Archive for Oliver Kiley
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What’s Goin On!? will be a regular feature around these parts. Regular, as in me posting, on a whim, a veritable smorgasbord of thoughts and quick reactions to games I’ve been playing lately as well as other assorted ideas I’ve had. Beware!
What’s on my mind?
I’m an eXplorminator!
First, I should mention that I’ve signed on in (maybe in blood, I’m not sure yet), as a staff writer and contributor to eXplorminate. eXplorminate is a group of 4X and strategy game enthusiasts that endeavor to bring the 4X gaming community together as well as provide regular content in the form of reviews, previews, articles, podcasts, youtube videos, and … you get the picture. It’s a great group with an active Steam community. If you are interested in strategy games (aren’t we all here?) and 4X games in particular, it’s worth checking out the group.
So far I’ve written a review for the second Age of Wonders III expansion, Eternal Lords, as well as a comprehensive review of all of Age of Wonders III, with the patches and both expansions in effect. Spoiler - I think it’s one of the finest strategy games in recent memory. I love it, and it remains one of my most played games in years (over 400 hours!). In terms of this blog, expect to see a number of articles, reviewers or otherwise, cross-posted between here and eXplorminate.
Now, on to the games!
What’s on my table?
Let’s see. Most of my tabletop gaming recently has been with my daughter and two nephews (ages 4 and 6). They’ve all taken a liking to King of Tokyo - and who wouldn’t really? For me, it pulls at the rampage heartstrings, bringing a secret smile to my face whenever I pull it out. Gosh, I still remember feeding coin after coin into the Rampage arcade machine inside the ill-fated Boblo Island ferries. Oh Bobblo, where art thou? The kids love King of Tokyo too. Giant monsters? Crazy powers? Die rolling? Smashing helicopters? Trash talking? Yes to all of the above. Ding, ding, ding - we have a winner!
I also have a review copy of the second edition of Evolution, from Wits & Wagers designer Dominic Crapuchettes and publisher North Star Games. I haven’t yet had a chance to get it to the table, but it strikes me as a pretty interesting special powers card game that pulls at a different set of strings: my inner biologist. I’ve been on the lookout for a game that provides a compelling model or simulation for ecological processes, and this one seems to be the top contender so I’m keen to try it out. NoHighScores legend Michael Barnes recently wrote a nice review describing the game and the thematically well-adapted gameplay that comes out of the experience. Till I get my own thoughts pulled together, Barnes will have to do.
My wife and I continue to play Carcassonne: Hunters & Gatherers, often a few times a week. A Z-Man reprint landed recently so the game is once again available to the masses, which is a good thing. Of course, I still haven’t played the original Carcassonne or it’s 9-million expansions, but frankly there isn’t anything more I want out of the H&G version - it does things well and is balanced. Don’t mess with a good thing, eh?
What’s on the Forecast?
My great eye is drifting more toward kid-friendly games, as I endeavor to instill a healthy appreciation for games in my budding, underage gamer group. I’ve been reading Mouse Guard to my daughter and nephews, and given their interest in HeroQuest, I think Mice & Mystics could have a glorious future around the home. I’m thinking of picking up the base game and sneaking it out to the family cottage. Then I’ll turn on my secret weather machine so that rain pours and we’re stuck inside said cottage … playing games!
Martin Wallace is also issuing a 2nd edition of A Study in Emerald, which has me chin scratching. Of course, the likelihood of getting it to the table anytime soon, should I purchase it, is worryingly slim. But everything I’ve read about the game makes me think it would be stupendous if I could manage to rally the troops for an evening of gaming bliss. We shall see.
What’s on my screen?
I’ve been slowly dabbling in the world of roguelike games. For the uninitiated, here is my (and only recently initiated) understanding of roguelike games: At their core, roguelikes are role-playing games that combine (1) procedural world generation with (2) character permadeath and (3) turn-based tactical/strategic gameplay. The Three Moves Ahead (3MA) podcast, which focuses on strategy games, recently had a great episode covering Roguelikes, touching on their history, major design underpinnings, and how the genre is diversifying and merging with other genres.
In many ways, Roguelikes are a throwback to the earlier days of digital gaming - the era where throwing your controller into the wall in utter frustration and contempt at your own inability to play well was common place. You see, we’ve become “soft” in a lot of ways, with games getting dumbed down and holding our tender pawns ever more firmly. A lot of mainstream games have shifted away from offering a rigorous challenge in favor of giving the player some streamlined and homogenized experience. So many games aren’t a question of “IF” you can beat it but “WHEN” you can beat it - keep playing and you will win.
Roguelikes drag you screaming in the other direction. And some of them can be manically frustrating. But the point is to focus on player skill and demand more careful consideration of moves and options, also reminding you that one misstep can send you packing on the permadeath train and force a total restart. Do or do not, there is no saving.
A gentle introduction to the genre can be had in the mobile game Hoplite, which has been painfully addicting for me. Basically, you are a little Greek/Roman soldier navigating a hex-based dungeon in true roguelike fashion (randomly generated floors, turn-based, permadeath). You have a few different moves (stab, lunge, leap, throw spear, block) at your disposal and these can be augmented at shrines on each level to become more powerful. This is good because each successive level of the dungeon is filled with more and more dudes wot need slayin’. There is a simple feat-based achievement system that unlocks stronger abilities to boot. I think Hoplite’s charm, which is central to good roguelikes, is that the tension mounts and mounts the further you go as the stakes get higher and higher. One miscalculation or rash decision can ruin your entire run. It’s frustrating but it’s also liberating - you can’t get too attached to your little dude because it’s all just a fleeting moment.
Another roguelike I’ve been dabbling with is Crowntakers, on mobile platforms and also Steam (PC). Here you have a central character that you navigate through a series of procedurally generated zones (forests, cities, etc.) acquiring better gear and picking up a motley crew of indispensable companions. It has an FTL-like “better hurry the hell up” mechanic in that the more days that pass the stronger the opposition gets on your way to reach the castle and reclaim your birthright. So you can’t be lingering too long in each zone. When you encounter hostiles, the game switches into a tactical level, turn-based (and hex based) battle zone. The tactical combat has some surprisingly deep mechanics to it, like flanking and attacks of opportunity, which reminds me a lot of Age of Wonders 3. Of course, it’s all permadeath if your main character dies. Overall, Crowntakers a beautifully executed game and, unless you play on the cheater mode, devilishly hard (I’ve never made it past the halfway mark!).
Two others I’ve dabbled with include DoomRL and Brogue. DoomRL sent me into a nostalgia spasm. It’s a traditional (and free!) roguelike that hijacked art and sound assets from Doom (yes the shooter) and crafted a new and painful way to experience the Doom-ness. Brogue is an ASCII based roguelike (going even more traditional) that has an iOS port. I’ve just tinkered with it for a few minutes, but now it’s gnawing at me! Too many games!
... and Roguelike-likes?
The 3MA podcast raised the point that a lot of games are incorporating “roguelike elements” into their designs. Maybe it’s permadeath (XCOM for example), or procedural world generation (Terraria, Minecraft), or turn-based mechanics (Banner Saga and so much more). Personally, I think this represents a shift in the collective psyche of a lot of developers and gamers. Which is to say that they are getting a bit tired of the shock-and-awe grandeur that AAA games present as the epitome of awesome gaming. They want to go back to smashing controllers/mice/keyboards against their walls/desks/monitors; back to “games” and not “narrative experiences.” Of course, a lot of developers try to do a little bit of both - and that’s where it gets interesting.
One game that I’ve played a lot recently is This War of Mine. I expect I’ll do a proper review in time, but for now I’ll describe it as this: Basically, you are tasked with orchestrating the survival of a group of survivors that have taken up shelter in a bombed-out house in a city ruined by war. The setting is suggestive of an eastern block country, although the time period and details of the war itself are vague. During the day, the survivors need to craft-up all manner of objects for survival. And under the cover of darkness at night, you can send off one lone individual to scavenge/trade/steal/kill for raw ingredients needed to fuel your survival-crafting.
This War of Mine is an absolutely brutal, crushing, and depressing reminder of the civilian costs and realities of war, so often overlooked in the dramatization of it all across our media. You need to survive for 40-50 days, and despite having run the gauntlet a number of times I haven’t yet managed to reach the end. Plenty of moral and matter-of-survival type decisions loom over your every moment of the game. It is challenging; and one botched night of scavenging can send you on a downward spiral of starvation, sickness, predation, depression, suicide, and ruin. Yeah, it’s grim - but it is so well executed and nuanced that it keeps me coming back. It's been out on PC for a while and rumor has it that it's coming to iOS soon.
Another game, on a far more whimsical and comedic note, is Sunless Sea. This is perhaps best understood as a roguelike-like bastardization of FTL and King of Dragon Pass. It’s a narratively rich game about trying to accomplish some choose-your-own-adventure-selected goal and then sailing your ship, replete with supplies, upgrades, and a hearty crew, around an undergound sea that is supposed to be some part of a sunken, lovecraftian England. It’s a quirky and odd game, and despite the dire and gloomy setting manages to be lighthearted and deadly serious at the same time. It’s a great presentation. I haven’t played it enough yet to really get into it, but what I’ve seen so far has been perfectly engaging. Turn off the lights, put on the headphone, and grab the helm. Or something ...
What’s on the Queue?
So many games … so little time. In terms of roguelike’s I’m itching to try out Tales of Maj’Eyal, which has been touted as a pretty solid roguelike set in a Middle Earth-like setting complete with Gandalf-like characters. I hear it’s coming to mobile platforms, and ideally I’d like to wait until then. It’s free to download direct from the developer or you can purchase it (cheaply) through steam.
Another more recent entry, in the roguelike-like category, is Invisible Inc - which is from what I can gather also an XCOM-like tactical game, but with a focus more on stealth and all-things cyberpunky. It has a slick aesthetic, reminding me a bit of The Incredibles movie - which is one of my favorite pixar movies incidentially. I’m hoping to try that out.
Massive Chalice, from Doublefine, was also released recently. This is similarly an XCOM-like, roguelike-like game that merges a fantasy-themed tactical battle game with a dynasty, bloodline management sim. Sounds cool on paper, although the reviews have been pretty varied. I’m assuming its one of those games that some are going to love and others are going to loathe. Just like all the other games.
What else is on my mind?
I should mention that I’ve been afflicted with a curse, and that curse has a name. This curse is named IsThereAnyDeal.Com. It’s a horrid site where you can create a wishlist of games (and even more horrifically import an existing wishlist from Steam or other services) and have it a watch out for deals across a wide range of digital distribution platforms of your choosing. It’s like those big blowout sales that claim to “save you money” despite the fact that they end up compelling you to purchase stuff you never would’ve bought in the first place - and thus end up being the exact opposite of saving money.
The result of this curse is that I’ve purchased a bunch of games through Humble Bundle’s recent sale (among others). Do I dare go on? Yes I dare: Wargame: AirLand Battle, Wargame: Red Dragon, Borderlands 2, Halfway, To the Moon, The Last Federations last expansion, Pandora, Pandora Expansion, assorted Europa Universalis IV DLC, Sins of a Solar Empire: Rebellion, Star Drive 2, Star Ruler 2, make it stop ….
We’ll touch on all of that in the next installment of What’s Going On?! Until then, enjoy the music:
I’ve been struggling to write a holistic critique of the 4X genre for a while. On one hand, I ask myself “why is such a critique even necessary?” On the other, I feel that the genre is at a crossroads. Different tensions, for good or for bad, pull the genre in different directions. Trying to understand these tensions, which shape the genre’s landscape, will (hopefully) illuminate more challenges and opportunities in 4X design. Of course, I have my own aspirations of making a 4X videogame, so understanding the current “state of affairs” is important for designing in an informed manner and navigating through this messy environment.
Thankfully, a recent Three Moves Ahead (3MA) podcast on 4X games gave me the needed kick-in-the-pants to get me writing. The 3MA episode, intentionally or not, provided a rather scathing critique of the entire 4X genre and its failings, as well as highlighting a few small bright points of promise. I felt myself doing the proverbial headbang dance as I listened to the podcast, as many of their reactions and sentiments echo my own. Engaging in the 4X genre is a bit of a shattered dream, where we sift through the shards in hope of finding that one perfect game. But so often we cut ourselves on the glass.
The “Shattered Dream” is a 3-part article that will critique the 4X genre in a number of ways. Part 1 will focus on defining the 4X genre and relevant sub-genres. Part 2 will dig into what I feel is the primary tension in the genre: the desire to craft detailed simulations of other worlds and provide players with a deep strategic game. Last, Part 3 will look at how various tensions play out in the market space for 4X games and what promising avenues of innovation (and massive potholes!) lie ahead.
Part 1 - A Fragmented Genre
Much of my writing has focused on the classification and taxonomy of games. And it is important to recognize that no classification scheme will ever be perfect and cover all cases adequately. However I feel that the byproduct of discussing classification is that it forces us to explore game characteristics in detail. And this understanding is beneficial regardless of whether it culminates in a useful classification system or not. With this disclaimer out of the way, let’s begin.
The term “4X” refers to eXplore, eXpand, eXploit, and eXterminate. The term was originally coined in a preview article for Master of Orion (the first) as a shorthand to reference the scope and nature of game - and the 4X term has grown in use ever since. It is tempting to use the label as a literal definition for classifying games, and hence for a game to be a 4X you need to have “The Four Elements” in place. But I think this ultimately doesn’t work; it becomes far too inclusive if taken literally. For example, most RTS games in the ilk of Starcraft or Age of Empires could fall under a 4X definition.
Rather, I think the “spirit” of the 4X label is what is important; which is that the 4X games strive to capture a grander scope than a RTS or turn-based wargame. There is usually some degree of empire building and management present, with the player filling the shoes of a real or assumed leader, often with an omnipotent view and uncontested control over their domain. The time scale is usually long, with a players’ empires growing and advancing. There is usually a balance between internal pressures mechanics, like managing the happiness of your population or the upkeep of a burgeoning bureaucracy, and external pressures such as military threats, hostile environments, and diplomatic posturing.
Yet within this umbrella, there are some useful sub-genres to consider. And it is these sub-genres that I feel provide the most salient lens through which to view the nuances and diversity of the 4X genre. As with past game classification efforts, it is important to consider the historic origins of these sub-genres. Furthermore, I’ll use the opportunity to reference Wittgenstein's Family Resemblance concept. Essentially, rather than trying to adopt a rigid “in or out” approach to classification, we need to recognize that genres are a collection of commonly, but not always, associated traits and that games that fall within a particular genre may only exhibit a portion of those traits.
Here we go:
Empire Builders - The 3MA podcast used the term “Empire Builder” as an alternative to 4X games to describe those that emphasize empire building. Civilization is certainly the most iconic example of an Empire Builder, and some of the key characteristics include: (a) Internal pressure mechanics like upkeep costs, population happiness and approval, diminishing returns, etc.; (b) External pressures from foreign competing empires; (c) Multiple and divergent victory conditions (e.g. conquest, technology, culture, political); (d) Relatively detailed “Management Unit” (MU) optimization requiring you allocate workers or resources within each MU.
Examples: Civilization, Endless Legends, Endless Space, Armada 2526, Distant Worlds, Galactic Civilization
4X-Lite - In trying to ascertain what games get branded with the “4X-Lite” label, the best I can tell is that these are games that downplays internal empire management in favor of a focus on warmongering. The games are often “simpler” from a complexity of mechanics standpoint but place far greater emphasis on the production, movement, and positioning of military forces. Victory tends to focus primarily (or exclusively) on military related win conditions such as outright conquest or domination of the map. In some ways, I think of these almost as “pure 4X” games because they are most directly aligned with the 4X’s and have relatively few other systems bolted on.
