From the archives: Conquest, Plunder and Tyranny: Explaining Dubious Morality in Strategy Games

I originally wrote this post around the time Civilization V came out, and it’s interesting to look back in light of subsequent releases such as Crusader Kings 2 and Europa Universalis IV. One of my arguments was that 4X games depersonalise victims, but that doesn’t seem to have stopped players from being just as vicious in Crusader Kings 2!   On the other hand, I tried to play EU4 in as “enlightened” a manner as possible – abolishing slavery, instituting a constitutional monarchy, etc. No developer encouraged me to do that; that was just my self-imposed goal. In any case, enjoy!

Why do we play strategy games in ways that, in real life, would land us in the dock for crimes against humanity?

 

Three Moves Ahead, Troy Goodfellow’s strategy game podcast, recently discussed the ethics of wargames, but to me, wargames have a largely innocuous focus on how to manoeuvre troops within an already-existing war. However, the question remains for the broader strategy game genre – in particular, 4X games in which you decide whether and why to go to war, and how to govern your nation: Civilization, Alpha Centauri, Master of Orion, Master of Magic, Galactic Civilizations, Space Empires, etc. Indeed, the very name of the sub-genre makes it clear that there’s an issue: “4X” is short for “eXplore, eXpand, eXploit and eXterminate”.

 

There is, of course, the historical/human nature explanation. I do not think any empire through history – regardless of religion, skin colour, or geographic origin – ever arose except through conquest. Why should a game that casts you as an emperor be any different? When I send out my Roman legions in Civilization to claim the land of the fellow unlucky enough to start the game next to me, I’m just doing what Caesar and his countrymen did in real life. This explains why brutality makes thematic sense, but we have to look at other factors to explain why it pays off and why it doesn’t repel players in the first place. I can think of three such reasons: the zoomed-out, distant scale of most strategy (including 4X) games; the zero-sum nature of most games; and the economic model used by most 4X games.

 

Read more.

Warlock 2: Mage Versus World

This entry is part 2 of 3 in the series Warlock

2014-05-21_00003

 

My first scout killed some cockroaches and some wolves, then was mauled by a giant bear.

My second scout found some demonic trees and was turned into fertilizer before he could retreat.

My third scout killed some wolves and some weak spiders, reached level 3, and was immediately eaten by the giant killer spider lurking behind the weak spiders.

My fourth scout was diverted to help clean up a rogue infestation near my second city. After that he headed out into the fog and had dinner with some angry zombies. He was the main course.

My fifth scout killed the bear that killed my first scout, and discovered ogres. This was not a fortuitous discovery.

My sixth scout survived until the end of the game despite some hairy moments involving fire elementals, imps, vampire lords, sand golems…

My seventh scout found a trio of polar bearmen.

 

As the sequel to 2012’s Warlock: Master of the Arcane, Warlock 2 builds on that foundation and manages to make its predecessor all but obsolete. Warlock 2 offers most of 1‘s content, along with a bevy of new features, systems, modes, options and content. Unfortunately it also inherited the first game’s biggest flaw: weak AI opponents. As such, the game’s world is your main opponent, and what a hostile, merciless opponent it can be! The list above is a fairly standard record of the first 20 turns of my Warlock 2 games.

 

When I reviewed Warlock 1 at release I found it to be enjoyable, and a little unusual. It looked like Civilisation V, a similarity which only ran skin-deep. Far from being a 4X empire builder, it was a tactical wargame powered by copious magic, a hostile world, and unhinged comedy. Warlock 2 is no different, and in the crowded turn-based fantasy strategy game market of 2014 that’s all the more important. Warlock 2 is not directly comparable to Age of Wonders III, Endless Legend, Elemental, Eador, or any of the other releases which we’ve seen in the last year.

 

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If your Wargame ain’t broke…

This entry is part 11 of 12 in the series Wargame: European Escalation/AirLand Battle/Red Dragon

WRD Gunboat

The US Marines came ashore to find their enemy in disarray.

 

Before the first marine set foot on land, their escorting frigate swept the skies clear. Naval gunfire and wave after wave of Marine helicopters established a safe zone around the shore. Now, as the helicopters darted inland to cut off enemy reinforcements, the first Marine tanks lumbered off the beach, while their officers set up a command post behind them.

 

Everything was going to plan – better than planned. There was just one question: what were Swedish Navy gunboats doing in the Marine task force?

 

Welcome to Wargame: Red Dragon, the follow-up to my favourite game of last year, Wargame: AirLand Battle. Whereas AirLand Battle represented a huge upgrade from the first game in the series, European Escalation, Red Dragon is much more incremental, arguably closer to a stand-alone expansion than a whole new game. It offers plenty of new toys for the toy box, as well as some quality of life improvements (more details below), but the core mechanics are little changed from AirLand Battle.

