Stellaris - title

Last year, after my initial enthusiasm for Civilization VI began petering out (until the announcement of the expansion), I went on a bit of a space-4x bender. I spent some time with the rebooted Master of Orion. It was good, but I was underwhelmed by its limited scale and casual depth. I also planned on hitting up Endless Space 2. I played the first Endless Space briefly off-and-on, and I liked it, but kept getting diverted to other games and projects and never really allowed myself the time to get comfortable with the game.

But first, before diving into Engless Space 2, I wanted to tackle a game that's been in my library for over a year: Stellaris. This is an epic, space 4x strategy game developed by Paradox Interactive -- the same developer who brought us the infamously complex and detailed Europa Universalis and Crusader Kings series.

A gentler learning curve than Europa Universalis

I was hesitant to try Stellaris because of its relationship to Europa Universalis (and its notorious complexity), but I was surprised to find that Stellaris has a bit of a gentler learning curve. Instead of starting you out "in median res" with a developed European kingdom with armies already mobilized, alliances and rivalries already in place, and wars already in progress, Stellaris starts you out in control of a single planet in a single star system, with just a small fleet of corvettes, a construction ship, and a science ship at your disposal. You send your science ship to explore the other planets in your system, then on to the nearest star, and slowly explore from there at a much more comfortable pace that is akin to a game like Civilization or Master of Orion. Unlike with Crusader Kings and Europa Universalis, I didn't feel like I needed to sit down with a history textbook in order to know what was going on at the start of my game.

You start the game with a single science ship to explore your own star system, and work your way out from there.

Don't let this initial apparent simplicity fool you. Stellaris is still quite deep, quite complex, and the galaxy that you'll explore really does feel vast. While the Master of Orion reboot has galaxies with a mere dozens of stars (very few of which contain more than one or two planets), Stellaris features a default galaxy size consisting of hundreds of stars, most with their own planets, which might (in turn) contain moons.

There's still going to be some trial and error, as you'll make a lot of mistakes and miss a lot of opportunities in your first few games. If you left the "ironman" mode disabled, then you'll at least be free to re-load earlier saves and try to play better if anything goes horribly wrong. However, Paradox throws a bit of a curve ball at players by disabling achievements if you disable ironman mode. You won't stumble into achievements in your learning game(s) or by save-scumming; you'll have to earn them in the Ironman mode!

You also won't be able to manually save while in Ironman mode. You have to wait for the game to perform an auto-save (which I think happens every few in-game months, or maybe every year?). This can be very annoying if you don't notice the "saving game" popup and don't know if the game has saved your most recent actions. It's fine to include a single save file for this mode, but they could at least include a "Save and Exit" option in the pause menu!

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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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Stonehenge board game
Souvenir board game!!!

During a holiday in Europe, I procured a few souvenir board games to add to my collection.

I didn't have room in my luggage for the larger Stonehenge Anthology Game or the Ring of Stones game. So instead of buying them in the Stonehenge gift shop, I ordered them online and had them shipped to my house. They were both waiting for me when I returned home from the trip! The Ring of Stones game was purchased directly from the English Heritage online shop's Stonehenge gifts section. The Anthology game had to come from Amazon because it isn't available from the English Heritage online shop, but I got a really good deal on it!

There was also some Stonehenge Monopoly and playing cards, but I'm not into those sorts of novelty variations that I can get anywhere. It was the unique games that caught my eye.

The third game that I brought back from Europe is a medieval Viking game called "Hnefatafl". I had seen it in the Viking Ship Museum gift shop when I was there last November, but I didn't buy it at the time because I wasn't sure if its rules were written in English or Danish. I didn't want to buy a game that I'd never be able to play because I couldn't read the rules. So when I saw the same game in the British Museum's gift shop this summer, I decided to go ahead and get it.

Board games from Europe
My European souvenir board games include 2 Stonehenge-themed games and a traditional Viking game.

Yesterday, I talked about the Ring of Stones game that I purchased from the English Heritage Trust. Today, I'm going to talk about the next game that I purchased on this trip to Europe: the Stonehenge anthology game. Next up, I'll review the Viking Game Hnefatafl.

Stonehenge Anthology Game: five games in one

Stonehenge Anthology - storage
The box doesn't have very efficient compartments.

This Stonehenge game is an "anthology game" released by Paizo games (the same company that publishes the popular Pathfinder RPG). It is effectively five small games in one, with each game sharing the same components and having been designed by a different designer, with credits ranging from Magic: the Gathering to Memoir '44 to Axis and Allies. The primary concept (according to the instruction book) is that the game components were designed first, and then given to each of the game designers, who then had to create rules for a game to play with those components and the given theme. Each designer took a different explanation for the origin or purpose of Stonehenge (even far-fetched ones) as the basis for his rule set...

