Oliver Kiley(Mezmorki)United States
First, a disclaimer: This whole post is like just my opinion, man.
Now onto the grave business at hand…
I was listening to Three Moves Ahead 2018 yearly review of strategy gaming, and the conversation inevitably swung around to how things went for Paradox this year, which unsurprisingly gets us to Stellaris (which has been the hottest space 4X videogame since 2016 - for those that might be wondering). One of the panelists made a comment to the following effect (I’m paraphrasing): I finally have to come to terms with the fact that Stellaris is increasingly not - nor likely to ever be - the game I imagined it would be.
I couldn’t agree more.
Many of Stellaris’s major patches - version 1.6, 2.0, 2.2 - have been riddled with bugs, glitches, and game-breaking jankiness or oversights that have certainly hurt the reception of the game. But for this conversation, I want to set all of that aside. I want us to pretend that these major updates were released and working as intended without the technical issues that have been levied on the fan base and patient customers. I want to pretend the game is working properly because I want to focus the conversation instead on the changes to the game’s underlying design.
When I say that Stellaris is dead, it is not because of bugs and glitches that will - in all likelihood - eventually be fixed. After all, version 1.6 was an utter mess. But by version 1.9 the game was stable and working well. It can happen again.
Rather, when I say that Stellaris is dead, it is because - “FOR ME” - the game’s underlying design has gone in a direction that runs counter to both my preferences, but more importantly, against what I felt the initial vision and dream of Stellaris was in the first place. And not just for me, but for a vast swath of the game's early adopters.
What was this initial vision, you ask?Galaxy spanning empires and beautiful geopolitical messes… in theory.
Stellaris was billed as 4X meets Grand Strategy, and is developed by the company that is the undisputed master of grand strategy games (Paradox). My idealized vision of a 4X game is one of empire growth and expansion that feeds into a titillating geopolitical strategic experience. By geopolitics, I’m talking about diplomacy, foreign trade, military deployments, competing ethics and national personalities - you know the stuff that Europa Universalis IV is praised for. I thought, that this is what Stellaris would be. That it would take geopolitical strategy and bolt on the initial empire expansion and exploration hallmarks of 4X gameplay. It would be glorious!
When Stellaris launched (again ignoring the bugs and glitches and quality of life lapses in the UI), I felt that I could see the light at the end of the tunnel. Here was a game where you could have a 1,000 stars and dozens of races in all sorts of geopolitical entanglements (Vassals! Subjects! Alliances!). It had an exceptionally refreshing exploration and discovery phase. The warfare system offered up something unique at the strategic level (e.g. accounting for varied types of FTL movement or how federations operated).
The game also tackled one of the big questions that has dogged the genre for years: how do you scale up the size of your empire to dozens or hundreds of systems across an entire galaxy without drowning the player in tedious micromanagement? The answer of course is the sector system, which lets you scale up the level of your management to match, so that you don’t have to deal with the individual planets anymore. The sector system frees you up to focus on the grand geopolitical game. At least in theory.
In those early days, we could opine about all the things that needed improvement: rebalancing combat mechanics, improving the sector AI so it wasn’t a dunce, adding even more diplomacy options, making leaders more interesting, reworking the internal faction system, adding quality of life features, refining the end-game threats. Maybe even adding a cool ethics based goal or victory system.
We got a few of these improvements over the past few years. But we also got a lot of things that undercut, trivialized, or simply did away with them entirely. Whole gameplay systems were replaced with re-designed systems that took the game away from its initial vision (and what compelled me to hold out hope for so long) and turned it into something else entirely.Lordy, take a look at the new, low-micro planetary management model.
Let me try to spell it out it as concisely as I can. The changes to Stellaris have taken the game further away from its premise as a grand, highly interactive, geopolitical 4X game and more towards an inwardly focused, optimization-based, low-interactive empire management game. I see a very stark difference between an empire management game (think of city management games) that focuses gameplay around internal decisions and optimizations and a typical 4X or Grand Strategy game where the gameplay is focused around external interactions (warfare, diplomacy, trade, etc.).
In short, the changes to Stellaris, on the whole, have shifted the entire conceit of game from externally-oriented to internally-oriented gameplay. Evidence:
* Instead of multiple, distinct FLT (faster than light) modes of travel that created a rich strategic landscape, we now just have star lanes with easy to defend choke-points and brain-dead warfare strategy as a consequence (hold the gap!).
* Instead of messy territorial boundaries that create weird emergent situations and force strange interactions with foreign empires, we have neatly defined and discrete territories with very little uncertainty or dynamism.
* Instead of building a huge empire and being given the tools to manage it at higher level, the game space has been shrunk down.
* Instead of a clean and intuitive planetary management system (if a little micro-heavy outside of using sectors), we now have a labyrinthine horror masquerading as planetary “economy” - which incidentally requires even more micro and attention paid to it (see the diagram above). All of this means fewer planets to control and relatively more focus on the internally-oriented optimization gameplay. God help the AI understand this.
And overall, instead of a daring game of exploration, expansion, and geopolitics, we’re left with a safe game where we can build our little, tall, turtle empire in the corner and not have to interact with other empires much at all. The AI is clearly broken right now - but I suspect a lot of people are just fine with that - because they don’t want to deal with the AI or other players/empires in the first place.
Worst of all, is that so much time and effort was spent reworking existing game systems, which needed tweaking not wholesale replacement, that we’re still waiting for many of things that have been sitting on the wish list since day one. Diplomacy has gotten worse since launch, with whole ideas and mechanics stripped out and replaced with nothing. Sectors were improved - and then their reason to exist was virtually eliminated in version 2.2. Trade was added, albeit through a half-assed global marketplace. Warfare has changed and yet the mechanics around war score vs. war exhaustion feel like they are still going in circles with no clear direction in sight. And of course we’re still waiting for something to spice up the mid- and endgame.It’s like their empire boundaries naturally conform to the choke points! That’s soooo deep
A good number of people, perhaps even a majority, are happy with the changes in the game’s design direction (assuming the technical issues are fixed). For many people, it seems their enjoyment of Stellaris is coupled to the narratives they imagine for their empire, which are heightened by the more internally-oriented gameplay systems. So for them, the changes may be seen as a positive. This is, I worry, part of a larger trend in strategy gaming towards less-interactive gameplay systems. So to say the least, I’m not surprised.
Call me old school, but I want the narratives I create and the stories I can tell to exist on the grander, galactic, geopolitical stage. On the stage that I thought Stellaris was building. That’s my dream for a 4X meets grand strategy game. But increasingly, this dream is a distant and fading memory. I have little faith that Stellaris will be the game to revive this dream. And so I hold out hope that some other game will.
Musings on games, design, and the theory of everything. www.big-game-theory.com
Archive for Review-ish
- [+] Dice rolls
It's been awhile, hasn't it? I suppose that means it is time for the
regularyearly gaming update, coupled with the promises to do more frequent updates, right? Promises or no promises, the show must go on! So let's just launch into it.
Reflections on the year in gaming
Excuses first. I've continued to be a contributor over at explorminate. Between writing articles and playing the games we review enough to write those articles competently, a fair amount of time has been sucked up, which would otherwise have gone to writing here at Big Game Theory. Woe is having too many games to play!
I'll do a bigger recap of video game stuff in a separate article, but I'll mention the most interesting tidbit for now. Over the summer I wrote an article, All That Glitters is Not Gold, that was a heavy criticism of the state of 4X games and some of the challenges facing 4X game development.
Specifically, the article was about the lack of "polish" (balance, fine tuning, focused gameplay, etc.) among so many big strategy titles. It is interesting coming at videogames from a boardgame player and designer perspective, because polishing a boardgame design is so fundamental to making an enjoyable game for people. In 4X games, this lack of polish is most exemplified in the late game stages, where it's clear to me that relatively little design effort is focused around victory conditions. Imagine playing a boardgame where it just didn't really end, or where all the things and decisions you made playing the game were disconnected from how the winner was determined. Many people don't see this as a problem for 4X video games - but it bothers me quite a bit.
So before I get too enraged, let's proceed onward to the boardgames!
A Shift in Interests
To kick things off, the kinds of boardgames that I've focused on over the past year has shifted in response to life circumstances. Less time for big heavy multi-hour long games has prompted a deeper look into more kid-friendly games that still retain a spark of depth. While I did manage a few games of Runewars earlier in the year (more on that below), other heavier plays have been relatively sparse.
Hence, I'm finding myself drawn to games with some different traits than in the past:
First, are games with less complexity and fiddliness. Not that I cared much for complexity before, but now I'm really not interested in games that require more than about 5 minutes to teach (at the upper end). Even beyond playing games with my kids (the oldest is almost 7), when getting together with friends over a few beverages, lengthy rules explanations are a buzz kill. I want to be able to dump the box on the table and jump right in to the action.
Speaking of jumping right in, long and convoluted setup processes are also starting to bother me, and I'm wary of games that cannot be setup quickly. When kids are involved or any sort of time constraint exists, being able to get into the game fast is a big plus. Having to sift through a dozen baggies and meticulously arrange the starting board setup just isn't something I want to do. I realize that this may limit the scope of games that I find appealing, but so be it.
Along those lines, I also continue to be enamored with games that pack a lot of gameplay into a small package (e.g. box size). My self-imposed collection limit is that I'll keep what I can fit on the game shelf (which is about 2/3 of a largish bookcase plus a few drawers). I simply don't want more games than that - and a side effect is that games with big over-sized boxes relative to either the amount of components or the amount of depth in the game bother me (man - I'm starting to sound like a complainer!). Basically, I don't want games taking up more space than they need to. And on an even more sublime level, I really like picking up game boxes that feel "dense". Of course, this would seem to work against my desire for less complex games with fewer components, but it's really about just having smaller boxes that tightly fit the components.
And then there are the games that I acquire for some 'vain' reason. Maybe it's that the artwork strikes me and I want the game as a physical product, irrespective of it's potential play opportunities. Other times there may be certain mechanics or ideas (or designers) I'm curious about and want to tinker with - even if I'm not convinced the game is one that will hit the table much (if it at all).