Examples: Sword of the Stars, Age of Wonders, Neptune’s Pride, UltraCorps, Master of Magic, Warlock, Star Drive 2
Heroic Strategy - There is some overlap between this and the previous category, but Heroic Strategy in my mind are games with many 4X elements but often with a strong focus on RPG-like character development of a smaller pool of characters. Oftentimes, “empire management” is handled through the development of a single or primary town/castle where units are recruited.
Examples: Heroes of Might and Magic, Disciples
Grand Strategy - This is a term most aptly directed towards paradox’s landmark titles, like Crusader Kings and Europa Universalis. Sometimes, these are described as 4X games where you cut out the opening exploration phase of the game (since generally the geography is already known) as well as the late game victory dash by having more focused scenario-based goals. The heart of such games tend to be in relatively more complex empire planning, force organization, leader/character management, and nuanced diplomatic mechanics.
Examples: Europa Universalis, Crusader Kings, The Last Federation, Imperia 5X
RTS-4X Hybrid - These are games that cross the line between a typical real time strategy (RTS) game like Starcraft or Command & Conquer and a 4X game. While any 4X game can be “real time” (e.g. Distant Worlds, StarDrive 1, Star Ruler) many of these are intended to work in a “pausable” real time fashion where “who can click/think fastest” is not really a factor in your success. The RTS-4X Hybrids blend the need for fast thinking (and clicking) found in a typical RTS game with the grander design scope seen in most 4X games, with players often having to navigate far bigger technology trees, diplomatic relationships, and internal empire considerations along the way.
Examples: Sins of a Solar Empire, Rise of Nations, Haegemonia
Campaign Driven - The last category is reserved for games that feature a 4X type system that provides a structure for a campaign, with individual tactical battles (turn based or real-time) taking the center stage. The campaign level can vary quite a bit in terms of complexity and scope, but is nonetheless in the service of providing context (and consequences) for the tactical battles that are the focus of the game.
Examples: Total War series, Dawn of War Soulstorm campaign
Tension Point: On Genre, On Blitzen!
Why is this important? I think these sub-genres (the title of which are open to debate!) have existed for a while without much formal recognition. Yet these go a long way towards explaining people’s perspectives, tolerances, preferences within the genre. Personally, I am tired of seeing comments like “this game is garbage because there’s no depth in empire management!” when the intent wasn’t be an empire building game in the first place. It’s like saying a free-for-all deathmatch arena shooter is bad because it is not team-based and doesn’t use modern military weapons. They are both FPS games, but an arena shooter (ala Quake-series) is much different from a team-based military shooter (ala Battlefield-series).
By calling everything under the umbrella “4X” all the time, it presupposes certain expectations on games and in turn biases our outlook of them. For instance, we assume that it should have some exploration elements, a way of expanding, a way of exterminating, and so on. This creates tension across the genre between our expectations (whether well- or ill-conceived) and the desire for encouraging diversity in the genre. Having said of all of this, genres (and sub-genres) are still useful for understanding games, making comparisons between them, and having more consistent language that gamers can use. But they can also be a trap that confines what we think is possible. If we think too strictly in terms of genres, particularly as designers, we can blind ourselves from seeing and pursuing genre-breaking game concepts.
Part 2 - The Dueling Pianos: Simulation vs. Game
Complexity does not equal depth
If there is one point I hope to get across in this article it is the above line. I think there is a misconception in the 4X community that the only way to have a deep game is to have a bunch of complex systems all intertwined into some giant mechanical monstrosity. But depth in decision-making is different from the complexity of the game. Decision depth is an emergent property of the gameplay that comes about as players are required to make tough trade-offs; whether that be in allocating resources, making diplomatic arrangements, positioning forces, or advancing your empire.
As I’ve written about before, decision depth (at a particular decision point) is a function of the major trade-offs or factors at work in influencing your decision and evaluating its potential outcomes. These factors can be economic, spatial, or intuitional in nature. For example: how to use a limited pool of strategic resources (e.g. casting points in Age of Wonders); or where to stage your military forces to maintain map control or chokepoints; or what diplomatic arrangements to pursue with what foreign powers. Complexity only serves to increase actual decision depth, and not merely the challenge of identifying or evaluating such decisions, when it makes these strategic (or tactical) factors more ambiguous.
The “deepest” choices are when players are faced with two or more equally viable or valuable appearing options and the player needs to rely on their experience and heuristics to make the right decision. Complexity, if it does not provide adequate feedback to the player to help build their heuristics (e.g. methods of effective play) simply makes choices harder to identify or evaluate and actually inhibits players from engaging with any potential depth. It might “feel” like the game is deep because it is mentally challenging - but these sorts of optimization hurdles are a pretense to getting to a decision point, not a decision point on their own.
In the worst situations, complexity can backfire when you’ve “figured it out” only to realize that at the end of the tunnel the actual decisions are obvious; that the game is an optimization puzzle of sorts and not really a game. An often used metric for a game’s depth is how many levels of skill there are among players (e.g. Chess rankings). If there is just one or two large skill levels (e.g. “I have it sort of figured out” versus “I’ve figured it all out!”) then it ultimately isn’t a deep game even if it has taken considerable effort to understand. Once you know the formula for success and can apply that every time the game will be short lived in terms of real depth.
Pacing & Flow
The 3MA’s podcast spent some time discussing issues of pacing and flow in 4X games, noting that pacing is key to making games fun in a “one more turn” sense as well as to making the “arc” of a game as it moves from the opening exploration to late-game victory exciting. Sadly, this an area of 4X game design that is perhaps the hardest to do well, especially for many of the newer indie studios making their first foray into game design. Many of the genre favorites are classics, I feel, for the very reason that they got the pacing right and kept players engaged throughout.
One way of evaluating the pacing and flow of a game is consider the types of actions that players can take. I’ve identified four general types of actions that range from most to least engaging and interesting (at least for me!):
1. Strategic Decisions - These are high levels decisions about your strategy, such as what victory condition to work towards, what mid- to long-range goals you are establishing (e.g. what opponents to ally with or fight), where to colonize next, what geographic areas are strategically important to control, etc.
2. Tactical Decisions/Actions - These are important decision points and/or actions that are taken to resolve your strategic decisions or to respond to short-term issues and events. For example, how you assemble an army or fleet and which general route they take or how you allocate the use of a limited strategic resource. These decisions can exist at the strategic scale as well as the tactical scale (if there is one in the game).
3. Optimization Activities - Should I build my research lab and then my production facility, or production then lab? A lot of time can be spent in 4X games optimizing a particular decision point, and depending on the complexity can be very challenging or relatively easy. Some players really enjoy these sorts of activities, other don’t. For example, I’d argue that ship building is a protracted optimization activity to construct ship/fleet to accomplish a particular tactical or strategic objective that you’ve previously identified. Adjusting the allocation of worker populations is likewise an optimization task, there is often one best solution/approach for a given strategic goal.
4. Managerial Upkeep/Overhead Activities - Last are routine management and/or upkeep tasks that require attention to move the game forward. Things like keeping unit/building queues up-to-date, remembering to build transports every few turns, upgrading ship designs to use lasers 2 instead of lasers 1, clearing notifications so you can process the next turn, pathfinding your forces to a given rally point, etc.
I feel that better games maximize the amount of hands-on time spent with #1 and #2 relative to #4. #3 (optimization) is more a matter of player tolerance, although personally I don’t like too much emphasis on optimization. The point here is that good pacing keeps players engaged by giving them meaningful strategic decisions on frequent intervals, rather than abandoning players to long stretches of just managing the consequences of a decision. When too many of the decisions in a game are trivial or obvious (often too many #3 or #4 actions), the game can feel far less deep and engaging. Streamlining the design, and providing ease-of-play automation that doesn’t detract from legitimate decision making is important.
Narrative Arc & Goals
The “narrative arc” of a game does not refer to it’s actual plot or storyline, but rather to the structure of the game itself as a story; with an opening, middle, and late-game phase that culminates in (hopefully) a well-earned and awarded victory. While good pacing is key to making the gameplay engaging and flow well, the overall narrative arc of the game helps shape your memory of the experience. Good games are memorable games.
How many times do we start a 4X game only to abandon the session part way through when it becomes obvious who is going to win or lose? In my mind, games that push us towards aborting a game early fail to provide a compelling narrative arc. If we already know how the story ends, we don’t bother finishing it. Creating an interesting narrative arc is undoubtedly a challenge, and is wrapped up intimately with the goals and victory conditions of the game.
In my experience, a lot of 4X game developers, particularly newer ones, don’t spend enough time (for whatever reason) refining the narrative arc to create excitement. Snowball & steamroller issues are part of the problem that push games towards a foregone conclusion: the player that optimizes early exploration is best positioned to expand/exploit the best, and hence best positioned to exterminate their opponents with no counter-threat. So addressing this issue is critical.
The victory conditions in the game are also a vital part of the narrative arc - and ideally the game is designed such that all players are kept in a state of tension all the way to victory. Runaway leaders and foregone conclusions are not much fun, but if you can counteract snowballing by providing alternative ways to achieve victory (perhaps as a high risk, high reward option) then it can help to keep the game close. Age of Wonders 3, while remaining focused on warfare (as a 4X-lite), combines typical conquest with a leader assassination and king-of-the-hill style victory options. A player that is steamrolling militarily can be eliminated from behind by killing their leader and capturing the throne city. Alternatively, other players can grab seal points and force the steamrolling player to divert focus away from conquest and claim seals instead.
The 3MA’s podcast further criticized the typical conquest, research, economic, etc. victory system used in so many games because it tends to put game mechanics into silos. If you only care about research and can otherwise defend yourself, you just focus on research until the end of the game and aren’t really incentivized to engage with the other elements of the game. These disconnected goals lead to a sort of disconnected play experience that doesn’t culminate in an interesting closure to the narrative. Achieving victory tends not to signify much beyond hitting an artificial threshold before your opponents, there is little thematically memorable about it. And for games that can take dozens of hours to play, the drab “victory screens” are a further taint on the experience.
At the end of the day, the narrative arc should culminate in an exciting and hard-fought win, not a tedious grind to an inevitable victory. 4X games need to pay serious attention to victory conditions and how these set the stage for a compelling arc and drive the gameplay forward.
Tension Point: Simulation Toy vs. Strategy Game
Keith Burgun recently wrote a thought provoking article, Videogames are Broken Toys, about how many so-called games might actually be better understood (and hence designed) as toys instead of games. To a certain extent I agree. I think about open sandbox games like the Elder Scrolls or the X-series, and indeed they are very “toy-like.” They are an environment for interaction, where the player can establish their own goals and interact with the systems to whatever extent they want.
I have a pet theory about 4X gamers, which is that there are two camps of preferences (which occasionally intermingle in the night). One set of preferences is for detail and “simulation” - and you often see people clamoring for the ability to micromanage 1000’s of colonies across a vast intergalactic empire. Another sentiment is that some people “love watching the galaxy unfold” into a living dynamic system. Indeed, Distant Worlds seems to be the darling game here, where you can literally automate everything and watch your empire take on its own life. Likewise, the player is at liberty to engage with whatever part of the system they want to, and automate the rest. In my mind, these are both very “toy-like” notions, and the more complex and intricate the toy, the more it people enjoy manipulating it.
The other set of preference is more aligned towards a fair, competitive, strategy “game”. Here, streamlining and simplification is tolerated (and even preferred) when it brings the decisions and their consequences to the forefront of play, even at the expense of simulation realism. More clear-cut discrete choices that rely less on complexity and more on transparency is important. As a “game,” feedback on what worked or didn’t work, via the UI or reporting, is vitally important to building heuristics and better strategies. To use Keith Burgun’s terms, a game is a “contest of decision making” - and the more focused the gameplay is around those key decision making points, the more successful it is as a strategy game.
All in all, a game’s leans towards simulation or “game” has ramifications for the complexity, pacing, and narrative arc of a game. Individuals will all have a different preference points between these poles, and I suppose the insight for developers is to consider carefully their intended audience and how they can craft the best experience (narrative arc) within that context. Getting this right takes no small amount of effort, and in a way it is unfortunate that so many games are released in the genre missing this key stage of refinement or leaving it to post-release development.
Breaking out of Orbit
Rooted in the Past & The MoO2 Conundrum
A tension in the 4X genre (and the videogame industry as a whole) from a marketability standpoint is that innovation is risky and tried and true designs sell better. We see this as evidence for successful games being serialized or reimplemented under a different guise. It is amazing to me that some of the mechanics seen in the early civ games or Master of Orion 2 (like allocating workers in a city) has remained a hallmark of the genre 20-some years later. How many recent or upcoming space 4X games are trying to snatch the MoO2 mantle? Why are we still clinging to a Civ template?
The 3MA’s podcast was suggesting that the genre is stuck in a bit of a catch-22. The biggest market opportunity is rehashing (or modernizing) a proven design concept – yet indie and AAA studios alike often fail in this endeavor. Either the polish and execution is off, or the developers just didn’t understand why some of the older titles worked successfully and replicate those lessons their own game (e.g. Alpha Centauri to Beyond Earth = fail).
For games striving to be more revolutionary and innovative, unless the game is exceptionally polished and well-made, the audience is even smaller and the marketability even less. Without a bigger budget (production values, marketing, attention, etc.), innovative titles that are amazing in concept often fail in the execution due to buggy launches, crude UI’s, unengaging graphics, lack of press coverage, and so forth. Many indie games, whether going innovative or more traditional in their design, are barely able to get a feature complete release together, let alone do the necessary refinements to the pacing and narrative arc to make the games stand out in comparison to the old classics.
I am increasingly feeling that the era of Early Access and the expectation of post-release development is partly to blame for why games seem to come up short. During the heyday of the 90’s, a game needed to be very solid at release because most people would never patch (or even know to look for a patch assuming it was possible) once they brought it home. The game was the game, for good or bad. And people also frequently waited for reviews to come out before purchasing, so they would know whether they were about to step into a buggy mess or not. As a consequence, a LOT of time was spent polishing and balancing before launch to make sure the gameplay was as genuinely compelling as it could be, that there was ample room for real strategizing, and that the AI provided real opposition.
With Early Access and games being released well-before their time becoming the norm, it just paints a poor picture of the entire genre. How many 4X games come out with bad reviews but are eventually patched or expanded to be great games a year or more down the line? A lot of games are improved and turned from bad or mediocre to great – but in this situation you’ve lost your ability to reach a wider audience with a positive launch and you’ll never make-up the lost sales. All of this poor perception keeps the genre as a niche; the mainstream crowds don’t have much tolerance for waiting.
Of course, Early Access and crowdfunding is largely responsible for enabling indie devs to get to market in the first place, adding their take on the genre. Without these tools, we would likely see far less diversity and innovation than we do now. So I don’t intend to be overly critical of these new tools either. A lof of games seem to go into Early Access before being feature complete, and get released soon after being “feature complete” - which really doesn’t leave enough time in my opinion for polish and balance with all the systems in place.
