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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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Faction Design vs The Red Baron

July 6th, 2013 by Troy Goodfellow · Design, Firaxis, WW1

Sid Meier’s Ace Patrol (Firaxis) is a fun, light air tactics game for the iPad. You have a crew of WWI pilots that gather experience and skill as they shoot down enemy planes, escort bombers or protect/destroy important installations. It is turn based, it has nice art and interface and it manages to evoke WWI air combat better than I thought it would given the limitations of the platform. But then again, WWI air combat was a slow, plodding clash between rivals trying to get the perfect position – just like many great turn-based strategy games.

So I mostly like Sid Meier’s Ace Patrol. I liked the British campaign enough to shell out more money for the rest of the plane sets – French, German and American. Amusingly, the American campaign also start in 1916, and I suspect that Meier knows better than that. And, even though I do not hold to an anal attachment to historical timelines for a game like this, it does point to one of the great failings of selling different campaign packs for each nation.

All of the campaigns are, fundamentally, the same and there is nothing to really distinguish the British experience from the German experience. Why should we care that the Americans start the war a year early?

I am not just talking about the missions, even though their lockstep similarity is disappointing. In that case, at least, I can point to the fact that there really weren’t many things that fighter airplanes could do in WWI that would have been interesting. You would always be limited to dogfights, interceptions, escort missions and balloon busting. These aren’t the great air campaigns of WW2 where at least you have a hornet’s nest of planes around you.

Selling the campaigns as unique content requires a little more, of course. So an early June update to the game added special traits for each of the nations. The British get an extra high G maneuver, French pilots can crash land and avoid capture, Americans heal faster and Germans gain their first special pilot ability faster.

Turning history into a game is hard at the best of times. There is now a general expectation from gamers that each historical nation or faction has something to distinguish it, thereby ensuring greater replayability and variety of experiences. In ahistorical history games like Age of Empires or Civilization, faction design can easily default to general historical stereotypes or characteristics drawn from certain moments. (I did a whole essay series on this sort of thing.)

But when you are dealing with this player expectation in a small scale game on a small platform, you are sort of limited in what you can do. The various traits assigned to the four powers in Ace Patrol are modest, at best, with the French avoidance of POW camps easily the best one (though dependent on you crash landing and not just getting shot down.) The German power is one you’ll never notice after the first battles in the campaign, the British one assumes that a second high G maneuver is going to be a good thing for you and the American one, well, you get your aces back faster but you need them now. Given it was added in an update, the faction differentiation was possibly an afterthought and it, in any case, does little to transform the identical campaigns into anything more varied.

Of course, if you’re an old Red Baron hand, like I am, then you know that the real differentiation in the air war of WWI was in the planes themselves. I fondly remember the challenges of flying often inferior British planes against high powered Fokkers, counting on my plane’s agility or second machine gun to keep me out of harm’s way. Then the Sopwiths came along and I had more climbing speed, etc. The whole history of the air war and the differences in priorities for the Allied and German air engineers was played out in my career. I really should play a flight sim again.

Anyway, Ace Patrol does have different planes appear for each nation along the campaign histories, four for each country. You are given their stats and their hit points, etc but the only real sense of differentiation between the planes is which one of you is flying a piece of crap. Once you identify the poor sap in his Eindecker, you take him out and then gang up on the Fokker. All the numbers that Ace Patrol gives you about flight ceiling and horsepower become completely abstract in a game that asks you to move your plane a number of hexes in certain directions, maybe climbing, maybe diving, maybe turning. Flight ceiling is never so much an issue that you can just climb your way out of danger, and the game rewards aggressive play (or at the very least sucking your enemy into flak fire).

So while I have greatly enjoyed the hours I have put into Ace Patrol and don’t regret the purchase one bit, I do wonder if distinct historical faction design is possible on a game of this scale that is still true to history. In a Civil War game, you just boost experience or morale levels until the Union/Confederate balance “feels” right. You can’t quite do that when you are dealing with knight of the air going mano-a-mano. (Game designers should feel free to pitch into the comments).

I do hope there is more to come in Ace Patrol. It’s a great pleasure to see Meier make something new and of high-quality.

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