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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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.

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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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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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”

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!

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.

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.

Why do historical strategy games under-value seapower?

Maritime trade is central to the Anno games – here is my bustling home-town harbour in Anno 1800. An oil tanker is in the foreground, while several sailing warships are on the left.

This question popped into my mind while reading Lincoln Paine’s The Sea and Civilization: A Maritime History of the World earlier this year. Navies are important in history; and for the last few hundred years, the world’s leading power has also been a naval power. This is not reflected in historical strategy games such as Civilization, where navies are often optional unless playing on an island map.

I think the answer lies in these games’ economic and resource models. Consider the Civilization series:

  • Food, wealth, and industrial production come from working the countryside.
  • Cities use a generic “production” resource to build everything from cathedrals to tanks.
  • While more recent games introduced strategic resources which can be traded (such as oil), these resources instantly teleport across the map.

The result is that Civ emphasises control of territory and population, rewarding large land empires. There is no equivalent to Ancient Rome’s reliance on Egyptian grain or WW2 Britain’s Atlantic convoys.

In contrast, seapower becomes critical in games with detailed production chains, such as Imperialism and Anno 1800. Their economies run on foods, minerals, and luxuries that are found around the world and shipped home. Navies are necessary to protect transports and cut off enemy trade.

While not every game can be built around a detailed, Anno 1800-style resource model, Empire: Total War offered an elegant solution. Trade was by far the best way to make money in that game; and that relied on sending out a navy to capture and defend trade nodes.

I think the lesson is that seapower matters once players have an incentive to contest the seas. Give sea lanes their historic importance as the arteries of commerce and wealth; and the importance of navies will follow.

Crusader Kings III — a worthy heir

This entry is part 1 of 1 in the series Crusader Kings III

Crusader Kings III is a successful evolutionary sequel to the game I called “the most significant strategy game of the last decade”. I’ve played three games —  two unsuccessful in 867, the first as Alfred the Great and his descendants, the second an attempt to establish a Norse realm in India; and a final, successful run that took me from King of Scotland in 1066 to emperor of Britannia and Francia. And once I learned my way around CK3’s new, improved UI, I found a familiar experience: this is still a character-driven game about the rise and fall of dynasties, in which a loyal son can become the next generation’s rebellious brother; and a well-placed friendship can be worth thousands of swords.

The end of my CK3 playthrough as the House of Dunkeld, who started as kings of Scotland and finished as the most powerful monarchs in Europe.

The core of the game is recognisably the same as Crusader Kings II. Most of the mechanics are similar, the overall flow is the same, and lessons from CK2 still carry over. New rulers are most vulnerable when they ascend; just because you control territory on a map does not mean you command the obedience of the people who actually run the place; it is worth accepting setbacks — such as conceding to powerful vassals — if doing so strengthens your hand in the long run; and strategic marriages, opportunistic expansion, and shrewd vassal management are still the keys to a long and successful reign. The world feels similar, too: Northwest Europe is still a Viking playground in 867; large AI empires still grow until they sprawl over the map; and in the hands of a human player, Haesteinn of Nantes can still make it all the way to India1.

My final character in my CK3 Dunkeld playthrough. Note the Genius and Hale traits, together with the monster stats!

CK3’s new mechanics, such as stress, the lifestyle tree, and the hooks system, and its significant tweaks to existing rules such as succession, come on top of this familiar core. I think what the new mechanics do best is represent Machiavelli’s dictum that rulers need to be loved, feared, or ideally both. Playing generally benevolent monarchs, I found the most powerful button in the game was the “befriend” interaction: vassals who are also your friends will not join factions against you. But neither do vassals who are terrified of you, and so fear has its place too. Vassal management is particularly important as CK3’s succession rules make it harder to keep a gigantic demesne intact until fairly late in the game — with fewer lands of your own, you are closer to first among equals; and it becomes harder to overawe the realm’s magnates through sheer size alone.

Conversely, some of the nuance from CK2 is missing from CK3. For example, imperial government is gone; the Byzantines are back to generic feudalism; and there are no more special mechanics for the Silk Road or interacting with China. Without viceroys and the need to rein in an overly powerful council, there doesn’t seem to be as much sense of a progression from medieval to early modern government. And no Silk Road affects the gameplay in the East, where I usually played in CK2. Still, I can live with this — there is plenty to do as-is — and I assume these mechanics, or their replacements, may return in DLC.

Investing in a quality army pays off! I spent a lot of money on buildings that gave a bonus to spearmen. By the endgame, my Scots schiltrons (a mid-game upgrade to regular spearmen) fought 5 times better than un-boosted schiltrons, 7 times better than ordinary spearmen, and a whopping 15 times better than generic levies.

