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A Few Thoughts on City Builders and End Games

January 14th, 2015 by Troy Goodfellow · City Builder

It’s been a long time since I’ve published a design meditation. Let’s see if this brain still works after a year of not blogging.

I like city-builders. I will play a wider range of incomplete and ill-thought city-builders than I will of almost any other strategy genre, and we all know how full of ill-thought ideas strategy gaming is. I won’t stick with most of these games for very long. City-builders are exceptionally hard to do well because a rewarding city-builder is deep and complex but also makes it easy to find out what is going wrong in your city – even if there is no easy way to fix it.

I’ve played a few different indie city-building games in the last year. The rather rough but enchanting Banished. The terrifying but only “anticipated” Clockwork Empires. The seemingly unsure of itself Folk Tale. The light and tablet-born 1849. And there’s Hearthlands, which I have just started playing, but it looks charming and 1997-ish.

Little town, it's a quiet village

Folk Tale: Somewhere That’s Green

City-builders are, at their core, puzzle and math flow games. I’ve often derided this on the podcast, since I have very little interest in solving for X when I should be keeping my residential and industrial sectors properly separated by orchards and parks. But each map and each scenario generally has a problem to solved that varies from game to game even as one variable remains almost always constant. SimCity is about taxes, not food; but food is the most important thing in Caesar. [Read more →]

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Blinded By The Beauty Of Our Weapons

January 12th, 2015 by Troy Goodfellow · Civil War, Me

It’s probably no secret that I love Ultimate General Gettysburg given how much I raved about it on the podcast last summer. And again in the End of Year show. Rob Zacny put together a nice tribute to it as a surprise favorite of 2014. (For a more cautious but fair recommendation, check out Matt Richardson’s review.)

Richardson is especially on point when he talks about how it sometimes feels like UGG degenerates into blobs with no clearly defined lines. Your troops get all messed up together, and, yes, it can be rough to keep everyone straight.

And god, I love keeping everyone straight.

You wouldn’t know it by looking at my apartment – I am a bit of a slob in many areas – but I really like my soldiers lined up in perfect little rows as they march forward to be shot. In Pike & Shot I will hold up a too-far-ahead tercio because I want my reserve guys to line up beside it, for aesthetics as much as utility. In Field of Glory, I will try to make both my flanking charges envelop the enemy at the same time, and will get quite annoyed when someone doesn’t sit still and let me hit them from behind. A suboptimal road connection in Civilization V is definitely not on. I would probably be a better Combat Mission player if I weren’t so hung up on elegance; I know my Close Combat play suffers from too meticulous attention to building enfilade fire-zones for advancing Wehrmacht.

And don’t get me started on my city-building problems.

Now, historically, some of this stuff would make sense. Civil War rifles were certainly better than most Napoleonic muskets, but the cloudy smoke of the battlefield and power of mass fire still meant that you wanted to stick near your standard and your troop-mates. The near impossibly perfection of Cannae is still studied today because its deadliness is attributable to that amazing beauty of timing, co-ordination and precise planning.

Ultimate General Gettysburg doesn’t give me the tools to keep my lines together or advancing as synchronized units. You drag the unit with your mouse and where it ends up, it ends up, and that often means overlapping the next brigade over and OCD generals across Pennsylvania start freaking out.

In the end, it doesn’t matter a lot for my enjoyment. It’s a great game, and I have been known to find great beauty in imperfect things (people, for example). UGG manages to get by with a lot of other Civil War colour, so my failure to make Pickett’s Charge look like anything other than a bunch of college kids storming a football field can be forgiven. The colours, the maps, the sounds, the various historical possibilities…

Please use the comments to share your own gaming pathologies. I can’t be the only weirdo out there.

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Some Thoughts on Cryptic Comet

January 5th, 2015 by Troy Goodfellow · Cryptic Comet, Design

The news that Vic Davis is abandoning computer game design to focus on board games isn’t that much of a surprise. His western card game Six Gun Saga can be easily imagined as a cardboard and plastic material object. His first game, Armageddon Empires was a deck-building hex-based wargame. And his multiplayer masterpiece, Solium Infernum looked like a boardgame, even though there were so many things to manage that it’s nearly impossible to imagine anyone finish a faithful facsimile in their living room.

I’ve played all of Vic’s games, and enjoyed them all. Vic was the first guest on Three Moves Ahead (episode 1 is no longer available because Julian’s mic wasn’t working and a lot of the conversation is lost.) My glowing review of Solium Infernum for Crispy Gamer is now lost to the vagaries of website shutdowns, but I should see if I still have a copy somewhere.