Reimagining the Challenge, Asymmetrically of Course
I feel like we are, perhaps, on the precipice of a new era of 4X games. Should we manage to secure a few good (or exemplary) reimplementations of past favorites, e.g. our darling Master of Orion modernized, it might leave the door open for pursuing alternative styles of 4X games. And a number of games have been released or are under development that are exploring new asymmetric designs as a way to provide a novel experience to players while still building on the 4X language. One of the primary goals of such endeavors is to get around the typical need for competent, human-like AI opposition. Without a strong AI to challenge and pressure the player, so many 4X games just feel flat and underwhelming. So if you can’t change the AI, change the game.
Jon Shafer’s “At the Gates” is one such game, where the player is primarily responsible for leading a migrating city around the map, absorbing different clans along the way. The opposition comes from various external threats, none of which are intended to be analogous to the player. Similarly, Arcen Game’s AI War pits the player as a tiny flee-of-an-empire against a vastly bigger AI empire, requiring the player to build up without gaining too much attention from the less-than-friendly AI. Keith Burgin’s iOS title “Empire” has the player managing cities that deplete their natural surroundings and must constantly be relocating, yet this is set against the backdrop of a growing corruption that will eventually overwhelm the player and lead to their defeat. The challenge is to see how long you can live - and much like a game of Tetris, eventually time runs out.
These Aren’t the Boardgames You Are Looking For
Another trend that I’ve been seeing is more reference to digital games that use “boardgame-like” mechanics in their design. While what constitutes boardgame-like is a topic all of its own, I think part of it comes down to transparency, streamlining, and providing fewer but more challenging decisions. For 4X games, this relates to the earlier section on complexity and depth. Boardgames, by virtue of having to be “processed” by the players at the table tend to be far more transparent in how their mechanics work, and create depth through challenging situations rather than relying on complexity alone as a stand-in for depth. The effective depth-to-weight ratio is higher for most boardgames than video games I feel.
Curiously, 4X games have their roots in boardgames from the 70’ and 80’s (as does Civilization). With a number of highly successful 4X boardgames (Eclipse in particular, also available on iOS) showing what is possible in a non-digital format, perhaps it is an opportunity for 4X video game designers to look back over the fence and learn a few tips. Perhaps, by streamlining games but maintaining the depth, we can make 4X games more accessible to a broader audience or even make it easier to build competitive AI’s. Unfortunately, one recent title, Sid Meier’s Starships, missed the mark and its claim to have been influenced boardgames suggests that maybe it was looking at the wrong boardgames. But there is hope.
On Finding Greater Meaning
The 3MA’s podcast discussed to topic of meaning in 4X games, which is a great final point to this long-winded article. In short, they commented on the notion that at the core all of these 4X games are really the “same game.” They are all an embodiment of a colonial-era manifest to become the supreme lord of the manor. On one hand this isn’t surprising given the “ingredients” of the 4X genre of exploring and laying claim to unknown lands and exterminating your way to victory. But this begs the question - can the genre do more?
What is it that compels us to relive the same narrative over and over in different flavors or via a slightly more polished implementation? Why must it always end in blood or economic monopolization or diplomatic unity? Can or should the genre be an opportunity to speak to a different, perhaps post-colonial, narrative? This prompts bigger questions about meaning in video games and to what extent games can provide a greater commentary on the human condition beyond tickling our fancies. What happens after we conquer the planet? In a way, Burgun’s “Empire” is a reminder that all of our civilizations will eventually crumble to dust and be replaced with something else - I’d like to see more games put the player in those reflective situations.
I also remain eternally fascinated by my relatively recent discovery of King of Dragon Pass, which is a sort of mash-up between a clan management, 4X, and a choose your own adventure. Here is a game where the player is not an omnipotent ruler of their domain, but a single person with only so much time in the day for making decisions and taking actions. It is a 4X game of sorts, but the perspective is shifted and the entire tone is immediately more immersive and reflective. Could such an approach be applied to a more traditional 4X title? Could it sell?
A Menagerie of Tension
To sum up, the 4X genre is fraught with tensions. Some are internal to the design of the games themselves, such as the balance between simulation and streamlining or designing an open sandbox versus a tight strategy game with a compelling narrative. Other tensions relate to the legibility of the genre itself and the extent to which 4X is even a useful term, or whether the sub-genres can gain traction as a shorthand. Yet more tensions exist in the marketability of 4X games, with the drive to pay homage to the past and take on less risky (more profitable?) projects or to tackle more revolutionary design concepts. And of course, there is tension in the development process of the game’s themselves and the mixed-messages and needs of Early Access and crowd-funding.
My hope is that cunning developers can navigate all of this. We can each imagine our perfect game (or games!). And should the genre grow and mature the chance of that one game being made goes up, somewhere, somehow. There might be more chaff along the way, but it’s the dream that keeps us sifting through the broken shards of glass. And if all else fails you can always set sail and try to make your own game right?!
Phew! Spring is getting underway here in Michigan, which means the grill has been dragged out of the
dungeon garage and we are all finally able to walk outside without fear of falling ice, jackets, avalanches, and little slippery spots on the sidwalks. But you all have questions: What about the blog?! What about the games?! What are are you doing there behind the curtain? Watch in awe as I interview myself:
Alter Ego: This IS still a blog that talks about boardgames right?
Oliver: Yes, yes, yes. My boardgaming has, as previously mentioned, taken a bit of a backseat this past year - a situation I hope to remedy soon. That said, it hasn't been all devoid of activity in this arena. My wife and I have been playing an awful lot of Backgammon over a pint throughout these past few months. Backgammon is one of those great pastime games. While no doubt it can be thinky and cut-throat, and brutal, it's also quite relaxing to chuck the dice and move your pieces about the board.
Backgammon a great risk management game, that works in a sort of paradoxically backward feeling way. Taking risks, which usually means leaving a single (capture-able) piece in its own stack, also affords greater flexibility as the more spread out your pieces are the more potential ways you have to use your die results. "Playing it safe" is often the more risky move because you can work yourself into a corner that requires specific die rolls to get you out. So it's an interesting balance between order and chaos, and I like the unspoken tacit agreements between players about how chaotic or not you are willing to let a particular session go. It's fun.
I've also been playing a fair amount of King of Tokyo with my now 4-year hold. We actually manage to play the mostly correct and to it's conclusion (although usually we only play to 10 victory points because of a thing called bedtime). She has a soft spot in her heart for Mecha-Dragon, and I of course "have" to chose The Kraken every ... single ... time ... but that's okay with me. Everyone loves a good Kraken.
Beyond the above, I've managed a few games of Carcassonne: Hunters and Gatherers, which is truthfully one of my favorite games. I wrote about it while ago here. Then there's the obligatory evening sessions of Emu Ranchers.
Alter Ego: I've heard that you've designed boardgames. Up to any new design projects?
Oliver: As a matter of fact, I have been kicking this ball around a little more. An interesting thread in the Hegemonic forums prompted me to spill the beans that my current secret project is an expansion for Hegemonic. Nothing official has been discussed as far as making this a produced product, and I am in the early stages of prototyping. As things develop and a I get a better draft of materials put together, I'll likely send out a "who wants to PnP-Playtest this thing?!" type of message into the ether.
As far as what the expansion is trying to accomplish; it's tricky. On one hand, there were a bunch of ideas on the cutting room floor that were pulled out from the original design that would be interesting to see they could be woven back in. For example, the idea of building up "industry" opening up some sort of real trade-opportunities for players. The expansion is also an opportunity to revisit some of the existing mechanics and tweak things based on now a fair amount of feedback from players and critics and alike. There are some balance improvements that I'm tinkering with for example. Last - I've always wanted to add a solo mode to the game design and wrap it around, perhaps, a new victory condition based on the idea of Transcendence. We'll see ...
To give an example of one feature I'm developing is an addition to the exploration mechanics that add a special location token to tiles as they are added to the board, based on the player choosing a type of token to place. These tokens are up for grabs for anyone, and can provide a range of different abilities or effects when used. Sets can be collected and used for VP's (perhaps) as well, but more importantly players' industrial power gives them the ability to make trade requests (or force or block trade deals) of these resources.
I seems that solo gaming is really taking off in recent times, and I'd love to work out a solo-rule set for Hegemonic. I've always thought the "AI Robot" in Race for the Galaxy was a stroke of genius, and I'd like to follow in those vootsteps and develop something similar. I somewhat obsessed with the idea of making an empire building game where as you build up your empire towards ultimate transcendence, there is some external threat that is growing stronger and stronger. The player is then in a race against the clock to achieve some challenging goal before they get overwhelmed by superior force, and have to constantly chose between investing in the goal versus investing in keeping the threat at bay to buy them time. If I could work this concept into Hegemonic, I think it could be pretty awesome.
Recently, I posted live and open links to the Emissary files (cards with the space theme) in hopes of drumming up more feedback. I'm also trying to decide what to do with the game. I really like it as is, and don't want to mess with it too much beyond smoothing out a few rough parts. But then what? Do I try to pitch it? Minion Games might be interested in it as a spin-off to Hegemonic. Alternatively, I might try to run a very small kickstarter and test the waters there. But that's a lot of work, and I'm not sure if I want to take that plunge.
Alter Ego: What's this I hear about "Explorminate?"
Oliver: Ahh, I was hoping that I would ask myself that question!
Explorminate is a newish website bringing you "4X News from 4X Fans," and of course we're talking about 4X video games now. You know, the Civilizations, Master of Orionses, and Master of Magicses of the world. Anyway, it's a great group and a quickly growing community that is focused in on the 4X game genre.
I've also started doing some writing for them, with the first contribution being a review of Triumph Studio's Age of Wonders III: Eternal Lords expansion. If you don't know, I've raved about Age of Wonders III in the past, and it has remained my most played videogame in the past many years. The new Eternal Lords expansion was just released and is the second expansion for the game. The game really just keeps getting better and better, and I'm completely smitten with it. If you have any interest in 4X games (particularly one focused on warfare and having the best tactical combat system of any 4X game ever) - then you really need to check out Age of Wonders III. It's also on sale on steam right now ...
Alter Ego: ... Ahh! See! I knew you were trying to turn this blog into a 4X game blog! Seriously, spill the beans. Come out with the truth. How many 4X games have you been playing lately!?
Oliver: Yes, it's true - I'm succumbing to the dark side. Let me lay it out ...
This is a great time be interested in the 4X games, with so many recently or soon to be released titles in the mix. Take a look at this Known 4X-like database I've been putting together from various sources for a gander. Quite a bit going on.
Star Drive 2 and Star Ruler 2 are two of the newest, with the former perhaps best viewed as a modern take on the Master of Orion formula and the latter a more innovative departure from the typical formula. Star Ruler 2 has an interesting "connect the dots" system of empire building, coupled with a clever card driven diplomatic mini-game. I'm really just getting my feet wet with both titles, but the are each compelling in their own way.
That said, I still have a lot of frustrations with the genre. A recent podcast from Three Moves Ahead on 4X games raised a number of issues with the genre and tried to tease apart why so few games seem to be moving the ball forward. On one hand, the audience for 4X games so often clamors "we want an updated Master of Orion!" (see Star Drive 2 or Starbase Orion), and this backwards looking drive keeps the genre in a sort of stasis.
On the other hand there are some developers trying to push the edge and do something different. The Three Moves Ahead fellows talked about the dominant paradigm of 4X games being on of colonialism - it's all about expanding under the auspice of manifest destiny. Well, what does or could a post-colonialism 4X game look like? What about changing the role of the player from omnipotent overlord to a person with only so much time in the day to get things done (ala King of Dragon Pass)?
I have my own far more detailed thoughts on the matter, that all points towards a hypothetical game I'd like to make. Look for that soon!
Yer got yer basic star map thingy 'ere
Sid Meier has been hanging out in different waters these past many years, designing somewhat more streamlined games often intended for mobile platforms (or to go cross-platform). After a relatively mixed reception for Sid Meier's: Beyond Earth (that wasn't the Alpha Centauri successor we were looking for), in which Sid Meier had very little involvement, Sid Meier's Starships was announced - and there was much rejoicing.
Starships released today on PC, Mac, and iPad. Herein follows my very initial impressions after about a short while playing on EASY difficulty to figure out what was going on. Note, that I'm playing on my iPad Mini 1st gen, which is the same hardware as iPad2 - so I'm assuming it plays fine on iPad2. Yay!
Let's start at the beginning ...
You pick a human leader that hails from one of the other Civ:BE lost colonies. There were 8 leaders and each provided some special benefit. You could also pick a Civ:BE affinity (1 of 3) that gave an additional bonus of some sort (e.g. a free wonder, extra starting techs, and so on). This was the extent of any Civ:BE connection cross-over that I saw in my time so far.
Leader selection and game setup options
There are four Resource in the game: energy (for upgrading + buying ships), metal (for upgrading your colonies/worlds), food (for building cities, which expands the population of your planets), and science (used for technology upgrades). Planets generate a certain amount of all four of these resources each turn based on the population plus whatever other bonuses the planet has inherently or due to developments you've constructed. Seems to be about 6 or 7 types of developments (although more get unlocked as I go). For technology, there were only about 6 or 7 as well, but each has many levels, and again other tech's appear to unlock. I am not sure yet how big the tech tree is or how many compelling choices it affords.
Technology screen. Oooooo....
You start off at your homeworld and there are starlanes that connect to adjacent star systems where there are other lost colonies. Flying your fleet to a new system gives you a mission prompt, which so far are all some sort of combat mission (that's the point of the game after all). It might be escorting a ship safely to a jump gate, tracking down stealth'ed pirate ships, etc. You can consult with your crew to review the opposition strength and even buy or upgrade ships before combat.
What shall we do my captain?
This latter point is a little weird because if you keep a big pool of energy in reserve, you can tweak your ships with upgrades before entering combat. One mission asked me to track down stealth fighters, and all I had to do was purchase a sensor module on each of my ships before the mission and in I went. I'm hoping on harder difficulty levels you'll need to take advantage of this to have a chance to beat the mission, but if not it's sort of an odd design decision. "Look! Enemy ships inbound! Quick, upgrade all of our armor and weapon systems!"
Tactical shenanigans at 100%
Combat is fairly simple in a turn-based fashion. I think it’s considerably less complex than XCOM (as a point of comparison) since ships don’t have many special abilities or ways of assuming different roles. I didn't see any indication or notice of any mechanics like flanking or overwatch for example. The Torpedo system is cool, where you fire a torpedo that advanced forward each turn until you hit the detonate button, so planning ahead to lock down movement lanes with torpedoes is interesting. Time will tell if the combat gets more complex or nuanced in interesting ways, I can’t tell yet with just the small battles I’ve been having.
Fleet manager and ship designer in one!
It did take me a while to figure out how you "custom design" ships. Basically, you spend energy to add a new ship to your fleet, which comes in as a lowly corvette. Upgrading the hull + armor essentially rebuilds the ship into a heavier one (frigate, destroyer, etc.). There are 8 or so upgradable elements on each ship (engines, shields, armor, lasers, plasma, torpedoes, sensors, stealth, etc.). It works well enough as an abstracted sort of upgrade system - although again there is no requirement to be at a shipyard, and you can even recruit new ships from foreign colonies. This seems strange and wouldn't appear to reward planning ahead (aka strategizing) very well. Plus of these foreign worlds can build their own starships on a whim, why didn't they do so and defend themselves in the first place?
Anyway, as you complete missions you get material rewards or tech rewards (among other things) and some number of influence points with the foreign colony. Once you get four influence points they will join your empire formally. The mission text and static context images are nice enough and give some character to the game. But as everyone is basically human there isn't much diversity in what I've seen so far. Also, if you don't think you can handle a mission, you can just decline and leave the star system with no repercussions. I stumbled on one planet that was a pirate homeworld with 8 billion pirate citizens (WTF) and this giant fleet and I could just turn around and leave to "deal with this later" - which kills a lot of the feeling of tension and risk that could be here.
