Master of Orion 2: God’s Video Game

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I have been an avid fan of turn based empire-building games since I was a child. I’ve played many of them, and usually for days on end, I probably have thousands of hours logged in Civilization II. Based on my experience I can confidently say that Master of Orion II is the best of the bunch even looking back now from 2018.

It just got so much right! So many elements of this game were leaps ahead of the genre. Everything is fun in Master of Orion II; exploration, empire building, science, war, even espionage. Many games that bring innovation to the genre, but many times that innovation falls flat on it’s face (Have you seen Master of Orion 3?) Master of Orion 2 challenges you on every level, and presents you interesting choices in all elements of gameplay.

Species Customization

The first noticeable difference between MOO2 and the other 4X games, and probably the most entertaining, is species creation. In MOO2 you get to create your alien race using an impressive customization screen reminiscent of the Fallout 1 and 2 character generator. Of course there are plenty of stock aliens to choose from, but you better believe it’s way more fun to make your own!

You can create a race of fragile, slow-to-reproduce, subterranean ultra smart science super nerds. Or you can make a race of telepaths that have a fetish for gold coins who use their telepathy to make favorable trade agreements. You can even make a race that doesn’t need to eat organic food but can get by eating minerals allowing them the ability to live on any planet and never worry about farming.

You could even draw on other popular aliens of science fiction and see how they would perform. How would you create StarCraft’s Zerg or Protoss in this sandbox? How about StarTrek’s Klingons, Romulans or Borg?

I have played hundreds of games and I still have builds I am interested in trying. The replay value is unparalleled.

Exploration and Colonization

In MOO2 expansion has some subtleties that make it fun and interesting. This game takes place in space, and instead of settling on land, you settle on entire planets that orbit stars. Early in the game your ships have primitive engines and can not venture very far from your home system.

Generally the map is generated to put some distance between you and your neighbors, at least until you settle a little further away. This means you will not need to fight for expansion space with any other races early in the game. There is usually plenty of room in your own little area to build up a solid empire before you need to arm up and battle.

The juiciest randomly-generated systems often come with a space monster protecting them. You need to develop the firepower to destroy the space monster before colonizing that system. This is awesome for three reasons:

  • It mitigates luck based advantages of starting next to a high quality system because even if you do, it will take some time to destroy the space monster.
  • Interesting game states present themselves in which a player must make the choice of researching weapon systems and building ships to destroy the monster as fast as possible as opposed to taking a more balanced research path and concentrating on infrastructure.
  • Race situations can take place, where two competing civilizations try to destroy the space monster and colonize the system before the other.

There is a good variety in expanding in this game as opposed to Civilization. In Civilization you always need to fight for land because if you fall behind in number of cities then you are at a disadvantage. That is true in Master of Orion 2 as well, but you can simply colonize fewer but higher quality planets for equal footing.

Even if that doesn’t work you can make poor planets better by getting terraforming technology, hydroponic farming or biospheres.

Diplomacy

Diplomacy is always a breaking point in these 4X empire building games. In my opinion this is always the low point of Civilization games since Civ2. Either there aren’t enough diplomatic options or the AI acts so inexplicably the diplomacy screen isn’t even worth visiting. Well for a game that was released in the same year as Civilization 2, it had diplomacy that was more interesting that it has ever been.

The typical options are all there: trade technology (more on this in the science section), offer gifts to improve relations, demand technology/money/system, make alliances and if you really want to, you can surrender.

This all seems pretty normal, and for the most part it is. But here is what this game offers that is so brilliant and head of its time. When you sign a trade treaty or a science treaty you don’t just gain an immediate trade. Instead both of your civilizations begin PAYING money, and then eventually over several turns your deficit turns into a bonus and this bonus gets bigger over time. Both of your civilizations begin gaining bonus research points and income every turn and this number continues to grow as your civilizations prosper.

Civilization 5 recently (and I am talking 2010) implemented a science treaty system similar to this, and I am happy they finally realized what a great idea it is. This gives you incentive to actually stay at peace, and keep the peace with everyone. Also when you have a very strong and beneficial agreement going, it puts both parties in an interesting position to make demands. In this case a declaration of war isn’t just an inconvenience (and sometimes in the case of being very far apart, a total non-issue) to an actual detriment because losing the 200 research points and 150 income every turn is a big deal.

I can’t stress enough how innovative and excellent this move is. Not being at war isn’t the only incentive for peace anymore. You actually WANT to build many long-lasting relationships because the more science and trade agreements you have the higher you can fly.

One of the racial attributes is called Repulsive, and having it means you cannot do any diplomacy other than declare war and surrender. Sometimes the other races in the galaxy are repulsive (very often in the higher difficulty levels), and you have no choice but to be at war with them. It keeps you on your toes and makes diplomacy with the other races even more important.

