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Rob Zacny

Episode 289: 2014, King of Years

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Rob Zacny, Fraser Brown, Rowan Kaiser, and Troy "You Say 'Two Piers', I say 'Paradox'" Goodfellow talk about all the terrific and not-so-terrific things that happened in strategy gaming in 2014. Endless Legend appears to win based on the metric of time discussed and we all learn what Rowan really thinks about his cat.

 


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Like Troy, I thought that Harpoon had prepared me for playing Command. It did not. 

 

Any chance that we'll see a show for the hot new Gary Grigsby joint during the next Winter of Wargaming?

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About East European gamedev.

 

Warlock is made by InoCo, Russian company too. Before Warlock they've made Elven Legacy (Fantasy/Panzer General clone, so Warlock is not just Civ5 clone, it's a continuation of their work) and many expansions for it.

 

Russians do like iterative design. Heroes 3 and Fallout 1-2 are the most beloved games in Russia and those games are replayable as hell. So Russian gamedev tries to make every game replayable and improves it iteravely. Probably because Russians were psychologicaly hurt by events like the fall of USSR and Heroes 4. By the way, Heroes 5 (made by Russian company Nival) were planned as Heroes 3 remake - first techdemo looked just like Heroes 3 in 3D.

 

There are many good games improved step by step made in Eastern Europe. King's Bounty, Space Rangers (Pirates/Elite clone), Silent Storm (Jagged Alliance/Fallout clone), STALKER. King's Bounty is a good example of not repairing not broken thing. Original developer made The Legend and Armored Princess, then there were 2 more made by other people and those games are OK too. They have new game mechanics, new monsters, completely different rooster of artifacts. Level design forces you to use different monsters, army compositions and spells. Graphics are the same but the game still looks nice and functional so it's the only thing that differentiates those expandalones from proper sequels. Everyone interested in Heroes of Might and Magic without strategy shoud start with Crossworlds (updated rerelease of Armored Princess) and go from there.

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It is quite interesting to me, that everyone thinks Endless Legend is a good game. I do agree it is a very fresh creation, bustling with personality and atmosphere, but it certainly is not a good game. Tactical combat interface is a godawful mess that makes any kind of complex maneuvering not worth your time. Unit stats recalculate differently on every screen, and all manner of bonuses make it impossible to predict just what can you rely on exactly. Same with cities, due to the utter lack of information it is absolutely impossible to decide every time if it's worth it to expand the city further or level a particular district. Good game ? I think not.

 

Also, what the...what "unit variety" did they talk about ? Most of the units are exactly the same. Walker, fast walker, buffer. Where is this mythic variety ?

 

And another thing, what is "so, so good" about Civ5 expansions ? What is good about turning off AI agression ? And it's not optional, AI quite simply will NEVER go to war with you, and that is in a game with 99% of units being military and the goal being world domination ? What ?

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Caretaker, perhaps you delved too deep into Endless Legend. As guys have said, they are not sure if it works as a strategy, if it's balanced and replayable. Still there is unit variety (much more than in most 4X games short of Age of Wonders) and many ways to tweak units. It may not be "good", it may not be polished and balanced cybersport discipline like Civilization, but it sure is fun. Also perhaps it's your own playstyle, you seem to want predictability and information while Amplitude designs combat as an unpredictable gamble.

 

I'm not a very good Civ5 player, won on Immortal (7th difficulty of 8) only once (as Venice on Archipelago map, he-he). Never liked war in this game, especially before 5, so I've always went for a peaceful victory. Haven't tuned on AI aggression but I don't remember a single game where AI didn't declare war on me. Though I think turning on AI aggression would make a game even easier as it'd force me to kill AI armies (that are not very smart) and ruin his economy. Also high difficulty bonuses only buff economy, so AI would just spam more units he can't use properly.

 

Frankly, problem with 4X is the genre is too complex to have a "perfect" game and Civ5 is closest to perfectness we have in latter years. Alpha Centauri and Master of Orion are often named as best games ever but it's just rose-tinted glasses speaking.

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I got Endless Legend this Steam winter sales and already put 71 hours in.  Sounds great right (or that I have a problem lol)?

 

Well it is and it isn't because I really enjoyed those 71 hours but I'm also pretty certain I'll never play it again until major expansion hit.  Compare that to CiV which I put at least 200 hours before expansions and after that, 500+ online and probably another couple hundreds offline (competing right there next to EU4 and HoI3).