Last - I've been paying more attention to cooperative games than usual. As I've been gaming with my daughters more and they are really into cooperative games and working together. They don't seem very interested in the typical competitive approach to gaming. I try to think of Knizia's quote: When playing a game, the goal is to win, but it is the goal that is important, not the winning. And so I stress, for competitive games, that it isn't about who wins or loses, but that we all do our best in pursuit of the game's goal. That said, we've also taken to playing competitive games in a "cooperative" mode where we just add our scores together at the end for a big uber score. Whoever contributes the most gets a high-five.
With these reflections out of the way, let's talk games!
New Games Played
5-Minute Dungeon (rating: 8; plays: 20+)
This is a joyous game to play, be it with young kids or adults. It is a "real-time" game and feels like an inverted version of Pit, in a way. Each player has a deck of cards aligned to their chosen hero class (bonus points for each hero card having a male and female option). Mostly the cards are simply symbols (shields, swords, arrows, spell books, etc.). The group has 5-minutes to work through a stack of dungeon monsters or obstacles by flipping over a card and then frantically playing cards to match the right symbols to clear the current card.
This has been a big hit with groups of kids as well as adults - and I must say the kids do just as well as the adults do! Despite the simplicity of system, it is surprisingly challenging with more nuance and coordinated play required than one might expect. You have to keep an eye out for opportunities to use a special card or ability to save time (and basic cards - because if you aren't careful you won't have enough of at the end to beat the final boss). It's straightforward yet has room for skill development.
Curiously, the mass market version of the game does not include the same difficulty and player count scaling options that the original kickstarter version did - which is a strange omission because it's really important! Without the per-player difficulty scaling, it's much harder with 2 players and too easy with 5 (for example). Anyway, BGG comes to the rescue once again if you check the file section.
Arboretum (rating: 7; plays: 3)
I finally got this to the table for a few plays this year. Unfortunately, this is one of those games where my typical gaming partners bounced right off the game. While on the surface it has the appearance of a straightforward rank & suit style game card, the play itself is very multifaceted (and fascinating I might add), but in a way that also isn't very intuitive. For seasoned gamers this isn't likely to be an issue, but for casual gamers the mental overhead proved a bit much.
That said, the artwork is gorgeous and the gameplay itself is a very clever mix of tableau/network building and rummy-like card draws + discarding. What throws people for a loop is that the scoring is not only contingent on what you've built in your tableau but is also contingent on what cards you have left in your hand at the end of the game. In order to gain the right to score combinations of cards in your tabelau, you have to the have the highest card value of that same suit in your hand. It's almost like playing two games at the same time and needing to win in both to do well. I find it awesome but not everyone else sees it that way. I'll keep it around in hopes of getting more plays.
Fox in the Forest (rating: 8; plays: 5+)
My wife loves the partnership trick-taker Euchre. Alas, that game requires 4 players. Along comes Fox in the Forest, and lo and behold we have a rather clever 2-person trick taker (a rare thing indeed). The game has 3 suites of cards numbered 1-10. Players earn points based on how many of the 13-tricks they take in a round. The interesting thing is that if you take too many tricks (e.g. shoot the moon or close to it) you don't get ANY points. So there is a really careful line you need to walk in order to score well.
Additionally, each of the odd numbered cards has a special ability that goes along with it, like being able to swap the trump card, taking the lead even if you lost the trick, etc. These special cards are essential to good play and controlling the momentum of the tricks. So far, my wife and I both really enjoy this one - despite me getting consistently wrecked by her!
Master of Orion: The Board Game (rating: 6; plays: 1)
This one is a bit tricky. I'll be doing a review of this at some point for eXplorminate, but after one play I'm quite sketpical. For the record, this is definitely not a 4X-style boardgame in the vein of Eclipse, as one might assume based on the Master of Orion videogame license it uses. Rather, this is a tableau-based card-driven engine-builder. Think 7 Wonders or Race for the Galaxy.
Unfortunately, somewhere along the way, the design forgot to include much by way of player interaction. Whereas 7 Wonders has card drafting and Race for the Galaxy has the role selection (with role leeching) as a means of making the core action dynamic have an interactive element to it, Master of Orion is a straight up action point game. There are practically no interaction points in the game, with players focused almost entirely on their own optimization puzzle. I haven't played a game that felt more like multiplayer-solitaire since... forever.
This is all kind of a shame. I actually like the basic card play and resource mechanics for building your empire. The problem is that, in the absence of an interactive action system, the card effects themselves needed to have WAY more interactive abilities to make me actually care about what my opponents were doing. A bit of a missed opportunity, sadly.
Raiders of the North Sea (rating: 9; plays: 5)
Now this game caught me unaware - but in a truly good way. Remember how, up above, I talked about "vain" purchase decisions? Well, this was one of them. As I considered my collection one day, it occurred to me I didn't really have a viking themed game. I like vikings quite a bit (I even a viking Halloween costume as my go-to outfit), and so this this lack of viking games bothered me. As I found myself at my favorite local game store, I considered the available viking-themed game options and this one jumped out because of, I'll admit, the artwork. The game is gorgeous and the illustrations are just lovely. This was an impulse xmas present purchase for... myself.
I was a bit worried because Raiders is billed as a worker placement game - which normally I don't really care for. But it turns out it isn't really a worker placement game in the normal sense. It doesn't have the same sort of solitary engine-building exercise that exemplifies most worker placement games, as you're never expanding your action (worker) capacity. The place-a-worker and pick-up-a-worker system de-emphasizes competitive placement decisions and replaces it with a more collaborative dynamic. And yet, many of the cards and crew abilities are directly confrontational and there is often fierce competition for the prime raiding locations.
Anyway - this game is a sleeper hit for me. I wasn't following the whole North Sea Saga series much before, but now I am enthusiastically. I suspect after more plays I'll have a more in depth analysis of this game to unveil.
Bonus points for having a reasonably-sized and dense box!
Runewars (rating: 9; plays: 3)
Last year, I mentioned that St. Nick brought me a copy of Runewars. I had a chance to play this epic monster a few times and it didn't disappoint. This is a BIG game - tons of miniatures, tons of tokens, hundreds of cards, modular boards, and so on. I wrote an equally BIG REVIEW of the game for eXplorminate - so if you want the full story check that one.
Otherwise, I'll just say that I'm very impressed by this game and how all the pieces fit together. For each of the avenues of critique I levied at 4X videogames, Runewars offers up a compelling solution. It's a very multi-layered game, but these layers entwine in compelling ways over the course of the game's seasons (rounds) and the rough choices both big and small. A glorious game. Can't wait to play more.
Hit Z Road (rating: 8; plays: 3)
This game killed 3 birds with one stone. #1: I had no game's my Martin Wallace (oh the humanity!). #2: I had no Zombie games (oh the horror!).
And #3: I had no bidding games (oh except Cyclades). Hit Z Road was a chance to remedy all of this lapses in my boardgame collection.
Overall, I'm pretty pleased with the game, although I would like to get it to the table more and really dig into it. That said, I found the whole artwork and component package to be pretty clever and engaging - and the progression of cards the events that unfold as you get past them builds a cool narrative for the player. The mechanics are solid and I like that the game is kinda-sorta a coop while still being competitive at the same time.
Kingdomino (rating: 9; plays: 40+)
I'm finding that in the absence of other information, the Spiel des Jahres nominees aren't a bad bet, most of the time. I was in the hunt for a family friendly game that I could play with my kids. If I could find something quick to setup, smallish box, and durable components that would be the icing on the cake. When I came across Kingdomino I took the plunge.
After playing 40+ plays, I must say that I really like this game. And Bruno Cathala again reinforces his place as one of my favorite designers. This game has worked well even with my 3-year old. We give her a little slack on tile placement (she doesn't have to stick to the 5x5 grid) and this way the whole family can play together. I love the little details on all the tiles, something my kids noticed right away. While the game isn't super deep, it can be surprisingly cutthroat and competitive at times.
Bonus points for helping the 6-year old with basic math and multiplication.
Rhino Hero (rating: 7; plays: 10+)
Rhino Hero is great. This is a reverse Jenga of sorts where players are tasked with building a tower of cards. I first heard about the game during the research phase of an older article I wrote on competitive and cooperative game formats. Rhino Hero has multiple end-triggers and victory outcomes that are possible. (A) If one player plays out their entire hands of cards, they win. (B) If the building collapses, the player that caused the collapse loses and the player with the least cards left wins. (C) All of the wall cards have been built and everyone wins. The only outcome that isn't possible is the game wining on its own.
All said and done - this works equally well as a kids game or as a drinking game for when adults are behaving like kids.
Jamaica (rating: 7; plays: 10+)
So I was also on a quest for a nice race game, and something that I could play with kids as well. Someone, somewhere, suggested Jamaica and I did a little research before deciding to pull the trigger.
Jamaica is a race game coupled to a pirate theme, coupled to a hand management game. The game plays at a brisk and exciting pace, and the system whereby the active player rolls two dice and chooses which affects the "day actions" versus the "night actions" for all players does wonders to keep everyone engaged and paying attention. While the decision space is small, it nonetheless creates ample opportunity for skillful play. It isn't a deep game by any stretch, but it gets you thinking (and trash taking - like all good pirates).
Red November (rating: 7; plays: 3)
Red November is another game I learned about during my competitive/cooperative game format research. This one is unique because any game outcome is possible: (A) As a fundamentally cooperative game, the players can all win by surviving long enough to be rescued while averting the missile crisis. However, (B) one or some players can win by prematurely abandoning ship - provided that the remaining crew don't survive! (C) The fleeing player(s) can lose if the rest of the crew survives and thereby turns them in. (D) Everyone loses if the ship sinks or gets eaten by a krakken or is crushed by the ocean pressure or the missiles get launched. Oh my!
