Tag Archives: civilization

Review – First Impressions of Civilization VI

Baby steps.

I’ve played Civilization VI for 10 hours and largely enjoyed it.  Here are my first impressions.

Unpacking cities is pretty neat

The biggest innovation of Civ VI is expanding cities beyond their single tiles.  Whereas previous games confined the city to a single spot on the map, Civ VI requires that the player place districts on nearby tiles to then build associated buildings on them.  World wonders now require specific tile combinations in addition to their technological and labor costs.  Unpacking cities succeeds in two ways.  The first is to turn district placement into a minigame where districts derive benefits from nearby districts and territory enhancements.  Skilled players can arrange a city to max out these benefits to specialize the city’s production.  The second way is how it interacts with combat.  Unpacked cities force players to defend larger swaths of territory and allow attackers to destroy meaningful aspects of a town without overrunning it.  Cities effect the landscape of combat in a way that territory improvements simply didn’t.  This makes terrain matter more too as now the player is incentivized to keep enemies outside of their territory in order to defend districts.  On the whole, unpacking cities adds new levels of welcome complexity and shakes up the formula.

Eureka moments are pretty neat too

In addition to the unpacking of cities, developer Firaxis added puzzle elements to research.  Each technological and cultural advance now has an associated quest (called a “eureka moment”) that reduces the cost of that advance.  Killing three barbarians halves the cost of Bronze Working, for example.  Players are now rewarded for pursuing a path as these quests are often tied to the playstyle that wants that particular technology.  Once again, this innovation integrates many aspects of the game by turning them into meaningful boosts for advances.  While casual players will probably never fully take advantage of the system, more devoted players will quickly develop strategies to glide through the tech paths.

Barbarians are the opposite of neat.  One might even call them not neat.

Like Civ V, Civ VI’s barbarians randomly pop up in the uncolonized places of the world and send a stream of angry relatives to go forth and murder.  Unlike Civ V, Civ VI’s barbarians took a remedial planning course and now attack in larger numbers with coordinated strikes and weaponry beyond what they player might have.  Uncolonized areas aren’t just dangerous, they are now the home of hellspawn who penalize the player for daring to live without a coastline or mountain range.  In one game, I fought barbarians in my home territory for over 30 straight turns because of three encampments placed equidistant from my capital.  Boo.  If ever there were a feature in need of a slider, barbarian spawn rates is it.  On the upside, if you can get past the angry bastards…

Expansion isn’t penalized.  Huzzah!

Civ III had corruption which turned every city after the first few into tax absorbing vampires.  Civ IV made everyone cranky once the player established too many towns.  Civ V cut off the cultural aspect of the game for daring to have an empire.  Civ VI lets you build however many cities you want.  There’s no penalty!  It’s the first time since Civ II where the player can expand without their empire collapsing.  Finally.


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Opinion – The State in Games

You are what you program.

Whether we like it or not, every video game reflects an opinion of the world.  Every aspect of a game is a hint about how the developer views a particular topic.  To be sure, sometimes elements of realism are sacrificed on the altar of gameplay, but even that is a reflection of the developers mind.  Realism is sacrificed, but elements the developer deems core to know that a thing is a thing are preserved so that the audience can identify whatever item or concept the developer is trying to convey.  Case and point, guns.  Guns in an FPS never jam, don’t have weight, and have magnetic ammunition that leaps into your pocket when you walk over it.  These unrealistic aspect of guns are included because they are deemed inessential to the idea of a gun.  Today I’ll be looking at the idea of a state.  Many strategy games model the state, but they rarely reflect a state as it actually is.  Many have a different idea of how states function as compared to their real counterparts.  Here are a few:

Civilization V – Centralized dictatorship

Putting aside the immortal sovereign, the Civilization games function as a dehumanizing centralized dictatorship focused on control of major cities.  Decision making is done entirely by the leader without much input from independent interests or other government agencies.  The only part of an empire that actually has a voice is the population based on generalized notions of happiness.  As a result, very little gets done without a direct command.  Everything from basic public buildings to countryside infrastructure is dependent on the player making the order and releasing the resources.  Even supposed changes in government rarely restrict the leader from doing what they want to do (I do recall that democracies could prevent the player from declaring war in Civ2.  Ahh, the glory days.).  Of course, most real governments have interests other than a generalized notion of “the people”.  These interests play an important role in prioritizing resources and are largely ignored by the Civilization series.  Especially in dictatorships, the ruler must appease these interests or face serious problems down the line.