One thematic inconsistency that jumped out at me is that the intro video talks about waiting millennia for a contact signal from another star systems, yet every freaking star system is populated with people capable of building new starships for you on a whim – which is sort of perplexing and immersion breaking.
Diplomatic relationships - click on someone's mug and you get a bunch of options.
In terms of how “sandbox-y” the game is, there are other empires/starfleets out in the galaxy (depending on how many AI opponents you add to the game) so there is a bit of a diplomatic layer. I haven’t got too far into the diplomatic aspect of the game (I basically made peace with everyone), but I’ve been seeing some of the AI empires fighting amongst themselves already. Victory in the game is territory based but I also noticed victory options for wonders, tech, and diplomacy – so there is a bit of a 4X vibe here, it’s just you only ever have 1 fleet/army flying around, but otherwise have full authority to develop your colonies how you see fit.
All in all, I suppose it remains to be seen how this game plays out. My initial recommendation is cautiously optimistic. This IS a simplified game (limited tech, simple ship upgrade system, simple colony management). This in and of itself is not a bad thing in my opinion. I'd much rather have too simple than too complex for a given amount of depth. So if all these systems manage to come together to make for a strategically tight set of decisions throughout the game, it will be great. My bigger worry is that the design is just not “harsh” enough (destroyed ships can be “repaired” and used again next turn for example, you can always run away, etc.) – and as a result the tough choices we're all looking for won’t really come to the forefront of the gameplay and drive it to interesting destinations.
But again, these are just initial impressions played on the lowest difficulty settings to just figure things out. Expect a deeper look at some unspecified point in the future when I've dug into this more.
Your own personal Hyperlaunch! On sale for $14.99!
That’s all for now! If anyone has questions, fire away!
I just finished building my first Hellivator. It is a modest one, comprised of a 3-block wide shaft with periodic wooden platforms spaced roughly before my fall damage threshold. Some torches light the path downward. And I still need to go back through and tweak the spacing of a few platforms, as I take a bit of damage when riding my express wonka-vator all the way down to the fiery underworld. But it sure beats crawling through the dangerous labyrinth of tunnels and passages I hollowed out so much longer ago.
But now that I'm down here, amidst the lava pools and demons, I'm wondering what to do next. And so it goes with Terraria.
I dabbled ever so briefly with Minecraft, the progenitor of the rising tide of survival-craft games (zombies optional of course). For all of Minecraft's earth shattering novelty, I was never that taken by the experience of actually playing it. The casualness of the game's aesthetic never compelled me to spend my gaming-at-my-PC-desk-time on it over other titles. Likewise, I could never imagine playing Terraria, a 2D side-scrolling version of Minecraft for lack of a more detailed explanation, at my desk either.
But on my mobile device, Terraria has captivated me in a way that I never expected to be captivated. So much so that I've found myself perched in all sorts of strange positions around the house starring at my iPhone (or iPad) screen, feverishly pickaxing my way through some corridor or piling up blocks in hopes of erecting some monument of extraordinary magnitude. Should I be playing this at my desk? Would I be more comfortable there? No time to figure it out - there are blocks that need to be mined!
Terraria, from Re-Logic, came out in 2011 on PC and 2013 on various mobile platforms. I picked it up just a few short months ago on a whim to see what all the fuss was about. For those that are totally in the dark about the game, essentially you make a character and then spawn them into a procedurally generated world. This 2D, side-scrolling, pixel-art ant farm has a variety of surface biomes (temperate, desert, jungle, arctic, etc.) as well as a number of subterranean layers that extend far below the surface; way, way down a land of fire, brimstone, and flying devil monsters.
A zoom-out of the surface and that little floating island above my house ... how curious indeed!
At night, zombies and other baddies spawn and come after you, but the jabbering hordes are easily dispatched with your trusty sharp/clubby thing. The rest of the time is spent merrily digging into the ground, chopping down (and replanting if you are wise!) trees, using various materials to craft tools, shelters, platinum chandeliers, hellforges, light sabers (okay "phase" blades) multi-story apartment complexes, and Chinese paper lanterns that you can hang from the rafters.
The crafting is pretty extensive (although my experience in the survival craft genre is pretty NOT extensive, so what do I know) with lots of base materials leading to all sorts of enticing (or mostly useless) items. Of course, pretty soon you are carrying around a small moving truck worth of cobbled-together knick-knacks. And so you build a house and dump the booty into newly-minted treasure chests. Pretty soon a "bloodmoon" event happens and you have a legion of zombies pounding through your futile wooden doors. So you drive them off and swear you'll get around to making "iron doors" once you manage to find more "iron ore" on a future excavation foray. And so it goes: crafting, building, and dreaming.
It's the dreaming part that's fun - thinking about what sorts of maniacal dwellings and impossible architectural wonders you can build. But I'm not there yet. So far, my one-room hilltop dwelling has a basement and second floor. And then I added a second basement level (woodshop) and a third floor. I wasn't happy with the sleeping arrangements on the third floor, so I built a glass walled room at the top, with a great big demon bed. I also hung my platinum chandelier that I admire in the moonlight while watching the zombies hammer pitifully on my brand new iron doors. Life is good.
And then my daughter showed up. She is three.
Behold the platinum chandelier!
Terraria has multiplayer and I'm determined at some point to get my wife, my 3-year old, and my 1-year old (for good measure) all playing at the same time. Until then, I'll settle for the 3-year old. But having a 3-year old, with only a rudimentary understanding of the finer nuances of movement, saunter into your meticulously arranged domicile and start swinging their pickaxe around is cause for alarm! I also discovered her love of emptying my treasure chests and depositing the contents all over the landscape. Something had to be done! She needed her own place to call home. But not too far away - she is only three after all.
So the next project was building a little house on the adjacent hill. So up went a cute little tower with it's own glass bedroom at the top, and DOUBLE iron doors - because she really, really doesn't like the zombies, even through I crafted her an awesome red
lightsaber limb-remover that would make Darth Vader blush. Unfortunately, she usually puts the lightsaber in the trunk at the foot of her bed and calls for daddy to clamber across the rope bridge we built so I can dispatch the zombies. Kids! Do I have to do everything myself? Skybridge to the house-also-with-a-glass-bedroom next door
After she goes to bed, I wonder what challenge I should take up next. I already built an apartment complex for the all of the NPCs. The NPCs by the way are like herding cats. I'm pretty close to just sealing them inside their sarcophagus of tiny rooms and calling it a day. For as it stands, when the zombies come knocking they like to smash into the apartment building, causing some of the NPC's to vacate their rooms and take up residence in my beautiful glass bedroom. No! You can't stay here! So I go back and fix up their apartment building (am I a digital slum lord now?) and lure them back to the menagerie with promises of beholding the platinum chandelier. Such is life ...
Terraria features a curious mythos of sorts, something about crimson and corruption taking up root in the land. And there are big bosses to fight that advance the narrative forward. The final chapter involves throwing a voodoo doll into the hot "magma" of the underworld and thus summoning the wall of flesh! Once defeated, so the legend goes, the world will turn into "hardmode" and the corruption or crimson will start spreading and devouring the land until it is contained and stopped. That sounds like a lot of work to deal with.
The multi-story apartment building with paper lanters hanging over a rooftop deck, complete with a green roof!
For now, I'm content NOT having to deal with the wall of flesh and the wonders of hardmode; at least in this world. I don't want my hilltop village to succumb to evil forces. I'm already paranoid enough about meteorites landing on my glass towers. One was dangerously close already. I should really build a safety dome over the whole compound to keep it all protected. Do I have enough glass? Where can I find more sand? Where will I put the platinum chandelier? I'm going to need a LOT of paper lanterns!
That said, perhaps I'll have my character slip through the fabric of space-time and go into a different, parallel universe. Characters are not bound to a particular world and can move between other spawned worlds, which is a clever concept. I'm thinking long-range here. Eventually, I'll want to go into hardmode to get the hardmode ores to craft the hardmode sharp/clubby things to defeat the hardmode bosses and figure out how it all ends. But I can do all this a different world, keeping my house, and my daughters house, and the tenement building with the mumbling NPCs and the zombie trapped in the basement all perfectly intact.
I'll need another hellivator too.
A gravely reminder of past mis-steps each I drop through the underground...
4X games are predicated on exploring some unknown geography, expanding your control into newly discovered regions, exploiting resources from those regions, and using those resources to build up forces and exterminate your opponents (who are trying to do the same to you!). Typically, 4X games aim to convey the machinations of entire empires, and hence have a large geographic scale in mind. This basic premise of large-scale empires fighting for resource control to fuel a military domination struggle creates some fundamental challenges for 4X game design, which has been central to whole quest to make the net big 4X game to live up to Master of Orion 2’s legacy. These challenges are inter-related, but stem from a set of relatively simple issues:
- Issue #1 - City Spam & Snowballing
- Issue #2 - “One Big Battle” and the Steamroller
- Issue #3 - Micromanagement, Tedium, and Drag-out
These three issues are, I feel, the central challenge of 4X game design. And how the design of different games in the genre handles (or fails to handle) this interlinked challenge does as much to differentiate titles as to account for a game’s overall success, failure, or lasting legacy.
Issue #1 - City Spam & Combating the Snowball
Typically in 4X games, controlling more territory gives you access to more resources, which can transpire into a force advantage to enable you to win the game. “City Spam” is the notion that good gameplay heavily incentivizes placing as many cities as you can, or taking over as many colonies/planets as you can, in order to control the most territory. And then there is “Snowballing” (think of the snowball rolling down the hill getting bigger and bigger). Snowballing is the notion that as a player gets a resource advantage over another player, they can apply that advantage towards growing their resource base at a faster and faster rate, and quickly surpass their opponents’ capacity. Thus city spam typically leads to snowballing, although snowballing can also be driven by other factors.
Limiting Management Units
4X games have tried to combat city spam in a number of different ways, one of these is limiting the number of management units directly. By “management unit” I’m referring to cities, colonies, planets, star systems, or whatever the “thing” is that houses your empire’s population, conducts production, etc. Basically, where a production queue is housed is probably what the management unit is.
Warlock 2 (for example) uses a system where only a few of your cities are fully under your control, and other cities get related to secondary support cities that help your empire but in a less direct and less powerful way. Endless Legends uses a region system where each large region can only have one city – hence hard capping the number of possible cities in the game.
These approaches aren’t particularly ideal solutions in my mind. One of the challenges is in rectifying such ideas as a compelling design mechanic in relation to their logical thematic implications. Endless Legend’s region system can be painfully arbitrary seeming at times, and doesn’t make much sense thematically. If no one is occupying these pre-defined regions, how did they even become named regions? What is responsible for determining their borders? From a gameplay point of view they do reduce city spam and they do force a careful consideration of where to place a city within each region as you expand. But it feels forced, a mechanic made to solve a mechanical problem and not one flowing nicely out of the theme.
Alternative Forms of Counter-Pressure
Another approach for dealing with snowballing is to keep the game highly interactive and give tools to the players (and the AIs!) to exert a counter-pressure on snowballing empires. This counter-pressure should come in ways that don’t fundamentally rely on the economic disparity that caused the snowballing to begin with. For example, this counter-pressure could come about through trade, diplomacy, or espionage systems. If for example, lagging empires could exert large trade sanctions or easily form temporary alliances to coordinate attacks (e.g. “Bash the Leader”) there’s a good chance of fighting against the snowball.
Unfortunately for single player games, getting an AI to behave in a coordinated manner is difficult, and likely explains why we don’t see more of this in 4X games. But in games with multiplayer support, this can be a critical aspect of the gameplay. Neptune’s Pride (and Diplomacy for that matter) are entire games designed around these diplomatic negations and pressures. There is the sense that if you get too big you paint a big target on yourself and get attacked on multiple fronts – hence you need to tread lightly and expand judiciously to not attract the ire of your opponents. This dynamic rarely exists in single player 4X games. Bigger is just better most of the time.
Diminishing Returns for Expansion
Last, snowballing can be countered through escalating marginal costs or diminishing returns. Basically, these are mechanisms employed to make continued growth more and more costly the more that you grow. Many 4X games introduce a bureaucracy type element or empire upkeep that consumes Gold or SpaceBucks as your empire gets bigger, making each new expansion hurt the overall efficiency of your empire. Other games use expansion disapproval type mechanics, where your citizens start getting upset and unsettled as your empire gets bigger.
The escalating cost system seems to be the better approach to solving city spam and snowballing in a more organic fashion. The game can be designed around a certain ideal empire size (number of management units) and players can chose to operate above or below that line if it makes sense strategically to do so. Unfortunately, this is also one of those situations where conveying the gameplay ramifications of such mechanics in a clear way is often hard to do. Many 4X games don’t provide a clear understanding of how these mechanics work and when they start to kick into effect, so learning the heuristics of good play is more frustrating than it ought to be. In addition, it often isn’t thematically logical that a big empire suddenly becomes less happy or less efficient due just to its size. In fact, bigger empires could be more diverse with people being happier as a result. Or economies of scale kick in and the empire could actually be more efficient!
Issue #2 - “One Big Battle” and Stopping the Steamroller
The result of unchecked snowballing is that, for many in 4X games, matches are decided by “one big battle.” The player with the biggest production and military advantage presses the attack and corners a defender. If they are able to stack the odds in their favor in advance, winning a key fight is often a foregone conclusion. And once the bulk of the defenders army is destroyed the aggressor just “steamrolls” their way to an inevitable victory, with their forces uncontested as they take over the opposing empire.
Stopping the steamroller is wrapped up in the above issues related to snowballing. Minimizing snowballing can slow down the steamroller – but not entirely. Ultimately, the streamroller effect is tied to conflict mechanics. If two players enter a conflict with equal force strength (both are equally snowballing), but winner of the first fight only takes 25% or 50% loses, while the loser has been eliminated, the winner has a tremendous force advantage moving forward in the game.
Managing Force + Battle Size
One approach that many games employ to minimize conflict outcome disparity is having Force Size Limits. Endless Space and Endless Legends are two games that come to mind in this regard, where each fleet or army can only contain a certain number of units. This is another case where I think the mechanical solution can work but isn’t very logical or compelling from a thematic standpoint, and leads to other strange effects. In Endless Space, you can end up with dozens or more fleets all stacked in one location, which adds tremendous overhead to managing your forces and breaks what would be one awesome space battle into a series of smaller and less thrilling engagements.
Age of Wonders 3 has a fixed stack limit of 6 units per hex, and when battles happen the target/defender hex plus all seven hexes around them are drawn into the battle, allowing up to 42 units in a single fight (7 hexes * 6 units per hex). It’s similar to the army size limits that the Endless games employ, and it does dovetail nicely into how tactical fights play out. Yet the system does create its own idiosyncrasies with being able to the game system a little and stack the odds for a fight numerically in your favor. Having a mechanism for drawing in reinforcements of over the course of a protracted battle could be a cool expansion on the basic concept.
Civ 5’s “one unit per tile” (1UpT) system is also a move in this direction. In an effort to eliminate the “stacks of doom” we instead get a “carpet of doom” that makes even less sense thematically and in poses a more serious tactical-spatial challenge for the AI.