The game is a little more fiddly than I would've have liked, exacerbated a bit by the absolutely tiny cards with more tiny text. The box is plenty big enough to have contained full size cards, so I'm not sure why it was produced in such a small format. We had a good time with this during our play, but it didn't have quite the staying power of other cooperative games we've been playing recently.
Tiny Epic Quest (rating: 8; plays: 5)
This game meets the criteria for dense games in an... EPIC way! I hadn't jumped on the "Tiny Epic" bandwagon previously, but thought that this one looked like particularly interesting point to jump on board. I'm working on designing a compact, kid-suitable, quest game so figured this one would be good as, umm, research! Turns out it is also a pretty fun game on its own right.
Considering the size of the box, there is a lot packed into the game and a lot of different mechanisms in play. There are movement cards that are drafted to determine how your hero meeples move. There are actions to trigger and plan around on some cards. There are multi-stage dungeons to delve into and goblin underhives to clear. There are quest contracts to fulfill, winds of magic to harness, health and recovery. And of course the customizable meeples with their adorable assortment of wargear and accessories. It's pretty remarkable really.
The gameplay itself is mostly a solitary affair however. There is a bit of interaction through the competition/race to finish certain quest cards first, but nothing too confrontational. And so this is another game that we've adapted to function more as cooperative game. All in all, I happy with game and remain impressed by how much game is packed into such a tiny box.
Pandemic: Reign of Cthulhu (rating: 8; plays: 20+)
Last, but not least, we come to the Lovecraftian version of Pandemic. I admit that I hadn't played the original Pandemic, although I have played Forbidden Island, which borrows a lot of the Pandemic DNA. Set collection and getting the right cards in the right hands, the need to get to specific locations to do certain things, and various ticking timers that slowly unravel the gameboard and eventually lead to defeat for the players.
Pandemic: Reign of Cthulhu sticks tight to this formula as well, but features the thematically apt "Old Ones" that herald the end times. As bad stuff happens, old ones are revealed and more bad things happen. The players are in a race close four arcane gateways before big daddy Cthulhu itself shows up and says "you lose!"
I've had a lot of fun with this one playing with my daughter. She doesn't seem to mind the vile creepieness of the old ones at all (should I be worried?) and rather delights in playing the hunter and slaying all the Shoggoth monsters that spawn around the board. As with other Leacock designed coops, the game can suffer from an alpha player syndrome, so with younger kids in particular I put the baton in their hand and ask them what I should do on my turn. Mostly it's slaying shoggoths.
Thus concludes Part 1 of the 2017 smorgasbord. Did others get a chance to play any of these games? Any thoughts or comments you'd like to share? The phones are open!
Part 2 will take a look at what other (older to me) games I've played last year, what games are still sitting on the shelf unplayed, and what games I put on the chopping block.
Beyond that, we'll take a look at some of the video games I've been playing over the past year and what exciting stuff I'm looking forward to in 2018.
Cheers and happy new year!
- [+] Dice rolls
22 Jan 2016
Hello fellow readers! It’s been a little time since posting, but I felt a year-end recap and look-a-head into 2016 was in order. Please bear with the Smorgasboard nature of this post, but do feel free to bounce around, sampling which ever delights strike your fancy.
- Articles & contributions!
- Wot I’m Playing!
- Game design projects!
I think over the past year, the nature of my boardgame playing has changed considerably. Two kids in the house, full times jobs (plus an extended sidejob), family obligations, friends having kids, my kids now also having friends, etc. introduces a set of constraints. Days spent hunkered over monstrous game boards and drowning under avalanches of meeples and hexagonal chits have dwindled.
Of course, and as I’ve mentioned before, it isn’t all bad. My daughter (now almost five) continues to like playing and “playing” with all sorts of games; and my two nephews are in the mix as well. We were on a big family trip at the end of last August and collectively played a lot of Eight Minute Empires: Legends, among other games. I had played a number of games previously, but I was surprised how much the kids really got into it. My 7-year old nephew used his allowance to buy his own copy when he returned home! While the game is somewhat dry mechanically (as a simple area control game), the artwork really makes it connect for people. I do love this game.
I also picked up Mice & Mystics over the summer, which was a big hit when trapped inside the cottage on rainy days. The Mouse Guard graphic novels have been making the rounds with the kids in the family, so the Mice & Mystics game slotted into their swirling sphere of perception nicely. It’s a well designed game and perfect for gamer dad facilitating play with the kids. The rule set is loose and flexible enough that we can take some liberties and the game doesn’t totally fall apart. My only complaint is that it can be a lot to setup and tear down quickly, and when you are working with 30 minute attention spans, I end up spending less time playing than organizing bits. But fondling bits never discouraged me … ahem …
I’ve also fallen deeply in love with Shadi Torbeys Oniverse games, as illustrated by Élise Plessis, whichincludes Onirim, Sylvion, and Castellion. First of all, the artwork and presentation is just amazing. I absolutely love the art style and how the boxes are assembled. As single-player games (or two person co-ops), Z-Man hit the mark with creating a compelling experience just in opening the box. It feels like luxury.
I’ve probably played Onirim 60+ times by now. Mostly in two-person cooperative mode with my wife. The game, in contrast to many cooperatives, feels less like a puzzle and more like a strategic thinking game. By contrast, in Forbidden Island (for instance), you can play nearly perfectly but just get screwed based on how the cards are shuffled. In Onirim, that can certainly happen, but it feels more like you have control, and if you plan and think carefully about your choices, you have ways of nearly eliminating the blind luck of the draw factor. It’s hard to describe, but the game works really well, and I haven’t even dabbled with the seven (!!) included expansions.
I play Sylvion a bunch in solo mode over the summer, and also quite enjoyed the game. The design is based on a lane defense concept, usually seen in videogames, where you are defending your forest from an on-rush fire elementals trying to burn it down. There is an interesting two-stage approach to the design, where in stage one you draft a deck, which you then use in stage two to defend. There are various strategies and synergies to pursue in how you assemble the deck, so there is lots of decision space to explore. As for Castellion, I just got it over the holidays and have only dabbled with it. Unlike the prior card-based Oniverse games, Castellion is tile-based, but I like where the design is going. More on that to come!
I also stumbled across the kickstarter for Keep and picked that up. I had a chance to get it to the table when some friends were over, and I’ve also played a bunch of the two player game with my wife. The game is a simple drafting card game (with 50-some cards) in the vein of Sushi Go. You do the usual “play cards to your tableau and then pass your hand” routine, with scoring occurring all at once at the end based on various synergies between your drafted cards. There is a nifty hidden action element to the game (that I think more could be done with), that adds some wildcards to the experience. It plays quick and is frankly all I’m asking for in a drafting game. Whereas 7 Wonders ends up feeling overwrought, here you get a game that accomplishes nearly all the same things but without the bloat. And it fits in your pocket.
Over the holiday’s I also picked up: Gubs (haven’t played), Dragonwood (meh), Friday (haven’t played, but intrigued!), Red7 (flopped), and the Mouse Guard RPG Boxed set (I’d love to start an RPG with kids in a few years, and this just might work).
One thing that unifies all of the above is that they are all smaller box games. I started out in the hobby gaming world playing more small box games (Drakon, Flux, Muchhkin - don’t judge), and in many ways it is nice coming back more towards that end of the spectrum. Especially in light of having kids with short attention spans and not having the flexibility to spend 20 minutes setting a game up in the first place! Small boxes will inherit the earth. Or something!
Articles & Contributions
I’ve continued to write a number of video game reviews and articles over at eXplorminate (which has been growing its readership steadily over the past year). A few things worth mentioning:
I had an opportunity to play and review Invisible Inc.. If you like turn-based tactics games, Invisible Inc is one of the finest I’ve ever played. It is largely focused on stealth gameplay, set in a sort of corporatized neo-Noire Dick Tracy-esque dystopian cyber-future (how’s that description!). This is like Neuromancer: The Videogame. It has a great sense of style and art direction, with the gameplay being an interwoven tapestry of stealth, spatial planning, hacking, and timing that is really quite intoxicating. One of my favorite games from the past year.
I reviewed a number of other games as well, including This War of Mine, Crowntakers, Eclipse (iOS version). This War of Mine is a pretty engrossing (though somber) survival management game. Crowntakers a pint-sized party-based roguelike romp. And Eclipse is the kingpin 4X boardgame ported to iOS. All solid and fun games in their respective genres.
Most recently, I reviewed Darkest Dungeon, which just released on January 19th. This is worth a moment to describe. Darkest Dungeon is an “operational roguelike,” which means that you are managing a roster of heroes (fools) along with their base of operations (a sleepy-hollow-esque hamlet in this instance). You send your heroes on various quests (battling Lovecraftian horrors in this instance) in hopes of reaching the final goal/mission. It is a roguelike in that your characters have permadeath and you can’t reload when things fail, but it is a little more forgiving as there are always more heroes showing up to test their mettle. The gameplay is really solid and innovative in a few key areas (see the full review), but more than anything the game has a tremendous sense of style. I love the graphic novel look; and the voice over narration, both the writing and the delivery, is outstanding. Excellent little game; if you are into this sort of thing.
Wot I’m Playing
I succumbed to a game, and that game is Payday 2. This is a FPS (first person shooter) game, which is also a 4-person cooperative multiplayer game, and which is also about pulling off all manner of illicit heists. The game takes its cue from the vast swaths of heist-movie history, from Heat to Die Hard, and plenty of other references. I have a longer review in the works, but I’ll share a few things for now...
Not many video games manage to suck more than 20 hours out of me. Payday 2 is one of them, and since last November I’ve logged well over 200 hours. In part, this is because this is one of the first games in the past many years that all my local friends have also got into playing. So while we haven’t been able to get together for boardgame nights as often, we’ve been getting together via Payday 2 to heist the night away. Certainly this is part of the appeal.
