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.
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.
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 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.
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 Anno1800. 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 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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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. ↩
This immediately made me picture the Vinland Saga manga’s version of Thorkell the Tall. ↩
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.
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!
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.
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.
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? ↩
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. ↩
… 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.
We never see this, but there’s an excerpt from its script at one point. ↩
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
Perhaps the recent standout has been Hearts
of Iron IV: first the Man
the Gunsexpansion, 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…
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:
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.
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.
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!
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:
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.
I divide the Total War games in the chart into several main categories:
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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 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!
Strategy gaming is vibrant and multi-faceted; that’s my take-away from mapping out selected strategy game publishers, developers, and games.
Here are three observations:
The first is what a broad tent the chart represents. Some of these publishers (Paradox, Slitherine) have a strong overarching brand as strategy game houses, while for generalists such as SEGA, the strategy brands rest at the studio level. Looking at individual titles, we see a broad mix of sub-genres: wargames; fantasy, historical, and space 4X; grand strategy; city-building; squad tactics; and more.
The second is how different this — and strategy gaming itself — would have looked 10 years ago. Firaxis owned the dominant strategy game franchise (Civilization), yet the XCOM remake was many years away. While SEGA acquired Creative Assembly back in 2005, its next strategy acquisition wasn’t for another 8 years (Relic, in 2013). Paradox and Slitherine were highly niche. Shrapnel Games was another contender in the wargame publishing space.
Finally, this is not a comprehensive list. For example, I haven’t shown companies such as Iceberg Interactive (the original publisher of the Endless series), Focus Home Interactive, Stardock (Gal Civ), Eugen Systems (Wargame, Steel Division), Illwinter (Dominions), Haemimont (the Tropico remakes), KOEI (Romance of the Three Kingdoms, Nobunaga’s Ambition), and many of the wargaming studios in Slitherine’s orbit.
All this adds up. Multiple publishers and developers — some genre specialists, other generalists — have established themselves in the strategy space, producing a rich variety of games. Things have come a long way since the genre was dismissed as “not contemporary”!
Amidst the brightly shining stars, the Mushroom Domain’s legacy shall endure. The Mushrooms were not the galaxy’s most populous species. They did not control its largest empire. Yet they were its most influential. It was a Mushroom-created federation that brought peace to the galaxy and defended it against an invading scourge, and it was a Mushroom battle fleet that fired the final, victorious shot.
One year after launch, Stellaris remains best approached as a science-fiction story generator. Its strengths and weaknesses are recognisable from launch: in Jesse Schell’s “toy vs game” classification scheme (a toy is something you play with, a game is a problem-solving activity approached with a playful attitude), Stellaris is still more of a toy than a game — not uncommon in the 4X and strategy genres, where a rich experience such as Total War or Master of Magic can represent more than the sum of its parts. Stellaris is not a balanced set of finely-honed decisions, and I wonder if it ever could be one without jeopardising what it does do well: providing a sandpit to enact grand sagas of galactic ambition.
More detailed thoughts below:
At a design level, this is still one of the most interesting 4X titles around. Thematically, Stellaris‘s well-written flavour events, randomly generated species (peer empires, brooding precursors, upliftable pre-spaceflight worlds, and more), and abundant science-fiction homages combine to produce a galaxy that is “ancient and full of wonders”. Later on, the galaxy begins dividing into blocs, precursor races awaken, and intergalactic invaders emerge, representing radical potential changes to the game board: when the victory screen popped up, my Mushrooms and their federation partners were defending against a mighty “Awakened Empire”, a once-dormant precursor now turned aggressively expansionist.
Mechanically, Stellaris is still strongest early on. Since the Utopia expansion came out, I’ve started four campaigns, shelved three after reaching the mid-game, and finished one. Early-game exploration remains the highlight; the mid-game is weakened by bland mechanics such as planetary construction and ship design. Patches and DLC have helped to some extent, providing new mid/late-game foes (Leviathans DLC), internal politics that feel rewarding instead of punitive (the 1.5 patch), buildable megastructures (the Utopia DLC — I’ve only built a few so far), and a Civ 5-style traditions system (Utopia again).
