Tuesday, February 28, 2017

StarDrive - 10/20 hours

I'm about two-thirds of the way into my second StarDrive game, and am right on course to win it, though to my shame, it's going to be by the lame "ascension" victory again. I just find the constant warfare necessary to get the other victories to be dispiriting.

It could be that my general level of aggression is waning as I get older. I've noticed myself yelling less and shaking my head in silent disapproval more. However, I think with StarDrive, a likelier explanation is that the combat simply isn't fun enough to make me want to do it.

Now, combat in strategy games is always kind of dire, and StarDrive has some advantages over most, in that it really does matter how your ships are positioned. The ship construction minigame is extremely elaborate. Each weapon must be placed with an appropriate firing arc, you have to use internal bulkheads to protect fragile ship systems, each block you place has a certain number of hit points to resist damage. And it all plays out on the battlefield. Hits on your left side will damage your left-most components, and turning your ship to face another way can bring new weapons and armor to bare.

In theory, you could slow the game down to its lowest speed level and exploit every advantage out of your superior human intelligence by engaging in unparalleled feats of admiralship, but in practice it's much easier to just out-build and out-tech your foes and just swarm them with superior numbers.

But that's not what makes conquest in StarDrive a chore. What really does the system in is a flaw that was barely tolerable in Stellaris, and nearly unforgivable in a game with a fraction of the charm and personality - all planetary conquest must go through both a space and a ground stage, with your ground units being separately built and having the durability of tissue paper in space. Seriously, building up a force of Space Marines and then watching them trundle around the galaxy in those shitty little ships of theirs is just the worst.

Instead of going from strength to strength, painting the map with the terrifying fruits of my technology, I'm stuck baby-sitting a bunch of sluggish hangers-on, who are individually quite helpless against any reasonably set-up enemy planet.

The obvious thing to do in this situation is activate the plodding and implacable part of my game and just methodically move from planet to planet, expending however much time and resources was necessary to achieve my goal. And if I were playing a turn-based game, I'd have no trouble with that, but StarDrive's RTS style gameplay is thwarting me here. I'm too worried about dividing my attention and being outflanked to do anything but bunker down and go for the peaceful victory condition . . . as underwhelming as that might be.

I guess I'm just going to have to tough it out, though. StarDrive isn't quite the relaxing walk in the park that I hoped it was going to be, but at least it has spaceships and aliens and infrastructure, and those are always enough to keep me at least nominally interested.

Monday, February 27, 2017

StarDrive - 6/20 hours

Having completed one full game of StarDrive, I have to say it's serviceable. It has all the basic stuff that you would expect in a 4X game, and it's all implemented fairly well, but there's nothing in it that captures the imagination or inspires great feelings of either love or hate.

I guess I like the infrastructure, a little. In order to expand in the most efficient way possible, you have to build freighters that can move food, minerals, and people from planet to planet, carefully marshaling your resources to insure that infertile worlds nonetheless get enough food to grow and that your shipyards have enough minerals to deploy a defense in a timely fashion.

On the other hand, that proved to be pretty shallow and I learned most everything I needed to know about in around an hour (tops). The tech tree is short (with about 2-3 buildings per resource category) and mostly devoted to ship improvements.

I wonder if this was a deliberate design choice. A lot of the Steam reviewers complained that this game was incomplete, abandoned early in favor of a premature sequel. And there is definitely a certain perfunctory feeling around some of game's mechanics and presentation. It took me far longer than it should have to find the difficulty settings. I only learned how to ship food and minerals after reading a guide online. The transcendence victory was rooted in implied lore that never got fleshed out in the actual game (and was pretty weak, besides).

However, it's also possible that StarDrive is simply a "basic" 4X. It doesn't need an elaborate individual identity because all it does is present the fundamentals of the 4X experience. I can sort of see it. There is a parsimony about the game's mechanics. You don't have to worry about population happiness or internal rebellions or strategic resources or any the other embellishments that mark more ambitious attempts at the genre.