Starbase Orion (iOS 4x game) takes a more flexible and nuanced approach (like the flexible escalating marginal cost notion above). Ships require a certain amount of command points (think upkeep) across your entire empire. You can have more ships than command points, but it starts diverting credits away from the general coffers at a really high rate. Regardless, the command points system creates a soft cap on the maximum force size of any one player’s empire – which can keep players a little more even. Yet command points ramp up as your empire develops and grows, so a snowballing empire will just have more command points to support a bigger fleet. And with battles tending to be “all in” the outcomes of a single battle can still be decisive for the game as a whole.
Curious Conquest Mechanics
The conquest mechanics of many 4X games are, in my opinion, one of the more confused and underdeveloped aspects of 4X games. In so many games, eliminating a city’s or planet’s defending army lets you, relatively painlessly, take it over and claim it as your own. Rarely do games require a sustained occupation to convert population – an occupation which could dramatically slow down the steamroller effect and give time for the defender to regroup and launch a counter-attack.
Armada 2526 does a, conceptually, good job of tracking the population of different planets that you capture. When you capture a “alien race” star system, the system is still occupied by the civilians of the alien race – they are often not too keen on their new overlords and suffer major happiness woes as a result. These woes can cascade into revolts and rebellion unless you maintain a fleet presence to “keep the peace”, marines on the ground, or build security centers. An interesting detail is that you can’t actually build marines of an alien race as a way to keep the peace, so it can be quite hard to ‘tame’ a hostile alien population.
I’m still waiting for a 4X game that layers in some sort of cultural affinity system – where for example the population of empire A might really like the culture/people of empire B based on long-term cultural exchanges. This affinity would make fighting across these cultural line highly unpleasant for both sides, and put some counter-pressure on attacking and being overly aggressive.
Fighting on Multiple Fronts
Another, often untapped, opportunity is the extent to which 4X games encourage players to split up their force and be able to attack on multiple fronts. In so many games, the best strategy is to keep all your forces in one spot for maximum devastation when the battle comes. This can be a result of how combat is designed, but it also has a lot to do with strategic movement and intelligence gathering. If you don’t have a way of moving past or around a big fleet (either through speed or stealth or both!) to raid cities or planets behind the line then there is little incentive for players to keep their forces dispersed and defending (and attacking) in multiple different locations.
Age of Wonders 3 does a relatively good job of enabling this sort of play. Scouting and map awareness is critically important, but there are also an abundance of fast moving and stealthy units. It’s entirely possible for players to be in a cold-war state along the frontlines with smaller pockets of forces infiltrating behind enemy lines to try and steal weakly defended cities. Unfortunately, outside capturing cities there is little for a raiding part to do – you can’t destroy resource nodes or structures with your raiding party, and so are somewhat limited in your capacity do deal clandestine economic damage.
I’m not a fan of “star lanes” in space 4X games, but they do create a topography for space with choke points and the like that can make it possible for a compact defensive force to hold the line in some locations while you press the attack in other locations. So that’s another approach to encourage multiple fronts.
Uncertain and Unpredictable Outcomes
The more certain the outcome of a typical battle is, the more unfortunate the impact of the “one big battle can be.” Uncertainty can be a mechanism that keeps a stronger player from holding off on their attack, wondering whether or not they have the strength to win, or what the costs of victory will be. This pause in aggression may be enough to let a lagging player mount a stronger defense, which prompts the attacker to question their advantage again or enables the defender to attack on a different front.
One game that manages this notion well is UltraCorps. Fleets can contain 100’s or even 1000’s of units, the combined strength of which is all rolled up into a few firepower measurements. But the way the combat mechanic itself works is never a guarantee. Outside of doubling the firepower of your opponent, it’s often possible to sustain heavy losses or outright lose the fight even with a noticeable firepower advantage. A few lucky hits early on in a combat round that takes out a key capital ship, for example, can have a compounding effect on the course of the battle. The system keeps things tense and interesting and you are almost always going to sustain moderate loses in a fight.
Armads 2526 detection system also keeps players on their toes in a nice way and makes the gameplay more uncertain. Unless an enemy fleet is relatively close to a sensor array, you won’t know the exact composition of the fleet headed your way, you might only get an approximate number of ships in the fleet. If the fleet is even further way, it’s just a blip, and you have no idea of whether the fleet is a single scout or decoy, or a full on invasion force.
Persistent Damage of Units
This is a smaller concept, but one that that many games use to good effect. For example, in Starbase Orion, damaged ships remain damaged unless the fleet returns to a system with a Starbase and remains idle for a number of turns. This is a nice way of putting the brakes on an invading force, because even if you don’t win the big fight, you can still do a lot of damage and make the next fight easier (assuming of course you have more forced on hand). Unfortunately in Starbase Orion’s case, battles can often be quite decisive, and often a winning force will come out of the battle with minimal damage and loses, and if the defender went all in on the fight, it’s probably all over for them.
Issue #3 - Micromanagement, Tedium, and Drag-out
The above two issues, city spam fueling snowballing and the One Big Battle leading to the steamroller effect, combine with the desired scale of most 4X games to create very unsatisfying late game and end game experience for many. City Spam results in players having to micromanage a large number of cities or colonies – often more than players might want to manage to maintain their production advantage. Winning the One Big Battle then leaves the player in the position of having to “mop up” the waning empires in a tedious, drawn out affair devoid of tension or deep decision making. A lot players just quit the game at that point and call it a win.
Bring in the Micromanagers!
An often employed approach to minimize late game micromanagement is to rely on planet/system/city AI managers or governors. The theory is that as your empire grows and grows, you are less and less concerned with optimizing the output on each and every management unit, and hence are more willing (no delighted!) to relinquish control to an AI manager. Personally I find this a really unsatisfying approach – and especially when a game is close and the hour grows late. If I’m fighting for my life to keep a snowball/steamrolling opponent at bay, the last thing I want is an AI governor buying stuff I may not need and consuming resources and time in the process. Yet, if the game requires me to manage dozens and dozens cities/planets/systems as the only alternative, that isn’t a good prospect either!
Generally speaking, if a game as AI managers that operate in any sort of shadow, left to their own devices sort of way, red flags go up.
Better Living Through Technology!
A different tact is to give players tools that make management tasks easier even as the game scales up. One of the most brilliant systems I’ve seen in this regard is the “custom build focus” mechanic used in Starbase Orion. Briefly, you are able setup and SAVE a custom build queue depending on a particular goal you have in mind for the development of a given planet. This queue bulls from all of the possible planetary developments that can happen in the game. For example, you could create a custom “Research Planet” queue that includes all the +research buildings, but maybe also sprinkles in some +production buildings (to make research faster), and maybe at the end of the queue a Starbase or other special projects.
The game handles the queues perfectly and it dovetails with your technology progress – so if you haven’t unlocked “Research Labs III” the custom queue will move on to the next queue item that can be built. If there is nothing currently available to build, the queue can have its default behavior specified (e.g. generate more taxes, boost growth, stockpile production, etc.) so that you don’t need to bother switching the planet focus around manually. At any time, you can swoop in a manually override the queue with a new build order, and when that manual order is done the planet will revert back to its custom queue.
All in all, this system makes it possible to manage many planets and systems quite easily. It accomplishes the same goal as AI managers, but it puts the decision and tools in the players hand and keeps the process far more transparent.
Swift Closure and Alternative Goals
The tedium and drag-out of the late game is at its worst when players are required to effectively exterminate all of the opposing empires to win. If the only goal extermination, and you’ve already won all the possible one-big battles, and the steamroller is steamrolling and the snowball is snowballing, then what is there to look forward to? For all that I like about Starbase Orion, the end can be a slog when it’s clear you’ve already won. Providing alternative win triggers can be a good way to combat this issue.
Age of Wonders 3 has a pretty clever win trigger. Each player/empire has a single “leader” hero, and normally if they die your leader respawns at your throne city a few turns later. However, if you manage to kill someone’s empire and capture their throne city before they respawn, you immediately win! If course, this goal can happen at any time, and often you see players, especially in human vs human games, strategize around assassinating a leader and using concealed units to capture the throne behind enemy lines. This is great for keeping players on their toes throughout the game, but also works well to avoid the end-game slog. After the “one big battle” you can usually scout around and find the enemy leader and make a push right to their throne city for a win.
Age of Wonders 3 also introduced a clever “Seals” victory, which is a sort of multi-point king of the hill system. Maps will have a number of great seal locations (based on the number of players) and holding a seal earns you charges. A variable “charge limit” can be set for an automatic win. With the Seal victory condition enabled, players end up fighting a lot around the seals, pushing people off when they get close to winning in an attempt to secure a win for themselves. This system gives an alternative to cities for forces to target and fight over, and the charge limits functions a bit as an timer to prevent the game from heading into tedious endgame scenario.
Last, Age of Wonders 3 also has a nice “surrender” mechanic – where if you capture a bunch of an enemy empires cities in a short period of time, and you have a large force advantage, the AI will just surrender outright to you, with their leader and throne city coming under your control.
Of course, civ and 4X games have often had all sorts of alternative victory conditions (research, economic, cultural, diplomatic, etc.) – and these can be very compelling ways of minimizing the slog of end-game conquest. Of course, unless you are in a tight race with other empires, achieving these victories if often an underwhelming experience of hitting “next turn” for dozens and dozens of turns on end until you amass enough money, research, culture, population, or whatever to meet the win threshold. In other words, these can feel pretty anti-climactic.
Asymmetric and Unconventional Designs
A current trend in 4X game design, which I think is trying to solve all three of these issues at once, is to just radically rethink the entire formula for what it means to be a 4X game.
An asymmetrical design is one option, such as in AI War or The Last Federation where the “players” empire or domain of control is fundamentally different from the challenge they are up against. No longer is the human starting out in the same situation as the other AI empires. Instead, the human starts out operating in a completely different way from their opposition, and both have fundamentally different ways of winning or losing. In speculating, I think we’ll see a lot more advancement and experimentation with these ideas.
Other games have taken more of an unconventional approach to the empire builder. “At the Gates” and “Empire” (an iOS 4X game) have players managing a sort of roving/nomadic city-state-clan-thing that may settle down in an area for a period of time, but eventually be pushed to migrate and move to a new territory. These games are asymmetric as well, as there are no other roving/nomadic “players” that you are competing with. Nevertheless, they providing a compelling solution to the central issues. There is no snowballing per se because you are hard limited to just a few (or just one!) “management” unit. Likewise, the smaller scale and focus of the game relative to the asymmetric opposition you face makes steamrolling a non-issue. What are you steamrolling against in these contexts? It goes without saying that management tedium is largely a moot point as well.
The issues discussed above (snowballing, steamrolling, management tedium) and the various attempts at resolving them, has defined much of the 4X genre at a fundamental level. How different mechanisms are employed to combat these issues and how those mechanisms sit relative to the games theme does a lot to differentiate the core feeling and experience of different 4X games and speaks to multitudes of tastes and interests among 4X gamers.
Recent years seem to be a little golden age for 4X and civ-style games, and it will be fascinating to see how many of the innovative ideas and experiments will be received and which will stick on ceiling as a good idea for the future of the genre.
In the meantime, I’d love to hear your thoughts on these issues. Are there creative solutions to city-spam or steamrolling you’ve seen in games that I didn’t mention? Other creative ideas you’ve had to meet these challenges? The phones are open!
Alec Meer, over at Rock, Paper, Shotgun, wrote an interesting personal piece looking back on 2014 and thinking ahead about 2015. In the article, he touched on both his expanding life role as a father – a demanding reality I can sympathize with – as well as how games fit within the broader context of life pursuits and bring (or fail to bring) memorable value. He also raises a concern over the mindless nature of some games, which seem to lure us in with a promise of freedom and a world of wonder but deliver something far less thrilling.
Alec Meer Wrote:
“I have a strong suspicion I spent too much time with too many games which use the Assassin’s Creed structure – the map full of icons, each pinpointing exactly where the next known quantity was, each one closing the door on having an experience which felt in any way personal. It’s a simulacrum of freedom – really, you’re in a theme park, repeating a sanitized and mechanical experience. You know exactly what’s where, exactly what’s going to happen, exactly how it’s going to feel.
The time passes pleasantly, maybe even thrillingly at times, but it means nothing, there’s no sense of achievement other than Achievements. Maybe it’s more compulsive masturbation than Disneyland (or maybe Disneyland is masturbation? Discuss) – make the itch go away, risk a faint sense of guilt and self-disgust afterwards, then do it again anyway.“
I’ve found myself in the same boat many times in the past – where I’m playing a game for dozens and dozens (or more) hours and suddenly the fog parts. And then I’m standing there all alone on the dock, wondering why it is exactly that I’m continuing to play a given game when it is clear that my mental image of what the game ‘could’ (or ‘should’) provide doesn’t match with what the game is, you know, actually providing – that the ship isn’t coming in. It’s a harsh moment that leaves one speculating whether or not they could’ve put their time to more productive use, or at least invested in a game that leaves you with something to show for it beyond a list of checked-off Achievements.
“Achievements” deserve their own topic. But as a teaser, I have to admit that I find the idea of achievements rather repulsive, particularly when the quest to, ahem, “achieve” them becomes a motivation for continuing to playing a game. Shouldn’t the sheer enjoyment of playing the game and the desire to get better at it be the principle driver? It plays into some sense of community showoffs-man-ship that, at least, for me, doesn’t do anything. But to each their own.
A Menagerie of Disillusionment
In an earlier post, My Journey into Haunting Ambivalence, I highlight a bit of the same frustration I sense in Alec’s article – that so many games just leaves him (and me) feeling unsatisfied. I wrote that, for me, games had to have a compelling combination of narrative, immersion, and challenge to maintain any lasting interest. If there is just one - or maybe two - of those elements the game usually won’t make a lasting impression, and I often come away regretting the time I spent playing it.
Among the videogame critics (at least those that I read), I feel like there is a growing frustration with the direction most games are going (achievements, unlocks, gamification-of-games, IAP, game-on-rails, etc.) and a desire to break away from the genre-tropes that have defined the videogame landscape for the past 15-20 years. I think we’re starting to get there, as developers gain more and more means to pursue their own hair-brained projects out from under the auspice of big budget publishers – but this also means there is also an awful lot more chaff to sort through to find those few nuggets worth drooling over.
Kurt wrote a great article, Postcards from the Edge, recently about trends on the board gaming side of the fence, and noted a trend of decreasing fervor in kickstarter boardgame projects. At some level it’s a case of general burnout I think – that perhaps the paradise of kickstarter wasn’t as green as we thought. Or perhaps it’s a sign of maturity, of realizing that we shouldn’t convince ourselves that we need to play 20 or 50 or 100 new games each year to keep on top of things –that instead we can be more discerning in our gaming habitats. And that maybe, just maybe, the 20 or 50 or 100 games we already have on the shelf will do just fine, thank you very much.
Cycles of gaming enthusiasm/obsession
This a little tangential, but as I think back on my own gaming history, I can divide it into rough, mostly non-overlapping, eras of obsession. At any point, I tend to find myself interested in a particular game such that 90% or more of my available gaming attention and time is focused on it – like Sauron’s great eye. And the hallmark of a gaming obsession, for me, is that I will also get involved with the community: joining the forums, doing beta/patch testing, making mods, working on a wiki, etc. My most memorable moments in gaming are thus wrapped up this nexus of gameplay and community contribution.
Cherry picking some moments ….
