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Random Ruminations

It seems to be part of my nature to reflect on all my experiences--even the hobby experiences many people consider trivial. And I reflect best when I'm typing. So, here are some of my thoughts on games and gaming. Enjoy them if you can, comment if you like.

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Title Change

p55carroll
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Games are like songs: you never get tired of playing the best ones over and over, and you can enjoy them all by yourself.
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"Fun I love, but too much fun is of all things the most loathsome. Mirth is better than fun, and happiness is better than mirth." (William Blake)
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Maybe someone noticed--I've changed my blog title. It used to be a long one that included the phrase "Reluctant Video Gamer." But it has gotten to where I'm not reluctant anymore; I'm kinda the opposite. I do still overthink everything, though, and ramble on about random topics; hence the new title.

Meanwhile, my game playing seems to have become less random than ever. I've zeroed in on some games I like a lot and replay all the time. So my gaming "library" or "collection" (I hesitate to use those words, as they sound like something consciously created and useful, whereas mine is just a bunch of games I happen to have bought) just sits there in the background and doesn't demand my attention anymore.

Some observers might point out that this is nothing new; I've been playing Master of Orion (MOO) steadily ever since I repurchased it two or three years ago. But from an internal viewpoint, I notice a significant shift in my thinking or attitude. I hope it's not just that I'm becoming even more set in my ways as I grow older.

What it feels like to me is that I've neared the end of my wide-open exploration phase. Sure, there's a lot I don't know, but I have a pretty fair overview of what kinds of games are out there. And I know that most of them are not for me (most of the time, anyway).

Apparently I had it right back in the mid-1990s. Playing MOO, I felt right at home. This was just the kind of game I wanted. I wished it looked better and had a better interface, and I wouldn't have objected if there were more to it, but it hit the sweet spot for me dead-on. Twenty-odd years later, I still feel the same way about it.

But now there are more games of that kind, and some of them look better and play better and have more to them. So, those are the games I'm getting into lately--almost exclusively.

My latest passion is for Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri Planetary Pack. It's a 1999 game, and in a way it's kind of built on the then-current hit Civilization II--though it takes it to a whole new level and to another planet. For me personally, Civ always left me somewhat dissatisfied (I could never put my finger on exactly why); and I find that SMAX does not have that negative effect on me--I enjoy most everything about it. Some say it's the pinnacle of the 4X genre, and I'm inclined to agree.

Maybe I'll play it too much and get burned out on it. If so, I can fall back on any of several other great games. They're all going to be strategy games, though--games of building and conquest--because that's what I play. Other games, for me, are just for occasional variety.

Funny--when I was a kid, I sometimes imagined sixty-year-old me enjoying plenty of leisure time in a home library, with a wargame spread out on the table and shelves of military-history books on the walls. Now I guess I've arrived. Only there's no need for a "war room," but just a PC. It's just as satisfying, while being neater, simpler, and more portable.
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Tue Jul 25, 2017 6:17 pm
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My Video-Gaming Profile

p55carroll
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Games are like songs: you never get tired of playing the best ones over and over, and you can enjoy them all by yourself.
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"Fun I love, but too much fun is of all things the most loathsome. Mirth is better than fun, and happiness is better than mirth." (William Blake)
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I just glanced at my BGG/VGG profile and shook my head, thinking it was long-winded and outdated. I was too lazy to change it, but it got me wondering how I'd describe myself to other gamers.

First off, there'd be an emphasis on gaming, since that's what I know we have in common (aside from basic humanity and probably a similar cultural upbringing)--or at least what we want to focus on.

Though it took me decades, I've finally gotten to where I can pretty quickly say I'm a strategy gamer. That establishes a good ballpark for whatever else gets said. Of course, I do sometimes play RPGs and other kinds of games, but that's to be expected; it'd be very unusual if I strictly limited myself to strategy games. Besides, it's not a clearly defined genre; it has fuzzy edges. But everybody knows that too.

I guess I might as well say I'm a self-reflective strategy gamer--someone who thinks about games all the time and is always comparing them and evaluating his experience with each one. Someone who sees a top-50 list and goes overboard, talking about it for a week. Someone who frequently blogs about games. I might as well say all that--but that could make some people slowly back away and then quickly disappear. And besides, it'd soon become obvious anyway, so it's just as well left unsaid.

Beyond those general things, what else could I say? Let's see.

1. I was a board-game fan for many years, and I was especially into board wargames. However, I didn't have the opportunity--or sufficient interest--to play those games with other people, so I took to playing them solitaire. When computer games came along, they gradually took over from solitaire board gaming, as the latter came to feel more and more inconvenient. I still like board games, but I'd only play one if we happened to have company and everybody wanted to play a game. I do still play a few classic board and card games on my phone, though, just to stay in practice.

2. I'm particular about the computer games I play. I'm reluctant to even call them video games (though that's the more common term nowadays) because that suggests real-time games with 3D animation, and I generally dislike those features. I'm perfectly happy with turn-based 2D strategy games. Sometimes even text-based games are OK with me. I've played some that use only ASCII graphics, and that's fine with me too. I'll play a real-time 3D game, but only if the animation doesn't rush me or interfere with my strategic thinking.

3. I've learned to like a number of different game themes or settings. In my wargaming days, I preferred history-based games, preferably set in the 19th century. Today, I find myself playing mostly science-fiction and fantasy games. But it's just because the games I like happen to be themed that way, not because I go looking for those themes. I'll play history-based games too, but I rarely find one that really grabs me. Any game set in the 20th century is likely to be something of a turn-off to me; I feel I've been overwhelmed by images of the World Wars and don't care to see any more. Also, I prefer my games to not look cartoonish, but I won't reject a game just because of that art style.

4. Maybe because of my wargaming background, I'm drawn to military games. But I find I'm repulsed by economic games, sports games, and other kinds. I could never get into Medieval II: Total War or Victoria: Revolutions, for example, mostly because politics and economics play such a big role. I've tried learning to like other kinds of games, but it has never panned out for me. I have Railroad Tycoon II, and I know it's a great game, but I just can't make myself play it; and when I do, I lose badly, time and time again. Whatever's needed to win a game like that is apparently something I just don't want to do. This weakness of mine shows up even in games I like. For instance, in Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri, I've never been able to play as Morgan, the industrialist; I don't seem to know how to create wealth or what to do with it. And when I force myself to look closely and work hard at it, I soon start resenting all the fiddling around with numbers. I'm supposed to get excited when a new mine gives me one more energy point at a city? Bah--let the accountants take care of those details; I've got a global war to win.

