Rob Zacny

Episode 414: Classic Year in Review: 1997

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Three Moves Ahead 414:

Three Moves Ahead 414


1997 in Retrospect
1997. Garry Kasparov loses a monumental chess match against Deep Blue, changing the state of chess forever. Troy Goodfellow acts as a body double for Leonardo DiCaprio in the recently released Titanic and the Notorious B.I.G. informs us that more problems are inevitable when one experiences a sudden increase in liquid assets. Also, a whole bunch of really great strategy games came out. This is the first in a series of (nonconsecutive) retrospective episodes in which the panel goes back in time to review what were some really standout years. This week Rob, Rowan, T.J. Hafer, and Troy "Did you know I had a bit part in the Fifth Element?" Goodfellow discuss all of the best titles from 1997. We award titles for Best RTS, Best Grand Strategy Game, and Best Wargame for this most auspicious of years.

Age of Empires, Total Annihilation, Dark Reign, Sid Meier's Gettysburg, Myth: The Fallen Lords, Imperialism, Warlords 3, Panzer General 2, Battlegrounds series, Final Fantasy Tactics, Dungeon Keeper

 

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Great show : I love these retrospectives !

 

I can't resist writing about some 1997 strategy games that I enjoyed. Maybe some readers will find a few games that will tickle their fancy.
 

RTS

I'm not a big RTS player, so I haven't played most of those that came out that year.

 

Of the ones I tried, my favorite is definitely Seven Kingdoms. Although it looks like a bad Warcraft clone, it’s a pretty original blend of traditional RTS and « empire management » : units can gain experience but also betray you if you aren’t catering to their needs, the economic system is fairly deep and involves trade with other nations… Also, espionage plays a crucial role : your spies can go undercover and rise in rank within another nation, becoming generals or even rulers ! The original game can be bought on gog.com. A legally free version is also available : the source code has been released a while ago as GPL and some very dedicated fans have kept updating the game since, fixing various issues and doing some rebalancing.

 

Netstorm is another excellent but very different kind of RTS : you play as a priest in a floating island and try to capture enemy priests so you can sacrifice them to your gods and gain new powers. But in order to do this, you need to build bridges that connect you to the other islands. And to capture the enemy priests, you need to immobilize him with your offensive units, that you place on the end of a bridge. Once that is done, you can use one of your transport units, the only one that move, to « collect » the priest and bring him to your temple, where you can sacrifice him. Very intense game and a great multi-player experience !

 

I didn't enjoy Age of Empires or Total Annihilation : they felt like well done but pretty bog standard variations of the Dune 2 formula to me. Someday, I'd like to try Rising Lands : it doesn't seem wildly original, but there seems to be some consequences to your actions during the campaign : for example, if you made peace with a faction during a mission, you'd still be at peace with it the following mission.

 

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Grand strategy and 4X

Imperium Galactica is an interesting story-driven space 4X with great productions values for the time. Low replay value, but the campaign is quite nice.

 

Imperialism definitely has some great ideas : its avoids the end-game micromanagement nightmare of most games of the genre and the economic model forces the player to make tough decisions. But I must admit that I never became as addicted to it as I still am to Civilization I, Europa Universalis II or Medieval Lords (SSI). Civ's complexity is very progressive, which eases you into the game, and it constantly gives you feedback ("your population reaches 1 000 000 !" )  to show how much you have accomplished : a real "feel-good" game, which I find typical of Sid Meier's designs. Imperialism isn't as beginner friendly and it's not as easy to know if you made a bad start or not, which  can make it more frustrating to play. And I feel much more immersed in Europa Universalis II or Medieval Lords because of the historical flavor, although I don't think they are as well designed as Imperialism.

 

Birthright is an extremely ambitious game based on the AD&D 2nd edition Birthright campaign setting : not only does it have diplomacy and a fairly detailed economic system, but it also includes a tactical module and even an rpg subgame (using the Doom 2 engine) where you complete quests in order to get magical items or advantages that could help your kingdom. It’s pretty buggy and flawed, but I love it !

 

Conquest of Elysium II is a nice little 4X (or maybe more accurately 3X ?) : it isn’t a huge step forward from the first game but adds a bit more of everything, in typical Illwinter fashion. It has been surpassed by its sequels.