With Quake (the original) I was heavily involved with the map/level making scene and had my own (and my first) website to review deathmatch levels. There was an intense stint with Magic the Gathering circa ’95 (?). With the Elder Scrolls, and by extension Fallout 3, I was heavily involved in modding and made one of the preeminent Fallout 3 gameplay mods. I’ve been involved in various Warhammer 40,000 communities in times and written my own codex’s (don’t tell GW!). I got back into hobby boardgaming circa 2010 and re-kindled a game design passion, which spawned both this blog and Hegemonic. I immersed myself thoroughly into Starbase Orion (iOS 4X game) and helped with patch development. My current obsession is, without a doubt, Age of Wonders 3, which has set the bar (very high) for what I’m looking for in a turn based strategy game – and I’ve been heavily involved in the community forums and patch testing there as well.
So unlike Alec, 2014 was a good year for me in that I did identify it largely with one outstanding game, Age of Wonders 3 (released in March ’14), which has kept me thoroughly enraptured. The frosting on this cupcake is that I’ve also been able to rope a good friend into playing AoW3, and the game is simply fantastic as a multiplayer turn-based game. Plus I get the friendly interaction/banter going with my friend.
Yet 2014 has also seen far less boardgaming than the past many years, a trend which leaves me a little disheartened. Yet it’s an understandable reality as both myself and many of my close gaming friends are all having young kids running about – which changes the opportunities and dynamics of social gatherings in a rather significant way. That said – my close friends did make a sort of informal New Year’s resolution to actively plan period game nights, to get the aging clan back together for an evening of in-person boardgaming or digital shenanigans online. We’ve had one gathering so far, and need to keep the ball rolling and make it a regular thing.
But back on topic - I will get burned out on a given game obsession. The fog parts on the current obsession and I’m compelled to move on and find the next hit. I’ll hang, perhaps months in a sort of limbo flitting from one game to the next in an attempt to land on a new one that feels right, that can drag me in with its tantalizing mix of narrative, immersion, and challenge. Is this healthy? I’m not sure.
Gaming and the Pathways to Meaning
If there is one thing that seems to unify gamers it is a desire to interact with some other reality and the system of rules by which it operates. Some people describe this as escapism, the desire to have agency or power or control in an instanced world that isn’t the normal one we occupy – to test and challenge ourselves and each other in ways that don’t (usually) have lasting consequences. But if the games themselves don’t have lasting consequences, I do wonder what the lasting consequences of being a “gamer” on the whole will prove to be.
Like Patrick Carroll, will I find myself regularly reflecting back on decades of gaming highs and lows but perhaps struggling to understand why or how it has enriched one’s life. It’s a struggle I think we both share. Then again – the same argument might be said of other forms of media entertainment. Why read a fiction book? Why watch a movie? Why submerse yourself in a never-ending TV series? Games may give us agency to act within their fictional realities, yet do (or can) they inspire us or challenge our world views in the ways that the most memorable movies or novels have countless times in the past?
I’m not sure if games, as a whole industry/body of work, yet provide the sort of cultural meaning that other media can. Yet for many of us, we seem to be on a quest to find that level of meaning within games. To both couple our desire for agency and being immersed in another reality with some sense of greater purpose and insight that might enrich our lives more broadly.
Or perhaps, games are just an excuse to get together over a case of beer and a big bowl of pretzels. Or a 2-litre of Mountain Dew and Doritos. I’ll let you decide.
So doing these end of year wrap-ups appears to be a thing – so I better get on board lest I be accused of not doing the right things!
2014 has been a bit of a transitional year. Family changes (these things called babies and kids) has made breaking away from the home front an evening of boardgame debauchery a wee bit more challenging – driving me back into the hovel of PC and iOS gaming a bit more. Sadly though, within this hovel, I found myself bombarded with far too many seasonal sales of tempting digital goods for my own well-being. Steam seasonal sales, the Touch Arcade iOS app tracker (with sales notifications!), Humble Bundle sales (lord help me), and the ever-present GOG.com (nostalgia runs deep with this one!) has made sure that my wallet feels the cruel bite at regular intervals.
So given all of this, what have I picked up? What’s worth special attention? What have I actually been playing? What do I wish I was playing? What should I have played but didn’t? Well good friends, read on if you dare!
In the past year I’ve acquired the following (it pains me psychologically to type this all, but I’ll consider it my penance):
Actual Boardgame Acquisitions
- The Badger Deck
- Lagoon: Lost Druids
- Onirim 2nd Edition
This was a slow year in boardgame land. All the above, except the awesome Badger Deck, were acquired as Christmas gifts this year, and have yet to be played. Overall, with my boardgame collection, I feel like I’m at a point where I really have all the games I’m interesting in playing, and I want to just play those games more until I’m motivated to try something new. Ah wel…
Civilization / 4X Games
The 4X/Strategy genre is my favorite genre of videogames, and unsurprisingly were the biggest category of purchases. 4X/civ games are going through a big of a renaissance and there are some fantastic games coming out these days.
- Age of Wonders 1, 2, Shadow Magic (few hours with Shadow Magic)
- Age of Wonders 3 (200+ hours)
- Civilization 4 Complete (un-played)
- Civilization 5 Complete (10+ hours)
- Crusader Kings 1 (un-played)
- Crusader Kings 2 (couple hours, ugh – dense!)
- Endless Legends (~6 hours)
- Europa Universalis IV (un-played)
- Galactic Civ 2 (previously played/owned)
- Horizon (~2 hours)
- Space Empires IV (un-played)
- Space Empires V (un-played)
- Sword of the Stars Complete (previously played/owned)
- The Last Federation (~2 hours)
- Autumn Dynasty Warlords (played moderately)
- King of Dragon Pass (played moderately)
- Alien Tribe 2 (~ 2 hours)
- Palm Kingdoms 2 (less than an hour)
Age of Wonders 3 is, without a doubt, one of my favorite games of all time. I wrote about it in my review a while ago, and I continue to play it on a near daily basis. I’ve clocked over 200 hours (I own it on both Steam and GOG if that says anything!). It’s definitely war-focused 4X game, as the empire management is relatively simplified compared to other games. However the strategic aspects of force position and maneuver, as well as the tactical combat, is just out of this world. It reminds me a lot of a dream I had, which was playing a Warhammer 40,000 campaign on an over-world map with bases and multiple armies moving about, and then when the armies fight it drops into the tactical level battle. Tons of strategic depth and variety, awesome magic system, great visuals and lore … what more could I ask for?
Endless Legends is another 4X game, released in October, which is making some serious waves. Civilization: Beyond Earth was a letdown critically and for many gamers, but Endless Legends seems to have won people over in its place. It’s a gorgeous game, with some very clever ideas – but I personally find it a bit dull and boring in terms of strategy. Too much management and trivial decisions overall causes the game to feel like it’s playing itself a little bit.
King of Dragon Pass is an older game (from 1999?) released onto iOS and is one of the most incredible game designs/concepts I’ve ever experienced. If you can imagine a game that’s a cross between a tribe-management simulator, 4X, and choose your own adventure, then this is it. Highly immersive and narrative driven strategy game worth checking out. I wrote about KoDP a while ago as well.
A number of other game I’ve re-purchased and want to try out again to see how they hold up (Sword of the Stars, GalCiv2). A bunch of other games I picked up cheap (or got as gifts!) and still need to dig my teeth into. If only I could put down Age of Wonders 3!
RTS (Real-Time Strategy) Games
I used to play a lot of RTS games. Nowadays, it’s hard to get a un-disruptionable (?) block of time to play. Some of these I picked up because I missed the boat when they were first released and I’ve been wanting to give them a try when the moment is right.
- Age of Empires III: Complete (un-played)
- Medieval II: Total War Kingdoms (un-played)
- Planetary Annihilation (un-played)
- Rise of Nations: Extended Edition (un-played)
- Supreme Commander + Forged Alliance (un-played)
- First Strike (played moderately)
- Haegemonic: Legions of Iron (less than an hour)
- Galcon 2 (less than an hour)
First Strike is the game I’ve played the most in this category, which is a rather interesting weapons-of-mass-distriction based RTS game. Aside from being a frantic and compelling game in its own right, it also provides a bit of commentary and soul searching. There is something horrific that reminds us about the truth of nuclear proliferation when you complete a session. It gives you the civilian death toll and a single message of “You Won?” when the game is over, reminding us that there is little to rejoice in “winning” a nuclear war. Touchingly, part of the game’s sale revenues go to support anti-proliferation campaigns.
Tactical games (in my world) are generally turn based games down at the “squad” level.
- Sid Meier’s Ace Patrol (un-played)
- Motorsport Manager (un-played)
- Great Big Wargames (un-played)
- Warhammer 40,000 Space World (un-played)
- Hoplite (un-played)
- Banner Saga (just started playing)
- Shadowrun Returns (played 6+ hours, currently playing)
Banner Saga is an acquisition I just started playing. It is, without a doubt, a beautiful and conceptually interesting game. Experiencing it my iPad seems to be the ideal way to do it. I’ll have more to say on this in the future, I’m only about an hour into so far. Till then, enjoy the trailer!
Shadowrun Returns is a sort of hybrid RPG/Tactical Combat game based of Shadowrun of course, an icon of cyberpunk meets fantasy. I’m currently working my way through the game and greatly enjoying all it has to offer. The world isn’t as open as some previous Shadowrun games have felt, but maybe that’s just my initial impression. I still have a ways to go through the game before the jury is in.
FPS (First Person Shooter) Games
Once upon a time, FPS games were my lifeblood. Playing Quake, Half-Life, Counter-Strike, Unreal and so on in multiplayer was where my gaming was at. I’m far less inclined to pick up FPS games these days, and my generally out-of-date computer hardware is happy to reinforce this sentiment.
- Battlefield: Bad Company 2 (played 12+ hours)
- Guns of Icarus (just started)
- Insurgency (un-played)
- Metro 2033 (un-played)
- The Hunted (un-played)
I did manage to play Battlefield: Bad Company 2 quite a bit – and it is a blast for sure. Guns of Icarus just looks like too much fun to ignore. So I bought all my local friends a copy. Someday we’ll have glorious battles in the skies.
RPG / Action RPG Games
I used to play a lot of RPG games, and as a consequence I’m pretty discriminating about which one’s I’ll sit down to play. I bought a bunch (too many?) in various too-good-to-pass-up deals, but I found a couple of gems.
- Beyond Divinity (couple hours?)
- Divine Divinity (un-played)
- Mount & Blade (un-played)
- The Witcher (1 hour?)
- The Witcher 2 (un-played)
- Gothic 3 (un-played)
- Battleheart Legacy (played extensively!)
- Terraria (played 10+ hours, currently playing)
Battleheart Legacy is an action RPG (think Diablo-like game) that is just a blast to play. It has a really interesting and open class/skill system where you can mix and match skills from 9 or 10 different classes and come up with all sorts of interesting combos and synergies. It has a great interface and that addictive quality to it that makes you want to keep playing and mashing those skill buttons. I’m currently playing a sort of Teleporting Ninja / Backstabbing Thief / Leaping-Barbarian / Aura of Healing Paladin / Flame-weapon Battlemage sort of character – and it’s glorious warping about the dungeons battling foes. The game feels poised for an interesting narrative, but that aspect of it fell a little flat. Still, it’s a wonderfully well done game that is just a joy to play.
Terraria is my current addiction. It is sort of a side-scrolling Minecraft / survival-craft game. It’s a lot of fun digging down into the earth to look for cool stuff, but then stumbling through some wall and unleashing a Hoover-dam sized volume of water into the area you just excavated and frantically climb up you shoddy platforms and ropes to try and escape. Among other things. It’s a sandbox survival game that’s got a lot of positive press. Great fun and creativity.
Survival Games / Rogue-like
Survival and “Rogue-like” (basically permanent death) games have been on the rise for the past few years, and I find myself simultaneously annoyed and delighted by most of them. They are generally hard and unforgiving – but usually in a good way.
- Don’t Starve (played ~2 hours)
- Drifter (un-played)
- Dungeon of the Endless (un-played)
- The Long Dark (played 6+ hours)
- Shelter (unplayed)
- FTL Faster than Light (played 6+ hours, continue to play)
- Out There (played 12 hours, continue to play)
- Road of Kings (less than an hour)
- Card Dungeon (less than an hour)
- Wayward Souls (played 4+ hours)
- Arcane Quest 2 (less than an hour)
- Wicked Lair (unplayed)
The Long Dark is an FPS survival game still in early access. It’s a gorgeous game visually, and very immersive in its simplicity. Essentially, you are stranded in some frozen wasteland and need to find food, shelter, warmth, and so on to see how long you can survive. I’ve only made a few days in my best stretch. Usually I get eaten by wolves within a few hours of stumbling around in the dark. I’m holding off on playing more because I really like where this game is going and want to wait until it’s more finished before getting into it too much more.
FTL is an absolutely awesome game, and the iOS tablet implementation is just awesome. FTL has you commanding a space ship and its crew across a number of regions and sectors of space to deliver some secret plans to the good rebel guys. Something like that. I like to imagine that I’m Han Solo in the Falcon running from the empire and trying to get to the rebel base. There are tons of ships to try out, each with different approaches, and the basic decisions you face about how to spend resources and what equipment to utilize along the way is dazzlingly challenging in all the right ways. Things can go soooo wrong.
Out There is my poster child for a modern game with basically no violence (aside form you getting occasionally attacked). Imagine the Oregon Trail but in space. You have a ship and need to manage various resources and your cargo as you warp from system to system trying to reach one of the three end points. I’ve made it to one of them once. I’ve played it a LOT! It’s hard! But it is amazingly cerebral and introspective too. There are great narrative touches throughout and it’s just a wonderful game across the board.
Wayward Souls merits a mention, since it’s topped a lot of charts this year. It has a retro pixel art style reminiscent of the 16-bit console gaming era I grew up in. Damn is it ever hard. Or I’m just bad. There is an interesting narrative that leads you along, but unfortunately I’ve only seen about 1/8th of it because I’m terrible at the game. It is a fun challenge though, and it looks great in a retro sort of way.
Adventure / Narrative Games
I used to play so many adventure games growing up (sierra Quest games in particular). It’s nice that they are making a comeback in recent years, and in particular starting to show some real innovation and novelty in the themes and subjects they address. Adventure games, given their narrative focus, seem to be at the forefront of “games as art” efforts – or at least games pushing non-entertainment-first intents. More to come on that later.
- Dear Esther (completed!)
- Violet (3+ hours, still going)
- Child of Light (unplayed)
- Heroine’s Quest (just started)
- Hollywood Monsters (finished!)
- Mechinarium (6+ hours, still going)
- Space Adventure: A Cosmic Adventure (4+ hours, still going)
- Heavy Metal Thunder Game book (4+ hours, still going)
Dear Esther is a “walking simulator” type of game. These are games you just … walk. There isn’t really anything to interact with at all. You just walk, following a more or less linear path. Amazing aesthetics aside, there is also a narrator that provides voice-overs as you walk, gradually revealing a story as sublime and haunting as the landscape you are walking though. I won’t spoil the details, but the story has sparked all sort of discussions about WTF has actually transpired, and it’s possible the story isn’t even the same each time you play through. I haven’t dared play it again. But it’s worth looking at for a glimpse into this genre.
Boardgames + Puzzle Games
I’m lumping boardgames and puzzle games into the same category (oh the heresy!). I think I’ve mostly tapped out the iOS-adaptions of physical boardgames that interested me in prior years, and the number of releases for games I want to play has slowed down at bit.
- Quarriors (unplayed)
- Hearthstone (6+ hours, fading)
- Agricola (2 hours)
- Star Realms (played extensively, 100+ games?)
