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Noble Junk

August 26th, 2006 by Troy Goodfellow · 2 Comments · Uncategorized

I like new terminology that helps me convey just what is going on when I game. Last year, I was introduced to the phrase “gaming blindspot“, a handy term to describe what happens when mechanics don’t meet expectations or play style.

The September Computer Gaming World has another one that I like. Expanding on his 1up review of Rise and Fall: Civilizations at War, Tom Chick refers to the action hero part of the game as “noble junk”.

The principle: Underneath some games exists a solid design that could have improved the genre or introduced some cool innovation or just made a memorable game. But somewhere along the way, for whatever reason, the actual design process hit a snag…finally resulting in junk.

Though Tom and I disagree on the final evaluation of Rise and Fall, we agree that plopping the player into the body of Cleopatra: Warrior Princess didn’t succeed on the level that Stainless Steel probably intended. The fusion of First Person Slasher with your traditional razing the roofs RTS was awkward and surrounded by other design decisions that pulled you out of whatever senses it was trying to invoke.

So I got to thinking about other noble junk in strategy games. The genre is full of it, it seems. Here are three piece of noble junk that I can think of immediately.

1) Civilization: Call to Power: Alternative Warfare – The Activision Call to Power games tried their hardest to separate themselves from the Meier shadow that loomed over them. The series had three major changes of note. First, civilization improvements were deducted from a public works pool, an admirable innovation that worked well. Second, battles were fought by armies of combined units in a tactical minigame, an innovation that was pretty bad. Third, was the introduction of alternate means of warfare – the noble junk. Slavers, Lawyers, Televangelists…all could be used to subvert your enemies. This continuation of war by other means was meant to offer strategies beyond the accumulation of military power but instead worked to make the alternate means the best and most efficient route to conquest. You were crazy not to build walls to keep slavers out or to not keep some lawyers hanging around in case some enemy multinational corp showed up at your door. With a little more thought and a little more balancing, this design innovation could have been important instead of merely interesting.

2) Celtic Kings: Supply lines – Leveling up hero units has become so commonplace in strategy games that some of the earliest games to tried to blend role playing and strategy games get lost in the mists of time. Not that the mists go back that far. Celtic Kings, a 2002 release from Haemimont, was successful enough to spawn a sort of franchise. Brett Todd considered the game “great” when he reviewed it. I didn’t like Celtic Kings at all and one of big problems was the use of the supply line mechanic. On its surface, this is a brilliant idea. Your army can only stay in the field so long as you have food to keep it there. So you have to manage food outposts, villages and supply mules. The big problem was that the AI can’t do all that. It will repeatedly send its mule train down the same road over and over again. So you eliminate the enemy armies by killing all the donkeys that walk the same path all the time. Every battle becomes, in effect, siege warfare where you try to weaken your enemy by starvation. This worked OK in multiplayer, but even then there wasn’t enough fun in SimWagon Train to recommed it as a design innovation.

3) Pax Romana: Elections that matter – Another game that Brett and I disagreed on is Pax Romana, Philippe Thibaut’s first computer game after consulting on the triumphant Europa Universalis. Brett gave it a strong recommendation in Computer Games Magazine, largely because of the excellent political minigame in the grand campaign mode. Every year your faction leaders would nominate faction members for office. You would spend cash, strategy cards and political capital in gaining coveted offices. If you kept winning elections, though, you would weaken your power in the Senate as your followers all took up governorships and military commands far from Rome. The problem, blamed by Thibaut on publisher pressure, was that the strategy mode was mostly broken (too many revolts, too easy to raise legions) and the political end game wasn’t even implemented (dictatorships and imperial purple). Also, the annual elections began to take over whatever strategy gaming was there, forcing the player to focus more on who would be consul than who would fight the war against Macedonia. (Ironically, there is more than a grain of historical truth here no matter how much it interfere with sound planning.)

So, noble junk all over. Feel free to fill the comments with noble junk you have encountered.


2 Comments so far ↓

  • flashman

    Republic:The Revolution? I think the whole game qualifies as noble junk but especially the much touted 3D view.

    On paper it sounded great …a deep political strategy game and also a 3D view so you could get down to street level and see the reovolution first hand. If I remember right. the whole 3D part of the game was pretty useless as it was only good for walking around to get scripted conversation snippets and seeing scripted events.

    Or Victoria? I think the whole population management system was junk there.

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