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Age of Bronze. Men of Stone – Part One

January 5th, 2014 by Troy Goodfellow · Books, Design, Movies

Though I have many friends deep into manga and comic books, grapic novels have never been an art form that I’ve spent much time with. Still, enough people recommended Eric Shanower’s Age of Bronze
to me that I felt obligated to check it out. It’s about the Trojan War, one of the great western myth cycles and Shanower tells the story with energy, style and a lot of faces that look very much alike. While it can take some time to figure out which glowering warrior or moping woman is which, the characters themselves are quite distinct. Shanower’s versions of the Trojan and Achaean heroes rarely deviate from tradition, but his (at this count) four volumes come closest to mirroring my youthful impressions of these personalities when I first read the Iliad and the related myths.

Paris is an arrogant boy, too soon in love with his newly found princeliness. Hector is a calm and stern warrior, and probably the only person on either side that genuinely wants to avoid war. Priam and Agaememnon make the war inevitable through their own pride and ambition. Achilles is headstrong and in love with the sound of battle. Pandarus is all around terrible. Nestor drones on about historic glories and everywhere people speak of fate and destiny and do everything they can to bring the prophesied end to pass.

And, like many modern interpretations of the Trojan War, the gods are like our own modern God(s) – silent, distant, maybe not even there, but everyone behaves as if the divine is a real thing of concern. Rituals and temples and altars are special places, but there is (so far) no magic, and there are no gods jumping in to make announcements or do battle side by side with their favoured heroes.

We’ve seen this very mortal understanding of the Trojan War in Helen of Troy (2003) and Troy (2004), as well as David Gemmel’s Greek novels.

Keep in mind that Homer’s version is not the only telling of these tales and, as Shanower notes, any “accurate” telling of the Trojan War – even as mythic fiction – runs aground on contradictions, time loops, and impossibilities. But even with the Iliad as the foundation, it makes sense for adaptations to elide Apollo’s cheating or the visit that Thetis pays to Hephaestus.

The Trojan War is one of the few Greek mythic cycles that can be seen in almost entirely human terms. This is not a quest story like Jason, Perseus or Theseus. There are no monsters or cartoon villains ravaging the countryside like those Hercules and Theseus must fight. When the gods do show up on the field of Troy, they are weaker than we are used to; Athena turns no one into a spider. Only the Theban Cycle with the pitiful story of Oedipus, the death of Antigone and the eventual destruction of Thebes is as mortal in its motivation and as moving in its pathos. Fate is a real thing, but most people don’t simply surrender to it as much as they embrace it or resign themselves to it.

Homer’s successor tale, The Odyssey, is more modern than the Iliad in the sense that it has a better idea of plot, subplot and suspense but is also a very traditional Greek myth with a hero outwitting or evading a series of perils. You can’t tell the story of the Odyssey without talking about Cyclopes or travels to the underworld. But the Trojan War, with its roots deep in previous battles in Greek ‘history’ and circles of revenge, works with the gods off stage, maybe shouting cues to the actors that are about to die.

Shanower’s biggest concession to the supernatural is the power of the oracles; Calchas, Helenus and Cassandra all know what is going to happen and Cassandra gets the worst of it. Given the power of prophecy by the Sun God, she rejects his advances and is raped and cursed to never be believed – it’s honestly one of the most horrible of Greek myths and it gains power in Shanower’s telling. Age of Bronze casts poor raving Cassandra to a tower where she is all but neglected. Seeing her fate, her prophetic brother Helenus keeps his mouth shut – a very human response. This divine knowledge is, of course, mirrored by the mortal intelligence and foresight of Antenor, Odysseus and Palamedes, each of whom can anticipate what is going to happen in the near term without resorting to omens or visions. The Divine exists, probably. But it’s not necessarily very helpful.

The Trojan War is the first great war of Western history/literature and the Mediterranean of the Mycenaean Age seems like it would be as fertile a setting for a strategy game as it does for film and written adaptations. But we’ve seen few attempts to make the plains of Troy ring on our computers with any authenticity or power. To understand the challenges in turning classics of myth into games, and how the Divine makes this even more challenging, we’ll need to take a detour or two.

But we’ll get there.

In a couple of days, Part II of this entry with thoughts on the Bible, Age of Mythology and the Player as God.

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2013: The Year of Everything and Nothing

December 31st, 2013 by Troy Goodfellow · Me

2013 is probably the hardest I have worked in any year since grad school. It was a mad rush from beginning to end, professionally, which was kind of exciting.