 

The endgame problem that Troy mentioned is very very forgiving-ly put.  On normal speed game (which is set to 300 turns max), if you are alive, you are almost guaranteed to completely break the economic balance somewhere between turn 130 ~ 160.  Earlier if you use custom faction like customized Broken Lords.  How does the economy break you wonder (if you haven't played it)?  So like in any other good builder games you build stuff, which in this game is all about the FIDS (food, industry, dust, science just like in Endless Space except we also get influence points somewhere in there).  You get more FIDS and with that you get to build more stuff... hence your empire grows!  That's great, core aspect of any empire builder.  The problem is that in this game your growth is exponential because of how late game tech are balanced, how population growth is designed, and you don't really have a good FIDS sink to begin with.

 

In all Civilization games, population growth is followed by food demand increase (usually 2 food increase in consumption and unimproved grassland gives 2), but your source of food is limited to the tiles around the city that are worked by your citizens.  And thus the growth is fairly well managed with more techs and improvements allowing a city to support more citizens per tile (like a max level grassland farm is 5 foods in most civ games), but still there is some hard limitations to it.

 

In Endless Legend, your citizens don't work the tiles like in Civ games.  Instead, all districts-exploitation tiles are auto-worked and citizens are instead assigned to any of the 5 FIDS (very similar to how specialists work in Civilization games for those who haven't played Endless Legend yet).  Early on the workers provide modest FIDS output.  But around Age 3 (that's 16 techs researched, with each tech taking something between 4 ~ 12 turns) you begin to accumulate enough techs and buildings that make both your tiles and your workers a whole lot more efficient.  Put a good hero to govern the city and it's even more so.

 

So how does that exactly break the game unlike in Civ games?  Because remember how the workers work?  They work like cap-less specialists from Civ... so it means that there is no actual hard cap on city's growth because every growth and its food consumption can be matched by less than 1/4 worker so with every growth, you have more room to grow!  Amplitude did get the time right so at least it takes longer to grow but that's not a huge problem because again, 1/4 or less cost so you can just assign more workers to match the increase in time (also given how the combat works in this game and how abusable it is for defenders to stall out and the AI is abysmal at this game, much more so than ones in Civ games).  Put this on top of Broken Lords' dust-centric mechanic and it breaks even further because workers no longer cost you any maintenance and you can tunnel vision super hard into dust production which really brings this problem to the forefront.

 

Then the tech imbalance also chips in there.  You end up with so many techs that are all about making your tiles better, which is fine and all but they do that too much (hence balance issue) that by Age 4 you don't even have to think about what tiles to put new districts or cities on because every tile will more than pay for itself and are multi-functional.  Gone are the choices of "ok this city needs more food for growth so I'll pick this food rich spot".  Every tile will produce enough FIDS of all variety and if the region is missing out on any single element (ice and desert are often short on food for example), no problem because you can just use your workers instead.

 

So you get all this FIDS that let you generate more FIDS... to top off this problem, the game doesn't really let you spend your FIDS on anything... the way combat works, you don't need that big of an army.  So reaching mandatory threshhold is kind of an easy task.  So basically all this exponential growth is there so you can better fund your exponential growth.

 

Ok so that's bit of theoratical reason how the game breaks, so let me give you specific example.  Keep in mind that population wise the value proposition is similar to CiV, in that 10 pop city in Endless Legend is similar to 10 pop CiV in value that it provides in the context of the game (minus the exponential economy problem I mentioned).  With customized Broken Lord faction, by turn 120 ish on normal (again, 300 turn max) I can settle a brand new city and bring its population to 10 ish with all buildings built in a single turn, every turn.  By turn 180 it's 30 population, so on.  Growth is so ridiculous that by 220 ish i can fill out a pretty large region with district.  That is the entire section of the map becoming a giant city.  The 220 turn example is bit facetious since I would have won an economic victory long before that point but just to highlight the problems.

 

Again, Age 1 and 2 are really good (minus the combat, it's just straight up awful compared to CiV.  And not in that 'unpreditable gamble' ilitarist, it's completely predictable and just bad because your army position boils down to 'are you in range to fight or not', and gone are the cool considerations in CiV like protecting resources, choke points, etc.).  But game just breaks past that point.

 

For me the weird bit about 3MA podcasts on Endless Legend is that so much of the game really boils down to Endless Space...  But to be fair, I suppose the hexagonal map with sprawling city does go a long way (even though functionally it ends up similar to Endless Space because as Rowan Kaiser pointed out in earlier podcast, Endless Legend doesn't have any of that "compete for every tile" that Civ games have, so in the end each region pretty much ends up as a single node, just like the ones in Endless Space).

