Settlement Survival - title

As my frequent readers probably know, I am a sucker for city-building and village-building games. I buy a few new ones almost every year, and ever since the release of Banished, the medieval village sim has been all the rage. Though it looks like post-apocalyptic settlement builders are also becoming a hot sub-genre -- probably as a result of the popularity of the settlement-building in Fallout 4. Anyway, last year, Chichian encouraged me to try out a then-Early Access title called Settlement Survival. I was hooked on it for a couple months, and then set it aside with the intent to come back to it later. In the meantime, the game saw its official Steam retail release, which encouraged me to go back and give it a second go (and formal review).

Time to plan

Settlement Survival is one of the more addictive and challenging city-builders that I've played. It features a complicated web of production chains and resources, which can be a real challenge to plan and manage. Trying to unlock and use everything in a single village will take a lot of time, effort, and planning.

Settlement Survival provides a handy-dandy timeline in the top right corner of the screen which shows when all the seasons start and end, and which also shows icons for important upcoming events. Everything from the arrival of a merchant ship, to incoming immigrants, and even disasters or other random events will be forecast a whole year in advance. This gives the player plenty of time to plan ahead, and avoids the problem of the player feeling un-prepared to take advantage of an un-expected boon or to mitigate a disaster.

This timeline is the core gimmick of the game, as it enables long-term planning.

There are also random events that are not forecast on the timeline, and they often require that the player have certain resources or tools on-hand. But these are rarely destructive, so worst case is that you miss out on the opportunity to get some free bonus resources (which you may or may not have needed anyway). Nevertheless, it does put a pressure on the player to build up a surplus stockpile of many goods in case one of these events pops up. Tools and beer being the most common items used for such events, based on my experience.

This timeline helps to create some medium and long-term planning and reward structures that really makes the game crazy addictive. There's the short-term goals for things like building the next building. Then there's the medium-term goals like completing the next harvest season. And then there's the longer-term goals like accumulating goods to trade to an incoming merchant ship, or waiting for the next batch of immigrants to give you a labor surplus that can allow you to go on the next wave of building infrastructure. There's always some milestone right over the horizon, and then another right beyond that, and I find myself playing longer than I had planned, and long after I should have gone to bed, because I want to get to that next harvest, or trade opportunity, or make sure that I get through that next disaster.

This also means that random disasters don't feel as annoying because you have plenty of warning that a disaster is coming, and can prepare accordingly. Further, the disasters themselves rarely kill population directly. Rather, they usually impact your resource-generation for a period of time. So most disasters are mitigated simply by stockpiling the affected resource ahead of time.

There are also random events that do not appear on the timeline.

The timeline also discourages save-scumming. Disasters are forecast a whole in-game year ahead of time, so re-loading to before the disaster would require going back more than a whole year. And that might not even necessarily save you, since I've noticed that the disasters still happen at the same time, even if I go back to a save from before the disaster shows up in the timeline. I'm not sure how long in advance they are generated, but the fact that I know that I can't avoid it by simply reloading and re-rolling a die means that I'm more inclined to batten down the hatches and just roll with whatever happens.

The end result is that the gameplay ends up feeling more organic, and the challenge of surviving and growing your fledgling settlement remains relatively high. When I do save-scum, it's usually to undo some mistake that I made, so that I learn from my mistake, fix it and do better; rather than to outright cheat by undoing some random event that the game threw at me.

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Imagine Earth - title

I've been seeing more and more games putting an emphasis on mechanics oriented around environmentalism and sustainability. Games in genres that typically encourage unchecked exploitation of resources are now becoming more and more about the sustainable use of resources. It makes sense. Climate change is becoming more and more of a visible problem that affects our lives in tangible ways. Milliennial game developers are also searching for ways to cope with the fact that our generation and the next will be stuck paying the consequences of the short-sightedness of our parents' and grandparents' generations. Many members of those earlier generations are still, unfortunately in positions of political and corporate power, and make up a large voting block, and are continuing to make selfish, short-sighted decisions that will only make matters worse for the younger generations. It makes sense that younger game developers would be baking those anxieties into the games that they make.