5. Speaking of picky details, that's something that can get in the way of my enjoying a military game too. I've been attracted to a few ultra-tactical games--e.g., X-COM: UFO Defense and Jagged Alliance 2--but invariably I grow impatient with them. It's very cool seeing the up-close action and directing some of it. But I hate having to closely manage action points for each character, be careful not to waste ammo, take advantage of every patch of cover or concealment, and so forth. It's also frustrating when the loss of a single crew member, or even a serious wound, can be a huge, game-changing event. Playing a tactical game like that always makes me want to go play a strategy-level game instead--on a scale where some losses are to be expected and can readily be replaced.

6. But that brings up another thing. In the games I just named above (JA2 and X-COM), there is a strategic dimension as well. In one there's a mercenary pool to draw upon and an island to clear; in the other there's global base building and maintenance as well as an economic subsystem. Over the years, I've mostly tended to dislike that. If a game is tactical, I want it to just be tactical; I don't want to have to "zoom out" and deal with big-picture matters. Or if the game is strategic, I want it to just be strategic; in that case I don't want to have to micromanage picky little details. It generally annoys me when the game involves shifting back and forth between tactical and strategic. However, I suppose there are exceptions, since two of my favorite games--Master of Orion and Master of Magic--are the "shifting back and forth" kind. In those two, though, it seems clear to me that the main game is strategic and tactical battles are secondary. I guess I'm happier when that's the case, and I tend to be unhappy when a game seems mostly tactical but still requires me to deal with high-level strategy. (Railroad Tycoon II also comes to mind here: it's fun to build rail and run trains, but it's not fun to balance books and manage stocks.)

7. Occasionally I do like to play a game that's pretty much all tactics. I enjoyed playing Rebelstar: Tactical Command all the way through because it kept me free from having to deal with high-level matters; it was just one fight after another. I also like Silent Service II a lot, but I almost never play war patrols, much less a full campaign--just individual battles. It's cool to set up for an attack, launch torpedoes, and then evade if necessary. Very recently I bought the Ground Control anthology, and I'm trying to get into that (real-time and 3D are drawbacks, but maybe I'll get used to it). This will never be my main kind of gaming, but it's a great change of pace.

8. I often have at least one RPG going as well. I've learned to normally stick to one at a time and play regularly enough that I don't lose track of what's going on. It's amusing to be involved in a story and to see my character(s) level up and grow stronger and wiser throughout. And sometimes it's refreshing to only have to deal with a single character or party rather than a whole vast empire.

9. I can never seem to settle down into any game or set of games for long. About the time I decide one is my favorite, I start to lose interest and become attracted to something else. Soon I buy a new game or reinstall one from my collection that I haven't played in a long time. I only learn what my real favorites are by looking back over the years and noting which ones I've played the most. Right now, for instance, part of me is tempted to declare AI War: Fleet Command a favorite game, but I haven't played it enough for it to be a favorite; I'm just currently enthused about this new-to-me game. In contrast, my initial enthusiasm for Master of Orion wore off years ago, but it may be my most-played game ever and is still a go-to game for me; so it definitely is a favorite.

So, that's the kind of gamer I am--whatever you call it.
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Thu Jul 20, 2017 8:50 pm
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Gaming, Reflecting, and Ruminating

p55carroll
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Games are like songs: you never get tired of playing the best ones over and over, and you can enjoy them all by yourself.
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"Fun I love, but too much fun is of all things the most loathsome. Mirth is better than fun, and happiness is better than mirth." (William Blake)
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My lifelong quest for the kind of game that suits me best has taken another turn, and I feel closer to my goal than ever. (Of course, I still sometimes wonder if there will still be any time left for gaming after I reach my goal.)

What bumped me out of my groove was a discussion I covered in another blog post, where it finally sank in that, at least in the video-game world, the games I like are generally called strategy games. Since then I've been seeing that term everywhere and using it a lot more.

One place I saw it was in a Rock Paper Shotgun list of the 50 best PC strategy games (of all time, updated through 2016). I'd never seen this annual list before, and I ended up perusing it pretty closely. I was surprised to see so many of my favorite games listed, though there are also about ten games I'd never heard of. A couple old favorites (Master of Orion and Master of Magic) are not listed, but that's OK; it's nice to continue treasuring a couple "golden oldies" while everyone else has moved on to Galactic Civilizations and Age of Wonders. In other cases, I was glad to see games I think are great featured prominently on the list; it's reassuring somehow when others agree with my assessment.

The most interesting thing for me, though, was spotting games--some in the top 10--that I had drifted away from for one reason or another. Reading the short, glowing reviews of those games brought them back to my attention and made me reconsider them.

One was Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri Planetary Pack. It made number two, right behind Civilization IV. And that gave me two great games to think about.

I've been playing Civilization V: Brave New World whenever I play Civ. I've played 'em all, except for the brand-new Civ VI. But ever since 1991 or so, I've had reservations about the game, which left me playing it in an on-again, off-again fashion. Yeah, it's pretty cool: the map and military units appeal to the wargamer in me, and I also like having the chance to build an empire instead of just fighting and conquering. But until Civ V came along, I hated it when war broke out. Sometimes I still do. At that point I'm always fully engaged in expansion and development, and now there's bound to be some destruction; and since I'm not ready, I'll probably take the brunt of it. In Civ V (and before that, in Civilization Revolution) I finally learned to be more prepared and to adjust to the turning tide. But something still doesn't feel quite right.

Another reservation has been in regard to the mixed-up history. Yeah, it's just a game, and it'd probably be much less of a game if it stuck to actual historical times, places, and events. But I still find it irritating and distasteful when the Aztecs build the Louvre or the Babylonians send a spaceship to Alpha Centauri. Or even when an ancient Greek phalanx is pitted against modern German panzers. If it's a game about history, it ought to match up reasonably well with the historical record. Theme-wise, I prefer games like Europa Universalis and Imperialism, which try to stick pretty closely to actual history even though players also have a lot of freedom and can change history.

My third big reservation about Civilization is that it's often long and boring. Mind you, it's compelling. Even after playing all day, I still want to finish "just one more turn" at midnight--or better yet, stay up and finish the whole game. But while playing, there are long stretches of routine and repetition. And even if I think I can see a way out of it, it'd be too much trouble to shift over to a whole nother strategy at that point, so I just grind away. Then, after the game, I look back and regret all the lost time.

So, what about Alpha Centauri (SMAC), then? As I said, it's number two on the RPS list. It's also very definitely a Civ-type game; it even bears Sid Meier's name (though Brian Reynolds was lead designer).

This sort of comparison leads to my wanting to stage a death match in my mind. I tell myself I'm short on time and therefore need to narrow down the list of games I play. And when I see two games as similar as these, my first instinct is to get rid of one of them. I already started doing that in the above paragraphs, by listing my reservations about Civ. Unfortunately, I have at least two other similar games on my personal top-10 list--MOO and MOM. So it could be that I just really like 4X games--and maybe I shouldn't be trying to get rid of any after all.