The area of the game that feels weakest to me is warfare. Army management and individual battles are better than CK2: they are clearer, less fiddly, and easier to understand; and the game heavily rewards the player for investing in better troops or a more defensible demesne. The problem is the intermediate level, that of manoeuvres or campaigns — wars tend to degenerate into a race to see which side can siege down the other’s capital and demesne first. I think this is due to several reasons. There is no sense of geography or strategic depth: there are no zones of control, minimal logistics, and movement is easy by land or sea. War score is overwhelmingly awarded for sieges, territory ownership, and capturing key characters, with battles making up a relatively small part. And seizing the capital is particularly important, as this is where enemy leaders often reside, and capturing them is an automatic win. The result is farcical campaigns where the enemy army runs away, jumps onto a boat, sails to my capital, and tries to capture it before I can capture theirs; and the overall effect is a slightly less extreme version of Crusader Kings 1, where the fate of a kingdom could be settled by the capture of a handful of demesne provinces.

This guy was an absolute beast – note his kill count (346). His Prowess stat, which governs personal combat, was a whopping 44. By comparison, a decent fighter has 10-15 and an “exceptional” fighter has 20.

With that exception, I am quite happy with CK3. More of the same, in this case, has not been a bad thing. Whether setting up balance-of-power alliances; regaining the imperial throne from which I was deposed; or boggling at the giant, berserk Norse champion who killed 300+ of my men2, CK3 has generated both engaging strategy and memorable stories. I look forward to many more to come.

  1. Although surviving there seems to be harder. I did it in CK2 and earned the “Legacy of the Indo-Norse” and “Saint Thomas’ Dream” achievements, but went down in flames after several generations in CK3.
  2. This immediately made me picture the Vinland Saga manga’s version of Thorkell the Tall.

Remembering the greatness of Crusader Kings II

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

With the release of Crusader Kings III imminent, I wanted to revisit Crusader Kings II, and touch on why I consider it the most significant strategy game of the last decade. While other games (XCOM, FTL) were more influential, I would argue it was CK2 that pushed the boundaries of what a strategy game could do. It succeeded on three levels: as a character-driven story generator, as a game, and as an exploration of historical forces.

Ask most players what stood out about their CK2 experience and the answer would be the characters — and their hijinks. Even now, almost 10 years later, CK2 is virtually unique in making individuals the building block of its world. Those individuals, and their plots, schemes, dreams, and desires were the material for the rich stories that CK2 generated. I remember the sullen vassal who put aside his differences with my character to fight off a Seljuk invasion, and gave his life defending the realm; the aunt who invaded with a band of adventurers to press her claim; the Christian Norse I led to India; and the dynasty of Sinicised Persian exiles who finally — finally! — carved out a lasting home for their faith in Central Asia.

Underpinning these stories was that CK2 was a pretty good strategy game as well — skill, and a detailed understanding of the rules, paid off. My Persian exiles only survived against the odds because I learned how to pull every lever available: rushing east to seize lucrative trading hubs along the Silk Road; using the resulting income to keep mercenaries on permanent payroll; hiring Chinese strategists to train my outnumbered army; and learning the intricacies of the battle system — this was the campaign that taught me the importance of grouping cavalry retinues on the flanks. There is satisfaction in mastering the game’s systems.

Finally, CK2 brought to life one of the most important historical forces of the last millennium — the rise of centralised government. There is a quantum leap between a tribe, which falls apart every time the leader dies, and a feudal proto-state. There is a more gradual progression, over the course of the game, from feudalism to monarchical authority. Over time, levies, hereditary vassals, and a council jealous of its prerogatives give way to standing armies, viceroys appointed at the ruler’s pleasure, and absolute power. It’s a wonderful example of how gameplay mechanics can illustrate how and why something happened in the real world.

Ultimately, CK2 became my favourite Paradox game and one of the greatest games of the 2010s. With CK3 reviews promising, I look forward to this series giving me many more stories to tell.

Shadow Empire: a 4X where professionals talk logistics

This entry is part 1 of 4 in the series Shadow Empire

For the past week I’ve happily been playing Shadow Empire, a new indie game that straddles the 4X and wargame genres. Now that I’ve won my first game, I think Shadow Empire resembles the Dominions series in its early incarnations: a remarkable game, rough-edged but deep, unique, and all the more remarkable for being the work of one man.

I could best describe Shadow Empire’s premise as a crunchy, simulationist wargame version of the classic Armageddon Empires. Centuries after the fall of the Galactic Republic, civilisation is beginning to re-emerge, and you lead a band of survivors in their fight for control of a post-post-apocalyptic planet. As in 4X games, you build up cities, research new technologies, and expand the empire.

What defines Shadow Empire is its central, wargame-inspired mechanic: logistics. Logistics is central in that it binds together the empire management (4X) and military (wargame) halves of the game, and central in that it is critical to each half. Armies need food, fuel, and bullets, and as in many wargames, there is a supply system that determines whether they receive these — supply flows from HQ, is carried along roads and rail lines, and ultimately reaches the troops. What makes Shadow Empire unique in the 4X genre is that the same system is used for the civilian side of the empire — those same roads and rails are used to ship resources from province to province. Logistics matter!

My front line in Shadow Empire: my units (a mix of armour, mechanised infantry, and motorised infantry) are in blue, the computer’s are in yellow. Supply (the green line) comes in via the highway and railway that lead to the northeast. The supplies get unloaded from the railhead in Dead Steppe, transfer to trucks, and then benefit from an additional truck stop in Mono Ocean. Eventually the supply trains will be unloaded in Hamburg, the selected (and recently conquered) city, once the train station is complete.

