Tag: strategy (page 1 of 2)

Game Review: Splendor

Board games come in all shapes and sizes, and run the gamut from frenetic, brief bursts of simple gameplay, like Escape! The Curse of the Temple, to day-long brain-burning grand strategy experiences, such as Twilight Imperium. Some games, however, manage the tricky feat of being both easy to learn and play, and deep in terms of strategy and puzzle-like challenge. One such game is Splendor, a contender for this year’s prestigious “Spiel des Jahres” (game of the year) award in Germany.

Set during the Renaissance, Splendor casts its players as gem merchants, using the glittering resources to build and expand their holdings. Some of these properties do little more than feed more gems into one’s pockets, while others earn the merchant prestige. Famous figures will also watch the proceedings, lending their support to merchants who play into their interests. Merchants are, of course, too refined to degenerate into violence, but that does not mean that the competition for holdings is not excessively cutthroat. You have to be smart, fast, and ruthless to earn the right combination of holdings to earn the most prestige.

The holdings are displayed on cards in a tableau available to all players, arrayed in ranks from one to three. First-tier holdings are simple mines that offer no prestige but are very cheap, and provided permanent discounts to future purposes. Second-tier holdings are pricier but offer prestige along with their discounts, and top-tier cards are pulverizingly costly but bring in tons of points. The aforementioned famous figures each display a given number of holdings in certain colors, and the first player to reach that number of holdings earns the figure’s prestige. On your turn, you can pick up a diverse number of gems, double down on a single color, purchase a holding, or reserve a holding by picking up a single ‘wild’ gem. The purchase of holdings is facilitated with thick plastic chips, each representing a different kind of gem. The number of chips is limited, and once they’re gone, they’re gone, at least until a merchant buys a holding.

The bank of gems: source of and solution to all your problems.

A good board game does not base its core gameplay around randomization, but uses randomization as part of its setup to increase replay value. The decks of holdings are shuffled, and the patrons selected at random, before the game even begins, so the tableau presented to players is always different. The challenge, however, is always the same: how can you use the limited resources available to grab the cards you need before someone else does? Splendor‘s presentation, in addition to being beautiful, always challenges its players. There are multiple ways to carve a path to victory, with some players trying to go wide in their holdings’ diversity while others opt for vertical collections of deep discounts to rush towards high-prestige rewards. Players bounce off of the tableau as well as each other in their quest for victory, and the game manages to combine the tension of competition with the intellectual challenge of puzzle-solving.

In addition to its rock-solid gameplay, Splendor is simply pretty to look at. The art of the holdings is very attractive, their color palettes informing the gems required to pick them up. In addition, the gems themselves are weighty, large chips that clack and clatters as they move from their stacks to players’ positions and back again. It lends the game an almost poker-like feel as players study the tableau the way professional gamblers study the spread of cards at a Texas Hold-‘Em tournament. For all of its relatively simple design and easy-to-explain rules, Splendor provides not only a challenging gameplay experience, but a lovely one.

The holdings are just gorgeous.

The Spiel des Jahres award is one of the highest in all of gaming. To qualify for it, a game has to be challenging and interactive but also straightforward enough that anybody can play it. Splendor hits all of the right notes: its concept lends itself to diversified gameplay, its rules are clear and simple, the layout is fantastic, and the design is nearly flawless. Even if it doesn’t win the award, it definitely deserves a place in your collection. In a world of heaving shelves full of wargaming and sci-fi miniatures, and massive boxes teeming with monsters to slay, games like this may seem simplistic and easy to overlook, but a game this attractive, this challenging, and this rewarding is truly a sight to behold. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

Game Review: Endless Space

I’m no stranger to grand strategy. I grew up learning the ropes in old Avalon Hill wargames, and made the transition easily to so called “4X” games – exploration, expansion, exploitation and extermination – on the PC. Master of Orion was perhaps my favorite of these games, mostly because it was set in space. It’s been a while since anything has come close to the experience that game provided, and while I do appreciate the occasional game of Civilization V, the look and feel of Endless Space made me very excited.