But anyhow, I reinstalled SMAC and played a full game. Then I read a couple strategy articles and played parts of a couple more games. And I've tentatively concluded that it is indeed a superb game, with a whole lot of mileage left in it for me.

I also notice that my reservations about Civ do not apply to SMAC. I only hate war in SMAC when I'm playing as Morgan (his faction is geared toward building and accumulating wealth, and I don't know how to do that and still be prepared for war); with any other faction, I accept war as just a fact of life, and with some factions I enjoy it. The problem of mixed-up history is not present in SMAC, as the whole game takes place in the future, on a distant planet. Nor do I experience the tedium I always find, at some point, in Civ; in SMAC it seems there's always something interesting to think about or do.

So, SMAC has returned to my active-play list, where MOM and MOO also reside.

Another game in RPS's top 10 caught me by surprise: King of Dragon Pass. I was intrigued enough to buy and try this game a couple years ago, but somehow it fell flat for me. Is it really one of the 50 best strategy games ever? Maybe I didn't give it a fair chance. So, I reinstalled it, and I just played a bit of it this morning. It's certainly unique, and it has a pleasant feel to it. I'll just have to reserve further judgment until I've played again more. Right now I'm wondering of a game with so little transparency can rightly be called a strategy game. To plan and conduct strategy, you need something of an overview; you need to know pretty well how things work. I don't feel that's always the case in KoDP.

I like the way RPS defined "strategy games" so broadly as to include tactical games. I've never seen the need to draw a bold distinction between strategic and tactical; often it's just a difference in perspective--panned out or zoomed in. So, it pleased me to see the number-6 spot on the list occupied by X-COM: UFO Defense (though it goes by a different name there). That's a game I got into when it was brand-new. I was duly impressed, but I was no good at it. After a lot of trial and error, I realized it might take years for me to become any good. So, since that would have been too much work, I allowed myself to be distracted by other games instead. Some twenty years passed before I bought a new copy of the game and resolved to try again.

Now that I'm trying it again, though, it has some new-to-me competition in the form of Jagged Alliance 2. I missed that game the first time around, but I played it for several hours last year, and now I've got it installed again. It's certainly a top-notch game, so no wonder it also made the RPS list.

Here again, though, I feel an internal strain: I have only so much time, and if I do take a break from 4X games, which of these tactical games do I play? If I choose both, soon I'll have no life at all outside of gaming.

Well, I started to put it to the test last night. I caught wind of a highly regarded mod for JA2, so I downloaded it and tried to install it. I failed for some unknown reason. Then I had to uninstall and reinstall the game, after which it wouldn't run in Windows 10 via GOG Galaxy. But after that hassle, I finally did get to play it awhile. I played through the first mission and up to where my mercs joined a group of rebels.

And the verdict? Still undecided. But I noticed that I was growing impatient with the need for precision. And although I haven't played X-COM in a few months, I know I always feel the same impatience there. It's great to be involved in the up-close, one-on-one action (from an overhead angle), but it's a lot more tense than a really strategic strategy game. In a tactical fight, every wound counts, and losing a crew member can be devastating. Hence, the player has to be very careful and meticulous, taking only calculated risks. That sort of thing wears on me pretty quickly. I get careless, take losses, grumble, and start over.

In fact, that happened just this morning, in yet another game: Ground Control. It also made the RPS list, much to my surprise. I'd bought a copy recently just because it was on sale; I'd never heard of it before. It's another game about small-unit tactics, but this one is real-time and 3-D. I hadn't played in a while, so I spent the whole scenario just readjusting to the camera controls, and I ended up losing. I'll probably try again, as I now think I can do better. But once again I felt that biting tension which is more irritating than exciting to me. I wanted to just sit back and give orders, but instead I had to actively direct each unit on the ground, reacting to ambushes as they sprung up.

So, it may be that I'll decide tactical games are not for me. We'll see. One kind of tactical game I do like, though--but only as an occasional change of pace--is the combat sim. Years ago, it was Red Baron (1990) and the Aces series, but flight sims are too fast-paced for me anymore. Today I'm very fond of Silent Service II (I've also tried Silent Hunter II for more graphic realism). Plotting an intercept course and relying on stealth to sink ships and get away works for me; it only becomes tense when I'm forced to dive and try to evade escorts. Sub sims are generally slower-paced, and I like that.

Another game that made RPS's top-50 list and inspired me to try again is Heroes of Might and Magic III Complete. I've loved the feel of this game ever since I first played it in the mid-1990s, but I seem to really suck at it. I'm just too easily distracted by all the shiny, pretty objects that my heroes can run around and collect, plus all the nifty structures my cities can build. By midgame it begins to dawn on me that I'm woefully unprepared for what's to come. When I start to lose battles and at least temporarily lose cities, I get discouraged and want to throw in the towel. Nevertheless, the RPS review says this game is nearly perfect--and now I have to delve into it once again and find out if I can agree.

One game on the RPS top-50 list that I'm not trying again (at least not right away) is Imperialism II. There are a couple reasons for it, and one is that I haven't been able to get the game to run properly. One of the latest Windows 10 upgrades seems to have made it impossible (at least until GOG patches it or finds a workaround). But even if I could play the game, I'm not sure I would anymore. It's pretty heavy on the economics side, and that's always a problem for me. For the same reason I avoid other RPS top-50 games such as RollerCoaster Tycoon 2 and Transport Tycoon and Startopia. I've just never been able to get the hang of managing finances and resources--in games or in real life (in real life I get by mainly by keeping things to a minimum and putting off purchases).

All in all, it's looking like the main attraction for me is indeed strategy games, but not just any strategy games. I've never been into sports strategy, and I have a lot of trouble trying to get into financial/economic strategy (management games).

Looking over the RPS list, I notice something else too: I'm loath to play World War II games. I glanced at Hearts of Iron IV and Gary Grigsby's War In The East: The German-Soviet War 1941-1945, and also at Company of Heroes, but I just wasn't interested. That's curious to me, because I was big into board wargames long before I started playing video games. But now that I have more choices, I'm generally happier to steer clear of World War II. It's a very popular subject, but just not for me. If it's historical, I want a game to be set no more recently than the 19th century. Otherwise, fantasy and futuristic games are fine with me.

Apparently the 20th century isn't all I avoid, though, Crusader Kings II didn't grab me either. Nor did Europa Universalis IV. Come to think of it, my interest in history seems to be centered in the 19th century. I might be interested in an American Civil War game, but there are none on the list. Even then, though, I'd want the game to be very accurate and heavily weighted toward the military side of things. I haven't been very impressed with Victoria: Revolutions even though it is set in my period; it's got too much politics and economics.

Other turn-offs for me are real-time and 3-D. I can tolerate those things in some games, but I prefer to do without them.