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Civilization A New Dawn - title

Sid Meier's Civilization computer game seems ripe for conversion into a board game. The PC game is, after all, basically just a computerized board game that plays out on a grander scale. Sid himself was inspired by many classic board games, including Risk and Axis & Allies. Fantasy Flight has already taken a stab at trying to distill the core mechanics of Civ down into a digestible board game when they released Sid Meier's Civilization: the Board Game back in 2010. I really like that game, even though it is a bit bloated and unwieldy. Attempting to directly translate Civ's mechanics down into board game form unsurprisingly results in a fairly complicated game that takes a very long time to learn and play.

Fantasy Flight's approach this time around seems to be to develop an elegant board game, and then apply the Civilization license onto it. The result is a board game that feels much more distant from the computer game, but which plays much more smoothly as a board game.

Civilization, streamlined

Perhaps the biggest problem with the older Civilization board game is the game length and amount of downtime. Games could run for over five hours, and the fact that each player resolved their entire turn phase (city management or army movement) before moving onto the next player meant that you could end up sitting for 20 to 40 minutes, twiddling your thumbs and waiting for other players to resolve their turns. That is one of my biggest peeves with a lot of epic games: too much downtime.

Civilization: A New Dawn -
A New Dawn is a very elegant game.

A New Dawn addresses that problem by having each player take only a single action in each of their turns. There are no phases; just take an action from your focus bar and then move on to the next player. Turns, therefore, are very quick, turnaround time is very short, and the game moves along at a rapid pace. This, ironically, serves to better maintain the "one more turn" addictive nature of the computer game. You might find yourself neglecting bathroom breaks for several turns because things are moving along so swiftly. Your turn is generally quick enough that you want to finish it before you step away or take a break, and other players' turns are so quick that you don't want to step away because you know it'll be back around to your turn in a few minutes.

Longer games with longer turns and more downtime can also often result in players outright forgetting what they were planning on doing by the time the turn gets back around to them. Either that, or the large amounts of moves and actions that the other players take changes the game state so much that, when your turn comes around, the thing you were planning on doing is no longer ideal -- if it's even possible.

That's rarely a problem in A New Dawn because each player does one thing on their turn, so the state of the board isn't radically changing between your turns. It's much more of a gradual change. That doesn't mean that other players can't disrupt your plans; they certainly can, especially when combat between players starts happening. It just means that you aren't going to be sitting there bouncing up and down in your chair waiting to pull off a spectacular move, only to have another player blow up all your plans at the last minute and leave you spending far too long wondering "What the heck do I do now?" when your turn starts...

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Sid Meier's Civilization

Civilization VI's first expansion, Rise and Fall just launched this past weekend. The expansion does make some welcome enhancements to alliances that makes peaceful relations with other civs much more appealing. However, these enhancements do not address two of my most fundamental complaints with Civilization's diplomacy system in general: that it does not allow for truly cooperative victories, and that it does not really provide the player with any way to influence an A.I. civ's behavior. I've already written about ideas for cooperative victories for both Beyond Earth and for the core Civilization games, so I won't go into that again here. Instead, today's blog will focus on the second of my major hang-ups with diplomacy: that you simply cannot provide A.I. civs with any indication of what you consider friendly or hostile behavior.

Diplomacy has always been one of the major stumbling blocks of the Civilization games. Each game has certain mechanics or features that are good ideas on paper, but none of the games have ever really had a diplomacy system that really seems to work the way that it is intended, and which provides consistent behavior from the A.I.s. A.I.s are often erratic in their behavior -- both between games, and within a single game.

Civilization VI - Cleopatra agenda
A single unit can be the difference between Cleopatra's abject disgust and her goo-goo-eyed adoration.

Civ VI introduces the agendas, which sound like a good idea on paper. It gives each leader an element of personality. They have things that they like, and things that they don't like. The problem is that these agendas lead to wild swings in an A.I.'s attitude, often based on rather trivial (and sometimes counter-intuitive) actions from the player. Often times the thresholds for activating these agendas are not entirely clear. Cleopatra tells me that my army is too weak and pathetic, and so she has a heavy negative modifier with me. Then I build a single Swordsman a couple turns later, and now suddenly my army is powerful enough to warrant her admiration, and she's looking me up and down with those goo goo eyes.

There's other legacy issues with diplomacy. The biggest one is the inability to ever warn another civ that their actions might lead to war. The denouncement mechanic of Civ V was a decent start, but since you could never provide a specific reason for your denouncements, they never seemed to have much weight in changing another civ's behavior. In a multiplayer game, you could always use the chat to inform other players' of your diplomatic desires, but there has never been any method for accomplishing this with A.I. civs in single-player.

Since the A.I. has no real clue why it is being denounced, there's no way for it to change its behavior. There's also no way for other A.I.s to understand if your denouncement or declaration of war is actually justified or not.

Civilization V - denouncement
You can denounce a civ, but the A.I. won't really have any clue why they're being denounced.

Civilization VI tried to rectify this with the Casus Belli system, but that system also stumbles...

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Grid Clock provided by trowaSoft.

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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