Ultimate General: Civil War - title

Colbert: Total War Civil War, give it to me!

I've asked on numerous occasion for Creative Assembly to build a Total War game based on the American Civil War. I thought for sure that Total War: Shogun 2's second expansion Fall of the Samurai -- with its focus on industrialization, trains, telegraphs, gatling guns, and ironclads -- was setting the series up for a Civil War game. Sadly, that wasn't the case. Creative Assembly decided to move onto Rome II, then to Attila, before diving into all-out fantasy with -- not one, but two -- Total War: Warhammer games!

I've heard that the Total War: Warhammer games are actually pretty awesome, but I have zero interest in Warhammer, so I skipped them entirely. I'll admit that part of that was also because I was a bit bitter that I still hadn't gotten the Total War: Civil War game that I had wanted. Maybe Creative Assembly, being a studio based in the U.K. simply isn't that interested in the American Civil War? Or maybe they felt that Empire's American Revolution campaign already focused enough on the United States?

Addressing Gettysburg

But even though Creative Assembly isn't giving my that game [yet], there's no shortage of Civil War games from other developers. A few years ago, a little indie dev studio called Game Labs released one such game on Steam: Ultimate General: Gettysburg. It was a $15 budget title exclusively about the battle of Gettysburg. Not the entire Civil War, not battles surrounding or related to Gettysburg. Just Gettysburg. The game was praised for its simple UI, its historic details, and realistic, competitive, and highly-customizable A.I..

I played the game very briefly last year, but never actually finished the single battle provided, nor felt that the game was substantive enough (or that I had played enough of it) to warrant a full review. I was fairly impressed with the difficulty and challenge that the game provided, as well as the way in which it presented the actual history of the battle, while still leaving many individual tactical decisions up to the player.

If I had any complaints with that game, it probably only would have been that its narrow scope made it feel a bit overpriced at $15. I had bought it during a sale, so I didn't feel cheated, but I could easily see other people being upset by paying $15 for (basically) a tech demo of a single battle. $10 or less probably would have been the sweet spot.

Well, it turns out that Ultimate General: Gettysburg was basically a tech demo (and a financing plan) for Game Labs' larger, more ambitious project: Ultimate General: Civil War. The new game's scope encompasses the entire Civil War and includes a full campaign. It also sports a cleaner interface that clearly displays your objectives, better controls, and other improvements.

Ultimate General: Gettysburg - Seminary Ridge
UG: Gettysburg labeled historical points of interest on the map.
When it says, "Fall back to Seminary Ridge", you know exactly where that place is.

Oddly enough, UG: Civil War isn't a strict upgrade from UG: Gettysburg. There's a few features from UG: Gettysburg that have strangely been removed. The original Gettysburg game had some very pretty battlefield artwork that displayed the names of the various locations on the map. Hills, ridges, forests, and even some individual buildings and roads were all labeled with their real-life names! McPherson's Ranch, Culp Hill, Cemetery Ridge, and more are all here. It was an excellent way of providing a sense of place to the player, as well as some historic context. Sadly that feature has been removed from the full Civil War game. I wonder if the developer just didn't have the time or resources to research that level of detail for every battle included. Or maybe it's just because the smaller skirmish sites of battles like Bull Run, Shiloh, and Antietam aren't as infamous as the sites in Gettysburg? Or maybe there were licensing issues with some of the sites, and they decided that if they couldn't include some names, then they'd rather just not include any?

Ultimate General: Gettysburg

The maps of UG: Gettysburg also had a stylized, polished look to them, the movement arrows were bigger and stood out more (and they stayed on screen to remind you of where the units were headed, and to give the game a textbook-like appearance), elevation and line-of-sight were a bit easier to determine, and so on. This isn't to say that UG: Civil War is a particularly ugly game to look at. If you can get past the simplistic unit sprites, then the game still looks fine. It's just that UG: Gettyburg looked noticeably better!

A House Divided Against Itself...