Rome Total War 2 – Bureaucratized Oligarchy

The Total War series attempts to model various interests in the empire.  The Roman Senate plays a role in determining the support a given leader has and special characters, such as generals, each have their own traits and ambitions.  The opinions of the people matters, but, like the Civilization series, only insofar as they cause trouble.   If the people are happy, then the player must respond to a small group of specialized interests.  To do so, the play has access to an efficient and effective bureaucracy that is able to maintain control over a massive empire.  Orders from the center are reflected quickly in the priorities of the provinces with only a corruption increase to show that the bureaucracy has interests of its own.  Modern bureaucracies are only half as effective as the Rome Total War 2 ones.  The idea that a pre-industrial society could have detailed control over such a massive amount of territory is ludicrous and likely reflects the developer’s bias towards modern governance.  Like the Civilization series, Rome Total War 2 also doesn’t model the institutions that would inevitably develop to handle such a difficult task.

Crusader Kings 2 – Legalistic Feudalism

The last game on our list is the most realistic attempt to model an actual government.  Rather than rely on a faceless, obedient, and super capable bureaucracy, Crusader Kings 2 creates a government and society built on individuals with their own interests.  Individuals have titles which reflect their area of control and the individuals they rule.  Those individuals will negotiate with their superiors, fight wars for them, and rebel.  Without direct input, NPCs will develop their own territories and conquer new lands.  It’s a fascinating system, though not without its flaws.  The most notable is the high degree of legalism inherent in the system.  While medieval lords were a far more legalistic bunch than they traditionally get credit for, they didn’t stop crushing victories against their infidel foes because they promised they’d only crusade in a certain area.  Furthermore, borders of provinces shifted all the time whereas Crusader Kings 2 acts as if they were set in stone by Charlemagne.

There are plenty of other things to nitpick.  All three games (and all strategy games that I am aware of) assume an instantaneous response to all orders regardless of distance.  Every leader has a crystal clear view of all resources they possess and the capability to move them wherever they need to be.  I could go on.  Still, these feel like conceits to gameplay and less like a world view.  The governments outlined here seem reflective of a viewpoint, or a blind spot, of developers who didn’t quite understanding what they were saying when they made their game.

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Opinion – Wrapping up 2014

Arbitrary rankings for goodness!

2014 has been a bad year for video games.  From the controversy surrounding the Gamergate issue to the rash of overhyped games that failed to deliver, it’s hard to see this year as anything but a failure.  Still, there have been some successes.  In this article, I’ll go through my most disappointing game, but I’ll also highlight three games that show what the year could have been.  Let’s hope 2015 is better.

Most Disappointing Game – Civilization: Beyond Earth

This was a crowded field.  From the disappointing games I played like Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel and Farcry 4 to the others I mostly heard about like Destiny or Assassin’s Creed: Unity, 2014 was chock full of over promises and underdelivering.  Even then, one game stood below the rest.  Civilization: Beyond Earth.  I initially met the announcement of a Firaxis developed space Civilization game with a sense of joy and excitement.  We hadn’t seen a proper successor to Alpha Centauri ever and the premier turn based strategy development house was taking it on!  Unfortunately, the final product proved to be an extension of Civilization’s flaws rather than a proper development of the concept.  Firaxis failed to infuse the game with the story or the strategic depth of its spiritual predecessor.  Even without the comparison, Civilization: Beyond Earth was just a soulless game without much to recommend it.  There were certainly worse games this year, but few failed to live up to their potential like this game.

