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2016 was a brutal year for many. Amid the deaths of cultural and empathetic icons, the world watched as a new leader of the “free world” was elected, in no small part on the backs of racism, bigotry, anti-intellectualism, and nationalism. Martin Luther King Day this year underscored the dichotomy between the Civil Rights movement and this haunting new world we face in 2017. It is so painfully acute. How did this happen? And more importantly - what do we do about it?
I tend to avoid mixing politics and games - after all gaming can be a source of respite for many (myself included). And yet, it is impossible to ignore how increasingly politicized our world, our art, our entertainment, and all the mundane moments our lives have become. And so I’m writing this as I watch the beautiful Women’s March in Washington D.C. unfold - not only in our nation's capital, but in places big and small across the United States and, indeed, across the globe.
Optimistically - I hope that I’m witnessing the birth of a new civil rights era. It's easy to be complacent when everything seems like it’s going fine - particularly I admit as a white male. It's easy, though it shouldn’t be, to forget that things are not fine for a lot of people. So often, and unfortunately, it takes something truly horrible to deliver the wake up call that “things aren’t right” in world. And optimistically, I hope that Trump’s election will deliver a motivational kick in the ass for all people to reclaim their democratic rights and liberties.
All during the primaries, and the campaign, and even after election night - even right up to the moment before Trump started talking during his inauguration - I hoped that it was all a ruse. I hoped that Trump would smile and say to the American people: “Are you kidding me? You all elected me? I said the worst possible things about almost every type of person on the planet - and you still voted for me. This says something about me, but more importantly it says something about you. As it is, I don’t intend to actually carry through on all the awful stuff I said.”
Sadly, that didn’t happen - and so here we are.
I don’t really want to debate what went wrong in the election itself, but I’ll mention a few things - because I think it underscores how our Country is poised in a terrifying moment. First and foremost is the issue of Russian hacking - the extent which it impacted the election will undoubtedly take a while to discern. But it is dreadfully worrying to the integrity of our democracy.
Second, and I think worse, is the wholesale gerrymandering of voting districts across the Country. We’re just now seeing ethics and legal action calling out these practices. These practices have resulted in representation for many demographic groups being unequal as it manifests in State and Federal legislatures - fueling a cycling of disempowerment. This gerrymandering, coupled archaic and unjust voting laws and practices, are not about democracy and American values - they are about the people in power staying in power by any means necessary.
Third is the catastrophic miscalculation concerning the blue collar working class - the long-standing base of the Democratic party. In a campaign focused on the personality and antics of Trump versus Clinton - Trump with his incendiary remarks and Clinton’s perpetual spectre of conspiracy surrounding her - it isn’t hard to see why the base, upset at stagnation and gridlock in Washington, just wanted to say “screw it” to the whole system and vote for something, indeed anything, different.
The unfortunate part is that the working class base was duped into believing that Trump will do anything to further their wellbeing and prosperity. Whether the issue is taxes, health insurance, environmental protection, housing, worker pay, or education - Trump’s rhetoric paints a harrowing picture for the future. And what little substance there is in his words - such as his cabinet and administrative nominee selections - show a clear interest in dismantling and scaling back all the institutions that are vital for every person in this country: clean air and water, safe food, quality education, stable neighborhoods, and health.
The direction of education in particular saddens me to no end - because the more inequity and dysfunction is sowed in the educational system, the more people are kept ignorant and denied the tools for thinking critically. And so many seem to take pleasure in being anti-intellectual - and in large part, this is what got us into this mess to begin with.
Fourth, and most shocking, is the surge of racism, misogyny, and nationalism that has been emboldened and set free by Trump’s election. We might summarize that the shadows have to grow darker before things can become brighter. Perhaps, by this underbelly of our Country being exposed for what it is, we will be afforded the opportunity to challenge it head on once again. And it needs to be challenged head on before it snowballs into something much worse.
And so it is sad that this nation spends much public discourse over what rights a woman has to her own body, or what bathrooms a transgender person is allowed to use, or what false science we teach our children, or what rights that all citizens have - regardless of their origin or anything else. It is a travesty that these are pressing issues weighing on our conscious - these should be solved issues. But they are not. And so we must continue to fight for them.
Taking action is hard. A march, like the Women’s March, can galvanize many people - but you have to act on that momentum. Take that energy and build on it through your own lives. It starts with everyone, as their own individual self, being willing to be critical and reflective of their own lives and actions. To be willing to question their own assumptions and beliefs.
It takes empathy.
This is an increasingly divided country - both ideologically and geographically. Political leaning and whether you live in a red or blue state, a liberal island or a conservative plain, divide us increasingly more than any other characteristic. So it is ever more imperative that we be willing to listen to each other - if nothing else than to understand where we each are coming from. To endeavor to find a common ground. To be willing to have our beliefs and assumptions challenged - and to respectfully challenge the beliefs of others. Building empathy is about building understanding - and I believe that when we truly understand each other - we will find that our interests and aspirations have far more in common than we assume.
I hope that the energy of the Womens’ March gives rise to a new movement born of respect and equality for all people. One that is willing to reach across and shatter old political lines to form a new accord. Opposition and competition has defined the political landscape for generations. And in turn, cooperation and inclusion has been lost at sea. I hope that such a movement will rise at the national stage and bring the ships to port.
But close to home we each have a role to play in building empathy - in reaching out to those different from us, finding common ground, and standing together for the values of freedom and equality that this nation can exemplify like no other nation in the world.
But it starts with each of us.
Recently, my gaming and design interests are gravitating towards “smaller” games. They might be physically smaller games or have more condensed, less sprawling gameplay - or some combination of the two. Part of this is no doubt driven by time. Getting together with a big group of people for an extended gaming session is a challenged endeavor. And so I’ve turned more towards games that I can play on a more casual or spontaneous basis, particularly among my immediate and extended family circles. These tend to be games that are quick to setup, straightforward enough that a 6- or 7-year old could stumble through, and yet which still have some appealing “hook” that gets people wanting to play.
In looking back, I realize these “what I’ve played” posts that were supposed to be monthly or quarterly thing are more like a yearly thing. Ah well - that just means there is more to walk about! So anyway, over the past year, here’s a little run down of what I’ve been playing - along with some other stuff thrown in for good measure!
I mentioned The Grizzled in my last post - which if you haven’t heard is a fantastic little cooperative game for 2-5 players. It’s about surviving in the trenches of WW1. The game does an amazing job transcending the war theme and being a more genuine cooperative tale. Paradoxically for a wargame, this isn’t about shooting at enemy troops, in fact there is no shooting at all. I’m surprised at how well this game has resonated with people, especially among non-gamers.
During the summer my family and extended family went to visit Hocking Hills area in Ohio - which has some fantastic (although short) hikes through some surprisingly rocky terrain. Lots of waterfalls and canyons to explore, and pretty kid friendly (most hikes are less than two miles). While we did the tent camping thing for most of our stay, we did spend one night at Ravenswood Castle, which was right there! Pretty cool spot.
Long story short, they had the new version of Odin’s Ravens in their game library. Interestingly, Odin’s Ravens was one of the first games I remember reading about here on BGG - but it was already hard to find and so I never had a chance to play it. Until now. Needless to say, it’s a great (quick) little race game - and after playing it at Ravenswood I knew I had to grab a copy (which I did). My wife and I have fun playing it. It isn’t too big of a brain burner but there is, nontheless, nuance and strategy involved in managing your special Loki cards. Nice production too.
Also on heavy rotation during our Hocking Hills trip (and since) is Sushi Go. You’ve probably already played this one and formed an opinion - but it’s a perfectly nice little drafting game. Good for the kiddies and passing cards around in-between sips of <insert beverage of choice>. I can’t say it is my favorite - as it is quite a minimal and random game. For my money, I’d rather play something like Keep, which is just a tad more involved but has a considerably more interesting decision space.
One of the games that has seen the most play with my kids (even the 2.5 year old - in a more limited manner) is Sea of Clouds. This is a pool drafting game (e.g. players draft cards out of a common pool in the middle instead of passing around hands of cards). I think this one is just fantastic - and hits all the checkboxes of something like 7 Wonders but in a more accessible and less tedious package. I like how the big pirate battles wipe your stock pirates clean after each one, allowing players to rebuild their offense on equal footing a few times during the game. We play with semi-open cards in the middle (once a player looks at a card, it stays flipped over) so that I can help the kids with the text. But even with adults we’ve taken to playing this way because it makes the turns progress much faster as you can plan your moves better. Anyway, I really enjoy this one.
A game we didn’t enjoy was much is Welcome to the Dungeon. This is a sort of group-based press your luck game. I’ve only tried it with the kids (and my nephews) and they had a hard time rationalizing that we (the players) were all bidding on the chances of ONE hero to survive (or not). It just didn’t click - and so we made up our own version that I like even more.
In our version of Welcome to the Dungeon, each player takes their own hero. On your turn you can draw a monster card and either add to a line/sequence in the middle, discard a piece of your own equipment, or “pass” for the round. When all players pass, all the heroes enter and each have to face each monster in the line. The player that survives (if only one does), or lasts the longest wins. In the case of a tie, the player that put in the most monsters and discard the most of their own equipment wins. It’s pretty slick. Of course, it also isn’t really balanced very well as some heroes seem much stronger than others (ahem, rogue) - so we just rotate the characters around each round.
The next chapter in this tale relates to my desire to find a game that my 5-year old would enjoy (engaging theme, not too complex) but that would still be fun for adults. I kept drifting back to Witch's Brew - which was another game I read about early on in my BGG days. Alas, it was already out of print and hard to find - so I never played it.
But then comes Broom Service, which is a kinda-sorta a reboot. I was really looking to find a game for my daughter with a proper board that shows some geography, so this seemed like a great fit. I considered a few others at the time (Elfenroads, The Witches, Via Nebula) but settled on Broom Service. I haven’t regretted the choice at all. My daughter loves it, and she does a pretty great job selecting role cards for the round. I thought the action programming was going to be way beyond her, but she really does a good job with it.
Over the last couple of months I’ve been rounding up my large man-friends for an evening of face-to-face gaming, and Broom Service made an great showing. There’s something amazing about watching your buddies exclaim “I am the brave Hill Witch!” as they look timidly around the table to see if anyone will yank the rug out from under them. Overall, it’s a fairly chaotic game - and so the skill comes from making lots of contingency plans and having cards that you can make the best of regardless of how they fall. This was a Kennerspiel winner for good reason.
But back to Witch’s Brew. I still wanted to try that game, if only to see how it was different. And so I crafted myself a rather fine copy indeed. Turns out my daughter loves that one too, and we’ve now been rotating between the two games. The dynamics are certainly different - even if on paper the central mechanic looks similar. They’re both great games and I’m happy to have them.
Speaking of dudes night in, there is another game which I thought would be fantastic for the group, and which is another game I’ve been eyeballing for 5+years: Red November. This is a game about drunken Gnomes on a sinking Russian submarine, trying to survive long enough to be rescued while making sure the nuclear warheads aren’t accidentally launched. Perfect.
Red November pretty much solidifies Bruna Faidutti as one of my favorite designers (Citadels, Mascarade are favorites). It is one of those games where, despite some rather fiddly seeming mechanics at first, the gameplay flows smoothly and logically when you start playing. It’s a clever case where you have to use the environment (along with it’s many calamities) to manage your situation. Of course opening a door between high water and no water compartments equalizes the water (and optionally puts out fires). I love that the game can end with any possible combination of players winning and losing. No one can win, one can win, some can win, and all can win. Pretty slick!
Another game featured at a recent mustering of men was Lords of Scotland, which indeed features lots of mustering. More spectacularly, this game was given to me by my 88-year old scottish neighbor who plays the bagpipes and whose interior walls are completely covered in plaid wallpaper. After a few wee drams at his house I spied this game half buried under a stack of Terry Pratchett and scottish history books. I asked about it he said: “you take it - I’ll never play the damn thing.” Well, we played it and it’s a pretty interesting game - if a little long in the tooth with four players. The game doesn’t sugar coat anything, if you aren’t paying attention to what you’re doing you will lose hard. I like these sort of games, and overall the crew enjoyed it.
Last up, is a bit of solo gaming. After having it on my shelf for a long while, I finally learned how to play Friday earlier this year. This game is a blast. Definitely challenging and there is an appreciable skill curve to claw your way up. The theming is great as well. If you’re looking for a nice solo game in a small box, you can hardly go wrong with this.
Stuff still to play
Speaking of Bruno Faidutti, I traded for a 1st edition version of Mission: Red Planet. Guess what? This is ANOTHER game I saw early on in my BGG days that I always wanted to try. I’m one step closer to that goal, as I now own the thing - but I haven’t yet managed to play it. Looks to be a pretty solid and interesting game.
Speaking of trades, I’m also due to receive a copy of King Chocolate. I don’t really know why I want this game (well, a bunch geek buddies said it was good). Rumor has it that it is a sort of shared production-economy game in the same vein as Container, but a little different (maybe better?). I guess we’ll find out!
Speaking of finding things and out, and also speaking of older games I saw but never played, a certain special someone might (or might not) be receiving a copy of Ameritrash tour-de-force Runewars for the holidays. I have no idea why I want this game other than that is has 100’s of plastic figures, big fantasy hexes, and a pile of tokens. Actually - the game looks and sounds pretty slick, and I’m hoping to foist the monster upon man club at the first opportunity. Also - even though it’s totally beyond my 6-year to play properly, I figure we can fun with all the components and even setup some little cooperate scenarios to play through. Heck, there are enough components in the box to make up about a dozen of your own games if you wanted to.
Speaking of games that aren’t Runewars, I also have Arboretum sitting on the shelf. This looks great and I need to play it. Sort of a cross between Lost Cities and Golf (the traditional card game) is the closest I can describe it. Maybe? I like trees - so there is that.
Speaking of something totally different, I also recently re-acquired a copy of Key to the Kingdom. Like a moron, I sold this game in a garage sale a few years back, right around the time some youtuber made a video raving about the game (which admittedly isn’t a very good game), a video that has currently over 1.2 million views. Yeah - so there was some crazy “gotta have it” vibe and the game was ludo-expensive for a while. Like a dolt, I didn’t realize it would be a great kids game - go figure! Anyway, I finally tracked down a used (but complete!) copy for a good price. It’s awaiting its moment to shine again over the holidays.
Stuff I’m watching
There is, as always, plenty of stuff on the radar. First up is Near and Far. I’m a big fan of Red Raven Games - although that mainly is an appreciation for all that Ryan has built on his own, his amazing art, and his interesting design ideas. I’ve only played Eight Minute Empire: Legends of his - so it’s hard to call me a big fan.
But in anycase, I kickstarted Near & Far and can’t wait for it’s arrival sometime… sometime way off in the future. I’ve been tinkering around with a narrative, cooperative sandbox game of my own design, and while Near & Far isn’t anything like it, there are certain similarities and I’m keen to see how the game works. Plus, I gotta love his artwork.
Along similar lines, I’m also watching The 7th Continent and its development progress. I didn’t back this one, and hopefully sometime it will come to retail. It’s a pretty amazing and ambitious design concept with a staggering amount of stuff packed in. I find the design space between this one and Near & Far to be pretty interesting.
