One Move Behind – EU3: Heir to the Throne Edition

Troy Goodfellow asked me to fill the third seat on the Three Moves Ahead podcast over the weekend, so I spent a few days furiously playing the latest expansion in order to get a feel for some of the subtle yet significant changes Paradox has made to their flagship strategy game.

I have to admit I was really apprehensive about Heir to the Throne because it seemed like a solution in search of a problem, or perhaps a glorified patch. EU3 was not a game that I felt needed significant improvement or changes, and I was a bit put out that I’d bought the “Complete” edition only to have it rendered incomplete a few months later.

By and large, I think the expansion is a significant improvement over the Edition Formerly Known as Complete. Troy and Tom both felt that the casus belli system was good except for how much easier it made prosecuting wars. Now it’s very easy to start wars without suffering the instability that usually follows a war declaration. I don’t really agree with them, but I’m afraid that might be because they understand and game EU3′s rules much more effectively than I do.

One exploit I wanted to mention on the podcast, but it slipped my mind: the AI seems not to request military access to neutral countries (who are usually very willing to grant it). This wouldn’t be such a major issue except that it makes it very easy for the player to fight wars from the safety of neutral territory while the enemy is hemmed within its national borders. As England I fought both Burgundy and France using neutral kingdoms as the jumping-off points for my attacks. Even though I was clearly using Brittany and Aragon to maneuver against France, France never did anything about it. Makes it a little too easy to kite the AI.

The other thing I noticed as we were talking about EU3 is that it’s a dangerous game to start talking about, because you could very easily never stop. Frankly, I would love to do an entire show just talking about the way EU3 models diplomacy and international relations, because I don’t think I’ve ever seen a game do a better job. There are so many things going on inside EU3 (especially with this expansion), and all the various components interact in such interesting ways, that there are endless nuances you could spend time dissecting. Plus, every game produces a host of, “This one time…” anecdotes.

Final caveats: my sound quality is a little dodgy on this episode, possibly because I couldn’t record in my office and had to use a laptop. So I may sound a bit like I’m podcasting from aboard the Nautilus. However, I also started coming down with a cold during the show, so if I sound a bit crummy, that probably why. As you listen to this show, you are listening to my health fail in real time.

Also, we all mostly recommended this expansion, but take Tom’s recommendation with a grain of salt. I think he may have been recommending In Nomine when he thought he was recommending Heir to the Throne.

Accidental Hiatus

At the end of every year, I tally the books I read. Everyone in my family does this and we usually end up comparing reading lists around Christmas. My father is a very fast reader and can burn through a couple hundred books a year. I’m not as fast a reader and only ever managed around 100, but it was nothing to be ashamed of. Besides, I usually made it a point to read a wide variety of excellent books.

This year I checked my tally. 47. The worst year on record. Even allowing for the fact that I moved from Wisconsin to Boston, and was preoccupied with getting moved and settled for about two months, it’s a depressingly low number. To be honest, it’s also not a terribly impressive reading list.

My partner is on break right now and, even though I meant to stick to a mostly regular work schedule through the holidays, I’ve found myself getting more and more disconnected from games writing, world news, and even gaming itself a little bit. Instead of spending two hours a day patrolling my blog reader, I’ve spent days curled up in my chair, reading books. I haven’t given much thought to games, haven’t played them too much, and haven’t given Twitter more than a few passing glances.

Vacations, especially the ones you didn’t actually mean to take, have a way of pointing out things that are wrong and the ways they could be better. What I’ve realized over the past weeks is that I have let myself become to distracted, multi-tasked into oblivion. I read too much crap that I don’t care about, because for some reason I think it might be important to be able to say I’ve read something that, if I were brave enough to be honest, wasn’t worth reading. I spend too much time being immersed in “virtual worlds”, but never manage to get lost in a novel.

