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Three Moves Ahead Episode 78: Forgettable Games, Memorable Ideas

August 19th, 2010 by Troy Goodfellow · 31 Comments · Design, Podcast, Three Moves Ahead


Troy and Rob dig through their histories to recall bad games that had tiny moments of genius. What happens when a game gets one thing right? Can forgotten games still have a legacy beyond their failures? Can a good idea overshadow a bad game’s legacy?

Also reminders of the Question show coming up in a couple of week’s time.

Listen here.
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“Noble Junk” post
Epic Fails podcast
Rob’s Making History 2 review


31 Comments so far ↓

  • Sareln

    I still have my Dark Reign and Rise of the Shadowhand disks floating around. It’s a shame Dark Reign 2 was so terrible. The artillery pieces were fantastic.

    Also, you could blind fire artillery.

  • High Pockets

    Troy, regarding the episode planning you mention near the end of the podcast, Vicki 2 sounds perfect for next week, the following week you’ve got the Q&A slated, so perhaps for Episode 81 we could pencil-in Elemental: War of Magic (since it releases early next week)? I think we’d all love to hear the panel’s thoughts on it. I am interested to see if it leaves me with the same aftertaste as GalCiv II: incredibly well-designed yet somehow missing that essential ingredient that makes it feel soulful (Moo2) and addicting (CivIV). Obviously it will be interesting to discuss it within the context of GalCivII and Master of Magic.

  • Phillip

    On the subject of Roman political games, have you ever played the boardgame The Republic of Rome (http://www.boardgamegeek.com/boardgame/1513/the-republic-of-rome)? That game is exactly what you described: players are jockeying to be elected to high office, which gives them prestige and power over some aspect of the republic (consul – lead the army, censor – prosecute your opponents etc.) The trick was that players had to work together at the same time they were scheming against each other, because if you don’t deal with the threats that arise, like Hannibal invading, Rome will fall and everyone loses.

  • Wolfox

    You mentioned you’d like to see a game in which you control a faction and build your way up in politics, even a Sims-like game. Have you tried the “The Guild” series? It does have that element, and some people would say it’s the best part of the game.

    Also, nice to see a mention to Dark Reign. It had a few other great ideas, like being able to save waypoint paths and use them later, or how you could morph units to look like trees, which was perfect to use them as spotters. Quite ingenious.

  • frags

    Speaking of elections and what not, I’m sure you’ve heard of Elixir’s(thats part of Bullfrog and they did Evil Genius) Republic: The Revolution. Crazy ambitious game but mediocre in the end. I’m sure it had some interesting ideas in there. I have not played it so I can’t really say much about it.

  • PleasingFungus

    Re: clique games: “Dangerous High School Girls In Trouble“? (Not sure if it’s properly a strategy game, but it came to mind.)

  • Wolfox

    @frags: Troy mentioned Republic: The Revolution in the same section that he mentions the political metagame, in the podcast.

    @PleasingFungus: yeah, when Rob mentioned “sorority games”, that’s the one that came to mind. I think it can be seen as a strategy game (after all, it is kind of a board game).

  • Ginger Yellow

    Perimeter was another mostly overlooked game that had a lot of great ideas but couldn’t tie them together. Not just the Harvest style terraforming and resource gathering, but also the cool units which combined to form more powerful units (which in turn could be transformed back to their constituent units if necessary).

  • Michael A.

    Sigh. I really need more hours in a day.

  • HomiSite

    Ah, “Dark Reign”… Memories… As it was said at the podcast’s end, the game was together with “Total Annihilation” and mabye “KKND” the first interesting RTS titles after the genre got famous with WarCraft and C&C.

    “Dark Reign” had a lot of ideas, like Wolfox said. IIRC there were AI modes for every unit, so you can say “scout” and there were moving randomly across the map. And there were real forests in which you can hide your troops, weren’t there, but the trees could burn down?

    But all that nifty ideas were hidden in a strange and boring campaign, were your play IMO a dozen “simulator missions” and only the last one was real (I never played it in multiplayer). The biggest flaw was the LOS system, because I wasn’t able to say which terrain was higher and lower and therefore the fog of war was constantly and irritating changing while moving units. I don’t know anything about the mentionend water ressource system anymore, but wasn’t “Z” the first RTS with region control ideas (and some other stuff)?

    According to MobyGames, “Dark Reign” Lead Designer Trey Watkins didn’t appear in the RTS genre much later, but got some “special thanks” credits in Call to Power and Battlezone II. Together with Ginger Yellow’s mentioned “Perimeter” there was its inofficial successor Maelstrom (but some of the “Perimeter” core team had left).

    I try to think of bad/mediocre games with genius but overlooked ideas, but I only can think of good games with no success (“Universe at War”, maybe?).

  • Steve

    Look forward to some Elemental impressions for next week if I may make a request.

  • Troy

    We’re doing Elemental in a future week.