 

Lords of Magic was released in a poor state, but it turned out to be a good Master of Magic-like with great atmosphere. Despite the pretty dire RTS tactical module, the very limited AI and often tedious beginnings, I actually preferred it to Heroes of Might and Magic, because it felt more like a proper strategy game and less like a « killer stack puzzle game ». It's available on gog.com and steam : I don't know if it holds up well

 

Warlords III. What a game ! It doesn’t stray very far from its predecessors but adds just enough to keep the formula fresh : each faction has now unique units, the units have more varied abilities, the heroes are much more developed, you have more options to play with when creating custom games, a campaign has been added… The interface is top notch, with some very convenient features that aren’t commonly seen even today, like the vectoring of armies that eases the management of huge armies. Of course, the game isn't perfect : does have quite a few balance issues, killer stacks can be a problem (although even powerful heroes can be assassinated), the army vectoring does make the concentration of your forces too easy, the AI doesn’t deal with the fog of war very well, etc. Despite all this, I love this game ! In fact, the first three Warlords are my favorite beer-and-pretzel strategy games and I still play them solitaire and multiplayer. I do recommend the sequel/expansion, Darklords Rising, over Reign of Heroes : it adds a lot of content for single and multi-player. The real-time offsprings are also excellent : my favorite RTS along with Kohan and Seven Kingdoms. Warlords IV isn't bad either and probably has the best AI of all the turn-based games, thanks to some community patching (check the Warlorders site).

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Lords of Magic main charm it was the adaptive music, where in battle, the battle theme was split in three main theme - neutral, losing, winning and as the battle unfolds, the music would change in a rather fluid way, this along with the voices units made the game quite unique. I have many memories of battles going badly, until I managed to do something and suddenly the music changed from the losing to winning fanfarre.  One battle, things start so bad (it was a against Balkoth, the main villian of the game) that the music skip right to the losing theme - everything was going bad, my units where dying but my main character managed to kill Balkoth and this caused the battle to turn in my favor and the music exploded to the fanfarre.

 

Birthright it was very example of the 90s over ambitious game design, as Arasmo said, it was a adaptation of AD&D campaign set, which features rules for players leading kingdoms and armies, think something like table top of version of a Paradox game and a Total War game, the the adaptation was very, very faithful and if the studio behind didn´t closed (I think) or Sierra lost the rights to AD&D games there was plans do add the other part of the setting.

 

 

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Wargames

It really was an extraordinary year for wargames, with a lot of diversity !

 

20th century

Close Combat 2  is definitely a classic, although I actually didn't play it that much : I should revisit it someday. As a tactical simulation, it has been surpassed by Combat Mission or Graviteam ; as a game, I'm not so sure.  Matrix updated the game, but made some changes to the campaign structure.

 

East Front from Talonsoft is a platoon scale WW2 tactical wargame, that owes more to the old boardgame Panzeblitz than to Steel Panthers. I discovered it this year : the turn sequence is much less rigid than in the Batteground series and, after getting used to the interface quirks and the absence of suppression fire, I'm having a blast. The interface makes the game look complicated that it really is ;  the system is actually pretty easy to grasp. The random campaigns aren’t great, because of poor AI and haphazard placement of units, but most of the scenarios are very well designed and pretty nail-bitting. Now, to be honest, the original version of East Front is obsolete nowadays : I only tried out of « historical interest ». You’ll be better off getting the updated version that’s available with the John Tiller Campaign Series compilation from Matrix : the interface has been slightly updated, game has been patched, AI has been improved,  new features have been added, there are a lot more scenarios along with great linked campaigns, and you also get the games West Front and Rising Sun. If you are not adverse to old-school wargame design, it’s a brilliant bargain that will keep you entertained for a very long time  !

 

SSI published not only Pacific General and Panzer General II (both on GOG), but also Steel Panthers III (SPIIII). SPIII puts you in the role of a brigade commander, while you were a mere company commander in the previous games, and adds a very interesting command system that gives a more realistic feel to the battle. I prefer the low unit counts and the simplicity of the first Steel Panther ; however I haven't tried SPIII  long enough to form a solid opinion on it.

 

Atchung Spitfire !  from Avalon Hill is the sequel of Over the Reich. Basically the ancestor of the Ace Patrol series, it's a turn-based WW2 air combat and crew management game. I played it in the early 2000 and found it really addictive, if quite repetitive.