This has multiple implications. Provinces need infrastructure investment: truck depots, train stations, roads, and railways (and the capital, as the default supply nexus, needs a lot). Campaigning on the frontier, or at the end of a tenuous supply line, is difficult until that infrastructure is in place. Large empires — and large armies — are vulnerable to having their lines of communication severed.

As this highlights, logistics are both a natural “rubber band” mechanism and an important driver of strategy. Early on, my empire was a long, thin, snaky thing, connected by a single railway. My tiny field army was off on the frontier, having just subjugated a band of Mad Max-style raiders. When a major AI empire declared war, and their hordes swarmed towards my heartland — the capital and the railway — my eyes popped. If they had taken the railway, they could have cut my empire in two! I frantically raised new troops and rushed my existing armies home, abandoning the newly conquered raider territory. In time, I pushed the invaders back; and either I did a good job of cutting them off from supplies, they recruited more troops than their economy could support, or something went badly wrong on their home front, because their troops were consistently “hungry” or “starving”. But as I drove them further and further back, now it was my turn to run into supply issues: my vanguard would sometimes have to pause until the supply infrastructure could catch up.

Once a secure supply line is in place, the rest of the military side of the game is relatively straightforward. There is a lot of maths under the bonnet, but the basics feel familiar and sensible: infantry doesn’t do well at charging machine guns; tanks and artillery are much better at breaking through; and encircling enemy armies is much better than trying to grind them down in a war of attrition. My playbook from other wargames, such as Unity of Command 2, worked a treat: break through the front line, cut enemies off from their supply, and seize cities by coup de main. And I could do this because my army was smaller than my AI opponents’, but better equipped with tanks and motor transport1.

As this highlights, I think Shadow Empire is a lot less complex, or at least much easier to understand, than it seems at first glance. There are a lot of systems running in the background, but cause and effect follow clear, intuitive logic. So for example, during setup, the game generates different biomes and climactic conditions across the world, which affects rainfall across the map. This sounds complicated … but it makes intuitive sense that my population needs to be fed, and that crops need water to grow; so building farms in a lush coastal province is better than building them in the desert. Similarly, tanks need fuel to run. So if I’m running low on fuel — say, because my enemy has conquered my oil wells — I can cut civilian consumption by adopting renewable energy; cut military consumption by researching more efficient tank engines; or increase production by drilling new wells and investing in bio-diesel. The challenge comes from first, the “quirky” user interface, and second, the sheer novelty of the game’s concepts.

The – finally – peaceful seaside province of Rochoyes. With a pleasant climate, it exports plenty of food and water to the rest of the empire.

And there really are a lot of novel concepts. There’s a Distant Worlds-style private sector. There’s the hard science fiction world generation at the beginning of each game, which determines climate, habitability, the edibility of local plant life, the hostility of wildlife, the extent of pre-fall ruins, the amount of radiation in the environment, and more. I’ve seen screenshots of other players’ games with giant 6m-tall wildlife rampaging around.

There are also a lot of rough edges. Now that I’m becoming used to the UI, my main complaint is extremely slow late-game turn times. By around turn 100, it took 5 to 10 minutes to process the AI’s turn! I resorted to streaming TV, while periodically alt-tabbing to check on whether the game was ready. The developer has been very active with patches — one week since release, it’s already up to version 1.03 — so hopefully this can be addressed2.

I think the ultimate compliment is that I want to return to this game. It looks to have the replayability of good 4X and grand strategy titles: I want to try high-tech starts, tropical worlds with hostile life, and more. With luck, it will have the same longevity as the genre’s greats.

Further reading

The Wargamer’s glowing review put Shadow Empire on my radar.

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  1. At first I thought this was an AI failing — the two empires I fought relied mostly on gigantic human wave armies. But on the final turn of my game, I encountered another empire that was small, but well-equipped and technologically superior. So perhaps the AI has different play-styles?
  2. There has already been one bugfix that addressed turn speed. I started playing with the launch version of the game so I don’t know if this was fixed by the patches, or if I would need to start a new game.

Why XCOM: Chimera Squad succeeds as science fiction

This entry is part 2 of 2 in the series XCOM: Chimera Squad

… because it asks “what if”, and then answers that question.

Chimera Squad takes as its premise something established by the previous XCOM games: most of the alien species that invaded Earth are victims too, twisted and warped into weapons of war. Then, it builds on this. What if their masters’ defeat left the alien army free from slavery, but stranded on Earth? And what if humanity responded by extending a hand to its former enemies?

I love the illustrations of daily life that we see between missions, such as a Viper using an ATM at the bank (right), humans and aliens watching TV together (bottom), at the shop (bottom left), and in the workplace (top), aliens waiting for the bus (left centre), and a Sectoid radio host in his studio (top left).