 

As such, most of what I said about AirLand Battle still applies – this is a “beer and pretzels” Cold War military tactics game, comparable to a real-time Panzer General in the way it bridges the gap between traditional RTS (such as Company of Heroes) and dedicated simulations. Visually, it’s more spectacular than ever – see my above screenshot. Mechanically, it’s still the best RTS on the market, albeit weighed down by a steep learning curve and poor documentation (1). At this stage, AirLand Battle is more polished, and if you already own ALB, you can safely wait for a sale unless you are a series devotee like me. But taken in its own right, Red Dragon is a fantastic game that’s already given me many hours of enjoyment, whether in skirmish mode, the campaign, multiplayer (co-op or PVP), or simply theory-crafting in the armoury.

 

(1) The developers try their best, and they have made advances from game to game, but after three Wargame titles I feel safe saying this is not one of their strengths.

 

For series veterans, I elaborate below on what’s new:

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Firaxis announces Civilization: Beyond Earth

This deserves a post of its own: Firaxis has announced Civilization: Beyond Earth, a spiritual successor in all but name to Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri. PC Gamer has run a detailed interview with the developers, while beneath the cut, I’ve embedded the official announcement trailer (complete with a narrator who sounds like SMAC‘s Deirdre).

Update: The official press release is now available here.

BE is due out later in 2014, which seems likely to make it one of the highest-profile strategy releases (alongside The Sims 4) in the second half of the year. This will be one to watch.

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Age of Wonders III: Synergies

This entry is part 3 of 4 in the series Age of Wonders III

Now that I’ve spent a little more time with Age of Wonders 3 – I think I’m near the end of my third campaign map – I thought I’d answer one of the questions I posed in last week’s preview.

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Age of Wonders III Preview

This entry is part 2 of 4 in the series Age of Wonders III
My army marches on a hostile city. The actual playable area extends to that open courtyard holding the soldiers in white.
My army marches into battle. You can see flame tanks and giants in the front row, while my leader rides the boar (second row).

 

This is it, the biggest battle of this map so far. On my side, four towering giants – amongst the most powerful units in the game – backed by the fruits of military technology:  cannon, musketeers, flame-throwing tanks. Against this, the computer’s forces are inadequate. Its giants are frightening, but outnumbered by my own. Its use of battlefield magic  – “Wind Ward”, which weakens ranged attacks – is clever, given my overwhelming superiority in ranged troops, but not enough. Its regular soldiers? Pfft. A flame tank explodes beneath an enemy giant’s fists – but I have more. The enemy army dwindles. Their giants stagger, pelted by bullets and flames and magic. The last enemy giant turns toward his tormentor.  I check the tooltips. The moment is ripe.  My general storms in with “Charge” and “Flanking” bonuses. The giant falls.

 

At this point, I notice my general is riding a giant boar.

 

Welcome to Age of Wonders III, the upcoming fantasy turn-based strategy game from Triumph Studios. I’ve dabbled with the previous AoW games, and after interviewing designer Lennart Sas when AoW3 was first announced last year, I jumped at the chance to try out a preview build. After a number of hours, I’ve now finished two maps — the first mission in each of the game’s two campaigns – and spent some time with a third, random map; here are my impressions.

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Hearts of Iron IV Q&A, with Dan Lind

This entry is part 2 of 3 in the series Hearts of Iron

HeartsofIronIV_logo_R_NormalI am a long-time fan of Hearts of Iron, a grand strategy series in which players control all aspects of a World War II nation, from armies and fleets to research, production, and diplomacy. So when developer Paradox Development Studio took the wraps off the upcoming Hearts of Iron IV, I was eager to find out more. Read on for my email Q&A with project lead Dan Lind, in which I ask about his vision for the project and how it will fit into the series:

 

Peter Sahui: Hello Dan — welcome to the site!

 

It’s been five years since Hearts of Iron III launched, and in your first developer diary, you talk about lessons learned from Crusader Kings 2, Europa Universalis 4, and HOI3. What inspiration have you drawn from other sources — other games, books, etc.?

 

Foto: Oskar KullanderDan Lind, Project Lead: As you know, Hearts of Iron is, like most Paradox Development Studio titles, a grand strategy game in an open sandbox and victory is determined by the goals you set up for yourself during the WWII time-span. The Hearts of Iron series is all about taking control of your nation in the years around World War II and leading it to victory – a wargame where you have to look at the entire war and take decisions in a multiple of aspects to reach victory. So Hearts of Iron IV is at its core is not a pure old-fashioned wargame.

 

Therefore, to be frank, there are not a lot of other grand strategy wargames to look at unfortunately. But I’m personally fan of World of Tanks as well as War Thunder and I hope we can bring in more of their flavor and attention to detail. My team also really liked Unity of Command when we tried it since it is a pretty different game that shows how you can make a fun historical strategy game and still keep things easy to understand. When it comes to books, we have tried to have both a top-down and bottom-up approach. So we take a lot of inspiration from Winston Churchill’s books on WWII as well as writings by Otto Carius (a famous German tank commander) as well as memoirs of Russian artillerymen.