 

Last but not least, the first episode of the Decisive Battles of WW2 series from SSG came out in 1997. I haven’t played it, but the series has a great reputation among « grognards ».

 

19th century

I fully agree with all the praise given to Sid Meier’s Gettysburg. I’ve replayed it this year and the battles are as tense as ever !

 

Let's not forget Civil War Generals 2 (CWG2) though. CW2 is a very streamlined wargame that is sometimes described as a panzer general knock-off. Personally, I find it a deeper and much more satisfying experience than Panzer General ; you have to take care of the moral, cohesion and fatigue of your troups and the battles aren’t designed as time-limited puzzles. And the campaign are pretty great : like Panzer General, your performance influence the next battles and you have to manage your army carefully, but I find it much easier to recover from a defeat than in Panzer General, where you very quickly fall into a« death spiral» if you don’t have decisive victories.

 

I only tried the Battleground games this year. They certainly aren’t very innovative : their design seem to be based on old SPI/Avalon Hill wargames from the seventies. I’m not overly fond of their turn sequence and the interface is definitely not up to the SSI games of the era, but I do enjoy them : they feel like playing a miniatures tabletop game on the computer, thanks to their wonderful isometric view. The AI seems very limited, but there is a  interesting option, "Commander Control", that changes the feel of the game and makes it much more realistic (and also much more frustrating) : you give general orders to your commanders instead of moving all your units one by one. Matrix sells slightly updated versions of these games that are compatible with modern systems.

 

Ancients

The crew mentioned the Great Battles of History by Interactive Magic, available on GOG.com nowadays.

 

Other strategy games

Capitalism Plus is a great update of the 1995 business sim : I even prefer it to the sequel ! Definitely a classic of the genre in my book, even if it can be a little bit dry and heavy on micromanagement at times.Available on GOG.com. Honorable mention to Entrepreneur from Stardock.

 

I’m also very fond of the Microprose adaptation of Magic the Gathering. It has a pretty elaborate single-player campaign, where your character wanders around the land of Shannara : he fights monsters, trades spells or explores dungeons, slowly building his deck along the way. The amount of random encounters can be a bit grating and the AI is not the best, but the RPG element gives a unique flavor to the game. Still by far my favorite « card-based » computer strategy game, even if I'm not that fond of Magic (I much prefer the old Middle-Earth Collectible Card Game from I.C.E).

 

Final Liberation: Warhammer Epic 40 000 from SSI is based on Games Workshop's universe and tabletop miniature ruleset : it's an entry-level  tactical game where pure luck matter as much as skill. While the game itself isn't brilliant, the over the top FMV and great music make for a pleasant experience. Available from gog.com.

 

Avalon Hill released a nice adaptation of the board game History of the World.  I still play this one the odd time !

 

There were quite a few soccer management games this year.

  • The final version of Championship Manager 2 : Championship Manager 97/98 (CM 97/98). Contrary to most soccer management games of the era, CM 97/98 focused more on the tactics than on the business aspects and had a very detailed database of players for the time. Even if the match engine  is very simplistic compared to the new Football Managers, I find the game more enjoyable, because I can experience the ebb and flow of a soccer coach career in a few hours ! I do slightly prefer CM 01/02, which has a similar but more refined engine and a even more extensive database.
  • Premier Manager 97. The game had great production values and its 3D match engine was impressive for the time. The game wasn't very realistic and very easy due to overpowered training, but it was a nice introduction to soccer management games. I'd rate it higher than Fia soccer manager that came out the same year.
  • On the Ball/Anstoss 2. I discovered that one fairly recently. I think it's a classic ! It covers the whole range of club management, from sponsoring to stadium construction to training. The psychological aspect is much more refined than CM : you actually have to take care of your players morale and manage their occasional tantrums. The tactical system is simple but much more transparent than CM.

 

 

 

 

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Fantastic episode.

 

Nice to hear Troy. I'm glad Rowan and TJ had brought some sanity asking to explain what the game is before talking about; also asking if it's playable today.

 

I've heard some heretical laughter after TJ mentioned that Rise of Nations is better than Age of Empires 1 and 2. This is not something that can be tolerated. RoN is love, RoN is life, it made all the other RTS obsolete including Civilization.