Applying mods and experimenting with custom game settings let me address the game’s weaknesses, build on its strengths, and tailor the experience to my preferences. In 4X games, I hate micromanaging large empires — I prefer a smaller scale where every settlement matters — and I prefer to play as a peaceful builder. I was able to achieve this in my completed Mushroom Domain game, a relaxing experience in which I let federation allies extend our control across the galaxy while I focused on building and exploration. To do so, I opted for a small galaxy with the proportion of habitable worlds set to 25% of the default. Meanwhile, I installed the More Events Mod (more to discover), Megastructures, Improved Megastructures, and Stellar Expansion (more to build), and assorted quality of life mods (AutoBuild). For future games, I intend to install Guilli’s Planet Modifiers (more planet variety) and perhaps The Zenith of Fallen Empires (ambitious endgame options).
I have mixed feelings following my first game of Endless Space 2. I went in with high hopes: after bouncing off Endless Space 1, I went on to love Endless Legend. At first, I had a great time. Six hours later, by the time I finished my beginner game, I was bored.
Its strengths and weaknesses are those of Endless Legend at launch. Re-reading what I wrote about Endless Legend in 2015, much of my critique applies equally well here. Endless Space 2‘s headline strengths are gorgeous art and imaginative worldbuilding, while several aspects of nuts-and-bolts gameplay deserve praise – spaceship design is simple and elegant (I set up two main ship classes: one fast and powerful for my field forces, and the other well-armed, slow, and cheap for my garrisons), while building up planets is pleasant and satisfying. Its weaknesses include bugs, what seems like an AI inability to upgrade spaceships, and something more fundamental: the late game is a slog. While I was willing to forgive Endless Legend at launch, and that game went on to take significant strides, I’m a little disappointed that after several years, Endless Space 2 has gone back to square one.
Stellaris presents an interesting comparison. Both games enliven early exploration with quests, events, and anomalies to investigate. Both games reflect their developers’ pedigree – Endless Space 2 has superior ‘4X’ mechanics (ship design, planetary buildings) while Stellaris has more interesting diplomatic options (a successful military campaign in Endless Space 2 took me over my planet limit, at which point I wished I could set up unwanted planets as a vassal buffer state). Both suffer in the mid-to-late game, although Stellaris tries to address this with endgame crises and the War in Heaven.
… highlighting underlying issues in 4X game design. Most 4X games are built around the player acquiring more stuff, and with it, more to do (more units to push around, more cities or planets to manage). Mechanics that work in the early game, such as managing city build queues, fail to scale in the late game. At the same time, the late game loses much of its challenge as the player snowballs across the map. A handful of games address these problems: the recent Total War games add powerful late-game foes (the rest of Japan in Shogun 2, the Huns in Attila, Chaos in Warhammer); Imperialism centralises all production in the capital city, reducing micromanagement; similarly Armageddon Empires restricts the player’s production to whatever is in his/her hand of cards.
What next? While I’d like to play more of Endless Space 2, I’m not whether I’ll do so as-is (perhaps on a higher difficulty setting or playing a different faction) or whether I’ll put it back on the shelf for now. If Endless Legend is any indication, I may well be more positive in several months.
This post discusses some of the notable games that explore the history of China – a fascinating subject crying out for more attention.
Romance of the Three Kingdoms
Any discussion of strategy games set in China must begin with KOEI’s Romance of the Three Kingdoms series, whose first game dates to the NES.
Set amidst the civil war that followed the fall of the Han Dynasty — the same period that inspired the Chinese classic novel, the Dynasty Warriors games, and assorted movies, TV shows, and anime — these games are mechanically as well as thematically notable.
Along with KOEI stablemates such as Nobunaga’s Ambition, and Paradox’s Crusader Kings, these are some of the very few character-driven strategy games in existence. Every action in ROTK, from building a granary to leading an army, is assigned to (and performed by) named characters. ROTK’s characters form a cast of thousands, taken from history and the pages of the novel (there is also the potential to create custom officers)
Within the series, individual games vary. I have very fond memories of playing ROTK XI, a micromanagement-intensive but engaging game whose cel-shaded graphics and hand-drawn art remain lovely today.