I'm not sure, though. If StarDrive is deliberately scaled-down, why is its trade-route system so fiddly? Why is ship construction so complex? I suppose, in theory, it might be a tactical ship combat game with some incidental planet management, but if so I abused it mightily by just building overwhelmingly powerful fleets and throwing them at the enemy willy-nilly. Maybe that's just the consequence of playing on easy mode, though.

Either way, playing through StarDrive was a pleasant, if uninspiring experience. My plan is to kick it up to normal mode and try for a diplomatic victory. Maybe see if I can somehow parlay my economics-focused strategy into incomparable galactic power. Or maybe just run out the clock getting into and losing pointless wars.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Stardrive - Initial Thoughts

About the Game (From the Steam Store Page)

StarDrive sets a new benchmark for the ‘4X Space Strategy’ genre. Starting with a single planet and a small number of space-worthy vessels, you must venture forth into the galaxy, conquer new worlds, build new colonies and defend your very existence against those who would take what is yours. How you play is your decision. Use diplomacy or brute force. Trade, spy and research your way to galactic domination. Make friends, or create mortal enemies…

The heart of StarDrive is its ship design and combat engine.

StarDrive takes a modular approach to ship design, allowing the player to create custom ships where the composition and placement of ship modules really matters to the performance of a ship.. In combat, if your portside armour is taking a beating, then rotate around and show them the starboard side! Hide behind a friendly capital ship’s shields; warp into and out of the fray, launch fighters, lay mines, and so much more.

Previous Playtime

69 minutes

What Was I Thinking When I Bought This

Oh, such a long time ago, but if I recall, Stardrive was getting some very favorable advance buzz, and every time I saw a new screenshot I thought it looked polished and accessible. However, it languished for quite some time on my wishlist until that infamous 2014 Summer Sale, when I was apparently just buying everything that caught my eye.

Expectations and Prior Experience

This is a game that I was aware of for some time before I bought it, and which I owned for even longer without getting around to actually playing it, but about a year ago, I was debating over which game to play next after Star Ruler 2 and I was on a bit of a space 4X high, so I decided to start this one up and see if it hooked me.

If I recall, it was a decently-executed space 4X game, with a fun ship-designing minigame inside, but it did nothing particularly special to justify me playing three space 4X games in a row.

Now, we'll see if that assessment was correct. I'm expecting a relatively painless gaming experience, but given the venom of some of the reviews StarDrive is getting, I imagine most of my enjoyment will be due to my uncritical love of the genre.  

Democracy 3 - 20/20 hours

So it's all over. My reign over the Republic of Graphistan. It wasn't always a glorious rule. Many graphs found themselves sinking uncontrollably. And while some of those graphs deserved their fate, others were merely the victims of my inexperienced misrule.

I can't say I enjoyed the game so much, but it's hard to sort out because I spent so much of the last couple of weeks miserable for entirely unrelated reasons. There was some satisfaction that came in successfully manipulating graphs using other, thematically-related graphs, but as an examination of ideology and politics, Democracy 3 fell flat.

A big part of my disappointment came from the abstraction of the game's mechanics. All too often, I'd face a situation like race riots or global-warming-induced killer cyclones, and all it would be is a new, red-colored graph. I'm not sure how it should have worked, but I would have liked a more immediate visual representation of my citizens becoming happier, healthier, and more racially tolerant (and, also, presumably, being swept up in giant cyclones).

My biggest regret with Democracy 3 is that I allowed my illness to slow my completion of the game. The flu probably wasn't directly to blame, in that there's a lot about this game that would dampen my enthusiasm anyway, but it certainly didn't help. Maybe if I'd crammed the graph-hacking into just a couple of days, it would have felt more immediate and intense. Maybe I would have experimented more, or taken pains to find exploits in the simulation's logic. Instead, my slow and methodical pace just led to me trying the same basic plan over and over again - carbon tax to get to positive revenue, then use the surplus to gradually increase education, health, and general welfare while the economy grows from high-tech productivity. In real life, I'm not sure that effectively and instantaneously doubling taxes would have all that meritorious an effect, but in the game, it worked everywhere except Canada.

