Rob Zacny

Episode 216: Lost in Space

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Good topic.

 

I'm a really big fan of space 4 x game, but i do share most of your problems with the genre. I've never played Masters of Orion, instead i started with Ascendancy. Nearly a decade later i played GalCiv 2, and whilst it was good i was amazed at how little the genre had advanced in so many years.

 

The first issue i have with space 4x is that each X is essentially a gating mechanism for the next. The big extermination battle of the late game is only interesting if you've done a good job of micromanaging your expansion (both in terms of planets and tech), exploitation and before those exploring. Whilst many wars in the real world might be decided before they start, we're far more interested in the decisions made in fighting them. My experience of 4x games is that often when my bubble meets another alien bubble one completely runs through the other because they did the first 3x's better than the other, and the last x, warfare is sort of redundant. This snowball effect is largely the result of the games currency/resource base being the same as its victory points. Planets generate more power and also the means of winning, so the player with the more/better planets has more potential to grow in power. If you play with a bigger galaxy this problem is exacerbated. 

 

My second issue is drama. Many 4 x game create the premise for an epic and then reduce it to a spreadsheet and a map. When i first bombed a city in DEFCON i thought about it the rest of that day, when i wipe out billions of people in a 4x game a number changes and then a colour, theres no emotional content, little drama. Some of the games do deliver space battle drama, but since they make you repeat the same battle about a dozen times every hour this quickly wears thin. The big decisive battle appears to be rare in 4x games.

 

 

I'd agree on the geographical issue. I think this could be fixed. The main way you could make the geography more interesting is by making the really important resources a greater vulnerability. If you look at historical wars and strategic writings you see talk about centres of gravity and vulnerabilities of the enemy etc. In space 4x, when im planning on invading i generally have two options. Option A is go straight for their homeworld, Option B is just start eating away at the closest border. Most of the time there isn't much difference between attacking one world or another. If i knew that attacking the two systems in my enemies empire that generated 80% of the fuel for their fleet, then that would suddenly make the war much more focused and strategic. Most space 4x games don't create massive vulnerabilities in each faction for players to fight over. Theres no reason from a scifi point of view, why you couldn't have a supply system like the one you get in Unity of Command.

 

I agree with the general conclusion. We need designers to start designing a new space opera game. The same 4x cookie cutter is getting very dull. There is so much that could be done with space. The place to start is to make the empires and players much more limited and vulnerable in terms of what they can do and how they related to each other in the game space.

 

edit (btw my 4x fan credentials are many hours in; GalCiv2, Space Empires 4, Star Ruler, Endless Space, Ascendancy, Sins of a Solar Empire, Distant Worlds).

 

As for a Warhammer 40K 4x, it would have to break a long way from the formula. The races have vastly different objectives  and ways of working, to the point that some don't even value planets the usual resource of the 4x universe. You wouldn't necessarily  have a tech tree, and colonisation again would be very different if even in the game. They don't even all do territory in a traditional sense, then theres a vast difference in economics etc. Could be really awesome though

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i really like ship customisation, i like it in galactic civilisation 2, but wish the design of the ship had a bigger impact than just simple math, like if they combined galactic civilisation with battleships forever (http://www.wyrdysm.com/games.php) that would be my perfect idea of ship customisation because phisics comes into play, so where you place your shields and weapons actually has an effect on the battle that isn't just simply weapons+4, sort of a bit like gratuatus space battles

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Anjin   

I'm only about a third of the way into this episode, but I've already shouted "Yes!" a few times while listening. I'm super glad Rob decided to try the original Master Of Orion. It is such a tight little ball of mechanics. It's so weird that ever since then, developers (including Simtex with MOO2) have been trying to follow up by making the genre more elaborate and, therefore, unwieldy. 

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shawn   
Here is the pitch:

 

The game has 2 phases or hats.

 

  1. Each player creates and controls a planet (in a way, the player's character) It is a kind of sim game. Choices are made regarding development of the planet's qualities as well as the civilization living on it. This is a wide management view. Potentially, the native civilization becomes the basis for Empire origins.
  2. Each player creates and controls an empire. It starts at another player's already created world, perhaps on the other side of the map from that player's own world-- or might not even appear on one's empire map. Here it is like standard 4x, except the expansion part and research part might be relegated to the winning or control of planets where research/ technology is developed.
The two interrelate possibly as the empire grows, points to develop one's civilization are awarded. Such that, say one's planet can become rich and gaia, and so becomes coveted by other players. Or, one can increase one's native civilization to throw off Empire control. Or, technologies are developed.

 

This would present an interesting relationship between players, where one is both developing the map/resources that players of the game are in struggle for, and is also one of those players in conflict for resources grown by fellow players. If the players originate their empires from a home planet controlled by another player their could be an introduction of interaction between players at that level.

 

What do you think?

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Funny that Warhammer 40k was mentioned as possibly a good universe to use right after it was mentioned that simply creating a race like "space Japanese" was a negative. Aren't there "space Japanese" in WH40k -- the Tau? At least that's how the faction in the RTS came across to me. As space Japanese.