Best Surprise – Hearthstone

Blizzard Entertainment is one of the most public and successful developers, so it’s hard to say that anything they do is a real surprise.  That being said, a deep, complex collectable card game is incredibly difficult to make and Blizzard had no background in it.  Even without the experience, Blizzard created a fantastic experience in Hearthstone that only the beta players really saw coming.  From the variety of strategies to the slick interface, Hearthstone is the digital successor to Magic: The Gathering.  To be sure, the game has a ways to go.  Blizzard has a great deal of design space to explore, I’m not convinced it has a grasp on how to build cards for arena, and it doesn’t seem to have a clear strategy for rolling out new cards.  That being said, the base game is fantastic and accessible.  We now know that Blizzard has the chops to put together a compelling card game.  The question is whether it has the ability to maintain it.

Best Updates – Crusader Kings 2: Rajas of India, Charlemagne, and Way of Life

Any who have played Crusader Kings 2, know of the game’s ridiculous depth.  Even the vanilla version allows a player to control thousands of Christian leaders across almost 400 years of history.  Had developer Paradox walked away from their 2012 hit, it would have remained a great game.  What makes it truly one of the best is Paradox’s continued commitment to updating and improving CK2.  This year, we saw releases that expanded the world to India, introduced a story line around the Carolingian kings, and created an RPG-lite system for character development.  Paradox made an already deep game even deeper this year and shows no signs of slowing down.  If you haven’t had a chance to play this game, overcome its (admittedly, vicious) learning curve and dive into one of the best strategy titles available.

Game of the Year – Dragon Age: Inquisition

It’s telling that my best game of the year is also a heavily flawed one.  DA:I suffers from a number of bugs, odd pacing issues, and a generally uninteresting cast.  Even with its problems, it still provide the most compelling experience of the year.  DA:I is effectively two games.  It combines open world exploration with a dedicated scripted story line with the challenging, complex choices that we’ve come to expect from the Dragon Age series.  More than any game of the year and most games made, DA:I provides a clear sense of the world the player is inhabiting and the people who live in it.  The history, culture, and society are all center stage and intricately woven into the gameplay.  It’s telling that, as much as the first Dragon Age frustrates me, DA:I has tempted me to go back, endure that frustration, and truly make the story my own.

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Review – Sid Meier’s Civilization: Beyond Earth

Conquering planet 32b.

Sorry guys. If you’re going to make a Civilization in space, you’re going to get compared to the classic, Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri.  It’s just going to happen.  And it sucks.  Alpha Centauri is a true classic.  Not the wimpy kind of classic that “was really good for its time”, but a genuine, still awesome, game that hasn’t been surpassed.  Seriously, go get it here if you haven’t played it.  Yes, it’s unfair to be compared against the greatest, but even without Alpha Centauri, Sid Meier’s Civilization: Beyond Earth (BE) is a bad game.

The basic game plays like any other Civilization entry. The player starts with one city which forms the heart of a global empire.  Players build more cities, research technologies, culturally advance towards bonus giving virtues, and conquer their way to victory.  It’s a tried and true formal that still largely works.  On top of the old engine, BE adds ideologies.  The player chooses technologies and quests that pushes them down three paths representing their engagement with the alien world they’ve landed on.  Harmony embraces the world, Purity shuns it in favor of emulating Earth, and Supremacy seeks domination through technological integration.  Advancing down an ideological path provides key bonuses and upgrades units while adding neat artistic touches to factions.  In addition to ideologies, BE also has quests that direct the player to complete tasks for bonuses.  The quests do triple duty as a tutorial, measurement of victory and a storyteller.  They provide optional and welcome structure in a very open genre.  They also represent all that is wrong with Beyond Earth.

Mouse over the five victory quests and you’ll notice that four of them don’t actually involve interacting with the other players.  They’re all variants on “research technology, build a thing, and wait a number of turns to win.”  The best and obvious route to victory is often to expand quickly, placate the opponents, and watch the numbers go up.  A smarter AI would notice the player’s snooze towards victory, but this cutthroat bunch remains totally clueless as your giant victory phallus reaches towards the sky.  You can practical hear the snoring as your game winning space tower or Earth gateway go up.