To paint a broad picture, the game lets you pick a heist, from a large list, to perform. Heists can range from robbing convenience stores and drilling into bank vaults, to intercepting drug deliveries and breaking comrades out of jail. It’s all morally dark territory for sure; you are playing the bad guys after all! Heists are either “loud” (in which case you go in with guns blazing) or “stealth” (in which case you sneak your way to the objective), or some combination of the two. With 30+ different heists, many of which can be accomplished in very different ways, and a staggering 300+ achievements, there is a lot to see and do in the game.
It also incorporates a rather sophisticated RPG layer. Successful heists earn you money and experience points (XPs) that you use to purchase new gear and learn new skills. There is a staggering 180 skills in the game, 100’s of moddable weapons, along with a host of equipment and other perk specializations. Given that an individual skill build is limited in how many skills it can have active, there are tons of ways to customize how your character works and performs. It’s all quite engaging … and really deep man. The game also strikes a nice balance (IMHO) between being serious and being tongue-in-cheek. This rubs some people the wrong way, but I appreciate the humor the developers have woven into the game.
To be honest, other than a few family boardgames here and there, I haven’t been playing many other games. Payday 2 has clawed me deep.
I’ve continued to advance a number of different design projects.
First up, is my design concept for a pseudo-4X strategy game, Transcend, which I outlined in a prior blog post. This design is for a digital game, and given my total amature status when it comes to programming, might remain a pipe dream … but we shall see.
I did manage to make a few technical steps, using excel of all things. I came across an article that talked about how someone re-created XCOM in excel. I thought to myself, “Well I love spreadsheets, I love excel, I can stumble through scripting … maybe I should see what I can do.” Lo and behold after a few hours (well, more like 10), I came up with this:
Yes, that is all excel, and is a semi-functional mock-up of a UI. On another tab there is a big “generate galaxy” button, that runs VBA scripting to randomly generate a star field of 15-30 stars, generates 0-4 planets in each star system, and assigns planets a few key properties (size, type, etc.). It’s very crude and rudimentary, but it works, and provides a functional basis to start layering lots of other data and attributes into the galaxy generation. Eventually, different excel buttons would turn on/off different data overlays on top of the main star view. I do a lot of data visualization professionally (GIS spatial analytics mostly), and it always bothers me that data in 4X isn’t presented more graphically/spatially (always miserable tables) - so that’s something I definitely want to address with this design.
I also started using excel to build a dynamic model for how the game’s economy and pace of development would proceed. This includes an “end turn” button that lets me queue up orders for planetary improvements, drawing down global resources, and then process the turn. I want Transcend to be much faster paced compared to other 4X games (e.g. get to capstone high-level technologies and developments within 20-30 turns). So experimenting with these dynamic economy models early on are important. I did a cruder version of this (also in excel), when working out the pacing and economy of Hegemonic (which is typically 6-9 turns) - and I think that was one area of the game that really worked well. Resources are in just tight enough supply that you have lots of ways you “could” proceed but have to prioritize down to just a few. I’ll keep plugging away (and I have the next dev diary in the works already).
I’ve also been circling back to one of my first game designs, which is Shifters. I had a chance to playtest it some over the summer during protospiel, and a number of times since. It’s interesting to see how many times this game has been torn down and rebuilt - but finally I’m quite happy with how all the pieces are fitting together. As a game intended to be a lighter weight, take-that style card game, smooth gameplay is important. To this end, there are a few cumbersome spots in the design to streamline. But it is really coming together and I’m contemplating how to best move forward with the design. Probably starting to talk to publishers - but I might also print a number of decks through printer studio and sell it for close to cost via BGG. We’ll see.
And that, ladies and gentlemen, is a wrap.
- [+] Dice rolls
The last two months have been crazy. But it seems like the last two months are always crazy, so I suppose that’s no excuse for having not updated the blog. And despite my effort to make the What’s Going On!? series a more regular thing - it seems I haven’t. But you’ll all forgive me I’m sure, because now, ladies and gentlemen, it is time for another What’s Going On!? Roll the excuses ...
The “eXplorminate” eXcuse
One excuse is that I’ve been continuing to write articles for eXplorminate. The first is a nice little Q&A with Starbase Orion developer Rocco Bowling. I’ve written about Starbase Orion before, and in the realm of Master of Orion successors, I think it remains one of the best over the past many years. It is great to see that the game continues to get development and support. I’m keeping my spider-sense alert for news of Starbase Orion 2, which rumor has it is in the works.
I promised in the last What’s Going On!? article that I’d do a proper review of This War of Mine. I’m happy to say that I have accomplished that goal, and there is a review of This War of Mine over at eXplorminate. This War of Mine is 11bit’s amazing war-torn civilian survival game, that is challenging, immersive, and hauntingly grim in a way that few other games manage to accomplish. If you are at all interested in roguelike games or survival-craft games, this is one to definitely check out.
Moving more into the board gaming orbit, I also did a review of Eclipse at eXplorminate, looking primarily at Big Daddy Creations iOS app version. But of course much of the discussion focused around the core gameplay experience, which has much in common with the physical meat-space version of the game. Long story short, I do enjoy Eclipse and think it does an excellent job delivering on its promise. I also happen to enjoy the game MUCH more as a digital app. Many of Eclipse’s downsides (in my opinion) relating to randomness are easier to swallow when I knock out a game in 30 minutes on my ipad compared to being stuck at a table for four hours surrounded by ancients. Anyway, check out the review.
The last bit of eXplorminate activity is a review of Invisible Inc. I mentioned last time that I’d be looking at this title more, and I am so glad that I did. Simply put, Invisible Inc provides the most fun that I have had in a turn-based tactical RPG game in forever. While the strategic side of the game is fairly thin, the stealth-based, net hacking, tactical espionage missions are just awesome. The game blends puzzle-solving, intuition, and strategy into a multi-layered experience where you are constantly having to juggle way too many things: gear, detection, power, unconscious bodies, surveillance, and more. The game’s character and execution is just wonderful as well. The narrative is the weak point of the game, but that shouldn’t stop you from digging in. If you like turn-based tactics game, Invisible Inc gets a giant glowing green light from me.
I have pile of other stuff in the works that will be cross-posted between this blog and eXplorminate, so stay tuned.
The “I Was On Vacation” Excuse
But I was on vacation. Unfortunately, I had to bring along a trunk full of games, and even sadder was that my family and extended relations kept wanting to play games! The audacity!
As I’ve mentioned regularly, my time for playing big boy games has been challenged over the past year or so (two kids does that, especially in light of other responsibilities). But, this means that I’ve increasingly been shifting focus to playing games with my kids (at least with the four year old who doesn’t try to eat all pieces) and my nephews. Here’s the highlight reel of what me and the fam have been up to:
I picked up Mice & Mystics during the summer, using my hard earned father’s day bonus to selflessly purchase a board game “for the kids” instead of buying yet-another-cardboard space-waster for my shelf of unplayed games. My kids/nephews have been enjoying the Mouse Guard graphic novels (as have I), and playing a game set in a similar world seemed like a no brainer, especially in light of their past interest in HeroQuest. Mice & Mystics is pretty great, with a fun story and lots of character. Given its cooperative nature, it makes it easy for me to sheppard things along, and the 4, 5, and 6 year olds have all made it through a number of quests at this point. They really get into it, which is just awesome to see.
Eight Minute Empire: Legends was stuffed into the game trunk as well. I wasn’t sure how well the abstract nature of the game would go over with the kids, but two of them really got into it. It is a testament to the amazing artwork of Designer/Publisher/Artist extraordinaire Ryan Laukat, that the games suckered in the kids so well. The set collection and area control are also very “visual” gauges of your score, which makes the decision making easier. It plays quickly, has plenty of opportunity for strategizing (or can be played more casually). It is among the best of the “high gravity games” that pack a lot of punch in a small box and compressed playtime. I love it, and might pick up the expansion at some point too.
I also have a new budding romance with designer Shadi Torbey and artist Élise Plessis's Oniverse. In particular the solo / coop card games Onirim and Sylvion. I’d like to gush even more about these games later, but I’ll give you the short take here. First of all, I absolutely freaking love the artwork and the whole package for these games. Z-man has done an amazing job of making the act of playing with a deck of cards feel like luxury. Folding open the box inserts is like cracking open a fresh box of chocolate each time. I can’ help myself from drooling.
In terms of Onirim, I’ve probably played well over 100 games over the past few months, most of these with the base game in cooperative mode with my wife. We’ve been playing it a bit in the vein of Hanabi with keeping our table talk to a minimum (which makes it much harder BTW), and it’s been a great experience. We’ve gone from losing almost every game to winning almost every game, which is a nice acknowledgement that skill matters. Still, you can get the bad hand that just doesn’t work. But the game does a great job maintaining tension throughout. I don’t feel a huge need to dive into the expansions, but I’ll probably test the waters more in solo play.
Sylvion is likewise a gorgeous game with a clever set of rules. I’ve played about 6 or 7 games so far, and feel like I’m just scratching the surface. I’ve found it a bit easier than Onirim, so I suspect I’ll be adding the expansions in in short order to ramp up the challenge a bit. Sylvion, for those not in the know, is a pretty slick interpretation of a tower/lane defense type game that are more commonly seen video games - yet the translation to a board game works well in this case.
I picked up Red7 from the illustrious Carl Chudyk. I played a few hands during the vacation with some of the adult types. Unfortunately, the experience confirmed my suspicion that Carl’s games, though simple mechanically in the case of Red7 at least, are really aimed at gamers. There is a certain sort of action planning, look ahead, and mathematical gymnastics that you need to go through to get the most out of his games. If you aren’t inclined towards such things, his games are going to feel dry, flat, confusing, and frustration. Which is the reaction had by most of the table. There is a genius at work in his games, but you have to want to stroke the genius to appreciate it. Ah well...
The “But I Was Glued to my iPad” Excuse
My family, sensing my inner need for games, gifted me some itunes bucks before vacation, so I loaded up my iPad with some new goodies. I tend to stay up way later than the rest of the family (a habit which will probably catch up me in time), which affords me a couple of hours most nights to nerd on out my platform of choice, be it board games or video games.