Unfortunately, I was disappointed by ROTK XIII, the latest in the series. Like some of its predecessors, XIII is a RPG/strategy hybrid that allows players to play as low-ranking officers or governors, as opposed to faction leaders, and work their way up. In theory, this is brilliant. In practice, life as a junior officer in ROTK XIII plays out as Ancient Chinese Workplace Simulator. I spent my time clicking through menus to fulfil orders, waiting for progress bars to fill up, and occasionally networking with fellow officers. (More subjectively, I didn’t like XIII’s art style compared to its predecessors, or for that matter, Nobunaga’s Ambition.)
For those interested in the ROTK series, I would recommend XI, which is available for digital purchase.
Flawed and fascinating, Oriental Empires (currently in Early Access) is a bundle of interesting ideas that — based on a playthrough in late September/early October 2016 — fail to cohere into a good game. In particular, it feels caught between two conflicting paradigms. Its overall structure is that a conventional 4X game like Civilization, depicting the Warring States of pre-Imperial China. Hidden inside is a more radical idea: a game about maintaining the internal stability of an empire.
On its surface, Oriental Empires is very much about the Warring States. The map is filled with multiple civilizations, each of which represents a kingdom or tribe that existed before the unification of China. Nobles are still implied to be a powerful force within society, as they were in the Warring States. Most of the game’s tech tree is pre-imperial — a thousand years of imperial history are relegated to the final era.
The trick is that the other players aren’t the real challenge: I won a cultural victory without going to war against a single other player. Instead, Oriental Empires’ most interesting mechanic (and its greatest challenge) is the way it handles internal dissent. Each city has a separate unrest level for nobles and commoners, and while the nobles are easy to keep happy, the commoners are dangerous. Drought — a random event — produces unhappy commoners. Famine produces unhappy commoners. And crucially, whereas most 4X games encourage the player to build and improve their cities, doing this in Oriental Empires produces unhappy commoners: when tile improvements and buildings go up, Oriental Empire assumes that the work is done by commoners drafted for corvee labour.
When rebellions do break out, they can be very dangerous. The game has several types of military unit, including nobles, regulars, and militia; while militia are cheap, they tend to defect to nearby rebels. On top of that, multiple unhappy cities can set off a chain reaction. Once, I had to reload after being bankrupted by a death spiral. The parallels to history — including the fall of China’s first imperial dynasty, the Qin — felt strong.
Unrest can be defused through different national policies; happiness-boosting buildings such as theatres, temples, and courthouses; favourable random events (such as good harvest); maintaining a garrison – of regular troops, not militia – assigning a city governor, or a slow cooldown. It can be better not to overbuild in the first place. The take-away is that there is a trade-off between growth and stability, and a wise ruler will avoid making the historical mistakes of the Qin.
Overall, while Oriental Empires is difficult to unconditionally recommend (unless it’s improved as a strategy game since I played it), I found it sufficiently intriguing (and aesthetically pleasing) not to regret my purchase.
Emperor: Rise of the Middle Kingdom
Recently listed for sale on GoG, this is a charming entry in the City-Building series best known for Caesar I-IV. I’ve enjoyed the limited time I’ve spent time with it.
Mechanically, Emperor is close to what I remember of Caesar III. City-dwellers’ houses, which upgrade into progressively grander forms as citizens’ needs are met, are serviced by walkers sent out from nearby buildings. To keep the walkers on track, the player can even deploy roadblocks and walls. The city’s needs include food, water, entertainment, religion, commodities, and more – the standard building blocks of a city builder.
What lends charm is the game’s flavour. The introductory campaign begins in prehistoric China, where the player’s settlement cultivates millet. New commodities such as wheat and jade are introduced through trade with other settlements, representing the development of the material culture we think of as “Chinese”. Within the city, instead of Caesar III’s lion tamers, there are acrobats and musicians. Throwing a festival for New Year will result in a lion dance making its way around town.
From my time so far, this is a solidly executed example of the city-builder formula; worth a look for those interested in its theme.
Vive l’Entente! My first “proper” game of Hearts of Iron IV was a journey from desperation, through grind, to eventual triumph. Playing as Britain, World War II began a year early, in 1938, when I backed Czechoslovakia at Munich. This defiance came to little avail, as the German war machine rolled over Czechoslovakia, and British workers raced to equip an unprepared military.
Finally, the Axis marched into the Balkans — and stalled in the face of dogged Yugoslav, British, and Commonwealth resistance. As British troops helped stabilise France’s Alpine front, and the United States entered the war, I dared to think Germany’s days were numbered. Would the Soviet Union take advantage of German preoccupation to march on Berlin?
