Yeah, I’m writing about a 4 year old game.  Hey, it’s new to me.

I am surprised at how much I’ve been grabbed by the Terran campaign.  It’s cheesy as all hell, but there’s something about this style of game that I like – focused, fairly small-scale real-time scenarios.  It’s not the pure battle of the real online Melee, and it’s easy to see the triggers and the seams in the AI – if you can even call it that.  I’ve seen nothing beyond “throw units at the enemy when the time is right.”

But it’s a definite genre, one that’s not all that common these days.  I got the same high off Dawn of War 2, which I played by myself, and co-op, and even tried on Hard.  Both expansions, too.  I loved that game.  Reaching way back, I remember loving Myth 2.

You fight a battle, you reach for extra objectives, you spend your credits on upgrades.  It’s a fun formula, and it’s rarer than it should be.  That, or maybe I’m the only one who digs this stuff.  I hear there was a lot of hate for DoW2 amongst the gaming cognoscenti, and a good number of them attacked it for the very things I loved the most.

The biggest problems that StarCraft 2 has come from the fact that it’s StarCraft, and the extreme ludo-narrative dissonance that is unavoidable given the game’s basic design.

It all comes down to the base.  That’s the biggest and ugliest flaw this game has.  First off, it’s just ridiculous.  The whole idea of building units on the battlefield is nonsensical from the start.  Dawn of War 2 made it work because you never brought new units onto the battlefield at all.  Myth just gave you a set of guys, and that was it.  Both of those systems were better, because running the base is just pure busy-work.  I understand that it’s a key part of micro in the real game, blah blah blah.  I’m just an old man, I guess, but I don’t see the need for such an ugly attention-splitter when the problem of resource gain has been solved in better ways by more recent games.

But ESPECIALLY in the campaign, it makes no sense at all.  “Gee, good thing this firebase we just set up happens to be centered around a naturally occurring outcrop of minerals.  Lucky the people who built this building we’re standing upon just left them here, like a sculpture or something.  We can mine them and transform them into new weapons on the spot, in minutes.  Fortunately that Barracks we just built came with a theoretically infinite quantity of men.  I handcrafted them myself, out of pure mineral.  But, even though they’re magical mineral men, they won’t leave the barracks or do anything unless the proper kit is built for them.”

A more fully SF game could have made it work, I suppose, with 3D printers and AI, but of course StarCraft doesn’t go that route.

Gah.

I started playing the StarCraft 2 campaign tonight.  I’m trying to make a world-beating MOBA in the StarCraft 2 editor, so I figure I oughta learn the base game, at least a little bit.

I am perhaps the only one whose initial reaction to the StarCraft 2 campaign was, “WTF, all the future people are white!”

They’re not only white, they are white Americans.  Not only white Americans, but vaguely southern white Americans.  And by southern, I don’t mean Mexican, Latino, or any form of Hispanic.  No, they’re good ol’ boys.

Perhaps in the 1950’s, during the era of unparalleled American strength and dominance in pretty much everything, it was possible to imagine a lily-white space-faring future.  Nowadays, it requires total and utter ignorance.  India and China are recovering from 300/200 years on the downswing, respectively, and have the economic clout and demographic weight to be a key part of any realistic Space Future, whatever form it may take.  Not just a part, but in all likelihood a dominant part.

In particular, if any Earth nationality is likely to produce a “Space Emperor,” it would have to be China.  Seriously, who could imagine a post-Enlightenment European or North American power creating a proper Absolute Monarchy?  It does not seem terribly likely for China, either, but at least there’s a very strong cultural tradition to draw upon, one that had some currency into the 20th century.  But a Space Empire based on any Western culture?  No.

Corporate dystopia?  Maybe.  Anarcho-syndicalist communes?  Maybe.  The Federation, in its fullest Star Trek sense?  Maybe.  An ugly and inefficient UN lookalike?  Maybe.  Space Empire?  Yeah, right.

When have you played a CCG enough to feel that you know the game?  That’s a question I’ve been pondering the past couple weeks as I’ve been learning Netrunner.  Netrunner is not, technically, a CCG.  It’s a “Living Card Game,” wherein you can cheaply buy all the cards in fixed sets.  I bought the base set, which comes in a ridiculously oversized box, and the first set of expansion decks, the “Genesis Cycle,” in a lump, and have been playing in the mornings with my regular opponent.

There’s a Runner, or the offensive player, and the Corporation, the defensive player.  The Runner wants to steal Agendas from the Corporation, while the Corporation wants to protect Agendas until they can be Advanced, or scored.  The game is over when one side or the other has 7 points of Agenda either stolen or advanced, or when the Runner is dead.  Corporations are immortal, of course.