It was also kind of annoying since it seems like there is never any down time in the gaming industry any more. There is always a convention, a tour, a major launch, a keynote, an Apple thing, and this year we had new consoles. All of which made my year quite a bit harder as a PR rep than it should have been, but it’s nice to work hard, even if sometimes it feels like you’re beating your head against a wall.

Of course, the blog suffered. And not just because I was absolutely spent at the end of the day. Evolve was fortunate enough to represent some pretty great strategy games, and since I avoid blogging about our clients to avoid any conflicts or confusion that meant that I couldn’t write much about how amazingly difficult Wargame: Airland Battle is, or how Europa Universalis IV reinterpreted the idea of monarch agency in history (actually, I might write that one since it’s proper criticism and not review-ish) or about the weirdness of Eador: Masters of the Broken World, Card Hunter, or a range of other pretty neat games on our client list.

It’s not that I didn’t do any gaming.

2013ForMe

Yeah, the EU4 beta was my life for a while. But when I did game, it was comfort titles and occasionally I’d dip into an iPad game like Road to Moscow or Brief History of the World. I put some hours into Rome 2 and XCOM Enemy Within but had no energy to blog. As I noted in my last post THREE MONTHS AGO, I have been doing a lot more reading, and it’s been excellent.

I already know that 2014 will be different because I have some big changes personally and professionally coming up very soon, and I’ll talk about them when I can talk about them. I will be playing more, I will be writing more, I will be doing more multiplayer stuff – my friend Stefan “Desslock” Janicki (ex-PCGamer RPG columnist) and I are always planning a MP campaign of something, but this time we’ll make it work.

But I suck at promises, so I won’t make any. I do apologize to those of you that keep coming back for regular updates and finding nothing. I am torn between my desire to just get things out and to save stuff for a larger project I am working towards. What I really need is an editor that will make me do something – anything.

Hell, there are probably a dozen half-written blog posts on my computer, inspired by some of the great strategy writing that has been written elsewhere this year. I’m fortunate enough to be friends with Bruce Geryk, Tom Chick, Rob Zacny, Paul Dean and Rowan Kaiser – among others – and one thing I would love to do is curate examples of great strategy writing that aren’t just “So Tim Stone was brilliant again this week”. (Feel free to tweet me links, I guess?)

So the traffic for the blog was down this year, naturally, but podcast traffic is up and I am very happy about that. As usual, most people get to Flash of Steel by searching for

Troy Goodfellow
Three Moves Ahead (or variants)
National Character (or variants)
Fallen Enchantress
Imperialism
Tropico 4

And now, the Troy Goodfellow Google Auto Complete Roundup – with answers!

Troy Goodfellow TwitterYou can find that here. I use Twitter a lot. It is my number one social communication tool, and I’ve made some neat friends over it.
Troy Goodfellow Divorce – Yep. Divorced. Nope, not talking about it here. My ex-wife remains one of the best people I’ve ever known.
Troy Goodfellow Formspring – Formspring was a place where I answered over 1000 questions about almost everything. They are shut down now, so I use Ask.
Troy Goodfellow Blog – If you can read this, you are here.
Troy Goodfellow Crusader Kings 2 – Probably my favorite strategy game. I wrote a little about it here, last year.
Troy Goodfellow Evolve PRMy current employer. I work with some awesome people.
Troy Goodfellow National CharacterSome of the best things I ever wrote, though the American essay is terrible. Should update it.
Troy Goodfellow Stutter – Glad you noticed! Yeah, I stutter sometimes, especially when I’m tired. It was much worse when I was a kid. I am mostly over it, but I can still have issues even with prepared speeches when I am under stress.
Troy Goodfellow PC Gamer – For about six months I was the strategy game columnist for the US PC Gamer, and did some reviews for them as well. I worked with Logan Decker, Dan Stapleton and Evan Lahti and would do so again if I had the chance. When I moved to PR, I recommended Rob Zacny take my place.

By the end of the week, I will have a blog post on a graphic novel I have been reading and what it tells me about game design, film and the absence of the divine.

Happy New Year.

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Matching Books And Games

September 25th, 2013 by Troy Goodfellow · Books, Me

This has been a bit of a crazy summer. Between all the travel, making sure that Europa Universalis IV was launched smoothly (it was a client, and I am thrilled that people seem to like it) and staying on top of everything else in the gaming world – plus having a social life with my circle of interesting friends…

Well, not a lot got written. But a lot got read.