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Paradox’s Latest Games

Paradox has announced two new games and two new expansions, all of which will come from Paradox Development Studio, its first-party arm. The games are Hearts of Iron IV and a new IP — Runemaster, an RPG set in a world inspired by Norse myth. The expansions are Rajas of India, which will expand Crusader Kings II‘s map all the way to the subcontinent, and Wealth of Nations, which will flesh out EU4‘s trade system and — it seems — add chartered companies such as the British and Dutch East India Companies. Detail is scant at this stage, but I can speculate…

 

Of the four, I’m most interested in Rajas. It should be reasonably likely to pan out:  Paradox has plenty of experience producing expansions for Crusader Kings II, a game that has been out for two years. It’ll be unique: other than Champion of the Raj, have there been any other historical strategy games set in India? And I can’t wait to see the alternate histories that’ll arise from the collision of Norse, Indians, and Mongols. (It makes me wonder if anyone at Paradox has read a delightful book named GURPS Alternate Earths 2, which contains a timeline in which super-Vikings made it all the way to Southeast Asia.) I’m also interested in Wealth of Nations, which promises to cover one of my favourite aspects of the period, but I’d have to see more specifics.

 

The new games are more of a wild card. Hearts of Iron 3 was an interesting but unsuccessful design experiment, and IV could be very good or very disappointing, depending on the extent to which Paradox learns from past mistakes. About the only thing we know is that “battle plans”, a HOI3 feature allowing players to doodle arrows on the map, can now be used to give orders; this suggests that automation, HOI3‘s central (and most unique) concept, will return in hopefully improved form. I’d guess HOI4 will improve over 3 Crusader Kings 2 and EU4 marked a clear upturn in the quality of Paradox games — but for now, it’s too early to tell.

 

Meanwhile, Runemaster will be Paradox’s first in-house RPG. (This surprised me, incidentally — I was expecting a strategy game in that setting, along the lines of Holistic Design’s Hammer of the Gods.) Paradox describes it as follows:

 

Runemaster is an RPG set in a fantasy realm based in the rich, majestic traditions of Norse mythology, casting each player in the role of a unique champion in a time of chaotic upheaval. Procedural maps and quests will ensure that no two playthroughs are identical, allowing players to tell a saga that is uniquely their own. Explore vast vistas through the six worlds of Norse myth, command troops in tactical combat, and define your champion through the choices they make.

 

It’ll be interesting to see how Paradox, a strategy developer, adapts to the new genre. Perhaps as a newcomer, it’ll be more innovative — compare Dragon Commander, a genre-blending strategy game from a RPG studio. Like HOI4, I can see this going either way, but it may be one to watch regardless.

Announcing Tataraba: A Princess Mononoke Mod for Dominions 4

This entry is part 4 of 4 in the series Dominions 4

I am very pleased to unveil a project I’ve worked on for some time — a Dominions 4 mod inspired by the classic anime movie Princess Mononoke! The mod is fully playable, although it doesn’t yet have its own sprites, and balance remains a work in progress. It adds one new Late Era faction, Tataraba, whose features are below:

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Pandora’s Toy Box: Observations on Dominions 4

This entry is part 3 of 4 in the series Dominions 4

Spring, Year 4 of the Ascension Wars. The rival empires of Jomon, T’ien Ch’i, and Pythium have soaked their borderlands in blood; the prize, the Thrones of Ascension that will allow a pretender god to rule the world. For years, they have battled to little avail; but now a breakthrough seems imminent. After months of siege, a T’ien Ch’i army stands ready to storm Jomon’s fortress in the province of Carnag — and once it falls, the way will be clear to march on Jomon itself.

 

Morale is high in the besiegers’ camp. T’ien Ch’i soldiers, backed by the steppe horsemen who recently made themselves overlords of the empire, have repeatedly shown themselves equal to the samurai of Jomon. Numbers are on the attackers’ side. Yes, Jomonese shugenja and onmyo-ji mystics have been seen inside the fortress. Yes, rumours suggest the great celestial dragon the Jomonese worship has been raising an army beneath the waves. But so far, neither the mystics nor the dragon have amounted to much. What could possibly go wrong?

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IMMELMANN TURN: Sid Meier’s Ace Patrol quick impressions

Ace Patrol Running for Home

 

At first, I didn’t like Sid Meier’s Ace Patrol very much, its designer notwithstanding. On paper, this turn-based, TRPG take on World War I air combat had it all: a clean, simple interface; pilots who levelled up and learned new manoeuvres; and those manoeuvres! Half-loops followed by rolls when I wanted to get away in a hurry, or full loops when I wanted to turn the tables on a pursuer. Climbs into the cloudbanks, then dives into the midst of German patrols. But everything was so boringly easy. Where was the challenge? Where was the incentive to learn how to use those manoeuvres?

 

Then I cranked up the difficulty.

 

And minutes later, as my pilots fought for my lives, the realisation hit me: this game is Diet XCOM.

 

I mean that in several ways. This was originally a mobile game, and it shows: Ace Patrol is very short by strategy game standards – you can finish the campaign in a few hours, less time than a single match of Civilization V. Its production values are modest; there isn’t even any music (1). It’s cheap (although Australians, beware regional pricing). And its mood is far lighter than XCOM: the planes are painted in bright, cheery colours, and the pilots can’t permanently die. They even seem to realise this – look at how they’re grinning in the screenshot!