The Soviets entered the war, all right — on the wrong side. Stalin sent an ultimatum to British-aligned Romania. The Romanians refused. Now, the Allies were at war with both the Axis and the Soviets. Stalemate — and a little frustration on my part — set in.
In time, I broke the stalemate. In Europe, I unleashed the “Brits-krieg”: my armoured spearhead, now lavishly equipped with tanks, trucks, and self-propelled artillery, shattered the totalitarians’ lines. In the Pacific, British marines and aircraft carriers pushed up towards Japan. After a long, gruelling war, final victory came in 1946.
Vive la France! Several more attempts, this time as France, went less well. In one game, I defeated Germany single-handed, only to be bulldozed by the Soviets pushing from the east and Spain coming from across the Pyrenees. Eventually, the stars came into alignment. Shielded by an extended Maginot Line, I built up my strength, overpowered Germany, and sat down with Stalin to determine the fate of Europe. Then when World War III broke out in response to a Soviet attack on Turkey, I did it all over again, pushing the Red Army back from the Rhine and avenging Napoleon’s defeat.
Possibly the best Hearts of Iron game yet. I’ve played this series for over a decade, since the original Hearts of Iron, and for most of that time my affections have belonged to Hearts of Iron 2. Now, I can’t imagine going back: HOI4 combines great alternate-history potential with a solid underlying design and improved quality of life. At present, as is so often the case with highly complex strategy games, its greatest limitation is the AI 1.
I am the shield that guards the realms of man. When the Vampire Counts marched west into the fragmented, bickering human principalities, it was the recently crowned Emperor, Karl Franz, who came to the rescue. And when the battle hung in the balance, the weary human warriors struggling against the Vampire Count himself, it was the Emperor who charged up on horseback to deliver the final blow.
When the forces of Chaos swept south and west, razing all before them, it was the Empire that rallied resistance. My first pitched battle against Chaos was Pyrrhic, as charging Chaos monsters trampled my infantry. Only weight of numbers saved the day. I rebuilt, and with help from the free peoples of the world, my new, improved armies – bristling with greatswords, knights, and artillery – defeated the last Chaos hordes.
And finally, when Chaos was no more, and the orcish hordes to the south were beaten back, it was time to settle the final score with the Vampire Counts. An uneasy peace had prevailed in the face of the common enemy, Chaos. Now it was the Vampires’ turn to experience the power of the human war machine. Sandwiched between me to the west, Chaos to the north, and orcs and dwarfs to the south, the Vampires had lost their chance to expand, so my campaign was anticlimactic. My troops swept the Vampires aside, fought off an orc army eager for a rematch, and occupied the last settlement required to win. Victory!
Game of the Year contender. A triumphant fusion of theme and mechanics, Total War: Warhammer is intense, challenging, and often spectacular1. From the early game, when I plotted how to bring a wealthy city-state into the imperial fold, to the mid-game, when I juggled human and inhuman foes, to the late game, when I led a Lord of the Rings-style alliance that saw armies marching from the far corners of the earth to help fight Chaos, Total Warhammer cast me as the star of a fantasy epic about uniting humanity against the coming darkness. This was the experience promised before release, and wow, did the game deliver.
Humanity triumphant! My first game of Stellaris was a short one, as my fledgling humans were ground to dust by a nearby computer player. My second was more successful. Under the banner of the Empire of the Shimmering Stars, humanity spread out from the Deneb system – befriending the pre-spaceflight Immathurans, bringing more species and more worlds under its sway.
Some of humanity’s neighbours turned out to be friendly, or at least benevolent neutrals. I signed migration treaties, allowing us to populate one another’s worlds. Some were hostile. When my first spacefleet was destroyed in a bid to protect my Immathuran proteges, I built a second one, the Remembrance Fleet. The Remembrance Fleet went on to turn the tables, and the would-be aggressors became first vassals and then subjects.
On and on the human tide rolled, until finally I stretched too far. The Ubaric Progenitors, an ancient “Fallen Empire” (ornery precursor races populating the Stellaris galaxy), objected to my colonies near their borders. The Remembrance Fleet fought them off – just. I attempted to take the war to the Ubari capital, an ancient ringworld. It was a disaster: the combined Ubari forces crushed mine. In the ensuing peace treaty, the Ubari forced me to abandon a swathe of colonies, and to add insult to injury, assassinated my leader.
