Star Trek Ascendancy 50th anniversary edition

As I had mentioned in my Star Trek: Fleet Captains review, good Star Trek games are few and far between. Perhaps my favorite Trek game of all time is the Windows '98 4-x strategy game Birth of the Federation. BotF, developed my Microprose, was basically a Trek reskin of Master of Orion II. It was buggy, had cheating A.I., suffered from a major memory leak that slowed the game to a crawl after about 100 turns of play, and it didn't include any Original Series ships or technologies. But it did manage to faithfully capture Star Trek's spirit of exploration and discovery by being a game about exploring and colonizing a galaxy.

It wasn't a stripped-down startship combat simulator (Starfleet Command), or a cookie-cutter first-person shooter (Elite Force), or a lazy StarCraft clone (Armada), or an out-of-place dogfighter (Invasion), or a derivative WoW clone (Star Trek: Online). None of those games is terrible. I've played them all, and actually have some rather fond memories with most of them. But none of these games really meshed perfectly with the Star Trek license, and none of them really scratched my Star Trek gaming itch the way that Birth of the Federation did. Apparently, some designers at Gale Force Nine also like Birth of the Federation, because their new board game, Star Trek: Ascendancy, almost feels like a board game version of that classic Trek PC game.

Ascendancy is the first proper 4-x board game using the Star Trek license that I've seen. It certainly blows Fleet Captains out of the water. While Fleet Captains included some token exploration and territory-expansion mechanics as a supplement to the ship-to-ship combat that was the core of the game, Ascendancy is a game that is actually about exploring a procedurally-generated map, colonizing planets, and developing their resources. You can win by conquering other players' home worlds, or by developing your culture up to a specific level.

The final frontier is always in flux

The board of Star Trek: Ascendancy utilizes an interesting and novel modular board. Disk tiles represent planets, systems, and anomalies, each of which is connected by star lanes of varying distances. New systems and star lanes are drawn from a deck as the players explore, and so the board is constantly expanding as you play. It's nothing earth-shatteringly new, but it does have one neat gimmick that I haven't seen in other similar games.

The map will grow and change as the game progresses.

In addition to the board dynamically growing as the game progresses, systems are considered to be "floating" until they become locked in place by being connected to two or more systems via a star lane. This means that leaf systems can be freely rotated around to make room for other tiles to be placed in the play area. I believe this is intended to model the 3-dimensional nature of space. In a more practical sense, it means that the galaxy [map] can (and will) change its shape occasionally, leaving the true distances between locations ambiguous until everything gets locked down.

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Cities XXL - game title

So right off the bat, Cities XXL is not substantially different from its predecessor (Cities XL). In my time with the game so far, I've only encountered two new features. Everything else, right down to the buildings available and the game interface, are unchanged. XXL hardly deserves to be called a sequel or sold as a new game. It's a content patch, and not even a very good one.

But on the upside, since I never got around to reviewing the original Cities XL, I can just roll them both into one review!

Cities XL - box art Cities XXL - box art
This review will cover both Cities XL, and Cities XXL because they're practically the same game.

When I first started playing Cities XL a few years ago, I was really impressed with it. I hadn't really played any modern city-builder games since SimCity 4, and so the jump to 3-D graphics, the ability to draw curved roads, and the sheer size of the maps was enough to win me over initially. But as I've played the game more, it's limitations and weaknesses have become much more apparent and hard to ignore. This is especially true in the game's interface and controls, which are very rough and full of nagging annoyances. When compared to the much smoother and organic controls of games like Tropico 5, the modern [disastrous] SimCity reboot, and even older games like Caesar IV, Cities XL really starts to look bad.

The biggest deterrent to enjoying Cities XL is its UI and controls. There's nothing that really single-handedly breaks the game, but there's a cacaphony of small, nagging problems that gradually wear down your resolve to play the game. The first thing that you'll notice is the ugly and disorganized interface. There are buttons and widgets floating all over the screen: build icons, overlay toggles, camera control widgets, zoning sub-controls, and so on. You can customize some of the UI elements by dragging them to different places on the screen, but there is no arrangement that really feels comfortable.

Charts, graphs, and table widgets are also ugly and difficult to read or understand, so I rarely use them. There's a lot of depth of information in these widgets, but they are just so poorly designed as to be nearly un-useable. And while some info-widgets show a great degree of granularity and precision, others are oddly abstracted. For example, shops and industrial buildings say that they require a "medium" number of workers of various classes, but they don't specify exactly how many employees they require. I assume that "low", "medium", and "high" correspond to the respective sizes of the residential zones, but I don't know for sure.

Cities XXL - closed office building
This office building had to close before I found out why it was unsatisfied.

Feedback in general is one of the game's weaknesses. The "satisfaction" level of buildings are all shown as colored circles rather than actual numbers. Those colored circles that indicate the satisfaction level of a building can be highlighted to show the percentage of satisfaction, but it won't necessarily give any indicators as to what is influencing that percentage...

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Continuing my series of strategy posts about Brave New World's modified civilizations, I'm going to take a look at strategies for Arabia. Arabia received a modest revision in Brave New World out of the box, having its national trait moderately redesigned. The old city connection economic focus has been regeared towards Brave New World's new trade route mechanic, and a religious buff was also added to make this civ more compelling for Gods & Kings mechanics.