Now that vacation is winding down and deadlines are starting to dot the horizon, I am reluctantly conceding defeat and coming back to the internet’s hyperactive embrace. I have good friends here. But I will also be making more time for reading in quiet rooms, watching sports, and taking walks through this city that I am coming to adore. I hope that it makes me a better, more prolific writer than I have been in the last few months. I am sure that 2010 will find me a happier one.

Less Brains, More Rules

Bad artificial intelligence seems to be the most common problem afflicting strategy and wargames, at least judging by complaints I read on fora. It’s Exhibit A in my case against the Total War series, where features have long oustripped the AI’s ability to manage them. RTSs are often burdened by AI that misuses special unit abilities (or doesn’t use them at all), and cannot properly place defensive structures to save its life. If you can survive their initial rushes, victory is a foregone conclusion. Wargame AI tends to be dependent on scenario scripting to provide the illusion of a clever opponent.

I sympathize with developers who face the thankless task of creating AI for a single-player strategy game. No matter how good a job they do, gamers will find the places where the AI breaks down. It will never be as consistently clever and rational as the people it plays against, especially since many of those people have years of practice and experience under their belt.

Unfortunately, many strategy games depend on the “worthy opponent”. Without an enemy laying plans to derail yours, strategy and tactics can seem pointless. What’s the fun in out-thinking a punching bag? However, if the game is designed for solo play, then perhaps the primary challenge should be the rules of the game and the constraints placed on the player. If developers can create a situation where the player is fighting against a system rather than an AI, then enjoyment and challenge aren’t dependent on the AI passing a strategic Turing test. For instance, let’s consider Europa Universalis 3.

My invincible French army has just massacred the English Royal Army.

My invincible French army has just massacred the English Royal Army.

I have no idea whether or not Europa Universalis 3 features good AI, crazyAI, or stupid AI. Given that I can only ever see about a hundredth of what is happening in the game, I never get a good sense of what the AI really up to. I’ve suffered perfectly timed sneak attacks that leave me devastated. I’ve also seen the AI disperse its armies haphazardly across the countryside, letting a superior force get snapped up piece by piece. Perhaps there’s a logic to that, perhaps not. All I can say with certainty is that EU3′s AI seems competent. It won’t give the game away.

In the context of the game, however, this makes it a perfectly good opponent, because the challenge in EU3 is not your opposition. It is the status quo, and the force it exerts against all efforts to overturn it. All factions struggle against systems that resist change and reduce the effectiveness of brilliant tactics and strategic opportunism.

For instance, I just started playing a game as France and, on the second day of the game, I received a “national mission” to take the Aquitaine, which was occupied by the English. This seems like an eminently sensible, doable objective. The English holdings on the west coast of France are an annoying little toehold surrounded by French territories. The English can only reinforce by sea, while I can build entirely new armies on the doorstep of the Aquitaine. So I wasted no time in putting a large army together and declaring war.

The war began in 1400 and by 1405 it seemed to be over. I had captured both English provinces, fended off relief armies and repelled a counterattack in Normandie. I had even gone ahead and occupied Calais. So I offered the English peace in exchange for their recognition that I was now the rightful owner of the Aquitaine provinces.

My victory is less impressive than it appears on the map.

My victory is less impressive than it appears on the map.

The English, however, were undaunted. Then things began to get ugly, because they were able to launch nuisance invasions via the sea, while my armies raced from the Mediterranean to the Channel and back again. As years of nonstop fighting took their toll, my national manpower reserve drained until my armies could no longer replenish their losses. Plus, I could not hold onto the Aquitaine. It started changing hands every few years as the English would swoop in, retake it, and push into southern France. I would then roll them back. This meant that by 1425, I was still nowhere near being able to annex the province.

This is because EU3 doesn’t really want provinces to change hands through military conquest. Rather, all gains must be recognized by the international order, through a peace treaty, or as a fait accompli. If you can occupy and hang onto a province for a generation, it’s yours. But that’s a tall order, because you have an entire kingdom to defend in addition to your latest conquest (which is likely to rebel against an occupation). So the smart play was to try and get peace with the English but, as I realized too late, there was no reason for them to sign a treaty. They were safe on their island. They had lost the war on the Continent but could still contest the outcome indefinitely.