Oh, speaking of tolerating real-time, there's a new-to-me game on the RPS list that I've been slowly getting into: AI War: Fleet Command. It doesn't look like much (the company is working on a sequel with improved graphics), but it's a very deep and complex game, and so far I find it has a good feel to it. It's definitely a strategist's delight.

I don't know if I'm really a strategist, though. I just like to play at strategy games--certain ones, anyway. Maybe my main gaming desire is echoed in the famous line from the number-one game on the RPS list: "Can you build a civilization that will stand the test of time?"

In a sense, that's what I aim for, psychologically, when I sit down to play a game. I want to build a civilization (i.e., create something orderly that makes sense to me and has my own mark on it), and I want it to last--to "kill time" in a sense (i.e., remove me from awareness of my own mortality and the ephemeral nature of all my possessions).

In Alpha Centauri, that's one possible game ending. The player, upon reaching the top of the research tree, can achieve Transcendence--a state of being beyond mortality. Maybe the escapism of video gaming is just a poor, misguided way of reaching for that state. I suppose it's part of what makes it so appealing and satisfying to me.
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Tue Jul 18, 2017 10:20 pm
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Master of Orion versus Master of Magic

p55carroll
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Games are like songs: you never get tired of playing the best ones over and over, and you can enjoy them all by yourself.
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"Fun I love, but too much fun is of all things the most loathsome. Mirth is better than fun, and happiness is better than mirth." (William Blake)
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I've been alternating between these two games lately, so I thought I'd blog a bit about how they compare to each other.

For those who don't know, both games have the same basic origin: designed by Steve Barcia, developed by Simtex, published by MicroProse. They're both from the mid-1990s, and they're both 4X strategy games. One has a space theme, the other a fantasy theme.

And both games are still played today and are pretty highly regarded in spite of their age and flaws. MOO has generated sequels as well as "spiritual successors," but among the sequels, only MOO2 is very highly regarded (some say it's better than the original; I have my doubts). MOM has inspired a number of "spiritual successors," including the Age of Wonders series, but it has no direct sequel.

Both games also show their age. The graphics and sounds were just barely adequate in their day; today they come across as pretty crude. The user interface, too, feels dated, though it's perfectly functional.

So, why would someone choose one game over the other? Or are both worth playing? What does one offer that the other lacks? And by the way, is there any reason to play one of these games instead of their "spiritual predecessor," Civilization?

I'll get to those questions, but first I want to sketch out what the games are like, for those who don't know. If you already do know, scroll down to the "* * *" section break below.

MOO is the earliest and simplest of the two games. The map (randomly generated for each game and offered in a choice of sizes) is just a splash of colored dots on a mostly black background. One of those dots is your home world (home of one of ten races, up to six of which may be in a game at once), and there you start with three spaceships--a colony ship and two scouts. Via a set of sliders and other controls, you can build ships, planetary defenses, and factories; you can also divert some of your income to waste management and/or research. Your goal is to explore and colonize as much of the galaxy as you can, dealing with alien races as you encounter them. Their goal is always the same as yours: to capture the whole map or else get two-thirds of the galactic-council votes (which are based on planetary control, so you still need to colonize lots of planets). You'll also allocate research funds to various categories and design new spaceships. While all of this might sound like a lot, once you get used to it MOO has a very clean, simple, straightforward feel to it.

MOM does not feel quite so clean, simple, or straightforward. It's a decidedly more complex game. Evidence of that shows up right away, in the maps. Yeah, that's maps, plural. There are two of them, linked together, representing parallel dimensions. In each dimension are continents (player's choice between mostly small, medium, or large) separated by ocean. You can cross the sea only by ship, flight, or certain magic spells. The main way you move between the two planes, or dimensions, at first is the wizard's tower: there are six of them, and when unblocked they function like elevators. The lower plane, Arcanus, has the look and feel of earth--the material world. The upper plane, Myrror, might be hell or heaven or some mix of the two; it's not at all clear. In fact, it's not even clear that one plane is actually higher or lower than the other; I just tend to think of Myrror as the astral plane, next beyond the physical realm (Arcanus).

There are lots more races in MOM than in MOO. Some are native to Myrror and must start there; others are native to Arcanus, but if the player chooses one of them, s/he can start on either plane.

Before choosing a starting race (and you'll end up commanding several before the game is over), you select your main character--a wizard. There are a number of stock wizards to choose from, but you can also create a customized wizard. To do so, you'll choose a portrait, a number of spell books of various magic types, special skills, and starting spells--and then your starting race. You'll find yourself with a single fortress city somewhere on the map. Well, it's called a fortress, but it's not yet fortified at all, but just garrisoned by two units--spearmen and swordsmen.

From there, your job is to explore the map, found new cities, develop cities, gather resources, and produce more units. You'll also work at improving your spellcasting ability and researching new spells. Eventually you'll encounter other wizards--your AI opponents--and you'll have to deal with them via diplomacy or other means. Their objective, and yours as well, is to either eliminate all other wizards or else cast the Spell of Mastery (the hardest spell in the game to research and then to cast). If you take over another wizard's fortress city, you'll permanently defeat that wizard if s/he doesn't own much else at the time; otherwise you'll only banish the wizard, who will begin casting the Spell of Return and then show up later in another city. Likewise, you'll be banished or defeated if an enemy army captures your fortress city (that just happened to me last night, as a matter of fact).

In MOO, the only currency is "resource points (RPs)." In MOM, there are two resources: gold and mana (magical energy). You'll find some of each scattered across the countryside (usually defended by monsters). You can also generate either resource by building certain structures in your cities. You'll use gold for all the usual purposes: to pay troops, maintain structures, build ships and other units, and so on. You'll use mana to cast spells and summon creatures.

Another resource, of a sort, is fame. You gain it by doing admirable things (or by casting certain global spells) and lose it by doing despicable things. Fame attracts heroes to your cause (I believe it also attracts wandering merchants later in the game, when you're rich enough to afford their special goods). You can have up to six heroes, each of which can move about on the maps, level up over time, and be equipped with various special or magical items. Besides attracting heroes with your fame, you can also cast spells to summon them.

Spellcasting is a big part of the game, and it falls into several areas. There are global spells, which affect everything on the maps or certain things apart from the maps--e.g., Awareness, which shows you where all cities on both planes are located, or Detect Magic, which tells you what other wizards you've met are currently getting ready to cast. Then there are spells which affect specific cities or spots on the map; spells which enhance specific units; spells which affect other spells; and spells which summon magical creatures (which then function just like your other military units).

So yeah--you can see that MOM is significantly more complex than MOO.

* * *

Thus, if you have a preference for relative simplicity or complexity, or for a space theme or fantasy theme, the choice between MOO and MOM will be pretty obvious. (If you like the space theme but prefer more complexity, try MOO2.)