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hexgrid   

I spent most of this episode nodding in agreement, with occasional breaks where I lost the thread of things while thinking about how cool it would be to play the suggested Europa Universalis-esque Warhammer 4K game.  And wondering how much the license would cost.  Or the license for Dune or one of Frank Herbert's other political universes, like the Jorj X McKie stuff.

 

Ok, thinking about that, I would pay many monies to be able to play a game like that as the head of the Bureau of Sabotage.  Or the head of a major house in CHOAM.  Or something set in Keith Laumer's Bolo universe, which is one of those "why has this never had a game set in it, let alone a strategy game?" story sets.  Or something set in the universe of Harrison's Stainless Steel Rat.

 

Edit: The 4K game, Laumer's Bolo universe and Dune potentially offer solutions to the "who am I?" question.  All of them have variants of the superhuman hyperaware ruler.

 

For that matter, I'd really like to see something set in the kind of 70s "cartoon communism won 400 years ago, the computer runs everything, and everything is white plastic and white spandex jumpsuits" universe that games like Suspended were set in.

 

Aside: I always thought in the original star trek the Klingons were the space Mongols, the Romulans were the space Russians.

 

At any rate, I'm in definite agreement with the podcast.

 

I've only ever enjoyed designing my own spaceships in one 4X game, Stellar Crusade.  It was a DOS game SSI published (written in Turbo Pascal, IIRC), and while it looks a little rough now it was pretty cool at the time.

 

In SC, ships had components, but they just took "units"; a ship could hold a maximum of 15 units of stuff.  Most components took 1 unit, some better things took 2 units (long range weapons, a couple of other things), and one thing (the i-drive) took 13 units.  The i-drive was basically for building space submarines; it let ships go into "i-space" where they could only be attacked by i-space weaponry (for 'i-space' read 'underwater' and for 'i-space weaponry' read 'depth-charges' and it makes sense), so it was a big compromise to add, but made excellent raiders.

 

Components never changed size, and there was no research tree.  You started with access to everything.  Research was this really abstract thing called "efficiency"; any production you didn't spend on anything else in a turn went into research, and research boosted your efficiency stat.  When you designed a ship, it got a snapshot of the efficiency at the time you designed it, so all ships built to that template had the same efficiency.  What efficiency did was act as a multiplier on everything; damage, range, speed, max jump distance, everything.  So, more efficiency meant a ship was just better in every respect.

 

To refit a design to current efficiency, you just opened it in the designer and saved it again.  Done.  I think you had to futz with your production queues to restart building them, but that was it.  The static component sizes and the lack of component positioning meant you could customize your ships fairly well without having to micromanage them.

 

Everyone should probably check out Armada 2525.  Not 2526; that's the current one, and while it's a decent 4X game, it's 2525 that's the interesting one.  It's pretty old at this point; another DOS game, and you can find it on abandonware sites.  There are a few interesting things about it, one of them being how research works.

 

Research in Armada 2525 is broken into several (was it 8?) tracks.  Things like "weapons" and "communications" and "biology" and the like.  You were trying to get levels in different tech tracks, and spending production on them gradually worked the levels up.  What made this interesting is that all the technologies (including things like ship designs) had prerequisites that were based on levels in these tracks, so (for example) level 5 weapons and level 8 biology might get you a virus bomb.  Crossing the prerequisite thresholds got you the tech.  It worked really well, and as a system I could see it meshing really well with asymmetrical sides; maybe the silicon-based lifeforms suck at researching biology but are pretty good at researching computers, for example.

 

I've lots more thoughts, but I'm going to let this digest a bit.  It was a good episode, especially considering what I'm working on right now.  :)

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Funny that Warhammer 40k was mentioned as possibly a good universe to use right after it was mentioned that simply creating a race like "space Japanese" was a negative. Aren't there "space Japanese" in WH40k -- the Tau? At least that's how the faction in the RTS came across to me. As space Japanese.

 

I think there's a bit of context there. We kinda talked about how WH40K is really dumb and derivative, but it has done that with such gusto and investment that we kinda, sorta care now. And really, the Tau aren't Space Japanese. At least not in the fiction I've read.

 

We had more thoughts on why 40K works as well as it does back in episode 176.

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It's so weird that ever since then, developers (including Simtex with MOO2) have been trying to follow up by making the genre more elaborate and, therefore, unwieldy. 

At one point I said devs seemed to be really literal when it came to this genre. And what I mean is that they create the sense of a huge universe by... creating a huge universe with tons of nodes for activity. Spaceships are cool, so they give you the tools to build a bunch of them and then create giant fleets of them. It's scale as design. It's easy, and MOO kind of set the stage for it, but scale is really tricky to use well in strategy and wargaming. If you don't get more interesting decisions, just more of them, then you're making a worse game, I think.

 

What do you think?

 

It's an interesting idea. I was more negative initially, but then I realized I was being literal and thinking more along the lines of how other 4Xs do it, which we've already established i don't care for.

 

I think where it gets hard is making those two angles of play equally satisfying. You're kind of designing two different games that eventually connect and then overlap. I don't know how you'd make that work, but the fact I don't know intrigues me.