All of this is more a product of rules than the vagaries of AI. The AI responds to peace offers through rote calculations. What has each side gained and lost weighed against the offer you are putting on the table. Provinces are weighted very heavily, so it’s very much a “from my cold, dead hand” situation. Even decisive defeats in a war rarely yield the victor more than a couple border provinces.

Believe it or not, it took a bloody war to reach this settlement with Champagne.

Believe it or not, it took a bloody war to reach this settlement with Champagne.

So the stage is set for indecisive wars with trifling settlements. Even when you have pounded an adversary into dust, as long as he still exists as a political entity (which does not require an army or even a free territory) he can still resist by refusing to recognize your gains. You could try and wait it out, but the nature of EU3 is that other problems will arise for you in the meantime. For instance, I was waiting for England to give up the Aquitaine in the 1450s when Castille, Burgundy, and Brittany attacked my from every side. 50 years of warfare had done nothing but make me vulnerable to other powers. I ended up settling with the English on the basis of the prewar status quo, and turned my attention to escaping the triple alliance with some of my kingdom.

Superficially, I was fighting against England and, later, three other states. To their credit, they all acted fairly rationally. England used its navy to harass me and wait me out. Castille and its allies reached a point where I was diplomatically isolated between them, and capitalized on the opportunity. However, the rules of the game governed how events would play out more than anything the AI did. Because the game does not equate conquest with ownership, I could never use occupied territories to expand my power. Because war destabilizes countries, especially long wars, I was faced ever-increasing chances of revolt within France. Because I could only field as many troops as there are service-eligible men in my kingdom, I could not indefinitely sustain a large army and major battles. England was incidental to these problems.

Which is probably for the best. My hands are so full of upstart nobles, nationalist rebels, and runaway inflation that the AI factions are just more icebergs menacing the ship of state. My first enemy, always, is circumstance.

One Move Behind

On Monday night I got a message from Troy Goodfellow that he was going to be short two panelists for the Three Moves Ahead podcast, and he would like me to step in if possible. The topic was epic failures in strategy gaming. I warned him that I might not know too much about the subject, but that I’d be happy to join him and Tom Chick.

Podcasting is one of those things that always sounds really easy, especially when guys like Garnett Lee or Shawn Elliott are doing it. Just put on a headset with some pals, and talk games for an hour or two. I’ve certainly wanted to get on a podcast, judging by the sheer number of times I start arguing with the voices coming out of my stereo.

However, I found that once Troy started recording, I was thinking more about how this would sound once Troy published the podcast. I never got so comfortable that I felt like I was just chatting with friends. Having a voice in your head going, “Be articulate, dammit!” is a surefire way to end up with a lot of “ums” and hedging phrases. Fortunately, Troy’s listeners are very cool, very nice people who have been surprisingly positive about my appearance. I look forward to the next chance I get to take part, especially now that I know the panel better.

My biggest handicap besides being a podcasting tyro was the fact that I simply don’t know much about epic failures in the strategy genre. Unlike Troy, Tom, and Bruce Geryk, I’m not a reviewer and so I’ve never been compelled to play a shitty game. I’ve always enjoyed the advantage of being able to read their reviews and take a pass on lousy games. So while they shared war stories about Master of Orion 3 and Superpower, I was thinking, “Boy, sure am glad I didn’t buy that!

But I also left thinking about a shortcoming with the topic: strategy and wargaming do not lend themselves to “epic” failures. Our little niche features very few gargantuan projects and runaway egos that lead to Daikatanas and Duke Nukem Forevers. And because most strategy / wargaming outfits run on smaller budgets, a disastrous project often fails to make it out the door. Poor business decisions, perhaps, but not something you can point to with glee and ask, “What the hell happened here?”