The campaign of Ultimate General: Civil War will take the player through most of the major battles of the American Civil War. Not just Gettysburg. It also includes some optional smaller skirmishes and situations. In between battles, you'll be tasked with spending money and character prestige to replenish your troops, recruit new and larger regiments, equip your troops with better weapons, and assigning officers to command your corps and divisions. As you win battles, you'll be awarded experience levels that you can spend to upgrade your custom general in several different categories. Upgrading your economy skill will lower the cost of troops and provisions. Increasing your organization skill will increase the size of your army. Increasing your training skill will improve the fighting ability of your regiments. And so on...

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Master of Orion (2016) - title

The 2016 reboot of Master of Orion kind of shoots itself in the foot a bit with its own subtitle: "Conquer the Stars". When I play 4x games, I like to feel like I'm really building an empire, managing an economy, and conducting diplomacy. All of those things are present in Master of Orion, but I've gotten a pretty distinct feeling that this is yet another strategy game that falls victim to military rushing being the optimal strategy by far. Master of Orion doesn't really want you to build a civilization and colonize the galaxy; it firmly wants you to do what its subtitle tells you: conquer the stars.

Master of Orion III was kind of shit (it was boring, ugly, and completely lacked personality and substance), but at least it made some effort to be new and interesting. Most noticeably, the galactic map was actually three-dimensional. Sure, this was a navigational and UI nightmare for the human player, but it required players to think differently about how they approached expansion and warfare. At a more fundamental level, MoO3 sought to be a game about macro-management, asking the player to manage a vast galactic empire rather than just a collection of a dozen or so planets. The meat of the game, thus, was intended to be in the mid-to-late stages, as developed empires engaged in epic battles for survival, rather than all the fun and challenge being front-loaded in the early rush to colonize all the nearby planets. It didn't work, but at least it was trying to genuinely innovate the 4x genre.

The new Master of Orion isn't anywhere near that ambitious, and seeks instead to simply bring the original Master of Orion concept (in its simplest form) into the age of high-resolution 3-d graphics. It's a scaled-down, bog-standard space-4x game that borrows heavily from Endless Space and Civilization V. But it is at least a competent one!

Conquer the Stars isn't as big, complex, or ambitious as Master of Orion 3, but at least it's competent.

The galaxy itself isn't very big this time around. Depending on the map's size, there's only a few dozen stars, and most of them only have two or three planets. Unstable star lanes and space monsters can lock you out of exploring certain systems until you research certain technologies or grow your military sufficiently large (respectively). Other than that, exploration is over fairly quickly (especially once you start performing map trades in diplomacy).

Planet-management is also fairly easy. You can assign population meeples between one of three different types of output: food, production, and research. Meeples of different jobs and races have different icons, and unhappy meeples on strike have icons that sit down holding a picket sign. It makes it very easy to see what your population's current status is at a glance. There's just not really much to do with them. You don't have to assign them to work specific buildings, and with only 3 outputs to manage, balancing or specializing isn't that difficult.

All the buildings in the game are also one-time builds that don't serve much function other than to provide flat points of one of the three outputs, or to modify the efficiency of meeples in a particular output category. Buildings that have unique functionality (such as the Spy Center, Gravity Generators, or Interplanetary Administration) are few and far between. The only other thing that you do with your planets is to occasionally terraform them in order to boost your max population and unlock additional slots along each of the output tracks.

Master of Orion - conquered planet
Each point of population is of a specific race, which affects the morale of conquered planets.

The tech tree also feels kind of bland and linear. I would much prefer a tech web along the lines of Civilization: Beyond Earth. Master of Orion kind of goes in this direction a bit by including some techs in which you have to chose which of two different items you want to take when you research certain techs. You can then trade for the other via diplomacy if you want to. It's kind of like the leaf nodes in Beyond Earth, but only some techs have them, and I rarely had to think too hard about which one I wanted...

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Sid Meier's Civilization

In my last post, I ranted a little bit about some of the major frustrations that I have with the way that Civilization games have historically dealt with difficulty levels. In summary, I identified three problems that I feel make it less enjoyable to play the game on higher difficulties, even if the lower difficulties still feel too easy. The three problems are:

In this post, I'd like to provide some more constructive criticism by discussing some of the thoughts and ideas that I've had for possibly resolving these three problems. These ideas include providing a wider range of options for customizing the difficulty level and game experience to suit the individual player's tastes and style, and to provide a wider (and more open-ended) set of game-long challenges.