Espionage

Name a game that has fun espionage. Go ahead take your time. Espionage in turn based strategy games is like a water level in a side-scrolling platformer. It almost feels like a necessary evil that breaks up and bogs down the gameplay. It’s something that you need to deal with before continuing with your game.

MOO2 gets it right once again. In this game you handle all your spying activity in one screen with no need to manually move all your spies around. You simply assign offensive and defensive spies where you choose, give them a mission and thats it. Depending on how many spies are on offense vs how many spies are on defense, together with spy skill (which can be modified by racial bonuses and technology) your missions are successful or not on a given turn. Sometimes you will capture enemy spies. An alert saying “Your spies have caught and killed a Bulrathi spy” will be shown. Other times your spies will get killed, and you will need to replace them.

Here is the cool part. Sometimes after completing a mission (stealing technology, blowing up a barracks) your spy will report with “Your spy has stolen Planetary Supercomputer technology. Your spy framed the Bulrathi.” Making your target think the Bulrathi stole the technology! Leaving you without any diplomatic problems and maybe even causing some between your enemies! I am sure when you get reports of “Bulrathi has stolen a tech” it’s a frame up much of the time.

You can choose to confront the spy civilization in question and tell them to stop spying, but what if they never spied? Is it worth the risk of ruining a trade agreement?

Science

Science isn’t managed like in other games where you will get all the technology eventually. See in the picture there are eight fields of science? And in each field there are several options? Well you get to choose only one path of research per field, per level. Meaning, in this case in the Physics field of science, I can choose to get the Phasor (which is a ship weapon), Phasor Rifle (for my ground troops) or Multi-Phased Shields (Ship defense). If I choose phasor I will be forever unable to get Phasor Rifle or Multi-Phased Shields. The next time I see the physics field it will have three different options and I will need to choose again.

You always need to choose what component of your technology you want to improve. Do you want faster engines or more powerful missiles? Do you want more food per farmer or a faster growth rate? Do you want more income or better trained troops?

This concept is also what makes technology trading so interesting. You can get research one thing, and an ally can research another, and then you can trade them. Another reason why having long-term allies is good in this game beyond just safety. Of course you can also steal the technology with spies or through capturing ships! I am a big fan of making choices in my games. Having to make a definitive choice on which technology to research and which technologies to leave behind is one of the most interesting choices and greatly improves variety.

This system of science mitigates a runaway leader problem because that runaway leader can never get all the technology on the way up. Although the AI isn’t very good at this, conceptually if all of the “losers” band together and trade technology while the runaway leader is only getting 1 tech per field the losers might have a pretty good catch-up mechanic.

Of course, racial attributes can effect how you research. When you are customizing your race you can make them generate more research per scientist, or you can take the “Creative” trait, which means you never need to choose. When you research a field you get all technology in the field. It’s a very powerful trait. On the other hand, you can take “Uncreative”, and only have one random choice available from each field.

Another awesome concept that has to do with science: when you keep developing in one field of science, it improves your ability to use that technology. Applying level of “miniaturization” to all your ship systems from that field. This means when you first discover a new kind of gun it takes up lots of space on your ships. Then once you keep researching laser weapons, with each level of research you complete, the gun gets smaller and smaller on your ship. It’s progressive and realistic concept that goes almost unnoticed.

War

Space combat is a rewarding experience in MOO2. You get to design, construct and name your ships. You have a full hands-on approach to making your fleet. You choose the size of your ship, and all the systems on it from a list of weapons and upgrades you have researched.

Missile ships, beam ships, ships that carry smaller ships, ships that do nothing but move quickly and self-destruct, ships with tractor beams, bombers and ships that are specialized in boarding and taking over enemy ships. That isn’t even all of them, those are just some of the archetypes I find myself using. Not to mention that “missile ship” has dozens of ways to do it.

Even the missiles themselves have upgrades! You can make your missiles super fast so they spend less time flying in space and being shot down. Missiles can be heavily armored so it takes more hits to shoot them down. They can have anti-jammer technology which will let them ignore enemy jammers, a common missile defense system. Your missile can be “MIRV” which means they split into multiple warheads and do 4x the damage on impact. Or… your missiles can be all of these things!

When you board an an enemy ship your crew and the enemy crew do battle. If you win you gain control of the ship. Sometimes you can use the ship, other times its immobile and has to wait until after the battle. You get a choice of keeping the ship, or reverse engineering it for technology.

Leaders can be assigned to ships to give them bonuses (more on leaders later). The only problem with war in MOO2 is how poorly the AI makes ships. The AI tends to go for a balanced approach to ship building when a min/max approach is usually superior. It’s a minor gripe, making your own ships is super fun.