Even when there is something that seems like a disaster in the making (I’m sorry, HistWar, but it’s been close to a decade and your demo crashed every time I tried to play it), it’s not something that leaves anyone really eager to talk about it. Daikatana was clearly born of hubris and incompetent leadership, and there was something satisfying about watching it melt down. But if HistWar: Les Grognards doesn’t pan out, that’s a tragedy for Jean-Michel Mathe, who has spent years trying to make his dream game a reality. I started to disparage it the other night, but I thought about the years of work he’s put into it, and all the smirking doubt he’s had to put up with on message boards… and I just couldn’t do it.

I do think we raised some issues that are worth following-up on. I mentioned the Star Wars strategy game, Rebellion, as a case where failure to meet expectations ultimately proved fatal to the game. Sometimes I think the problem is with my expectations, but for some games that’s not true. Star Wars is iconic and, if you’re going to set a game in that universe, you need to give it a sufficiently Star Wars feel. Rebellion completely blew off its responsibilities to the setting, committing the unforgivable sin of being generic. It even filtered down to the strategy: commanding the Rebel Alliance or the Empire was exactly the same. In no time at all, it became a game of symmetric warfare with slightly different ships. That’s breaking a promise that you make with your title.

A lot of these games also fell into the trap of throwing more and more crap into the game in the hope that depth and strategy would magically occur. That can be a survivable mistake, but not if it begins to obscure the player’s relationship with the game. With MOO3, Tom talked about how the game ultimately didn’t want to player to actually be playing it. It wanted to play by itself, and the player could watch. If cause-and-effect become too blurry and the importance of game elements is unclear, strategy becomes impossible. The game has just defeated its entire reason for being.

These might be basic rules in designing a good strategy game, but I think lousy games really highlight their importance. It’s too easy to look at a game like Civ IV and not see the ways it provides the correct feedback, or ensures that everything you can do serves a puprose. But you sure as hell notice the absence of these qualities in a bad strategy game, and you can often see how the developers botched it. So raise a glass to failures, noble and otherwise. They are still best way to learn.

"Dark Forces" Is How I'd Describe Them

This week’s issue of The Escapist is one of the best I’ve seen. I’m really proud of my article, but I also love the Christmas stories that my fellow contributors shared. Jim Rossignol reminded me of both why I need to get around to playing EVE, and the ways that online worlds sometimes bring you face-to-face with the real one. Mark Brown shared a really touching story about a gift he created for his parents through Little Big Planet, and John Szczepaniak wrote a good memoir of Christmas in Johannesburg. Also, spare a moment to appreciate the art for each of these articles, because the art team really knocked this issue out of the park.

My own article is about an incident that happened when I read a review of Jedi Knight: Dark Forces II, and then realized that our computer had finally, definitively become obsolete. It’s a story I remember really clearly, and which has therefore seemed a little more important over the years.

Ironically, this was the second time Dark Forces brought misery into my life. A few Christmases earlier, I’d received the first game (which I still feel was probably underrated), and for some inexplicable reason it didn’t work. Our computer easily satisfied all the hardware requirements, but the game just would not load after running the executable.

My parents didn’t know how to fix the problem, or even what the problem was, and so the game went on the shelf. Meanwhile, my cousins were playing the hell out of it and telling me how great it was. Finally, sometime in February, my parents took pity on me and took the computer into the local mom and pop shop. To get this $50 game working cost them a new stick of RAM and a new CD drive. It probably amounted to a couple hundred dollars.

I still have both the games sitting on my bookshelf, testaments to the joy and misery that was mid-90s PC gaming. Speaking of which, you should go read my article.

Driving Game

Cleanly! Scores of hours logged at Spa, Magny-Cours, Zandvoort and a dozen other Euro-American racing cathedrals, and all in the service of doing everything cleanly. Passing cleanly on the inside of a straightaway, or neatly nipping through the inside of a corner and slamming the door shut on the guy caught outside.

