August 3, 2012

4X’ing the 4X’s


This post is going to be about exploring, expanding, exploiting, and exterminating some 4x games, which of course are games about exploring, expanding, exploiting, and exterminating your way around the galaxy. See it all makes perfect sense!

Disclaimer: I love 4x games, but I’m also a dabbler in the genre. Much of this blog post will be filled with gross generalizations and conjecture. Proceed (and retaliate) at your own risk!


Exploring
I think the first 4x style game I played was ALPHA CENTAURI on the PC. It translated the Sid Meier’s Civilization game into a sci-fi setting, set (surprise, surprise) in the Alpha Centauri star system and revolved around various human factions settling a particularly interesting planet.

But first, let’s back up. How did Alpha Centauri come to be?

In 1980, Francis Tresham designed a little boardgame game called CIVILIZATION, published under Hartland Trefoil Ltd. (and of course the popular expansion ADVANCED CIVa mere 11 years later). In turn, there was this sequence of events (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Civilization_(series)#Litigatio...) that established Sid Meier’s CIVILIZATION brand, with the first game coming out in 1991 and the latest installment, CIV V, in 2010. The litigations, acquisitions, and mergers involved with brand security are enough to keep the most die-hard ACQUIRE fans drooling at the mouth if you care to give it a read. The Civ series takes a historic angle with players growing their little empire, researching technologies, and of course building up a military.

As an aside, the story on the cardboard side is no less confusing. First, there is SID MEIER’S CIVILIZATION: THE BOARDGAME, the 2002 disaster by Eagle games. Second is SID MEIER’S CIVILIZATION: THE BOARDGAME, the 2010 darling by Fantasy Flight Games. This faux pas mirrors, rather paradoxically, the 2007 release of AGE OF DISCOVERY and the 2007 release of AGE OF DISCOVERY. Are we confused yet?

Anyway, back to Alpha Centauri! This game was released in 1999, between CIV II and CIV III; and I played it a ton. I was enough engrossed that I was completely unaware (at the time) of the “real” 4x flavor of space games coming out on the market. If you want the full chronology, THIS WIKIPEDIA entry tracks the rise and fall of 4X computer games, in both the historic earth-based Civilization tracks, fantasy tracks, and the sci-fi / space tracks. Or if you prefer a more narrative approach, check out THIS ENTRY.

Alpha Centauri embodied the 4X traits well by building off the Civilization system. You “explored” unknown areas of land adjacent to your faction’s landing site, expanded by building new cities, exploited things though technology development and harnessing resources, and of course set about destroying your opponents through direct force, diplomacy, or economic leverage. It is a great game, that I still feel embodies the best attributes the genre, including an engaging technology structure, lots of diplomatic options, subterfuge, and more. My only real complaint against the game is that I would have liked that whole experience packaged up at a bigger scale; that of the galaxy itself. Plus, by the time the late game rolled around players were nearly drowning in having to micromanage their various combat units. Ugh.

During the years, I missed out on a rather seminal game. For those of you unfamiliar with the genre, MASTER OF ORION (PC, 1993) was the game that spawned the “4X” term (being a pun on XXX movie rating incidentally). This term became a rallying cry for the genre and was applied retroactively both to board and video games that were previously earlier. The video game side had early releases, with particularly awesome cover art, like Cosmic Balance II (1983), Reach for the Stars (1983), and Spaceward Ho! (1990). Incredible covers! Ultimately, MASTER OF ORION II (1996) would become the standard by which all other 4x games would be (and continue to be) judged.



The boardgame lineage goes further back, with the likes of STELLAR CONQUEST (1975), OUTREACH: CONQUEST OF THE GALAXY (1976), IMPERIUM (1977), and THE SWORD AND THE STARS (1981; a.k.a. the year I was born). I’m picking these games nearly at random from THIS GEEKLIST, which of course you should refer too if you want to dive into the available board gaming options.







Expanding
It was years later before I became interesting in the 4X genre again. Alpha Centauri was bit of an oddity in my gaming chronicles, as I mostly focused on multiplayer First Person Shooter (FPS) and Real-Time Strategy (RTS) games over the decades. But the mere existence of the other 4X games, both video and board, has always tugged at the edges of my consciousness. It was only a matter of time before I dove into the genre, fueled in part by a sustained interest in reading sci-fi books of an analogous nature (Simmons, Hamilton, Reynolds, etc.).

So a few years ago I went on a binge of trying out a number of different 4X video games that had been released. The two I tinkered around with the most were Galactic Civilizations II and Sword of the Stars (not to be confused with the board game THE SWORD AND THE STARS). You see, I was (and still am) on a quest of sorts. Call it a grail quest if you will. I’m endeavoring to find a 4X PC game that has the right amount of scope and the right amount of detail (and this quest continues in the boardgame arena too). The most perverse thing about my quest is that I haven’t actually played the shining star in the genre, Master of Orion II, which has been such a source of inspiration for the video and boardgames (read: Eclipse) that follows.