Overall, I'd say that I want more games like this one, but that Democracy 3, in itself, isn't one of them. There's too little of the political nitty-gritty, too little humor and personality, and (forgive me) too many graphs. As refreshing as it is to play a game that centers around peaceful consensus-building (minus a few dozen assassins), it never really felt like anything but the world's most complicated game of solitaire.

Monday, February 20, 2017

Democracy 3 - 15/20 hours

Hey, I'm still alive, though I won't lie, there were times I wished I wasn't. Turns out my cold got worse. I think at one point, I was more virus than man, and not in a cool Prototype-style way, either. But I learned something - if you're running a fever so high you're sweating in a Colorado February and your lungs feel like they are trying to invert your whole body, starting with the mucous, the last thing you want to do is look at a fucking graph.

Don't get me wrong. I am the last person in any position to complain about graphs in a video game. Indeed, I can think of at least two separate occasions where I've explicitly and in writing wished for more. I've name-checked William Playfair. If there's another video-game blogger our there who is friendlier to graphs in games than me, I'd like to know about it . . . because they sound delightful and I would probably want to read their blog from beginning to end.

That being said, charts and graphs, for all their utility in making sense of a video game world, tread precariously close to the nebulous boundary that separates "play" from "work." I mean, not to be too reductive, but a lot of what we do when we play video games is press buttons with various degrees of precision. It can be fun, but it's not really a life-skill. And, indeed video game skill tend to translate poorly into literal things we can do with our actual flesh-and-blood bodies. If anything, your skill at Mortal Kombat is going to impede your success in the underground kung-fu deathmatch circuit.

However, sometimes a game demands of you scaled-down versions of real-world skills. Often, it is time-management, like in The Sims (though you might argue the difficulty there is scaled-up - very few adults have trouble balancing work, home-life, romance, and not pissing yourself in public to quite the same degree that Sims do). Even more often, though so abstractly it barely even counts, a video game will test your executive functions. And that is often the most pleasurable part of playing a game because in so many cases, your real-life job won't.

And then you have graphs. Graphs are interesting because they serve exactly the same function in the game as they do in real life. There is no metaphor or translation involved at all. You look at a video-game graph for exactly the same reason you look at a real one - to visualize complex data and try and discern trends and relationships that will help you make better decisions. And it is to Democracy 3's credit that I imagine I am getting a simplified look at the President's most important job skill - looking at a ton of bland, interchangeable graphs day in and day out, trying to translate minute and possibly coincidental changes into actionable public policy.

It's not a job for someone who is impatient, intellectually incurious, careless with details, or who is suffering from the worst flu of his adult life. Nonetheless, now that I'm finally coming out of it (fingers crossed), my biggest wish for this game is that it become even more "Graph Tycoon 2011." Allow me to fiddle with the x-axis, make it something other than time. Or better yet, give me an executive report each quarter filled with spurious correlations, fluctuations that could be meaningless or could be the start of a dangerous new trend. And then force me to make my decisions based on those. Just throw me straight into the deep end of epistemic uncertainty and all the subjective, "create your own reality" bullshit and let me try and craft a plan based on my own flailing attempts to salvage meaning from the chaos.

No, on second thought, that sounds terrible. Maybe just a few more graphs with a few more ambiguities. That would probably be enough.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Democracy 3 - 9/20 hours

I've had a pretty serious cold for the last few days, so playing Democracy 3 has been problematic. The combination of sleep deprivation and cough-syrup high has made me incredibly loopy. As you might imagine, that's not the best state to be in when you're sorting through menus and trying to find the correct combination of policies to transform America into a socialist utopia.

