign. Depending on what the AI does you will either have a hard fight on your hands, or the main enemy will fail to grow in pace with the player. I suspect that this campaign’s AI is more vulnerable than usual to patch changes. I had an enjoyable, challenging game as Carthage facing an aggressive Rome and an increasingly fraught Spanish situation. I couldn’t get my hands on enough money or manpower to meet my ideal needs until the final third of the game. Conversely, my Rome campaign, also played on hard difficulty, was a complete cakewalk from start to end. I had money overflowing my coffers from turn 1 and that fuelled everything else, although I admit that this might be due to my choosing to disband my starting mercenaries and thus double my income right off the bat. The two Spanish factions reportedly have a tougher time, and Syracuse is considered the most difficult faction of the selection.

This campaign makes two Spanish factions and Syracuse playable in the Grand Campaign.

Imperator Augustus

Imperator Augustus is the FreeLC (as CA call it) campaign which came with the Emperor Edition. If you own Rome II, you own this. It’s basically the Grand Campaign with fewer but larger factions at the start, a few tweaks to city placement on the campaign map, slightly different technology, a different diplomacy set-up, and inevitable war between the assorted Roman factions. Fine, fun, very large in scale and breadth. Huge and time consuming. I have not finished a campaign in it yet, although I have one in progress as Pompey’s Rome.

Wrath of Sparta

This is the newest DLC and I have not had the time to play much of it yet. It’s an interesting twist on the formula … more deliberate, I suppose you could say. Things like recruiting take longer than usual, and as a result each decision carries more weight than normal.

Like Caesar in Gaul, the map is very zoomed-in and geographically intimate. Seasonal gameplay is implemented once again, as is the ‘end-game challenge’, this time in the form of a Persian invasion. Capturing the major factions’ capitals will impose a large diplomacy penalty on the player, so expansion needs to follow a different pattern to the usual “I’ll expand outwards and keep my borders secure, killing one opponent at a time.”

Proviso: you must like hoplite v hoplite warfare. If you find that too slow and static, you will hate this campaign unless you auto-calc all of the battles. Unit types are at their most limited in Wrath of Sparta; hoplites, light cavalry, assorted skirmishers, and that’s pretty much your lot unless you hire mercenaries from the northern areas of the map. The DLC’s store page info boasts of 50 new units; be aware that most of those are minor tweaks on existing units.

Let’s reunify Japan in Total War: Shogun 2! Part 2: Patience and Preparation

This entry is part 9 of 10 in the series Total War: Shogun 2

Welcome back to my Let’s Play of Shogun 2.

When we left off, my Takeda clan controlled a modest slice of Japan, to the north and west of modern Tokyo. To the east were my enemies: the Satake and Satomi clans. Further north were my old foes, the Uesugi clan; an uneasy peace prevailed between us, ever since I crushed their last invasion attempt.

My previous victory against the Satomi in Part 1 gave me a window of opportunity. and so, my first order of business is to march east. Takeda Shingen, lord of the clan, is off on another frontier. Command falls to his two brothers: Takeda Nobushige in the north, leading his army out of North Shinano province, and Takeda Nobukado in the south, crossing the river from Musashi.

S2 pt1 end North S2 pt1 end SE Continue reading “Let’s reunify Japan in Total War: Shogun 2! Part 2: Patience and Preparation”

Let’s reunify Japan in Total War: Shogun 2! Part 1: Awakening the Tiger

This entry is part 8 of 10 in the series Total War: Shogun 2

Introduction

Hello, and welcome to my Let’s Play of Total War: Shogun 2.

Shogun 2 casts players as a daimyo, one of the regional warlords of sixteenth-century Japan. The ultimate goal is to march on Kyoto, at the centre of the map, and enthrone oneself as shogun. Along the way, the player must manage a realm, raise armies, and command them in battle. The game triumphs on every level — as an exercise in strategic decision-making; as an epic come to life; and as an aesthetic treat. It is my favourite strategy game of all time.

For this run, I have opted to play as the Takeda clan, led by one of the most renowned warlords of the period — Takeda Shingen. This is, in fact, my second Takeda attempt — I abandoned the first after painting myself into a corner. I turn the game’s difficulty up to “Hard”, which affects both the strategic map and the tactical battles. My intent is to turn down the battles to “Normal” — the computer cheats on higher battle difficulties. Instead, I forget. As a result, the game so far has been entirely played on Hard.

I’ve chosen the Takeda for two reasons. First, their location in central Japan will make for a nice change — I won my last Shogun 2 campaign (using the Fall of the Samurai expansion pack) as an outlying island clan. Second, I’ve been meaning to make more extensive use of cavalry in Total War games, a job for which the Takeda are well-suited — all their horsemen receive a bonus.