Alternative solutions to game difficulty

So what could the developers do about these problems?

Well, the problem of game pacing could possibly be solved by inverting the handicap such that instead of speeding up the A.I.s' progress through the game, the player is slowed down. This could be accomplished by slowing down the human player's tech and civic progress, and by negatively handicapping some of the human player's yields. This would allow the A.I.s to progress at a more historically-appropriate rate, and overall game length would remain similar across all difficulties.

Civilization VI - Ship Building to Cartography
Padding out sparse areas of the tech and civics trees could mitigate the ability to beeline to later eras.

Rapid era progression could also be somewhat mitigated by padding out the tech and civics trees a little bit more. Beelining to the Renaissance via the "Cartography" technology is common for civs like England and Norway. There's a few ways to limit this. One simple way would be to simply make "Cartography" require either "Education" or "Military Tactics". Another way would be to have a technology between "Ship Building" and "Cartography" -- such as an "Optics" technology that unlocks an upgrade to the Scout, or a "Lateen Sail" technology that unlocks a medieval naval unit like the Cog, Hulk, Junk, or Galleass (or move the Caravel up to "Lateen Sails" but don't give it ocean-crossing abilities until "Cartography").

Customization, options, and difficulty settings

As for resolving the other issues presented by high difficulty levels, my preference would be for the developers to add more customization and tuning options for players so that we can tailor the gameplay experience and challenges more to our liking.

Civilization VI - advanced settings
Civ VI has limited customization options.

Having independent sliders or settings for things like Player Handicaps, A.I. Handicaps, AI Temperament, Barbarian Spawn Rate, Barbarian Aggressiveness, Barbarian Tech Level, City State Aggressiveness, and so on would all go a long way towards allowing the player to customize the game's challenge according to their own strengths and weaknesses. Handicap settings for players and A.I. can even be further divided into different sub-categories along the lines of: Tech Handicap, Culture Handicap, Production Handicap, Gold Handicap, Growth Handicap, Happiness / Amenity Handicap, etc.. So if you find that you are consistently out-teching your A.I. opponents, but you feel you have parity with the A.I. in other areas of the game, then you could specifically buff the A.I.'s tech handicap, weaken yours, or both.

This would certainly make some of the game's code more complicated, but I don't think that it would be prohibitively difficult. The difficulty settings already make adjustments to these very same parameters, and I believe the game's own .ini files allow modders to customize many (if not all) of these attributes. I don't see any reason why such settings can't just be in the game's settings menu, and the difficulty settings (deity, emperor, king, settler, etc.) could just use some pre-configured arrangements of those values.

Other genres use similar paradigms for their difficulty settings. Sports games are a prime example...

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Sid Meier's Civilization

Obviously, I love the Sid Meier's Civilization game franchise. I've been playing it since Civ III, and even own the Fantasy Flight board game (which I also really like). This game series has kept me up, one-more-turning, into the wee hours of the morning on many occasions. Despite my love for the games, this series can also really grind my gears sometimes.

One of my persistent frustrations with the Civilization series of games is the way that it handles difficulty levels. Granted, this seems to be a common issue in all strategy games, so Civ is certainly not unique in this frustration. Basically, the higher difficulties don't make the A.I.s play better; rather, it just gives them free stuff at the beginning of the game, and buffs their production, research, and so on. The free stuff includes (depending on the difficulty level selected): extra settlers, extra military units, free workers/builders, free technologies, extra gold, extra population in its starting city, and so forth.

There's three key problems with this design paradigm:

  • It front-loads the challenge in a game that is supposed to have very long play-sessions
  • It limits player options
  • It rushes the pace of the game

The front-loading of frustration

Giving the A.I.s extra stuff at the beginning of the game only makes the game harder by giving the A.I.s a handicap - a head start. It doesn't make the A.I.s better - or the game harder - in the long run. The A.I.s still chose crappy locations for those extra settlers to plant their cities - often putting them in un-productive locations, or (in the case of Civ VI) putting them so close together that they can't fit enough districts in. The A.I. doesn't plan ahead regarding where its districts will be, and it often places those districts in sub-optimal locations. "Sub-optimal" being an understatement.