Or maybe it is, because I've discovered over the last few hours that this game is, indeed, loopy as fuck. I got an achievement for eliminating religion . . . in America . . . in less than eight years. It wasn't even something I was trying to do. I just started teaching evolution in schools and expanded the public education budget. I guess that means that in the world of Democracy 3, the right-wing conspiracy theories are correct - evolution really is a liberal plot to destroy Christianity.

That's probably not the explanation, though. Later, while playing Germany, I was able to eliminate all pollution and all crime. It was a pair of accomplishments that won me 90% of the vote. So, yeah.

I'm trying to imagine what that world would have looked like from a ground-level perspective. Some random guy gets elected with no party and no platform, but immediately sets about implementing broad social and economic reforms, moving from success to success, and totally transforming the nation. I'm inclined to think that no one would believe it. They would see what they expected to see, what they grew up knowing they'd see. Because their narratives would have inertia.

Or maybe I'm getting this backwards. Narratives have inertia, but so does reality. It's not just rational decisions based on cost/benefit analysis that drive policy. There are institutional barriers, path dependence, and cultural factors to deal with. You can't just look at numbers on a spreadsheet and say "this policy is better." In order to succeed in a democracy, you must in some sense be a mythographer. You must package your policies in a story of "how we get from here to there." Otherwise, your 3% gasoline tax increase will provoke riots in the street and completely torpedo every other point on your agenda.

Democracy 3 completely fails to capture that experience, the feeling that half the country is going to sabotage themselves to spite you. The out-of-control narratives that chain you to unworkable policy. The moderates clucking their tongues whenever you try to do "too much, too soon." You never have to mislead the electorate about your true intentions, choose between the public good and pleasing a donor, or grandstand over some meaningless, symbolic vote in order to demonstrate tribal unity with your constituency.

In short, it doesn't model democracy well at all. Real democracy is an absurd paradox of a system - something born of reason, but ruled by passion, a system that ostensibly serves the people, but in which the people often serve the system. And Democracy 3 doesn't really let you navigate those contradictions. It's more like a Philosopher-King simulator than anything resembling real politics.

I can't say for sure whether that's good or bad. I imagine, from a gameplay perspective, that having the game just arbitrarily shut you down would feel massively unfair, but on the other hand, politics is always personal, and Democracy 3 never seems to get that across.

It's something to think about. For now, I'll just say that it's fitting that I'm playing this game with a fever, because it often feels like a political fever-dream.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Democracy 3 - 5/20 hours

I think I have to admit that I don't know what I'm doing. The first time I survived to face reelection in the UK, I got something like 20 percent of the vote, despite improving every aspect of the country's governance. I guess people are just ungrateful. Or maybe I just took the heat for a global economy that sank into the shitter and stayed there. It's hard to say.

I have a theory that if I may be able to survive if I just do popular things and don't worry about the fate of the country, but I'm not sure I have the nerve to try it. I'm sure, in the long run, a failing country would sink my political ambitions, but it would be nice to survive at least one election. I'm finding the UK to be a lot less forgiving than the US, given that it doesn't have a nice, juicy overly-bloated military budget to cut and its taxes are already pretty high.

Seriously, balancing the Democracy 3 version of the US budget took me something like five minutes, and if it weren't for the constant assassinations, I could have completely transformed the country for the better, simply because the amounts being dealt with were so large that I only needed to make small changes to come out ahead. The UK's finances are much tighter, and the game absolutely punishes you for not balancing your budget.

This might be a bit of neoliberal, pro-austerity creditor bias sneaking into the game, but I suspect it's just a gamism. Like the fact that you always start your term with a 10-15% approval rating. As a simulation factor, it doesn't make a damned bit of sense. The whole premise of the game is that I just won a national election. Shouldn't my popularity start at 51 percent?