Ecologically-focused colony-building

Imagine Earth is the type of city-builder / strategy sim that has typically been about conspicuous consumption, but it now wants the player to consume more responsibly. Not only does this game expect the player to industrialize the surface of entire planets at the behest of a corporation, it also asks the player to do that with an eye towards limiting greenhouse gas emissions, deforestation, and other pollution. Developing a sustainable economy doesn't only mean cutting back on emissions from power plants, industrial activity, and so forth. It also requires restoring or expanding natural habitats by planting forests, growing corals, and so forth.

Imagine Earth prioritizes limiting greenhouse emissions and pollution.

Either the player has to plan the growth of your colonies in a sustainable fashion and prevent emissions and pollution from ever getting out of hand to begin with, or you have to spend the back half of each mission doing damage control.

Unfortunately, just like in real-life, any individual person or corporation or government's environmental efforts aren't necessarily sufficient to curtail the effects of climate change. There are often other corporations or settlements on these planets which don't have the same noble ecological goals, and who will happily ruin things for everybody else. They are there to make a quick buck by exploiting as much of the resources as possible, with no plans for sustained long term habitation -- the other people living on the planet be damned. But the corporation we work for in Imagine Earth does plan on prepping these planets for long-term colonization, so we have to pick up those other corporations' messes. Sometimes through violence, coercion, or sabotage, but usually through a hostile takeover of majority stake.

Not all corporations are concerned with long-term colonization that requires a stable environment.
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Humankind - title

It's going to be virtually impossible to review Humankind without frequently comparing it to iterations of Sid Meier's Civilization. Civ has absolutely dominated (and almost completely monopolized) the historical turn-based strategy genre. There have been plenty of space and sci-fi-themed 4x strategy games, ranging from Master of Orion, to Galactic Civilizations, to Stellaris, and even Amplitude's own Endless Space; but not a whole lot in the more Earth-bound sub-genre. I've also been a huge Civ fan (as the readers of my blog can no doubt tell), so it's hard for me to look at any game in this genre and not partially judge it through the lense of comparing it to Civ.

So I'm not even going to pretend to judge Humankind strictly on its own merits, in a vacuum. I simply can't. I'm not sure if anyone can. Amplitude, as a company, clearly looked to Civ for inspiration, took lessons from the successes and failures of its previous strategy games, and said "hey, we want a piece of that pie too." But despite the surface-level comparisons to Civ, Amplitude takes a very different approach to game design. While Civ has always been very firmly rooted as a "digital board game", Humankind takes a much more story-driven and "simulationist" approach, akin to the sort of thing that you might see in a game like Crusader Kings. I think this approach works, and it does a good job of separating Humankind from Civilization.

Culture wars

Perhaps the biggest deviation that Humankind makes from Sid Meier's Civilization is the way that it handles the game's civilizations themselves. In Humankind, you don't play as a single civilization throughout an entire campaign. Instead, each era you have the opportunity to select a new culture from a list of era-specific cultures. I like this concept a lot in principle, but also have some misgivings about the way it works out in practice.

Empires transition into a new culture at the start of each era.

On the one hand, it's great to see a game like this recognize the fact that civilizations aren't singular, monolithic cultures that exist forever, unless they are conquered or die off completely. That gaming paradigm (which Civ has always embraced) ignores the reality that cultures change and evolve over time. They change with the times, and blend elements from other neighboring cultures. And even if a nation or empire falls or collapses, it doesn't just disappear off the face of the planet overnight. It's people get absorbed into whatever nation or empire replaces it, and those people continue to influence the development of that new culture.

But this isn't exactly how Humankind works. The cultures of the game don't gradually transition or evolve due to social, economic, political, or geographic pressures and influences. Instead, at arbitrary points throughout the game, each empire completely changes its culture in a single game turn. And you aren't locked into choosing a related or similar culture either. You can pick any culture that is still available from the given era, no matter how separated that new culture might be from your old culture -- whether that be geographic separation, ideological separation, or even racial separation. I can be Greek one turn, and then suddenly be Aztec the next, and be Khmer the following era.

I was hoping for a system in which players would have to select from a list of related cultures when transitioning into a new era. For example, I was imagining that being Classical Romans means that, when the medieval era hits, I would have to chose between a related culture like Byzantine, Holy Roman, Ostrogothic, Franks, or Papal States. Then, depending on which I picked, my culture would continue to shift to another related culture in the following era. For example, if I picked Byzantine as my medieval successor to Rome, then my early modern culture choices would be things along the lines of the Ottomans or Orthodox Rus; whereas, if I had gone with the Papal States or Holy Roman Empire, then my choices would be things like Venetian, German, or French.

