Saturday, May 27, 2017

Spacebase DF-9 - Initial Thoughts

About the Game (From the Steam Store Page)

In Spacebase DF-9, you'll build a home among the stars for a motley population of humans and aliens as they go about their daily lives. Mine asteroids, discover derelicts, and deal with the tribulations of galactic resettlement in Earth's distant future. Meteor impacts! Explosive decompression! Unbearable loneliness!

Previous Playtime

14 minutes

What Was I Thinking When I Bought This

I actually got this game for free and by accident. I bought Broken Age and Spacebase DF-9 showed up in my library at the same time (though it just now occurs to me that it might have been a coincidence and I just happened to overlook the gift message - if someone reading the blog was the one who sent it to me, drop me a line and I'll correct this.)

Because this wasn't a planned purchase, my only associated thought was after the fact. If I recall, it was something like "bonus!"

Expectations and Prior Experience

 I'm not sure I had any idea what this was before I got it. It's possible it was on my wishlist, because I will wishlist any game that even looks halfway interesting to me on the off-chance of picking it up for 90% off. I do remember playing it for a few minutes after my surprise acquisition, just to see what this extra thing was. It looked pretty promising to me at the time, though damn, those Steam reviews are pitiless.

I guess that's what worries me most. I like base building games with cartoony style, so ordinarily I'd be all over this, but if it's a particularly bad example of the breed, I could be stuck with something nearly unplayable.

Then again, No Man's Sky got Steam dogpiled too, and that's one of my favorite games. I guess I'll just have to trust that my taste is sufficiently different than the mob's. Or at least that my suffering is entertaining enough to make a train-wreck worth it.

Friday, May 26, 2017

Europa Universalis IV - 20/20

Pacifism was actually working out fairly well - until the damned Europeans came. It was completely unfair. They declared a war of conquest on me, and my armies just melted before them. And I outnumbered them! They had just one province on the continent and I had ten. Twenty thousand troops to their 10k. But it didn't matter. My morale broke and the shattered remnants of my forces were quickly mopped up by Spain's native allies. I suppose I should be grateful. Becoming incandescent with rage really makes you feel alive.

I rounded out my time by continuing my United States game, but there's nothing to report. I was already rich and well-developed, and such a powerful presence in the western hemisphere that no one dared attack me (thus I didn't have to throw a tantrum and ragequit).

The lesson I learned from all of this is that if I want to enjoy this game (and I do), then I need to actually get good at it and learn how to pick my battles in such a way that I can eliminate (or at least discourage) my avaricious neighbors and never have anything genuinely important at stake in my inevitable wars. It's tricky, though, because the primary reason I'm so short-tempered at the game is that I know I lack the skill to recover from a major setback. I guess it's just one more reason for me to learn to control my emotions.

If I could change one thing about Europa Universalis IV, it would be to make it more educational. My favorite part of the game was looking at the map on the country-select screen. That's not even back-handed, I genuinely enjoyed it, especially when it came to tracking the changes to borders and place names over time. It was also fun to get country-specific pop-up events. They didn't quite make me feel like I was playing out a living history, but that's mostly because the basic game mechanics are so similar between cultures that you never really forget you're playing a strategy game with its own very specific priorities and biases.

I definitely think I will be drawn back to Europa Universalis IV. Despite not having the sort of robust building mechanics I ordinarily love in a strategy game, its rich historical setting is thoroughly compelling. I've griped a lot over the past few days, but those were more gripes about myself than gripes about the game. If I could somehow get good enough to thrive, I would probably love to play in this vast historical sandbox.

But that's a journey for a different time. For now I will say that I spent most of the last 20 hours feeling pretty frustrated, but I never lost interest in the game itself. That's a pretty decent accomplishment.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Europa Universalis IV - 15/20 hours

I've been jumping around from nation to nation for the last five hours. I played as the United States long enough to win the revolution (call it patriotism, if you must) and as the Yamana Daimyo in Japan long enough to lose what should have been an easy war (somehow, forts get me tangled up every time) and then Castille right up until I was betrayed by Aragon (I ran out of manpower after the Reconquista and got slammed at my most vulnerable moment).

I've come to a conclusion - I don't like losing. I know, a real shocking revelation, but that's the essence of it. I have a thing and then some enemy comes along and tries to take my thing away. And to a certain degree, the trying is acceptable, but only if its doomed to failure. Mostly because I don't want to lose my thing.

I know I should take the loading screen's advice and not simply give up just because I've suffered a defeat in war, but the thought of my enemies using my stuff against me, to steal more of my stuff, it fills me with resentment.

Of course, this is entirely hypocritical on my part. I'm not averse to using the territory of others to take over their remaining lands, but that's because I'm a human and they're the AI, so I'm more important than them . . . right? I'll admit, I do feel a little dirty for being disgruntled about the consequences of a war I started. Not so dirty that I'm going to learn to take defeat with equanimity, but that should go without saying.