I think I may have to start engaging with the game as a game and not as a political laboratory. It doesn't seem robust enough to do that. There is almost no sense of coming into the game with a political past. Party politics is virtually nonexistent. Indeed, I thought that playing a parliamentary system would make the united executive and legislative functions seem more natural, but there's nothing in there about forming a governing coalition or shadow cabinets, or any of the nitty-gritty details of actually getting a government to run. The closest thing is your cabinet, and that seems assembled more or less at random.

While I can appreciate the thought that went into coding each country's particular situation into the model, the model itself is merely the statistical approximation of a country, and the game is more about manipulating statistics than it is about anything resembling politics.

Which is fine, manipulating statistics is something I really like to do. But treating Democracy 3 as a game has its downsides - namely, searching online for strategy tips is a freaking mine-field. Imagine all the intensity gamers bring to harmless discussions about art-design and system specifications, and then make the conversation about politics. It's not all bad. In fact, it's mostly good. But every once in awhile, someone drops in to ruin everyone's day.

I think I may be on my own here.

The simulated people of the simulated United Kingdom are in for a rough ride.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Democracy 3 - 2/20 hours

For a game ostensibly about the peaceful transfer of power, Democracy 3 is quite the bloodbath. I've played three separate games so far, and so far I've been assassinated three times. That's not a normal part of the process. In fact, it's actually quite rare. I mean, what is even the point of having a Secret Service if any random capitalist, black power activist, or liberal extremist can barge in and overturn the will of the majority.

And the thing is, I'm not even sure why it happened. I can sort of get the capitalist killing me, because I raised the income tax rate from 31 to 34 percent, but as for the others, I don't have the slightest idea. Perhaps I was to gradual and indirect. One of my primary goals was to end vigilante killing, but there's no button for that, so I had to rely on increases to education and poverty reduction, and thus maybe it wasn't clear what I was going for. I don't know, though, it definitely seemed like an unrealistic way to end an otherwise typical presidency.

I had an idea going into this that the simulation would have its flaws, but I never expected it to fail in this particular way. Maybe it's just specific to the simulated United States and the other simulated countries will be less lethal, but if so, I think my patriotic pride is wounded. We may have our problems here in the US, but we're not nearly so lawless as the game would make us out to be.

Then again, Democracy 3 doesn't really do that great a job in general of simulating US politics. There are no mid-term elections, divided governments, Senate fillibusters, or court challenges. The thing I did where I eliminated the tax credit for private school tuition and added the budget penny-for-penny to the public school budget would have been more or less impossible in the real world. Maybe that's what the assassination mechanic is supposed to represent - a stand-in for Sean Hannity screaming at me every night.

Probably not, though. I think it's more likely that it's just a misguided mechanic that's incidental to the fact that the game was developed in Britain and has some baked-in assumptions about the relationship between legislative and executive power that doesn't map well to the American political landscape.

I think this means I have to stop being President of the Unites States. I don't have quite the same emotional and cultural connection to the UK, but at least it won't violate my suspension of disbelief quite so much . . . at least, not until the second or third time I'm assassinated.

Monday, February 6, 2017

Democracy 3 - Initial Thoughts

About the Game (From the Steam Store Page)
Have you ever wanted to be president? or prime-minister? Convinced you could do a better job of running the country? Let's face it, you could hardly do a worse job than our current political leaders.

Crime, Unemployment, National Debt, Terrorism, Climate Change...Have you got the answers to the problems that face western industrialized nations? Here is your chance to find out...

An entire virtual country
Democracy 3 simulates the motivations, loyalties and desires of everyone in the country. A custom-designed neural network is used to model individual voters, each which varying memberships of voting groups, political parties and pressure groups. Each voters income is modeled, along with their levels of complacency and cynicism. This is the most sophisticated political strategy game ever created.

