December 29, 2014

The Stars My Destination – An Armada 2526 Retrospective

The quest for an exemplary space 4X game feels like chasing a ghost. Just when you think you have it captured, it glides through your fingers and disappears back into the closest. Or under the rug. Or whether else spectral spirits like to go.

You see, we 4X gamers are a fickle bunch and are knowingly unwilling to have our cake not be able to eat it. The cake, by the way, is a deliciously complex and multilayered affair – and the act of eating it is to be wrapped up in an amazing and evocative space opera while simultaneously getting our deep strategic gameplay fix. Unfortunately these dueling desires are at often at odds with one another. So the poor schmucks charged with creating these games are left in a sort of limbo state where it is hard to satisfy the fan base across all of their clamoring, confounded demands.

If its sounds like I’m ripping on 4X fans – I assure you I’m one of them too, embattled in my own internal conflict between wanting a wondrous narrative to open up before my eyes while also taking no substitutes for challenging strategic gameplay. I have a pet theory that there are in fact two camps or mindsets among 4X gamers:

Camp 1: 4X gamers that are drawn to the simulation aspects of watching their empires grow and unfold over a long period of time, at an epic scale, and at relatively relaxed pace.

Camp 2: 4X gamers that are drawn to interesting, consequential, and challenging strategic decisions where players are fully in control and games play out in a competitive and concise manner with lots of varied strategies to pursue and refine.

It’s possible (even likely) that any individual 4X gamer will have a hand or foot in both of these camps at the same time. And while not strictly speaking opposites, the gameplay and design implications of satisfying the two camps are often at odds. What makes a game more appealing from a simulation and narrative perspective tends to make it overwrought and weakens the strategic dimension of the game.

What’s a 4X gamer to do?

Until I make my own game, which will no doubt be the metaphorical equivalent of the grand unification theory for physics translated to 4X games, I’m not sure. Perhaps it is best if we at least try to be more cognizant of where our interests lay and by consequence advocate for the kinds of gameplay ideas that work well and satisfy both aspects of our demands. Until then, I want to take a look back at Armada 2526 – because it’s a telling case study of our fickle demands and how that cascades into critical reception.

Box Art! Do these things still come in boxes?

Armada 2526 is a space 4X game released back in the prehistoric time of 2009 and expanded in 2010 with the Supernova expansion. The game’s lead designer is Bob Smith – a name for which, despite its ubiquity, belies the fact that this is the lead designer and project director behind the Total War Games, up through Medieval 2: Total War. Good credentials for designing a 4X game right? So you might be asking yourself; (A) “why have I never heard of this game” … or perhaps (B) “I heard this game was terrible” or finally (C) “why are you digging it back out of the grave?”

If you answered (A) – chances are you didn’t hear about it because it was written off by many 4X gamers and critics right out of the gate. Written off, I might add, largely for reasons that the game didn’t conform to a lot of the expectations of 4X gamers. First, it doesn’t have race customization (oh noes!) – but it does have 20 or so different races and sub-factions to choose from, so isn’t all bad. Second, it doesn’t have ship customization (greater OH NOES!) – but as I’ll expound on later I think it is a better game for it. Lastly, there was a smorgasbord of lesser grievances: clunky UI, cumbersome real-time combat, too simple seeming colony management. I’m painting a nice picture here right? Well get back to all of this.

If you answered (B) – chances are you heard all of the above and took a pass on the game as a consequence. In that case, the rest of my retrospective here will be to convince you that it’s worth looking past these issues and take another look at the game.

If you answered (C), DING DING DING – I’ll shoot it to you straight: I think Armada 2526 (with the expansion!) is, despite its downsides, one of the better spacey 4X games released since Master of Orion 2. There, I said it. It’s a good case study for why less is more, and how through relatively simplicity (we are talking about 4X games here!) you can nonetheless manage to create a deep strategic experience with a fair dose of narrative theatrics on top.

This was a giant lead in to the review, but context is important. Where to start?