 

But the resemblance is there. Like XCOM, Ace Patrol really must be played on an appropriate difficulty setting; once I dialled up the difficulty I found myself thinking about the interplay between tactics and equipment. My French SPADs were faster but slower-turning than the German planes; that encouraged me to run for home once I completed objectives, instead of sticking around to dogfight. Like XCOM, it’s necessary to develop a well-rounded roster: wounded pilots won’t be available for several missions, so it’s not wise to place every egg in a single ace’s basket, lest you be stuck sending a hapless rookie against the Red Baron. And like XCOM, this game generates emergent stories. The absence of permadeath means the stakes are nowhere near as high; but after just a couple of hours with Ace Patrol, I remember the time my rookie fought 3 Germans by herself and almost won; the table-turning mission that saw my bombers shred incoming Germans without much help from their escort; and the pilot in the screenshot, who shot down his target and made it home against the odds.

 

How does Ace Patrol stack up against other “light” strategy games? Perhaps the most comparable recent game is Skulls of the Shogun, and so far I think Skulls edges out Ace Patrol. Skulls is better at presenting information – for instance, in Ace Patrol, to find out why a manoeuvre isn’t available, I have to open a separate screen; whereas in Skulls everything is clearly laid out – and Skulls also benefits from higher production values and a superior aesthetic. Lastly, while Ace Patrol’s campaign is dynamic, I don’t think this adds enough depth to compensate for the genuinely good, funny writing that went into Skulls’ scripted campaign.

 

But there is no shame in not measuring up to Skulls, the benchmark for short-form strategy. I quite like Ace Patrol in its own right, and as I write this, I’ve just downloaded its newly released sequel, Ace Patrol: Pacific Skies, on Steam. I look forward to continuing my aerial adventures!

 

(1) Though I did learn that Guile’s Theme from Street Fighter truly does go with everything: it makes a great accompaniment to a rookie pilot’s bid for glory.

Quick impressions: Transport Tycoon (Android version)

This is the mobile version of the PC strategy classic, a title I loved as a kid – I still own the official game guide. There are plenty of minor differences (most notably, the random map generator is gone, replaced with a long list of scenarios); but on the whole, this is a faithful adaptation (1). Each map presents the player with scattered towns and industries, which supply and demand various types of cargo; for example, towns both generate and require passengers, while a steel mill requires iron and coal from their respective mines, and produces steel that can then be shipped to factories. Scenario objectives can be open-ended ( “make X dollars”) or more prescriptive (“move Y units of a given cargo”). To meet these objectives, players buy vehicles (buses, planes, trains, ships, and more); lay track and build stations;; and reinvest the profits into new routes and better vehicles, a cycle as pleasant as it was 20 years ago. The largest scenario I’ve played so far, a medium-difficulty freeform map, did drag once I was past the initial difficulty hump (2), but it ended at about the right point to avert boredom – and besides, this is probably why the game offers multiple scenarios.

 

The key issue, as with any mobile port of an established game, is how well the controls/interface work with a touchscreen. Here, I think the answer is “not badly”. Everything – font, buttons, tiles – is nice and big, even on a 7” screen, and the developers have been quite clever about adapting the controls. However, it’s not perfect. For instance, in the PC version, railways are built by clicking on the desired tile, easy with a mouse but probably too fiddly for touchscreens. In the Android version, you tap the start tile, then select the direction you’d like to build in, and finally extend the line just by tapping a button. This works well for shorter and less complex routes, but the need to lay segments of track one at a time means that lengthy, curvy rail routes can still be a hassle – I could really have used a mouse when building my longest (and most profitable) line (3). Similarly, the simple act of telling a vehicle to go from station A to station B requires that I tap through several screens and often fumble with scrolling the map; over the course of a game, that adds up. And while I don’t remember if this was present in the PC version, I would really like some way to sort vehicles by profitability – it’s easy to mock “spreadsheet” games, but spreadsheets were invented for a reason! Still, I should stress that on the whole, the interface works reasonably well, well enough for the underlying game to shine through.

 

Overall, I quite like Transport Tycoon so far. There are other strategy games on Android, and other PC ports; but this is one of the few to combine PC-grade scale with a mobile-friendly interface. Definitely worth a look if you enjoyed the original, or if this sounds like your cup of tea.

 

Technical note: The Android version apparently suffered from nasty lag when it was launched; however, the game ran smoothly by the time I bought my copy.

 

(1) Perhaps it’s a little too faithful in its aesthetic – the low-res sprites have not aged well.

 

(2) Effectively, I was making enough money that I could snowball.

 

(3) Ideally, I’d like to see the game calculate optimal track layouts based on the start and end points, but oh well.

I played, I thought, I wrote: a design analysis of Rome II, the Total War series, and what makes a good 4X game

This is not a review of Creative Assembly’s Total War: Rome II, but if it were, my opinion would be, “Worth a look… but wait for the <$10 Steam sale.” I’m around 30 hours into Rome II, spread across two campaigns and multiple stand-alone battles. I’ve had enjoyable times, and some spectacular moments. I’ve thundered elephants through the flank of a distracted foe, raised last-ditch armies, and marched from the Tiber to the English Channel, but the whole of my experience has been less than the sum of its parts. And the really interesting question is why.