Other games I’m watching, as possible kid-friendly candidates, include Via Nebula and Celestia. The former is a Wallace game that kinda-sorta looks like a train game but simplified in lots of ways. Celestia is an interesting sounding remake of Cloud 9, and is a press your luck style game with a pretty cool artistic vibe.
Then there is Tiny Epic Galaxies. I haven’t really hopped on the Tiny Epic <your favorite thing in the world> train yet, but this one sounds like a good one to try. I like small game boxes, and I like space. So this sounds great. Kudos for a solo mode (?).
Laaaaassstly, I’ve been sweating over Handful of Stars. I don’t own any games by Mr. Wallace - and it seems like this would be a great one to dig into. It’s currently in pre-pre-order phase (yes, before pre-orders), whatever that means. The game is a continuation / culmination of the A Few Acres of Snow and Mythotopia lineage, and early reports from Essen sound promising. But gosh it’ll be expensive. I’m watching this one… closely.
I’ve continued to be heavily involved as a writer over at eXplorminate, which in part explains my less frequent posting here. There is only so much time dang it! Anyway, I’ve had a chance to play some interesting games over the past year, and I wanted to highlight a few of them here.
Stellaris was one of the big 4X game releases this year (along with the new Master of Orion game and Civilization 6, neither of which I’ve played). Stellaris is from Paradox Studios and was to be a grand unification of 4X and Grand Strategy game - although it is far closer to the former IMHO. The official eXporminate review was really glowing - but I wasn’t nearly as enamored with it. Six months and three big patches later, I wrote up a Stellaris reeXamination (hot off the press). The TLDR version is that I still think the game has a ways to go.
Halcyon 6 is another matter. This quirky, pixel-art infused game looks like a mashup of XCOM, FTL, Roguelikes, and Star Trek. It both is and isn’t anything like those games - somehow becoming its own intractable beast in the process. I rather like the game - it’s the sort of thing you can just kind of veg-out on and hang on for the ride.
Another pixel art wonder that I have access to (currently closed beta) is Children of Morta. This could become one of my favorite game. At present it’s only about ¼ way developed content wise, but it’s an amazing ride so far. The best pixel art I’ve ever scene, amazing action RPG controls (think Diablo but more hands on), progressive roguelike gameplay, and a totally engrossing and touching narrative. I can’t wait for this to be finished.
Let’s stay on the pixel are kick for a moment. Another one is Kingdom, and it’s follow-up Kingdom: New Lands. These are a sort of side-scrolling tower defense puzzle game. You are the King or Queen of a new kingdom and just ride around your horse collecting coins and using coins to entice workers to do certain things (make bows, build walls, construct farms, etc.). It’s sorta like a god-game in that regard. It’s a simple game mechanically, and very much a puzzle optimization thing - but it’s gorgeous at the same time.
Next, and maybe a little closer to home for tabletop gamers is Total War: Warhammer. This is the Warhammer Fantasy (Games Workshop) themed version of the long-running Total War series. It’s quite a magnificent game to be be honest. It’s been a long time since I played a TW game and I was rather surprised at how in depth and impactful the turn-based strategic layer is. You really can play this as a grand strategy game and just auto-resolve all the battles if those aren’t your thing. Of course, the battles ARE pretty freaking glorious, so you’d be missing out on a major selling point of the game if ignore them. Pretty solid game.
Last is Blizzard’s team-shooter Overwatch. This has kinda-sorta taken over most of my gaming time. One reason is that it’s the first game in a long while that all my close friends are playing - it’s sorta like the band got back together to jam out on Overwatch. So that is a huge part of the appeal. But it’s all a really excellent game, assuming you like team shooters like Team Fortress 2. Teamplay and coordination is the deciding factor more than anything in the game - although there is a high individual skill ceiling as well. I usually don’t get into the lore and backstories for games like this, but Blizzard really nailed it in my opinion. If you want to learn a little more about the gameworld, check out the animated shorts. Blizzard, as always, are masters of game cinematics. Here's the older trailer:
Stuff rolls on…
Alright folks, that’s it! Let me know if anything above sparked your fancy or if you have some thoughts to share. Cheers!
I just finished listening to Dan Carlin’s podcast series on World War I Blueprint for Armageddon. A friend, far more into history than myself, urged me to listen to the show - and on a whim I did. Approximately 24-hours later, spread out over the course of a month, I have absorbed it - in all of its shocking, horrifying, and tragic reality.
I’ve never been a big history buff, preferring instead to appreciate the subject from afar and look forward. But I am utterly enriched by having listened to this tale of humanity gone off the rails. The time period leading up to the Great War and during it, is a time I knew little about - but always seemed so interesting to me, the roots of it so buried in the past and yet so close and tangible to the modern world.
I was traveling through Austria many years ago and when much younger. I was filled with wonderment in thinking that were “Emperors of Austria” (the Austria-Hungary empire) that were alive in the 20th century. I knew this because there were statues of them everywhere. In my mind, Emperors and Kings and Tzar’s were things that existed back in the Middle Ages or the Renaissance - surely not in the 20th Century. And so I always wondered how the world transitioned from the “old world” powers to the modern world I lived it. And I certainly didn’t understand how WW1 played the pivotal role in forcing that change. Now I do - at least a little bit.
There were some things that I knew about the Great War. I knew that some Archduke named Franz Ferdinand of Austria was killed, which in turn kicked off the war. But I never knew about the remarkable, uncanny irony surrounding his assassination. And I never knew about ill-fated web of alliances between the Great Powers of the old world, that would set off a domino-effect of chain reactions and mobilization time tables that made war an inevitability when the trigger was pulled.
Of the battles I knew about the “Western Front” and trenches, and gas attacks, and artillery shellings. I knew it was horrible - but I didn’t really understand how horrible it was, and why it was so horrible. How battlefields from Verdun, to the Somme, to Ypres to turned into hellscapes of craters, poison, mud, death, and suffering. And where, on display, was both the worst capacities of humanity - as well as some of its finest.
While Dan Carlin touches on the military history of a few key battles - his focus is far more on conveying the human experience and sense of loss and tragedy at work. It makes for painful listening. Much of it builds on the personal accounts from common soldiers to the highest ranking military leaders, on both sides, in order to paint a much wider picture of the unfolding madness. In particular, I was fascinated to understand how the industrialization of the military caught practically everyone off guard and at a terrible price in human life, as hard lessons were learned over, and over, and over again.
Perhaps most shocking to modern sensibilities, was realizing that the causes and justifications for the war did not match, in any way, the death toll that was being paid. World War 2 is easier to comprehend as sort of good vs. evil narrative - at least from the perspective of the Allies. But looking at WWI, this line of thinking doesn’t hold up. There is no good and virtuous ambition to the conflict - only bitter survival and victory by any means necessary. And this was made all more difficult to stomach when you realize how the entire pretense for the war was rooted in such old world sensibilities. That the various “secret treaties” were negotiating territorial claims with staggering costs in human life. And to what end?
I understand better how the world came to be as it is. How the culmination of the first World War set the stage for the second. And through all of this, I have a changed perspective - and that impacts my view of certain games.
There has been considerable discussion about EA’s latest entry into the multiplayer shooter area, Battlefield 1 - which is set during WW1. The first game in the series, Battlefield 1942, was set during WW2. Then there was one set in the Vietnam war. Battlefield 2, 3, and 4 are all set in current or near-future times. It is important to note that beyond traditional wargames and strategy games - not as many games have focused on WW1 as subject. And perhaps the tragic, futile, no-one wins, horror of it all is one explanation.
Wired wrote an article criticizing Battlefield 1 - asserting that unlike the heroic narratives and good vs. evil tales that fom the backbone of countless WW2 games, there is little heroic about WW1. It was a tragedy all around. The Wired article criticizes the game’s handling of the subject matter by EA painting WW1 as bombastic and explosive action experience. In the real WW1, you were as likely to die stuck and slowly sinking into the toxic mud at the bottom of a shell hole, abandoned by your comrades, as you were to die by an enemy bullet or gas attack. But the reality doesn’t make for a FPS game with a lot of “player agency” does it?
Regardless of whether you agree with the gist of the article or not, or with EA giving the “Battlefield” treatment to WW1 - it was the comments to the article that most struck me, because it raises lots of questions about the medium of games as a whole, and how they handle their content and subject matters specifically. As with many things, there is no right answer. There are simply different perspectives - and they all have their own values and merits.
There are people asserting that this is entertainment, and freedom of expression, and if you don’t like it then ignore it. What’s the harm, they say. This is a valid perspective - and certainly I don’t think censorship or anything like that should be considered. Further they argue, that other war-themed games from other eras are likewise filled with tragedy and lies and horror - why is there no outrage in those instances?
But this is where, being informed and knowledgeable about a subject changes your perspective. Having listened to harrowing accounts of WW1 combatants - I would have a hard time playing something like Battlefield 1, themed around WW1, where the basic premise is so incongruent with the reality of WW1 warfare. Why even play a game about WW1 if it bears no resemblance to WW1 in the first place? Then, one might ask whether or not making the experience more authentic would actually be any fun as a game. Maybe it wouldn’t be. And the point at which you are asking that question, is the point where you start to question what the appropriate entertainment value is that you personally are seeking out in a game.
Contrast Battlefield 1 - a first person video game totally disconnected from its theme - to the Grizzled, a cooperative board game intimately linked to it. The Grizzled, without ever asking its players to shoot at (let alone even see) the German opponents manages to evoke a first perspective of having to deal with - or at the very least become cognizant of - the issues and psychological traumas soldiers grappled with. The tangle of interpersonal interactions in the game does the realities of WW1 far more service. Of course this isn’t an action game - it’s a sobering experience of trying to mitigate the worst the war has to throw at you, while helping your fellow mates retain their life and sanity and see it through to the end of the war.
One of the values of games is in teaching. While playing the Grizzled may not be “fun” - it is nevertheless engaging and thought-provoking. While you don’t learn a lot about the war - you at least get a hint of what it could’ve been like to be there. Battlefield 1 - in all its grandeur and detail and garishness - doesn’t appear to convey much of anything that might enlighten one about the war. But it’s entertainment right? Maybe it doesn’t have to. Or maybe, the pointless senseless disconnect that Battleflied 1 may offer up provides a commentary on the Great War afterall.
PART 2: The Fresh Smell of Administrative Air
My delusions continue from Part 1 of this series, which provides teasers, spoilers, and other amazing ideas I have for creating my very own, not-another, space-based 4X game. Last time I outlined the big vision for my 4X game, Transcend, which is built around the notion of guiding your civilization to transcendence while avoiding any number of galactic threats that want to eat you and your citizenry for a midnight snack. I also talked about some specific design goals, around trying to eschew the usual 4X complexity for something built around simple numbers and a relatively small number of total turns. In other words, a more finely tuned game all about hard decisions and big consequences.
In this installment, I’ll be talking about a few core elements of the design related to the structure of your empire and its management.
Elementary Building Blocks
I’ll start first with a criticism of many other 4X games, which is this: why do so many 4X games have space bucks? Or galactic credits? Or whatever they are called. Having money (and associated things like taxes) as one of the central resources, or the central resource system, assumes an incredibly anthropocentric worldview that ends up permeating the rest of the game design. “If we have taxes, then raising taxes must be bad? So we must have some sort of happiness system, right? And if we have happiness, we got to have ways to buffer that right? So we need, like, entertainment centers and futuristic thunderdomes to provide the spectacles, right?”
You see where I’m going here. The central mechanics and how those relate to alien races, in so many 4X games, is just projecting the human modus operandi into the stars. Dressing humans up in ugly clothes and calling them aliens. But what does a cybernetic hivemind care about taxes? What need does a robotic civilization have for money or food? Can they even feel happiness? I want to move away from these thematic conundrums as much as possible, which means taking a hard look at the underlying mechanical system of the game.
When you boil it down, the fundamentals are time, resources, and labor. Any imagined civilization wanting to do anything in the physical universe as we understand it does so over some increment of time, uses some sort of resource (matter and/or energy), and has some unit of work labor (be it a person or a machine) with which to carry out the desired activity. That’s about it really. Money doesn’t need to be a part of the equation (although it could be). Nor does happiness, or taxes, or virtual reality holo-theaters. So my interest is taking these very simple building blocks and building a deep and engaging game with them.
So Much to Do, So Little Time
I’m interested in the notion of time. Time in many 4X games, despite their focus on vast sweeps of time (and history), time itself is rarely a limited resource. Most AI opponents are inept enough that we really have all the time in the world to get our ducks in a row and work towards a win. Even more so, the role we assume in the game, be it as emperor, overmind, benevolent dictator, etc. is limitless in its ability to affect change. By this, I mean that within the confines of any particular turn we can retool our domestic agenda, change ideologies, cue up entire armies for construction, plot out sophisticated movements of forces, engage in diplomatic summits, reassign research priorities, etc.. The player is given full control over their empire each turn, with nothing to limit their actions. Time stands still for us.
King of Dragon Pass had a very compelling idea, which is that in each season (e.g. turn), you could only take two actions. Maybe that would be to adjust the members of your council ring, or conduct a cattle raid, or build up your defenses, or send someone on an expedition. Whatever it was, you were limited and you couldn’t do everything each turn. The result is that you were constantly having to juggle your priorities and where you spent your own time developing your clan or preparing for grander things to come. This limitation forced, very organically, tough choices and tradeoffs. I want to bring this feeling into Transcend.
Hence is the first concept I want to discuss: Admin.
Admin is your ability as a leader “to do stuff.” In some cases, Admin might be consumed permanently as an upkeep cost. For example, it would take a full point of Admin to establish and maintain a basic level of authority over a new colony. If you spent all of your Admin on establishing colonies, you’d be paralyzed and have literally no time for anything else, like marshalling fleets or conducting diplomacy. Those are important things too, and you better leave enough Admin on the table to perform actions in those arenas.
Secondly, and something both FTL and King of Dragon Pass have, is the notion of a “budget.” In FTL, the “budget” is your ship's energy supply, which you distribute among the various subsystems (weapons, drones, shields, engines, etc.) depending on the situation at hand the “strategy” you are going for in your ship design. In King of Dragon Pass, each year, you get to reallocate your budget of “magic” to various fields: cows, healing, communing with spirits, fightin’ words, beards, etc. It has an impact on how the upcoming year plays out. As you might guess by now, Admin in Transcend gets put into the budget mill.
Admin can come in a number of different forms. Military Admin is used for mustering and issuing orders to fleets. Agency Admin for conducting espionage or diplomacy. Civic Admin for building large infrastructure projects. Expeditionary Admin for exploring the stars and establishing new outposts. Players will start off determining an initial “budget” for their pool of Admin across these (and more) different categories. Over the course of the game, the pool of admin will grow, with new admin being assigned to the different categories. Or you might need to reallocate during play, pulling Admin out of research and dumping into Military so that you can coordinate the movements of a dozen fleets during a military campaign. Changing admin from one type to another will consume that point of admin for the turn, meaning that it isn’t available for more productive uses. So long-term planning is rewarded because changing the budget all the time is inefficient.