Oh did I mention this game has multiplayer!? Yeah you can go fleet vs fleet with your friend. Of course setting up multiplayer on this ancient DOS relic is a bit of a chore.

Conquest

Other than the pride in victory, taking over planets has been injected with more fun than ever. Remember how I said all the aliens are different? Well they keep their racial attributes when you capture them.

Once you have them enslaved, you can transport them to other planets in your systems and breed them (as… politically incorrect as that sounds…) Let’s say for example that you conquer the Bulrathi. The Bulrathi can live and work on high-gravity planets with no ill effects (Usually working on a high-G planet has penalties). If you have high-G planets in your empire you can move the Bulrathi citizens to those planets where they will not suffer any penalties, and safety move your fragile colonists to a normal or low-G planets. Or maybe you capture a race of strong researchers and transport them to a planet with ancient artifacts to maximize your research. Master of Orion II is the best games at rewarding your micromanagement.

Leaders

A fun little gimmick. Leaders randomly offer you their services. There are colony leaders, and ship pilots. They offer special bonuses to the colony or ship. Usually these bonuses are VERY good like +40% to production or science. There isn’t much you can do about actually getting leaders other than wait, although the “charismatic” racial trait does help attract them. But it’s definitely fun to get a staff of truly powerful leaders (like the game in the picture above). Some planets you have can become amazing powerhouses when they get +60% to production and moral.

Colony Management

Creating amazing colonies is one of the funnest aspects of Master of Orion (or any empire building game). Remember when I said micromanagement is rewarded? Colony management is where it shines. Each planet has different size, weather, toxicity and mineral richness and some are better than others. You will look for large abundant terrestrial planets for your powerhouse colonies, but even that tiny, toxic, poor, high gravity worlds can be made into great colonies because of how buildings work.

While games like civilization have buildings like a library or a marketplace which add a multiplying to the cities natural output, Master of Orion goes a different way. Buildings in this game give you base resources in addition to the multiplier. A automated factory for example amplifies your production, but also adds production. Even if you don’t get any outstanding planets you are still in decent shape thanks to all the building bonuses you can acquire.

Winning the Game

There are several ways to win the game. You can win via diplomacy, by being voted galactic council leader, which is accomplished by having lots of alliances with people and buttering them up so they vote for you. Then of course you can kill or conquer everyone. The third is the most interesting win condition, you can call it the scientific victory. The Antarans are a race of malevolent aliens that harass you all game. They come out of nowhere and attack your colonies with superior technology and just do damage. Maybe towards the end of the game you can actually defend yourself, but for the majority of the game they are like a mob of raging barbarians. One of the victory conditions is to go to the Antaran home world and destroy it. It involves developing a dimensional portal and marching a massive fleet into unknown Antaran space. It is exciting.

Bottom Line

Master of Orion 2 got everything right. Even today, knowing what I know now, with all my experience playing these types of games I can’t think of anything to change about this game. Maybe it needs a graphics and sound overhaul, but even the graphics and sounds aren’t that bad. You can play this game on DOS if you have the correct tools. Do it. Here are the links.

Master of Orion II DOS Download
DOSBox: DOS emulator for Windows
BOXER: DOS emulator for OS X

A pile of Yomi cards scatterd.

Yomi Strategy: Keeping Your Hand Large

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I am not the most qualified person to ever write about Yomi, and I am certain that much of what I am going to say in this article is arguable, and I would love to have those arguments. What I want to talk about is the importance and advantages of making, and keeping, a big hand.

A pile of Yomi cards scatterd.

Here is a piece of very logical thinking that, when I finally realized it, changed my Yomi game a great deal: the only way to draw more than one card per turn (barring jokers) is to block. It’s obvious, it isn’t a secret, and it is true. But what does this mean? Lot’s of things, but one of the major ones is, when a player is low on cards, let’s say 5 or less, that player’s options are very limited. He will be unlikely to combo, unlikely to power up to aces, unlikely to dodge (lacking a decent follow-up), and much more likely to block.

If you begin a barrage of throws at an opponent like this, it will be very difficult for him to turn this game around unless he has other decisive advantages. Why throw? Primarily throws keep him from blocking, secondly it’s less likely he can do any serious damage to you with an attack, even if he catches on, because doing damaging combos is probably not possible with such a small hand. And doing so will make an even smaller hand!

Of course the flip side is also true, which is the point of my article. You do not want to find yourself in the position of wanting to block, and have your opponent KNOW you want to block. Because if you increase your chance to block while they increase the chance to throw you are going to come out behind. The biggest way to telegraph desperation to block is to be low on cards!