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Dominions 4 Q&A, with Johan Karlsson and Kristoffer Osterman

This entry is part 2 of 4 in the series Dominions 4
Dom4 Virtue
Dominions depicts clashes between pretender gods, such as the Virtue seen above.

Johan Karlsson and Kristoffer Osterman of Illwinter Game Design are the creators of indie masterpiece Dominions 3, a strategy game of near-unrivalled imagination, depth, and player choice. With Dominions 4 about to launch (and following my July preview), I am very pleased to present my email interview with Johan and Kristoffer, in which we talk about Illwinter’s history, its inspirations, the future of Dominions, and more. Did you know that Illwinter even considered adding real-time battles and a 3D map? Read on:

 

Peter Sahui: Hello, and welcome to the site!

 

I’d like you to start by telling us about Illwinter Game Design. How did you get started developing games?

 

Johan: My first game was a long time ago just before I moved out to go and study computer science. My favorite old game was Chaos, a game for Spectrum 48 where up to 8 wizards battled it out in a very simple fashion. I got my Atari ST computer after that and felt that you could make a much better Chaos game on that computer. So my first attempt at a game was to create a Chaos clone for the Atari ST, written completely in basic. It got to a playable state and was better than the original in many ways, monsters had hit points and there were more of them as well. But it was not good enough to be sold, so it never got played by other than me and my friends.

 

When I started my Computer Science education I began to create a more sophisticated game that was called Conquest of Elysium. That’s also when I met Kristoffer who joined in and took over the graphics part. Being 2 people helped a lot I think and we managed to finish the game and sell it as shareware. Shareware was the thing back then and I remember that it was really bothersome and crappy compared to how it works today with Desura etc.

 

Illwinter Game Design had started to exist now and we continued to create a new game every few years until we had 3 CoE and now 4 Dominions as well.

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Skulls of the Shogun: The Verdict

Skulls of the Shogun Autumn

 

“Perfection is achieved not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing more to take away.” Take that logic, apply to a strategy game, blend in a striking aesthetic, and sprinkle with humour: developer 17-BIT’s Skulls of the Shogun is the result.

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The World That May Have Been, a Europa Universalis IV Let’s Play – Part 5 (FINAL): Bend with the Wind

This entry is part 7 of 12 in the series Europa Universalis IV

If you walk around London today, you will still find monuments to the war heroes of the 18th century, and cross streets named after the ministers who led Britain to victory over France and Portugal and the Dutch. But from a modern perspective, what stands out is how much blood was shed for so little effect. When the century opened, Britain, France, Portugal and Spain were the foremost powers of western Europe; and a hundred years later that had not changed. The true change of the period occurred inside borders, not between them.

 

EU4_pt5_1_revolutionaries

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Total War: Rome II – Prologue Impressions

My design analysis of Rome II, the Total War series, and what makes a good 4X game is now up! You can find it here.

 

Total War: Rome II has been this year’s highest-profile strategy release, but its initial launch was dogged by reports of bugs, technical glitches, and AI failings. Since then it’s received several significant patches, and last night I finished its prologue chapter (which begins as a scripted tutorial, but eventually broadens into freeform strategy). Here are my initial observations:

 

Technical

 

* I’ve encountered only one significant glitch, but it is both frequent and irksome: large black panels appearing instead of terrain, on both the campaign and battle (see below) maps. As I write this I’m downloading a driver update; hopefully that’ll fix the problem. (UPDATE: well, that didn’t work — my computer did not like the ATI beta drivers I installed. Hopefully either CA or AMD will address this issue soon.)

 

R2_Prologue_Graphical_Glitch

 

Graphics

 

* It took me a fair bit of fiddling, but I think I’ve found an acceptable compromise between performance and appearance. (For context, my machine is 3 years old, but still meets Rome 2’s recommended specs.) A picture is worth 1,000 words, so here are two of my nicest screenshots so far:

 

R2_Prologue_Slingers

 

R2_Prologue_Zoomed_Out

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The World That May Have Been, a Europa Universalis IV Let’s Play – Part 4: The Death and Rebirth of the British Empire

This entry is part 6 of 12 in the series Europa Universalis IV

EU4_Pt4_01_FranceoccupiesGB

 

In 1665, Great Britain lay in ruins, her navy and trade fleets sunk, her cities occupied by French soldiers. It was the culmination of a series of unsuccessful wars waged throughout the 17th century, and as His Britannic Majesty’s hangdog envoys filed into the negotiating room, it was in doubt whether Britain would even survive. Previous wars had seen Wales, Cornwall, Northumberland lost, albeit temporarily. Could her victorious enemies even force her to give up Scotland?