So even though I understand Vic’s decision to move to boardgames (boardgames are hot right now, he already has the mind for them, his choice of development language seems have been a poor one), I’m can’t help but be disappointed.

Vic Davis is one of those developers with an unerring sense of “theme”. Every mechanic and every bit of art buttressed the idea that games can be (though they certainly don’t have to be) escapist, in the best sense; a means to translate the soul to a new world for a few hours.

Solium Infernum, I think, stands out for me because its theme of demons competing to reign in hell is so unique that even people with no head for convoluted strategy games got sucked into play-by-email matches. There was a built-in unfairness to a lot of the systems, and how you build your starting demon can mean everything or nothing if the map and avenging angels had a say in how the game progresses. It’s a game made for chat rooms and secret deals, using cards as blue shells to simply stop whomever is winning and damn the rest.

Vic has always been a friend of the blog and a friend of the podcast. You can listen to him talking about Solium Infernum in episode 41 and Six Gun Saga on episode 120.

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2014: The Year I Had Lots to Say Elsewhere

December 30th, 2014 by Troy Goodfellow · Uncategorized

/blows off dust.

Is this thing still on?

OK, so I didn’t blog about the many books I read. Nor did any of the five dozen drafts I have ever mature beyond thousands of words that led nowhere.

Now, 2014 was a very good year for me. I feel a little guilty about that because, as Michael McWhertor lays out clearly, 2014 was a terrible year for many people who love games, who make games, who talk about games.

But I fell into a job I love at Paradox Interactive with people I respect working on games that speak to me. I made some amazing new friends, had some great times with old friends, tightened some bonds with people that will always be very important to me. I ate better, exercised worse, drank less, read a lot more. 2014 will go down as a triumph.

Strategy wise, I was on the podcast more than I have been in a few years, and that was loads of fun, since Three Moves Ahead remains the happiest thing I’ve ever made. We didn’t do everything I wanted to do on the podcast. We had fewer developers on, which is OK with me, to be honest. Julian wasn’t on as much as I would like, but it’s very understandable. And we still don’t have nearly enough people on the show that aren’t like me – history-obsessed, middle-class, white men. (I like to hear from people with very different starting points in life, so sue me.)

But yeah, we had some really great shows all year. Fraser Brown and Rowan Kaiser have pretty much graduated to official panelist honours, which is wonderful, since they are smart guys. We did have more women this year than any other year, I think, but we have to do better than four. We had some of my favorite industry people (Chris Remo, Evan Narcisse, Soren Johnson…) on the show. 3MA remains my gifted child, and Rob Zacny continues to do amazing things with it.

When I wasn’t talking about strategy games on the show, I was sometimes opining on them on Twitter, and also on my Ask page. Give me a writing prompt and I can just go, I guess. Bruce threatened to interview me if I didn’t write anything, so that might have worked.

In any case, I sort of enjoyed the year away from blogging, since it gave me a lot of time to read what other people are saying. There is a lot of good strategy game criticism out there, and I think 2014’s criticism has been helped by there not being many really huge strategy titles eating up thoughts. Beyond Earth landed with a bit of a thud, The Sims 4 falls into that weird space where millions play it but no one really writes about it seriously, etc. But smart things were said about Endless Legends, Distant Worlds, Banished, whatever war thing Bruce is writing about (doesn’t matter – always smart things).

I took the time to also play a lot of different games. I dipped into the new hotness, survival sims. I expanded into different types of roguelikes. I tried to learn some really hard wargames and simulations. All of this, I think, has made me a better critic – of more value to you readers and also to my employer.

I won’t make any grand promises about 2015. I will promise to check in more often with some reports on what I am playing.

Tomorrow, though? I talk to Rob Zacny’s article about Ultimate General: Gettysburg.

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Visit Gerykville

May 5th, 2014 by Troy Goodfellow · Me

I take this break from my busy life of not updating to bring you an update about Bruce Geryk.

Bruce is, as you know, an integral part of the success of Three Moves Ahead. He’s also been a strong backer of my writing and blogging from my earliest days trying to make a go of it in the games biz.

“Bruce Geryk” is also one of the first bylines that I learned to look for online, whether at Games Domain or Gamespot or really any place that had wargame reviews back when people did wargame reviews.

So it’s awesome that Bruce now has a site of his own for his writing – including older pieces and items he has published here at FoS. There are few people that connect history, mechanics and “feel” as elegantly as he does, and if you’ve listened to any of the recent podcasts this year where Bruce and Rob Zacny dig into why a game like Korsun Pocket works, you can understand that he is a patient teacher and explainer. He has forgotten more about the Eastern Front of WW2 than I will ever know.

So visit his blog regularly or just follow one of us on Twitter since I will be pushing his stuff hard.

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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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