I write about how Battle Brothers Builds a Team for RPS. As a Halloween special, I also attempted to get the Dracula’s Revenge achievement in Europa Universalis IV.
In Final Fantasy XII, players win or lose battles before they begin. Contrary to most conventional strategy game design, Final Fantasy XII charges players with devising a plan before combat which your party later executes. You choose instructions for your party of four adventurers in a menu based on simple ‘If’ statements; in battle each party member follows their own instructions to the best of their ability. Often, that might be as simple as attacking the nearest enemy. However, it’s also possible to give them more complex directions, like healing allies who fall below a specified health threshold, or attacking enemies who target the party archer. Fights are less about thinking quickly and more about testing out a machine you’ve already built. It’s as much Opus Magnum as it is a conventional RPG.
It is a tremendous idea which has potential only partially realised in game. Writing a battle plan is extremely fun, but the system can only work to the best of its ability if the challenges are serious and the options for overcoming them are numerous. Final Fantasy fails to meet both of these conditions. Combat is rarely difficult, and even when an enemy makes trouble, it’s usually cause for grinding in the wilderness rather than rethinking your tactics. The game also does its best to lock off options from players, to drip-feed basic instruction sets, and even to limit the number of instructions that can be given.
Hoplite is a mobile game in which you play the titular hoplite, descending through hell to retrieve the golden fleece and beat your high score. The game is played on a hex grid: each turn, you move one space and when you make a move, so too do all the enemies. If you move into the hex beside an enemy or if you pass them, you kill them, but if you end your turn in a hex beside you they hurt you. When you complete a level, you select one upgrade from a list for your hoplite. As the game progresses it introduces enemies with more complex moves and attacks.
Since I’ve been out of the country lately, I’ve been playing a lot of Hoplite on my phone. For the most part it’s an excellent substitute for PC strategy games, and it’s the first roguelike I’ve really loved. However, Hoplite’s progression and upgrade system are tedious. Bizarrely, your first few games of Hoplite will be the least compelling you’ll play, and the game only opens up after you unlock a few achievements. As I mentioned, you pick one upgrade from a randomly generated list every time you successfully clear a level of enemies.
Turning my citizens into robots was a long-term project. Just to enhance my population with cybernetics, I had to acquire mountains of Stellaris’ new resource, unity, to invest it in traditions, plus I needed to research advanced robotics technology. Then, to put the cybernetics into effect I had to research a special engineering project so gargantuan it consumed half the lifespan of one scientist. It took decades after that to acquire the necessary technologies, traditions and finally to manufacture robot bodies for every cyborg before I could go digital and upload most of my empire to their new, immortal, perfect bodies. Paradox have come up with a brilliant answer to Stellaris’ flawed mid and late game: take the best thing about the game, namely the way in which you create a species and define it through play, and spread the process out across the whole game. Stellaris’ new free update, Banks, and the accompanying paid expansion Utopia do a superb job of catapulting Stellaris into the top tier of space strategy games.
Hey. I’ve written about Total War: Warhammer’s awful and pointlessly confusing campaign map on Rock, Paper, Shotgun. The link is here.
Imperator Augustus is a free additional campaign for Rome II which moves the timeline forward about 200 years. In 272 BC, when the grand campaign begins, Rome is a small city-state. In 42 BC, when Imperator Augustus begins, Rome has just been divided between the triumvirate of Octavian, Mark Antony and Lepidus. Its constituent parts are still the largest states in the Mediterranean. The change in setting solves some of the issues with Rome II I’ve already complained about and bolsters its strengths. It’s a fantastic campaign which I enthusiastically recommend over the standard grand campaign. Where the grand campaign is directionless even as Rome, Imperator Augustus offers you clearer structure, a more interesting and recognizable cast, and, critically, villains you can immediately identify. As well as improving Rome II’s strategic layer, Imperator Augustus makes battles better. Armies are larger and battles are more climactic. Rome II has always had the capacity to simulate vast battles, but Imperator Augustus takes full advantage of this fact from the start. Imperator Augustus is a clear improvement over the grand campaign of Rome II, and an excellent scenario worthy of your time and attention.
