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What I’ve Learned After 300 Episodes of Three Moves Ahead

March 31st, 2015 by Troy Goodfellow · Three Moves Ahead

We’ve just published the 300th episode of Three Moves Ahead. Rob Zacny, Bruce Geryk, Tom Chick and I take a look at a cool little Vietnam war themed game. It’s not your typical wargame; it heavily abstracts the important political stuff that you need to pay attention to, and the map is random. You are not pushing counters. Anyway, we liked it. (Tom and Bruce loved it.)

But I’m not here to talk about Vietnam ’65. I’m here to talk a bit about the podcast and how it has grown and changed.

We don’t publicly release precise numbers, but to give you an idea of how big the show has grown from its start, the earliest shows have total lifetime downloads that new shows more than double on release day. Our top show in March has five times the downloads of our oldest podcasts that have been available for six years now – that March episode will continue to be downloaded for many more months.

Rob and Sean Sands talking about Europa Univeraslis IV in 2015 is now our third most downloaded show ever. It came out in January.

So, I can confidently say that our audience has never been larger, our preparation has never been better, and our growth seems to be steady after a real explosion in the 2013-2014 period. And, no, we still don’t make any money doing it, though Idle Thumbs paying for our hosting and our forum is a huge thing.

300 shows is a lot, and I probably never expected it to go on this long. Rob has now been lead chair twice as long as I ever was (I ceded the seat to him in Episode 100) and under his direction we’ve had a lot of great panelist and discussions.

A bit of history here. When I started 3MA in 2009, I invited two friends that had similar interests (Bruce and Tom) and an experienced podcaster that I greatly respected (Julian Murdoch). We were the starting panel, and Tom was good enough to let me use the forum at Quarter to Three to promote the show while we were getting things sorted. We eventually stopped doing that, but it gave us an audience foundation to work with. We invited Rob on some time in 2010 because scheduling issues meant we needed another body on the show, stat, and though he wasn’t someone I would have even called an acquaintance at that point (just a young writer I really, really liked), we grabbed him and he was excellent. That gave Tom some freedom to leave the show and start his own game podcast, yada yada yada. Anyway, the point is, the way the show looks now is very different from how it was conceived.

If you look at those early shows, for example, we did more thematic stuff. It’s been long enough that we might want to revisit those themes. Now that Steam makes it so much easier to get codes for almost every major PC strategy game, though, we can focus on games like, say Grey Goo, which has also been an oddly popular show.

So a few things I have learned in creating and advising on Three Moves Ahead. The caveat, of course, is that Rob really runs things, but I still have ideas. Warning – this is a long post with no pictures. [Read more →]

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Prepare Ye The Way of the Lord

March 19th, 2015 by Troy Goodfellow · Religion

When I heard that my old friend Rod Humble was making a game about the spread of religions, I knew I was going to be playing it. Rod has always had an interesting approach to game design, almost more interested in posing questions (whether about history or emotional connection in games) and I had high hopes that Cults and Daggers would be the same sort of mind-twisting, self-reflective sort of game that I came to expect from him.

Of course, when you’re selling a game on Steam for 30 dollars, there are limits to how “out there” you can go, and Cults and Daggers is ultimately a quite conventional territory control game that uses persuasion and secrecy instead of armies. It’s underdocumented (I’m not sure exactly what wars do, or what happens to the map between ages) and the UI is a mess. But it does have interesting ideas, and a quite old-fashioned style of play. Some people have been able to use its thin religious veneer to reconnect with their personal ideas of faith. I was never able to make that leap.

C&D1

It’s probably not surprising that I couldn’t quite connect with it. Religion in games is generally a matter of special buffs or general harmony. In Civilization IV, a multifaith empire that controlled all the Holy Cities was an unstoppable force of culture and gold. In Civilization V, you pick generic religious “beliefs” if you found a new faith, but the most powerful ones are, again, related to bringing in gold or special buildings. Our games at Paradox (the Crusader Kings and Europa Universalis series) give every religion an attribute or two that, usually, give you bonuses or new game experiences.

But Dominions is about becoming a god, not founding a religion. The temple in Rise of Nations expands your boundaries and increases tax income, but is not a building of “faith”.

So the more I think on it, the more I think that Cults and Daggers is not about faith at all. It might be about religion, but it’s really about fear. [Read more →]

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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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