But besides those factors, how does each game feel to play? And where do they stand in comparison to Civilization and other 4X games?

I'm not going to go into the latter question very much, partly because it's hard to pin down which version of Civilization we'd be talking about; that game has changed a lot over the years. Also, I'm just not very familiar with Galactic Civilizations and other 4X series. But one thing I'll mention is that there are no workers in MOO or MOM; there's no way to open up a city view and assign workers to each sector, or to have workers build a farm here, a solar collector there. In MOO, everything on a given planet (i.e., in that planetary system) is clustered together and beyond the player's control. In MOM, cities automatically gather resources from the surrounding squares, but the player doesn't micromanage the process. The closest thing to a worker is the engineer unit in MOM, which is mainly used just to build roads connecting one city to another.

Hence, in my view, there's a lot less need (or opportunity) for micromanagement in MOO and MOM than in other 4X games I know of. And for me that's a major plus. Since MOM is more complex, you can do a lot more micromanagement in that game if you want to: e.g., you can cast unit-enhancing spells on your creatures and troops, increase production in cities, impose famine on enemy cities, and so on. But neither game encourages a lot of such tweaking.

Another big difference from Civilization is that in both MOO and MOM there are separate "battle maps." Every time a battle starts, the scene shifts to the battle site, and the player commands his or her units in the tactical engagement. It's a sort of big chess board really, but there are terrain features (even in MOO there are asteroid clusters for the space battles), so it looks realistic. In contrast, Civilization keeps the view on the main, strategic map even during battle. So in this respect, there's more micromanagement in MOO and MOM than in Civilization: i.e., you have to tactically command the individual battles, maneuvering the ships or troops. If you don't want to get involved, though, you can click the Auto button and let the AI handle the details. Or, in MOM, you can go to the Settings menu and switch off tactical combat, in which case all you'll see is the outcome (I don't think you can do that in MOO; I'll have to check sometime).

So far, I've always left tactical combat on in both games, but I often use the Auto button when I don't feel I need to get involved. In other 4X games (e.g., Age of Wonders and MOO2), I tend to switch tactical combat off, as it's too elaborate and time-consuming for my taste. In MOO, I could almost do without tactical combat, as the AI's tactical decision making is good enough most of the time. In MOM, combat spells can make a world of difference, though; I'm not sure I can trust the AI to come up with all the tricky combinations I use myself.

For me, MOM is basically the same kind of experience as MOO, only richer and more involved. When I just want to lose myself in grand strategy, MOO does it for me nicely; I feel I can keep the overview and enjoy turning all the dials without ever having to do too much at once. But when I'm in the mood to take on something much more substantial, and I'm willing to get directly involved on several levels at once, I'll go for MOM instead.

I find so-called diplomacy much better in MOO, though it's the simpler of the two games. In MOO, you generally start out by making a trade agreement with an AI leader, and you can exchange tech-research data as well, though you'll lose a bit in the bargain there most of the time. In time, if the AI leader doesn't hate you, you might form a non-aggression pact--or even an alliance. But there are built-in racial prejudices, and the AI players will grow more antagonistic, usually, as you grow bigger and stronger. So pacts may be broken, and it's almost assured that war will break out at times. But peace can also be restored, and you can influence things by giving money or research data to the AI leaders (yeah, it makes them stronger, but it also makes them like you more). Or you can be pushy and threaten to break an agreement or attack--which sometimes makes the enemy back down but other times triggers war. Another factor is spying: you can steal tech research or sabotage enemy installations, but if your spies are caught, animosity arises. So, you walk a thin line.

In MOM, diplomacy is very similar, but to me it has a whole different feel. What's missing are trade agreements and spying (there are spells for espionage and sabotage, but it's not part of "diplomacy"). You can still pay tribute, agree to exchange spells, threaten, or form a non-aggression treaty (wizard pact) or alliance. But to exchange spells, you and the other wizard have to both be studying the same kind (color) of magic, and there are five kinds (two of which, black and white, are mutually exclusive); so you won't be able to trade with everybody. In MOO, trading tends to improve relations. In MOM, sometimes your only way of doing that is to get rich and give away gold--or cast a spell (e.g., Aura of Majesty) that improves relations. Also, the wizard pact (non-aggression treaty) can be violated just by straying too close to the other wizard's cities, so you have to pay attention to where your scouts move. I'm so careless that I wind up mostly ignoring diplomacy in MOM. The wizards who can exchange spells with me often like me enough to stay at peace for a while; the others seem antagonistic most of the time, no matter what I do.

In both games, there are AI-leader "personalities"--they'll vary in aggression level, eagerness to expand their territory, and so on. Sometimes I notice one of these personalities--especially the "erratic" one, which can make the leader flip-flop without warning. But in general, I find that everybody is against me anyway, in the long run, except for those who are weak and have an enemy in common with me. In MOO, I can sometimes get the AI leaders fighting each other, which keeps some of them off my back. That works sometimes in MOM too, but it seems to be harder to pull off. I don't think I've ever formed an alliance in MOM. If I did, I wouldn't trust it to last long.

Another level of complexity in MOM has to do with economy and happiness. You can adjust the tax rate, for one thing, and raising taxes will also make people more restless and unproductive (it can even trigger rebellion). But there are also racial prejudices to consider: if you take over a city from a race that hates your kind, half the population may rebel. Alternatively, you can raze the city and then found a new one with settlers of your own race, but that takes time and costs fame. There's none of that in MOO; when you take over a colony, your own race is what ends up there. Nor is there any tax rate to adjust. Rebellion can only be triggered by enemy sabotage, a function of spying: over time, with persistence, you can stir up enough unrest in another player's colony to make it rebel. Then the enemy has to send in troops to defeat the rebels (else the colony remains unproductive and the rebellion may spread from there).

Heroes and items, as touched upon above, increase MOM's complexity too. There are no equivalents in MOO (but there are in MOO2). While it's fun to have these special individuals and items to play with, I sometimes find them annoying. For one thing, you have to take care to keep your heroes alive (unless you want one gone to make room for another), so most of them are best kept away from the action. Those with casting ability are often best kept in your fortress city anyway. The ones who have to fight hand-to-hand need to be protected with items and spells. You don't usually find all the items you need, so you have to create some--and it can take a lot of time and mana to do that.

Summoned creatures are another MOM complexity--another source of fun for those who enjoy it. I usually don't bother. I want to reserve my mana and casting power for important global spells and for combat. Summoning a bunch of hell hounds or sprites or nagas or whatever would just drain my mana away and give me nothing much better than regular fighting troops. Besides, there are spells like Banish and Great Unsummoning which can instantly destroy summoned creatures. I'd rather not risk losing my army to something like that. An exception is when I play as Rjak or another black-magic wizard; then it can pay big to summon wraiths and certain other creatures--they have life-stealing powers that make them practically invincible for a while.