  • Tom Chick

    Great podcast, guys, and I particularly liked the election discussion. But I was yelling at my computer as you guys were talking about Starcraft II. It’s really disappointing to hear you guys perpetuating the idea that it’s somehow unique or special for how it makes scouting and counters important. Those are hallmarks of any good RTS, and it’s disappointing to hear you guys talk as if Starcraft II somehow gets credit for making them important. :(

    The fact of the matter is that many RTSs have the same paper/rock/scissors unit interplay, and scouting out what your opponent is building and then assembling an effective counter force is an integral part of the gameplay. This goes for RTSs as diverse as Age of Empires III, End War, and Brutal Legend.

  • dingus

    I’m just listening to the podcast now and heard something that made me do a mental double-take. Rob was comparing movie reviewing to game reviewing, and suggesting that the economics of going to the movies means that movie reviewers can be a little more lax about what they recommend. Basically saying that since the moviegoer is only out ten or twelve bucks, the reviewer can suggest a film he didn’t think was all that good, but had something cool about it.

    He refers to this sort of review as “the middling review”.

    However, since games cost so much more, game reviewers have to be more strict in their reviews:

    “You have to approach it from a slightly more consumerist perspective.”

    I find this to be a real head-scratcher. I’m interested in delving into the ethical considerations here, to be sure. Should reviewers restrict their recommendations based on the cost of what they are reviewing? I don’t think so. It’s pretty simple to attach caveats to your recommendations by saying, for instance, “See this, but save it for rental.”

    But from a practical standpoint Rob’s point is problematic as well. Going to the movies can easily cost me the same as a game…and I’m only talking two people for one night (tickets + four hours of sitter fees). Consider my friend Brad, with a family of five.

    Should movie reviewers, then, scale their recommendations to accommodate those folks?

    I’m interested in hearing Rob discuss this more, in particular with regard to his final statement in this part of the show, because I really do find this element of reviewing/criticism to be interesting. The statement in question:

    “But that also leaves you at a disadvantage because you’re going to give a score to the product, but that’s maybe not the score you’d attach to the ideas within the product.”

    I seriously find this sentiment fascinating, and I’d love to hear Rob riff on it a bit. Find out whether it was something said off the cuff–which I’d totally get–or if it’s really a part of his philosophy. Because I think this is an interesting element in game and film reviewing today.

    Thanks, as always, for the great work on the podcast, guys.


  • dingus

    P.S. Sorry that was so long!

  • Tom Chick

    “Boy, that guy was a real chatterbox, wasn’t he?”

  • dingus


  • Mark O'Brien

    I think a bigger issue than the cost of a ticket is the cost in terms of time.

    A movie is generally not going to cost you much more than two hours of your life.

    A great many games can take a lot more time to install, learn to play, and especially to complete. And these days, with so many Steam sales etc, a lot of players I know have huge backlogs of games to get through already.

    I have to be very confident that I will like a game a lot before I will bother with it. It generally isn’t worth playing a mediocre game just because it has a few neat ideas. The same isn’t really true for a movie.

  • Ultimate Elemental

    Is anyone going to do a review of Elemental: War of Magic?

  • Troy

    I will be writing one, and Tom has a great series of diaries on Fidgit.

  • dingus

    Good point about time investment, Mark.

  • SomeGuy

    Judging from what I’ve read on forums from people who have played the game, Elemental will probably require a re-visit several months down the road as well?

    I hope Stardock’s not going the Paradox route of having to pay for patches and updates via DLC for what seems like an unpolished and rushed game.

  • Rob Zacny

    You’re right Tom, and I really wish some other informed panelist could have been present to push back against our over-estimation of Starcraft 2. ;)

    However, I will offer this: in Starcraft 2, the value of scouting is often clear in a way that it is not in other RTSs, in part because so much of SC2 is brutally stripped down. The rock, paper, scissors relationships are so clearly delineated that seeing what’s headed your way lets you know exactly what you need to do to protect yourself, or to attack the other guy. I feel an urgency to scout in SC2 in a way that I don’t always in other RTSs.

    Dingus, a lot of what I said was off-the-cuff and I couldn’t begin to frame it coherently. But let me tell you a few things that were on my mind.

    As a consumer of film reviews, I am more likely to read into the critic’s reasoning behind his or her review and weight that against what I am looking to get out of the film. I just know from my own experience that I’m more likely to roll the dice on a film with conflicted reviews than I am on a game. As someone who writes reviews, I know the power of a score to drown out what you’re saying.

    I like the NY Times film section because there are Critics’ picks, but beyond that there’s no real “at a glance” system. Review scores, I fear, give the illusion of improved information. I have to read further to know what Manohla Dargis thinks about a film. But with a scored review, I might think, “Troy liked but didn’t love this game.” Except he did love it, it’s just a little broken. But that’s hard to bring across in a score.

