Northern Beholder

Where history and gaming collide.

Conquest Timers: The Artificial Padding of Grand Strategy Games

As a gamer, I’m a fan of a good grand strategy game.  While their universal ability to consume whole days of time means they don’t form a regular part of my gaming schedule purely for reasons of self-preservation, every now and again I will indulge and sink my teeth into a meaty title just long enough to conquer whichever slice of the world (or galaxy) is on offer today.  Such games come in both turn-based (Civilization, Total War) and real-time (Europa Universalis, Crusader Kings) offerings, and they key differences between them and other titles is the way in which their gameplay represents the passage of years of time, and the available playing field spans continents or whole worlds.  In a grand strategy game, you do not control an army, but whole nations – and the depth of the game systems from cultural to economic to diplomatic reflects it.  The scale on which the player operates is such that individual armies and battles are often abstracted away with unit markers and dice rolls, rather than being the focus (the famous exception being the Total War games, which offer both a turn-based grand strategy map and the ability to directly control your armies in real-time combat).

No matter which style of gameplay they fall into, however, all grand strategy games face the same problem: How to stop a player from simply overrunning their opponents and bringing the game to a close quickly once they begin to gain an advantage.  The solutions vary, and some are far, far worse than others.

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Dawn of War II: Stealing Player Resources is Bad

I’ve recently begun playing Warhammer: Dawn of War II again.  It’s a fun little squad-based RTS/RPG hybrid, which is best described as “Diablo with Space Marines”.  The player controls a maximum of four squads (out of a total choice of six once all are unlocked) with customizable stats and equipment, each filling a different niche, and has to manage a series of crises across three star-systems by choosing where and when to deploy, and then fighting through the provided map to complete the objectives of the day.  It’s a bit repetitive, not least in the maps department (multiple areas get re-used over and over for new missions, changing only deployment position and enemies) but enjoyable in that frantic Diablo way.

At least, it was enjoyable until I got to the most recent mission.  At the end of the last mission, one of my squads – the Tactical Marines, lead by Sgt. Tarkus, the first squad you start with – declared they were going to stay behind to help secure the area.  I was a bit annoyed, because Tarkus is the cornerstone to pretty much every one of my engagements, but when the next mission popped up in the exact same area I was relieved.  I was going to get him back immediately!  Sure enough, once I started he was just north of my position and came back under my control when I approached him.  He remained under my control for about five minutes, at which point I found him yanked away from me again, turned into an NPC and set to guard a location while I had to go elsewhere.

Now, losing Tarkus alone is bad enough – he’s the ‘tank’ of the group, able to soak immense damage and taunt enemies away from weaker squads – but what’s worse is the items I had deployed on him.  In addition to upgrading basic gear, all squads can equip consumable accessories.  Because Tarkus is basically unkillable, he holds all the really important ones, like medic kits, grenades, and anti-tank weapons.  And the game just took him away without giving me a chance to put those items on other squads (he wasn’t available to take gear off of in the pre-mission planning screen either).  So now I have to do the entire mission without any healing and take down multiple enemy tanks and mechs using just the semi-effective heavy melee weapons of my commander and assault squad.

Game developers: If you’re going to take away a key resource the player has invested a lot in, first of all, don’t – give us a choice of who to make stay behind so we can choose someone less crucial to the team.  Second, if you really need to take away one specific person, make sure – especially in any game with RPG elements – that the player has forewarning of this so we can remove essential items and use them elsewhere.  Nothing sours an experience quite like having all your gear taken away before you’re thrown in front of the boss monster.  It feels – and this is the killer for any game – unfair.

Single-Player Showdown: Company of Heroes 2, Mission 1

One epic laptop failure later and we’re back!  I’ve decided that the rest of this series will focus less on the specific actions of the campaigns and more on the underlying mechanics and the way those interact with the presented narrative.  There’s nothing wrong with the gameplay of either campaign; the issue becomes when gameplay and narrative fail to coincide – or, occasionally, when the gameplay represents a false depiction of the actual mechanics.