The result is what we see in game. Once you accept that this is soft science fiction – the sort where aliens wear clothes, work in offices, and eat fast food – this is a remarkably well thought out world; I would go so far as to say this is possibly Firaxis’ best writing since Alpha Centauri (and definitely since Civilization IV). Some of this can be seen in the plot; more can be seen in the background flavour.  Images of daily life, and in-universe posters, show how aliens have adopted human customs: we see aliens on holiday, watching TV, going to cocktail parties, rescuing cats from trees, starring in movies, and wearing make-up. One poster even exhorts them to “dress like humans… [it] will help you fit in!” Is its audience aliens looking to fit in, or humans who need to be convinced? Regular ads for fast food are funny, but also clever: not every species can eat every food, and society has had to work out how to keep diners safe. And not everybody, human or alien, is happy with the new arrangements: there are alien protesters who worship spaceships, and human protesters who want to start a fight. On a slightly meta level, there is even an in-universe buddy detective show featuring an alien and a human lead1.

And just as science fiction can serve as a commentary on the real world, it’s impossible for me not to read meaning into Chimera Squad. The squad is a group of former enemies – in one case, two agents fought on opposite sides of the same battle – who have put the past behind them. A deliberate choice, in response to current times? I can’t help but think so.

That intent, and that willingness to adopt the ethos of “what if”, are why Chimera Squad works. Here the science fiction is not window dressing, but central to the premise. The result is a memorable setting and a world where I’d like to see more stories.

  1. We never see this, but there’s an excerpt from its script at one point.

Video Games and the Law of Conservation of Complexity

While replaying Imperialism II recently, I realised how it illustrates the role of complexity within strategy game design. For every game there is a “right” amount of complexity, and it’s up to the developer how to allocate it.

Resources near my capital in Imperialism II. They are connected by road or rail and I don’t need to use my limited shipping capacity to bring them in. Overseas resources must be connected to a port and then shipped in.

The key is that simplifying one aspect of the game frees up complexity to be used elsewhere. Imperialism and Imperialism II exemplify this. On one hand, they make city management much simpler than in other 4X games: there is only one to manage, the capital. On the other hand, their resource model is much more detailed. Instead of generic “production”, every unit needs specific resources, such as steel, bronze, and cloth for uniforms. Every one of these has its own inputs, and every input resource (coal, iron, timber, wool, multiple types of food…) is represented on the map. They need to be discovered, exploited, and connected to transport; and then there have to be enough ships to bring the resources back  home. Going to war has a real opportunity cost; every ship carrying troops or participating in a blockade is one ship that can’t feed the capital.

This principle can be seen elsewhere. Civilization famously has no tactical battles, because they would interrupt the broader flow of the game. Master of Magic and the Age of Wonders series look very similar at first glance, but playing them back-to-back reveals the extent to which Age of Wonders streamlines city-building in exchange for much more detailed combat.

Even Sid Meier had to watch out for this. As recounted by Soren Johnson, he realised “it’s better to have one good game than two great ones” after falling victim to this when developing Covert Action, a spy game whose management and action layers distracted from one another.

Ultimately, just as the player has to manage finite resources within the game, complexity is a finite resource that the designer must manage outside the game. And as with other types of resource management, the benefits are substantial when done well.

Further reading

Soren Johnsons elaboration of why “one good game is better than two great ones” — and when mini-games can succeed.        

Where do the armies come from?

Many kinds of armies have marched through history: regulars, militias, mercenaries, tribal and aristocratic warriors, and more. Yet while historical strategy games feature a colourful panoply of different troops, with distinct equipment and morale, they have typically skated over the question of how these soldiers were organised and paid. Usually, troops hang around indefinitely after being recruited; this system can be seen in games from Civilization to Europa Universalis and Total War. That said, there have been games with an interesting treatment of this subject.

Alexios Komnenos’ Byzantine army in Crusader Kings II. Currently active are retinue troops and “mercenaries” (as the game represents standing Byzantine units – the Scholae and the Varangians).

The most detailed portrayal can be found in Crusader Kings 2. Realms field four different types of troops: levies, vassals’ levies, mercenaries, and personal retinues. With enough money, the last two can be turned into a de facto standing army, and thus a small but wealthy realm — say, one well-positioned on the Silk Road — can field a fighting force out of proportion to its size.

The genius of CK2 is how it incentivises players to follow history and professionalise their army. Levies take time to muster, and vassal levies have another disadvantage — the player is only entitled to them for a certain number of days. It’s better to ask for taxes to be paid in cash, and use the money to hire troops who are always on call.

Another clever example can be found in the Age of Charlemagne DLC for Total War: Attila. Charlemagne used the Total War series’ traditional systems for upkeep, recruitment cost, and recruitment time to encourage players to build a core of professional soldiers: professionals were slow to recruit but powerful and reasonably affordable to maintain, so it made sense to keep them as a standing force. By contrast, levies were cheap and easy to recruit, so there was no point keeping them around between wars; and mercenaries were easy to recruit but very expensive to maintain, so were too costly in peacetime.

As this highlights, mercenaries are quite common in Paradox and Total War games, where they are treated distinctly from regular troops. Typically they are very expensive in exchange for being available immediately. In Europa Universalis IV, mercenaries don’t drain national manpower; and in Total War games, they offer foreign troops who wouldn’t otherwise be available.

Finally, quite a few games allow the player to invest in militia, who then appear as free-spawn local defenders. These include Imperialism, the Total War series from Empire onwards, and fantasy and science fiction games such as the Dominions series and Age of Wonders: Planetfall.