The question you are asking is what exactly does Admin do? Admin get’s used in a few ways. First, Admin can be consumed as an upkeep expense, such as for maintaining control of a colony. The bigger your empire gets, the less Admin you have for other purposes, which is a nice balancing mechanic against the steamroller trend. Basically, bigger empires are less nimble. Second, Admin can be used for a certain, specific, passive benefits. For example, Military Admin might govern the number of active (non-defensive) fleets you can control at once. Last, Admin can be used to perform actions, which range from launching expeditions, to hosting a diplomatic session, to building facilities and infrastructure, and to executing an espionage operation.
Admin Types might include:
- Military Admin (mustering fleets, launching invasions, supporting defensive fleets)
- Trade Admin (setting up / maintaining trade routes/facilities, economic exchanges)
- Research Admin (building labs & skunkworks, queuing up research projects)
- Industrial Admin (building shipyards and ship, constructing mining and energy facilities)
- Agency Admin (intelligence, espionage, detection)
- Expeditionary Admin (exploration, colonization, archaeology, minor battles)
- Cultural Admin (governance structures, development, cultural influence, psychology)
- Political Admin (treatise, proposals, exchanges, etc.)
With a limited pool of Admin, and hence a limited pool of actions each turn, it requires players to prioritize towards long-term goals. Admin, is basically an action point system, like you often have in board games, which ensures that you’ll never be able to do everything you might want to do. You have to make tradeoffs. When you couple this with the galactic threat (the “death clock” so to speak), you simply don’t have the time or capacity to to do everything it all. Speaking of doing things …
100% All Natural, Galactic Resources
Here’s another zinger … how many 4X games have you depleting the ore resources of an entire planet? Or tapping the energy potential of a black hole? And what unfathomable use could an empire have for such awesome energies in the first place? What if each turn in transcend was 1,000 years? 30 turns is 30,000 years. What are humans going to be like in 30,000 years? What about the aliens?
Harnessing the tiny bits of matter, scattered like crumbs of bread over the ocean, will require careful planning and consideration. Fundamentally, I envision three types of resources: ore, energy, and exotics (of which there will be a number of different types). Ore and energy is fundamental to most building and development tasks in the game, be it planetary improvements, orbital facilities, or space ships. Ore is generated by mining and energy is produced by constructing energy generators of various types. Late in the game, one might be able to build super structures that converts harnessed energy directly to into matter (theoretically possibly, I might add).
A game with a simple resource system that I really adore is UltraCorp, and I’d like to emulate some of that in Transcend. Basically, as you generate ore and energy somewhere, it needs to be transferred to where you can combine it with labor (the third leg of the stool) to produce the final product. Of course produced things have upkeep costs (in ore and energy), so the basic economy becomes a logrus of balancing resource flows through a network of energy and ore supply, all the while keeping an eye on the dwindling pool of resources. The transferal process will be kept as simple (and as visual) as possible. Each level of extraction facility would let you send an increment of resources to a destination of your choice when you build the facility. Of course, changing around your shipping lanes after the fact would require spending Admin (see the rub?)
I’ve always found it clever when games let you screw yourself with your own economy. If you build too fast, without securing enough resources, you production won’t be able to keep up with growth and things will start to unravel. I’ve been interested in this notion of making internal management systems strategic, and doing so by creating pressured within the system where things can spiral out of control if you aren’t careful. What happens when you can’t afford the upkeep on your ring world? What happens to the people then?
The exotic resources will be things like antimatter, organics, rare minerals, power crystals, black slime, and so on. Exotics will occur randomly and sparsely around the galaxy but are a vital part of building/implementing more advanced technologies. In particular, many of the late game technologies that will set you down your path to transcendence may require stockpiling a large supply of exotic resources. Want to build a nova bomb and detonate a star? You’re going to need a lot of anti-matter. Want to build a transdimensional gateway to connect your worlds? You’re going to need a lot of black slime. How about a Dyson sphere or a ring-world? Get those wonderful power crystals!
Exotics also provide a central means to facilitate genuine trade and diplomatic agreements. The key is that not all races will need the same resources in the same abundances. For example, the actual requirements for constructing things, or researching tech, or what a given race needs for “food” might change depending on your selected race. The result is that each empire may have access to a number of exotic resources but only be able to utilize a few of them. It behoves those players to trade their excess resources for the exotics they need. And late game, this becomes a point of leverage between players. If you are relying on a flow of organic materials from my unused gaian world for food production, and I cut you off, suddenly the gloves are off. It makes trade and diplomacy all the more critical and a real tool for pressuring other empires that goes beyond just warfare.
A Labor of Love
The final leg of the stool is labor, which relates directly to your population, so let’s break down the systems here a little bit.
Planets (as well as orbitals or deep space facilities) can contain population. In locations where conditions are favorable to your race’s physiology, growth will occur provided that you provide upkeep for your population (although there is no actual “food” resource in the game - upkeep is purely an energy and ore flow). Humans would likely thrive on a Gaian planet, but would have a much harder time living close to a Jovian planet. Which isn’t to say that late-game technologies and genetic modification of your population wouldn’t alleviate these ill effects! Other locations might have zero growth or even inherent population loss - so maintaining a work force might require a continual influx of offworld workers.
Coupled with your raw population is the planet’s “development level” (DevLvl). The Development Level is essentially an abstract reflection of the quality of the infrastructure in supporting your population. Development levels might range from 0 - 6 (for example), and each level would be able to support an escalating number of population (1/3/6/10/15/etc…). On high growth planets, it may be possible for the population growth to quickly outpace your ability to develop the planet's infrastructure (which gets increasingly costly), resulting in some amount of population being “unsupported.” Unsupported population not only wouldn’t contribute to the planet’s outputs, but it might also put strain on the rest of your population. Of course increasing a planet’s development level requires spending Admin and an injection of energy and ore.
For the supported population, each unit of population is assigned to a built “facility” that is part of your empire, and produces some sort of output that you can put to use. So a facility might be a sensor relay station, or an asteroid mine, or an orbital shipyard, or a research lab. The population assigned to these facilities generate a fixed output based on the facility and subject to some simple modifiers. For example, your budget allocation to Admin can passively provide bonuses to its associated field. Having a large research budget, and whether you are spending research admin to initiate research projects or not, would provide a passive output bonus to all your research output.
A Delicate Balancing Act
One issue with 4X games that I’m sensitive too is the runaway steamroller problem. The steamroller is largely, I feel, a function of centralized production systems. In a Civ or a Master of Orion type game, city’s generate “production” that gets used universally to build everything and anything. So production can go equally into building a research lab or a spaceship or a holo theatre, despite those all being very different in nature. It means that raw production is almost always king, and getting a big advantage in production can see you quickly outpacing your opponents in the global race.
In Transcend, there is no generic “production”. Your population units work facilities “after” they are built in order to produce a certain output good (space ships, culture, ore etc.). Instead, it is your pool of Admin that enables the construction of empire controlled facilities. Constructing an advanced science lab might require 6 Research Admin (for example). If you only have 2 Research Admin in your overall budget, it would take 3 turns of fully investing in your new lab to build it, meaning that Admin would not be available for other Research uses (like queuing up a new research project or implementing a technology). But this has no impact what-so-ever on how quickly you can build up Embassies to extend your diplomatic reach - that would tap into your political Admin budget.
But haven't I just shifted a steamroller that runes on “production” for one that runs on “admin”? Potentially. But Admin points will be much harder to come by, and the pace that your overall Admin budget grows by will be far more limited compared to the exponentially increasing productivity levels seen in other games. Furthermore, implementing facilities that grow your Admin will lock up population to work that building, pulling population away from other productive uses.
Furthermore as the size of your empire grows, relatively more admin is required to maintain authority and control of its various parts. So a smaller empire is more efficient in its use of admin, freeing up relatively more for performing actions. A larger empire would have relatively more of its admin locked into basic upkeep, giving you less available admin to play with each turn. This would make a bigger empire less nimble and flexible.
Like, So Totally Alien
I mentioned early in this article about wanting to identify the most basic elements at work in building an empire, the “universals” of time, resources, and labor that can be applicable to any alien species we might imagine. I mentioned in Part 1 about how different aliens might have different ways of winning the game, that “transcendence” might mean different things for each type of alien.
This closing section will describe a little more how alien races are constructed. Essentially, each alien species will have be identified along the following lines:
Physiology: This is the physical characteristics of the species. Is it biological and organic, having evolved through some combination of chemical and evolutionary process? Or perhaps the beings are based on crystalline or gaseous forms. Even maybe they are synthetic in form, artificial beings created at some lost point in history. Regardless of the types, physiology will to basic characteristics of your population in terms of how they grow and utilize different types of planets. For example, biological species might reproduce at some basic fertility rate, while synthetic species might grow by queuing up new “labor” or machine-workers as a construction project.
Mentality: This refers to the psychological structure and organization of the species. The species might be like humans in that they are individuals - each with their own free will. On the opposite end, would be perfect hive-mind, where all populations are essentially of one shared mind. Or it could be organized based on various sizes of mass-minds or sub-collectives.
A species mentality will have a direct impact on how it can utilize Admin - particularly with respect to galactic expansion. A hive mind might be wonderful where all elements are in close proximity and connected with little delay to the central mind. But maybe the individualistic mentality of human-like species is more suitable for more dispersed expansion behaviors, where colonies can operate more autonomously. Then again, individualists may care a great deal about the happiness of each member of its race, and be prone to revolts or rebellions when not satisfied - something that would be more difficult for a hive mind (unless it became schizophrenic!)
Demeanor: This relates to the overall psyche and motivation of the race, including things like ethics or attitudes. Is the race genuinely curious and wanting to be galactic peacekeepers, or are they paranoid xenophobes that want to eradicate everyone else? Demeanor will have a big impact on diplomatic relationships as a result. But they are also critical for driving the transcendent victory conditions. Different demeanors will relate to methods and endpoints for achieving transcendence. It may be that in order for the peacekeepers to achieve transcendence, they need to build a multi-species coalition first, achieving some feat of galactic unity. Conversely, an technophilic isolationist race might want to hide in the corner of the galaxy and pursue their own private agenda.
So you could make your typical Artificial Intelligence Aggressive Hive Mind Machine Race, hell-bent on domination. Or your benevolent collective consciousness crystal-cortex race. Each of these traits determines basic attributes about your empire (growth, bonuses, etc.). Different technology trees could even be attached to each major type of trait - so depending on what species you play could yield different mixtures of technology.
But more importantly, the combination off all three establishes a unique pattern of objectives you need to transcend. To couple a 3-stage quest/objective system to finding transcendence, and trying to do so in the face of a rising galactic threat seems like a pretty awesome space opera story to me and would let people dabble in the all the cool 4X strategy things, but have it all geared towards a cool narrative win condition instead of the typical win conditions we always see. And I would love to incorporate the ability to actually change your species composition overtime. It may very well be necessary for achieving transcendence that certain traits change over time, or that you change your species to chase a different win condition. It’s an interesting proposition.
Up Next: The Galactic Topology & Exploration
In Part 3, we’ll look at some ideas related to how empires can interact in various ways, and how those interactions dovetail with technology advancements. cheers!
Note: This article is mirrored at eXplorminate, posted July 15, 2016 Geopolitical strategy, circa 1675
For the past few years, a question has been haunting my dreams: What is strategy? A narrower follow up question is: What makes a compelling strategy game?
One reason this question has been bothering me, particularly in terms of 4X or Civilization-style games, is that so often the gameplay does not feel like what strategy is or ought to be, at least for me. If the gameplay isn’t strategy, then what exactly is it? And if I’m not getting what I want out of a strategy game, then what in the heck do I really want?!
I have a number of pet theories floating around these troubling questions, which might help me work towards an answer. Fair warning though, much of this article will be spent in the realm of “pontification” or “theorycrafting.” Back in the old days, we called this “BSing.” You’ve been warned!
That said, the concepts I’m trying to discuss are hard to wrap the mind around (well, my mind anyway), so I’ve tried to break my thinking down into bite-sized morsels. These morsels are parts of a bigger thesis I’m working towards. Usually the thesis statement goes at the beginning, but I’m saving it until the end for dramatic effect.
Simulation, Game, Sandbox, Toy, or Puzzle? Or none of the above?
Games, Contests, Puzzles, and Toys, Oh My!
I’m going to start with something that might ruffle some feathers: many of the games we love to play aren’t really “games” at all. Game designer Keith Burgun, in his hierarchy of interactive forms, describes proper games as a “contest of decision making.” What does that mean? Let’s step back for a moment and consider Burgun’s hierarchy in full.
At the basic level there are toys. Toys are a system of interaction that may have any number of rules (from just a few to a great many) that describes how the system works or operates - but there are no prescribed goals. A big pile of LEGOs on the floor is a perfect example of a toy. It’s a sandbox where you can do whatever you want subject to the constraints (i.e. rules) of how the pieces lock together. Even then, you can break or bend the rules with few repercussions.
Now consider a puzzle. Puzzles are systems of interaction that generally have a single solution or prescribed goal state. A jigsaw puzzle has a correct final arrangement, just as we might follow the instructions to build a LEGO set and arrive at the “goal” of the finished castle/spaceship/hospital. Puzzles generally have optimal or perfect solutions - they are about solving for something.
At the next level are contests. Contests build on the notion of a puzzle by layering in a means of evaluating the result. With a jigsaw puzzle, it is either solved or it’s not. But in a contest, the end result can be measured in some objective way and compared across participants. A running race is a contest to see who can cross the finish line first. We could likewise start a stopwatch and see who can build a certain LEGO set the fastest. Generally however, there are few decisions to make in a contest. The optimal path is usually clear and it comes down to who can execute or solve it better or faster.
Finally we have games. Games introduce the notion of making decisions. The need to make decisions exists because the “optimal paths” to victory are unclear and interlinked with the decisions of other participants. You might not know what move your opponent is going to make, or what the results of a combat encounter will be, or what diplomatic arrangements your enemies are making behind your back. And so you have to make a decision about how to move forward without having perfect information and without knowing the optimal route to accomplish your goal. To round out the LEGO example, consider the game Mobile Frame Zero, which creates a miniature battle “game” out of constructed LEGO robots.
I need to pause for a moment and make an important distinction. Burgun’s use of the word “game” is very specific - and in this article I’m not intending it to replace the more common understanding of a game as a type of media (e.g. a video game or a board game). So, we can have a video game or a board game (or a sports game) that is structurally a puzzle, or a contest, or a toy, or a proper “game.” When referring to Burgun’s definition of a game, I will use the term “game” (in quotes) or the term proper game or strategy game to keep things clear.
Each step in the hierarchy builds on the prior, and so “games” are contests but with the additional element of making decisions. If we think about 4X games, it isn’t hard to imagine one manifesting as any of the four interactive forms. Imagine a 4X game with no opposing empires and no random events. Two players instead play separate instances of the exact setup and we see who gets the highest score at the end of a certain number of turns. We just made a 4X contest. Take out the ability to compare scores, leaving a singular, solved “win state” instead (e.g. transcend or colonize 50 planets!), along with no competing empires, and we just made a 4X puzzle. Strip out any sense of goals, and we have some sort of space colonization sandbox - a toy, or perhaps an empire simulation.