So after the long-winded introduction, if you are still with me, I present Alex’s strategy. Keep your hand as large as you can, for the vast majority of the game. My philosophy is, don’t use cards now, that can get better later. Here are some of the things I generally don’t do:

Power up one pair into aces, I prefer to wait for trips or better. Of course with exceptionally powerful or important aces like Arg’s or Degrey’s I will do this. Although even in those cases I do this very rarely. Setsuki is pretty much omitted from all of my rules, as hand management with Setsuki is totally backwards to normal playing. So probably don’t worry relating my strategy with her.

Combo anything after throws, unless it’s the most powerful attack I have.
Doing Throw-7-ender is something you will rarely see me doing. I feel like this is a waste of a 7. I would much rather have that 7 in my hand as a 2-option card then 7 damage to the opponent. I will also rarely do throw-5-6 or anything like that. The exception here is if my opponent is at 30 life or lower, and maximizing damage is the main goal.

Incorporate normals into combos without making straights.
Same as throw, you will not see me doing Starter-4-5-Ender. I would much rather just do start/ender and keep the normals in my hand for powering up, and straight play.

Play an attack without any follow up.
This is mostly just a newbie mistake, but I see it all the time. People will throw out an attack, like a 4, and follow it up with nothing. Or even something like 4-Ender. In a case like that, I think it’s better to just play the ender naked, and keep the 4 in your hand.

The reasoning for hoarding all of these cards is two-fold. There is legitimate strategy in keeping a large hand, because it gives you more chances to draw into straights, three-of-a-kind and four-of-a-kind increasing your damage output and hand value. A hand like 5,7,A,J,T (Characters will vary) isn’t that great, and if you blow it by playing something like Throw-7-J just for the damage, you miss out on the opportunity to draw another 7 for a power up, or a 6 for the straight. When you could have just played a throw and kept the opportunity.

The second reason is all mind games. If you have a small hand your opponent might decide to throw you more, making you fight uphill to get a decent hand. With a big hand your opponent is less likely to think you are starving for options (even if you are with a hand like 5, J, J, Q, A or something). Also the bigger your hand is the more threatening your damage output is, this should scare your opponent into playing more defensively against you.

The opposite of this also works, if you think your opponent is aware of your implied desperation for options. If you have a Grave with the hand Q,Q, A, A, your opponent might try to throw-loop you knowing you want to block. But in reality you are just looking to deal 30 damage to him. This works best with stealth aces of course.

I hope this made sense, please tell me what you think.

product showcase of yomi set

Yomi: The Best Card Game You’ve Never Played

Have you ever been inside someone’s mind so deep you feel like you are reading their soul? Do you want to try? Play ten Yomi games against the same opponent in a row, and the two of you will develop a bond like none you have ever had. That is how powerful this card game is.

product showcase of yomi set

Imagine rock-paper-scissors, poker, and a fighting game all rolled into one. That might be the best way to describe Yomi. Doesn’t it sound great? Yomi is a fighting game (like Street Fighter, Tekken, or Soul Calibur) except in card game form, printed on multiple standard 54 card decks of playing cards (52 cards and 2 jokers). The reason I say “decks” is because each deck is a separate character, and each card is a “move” that character can perform. The standard shipping of Yomi comes with 10 decks, or 10 characters, although only two are required to actually play the game. The rock-paper-scissors is translated in this game to attack, throw and block/dodge with attacks beating throws, throws beating block/dodge and block/dodge beating attack. The beauty of the usually boring RPS crapshoot is the fact that outcomes of the clashes are asymmetrical. Meaning sometimes it’s better to play certain moves, and sometimes it’s better for your opponent to play certain moves. The simple fact that you must deal damage to your opponent to win the game, and block/dodge doesn’t deal any damage is enough to throw the RPS triangle out of whack!

degrey move card from yomi card game

How It Works

You choose a character and draw 7 cards. Each card has 2 sides featuring different actions. Some are block/attack, others dodge/throw. You can play either side of the card, so really your 7 card hand is more like a 14 card hand because each card has two options. Both you and your opponent play a card face down, and then both reveal. You played attack and he played block? Well he wins, and in this case, he gets to draw a card (more options) and he gets to take the block back to his hand (no card disadvantage), you on the other hand must discard your attack and do 0 damage. Both played a throw? Each character has a speed, and the faster throw will win dealing damage. Furthermore, each character has a different distribution of attack-throw-block cards, special ability cards and innate abilities making them all require a radically different style of play. You would think with 10 characters all with different moves and styles the game would quickly degenerate into a unbalanced slugfest where only several characters can compete. Lucky for us David Sirlin has a fetish for asymmetrical game balance and he really shows off with Yomi. No matter what the match up, no characters is hugely favored. It’s possible to get frustrated and feel like you are being steamrolled by some kind of beastly character but more likely you are just getting out-played.