Civilization VI - A.I. free settlers
The A.I. starting with extra settlers on high difficulties doesn't make the game harder in the long run.

Those free extra units aren't used more effectively either. Even with a few extra warriors, the A.I. still can't plan or execute a city siege, as it's generally inept at handling the one-unit-per-tile, hex-based combat, and they rarely bother to escort their civilian units. The developers can't be completely blamed for this, as A.I. for tactical combat is a very difficult problem to solve. Most games that have A.I.-driven tactical combat either don't have any grand strategy at all (as in Panzer General), or the grand strategy is separated into a completely different layer of gameplay (as in Total War).

Once the human player can get his or her cities up and running, get a sizable military built, and start conquering the A.I., all these free starting units become moot. These extra units can even backfire. A.I. cities can usually easily be captured by the human player. Since the A.I. gets buffs towards population growth, production, and other yields, those cities tend to grow faster than the player's cities anyway. So if they're conquered, then the human player gets better cities than they could have founded on their own, and gets them sooner than if they had spent the time to build their own settlers.

Civilization VI - capturing A.I. cities
It's not hard to capture A.I. cities, which are often larger and more developed
than any city the player could have founded within the same amount of time.

These early hurdles aren't that difficult to overcome, and once the A.I.'s starting advantages have been neutralized, they don't pose much of an increased threat long-term...

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Civilization VI - title

I really like Civilization VI! Of course, it has its share of nagging problems (some of which have been resolved already) - any game of this size and scope is likely to have issues at release. I've already been thinking of some ideas for how the game could be improved in expansions and DLC, and I'd like to spend a few posts to share some of those ideas with you now.

In my review of the game, I mentioned that oceans feel like they've regressed a bit since Beyond Earth: Rising Tide, in that they've returned to feeling like lifeless dead space on the map. Even though they're more important for Holy Sites and Campuses, mountains are also still mostly dead space on the map. They act as obstacles, and that's basically it. In expansions and DLC, I would like to see some of this space become more alive and useful. I'd like to spend this first suggestion post going over some ideas that I have for expanding the ocean mechanics, and for taking advantage of more of the map's dead space.

I have posted a link to this blog on Civfanatics at:
https://forums.civfanatics.com/threads/using-more-of-the-dead-space-in-the-map.610171/.
Feel free to discuss through the comments on this post, or via the linked forum topic!

Improve coastal cities

I'm very underwhelmed with coastal cities right now. Water tiles have very little utility. They provide small yield, can't have districts (other than a single harbor per city), and generally lack production. Coastal cities with lots of water are, thus, very unproductive and not really worth building. I think there's a couple ways to resolve this.

Harbors could provide a small amount of production. Or perhaps Harbors could act similarly to lighthouses from Civ V and provide production on sea resources. Or they could provide production on all adjacent sea tiles (so that placement is still important, and more of those empty sea tiles become useful and worth working, and you actually have to work them in order to get the benefit (as opposed to the Harbor just having an adjacency bonus). If we want to only use adjacency bonuses, then another alternative might be for Harbors to provide +1 production per adjacent coastal resource and +0.5 gold per adjacent water tile. That way, even cities that don't have clustered water resources can still have valuable locations for harbors.

Civilization VI - island city
Coastal and island cities lack production and have limited space to build districts.

Another way to improve coastal cities would be to have some more early policies that benefit coastal cities. Perhaps the Maritime Industries policy could be changed to "+1 production in coastal cities, and +1 production from Harbors". Alternatively, Maritime Industries could be similar to the Veterancy policy, and it could provide "+33% production towards Harbor districts and buildings for that district". Or we could have policies that do both! A new policy could be added that provides the bonus production for early naval units. Maybe there can even be a whole extra early-game civic (maybe called "Seafaring" or "Way-finding") that has some policies and buffs towards coastal and island civilizations.

The lack of production for coastal cities could also be offset by giving them more gold and/or food for growth (in order to support a specialist economy)...

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A gamer's life...

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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