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Arathain   

Interesting show. I think you both figured out some important stuff.

 

While there are a bunch of space 4Xs not mentioned in the show, and you'd have to be badly obsessed to try to play all of them, I would be interested to hear from those who have played the first Sword of the Stars. It's a fascinating game, and a very good one. Total War in space is not an awful description; you manage your worlds and fleets in turn-based format, and battles are fought in a highly detailed real time. There's a lot of the same emphasis on conquest that you'd find in Total War, too. Diplomacy is a little threadbare, and while you can and will form alliances, it's really all about who you are fighting with next. 

 

It manages to solve some of the bureaucracy problems by eliminating them. Worlds mostly manage themselves, leaving you focused on assembling custom designed fleets and telling them who to fight. It has the nicest ship designer I know, managing to be both easy and quick to use, and being hugely meaningful, with tons of viable way to put ships together. You pick a command module, a mission module and an engine module. Each module has hardpoints for weapons, coming in three sizes. Stick your weapons in there, maybe tick a box for some extra armour, done. It helps that there is huge weapon variety to be gleaned from the enormous, lovely tech tree. Far more interesting than laser #3.

 

The way it handles adding colour to the otherwise bland galaxy is interesting. The races are nicely distinct- in particular, each has a different way of travelling that very much affects how you play. Liir are fast in deep space but slow down the nearer they are to a system, leaving them picking their path between worlds carefully, and looking to intercept fleets out in the black. Humans travel very fast along natural node lines that only they can see, but there isn't always a handy line where you want one. They therefore see distance for their fleets in terms of node length, rather than distance in space. HIvers travel painfully slowly to new systems, but can build instant travel gates when they get there, making their hold on a system immensely strong, once they finally get there. 

 

Mix in different races occupying the same area of space, all looking at the map quite differently, and you get something a little bit like terrain.

 

Furthermore, the galaxy holds more than just the playable races. Old asteroid based defense platforms, ancient relics with active defenses, deadly space wasps who spread via enormous starfaring queens; they all make your exploration and expansion much more interesting. When you are established the galaxy gets a visit from a Grand Menace, all of which are terrifyingly powerful, have different consequences and are dealt with in different ways. These act like the disrupters talked about in an recent episode. These make the galaxy feel like more of a real place, rather than just a bunch of worlds to either ignore or colonise.

 

The final thing I want to mention is the role the lore plays in the game. There is a huge body of material on each of the races, which manages to be well written and rather interesting. The curious should visit the official forums, and skim through some of the enormous threads where the author answers lore questions. The level of detail in the worldbuilding is very impressive.

 

This feeds into the game in interesting ways that are not always obvious. Race affects your chance at researching certain techs, since not all of them will be available on any given playthrough. Liir get better chances at energy weapons and bioweapons. Hivers like projectile weapons and nearly always can get the best armour. The lore feeds into how the turrets on their ships are arranged, which sections get the most armour, speed and maneuverability. If you know the backstory, you know why the Tarka put so much armour on the front, and why the Zuul ships are mostly heaps of guns and an engine held together with string and duct tape.

 

You don't have to know any of this stuff, but the deeper you look the more you find, and I actually found myself invested in the world they had built, rather like you described with Star Trek and BSG. 

 

Of course, this can be a little jarring when the game, when you get down to it, is about spreading your ink blot to the violent detriment of other ink blots. FOr such a thoughtfully constructed universe there sure is a heck of a lot of thoughtless genocide.

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i didn't like Sword of the Stars although i recognise its achievements. It breaks the mould in a number of ways, first of all by only having 3 races that are not customisable but are very asymmetrical at a fundamental play level. Its also a very streamlined game design and the AI is good. I didn't really like the fleet battle system much or the aesthetic of the game.

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Arathain   

Good grief, I really need to learn to be concise.  SotS has six races: Humans, Tarka, Liir, Hivers, Zuul and Morrigi. First four have been there from the start, and the other two added in expansions. 

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shawn   

At one point I said devs seemed to be really literal when it came to this genre. And what I mean is that they create the sense of a huge universe by... creating a huge universe with tons of nodes for activity. Spaceships are cool, so they give you the tools to build a bunch of them and then create giant fleets of them. It's scale as design. It's easy, and MOO kind of set the stage for it, but scale is really tricky to use well in strategy and wargaming. If you don't get more interesting decisions, just more of them, then you're making a worse game, I think.

 

 

It's an interesting idea. I was more negative initially, but then I realized I was being literal and thinking more along the lines of how other 4Xs do it, which we've already established i don't care for.

 

I think where it gets hard is making those two angles of play equally satisfying. You're kind of designing two different games that eventually connect and then overlap. I don't know how you'd make that work, but the fact I don't know intrigues me.

 

 

Ya, I see several difficulties too. What would the UI look like? Would it be a seamless integration of planet development and empire or a double turn of Part A and Part B? Is it possible to make this a single player game?

 

Looking at the initial premise, I think it is one solution to the problem of too much abstraction in the environmental elements ofthe space setting. Mechanically, having players directly manipulate the map, and tying in power growth dependent upon the planetary side freshens the dryness of it. However, how to get player buy-in to the division?