Courtesy Amplitude

The universe is ancient, vast, and mysterious. Long before any of the Factions that currently seek control of the galaxy left their home worlds for the stars, there were the Endless. While these beings mastered all aspects of knowledge from time-space manipulation to the extension of life itself, they ultimately fell to internal conflict. All that remain of the Endless are their ruined temples, their legacy of expansion and exploration, and the substance known only as Dust. It is Dust that holds the secrets that gave power to the Endless, and it is Dust that the Factions of the galaxy seek to control and understand.

Not since the original Masters of Orion has a strategy game in space given me the dreaded and wonderful “One More Turn” syndrome to this degree. This affliction is most common amongst the players of grand strategy potentate Civilization, and Endless Space conveys that experience beautifully. The organic nature of the clean interface, the ease of moving from technology trees to empire displays to fleet construction, the clip at which notices come in for your attention, the layout of the map and the subtle, atmospheric score all add up to the sort of immersion that will consume your evenings and devour your weekends. You’ll colonize a new world, set up your next tech path, and just before you decide to save and quit, it’ll occur to you that your neighbor is breathing down your neck. So you decide to retool for defense and prepare yourself for a counter-attack, and the next thing you know it’s three hours later and the sun is going to be coming up soon oh bollocks.

Courtesy Amplitude
It’s been said the map resembles the Mass Effect galaxy. This is not a bad thing.

As with many other 4X games, Endless Space does not pigeonhole the player into one form of play or another. Military campaigns, diplomacy, economic domination and scientific discovery are all viable paths to victory. If you choose to engage in combat, the game uses an interesting system of action cards for your fleets. You choose the tactics your admirals will employ, hoping that those tactics will counter whatever your opponents choose. While you can’t take direct control of your ships as you could in Master of Orion, the graphics engine still renders the battles elegantly if you choose to view the action. You can have the battle resolve automatically, as well, if you want to move on to your next task.

If I had a complaint about Endless Space, it would be that the game is a little austere. The interface is clean and well-organized, to be sure, but it also lacks a certain amount of personality. While the various screens and commands are not what I would call unfriendly or unwieldy, aspects like the nature of space combat and the diplomacy screens can make you feel removed from the experience. There’s nothing like the ‘conversations’ one had in Master of Orion; you don’t get to see an enemy Faction actually get pissed at you for taking a shot at their fleet. It’s just another notification on the side of the screen, to be read and processed before you move on. As much as it helps the game maintain a steady flow, it removes some of the personality the game could have exhibited.

Courtesy Amplitude

That said, I feel confident in recommending Endless Space. I’d do my usual run-down at the end, here, but the fact of the matter is I need to play more of the game before I do that. As it happens, I seem to have played myself into a corner in my current game and it’s time for me to start over. As frustrating as this would normally be, I find myself looking forward to seeing what the new home system looks like, planning out my tech path, and preparing for negotiations and perhaps warfare with neighboring factions. All I need is one more turn. Just one more turn…

Strategic Writing

Found on hoopthoughts.blogspot.com, will credit artist if I can find them

Writing is an odd profession. Writing fiction, even moreso. Most other professions have to start at one place and end at another. Linear progression of a product, from conception to design to implementation and delivery, is the baseline for most items consumed by the public. And while you certainly never pitch an unfinished or unpolished novel to an agent, the creation of what you eventually present does not necessarily need to unfold in a linear fashion.

You may think your novel’s outline is a guideline to how to write it. And, in a sense, it’s true. An outline is a powerful tool. It helps you lay out your plot, determine when and how to develop your characters, when things take a turn for the worse, who lives and who dies and who is left to pick up the pieces. It’s one of the organizational linchpins of the novel, and I for one would be lost without mine.

Just like a general would be lost without a map of the battlefield. And make no mistake, when you write a novel, you go to war.

I don’t mean writing is a horrible, traumatic experience (although it can be); what I mean is, writing is a struggle, day after day, to achieve a goal that will be fighting back against you. It may feel at times that mundane matters of the world are actually conspiring against you, from chores to dayjobs to distractions and things like needing to eat and sleep. We must choose our battles, carve our time out of the enemy lines with sweeping advances of determination, and when we finally cross no-man’s-land into that place where we can write, we have to make the most of the precious ground we’ve gained.

