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A World You Believe In

September 15th, 2011 by Troy Goodfellow · 5 Comments · Design

As emotional as I can get when I start deciding which of my enemies I hate, one of the big challenges for strategy games is creating a playing field that is interesting and alive. This is where the role-playing side of strategy games comes in, I suppose. (I often mock Tom Chick by suggesting he thinks everything is a strategy game; I am probably the same way with role playing.)

So I look at a game like Sengoku and end up delighted that it does really try to force you to imagine yourself in a different place with different priorities. In this new strategy game from Paradox, you lead a Japanese clan to a position of dominance over the islands through marriage, diplomacy, intrigue and war. It’s sort of like Shogun: Total War, with the great caveat that war proves to be less effective and truly the last gasp of a frustrated or desperate daimyo.

By taking the easy smackdown of samurai out of the equation and the persistent threat of having vassals just pull out of the war and declare allegiance to someone else, Sengoku‘s mechanics force you to take the entirety of your field of vision into account. The usual Paradox UI problems prevent you from really understanding everything, and the map is never quite right for my practical purposes, but it is one of the few Paradox games that has a sense of place and not just a sense of history – there is a difference.

Probably the best example of this sort of world building is in the classic King of Dragon Pass, new to iPad and iPhone – and it’s a brilliant translation, by the way. By telling you mythic stories and giving you more anecdotes than reliable data, you cannot escape the impression that you are a chieftain whose people rely on you but do not have to follow you. There are gods and magic and war, but also harvests and justice and politics. It’s the sort of game that would absolutely never be made today because it is anything but transparent, and I’m the sort of guy that loves transparency in his strategy games. But the role-playing bits in King of Dragon Pass hide all the obvious outcomes of your decisions, so you have to rely on your memory for what has happened before and think about what is the right thing for your tribe right now. If that means ethnically cleansing duck people because they have good farmland that you really need to survive the winter, you suck it up and praise Orthanc there is no barbarian Hague.

Then, of course, we have Alpha Centauri, which could have been Civ in space but ended up being a parable about humanity’s divisions, destinies and how we take care of ourselves and the planet. The writing deserves a lot of credit, but the imaginative way the Civ format was tweaked to highlight differences and potentialities was the key to its plausibility as a new planet we were exploring.

It’s not that this sort of thing is especially rare. Sword of the Stars has a compelling backstory and racial design that makes every new session feel like the first time. Among wargames, Scourge of War and the Take Command series are the best examples of putting you in the chaos of battle and not simply asking you to control it. Children of the Nile was elegant and a little ugly, but oh so magically real.

I’m hard pressed to think of a game that felt tangible and real that was not, underneath it all, a good game. A game can have good writing and good history but still fail as a living world because it asks you to do too much or too little. Scale and scope are very important in strategy games, so you have give the player enough to do to feel like he/she is making serious decisions of consequence but not so much that he/she becomes a divine accountant – and if you do, be sure to mix it up with some tangible reminders of why it all matters.

Now many good games don’t have this at all, of course. Civilization isn’t really a true world, no matter how personally I take the backstabbings. Imperialism is a ledger sheet. Sins of a Solar Empire is majestic and glorious but not quite real. Defcon makes Julian cry, but it’s little more than a timing game for me after a while. All great games – some of the best strategy games ever made – but they keep you at arms length from the world you are dealing with.

Those games that can pull me into a world are something very valuable. It’s the kind of skill that gets at the emotional core of “touching history” even if it’s not history at all.


5 Comments so far ↓

  • Matt

    Interesting article. Admittedly I presumed that this would be another EU Rome – sort of Paradox Interactive’s response to Creative Assembly, but having read this, perhaps not.

    After an apprehensive few days it has, fortunately, made it to the Steam store for £20. Might have a look for a demo on Paradox’s website first though.

  • Troy Goodfellow

    Sengoku is much more character driven than EU: Rome and has a much more obtuse UI. Plus there is a lot of unlearning to do.

    I recommend the demo.

  • Gormongous

    After a dozen hours in the full game, I think it may be more like EU: Rome than you’d think. The AI can’t or won’t use plots, so prudent players can easily snowball into a fairly bland endgame. I’m hoping that different starting locations can spice up the gameplay, because so far I don’t see much breaking up the homogeneity, however flavorful it might be.

  • Alikchi

    The problem with Sengoku is that it is devoid of most of the events that made Crusader Kings so fun and storytellable (that is a word).

  • Matt

    After a play with the demo, I agree with Troy that the interface is difficult to work. I have to say I am impressed with the presentation of the map and computer performance. The scrolling was slick and the map was pretty – but that isn’t important and won’t interest many fans of the genre in all fairness, nor add to replayability.

    I do wonder though, why doesn’t Paradox implement the (in my opinion) far clearer and accessible interface from Hearts of Iron 3, using a row of tabs at the top, each with the relevant heading? As opposed to the incredibly small buttons crammed in the bottom corners.

    I hate to bash Paradox like this, but it strikes me that not so much originality is to be found here, rather it’s nearer a re-skinned EU Rome.

    Paradox forums had the moderators complaining that Creative Assembly has copied their idea with Shogun 2, complaining it had been in the pipeline well before CA announced Shogun. In reality, I suspect it’s more a rushed response to intercept some of the Shogun 2 DLC money. Call me cynical, but without new game mechanics or originality in design here, I don’t believe its the refurbishment PI forum moderators claimed, but instead a new lick of paint to an existing environment. (That being said, I am sure a new lick of paint will suffice for Paradox diehards.)

    As depicted in Shogun 2, this is a period of intense conflict with plenty of agitated clans packed together in a small space, and with that backdrop I think they have limited the player’s experience by not offering a more complex combat system. Again, I put this down to not breaking new ground with game mechanics – not the number of factors as War in the East but something which makes the player look beyond the size of engaged armies.

    I’m aware I’ve made a lot of fairly bold conclusions about this game after only playing the demo, but I do think Paradox have missed an opportunity to shine. I find it painful to say, but I am finding their EU-stylised grand strategy games something of a one trick pony…

    Anyway, that was quite rant I went on and I hope I am wildly wrong about it.