Crusader Kings 3 - title

My blog readers know that I'm a fan of historic strategy games. Two of my favorite PC game franchises are Civilization and Total War, and I've dipped my hands into plenty of other historic strategy games ranging from the prehistoric Dawn of Man, all the way to Ultimate General: Civil War and Company of Heroes. But there's one prestigious set of historic strategy games that I've yet to get into. That is Paradox's historic strategy lineup of Crusader Kings, Europa Universalis, and Hearts of Iron. I own Crusader Kings II and Europa Universalis IV on Steam, and I've always wanted to get into them. I have a friend who plays them a lot, and the game looks really fun, but I was just never able to figure either of them out.

I tried booting up both a couple times and was just immediately overwhelmed. I tried the Crusader Kings II tutorial twice, and still didn't feel like I had a firm enough grasp on the game to feel compelled to keep playing. Part of that is because both games have myriad expansions and DLC that have just further complicated the games and repeatedly raised the bar of entry for newcomers. The only one of Paradox's tutorials that I felt gave me a reasonable grasp on the game was the tutorial for Stellaris.

When I saw previews for Crusader Kings III, I immediately put it on my watch list and committed myself to buying it day one, so that I could get in on the ground level in the hopes that it will be easier to grasp before Paradox starts releasing countless DLCs. It seems to have paid off, as I've been hooked on the game on and off since launch, and that addiction has cut into my Civ playing time, as well as delayed many of my blog projects and YouTube content. So for those of you eagerly awaiting new Civ strategies or the next installment of "How Madden Fails to Simulate Football", you can blame Paradox Interactive for the delay...

I am not the state

As someone who was never able to get into the previous game, I cannot say if Crusader Kings III is "dumbed-down" compared to its predecessor. It is, after all, still insanely complicated. But I definitely feel like it has a gentler learning curve and a much more effective tutorial compared to its predecessors. The hand-holding of the tutorial really did help me get a better understanding of how the various mechanics were working, and I've also found it much easier to navigate the revised U.I. and find the information that I'm looking for. I still feel like I have no idea what many of the U.I. panels mean, but I at least understand enough of the basics this time around to actually feel comfortable playing the game.

If you're unfamiliar, Crusader Kings is a medieval grand strategy game in which you play as the king of a small, European (or Middle Eastern or African) kingdom. You engage in diplomacy and court intrigue to increase your wealth and power, fight wars to conquer territory, and manage your growing holdings. But unlike a game like, say Civilization, you do not play as an abstraction of the state itself. Instead, you play as a line of rulers in a single family dynasty. You play as a single king (or queen) character at any given time. This king grows old, and eventually dies, at which point, you take control over you chosen heir and continue playing the game as that character. If you ever get to a point in which you have no family heir to carry on when you die, it's Game Over.

When your player character dies, you take over as that character's primary heir.

As much improved as the tutorial is, I do feel that it has one glaring weakness: it doesn't really cover succession. The tutorial basically puts you in control of a 40-year-old king in Ireland. It shows you how to press a few claims, use a casus belli to press those claims, create a title, deal with vassals, marry off a child, and then it basically just hands you the reigns and says "OK, now keep playing". And yeah sure, these are all the things that you spend most of the game doing. But I would say that arguably the most important part of the game is declaring your heir and setting up your inheritance to maximize the territory that your primary heir retains power over. I think succession is the single most important part of the game, and the tutorial doesn't cover it at all. When it finally happens, there's a tool tip that pops up to explain some stuff, but it didn't really help me all that much to understand what was happening, and a tool tip popping up after the fact certainly didn't help me to prepare for my king's inevitable death and inheritance.

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Cities: Skylines: Campus- title

Hot off of releasing a video in which I criticized Colossal Order's design philosophy for its Cities: Skylines expansions, a new expansion was released. This expansion fulfilled my fears by being similarly narrow in scope compared to the previous expansions. Campus might even be more narrow than previous expansions. Every city will need parks and industries, so you'll have plenty of opportunity to use those expansion features in every city you build. Not every city will need a sprawling university complex, so a given city might not ever need to include any of the Campus content.

I had recently criticized the expansion design philosophy for Cities: Skylines.

Fortunately, there's more options here than a full-blown research university. Colossal Order has added several types of university areas that are more suitable to modestly-sized cities. Sure you may not need that full-blown research university, but maybe your smaller town could use a trade school or liberal arts school?

Even so, the scope here is very narrow! Colossal Order seems to have recognized this, as they are selling the expansion for a couple dollars less than previous expansions.

School is back in session, even for your industries!