(Aside: After writing the above paragraph, I decided to start a game as Sharee, the conjurer, who specializes in summoning creatures. It turns out there is apparently an advantage to it. I was able to pull together an army of mostly hell hounds--later with a fire giant as well--much more quickly than I've ever been able to create a normal-unit army. So, I'll have to experiment further.)

Another feature of MOM is the Grand Vizier. I forget about it most of the time, and when I remember, I just shake my head. It's an early attempt at automation; if you wish, you can order the Grand Vizier to make production choices for all your cities, saving yourself the tedium of all that routine decision making. I tried it a couple times, but the AI just isn't smart enough. Some of my cities would crank out an endless stream of galleys, for instance, when I already had many more than I could use.

In an attempt to sum up this rambling post, I'll just say that MOO and MOM are a couple of my favorite games. Whatever else I play, I always come back to these two. Every other 4X game I've played feels like too much of a good thing--too much micromanagement, too many options, too much territory to go after. I think MOO and MOM got it just about right.

Of the two, I prefer MOO, just because it's so much simpler and more streamlined. Mind you, it's not so streamlined as to feel like an abstract strategy game; it's still chock full of goodies to play with--tech to research, ships to design, random events to deal with, and so on. It grabs the imagination and gets you fully absorbed. Yet once you learn to play, you almost never feel overwhelmed (except by an enemy force that has grown so strong that it defeats you).

Sometimes, though, MOM is a very welcome change of pace. If MOO is a healthy, tasty soup or salad, MOM is a four-course gourmet meal. And because of their common origin, it's pretty easy to learn both and to switch from one game to the other. Even some of the content is shared (e.g., there's a Klackon race in both games, as well as a powerful mineral called adamantium).

Another nice thing about getting into these games is that there are Prima strategy guide books for both. They're thick books, rich with well-written and useful text, plus tables. Of course they're long out of print, but used copies can still be found for a reasonable price. In my opinion, they're well worth having. Reading through them is almost as satisfying as playing the games. I've had them for years, and I still discover something new (or clarify something old) every time I reread a section.

In closing, just a brief word about Master of Orion II: Battle at Antares. It's a very good game, and many MOO fans prefer it. I might describe it as MOO upgraded to the complexity level of MOM, with improved sound and graphics. Each "planet" is now a planetary system with anywhere between zero and a few planets to colonize. There are more opportunities for micromanagement--e.g., converting workers to scientists. You need freighters to carry food and supplies around the galaxy. There are more races, and they can be customized. Leaders of two types appear and offer various benefits. Diplomacy is more involved and works well. The tech tree is expanded, but you're normally limited to researching just one thing at a time (whereas in MOO you can allocate research among several things). Ship design and tactical combat are far more complicated--and potentially interesting. The strategy guide book for MOO2, however, is probably not worth buying; it's OK, but I didn't get a lot out of it.

I keep trying MOO2 and then uninstalling it. I could get used to the main part of the game, but tactical combat, to me, is so far over the top that I have to switch it off. The space battles can get very big and long--to the point where even resolving them with the Auto button leaves you sitting for several minutes, waiting for things to play out.

So, I'm very happy with MOO and MOM, and every once in a great while I try MOO2 again. But when I do, I figure I might as well be playing Sword of the Stars instead, or AI War: Fleet Command.
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Fri Jul 14, 2017 7:42 pm
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In Defense of 4X Games

p55carroll
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Games are like songs: you never get tired of playing the best ones over and over, and you can enjoy them all by yourself.
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"Fun I love, but too much fun is of all things the most loathsome. Mirth is better than fun, and happiness is better than mirth." (William Blake)
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I don't know if 4X games really need defending; Civilization has certainly been a blockbuster, lasted through six versions so far, and inspired numerous spin-offs. But every now and then I hear a discouraging word about the genre.

One complaint is that you can get to where, after a hundred turns or so, you know you've won, and yet there are hundreds more turns left to play. A competitive player is likely to consider the game finished at that point. So, why continue? If you were clearly in a losing position, you might quit and start over (unless you just wanted to play it out and try to learn something). But it seems odd to quit when you're winning.

Well, I know the feeling. True, 4X games can run long, and it's rare that one ends in a neck-and-neck finish. Still, the game play can be fun.

A 4X game is basically a big box of cool stuff to play around with. There's a map with lots of places to explore, colonize, or conquer. There are buildings to build and military units to recruit and mobilize. There's a tree full of inventions and discoveries to research. There are AI opponents to interact with--via trade, diplomacy, or other means. While you're claiming territory, you're also amassing resources. And the more you build and develop, the more you feel is yours--which can make it feel very personal when an enemy tries to take some of it away.

So, the game sucks you in--as long as you're susceptible to that. In Civ, they call it the just-one-more-turn phenomenon--where you feel compelled to play just a little bit more before stopping. You're absorbed in all that's going on, and it's a fair bit to keep track of in your head, so you're reluctant to save the game and have to refresh your mind about it when you resume later. Yet, when you do load a saved game, it's only moments before you're deeply engrossed all over again.

For me, being deeply engrossed in a game appears to be the main attraction. I don't need a lot of action (e.g., I prefer turn-based to real-time games), and I don't really even need a solid strategic challenge. Though I play almost nothing but strategy games, I don't have the kind of sharp, analytical mind it takes to be, say, a good chess player. I like to have some strategic and tactical problems to solve, but I resent it when they're so difficult that they stump me for a long while. If I'm playing a game, I don't want to have to work very hard; I want to relax and enjoy myself.

Many other gamers who feel that way seem to gravitate toward story-based games. They get immersed in the narrative and the characters, much as they would while reading a novel or watching a movie. I've played a number of RPGs and a couple point-and-click adventure games, so I get that. But it's not usually for me. Somehow I've never completely adjusted to the concept of combining a story with a game; so when I play a game like that, I tend to automatically ignore most of the story. A point-and-click adventure becomes just a series of puzzles to me, and an RPG becomes a series of fights with some puzzles mixed in. If I wanted to get absorbed in a story (as I sometimes do, though not that often), I'll read a book or watch a movie instead of playing a game.

So, whenever I sit down to play a game, I'm immediately looking for something like the board wargames I played voraciously for years--something that appears to be a game about military conquest, something that will require strategic and tactical thinking and maneuvering. Classic games like chess and go look like that, and I admire those games, but at moderate difficulty levels (or against a competent opponent) they tend to be daunting. They make me feel I have to concentrate very hard and play very precisely. In contrast, a wargame or 4X game confronts me with more breadth than depth: I have a lot more units and resources and things to keep track of, but the essential strategic or tactical problems tend to be relatively simple. Hence, I can usually afford to be a little lazy or sloppy in my play. If I make mistakes, I can cover them over; if I try something unorthodox, and it doesn't work out, I might have time to recover from the setback.