    I do think economics come into it, although Mark is spot on about time. People get a jones to see a movie, so they go out to one. It’s not too expensive, and it doesn’t take too long. But games, when new, are time and monetary commitments. And movies are social. I go see movies with my girlfriend. But my time with a game? There’s no real value to that experience beyond what the game is giving me.

    Last comment: we just did a show Victoria II, and I think it typifies what I meant about attaching a score to a game, but not to ideas within. Victoria II is kind of a mess. I can’t recommend it without some serious reservations. But there is magnificence within it. I have to review it as a gaming experience, and it lets me down a bit there. But it’s broken in part because Paradox was swinging for the fences and did too good a job creating a believable, dynamic world. I think strategy gamers owe it to themselves to see what Paradox did with Victoria II. It’s fascinating. But it’s not a great game. And, as you can tell from my fragmented thoughts, I wrestle with these different ways of assigning value to a game.

  • dingus

    Thanks for taking the time to respond, Rob. Very cool of you.

    I’m still interested in hearing folks hash out the issue of a reviewer tailoring his review to the cost of his product, but this probably isn’t the forum for that discussion.

    I appreciate the response.


  • Ginger Yellow

    “Judging from what I’ve read on forums from people who have played the game, Elemental will probably require a re-visit several months down the road as well?”

    Seems like it. While I still haven’t played the patched retail version yet (I pre-ordered and have most recently played v1.01), it certainly feels like it needs a lot of work. Most notably the game really slows down to a crawl after a while – many people are reporting memory leaks – and it crashes on Alt-Tab with many graphics cards. But more generally there’s a real feel that it was rushed out to get in ahead of Civ V. The UI still needs more work to provide info to players, the campaign is really unhelpful and seemingly bugged, multiplayer isn’t functional etc. It’s a shame as at its core it’s a really awesome, addictive game. I’ve played 8 hours even in its current buggy state (on top of the beta playtime).

    As for having to pay for DLC to fix the bugs, I’d be surprised. Stardock has traditionally been excellent about ongoing, free support for their games, as developer and publisher. My worry is that the current state of the game is going to put off anyone who wasn’t committed to it already – a la Demigod’s launch. It’s really tough to overcome a bad launch, especially if you can’t (or won’t) take advantage of Steam sales. But maybe the final (and patched) retail version is in better shape. I suppose I’ll find out tonight.

  • Ginger Yellow

    ” I think strategy gamers owe it to themselves to see what Paradox did with Victoria II. ”

    Well, I did by looking at the demo as soon as it was up. And it crashed three times during the tutorials alone. I’ve not been able to get past three years in the demo proper without a crash. That’s another game it would probably be best to wait a few months before diving in.

  • Chris King

    Rob, looking at your round up of Victoria 2 it feels like we are stuck in a Catch 22 situation. To me it looks like gamers want a believable and dynamic world right the way up to you actually give them one.

  • Chris

    The AI options in Dark Reign really set it apart from the crowd, and its peers were Total Annihilation and Starcraft, so that’s saying something.

    I played a lot more Dark Reign than TA or SC, though that may just be because I encountered it first.

    My particular favourite was “Search and Destroy” – when you enabled that the selected unit would rove around trying to find and kill enemies by itself – great for mopping up the last few survivors.

    IIRC it inspired the depth of the AI modes when we were working on Warlords Battlecry 2.

    They also had a lovely idea for patrols, where you could create a patrol path and then assign units to follow it. I never found a really good use of it, but I thought it was very cool at the time.

  • EmpireCTPEarthFan

    great that you mentioned CTP and DR. Both are underrated (or forgotten?) strategy games.

    CTP2 actually plays VERY well as a world conquest game. the move thru the ages was better than even the recent Civ IV imo. it does lack the diplomacy depth of the firaxis games… but it the feel of the game was epic.

    as well, I would put Empire Earth as underrated (mainly EE1 and 2) as a very good AoE RTS that borrowed heavily from TA/DR.

    great podcast. can you guys can go more than an hour?… dying for more strategy discussion while i play the addicting and frustrating Elemental. will be interesting the topics discussed on that game!

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  • hexagonian

    RE: CTP2…

    The beauty of CTP2 was that it was extremely moddible. Yes, it’s a shame that the fans had to fix the game, but they did. Unfortunately, too many players had a built-in bias against CTP2 that prevented them from giving those Mods a fair shake.

    I also fully understand that a reviewer has to judge a game based solely upon it’s release, but it is also amazing what a few knowledgeable fans can do to fix inbalances. Sometimes it’s only a matter of tweaking a few numbers…and for the player, if the end result gives a good game, who cares where it came from.

    It’s also interesting to note that several prominent CTP2 fans/Modders had a hand in beta testing for civ4 (…so many of the concepts in civ4 did have their genesis in the CTP series), and cut their teeth on civ4 modding in the CTP2 series.