 

All that said though, I would still recommend it just because how good those first few games felt.

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One thing about Endless Legend, that somebody already said, but it´s worth repeating again - while we often say "this game have a lot of potential" while not is exactly perfect, but could be on the right track. But Endless Legend is truly this case, because unlikely other cases, not only its works great and have a great vision on it (so good that almost make it for the late mistakes),but the people behind the game can really push the game to its potential.

 

While I am a bit suspicious when developers try too hard to creat unique factions/races, because most of time it fall flat quickly, Endless Legend does pull it off so well that is amazing (and one of my favorite part of the game). Age of Wonders III on the other hand was a great exemple, that how well you could use a classic archetype or troopes - because the more classic or traditional air around the game is one the thing I really like about it.

 

I got to agree with Rowan (I believe) said that Paradox games ruined Civ, I mean diplomacy in Paradox games (and things like casus belli) are the first thing a noticed and miss, along with the ability to play as a small power and remain as one (since there is no over winning states) while playing grand strategy/4x games.

 

One nice surprise for me this year was Valkyria Chronicles, not only I didn´t expect Sega to bring it, but it is a great game.

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One big problem that Endless Legend has is the fact that it just doesn't explain some things very well at all. It does have a tutorial, but that is skipping over a lot of important things.

I mean for example, before a recent patch the game never even told you you can level up city districts or how you do it. That's an incredibly important part of the city building, but the game never even told you how to do it until now.

There's other things people often get wrong, for example these "per population" bonuses. The bonus only applies to population working that resource, not to the entire population of the city.

Then you have the combat system where the game explains basically nothing. You have to look up a forum post by the devs to understand what's even going on:

http://forums.amplitude-studios.com/showthread.php?37546-An-explanation-of-the-new-combat-system

If you click on your units during battle and you wonder why some numbers are written in green, that's probably due to a moral boost because your unit started its turn close to other friendly units.

Also, does the game EVER tell you that you can queue orders by ctrl + rightclicking? For example you can tell your unit to move to a certain hex and then attack a certain enemy. That gives you way more control during combat, but again I think the game never talks about it.

 

I'm not much of a fan of the combat system anyway. It's just not direct enough, even with the ctrl clicking. Sometimes another unit walks into a hex that you told one of your units to walk into and then an AI takes over the turn of your unit, most of the time moving it into a completly silly position. I just don't see the point of that, why not just let us do all the moving and attacking directly?

I also don't see what's so special about the battle map. To me there's no difference between Endless Legend's and Master of Magic's combat system, only you have more obstructions in EL (which can also be really weird cliffs that go from one side of the battle map to the other, cutting off half of it if you attack from a bad angle) and you have way more control in MoM.

 

However, those complains don't mean much anymore if you get used to the game cause the game is really great anyway.

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The poor tutorialization is both negative and a blessing though if you think about it, because it gives more time before players find out how later half of the game doesn't work anymore because they are too busy figuring out other more basic stuff.

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Eh, people, you are too harsh. What you say if of course true, but it made me think about one of the most appreciated strategies of all time, Heroes of Might and Magic 3.

 

The balance is horrible: there are clearly overpowered factions, monsters, skills, even game mechanics (there's no misfortune so fortune mechanics is not nearly as important as morale). Game pace is broken: the first turn you see another player you'll probably see his main hero with the main army, you destroy it and you've won. Endgame economy is totally broken. Important things like hero progression, weeks and rewards are all randomized. Many battles are won by a single morale bonus happening. Honestly, I can't find any way in which HoMM3 is better than HoMM5 (maybe subjective stuff like art style and campaigns).

 

Still people love the game. It gives a strong impression with great art and music. It's very interesting and engaging at the beginning. People create mods for it and play imbalanced multiplayer with house rules. Cause this game makes you love it even with all of its flaws. 

 

It seems to me Endless Legend is very similar. It's a game you love even if you feel it's broken cause Broken Lords end up so not broken they break everyone. Similar things happened to Master of Orion 2 and Alpha Centaury. Amplitude will make a big patch or addon and you'll return to this game. And me too. And then we'll hopefully boot it once a year to remember how good it feels. Yeah, I'm an optimist.

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Eh, people, you are too harsh. What you say if of course true, but it made me think about one of the most appreciated strategies of all time, Heroes of Might and Magic 3.