Yet I do learn, slowly but surely. If a game becomes a favorite of mine--like Master of Magic and Master of Orion--I'll play it over and over, maybe year after year. And even though I'm not concentrating that hard or analyzing moves that closely, I gradually get used to what works and what doesn't. The game becomes ever more familiar, and I become better and better at it, in spite of myself. To me, that's a rewarding experience.

However, it's not so rewarding that I'm eager to raise the bar or tackle something even more challenging. It's just nice to notice that I'm gradually improving at a game I play repeatedly. The reason I play it repeatedly, though, is that I like the feeling of being engrossed in it.

A game, to me, is basically a respite or refuge from day-to-day life. In real life, I have the usual set of things to do--responsibilities. Sometimes they're routine, other times they're a pain in the neck, and every now and then one is downright scary or overwhelming. In my free time, I like to turn a blind eye to all those things and lose myself in a make-believe world--a world that's structured so that I feel I know how things work and how to manipulate things and achieve victory. Within that world--while playing a strategy game I'm absorbed in--all is well all the time. The worst that can happen is suffering a setback or maybe being defeated--in which case, since it's only a game, I can just start over and try again. The challenges are all there, as in real life, but in the game I can manage them all just with reasoning power.

So, even when I get to the point in a 4X game where I know I've won, I'm delighted to be involved in what I'm doing. It doesn't matter to me that the game may go on for hundreds more turns; that's just an extension of the joyful game play I'm experiencing. Often there's some sweet revenge mixed in: the AI opponents had been harrying me all through the first part of the game, and now I'm on top and in a position to give them their comeuppance. Maybe it's not much of a challenge at that stage, but it can be a great feeling to know I'm free to finish things off in a way of my choosing. In Master of Magic I can cast the Spell of Mastery or send my hero-led armies on a path of conquest. I've put a lot of work (or at least a lot of time) into building that strong position, and now my reward is owning the sandbox, so to speak--having the luxury of doing things my way instead of always looking for the most efficient way. If the game were a story, I'd be writing the ending to suit myself.

What else do people complain about in 4X games? Of course there are some who just don't like the strategy. The games do require some thinking. You can't just dive in, grasp the interface intuitively, and start playing. Well, you can--but you'll probably regret not having read the manual or done the tutorial or checked a strategy guide. I don't think the games are all that hard at easy to intermediate levels, but there are gamers who just have trouble thinking strategically for whatever reason, or who don't like to. I guess 4X games are not for them. They're not for everybody. But as I said above, I like the way these games confront me with breadth (complexity) more than depth (brain-straining problems). They make me feel something like a strategist even though I'm probably a poor excuse for one.

Another complaint I hear sometimes is that 4X games are tedious: you end up doing the same things over and over in order to maintain your cities, gather your resources, and so forth. And yeah, I've experienced that too. But for the most part, I don't mind. The alternatives are worse, I think.

One alternative would be a game so tightly designed that the player is assured of having tough decision making to do every turn. That would keep you on your toes alright, and it might make the game more interesting. But it'd amount to turning the 4X game into something more like chess--into a game where you have to seriously concentrate and work hard to avoid mistakes. That'd be a plus for some gamers, but not for me. If I wanted chesslike difficulty, I'd probably just play chess.

Another alternative would be automating the tedious aspects of the game. Alpha Centauri is very good at that. There you can set your formers (workers/builders) to automatic, order your scouts to just keep exploring, set governors to manage your bases, have your researchers choose their own path, and more. You can automate all your military units too if you want. It works, and it keeps the game moving along nicely. The downside is that you know you're not being efficient. Automating anything is the lazy player's way out; things will get done, but not nearly as well as they would if you took a hands-on approach and learned about what you're doing. What I discovered about this kind of game is that I'm hopelessly lazy. I automate most things, and then I sit around watching the game mostly play itself. That actually ends up being even more tedious than the game would be without anything automated.

A certain amount of tedium is welcome to me, though. As I keep saying, I play games when I want to take a break from daily life and become absorbed in something fun and structured. Repetitive in-game tasks are pleasantly familiar; it's nice not having to think about everything--being able to do some things as a matter of routine. In Master of Magic I'm used to developing a city starting with a Builder's Hall, then a Granary, then a Smithy, then a Marketplace, and so on. As long as there are no overriding concerns, I just make the choices by rote, for pretty much every city. Yeah, it might be nicer to be able to set up a queue and let the computer handle it from then on, but as it is it takes only a second or less to click a button, so it's no big deal. And even though it's routine and repetitive, it keeps me involved in the game; since I have to do something, I can't forget all about it (as I tend to do in SMAC).

The bottom line, I suppose, is that a 4X game provides me with everything I want in a video game. Big map to explore and claim a share of? Check. Cities or bases to build and develop? Check. Military units with which to fight and conquer? Check. Discoveries and inventions to research? Check. Resources to gather and put to use? Check. AI opponents to provide resistance and try to foil my plans? Check. Customization options? Check. And then sometimes there are bonuses too: heroes, items, spells, treasure sites, random events, and more.

It's not the only kind of game I play, but the only time it's not satisfying is when I'm in the mood for something shorter or simpler or more "tactical."
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Wed Jul 12, 2017 8:45 pm
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What I Bought during the Summer Sale

p55carroll
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Games are like songs: you never get tired of playing the best ones over and over, and you can enjoy them all by yourself.
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"Fun I love, but too much fun is of all things the most loathsome. Mirth is better than fun, and happiness is better than mirth." (William Blake)
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I guess GOG and Steam both have summer sales. I do almost all my shopping at GOG (just because I play games on an aging netbook computer, I suppose).

I wanted to avoid the summer sale altogether, and I did for a while. I know I'm overloaded with games I'll never play. It used to be that way for me with board wargames, decades ago; I'd fill a closet with them and then eventually get fed up and sell all or most of them. But then, before long, I'd start buying again.

Today I have a closet full of board games that I haven't gotten around to selling yet. But I also have a "cloud library" full of GOG games, and I've just added to it. Why? Well, they cost pennies apiece and don't take up any physical space; and I might play them someday.

One that I mentioned in another blog post is Ground Control. It's a real-time tactical game, and I played a little of it. It has a decent look and feel, and I can see myself playing at it more, though I doubt if this genre will ever become a favorite of mine.

I must have also bought Hostile Waters: Antaeus Rising. I had it on a wishlist, which meant I must have read something good about it, and it only cost 59 cents. But when I went to buy it, it turned out I already owned it. So, I installed it and tried it out. It's another real-time tactical game, but it looks like there are more virtual toys to play with. I got stuck right away and had to go read the manual. Now I wonder when I'll find time to learn how to play this game. It can't be that hard, but there's a little work involved. What must have prompted me to add the game to my wishlist was that Tom Baker (my favorite Doctor Who) did the narration. The game has a nice look and sound to it; it's more polished than I would have expected. The cinematic effects are mostly wasted on me, though.