“But wait!” you cry. What about the fifth victory condition?  What about Domination where the player conquers their opponent’s capital?  Good question!  Let me introduce you to health, the replacement for Civilization 5’s happiness.  When the player conquers a city, it lowers the faction’s health.  A low health value tacks on crippling empire wide penalties that ensure you’ll regret abandoning your friend, the “End Turn” button.  Ultimately, the player can research technologies to mitigate the health problem, but it effectively means the early game is forced pacifism.  Even better, the AI is brain dead when considering peace offers.  It does a straight calculation based on army values.  If the player has a bigger army, the AI offers cities to end hostilities.  Don’t bother with the barbarity of actual warfare!  Be civilized about it by declaring war, building a large army, enjoying a nationwide tea time, and negotiating for half their empire 15 turns later.  Factions regularly offered me cities to end wars that I hadn’t fire a shot in.  Oh fun.

I admit, I could deal with the lackluster gameplay if there were a little more to the flavor of the game. Alpha Centauri did this beautifully by creating factions with unique traits and back stories that both guided gameplay and contributed to the development of an organic story with every playthrough.  Not so in Beyond Earth.  Faction choices only provide minor bonuses and their mythos contributes little to the story of the game.  In fact, choices in BE mean very little.  Implemented intelligently, these decisions could have help craft a unique world with each game.  Instead, BE throws tons of tiny decisions at the player that seem to have little effect and require little thought.  It’s hard to really feel involved when the choices are minor increase to stat A or minor increase to stat B.  Even the victory quests feel limp as they are buried under several menus and provide little in the way of exposition.  No part of this world feels realized.

Beyond Earth is a failed attempt at updating Alpha Centauri. All of the basic elements were pulled from the earlier game without the commitment to a strong identity.  Instead, BE comes off as a halfhearted attempt at recreating a classic without understanding what made it great.  Don’t buy this game.

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Review – Endless Legend – PC

Reviews? I do those?

I’m a big fan of Amplitude Studios. Actually, I’m a big fan of Microprose which is what Amplitude Studios dresses up as every Halloween.  When Microprose failed and took fan favorites like Master of Orion or Master of Magic with it, they left an enormous gap in the 4x turn based strategy world.  Endless Legend fills that gap, but it doesn’t do much more with it.  This is the evolution that genre fans will appreciate, not the revolution that 4x games need to reach beyond their predecessors.

Any Civilization player will appreciate the basics of Endless Legend. The player starts off with a small army and a settler with which to found an empire and explore the world of Auriga.  The army, with a hero unit in the lead, explores ancient ruins to gather crucial resources for the opening turns and becomes a powerhouse army later.  Battles are grid based affairs which the player can also auto resolve should they face overwhelming odds.  Meanwhile, the city back at home is researching technology, developing resources, building units, and generally focusing on whatever victory condition the player has decided to go for.  Victory conditions are the fairly standard with only the quest based version offering any substantial difference.  If you’ve played Civilization or Stardock’s Fallen Enchantress, you have a good idea of what to expect.

This is not to say that Endless Legend is totally derivative. It has a number of small and large changes that keep it feeling fresh.  Among the most prominent is the division of the world into territories.  Each territory may host one city and that city reaps the benefits of the resources within the territory.  Territories also host minor races which generate monsters if unpacified and or provide workers for the territory capitol if pacified.  Another twist is the winter.  Auriga’s winters last for a varying number of turns and grind production and movement to a halt.  In the early game, reduced movement and production are frustrating, but later in the game the player gets some tools to adapt and thrive.  Winters can have game changing effects by slowing wars in full swing and slowing building momentum.  Adapting to this mechanic is one of the key ways to regain the advantage in a losing conflict.