Personally, I think this is fertile territory for the genre to explore further. From a gameplay perspective, this is ripe for trade-offs and interesting decisions: do you strengthen local defences, at the price of also strengthening local leaders? And from a flavour perspective, this would be another way to differentiate factions. I’d love to see more games follow the trail blazed by CK2.

This post is indebted to the late John Keegan, whose classification of armies in A History of Warfare has stuck with me all these years.

XCOM: Chimera Squad impressions – Really good so far

This entry is part 1 of 2 in the series XCOM: Chimera Squad
A Chimera Squad agent arrives on the scene.

Seven hours in, I really like Chimera Squad, both from a mechanical and a narrative perspective.

The game is what I hoped it would be: a brisker, more elegant interpretation of XCOM’s tactical combat. The new turn system means that the old XCOM playstyle, “mow every enemy down in one round”, no longer applies. Instead there are new abilities, and new interesting decisions. With a few upgrades, Axiom, the Muton, can charge across the room and pummel multiple enemies; but is it worth leaving him exposed? Shelter, the psionic, can teleport and swap locations with an enemy. That enemy will become out of position and likely easy prey for the rest of the squad, but Shelter will be surrounded by his remaining foes. Is that worth it? Should I roll the dice on a 70% shot; or go for a guaranteed, low-damage melee attack that will ensure my next character can land a KO? Calculations such as these keep each battle interesting.

The strategic layer is simple but effective: there are too many things I’d like to do, and not enough agents to do them with. I would love to accelerate my research into new equipment; my agents are becoming out-gunned. I would also love to put my agents through advanced training; send them off to gather more resources; or rehabilitate them after injuries. But I only have so many agents, and each of them can only be in one place at one time.

In an inspired touch, Chimera Squad’s tutorial battle takes place in a museum chronicling the events of the previous games. Here the squad shelters behind a model of the Skyranger, XCOM’s transport plane.

The unexpected delight has been the worldbuilding — hands down my favourite in a Firaxis XCOM game. Humans and aliens living in uneasy peace makes for a great setting, and Chimera Squad brings it to life with details that range from the serious (the agents’ biographies hint at the horrors of the alien occupation) to the absurd (an in-universe ad for breakfast food is both hilarious and underscores the extent to which aliens have integrated into human society). I don’t even mind the wise-cracking dialogue, a clear homage to the “buddy cop” genre.

What could be next for the XCOM franchise? If Chimera Squad sells well, I wouldn’t be surprised to see it become its own spin-off series: so XCOM 3, Chimera Squad 2, etc, with each having its own distinct mechanics. I also wonder if, like Chimera Squad, XCOM 3 will borrow a leaf from Julian Gollop’s XCOM: Apocalypse. We now have a multi-species squad in an urban setting; what else could be in store?

What I’ve been reading and playing — from the Three Kingdoms to the Alliance-Union Universe

Since my last update, I’ve been lucky to play three excellent (and very different) games, all Game of the Year material: Total War: Three Kingdoms, Rule the Waves 2, and Dragon Quest Builders 2. I also reread an old favourite, Lord of the Rings, and ploughed through a new favourite, the works of CJ Cherryh.

Games

Total War: Three Kingdoms is the Shogun 2 successor I’ve awaited for the last 8 years, and the best Total War game to date. Everything I loved about Shogun 2 is back: the challenge, strong execution on both the campaign and battle layers, and a beautiful aesthetic. The challenge hit me very early on — playing Cao Cao (the recommended starting character!), I crashed and burned twice before succeeding on my third try. Even with that experience under my belt, it took me two tries to win as the Ma clan of Western China.

Against stronger opponents, ambushes are the great equaliser. The computer knows how to use them, too…

The campaign layer is immersive and well-designed. Each province is distinct, so geography matters. AI-controlled warlords play like believable characters: they have distinct personalities — Liu Bei will stand by his friends, while Yuan Shu is a treacherous opportunist — and act sensibly, for instance, by bending the knee to stronger powers. Interface improvements make even large empires manageable.

Sturdy shielded infantry make a good anvil on which to break enemy attacks…

The same attention to detail is visible on the battle layer. Each individual battle feels like poetry in motion; even one-sided battles made me consider how I could best win while minimising casualties.  Siege battles are interesting and dynamic for the first time in the series’ history. (Granted, after a certain point the challenge mostly comes from the campaign layer — the computer prefers recruiting cheap early-game troops, no match for a late-game human army.)

… while cavalry is a devastating hammer.

And Three Kingdoms is the best-looking Total War game since Shogun 2. Gone are the dark, muddy graphics of the Rome 2 generation, in favour of vibrant colours. The battle music is good (if not quite “Jeff van Dyck at his best”), and the strategic layer music is lovely and relaxing — the best in the series. I love this game, and I’m so happy that the developers did this period justice.

Flaming shot from trebuchets lights up the night sky.