I hope you don’t think this means you have to follow the outline to the letter.

How often do you assault a castle by its heavily defended front gate? Canny generals find a way across the moat to a back door or sluice gate. Some lay siege. Some sow sedition into the enemy ranks. Many positions that seem unassailable do have vulnerabilities, even if it means digging a tunnel or using aircraft. So it is with writing.

If you feel like the writing time you’ve gained is going nowhere, and something you’re trying to work through is resisting your efforts, don’t give up. Try writing at another section. Write the inner monologue of a character. Write gibberish. Just keep writing. The words will come if you keep making them appear on the paper or screen.

Not every day is going to go well, and not every pocket of resistance will expose its vulnerabilities to you. That’s okay. You’re not a failure. Write around it and come back to it later. You have plenty of time, you have the words you need in your head, and you just need to clear some others out of the way so the right ones can come pouring out. If you’re struggling, come at your writing more strategically. Like a conscript in a foxhole at the base of the hill, you may not be able to see to goal, but trust me, it’s there.

Buck up, soldier. It’s an uphill slog from here.

The Speed of Strategy

Courtesy Blizzard Entertainment
First contact with the Protoss. Better think fast.

Yesterday’s Extra Credits discussed depth & complexity in games. When discussing complexity, James asks the question “How many mental calculations per second are you asking of your player?” He then goes on to posit that turn-based strategy games are no more complex than first-person shooters, based on the number and types of decisions a player must make based on the pace of play. But turn-based isn’t the only kind of strategy game out there. When considering the degree of challenge presented by a game based on strategic, overarching decision-making, the speed at which the game progresses is very important.

When I think turn-based strategy, I think Civilization. It’s the 4X game I grew up with and, while I miss Master of Orion, the latest iteration is very polished and well-presented. As all of your decisions are done on your turn, and no time limit is imposed on those turns, the pace of play is very leisurely. While you are making complicated choices, especially as you develop more technologies and expand your empire, you are under no temporal pressure to come to a conclusion. You have all the time in the world, and that makes a game of Civ truly relaxing, if incredibly time-consuming.

Some games present the choices of the player in relative real time but mitigate the pace with the use of a pause function. So it is with FTL. Weapons fire and teleporters activate just as soon as their cooldowns make them available, which can lead to some intensity, especially when you have multiple hull breaches and you have Mantis invaders chewing on your crew. But you can hit the Pause button at any time, catch your breath, and consider the situation from a broad perspective. This reduces the immediate burden on your brain and mitigates the pressure, thus making decision-making a bit easier and reducing what appears to be a daunting amount of complexity.

Online games do not afford the luxury of a pause function. Time manipulation in the real world would be a titanic advantage, but chronomancy is unfortunately restricted to speculative fiction. However, team-based play like that in League of Legends tends to take the burden off of the individual player. Ideally, five brains are better than one, and being able to at least discuss the situation at hand if not develop a plan of attack based on that information lessens the cognitive burden on the individual. The pace is still fast and some decisions will need to be made immediately without help from the team, but that ‘safety net’ is still there.

And then you have solo real-time strategy experiences like StarCraft 2. While a team mode does exist for the game, the play that earns the most attention, accolades, and money is the one-on-one experience. You can strategize and theorycraft until the exploding sheep come home, but when the game begins, all of your decisions need to be made immediately. You must process information on the fly, while carrying out your own plans. You must both out-smart and out-play your opponent, even if you’re going for a held-back strategy that works from the angle of base expansion, defense, area control, and technological upgrades as opposed to, say, a cannon rush.

Yet the decisions you have to make in a game of StarCraft – unit composition, the approach to the objective, examination of opponent’s weaknesses to exploit – are not that different from those in Civilization. They simply need to happen more quickly, and while this may make the game seem more complex, I dare say it really isn’t. The complexity of the decisions is magnified by the pace of play, but taken on their own the decisions themselves are not that difficult. It is, however, difficult to make a solid decision in a very limited span of time, and still have the confidence to know it was the right one to make (see also The Walking Dead).