SecondStory

I am blessed and cursed by being surrounded by bookstores. The picture above is Ten Editions Books, which is right in my neighborhood. Like, I pass it almost every day. There are boxes on the floor, used books about almost anything for sale, and if I go in I almost always drop fifteen or twenty bucks on a hardcover something or other. I have no room for the hundreds of books I left in Maryland, but here I am adding a new one every other week…

Over the past four months, I’ve read books about Zulus, Napoleonic diplomacy, Simulating War (that was a gift from a reader) and Ottoman administration at the empire’s peak.

And now I have Massie’s Dreadnought to re-read (it’s been almost 20 years since I last read it) and a history of The Boer War to last me the next little while. Plus assorted things on Mary Tudor, English colonial war, etc.

As I read Washing of the Spears, I did what I often do when I read a really good history book – I thought about whether there were any games that captured what Morris was describing. It’s a big book, and it describes a lot. I mean, there were wargames about Isandlwhana or Rorke’s Drift – maybe even the Siege of Ulundi. But my mind kept going back to King of Dragon Pass; I convinced myself that a game about pseudo-barbarian Viking-ish people was the best game ever made about the Zulu nation. Why? You have small clans that interact with each other regularly, but rarely fight to extinction. Your goal as a player is to turn your tribe into a kingdom, which generally means upsetting the apple cart of harmony somehow. Your economy is measured in cattle and your rule is largely guided by how well you know or can exploit the superstitions and religion of your clan. In effect, you are a white Shaka, though less driven by war and a hunger for revenge – ideally.

I do love when people connect the books they read to games they are playing. Bruce Geryk’s articles on War in the East are only enhanced by his continual references to David Glantz’s amazing books. Well, they are also enhanced by being written by Bruce, but that’s another matter.

I would like to try to draw connections between what I am playing and what I have read like that, but it usually doesn’t work out. My memory is weird and I usually make those connections at odd and inopportune times. However, I am fully capable of reading a book and asking which games it reminds me of. For example, Napoleon’s Wars is all about the international alliance structure of the early 19th century and reads just like the multiplayer games of March of the Eagles that I have played; personal goals, short term alliances, some long term friendships and a lot of waiting for the right moment.

I hope that the more I read and write about what I am reading (I do like to tweet about the books I am reading while I drink a pint and watch baseball), the more likely I am to stay engaged in the gaming side of things. Given how many recipes I have on my desk at the moment, this may mean a Cooking Mama article, at which point you can all leave.

Geel free to suggest books – new or old – but I won’t commit to reading any of them. I already have way too many.

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A Few Thoughts on Golden Ages

September 6th, 2013 by Troy Goodfellow · Industry, Me

Andrew Groen interviewed me and Rob Zacny for a short piece on whether we are now in a Golden Age for strategy games. You can read it over at the Penny Arcade Report if you like.

Now, keep in mind that I sent Andrew 1000 words and he pared me down to a couple of points, so a lot of things I mentioned as roots of this golden age (and the evidence of the age even existing) were cut for space and because many of the root causes are pretty obvious – the increase of digital catalogs has often been paired with low prices, the tablet and mobile space has led to a burst of new creative energies for a platform that is naturally friendly to strategy games, the revival of board games as a common shared social experience, etc. Still it was fun to put some of these ideas on paper, and I may expand on them later.

I did note, and was quoted as saying, that the first great Golden Age of strategy games was in the late 80s and could probably be localized as starting with SimCity. It’s not that great strategy games weren’t around before that; but SimCity was closely followed by Civilization (which was originally designed to be very SimCity-like), Populous, Warlords and then the RTS revolution in the mid-90s. And lots of other stuff as well. Pointing out when the Golden Age ended is a little harder, but I’ll find it somewhere.

Legendary goaltender Ken Dryden was once asked when the golden age of hockey was, and his answer was “When you were 12″. He expanded on that in his book The Game:

“I know that in any way an athlete can be measured – in strength, in speed, in height or distance jumped – he is immensely superior to one who performed twenty years ago. But measured against a memory, he has no chance … Nothing is as good as it used to be, and it never was. The ‘golden age of sports,’ the golden age of anything, is the age of everyone’s childhood.”

Now my golden age of strategy games was not when I was a child (not like my golden age of baseball or hockey – those were clearly the early 80s), but it did coincide with my going to university and having friends with computers, something I did not have easy access to when I was growing up. So we, as a group and as friends, discovered a bunch of these games together. Not just strategy games – I also fell in love with flight sims at this time. Once I got my first degree and moved on to grad school, I lapsed a little in my game playing, but did get back to it. It was a more solitary experience, especially on the strategy side since my wife was more into RPGs.