Civilization: A study in internal versus external game mechanics for over 25 years
Internal vs. External Systems
Now that we have a basic understanding of interactive forms, we can examine how different mechanical systems relate to each type of form. In particular, there is an important aspect to 4X game mechanics that drives what sort of interactive form it is: internal versus external systems.
Internal systems relate to gameplay mechanics that exist and operate primarily within and amongst the assets you control directly in the game. In a typical 4X game (Civilization, Alpha Centauri, Master of Orion, etc.), internal systems include city or colony management: production queues, population happiness, tax rates, economic balance, research priorities, etc. Consider this: if there were no other players or empires in the game, which mechanical systems would continue to function more or less as normal? Those are the internal systems.
The external systems are gameplay mechanics that create and/or depend on interactions with forces outside of your control. Most often these are the interactions you have with other players or empires through the likes of military conquest, espionage, diplomacy, trade, foreign relations, and so on. Beyond other players or empires, it could also include asymmetric forces like random events, endgame threats, space amoebas, or other sources of randomness that add chaos and unpredictability to the gameplay. The key aspect to keep in mind about external systems is that they are outside of the player’s control.
These differences are critically important. In order to have strategic gameplay there has to be an engagement with external systems. Why? Because these external systems and resulting interactions, per Burgun’s hierarchy, are what enable a game to be a proper “game” - and not a puzzle or a contest. External forces provide ambiguities, which obfuscate the optimal paths to victory, and in turn create room for strategic play where we can’t be certain whether our long-term decisions will pay off or not. Moreover, being able to navigate these ambiguities better than your opponent is where skill matters in determining the eventual winner. Games that have many levels of skill (e.g. Chess rankings) and more elaborate heuristics, tend to be deeper and more strategic games.
By contrast, the more a game leans on internal systems, the more puzzle- or contest-like it tends to be (e.g. Apollo4X). In most 4X games, for a given setup, there is an optimal path to expand and grow your empire that follows the rules of the game. This optimal solution can exist because there are few (or no) external systems that make the potential results of the decision process unclear. Of course, external pressures might shift or change what you are optimizing towards during the game - but once that shift in direction is decided, the actions that follow are largely self-evident.
In some games, survival is the only form of winning
The Goal of Succeeding versus Surviving
A curious quality to games is the difference between succeeding (e.g. meeting a victory condition) and surviving. Some games are structured around the notion that eventually you will fail to survive. Consider the game Tetris. Eventually, the blocks will fall so quickly that the game becomes mechanically unwinnable, and so the game ends and you get a final score. Burgun’s iOS game Empire is the Tetris of 4X games. Eventually your empire will be overrun by external forces - the challenge is to see how long you can survive and how big your final score will be.
Survival games can also be driven by more passive or internal forces. There are plenty of survival sandbox games these days (The Long Dark is a nice one), and here it is less about keeping ahead of some menacing threat actively trying to kill you and more about managing your own affairs and assets such that they don’t unravel and lead to your demise.
Similarly, Paradox’s grand strategy games tend not to have specific victory conditions. Games usually end when the time period covered by the game is over, and the main question is whether or not you survived to that end point. Players might also establish goals of their own choosing during the game. In this regard, these games function more like Burgun’s “toy” definition - although I’m inclined to call them “simulation sandboxes” given the level of complexity and the potential for “failing to survive.” So does the lack of a defined victory condition make it less of a proper “game?” I’m not sure - but maybe.
Most 4X games, however, concern themselves with the notion of victory and “succeeding” - being the first to reach a goal or victory condition. Granted, there may still be an aspect of survival at work, as other empires may decide to wipe you off the planet (or galaxy)! And so in many 4X games, there is a tension between the need to survive and the need to achieve victory; finding the balance is certainly a question of strategic decision making.
So what then are these strategic decisions?
Civilization. Civilization never changes (Heiko Günther’s Advanced Civ Re-design)
The Balance of Actions
The next theory I want to lay out is an approach for categorizing the different types of actions or activities one might take in a strategy game. Personally, I want games that emphasize making interesting choices as opposed to making mindless non-decisions. Think of it this way: deciding whether to spend the afternoon at the park or going to see a matinee movie might be an interesting choice, but deciding to turn on the car in order to drive is a necessary (and boring) part of achieving either goal. We’ll get to what interesting means in game terms in a bit. For now, I tend to see actions in the following types:
Strategic Decisions: These are high-levels decisions that feed into how you are going to win the game. Most often, strategic decisions are influenced by external systems. Is my neighbor going to invade me (or not), and should I therefore strike first (or not)? How much should I invest in building military units versus funding empire growth? Who should I conduct espionage against or form an alliance with? What type of victory condition am I working towards, and how will I get there before everyone else? Do I need to shift strategies? Strategic decisions exist in our minds - they don’t play out in the physical game space. They are about establishing objectives that set you on a path to victory.
Tactical Decisions/Actions: These are the important decision points and/or actions players take to actualize their strategic decisions or to respond to short-term issues and events. They relate to how you will accomplish an objective. If a long-term strategic plan calls for subjugating a neighboring empire, how are you going to do it? What type of fleet will you build and what route will it take? How will you deal with enemy forces or planetary defenses? Unlike strategic decisions, the result of making a tactical decision is usually reflected by a change to the game state - e.g. I move my fleets to another system, and thus the game state has changed.
Optimization Activities: These are actions that relate mostly to internal systems and consequently ask you to solve or optimize for a particular objective. Do I build my research lab and then my production facility, or vice versa? A lot of time can be spent in 4X games optimizing a particular decision point, and, depending on the complexity and math involved, can be very challenging or relatively trivial. Adjusting the allocation of workers on a colony between production, food, and research is an optimization task as there is often a best solution for a given strategic goal. 4X games are occasionally derided as being “spreadsheet managers,” and the need to optimize outputs (or military efficiency) strikes at the heart of that criticism.
Upkeep & Overhead Actions: These are the routine actions that relate, again, mostly to internal systems and are part of the maintenance or upkeep of your assets. Generally, there is little choice in these actions, they are things you just have to do to advance the game state. In board games these upkeep actions are quite common (reshuffle decks, refill tokens, pay upkeep costs, etc.). We see these in 4X video games, too: tweak the ship design to add the newest laser weapons, add the newly-researched building to your all your production queues, send constructed units to the rally point, clear notifications to advance the turn. These are “no brainer” decisions that rarely require much thinking.
I’ve often found myself critiquing strategy games by asking “what percentage of my time am I spending on what types of actions?” The optimal balance is, of course, a matter of personal preference. For me, I’d much rather spend my time making strategic and tactical decisions, rather than running optimization exercises. Overhead actions, ideally, are just automated and resolved by a competent AI or streamlined UI - or else removed entirely. As a result, I tend to prefer games that emphasize external systems (e.g. more wargame focused 4X titles) over those focused on internal systems and hence optimizations and puzzle-solving.
The notion of survival versus success is also relevant to this topic. Strategic or tactical decisions are easiest to see as they relate to external factors (e.g. other empires), which in turn relate to the choices you make to move closer to success. Less common, but certainly possible, are strategic and tactical decisions relating to survival and internal mechanisms. Grand strategy games often latch onto this idea - where various internal pressures (e.g. mismanagement) can result in a revolt or collapse (e.g. a coup or assassination). This transforms them into external factors, which could then destroy your empire. But I feel like more could be explored along these lines.
A stone here, a stone there… Where will you Go?
The Deception of Complexity
Consider for a moment the classic board game Go. Go has a ruleset that can be explained in a few sentences. And while it’s one of the simplest strategy games, it also has nearly unrivaled depth. This no doubt accounts for the game’s lasting appeal over the course of thousands of years (yes, thousands). The key point is that mechanical complexity does not equal depth, and Go is a testament to the notion that great depth can emerge from simple systems. And so, if we can achieve great strategic depth through simplicity, what role does complexity then play in strategy games?
Complexity can affect gameplay in two fundamental ways. First, complexity can affect the size of the decision space. Playing Go on a 9x9 grid is less complex than playing on a full 19x19 board, where there are vastly more possible moves and game states. Second, complexity can affect the number of factors or layers that go into making a decision. Imagine a simple, multilateral wargame with no option for diplomacy. Now insert diplomacy - suddenly there is a new system for interaction that can influence your decisions for who to defend or war against.
But does this added complexity always make for a deeper strategic game? Not necessarily.
Perhaps enabled by increased computing power, I feel that strategy games have become more complex over time. For many, this added complexity is welcome because it means the game has more longevity - it takes longer to tease apart all the inner workings and to build up skill. We see this frequently in modern board games as well, where learning the rules of the system is a major part of a game’s appeal. Players discuss the joys and thrills of learning how a new system operates and what all the levers and cogs do. But this can be a double-edged sword.
In many cases, complexity merely makes the math of solving optimization problems more convoluted and challenging - diverting attention away from the real strategic interactions in the game. For example, many 4X games have giant tooltips filled with positive and negative modifiers explaining all the factors affecting a colony’s happiness. Maximizing happiness, and in turn productivity outputs, requires identifying what options you have to mitigate each of the contributing factors and determining which has the best net return. You might even conduct this optimization task across all of your colonies to determine exactly which one yields the most bang for the buck. In this regard, the complexity is making the optimization harder, but it doesn’t really deepen the strategic landscape - you are still trying to solve for the same X.
Moreover, once you’ve cracked the code and learned these internal optimizations, you have solved the major puzzle of the game - and can then beat it relatively easily over and over again. There might be strategic or tactical decisions to be made - but they are no longer as interesting and gameplay depth has been diminished as a consequence. A question to ask yourself is this: does a given strategy game become more interesting or less interesting as you play it more?
That’s the same face I make when I strategerize...
The Quest for Deep, Interesting Decisions
My ideal strategy game is one where I spend most of my time making interesting strategic and tactical decisions - compared to optimization and upkeep actions. But what makes a choice interesting in the first place? Principally, an interesting strategic decision is one where you have to make a choice and you are uncertain about what the long-term payoff of that choice will be. But you are not shooting blindly in the dark, either. This balance of uncertainty - and the nature of it - is crucial because otherwise the “game” is reduced to a solvable, though potentially quite complex, puzzle.
Uncertainty itself can arise from a number of sources, each of which has an implication on the strategic depth of a game.
One source of uncertainty is chaos or randomness in the game system. If random events, die rolls, or the Wizard-Kings of Probability have a bearing on your long-term decisions, then clearly the outcome has uncertainty to it. However, this may not make a deeper or more strategic game; rather it may just make it more unpredictable and harder to predict. Would chess be considered as skillful and deep if there was only a 50/50 chance to capture a piece? The randomness would make it difficult to strategize and diminish the potential gains for careful planning. In other cases, for example in a game like poker, high degrees of uncertainty adds another level - one of probability and risk assessment - to the optimization activities. It makes decisions more uncertain and harder to calculate, but maybe not in a fundamentally more interesting way. What makes poker interesting is that the randomness of the deal is filtered through the skills and behaviors of other players in an interactive way.
So then, the other major source of uncertainty is related to the interactions between players - and here is where decisions become more interesting. If “games” are understood to be interactive systems that are contests of decision making, then having to account for and react to the actions of your opponents is crucial. Player interactions are external in nature and manifest across a number of 4X game systems: diplomacy, military positioning, espionage, etc. They can also take on a number of different forms: open negotiation, bluffing and feigning, double-think, maneuvering, etc. The crucial skill is being able to read your opponent based on understanding their position, personality, and playstyle, and in turn identify your likely moves (and countermoves). This is where you can leverage your own wit or cunning to achieve a strategic advantage. This is where skill and experience comes into play.
Ultimately, what makes choices interesting is whether or not the strategic landscape of the game - the multi-layered decision spaces that exists in your mind - allows unique and consequential decisions to emerge. In the board game world, games are often discussed as having either “pre-baked” strategic pathways that are created by the designer (and to be discovered by the player) versus games that are more player-driven and emergent in the game states and situations that arise. The pre-baked path approach relies heavily on “learning the system” and on complex internal mechanics.These are often paired with limited player interaction and less volatility as a result. The player-driven approach is more in line with the “simple to learn, lifetime to master” notion - where the depth and interest comes from unique situations where player personalities mix in an interactive and dynamic environment. The former is predominantly about optimizations, the latter is concerned with strategic or tactical interactions.
Diplomacy for another age
Implications for 4X Game Design
I’ve laid out a number of pet theories in this article:
- The definition of a game versus a puzzle, toy, contest, or simulation
- Internal versus external systems
- Surviving versus succeeding (victory, goals)
- Types of actions (strategic, tactical, optimization, upkeep)
- The roles of complexity
- Interesting decisions, uncertainty, and player- vs. system-driven games.
What does all of this mean for 4X games? If I have one big critique (here is the thesis!) of 4X games, it is that they often emphasize the exact wrong things in their design (given my preferences), and so I don’t find many of them to be all that strategic as a result. In many cases I’m not even sure they could be classified as proper “games” (per Burgun’s hierarchy) - they feel, to me, more like puzzles.
Complexity appears to be increasing in 4X games, but much of this complexity is directed towards internal game systems: ever more intricate systems of colony management, internal policies, worker optimizations, more complex development pathways, and so on. Little of this really affects how interesting the big long-term strategic decisions are. In fact, the focus on creating compelling or interesting victory conditions (essential for a proper “game”) seems to be in decline - making the choice of what you are optimizing for all the more obvious. In so many 4X games, I feel your race selections and starting position railroad you down a certain track towards a certain pre-ordained victory condition. You might start the game game knowing you are going for a technological win because your empire/species is all about boosting technology. The decisions that follow from there are all about optimizing and solving for X. It’s a puzzle, not a game.
One of the challenges with complexity also has to do with the AI’s capabilities and level of cunning. On one hand, a shift towards greater focus on internal system complexity could be seen as a way to sidestep a weak strategic AI. However, the AI still has to navigate these complex internal systems, and often it ends up receiving bigger and bigger bonuses to compensate for its inefficiencies. This isn’t a good foundation to build a competitive strategic game. On the other hand, simpler game systems might be able to better leverage a computer’s brute-force calculation power to legitimately out-optimize or out-wit the player. I have a Go app on my phone and the AI, sans bonuses, absolutely trounces me. Go figure...
Other types of 4X games (and especially grand strategy games) take a different approach. They are using increasing complexity as a basis for building more detailed simulation models. Within this type of simulation, players are at liberty to decide their own goals and what game systems to focus their choices around. It is a sandbox experience and, short of a failure to survive, is not usually oriented around goals or victory conditions at all. This is, of course, a perfectly valid approach, and simulations have a great capacity to allow for player-created narratives to emerge. But in a certain sense, these really are not “games” either - at least in the strict sense of active competition for victory.
Depth through simplicity?
So, 4X games appear stuck between a puzzle optimization pole on one end and a complex simulation pole on the other. And neither of these really results in a focus on making interesting strategic decisions based on external, player-driven interactions.
