What I played in 2020

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays, everyone! I hope you’re all safe and well.

This year I played the usual new and new-ish strategy games. XCOM: Chimera Squad, Shadow Empire, and Crusader Kings III were all strong releases. Amongst 2019 games, Age of Wonders: Planetfall was a solid combat-focused 4X and Planet Zoo was a charming and pleasant management game.

My great discovery was the Anno series: I’ve put almost 150 hours into Anno 1800 alone, a game that combines gorgeous production values, engrossing city management, and Paradox-like depth and replayability. On some evenings, I tinkered with coffee production chains or proudly set up new tractors. At other times, I found myself plunged into a city-building version of the Empire: Total War successor I’ve always wanted, as my trading empire fought for its life across multiple continents. Whether trying to inaugurate a World’s Fair, or ensuring that the chocolate must flow, there is always something more to do. And I think the Anno series’ central idea — that society depends on long, elaborate production chains — felt especially relevant this year.

I also replayed many classic strategy games, ranging from the 1990s to the 2010s. These included Supreme Commander: Forged Alliance  Jagged Alliance 2, and a raft of 4X titles: Imperialism 2, Master of Magic, Age of Wonders III, Civilization IV, and Alpha Centauri.

The standout was Alpha Centauri, which I would argue is still the best 4X game ever made: it has some of the best science fiction worldbuilding in any game, while also shining on a mechanical level. With Alpha Centauri, 1990s strategy game design reached its peak: it offered the player a dazzling range of toys without falling into the pitfalls that afflict modern games, such as bloat or an over-emphasis on “balance”. And it could teach the modern Civilization series how to handle warfare: armies, navies, and air forces are punchy and interesting to use, without either the problems of Civilization IV‘s stacks of doom or the subsequent one-unit-per-tile rule.

Transcendence victory in Alpha Centauri! I achieved this via a science/economic boom as the Peacekeepers, backed by a powerful air force and navy, and an alliance with the Gaians.

Finally, this was the year in which I tried new and different types of games, both on PC and on Switch:

X4: Foundations and the early access version of Mount and Blade II: Bannerlord made me realise how much I love dynamic worlds, where I can set my own objectives and carve out a niche alongside a map full of NPC factions trying to do the same.

I returned to flight sims for the first time since childhood with the beautiful, accessible Flight Simulator. Within a few hours, I was confidently taking off, flying, and landing Cessnas; now I’m sightseeing around the world. Flight Simulator proved to be my gateway back into the genre: I went on to test the waters of combat sims with War Thunder. In the last week, I bought Star Wars: Squadrons and IL-2, and I’m currently eyeing DCS World’s modern aircraft.

Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night is my first real experience with Metroidvanias (I played Symphony of the Night many years ago but didn’t get far). Now that I’m nearing the end, I see why people love this genre! The blend of combat and exploration reminds me of a much easier, 2D version of Dark Souls — I love working out where to go next, based on the latest ability I’ve unlocked — and its goofy, over-the-top cast and setting are far from what the ominous title suggests.

Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey was my first Assassin’s Creed game since AC4: Black Flag. Its much better, more mobile combat and gorgeous depiction of Classical Greece won my heart. I just need to play more…

The cheerful, colourful Slime Rancher benefits from being in first person and in 3D. This gave it a satisfying physicality when puttering around the ranch or exploring the wilderness — something I found missing in top-down games such as Stardew Valley. It’s also very, very cute.

The Twinkle Slime wishes you a Merry Christmas, too.

After casually playing Mario Kart games for years, and never doing well on anything faster than 100cc, this was the year in which I set out to master Mario Kart 8 Deluxe. Along the way, my admiration grew for how well-designed MK8 is — its balance of skill and luck, its charm and character, how well it eases the player into a state of flow. MK8 also became the first game to get me back into online multiplayer since Eugen’s Wargame series, years ago. Just don’t ask me to do well on Rainbow Road…

First place in every race in this 150cc cup in Mario Kart! I managed this after playing 200cc races and gaining experience online.

Nintendo has the knack of making me try even genres I don’t normally play: Mario Galaxy is delightful, although I’m still at the button-mashing stage in Mario Tennis Aces. Animal Crossing: New Horizons offered a pleasant experience that easily fit into my Switch routine.

My most notable Switch release of the year was a third-party game. Hades combines fast-paced action with good writing: the more I played, the more I realised how cleverly it blends a modern interpretation of Greek myth with the original themes. I cleared it for the first time on my 17th attempt, and narratively this is just the end of the beginning.

Hard-earned victory in Hades.

Amongst other third-party games, Two Point Hospital was an excellent port and a good game, albeit one that dragged on slightly too long. I enjoyed improving my virtual swing in Golf Story — while practicing for the final course, I revisited every previous course and consciously made an effort to use every tool the game placed at my disposal. Finally, the delightful A Short Hike was my favourite short-form game in years.

Best wishes to all of you for 2021, and I’ll see you next year.

Why do historical strategy games under-value seapower?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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