At the time of writing, I’ve just conquered Kent, the last English province on the British Isles. It took 298 years (between the game’s opening in 1444 and the final peace in 1744) but at last Ireland controls the whole of both islands. When I’ve finished integrating the land into my empire I get the message I’ve been waiting for: I’ve earned the ‘Luck of the Irish’ achievement. To get the achievement, you’ve got to be playing the game as an Irish state in ironman mode and you need to own and have cores on every province in the British Isles. It’s tough, partially since Ireland doesn’t exist in 1444. Instead, you choose one of the many independent kingdoms on the island (Kildare for me) and by making a few judicious alliances you conquer your equally small neighbours. Playing as an Irish state means constantly dodging annihilation. If you stab your friends in the back and eat your neighbours too quickly, they’re likely to band together, beat you, and divide you up. If you don’t, though, you’ll be unprepared for the moment England or Scotland decide Ireland looks like a nice place to expand.
Trying to get Luck of the Irish made for a great campaign and it speaks to what makes achievements in Europa Universalis IV so good. They ask you to succeed with states you wouldn’t normally play, or to pursue specific, unusual goals with the major players. Without achievements, EUIV’s immense sandbox is often overwhelming. In the beginning, it’s difficult to find an interesting state to play since the game’s options are so vast. In the late game, it’s hard to stay interested in a campaign without a goal. Achievements solve both of these problems: they allow Paradox, the developer, to highlight cool scenarios and they help players stay interested in their campaigns by setting clear goals.
One of the markers of a great game is that I think about it when I’m not playing it. The games I really love aren’t just enjoyable while I’m playing, they’re compelling. If I’m reading a history book, I sometimes find myself wondering how Europa Universalis IV implements the country or idea I’m learning about. When I’m doing something routine like ironing I’ll sometimes think about what I’ll do differently the next time I play Hitman. Gwent is a really great game. Since I got into the beta about a week ago, I’ve been thinking about how I could change my deck and what cards I’d need to build another, even when I’m not playing the game. I’ve enjoyed drawing up a list of cards for a necromancy deck based around returning units from the graveyard, and it’s been fun to improvise with the cards I already have.
When I started playing Galactic Civilizations II, I was given good advice to turn the frequency of habitable planets from the standard ‘occasional’ to ‘uncommon.’ Without that change in the galaxy setup the first hundred turns are tedious, as you compete with AI (or slower still, human) opponents to build and micromanage your colony ships to take as many planets as possible as quickly as possible. The uncommon setting makes Gal Civ II speedier, and critically makes finding a habitable world exciting rather than routine. Stellaris’ galaxy settings aren’t as complex as what Gal Civ II provides but it also has an option which improves the game’s pacing. That option is the spiral galaxy type, which makes for a better early and mid-game as you advance from fighting or befriending empires on your star belt to encountering aliens across spiral arms. The trouble you’re bound to have with moving between arms also opens up a range of problems for players which simply aren’t present on elliptical or ring galaxies.
I love the idea of government types in Stellaris. Encountering an empire which describes itself as a ‘Science Directorate’ is extremely evocative of the kind of society you’re dealing with. They add immensely Stellaris’ randomly generated AI opponents, ensuring you won’t face exactly the same threat twice. For the player, though, the choice is a neat way to give your empire a bit of identity, but the differences in government structure are too minor and governments in the same group too similar to really make you switch up your playstyle. In this post, I’ve gone through each government type and suggested ways they could be made more distinctive. I haven’t added or subtracted from the existing set, and I haven’t addressed the ‘effects’ of government types (for instance +20% naval capacity and -5% ship upkeep for military dictatorships) because I haven’t played enough of the game to venture to rebalance these. Some government types work as well as they can without major changes to the game: I’ve noted their name and given their in-game description nonetheless, but left them without comment.