Fortunately, the Shimmering Stars had the size and strategic depth to recover. Rebuilt newer and stronger, my Grand Fleet fought off an extra-galactic invasion (one of Stellaris’ “late-game crises”)… and returned to unfinished business. Once again, a human fleet, supported by allied and vassal contingents, appeared above the Ubari ringworld.
This time, the allies outgunned the Ubari several times to one. One by one, the Ubari warships and starbases winked out. The Ubari leaders surrendered. The bronze eagle flag of the Shimmering Stars flew over a ringworld that was already old when the first humans rubbed sticks together to make fire.
Humanity now presides over the galaxy’s dominant empire. No threats remain. The empire itself is home to many species, most co-existing happily, and its highest offices are open to leaders from all species. That, for me, is victory!
Good game, 1-2 expansions away from potential greatness. Stellaris’ appeal rested on two promises: (1) a vibrant science-fiction universe, and (2) blending Paradox’s specialty, the grand strategy game, with the established space 4X genre. It delivers on the first; I am not convinced it delivers on the second, as its limited internal politics feel more like a traditional 4X. I suspect players will enjoy it to the extent they’re looking for an interactive science fiction epic rather than a crunchy GSG. Overall, I enjoyed my 20 hours with Stellaris, and I look forward to playing again several patches down the road. (Update: the developers have posted their roadmap for the next few updates, which look great! They address many of my issues with the game.)
Worthy successor. XCOM 2 is game of the year material for me, building on what worked in XCOM: Enemy Unknown and Enemy Within. I look forward to what Jake Solomon and team do next!
More detailed thoughts below:
– This is how to balance a single-player game — “give the player interesting decisions” means “give the player an impressive choice of tools” 1 The punishing early game teaches several lessons: Protracted shootouts are dangerous. Guaranteed damage is better than relying on the odds. Stack the odds wherever possible. By the mid-game, we’ve unlocked enough abilities to put those lessons into practice. Every XCOM 2 class can do something cool: rangers can stealthily scout, sharpshooters can engage multiple targets on overwatch, grenadiers can choose between high single-target damage or area-wide de-buffs & damage over time, specialists can heal from a distance or inflict guaranteed damage, and psionics can do most of the above. (While XCOM: Enemy Unknown and Enemy Within also had plenty of impressive tools — snipers in Archangel armour, run-and-gun plus rapid fire, using Mimetic Skin to sneak heavies in range for an explosive barrage — I feel XCOM 2 does a better job of making every class feel powerful, with psionics the big winner.) Balance is driven by limitations on what the player can deploy, not by making the player feel weak.
– Successful fusion of strategy and RPG. At a tactical level, the Firaxis XCOM games revolve around choosing one’s favourite tools (equipment and especially character abilities), understanding how they interact, and applying that knowledge to solve individual problems — a description that could also apply to a well-designed party RPG. In turn, those problems involve multiple dimensions, such as the number and type of enemies, terrain, positioning, the mission timer, and the resources already expended (health and consumables, plus any abilities on cooldown) — factors usually associated with the strategy genre. That interplay gives these games their richness.
– Music the biggest let-down. I like XCOM 2’s visuals — the architecture of the new human/alien civilisation is surprisingly lovely, masking the iron fist beneath. The ADVENT soldiers’ big, imperious arm gestures cement them as pulp baddies. XCOM operatives’ animations are as satisfying as ever, from shimmying down drainpipes to whipping out pistols, and late-game equipment looks fantastic. Set against this, the music is merely decent — a big step down from the great soundtrack of XCOM: Enemy Unknown.
Contrast Civilization: Beyond Earth, which gave the player underwhelming choices instead. ↩
I did it! I finally did it! At the start of my third campaign, I finally beat the aliens with no fatalities — on ironman “Commander” difficulty, the new name for “Classic”, no less! The stars aligned, the aliens walked into my operatives’ sights, and I breezed through the campaign’s first mission.
On the next mission, my operatives never even made it as far as the objective. There was a time limit; I took too long to dispatch the first two groups of aliens; and with one turn to go, the third group of aliens gunned down my point man, the only one in range to reach the objective. It was a lost cause. I called for evac. My survivors slunk home, empty-handed.