This is both the challenge and the appeal of strategy. No matter what the pace of play might be, the brain is fully engaged in making decisions and carrying out strategies. Playing well is definitely more a case of mind over matter, and I for one am a huge fan of thinking your way out of a difficult position.

Game Review: XCOM Enemy Unknown

I may be accused of cheating on this one. Not because of my “save scumming”, mind you, as there is zero shame in doing that when it comes to XCOM Enemy Unknown. I’ll get to why in a bit, but suffice it to say the reason some may not relish the idea of me writing up a review for the game is I’ve technically done it twice already: once for its classic old-school flavor and once as a first impressions.

However, at time of writing I’ve poured 32 hours into the game, which is more than I’ve spent in some MMOs, so there’s got to be something to it worth talking about.

Courtesy Firaxis Games

The playability of the game may be tied into its emphasis on long-term goals and costs. When the game begins, after your first firefight, you’re given the choice of where to place your initial base. This is actually a crucial decision, as the bonus you get tied to the continent you choose is rather significant and stays with you throughout the game. Research takes time, manufacturing takes resources, and soldiers rarely start at a high rank, meaning each aspect of the game requires investment aimed towards a future payoff. In the case of the soliders, it’s payoff you may never see if they die in combat.

Speaking of combat, the few problems I’ve encountered with the UI during missions remain, but are thankfully not terribly frequent. Soldiers still occasionally shoot in the wrong direction, hot buttons for skills can move around which messes with you when you feel the pressure to get the Heavy out of the way of that charging Berserker he is about to go all Juggernaut on your ass, so on and so forth. But it still holds up in spite of the bugs and rewards forethought, positioning, mixed unit tactics, and not charging headlong into the enemy.

Courtesy Firaxis Games

While some of the complexity and outright terror of the original game has been lost, the current iteration of XCOM remains tense and absorbing. This is especially true of Ironman mode. When you are unable to save when you wish and cannot load a previous save from within the game, you are forced to face the consequences of every action you take. Each decision must be weighed carefully. A mistake can spell disaster, and there is no going back. I consider this the ‘proper’ way to play, but if you’re unfamiliar with XCOM, don’t enable Ironman the first time you play. It can be an absolutely punishing experience, and without the safety net of so-called “save scumming”, your only recourse is to start the entire game over.

I have long admired this game’s previous iteration for its difficulty and complexity, and I continue to do so. While it may have lost some of its depth with the loss of time units and the watering-down of in-combat options, the perfect balance between developing your resources in your anthill-like base and getting said resources by shooting at aliens is entirely intact. As frustrating as it can be to lose a high-ranking soldier, playing the game never ceases to be fun and challenging. Even if you reload the same mission half a dozen times because a would-be sniper apparently can’t hit the broad side of a barn.

Courtesy Firaxis Games
“I’ve got a bad feeling about this…”

Stuff I Like: The new aesthetic and the cutscenes have grown on me. There’s an emphasis on planning and coordinated tactics that is good to see. The way in which the challenges ramp up keeps the game tense.
Stuff I Don’t Like: The random nature of the alien assaults and the payouts for missions can be a touch frustrating. The aforementioned bugs can get in the way of a ‘clean’ gaming experience. And would more than one accent really have been that difficult to nail down?
Stuff I Love: Pulling off a mission with no casualties makes you feel like a boss. The base-building is surprisingly involving and ties very closely into mission performance, which makes the whole game flow very well. An excellent soundtrack psyches you up for your missions, raises tension when enemies are in sight, and maintains an aura of dread even when all is well. And while this may be unintentional, the knowledge of bugs and miss chances means that your soldier pulling off an excellent shot is all the more satisfying to watch.

Bottom Line: Reviving XCOM could never have been an easy sell, and the fact that Firaxis pulled it off this well is astonishing in and of itself. XCOM Enemy Unknown proves that its blend of resource management and tactical turn-based combat is viable in an environment of modern military shooters and RPG-like slash-em-ups. In spite of its bugs, it is one of the best games I’ve played all year.

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