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Playing these games

 

  • Some of the games are available on gog.com or steam  : they should work on the latest versions of Windows, sometimes with a little tweaking, especially if you use Windows 10.
  • Other games have modern remakes and updates, like Seven Kingdoms, Close Combat or East Front.
  • Some of those games (demo or complete game) and their manuals can be downloaded from the internet archive, and patches can be found at the patches scrolls website.
  • Most of these games are made for Windows 95, but some of them still use DOS or windows 3.1 : Steel Panthers III runs fine in Dosbox and you can also play History of the World by installing WIndows 3.1 in Dosbox.
  • If you are a linux user, wine can run some games : in my experience, Imperialism and Warlords III run fine without any tweaking. I managed to get Birthright and Gettysburg running too.
  • A dedicated "retrostation" can be a fun way to use an old computer : you can go full retro with a Windows 95/98 computer, but a Windows XP machine can run most games listed here without any problem. Windows 7 can be a bit more fiddly.
  • Short of building  a dedicated "retrostation" , the most reliable solution is to set up a Windows 98 or Windows XP virtual machine with Virtual PC, Vmware Player or Virtual Box. You'll need to find a CD or an ISO of these operating systems though and check if you need to install extra drivers. In my experience, Windows 98 is much easier to set up with Wmware than with Virtual Box. You might be able to find fullly setup virtual machines made by fans if you look hard enough !

 

 

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Birthright it was very example of the 90s over ambitious game design, as Arasmo said, it was a adaptation of AD&D campaign set, which features rules for players leading kingdoms and armies, think something like table top of version of a Paradox game and a Total War game, the the adaptation was very, very faithful and if the studio behind didn´t closed (I think) or Sierra lost the rights to AD&D games there was plans do add the other part of the setting.

Definitely a very special game  ! The closest modern equivalent would probably be Sovereignty : Crown of Kings. Unfortunately, I doubt a modern gamer would enjoy Birthright, especially if he isn't familiar with AD&D : the interface isn't the easiest to use, the micromanagement can be quite heavy and, even with the latest patches, the game is pretty buggy !

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I too was surprised by the omission of SSG's The Ardennes Offensive.  I still think Gettysburg! gets best strategy game, but TAO was a great game, and in terms of grognard-friendly hex games that are still fun, beats the pants off all those battlegrounds games.

 

To be fair though, that system got a lot better with later versions, and Korsun Pocket was probably the best of those games.

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For me the best RTS of the year was Age of Empire based solely on the amount of time I played and enjoyed myself. Myth was a fantastic game but it was punishing as hell. I enjoyed playing it but far less than my Mac owning friend who forced me to buy it. The Multi-player aspect of Myth was fantastic of course but we later had a lot more fun playing Age of Empires 2 multiplayer. Still I'll never forget him using fetches to launch moltov cocktails across the entire map at me like long range artillery pieces on Myth : ) 

 

I'm kind of shocked that they left Emperor of the Fading Suns out of the 4X discussion. It was by far the best grand strategy game of the year and is still one of the most interesting 4x strategy games I've ever played. Imperialism was absurdly boring and Warlords 3 was over simplified for my taste. I admit that Emperor of the Fading Suns had issues but I still had more fun playing it than I ever had playing the other two. 

 

Gettysburg of course was an amazing game and also stands alone with nothing really like it, even it's sequel didn't stand up to it. Close Combat A Bridge Too Far was also one of my favorite games ever. I loved watching the flame throwers wrecking entire enemy units, seeing them running out of buildings screening and on fire :P There are a few games out now that are similar but none of them really capture that same feeling as a Bridge Too Far did. 

 

If we're going to throw games where you manage a home and build it up slowly making money with an end goal in mind (Like Dungeon Keeper) I think the far superior strategy RPG Harvest Moon on the NES really blew away all competition. It is one of my favorite games of all time and all comers after it including Stardew Valley pale in comparison! 

 

In researching EotFS I was reminded that webrings used to be a thing :) memories!

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As far as I know, Harvest Moon was released in 1996 for the SNES. I didn't enjoy it myself (I'm more of a SimFarm guy), but it's a very original game that is regarded as a classic by many : definitely worthy of a Three Moves Ahead episode.

 

I'm  not that surprised they left Emperor of the Fading Suns out : it is a 1996 game according to Mobygames, which was probably their primary source along with Wikipedia for checking the dates.