The first one to mention, and which was recently updated with a free content patch, is Inkle’s 80 Days. This is an absolutely phenomenal game. The game is based on a steampunk interpretation of Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days, but structured as a choose your own adventure style gamebook. Inkle’s Sorcery series (which I also love) cemented their mastery of the digital gamebook, and 80 Days is no exception. In 80 Days, you assume the role of valet for the preeminent Mr. Fogg, tasked with principally with tending to the luggage and securing travel arrangements. Sounds dry, but it is so rich. The narrative and writing is superb, and there are a plethora of decisions to make in planning your route and finding opportunities to sell collected items for a profit, earning funds to continue the adventure. The game drew me in quickly and didn’t let go until I finally collapsed into a heap. If you are at all interested in digital game books, this is one to try.
In a nod to board gaming, I grabbed Battlelore: Command, a fantasy game based on the Command & Colors wargame system. The app is nicely done with great visuals and solid gameplay. I played a number of missions and they can be quite challenging. I’d love to see this game expanded with additional content though.
I have a pile of other iOS games I’ve been dabbling with, in no particular order:
- Warhammer 40,00: Deathwatch (meh, I liked Hunters 2 far more)
- Spacecom (cool slow-time RTS 4X game)
- Battlestaion: Harbinger (ship/fleet building roguelike thing, sorta like FTL, okay)
- Xenowerk (top down action RPG, meh)
- Space Marshals (top down action RPG, humorous, looks promising)
- Galactic Keep (sounds awesome on paper, haven’t played yet!)
I’ll write up more on these eventually. But not just yet.
Last, but not least, is Organ Trail. No, I’m not talking about the game Oregon Trail, the pioneer themed game that you played during grade school in some dilapidated computer lab. This is Organ Trail, the zombie themed game that you can play right now on iOS or Android in your very own home. Organ Trail has you loading up a station “wagon“ (wood siding and all) to embark on your very own cross-country adventure amidst the crescendo of a zombie apocalypse. It will all feel very familiar. Jenny got bit by a zombie. Joey has dysentery. Your wagon broke a tire. You need more bullets. You’re running out of food. And so on. If you like Oregon Trail, and you like zombies and station wagons, then take a look at Organ Trail. It’s really the same thing, but with Zombies. And it’s still just as good.
The “Buried Under Too Many Heavy Games” Excuse
This next excuse has to do with all the big grand games I’ve been playing recently. It’s ghastly to think about it. But I feel like I’m in a golden age for the sorts of games I like to play. And while the menu seems to be growing by the day, there is still the unpleasant task of separating the wheat from the chaff. So let’s get on with the drudgery.
Say what you will, but the 4X video game sphere is undergoing a period of galactic inflation. The number of games coming out that let you play emperor, dictator, or supreme peacemaker continues to grow and with more on the way. Earlier this year I had a chance to play around quite a bit with two often confused game: Star Ruler 2 and StarDrive 2. The former is a real-time 4X game with a number of inventive and clever mechanics, particularly around the concepts of creating resource networks between planets and the card-based diplomacy system. In practice, I found the game a bit too dry and cumbersome to convince me to continue with it, which is a shame because I love the ideas behind it.
The latter, StarDrive 2, is a turn-based reworking (for lack of a better term) of the often criticized original StarDrive. As a point of comparison, SD2 is about the closest we have to a modern Master of Orion 2 game, and it is really quite close to the mark. Except that it isn’t. It seems to have all the right pieces in place for an exceptional experience, but it needs a lot more tweaking and refinement to get the systems working better and to make the gameplay more challenging and varied. It looks good on paper but overstays its welcome quickly when you start playing. Still, it has an awesome ship builder, great visuals, and might be worth a shot. An expansion is in the works, which if coupled with improvements to the base gameplay, could turn this into a great title.
I’ve also put myself up to checking out Sovereignty: Crown of Kings, on behalf of eXplorminate. The game is still in early access, but it feels a bit like a streamlined fantasy version of Paradox’s grand strategy magnus opus Europa Universalis. I’ve never been able to get into Europa, as I just don’t have the attention span to wade through all the numbers and figure out the various systems. If I could figure it all out, I’m sure I’d love it. Oh have I tried. In contrast, Sovereignty takes many of the same ideas but keeps it all at higher more abstract level, and I can dig that. It also has a tactical battle system that feels very wargame-y (in a good way), a magic system (why not?), a slick agent/espionage system (yes!), and tons of diplomacy options (naturally). I need to give this one more time on the front burner, but so far it feels like something I could really dig into.
Then there is Thea: The Awakening, another early access title that has been generating some buzz for its unique combination of settlement management, strategy RPG, roguelike elements, and survival-craft. Here again, I need to spend more time with the game, as on paper it sound exactly like something with the potential to consume me. But in the short time I’ve played with it, I found it overly fiddly and detailed in a way that threw up too many roadblocks between me and the unfolding narrative. But my experience is limited and the game is still in early access, so anything is possible. I’ll be playing this more and watching its development closely.
The “Just One More Run” Excuse
My appreciation of roguelike games (and games with roguelike elements) continues to blossom. I’ve got something more specific in the works about this, but until then I’ll share a little about the games I’ve been fawning over.
Darkest Dungeon. I bit the hook and grabbed Darkest Dungeon. I told myself to wait. I told myself that it will be better when it’s all done. I said I’d never do it. But I did. I lied to myself. I bought the game. And not since I and a close friend had an entire movie theater to ourselves, where we watched nothing other than Van Helsing while screaming and swinging our fists in the air, has a game got me so pumped. Maybe it has something to do with its Van Helsing-ish mixture of Sleepy Hollow meets Lovecraft at the gates of hell (to name a few of my favorite things). But whatever it is, developer Red Hook Studios has got it. The game’s atmosphere (especially its amusingly dark narration) is just perfect for setting the stage for the grisly operation you will be running. Essentially, you have the pleasure of managing a hero mill. Heroes come to town, literally by the stage coach, and you feed them into the maw of various dungeons on your way towards unlocking the darkest of dungeons. Heroes are far more likely to come back from the pits a broken shell of their former selves, afflicted by disease, psychosis, and other crippling ailments. So you send them off to the sanitarium while you get the next load of fresh meat ready for the ginder. This all sounds awful, but I assure you it isn’t. Check it out.
Crypt of the Necrodancer. A friend of mine recently got married, and so we did the bachelor party thing of gathering up as many canoes, kayaks, rafts, coolers, and beers that we could to float down a river as far as it would take us. Curiously, the river ended up, somehow, at my house where I, somehow, had Crypt of the Necrodancer cued up, somehow, on the “big screen.” Crypt is a roguelike with a twist, which is that everything moves to the beat of the completely outrageous techno music that constitutes the game’s high-energy soundtrack. The game is funny, hard, and silly. And it features local co-op, making it an ideal candidate for hanging out with a bunch of jolly friends, keeping the good times rolling after a raucous day on the river. It’s also a pretty damn fun game on its own.
The Flame in the Flood. I just started in on this one. But it plays nicely into my theory that Oregon Trail was one of the first roguelike games. In the Flame in the Flood, you are tasked with navigating your way down a river in a flooded world. The river navigation sequences are eerily reminiscent of the final river stage in Oregon Trail. The rest of the game has you stopping at islands and scavenge around for various craftable materials, used to keep yourself nourished, hydrated, warm, and healthy. The game is still in early access, and the story/campaign mode is not in place yet. So right not it is a “how long can you last” type game. What is present, however, is well produced and engaging. But the game is also HARD. Whether it is too hard or not (for me) remains to be seen, but it’s a cool game nonetheless.
Massive Chalice. The games keep coming! I picked this one up too, and have been tinkering with it a bit. I’m not sure that it is all it’s cracked up to be, although I’m enamored enough with the idea of it that I’ll keep playing. Essentially, the game marries a tactical RPG combat game with a lineage management sim. As a sort nebulous overlord figure, you establish various royal houses and arrange various marriages that will lead to the birthing of various offspring that you can train and deploy in the various tactical combats that you will be variously called upon to conduct. It’s a nice execution, with a reasonable balance of detail in the systems. But I’m not sure how much variety there is over the course of the game, even with all the various things mentioned above.
Almost done. Hang on.
The “Bitten by Nostalgia” Excuse
In an earlier blog post, the one about old school FPS games, I reminisced about Doom and Quake. That reminiscing has led me down a rabbit hole of actually playing these old gems again. Not only that, in the case of Quake (one of my all-time favorite games), I’ve put myself through the horror of getting my own multiplayer server running. This has been a total cluster-f^&k operation that has culminated in me learning more than I ever knew there was to know in the first place about home networking, DNS servers, flashing router firmware, and the command prompt. But I overcame.
More horrifying is that I successfully convinced many of my local friends to dig out their ancient copies of Quake and join with me and the Dark Lord Sauron on the server, that we may rekindle long-extinguished flames. And it happened! A number of us have been playing Quake deathmatch across the trove of custom levels I’ve collected. I even went nuts and started to re-catalogue the 100’s of maps I have. Take a peep at if you dare.
Last, I’ll mention a game I’ve been playing a bit that has captivated me in a number of ways. The nostalgic way is that mechanically, the game plays like a japanese-style RPG, reminding me of playing final fantasy on my Nintendo. The aesthetic way is that the art direction, soundtrack, and narrative is just amazingly well done. The third way is that I’ve been playing the game with my daughter, who seems as enamored with it as I am. The game is Child of Light, and among other things is a nice case study for the kinds of creative design and execution is possible from a AAA studio with a AAA budget when unshackled from the usual AAA constraints.
Child of Light is a side-scrolling adventure RPG about a young princess trapped in a sort of fairyland dreamworld, on a quest to free her bed-stricken father from a comatose state. The overarching story isn’t terribly original, but it is presented in a very touching manner and all of the text is structured to a rhyme and meter. The game world feels like this wonderful little mystery box that you get to explore the nooks and crannies of, and my daughter loves flying Aurora (the protagonist) around and looking at things. It’s like a picture book. There are even some local co-op features built in so that we can play together. And finally, the sound track. I’ve listened to the soundtrack so many times on YouTube, especially when I’m working. I don’t know what it is about it, but it beckons to me. Check out the video below, and see if Child of Light beckons to you as it does to me.