Similar to its predecessor, Company of Heroes 2 uses the first few missions to introduce the player to basic gameplay mechanics, both those common to strategy games at large and those unique to it alone.  The tutorial section of the campaign extends over several missions, with some devoted almost wholly to the new mechanics present in Company of Heroes 2, notably the “True Sight” system, which allows obstacles such as thick forest, buildings, and dense smoke to block the line-of-sight provided by your units, and the introduction of temperature and blizzard mechanics which serve to change the way you move and act across the battlefield.  It does not, interestingly, provide a condensed tutorial mission outside the campaign, instead having the main menu link to video tutorials that show mechanics without allowing the player to experiment with them.

It also teaches the player about mechanics that do not exist.  If I recall my experience correctly, Company of Heroes 2 will end up with many, many more Gameplay Mechanics Sins than its predecessor.  If I do not, I’ll look a bit silly and perhaps owe Relic an apology.  Either way, it’s time to dive in to Mission 1.

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Single-Player Showdown: Company of Heroes 1, Mission 1

As with most games, the first few single-player missions in Company of Heroes serve to introduce the player to basic mechanics and familiarize them with their use, establishing a firm foundation for expansion into more advanced mechanics and tactics in later levels.  A specialized, condensed tutorial mission also exists outside the campaign to introduce the multiplayer-focused to the gameplay, but as Relic took the time and effort to build basic learning into the early single-player missions, this commentary will proceed as though the player has not experienced the tutorial.

So! Let’s storm the beaches of Normandy.

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Why Company of Heroes’ single-player campaign works, and the sequel’s doesn’t.

The same studio, making the same sort of game, using broadly the same mechanics, produced two very different campaign experiences, with the well-constructed if slightly cliché experience from the first game giving way to a muddy, disorganized and narratively criticized experience in the second.  What went wrong?

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In Memoriam

This is Scotty.

He is a 14-year-old Newfoundland/Labrador mix and my best friend. He is dying.

My family adopted him thirteen years ago from the humane society. I was a snotty teen at the time and didn’t appreciate him at first, but we bonded quickly. He has been a wonderful pet and companion; intelligent, affectionate, playful, and just disobedient enough to be endearing without becoming annoying. He has always been a lovable goofball, getting himself into compromising positions or situations in his pursuit of food, toys, or simply attention.

Scotty at the cottage, 2012.

Over the last year he has begun to lose the use of his hind legs due to arthritis. His condition has been slowly deteriorating despite multiple and expensive therapies, all of which have managed only to offer him comfort during his decline. He can no longer stand unaided and is only capable of short walks before exhaustion and pain compel him to turn for home, and he occasionally loses strength in one or both hind legs and falls.

Despite a regular diet of painkillers and other prescriptions over the last week he has begun exhibiting signs that he is in constant pain. A trip to the vet today confirmed that his arthritis had become critical and that he had a torn ligament in his left hind knee, likely caused by one of his falls. She has offered to increase his pain medication but will not perform surgery on him at his age – he would not recover.

I have been expecting this since January when he started having difficulties, but hoping with all my heart that he would last long enough to visit the family cottage on the east coast one last time. It has always been his favourite place, the highlight of his year, to go on the long car ride to Nova Scotia, run unleashed through the grassy fields, sprint across the sand, play mountain goat on the rocky bluffs and swim, swim, swim himself to exhaustion in the Atlantic.

This is not to be. The vet has said the stress and physical strain of the two-day journey would severely aggravate his condition, and even if he made it to the cottage, would be unable to stand, let alone walk or run, on the beach, nor would he be able to swim. He would not even be able to go down the stairs to the shore, or likely the steep steps to the deck and front door.

She offered to prescribe more powerful pain medication, and I was tempted so strongly I cannot put it into words. But I know that would be selfish, and I would only be prolonging his suffering because I don’t want to let go. Scotty has given me thirteen years of unconditional, uncompromising love and companionship; I can ask for no more from my loyal, amazing friend.

He is being put down next week.

I love you, Scotty.

Goodbye.

Historical Game Spotlight: Expeditions Conquistador Follow-Up

Quite some time ago, I wrote a preview article on Logic Artists’ upcoming game, Expeditions: Conquistador.  More recently, though still in the rather distant past, the game itself was released.  I played it quite extensively before other demands on my time required me to put it away, and I’m finally getting around to talking about it.