 

Would it be better to have one's planet on the same map? This could allow a single player game. However, it changes how the tech tree functions. I originally see the individual planets as the source of tech advances, not the empire side. Empire is about control of the theatre, and offense and defense. The planets would be the sources of supplies, ship building, technology, and culture. So, putting splitting those elements into a separate game that intrinsically effects the wargame side really is intriguing, eh? There could be diplomacy going on in both Empire and Planet, but of different kinds...

 

I think the idea would work best as an MMO only. 

I'm not sure if it would be best to originate one's empire from one's Homeworld, or to separate them but on the same map, or to exclude the planet game and the empire game. Ultimately it might work best to keep it simple and locate both aspects of the game on the same map.

 

Perhaps there would be a technical solution to try both types of games, have one's empire come from one's planet, or, have one's empire come from someone else's planet.

 

 

BTW, I've been listening to your podcast since last fall. I think you guys are brilliant.

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Excellent episode Rob and Paul! (and not just because I was name-dropped as having a potential solution for the problems brought up ;)).

 

This is a post I typed up (as i was listening to the episode) for a thread over at Quarter to Three discussing basically the same subject:

 

 

Great thread Tom! It probably goes without saying, but I very much agree with the issues that have been brought up.


The #1 metric for success with any game, 4X or otherwise, is the extent to which theme is the driving force. Sure, this sounds kind of obvious and every dev would say that this is the case - but the theme really needs to drive the game. Simply "integrating" it, as everyone likes to say, is not enough.

It's particularly easy to forget this with strategy games, where we focus so much on balance and "mechanics." What aremechanics? A translation of something into a simulated, rule-based form. If you don't have an interesting, evocativesomething to simulate, then your mechanics are going to suffer, even if they follow all the other "rules" of good game design.

The problem with most 4X games not based on history (pretty much everything non-Civ up to this point) is that they exist in brand-new universes which offer players no reference point. This means that you have to go to great lengths to come up with what that seed of an interesting something. The only 4X game where the theme truly informed the core mechanics was... *drumroll* Sid's original Civilization. Designers making games in the same genre tend to copy the solidmechanics of Civ and then fiddle with the details at the edges without really knowing why they were good. They should instead dive head-first into their theme, and only then look at it through 4X-tinted glasses.

Not to toot my own horn, but this is the approach I'm taking with At the Gates. I know the game will have certain core "4X elements" like random maps, tiles, economics, combat, exploration, diplomacy, etc., but I make no assumptions about what the specific gameplay features ought to be. This lets me really make the game feel like late antiquity and the fall of Rome, incorporating mechanics like seasons, migration, supply, mercenaries-for-hire and Romanization. Instead of shoe-horning a Civ-like economic system in with cities that have population points and buckets that fill up over time, I've opted for something completely different, and shifted the focus from node micromanagement to spatial macromanagement. Some people won't like the non-Civness of this... but that's why there's still Civ. I don't feel the need to retread the same ground just to appeal to a larger audience (three cheers for small-budget Kickstarter-funded indie games!).

One of the reasons Crusader Kings 2 is so great is because it breaks out of the mold of a typical Paradox map-based title, and hones in on the experience of managing characters and their relationships. Lo and behold, the primary mechanics you spend most of your time with are completely unique. And awesome.

Once more devs start taking this approach ("what does it feel like to run a space empire? What issues are you as galactic emperor really faced with? What cool abilities should a sorcerer king wield?")... I think we'll start to see an increased richness in the genre. I for one believe we'll get there, and can't wait to see the results.

 

 

I do honestly believe the 4X genre has become a bit stale, and a big reason for that is because the games do borrow so much from Civ. The core idea of 4X is still strong, but we really need to start seeing new interpretations of that.

 

****

 

And now to completely change gears...

 

Just for the record, I too hate unit workshops. :) They offer a neat creative outlet that I know some people really enjoy, but from a game design perspective they're an absolute nightmare. I've actually designed one before (for a game I can't talk about, sorry!), and it was one of the most challenging features I've ever worked on.

 

It's just incredibly difficult making such a self-contained system rich enough that it never boils down to a simple recipe you use every time you play. If you are going to make it work, you need fewer, more meaningful choices. Most designers mean well but, alas, instead tend to lean in the opposite direction.

 

The fewer slots available for customization the better, and any title that includes a workshop probably needs a low cap on the total number of units one can have, or at least engage with - making it almost an X-Com style tactics game. If each side is able to commit only 10 units per fight, then facing an enemy with 7 battleships, 1 carrier and 2 destroyers will make for a very different battle than one with no battleships, 5 carriers, 4 destroyers and a cruiser. Without limits, it boils down to the classic 4X bias for economics, and, unfortunately, this usually renders the more granular tactical decisions of what-shaped wrenches to carry completely moot.

 

What goes into these decisions also needs to be heavily based on your environment. This might mean crazy map elements with a ton of variety, hard counters that can't simply be boiled down to basic archetypes, or something completely different. Hard counters are super important with a system like this, but you need to find a way to prevent the same basic blueprints from working all the time. Players need to adapt, and shouldn't be able to do everything, all the time.