My plan for the last five hours is to try and play a pacifist game. No starting wars at all, spreading through colonization, and keeping my fingers crossed that I can stay strong enough to not get attacked. I'll probably still bail and quit when an opportunistic neighbor tries to take a bite out of my territory, but at least I'll feel like my outrage is justified.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Europa Universalis IV - 10/20 hours

I think I'm starting to get a handle on the game, though I have yet to grow attached enough to a particular nation to see their story through to the end. I think it's because I keep making what must be beginner's mistakes. Every time I've had a major foreign war against a serious rival, I've wound up simultaneously having to deal with a domestic uprising. I'm sure that's not a coincidence, but damned if I know how to stop it.

I also think I'm starting to get a feel for the larger ethos of the game itself. It's not so much a "strategy game," or even a "simulation," so much as it is a "story generator." It's a bit like Crusader Kings II in that regard, except where Crusader Kings II generates these highly biographical tales of courtly intrigue, Europa Universalis IV seems more geared towards those dreary 19th century treatises with titles like "On the Destiny of the Race." It's not bad, in and of itself, but it is reminiscent of the bad habits of my own personal history education, and thus I feel like I have to approach it with a certain critical distance.

I want to tread carefully here, though, because I've only seen a fraction of the game and it's possible that the reason it seems so Eurocentric is because the bulk of my time has been spent in Europe (although, with a name like Europa Universalis . . . ), but all of this stuff with "alliances" and "rivals" and "causus beli" . . . Not to imply that African or Native American peoples didn't have diplomacy or inter-group friction or reasons for going to war, but it feels very "outdated high school world history textbook" to me.

Although, I suppose it's come full circle - Europa Universalis IV is a video game based on the sort of history education that makes history feel like a video game.

And I don't know if I'm necessarily okay with that. It's fascinating, taken on its own terms, but, you know, this whole "war is a continuation of politics by other means" thing is actually kind of depressing.

I think the sticking point for me is the way that the game puts its thumb on the scales in favor of Europe. I first noticed this the hard way. I was playing Castille on ironman, but I wasn't getting any achievements. When I loaded up my game, I noticed a tooltip that said achievements were disabled because I had set the "lucky nations" on "none" instead of "historical."  When I saw the setting in the first place, I had just assumed it was purely a flavor thing. Similarly, when I played briefly as Mali, I noticed I was getting a huge tech research penalty for not being sufficiently feudal.

The purpose of these mechanics is to make the game world develop in a similar way to the real world, but in doing so, they can't help but feel just a little bit ideological (or more than a little bit, if you read some of the online debates about the subject - yikes). It's like they're saying that way things played out in the real world was inevitable, but I'm sure that if you replayed human history 1000 times, starting in 1444, in 999 of those timelines, China would be the preeminent global power going into the 19th century. So why not let the game play out that way? Why pretend that the real world outcome is the likeliest or most plausible?

There probably isn't any kind of sinister agenda there, but I think tying the technological and social progress of non-European nations to European cultural markers like the Renaissance (or, for that matter, the calendar year) smacks of a kind of unexamined historical progressivism, perhaps one that puts civilizations on a ladder and judges "lower" civilizations for insufficiently emulating "higher" ones - and that is the sort of thinking that drove the worst excesses of European colonialism.

Which, I suppose, is what the game is actually about. So call this a big, mystified shoulder-shrug on my account. It makes sense for a game about a certain historical period to replicate that period's mindset, but when the period is one of the most shameful chapters in human history and the mindset is the sort of haughty racialist triumphalism that allowed unaccountable despots to despoil continents, is it really necessary, appropriate, or wise?

Part of this is my own personal hang-up, I know. The more strategy games I play, the more I yearn for a game that will decolonialize history. Now, what that would look like, I don't know. In fact, as near as I can reckon "decolonialized strategy game" is close to an oxymoron. Which isn't to say that historically colonized people were angels - they had wars, many every bit as awful as anything in Europe, and those wars surely involved strategy and definitely had the aim of seizing territory and resources. Rather, the very language of statecraft (borders, sovereignty, treaties, statecraft) is bound up in the perspectives and priorities of European aristocracy. And while there are many places (such as much of Asia) that track with that, there are plenty more (such as much of the pre-Columbian Americas) that don't.

And that's the thing, places that did not have large-scale, cohesive social structures were not, thereby terra nullius. The people who lived there weren't simply waiting to be colonized.

But, like I said earlier, I don't know how you make a strategy game out of that, so it's a bit unfair of me to judge Europa Universalis IV by that standard. Instead, I will just say that this game does a very good job at making you think like a villain, and I'm not yet sure whether I'll beat the game by becoming a superior villain or whether I will beat the game by resisting its manipulations to the end.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Europa Universalis IV - 5/20 hours

I want to like this game so much. There are so many buttons and they all look important. It makes me feel important, being able to press them. Only problem is, I don't know what they do.

Oh, I can read a tooltip, so I have a pretty clear idea about the immediate effects of my actions, but I'm at sea when it comes to the long-term consequences. Is prestige more useful than power projection? Is it better to use your Administration points to develop a province or save them to unlock a technology? For that matter, is a technology better than an idea? I have no idea.