At the other end of the strategy spectrum is Rule the Waves 2, an indie game covering naval warfare between 1900-1955. What makes it so brilliant is how it captures the essence of strategy — reconciling objectives to limited resources. You are in charge of a Great Power’s navy, whether that be mighty Britain or nearly landlocked Austria-Hungary: you design ships, build them out of a finite budget, and command them in battle, a bit like an oceangoing version of a space 4X game. But unlike a 4X, you are not the leader of your nation. You cannot control world politics, or the rise and fall of international tensions. You cannot control the nation’s economy: the US will always be larger and wealthier than, say, Italy. You cannot control the government, which tweaks the naval budget, makes demands, and if you do badly enough, sacks you — the “game over” condition. You can influence these things – for example, ostentatiously warning of war will give you a bigger budget at the cost of higher world tension – but at the end of the day, it is up to you to make the most of what you are given. I’ve had spectacular results as Austria-Hungary, frugally upgrading my ageing battleships, focusing my meagre budget on fast, modern destroyers trained for night actions, and only picking fights I could win. I’ve had an equally spectacular rise-and-fall as France, building up a proud oceangoing fleet and dominating the Mediterranean, only to be crushed by enemies out of my league — first the British and then the Germans. I was a big fan of the first Rule the Waves, and its sequel has lived up to my expectations.

Dragon Quest Builders 2 illustrates what’s possible by combining the structure and narrative of one genre, the RPG, with the verbiage of another, the builder game. Like an RPG, it’s an epic voyage that takes the heroes across many lands. Like an RPG, you progress by solving NPCs’ quests in each location. But unlike an RPG, those quests typically involve gathering material and building towns.

An early town in Dragon Quest Builders 2. Note the crops and perimeter wall.

It is a pleasure to make each area come to life with homes, workshops, kitchens, dining areas, and defensive walls. Add a localisation brimming with puns and wordplay, and the result is a blend of creativity with charm. I don’t have much experience with the builder genre — beyond bouncing off Terraria years ago — so this has been my pleasant surprise of the year.

Completing a building in Dragon Quest Builders 2.

Books

A few months ago I re-read The Lord of the Rings, accompanied by the Extended Edition movies, and rediscovered my appreciation for Tolkien. Intricate, mythic, and at times moving, LOTR is a masterpiece. It is a book that could only have grown out of its author’s lived experience. It makes no pretensions to realism; yet has something important to say. It richly deserves its status as the foundational text of the fantasy genre.

I’ve also finally become a CJ Cherryh fan, after previously finding her books (Downbelow Station) too dry and dense. Her specialties are alien cultures (in both senses of the word) and driven, desperate protagonists; both themes run through my recent reads. The Morgaine saga follows a woman on an obsessive quest, seen through the eyes of her loyal companion. The hero of Merchanter’s Luck is a traumatised space smuggler pushing himself to the edge of endurance. The Faded Sun trilogy tells the story of two tradition- and taboo-bound aliens searching for their homeworld, and the human veteran who helps them. I’ve just picked up another of her series (The Dreaming Tree), have another on my shelf (the Chanur trilogy), and saved the final Morgaine book for later; I look forward to digging in.

What I’ve been playing

A mission in Wargroove’s campaign

Hello! Since it’s been a while since I wrote about games, I wanted to cover off the notable titles that I’ve played in the last few months. Some of these are new releases — Wargroove, Steamworld Quest. Others are old favourites — Firaxis or Paradox games, benefiting from recent DLC. With much of my gaming moving to Nintendo Switch, I’ve broken out Switch and PC games — in general the PC games have focused on strategy, while the Switch games have been more varied.

Nintendo Switch

Wargroove was probably my standout game for the first few months of the year, with its combination of elegant mechanics, a charming aesthetic, and a generally well-designed campaign. A map can be finished in an hour; but that hour can see quick land-grabbing dashes, a meticulous dance as you yield ground or search for weaknesses in the enemy line, and the final decisive moment when your dragons swoop on the enemy stronghold, or you manage to trundle your trebuchets in range. The game is held back by poor skirmish AI – which limits replayability and makes one of the three gameplay modes, a series of linked skirmish maps, rather pointless – and I do wish the last couple of campaign maps offered depth instead of artificial challenge. Overall, though, it succeeds both as an Advance Wars spiritual successor and as its own game – I will be very interested in any DLC or sequels.

Meanwhile, Steamworld Quest has turned out to be very good. It’s built around one of the best turn-based RPG combat systems I’ve come across, both well-designed and well-executed. I think I’m about two-thirds through, and I have a longer blog post half-written, so stay tuned….

Steamworld Quest in action

Temporarily on the back burner is the Donkey Kong DLC for Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle (I finished the base game last year). It’s more of a good thing, and often laugh-out-loud funny; presumably I’ll return after playing more Steamworld Quest.

I have mixed feelings about Bomber Crew, a game sometimes compared to FTL. Individual missions are very good: enjoyable, often frantic, in the same way as FTL’s encounters. The problem is the overall structure. FTL playthroughs were short: if you died, it was back to square one, but you didn’t lose much time. Bomber Crew is more like XCOM, and not in a good way. There is an ongoing campaign and if you are shot down, you continue with a new plane and crew – the problem is that they will not have their predecessors’ upgrades. I don’t like grinding to re-upgrade the plane and re-level the crew, and I don’t think it makes for a good loop.