By “scope”, I want my 4X galactic game to give equal weight and emphasis to economic, political, espionage/intelligence, cultural, and technological aspects of the game as is usually given to military aspects of the these games. I often find that so many games in the genre focus on military approaches, so I’m trying to find games that provide ways of “interacting and affecting your opponents” in non-military ways. While these non-military aspects are integral to most 4x games in terms of building up and developing your own empire and its capacities, rarely do they provide mechanisms for interacting with your opponents. Sure, you can make diplomatic alliances, but how many games let you put diplomatic pressure on an opponent? Or use an industrial advantage in some arena to corner a galactic resource or market? Not enough games I think.

Also related to scope is a pet peeve of mine, which is “why are there so few units!” in these games. When it comes to a military conflict, I don’t want to be buried in the minutia of what weapon and equipment slots are filled with what laser-flavor or cannon-shmannon; but what I DO want is a quantity of engaged units that reflects the scale of the game. Not a half a dozen units duking it out. I want half a dozen thousand units nuking it out. That’s intergalactic drama!

So by “detail,” I actually want less detail and micromanagement across the board, which will require higher levels of abstraction. But by doing this, I want the emphasis of the game shifted off the incremental management layers and more onto the higher level strategic thinking layers. A lot of 4x games rely on AI governors that players can setup to manage their colonies, research, fleets, or other aspects of the game autonomously. That’s well and good, but I have a hard time with this approach, as the “detail” is still there and operating behind the scenes, but now I’m even more detached from an understanding of how the systems all work.

Ultimately, Sword of the Stars fell flat because it became too repetitive and didn’t really cover the scope I was looking for. Overall, the game emphasized combat build up too much, to the detriment of other lines of development, but then coupled the combat with an extremely lame and pooly implemented real-time conflict mechanism. I did like the level of abstraction applied to system + planetary development, effectively using little sliders to let you adjust the allocation of your resources into terraforming, infrastructure, research, etc. The research tree was massively unwieldy as well. I did like the full 3D nature of system map and how each race had unique ways of moving between the stars, but that too overtime proves a little cumbersome.

Galactic Civ II was fun, but for some reason it just didn’t hold my attention. I think I wanted a prettier game; which I’m ashamed to admit because graphic have never taken place over gameplay for me. But for some reason, I just couldn’t get into the game. I will certainly need to try playing it again.

Exploiting

More recently, I picked up SINS OF A SOLAR EMPIRE: REBELLION expansion/stand-alone game (I had played the original Sins a bit too). Sins is a real-time 4x game (as opposed to turn-based), which of course adds a substantially different feeling to the game. Sins did a lot of things right; with some interesting diplomacy additions (after applying the expansions), the idea of your empire’s “culture” spreading and being able to use that as a mechanism for attack, etc. But the BIG thing that nearly ruins the game for me is at a thematic level. Games will take place across at most 3 or 4 star systems; and the vast majority of the action takes place within a solar system. I find it really odd that the initial condition of the game could start with multiple alien races occupying different planets of the same star system (complete with a “homeworld”?). It’s the kind of scale-theme disconnect that really irritates me. At the end of the day, I like Sins more as a RTS game than as a true 4X game.

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been playing around with some newer (to me) games. One is a PC game called ENDLESS SPACE, just released a few months ago, and the others are iOS games, ASCENDENCY and STARBASE ORION, with the latter being touted as a spiritual successor to Master of Orion II.

 

Ascendency

I’ll start with this and be brief…. This is a complex little devil, made more difficult by the fact that it is a much older DOS title that is ported to the iOS. That said, I really do like the minimalistic graphic design of the game, and it portrays the space feel well for me. I’ve only played a partial game, but I must say that it’s a fairly intricate + complex game. The game uses a fully 3D star map and relies on travel lanes to control movement between the stars (not my preference). The races have a lot of interesting character to them, which I like. The tech tree is “hidden” and you only see future tech’s after researching the previous one in the chain. And there are a lot of techs! I’m not too far into the game so I can’t comment much on the combat balance or long-term playability, but it’s an interesting game that I’m going to continue to tinker around with.

 

Endless Space

Endless Space does a lot of things that I’m looking for, but falls short in some ways too. The interface, graphics, and UI are excellent, and goes a long way to sucking you into the game. It has a bit more abstracted and streamlined feel compared to some other titles, and I really like that. For example, the resources and capabilities of colonized planets are pooled together at the system level, with each planet chipping in its share. I actually really like this, as it avoids the tedium of having to replicate colony development schedules across multiple planets within a system, and lets you focus the overall combined planetary effects. The “unit” of contention in most 4x games is at a system level, so it makes sense to me to abstract away the detail at the smaller scales (planet). That said, there are still some options for specializing certain bonuses at the planet level and even at the moon level; which is a nice touch.