I’ve avoided looking up strategy or tactics online, and have instead been enjoying the slow process of learning the game, putting decks together, trying out new ideas, and generally getting smashed no matter which side I play.  So far, I’ve put together a generally competent Shaper deck, a really nasty Criminal deck, and a hardware-gimmick Shaper deck.  I’m still feeling out the gimmick deck, and played around briefly with a virus-Anarch deck that was really bad.  On the Corp side, I’ve had great success with a straight-up Weyland deck, have made a middling NBN trace deck, and am going to try out an HB deck soon.

Corporation is definitely more challenging.  It is also where this game’s real strength come out – the importance of execution relative to deck construction.  Back in the day, I found that well-played MTG decks more or less played themselves.  There wasn’t much to the actual game other than seeing your pre-planned combos come into play.  The deck worked or it didn’t, and making it work in each match was just a matter of drawing the right cards.  Netrunner demands much more, I think, and especially from the corporate player.  At least, it seems to.  Maybe this perception is just the result of my ToTaL NOOB status, and that after enough play it will become automatic as well.  Who knows.

It’s been a lot of fun.  My regular gaming opponent has never played a CCG or a deck-builder before, but is starting to get the hang of things.  He may even try building a deck soon.

This game is as goofy as the title suggests.  You take on the role of a heroic Star Nerd, who must use the great and mighty power of arithmetic to summon allies and fight Space Treachery!

No, seriously, that’s what you do.

The game has two very unlikely pieces.  The core gameplay is a series of arithmetic puzzles.  Can you use addition, subtraction, and multiplication to turn a set of 8 numbers into the exact casting Integers demanded by your cards?  And, just as important, can you use up all your numbers ever turn, for the CalcuLord Bonus?  Units, once summoned, appear on a minimal 3-lane map, and gradually push their way towards the enemy base.  This aspect of the game has some depth as well, as there are all kinds of different units with different abilities which match up better or worse against different kinds of enemies.

Of course, you can customize both your deck of unit cards, and your deck of numbers, CCG style.  That’s the other half of the game.

I’ve just started dabbling in the game, but I’ve played enough to see that it works.  Against all odds, the game actually manages to be a lot of fun, enough to make me put up with puzzles.  I’m normally not a puzzle guy – just see my take on Incredipede.  Yet somehow, this works for me.

And, the designer is perfectly okay if you just use it to make kids practice math.  I would totally do that, if I had a kid.

CalcuLords is available on the iPad, and perhaps other mobile platforms as well.

Mobile is generally known as the home of crap free-to-play scamware, engineered to exploit the flaws in human psychology and trick people into wasting money while giving them next to no actual gameplay as a reward.

However, the iPad is also a wonderful platform for boardgames, and has been graced with a number of truly excellent boardgame ports in the last year.  Agricola is one of them.

Agricola manages a true miracle of alchemy, turning what has to be one of the most boring themes ever (become the most average peasant possible!) into a dense and tricky strategy game.  It plays really, really well as a purely solo game, wherein you try to match a ever rising score total through sheer mastery of the system.  It plays really, really well as a 2 player game, where you have to quickly distinguish your strategy from that of your rival to avoid conflicts over a limited number of resources which you both need.   It plays really, really well with 3, 4, or 5 players as well.  It’s just an incredible design.

The iPad port is, in many ways, distinctly superior to the boardgame.  Agricola is a beast to set up, as there are a TON of different little colored chits you need to lay out.  It requires a ton of fiddly little recordkeeping ever turn, refreshing the building resources and animals, and it requires a fair bit of attention during the Harvest phase, when you have to accurately feed your family, harvest crops, and increase animal counts accordingly.  And finally, scoring is fairly complicated – at least until you’ve memorized all 10 categories in the scoring table.  On the iPad, all of these problems simply disappear.  All that fiddly record-keeping is automated.  All those chits are kept and placed automatically, and all that complicated scoring is effortless.  It’s easy to follow, and it’s just better.

When I was younger, I played a lot of Magic: The Gathering.  I got in at Revised, just as Legends went out of print.  My first boosters were two packs of Legends, and I got the Elder Dragon Legend Arcades Sabboth, who was utterly unusable but nonetheless awesome.  I was primarily a white and blue player, because I like to suffer and do everything the hard way.  I had two signature decks.  The first was my Meekstone deck, using Zephyr Falcons and Serra Angels to pummel opponents who had trouble defending properly.  This deck was always better in concept than in practice, being slow.  The second was my Army deck, a weenie-white based on banding.  I invented it just before the big weenie-white craze hit, and always felt superior to run of the mill weenie white which used lots of Savanna Lions and White Knights.  Banding was complicated and sophisticated and cool.  Yeah.  As should be obvious by this point, I was never very good, but a lot of that was by choice.  I hated direct damage red, and I hated black removal, which are the two most powerful things in the game, so I was never going to be good at it.  The MTG meta-game always favored removal and sorcery, and rewarded decks very light on creatures.  I didn’t like to play that way, so I didn’t, and I lost.  Oh, poor me.