On the third mission, I ran. My soldiers tore through the aliens, losing one veteran in the process. They ran for the prison cell where their target, a friendly scientist, was held. Two more aliens appeared. My squad fought through. As the mission timer hit its final turn, and an alien transport disgorged reinforcements, my soldiers — and the rescued scientist — made it to the evacuation point.
Whew. Welcome to XCOM 2, a tense, exhilarating, thrilling ride. In fact, I may well drop my campaign down to a lower difficulty — I think I’d rather play a relaxing game than a tense one. Several factors make it harder than the original:
*Mission timers, which force more aggressive, dare I say reckless, play. They’re the most controversial aspect of the game — there are already mods that extend or remove them. Personally, I like the idea; I’m reserving judgment on how well they work until I have the chance to play more.
*Alien health. Gone are the days when explosives were a guaranteed kill. On Commander difficulty, even the lowliest ADVENT trooper (4 health) will often survive a single grenade (3-4 damage). The new, improved Sectoid has 8 health and appears from the second mission on!
*Alien abilities — Sectoids can use mind control and panic from the start, allowing them to incapacitate one member of a 4-soldier squad1. Another alien disguises itself as a civilian during retaliation (the renamed terror) missions. And I haven’t even made it past the first game month…
Wish me luck! I look forward to posting more detailed thoughts.
The counter is flashbang grenades, which interrupt Sectoid psionics; however, every soldier carrying a flashbang is a soldier not carrying a regular grenade. There is also a rumour that flashbangs are bugged and give aliens a 100% critical chance; I don’t know if this is correct. ↩
Surprisingly satisfying. Now that I’ve finished my campaign, I thought I’d comment on the late game of Nobunaga’s Ambition: Sphere of Influence, a topic on which I initially reserved judgment. Strategy endgames are plagued with two problems, (1) snowballing and (2) micromanagement, and NA illustrates how AI automation can help with the second.
The East endures. I closed out 2015 by returning to the grand campaign of Total War: Attila, this time as the Eastern Roman Empire. Like its Western sibling, the ERE is beset with enemies. Unlike my WRE game, I’ve been able to fight them off, a journey both exciting and memorable.
When the Visigoths rampaged through Thrace, and wiped out (at great cost) the first army I sent against them, I hunkered down, raised a new army under the Emperor’s personal command, and caught their weakened force in a night battle, depicted in the screenshot above. The survivors paid an indemnity for peace.
When a column of Huns razed a town along the Danube, I mustered an army four times their size, tracked them north, and brought them to ground.
Since then, I’ve fought off an invasion of North Africa. I’ve maintained an uneasy peace with Sassanid Persia, plying them with gifts while keeping a legion close to hand. I’ve built farms, aqueducts, and barracks; encouraged religious tolerance; and kept the Empire mostly in one piece.
Ahead, I see danger — and opportunity. With the Goths on the march again, and my WRE allies collapsing, I’m preparing a new campaign in the west. Against that, I’ve unlocked higher-tier units, my economy has stabilised, and to the east, the Sassanids are distracted by enemies of their own. If the situation can hold a little longer, I should be well-placed for the midgame. And all this has taken just 28 turns.
Age of Charlemagne offers the basics, done right. If Rome II was about conquering a huge empire, and Attila was about defending it, Age of Charlemagne offers a tight, focused campaign that can be finished in a reasonable time. In this regard, it reminds me of Shogun 2 and particularly its expansion Rise of the Samurai, the most elegant and pared-down of the Total War campaigns.
More details below:
Fun challenge. Playing as Charlemagne on Hard campaign difficulty/Normal battle difficulty, my initial situation resembled a smaller, less dire version of that facing the Western Roman Empire. Charlemagne starts with long borders, an awkwardly shaped empire, and enemies at either end, in the southwest and northeast:
When the giant demon attacked my fortress, I cursed.
The fort was my newest and proudest conquest, wrested from a nearby computer player. I left a small garrison, stiffened by two ballistae, to hold the walls while my main army subdued the nearby hinterlands. Now that demon, with its vast pool of health and huge spell list, was going to snatch away my prize.
The battle began. Because it was a siege, my ballistae were allowed a number of free shots. A bolt slammed into the demon. A big chunk of its health disappeared. And that was just the start.