 

The balance is horrible: there are clearly overpowered factions, monsters, skills, even game mechanics (there's no misfortune so fortune mechanics is not nearly as important as morale). Game pace is broken: the first turn you see another player you'll probably see his main hero with the main army, you destroy it and you've won. Endgame economy is totally broken. Important things like hero progression, weeks and rewards are all randomized. Many battles are won by a single morale bonus happening. Honestly, I can't find any way in which HoMM3 is better than HoMM5 (maybe subjective stuff like art style and campaigns).

 

Still people love the game. It gives a strong impression with great art and music. It's very interesting and engaging at the beginning. People create mods for it and play imbalanced multiplayer with house rules. Cause this game makes you love it even with all of its flaws. 

 

It seems to me Endless Legend is very similar. It's a game you love even if you feel it's broken cause Broken Lords end up so not broken they break everyone. Similar things happened to Master of Orion 2 and Alpha Centaury. Amplitude will make a big patch or addon and you'll return to this game. And me too. And then we'll hopefully boot it once a year to remember how good it feels. Yeah, I'm an optimist.

 

Very true

 

Speaking of Heroes of Might and Magic, which I too one of my favorite game, but let me add one more thing about lack of balance - overall number will al lways win, so much if the enemy manages do get more troops that you, you might well restart the map, because after point, due way damage and unit hp is calculated (unit HP: number of units x unit HP, damage is damage x number of units, so 4 pikeman would have 60 HP; meanwhile they would do between: 3-4 (unit basic damage) x 4 (number of pikeman) of damage modify by difference between attack and defense) you simple have no hope, as there is no way to rout a enemy.

 

This limit situation I remember happening a lot in Heroes 2, due many scenarios begin the kind which you start with a single castle and a hero but you can´t lose both, so you had to be very defensive, if the enemy manages to get more troops is goodbye, which meant you could had restart a map after hours of play. In Heroes 3 I remember happening in the final map of neutral campaign, now on Heroes 6 this happens a lot due bad map design and overuse of script which give ai a free (and huge) armies. On Heroes 5 this didn´t happen very much, not that I remember, maybe because magic was very powerful so you still might have a chance on this situations.

 

Also I am too very optimist about Endless Legend.

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Amplitude did a pretty good job improving Endless Space through both expansion and patches, so I think odds are good that Endless Legend will notably improve.

 

But I think some of the late game issues will persist because both games have such similar design on how economy scales in game, they must just love their games to be played like that.

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One quick question:

 

Exactly what automation option do I have to select in Distant Worlds: Universe to enable me to play with only one ship?

 

Regarding Endless Legend: I like it well enough, but my buy-in level for the story is so low that the faction differences just pass me by, it's all FIDS one way or the other like Gaizokubano laid out in some fair detail. By the way, is anyone else bothered by the UI being stylistically too similar in all the endless games by Amplitude? It really bugs me for some reason I can't put my finger on.

 

For me, I just don't think any new 4x can manage to engage sufficiently to keep my interest for more than 20+ hours. Civ: Distant Worlds sort of did, because I was hoping way past where it was even plausible that the end game would be good, or that it would in any way match up to Alpha Centauri - it's perfectly competent, with a couple of nice touches, but in the end not compelling and generecially bland. In the end, I think, as mentioned on the podcast, that Paradox has pretty much ruined other franchises for me. EU - the first one - was great, but EUIV and CKII are absolutely amazing, and probably my go-to games if I can ever find the time for a proper 4x play again as both of them require more time just to create the right headspace to play them. I'll give DW: Universe a spin, as it sounds interesting, but It's got a steep hill to climb to beat out even just the opening 2 hours of Viking raiding in a CKII game.

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I think the Desert Fox is the only game I can think of that is worth mentioning that wasn't covered during this episode. It's my favorite so far of all the games Shenandoah Studios have done. It's fresh on my mind because the campaign is basically the perfect length for a flight from one coast to the other which is the flight I have to do during the holidays.

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I just bought banner saga on Android because of the praise for it on the show. I have to say I am underwhelmed – on my Nexus 7 tablet which I would have thought is moderately enough to handle most things, there are frequent loading screens which take too long to load (not, admittedly, your fault) but I'm also finding the implementation of combat rather opaque. In particular it is super frustrating not being able to rotate the map or get a simple "top-down" view – it is very difficult therefore to properly align one's troops. At least as an Android game it is only 12 bucks and I don't mind too much supporting an indie developer but however pretty the artwork the difficulties in the game make it unlikely I will persevere long enough to get into the plot.

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