What Makes Yomi Better than Other Card Games?

Firstly, Yomi is a self-contained game. You never make your deck any better, and you will never need to update it. You only need to buy the game once and it’s ready to play forever. So this game isn’t a major investment, but more like a board game that you can bust out every now and then. You don’t need to commit to buying expensive rare cards to give yourself a fighting chance.

Secondly, this is a strategy card game. From my experience, despite being printed on a poker deck, Yomi is probably only 10% luck. Because your opening hand has ~14 options it’s very unlikely that you will be in the “unlucky” position of not having the particular kind of move you feel like you should play. Of course it CAN happen, but it’s never happened to me yet! If you find yourself in a draw “X” or die situation in Yomi it isn’t a matter of bad luck, but a set of mistakes you made earlier in the game. This is a true psychological strategy game. Who can be the better mind-reader. The game has all the math, reading and bluffing elements of poker but without the river-suckouts. And the best part is, the more you play it with the same person the more intense the games get. You start getting reads on them, you can begin baiting them and setting traps while at the same time avoiding getting caught in one of your tricks. It gets my head spinning just thinking about it. This game really is mental combat distilled.

Just Buy It

If you have friends, and you like board games, card games, or poker (and have time to do something other than play poker.) then just buy this. I will give you my word that you will enjoy it thoroughly. I mean the game is just awesome. The characters are all interesting and different, the art is worth looking at, the gameplay is deep and compelling. There is NOTHING BAD ABOUT IT! Also for added bonus you can even play it online for free!!! http://www.fantasystrike.com/dev/

THIS CARD GAME is 10x better than the last game you played. Card game, video game or anything else. Go try it out!!! Then you can buy it from Sirlin’s store http://www.sirlingames.com/ and write me a thank you note for exposing you to this masterpiece. Is it expensive? Yeah it is at about $100 HOWEVER that is probably cheaper than most games you compare it to considering what you get. If you buy ten magic the gathering reconstructed decks it will cast you $100 and you won’t even get to awesome playmats.

"yomi

Civ5 Cover Art

Civilization V, More Like Civilization FAIL

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I have been a Civilization diehard fanboy since Civ2. I played Civ1, but I just couldn’t handle how nasty it looked. Civ2 was the first to be accessible enough to keep me entertained, and boy did it. Since my discovery of Civ2, I probably logged two full years of gameplay between Civ2, 3 and 4 and I loved them all. I am telling you this to demonstrate how much I wanted to love Civ5.

I have been eagerly waiting for the game’s release since I heard rumors of it’s development. Then it was released for PC and not for Mac and I was devastated, I waiting even longer for it to finally be released for Mac. Now I have it, and I played it, and I tried my best to love it, but the game let me down in every respect. All the innovations are let downs, some positive changes that were made in Civ4 (for the better) were reversed, the tactical AI is about ten steps back. It’s hard to believe the game was even released this bad. I don’t want to be vague. Let’s sink our teeth in to the details of how horrible the game design and programming really is.

It’s generally good game design to reward players for playing well. You tell a player to do something, and if that player does it he should reap rewards. If he does it well he should be rewarded more. These rewards should be the what drives the game, they are there to encourage the player to continue. Civilization 5 seems to take the opposite policy. It puts forth obstacles, and then punishes you for overcoming them. Also all of the things you enjoyed about civilization games before you no longer get to enjoy here. Lets look at the things that used to be fun, and I will explain why they are not fun in this game.

Civ5 Cover Art

Prospecting and Exploring for New City Locations

It used to be fun to explore your surroundings and find juicy city locations. Then you need to race all your neighbors to those locations to grab them up as fast as you can. Well those days are gone. There are no juicy city locations in this game. You want to build your cities near luxury resources because they help generate happiness to your empire, but they hardly do anything for the actual city. Remember in Civilization 4 if you started with gems in your home town the huge smile that would creep across your face? Putting a mine on gems would give you a hammer and five gold turing that hill into a powerhouse tile! Well gems in Civ5 with a mine on them generate… I don’t even know something like four gold? Nothing to write home about. You can build cities pretty much anywhere and they will be about the same. Even things like cows or wheat which used to be spectacular tiles are just “meh” in Civ5.