- Third Eye Crime (played ~6 hours)
- Catchup (unplayed)
- Hitman GO (unplayed)
- Damn Little Town (unplayed)
- Talisman (unplayed)
- Nightmare Cooperative (unplayed)
Star Realms has proven to be a constant winner tough. People knocked it’s UI at first, but I never had any issue with it. It’s a great game, addicting, strategic, and all of that. I’ve been playing it a bunch with local friends, which is a nice way to get some gaming in. Looking forward to seeing how this one expands in the future.
The above 75 or so purchases, all told, probably doubled my game library. And I still have 20 more games wrapped up in Humble Bundle bundles that I haven’t unbundled yet. In total, approximately 30 of this year purchases remain completely un-played – which isn’t too terrible considering the reduced amount of game time I have at my disposal these days.
iOS games have fared a little better since I’m likely play a bunch of different games depending on my mood. When I sit down to play a game at my laptop PC, I have a REALLY hard time not firing up Age of Wonders 3 and leading my empire on to victory. Age of Wonders 3, released in March, has already had one expansion come out, and a second expansion adding a new class (Necromancer) and race (Frostlings) is on the way. I’ve also been playing AoW3 multiplayer with local friends, which has been great fun for both the challenge and camaraderie.
What’s next? In 2015 I’d like to be a bite more judicious in my purchases. Videogame sales are sooo tempting, with games regularly in the $5-15 dollar range, so it hard to turn down a game you’ve been eyeballing when a good sale hits. Yet I have to keep in mind my time and capacity for actually playing all of these games!
That said, my watch list for 2015 is in full swing, and a future post will provide a look ahead at what I’ve been keeping my eyes on. There are some really interesting games coming down the pipe this year. And hopefully I’ll start getting some more boardgaming goodness in as well. We’re slowly emerging from the darkness of infant-to-baby care – and perhaps time will swing back my way again. Till then, cheers!
The quest for an exemplary space 4X game feels like chasing a ghost. Just when you think you have it captured, it glides through your fingers and disappears back into the closest. Or under the rug. Or whether else spectral spirits like to go.
You see, we 4X gamers are a fickle bunch and are knowingly unwilling to have our cake not be able to eat it. The cake, by the way, is a deliciously complex and multilayered affair – and the act of eating it is to be wrapped up in an amazing and evocative space opera while simultaneously getting our deep strategic gameplay fix. Unfortunately these dueling desires are at often at odds with one another. So the poor schmucks charged with creating these games are left in a sort of limbo state where it is hard to satisfy the fan base across all of their clamoring, confounded demands.
If its sounds like I’m ripping on 4X fans – I assure you I’m one of them too, embattled in my own internal conflict between wanting a wondrous narrative to open up before my eyes while also taking no substitutes for challenging strategic gameplay. I have a pet theory that there are in fact two camps or mindsets among 4X gamers:
Camp 1: 4X gamers that are drawn to the simulation aspects of watching their empires grow and unfold over a long period of time, at an epic scale, and at relatively relaxed pace.
Camp 2: 4X gamers that are drawn to interesting, consequential, and challenging strategic decisions where players are fully in control and games play out in a competitive and concise manner with lots of varied strategies to pursue and refine.
It’s possible (even likely) that any individual 4X gamer will have a hand or foot in both of these camps at the same time. And while not strictly speaking opposites, the gameplay and design implications of satisfying the two camps are often at odds. What makes a game more appealing from a simulation and narrative perspective tends to make it overwrought and weakens the strategic dimension of the game.
What’s a 4X gamer to do?
Until I make my own game, which will no doubt be the metaphorical equivalent of the grand unification theory for physics translated to 4X games, I’m not sure. Perhaps it is best if we at least try to be more cognizant of where our interests lay and by consequence advocate for the kinds of gameplay ideas that work well and satisfy both aspects of our demands. Until then, I want to take a look back at Armada 2526 – because it’s a telling case study of our fickle demands and how that cascades into critical reception.
Box Art! Do these things still come in boxes?
Armada 2526 is a space 4X game released back in the prehistoric time of 2009 and expanded in 2010 with the Supernova expansion. The game’s lead designer is Bob Smith – a name for which, despite its ubiquity, belies the fact that this is the lead designer and project director behind the Total War Games, up through Medieval 2: Total War. Good credentials for designing a 4X game right? So you might be asking yourself; (A) “why have I never heard of this game” … or perhaps (B) “I heard this game was terrible” or finally (C) “why are you digging it back out of the grave?”
If you answered (A) – chances are you didn’t hear about it because it was written off by many 4X gamers and critics right out of the gate. Written off, I might add, largely for reasons that the game didn’t conform to a lot of the expectations of 4X gamers. First, it doesn’t have race customization (oh noes!) – but it does have 20 or so different races and sub-factions to choose from, so isn’t all bad. Second, it doesn’t have ship customization (greater OH NOES!) – but as I’ll expound on later I think it is a better game for it. Lastly, there was a smorgasbord of lesser grievances: clunky UI, cumbersome real-time combat, too simple seeming colony management. I’m painting a nice picture here right? Well get back to all of this.
If you answered (B) – chances are you heard all of the above and took a pass on the game as a consequence. In that case, the rest of my retrospective here will be to convince you that it’s worth looking past these issues and take another look at the game.
If you answered (C), DING DING DING – I’ll shoot it to you straight: I think Armada 2526 (with the expansion!) is, despite its downsides, one of the better spacey 4X games released since Master of Orion 2. There, I said it. It’s a good case study for why less is more, and how through relatively simplicity (we are talking about 4X games here!) you can nonetheless manage to create a deep strategic experience with a fair dose of narrative theatrics on top.
This was a giant lead in to the review, but context is important. Where to start?
Imperial Star De-Structure
What Armada 2526 does well, in the grandest sense, is get the scale and focus of game and the level of management involved nicely balanced in a way that emphasizes the big picture strategic gameplay over the detailed nuts and bolts of empire management. When I think about my ideal space 4X game, I want it to be about grandeur, bold sweeping and transformative moves. I don’t really want to be down in the weeds telling this group of peons to go farm space veggies on the 5th planet from the star in the north-west quadrant. As I said in a previous post, I want to be Empire Uberlord: The Mastermind, and NOT Empire Manger: The Spreadsheet Tabulator. If I have to tell peons on each of my 100’s of conquered systems where to farm – man, that’s just not fun (for me).
Zoom in ... GAZE at the trade routes ...
So the “structure” of a 4X game is critical for getting the scope and scale balanced well. Structure, as I use the term, refers to how the “Management Units” in the game are designed and manipulated, and how connectivity and interactions between management units shapes a greater strategic space in the game. “Management Units” might be individual cities in a game like Civilization, or individual planets (like in Master of Orion), or individual star systems comprised of multiple planets (like in Endless Space). The easiest way to identify the management unit is to ask: “at what level am I managing production orders?” – this is a good proxy.
In Armada 2526, the management unit is the star system itself. Each star system will have zero or one primary planet of some type that can be colonized, and from then on management of that star system is all conducted via that one planet-as-star-system. It is a simpler approach compared to Endless Space where the build queue is system wide – although Endless Space provides details on all the planets in the system, which can be colonized separately. Armada 2526 is certainly a simpler approach, but it does a few things. First, not having to “zoom down” to a planetary scale keeps the action focused on the big picture and keeps the management overhead much less. Second, as each system just has one colonization opportunity, and different primary planet types can be harder to colonize initially (depending on your race) it forces some tougher trade-offs in how/where you expand.
For example, colonies project a “fuel range” line where your ships can operate, so often you are faced with the tough choice of whether to colonize a weaker planet to extend your range into other areas versus colonize something better but closer to your established areas. Star systems, as a whole have a few different critical properties:
- Primary planet type and habitability, which depends on your race. Some races love volcanic or Vesuvian planets, others love ice worlds.
- Star system-wide mineral richness – abundance of secondary planets provide more/less minerals across the system which affects production costs.
- Presence of asteroid or comet belts – which opens up options for asteroid/comet mines.
- Presence of trade or tourism resources (anti-matter, rare minerals, natural wonders, etc.), which can be used to establish trade lanes between system by building trade/tourism ports (a very cool little system by the way!).
- Other special anomalies (primitive races, tachyon storms, etc.)
The stuffs at a particular star system (and you won’t know in detail until you send a survey ship) starts to shape the possible advantageous directions for the colony to follow. What really makes it come together, however, is that each system only gets one development slot for each major increment of population. Development slots are incredibly limited throughout the entire game, which forces players to prioritize projects and “specialize” their colonies to a reasonable degree.
That new colony you established might be a perfect tourism spot if you develop the right space port, but it’s also on the front lines and would be an excellent spot for a scanner array to keep an eye on opposing empires. The planet might be highly habitat and give you great growth rates, but its mineral poor and expensive to develop. Do you keep it as a low cost breeder planet to emigrate population from, or make it a costly but rapidly developing research nexus? Tough choices abound, but they all play into the bigger picture. It’s about formulating a grander strategy rather than optimizing production outputs within each management unit.
Peace, Love, and Victory!
Colonies also have a fairly sophisticated approval system going on behind the scenes (you can see a breakdown within the colony window). Colonies have a “happiness” level which is driven by how much or little your race like the planet where they live, how pollution you spewing into the environment, and so on. Happiness feeds into “approval” where it merges with things like tax rates. Finally approval feeds into “stability” where it merges with inter-species dynamics and your security rating to determine whether a colony might start to go all rebellion on you. If a revolt kicks up, the good people start rioting and breaking your developments, not paying taxes, and might even revert/defect to someone else.
The skinny on your colony's conditions
Related to this system is a clever device the game employs, which is to track each races population with a planet separately. If I’m humans and I take over one of your planets, and you are some non-human race, the people of that planet really, really won’t like me much. They’ll start rioting almost immediately unless I keep garrison forces there for a long time, or at least long enough to build a pile of security centers (consuming valuable building slots in the process). This provides a nice, thematically apt counter-point to untethered militaristic expansion. Taking over someone else’s worlds can be easy, it’s maintaining control and actually deriving benefit from them that’s the hard part!
The above is a small but critical aspect of the design, because it feeds into how you WIN this game. The game’s victory condition is a points-based system depending on a certain number of turns (e.g. 200). The player with the most points at 200 turns (for example) wins. What’s nifty is that different races have different ways to earn points. Some races score points purely for the happiness of that race’s population. Others get points for winning fights and aggressive behavior. Others for dividend earnings on income (e.g. keeping a lot of cash in the imperial coffers). So, taking over another empire’s planet may do exactly nothing towards helping you win the game depending on your race. And this more than anything starts to drive the gameplay in different directions for different races in a neat sort of way.
Last, you can set immigration/emigration policies for planets and use transport ships to automatically ferry people around. The interface is a little clunky for this, but the idea is that you can start to move around the populations of different races you’ve absorbed – for example putting the captured populace of one race to work on an unpleasant mining world where you don’t want the “happiness” of your own race to be impacted. Brutal? Yes. Draconian? Yes. But compelling!
One thing I find grating about so many 4X games is when the bulk of the technologies just translate into +this and +that modifiers. Researching gives you the tools to scale up your empire and gives an impression of progress, from but a gameplay standpoint, the things you are doing at the start of the game are largely the same things you are doing at the end of the game – you’re just doing more and bigger versions of it. That’s not so fun in my mind.
The main research panel and 9 fields of research
What I adore about the technology system in Armada 2526 is that the vast majority of them open up new strategic or tactical level options. Even more interesting, and challenging from a gameplay standpoint, is how research itself works. Technologies are broken up into eight different fields of research (weapons, information, hyperspace, psychics, biological, shields, weapons, infrastructure), and each field has its own “tech tree.” When a player builds a research center on one of their colonies, it provides low level “general research” points. Little sliders next to all the technology fields let you allocate the relative distribution of general research points across the research fields, and the time it takes to research a selected technology in each field changes according to the distribution. Got it?
Now, players can also upgrade their basic research centers into a specialized research center that generates many more research points, but only in one specific field of your choosing. These can be upgraded further to an advanced center, and if you get enough upgraded centers in a colony one of them can become a Nexus for that entire field of research. So you can earn techs at a much faster rate by specializing, but then you miss out on the other branches. It’s a nice self-balancing mechanism.
Coupled with the limited building slots, this all usually means that you will have to pick a few fields to really focus on and build a strategy around if you want to get advanced techs. This system also makes trading techs very appealing in diplomacy, because each race might be pursuing certain advanced lines of research that you’ll never get access to otherwise (before the game ends).
The technologies themselves are divided between new ship designs, colony developments, sensors/radar, ground units, wormhole technologies, advanced movement orders, etc. One of my favorites is a technology that lets you change your fleet orders midflight. Another lets you send fleets to a parked location in deep space, where normally you can only send fleets between star systems. Different technologies for detection and stealth can set into motion a sort of information war arms race.
One criticism of many 4X space games is that … well … space is just so EMPTY. And as a consequence there isn’t much sense of terrain. In Armada 2526, there are “dust” zones made of up a sort of thick soupy matter in a few different densities, which does create some slow speed zones. A group of technologies helps specifically with dust navigation allowing you to penetrate through it much quicker.
In any event, these types of technologies, which open up new strategic or tactical opportunities, leads to more diverse and interesting gameplay compared to other games’ technologies based around incremental bonuses; which don’t really change your strategic calculus all that much. I much prefer Armada 2526’s approach.
Lest you think otherwise, there is a technology TREE behind the scenes
Conflict & Conquest
So combat. First of all, as I mentioned, the game does not involve any sort of ship customization. Most of the branches of research give access to different types of ships, and all told there must be 50+ different ship types. So there is a lot to work with – from slow moving missile destroyers to fast moving battlecruisers, to stealth-field equipped transport ships, to lumbering dreadnoughts. There’s a surprising amount of diversity at your disposal. I personally don’t like the mini-game tedium of having to design each and every ship, or manage a catalog of different units and tweak their loadouts each time my LaZor level goes up by one notch. It’s dry and pulls the attention away from the bigger picture (IMHO). If you “can’t” live without ship customization, Armada 2526 probably isn’t going to work. If you can, read on ….
Good luck trying to see anything quite this cool looking in game, but still ...
Combat itself is initiated via a “pre-turn” system. Under this system, you get a notification when your fleets are in the same spot as opposing fleets – and each player gets some options. They can pursue manual (or auto) combat or try to flee, or simply stand-off and not engage. If both players chose to stand-off (for example) your fleets will sit there in cold war state till one of you jumps. If the encounter happens at a planet, you can also use your invading fleet to “blockade” the planet and cut off trade lines – which can be a hit on people’s economy.
If a battle does happen, the manual battles are handled in a pause-able real-time system, ala Sword of the Stars. The interface is a fairly clunky here, the camera is pain to control, and the graphics border on nauseating. There is isn’t a tremendous amount of tactical combat depth in and of itself (e.g. positioning, flanking, detailed subsystem targeting, etc.) …
… But! One of the claims to fame is that space combat and ground combat happen in the same space. You can have a space battle raging over a planet at the same time planetary missile systems are launching rockets at your fleet at the same time you a dropping of storm trooper regiments to troop across the surface and blow up said missile defense systems. One of the small pleasures is infiltrating (with a super stealthy transport ship) squads of special forces (stealthy ground units) down to a planet in advance of a siege. When the battle starts, you can use your special forces to take out ground defenses before your fleet even gets into range. Pretty slick!
More often it looks like this ... not bad ... but serviceable ...