The majority of the Arabian peninsula is harsh desert, and so massive human settlement did not begin until the rise of the Islamic empires of the middle ages. In the early seventh century, the Prophet Muhammad began preaching the tenets of Islam in Mecca and Medina, which united several Arabian tribes and led to the establishment of the Caliphate, an Islamic empire that began to extend its influence across the peninsula and beyond. In the mid seventh century, the Caliphate began conquering territory from the Byzantine empire and they completely destroyed the once-powerful Persian empire that had dominated the region since antiquity. At its height, the Caliphate extended from Portugal, Spain, and Morocco in the west, all the way to the borders of India in the east. Arabia's position as a crossroads between west and east made it a center for powerful trading hubs, and Arabian engineers and scientists developed advanced new mathematical concepts. Goods, knowledge, and religious beliefs from both ends of the known world (and beyond) often passed through Arabian trading bazaars, and much of the knowledge of the classical Greeks and Romans were preserved by Islamic scholars, eventually contributing to the European Renaissance centuries later.

Civilization V - Harun al-Rashid

Harun al-Rashid ruled during the mid eighth century during the Caliphate's golden age. He has been strongly romanticized by Arabian authors and scholars, and has even been mythologized in tales included in the Book of One Thousand and One Nights. He was known as a sharp political, intellectual, and military mind, but it is difficult to separate factual accounts from fictitious ones. Even his exact birth date is debatable. He was Caliph during one of the greatest periods of expansion of the early caliphates, but he also almost destroyed the Caliphate by dividing the empire among his sons instead of naming a single heir. This led to prolonged civil war between the sons, but the Caliphate did survive the turmoil.

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Civilization V - Enrico Dandolo of Venice

The penultimate entry in my series of strategy posts about Brave New World's new civilizations will focus on the very unique civilization of Venice: the playable City-State.

The city of Venice is one of the most architecturally astounding cities in the world. It is built on top of 118 small islands in the marshy Venetian lagoon. These natural and artificial islands are separated by a network of canals that run through the city and act almost like a network of roads. Many of the buildings and paved surface roads and walkways are built on top of stilts that emerge from these shallow canals and the city contains over 400 bridges. Historically, most of Venice's traffic has been through the waterways (via gondole) or on foot, but the modern city does have a contemporary road network (although a very compact one) intended for automobiles. Due to its unique environment and construction, the city is an astounding work of engineering art in and of itself.

There are no surviving historical records depicting the founding of Venice, but historians believe that the islands were originally settled by refugees from Roman cities during the Germanic and Hunnic invasions between 400 and 600 C.E. Venice began to expand its international influence prior to the thirteenth century by battling pirates that were plaguing trade in the Adriatic and Mediterranean. The city-state began to become an influential economic force in the region due to its position as a hub for trade between Europe and the Middle East, and Venice non-violently acquired control over many islands of the Aegean, including Cyprus and Crete. Failed military actions and the devastation of the black plague in the fifteenth century lead to the decline of the Venetian empire, and Venice was eventually conquered by Napoleon, then surrendered to Austria in the terms of a peace treaty, then conquered again by Italy during its war of independence. Fortunately, Venice was spared from attack during World War II, and so much of its historical architecture has remained intact, making it a popular tourist destination today.

Civilization V: Brave New World - Enrico Dandolo

The 42nd Doge of Venice, Enrico Dandolo is known mostly for his blindness. There are conflicting stories regarding how Dandolo became blind. The decreasing legibility of his signature between 1174 and 1176 implies that he became blind gradually, possibly due to an injury sustained in Constantinople. He was also a very pious leader who provided invaluable assistance to the knights of the Fourth Crusade and played an integral part in the eventual sacking of Constantinople. Despite his blindness, Dandolo survived into extreme old age, being almost a hundred years old (by some estimates) at the time of his death in 1205. He was buried in the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople, but his original tomb was destroyed by the Ottomans when they captured Constantinople (renamed it Istanbul) and converted the Hagia Sophia into a mosque.

Venice was a City-State in Gods & Kings but was promoted to a full civilization for Brave New World. Venice doesn't expand like a traditional civ in Brave New World; instead, it buys control of fellow City-States or expands its influence via conquest, both of which are funded by its excessive trade routes.

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Civilization V - Maria I of Portugal

Going into the back-end of the new civilizations presented in Brave New World, here is another strategy posts. This time, I'll be discussing the gold-generating machine that is Portugal.

The Portuguese essentially initiated the European "Age of Discovery" through the efforts and patronage of Henry the Navigator. After exploring Atlantic islands, Africa, and South America, Portugal established the first world empire in Europe and became one of the wealthiest and most influential powers of the era. Portugal lost much of its imperial strength due to wars with Napoleon and after its most significant colony, Brazil, declared independence. Portugal would never regain its former glory, but it still maintained control over many trading colonies up through the nineteenth century through the use of Feitoria (fortified factory complexes) in its colonies, which are represented in Civ V as city states.

Civilization V: Brave New World - Maria I

Maria I was the first undisputed queen regnant of Portugal and was crowned in 1777. Her rule was tarnished by mental instability and dementia that was first noticed in 1786 and which had made her incapable of managing affairs of state by 1792. The following decade, wars broke out with Spain and Napoleonic France, and Maria (along with the entire royal court) was moved to the colony of Brazil. Despite her madness, she is well-regarded among both Portuguese and Brazilian historians for her domestic policies and for supporting Brazilian independence. she is known as "Maria the Pious" in Portugal, and "Maria the Mad" in Brazil due to the fact that her mental state had already deteriorated by the time she had been relocated to Brazil, and her son had to perform most duties of state.

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