 

The troubles had begun in the year 1600, when Great Britain had barely found its feet after the last century’s Wars of Religion. Decades earlier, Catholic rebels had not just wrested Ireland from the British crown; they had pledged their fealty to France. For Britain’s king, Octavius I, this was intolerable. His plan seemed foolproof: the British fleet would keep the French bottled up in harbour, Britain’s Austrian and Spanish allies would keep the French army busy on the European mainland, and Britain’s own modest army could seize an undefended Ireland. What could go wrong?

 

As it turned out, plenty. Distracted by rivals closer to home, the Austrians soon signed peace with France. The French demolished the Spanish army, and occupied Spain. Britain in turn occupied Ireland, but compared to the victories the French had racked up on the continent, that mattered little. The war settled into stalemate – the French fleet unable to match the British, the British army unable to match the French – and it could have dragged on forever.

 

(If this were a normal war Spain would have separately capitulated, but Spain and I were in a coalition war, in which individual coalition members can’t sign separate peace treaties. This rule seems a little odd – after all, if Napoleon could pick off coalition members, why can’t we?)

 

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The World that May Have Been, a Europa Universalis IV Let’s Play — Part 3: If You Can’t Beat Them…

This entry is part 5 of 12 in the series Europa Universalis IV

In 1584, under siege by French-backed Catholic rebels, King Augustus I of Great Britain renounced the Protestant faith. It was a last resort; the British treasury was empty, the army shattered, the realm ruined – and the rebels endless. One could almost hear the cackles in Paris as Augustus put his signature to the document reinstating Catholicism as the state religion of Britain; it was the greatest humiliation a British monarch had suffered since the Hundred Years’ War. Well satisfied, the Catholic rebels went home. The British Wars of Religion had come to an end.

 

eu4_pt2_001_endofreligiousturmoil

 

Or had they?

 

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The World that May Have Been, a Europa Universalis IV Let’s Play — Part 2: The Best of Times, the Worst of Times

This entry is part 4 of 12 in the series Europa Universalis IV

The Navigator Queen

 

eu4_pt2_001_anne

 

In the summer of 1475, Anne, Queen of England, celebrated the fifth anniversary of her assumption of power from her regency council. They had been five fruitful years; her first act had been to standardise weights and measures throughout the realm. Some of these we still use today. Her second act had been to order the reconquest of Wales and Cornwall, which had broken away after the English defeat in the Hundred Years’ War. These campaigns did not last long: the English army was a pale shadow of what it had been a generation earlier, but it still outnumbered the Welsh and Cornish three to one. Now, as foreign ambassadors filed in to pay their respects, the queen seemed justified in resting on her laurels.

 

(Anne was a competent though uninspired ruler – she had a 3 in all her stats, out of a maximum of 6. Still, after Henry VI’s solid zeroes, this felt like manna from heaven.)

 

Then, as Anne waited for her next audience to begin, a man tumbled out of a rug. A moment later, he began to speak – very quickly, as the queen’s guards and the bolder courtiers were advancing on him. Apologies for the intrusion, but this was the only way he could think of to gain an audience. His name was Albert Gloucester, navigator and sea captain. He planned to sail west through the Atlantic, and that way reach distant Asia. Would the queen sponsor him?

 

eu4_pt2_002_quest_for_the_new_world

 

She would. The next year, in May 1476, Gloucester set sail from the Portuguese-controlled Azores with three ships. He was not heard from until the following January, when his three ships limped back into the Azores, badly damaged, their crews half-dead, starving… and bearing tales of a New World.

Continue reading “The World that May Have Been, a Europa Universalis IV Let’s Play — Part 2: The Best of Times, the Worst of Times”

The World that May Have Been, a Europa Universalis IV Let’s Play — Part 1: Never Pick on Someone Your Own Size

This entry is part 3 of 12 in the series Europa Universalis IV

The World that May Have Been

 

eu4_map_---_1444_11_11_1

 

 

Introduction

 

November, 1444. Under the Ming Dynasty, China is the greatest empire in the world:

 

Eu4 Ming Start

 

Further west, the rising Ottoman Empire dominates the Middle East and is pushing into eastern Europe:

 

EU4 Ottoman Start

 

Western Europe is a chaotic patchwork of kingdoms and duchies and free cities:

 

EU4 England Start

 

The world system that existed just a century or two ago, which saw Europe and China tenuously connected by the likes of Marco Polo, has fragmented; now Europeans and Asians and Americans carry on in their separate spheres.

 

The world will not stay this way.

 

Welcome to my Let’s Play of Europa Universalis IV, a grand strategy game from Paradox Development Studio set during the early modern era of world history. I am playing as England from the earliest possible start date, 1444; I will continue until either the game ends (in the early 19th century) or I stop having fun. In that time, I’ll explore aspects of the game such as exploration, trade, diplomacy, and war. I am also playing Ironman mode, which means I have just the one save slot and can’t abuse save/reload, and I am not using any mods except for one that enlarges the font (uncomfortably small by default). Lastly, I’ll emphasise narrative rather than gameplay, and if I do interject with an “out of universe” comment, I’ll mark it clearly, (like so). Onward to the game!