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Build a Better Monster: Human Pikeman

Sometimes you just need a generic soldier, whether they’re part of the city guard, the royal army or just a sword-for-hire.  However, ‘generic’ doesn’t have to mean ‘unthreatening’.  Through use of Pathfinder’s Combat Maneuvers system, these CR 2 humans are an effective addition to any encounter, even against a mid-level party.

The combat maneuver system is another process Paizo adapted from the 3.5 edition of Dungeons and Dragons, streamlining the sometimes complex and cumbersome mechanisms to make resolving the maneuvers much quicker and easier, allowing GMs to keep the pace of combat going.  However, because they require taking at least two feats to use with reliable effectiveness (the ‘improved’ version of the combat maneuver, and the prerequisite feat, which is either Power Attack or Combat Expertise depending on which maneuver you want) many players choose not to pursue them, even when playing Fighters, the class with the most opportunity (thanks to its bonus feats) and the most to gain.  As such, they can often be surprised by having the feature used against them.  It’s an easy way to make lower-level creatures effective, as any given player character’s Combat Maneuver Defense is almost always guaranteed to be lower than their Armour Class, a difference that will only grow as they acquire more powerful armour or defensive spells to further boost their AC.

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Build a Better Monster: Skeletal Hoplite

This week’s creature is demonstrating taking advantage of two key elements of Pathfinder: Class Archetypes (that is, alternate class bonuses, typically allowing greater specialization) and Teamwork Feats (feats that must be held by two or more creatures working together).

These are two elements not always exploited by players, especially teamwork feats; it’s rare enough to get two characters filling roughly the same role, let alone class, and so typically they will eschew teamwork feats (which require them to coordinate closely) in favour of the more traditional feats that enhance only themselves.  As the GM, however, you are already having most of your creatures coordinate and work together, and so teamwork feats can greatly enhance the effectiveness of those groups – as long as they’re intelligent enough to justify it.

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PF: Build a Better Monster

As a gamer, I’m not interested in just the realm of virtual entertainments.  Beyond the bountiful fields of modern PC gaming there lays the wild and untamed wilderness of the tabletop RPG.  Computer gaming can certainly be more convenient, not requiring you to coordinate the schedules of three or more people for several uninterrupted hours plus commute time. However, the great advantage – okay, one of several advantages, but for my money the most important – that tabletop gaming has over the computer-powered alternatives is the fantastic openness it offers to the players.  You can quite literally go anywhere and do anything, with the aid of a robust ruleset and a clever and adaptive GM (Game Master; the one controlling the world around you).  You won’t always succeed, but you can try, and that’s the key.  As much as computer RPGs may try to advertise open worlds or affecting the course of the story, the experiences are ultimately narrow because the developers just don’t have the time or money to write, voice and code every possible outcome and every outcome of the choices that are born out of the previous outcome and so on and so forth branching out into infinity.

Conversely, this means the GM has a tough job keeping up with story, guiding the players along a path that doesn’t rush them out into the realm of “We’re done for the week so I can fill in the blank part of the map you’ve gone to” and, especially as the players grow in power and skill, providing an interesting and challenging array of opponents for them to face off against.  While most game systems (including Pathfinder, my current system of choice) come with a pre-built selection of creatures, these don’t always fit the setting or plotline that the game is currently running through.  Pure Gygaxian “The random encounter table has given you a basilisk. Deal with it” solutions only go so far when you’re striving for a particular theme or coherency amongst the opposition, and for my money, crafting a custom-built array of enemies to fit your needs exactly is far more rewarding.

This series, then, is about the art of making more with less; building the right opponent with the right feats and skills to give your players a challenge, without brute-forcing matters through overwhelming stats, levels or gear – especially gear, because if you try to make an array of enemies more dangerous through magical items, you might start inflating the party wealth beyond what’s healthy far too quickly.  What your monsters wield, players acquire, so for truly deadly foes as the levels climb, the bestiaries are your best bet – dragons, planar creatures, aberrations and so forth.  With the exception of the Big Bad and their lieutenants, humanoids are best kept as low- to mid-level foes, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be effective or at the very least exceptionally annoying.  Good use of class levels, teamwork feats and combat maneuvers can make even the lowliest mook a thorn in the side of the players.

Next time: Hoplites!

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