Unique user interface
Despite being vastly detailed under-the-hood, Democracy 3 has a unique user interface that makes visualizing the connections between laws, policies, voters and situations easy. A simple iconic-based view of your countries issues allows you to 'drill-down' through all the relationships between policies and voters to quickly analyze the impacts of your decisions. Your trade policy may affect GDP, which will affect unemployment, which will effect poverty, and thus crime, leading to a change in tourism, which affects GDP...

Complex simulated voters
Each individual voter is a mixture of a subset of the 21 different voter groups represented within the game. They might be a young, wealthy, liberal socialist commuter, or a retired conservative religious capitalist, for example. Not only this, but the extent to which they identify each of those groups is both variable, and can be affected by your policies in the long term. Convert your country to religion, or atheism, to capitalism, or socialism by careful and nuanced adjustment of your policies and laws over time. A 'focus group' feature lets you look at individual voters and see exactly how they came to a decision to vote for you (or not!).

Previous Playtime
39 minutes

What Was I Thinking When I Bought This
It was a menu-driven strategy game with an unusual hook and I was in the middle of a buying spree. I liked the concept of managing a whole country and tackling real-world problems, and, of course, when anything comes bundled with DLC, it gets my attention.

Expectations and Prior Experience
 I futzed around for about a half-hour, messing with policies and trying to change the US into a socialist utopia, but I screwed things up something fierce. I think it was probably just a matter of me trying to do too much too fast, but I'm wary of the game's underlying political assumptions. Not necessarily in a sinister way, just that even if it's trying to be neutral, if you try to model something, you have to make choices about how to describe its constituent parts. And in the real world, when it comes to something as complex as politics, describing its parts is ideologically fraught.

I guess I'll just have to wait and see. My goal will be to try and suss out the game's algorithm and see if its complex enough to offer multiple valid paths.

Space Empires IV - 20/20 hours

I am history's greatest monster!

In these sorts of games, war is inevitable, but what is not quite so inevitable is one party using high-tech gravity-manipulation weapons to explode stars and wipe out whole solar systems in a single cataclysmic event. But in my defense, it was slightly easier than playing whack-a-mole with the enemy's fleets and colony ships. It's something I learned in my first campaign, when the enemy resettled their planets while I was gathering reinforcements. So, obviously, I decided to kill billions rather than be slightly inconvenienced.

That's probably my favorite part of the game. Not the mass genocide, but the fact that you can alter the map on such a profound level. You can create or destroy planets and stars, collapse solar systems into black holes, disperse nebulas, and even build megastructures like ringworlds and Dyson spheres. I like having that kind of freedom. There's nothing better than becoming a super-powerful elder civilization and making a permanent mark on the universe.

It really makes me want to play Space Empires V, because it goes even farther in that direction, making the big stuff even more visually impressive. Although that's not as big a deal as I thought it would be before I started the game. I thought for sure that Space Empires IV's primitive graphics would keep me at arm's length from the underlying mechanics of the game, but it turns out I got into it almost right away. The only thing that really held me back was the terrible user interface. I've gotten used to modern 4X games that remind you when you have an empty build queue or have an unmoved unit. Having to remember stuff all the time is sooo haaard.

Or maybe I'm just growing soft. There is something to recommend to getting back to basics. Not a lot, to be sure, but something. I definitely enjoyed my time playing this game, but it's another one that's been rendered obsolete by advances in the genre. I'm looking forward to SE5, to see if it stacks up, but given the existence of a sequel, I can foresee no reason to ever play this again (well, perhaps if I'm ever stuck with an old computer, I suspect Space Empires IV would run on a toaster).

Sunday, February 5, 2017

Space Empires IV Deluxe - 14/20 hours

Well, I done screwed up. It turns out you have to manually enable autosave, so when I tried to load up an autosave to undo a strategic mistake, I wound up losing about an hour's worth of progress. Yikes.