One reason I am glad that Andrew focused on my comment on the power of Let’s Plays and other videos and their role in supporting this golden age of strategy games is that they serve an important community role that multiplayer can’t in some cases. Face it, Harrington Hall at St. Thomas University did not have much in the way of internet in 1990. Dialing into a BBS is not the same, and multiplayer among us was limited to hotseat turn-based stuff unless we cabled two computers together – precariously in small dorm rooms – to play Populous.

It’s that sense of shared discovery that makes the youthful golden ages of sport so powerful, I think. We are starting to understand the games at higher levels, we can remember player numbers and how to calculate BA and GAA. We are old enough to stay up to watch most of a late playoff game. Then we go to school or argue with our siblings or what have you.

You can’t have a golden age without some sense of newness and wonder, and I think that the explosion of great strategy titles (new and old series alike) and in innovation in the genre on all platforms has come at a time when online social media and shared viewing experiences allow us to see the newness and wonder and talk about it with other people that are right around us online.

My personal golden age starts now.

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Just Historic Enough: Expeditions: Conquistador

August 11th, 2013 by Troy Goodfellow · History, Indie Games

Expeditions: Conquistador is a strategy/rpg from Logic Artists, a Danish developer I’d never heard of until someone told me that I had to check out this new game on the conquest of Mexico. This is one of my favorite stories in history, and the idea of leading a band of adventurers into the unknown to find gold and glory is too much to resist.

Now I’ve never made it a huge secret that I am not all that invested in the idea of historical accuracy if a game either a) makes zero claims to historical accuracy, or b) still manages to say something interesting or get at an essential truth of the history being portrayed. I would argue that, for example, Unity of Command is an excellent “history” game because it manages to simply convey the mobility and supply issues that were crucial to the Eastern Front in WW2, even if that means abstracting a ton of things that might muddy that picture. Accuracy and truth are not the same thing, and games will always make abstractions in the name of history or gameplay. This does not necessarily justify each and every instance of historical narrative or abstraction in strategy game design; if the abstraction does violence to history, plays to harmful stereotypes or fails to convey any “truth”, then I tend to think twice. (Yes, I will be looking at the Company of Heroes 2 vs Russian War Heroes argument in a later post.)

To the historical “errors”: Expeditions: Conquistador has female conquistadors serving side by side with the men – your character may even be a woman if you so choose. Atheist or radical secular ideas are put in the mouths of characters – far beyond even what Erasmus would write at the time. The tactical battles are more akin to a brawl in an alleyway than an historical standoff between trained Spanish steel and native mass levies. In a different sort of game, these things might bother me. Well, not the woman thing; I find it pretty hard to get too exercised about a woman in command – even ahistorically.

But Conquistador works as the best game exploration of this time period since Bunten’s masterpiece Seven Cities of Gold, and it does so by using none of the gameplay elements that made that game so amazing. [Read more →]

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Three Moves Ahead Episode 225: Brave New World

July 20th, 2013 by Troy Goodfellow · Firaxis, Podcast, Three Moves Ahead

ThreeMovesAhead

Haven’t done a podcast post in a while, and since I was finally on one about a game that people have heard of, I thought I should link you all to the show we did about Civilization V: Brave New World.

Rob opens the show with an interesting question: Do the additions that BNW makes to Civilization V push the game in a Frankenstein direction? Are systems being cobbled up on top of systems, risking making the tight original design an unholy and unwieldy mess?

You can listen to the show for our particular answer there, since it’s a bit of yes and a bit of no, but it is almost impossible to talk about the changes in BNW without reference to seemingly incomplete systems that were introduced in Gods & Kings.

This is always a risk, of course, when you have multiple discreet systems and then try to integrate them. My game has gotten much slower and I have to drop down to Warlord difficulty for a while just to get my bearings. The addition of caravans and proper trade routes has done a lot to both enthrall and confuse me, all the while forcing me to build more camels instead of libraries or granaries. The Great Works feature is pretty cool, but it would be nice if maybe the tourism was more visible on the map somehow; I can see culture (roughly) by my borders, I can see the trade connections, I can see the religion but I can’t see Iroquois tourists visiting The Louvre in Jakarta. (And I’m still not clear on how a great work of writing brings tourists, but this is one of those Civ fudges that we all live with.)

It’s been interesting watching Civ evolve over the years, though, seriously, I’d love for the series to get a big long rest.

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