 

Part 1: Never Pick on Someone Your Own Size

1444 to 1469

King Henry VI, Queen Anne I

 

War has many faces, yet one face everywhere: anguish for the victims in the middle of it. – Lauro Martines, Furies: War in Europe 1450-1700

 

The winter of 1444 saw the Hundred Years’ War between England and France enter its twilight. 17,000 English soldiers huddled in continental garrisons, split between northern and western France; confronting them were over 40,000 French soldiers on the northern front alone. Henry V of England had beaten those odds a generation earlier – but his son, the reigning king in 1444, was no Henry V. Continue reading “The World that May Have Been, a Europa Universalis IV Let’s Play — Part 1: Never Pick on Someone Your Own Size”

Tropico 5 announced

Well, this is big news – publisher Kalypso has announced Tropico 5, due out on Xbox 360 and PC in 2014. I was a big fan of Tropico 4, and while that was apparently an evolutionary rather than a revolutionary upgrade over 3, the upcoming 5 sounds like a far more radical change. Promised new features include a dynasty system, progression from the 19th to the 21st centuries, exploration, and trade fleets – the last sounding a bit like the Anno games. Below, I’ve embedded the relevant part of the press release:

Continue reading “Tropico 5 announced”

Expeditions: Conquistador & Occult Chronicles impressions

I’m long overdue to post my impressions of two recent, interesting games, Occult Chronicles (still officially in “buy-in beta”) and Expeditions Conquistador. While they are very different, they have enough in common to be worth discussing in the same post, so let’s take a look:

 

Occult Chronicles is the latest project from Vic Davis (of Armageddon Empires fame); it is inspired by roguelikes and “haunted house” board games. The player controls a single investigator who wanders around a haunted mansion, uncovering tiles with each step. Most tiles are blank, but some contain encounters, which are represented as a series of randomly selected cards (e.g. a three of Wands, a Knight of Cups) that the player’s own random cards must beat. The player character gradually levels up or acquires new goodies from beating these encounters; and ultimately, s/he must descend into the basement of the house for the final encounter. Strategy is a matter of resource allocation and balancing risk/reward: Do I use my finite pool of items to modify this card draw, or do I save them for a rainy day? How do I allot my skill points? How much time can I afford to spend levelling upstairs before the – luckily customisable – in-game timer (1) pressures me to head into the basement? My biggest reservation is that there is still a lot of chance involved, especially visible (a) on higher difficulty levels (I’ve never won on anything above the easiest setting!), (b) early on, as low-level characters have few ways to influence the cards, and (c) in the occasional bouts of random sadism (2).

 

Conquistador is a bit like a cross between a tactical RPG and an Age of Discovery-themed King’s Bounty. The player character rides around the overworld map in search of quests, resolves them via dialogue or violence,  and fights out battles on a hex grid using a squad of up to six. Character customisation is fairly limited, but combat is distinct and satisfying. The basic strategy (use tanky characters to slow down the enemy, while healers, ranged specialists, and fast-moving characters play to their respective strengths) comes from Tactical RPGs 101, and can safely be recycled in every battle, but the details change:  I might use a barricade (3) to block off a given route on the battle map, then park an arquebusier there to snipe from safety; or use Character A to stun an enemy so the injured Character B can safely slip past. In between battles, the player must manage the camp to ensure food and medicine don’t run out, though in practice this is simple with the right party.

Continue reading “Expeditions: Conquistador & Occult Chronicles impressions”

Race to Mars Q&A, with Szymon Janus

ea628dec4e69fbbbccb3b223ca0bca11_largeInspired by tycoon games and the classic Buzz Aldrin’s Race into Space, indie developer INTERMARUM is raising funds on Kickstarter for its upcoming turn-based strategy game, Race to Mars. RTM will task players with helming a private space company, with the end goal of establishing a base on Mars. Read on for my email interview with INTERMARUM CEO Szymon Janus:

 

Peter Sahui: Hello, and welcome to the site! Could you please tell us more about your team & your previous experience?

Szymon Janus: Hello Peter. My name is Szymon and I am the owner and founder of INTERMARUM, a game development studio in a small little city called Opole. Right now there are 12 people working on Race To Mars with different levels of involvement. Up until now we did mostly contract work and this is our first independent production. We cooperate with many different developers from known Polish companies though.

 

PS: How will the typical Race to Mars campaign will play out? It looks like the basic “flow” of gameplay will be: (1) accept simple contracts, (2) use the profits to develop new facilities and technology, (3) use the new capabilities to take on more ambitious contracts, and so on, until you finally have enough money and technology to settle Mars and win the game.

SJ: Roughly speaking – everything is correct ;) . Adding to that is making sure the tech has a good enough degree of quality or the safety level. It will also be important to deal with random events or training your team.
What it will definitely NOT feature is being able to choose just any contract – we will compete with different companies and, for example, we will not be able to compete with them on price at a certain stage, which will force a change in expansion strategy.