- [+] Dice rolls
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:
- [+] Dice rolls
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!
- [+] Dice rolls
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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 ….
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!
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.
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.
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.
- [+] Dice rolls
It’s been a while since the last post, and I feel an update is in order so you all don’t think I’ve succumbed to a game avalanche tumbling down out of my closest or that I've been dragged into Real-Life by some demon spawn. No – it’s been far more ordinary than: family, work, deck (re)construction, traveling, and general chin scratching. All this, plus Age of Wonders 3 and some trepid steps towards a possible expansion for Hegemonic (more on that in the next blog post). As for this post - it's all about my reflections ofAge of Wonders 3, a PC 4X game I am enjoying more and more by leaps and bounds.Orc Sorcerer owns you!
Setting the Table
I somehow missed Triumph Studio's Age of Wonders boat back when AoW 1, 2, and Shadow Magic were released (’99, ’02, and ’03 respectively). I picked up Shadow Magic (the standalone sequel to AoW2) about a year ago because I kept hearing good things about it, and I quite enjoyed the game. Age of Wonders 3 (technically 4?) was released March 2014, and I’ve been playing it as much as I can since.
Overall, the Age of Wonders series is one of war-focused 4X turn-based strategy (TBS) games. Think Lord of the Rings and the Battle for Middle Earth. It mirrors that narrative quite compellingly.
The game features the usual suspects of fantasy races (Elves, Orcs’es, Goblins, Dwarves, etc.) plus a few novelties (i.e. Draconians). You’ll start out with a throne/capital city and a tiny army, and then your off expanding your empire outwards, building up your armies, establishing new cities, engaging in (light) diplomacy, and of course trying to win through conquest. It’s fairly standard stuff on paper – but there are enough twists and turns to make it something quite unique.
The empire building aspects of the series IS pretty streamlined, as it really just provides an engine and context for the war-mongering. So don’t expect Civ-level empire management here. Instead, the game’s mechanics are all directed towards servicing the excellent turn-based tactical combat. Now normally, I don’t like detailed tactical combat, as I feel it detracts from the grander strategic aspects of 4X games at the empire level. However, AoW is “all about” the tactical combat, with the strategic gameplay providing a tense context for tactical fights in a way that I’ve really come to enjoy. It’s a testament to how good the tactical combat is that it’s forced a paradigm shift on me.Peaceful ships ahoy, I swear!
Tactical battles start when opposing armies (each army contains up to 6 units) attempt to move into each other. And when a battle occurs, all other armies/stacks within a one-hex radius of the defending army are also pulled into the fight. The result is that up to 7 armies/stacks (and 42 units total) can be dragged into the conflict. At the strategic level, maneuvering your forces across the hex-based landscape so you can bring 4 stacks to bear against 3 stacks (assuming a full engagement) is critical for tipping the odds in your favor and makes strategic positioning quite important.
Once the battles start, each players’ stacks are positioned in an initial deployment pattern in relation to their position on the strategic map. Defender moves first, then the attacker, with each being able to move all of their units on their turn. The greatest amount of content and detail in the game is wrapped up in the stats and abilities of units at the tactical level. Knowing what units best counter others and how to synergize unit attacks and abilities to overcome your opponents is critical - and there is a lot of room for skillful play and pulling out wins despite the odds.
Age of Wonders 3 builds the combat around some excellent gameplay concepts, such flanking attacks and attacks of opportunity and retaliation, that makes movement and planning ahead during combat critical. Range modifiers, line of sight constraints, various movement types, special abilities, and more all play into making a dynamic a weaving combat experience.
And thankfully, the interface and tool-tips provide all the information you need with a simple click or mouse hover, such that negotiating the detail is effortless. It’s the choosing of the bold deeds and terrible sacrifices that’s the hard part! Order of attack, as with many tactical games, plays a huge role in squeezing the most out of your forces. While sometimes the order is obvious, in big large battles, (particularly sieges) working it out can be a wonderful challenge.Forces lining up for a siege
A Dose of Role-Playing in your Empire Building
Another key aspect of the series worth highlighting is the importance of heroes, particularly your leader. The Age of Wonders game are loosely role-playing games in the sense that your units (most importantly your leader and other heroes) level up as they engage in battles and unlock stronger abilities. Your heroes can even be outfitted with all sorts of gear and equipment to further focus their role in supporting the war effort. Plus you get to craft the look and feel of your leader, all the way down to the trim color on their trousers and whether they are wearing an eye patch or a nose ring.
In Age of Wonders 3, the hero system is increased to a new level (no pun intended!) by giving heroes “classes” (Rogue, Warlord, Druid, Sorcerer, Theocrat, and Dreadnaught). The class of your main leader matters more than your initial race in terms of playstyle in most cases and determines the kinds of spells and abilities that you can research (think class specific tech trees) and the resulting options at your disposal. Ultimately, the intersection of race, class, and magic school specializations during character creation created a lot of opportunity to shape a play-style you enjoy and see how it fares against the opposition.
Speaking of which, the magic system in the game is, in my estimation, what really makes the game series shine and compensate for the relatively basic empire management. All the leader classes have access to magical spells and abilities, which range from tactical damage spells and unit enchantments all the way up to persistent city- and empire-wide global spells that transform the entire strategic space of the game.
What’s most interesting is that the magic system relies on a “casting point” mechanic that limits how much magic you can perform each turn. The decision balance between using magic tactically to tip a fight in your favor versus using it summon fantastic creatures or curse an opponent’s city (among other nifty tricks) is often a challenge. As a operational and strategic resource, the magic system adds a level of complexity and depth to the game that helps it transcend well beyond what might otherwise be construed as a fairly standard 4X fantasy experience.The character creation spectacular
The Strategic Experience and AI Competency
In terms of the overall gameplay experience and depth I’ve found that the more I’ve played the game the more interesting, deep, and nuanced it has become. However, this realization also hinges considerably on whether the game’s AI is deciding to have a good day or a bad day, which in turn hinges largely on how the a given game is setup. In short, the AI ranges from being ruthlessly brutal and surprisingly cunning to a completely flaccid peon depending on the situation.
What do I mean by this flip-flopping AI? If the AI, in its estimation, determines that it has a force advantage strategically it goes into “aggressive mode” and will hit you on multiple fronts, move forces around with a sense of purpose and fantasy-inspired authority, and generally make for a tense experience with lots of back-and-forth fighting over cities and territory. However – if it decides that it’s weaker than you, it literally runs away from you every chance it gets, abandoning cities in its wake in a pitched effort to stack all its eggs around defending its throne city. This behavior makes no sense, and once the AI goes into that mode, its defeat is a foregone conclusion as you can grab control of most of the map and cities without resistance.
This can be somewhat ameliorated depending on the (extensive!) game setup options you chose. I’ve found that playing against multiple AI’s that are forced onto a team provides the best level of challenge, regardless of the underlying difficulty level (which gives the AI bonuses to production, research, etc.). While I’m beating up on the first AI empire, the other 2+ AI’s are getting their ducks in a row and amassing enough force to go into "aggressive mode". If playing 1v1 against an AI or where diplomacy is enabled with the AI’s then it is just too easy to exploit the AI’s weaknesses and coast to an easy win since it never gets that critical mass of force.
Fortunately for the AI, the developers have acknowledged the issue and are actively working on it – so that’s good news. And overall, the developers have been very active in the community forums listening to feedback and discussing potential changes to the gameplay and balance. Developer support like this is great to see and will likely result in a game that gets better and better as it ages. I have a laundry list of smaller gameplay issues and opportunities I’d love to see addressed, and I’m happy to say that 90% of them appear to be on the dev’s radar. There are even rumors of a new race being added to the game soon – so more content is also planned, which exciting as well.Who will make the first move?
The overall fit and finish of Age of Wonders 3 deserves special mention. In an era of early-access alpha/beta games dominating much of the PC gaming scene, Age of Wonders 3 followed the traditional publishing route and was released when ready as a complete game – and it shows in spades. The graphics and audio of the game are beautiful and lush from the strategic map all the way down to the unit details in the tactical battles. The interface, menus, in-game information, and all that sort of stuff is also really well done. The game is just a great aesthetic experience – and I’m usually not one to get all hot and bothered by glitzy game graphics. There were a few launch bugs, but those have already been patched. So kudos to Triumph Studios for making such a nicely polished game.
I haven’t yet dived into the campaigns (preferring random maps in general) or online multiplayer (which I suspect is quite a fun prospect) – but for now I’m having a good time trying out different class/race combos and getting the settings right for challenging single-player matches.
The bottom line, for me, is that the Age of Wonders design and “system” as it applies to a war-focused 4X game is overall excellent and leads to a great experience, especially when the AI is playing aggressively. When the heat is on, all the seemingly simple empire-level decisions (what to research next, what buildings to construct, what units to make, etc.) become far more acute and agonizing choices as you try to squeeze every ounce of production capacity out of your empire. The strategic landscape always poses interesting positional choices for moving your armies, and map control is a critical element of winning a game. And when the inevitable tactical combats happen those reveal their own layered depths and challenges.
Shadow Magic, the previous Age of Wonders game has been a fan-favorite for 10+ years and carried the series into the modern era. Triumph Studios built Age of Wonders 3 to endure the next 10+ years, and I think they are on-track to do so. If interested in the 4X fantasy genre, particularly with a war-centric gameplay focus, Age of Wonders 3 is worth a long, deep look.
- [+] Dice rolls
I had been using an older iPod touch for a few years, and managed to find a few boardgame App’s that worked on the older iOS version, but not many. With our growing family, I’ve been finding opportunities for face-to-face boardgaming becoming more sporadic as expected. There are a lot iPad only boardgame apps, and most needed a few version of iOS than the old iPod would support. So the iPad Mini would provide a way to play a much expanded library of games with friends (or other gamers) online, or even solo against the AI.