Building New Cities

Building cities sucks. When you build a city you suffer several hinderances. The amount of happiness needed to enter a golden age increases meaning it takes longer between golden ages. The amount of culture needed to adopt a cultural policy increases. Your happiness decreases by two, and an additional one for each population the city births. Also there are wonders called National Wonders which are kinda like super buildings, like a super library, or super barracks. To build these wonders you need to build a barrack in every city. So the more cities you have the more buildings you need to make. Some of the time these buildings will be totally useless, but they will still cost you upkeep! So building more cities requires you to build more of these dumb buildings in order to make national wonders. I bet you can’t wait to get started! Of course a city is an investment and eventually (and I mean WAY down the road) a city will actually bring a return on all of those things it originally hinders. In the early game you only have one option for happiness, and that is luxuries. If you are fortunate enough to start next to luxuries then you can expand to four or even five cities before suffering. Later once your cities have any kind of production power, when you aren’t to busy building a military units or a wonders, you can build happiness buildings. But they will probably take 20+ turns to build. With each new city you are going to have to build a colosseum in it eventually, and it’s going to take way too long.

Improving Existing Cities

So building cities sucks, maybe it’s fun to grow existing cities? Not really. Your cities make such a pathetic number of hammers that it always takes forever to build anything. All the buildings scale with your production too, so it never seems to get any better. Gone are the days when you can spit out tanks each turn out of your powerhouse cities. As a matter of fact powerhouse cities are gone altogether. You can no longer specialize your cities, you simply have a city that has terrible production or a city that has average production, like I said there is nothing to get excited about. Let me also add how painfully slow city growth is. It takes ages to make a city large, and as city grows it generates more unhappiness for you to deal with (although this is typical of civilizations games so it’s a minor complaint) but doesn’t really give much back because of the sad tile yields.

Building tile improvements is mind numbing. You can build four: mine, farm, lumber mill and trade post. A mine adds one hammer, a farm one food, a mill one hammer and a trade post adds two gold. That’s it. Everything just adds one. Sure you can build stables, vineyards and quarries on whatever resource requires them, but they aren’t any better than a farm or a mine. For the first time, there isn’t really a reason not to automate your workers. You make no choices in how to develop your tiles (other than order of course) build a mine on all hills, farm on all river grasslands, and trade posts anytime you don’t know what to do. Or you can just build trade posts I guess.

I guess the Fraxis team decided that roads where overpowered in every previous Civ game and decided to make them worse. Now every tile of road costs you one gold per turn. That as much as some buildings cost. You better really think hard before making any roads because they are going to cost you for the rest of the game. When you connect two cities with a road you get trade route money which makes up for the cost of the roads I guess, but you can’t just put roads on everything like you used to. This took me a long time to get accustomed to, but then I thought “Well this isn’t so bad.” Later I realized how bad it was. Because of the new one unit per tile system moving and positioning an army is more important than ever. Without a road on every tile your army is doomed to getting clogged up and out of position. Which actually hurts you a bunch when you are on the defense. The person attacking you will probably already be organized outside your border. The defender now can’t get into a defensive stance because he only has one road and eight units. Where roads really overpowered? Do I really need to be punished for making lots of roads? Why don’t mines or farms cost money if roads do? You no longer need to build roads all over the place, so before you know it your workers all have nothing to do. Might as well use them to bait terrible AI moves in combat

Combat!

Civ5 Combat

Oh boy, let’s talk about the combat AI. The AI in this game is so bad, I feel like declaring war is an exploit. It is common to win wars with a handful of units, taking city after city with the same two siege units and swordsmen while reaching a kill-death spread of 10:1. The AI doesn’t hide it’s workers during war time, letting you poach a whole army of works that don’t even have anything to do. They will walk a unit right in front of your army, where there is a 100% chance he will die next turn, just to take one of your workers, and they wont even disband it before letting you take it back. If an AI is overseas there is absolutely nothing they can do to hurt you. The worst they can do is pillage some of your fishing boats and that is if you have no navy. It has no idea how to use siege, or deal with siege. It will consistently make the worst choice out of all possible choices. Clearly it’s a joke. It’s just like they forgot to program it. On higher difficulties the AI makes up for it’s terrible tactics by having 6x the units it should have, which is a pretty sloppy fix. It is a real shame too. I was very excited for tactical combat. For really planning out my moves and having a good time fighting. They just released the worst AI I have ever seen in a game. I can’t even beat chessmaster on the easiest level, and I can hold off an entire French invasion with two frigates and a cannon. Then when it comes to making peace the AI doesn’t make any sense. Sometimes I will join in on a war, and not fight a single battle, and the AI will offer me a peace treaty that involves them giving me all of their gold and three of their cities. Other times when I destroy all but two cities, and have a massive army knocking on the door step the refuse to give me even 30 gold with a peace treaty, preferring instead to just be captured.