 

Anyways, just some food for thought from a designer's perspective.

 

- Jon

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The #1 metric for success with any game, 4X or otherwise, is the extent to which theme is the driving force. Sure, this sounds kind of obvious and every dev would say that this is the case - but the theme really needs to drive the game. Simply "integrating" it, as everyone likes to say, is not enough.

 

Not a chess guy I take it? I often don't really care about theme (or actively dislike theme) but am still capable of appreciating good game design. Some of my favorite strategy games are euro-style boardgames (Agricola and Puerto Rico in particular), which are generally quite light on theme but heavy on mechanics and interesting decisions. I also like a lot of abstract strategy computer games, "Slay" being a good example. I don't think theme is necessarily a good metric for success in strategy games. 

 

The problem with 4X games isn't really a problem of theme integration, it's a problem relating to the basic game design. You're presented with so many tiny incremental decisions to make, most of which have only marginal importance. As was said in the podcast: there's a lot of accounting going on. In view, it's a lot more interesting (and more fun) to be presented with fewer but more meaningful decisions. 

 

In terms of terrain and space 4X games, I think one problem is that most of these games start with a more-or-less empty, randomized universe into which the players expand. A different way of approaching a space 4X would be to start with the galaxy already developed and populated, with the player sides being various factions. This is kind of what was done in the great space strategy game "Emperor of the Fading Suns"--I haven't finished the episode yet so I don't know whether or not it was mentioned. In that game, you play a faction competing over the carcass of a quasi-medieval space empire. Each side has different background and properties, and there is a strong sense both of theme and "terrain." 

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Fhnuzoag   

Interesting show. I think you both figured out some important stuff.

 

While there are a bunch of space 4Xs not mentioned in the show, and you'd have to be badly obsessed to try to play all of them, I would be interested to hear from those who have played the first Sword of the Stars. It's a fascinating game, and a very good one. Total War in space is not an awful description; you manage your worlds and fleets in turn-based format, and battles are fought in a highly detailed real time. There's a lot of the same emphasis on conquest that you'd find in Total War, too. Diplomacy is a little threadbare, and while you can and will form alliances, it's really all about who you are fighting with next. 

...

 

 

Heh, I too loved the crap out of Sword of the Stars (once suitably expanded), though I suspect it wouldn't really address Rob's concerns, being generally MoO 2.5. Some additional points to the above:

 

 

- Some of the streamlining actually produces value. For example, the developers removed ship refits altogether. This generally removes the busywork of keeping fleets up to date, and creates an interesting choice of when to build fleets. Now, when you might need them, or later, when your tech is better? Do you scrap that obselete fleet to save money, or do you keep it, knowing how much you've sunk your resources into it? Given how significant fleet upkeep costs are, on sane galaxy sizes, fleet management is therefore kept under control. It's often optimal to have only a thin line of scout pickets, and build a fleet when you want to do something with it.

 

- Planet management is reduced to a slider. This could be more transparent, really, but it still clears up a lot of extraneous detail - essentially planet development becomes a choice of 'do you want the planet to be useful ASAP, or do you want to end up with something more productive in the long term?' Most planets are identikit, but at least the game is honest about it. Before colonisation, too, different planets are distinguished in terms of how rapidly they can be developed, and then what their long term value is. This makes valuable planets easy to distinguish, rare, and desirable.

 

- Like the above said, the core difference between the races, their star drives, is a Big Deal, and the game is well balanced to make it matter. For example, one of the major tech researches for one of the species is the tech that upgrades their ship speed to 6 light years/turn. This is important, because on an average map, this is just enough so that a fleet parked in between two planets can threaten both planets simultaneously with single-turn attacks, something the rest of the races only get much later, or not at all. Likewise, the human race's use of nodelines for space travel simultaneously makes them vulnerable to chokepoints, but also means that their attack fleets can't be intercepted en route to their targets. This makes for the creation of decisive battles at the 'gates' of empires.

 

- The pacing of the game is great. Well developed colonies are very hard to attack for most of the game, but it takes a long time for (most) planets be developed, and they are very vulnerable until then. On standard maps, first contact therefore happens with everyone having only their homeworld and a few baby colonies ripe to be picked off, leading to a harrassment phase to the game where everyone tries to bump off the opponents' micro-colonies, and kill off scout ships so that their own colonies remain hidden. There is much more of a rush/boom/turtle dynamic, than the usual way where you can boom un-molested and then steamroller the enemy, or get steamrollered in turn. Also notable is the severe restrictions on the number of ships you can bring into a single battle unless you research C&C advancements.

 

- By accident, or otherwise, I think the designers manage to stumble on a very solid design paradigm to their strategy engine. Though it might not be obvious to beginners, SotS strategy is about Time and Information. Fleets take a long time to move around for most of the game, and some races can't redirect fleets in motion. Hence, spotting and predicting opportunities to attack is critical. Similarly, information is a big deal, because unlike Civ etc where you know there's a swordsman or whatever in your territory, there's a fairly soft gradation of fog of wars in play. Without sensor ships, you have no idea what is out there until they are right on top of you. If they use jammers, you know that there are *some* ships out there but not how many there are. If you don't know about their technology level, you won't know how fast those ships are travelling. Even if you have good sensor coverage, you only know the number and size class of the ships, not whether they are warships, colonisers, or even decoys. If you send out a scout to intercept the ships, you will know the ship designs of the particular ships you fight, but only have the *names* of the ships which were part of the fleet but weren't deployed into battle. And you might have cloaked ships, that can only be found by specialised detectors... You have to really out-think the opponent, and the game gives you the tools to do so.