Finally, Worms: WMD is a solid franchise game – while the basics remain similar to previous 2D Worms games, I like the additions — vehicles and crafting. The vehicles’ destructive power is classic madcap Worms, while crafting gives the player extra options during a match.

PC

Perhaps the recent standout has been Hearts of Iron IV: first the Man the Guns expansion, then a brief return to the Kaiserreich mod, before moving onto a Fallout: New Vegas total conversion mod, Old World Blues. In general, HOI4 becomes steadily better with each version — Man the Guns and its accompanying patch are solid, without the AI problems that dog the most recent version of Stellaris, and while the new naval system takes a bit of work to set up, I like the power and flexibility that it allows. I doubt any expansion can address several problems with HOI4’s underlying design – the flawed transition between peace and war, the lagging and grindy late game – but for all that, this is a game that’s provided me with significant enjoyment over the last three years.

Old World Blues deserves a highlight for several reasons. First, there’s its sheer ambition: a whole new map, tech trees, and custom factions. Second, I love New Vegas’ setting. And third, it’s functioned as something of an expert-level class in HOI4. For instance:

  • I’ve usually found supply to be trivial in HOI4, except when fighting in remote areas such as the Andes or Central Asia. It is not trivial in Old World Blues. The awful infrastructure of the post-apocalyptic West Coast, unless upgraded, imposes severe attrition on massed troops – a problem when playing as the NCR, a “quantity over quality” faction.
  • Similarly, playing this mod made me realise that historical hindsight let me paper over the gaps in my knowledge of HOI4 mechanics. Yes, a long-ranged escort fighter is a good idea. Yes, armoured divisions should be built around combined arms. Yes, there’s something to these newfangled aircraft carriers. Without this advantage, I’ve struggled. I know the difference between a P-51 and a B-17, but should I build NCR salvaged power armour or Protectron robots? How important is the “Breakthrough” stat? How are supply lines calculated? I think I need to pay more attention to the underlying numbers – and that will make me a better base-game player as well.

Meanwhile, I’m currently nearing the end of my first Civilization VI: Gathering Storm run – it’s been enjoyable, even without making much use of the new features. Sadly, I don’t think I’m going to win! I also made several unsuccessful attempts as Dai Viet in Europa Universalis IV – I think I’m out of practice after not having played for several expansions.

A few non-strategy games stare at me from my Steam library. Yakuza 0 and Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey, both picked up on sale last year; the former unplayed, the latter barely scratched. Heaven’s Vault has beautiful art, and I love its premise – you play a science-fiction archaeologist and the gameplay seems built around dialogue and deciphering alien languages – but I haven’t quite been able to get into it. Next time…

Further reading

Write-up of Old World Blues

Six Ages: Ride Like The Wind is an interactive story bringing myth and magic to life

Six Ages: Ride Like The Wind is a gamebook — an interactive story about leading a clan in a world of myth and magic. Alongside its predecessor, King of Dragon Pass, Six Ages is almost unique in its intersection between storytelling and a resource-management game. And like King of Dragon Pass, Six Ages brings its setting to vibrant life, encouraging the player to stay in-character in a world where the divine is never far away.

Much of Six Ages is spent managing the day-to-day business of the clan: which gods to propitiate that season, where to send emissaries and scouting parties, whom to raid, whether to focus on herding, crafting, or sharing stories, and so on:

This is essential stuff — a clan that’s short on cows isn’t much of a clan — but by itself, not terribly exciting. The heart and soul of Six Ages is the illustrated story events that pop up, like the one below. Some are one-offs. Some are part of ongoing subplots. Some are major story beats. And one sequence turns out to be the path to winning the game. Each offers a choice:

An event in Six Ages.

The key is to think like your people, the Riders. Understand their ways, their portents, their rituals. Tradition is a good guide, though not infallible. When in doubt, conducting a divination is usually a good first step, and sacrificing to the gods a good second step. Your advisors, at the bottom of the screen, will chip in with their own opinions (more skilled advisors give better advice).

Six Ages’ design goals are clearest in the rituals in which you send a hero into the gods’ world to seek a boon (in a clever touch, the mortal and divine worlds are drawn in different styles and by different artists – see the image below). The ritual unfolds as a reenactment of the chosen god’s myth, Choose Your Own Adventure-style: how should Ernalda, goddess of trade, win the trust of geese? What should Busenari the cow-mother ask from her counterpart the horse goddess? Your clan can do several things to prepare, for instance, allocating points to ritual magic, requesting worshippers from friendly clans, and sending the right hero. And you, the player, can prepare by going to the game’s “lore” section and reading the myth. It’s not a test of rote knowledge — I have succeeded by going off-script, and I’ve read a developer interview (linked below) indicating that these quests were designed to be flexible. At the same time, I would not go in blind, and the act of reading and preparing brings me one step closer to the characters and the world they inhabit.

The outcome of a successful ritual in Six Ages.

And that’s what Six Ages does so well. It’s a game about peoples, mythologies, and the mindset that connects the two; and a story that takes advantage of its medium.  I would like to see more like this, and I look forward to the planned sequels.