I expect that such an intuition for the game's larger strategy will come in time, but I don't think I've had a game with such a brutal learning curve (AI Wars, maybe). I haven't even figured out how to keep my economy out of debt yet. I've started four games (two England, one Portugal, and one Iroquois) and every single time I started hemorrhaging money before the end of the first decade. As near as I can tell, my issue is that sources of new income are pathetically small and expenses are really big. It costs you 200 ducats to build a castle or 2 ducats a month to support a colonist, but sending half a dozen ships to defend your trade routes nets you 0.15 a month.  I feel like my best move is to just not buy anything, ever.

Which is silly, of course. I think if I played more than 45 minutes on a single file, I'd probably start to get to a point that is at least somewhat financially secure . . . except I've yet to go 45 minutes without getting attacked and I'm not sure what the hell I'm supposed to do about. The enemy forces are always bigger than mine, and I never have the money to build troops to match them, even if I wanted to go into the red on maintenance costs.

It's been incredibly frustrating. I just know there's an enjoyable (to me) game inside of all this stuff, but I also know that it will require me to first become competent, and that may be a long time coming (I'm pretty sure it took me a similarly large number of failed Crusader Kings II games before I got a handle on what I was doing).

What I need to do is tough it out. Ride my country's history into defeat. Allow myself to accumulate as much debt as I'm allowed. I usually like to learn from the easy version of the game, but that's not an option here, so I'll have to learn from failure instead.

I hate learning from failure.

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Europa Universalis IV - 2/20 hours

Here's hoping the third time's the charm for the Europa Universalis IV tutorial. I remembered most of the basic stuff (setting the game speed, using the various map modes, building troops, etc), but I'm still unclear on the strategy behind things like trade routes and national ideas. I suppose it's not really the place of a tutorial to give you in-depth information about long-term strategy, but even so, I don't really feel prepared for the game yet.

Which is thrilling, in a way. There is a great deal to explore and learn, or, at least, there appears to be. Whatever faults Europa Universalis IV may turn out to have, one thing it absolutely nails is selling its world. I haven't picked my nation yet, but just looking at the map, seeing the unfamiliar names for familiar places, the borders that make no logical sense to my modern perspective, the sheer variety of religions and cultures, it transports me to a far-off and exotic time. I could (and did) spend 20 minutes just looking at the starting map.

It's now time to start a real game and I'm a little torn about my future course. Common sense dictates I should pick a major European power, one that could evolve in a global colonial empire, but I kind of want to upend human history. Maybe correct the injustices of the Columbian Exchange or colonize Europe with China.

I think I'll go with Europe, though. Only because I have no idea how to play the game and thus attempting to flaunt its basic assumptions would be the height of hubris. I'll save that for my second game.

Europa Universalis IV - Initial Thoughts

About the Game (From the Steam Store Page)

Paradox Development Studio is back with the fourth installment of the award-winning Europa Universalis series. The empire building game Europa Universalis IV gives you control of a nation to guide through the years in order to create a dominant global empire. Rule your nation through the centuries, with unparalleled freedom, depth and historical accuracy. True exploration, trade, warfare and diplomacy will be brought to life in this epic title rife with rich strategic and tactical depth.
Previous Playtime

4 hours

What Was I Thinking When I Bought This

Honestly, I think the name just filtered into my consciousness through general internet osmosis. I'm pretty sure that the game I intended to buy was Europa Universalis III, given that I'd first heard of the series a couple of years before I actually bought it. What I can say with certainty is that I had no idea what I was getting into with this game. "I guess it's about European history" was the extent of my foreknowledge.

Expectations and Prior Experience

I should probably start by addressing the elephant in the room - I once had a goal of completing a full Crusader Kings II game and then importing the map to Europa Universalis IV. I even wrote a whole long post about how that was something I always wanted to do and how I was really looking forward to the challenge. Unfortunately, I underestimated, by quite a lot, exactly how long Crusader Kings II would turn out to be. My old save file still exists, and I did lay it a few times over the last year, but I'm still nowhere near the end date. So my choice is to either take a 60 hour detour or just suck it up and admit defeat.

Maybe I'll do it one day. So long as there's life, there's hope.

Anyway, as for Europa Universalis IV, specifically, I've played the tutorial a couple of times and had two very short and painfully unsuccessful where I attempted to play the Iroquois and China and managed to completely bungle my military. I'm hoping that I've gained enough gaming wisdom over the past couple of years that the learning curve becomes manageable, but, realistically, my hope is slim.

Here's my prediction - I will, against my better judgement, refrain from being aggressive in the early game and try to pursue an isolationist, trade, and infrastructure-focused policy. My neighbors will blob alarmingly and at some point my territory will seem like a valuable prize. I'll lose my first game by being absorbed by some imperialist asshole. And then I'll write a post complaining about it.

That inevitability aside, what it's really going to come down to is whether or not playing as a doomed pacifist feels productive. As long as I have the sensation that my power is growing, I'll be happy.