By the time the perforated demon limped up to the castle gates, a humble bowman was able to administer the coup de grace. Ballistae (and Human Ingenuity) 1, Demon 0.
I originally wrote this post in 2012 during the lead-up to Firaxis’ XCOM: Enemy Unknown, proposing a classification system for squad-based games and tactical RPGs across PC and consoles. Since then, to my delight, the genre has gone from strength to strength. XCOM: Enemy Unknown turned out to be superb – it was definitely a hybrid, by the way, combining the lethality and dynamic campaign of Type 1 games, the Type 2 emphasis on careful movement and not triggering too many enemies, and the soldier customisation of Type 3. XCOM 2 is due out next year for PC. The Fire Emblem series is posting strong sales on 3DS, and Valkyria Chronicles has been ported to PC. Indie titles such as Expeditions: Conquistador have added spice. Welcome back, old friends – we missed you.
This is a good time to be a fan – as Iam – of games that mix squad-level strategy and RPG mechanics. Last year saw the PSP release of the excellent Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together, a labour of love that blended fine-crafted gameplay, a mature story, and gorgeous production values. This year won’t lack in quantity: it’s already seen a Jagged Alliance remake for PC and the recent PSP launch of Gungnir. Two more titles are due out in a few months (Firaxis’ XCOM: Enemy Unknown for PC, and Atlus’ Growlanser: Wayfarer of Time for PSP) and we may well see a third soon, Goldhawk’s Xenonauts (PC).
The above names suggest this is a pretty broad genre, and in fact, I don’t think there is a single squad-level strategy/RPG genre so much as there are several distinct subgenres, spread across PCs and home and portable consoles. As such, this is also a good time to review each subgenre – which games it contains, what makes it distinctive, how it compares to the others, and how it’s faring.
After he betrayed and killed Oda Nobunaga – per historical event – I rallied a coalition of Nobunaga’s generals and surviving sons against him. From the west came Hashiba Hideyoshi, the man better known to history as Toyotomi Hideyoshi. From the northeast came the Oda remnants. And from the southeast, my own Tokugawa forces. I coordinated a three-pronged attack – you can see allied (green) military units in the southwest and northeast of the following screenshot, with my own (blue) units in the centre:
Mitsuhide was squashed flat:
Two years after Nobunaga’s death, my armies marched into Mitsuhide’s final stronghold:
In Nobunaga’s Ambition: Sphere of Influence, opportunity comes in many forms.
When my Tokugawa clan was small and insignificant, sandwiched between the rival Imagawa clan and our mutual ally Oda Nobunaga, opportunity came when the Imagawa let their alliance with Oda lapse. My armies marched against Imagawa — and true to the Oda/Tokugawa pact, Nobunaga himself came south to fight by my side.
When the Imagawa were defeated, and I found myself locked in bloody stalemate against the much larger Hojo clan for 15 years, my hopes turned to an alliance with a third power — the Takeda. When scripted historical events derailed the Takeda alliance — not once but twice — my first reaction was frustration. My second reaction was to think outside the box. The Oda were pressing the Takeda further away. The Hojo were quiescent. Why not bury the hatchet with Hojo and descend on the distracted Takeda?
Messengers went out. I gifted the Hojo with a precious tea set, reversing their opinion from “hostile” to “friendly”. The Tokugawa armies crossed the border into Takeda territory, seized their first castle…
… and another event popped up. Oda Nobunaga, my faithful ally from the start of the game, was dead, murdered by a treacherous vassal. The Oda domain – the huge blob that both anchored my northern flank, and blocked my expansion – dissolved, its settlements going to Nobunaga’s kinsmen and generals.
This is the situation a couple of years before Nobunaga’s death – I (Tokugawa) am the yellow-on-green faction towards the south of the map. Oda is red-on-white:
And this is the situation immediately after Nobunaga’s death:
The game has gone from “deadlock” to “wide open”. Where I had been on the verge of restarting, now I see — opportunity.
After spending the weekend with Nobunaga’s Ambition, my impressions are positive. I’d say it’s a very promising grand strategy game, combining solid execution, interesting mechanics, and a great aesthetic. So far, worth what I paid at launch! My main question is how well the mechanics will scale to large empires, the traditional 4X/GSG late game problem – my own empire is quite modest.