Imperial Star De-Structure

What Armada 2526 does well, in the grandest sense, is get the scale and focus of game and the level of management involved nicely balanced in a way that emphasizes the big picture strategic gameplay over the detailed nuts and bolts of empire management. When I think about my ideal space 4X game, I want it to be about grandeur, bold sweeping and transformative moves. I don’t really want to be down in the weeds telling this group of peons to go farm space veggies on the 5th planet from the star in the north-west quadrant. As I said in a previous post, I want to be Empire Uberlord: The Mastermind, and NOT Empire Manger: The Spreadsheet Tabulator. If I have to tell peons on each of my 100’s of conquered systems where to farm – man, that’s just not fun (for me).

Zoom in ... GAZE at the trade routes ...

So the “structure” of a 4X game is critical for getting the scope and scale balanced well. Structure, as I use the term, refers to how the “Management Units” in the game are designed and manipulated, and how connectivity and interactions between management units shapes a greater strategic space in the game. “Management Units” might be individual cities in a game like Civilization, or individual planets (like in Master of Orion), or individual star systems comprised of multiple planets (like in Endless Space). The easiest way to identify the management unit is to ask: “at what level am I managing production orders?” – this is a good proxy.

In Armada 2526, the management unit is the star system itself. Each star system will have zero or one primary planet of some type that can be colonized, and from then on management of that star system is all conducted via that one planet-as-star-system. It is a simpler approach compared to Endless Space where the build queue is system wide – although Endless Space provides details on all the planets in the system, which can be colonized separately. Armada 2526 is certainly a simpler approach, but it does a few things. First, not having to “zoom down” to a planetary scale keeps the action focused on the big picture and keeps the management overhead much less. Second, as each system just has one colonization opportunity, and different primary planet types can be harder to colonize initially (depending on your race) it forces some tougher trade-offs in how/where you expand.

For example, colonies project a “fuel range” line where your ships can operate, so often you are faced with the tough choice of whether to colonize a weaker planet to extend your range into other areas versus colonize something better but closer to your established areas. Star systems, as a whole have a few different critical properties:

- Primary planet type and habitability, which depends on your race. Some races love volcanic or Vesuvian planets, others love ice worlds.
- Star system-wide mineral richness – abundance of secondary planets provide more/less minerals across the system which affects production costs.
- Presence of asteroid or comet belts – which opens up options for asteroid/comet mines.
- Presence of trade or tourism resources (anti-matter, rare minerals, natural wonders, etc.), which can be used to establish trade lanes between system by building trade/tourism ports (a very cool little system by the way!).
- Other special anomalies (primitive races, tachyon storms, etc.)

The stuffs at a particular star system (and you won’t know in detail until you send a survey ship) starts to shape the possible advantageous directions for the colony to follow. What really makes it come together, however, is that each system only gets one development slot for each major increment of population. Development slots are incredibly limited throughout the entire game, which forces players to prioritize projects and “specialize” their colonies to a reasonable degree.

That new colony you established might be a perfect tourism spot if you develop the right space port, but it’s also on the front lines and would be an excellent spot for a scanner array to keep an eye on opposing empires. The planet might be highly habitat and give you great growth rates, but its mineral poor and expensive to develop. Do you keep it as a low cost breeder planet to emigrate population from, or make it a costly but rapidly developing research nexus? Tough choices abound, but they all play into the bigger picture. It’s about formulating a grander strategy rather than optimizing production outputs within each management unit.

Don't mind the dust ...

Peace, Love, and Victory!

Colonies also have a fairly sophisticated approval system going on behind the scenes (you can see a breakdown within the colony window). Colonies have a “happiness” level which is driven by how much or little your race like the planet where they live, how pollution you spewing into the environment, and so on. Happiness feeds into “approval” where it merges with things like tax rates. Finally approval feeds into “stability” where it merges with inter-species dynamics and your security rating to determine whether a colony might start to go all rebellion on you. If a revolt kicks up, the good people start rioting and breaking your developments, not paying taxes, and might even revert/defect to someone else. 