Here is the opening cinematic for the Takeda:

And here is the situation at the beginning of the game:

S2 Takeda startThe Takeda start in Kai province, a landlocked mountain pass that runs north/south. All cavalry trained in Kai will receive a bonus, courtesy of the province’s superior horse pastures; this stacks with the innate Takeda bonus to cavalry.

To the north of Kai is North Shinano, also landlocked. It is home to the Murakami clan, who begin at war with me — you can see a small Murakami army near the border. To the south are Musashi province, home to modern-day Tokyo, and Suruga province, home to the allied Imagawa clan.

To win the game, I have to hold 25 provinces, including Kai, Kyoto, North Shinano, and three other provinces all to the north of Shinano. Before then, I must face one of Shogun 2’s most distinctive challenges — realm divide. When I draw close to victory, most of the remaining computer players will declare war on me; I’ll need to build my empire around surviving that final difficulty spike.

Continue reading “Let’s reunify Japan in Total War: Shogun 2! Part 1: Awakening the Tiger”

Star Wars: Empire at War — Quick Impressions

This entry is part 1 of 3 in the series Star Wars franchise

Every so often, I play a game that’s more fun than its mediocre mechanics would suggest. Ni no Kuni was one such. Star Wars: Empire at War is another.

Empire at War was a 2006 RTS whose Galactic Conquest mode, a freeform campaign, had clear pretensions of being Total War in space — without the depth. I walked away disappointed.

I found EaW’s skirmish mode more appealing. Unlike Total War skirmishes (or, for that matter, Galactic Conquest, where all recruitment occurs on the strategic map), EaW skirmishes play out as a more traditional RTS. Each side starts with a starbase, which produces new units and can be upgraded to unlock new build options. Asteroid belts are scattered around the map; once secured by fighter squadrons, they can be mined for income. There are a handful of unit types: fighters, bombers, anti-fighter ships, and capital ships of varying strength, such as Victory-class Star Destroyers, Imperial Star Destroyers, and Mon Calamari cruisers. There are also various hero units drawn from the Star Wars franchise, such as Vader in a TIE Advanced, the Millennium Falcon, and Admiral Ackbar.

This adds up to produce a simple, decent strategy game. It’s important to build up the starbase and unlock higher-level units. It’s also important not to be overrun here and now, and upgrading the starbase is expensive and will tie up production for a long time. The result is an interesting short-term versus long-term trade-off.

Above all, EaW‘s saving grace is its ability to channel the Star Wars experience. When the John Williams music blares, and a Star Destroyer emerges from hyperspace onto the Rebel flank, and Vader and Boba Fett sweep the field clear of X-wings, the dated graphics fade away; and I forget all my quibbles with game design.

One episode can sum up my relationship with EaW. In my first few minutes with the game, Han and Chewie in the Falcon managed to solo (no pun intended) four of my TIE Interceptor squadrons and drive off their supporting cruiser. Was that an example of finely balanced strategy design? Perhaps not. Was that a cool Star Wars moment? You bet.

Endless Legend: a better toy than game

This entry is part 2 of 2 in the series Endless Legend

EDIT: This post contains my updated thoughts on Endless Legend, one year on.

Back when I wrote about Tearaway last January, I quoted Jesse Schell’s distinction between a toy (something that’s fun to play with) and a game (a problem-solving activity approached with a playful attitude). Using these definitions, I would argue Endless Legend is a good game and a better toy.

As a toy, Endless Legend is a fresh, colourful take on 4X strategy, enlivened by one of the most imaginative settings in the genre. I love its diverse factions, its aesthetic and music, its unique mechanics. I also appreciate that there’s an option to enlarge the font – Paradox and Matrix, take note! As a game, Endless Legend shines early on. The first 50 to 100 turns are an exciting competition, in which I race to expand, weigh different research priorities, or struggle to hold a distant region that produces essential raw materials for my army.

Eventually, Endless Legend runs into a familiar problem with the genre — a tedious late game. Individual city build queues, a staple of the 4X genre, don’t scale well to large empires. Late-game units are just early-game units with bigger numbers. And once one player stakes out a big enough lead, the rest of the game is all downhill. There is a “rubber band” happiness mechanic reminiscent of Civ V (larger empires are more restive than smaller ones); it doesn’t seem to be enough.

The runaway leader syndrome is exacerbated by a diplomatic AI that’s so capricious, it might as well not exist: I remember one AI player tearing up our brand-new trade agreements at the same time it was being devoured by another, larger opponent (which went on to win the game). In a different game, the AI players tried to team up on me when I pulled ahead — except that I was so far ahead that their declarations of war were utter suicide. After I absorbed them, I was even stronger than before.

With a few patches or perhaps an expansion, something to spice up the late game, I think Endless Legend could become a classic of the genre. As is, it’s one of the most original strategy games in some time, and still worth checking out for fans of the genre.