Continue reading “Race to Mars Q&A, with Szymon Janus”

What’s new in Dominions 4: Thrones of Ascension

This entry is part 1 of 4 in the series Dominions 4
A game of Dominions begins with creating your pretender god. In my case, I've chosen the Celestial General, a powerful air, earth, and astral mage whose land is thriving and prosperous.
A game of Dominions begins with creating your pretender god. In my case, I’ve chosen the Celestial General, a powerful mage whose land is thriving and prosperous.

I’m several hours into a preview copy of Dominions 4, the follow-up to one of my favourite strategy games. Dominions 3 was user-unfriendly, a beast to learn, and a devil to master; it was also deep, rich, and rewarding, both in its gameplay and also in its mythically-inspired lore. For newcomers to the series, Gamespot’s review is very fair and, I think, very good at identifying who will like and who will not like Dominions; meanwhile, for those interested in what made Dominions’ atmosphere and worldbuilding so remarkable, check out a guest piece I wrote at Flash of Steel several years ago. For series veterans, Dominions 4 is recognisably an evolution, not a revolution; going from 3 to 4, the differences are much less visible than going from 2 to 3, or 1 to 2. However, the changes are real and, from what I have seen, positive. Here’s what I’ve noticed:

 

New content:

* While most of the nations in Dom4 are returnees from the previous game, each of the three Dominions eras (early, middle, late) has received a new nation or two.

*I also spotted a number of new pretender chassis, new magic items, and some new spells (e.g. some painful-looking high-level direct damage Water spells; new Nature buffs/debuffs).

Continue reading “What’s new in Dominions 4: Thrones of Ascension”

Hearts of Iron, Observations of Matchsticks

This entry is part 1 of 3 in the series Hearts of Iron

For the last decade, I’ve been a fan of Paradox Development Studio’s Hearts of Iron grand strategy games. HOI players control all aspects of their chosen nation during World War II: army, navy, and air force; diplomacy, espionage, scientific research, industrial output, and domestic politics. This can be as overwhelming as it sounds, and it’s interesting, and a little instructive, to compare the approaches taken by different games in the series.

 

The original Hearts of Iron (2002) was an unwieldy monstrosity, its vast scope at odds with its obsessive granularity. To build tanks, you had to separately research a tank chassis, and tank suspension, and tank propulsion, and choose a calibre for the gun, and repeat this for each model of tank… and yet, at the time, I loved it to bits. Hearts of Iron II (2005) was far more polished, with a far keener sense of what was genuine depth and what was just bloat, and I loved it too. Hearts of Iron III (2009) was poorly received at launch, but several expansions left it in much better shape. And lastly, Paradox eventually licensed HOI2 to several fan groups, which produced their own spin-offs; I tried two and enjoyed one, Darkest Hour (2011) (1).

Continue reading “Hearts of Iron, Observations of Matchsticks”

Europa Universalis IV Q&A, with Thomas Johansson

This entry is part 2 of 12 in the series Europa Universalis IV

EuropaUniversalisIV_Coverart_lowrez_shrunkEuropa Universalis IV is an upcoming grand strategy game by Paradox Development Studio, set during the early modern era of world history (roughly 1450 to 1800). When it was announced last year, it immediately caught my eye: I’m a long-time player of Paradox games (including the previous Europa Universalis titles); and to me, the game’s period is one of the most fascinating in history – its rich mix of global interactions ultimately laid the groundwork for our modern, industrialised world. So with the game due out in August 2013, just a couple of months away, the time seemed ripe for a chat with the developers. Read on for my email Q&A with Thomas Johansson, project lead for Europa Universalis IV.

 

Europa Univeralis IV and other Paradox games

 

Peter Sahui: Paradox Development Studio’s last major release, Crusader Kings II, has also probably been its most successful to date (both critically, and in terms of its ability to break out beyond the traditional PDS niche). What lessons did you learn from CK2’s success, and how are you applying them to EU4?

 

Thomas Johansson, Project Lead of EU4
Thomas Johansson, Project Lead of EU4

Thomas Johansson: Crusader Kings II’s two biggest strengths were that it was well polished and we had worked hard on improving the interface. We worked hard with the tutorial, the hint system and to make it a very polished release. With Europa Universalis IV, we are aiming to do even better! Our goal is our most polished release to date and have the best interfaces we have ever created. The main focus of the whole development team is polishing the game and refining the interfaces.

What I also believe has really helped Crusader Kings II is that it was a breakthrough for gamers to realize that the game creates stories that you want to tell other people about. So the simple answer would be that it is a game that makes people talk about it, because they want to share their dramatic events, the intrigue, backstabbing and romances with their friends. Because it constantly surprises you. Just when you thought you had everything going and an easy road to power, money and conquering new territories – then you get stabbed in the back, your wife gets murdered and your sister steals your throne. Just like life… ;)

So the fact that the storytelling came across strong with Crusader Kings II, we hope that people can see that Europa Universalis IV also allows you yourself to create the stories when playing the game. You attack your neighbours, alliances gets broken, you get an incompetent ruler and need to get creative on how to handle his/hers strength and weaknesses while keeping your territory hungry opponents at bay. Continue reading “Europa Universalis IV Q&A, with Thomas Johansson”