Factions deserve special mention as they are varied in their aesthetic design as they are in their gameplay. Each faction has something beyond the usual focus on a given victory condition.  For example, the Cultists only get one city, but they can convert minor races to provide resources and produce military units.  The Drakkan can force opponents to accept truces and other diplomatic proposals.  The powers feel unique and help set the races apart.  The different play styles, combined with the story telling quests, encourage repeated playthroughs to see all that Endless Legend has to offer.

A few problems do creep up. The AI isn’t particularly aggressive, even when it has a substantial advantage.  I played most of a game having only a small army on hard and wasn’t challenged until I had almost won.  This is aggravated by the ability to upgrade units.  Like Endless Legend’s predecessor, Endless Space, the player can upgrade their units with new equipment to create a more powerful unit. I often created a single upgraded doom stack which scared away most of my competitors.  Combined with a powerful economy to purchase units and an aggressive AI can become a frightened kitten with one round of army buying.

The issues are ultimately small and don’t address the broader issue that 4x games face today. As much fun as Endless Legend is, it still feels like a contemporary of the 4x masterpieces from long ago.  It’s becoming clear that developers will need substantially new ideas to push the genre forward and prevent it from stunting….eventually.  For now, Endless Legend is a polished and fun experience.  Go play.

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Opinion – The Rise and Fall of the Video Game Empire

Mine, all mine!

The sense of progress and success means different things in different genres. In an RPG, progress might mean better loot, increasing stats, or a new and dramatic plot point. For fighting games, progress is better measured in the player’s ability to execute moves and defeat opponents. For the 4x genre, progress is often best represented in the feeling of expansion. Tiny, single city empires hurtle outward into unexplored lands and, ultimately, enemy territory. Inherent in almost any 4x game is the obvious and visual sense of conquest and loss. Unfortunately, most 4x games stop there and so limit the many avenues for a sense of progress. The result is that success rarely feels like empire building.

One of the most common stumbling blocks is the visual representation of empire and expansion. Most games choose to show major cities and planets as the focal points of a player’s realm with little concern for the land in between. The result is that the player’s empire feels less like a singular entity and more like a collection of semi associated cities. The sense of empire is fragmented across the cities without any real connection between them. The worst offender of this kind of visual failing is the Galactic Civilizations series. In addition to placing large voids between each planet, the game also has absolutely nothing to do with all that space. The occasional space station or fleet does nothing to knit together the vast emptiness of the empire. The Civilization series overcomes this issue with the inclusion of terraforming, but even the most cultivated land is obscured by the city beacons that dot the landscape. Singular points, be they cities or planets, dominate the player’s view and reduce the feeling of a united empire.

Visual failings are joined by technical problems. In many games, the cities are replaceable cogs in the machinery of an empire. Remove a city and resources are lost, but rarely is that city a vital part of a given civilization. Most 4x games do not allow cities to become specialized entities serving the larger empire the player is building. Imagine the loss of New York City to the United States. The results would be economically and culturally devastating despite the city only taking up a comparatively small (under 5%) percentage of the total US population. New York City is not just another city, but a key part of the idea of the United States. Compare that to the loss of New York City in Civilization 5. Yes, it’s probably important to an American player, but its loss could be overcome by taking a similarly developed Paris or Amman. The unique place it holds for the American player can be reproduced by another civilization’s city without the sense of cultural, economic, and infrastructure whiplash that should result.

To fix this problem, developers must move beyond the city-centered landscape and into the sense of an empire as a unique entity the player is building. To begin with, cities should develop natural connections over time that are outside the player’s control. Trade, cultural exchange, and sprawl should all occur without the player’s direct input and should consider things like terrain and recent changes in borders. Cities should further develop unique identities within the context of a given empire that relies on the creation the player is building. Also key is the visual representation of this growth. Roads, festivals, and landmarks should pop up organically across the landscape to fill out the barren spaces in between. Watching as a once bustling stream of trucks dries up when land is taken with have a much greater visual impact than the sudden disappearance of territory.

More important than any of my suggestions is that 4x games should help the player create something unique. Each empire should have a feeling tied to the circumstances of that particular round. A sense of progress isn’t tied to merely the expansion of territory, but instead to creation of a special land inside that territory.

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