As a general note – while I do enjoy gaming (or boardgaming) on the iPad, it certainly isn’t the same as being face to face. For some games, it isn’t a huge deal breaker on my enjoyment of the game – but for others it can be. And yet other types of games are just never going to work as well in an online format.
Regardless, now five months later I wanted to reflect back on some of the games I’ve picked up, and some of those that I’m looking forward to. I also recently posted a Geeklist attempting to “Digitize” my boardgame collection through a combination of iOS apps, websites, and PC programs. If you are curious to see the full list and look me up to game with, drop by that list.
Hot Boardgame Apps
This first group are boardgame Apps that I’ve really enjoyed playing, and expect to continue enjoy.
I recently bit the bullet on this App over the holiday’s, and I’m glad I did. I like Small World quite a bit and was holding out purchasing this app until they released a full version that supporting the full game (more players, etc.) and online play. I still prefer Small World primarily as a 2-player game, but I don’t mind it with more. The app is really nice and polished.
I have been pretty turned-off on Stone Age as a boardgame after my first few plays a while ago. I just didn’t find the game terribly interesting given the timeframe it takes (however reasonable that is). The game feels very scripted to me, and not terribly dynamic. Yet – the Stone Age app really worked for me. I can knock a game out vs. the AI pretty quickly, and the app itself is very nicely done and pleasing to play.
Tigris & Euphrates
This Codito app feels a little rickety and is showing some age – but everything works just as it should, is clear, and efficient. I love Tigris, so anything that lets me play it more is a good thing.
A Brief History of the World
I haven’t played this as a physical game prior to trying out the App (another Codito app) – and after figuring out WTF I was doing after a few games, it’s really taken off for me and is one of my favorite apps. It’s not fancy or flashy, but it works well and more importantly the game is great. It’s reminiscent of Small World in that each turn you are building on top of old empires with a new one – yet I find the decisions more strategically interesting and tense compared to Small World. The timing and turn order is vitally important, and often it can be worth taking sub-optimal moves in one Epoch to keep your score low to get 1st pick of an empire for the next Epoch. Interesting balance and tipping points with enough uncertainty to keep things interesting.
This was another game I hadn’t played prior to trying it on the iOS. The PlayDeck implementation is outstanding, and I’m really sad to hear that it may not be supported by them in future due to a rights / licensing issue. The gameplay is interesting enough (and addicting on the iOS) and good for a quick play of something – but it does feel pretty solitary even with playing against another player. There isn’t much interaction or tension in the game.
I’d only had a minimal bit of experience with Eclipse prior to the app. The app itself is exceptionally well produced and developed. I’ve played quite a number of games against the AI and against my friends. While the game itself is enjoyable, many rapid plays of the game only reinforces my gripe about the levels of randomness in the game forcing players into one direction or another. This is fine if you’re willing to put your competitive personality on hold and enjoy the unfolding narrative. The game’s mechanics ARE great, fun, and interesting from that standpoint, but as a deeply strategic game I find it lacking.
So there are tons of non-boardgame apps out there (obviously). I wanted to point out a few of them that might appeal to the boardgamer in all of us.
Sorcery! Part 1 & Part 2
These are old Steve Jackson Gamebooks that have been ported to iOS. Pretty awesome apps across the board in terms of functionality, design, etc. The books and stories themselves are interesting and quite challenging, particularly Part 2. I’ve been having a lot of run working through these games.
This is an abstract strategy game, vaguely reminiscent of Go in terms of the wide open decision space and placement of pieces. Except you have three difference pieces you can place. And you can place pieces on top of other pieces which creates a cascade of changes, almost like Othello. Mix in variable map layouts and conditions, and it creates a very challenging and diverse game system. Definitely worth checking out if you like abstracts.
The ultimate 4X game for iOS users. Check out my monstrous review here. I still enjoy this game, and usually have a few multiplayer games underway. But I’m now longing for a change or evolution for the game. Excited to see what the developer may do with it in the future.
This was the big AAA blockbuster ported down to the iOS. Overall, very solid and well-designed game – although after playing for a while it started to feel a bit dull. I don’t find the tactical combat part of the game terribly interesting, and the base/operations management aspect of it is ultimately fairly trite and non-interesting despite appearances. I so want to love this game, and I do enjoy it - but I'm struggling to find the motivation to make it across the finish line.
XCOM recieved a lot of praise - but for a different point of view consider this review over at the Scientific Gamer. Excellent piece of critical writing.
Empire: The Deck Building Game
I was sold on the game based on the designers blog and writings on the topic of civ games. Empire seemed poised to respond to many of my grievances about 4X/civ games. But when I sat down to play it, I didn’t find it all that engrossing. The game is far too limited to scope to be a proper civ/empire game, and while I applaud the bold design ideas, the execution just felt illogical to me. Why the 3 city limit? Why random arrangements during combat? Too many leaps of faith.
An interesting little card-based game where you are moving across a landscape in competition with another player to deliver something to furthest location. Cool concept, beautiful presentation. The gameplay is interesting but not exceptional though – but still worth checking out.
Skulls of the Shogun
Snagged this only played it a bit so far. A somewhat amusing and cartoonish tactical combat game of samurai, archers, and cavalry causing a commotion in the underworld. Woot!
So this one is more of a real-time strategy game, using various gesture commands to issue orders. It's visually quite engaging and fun to play, although I haven't found it terribly challenging. The narrative is interesting and I'm almost through the campaign. Interested in finishing it out for sure.
This an interesting game that combines world exploration / questing aspect of the play with a card-based tactical lane combat system. I'm not terribly far into the game, and despite there being IAP's I'm not seeing much of a need for those at the moment. Cool looking game that I want to play more.
Ancient Battles: Rome
More of a tactical level wargame with ancient units. Still working through the training missions and faring decently thus far. It's not a super easy game by any stretch, but it's been fun so far.
These games are from the same developer that went on to make Warhammer Quest. I thought these games were great fun, as you built up a team of mercenaries and took on various missions to earn cash for more gear. Hunters 2 included a small campaign as well that dovetailed with the sandbox environment too. I'd love to see the developer revisit and expand on the series more, building a more robust meta-world around the tactical level gameplay. Definitely worth checking out if you like tactical games.
Non-Boardgame Pending Play or Purchase
These are apps that I've picked up but haven't got to yet.
Battle of the Buldge
I keep hearing great things about this one - so I picked it up recently but haven't given it a play yet. Really looking forward to it.
I remember being excited about this game when it came out a while ago on the PC, but I never pulled the trigger. I picked this one up recently as well, but haven't fired it up.
Roads of Kings
A game that was just released that seems to be a world exploration RPG game, but at a more strategic level? Look cool - haven't purchased it yet.
Less-Enthused Boardgame Apps
These are apps that I’ve played and I’m pretty cool on, either due to the implementation or the game itself, or some combination of both. I’m not enthusiastic or interested in playing these much anymore, although I might if the mood suddenly strikes.
I played through all the content in the basic game, and had a good time. But, maybe this is just my abundance of experience with tactical miniature games (emphasis on other Games’ Workshop games), but I just didn’t find it very challenging or engaging. After a while, the quests became very monotonous feeling – and while IAP’s provide expanded content, I don’t see that fundamentally changing the gameplay in a way that would provide more longevity for me. So for now, I’m done with it.
After hearing various GeekBuddies slobber on about Ra, I tried it on the iOS to see what the mechanics were all about. I suspect this a game that works much better in person given the nature of the game. Yet the iOS implementation was nicely done, so I can’t fault that at all.
I only played this one a few times on the iOS. It’s interesting and well regarded game. I haven’t played it in person, but I hear grumblings that it can be an AP-inducing nightmare, given the 10 action points you have to spend all at once on your turn. As a consequence, I’d probably enjoy the game more in the iOS when played asynchronously – but I just haven’t found myself too drawn to playing it more.
Played it a few times in person and bought iOS app on a whim. I struggle with the interface on this one, as much as I want to like it. I find it challenging to figure out exactly what’s going on at a glance and find it draining to try and play. I WANT to like and play this one more, I just struggle each time I pull it up for some reason.
My bias against resource conversion games is perhaps starting to show. I’ve gone through the tutorial multiple times and find the whole experience infuriating. The app seems well produced and executed, but I just can’t get myself excited about playing this game at all. I find the whole thing needlessly finicky, convoluted, and incremental in its gameplay to very interesting.
A decent app in the iPad (unusable on an iphone BTW, due to image scaling making text unreadable) – but the gameplay itself doesn’t excite me much. I’d rather play Race for the Galaxy or many other games, as San Juan is pretty dry across the board.
I’ve heard awesome things about this app, but I just can’t penetrate it for some reason. I haven’t played the physical version before, and I suspect that might be my issue with it.
I really enjoy this Knizia game, and the app is nice. But I prefer to play the game in person.
The Watch List – High Priority
Apps I’m keeping an eye on and will probably pick up when I’m looking to make another purchase.
Kingdom Builder – Want to try the game, but have heard spotty views on the quality of the app itself.
Lords of Waterdeep – Lots of praise, want to see what the fuss is all about
Scotland Yard – looks good, and I’ve heard good things about it
Suburbia – looks good, but waiting for the kinks to get worked out
Pandemic – app looks awesome, but not in a huge rush to play
The Watch List – Low Priority
Other apps I’m watching but am no rush to try. I’m either not very interesting in the game design itself, or there is a big issue with the app itself that needs to be resolved first.
Agricola – Not the biggest fan of the game, AND I can’t stand the graphic direction of the app. Sorry!
Alien Frontiers – incomplete features
Cyclades – incomplete features (2-player pass and play only? WTF?)
Dominant Species – incomplete features
Elder Sign – low game interest
Ingenious – low game interest, app isn’t too pleasing visually
Qin – why would play this over Tigris?