It wasn't a total disaster, though. The save was after I built my four Dyson spheres and powerful carrier fleet, but before I got into the confrontation that lead to my fleet being destroyed by an inexplicably stronger opposition. I think the problem is that my fleet was too generalized - in addition to having top-tier weapons and armor, it also had construction and info-war facilities, and thus was less densely armed than dedicated war ships. Another explanation might be that my carriers weren't actually carrying anything, and were relying exclusively on their secondary weapons.

You know, that's probably it.

It's only somewhat my fault, though. Everything in this game takes more clicks than it ought to. To build a fighter ship for my carrier, I first have to click on the unit stack, then click on the specific carrier, then click on the build queue menu, then on the units tab, then on the fighter ship, then on a quantity button, but since the carrier can hold 16 fighters, I have to choose 15 and then 1. It's a total pain.

That being said, there's no real excuse for that. I assumed that because I was at the top of the tech tree, I would be so overwhelmingly powerful that I didn't need to take precautions. I was wrong. In a way, this lost hour is a gift. Now I can build up my forces in a reasonable way and face the aliens fully prepared.

I'm just not looking forward to all the clicking I'll have to do.

Space Empires IV - 8/20 hours

It turns out my fears about this game were mostly unfounded. The UI is, indeed, horrible (having to confirm the end of my turn every damned time is a needless pain in the ass), but aside from being in 2D, it's a lot like Space Empires V, a game I previously enjoyed.

My biggest complaint about the game is that your rival factions do not respect borders. They will send massive warfleets through your occupied systems without any warning. They even sent colony ships to my main system to settle on the tiny, basically worthless planets I was saving for a time when I ran out of room to expand. If there is anything more infuriating in 4X games than forward settling, I have yet to experience it.

But the real problem is that I, as a player, am ill-equipped to deal with it. "Those settlers have set up camp with the obvious intent of making my borders unviable, but they haven't actually attacked me yet" is one of those things where my peaceful instincts conflict with my rational strategic assessment. It's something that is only exacerbated by my military unpreparedness. I'm experienced enough with the genre that I really should know better by now - you should always be prepared to wage total war with your strongest opponent at any moment. I just find the entire exercise of strategic warfare to be uninteresting.

I think I just have to accept that aggressive xenophobia is the way the world in Space Empires IV, start a new game where I plan on having powerful fleets from the very beginning, and hope that I don't get too bogged down in slugging it out with aliens with a poor sense of boundaries.

It's making me furious just thinking about it.

Saturday, February 4, 2017

Space Empires IV Deluxe - Initial Thoughts

About the Game (From the Steam Store Page)

The award-winning Space Empires IV Deluxe is the latest edition in the Space Empires series. A grand strategy title in the space 4X (explore, expand, exploit, and exterminate) genre, Space Empires has already found a place in the heart of strategy gamers everywhere.

Research technology, design new ships, wage war on a tactical level, put down rebellions, meet and greet new species, and much more. All the level and campaign design tools are included, allowing anyone to become a part of the expansive Space Empires Mod community.

Previous Playtime

42 minutes

What Was I Thinking When I Bought This

Space Empires V looked pretty interesting to me and I was poised to buy it, but then I saw this bundle that was only like 50 cents more, and I thought, "why not get both?"

Expectations and Prior Experience

After playing the sequel for 30+ hours, I decided to give this one a try, and, I don't know, I think I might have aged out of it, because it was a 2D game with opaque mechanics and a dozen menus, and while that's the sort of game I tend to like, by the time I actually got around to trying it, it just felt too primitive for me to bother with.

Now that I'm being forced by circumstance to play it, I'm fairly optimistic. The tricky part, I think, will be mastering the game's visual language. If I can get past the presentation and engage with the game's systems as pure data, then I know I'll have a good time. The biggest obstacle I anticipate is that Space Empires V took a long time for me to get to that level, thanks to its unfriendly UI and overwhelming level of detail (that it doesn't bother to explain). I can only imagine that its rougher-looking antecedent will have less detail, but also less user-friendliness.