It's hard to know when it was actually released. The game manual is copyright 1996, but the original webpage is copyrighted 1997 and it wasn't reviewed until 1997, so it was maybe finished at the tail end of 1996, but not actually released until 1997.

 

Emperor of the Fading Suns was actually one of my biggest gaming disappointments. At first, I thought my hard-earned summer money was well spent : the lore was superb (it made me buy the tabletop RPG a few years later), the amount of depth seemed amazing and the political dimension was mouth-watering.  But I soon became disillusioned by the huge bugs (random freeze, disappearing cursor, save game corruption, etc.),  unfinished features (church) and terrible AI. Even unpatched Birthright gave me much less trouble. Apparently, there are quite a few community-made patchs that improve the game a lot :  you definitely made me want to give it another try  !

 

When you revisit an old game thanks to GOG or community websites, you pretty much have the best version of the  game, and you don't have to put up with the sometimes poor state of the original release : it can change a lot the way you feel about a game !  In 1997 France, very few people had Internet, so I relied on the CDs bundled with computer magazines to find a patch for a game. This means that you could stay with an unpatched game for quite a while, especially if it wasn't a mainstream game, or even never experience the fully patched game. That doesn't matter too much when the game is pretty polished on day one, like Age of Empires, Gettysburg or Warlords III, but it is a different story with a game like Fallout, which was very buggy at release (the infamous character duplication bug !), or East Front, which improved a lot through patches. I love the Matrix release version of East Front, but if I only had unpatched East Front, I probably would have got bored of the game very quickly !
 

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I too was surprised by the omission of SSG's The Ardennes Offensive.  I still think Gettysburg! gets best strategy game, but TAO was a great game, and in terms of grognard-friendly hex games that are still fun, beats the pants off all those battlegrounds games.

Well, they only talked about games they have actually played, which can explain why they left out a few worthy games. I'm sure Bruce Geryk would have mentioned TAO if he was in the episode : he seems to be a big fan of the series.

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Total Annihilation remains that one classic RTS that I never played. Dabbled a bit in SupCom 1 (and I reviewed 2 on console way-back-when) but as a 'strategy specialist' I've always felt a tad guilty for never playing it.

 

Didn't realise this was the year A Bridge Too Far came out. Not sure If I bought it straight away, but as I posted when you last mentioned it I did spend a lot of time with it - definitely shaped what I looked for in wargames in the years to come. Just had a quick search, I don't seem to have my original disk any more! Gutted.

 

 

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Apparently Emperor came out in NA in 1997 Feb. I remember the days of waiting for patches of CDs in gaming magazines lol. 

 

I played the TA medieval game and bounced right off it but really enjoyed Supreme Commander, especially the Forged Alliance stand alone. 

 

I really appreciate this episode as it has braught up a lot of great old memories

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I played Dungeon Keeper a few years ago. I really enjoyed it for a few levels. I'm a total outsider to most RTS and Strategy War games. I enjoyed Dungeon Keeper for balancing the relationships established between the monsters, and fell off from the game when the levels became serious strategy challenges.


I still enjoy other management style games and pursue ones that have a civilian or light hearted tone. Dwarf Fortress, Theme Park, Kingdoms and Castles, Kingdom, Dragon Quest Builder. Some how I never explored The Sims seriously. I've dabbled in Rim World and Prison Architect and they are indeed compelling, but depressing and draconian. 

 

So perhaps this is the confusing appeal of the non-war niche games. They are strategy management games that appeal to people outside of the war game tone.

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Holly Crud .... It just hit me listening to this episode that I have been "Meaning to get around to playing Close Combat: A Bridge Too Far" for TWENTY FRICKING YEARS NOW!

I've still got the CD Jewel case and instruction book in my garage.  Maybe I should get it out...

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Great show.   Imperialism 1 is definitely the tighter and more satisfying design, but that interface has not aged well and will rapidly give you carpal tunnel.  There's all these windows with tiny close hit locations in the upper right you have to close with the mouse and no keyboard shortcuts to do so.

 

That said, it's still wonderful to play and the gog.com forum is full of useful advice on it.  In post #4 of this thread I explain how to run it in a window with resolution scaling, as full screen is a 640x480 nightmare. 

 

 

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Wowzer. 

1997 was the first year I was allowed to buy games with violence. For me, that meant Warcraft IIAge of Empires, and Total Annihilation. 

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