Last night, I was listening to the Gamers with Jobs podcast, episode 384, and they were talking about Wildstar and MMO’s.  In defending his like of Wildstar and other old-school MMO’s, he cited the sense of place they had.  Different zones felt really different, and were truly distinct, and you always got psyched up when you earned the right to travel to a cool new place.  Something clicked, and I had another idea.

Magic is, in theory, about planeswalkers who summon armies and magics from different planes of existence to do battle.  What a wonderful idea for an MMO.  You have all kinds of different planes, sorted by color and theme.  Here’s the merfolk plane with lots of blue, here’s the dark forest with giant beasts and elves and stuff, etc.  Through the years Magic has already created the look and feel of a hundred different interesting locations – use it!  You can do even more – on different planes, certain cards will work or they won’t, depending on all kinds of arbitrary and fiddly rules.  You could even do this entirely to your expansion – you can’t use that Urza’s Avenger in Icatia, because they’re different sets. As you travel, you’d have to manage your deck or decks accordingly.

On each plane, different cards would be available to get.  I imagine that you collect creatures Pokemon style – hunt them down and defeat them in the proper way.  You could make a mini-game that uses cards in totally non-traditional ways for this – or several different ones, for different planes.  I imagine that you would collect non-creature spells in a totally different way – puzzle-based mini-games where you do “research” would be one way, or doing quests for Great Wizard trainers, or dueling them for access to their secret spells.  A combination of opportunities for standard-game MTG duels, restricted game MTG duels, and mini-game special matches combined with Pokemon-style monster collection and the usual exploration stuff might well make for an interesting game.

I discovered Wargame ALB last summer.  It is a really brilliant RTS title.  You control a mixed force of air and land units from the NATO and Warsaw Pact armies circa 1985, and command them in fairly small engagements over varied terrain.  Here are some of the really great things about the Wargame ALB.

  • There’s no base-building, and only minimal resource management.  You have deployment points, which you use to call-in units off map.  These are produced slowly over time, depending on how many zones you control.  You available off-map units are determined before the battle begins via a really fun Army Construction system.  Building a balanced army, and learning how to use your units, is the heart of the game.
  • The game’s micro is really interesting, and does not feel stupid and artificial at all.  You have to match up unit type and engagement range to set up favorable mismatches – confronting a group of APC’s in the open with Tanks, for example.
  • The most critical thing at all times is air cover, because without AA any force will be mercilessly destroyed from the air.  So, engagements come down to figuring out how to break the enemy’s air cover, use your air to knock out their missile units, and then bring in your tanks to mop up.  None of this is easy.
  • The game has the best Recon system I’ve ever seen.  Different units have different levels of visibility, and different levels of Optics.  High Optics recon units can see a lot from a distance, while most units are nearly blind to anything that’s not in the open and right in front of them.  Finding your enemies first, and then knocking them out before they can effectively respond, is the ultimate coup.
  • Learning to effectively attack the enemy is hard, but incredibly satisfying when you pull it off.
  • Learning to use your air units effectively, without getting them shot down on their first mission, is just as tricky.

All of this has been said before, as the game was universally lauded by strategy critics upon release.

What is really, really amazing about this game is that it has a super-fun single-player campaign.  It just started working properly on my machine after the recent patches, which is why I’ve started playing the game again.  It’s a dynamic campaign on a strategic map, and you’re given objectives at the beginning.  You start with a pool of political points, which you can use to call in new units or to perform special strike missions.  When your unit meets up with an enemy unit, there’s a battle, and depending on the point differential and the total morale level of the units, the battle will result in unit destruction, unit retreat, or the continuation of the battle the next day.  Every battle wears your units out – if you threw away all your tanks in one engagement, you’re not getting any of them back.  The enemy also plays by the same rules, so if you know you knocked out their air in a previous battle, you’ll be able to take advantage of that in the next engagement.

In the past couple days, I’ve played through the first two campaigns.  The first is pretty easy, to give you a feel for the system, but the second campaign is a bit more challenging.  You have to deal with several Pact mechanized and armored divisions using a bunch of infantry and airborne units, and this is not an easy task.  Oh, how I would have killed for some simple, cheap tanks in these battles, but the NATO paras simply don’t have them, which forced me to figure out how to utilize all kinds of alternatives.   Even against a mediocre AI that had no idea how to use artillery, this was an interesting challenge.

Alec Meer over at Rock, Paper, Shotgun has a sort of hindsight retrospective re-evaluation of Far Cry 2 out today.  He didn’t like it before, but now he does.  Well, at least, now he appreciates it – and for many of the same reasons that I did as well.