The Line is clean and perfect, and if I hit all my marks then my driving will be smooth and beautiful. My tires whine a bit as I accelerate through the Parabolica at Monza, but they don’t shriek and the the car doesn’t try to bust loose. My control is perfect, and that is the entire point of the game.

But God, the concentration and practice required. Sometimes I want to play a racing game and I look at my wheel sitting beneath my desk, and at GTR 2 atop my bookcase, and I just can’t go through that. It’s eight at night, there’s an icy draft seeping in through the windows of my apartment, and I just completed a long day of revising the same article until it was good enough to send back to my editor. Who will want more changes, and I’ve already gone from Draft A through Draft L. I want to play a racing game, but my sims want perfect reflexes and sharp senses, and I’m too used up to try and pilot a GT3 around Valencia. The torque alone is more than I can bear right now.

Yet GRID is so messy, like all arcade racers. All the cars slip and slide with greased tires across glass tracks. A simple 90 degree right-hander turns into a crescendo of shrieking rubber, roaring engines, and crunching metal and glass as cars smash each other into walls. I try a clean pass, outbrake my opponent going into a corner, take the line on the exit… and pound my wheel in frustration as he shoves me straight into the tire barrier. We were second and third, but now the entire field is driving past as as I try to extract myself from the the scrum.

We hit the barriers at 85 mph and my windshield is cracked and starred so badly that I can hardly see the track. Replays of the race will show that the front of my car now describes a check mark. It was straight line before. But my crew chief is on the radio telling me that I’ve “got some damage, but nothing too serious.” I reverse into my opponent, slewing him around as he tries to get back into the race, then roar off in pursuit of the long-gone field. The car still handles like it just rolled out of the factory.

Arcade racing games, like the ones that Codemasters produce, merely take real-world racing as their theme. TOCA and GRID are, to borrow a term from Tom Chick, Car-RPGS (caRPGs). You hop behind the wheel and work your way from driving sedans to super grand tourers, buying new cars and kit and unlocking new challenges along the way. Progress is constant, and all your training is on-the-job. Races are combat, where you put bruising hits on the opposition and use guardrails to help you negotiate sharp corners. The great skill in a caRPG is not driving, but in playing automotive pinball through the field until you accumulate enough prize money to move up to the next tier of challenges.

As an aside, arcade racing games also make sure to include lots of tedious bullshit to appeal to the entitled mouth-breathers who thought Gone in 60 Seconds and The Fast and the Furious were the Godfather and Easy Rider of their generation. If GRID is making a selling point out of the fact that you can drive the 24 Hours, or wrestle an old TVR around Donington Park, why is it making me master the pointless unfun of drifting? What could possibly make them think I’d care about such a thing? Let me be clear: drift racing is to real racing as tequila is to good liquor. There are people who are passionately devoted to it, but they a small, crazy subgroup that most of us would rather ignore.

But once I adjust to GRID’s icky collisions and near-gripless cars, I do find myself enjoying the cheerful madness of the racing action and its wise inclusion of a “flashback” that lets me undo catastrophic mishaps. Taking a Mustang sideways into a corner, punching the throttle at the apex and wrestling with the savage force of its fishtailing is exactly the kind of thing I want from an arcade game. I begin to enjoy the take-no-prisoners savagery of the races, especially when you nudge someone else into a wall at top speed and cause a massive pile-up in the rear-view mirror. I love the sudden quiet and solitude that follows the moment you just crashed the entire field somewhere in a chicane behind you.

Still, what I really want is a game that occupies the sweet spot between the mad chaos of a GRID or Need for Speed and the taut immersion of a SimBin game. A game that places a premium on smart, clean driving but doesn’t demand the monk-like devotion that characterizes a racing season in RACE or GTR 2. I love great racing and good driving, but sometimes I don’t want to be my own race engineer, or approach a play session the way Lewis Hamilton must approach a race weekend at Silverstone. Rather than taking a slug of GTR 2 with a GRID chaser, I’d like something that blends their strengths. Something that still keeps the racing clean, but not immaculate.