That's a wrap on my 4-5 months of more serious forays into the world of iOS boardgames and strategy oriented games. It's been a good ride so far and I've played a lot of terrific games. Looking forward to the rest of 2014! How about you?
- [+] Dice rolls
And specifically boardgames from at least 25 years or more ago. This included a number of old wargames in giant foggy plastic bags (our family friend was apparently a wargamer in the old days), a copy of the 1976 Avalon Hill edition of Acquire and … wait for it … Civilization! I mentioned that Civ in particular might be worth something, and that regardless these shouldn’t be kept in the barn where all manner of calamities (no civ pun intended) that befall barns might begat upon the treasured games as well. He looked at me sideways and said … “why don’t you just take them”.
Begrudgingly I said thanks and accepted the games, promising to get at least some of them to the table and invite him over as well. He had never played his copy of Civ, and to my surprise it was only about 30% punched out. I started drooling.
So last night, in a rare more of quiet and solitude, I poured myself a gin-and-tonic, opened the box, lovingly punched out the components, imagined myself back in the year 1981 (except I was only 1 year old at that time!), cracked open the rules and got to seeing what all the Civ fuss was about.
There is certainly an air of mystique surrounding Civilization. I get the sense that it is one of those “club” games where you are either in the club and have played it, or you haven’t and are clearly not in club. It’s touted for being epic among all epic civ games. And of course it is what spawned innumerable genre spin-offs in the board gaming and video gaming world. So I had to try and wedge myself through the clubhouse door somehow, and what better way than to do as any proper grognad would suggest and play it solo.
I endeavored to play some rounds of a 3-player game solo (yes, yes, I really to play with 6 or 7 - I hear you) to learn the basic rules and flow of the game. I should mention that I clearly imagine a day when I invite all my nerdy man-friends over to some rustic cabin in the woods on a winters day where we will play this epic game, dressed warmly in 80’s appropriate attire and drinking Yukon Jack or something worse. But until that day I was a solo-civ builder.
So I set up the game for 3 players, using Africa, Crete, and ILLOYNEA? and I played until I progressed about half-way through the Bronze age. Outside of a 30 minute setup and rules digestion, that took about 90 minutes to get there. Not bad for a solo game I thought to myself. I called it quits at that point as it was getting late and my cat was starting to jump all over the table in preparation for his nightly hauntings and irritations. So I carefully packed everything back in the box, crawled into bed, and stared at the ceiling thinking about the game for about 49 minutes.
Below is more or less my initial impressions of the game, based on this most non-epic of sessions of Civilization.
Now, another element struck me as being a counterpoint to the relatively straightforwardness of the rules. The number crunching. Civilization was obviously spawned in an era where the average middle schoolers math skills surpass those of graduate students today, where people had to think hard and fast what with the lack of digital calculators and a reliance on the abacus. So I suppose its no surprise that in Civ one is expected to, seemingly constantly, be adding up lots of numbers.
This is most evident with having to add up the value of trade goods on a regular basis (and to a lesser extent counting up tokens for the Census each turn). The math isn’t hard by any means, but you constantly have to do it when proposed trades and when figuring out how to purchase civilization cards. I’m struggling to see how the amount of mental arithmetic involved justifies the amount of time spent adding things up over and over again. In this instance, I’d glad that the average euro-game endeavors to streamline number crunching (or get arid of it entirely) as I find it somewhat abrasive to the experience.
As we’ll see later on, I have a sneaky suspicion the game I really want to be playing is Advanced Civ. From what I gather, the trading rules are different such that you don’t have to declare the total value of your trade goods, you just name/reveal 2 of the 3 trade cards. This seems like quite an improvement to me to both reduce the amount of math upfront and reduce the amount your opponent’s need to do in order to estimate whether or not they’ve snuck a calamity in there.
The second aspect of the game that I found odd was that once you built a city, you could no longer have tokens in that region, and by consequence couldn’t move through a region with a city. Now - I can see how this situation, from a pure mechanics standpoint, adds some depth and interest, as you need to position your cities to retain movement paths between or around them and avoid building a wall around yourself. In a certain sense, this just seems to be setting up a “trap” for new players, as it is somewhat counter-intuitive from a thematic standpoint. I can see the rationale that cities, thematically, are swallowing up population, yet that population isn’t growing in the city itself.
And again - what what I’ve heard the roads technology actually provides a work around for this in Advanced Civ. So again - perhaps the game I want to be playing is Advanced Civ?
But that brings me to another point regarding Civlization cards - and that they are limited to only a few copies of each. Just because 4 other civ’s learn Pottery now my Civ can never learn it? Seems odd to me. Thematically it should be even easier to learn Pottery as more other players learn it and we exchange in trade. So again, fand or the third time, maybe I should be playing Advanced Civ where there are enough copies of each tech for everyone?
Now, those grievances aside, it isn’t all bad. There are some aspects of the design I thought were unique and interesting.
The flow of tokens between on-board population, the stock, and the treasury is an interesting dynamic. You need to retain enough population tokens to support your cities, but enough tokens in the stock to pay taxes. Although I wonder whether this starts to breakdown because you can quickly spend down your treasury when buying civ cards if you think you need more in the stock for future expansions. It’s also pretty easy to pile up population and kill it off due to region population limits - which seems like it sort of undermines the intent a little.
I like how population growth/movement and city expansion works. You definitely need to carefully plan out your population movement to set yourself up to collapse tokens into a city. And while I didn’t get into the fighting much, I can see immediately how little border skirmishes and harassments can unravel your carefully laid plans. And suddenly, without enough population to form a city other regions are stuck with overcrowding resulting in big die offs. The growth and migration of people and creation/destruction of cities does help tell a sweeping story of your people’s rise and fall over the ages. It’s pretty cool.
And in theory, I like how the trading aspect works out in the game. I know many people point to the trade mechanics as being something uniquely part of the “Civ” experience and that few other games have replicated it in a convincing or worthwhile manner. Of course, trading with oneself as I was required to do didn’t quite capture the excitement and intrigue that would otherwise be provided. So I can’t comment on it much more than that.
For decades (yes really, decades) people have been trying to capture the essence of Civilization in a distilled and “lite” game version. To go back to my initial premise, I’m surprised in someways that both the need for a “lite” version is so pervasive, while at the same time I’m astounded that it hasn’t already been done. Or, maybe it has, but it’s just been scattered across a dozen or more different games?
My current favorite civ-ish game is Antike. And I was constantly reminded of that game while working through my Civ solo test. Antike has some of the same feeling of growth, zero-sum conflict/war, resource flows, positioning importance, etc. yet doesn’t get bogged down as much in the details. Frankly, I like the tech advancement system in Antike quite a bit more, although it is REALLY small tech tree, if you can even call it that. The first player to advance a given tech gets a VP card, but subsequently the tech becomes cheaper for everyone else to research. Logically that makes sense.
Of course, the downside of Antike in relation to Civ is the rondall. As nice as the rondall is for streamlining play and keeping the pace of play briske,it does create a somewhat artificial feeling to the game where you have to “game” the rondall to your advantage as a priority over real on-the-board situations. Civ is much more a simulation in this respect, as each turn sees you go through the whole set of phases, of growth, of upkeep, of war, of advancement, etc. Granted, as a more abstracted game Antike might instead be saying, you are doing all of that, and the Rondall actions represent the strategic focus or emphasis of your empire at a point in time. And in this respect it IS quite thematic - afterall, an empire can only do so much with the time at hand.
I had also owned Tempus previously, but only managed a few solo tests. This is mostly because I purchased Antike around the same time and would always chose to play that over Tempus. I wasn’t around for the “Roasting of Tempus” but it struck me a reasonably well conceived game. In essence, the game was Action Point allowance but broken up to taking one action at a time, so the pace still moved quickly (like Tempus) yet there was more flexibility in how your planned your actions. Tempus in many ways mirrored Civ even more, with the creation of cities and all.
What also stood out to me was the idea behind the tech tree in Tempus. For those recoiling at the mention of the game, here’s a reminder: At the end of each turn, whoever scored the most in the current round (the scoring criteria changed) would advance up the tech tree, and everyone else would advance up to one place behind. Thematically, this makes sense. One culture/Civ is going to make an advancement, but that advancement is fleeting and the other cultures/Civ’s will quickly learn it as well. Hence, the need to capitalize on a technological advantage was a narrow window in time.
Ultimately, Tempus flopped because it wasn’t what people expected, which is too bad considering its a pretty interesting game in concept. But what probably put the final nail in the coffin was that despite the interesting ideas it was just a tad too abstract - particularly when it came down to the scoring. Surprisingly, it shares Civ’s victory condition of “first one to the end of the AST wins” kind of idea - yet the progression along that track was far too abstract and seemingly arbitrary. Why do I need to suddenly have population in the woods? Why now in the mountains? Etc. Didn’t make a lot of sense when you stand back and look at it. And the automatic catch up mechanic, however thematically justified, exacerbated the problem in the final turn of the game, when someone seemingly wins arbitrarily or as consequence of “gaming the system” rather than consistently playing the best.
On a different note, I’m guessing one issue that drives the playtime up in Civ is that in order to advance along the AST you need to hit certain milestones (number of cities, or trade value, or advancements, etc.). And when the fighting starts there’s a big incentive to keep your opponent’s from hitting those milestones. There’s a negative feedback element at work, where the incentive to win encourages activities that prevents the game from ending. Antike solved this rather elegantly with the VP cards. Where hitting certain milestones awards you a VP card that can never be taken away. Even if someone later smashes your cities and temples to smithereens, the fact that you built them in the first place establishes a legacy of your Civ’s impact, embodied in the VP card you hold in your hand.
Despite all this rambling, I still see the day where I’m camped out in a cabin, playing Civ into the wee hours of the morning with an unscrupulous gang of ruffians. No doubt big boasts and bold moves of stupidity will fill the air. And I will ask myself whether it will be worth it. But I already know the answer.
And now it's your turn. Have you played Civ? What are your impressions? Do you feel any of Civ's successors have been ... successful? Join the conversation, the lines are open!
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