The skinny on your colony's conditions

Related to this system is a clever device the game employs, which is to track each races population with a planet separately. If I’m humans and I take over one of your planets, and you are some non-human race, the people of that planet really, really won’t like me much. They’ll start rioting almost immediately unless I keep garrison forces there for a long time, or at least long enough to build a pile of security centers (consuming valuable building slots in the process). This provides a nice, thematically apt counter-point to untethered militaristic expansion. Taking over someone else’s worlds can be easy, it’s maintaining control and actually deriving benefit from them that’s the hard part!

The above is a small but critical aspect of the design, because it feeds into how you WIN this game. The game’s victory condition is a points-based system depending on a certain number of turns (e.g. 200). The player with the most points at 200 turns (for example) wins. What’s nifty is that different races have different ways to earn points. Some races score points purely for the happiness of that race’s population. Others get points for winning fights and aggressive behavior. Others for dividend earnings on income (e.g. keeping a lot of cash in the imperial coffers). So, taking over another empire’s planet may do exactly nothing towards helping you win the game depending on your race. And this more than anything starts to drive the gameplay in different directions for different races in a neat sort of way.

Last, you can set immigration/emigration policies for planets and use transport ships to automatically ferry people around. The interface is a little clunky for this, but the idea is that you can start to move around the populations of different races you’ve absorbed – for example putting the captured populace of one race to work on an unpleasant mining world where you don’t want the “happiness” of your own race to be impacted. Brutal? Yes. Draconian? Yes. But compelling!

Technological Shenanigans

One thing I find grating about so many 4X games is when the bulk of the technologies just translate into +this and +that modifiers. Researching gives you the tools to scale up your empire and gives an impression of progress, from but a gameplay standpoint, the things you are doing at the start of the game are largely the same things you are doing at the end of the game – you’re just doing more and bigger versions of it. That’s not so fun in my mind.

The main research panel and 9 fields of research

What I adore about the technology system in Armada 2526 is that the vast majority of them open up new strategic or tactical level options. Even more interesting, and challenging from a gameplay standpoint, is how research itself works. Technologies are broken up into eight different fields of research (weapons, information, hyperspace, psychics, biological, shields, weapons, infrastructure), and each field has its own “tech tree.” When a player builds a research center on one of their colonies, it provides low level “general research” points. Little sliders next to all the technology fields let you allocate the relative distribution of general research points across the research fields, and the time it takes to research a selected technology in each field changes according to the distribution. Got it?

Now, players can also upgrade their basic research centers into a specialized research center that generates many more research points, but only in one specific field of your choosing. These can be upgraded further to an advanced center, and if you get enough upgraded centers in a colony one of them can become a Nexus for that entire field of research. So you can earn techs at a much faster rate by specializing, but then you miss out on the other branches. It’s a nice self-balancing mechanism.

Coupled with the limited building slots, this all usually means that you will have to pick a few fields to really focus on and build a strategy around if you want to get advanced techs. This system also makes trading techs very appealing in diplomacy, because each race might be pursuing certain advanced lines of research that you’ll never get access to otherwise (before the game ends).

The technologies themselves are divided between new ship designs, colony developments, sensors/radar, ground units, wormhole technologies, advanced movement orders, etc. One of my favorites is a technology that lets you change your fleet orders midflight. Another lets you send fleets to a parked location in deep space, where normally you can only send fleets between star systems. Different technologies for detection and stealth can set into motion a sort of information war arms race.

One criticism of many 4X space games is that … well … space is just so EMPTY. And as a consequence there isn’t much sense of terrain. In Armada 2526, there are “dust” zones made of up a sort of thick soupy matter in a few different densities, which does create some slow speed zones. A group of technologies helps specifically with dust navigation allowing you to penetrate through it much quicker.