Personally, I’d love to see a 4X game take a different approach and embrace mechanical simplicity - using it to build a more interesting interactive player environment. What would a 4X game with practically zero empire management look like - with all the focus instead on diplomacy, military maneuvering, controlling shared markets, and cultural exchange? The skill of the game, and its potential depth, would be less contingent on knowing the optimal pathways and instead about making strategic decisions within an emergent and dynamic game space, including the personalities and eccentricities of your rivals.
Most titles seem to drift towards either the survival/sandbox simulator or the optimization/ steamroller to victory. There are a few games that strive to zero-in on interesting strategic decisions and that focus more on external interactions as a result. Age of Wonders III, for example, has relatively simple empire management and de-emphasizes optimization tasks. Instead it emphasizes military positioning, maneuvering, and the careful use of magic resources - all higher level strategic or tactical decisions. This bring it closer to a proper strategy “game” than many other 4X games, at least given my preferences. I would put Master of Orion (the first one) or Sword of the Stars (the first one) in the same category. They are relatively simple games mechanically that emphasize external interactive systems over complex internal mechanics. But fewer and fewer games seem to follow in their footsteps.
As a parting thought, consider these various pet theories and whether they have informed or changed your perspective of 4X games that you have played. How do your own interests and preferences align or not with these concepts? Do you see other styles of 4X or strategy games that do or could exist? Do you feel that the games you play are are “puzzles” or “contests” or “games?”
As always, the comment line is open.
My father passed away recently in a tragic accident - and so I’ve been thinking and reflecting.
My dad was a staunch supporter of non-violence in all aspects of his life. But despite this, while I was growing up he purchased a fair number of violent games upon my request - such as the First-Person Shooter (FPS) game Doom and its many followers and derivatives. At the same time, he always stressed the importance of separating reality from fiction. And while he allowed me to play these games, I knew he found them distasteful and the violence unnecessary - especially when there are so many other wonderful things one might explore instead. He was always looking for a game that emphasized discovery and mystery, or story and problem solving, or journeys and narratives. Anything other than yet more violent action for its own sake.
So I’ve been thinking about my Dad’s views on violence in games, and in the world all around us. And during this time of reflection, I stumbled across an article by Keith Burgun on the glorification of violence in games. I’ve been wanting to write on the topic of violence for a while now, and Keith’s article struck right at the heart of so much of my own thinking. So in this article, I am endeavoring to paraphrase Keith’s major points in my own words, which I find helps in internalizing these complex issues.
But first, to set the stage.
When I look at the dominant video games, the vast majority of the most well-played games are predicated on violence. Look at the top 25 games in the steam charts. Only five or six don’t predominately have to do with killing things (Football Manager 2016, Rocket League, Civilization V, Euro Truck Simulator, and Stardew Valley). Take a look at the most popular Xbox One games. Out of the 20 listed on the first page, only a handful (mostly sport games) aren’t predicated on violence. Unless you are into sports or simulation games (the Sims, Tycoon-style games, vehicle sims) or casual puzzle games - practically everything has to do with violence or surviving violence.
History and Wars on Violence
Throughout the history of media, there have been counter-pressures against new forms of expression. Whether it was rock-and-roll, or swing dancing, or dungeons and dragons, or poetry. And video games have had their turn on the chopping block too. In practically every case, these counter-pressures have failed to control the new media.
Keith Burgun’s article pinpointed a number of pitfalls made in prior “wars on violence” relative to video games, and which have likely hindered genuine and thoughtful discussion of the topic. These pitfalls, made by the likes of Jack Thompson during the 90’s, included things like trying to legally censor violent games, deeming all violence as glorified and subject to censorship, and arguing that consuming violent material makes people more likely to be violent themselves, especially among children.
The above are all strong ambitions or claims, none of which have held up in terms of yielding actual change in the gaming industry or gamer culture. Censorship strikes directly against societal values for freedom of speech and expression - so good luck accomplishing that feat. Deeming all violent expression equally as “glorified violence” dismisses opportunity for more considered arguments and nuanced discourse surrounding the topic. And the claim that consuming violent media makes people more violent is likely never to be known with certainty - more research is needed before making that claim I suppose.
Don’t Mess With My Stuff!
One outcome of the wars against game violence, is that it has made gamer culture defensive when it comes to talking about this issue. Keith Burgun notes that many gamers feel that they have “already won the war against violence,” and so are resistant to further debate. Especially in light of the past approaches and aims described above.
However, there are a few more recent trends that gamers have had to weather, which compounds the problem of discussing violence. First is that the games industry has been highly criticized for being sexist, specifically concerning the depictions and roles given to women in games. This continues to be an on-going debate with a lot of tension coming from both sides. So there is a certain apprehension to bringing the fight on to the topic of violence - especially considering that gamers on both sides of the sexism debate are likely playing the same violent games. Keith Burgun calls this the “OK, but not this” line of defense. In short, gamers already feel attacked on one front, and are quick to shut down criticism the another.
The second issue is that we are all attached to the stuff we like - and generally don’t like other people messing with our stuff. When someone comes along and starts criticizing your stuff, the natural tendency is to start defending it - especially when there is a history of people trying to take your stuff away (e.g. censoring violent video games). Moreover, video game culture has no shortage of fanboyism. And all to often people take measured criticism of a game in one regard (e.g. violence) as a damnation of the whole game and as an all out attack on their person for enjoying it. Some people just can’t accept that others don’t see things the way they do and still be okay with it. This of course is a trait that cuts well beyond the realm of video games.
So What’s the Problem?
If past arguments against video game violence have failed and only hardened the defenses of gaming culture, why are we still be talking about it? I think there are two main considerations at work. One relates to dehumanization. The other relates to game design and the diversity of games being created and in turn the potential audience.
When I look at the all big, ambitious, AAA game titles with the biggest production values - the Call of Duties, the Skyrims, the Grand Theft Autos, and so on - they are almost all predicated on violence. As the protagonist in these games, the way you interact with the game is fundamentally through violence. I’m hard pressed to think of any large, big budget, open world type games that don’t have a lot to do with killing things and blowing stuff up. There is a certain power fantasy at work in playing games - and certainly playing the part of a hero (or villain!) plays into satisfying that fantasy.
Furthermore, as Keith Burgun has written - many developers seem to take violence as a given and hence construct stories and narratives that justifies the violence they employ. Kill the big bad villain. Stop the Nazis. Slay the dragon. And coupled with this justification is often a glorification of the violence. Don’t just kill the Nazis, do it with style. Of course this isn’t just games - violence is glorified across the media spectrum (summer Blockbusters anyone?). Culturally, in America anyway, violence sells.
I was playing the demo for the new Doom game. One of the gameplay features is the self-titled “glory kill” where you are incentivized to kill the enemies in a supremely graphic melee attack, and are rewarded with extra health and ammo pickups. We can justify killing all these monsters certainly (they are going to kill you if you don’t!) - but is the glory kill really necessary? Or is it part of the power fantasy? Zombie-themed games give us a perfectly justifiable reason to mow down hordes of human shaped beings. Maybe playing Left 4 Dead won’t make me more violent - but maybe, just maybe, it desensitizes me to violence and our sense humanity, if only a little bit.
I remember showing my dad Morrowind, Bethesda’s third entry into the Elder Scrolls RPG world. We both oogled at the visuals and the amazingly detailed open world, filled with all these places to see and explore. When he asked about the gameplay however, it was clear the game was predicated on violence. Nearly all of your skills and abilities ultimately relate to killing things. Sure, maybe some quests can be accomplished through stealth or persuasion. But if you ignore combat - vast swaths of the gameplay are rendered invalid. Of course he never went on to play it.
So where are the big ambitious AAA games and the fascinating open world adventures that don’t hinge on violence? They are few and far between. And, like with sexism in games, the industry is losing a potential slice of its audience by not making at least some games of that level of production value about something other than fighting. Seriously - if you want to avoid violence in video games, what are your choices? Sports and simulator games and casual puzzle-like games? That’s about it. Even most strategy games are fundamentally predicated on violence at one scale or another.
The point of all of this isn’t to say that we shouldn’t be making violent games, or that they are inherently bad for us (regardless of whether they are or not). Rather, it is to ask why do we so often use violence as a starting point in game design? We take it as an assumption that games are predicated on violence - and in the process blind ourselves to exploring other avenues and trajectories for game design. And these other trajectories might compel a greater and more diverse audience to enter the gaming world.
Of course, some will take this call for more diverse games as an attack on their stuff, claiming this would result in less developer energy going towards the old kind of game. Who knows if that’s true or not - but in a world where everyone is free to make and consume whatever media they want, I think there will continue to be a market for whatever style of game people desire. The old marketing adage is that sex sells. And so it seems does violence. But maybe we can have more games that aim for something different?
Having said all of this, I think there some trends in the gaming world that are moving more towards non-violent games.
In the world of board games, I feel like a large swaths of German and Euro-style games have adopted non-violent themes. Heck, take a look at the top 25 ranked games in the BoardGameGeek database. Only about 8-10 of them are focused on violent themes - the majority have non-violent themes. Having observed the board game world for a while, I do feel that as typically non-Violent Euro-style games have merged with American-style (or Ameritrash) games, the collision has resulted in more games with violent themes. But maybe that’s just an impression. Still the board game world shows a far greater diversity of popular games that reflect non-violent themes compared to the video game universe.
A second trend, among video games, is the growth in exploration / survival focused games (No Man’s Sky, Rodinia, The Long Dark, the Solus Project, etc.) and sandbox building games (Minecraft-likes, Kerbal Space Program, etc.). Many of these games achieve (or strive to achieve) the same sense of immersion that you get in a typical AAA-game, but with themes and goals that are aren’t all about killing the big bad. These are great trends and there appears to be a lot of fertile ground for new gameplay ideas.
Last, is the growth in more experimental or “art” games that intended to relate to different themes entirely, such as walking simulators like Dear Esther or The Witness along with more thought-provoking narrative experiences like Gone Home or That Dragon, Cancer.
But one of the challenges with these last two trends is that these games move away from being proper “competitive games” in pursuits of other themes. Challenge very often means having opposition. And so often when there is opposition the game is designed around violence as the primary system for interaction. Ultimately, I’d love to see someone make a game, like say Skyrim, and rework it such that violence isn’t the first course of action. The problem is that providing other mechanics and systems for interaction in all the possible encounters requires a lot more time and attention.
But people are trying. Offworld Trading Company is a great example of taking a Real-Time Strategy (RTS) game and swapping out violent combat for economic market manipulation (yes, there is still some violence with the Black Market actions in the game - but the primary gameplay is not focused on violence). It’s a rather brilliant notion and still remains a very competitive game despite eschewing the violence that typifies most RTS games.
Being honest with myself - I don’t expect I’ll stop playing violent games anytime soon. Too many of the games I enjoy, from the standpoint of immersion, sense of challenge, or narrative - come saddled with violent themes. But I do find myself tiring of a lot of it. It’s been at least a decade since I went to the movies to see an action movie or a summer blockbuster (exception made for Star Wars: The Force Awakens). The violence, in all its glory or brutal reality, just isn’t a motivator or source of interest. Quite the opposite actually, it’s a deterrent. When watching the new Star Wars, I was far more interested in the non-action scenes.
But unlike movies or books or board games, the amount of serious, and especially competitive, video games that are available that also are not violent is small. And unfortunately, sports games games and casual puzzle games just don’t interest me that much. So on a personal level, I’m advocating for more non-violent games for selfish reasons - I want to play them. But on a societal level, I feel that broadening the pool of games and the types of interactions and stories that are told can bring the world of games to a greater diversity of people. Maybe these games can have a positive and humanizing impact on our collective psyche. Rather than dehumanizing and desensitizing, perhaps they will expand our sense of empathy - a quality which is so often in short supply.
Hello fellow readers! It’s been a little time since posting, but I felt a year-end recap and look-a-head into 2016 was in order. Please bear with the Smorgasboard nature of this post, but do feel free to bounce around, sampling which ever delights strike your fancy.
- Articles & contributions!
- Wot I’m Playing!
- Game design projects!
I think over the past year, the nature of my boardgame playing has changed considerably. Two kids in the house, full times jobs (plus an extended sidejob), family obligations, friends having kids, my kids now also having friends, etc. introduces a set of constraints. Days spent hunkered over monstrous game boards and drowning under avalanches of meeples and hexagonal chits have dwindled.
Of course, and as I’ve mentioned before, it isn’t all bad. My daughter (now almost five) continues to like playing and “playing” with all sorts of games; and my two nephews are in the mix as well. We were on a big family trip at the end of last August and collectively played a lot of Eight Minute Empires: Legends, among other games. I had played a number of games previously, but I was surprised how much the kids really got into it. My 7-year old nephew used his allowance to buy his own copy when he returned home! While the game is somewhat dry mechanically (as a simple area control game), the artwork really makes it connect for people. I do love this game.
I also picked up Mice & Mystics over the summer, which was a big hit when trapped inside the cottage on rainy days. The Mouse Guard graphic novels have been making the rounds with the kids in the family, so the Mice & Mystics game slotted into their swirling sphere of perception nicely. It’s a well designed game and perfect for gamer dad facilitating play with the kids. The rule set is loose and flexible enough that we can take some liberties and the game doesn’t totally fall apart. My only complaint is that it can be a lot to setup and tear down quickly, and when you are working with 30 minute attention spans, I end up spending less time playing than organizing bits. But fondling bits never discouraged me … ahem …
I’ve also fallen deeply in love with Shadi Torbeys Oniverse games, as illustrated by Élise Plessis, whichincludes Onirim, Sylvion, and Castellion. First of all, the artwork and presentation is just amazing. I absolutely love the art style and how the boxes are assembled. As single-player games (or two person co-ops), Z-Man hit the mark with creating a compelling experience just in opening the box. It feels like luxury.
Image Credit: KSensei @ BGG
I’ve probably played Onirim 60+ times by now. Mostly in two-person cooperative mode with my wife. The game, in contrast to many cooperatives, feels less like a puzzle and more like a strategic thinking game. By contrast, in Forbidden Island (for instance), you can play nearly perfectly but just get screwed based on how the cards are shuffled. In Onirim, that can certainly happen, but it feels more like you have control, and if you plan and think carefully about your choices, you have ways of nearly eliminating the blind luck of the draw factor. It’s hard to describe, but the game works really well, and I haven’t even dabbled with the seven (!!) included expansions.
I play Sylvion a bunch in solo mode over the summer, and also quite enjoyed the game. The design is based on a lane defense concept, usually seen in videogames, where you are defending your forest from an on-rush fire elementals trying to burn it down. There is an interesting two-stage approach to the design, where in stage one you draft a deck, which you then use in stage two to defend. There are various strategies and synergies to pursue in how you assemble the deck, so there is lots of decision space to explore. As for Castellion, I just got it over the holidays and have only dabbled with it. Unlike the prior card-based Oniverse games, Castellion is tile-based, but I like where the design is going. More on that to come!
I also stumbled across the kickstarter for Keep and picked that up. I had a chance to get it to the table when some friends were over, and I’ve also played a bunch of the two player game with my wife. The game is a simple drafting card game (with 50-some cards) in the vein of Sushi Go. You do the usual “play cards to your tableau and then pass your hand” routine, with scoring occurring all at once at the end based on various synergies between your drafted cards. There is a nifty hidden action element to the game (that I think more could be done with), that adds some wildcards to the experience. It plays quick and is frankly all I’m asking for in a drafting game. Whereas 7 Wonders ends up feeling overwrought, here you get a game that accomplishes nearly all the same things but without the bloat. And it fits in your pocket.