I've got my fingers crossed that the learning curve isn't too painful and I'll just slip into the sort of easy 4X gameplay that comes naturally to me.

Friday, February 3, 2017

Mount & Blade - 20/20 hours

It turns out I was never a major target. I became a mercenary, earned a bunch of renown and was granted some land, but it was an insignificant holding that attracted no attention from anyone. It's just as well, because I never got the point where I had more than a small band of followers. My troop limit was 40 or so, and most important garrisons were at least twice that. Only after buffing my leadership skill and earning more renown would I have been able to compete on equal terms with the NPCs. And that would have taken a lot more grinding. Clearly, Mount & Blade is another one of those games where 20 hours isn't nearly long enough.

However, I'm not going to try and master it. I know it's probably a cliche for me at this point, but I didn't like the part of the game where you have to take sides and fight against the NPC villages. It just felt cruel to me, looting and pillaging in order to finance my military operations. I mean, you start the game off doing favors for those guys, chasing away bandits, finding cattle, and training their troops, and then to just swoop in and take all their stuff . . . It's a betrayal.

I suppose I didn't have to. Selling looted equipment was just enough to keep me ahead of my troops' wage bills. It's just that being a mercenary/vassal is otherwise uneventful. You get called to follow the marshal around and he just wanders in circles, only occasionally getting into fights. On the rare case that he would stop near a military target, I wound up raiding villages just to have something to do. It was kind of ridiculous, because between the marshal and all the various vassals following him, he had hundreds of troops - enough to besiege nearly any castle, and quite a few cities. If he'd shown any strategic inclination whatsoever, we could have easily expanded the empire of the Nords all the way up and down the coast.

But I guess they had to leave something for me to do once I got powerful and influential enough to be marshal myself. Or, at least, that's what I choose to believe.

In the end, Mount & Blade was a pointless purchase for me. Mount & Blade: Warband is nearly the exact same game, but strictly superior in every way. They aren't even different enough for Mount & Blade to hold interest as a historical curiosity. On the other hand, I spent less than $9 on the whole bundle and I've already gotten more than 50 hours of gameplay out of it, so maybe I don't have too much to complain about. I'll just play the last of the three Mount & Blade games, decide which one I like the best, and then delete the others. . .

I just happen to know already that Mount & Blade isn't going to make the cut.

Thursday, February 2, 2017

Mount & Blade - 10/20 hours

I think I may be inadvertently learning something. I started a new, non-cheaty character and I've only gotten captured once. In one battle, it was eight vs one and I was only level 3, but I still managed to pull out a victory.

It turns out that there's a trick to fighting from horseback that makes you practically invincible. What you have to do is stop caring that single battles will seem to drag on forever. You just have to get some distance between you and the enemy, spur your horse up to full speed, and then take as many runs as necessary to make up for the fact that you're likely to miss with your attack.

It's something that looks kind of ridiculous, this horse-bound warrior running in huge circle and only intermittently engaging with the enemy, but it really works. It means I'm spending a lot more time in battle than I'd really like, but if that's the price of victory, so be it.

Since I'm now the scourge of bandits everywhere, I should probably start thinking about moving up a tier in politics. Stop being a wandering adventurer and become an officially sanctioned mercenary. Then work in service to the king until I am awarded with a fief of my own. After that, use my growing power to gain more land until I'm strong enough to challenge the king. After that . . . the world.

Or maybe not. I'm a little wary of the transition. A lot of the nobles have power that dwarfs mine, and I'm sure that as soon as I make my move, I'll have a huge target painted on my back. It will likely be a cutthroat brawl for survival and prestige and I'm not sure I'm ready for that, emotionally.

I think, at least for a little while, I will keep my focus on bandit hunting. I'm making just enough money from selling their loot that I can just barely keep ahead of my operating expenses and still have enough left over for the occasional piece of superior equipment. Maybe when I have a full suit of plate armor and a champion warhorse I'll feel a little bit more comfortable about challenging the powers that be.