 

Players that use deception and surprise well enough to catch enemies off balance can defeat enemies many times their number and tech level. It's a lot more interesting than rolling doomstacks into each other.

 

- The randomised tech trees implementation is also fairly neat. I suppose it synergises well with the unit workshop, because designs are to a point *not repeatable*, because sometimes you simply will not get the tech to build a certain ship, so you have to choose to either go with a second-best alternative, or go for a completely different concept.

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hexgrid   

Not a chess guy I take it? I often don't really care about theme (or actively dislike theme) but am still capable of appreciating good game design. Some of my favorite strategy games are euro-style boardgames (Agricola and Puerto Rico in particular), which are generally quite light on theme but heavy on mechanics and interesting decisions. I also like a lot of abstract strategy computer games, "Slay" being a good example. I don't think theme is necessarily a good metric for success in strategy games. 

 

I'm often amazed at just how strong the dichotomy seems to be between theme-first people and mechanics-first people.  I tend to be mechanics-first myself, but for some reason a lot of people working in the 4X space seem to be theme-first.  Jon's right out there in front carrying the flag.

 

The dichotomy seems to be based on whether a person's motivation to play the game is based on generating stories or tackling intellectual challenges.  Depending on how you weight those two goals, you'll care more about theme or mechanics, respectively.

 

I'm fairly far towards the intellectual challenge / mechanics end of the spectrum, partly because I started playing in the 8 bit days when theme was delivered mostly in the copy on the box the game came in, and maybe the instruction manual.

 

To extend your Chess example, is chess any better/worse when played with a civil war chess set?  It's got a theme now, and if you'd never encountered the game before it's actually a decent (if abstract) match for the game mechanics.  So is Civil War Chess better?  I'd argue not much, if at all.  Would Civil War Checkers be better than normal Chess?  I'd argue no, even though one has a theme and the other is purely abstract.

 

There are definitely places where theme can help a lot; Warhammer 40K would be the classic example of a theme that can paper over a lot of minor mechanical deficiencies in a game just by being so bonkers.  A lot of people will buy a Star Wars game just because it's Star Wars, though they may wind up not playing it much.

 

The ideal is that you have excellent mechanics married to an excellent theme.  If something has to give, though, I'd rather it was theme.

 

The problem with 4X games isn't really a problem of theme integration, it's a problem relating to the basic game design. You're presented with so many tiny incremental decisions to make, most of which have only marginal importance. As was said in the podcast: there's a lot of accounting going on. In view, it's a lot more interesting (and more fun) to be presented with fewer but more meaningful decisions. 

 

I think there's another problem, and it's one that has come up in earlier episodes.  4X games don't really have an endgame.  They have a midgame that just peters out when someone crosses a victory point threshold.

 

It's something that meshes with (and is partly a consequence of) the micromanagement problem; in most 4X games by the time you reach the midgame you've got so many plates to keep spinning that it's hard to do anything else.

 

I think the fundamental problem here is that while your role in a 4X game changes, ultimately your interface with the game does not.  What needs to happen if the scale keeps going up is the game needs to start supplying competent virtual viceroys to deal with the less important things.  You shouldn't still be doing things like ship design or colony layout management or citizen job slot allocation once you're managing an empire.

 

The whole point of bureaucracy and hierarchy in real life is to stop the guy/girl at the top from being swamped in minutia.  If you're emperor or president or prime minister and you're making decisions about whether to have four or five workers in a given factory making shoes, your government is insane and broken, and you will be invaded and ruined by a country run by someone who knows how to delegate.  As the scale of your charge goes up, the scale of what becomes minutia also goes up, and the game should be supplying viceroys to deal with that.

 

That was actually the genius of the older Koei "Romance of the 3 Kingdoms" and "Genghis Khan" games.  They started as pure military sims, but the further along you got the more they became about managing your bureaucratic corps and ultimately dynastic management.

 

It's also, by the way, a dynamic you can watch ruin real companies in the real world.  When a company crosses the tribal limit boundary (somewhere between 70 and 200 people, the limit to the number of people you can know intimately on a day to day basis), the management style has to change.  A lot of small companies go up on the rocks and are destroyed trying to cross that boundary when the president/owner fails to realize they don't scale infinitely.

 

In terms of terrain and space 4X games, I think one problem is that most of these games start with a more-or-less empty, randomized universe into which the players expand. A different way of approaching a space 4X would be to start with the galaxy already developed and populated, with the player sides being various factions. This is kind of what was done in the great space strategy game "Emperor of the Fading Suns"--I haven't finished the episode yet so I don't know whether or not you mentioned it. In that game, you play a faction competing over the carcass of a quasi-medieval space empire. Each side has different background and properties, and there is a strong sense both of theme and "terrain." 