Since Mass Transit, new expansions have struggled to find ways to make broader impacts on the game as a whole. They mostly stayed in their lanes. Campus follows suit by not adding anything that isn't related to education, however, those overhauls to education do have some further-reaching ripple effects.

Over-educated citizens used to refuse to take lower-level industrial jobs.

One of the problems that players have had to deal with since the initial launch of the game has been over-educated workers. Once you have schools in your city, it's only a matter of time before virtually everyone has a high level of education -- even children. This would leave all those educated citizens unwilling to take low-education, low-paying jobs in your factories and farms and would starve those industries of eligible workers. Demand for high-end commercial and office zones would skyrocket, and all your educated citizens would take those jobs. This would force those lower level industries to all but shut down once your city grows large enough.

Citizens' education level is now bounded by the level of schooling that they've attended. Prior to Campus, simply having a university in your city would provide everybody attending school (at any level) with a high level of education. Now, this has finally been fixed such that only those citizens who attend higher levels of schooling will receive the higher levels of education. This means that if a student goes to elementary school, but doesn't attend high school (either because they get a job first, or there isn't enough capacity in your high schools), then that citizen will be capped at a low level of education and will remain eligible for those low-level factory jobs.

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Last week, just in time for the announcement (and release) of a new expansion for Cities: Skylines, I posted a video analysis on YouTube discussing what I perceive as weaknesses in the modular design philosophy behind Skylines' myriad expansion packs. The full video is available on YouTube (and embedded below), but I've also transcribed the text in blog form for those who may prefer reading over watching/listening.

The video is up on YouTube.

I want to start out by saying that I love Cities: Skylines. Skylines is -- without a doubt in my mind -- the single best city-builder since SimCity 4, which released in 2003 (over 15 years ago, as of the time of this recording). When I watched the first trailer for the game, in which the player apparently custom-builds freeway ramps and interchanges from scratch (at about 40 seconds into the trailer), I was sold on this game! After years of having to use boring, pre-fabricated stock on-ramps and interchanges, the little civil engineer withing me practically jizzed in his pants at the idea of being able to build my own highway ramps and interchanges! And there was no looking back.

Cities: Skylines gloriously succeeds where games like SimCity (2013) and Cities XL miserably failed. It picks up the mantle of the great SimCity games of yester-decade, and brings it into the 21st century with deep simulation based on agents, a sleek and modern UI, extensive customizability and moddability, and an attractive 3-D graphics engine. It's made all the more impressive by the fact that the game's developer, Colossal Order, is a small, independent studio that had something like nine people working for it when the game initially launched. And a company with all the manpower and resources of Electronic Arts only managed to produce a flop like SimCity 2013.

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Cities: Skylines: Industries - title

Wow, Colossal Order is really popping out these Cities: Skylines expansions in rapid succession! I feel like this is the third or fourth expansion in the last year alone! ... Hold on, let me check ...

Expansion titleOriginal release
After Dark coverAfter Dark24 September 2015
Snowfall coverSnowfall18 February 2016
Match DayMatch Day*9 June 2016
Natural Disasters coverNatural Disasters29 November 2016
Mass Transit coverMass Transit18 May 2017
ConcertsConcerts*17 August 2017
Green CitiesGreen Cities19 October 2017
ParklifeParklife24 May 2018
IndustriesIndustries23 October 2018
* denotes a mini content pack, rather than full expansion.

... So, yeah; third full expansion in the last 12 months (give or take a few days). Fourth expansion in the last 14 months if you want to count the Concerts content pack. Colossal Order seems to have been following a pattern of two full expansions and a mini content pack each year since the game released. I guess that's one way to keep your game relevant. It has certainly kept me coming back every few months.

Never as robust as I would like

The problem is that the limited development time means that the content that is provided in these expansions rarely ever feels as robust or comprehensive as it should -- at least, not to me. As such, I feel like I'm getting diminishing returns from each new expansion. The amount of content that is already in the game means that each new expansion feels like relatively smaller drop of content into an already-large bucket. Each expansion feels like it gives us less to do, and has that much of a smaller impact on the overall gameplay experience.

Adding to the problem of diminishing returns: every single expansion has had some glaring omission or weakness that bothered me, and none of the later expansions have bothered to go back in and address the weaknesses and limitations of the previous expansion(s). After Dark failed to include zoneable public beaches and didn't really make the day/night cycle feel as meaningful as it should. Snowfall failed to include season cycles to go along with After Dark's day/night cycle, and completely dropped the ball with regard to mechanics like ski resorts. Natural Disasters probably felt like the most "complete" and well-rounded expansion (not to mention the most novel one), but still suffers from its content being random, and it neglected to introduce any winter-specific disasters to go along with Snowfall.