Changing cultures each era is no more silly than ancient
Abraham Lincoln leading ancient America in a bear-skin hat.

Instead, these transitions from one culture to another over the span of a single turn can be very jarring in Humankind. But I guess it's no less jarring than seeing an ancient era Abraham Lincoln leading America in 4000 B.C.E. while wearing his silly bearskin tophat.

I hope that if Humankind gets expansions, that those expansions will modify this culture-changing mechanic so that there are more cultures available each era, but your choices are limited to cultures that are related to the one you were playing in the previous era. Maybe it costs influence (or maybe even fame) to change cultures, and changing to an un-related culture costs more than changing to a closely related one. I know it can be difficult to find such examples of related offshoots for every possible culture, especially for cultures that were conquered or died off in real life, but I think it's a solvable problem.

It's easy to come up with possible successors to the Roman Empire, because every culture in Europe and Asia Minor seemed to claim succession from Rome. It's a lot harder to come up with related successors to culture like the Aztecs or Maya, and it would seem insensitive or outright offensive to limit the choice of succession to the colonial European cultures that had conquered or massacred them in real history. But there are options. In the case of the Maya or Aztecs, successor options could include cultures like the various Pueblo or Navajo cultures, but I admit that's kind of a stretch.

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Last year, I put up a poll asking my Patrons what topic they would like me to discuss in a video critique for the 2020 series of independent football video games. At the time, I only had a handful of Patrons, and the winning topic (which won by a single vote) was to discuss the "football knowledge" of Axis Football 2020 and Maximum Football 2020. At first, I wasn't sure if there would be enough for me to talk about, but I ended up having plenty of criticism. I broke the critique up into three broad topics, which were further divided up into sub topics. Each major topic received a video, and altogether they added up to over two hours -- the length of a feature film!

At the time that this is posted, only my Patrons had been given the link to the third video in the series. I'm posting this blog a few days before the final video is scheduled to go public on YouTube, so that my loyal blog readers can also have early access to the new content. There is also a new poll available on my Patreon page asking which topic(s) I should cover for the fall 2021 indie football game season.

I'm not going to reproduce a transcript of the entire video series in writing here, but I will summarize each, with each video embedded in the corresponding section.

First, I want to point out that the criticisms in these videos may seem harsh. These are small, independent studios with only a few developers and limited money and resources. I can't expect them to produce games with the polish and production quality of EA or 2k. But that being said, both games are trying to compete in the "simulation" football market. If we are going to take them seriously as simulation football games, then I believe that we should give these games the same level of scrutiny that we would give to a game published by EA or 2k. We can do so while still acknowledging that these games are coming from smaller studios, and we can set our expectations accordingly. I don't expect Axis or Canuck to address all of the issues that I point out overnight, but I still want to point them out in the hopes that they will be addressed in future iterations of the games.

Topic I: Play Design and Concepts As Old As Football

The first video topic was the design of play concepts in each game.

Axis Football and Maximum Football currently do not do a great job of replicating certain common play concepts. I started by demonstrating how neither game properly models timing routes, especially, short, quick routes that are common in west coast schemes. If you press the button to throw the ball to a receiver prior to the receiver completing his route, the quarterback in both games will throw the ball in the direction that the receiver is running (at the moment the button is pressed), instead of throwing to where the route is supposed to go. If, for example, the route was a curl, and you press the receiver's button just before the receiver turns around, the QB will throw the ball down the field as if the receiver is running a streak. This can often send the ball right to the waiting hook zone defender or safety, even though the play is explicitly designed to get the ball underneath those specific coverages.

The 1st topic is the design of timing routes and power running plays.

The second sub-topic in this first video was how each game implements power running plays, which have been a staple of football since its inception over a century ago. Maximum Football does not support pulling linemen, with the sole exception of one single play in the Canadian rulebooks. Even the play designer does not support the ability to add pulling linemen.

Axis Football does have pulling linemen, but they don't work quite right. Blocking schemes aren't designed to isolate or "trap" certain defensive players, which means that plays like Traps, Counters, and Power plays do not create the running seams that they are designed to create.

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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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A gamer's thoughts

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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