Over the holiday’s I also picked up: Gubs (haven’t played), Dragonwood (meh), Friday (haven’t played, but intrigued!), Red7 (flopped), and the Mouse Guard RPG Boxed set (I’d love to start an RPG with kids in a few years, and this just might work).
One thing that unifies all of the above is that they are all smaller box games. I started out in the hobby gaming world playing more small box games (Drakon, Flux, Muchhkin - don’t judge), and in many ways it is nice coming back more towards that end of the spectrum. Especially in light of having kids with short attention spans and not having the flexibility to spend 20 minutes setting a game up in the first place! Small boxes will inherit the earth. Or something!
Articles & Contributions
I’ve continued to write a number of video game reviews and articles over at eXplorminate (which has been growing its readership steadily over the past year). A few things worth mentioning:
I had an opportunity to play and review Invisible Inc.. If you like turn-based tactics games, Invisible Inc is one of the finest I’ve ever played. It is largely focused on stealth gameplay, set in a sort of corporatized neo-Noire Dick Tracy-esque dystopian cyber-future (how’s that description!). This is like Neuromancer: The Videogame. It has a great sense of style and art direction, with the gameplay being an interwoven tapestry of stealth, spatial planning, hacking, and timing that is really quite intoxicating. One of my favorite games from the past year.
I reviewed a number of other games as well, including This War of Mine, Crowntakers, Eclipse (iOS version). This War of Mine is a pretty engrossing (though somber) survival management game. Crowntakers a pint-sized party-based roguelike romp. And Eclipse is the kingpin 4X boardgame ported to iOS. All solid and fun games in their respective genres.
"Prodigious size alone does not dissuade the sharpened blade."
Most recently, I reviewed Darkest Dungeon, which just released on January 19th. This is worth a moment to describe. Darkest Dungeon is an “operational roguelike,” which means that you are managing a roster of heroes (fools) along with their base of operations (a sleepy-hollow-esque hamlet in this instance). You send your heroes on various quests (battling Lovecraftian horrors in this instance) in hopes of reaching the final goal/mission. It is a roguelike in that your characters have permadeath and you can’t reload when things fail, but it is a little more forgiving as there are always more heroes showing up to test their mettle. The gameplay is really solid and innovative in a few key areas (see the full review), but more than anything the game has a tremendous sense of style. I love the graphic novel look; and the voice over narration, both the writing and the delivery, is outstanding. Excellent little game; if you are into this sort of thing.
Wot I’m Playing
I succumbed to a game, and that game is Payday 2. This is a FPS (first person shooter) game, which is also a 4-person cooperative multiplayer game, and which is also about pulling off all manner of illicit heists. The game takes its cue from the vast swaths of heist-movie history, from Heat to Die Hard, and plenty of other references. I have a longer review in the works, but I’ll share a few things for now...
Not many video games manage to suck more than 20 hours out of me. Payday 2 is one of them, and since last November I’ve logged well over 200 hours. In part, this is because this is one of the first games in the past many years that all my local friends have also got into playing. So while we haven’t been able to get together for boardgame nights as often, we’ve been getting together via Payday 2 to heist the night away. Certainly this is part of the appeal.
To paint a broad picture, the game lets you pick a heist, from a large list, to perform. Heists can range from robbing convenience stores and drilling into bank vaults, to intercepting drug deliveries and breaking comrades out of jail. It’s all morally dark territory for sure; you are playing the bad guys after all! Heists are either “loud” (in which case you go in with guns blazing) or “stealth” (in which case you sneak your way to the objective), or some combination of the two. With 30+ different heists, many of which can be accomplished in very different ways, and a staggering 300+ achievements, there is a lot to see and do in the game.
It also incorporates a rather sophisticated RPG layer. Successful heists earn you money and experience points (XPs) that you use to purchase new gear and learn new skills. There is a staggering 180 skills in the game, 100’s of moddable weapons, along with a host of equipment and other perk specializations. Given that an individual skill build is limited in how many skills it can have active, there are tons of ways to customize how your character works and performs. It’s all quite engaging … and really deep man. The game also strikes a nice balance (IMHO) between being serious and being tongue-in-cheek. This rubs some people the wrong way, but I appreciate the humor the developers have woven into the game.
To be honest, other than a few family boardgames here and there, I haven’t been playing many other games. Payday 2 has clawed me deep.
I’ve continued to advance a number of different design projects.
First up, is my design concept for a pseudo-4X strategy game, Transcend, which I outlined in a prior blog post. This design is for a digital game, and given my total amature status when it comes to programming, might remain a pipe dream … but we shall see.
I did manage to make a few technical steps, using excel of all things. I came across an article that talked about how someone re-created XCOM in excel. I thought to myself, “Well I love spreadsheets, I love excel, I can stumble through scripting … maybe I should see what I can do.” Lo and behold after a few hours (well, more like 10), I came up with this:
Yes, that is all excel, and is a semi-functional mock-up of a UI. On another tab there is a big “generate galaxy” button, that runs VBA scripting to randomly generate a star field of 15-30 stars, generates 0-4 planets in each star system, and assigns planets a few key properties (size, type, etc.). It’s very crude and rudimentary, but it works, and provides a functional basis to start layering lots of other data and attributes into the galaxy generation. Eventually, different excel buttons would turn on/off different data overlays on top of the main star view. I do a lot of data visualization professionally (GIS spatial analytics mostly), and it always bothers me that data in 4X isn’t presented more graphically/spatially (always miserable tables) - so that’s something I definitely want to address with this design.
I also started using excel to build a dynamic model for how the game’s economy and pace of development would proceed. This includes an “end turn” button that lets me queue up orders for planetary improvements, drawing down global resources, and then process the turn. I want Transcend to be much faster paced compared to other 4X games (e.g. get to capstone high-level technologies and developments within 20-30 turns). So experimenting with these dynamic economy models early on are important. I did a cruder version of this (also in excel), when working out the pacing and economy of Hegemonic (which is typically 6-9 turns) - and I think that was one area of the game that really worked well. Resources are in just tight enough supply that you have lots of ways you “could” proceed but have to prioritize down to just a few. I’ll keep plugging away (and I have the next dev diary in the works already).
I’ve also been circling back to one of my first game designs, which is Shifters. I had a chance to playtest it some over the summer during protospiel, and a number of times since. It’s interesting to see how many times this game has been torn down and rebuilt - but finally I’m quite happy with how all the pieces are fitting together. As a game intended to be a lighter weight, take-that style card game, smooth gameplay is important. To this end, there are a few cumbersome spots in the design to streamline. But it is really coming together and I’m contemplating how to best move forward with the design. Probably starting to talk to publishers - but I might also print a number of decks through printer studio and sell it for close to cost via BGG. We’ll see.
And that, ladies and gentlemen, is a wrap.
As a child of the 80's, the Star Wars original trilogy (OT) has always had a special place in my heart. I still have the theatrical release versions on VHS, and never cared for the "special edition" versions that George Lucas released later on. Nearly all of the additions undermined the charm and character of the theatrical versions (especially Darth Vader yelling "Noo….." at the end of Return of the Jedi. Seriously?). I went out of my way to track down the "de-specialized" fan-version of the OT on the web, quietly waiting for the day when Disney decides to remaster and release the theatrical versions of the film (fingers crossed).
As pretentious as that sounds, I didn't however hate the prequel trilogy. Hell, even Jar Jar Binks kinda grew on me. Granted, there was plenty to dislike about the prequels: the lackluster acting and script, the slightly overwrought plot, the awkward moments. Things were clunky, but overall it felt like what Star Wars should look and feel like before the fall of the Republic. It worked well enough for me.
By most accounts, The Force Awakens was to be a return to the spirit and vibe of the original trilogy: a more personal and character driven narrative. Less about the grand machinations of the empire (e.g. the ridiculous First Order) and more about the characters' own internal struggles, revelations, and triumphs. By and large I think it succeeded. The movie was unquestionably a throw-back to the OT (the plot line was nearly a carbon copy of A New Hope, boarding on absurdity).
So how about the Force Awakens?
First the good stuff. I think Rey, Finn, and BB-8 are awesome new characters, ushered in with a solid script and great acting. Seeing these people (and the droid) on the screen was the highlight for me. It was a big relief to have a script that didn't completely bomb (like most of the prequels). The frequent jab-in-the-rib jokes were amusing and well-placed, stroking our nostalgia as well as providing the comic relief that has always been a part of Star Wars. So job well done there.
The return of old favorites certainly rang of fan service, but it was well executed too. Harrison Ford's performance was good and he brought a great dynamic to the screen. The whole scene on his is trading ship was a little lame I felt, but otherwise his presence was good. Visually, the movie was great (as expected), and felt much more in-line with the flavor of the OT (as expected). And I have to say, they made Mark Hamill look pretty bad ass in final scene. It has me wanting to see more.
My first big grievance is that the film required me to create my own rationalizations for far too many details of the plot and characters, which was a big missed opportunity in my mind. In no particular order:
(A) How/why did Finn have a change of heart? Incidentally, a Visual Dictionary book entry for him mentioned that the opening attack scene was his first live engagement, and a weak point in his training broke his resolve. There was no indication of this in the movie – and I thought this could've been developed more explicitly.
(B) How/why does Rey have the ability to fly spaceships so well (and repair them for that matter)? Please don't tell me it's the force. They could have done anything, like showing her leafing through technical manuals in one of the many ship ruins she was exploring. Or have her house be a crashed space ship (instead of an AT-AT), with her pretending to fly and using the controls. Or show a dream of her flying a spaceship from when she was kid. There should have been something so that I didn't have to fabricate a justification for myself.
(C) How/why did Kylo Ren manage to kill a bunch of his peer Jedi and evade Skywalker to become the uber villain, and then get defeated by Rey who had just discovered her own Force powers moments earlier? Does Rey get some divine aid from the Force-motes? Is Kylo Ren just a wanker that got lucky, and then fell for Rey, got cocky, and was defeated by his own pride and arrogance? I guess? It felt way too contrived. I mean, Kylo Ren stopped a blaster shot in mid-air and he got whupped by an upstart novice? Overalls, Rey's force abilities grew way to quickly to be taken seriously without some better explanation. Maybe that's coming later?
(D) How/why did the First Order decide to make another Uber Laser Weapon? I appreciate the need to blow up the big thing as the climax of the final battle, but the Uber Laser was lame. I was anticipating something more subtle and menacing, something that raised the bar over the Death Star rather than just being an even bigger version of it
My second big grievance is about Kylo Ren himself. I thought he was cool up until he took off his mask. Then I almost started laughing right in the theater. I thought young Anikan was bad. But Kylo Ren just came across as such a wanker. That's the only word I can think of (and I've used it twice now) to describe him. He wasn't particularly intelligent or crafty, wasn't conniving or menacing, and certainly wasn't dark or mysterious. The whole killing his father to give himself fully to the dark side bit was thin and obvious. I just didn't sense enough real turmoil and madness in his character to justify the move. Some villains are terrifying when they throw a temper tantrum, or when they have you strapped down to an interrogation table. Kylo Ren wasn't terrifying at all.
My current theory (I'm taking Bets), is that Rey somehow manages to charm Kylo Ren and bring him back to the light as sort of a grand reversal of Anikan's story. I.e., love brings you to the light side, rather than giving justification for turning to the dark side. We'll see if this this theory holds true. Meanwhile...
The third and final big grievance, is how much the plot is a rehash of A New Hope. Some points of reference:
- Opening fight scene to try and recover a secret document (map vs. plans)
- Interrogation of various civilians by the big bad (Kylo Ren vs. Vader)
- Secrete document hid on a droid (BB-8 vs. R2D2)
- Droid on a desert world lands in the hands of the unknowing hero (Rey vs. Luke)
- Escape planet on a piece of junk space ship (Millennium Falcon both times!)
- Captured rebels and interrogation …
- References to garbage chutes …
I won't write it all out … but you surely get the point. It's nearly the exact same plot, except that this time we've seen it all before so nothing is new or surprising. Arguably Solo's death was the big upset, but the writing was on all the wall for that the moment you find out who Kylo Ren's parent are. I guess I was expecting something more unknown and uncertain to drive the plot and set the stage for the next episode. But on the other hand, A New Hope was similarly self-contained.
Unfortunately, not only was the plot a near clone, the execution and pacing was off in my opinion. Star Wars movies (OT and Prequels alike) always had a comfortable pace to them, striking a nice balance between slower segments and action. In The Force Awakens, every time the action stopped, you could start a 10-second timer before an explosion cascaded into another action scene. The first third of the movie had a nice balance, but after that it felt like one huge action sequence. Did we really need to have a battle on Solo's cargo ship? Or could that have been used to develop the characters more?
Despite all these big grievances, I still greatly enjoyed the movie. As a throwback and piece of fan service it certainly delivered. The script was good and the visuals were great. Hopefully they got the nostalgia out of their system and, having set the stage, the next installments can build in their own new direction.
The new cast and characters are solid. And while I wasn't enamored with Kylo Ren, at least the door is open to develop his character more and I'll be keen to see how that goes. Otherwise, Rey and Finn are great I want to see more of them on the screen. My palms were sweating in the lead up to Luke Skywalkers appearance, but I have to admit that the wizened old Jedi Master vibe is strong with that one, and I can't wait to see what's next.
Note: This article is cross-posted on eXplorminate. If you enjoy this article, please check out eXplorminate's coverage of 4X and strategy games. A gentle reminder that there is also a dedicated site, off-BGG, for Big Game Theory! ~ Cheers!
The world of roguelikes and roguelike-likes (i.e. games with a selection of roguelike elements) is on the rise. In some ways, I wonder whether this is driven by the Nintendo-generation’s (or earlier) nostalgia for games that were f-ing hard. The kind of hard that made you throw the controller across the room. The kind of hard that didn’t have a save feature, let alone autosaves. You know what I mean. These were the games you had to leave paused with the TV off, crossing your fingers that the power light didn’t catch mommy’s eye in the dark of the night, prompting her to shut the thing off and ruin that flawless run. Those were the days; games were brutal and our perseverance was put to the test.
Karen broke her leg!? Oh snap!!
Maybe Oregon Trail had a role to play. It’s spawned its share of imitators and tributes. We’ve got Organ Trail, the recent zombie-themed remake. Then there’s BEDLAM, a modern-day Oregon Trail. Even FTL could be taken as a futuristic homage, come to think of it. Did many of us cut our teeth on Oregon Trail without realizing that it was priming us for a love affair with roguelikes? Curiously, Oregon Trail, first released in 1971 (!!!) predates many of the original early roguelikes (ahem, Rogue from 1980). This makes me wonder about the hidden influence Oregon Trail might have had on the rise of roguelikes, their underlying mechanics, and the surging popularity of roguelike elements woven into other genres.