The biggest complaint levied at Endless Space is its combat system. Combat is presented in a cinematic view over three “rounds,” which are stupidly named long, medium, and melee range. Each round, of combat, players choose a tactic “card” that provides certain bonuses for the round and depending on the card can cancel out their opponent’s card. I think most video game 4x’ers want more direct control over the conflict resolution, i.e. Master of Orion II’s turn based order system or real-time combat control like in Sword of the Stars. As a boardgamer, I actually like the system as it is implemented; as I want a more hands-off combat mechanism (again trying to eliminate micromanagement). The cards are interesting and add some tension and control to the conflict nonetheless.

What I despise about the combat system though is how a big combat is broken down into smaller “fleets” with completely arbitrary size caps. This keeps most engagements small with less than 10 or so fleets per side, and often less than that. This situation manifests even when there might be dozens and dozens ships on either side of the line waiting in “cue” to fight. It is total rubbish in terms of gameplay and theme – and it’s a big blow in my long-term desire to play the game. The military forces of the world today organize and command VASTLY more units of all types; which underscores the stupidity of these small fleet engagements seen in Endless Space (Sword of the Stars had a similar failing). Add to this the fact that the ship design mechanics encourages a doctrine of hard counters rather than one of fluid and diverse combined armed strategies, something the web-based wargame ULTRACORPS exceled at.

The diplomacy aspects of the game work well enough and provide some interesting treaty and negotiation options. I don’t have any real issue with the implementation there. I do wish there was more character and emotion in the diplomatic undertakings (Alpha Centauri excelled in this regard), but it isn’t bad. The element that seems to be missing (but is on cue to be added) are espionage mechanics; i.e. gathering Intel, stealing tech, sabotaging construction, etc.


Starbase Orion

Next up is Starbase Orion, which is a more traditionally Civ inspired game, claiming to be the spiritual successor of Master of Orion II. And I have become rather addicted to it unfortunately, which is a good sign. Graphically, the game is modern and sleek looking, but it is nothing flashy (it is an iOS game and needs to work on the small iPod or iPhone screens); nevertheless I quite like the look. Very functional and direct.

The gameplay does nearly everything right. It’s right on the edge of being too detailed; but manages to balance this detail fairly evenly across all aspects of the game. Exploration is open (no travel lanes) with ships able to travel anywhere within fuel range of their empire’s colony’s. I much prefer this open flexible movement approach compared to the fixed travel lanes found in Endless Space. There are discoverable wormholes that link two star systems together, which adds a nice dynamic to the board state. In addition, players can build warp gates to accelerate movement between gated sectors. Very cool. Within each star system there can be multiple planets, and co-habitation of a star system is possible.

Ship design + construction is pretty straightforward with various weapon + support slots on 6 different ship types; giving you lots of choices but avoiding the need to pull out a spreadsheet to min-max ship performance. Planetary development is pretty straightforward, and the UI gives plenty of information where it is needed to keep you informed about where the economic numbers are coming from and how to quickly optimize the domestic workings of your empire.

The researching is handled in a neat way; with three research buckets each containing a variety of potential tech’s at the start of the game. As you research in one area, tech’s you pass on researching gradually fall off the menu (and they will circle around eventually), which forces some genuinely tough choices in how you research while also adding a little excitement and variability in the progression. I think this was a great idea; and keeps the research from becoming too routine or mechanical.

Combat strikes a perfect balance for me. When fleets engage, ALL ships on both sides of the conflict participate. You can get engagements with dozens and dozens of ships on each side, limited only by your empire’s total fleet capacity. When a conflict starts, each player can assign orders in two ways; (1) you can control the movement tactic; i.e. close range, keep distance, evade, flee, stay together, etc. and (2) targeting tactic; allowing you to focus on the closest ship, weakest ship, or select a specific target to attack or defend. The interface makes it easy to assign orders to single ships, all ships, or to specific classes of ships. The battles are resolved automatically at the end of the turn, and on the following turn you can watch the tactical replay; which Is very well implemented.

Starbase Orion allows you to build special agents, which you can deploy defensively or offensively to steal tech or intelligence, or to sabotage construction projects or fleet movements. At the moment though, there is not a more complete diplomacy system in place. However, the developers have outlined a very interesting looking diplomacy system for use vs. the AI’s or human opponents, which they hope to have finished within the next few updates. I’m eagerly looking forward to that addition; as it is one of the only things I feel is really missing from the experience.
 

 

Exterminating

Overall I’m really enjoying Starbase Orion, and of all the 4x games I’ve played over the past few years, this one makes me keep wanting to fire it up the most and give it a play. It strikes a great balance between complexity and simplicity across the game’s different sub-systems while encouraging a high level of depth. Fleet maneuvering and jockeying for position is compelling and interesting, and other elements of the game play nicely into it.

So for the time being, I’m exterminating the other candidates from my cue.


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