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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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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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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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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