I mean, we ALL played Oregon Trail right? We can all relate to Jenny and her snakebites. As the ideas and mechanics behind roguelike games start to permeate into other genres, I often find myself trying to make distinctions between them and understand how different “roguelike elements” are used in one game compared to another. I’m having to split hairs by saying this game does X and that game does Y, so they are different, you see! And when you knead additional trends into the genre-dough, like the RPG-ification and survival-craft-ification of everything, then it gets really complex. Where does a roguelike tactical RPG end and a roguelike survival-craft game begin!?
So, for my own sanity and the purpose of this eXposition, I’m going to stab into the dark, embarking on my own little adventure to define a number of roguelike and related terms that pertain to a lot of current games these days. ‘ere we go!
First off, I want to talk about the format of roguelike(-like) games. The original Rogue and its direct descendents were all Individual-based games, which means that you controlled a single individual character. Then there are roguelikes where you are controlling multiple individual lives. Let’s call these Party-based games. Some roguelikes feature dudes and dudettes onboard some sort of vehicular contraption (like a spaceship, a boat, or a wagon). We can call these Crew-based games. Or perhaps you are controlling a roster of characters where only some subset of them is used at once. The game then becomes more Operations-based, with you managing the resources and facilities for this burgeoning roster of ill-fated individuals that you send off to their deaths. Step up in scale from there and we find ourselves suddenly managing an entire community of people in a Clan-based game. And it’s only a matter of time before we get our first Empire-based roguelike. Frankly, any number of 4X games could probably qualify, if played in some sort of hardcore, all decisions are permanent mode (with no save scumming!)
Examples! You need examples!
Individual-based: Rogue, Out There, Pixel Dungeon, Diablo (hardcore mode), Hoplite
Party-based: Crowntakers, This War of Mine
Crew-based: FTL, Sunless Sea, Bedlam, Oregon/Organ Trail, Flame in the Flood
Operations-based: XCOM, Darkest Dungeon, Invisible Inc, Hunters 2, Massive Chalice
Clan-based: King of Dragon Pass, Thea: The Awakening, At the Gates
Empire-based: Age of Wonders 3 (when I refuse to reload save games!)
Out There is kinda, sorta, like a modern Oregon Trail, but in space. Sorta.
Strategic-Layer & Tactical Space
Next up is whether or not the game has additional “layers” to the gameplay at a higher (strategic) level and/or at a smaller (tactical) level. The strategic level often has to do with things like base-building, choosing missions/operations, resource and personnel management, etc. For example:
Invisible Inc: Selecting missions from a global mission screen based on risk / reward
XCOM: Base building, economy, and threat mitigation
Darkest Dungeon: Base building, roster management, hero advancement, economy
King of Dragon Pass: Clan development
Thea: The Awakening: City development
Other games have a separate tactical space where battles or other types of conflicts are resolved at a finer grain of detail. For instance:
Crowntakers: separate turn-based tactical combat mode
FTL: real-time (pausable) ship-to-ship combat
XCOM: tactical combat missions
Darkest Dungeon: dungeon delving quests of doom
Some games, of course, have both a tactical and strategic-management space (e.g. XCOM, Darkest Dungeon) with no in-between space per se, unlike Crowntakers (for example) which has the overworld map you navigate. This might be a function of their “operation-based” nature. Taking another example, This War of Mine is similar in some respects, with a distinct strategic, base-building phase and a separate tactical scavenging (yes, that’s an awesome new term I made up) phase. Yet unlike XCOM or Darkest Dungeon, in This War of Mine the base-building/management environment is presented in the same side-scrolling structure as the scavenging missions.
Darkest Dungeon, aka the Hero Mill
Turn-based vs. Real-time
This is a obviously a biggie for many people. Proper roguelikes are turn-based, so you can contemplate whether you will step left or step right and the odds of picking wrong and stepping-on-a-trap-that-will-insta-gib-you will be. But of course, developers are messing with the formula so we have these real-time things invading the turf. It’s fairly obvious when a game is real-time or turn-based, so I’m not going to spew off more examples (yet).
Now we are getting down to the details. As a bit of history, roguelikes are named in reference to Rogue, a game from the precambrian era of gaming, i.e. 1980. Rogue, and the many derivative works that followed (and the earlier stuff that preceded it), generally had three key ingredients: a procedurally generated environment for your unlucky hero to explore, turn-based gameplay, and permadeath.
Permadeath means, generally speaking, that when your character dies, they stay dead. No save points, no free-saving, just death. Time to restart folks. From the beginning. Game over man. It’s important to note that for permadeath to actually have significance, the game will not typically allow manual saving and reloading. Otherwise, you could save scum to your heart’s content in order to avoid the deathtraps and missteps that constitutes a hallmark of the roguelike genre. It would undermine the entire point and challenge of the game to have free saving.
Some games, particularly those at the party-based level and beyond, might feature permadeath for individual characters; but provided that some of your characters live you can continue to press onward. Some games, like Diablo 2 for example, have optional “hardcore” modes that turn a traditional infinite-life game experience into a die-once-and-it’s-over-buddy experience. So while Diablo 2 isn’t traditionally viewed as a roguelike, it operates quite a bit like one in hardcore mode (aside from the real-time nature of the gameplay).
Suffice to say, any game can potentially be a tiny-bit-more-roguelike if you can tame your urge to save scum and instead elect to throw your computer out of the window when you die. That will, short of having an actual permadeath system, do the trick nicely, I think.
What’s up Brogue? Want to ASCII me another question?
Having a unique and random world/dungeon/pit-of-despair/bog-of-eternal-stench generated for each play through is another pillar of the roguelike temple. Nowadays, all game environments are procedurally generated (I’m not being that serious), and in the near future all games will be procedurally generated too (I’m being a little serious). The point of procedural environments is not to put the strategy game guide people out of business, but rather to create a tremendous amount of uncertainty and a new delicious menu of risk each time you start a new run.
Of course there is a grey area here, and quite a few games combine procedural environments with a dose of handcrafted splendor to ensure that certain milestones or locations are present in the world from game to game. Some games simply have certain elements randomized in their initial placement. For example the location and standing of your clan in King of Dragon Pass relative to the other clans is different each game, which adds a little variety to each play through.
Survival & Status Decay
A cornerstone of many roguelikes is a system for survival and/or status decay over time. In other words, if you stand still or run around in circles, you will eventually run out of food, water, torches, or gold doubloons and meet a grisly death due to starvation, dehydration, insanity, or turncoat mercenaries. Many roguelikes have a system for auto-healing, but requiring a constant influx of resources (i.e. an upkeep) means that you can’t just wait around until you all heal up; you have to keep moving. The incorporation of survival elements seems to be increasing across many genres of games, and it seems our endless cultural fascination with all things zombies strikes at the heart of this desire (hence we get Organ Trail, DayZ, Savage Lands, Don’t Starve, and so on).
As a side note, many games are predicated primarily around survival such that the game is essentially “endless” until you fail to survive. There is no winning condition, only a losing condition. A familiar example of this is the puzzle game Tetris. There is no “beating” Tetris, only losing. Of course, when you lose you also get a score, and the challenge then becomes to play it again and earn a higher score. A number of roguelikes work with this principle too, such as the endless modes in Invisible Inc, Flame in the Flood, and The Long Dark.
Clements, we told you not to eat the zombie parts!
Instead of survival pressure, some roguelike games have a time pressure and/or external threat mechanic that forces the player to make forward progress. For example, in FTL there is the forward march of the rebel fleet that spreads further across the map each turn. You have to keep moving forward or else you’ll get caught in the wave of rebel scum and perish. Other games have external pressures that are not such a hard line, but nevertheless force action. In Crowntakers, each day that passes sees the enemies grow stronger and stronger. If you dilly dally too much, the opposing forces will become too difficult to deal with, and you will be unable to survive. The main difference between survival mechanics and time pressure mechanics is that survival is about maintaining your internal condition, while time pressure is based on an external force putting pressure on you to act decisively.
Jump now, or forever hold your peace ...
Achievement-based unlocks are systems where accomplishing a certain feat or goal in one run-through of the game will unlock a new feature or additional content that is available to you on the next run-through. Beating certain goals in FTL with certain ships will unlock new starting ship options. Your score in Invisible Inc - when your team finally (and inevitably) succumbs - earns you points towards unlocking new starting agents for a subsequent run. In Hoplite, doing specific awesome things unlocks new abilities that you can then use over the course of the next run. In Dungeon of the Endless you can unlock new escape pods that affect your starting position on future runs, as well as new party members to use in your current and future runs.
Persistence and Carryover
Some roguelikes have systems where certain characteristics, items, or other resources carry over between playthroughs. For example, in Wayward Souls you can collect gold during your runs, which you can then use to purchase permanent character stat boosts for the different classes. In Crypt of the Necrodancer you get to hold onto gems that you can use to purchase better starting equipment the next time around. In the Flame in the Flood, you can leave items on your doggie’s satchel which will return to you the next time you start over. In Crowntakers, “easy mode” lets your characters keep their experience and level-gains across multiple runs. In Thea: The Awakening, the levels deities earn remain for future games. In some cases, the gains are “persistent” across all future runs (e.g. Wayward Souls), and in other cases the gains only “carryover” for the next run (e.g. Flame in the Flood).
These persistent, carry-overs differ from the achievement-based unlocks in that they are less about opening up new content and options (i.e. variety) and more about making subsequent runs progressively easier. It becomes a soft-handed way of letting people that are terrible at roguelikes (err, ahem … don’t like the “challenge”) still make forward progress in the game if they put in the effort. Many consider this a serious breach of the roguelike contract, yet others applaud these efforts for making roguelike games more accessible. You’ll have to decide for yourself what side of the line you are on. Or maybe you’re one of those oddities that likes to put their hands on one side of the line, and your feet on the other?
Flame in the Flood’s eternal champion, Aesop the Dog, let’s you carry over a few precious items between plays.
Legacy & Inheritance
This set of mechanics doesn’t appear to be used as much as the others I’ve mentioned, but there are a few games I’ve seen that are playing with the idea, so I’ll mention it. In five years when this is the hot new thing, I’ll look like a genius. Anyway the idea here is that there are carry over effects between runs that affect the gameworld rather than you as a player. While not a roguelike, the upcoming game Descendants: Voidborne uses this idea. Essentially, it’s a 4X-ish game built around a series of shorter matches. When a match ends, by reaching a victory condition, the next game you play starts by re-purposing the final game state from your previous game. For example, maybe you built a big huge galactic empire and finished one game, but afterward a rebellion broke up the empire such that in your next game you start off as one of the smaller rebel factions. It’s an interesting idea for sure. Curiously, the board game Risk: Legacy did this exact thing, requiring players to make permanent alterations to their game pieces and the board itself that affect how the game would work on future plays. Pretty rad!
RPG Skill Progression
The RPG-ification of all games has been underway for quite a while. Rare is the game that doesn’t have some sort of stat tracking leading to minor skill improvements, level-ups, and aren’t-you-are-so-special unlocks and perks. I mean, even modern multiplayer shooters like the Battlefield series are rife with achievements feeding rank advancement and gear unlocks. Where does it end!? Certainly not with roguelikes, which have been a natural concubine to the succubus that are RPGs. Of course, some games emphasize this more than others. In FTL, your crewmates have a few basic stats that improve over time as they get better at certain tasks. That is quite minor compared to the sorts of skill tree min-maxing that you might undertake as a hardcore mode Diablo player.
Ohhh, the Stats screen in Crowntakers
RPG Items and Loot!!!!
Loot is synonymous with all good things for most gamers. Loot is where the heart is. I’m hard pressed to find anything remotely resembling a roguelike that doesn’t have some system of loot collection as a core element of the game. You need loot to improve your weapons and armor. You need loot to improve your food stuffs. You need loot to improve the engines on your spaceship. You need loot for trading, for survival, for glory, for victory… Ahhh… You get the point. Loot!
I should mention that many classic roguelikes have a particular flavor of loot known as the “unknown” item: be it a potion, a sword, or a brightly colored mushroom. Drinking, equipping, or ingesting such items might bring you fantastic benefits and powers, or might cause a terrible belly-ache and curse your character for all eternity. You just don’t know. The random, unknown nature of loot can add an interesting check to the usual “all good things” aspect of loot collection. Maybe, just maybe, you’ll think twice next time.
Speaking of loot, what better use of loot than to make newer, better and bigger loot? Hence we arrive at the third horseman of the videogame apocalypse: crafting.
Crafting increasingly is seen in all sorts of games and meshes well into the milieu of roguelikes. Crafting is “almost” hand-in-hand with survival mechanics, although there are exceptions. Terraria (arguably not a roguelike) is all about crafting, but there is no survival imperative. Diablo 2 has crafting with the glorious cube, but again no survival need. I suppose large swaths of MMO’s fall into crafting without survival need territory too. But in the world of roguelikes they typically go hand-in-hand, with players needing to craft various items to maintain their survival as well as creating more powerful gear to advance deeper into the dungeon.
It takes a village to craft a sword (Thea: the Awakening)
Economy & Resources
Economy is most often associated with operations-based games like XCOM or Darkest Dungeon, where you have a global pot of gold (or other resources). These resources need to maniacally allocated to certain tasks, be it building satellites, managing workers, or sending your depressed, broken crusader out for a raucous night at the bar to lift his spirits. While the need to balance a flow of money often mimics a survival mechanic, running out of money is not usually grounds for immediate termination. In Crowntakers or FTL you have nice little bank account than you can freely spend down to zero if you want. You won’t be able to buy anything, but your game isn’t dramatically over either, at least in the short term. At a greater scale, Thea: The Awakening seems to be bringing the menu of roguelike mechanics to the resource and economy-based 4X gameplay.
Last, but not least, is the notion of special narrative events. Choose your own adventure style gamebooks are making a comeback in the digital age as technology makes these sorts of things far more engaging than mere words on paper (although purists will disagree). Some of this, I feel, is rubbing off in terms of roguelikes and related games with narrative-driven event-based systems that add a quasi-procedural dimension to the storyline. For example, King of Dragon Pass uses 100’s of special events that must be responded to in ways that are rarely cut-and-dry. Events can push your progress down a different path and/or come back to haunt you years later. But the result is a unique experience each time you sit down to play. I haven’t played it myself, but I wonder about the kinds of events that are created in a game like Dwarf Fortress and how that shapes a unique and rich narrative there. Sorcerer King is a recent 4X games that leans heavily on narrative events to shape the experience as well.
Anything but the Lizard Eggs … help us!
It is interesting to see how the design of many games, particularly games that seek to challenge the player in a single-player setting, increasingly draw on roguelike elements to ramp up the difficulty. I’m only half-joking about an Empire-based roguelike, as I’m sure the big one is just around the corner (and Thea: the Awakening and Sorcerer King aren’t far off the mark). So many of these mechanics, like survival or crafting, can scale up or down to work as well with an individual hero as they do with managing a settlement of people. External threats and pressures require you to stay one step ahead of the rebels in FTL. Is it hard to imagine a similarly functioning mechanic that threatens your space empire? AI War was already headed in that direction.
For me, the shared attributes between survival-craft games, RPGs and roguelikes all speaks directly to strategy and strategic thinking, albeit in slightly different ways. Dealing with these mechanics requires us to plan ahead. This need to think manifests within roguelikes (for me anyway) as it does in many typical strategy game genres. The result is that I’ve become far more interested in games outside of my usual circle. These games all provide a high level of challenge and depth despite being in different genres.