 

I'd really like to see more games like this.  Or games where the interactions are more political and faction maneuvering, with the threat of military action hovering in the background.

 

For that matter, it would be fun to play a 4X which takes place in something like the Star Control 2 universe, where there's a somewhat established political order, but some giant threat is coming that the fragmented political system can't handle.  So, the options are to try to cobble together a coalition to deal with the problem, sweep everyone else off the table so you can meet the problem yourself, or all die separately.

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I think there's a bit of context there. We kinda talked about how WH40K is really dumb and derivative, but it has done that with such gusto and investment that we kinda, sorta care now. And really, the Tau aren't Space Japanese. At least not in the fiction I've read.

 

You've read the Warhammer fiction?  Holy heck.

 

There is a great but broken space 4X in a Warhammer-like universe (space emperor, technology, etc.) called Emperor of the Fading Suns.  I did not hear anyone mention it.  It was one of my favorite games when it came out, but is sadly completely broken because the AI is incapable of playing the game.

 

If you want to learn more about it, here is the definitive FAQ on the game, written in 1997 by a guy named Tom Chick.  You may have heard of him.

 

http://www.gamesradar.com/cheats/2528/

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hexgrid   

There is a great but broken space 4X in a Warhammer-like universe (space emperor, technology, etc.) called Emperor of the Fading Suns.  I did not hear anyone mention it.  It was one of my favorite games when it came out, but is sadly completely broken because the AI is incapable of playing the game.

 

What trips up the AI?  Is the game too complex, or is it the classic "AIs don't just can't do diplomacy" problem?  Or something else?

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sclpls   

This was an excellent topic, and there are so many different points to discuss it is difficult to know where to begin...

 

There are a couple of really good points raised in this episode that I hadn't considered before.

 

1. Rob's point about game designers for this genre not really understanding how to scale their games properly and treating a massive, epic scope in the most literal way (huge maps). I think the board game Eclipse, briefly mentioned, is probably the best expression of the generic 4x space game. It limits itself to 9 turns, and that compressed experience keeps all the decision making in that game interesting, and avoids overstaying its welcome (you get 1 or 2 opportunities for an "epic" space battle, not 50).

 

2.How the codification of the genre really makes the 4x game design look increasingly odd. What is a (comparatively) more natural fit for the Civilization series looks increasingly bizarre with each 4x space iteration. For example, why does every 4x space game have to have a tax rate system where lower taxes means a more productive society? I resent the idea that in the space-faring future the only sort of society we'll see anywhere in the universe will be these bizarre, paradoxical autocratic-libertarian empires.

 

The game Bruce mentioned, Emperor of the Fading Suns, sounds really fascinating, and it is a shame the AI can't play the game. What is great about science fiction is the ability to explore, novel speculative ideas; different sorts of what if? scenarios.You never see these games try to capture that novel spirit, and instead it is just a retread of the same old game ideas & concepts. I think more game designers trying to make sci-fi strategy games would greatly benefit from spending the time dreaming up a couple of various fantastical what if scenarios, and then thinking about how that would impact the game design. That really should be the baseline for any sort of science fiction game, it is really disappointing that that seems to be entirely absent from these games; Alpha Centauri & Emperor of the Fading Suns excepted.

 

Also, I'm in the lucky position of not actually enjoying Paradox games, but very much enjoying listening to other people talking about Paradox games, so I should be in good shape for this next month of podcasting...

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What trips up the AI?  Is the game too complex, or is it the classic "AIs don't just can't do diplomacy" problem?  Or something else?

The game is just too complex.  It has an extensive planetary component where you transported troops from system to system and played a full-on wargame on a hex grid on each system.  There were labs where you researched technologies, but these were forbidden so Inquisitors sent by the Emperor could come and shut you down.  The AI just couldn't deal with it all.

 

It's really a shame.  I think it would have been one of the best space strategy games ever made if it had worked.  We tried a few play-by-email games a long time ago but they all eventually fell apart, as those things do.  ("Who's turn is it?"  "Oh yeah it's mine, I'll get to it this weekend."  etc.)  I still keep the original CD and manual around because I liked it so much.

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hexgrid   

1. Rob's point about game designers for this genre not really understanding how to scale their games properly and treating a massive, epic scope in the most literal way (huge maps). I think the board game Eclipse, briefly mentioned, is probably the best expression of the generic 4x space game. It limits itself to 9 turns, and that compressed experience keeps all the decision making in that game interesting, and avoids overstaying its welcome (you get 1 or 2 opportunities for an "epic" space battle, not 50).