Conquest

When you capture an enemy city. You are given four horrible options: raze, puppet, annex and liberate. You have to choose one. Liberating a city means you capture a city that was originally someone else’s (Japan’s city that was captured by England for example) and you give it back to them (back to Japan.) This gives you a reputation boost with that civilization, and grants them the city. This is rarely useful for when you either really don’t want the city, or really need a rep boost with someone. Raze means you burn the city down, and you do not get to keep it. During the burning process the city contributes five unhappiness to your empire for your trouble. Annexing a city means you take control of the city and suffer all the awesome punishments of taking on a new city to your golden age timer, your culture policy timer, you now need to build more buildings to make national wonders, and on top of all that you take five unhappiness. This unhappiness can only be dispelled by build a courthouse, a special building that takes forever to build and spitefully cannot be rushed. Pretty much, it sucks annexing cities even more than it sucks to build cities.

The third, and clearly the best, option is called create puppet state. Which is my most hated feature of this horrible game. You take over the city, and only suffer two unhappiness and it doesn’t carry any of the other disadvantages of owning a city. The trade off is you don’t get to control this city. It will be controlled by a governor and build only non-military, non-wonder structures. That’s it. It is awesome. You get a city that will make you science and money, but wont cost you anything a city usually costs you, you just don’t get to control it. You are rewarded, a great deal, for choosing to play the game LESS. It is actually much better to have puppet cities than your own built cities. In my best games, I would only build 3-4 of my own cities, and then I would puppet 20-30 of the AI’s cities because of how much better it is than actually making your own empire. I literally only controlled 3-4 cities, and chose to not play the game on the other 26+ because of how beneficial it was. Talk about game design failure. Sure sometimes I would annex a city much later just so I can make military units. But only the absolute best production cities need to be controlled to field your army. Considering how small of an army you need to easily steamroll the inept AI you don’t need more than 3 cities making units ever. Or you could just pay city-states to give you units but I am not even going to get into that.

Diplomacy

It has been gutted from this game. Diplomacy in this game is pretty darn close to non-existent. You can no longer trade for maps (why was this removed?) You can no longer trade for contacts (why was this removed?) not that this matters since you can no longer trade science either. You can only do two things, you can trade luxuries for gold, and you can sign research agreements. Trading luxuries is pretty standard, except they took a giant step back and allow trading a lump sum of gold for an agreement that will last for thirty turns. This is highly exploitive because you can trade everything to an enemy AI, and take all of his gold on turn zero. Then you can declare war on him/her and break all the deals, yet keep all the money on that same turn. I would feel worse about doing it if the AI wouldn’t do the same thing. And I don’t mean they take my money and declare war, I mean they GIVE ME their money and agree to accept my sugar for thirty turns, then break the trade. This exploit was discovered long before civ5, and the solution was implemented in civ4. You could only trade gold-per-turn for luxuries. So you both only benefit if the trade is going on. Why did they backtrack on this? It’s already a proven exploit. Research agreements are actually a great idea. It gives you a reason for being at peace. You both pay an amount of gold and then if you remain at peace for thirty turns, you both get a random science. I like it. But it’s the only useful peace of diplomacy in the game. Then there are these things called pacts of secrecy and pacts of cooperation which don’t seem to do anything. And of course you can declare war, and the AI will declare war on you all the time for no reason and any reason.

I am sure there is more, I haven’t even touched on the lack of espionage of any kind, the mind-numbing unit-experience system, the boring great people and wonders, or the game-breakingly imbalanced city-states. But I don’t even have the energy. This game doesn’t deserve this much of my time.

bullets

Ammunition, Tension, Gameplay

Ever since I read the article “Restate Assumption: Out of Ammo” on Gausswerks blog I have been giving ammo a lot of thought. Coincidentally, at the same time, BioWare abandoned thier “infinite ammo” system from Mass Effect 1 in Mass Effect 2. Why would they make this change?

Action shot of Mass Effect highlighting the overheating ammo system action shot of mass effect 2 highlighting the ammo clip system

(Quick recap: In ME1 your guns overheat if you fire them to quickly. They work similarly to the plasma weapons from the Halo series. You either have to control your rate of fire, letting off the trigger when heat gets critical or let them vent for a few seconds after overheating, leaving you unable to fire. In ME2 they abandoned that system and switched to a standard ammo system with clips and reloading.)

I think they did this because, like myself, the developers realized Mass Effect’s combat style lacks tension. You never need to worry about running out of ammo. You are allowed to use your best weapon 100% of the game without ever having to switch. Eventually once you found the best gear, overheating wasn’t even an issue anymore. On some gun and upgrade configurations you could literally hold the trigger down indefinitely and never have to worry about overheating. That situation doesn’t make for interesting gameplay.

What is ammunition in first person shooter games? Its a way to kill bad guys of course, but in the end its what keeps you alive. Ammunition is the ultimate realization of “a good offense is the best defense.” What happens in a shooter when you are in the middle of battle and run out of ammo? You are probably dead. In many cases, ammo almost acts as a separate life bar. Maybe a more situational life bar, but if ammo runs out, your life is going to run out next.