I’ve written a bit about Far Cry 2 before.  It was a game that I found utterly engrossing at the time, because of the exact same sense of constant fear and weakness described by Mr. Meer.  My favorite thing about that game was trying to plot out a course to the various distant quest locations, figuring out how to by-pass as many checkpoints as possible and reaching the destination by the skin of my teeth.  This was particularly the case before I discovered the buses, which made things SO MUCH EASIER but also eliminated a good deal of that tension.

There was also an interesting discussion of the exact same game, and many of the same issues, by the guys on the Idle Thumbs podcast Episode 143.  That discussion was prompted by an almost tragically sad email by an individual who was on the Far Cry 2 team, and who had decided that the game was a failure.  One of the most interesting points raised was about the way the game dis-empowers you, the player, in ways that are incredibly unusual for an FPS, and in particular for an FPS released back then.  While nowadays, with the boom in rogue-likes and the example of Dark Souls in mind, it’s much more acceptable for a game to put the player in a truly hostile world, back then it was jarring – particularly when the game looked and felt and was released as a typical AAA FPS.

Yeah, there were a lot of things about the design that were both incredibly frustrating and which made no sense.  But that game did a lot of stuff that’s not been done before, or since, and for all the legitimate crap it has taken, it’s still a major achievement.

High Frontier Colonization, the new expansion and total re-writing of High Frontier, is one I’ve anticipated for a while.  It seems to explicitly address the problems in the original regarding the endgame, and provides all kinds of really interesting super-future things to do.  The original expansion added complexity to the game, but really didn’t provide much of a motive to use it.  This one looks good.

Pax Porfiriana is a card-game reworking of the original Lords of the Sierra Madre, one of Phil Eklund’s first games.  I picked it up because it was going out of print.  Hopefully it’s playable with two players, or is simple enough for classroom usage (Hah!), or I don’t think it will get much play.

Netrunner is the new living-card-game version of the original Netrunner, by the same guy who designed Magic the Gathering.  I still have a soft spot in my heart for Magic, and for CCG’s in general, and this one may well fit into my regular gaming routine, provided I can make a convert of my regular gaming partner.  I’ve opened it up and given the rules a thorough reading, but the only real comment I have at the moment is that I’m really amazed by the lore of this game – for a horrible reason.  Somehow, they made the evil corporations more sympathetic than the freedom-fighter hackers, even to a hard-left former-union-activist such as myself.  Amazing.

Rob Zacne and Troy Goodfellow over at Three Moves Ahead (which just celebrated its 250th episode!) had a discussion this week about the new game Pandora, from Proxy Studios.  It’s billed as a “spiritual successor” to Alpha Centauri, one of the all-time greats of the strategy genre, and is about the colonization of an alien world by rival ideological factions.

Hearing the discussion of Pandora, and thinking back to my own time with Alpha Centauri, I started thinking about how those games match up with some of the novels I read back in the day about the same topic.  The Legacy of Heorot, by Niven and Pournelle and Barnes, is one example, while Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars Trilogy is another example a bit closer to home.  In these books, the colony is quite small, and it is very clear that everyone’s skills and everyone’s knowledge and everyone’s labor is vitally important to the survival of the colony.  Getting people to such a distant place is really, really hard, and there aren’t any reinforcements on the way.  Every contribution matters, and every loss hurts.

This sort of setting clashes with one of the most basic mechanics of 4X games in the lineage of Civilization – the city.  Cities start small, but grow regularly.  The people in a city are generic population points, who can be assigned to do various different things, but are pretty much interchangable generic units.  Alpha Centauri actually called them drones.  The sort of small-group politicking that creates tension and interest  in the aforementioned novels is flattened entirely, and projected out onto multiple conflicting civilizations.

There’s one game I can think of in which the personalities and conflicts within a small group have been used to create interesting gameplay mechanics, and that is King of Dragon Pass.  The basic model of that game might be adapted to make a smaller-scale game of alien colonization.

Imagine Alpha Centauri, but where all the leaders had to try and live together for the majority of their lives to ensure that the mission survived and succeeded.  Instead of taking place across the entire globe, imagine the game revolving around the initial landing site, and the first tentative steps into the alien wilds beyond.  Imagine that every colonist had a name, skills, and beliefs, but that some are more influential than others.  Crusader Kings might provide a model here – the most skilled and charismatic leaders amongst the first colonists would be the leaders of major ideological factions, and colonists might be tied to them by their profession, their nationality, or by their own beliefs.  As new discoveries are made, and as problems arise with the colony, the player would have to balance these groups and their ideas against each other, all the while ensuring that buildings get built, farms get planted, wildlife gets studied, and nobody gets killed.

This would be a much more story driven game than something like Alpha Centauri, where the story is implicit from the lore but only rarely intrudes onto gameplay.  But it would be interesting and unique.