In any event, these types of technologies, which open up new strategic or tactical opportunities, leads to more diverse and interesting gameplay compared to other games’ technologies based around incremental bonuses; which don’t really change your strategic calculus all that much. I much prefer Armada 2526’s approach.

Lest you think otherwise, there is a technology TREE behind the scenes

Conflict & Conquest

So combat. First of all, as I mentioned, the game does not involve any sort of ship customization. Most of the branches of research give access to different types of ships, and all told there must be 50+ different ship types. So there is a lot to work with – from slow moving missile destroyers to fast moving battlecruisers, to stealth-field equipped transport ships, to lumbering dreadnoughts. There’s a surprising amount of diversity at your disposal. I personally don’t like the mini-game tedium of having to design each and every ship, or manage a catalog of different units and tweak their loadouts each time my LaZor level goes up by one notch. It’s dry and pulls the attention away from the bigger picture (IMHO). If you “can’t” live without ship customization, Armada 2526 probably isn’t going to work. If you can, read on ….

Good luck trying to see anything quite this cool looking in game, but still ...

Combat itself is initiated via a “pre-turn” system. Under this system, you get a notification when your fleets are in the same spot as opposing fleets – and each player gets some options. They can pursue manual (or auto) combat or try to flee, or simply stand-off and not engage. If both players chose to stand-off (for example) your fleets will sit there in cold war state till one of you jumps. If the encounter happens at a planet, you can also use your invading fleet to “blockade” the planet and cut off trade lines – which can be a hit on people’s economy.

If a battle does happen, the manual battles are handled in a pause-able real-time system, ala Sword of the Stars. The interface is a fairly clunky here, the camera is pain to control, and the graphics border on nauseating. There is isn’t a tremendous amount of tactical combat depth in and of itself (e.g. positioning, flanking, detailed subsystem targeting, etc.) …

… But! One of the claims to fame is that space combat and ground combat happen in the same space. You can have a space battle raging over a planet at the same time planetary missile systems are launching rockets at your fleet at the same time you a dropping of storm trooper regiments to troop across the surface and blow up said missile defense systems. One of the small pleasures is infiltrating (with a super stealthy transport ship) squads of special forces (stealthy ground units) down to a planet in advance of a siege. When the battle starts, you can use your special forces to take out ground defenses before your fleet even gets into range. Pretty slick!

More often it looks like this ... not bad ... but serviceable ...

And if all else fails, there is always auto-combat, which to be honest I end up using most of the time. If you are the type of 4X gamer that’s really looking for a detailed combat system, Armada 2526 is going to be tough sell. If you can live with a relatively weak combat system, but not without a few strategically interesting aspects, then you’ll probably be able to look past this rough spot in the game.

Diplomatic Posturing and the Opposition

The diplomacy system is fairly robust by most 4X gaming standards, and players are given plenty of options for various diplomatic treatises (e.g. peace, defensive alliances, full alliances, trade missions, embargo’s, etc.). It’s great fun getting trade missions established between different empires and seeing a stream of little ships move between your respective colonies. It’s even more fun (or agonizing) having embargos placed on your opponents (or yourself!) to cut of trade profits – which can be a substantial part of your empire’s income in the later stages of the game.

Lots of options ... who do you want these kind machine folks to attack?

Given the game’s technology system, trading tech’s is quite beneficial as other empires might be researching completely different technology branches than you are – and it might be the only means of getting something you need. There are lots of options too for paying tributes, making one time payments, telling your allies to wage war on a particular other empire (and even pick a target IIRC). It’s robust and well done. Heck, you even get the "tell me what you think about those OTHER guys" diplomacy option, along with "let's share our maps!" which is often helpful when trying to determine where to expand.

As far as the AI goes – I’ve found it competently challenging and perplexing in behavior. In a way it reminds me a bit of Alpha Centauri’s AI. While I’m not positive the AI’s in Armada have different personalities per se, they deal with each other (and you) with a genuinely interesting sort of fickleness. They aren’t predictable, and that’s a good thing because it keeps you on your toes. A trusted ally is likely to stab you in the back if it stands to make a big gain, or embargo you if it feels like you can an economic advantage – or just attack you if it can get away with it. I’ve had some monster enemy fleets sent my way when I was thinking everything was so peaceful!