The risk of running out of ammo, which you need to defend your precious life bar, creates tension in your gaming experience. You need to choose which gun you use, which ammo to use, and when its safe enough to conserve and use a knife. Limited ammo pulls you to explore the levels in hopes of finding a hidden stash. I love ammo, and I love being almost out of it. It makes the game more enjoyable because it demands that you as a player make more decisions.

Decisions = Gameplay

Let’s look at the very beginning. Games like Wolfenstein and Doom pioneered the FPS genre, they were the first, and can be forgiven for a rather simplistic view of ammunition. In both of these games you have limited ammo but your guns never had to reload, and you have access to every gun you at all times. I call this the baseline. The “control.” Dozens, probably hundreds of shooters were released after Doom that had the exact same ammo/weapon system.

Wolfenstien retro gaming! Doom, retro gaming!

The first game that decided to break the mold (from my personal experience) was Bungie’s Marathon. An exceptional shooter with an excellent story and a unique mechanic for reloading. By unique I mean realistic. In most games that offer a reload button (most of them today), you will reload anytime you press it. If you have a clip that is three bullets short and you reload, you will somehow put three bullets into the clip. It happens in an instant, and nothing is wasted. How is that supposed to work?

Bungie's Marathon highlighting the game's ammo system.In Marathon there is no reload command. The only way to reload a gun is to empty the clip. If you have one bullet left in your eight round clip then you need to shoot that bullet off and insert a new clip. It is the most realistic mechanic for dealing with ammo I have ever seen to this day. Although oddly enough your character can still carry eight different weapons, and ammo for each all at once.

Playing Marathon presents wonderful tension. The risk of running out of ammo is very real, but reloading in the middle of combat also puts you in serious risk. So what do you do when you have three shots left in your pistol, and 2 extra clips on your belt? You have two choices:

1. Run into battle with a three-round clip and two behind. You have 19 bullets, but you will have to deal with a reload three shots in to combat. 2. Play it safe, fire off the three rounds and load up a full clip. Now you will enter battle with only 16 bullets, but a full clip.

You are constantly faced with this situation with the pistol, the assault rifle and especially the grenade launcher. This element added a lot to the game and I wouldn’t mind seeing a similar reload mechanic explored in the future.

Bungie didn’t stop innovating there. The next big hit they created is Halo. I doubt Halo is the first game to do it, but it is certainly the first that caught my attention: in Halo you can only carry two guns at a time. This is a huge change from shooters I have played up until Halo. Each time you come up on a weapon you need to make a serious choice. You must exchange a gun you already have with the gun you found.

Bungie's Halo Highlighting the rocket launcherThe rocket launcher is the best example. It is a very polarized weapon, it ranges from being indispensable, to horrible. Giving up a more general weapon, like a the plasma rifle to take the rocket launcher involves pretty intense benefit analysis. This opens some great design space for weapons. Because the player doesn’t have every weapon at his disposal at all times, extremely specialized weapons can be designed, which are super powerful sometimes forcing players to choose and anticipate. The rocket launcher is obviously well suited for taking out large armored targets like tanks and banshees. But it it is usually overkill against standard grunts and elites. It also has a limited ammo capacity, you can only carry a maximum of six total rockets. Being out of rockets makes the gun totally worthless.

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Gears of War continued the tradition of limited weapons and brought something new to the table. Reloading in Gears is actually a mini game. Once you click reload, a timed animation plays, displaying your reload progress. If you do nothing, once the animation is over you will reload as normal. However there is a little indicator on the bar, and if you tap the reload button again right on the indicator you perform a “active” reload. Not only will you reload faster, but your bullets will have a damage boost for a short time. If you mistime your second reload, you jam your gun, severally delaying your reload. I am in love with this system! Especially in the middle of a fight, with an enemy charging your cover position, performing a super reload and blasting the enemy with an enhanced shotgun round really makes you feel like a badass. Jamming your gun at a critical time is both dramatic and hilarious.

What am I getting at? Ammunition shouldn’t be an afterthought when it so often is. Ammunition is design space open for crafting a better gaming experience. Mass Effect 2 is catching a bunch of complaints for adding a “stupid ammo system.” Stupid? ME1 had an ammo system which reduced tension (eventually down to zero), and decision making (always used the same gun). Mass Effect 2 is more fun to play. The pressure to conserve your ammo is a primary reason. You are not able to just snipe your way through the game. You only get nine sniper rounds before needing to find ammo or switch weapons, so you need to make each shot count, or make a choice to use a different weapon altogether to ensure you have your primary weapon available when you need it. This massive increase in decisions is directly related to the game play of Mass Effect 2.