Industries follows a long-standing trend with Skylines expansions neglecting seemingly-obvious features.

Mass Transit brought the long-overdue ferry transit option, but neglected to revise cargo harbors to make cargo ship routes more practical, and didn't have any water-based city services (like a coast guard, for example) that would allow a true island economy to function without a network of bridges for freight and emergency services. Green Cities was maybe the laziest expansion, and it focused on pollution-management, but didn't bother to actually make pollution any more relevant or challenging to begin with. Lastly, Parklife granted a lot of player expression, but failed to incorporate the legacy parks into the new modular park feature and doesn't allow the camera to zoom in close enough to get a good look at your pretty decorations.

This isn't to say that all these expansions are "bad". I've liked them all (except maybe for Snowfall and Green Cities), but none of them have really wow-ed me with their content (except maybe for Natural Disasters). And the modular nature of each expansion means that it has limited-to-no impact on the core game systems, and limited-to-no interaction with the previous expansions.

The latest expansion, Industries follows suit. It promises to re-invent the way that your cities' industry functions, but kind of does it in an almost half-assed way. Much like the expansion before it, Parklife, Industries doesn't really incorporate the old legacy industry zones into the new industry mechanics. The new "Industry Area" paintbrush is virtually the same mechanic as the Park Area paintbrush from the last expansion. It isn't a replacement for the original industrial district specialization, so if feels like it's pretty much duplicating that content rather than re-inventing it.

You paint an area as an "Industrial Park", just like the parks in Parklife.

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Cities: Skylines: Parklife - title

Parklife is perhaps the single Cities: Skylines expansion that I have most looked forward to. That is because the focus of the expansion seems to be pulled almost verbatim from my own "Great Outdoors" wishlist. I'm not going to take credit for having designed this expansion for Colossal Order, because I posted that wishlist in February, and the game is releasing in May, so unless Colossal Order is supernaturally efficient at creating expansions, there simply wasn't enough time for them to design and implement Parklife after reading that wishlist. It seems like someone in Skylines design is thinking along the same wavelength as me. But who knows? Maybe somebody did see my wishlist and incorporate some elements of my ideas into the development in progress? It's certainly one heck of a coincidence!

Cities: Skylines - amusement park mods
Much of Parklife's content seems inspired by mods.

In any case, it should seem pretty obvious that I'm pleased to see this expansion incorporate so many of my own ideas and suggestions. While Parklife still isn't going to offer the same degree of freedom and creativity that you can get from mods, having these more free-form park-creation and decorative tools should be a welcome addition for anybody who enjoys adding a little more personal flavor to their city. And honestly, is there anyone playing a city-builder who doesn't enjoy making their city look pretty?

A walk in the park

One of the strengths of Cities: Skylines has always been the way that the game utilizes its space and the natural environment. The mechanical limitations of the terraforming tools means that you rarely (if ever) have the money and terrain available to make wholesale changes to the geography of the map. Even if you have a billion dollars saved up in your city's coffers, the fact that every cubic meter of dirt that you excavate has to go somewhere, and every cubic meter of dirt that you dump has to come from somewhere, means that you can only do so much to modify the map. Starting out with a limited budget, small pool of unlocked buildings, and a relatively small plot of land means that young cities often have to work around environmental and natural obstacles, which made those obstacles part of the character of your city. Well now you can actually formally use those obstacles.

Cities: Skylines - resource options
I now have a more meaningful choice of how to utilize this resource-rich mountain.

Parklife allows you to leverage these features of your landscape as part of your city-beautification plans. That mountain that is too big to level, and too steep to realistically build on, can now be turned into a massive park, complete with hiking trails, lookout points, and so forth. If that mountain also happens to have ore or oil resources under it, then now I suddenly have some meaningful choices to make on how to effectively utilize the resources. What used to be a near-obvious matter of "build some mines" actually has some viable alternatives.

Sure, you were always able to place walking paths in places like that, but the game (and the citizens of your city) never really recognized it as a place they can go for leisure and entertainment. If they didn't have to go to work on the other side of that mountain, they simply wouldn't walk those trails. No matter how beautiful you would make it, that mountain-side hiking trail was always little more than useless dead space.

Cities: Skylines - nature preserve
Areas that used to be dead space that was impractical for construction can now be utilized.

That's no longer the case. Every last square meter of your city can now be turned into useful park space if you feel so inclined...

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Welcome to Mega Bears Fan's blog, and thanks for visiting! This blog is mostly dedicated to game reviews, strategies, and analysis of my favorite games. I also talk about my other interests, like football, science and technology, movies, and so on. Feel free to read more about the blog.

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