I’m sure the AI gets some behind the scenes bonuses – and in many cases you can even negotiate trades for hefty chunks of change (1000’s of credits worth). But even as exploitable as it might seem, I often find myself in the middle of the pack when it comes to victory, and placed in the precarious situation of deciding whether to attack a trusted neighbor that might be in the lead just to boost my chance at winning.

There is also a LAN and Play-By-Email (PBEM) system included as part of the expansion. I’ve played a number of games using the PBEM system and it works pretty well without having to rely on any external server systems to make it work. How’s that for long-term multiplayer survivability? As with many 4X games, the deepest strategic gameplay can be had by playing with other humans – and it is nice to see the game support this opportunity.

The Fit and Finish

Sadly, the GUI in Armada 2526 rubbed a lot of people the wrong way. Number one on the list was that there wasn’t a colony overview screen, that ubiquitous “am I playing a spreadsheet” window that’s a staple of most 4X games. People, exasperated at the omission of such a screen wrote the GUI off, when there are some surprisingly good aspects to it that make up for its faults.

One such feature is the “finder” which lets you sort and find all manner of planets and development structures to see where they are located and identify candidates for colonization efforts. You can filter down and look for “mineral rich planets” that are “unowned” and get a list such planet that you can jump to. There is a colony list panel that shows the morale/unrest levels of your colonies and gives an indicated of whether it’s currently producing system developments and/or ships at shipyards, and whether there is capacity for new projects. It’s a minimalistic UI to be sure, but once you are familiar with the game it’s perfectly functional and easy to tell at a glance what needs your attention.

A nice clean view, on a nice giant galaxy

Some of the colony management and fleet management panels are a little cumbersome initially as well – but once you learn your way around the UI it’s fairly fluid. I actually really appreciate the simplicity overall, and you can even collapse all the panels, almost entirely, and get nice de-cluttered view of the galaxy and the empires.

Function and aesthetic beauty are too different things though. While I am happy to argue that the UI is more functional than it may initially appear to a novice, the graphics overall are a bit rough around the edges – especially if your basis for comparison are newer 4X titles. But if you still think Master of Orion 2 is the pinnacle of graphic achievement, you’ll be in fine shape to appreciate what Armada does have to offer. But anyway – it’s all about the gameplay right? We don’t REALLY play these sorts of soul crushing conquest games for the graphics right? Well, your millage may vary …

Wrap-up Time, Because I’ve Rambled Enough

Over the past few years I’ve played (and replayed) a lot of other space 4X games – both old and new: Starbase Orion (iOS), Star Ruler, Endless Space, Distant Worlds, Gal Civ II, Master of Orion 2, Star Drive, Lost Empires, Sword of the Stars, Sins of a Solar Empire …. the list goes on. With the exception of Starbase Orion, none of them lull be back to playing with the frequency that Armada 2526 does.

Armada 2526 game isn’t without its flaws, and there are some core aspects of the design that many 4X gamers just won’t be able to get past (lack of race + ship customization, weak tactical combat, unorthodox UI). Yet for those willing (or able) to look beyond its flaws at the good things the game DOES do, it can be a surprising gem. Many of the issues people have with 4X games (e.g. inability to scale up well in the late game, lack of stealth/detection, weak diplomacy), the game addresses rather well, bringing a fresh set of ideas to the table.

Overall however, the game comes together to provide an interesting STRATEGIC experience. The score based victory system gives players a lot of latitude and leeway in how they work towards victory, whether that be eliminating their opponents to keep from the scoring at all or jut masterfully guiding your own civilization to maximize your score. There is an expansive and creative decision space to explore here, and that’s what keeps me coming back.

Signing off...

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