 

I'm not sure it's misunderstanding; I'm coming at this as a developer who likes 4X games and has a couple of 4X designs backburnered (and one thing on the front burner that is borderline 4X and definitely strategy set in space).  There are a couple of things at play here:

 

- I think the reference to the hon. Mr. Space Rumsfeld's comment about the golden age of the PC when the limits imposed by the platform matched the limits imposed by what people's brains could process is probably closest to the heart of the issue, partly from a developer point of view but also partly from a player point of view.  So there's also an element of Zacny's "stop listening to your fans" here; many players also think they want more, and they want everything.  Take ship/unit design, for example; it's nearly always touted as a positive, when at least to me it seems like needless complication.  Or take the baroque tech trees with their series of unique technologies, when (for example) both Armada 2525 and Neptune's Pride have shown them to be unnecessary.  But as the developer, when you say 4X and don't have those, you're going to be facing questions about the lack of them, and some people will walk away because they aren't there.

 

- A lot of the 4X market is currently driven by people wishing they could play Master of Orion or Master of Magic again, so there's a lot of player expectation gravity pulling a potential 4X developer in that direction.  There's also the question of what publishers will fund, though it seems like we're finally getting past that dark age.

 

2.How the codification of the genre really makes the 4x game design look increasingly odd. What is a (comparatively) more natural fit for the Civilization series looks increasingly bizarre with each 4x space iteration. For example, why does every 4x space game have to have a tax rate system where lower taxes means a more productive society? I resent the idea that in the space-faring future the only sort of society we'll see anywhere in the universe will be these bizarre, paradoxical autocratic-libertarian empires.

 

There's nothing paradoxical about corporate fascism (cf: Nazi Germany, for example), unfortunately, but yeah, it does kind of rankle when the tech tree invariably has things like "market deregulation" which just adds 15% to your production without any of the garment factory fire or fertilizer plant explosion consequences.

 

On a similar note, I wish this had funded:

 

http://www.indiegogo.com/projects/terminus--3

 

The end of the solar system as a habitable place is coming via giant space rocks, you've got a few decades to build a colony ship to save as many people as you can by strip-mining the world.  Most of your decisions are supposed to be about risk/reward tradeoffs; do you slap together a massive nuclear plant to supply power for your factories and risk it melting down because it was built in a week, or do you spend the time to build it properly and risk the whole project with delays?  You don't have enough time to do everything properly, so where do you gamble?

 

The game Bruce mentioned, Emperor of the Fading Suns, sounds really fascinating, and it is a shame the AI can't play the game. What is great about science fiction is the ability to explore, novel speculative ideas; different sorts of what if? scenarios.You never see these games try to capture that novel spirit, and instead it is just a retread of the same old game ideas & concepts. I think more game designers trying to make sci-fi strategy games would greatly benefit from spending the time dreaming up a couple of various fantastical what if scenarios, and then thinking about how that would impact the game design. That really should be the baseline for any sort of science fiction game, it is really disappointing that that seems to be entirely absent from these games with Alpha Centauri & Emperoro of the Fading Suns excepted.

 

Sturgeon's Law applies here; on being told by someone that 90% of science fiction was crap, he supposedly responded with what became his law: "90% of *everything* is crap".

 

I think it's less a question of theme or scenario, and more a question of goals; IIRC Rob touched on this in the podcast.  Many of these games don't do a very good job of answering why you're doing this.  I find even the Civilization series falls down here; I'm striving to be the first across any one of an arbitrary set of finish lines, so I can "win history" somehow.

 

I think what is needed is either something like Europa Universalis where you can effectively set your own goals, or something where the conquest has a purpose beyond king of the hill.  Not that there's anything wrong with king of the hill, but we have a few of those now and there's no real sign that they're going to become scarce.  I'd like to see games where you're salvaging what you can from a collapsing empire, or trying to unify a faction-ridden empire against an existential threat.  I'd like to see games where the conflict is driven by actual needs, where the resources you're trying to grab are necessary rather than just desirable; it looks like At The Gates may be offering some of this.  I'd like to see terrain used as a resource more often; space 4X games usually don't have a concept equivalent to being deployed on a ridge line.

 

I'm itching to talk about our current project here, because a lot of it meshes with this discussion.  I'm keeping the wraps on a little longer because the design is still a little in flux and we've got some stuff to nail down.

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hexgrid   

The game is just too complex.  It has an extensive planetary component where you transported troops from system to system and played a full-on wargame on a hex grid on each system.  There were labs where you researched technologies, but these were forbidden so Inquisitors sent by the Emperor could come and shut you down.  The AI just couldn't deal with it all.

 

Sounds excellent, actually, though it also sounds like something that should have been split into several games.  It seems like the development effort of building a good 4X game with a competent AI that can play it, plus the development effort of a good tactical battle system the AI can handle, is probably beyond the pale for most developers.

 

Aside from anything else, it adds the whole problem of the strategic AI needing to understand what sort of production path it should be following to feed the needs of the tactical AI.  That's the sort of thing where a minor tweak in the way the tactical AI behaves can break the strategic AI and ruin the game.

 

It's really a shame.  I think it would have been one of the best space strategy games ever made if it had worked.  We tried a few play-by-email games a long time ago but they all eventually fell apart, as those things do.  ("Who's turn is it?"  "Oh yeah it's mine, I'll get to it this weekend."  etc.)  I still keep the original CD and manual around because I liked it so much.

 

I need to get my hands on a copy of this.  It doesn't seem to be on steam, gog or desura.

 

Hmm: http://sourceforge.net/projects/ad-infinitum/

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