Further reading

How Six Ages builds a game around the power of myth (also discussing King of Dragon Pass)

80 Days, a steampunk retelling of the Jules Verne novel, is another fun interactive story

Quick impressions: Victory and Glory: Napoleon

Victory and Glory: Napoleon is a simple, elegant PC strategy game that places players in charge of France during the Napoleonic Wars. It bears a heavy boardgame influence, namely a design philosophy that emphasises clever abstraction over detailed simulation.

The strategic layer is a race against time: Napoleon must crush his rivals before Britain can build up an overwhelming coalition. Attrition is the player’s enemy: France starts with the finest troops in Europe, but reinforcements are scanty (and spawn all the way in Paris), friendly German and Italian levies are weak, and the other Great Powers will eventually reform their armies to match France’s standards. And while Napoleon is the most formidable general in the game, he can only be in one place at one time…

The tactical layer, while simple, rewards period tactics. Infantry will automatically form squares to repel horsemen – and in so doing, make themselves vulnerable to artillery. Cavalry get a bonus when counter-charging tired opponents. A special rule incentivises the player, like Napoleon, to keep the Imperial Guard in reserve.

Simplicity should not be confused with easiness. Not understanding the game mechanics, I defeated Austria in the 1805 scenario but lacked the manpower to finish off a newly hostile Prussia or force Russia to the negotiating table. Like a cornered lion, Napoleon and his last remaining army crushed several attempts to invade France, but when the odds grew too overwhelming, I abdicated quit.

Overall, I like this game – it’s both entertaining, and a good example of how a designer can capture the feel of a period without bogging down in detail. I’m looking forward to returning from Elba my next game as L’Empereur!

Further reading

Developer interview on Slitherine forums

Classifying the Total War games

Two different emperors prepare to defend their worlds. In Western Europe, circa 400 AD, a Roman emperor inspects his comitatenses and scholae, the successors to Caesar’s legions. A universe away, a different emperor raises his magic hammer, and beckons his griffon into the skies. They are united by circumstance — and the design of their respective games.

There is no one Total War design; there are several, differing by structure and scope.  This is why different players prefer different entries in the series — the designers were trying to accomplish different things. (How well they succeeded is a different question.) I’ve created the following diagram to illustrate this:

Classifying the Total War games by scope and structure. Source: Author

Structure is measured along the Y-axis of the chart. Games towards the top (Attila, Warhammer I, Shogun 2) have a more defined structure, typically ushering the player towards a do-or-die endgame. Games towards the bottom are more open. Meanwhile, the chart’s X-axis measures scope. Games towards the right (Shogun 2) are smaller and more focused. Those towards the left are geographically larger, encompass more factions, or have more complex game mechanics.

The rest of this post explores, first, the categories that emerge, second, the ones that I prefer, and third, how this system relates to the future of Total War.

The categories

I divide the Total War games in the chart into several main categories:

  1. Rome II & Empire: the big, world-spanning games. These offer faction diversity and vast, exotic settings: Romans play very differently from Scythians, who play differently from Macedonian successor states. There are two downsides. The first is a less interesting late game, due to the lack of structure. The second is that these games appear harder to get right: both were plagued with problems at launch. Overall, they’re perhaps better as “toys” (something you play with) than as “games” (rules-based, win/lose activities). (Many of the older, pre-Empire games also fall into this category.)
  2. Napoleon: the little brother. Napoleon: Total War shed much of Empire’s scope by confining itself to Europe and the Mediterranean. While it added several features that became standard in later games, it still lacked the defined endgame that became increasingly common in its successors.
  3. Attila & Warhammer I: the pre-apocalyptic games. These games are structured around beating back a vast, powerful invader: the Huns in Attila, Chaos in Warhammer. Between the two, Attila offers a huge map—almost as large as Rome II’s—and complex empire management, while Warhammer dials this back to focus on conflict.
  4. Shogun 2: the most focused game. Shogun 2 combines limited scope with extreme polish, and I don’t think that’s a coincidence. The map is geographically more confined—and that makes it easier for the computer to put up a fight. There are fewer units — and each of them has its own useful, distinct niche. It also has the most structured endgame in the series, with the campaign culminating in a march to Kyoto against almost all of Japan.
  5. Warhammer II: still deciding… Warhammer II’s campaign is a race to cast a series of magic rituals, very different from Warhammer I’s struggle against impending doom. As of 100 turns, it feels more like the space race in Civilization— a defined goal that leaves the “how” up to the player. It also feels broader than its predecessor — the world is vast, intricate, and filled with varied factions.

My favourites

My favourites are structured around a challenge… I love Shogun 2 for its polish and elegance, its ruthless AI and climactic showdown. I also love the far more sprawling Attila for its “rage against the dying of the light” zeitgeist, the sense that I was defending civilisation by the skin of my teeth.

… at the same time, I appreciate the others. For all its flaws, Empire still holds a place in my heart for its depiction of the globalising early-modern world. Post-patch, Rome II also appeals when I want a taste of classical antiquity.

The future of Total War

I expect both “broad” and “focused” titles. One of the next two historical Total War games will take the series to a new setting — my guess is this will be large. The other will be the first “Total War Saga” — geographically smaller and focused on a “key, pivotal point in history”. No matter which scope you prefer, I expect there will be something for you!