Others have written interesting (and controversial) pieces about the nature of games and the differences between a game, a puzzle, and a toy. Many modern games, for example open world sandboxes like Skyrim, are functionally more like a toy. Save systems and a general dumbing down of gameplay (for lack of a more PC-term), mean that fewer and fewer of your choices have lasting consequences - you can always reload or undo a decision that did not go well. More to the point, there is no “winning” of the game as a whole. Sure, you can accomplish a quest (or the major plot lines) but you can continue playing afterwards if you want. Like a pile of LEGOs, the goals you face- if you even have one beyond exploration - are self-determined. There is no toy fail.
So in many ways, I feel like the rogue-ification of games, which tends to reintroduce consequences and hard choices, is a move away from games as toys and back towards games as “games.” There is tension when it is possible to fail and lose everything. And this threat of failure and loss makes such games (for me), more impactful, rewarding, and engaging. I play them differently, with more focus and careful consideration, and beating them feels all the richer as a result. Fortunately, we appear to be having a heyday for these types of games. Keep ‘em coming, I say!
The Long Dark - a roguelike, survival-craft, sandbox, RPG-FPS -thing. Yes.
Now it’s your turn. Are there major gameplay devices related to roguelikes (or other genres) that I missed? Ones you don’t agree with? Share away!
Preamble: A Fool’s Quest
It may come as no surprise that I have aspirations to design a 4X game. I’m sure many of you reading the headline have entertained such thoughts as well. And while I have designed and published a 4X board game (and am no stranger to the design process) my spider-sense tells me that designing a 4X video game is like navigating a minefield. There is so much that can blow up. We also appear to be entering a heyday for 4X games, which begs the question “do we need yet another 4X game rampaging through the market?” Probably not. But that isn’t going to stop me from dreaming and putting forward a vision for what I feel would be something unique and different.
I’ve dedicated a fair portion of my writing to critiquing 4X games along a number of different avenues: bad endgame experiences, pacing and flow, strategic depth vs. routine optimization, snowball and steamroller, over-complication, underdeveloped systems, thematic incongruities, and so on. Throughout all of this, I always ask myself “If I’m so quick to critique, how would I do it differently?” For a long time I’ve been striving to understand what it is I’m actually looking for in a 4X game experience. Is it narrative? Is it challenge? Is it immersion? I think it needs to be all of the above, but wrapped together in a way that provides a meaningful and coherent experience.
Through all of this, there is one central thing keeps nagging at me as I look back on the many 4X games I’ve played: 4X games rarely have a satisfactory ending in terms of narrative or gameplay - and often both are lacking.
A design lesson I’ve learned is that, for strategy games at least, the end trigger and win conditions are the game. You have to conceive of a compelling conclusion to your game first, and then work towards building that experience. I think a lot of games do it backwards: they conceive of all the things they want players to do, and then figure out how to wrestle the behemoth they’ve created into a coherent game with some way to end it. How many games patch in new victory conditions post-release? It’s absurd if you think about it. Strategy games need to be designed around the victory conditions so that all the elements can be balanced and directed towards a compelling closure. So I don’t want to fall into the trap of doing it backwards.
4X games are often a letdown in terms of gameplay for reasons that have been discussed considerably of late. How many of you actually bother to finish a 4X game once you have passed the point of knowing victory is inevitable, if only you just hang on and grind through? That’s a problem having to do with the snowball and steamroller. Another issue is that victory conditions themselves are often silo’d as isolated offshoots of disjoined mechanics: you have some arbitrary economic win, or a technological win, or a military win, etc. Gameplay becomes a giant optimization puzzle to hit your chosen goal first. More alarming, this is often a goal you set right at the start of the game, based on race selection, and which rarely is challenged or changed during play. Strategy is about deciding on goals - and how much strategy is there really in a game where you set you set your goal in the the first 5 minutes?
The narrative problem that I have with 4X games can be summarized with this question: What does it mean for an empire to “win”? I’m tired of games built around conquering the world or galaxy, or becoming the supreme ruler, or achieving some technological triviality, or abstractly cornering the market, or whatever else. The end triggers for so many games are painfully arbitrary and hence unsatisfying from a narrative standpoint. More to the point, these sort of winner take all win conditions are not very enlightened or sophisticated, they translate colonialism into space. Whoopee. I think we can do better.
I read a lot of science fiction, particularly space operas from the likes of Isaac Asimov (old school) to Peter F. Hamilton (new school). These narratives are dramatic and visionary. They cover vast sweeps of time, and yet boil down to nail-biting and personal moments as the protagonists strive to stay one step ahead of whatever horrific menace is sweeping across the stars. I’ve never had the sort of tension and sweeping grandeur in a 4X game that you get from a novel - but I have some ideas for how it might happen.
So the challenge I’m laying at my feet is two-fold: First, conceive of a design for a space 4X game that would unify the gameplay with what it means to win through a compelling narrative frame that captures the boldness and imagination of the best of space opera. Second, I want to accomplish this with a game that is tightly designed, relatively quick to play (by 4X standards), and is emergent and engaging with getting bogged down by its own design.
PART 1: A Sketch for a Space Opera
A Dream Transcendent
Imagine for a moment that a game with the tightness and pacing of something like FTL (Faster Than Light) had an unholy union with a narratively curious game like King of Dragon Pass. Except instead of trying to fly a spaceship from point A to point B, as in FTL, you were guiding an empire among the stars. And instead of trying to become the king of all the clans, you were seeking transcendence and an ascension to the next level of galactic consciousness. This is the of the idea for Transcend. Let me elaborate.
First of all, I want to create a 4X game where what it means to win is something positive and evolutionary. Most 4X games presuppose that winning is only by achieving dominance in some way, and that other empire’s are inherently in a zero-sum competition with you. Hence, most 4X games task the player with overseeing yet another colonial era of manifest destiny. I think this is a tired concept, and coming up with something novel and positive means reexamining what it means to “win.”
I think modern humanity, as a whole, could move towards “winning” in some sense by achieving world peace and ending poverty, or achieving an equilibrium with planet Earth. Those are positive goals in my mind. Becoming the supreme ruler of earth doesn’t sound very positive to me - it’s draconian. So in Transcend, there is one singular winning condition: surviving to achieve transcendence with your culture. Achieving transcendence will open up a pathway to a higher plane of existence (e.g. accessing higher dimensional orders of reality) where other transcendent cultures thrive and continue their own quests for evolution and understanding in the universe. It’s a bit Zen-like, eh?
How your culture achieves transcendence will vary in unique ways depending on their physiology, consciousness, and morality. These starting conditions, which will be covered more later on, frames a sequence of positive goals you need to meet to successfully transcend, such as achieving empathy, equity, freedom, creativity, etc.. A race of artificial machines might need to learn empathy and compassion, or a culture of passive space slugs to learn when force is justified, or for humans to move beyond their rigid individualism.
In my mind, these transcendent goals provide a more compelling context for a 4X game’s winning condition than “I’m better/bigger than you.” So the idea isn’t a technological victory or any other specific win trigger, but rather requires players to build a strategy that employs all aspects of their empire as they pursue a series of culture-spanning transformations towards transcendence. This will also (hopefully!) create an opening to recognize and reward cooperation between empires. Such cooperation is a rarity, and most often a friendly handshake is just the precursor to a stab in the back. But here, it is possible for multiple races to Transcend and even work together to achieve it mutually, because it isn’t zero-sum. What I need to transcend may be very different from what you need, and there is room for both of us to succeed if we work together.
Yet achieving transcendence, in the absence of any external threats, must be a challenge on its own. Managing growth and resources so that your culture doesn’t spiral out of control and consume itself along the way, putting transcendence forever out of reach is central to the design. There needs to be internal pressure on the player. In metaphor, the path to transcendence is like navigating through a maze of tightropes, and there are plenty of opportunities to fall off.
There are also things trying to push you off the tightrope.
Whispers in the Dark
My space opera inspired design challenge also needs to apply external pressure on the player to keep them on their toes and prevent players from simply optimizing their way to victory. Enter the Galactic Threats. Galactic Threats are something big and bad that happens to the entire galaxy. Fundamentally their presence requires players to achieve transcendence before the galactic threat wipes you (and everyone else) out.
So the central strategic challenge in the game becomes balancing your own progress towards achieving transcendence while holding enough back to deal with the galactic threat when it shows up. You need to walk the tightrope but be resilient enough to not get pushed off by a strong wind. If you invest too heavily in one aspect of your empire, you might not have the flexibility and foundation in place to react when the threat comes knocking. And while players may be able to slow down the galactic threat, inevitably they will have to transcend to escape it - there is no other way.
Of course there is a further wrinkle: you don’t know what the galactic threat will be. The game will include a series of different threats, and one of them (or more than one on harder difficulties) will randomly be unleashed on the galaxy at some unforeseeable moment. And these threats can take a number of different forms, with only subtle narrative clues and events hinting at the storm to come. For example, an unfathomably massive black hole might appear in center of the galaxy and slowly starts pulling all the star systems into its maw, turn by turn obliterating them. Transcend before your empire is swallowed.
Another threat idea is “Galactic Hot Potato” (working title!), where a mysterious homing beacon is unearthed that starts summoning progressively stronger waves of extradimensional alien forces into the galaxy. Players need to cooperate to “pass the potato” and keep the aliens chasing it around the galaxy. Or maybe you can use spies to sneak it onto an opponent’s world to sic the aliens on them! Regardless, if the aliens get a hold of it, the motherships show up and you are all screwed. Prudent leaders transcend before the motherships show up. Or maybe some wild nano virus starts spreading throughout sentient life and turning your populace against itself.
Holistically, the galactic threats introduce an asynchronous form of opposition that provides a more compelling narrative structure to the game. On a basic level, it gives the player an interesting challenge, greatly lessening the burden for programming other AI empires to give the player a challenging peer-to-peer experience. Additionally, the threat system has the potential to open up more interesting gameplay, with opportunities for cooperation between players to occur as they collectively try to hold back the tide; yet with each culture still racing against the clock to transcend on their own. When combined, these two dynamics (transcendence and galactic threats) can move the genre beyond a mere repetition of the colonial manifest into something bold and new, and more fitting as a “space opera.”
The Supporting Cast: Design Goals
While the Transcendence and Galactic Threat systems address my overarching design goal of creating a challenging and narratively interesting victory system, there are other critical design goals to discuss. Establishing goals for a design is important to guide decision making and to keep the game focused around the experience you are trying to craft. While goals can certainly change, often times the constraint of holding the design to them can breed ingenuity. So what are these other goals? So far I have seven of them:
I’m longing for a 4X game that I can sit down and play to it’s conclusion in an evening or two and feel like I’ve been challenged and engaged the whole time. Contrary to the “just one more turn” sentiment, I want every turn to have tough choices and tradeoffs to make. I want less turns, but I want them each to matter more. There should never be a turn of “doing nothing but pressing next turn.” I want to compress the normal 4X experience so that all those crazy late-game technologies we drool about are actually employed sooner and have a bearing on the game. I’ve had this notion of structuring the flow and pacing of the entire game around 30 turns, recognizing that if I design for 30, I’ll probably end around 45 or 60 turns. Each turn, to capture the sweeping growth and transcendence of a culture, will need to represent a large chunk of time, and by necessity requires a bit more abstraction throughout the design. But I think that’s okay, because I want to …
Embrace the Fantastical.
Science fiction literature is filled with all sorts of awesome ideas: cultures going post-physical, hive minds, dyson spheres, ring worlds, starbombs, galactic cannons, miniature black holes, Helium mining from super gas giants, getting lost in subspace, etc. Very few 4X games really give you a way to engage with these ideas. With 30 turns, the idea is to bring these fantastical ideas to the forefront and let players utilize them earlier on as part of your grand strategy building on the quest for transcendence. I rather like the design doctrine of letting everything be “overpowered” - the gameplay results are usually far more interesting.
I want most of the numbers in the game the be less than 10. 4X games can quickly spiral into complex math and algorithms that obfuscates the gameplay, requiring players to jump through all sorts of mental gymnastics just to evaluate the potential outcomes of different choices. I want to keep the numbers simple so that evaluation of choices is driven more by a consideration of the context, needs, and opportunities as a discrete option rather than as a mathematical optimization exercise. In other words, I want to enable players to “shoot from the hip” in their decision making, which might also open up the design to a broader audience.
To the extent possible, I want to keep the theme and mechanics in alignment. I dislike, in general, “gamey” systems that exist without a clear connection back to the theme. If a mechanic or system can’t be clearly understood on the basis of it’s theme, then it needs to be reevaluated. If I’m doing something in-game that is totally illogical or counter-intuitive, that’s a problem. Games obviously require abstraction, but I want to abstract the various systems in the game to a comparable level. So many games go into great detail on ship design and combat, yet leave espionage or trade woefully underdeveloped. I want both to be compelling systems, even if that means neither might be as deep on its own.
One issue I have with many 4X games is that they don’t provide enough feedback to the player on the consequences of their choices or as to the state of affairs in the game world. Without adequate feedback and information, it can make it hard to understand why the game state is the way it is, and in turn is hard for players to build heuristics and develop their skills and strategies.
Big Picture Management.
4X games can quickly spiral into a management nightmare for many gamers (myself included). The core systems of the game will be designed starting from the end, i.e., what does an empire look like at the precipice of transcendence and how is managing that state of affairs interesting, engaging, and free of frustration? That’s the goal, and achieving it relates to both the core game system mechanics around empire and colony management as well as the UI approach. I want the game to focus on the “big picture” at the galactic scale, and not get too far in the weeds. Ideally, there would be few menu’s in the game, with information presented visually right in the main viewport.
Strategic Interaction, not Optimization.
I have a nagging feeling that a lot of 4X games are more like optimization puzzles than proper strategy games. Part of this is because interaction between empires is usually limited to warfare. If interactions are based only around warfare, then the player that can optimize best, and build the strongest military engine the fastest, will inevitably win. Typically, there aren’t enough other ways to interact with foreign empires that can apply pressure to the same extent that military force can. As a result, the “strategy” of most 4X games is rather one-dimensional and boils down to learning the optimization puzzle best. I want Transcend to embrace multiple avenues for interaction, both peaceful and aggressive in nature, so that building up a big military isn’t the only way to go and that other emergent opportunities can manifest as well.
In conjunction with the transcendence / galactic threat system, my hope is to create a more tightly designed 4X game. I want players to immediately be faced with compelling situations that require strategic planning, not number crunching, to navigate. I want the game to move at a fast pace to keep narrative constantly evolving over the course of the game, with other empires thrown into a highly interactive geopolitical arena.
Up Next: Species & Core Gameplay Systems (probably)
In Part 2, I will present the core gameplay systems that underpin the design, specifically the Admin System. The Admin system is envisioned as a way to frame the player’s role as the leader of your culture. How Admin relates to exploration, colony management, and the production model will be described in greater detail.
In the meantime, I welcome any discussion, theory-crafting, and criticism of what has been presented thus far. Thanks, and stay tuned!
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