And if all else fails, there is always auto-combat, which to be honest I end up using most of the time. If you are the type of 4X gamer that’s really looking for a detailed combat system, Armada 2526 is going to be tough sell. If you can live with a relatively weak combat system, but not without a few strategically interesting aspects, then you’ll probably be able to look past this rough spot in the game.
Diplomatic Posturing and the Opposition
The diplomacy system is fairly robust by most 4X gaming standards, and players are given plenty of options for various diplomatic treatises (e.g. peace, defensive alliances, full alliances, trade missions, embargo’s, etc.). It’s great fun getting trade missions established between different empires and seeing a stream of little ships move between your respective colonies. It’s even more fun (or agonizing) having embargos placed on your opponents (or yourself!) to cut of trade profits – which can be a substantial part of your empire’s income in the later stages of the game.
Lots of options ... who do you want these kind machine folks to attack?
Given the game’s technology system, trading tech’s is quite beneficial as other empires might be researching completely different technology branches than you are – and it might be the only means of getting something you need. There are lots of options too for paying tributes, making one time payments, telling your allies to wage war on a particular other empire (and even pick a target IIRC). It’s robust and well done. Heck, you even get the "tell me what you think about those OTHER guys" diplomacy option, along with "let's share our maps!" which is often helpful when trying to determine where to expand.
As far as the AI goes – I’ve found it competently challenging and perplexing in behavior. In a way it reminds me a bit of Alpha Centauri’s AI. While I’m not positive the AI’s in Armada have different personalities per se, they deal with each other (and you) with a genuinely interesting sort of fickleness. They aren’t predictable, and that’s a good thing because it keeps you on your toes. A trusted ally is likely to stab you in the back if it stands to make a big gain, or embargo you if it feels like you can an economic advantage – or just attack you if it can get away with it. I’ve had some monster enemy fleets sent my way when I was thinking everything was so peaceful!
I’m sure the AI gets some behind the scenes bonuses – and in many cases you can even negotiate trades for hefty chunks of change (1000’s of credits worth). But even as exploitable as it might seem, I often find myself in the middle of the pack when it comes to victory, and placed in the precarious situation of deciding whether to attack a trusted neighbor that might be in the lead just to boost my chance at winning.
There is also a LAN and Play-By-Email (PBEM) system included as part of the expansion. I’ve played a number of games using the PBEM system and it works pretty well without having to rely on any external server systems to make it work. How’s that for long-term multiplayer survivability? As with many 4X games, the deepest strategic gameplay can be had by playing with other humans – and it is nice to see the game support this opportunity.
The Fit and Finish
Sadly, the GUI in Armada 2526 rubbed a lot of people the wrong way. Number one on the list was that there wasn’t a colony overview screen, that ubiquitous “am I playing a spreadsheet” window that’s a staple of most 4X games. People, exasperated at the omission of such a screen wrote the GUI off, when there are some surprisingly good aspects to it that make up for its faults.
One such feature is the “finder” which lets you sort and find all manner of planets and development structures to see where they are located and identify candidates for colonization efforts. You can filter down and look for “mineral rich planets” that are “unowned” and get a list such planet that you can jump to. There is a colony list panel that shows the morale/unrest levels of your colonies and gives an indicated of whether it’s currently producing system developments and/or ships at shipyards, and whether there is capacity for new projects. It’s a minimalistic UI to be sure, but once you are familiar with the game it’s perfectly functional and easy to tell at a glance what needs your attention.
A nice clean view, on a nice giant galaxy
Some of the colony management and fleet management panels are a little cumbersome initially as well – but once you learn your way around the UI it’s fairly fluid. I actually really appreciate the simplicity overall, and you can even collapse all the panels, almost entirely, and get nice de-cluttered view of the galaxy and the empires.
Function and aesthetic beauty are too different things though. While I am happy to argue that the UI is more functional than it may initially appear to a novice, the graphics overall are a bit rough around the edges – especially if your basis for comparison are newer 4X titles. But if you still think Master of Orion 2 is the pinnacle of graphic achievement, you’ll be in fine shape to appreciate what Armada does have to offer. But anyway – it’s all about the gameplay right? We don’t REALLY play these sorts of soul crushing conquest games for the graphics right? Well, your millage may vary …
Wrap-up Time, Because I’ve Rambled Enough
Over the past few years I’ve played (and replayed) a lot of other space 4X games – both old and new: Starbase Orion (iOS), Star Ruler, Endless Space, Distant Worlds, Gal Civ II, Master of Orion 2, Star Drive, Lost Empires, Sword of the Stars, Sins of a Solar Empire …. the list goes on. With the exception of Starbase Orion, none of them lull be back to playing with the frequency that Armada 2526 does. The game isn’t without its flaws, and there are some core aspects of the design that many 4X gamers just won’t be able to get past (lack of race + ship customization, weak tactical combat, unorthodox UI). Yet for those willing (or able) to look beyond its flaws at the good things the game DOES do, it can be a surprising gem. Many of the issues people have with 4X games (e.g. inability to scale up well in the late game, lack of stealth/detection, weak diplomacy), the game addresses rather well, bringing a fresh set of ideas to the table.
Overall however, the game comes together to provide an interesting STRATEGIC experience. The score based victory system gives players a lot of latitude and leeway in how they work towards victory, whether that be eliminating their opponents to keep from the scoring at all or jut masterfully guiding your own civilization to maximize your score. There is an expansive and creative decision space to explore here, and that’s what keeps me coming back.
So a while ago I started a Google spreadsheet file dubbed the “Game Tracker,” wherein I keep list of games that I’m interested in playing in the future. As the list grew and grew; and then grew some more – in concert with my available time shrinking and shrinking; and then shrinking some more – putting the games into an assortment of buckets so that I could prioritize my interest among like-seeming games became important. But hold onto this thought!
Now rewind back two years (give or take) when I was working more actively on the Game Genome Project. If you need a refresher, the Game Genome Project is a BGG guild comprised of various individuals looking to develop a nomenclature and/or classification scheme for boardgames. The basic premise of the project is this:
The Game Genome Project is a comprehensive and collaborative effort to identify the full range of traits (aka genes or characteristics) that can be used to describe board games along with the corresponding tools and practices for assessing and assigning these traits to individual games. The purpose of these activities is to provide the board game community with a more effective and commonly understood lexicon (vocabulary) for discussing board games and support analytical investigation of the boardgaming hobby.
One of the “traits” to investigate relates to the theme of a game, and we quickly arrived at two major distinctions: the theme as it relates to mechanics (level of abstraction vs. fidelity), and the theme itself as a subject and frame of reference for the experience. Theme as it relates to mechanics is a highly fascinating topic, and will be covered in more detail in the future. Till then, and to satiate your burning desires, I’ll direct your attention to this most excellent post by qwertymartin: How do you wear your theme sir?
As for theme as subject and frame of reference, there are a few key dimensions we considered: Scope, Setting, and Subject (yes, I deliberately made them all s-words!). To discuss how these work and apply, I’m going to bring us back to my little “Game Tracker” conundrum and see how these dimensions of defining a game’s theme might be used as a frame for understanding different experiences. Here we go!
Subjected to Subjects
First off, let’s consider the “subject” of game. The subject of a game can be a great many things; a nearly infinite menu of possibilities really. It could be trading, or political infighting, or subterranean exploration, or racing, or organized crime, or survival, and so on. Many of these subjects can and do suggest a certain place or timeframe – but I like to think about the subject a bit separated from time and place. You can have a game about “Trading” that is set in space (Merchants of Venus), or Trading in the Mediterranean (not again!), or cargo ship trading (Container), and so on. When thinking about a game's subject, I try to take a more universal understanding of it separate from its historic or fictional context, zeroing in on the activity the game trying to model.
The specific subjects we might consider are certainly of interest to people. But the sheer abundance of different subjects makes it quite challenging to use the subject as a corner stone of a thematic organizing structure. So let’s consider the next dimension of theme: setting.
Contextual my dear Watson!
If the subject defines “what” a game is all about, then the “setting” describes the where and when that what is occurring. As with the subject, there are countless settings that can be considered. However, more so then with subject, I feel the setting of a game can be broken down into meaningful sub-categories. I’ve found it useful to think about games along these rough buckets:
Twilight Struggle - A "Real World" Setting
“Real World” settings - historic or current era.
The setting is based on current or historic real world events, times, places, locations, etc. Warfare, as a subject example, can be set within World War 2, or the Cold War (Twilight Struggle), or ancient warfare (Command & Colors: Ancients) in the middle east, or Columbian guerillas (Andean Abyss). These are all based on historical events and real times and places.
“Alternate Reality” settings
These are settings that generally take place “on earth” but represent a historic divergence from reality at some point in the past (or in modern day), perhaps even incorporating a bit of the fantastical and outrageous in the process. For example, various steampunk Victorian, or Lovecraft-ian Cthulhu, or zombie apocalypse settings fall into this bucket. It’s imagining “what if” scenarios. What if steam-technology became far more advanced in the past and reshaped resulting history? What if the Old Ones awoke from the deep? What if you walked outside to get the newspaper and found your neighborhood overrun by zombies? What if indeed!
The overlap between fantasy, alternative reality (above), and science fiction (below) can be nebulous. That said, I find “fantasy” settings to be those where the preponderance of the setting takes place on a fictionalized world or reality that presents a fundamentally different understanding of reality compared to our own. There might be other rules or forces at work (magic, demonic manifestations of good & evil, etc). And most “fantasy” settings operate at level of technology that is pre-mechanization or less-advanced then recent history and might best be viewed as occurring “in the past.”
“Science Fiction” settings
These settings are imagined realities defined largely by plausible technology that is more advanced than the technology of the current day. Obviously, “plausible” has to be taken with a grain of salt, and the line between plausible and “magical” can be thin or non-existent. But even so, whether the theme fits within the idea of sci-fi or not is largely based on technology explaining the nature of reality, rather then it being controlled by “mystical forces” or something less concrete and rational.
“Abstract” settings and fidelity
Games are necessarily abstractions of the subject and setting and they seek to encompass. While we can consider the level of abstraction that exists within the theme and its relationships to the game’s mechanics irrespective of the setting, “abstract” as a setting also exists. What I find intriguing about considering the abstract as a setting is that it recognizes that abstract games can still be about a particular subject; it’s just that the subject is represented in a abstract manner! For example, there is a fabulous iOS games that resembles Go called “Pathogen.” It is certainly an abstract game, yet it nevertheless manages to be about cells being altered by pathogens – it demonstrates a process and dynamic, albeit in the abstract.
Obviously, there can be all sorts of overlaps within the buckets above. Various role-playing systems and have often combined swords & sorcery with lasers & space ships to yield strange science-fantasy amalgamations. Post-apocalyptic settings (e.g. Fallout universe) straddles the line between science-fiction and alternate reality. Ultimately, this is a bucket system that works well for me, and hopefully it’s a useful structure for others to consider.
Pathogen - Abstract but still with Subject
Scope: Scale and Point of View
The last dimension of theme under consideration relates to “scope.” Scope relates to the scale of control and point of view the player is assumed to have within the game. Said another way, it’s what players are given control and sovereignty over – and as an organizing element is the most interesting in terms of how it shapes the experience a player has in a given game.
I see scope as scale progression from very large (e.g. ruling an entire galactic empire) to quite small and personal (e.g. first-person narrative experience). At broader scales, players are typically managing large volumes of resources over large spatial areas, and often in highly abstracted ways. At finer scales, players are directly controlling a single entity or being, often in highly detailed or narratively personal ways. At the broad end, we’re playing Civilization. At the fine end we might be playing a roleplaying game. And of course, some games manage to bridge across scales and have players managing things at different scales at different times. Yet in these cases I feel it is often the largest scale that dominates and drives the gameplay; and hence most influences the scope of a given game.
So, I’ve used the “scope” as the primary organizing element for my Game Tracker and setting priorities. I tend to enjoy science fiction more than fantasy, and fantasy more than history in my games – but I’d be happy playing a great Civ/4X game that feel taking place in any of those settings. But Civ/4X games all share a common broad-scale scope, and on some level deliver a similar type of experience. When it comes to playing a limited number of games but wanting a range of resulting experiences, I’ll get more diversity out of playing one Civ/4X game and one roleplaying game then playing two Civ/4X games each with a different setting.
Onto the breakdown!
Endless Space - Master of the Galaxy!
Civilization / Empire / 4X Games
These are games at the big end of the scope-scale continuum. Players are typically responsible for managing a multi-faceted empire with an array of issues, including warfare, technology, cultural development, trade, politics, etc. The player lacks (typically) any actual manifestation as a discrete character or entity, and players largely play the game from a “hand of god” perspective, which looms over the game world.
These are games where players are typically managing a defined slice of a broader setting. I think train games are a good example, where players are managing a company (or investments in multiple companies) in order to build transportation infrastructure and overseer trade operations. The whole concept is couched within a broader context of human growth and expansion across the continents (which a Civ game could tackle at a higher scale). In terms of videogames, I often feel that RTS (real-time strategy) games fit within this operational scale. Players in StarCraft aren’t managing all of the human empire, they are controlling specific engagements that require base-building and combat at a smaller scale. Likewise, many wargames fit here – with the player assuming the role as a key general or commander in executing a plan of battle.
Group-level games task the player with managing a group of individual entities, controlling their individual actions, characteristics, developments, and so forth at an individual level. Group-level games can run the gamut, and are usually played out in a finer tactical game space with each member of the group differentiated and unique in some way. This group could include a party of adventurers (e.g. the digital version of Warhammer Quest where the player manages many individuals in their group), or the crew of a vessel (e.g. a space ship in FTL), or the XCOM team (although XCOM has some modest operational scale attributes too). It’s Mordheim and Necromunda and Battletech.
3rd Person Games
3rd person games see the player controlling a single entity/actor in the game, but from an external or 3rd person perspective. This perspective results, generally, in a moderate degree of abstraction in how the player perceives themselves within the game world. Players might see things the in-game character couldn’t. On the videogame side of the fence, this includes the large top-down action-RPG genre (Diablo and derivatives), as well as sidescrollers, point-and-click adventure games, and a great many other games. On the boardgame side this includes most of the dungeon crawling type games (among others) – where each player has one miniature representing their character/persona, which they move around the game’s environment.
1st Person Games
First person games endeavor to put the player into the mind and viewpoint of the character in the game, immersing them as fully as possible. Obviously, there are plenty of examples of first person games on the videogame side of the fence. And I do lump “over the shoulder” perspective games into this category, as the camera is generally fixed to your point-of-view and the control schemes are usually the same whether over the shoulder or truly 1st person. On the tabletop side, the closest approximation are full featured role-playing games that require players to imagine the world in their mind’s eye from the vantage point of the character they are playing, and act and respond to that world from that perspective.
So there you have it! That’s my breakdown of the various subjects, settings, and scopes that a game’s theme can take on – and as a result how that translates to the player’s experience and the perspective they have in relationship to the game world. I’ve used this structure to organize my Game Tracker, making note of the general setting (fantasy, historic, etc.) as well as other notable features I find interesting (survival games, roguelike, RPG-elements, turn-based, narrative, sandbox, cooperative vs. competitive, etc.).
My plan is to follow-up this post by focusing on games within each scope bucket (e.g. Civ/4X games) and talk a bit about my perceptions of the genre, games I’m playing, and game’s I’m keeping an eye on. For now, I’d be happy to hear any feedback on the above breakdown of theme and player perspective.
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