Then there's Rebel Galaxy, which was free with a purchase. Looks like it takes more computing power than I have right now, so it'll just sit in my library.

The other game--well, series--I couldn't resist was Avernum. I enjoyed another Spiderweb game, Geneforge and am now in the midst of the second game in that series. So, when I saw the Avernum series on sale for less than two bucks, I made space on my virtual shelves for that. I actually like the clean, simple look of these games. The only things I dislike are (1) straying into a difficult area I'm not ready for and (2) inventory management. The latter is a pain in any RPG I've seen, but in Geneforge it gets to where you can't even sell excess inventory but have to just dump it.

I took a quick peek at Avernum last night, though, and I was surprised to find it's somewhat more primitive than even Geneforge 1. Not a big disappointment, but just a mild shock. I played awhile and got around OK and even completed a minor quest.

After being pestered by e-mails from GOG, I broke down and bought Desperados: Wanted Dead or Alive as well. Turns out it's another game I'll have to play sometime in the future, when I upgrade my system. It ran very slowly and choppily last night, so I was able to play most of the tutorial. But then I uninstalled the game.

* * *
This growing backlog of games puts me into a reflective mood once again. Why do I accumulate so much?

I'm not a hoarder; in fact, philosophically I'm more the opposite--a minimalist. I've always felt that if I could find just one game that satisfied me in every way a game can, I'd play it exclusively and never play anything else. That'd help keep my life simple. And who knows--maybe I'd even get good at the game eventually.

But I guess I'm moodier than I like to admit. Sometimes when I look at a game I had recently decided was the best ever, I just can't make myself play it. It suddenly feels all wrong for me. I end up playing something else instead.

Good games don't really get stale for me, though. If I like a game, it becomes a keeper, and I find I still like it just as much even years later. That's the case with Master of Orion, which is still as fresh and interesting to me today as it was in the mid-1990s. In the case of board games, some of my favorites are the ones I first played decades ago, like The Battle of the Bulge--or classic games from childhood, like dominoes, checkers, and rummy.

However, unplayed games do get to me, whether they're taking up space or not. They clutter up my life somehow, or at least that's how it feels. In the case of my board games, I bought each one with the intention of playing it pretty regularly; and since that hasn't happened in the past eight or ten years, I have to believe it's not going to happen--and so I should sell the games or give them away. It's the same with the video games in my GOG library (or anywhere); every time I look at the "collection," I shake my head and wish I had never let it go so far.

I suppose it's just that with ownership comes a sense of obligation, at least for me. With physical things I have to at least store them; and if I use them, I ought to maintain them (handle them responsibly and put them away neatly when I'm done). Virtual things don't require such care, but I still get the feeling that if I own them I ought to use them.

In the case of video games, all I can do is ignore the ones I don't currently have time for. With practice, I manage to turn a blind eye to the collection. Out of sight, out of mind. Yet, when I do look, it makes me sad to see this big backlog of games; it's like a boxful of toys that I never have time to play with.

From that psychological angle, I guess I'm both recalling childhood and imagining retirement: mentally setting aside a big block of time for just playing. Video games even come complete with imaginary friends in the form of AI opponents and teammates. So I could spend years just losing myself in one game after another--if only I had that time to spare.

But I still work full-time and have a house and small family to care for. So I can't play nearly as much as I'd like to. I have to get in a few hours here and there and then dream about a future where I might have more free time.

Only I actually dread that future, of course, because it probably includes declining health and certainly includes eventual death. So I think more about childhood, when I had lots of free time and also a potentially bright future--and when no one expected me to be too mature for video games and the like.

That's pointless, though, since childhood is long past and won't come around again in this lifetime.

The best place to be, then, is the present. Here and now is the only place and time I can actually play video games or do anything. So my focus might as well be on what I can do, and want to do, for the time being.

If I'd stayed in that frame of mind during the summer sale, I wouldn't have bought any games. I bought the few I did only because, for a few moments, I was lured into dreaming about a happy, childlike future--a time when I'd have nothing better to do than lose myself, for hours on end, in a wonderful game.

Now that the sale is over, I look at my bloated game library and just groan. Only for a moment, though. Then I exit the library and glance at my active-games list. That's where I have access to the currently installed games that I've been playing and plan to continue playing.

I sigh even then, though, before I click on a game and start playing it. There are a dozen games on the list to choose from, and I haven't touched some of them for months. The ones I've been away from always look like neglected pets to me; their pleading eyes ask when I'm going to give them some attention again. Of course I shake off such silly thoughts and remind myself games are inanimate. But the mild feeling of obligation inside me is real. I had made a commitment to do something and then left it only partly finished. I want to see it through.

The only time I'm happy with my gaming is when I'm in the midst of playing a game I like. Then I can forget all the other games and focus entirely on the one in front of me.
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Tue Jun 27, 2017 10:55 pm
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A Sucker for Strategy

p55carroll
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Games are like songs: you never get tired of playing the best ones over and over, and you can enjoy them all by yourself.
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"Fun I love, but too much fun is of all things the most loathsome. Mirth is better than fun, and happiness is better than mirth." (William Blake)
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Lately I'm focusing (if you can call it that) on strategy games--playing at least one old one and learning some new ones.

Aesthetically, I find it pleasing to sit back and play the role of mastermind--to send my minions out to conquer a world or a galaxy. On that scale, a few losses and setbacks don't matter, as long as ultimately I impose my will upon all. That's in contrast to tactical games, where even a single loss or misstep can be devastating, and where speed and precision are more important than long-term planning.

Not that I'm much of a planner. I try to get an overview of things, and I pick out some places I'd like to own. I also look to prevent my enemies from growing too big or strong. But frankly, I'm not all that logical; I don't usually think things all the way through. Once I've got a broad outline in mind, I just start playing around and doing stuff. If I'm playing a game I know, much of what I do is out of habit and varies little from one game to the next. I reluctantly change my style or approach only when I can see that it's bringing bad karma my way.

The old strategy game I'm still playing is, of course, Master of Orion. I like it better than any of its sequels, better than its spiritual parent, Civilization, and better than its fantasy spin-off, Master of Magic. MOO is elegantly simple, compared to any of the others. There's plenty of variety and interest, but the amount of detail never becomes an irritating chore. I even like MOO better than SMAC, which many say is the pinnacle of 4X strategy games. In SMAC, there's an overwhelming amount of detail (in my opinion), and it's mitigated only by the option to let the AI handle most of it. When I play SMAC, I turn a lot over to the AI's control and then feel guilty about it; I know a smart player would make the effort to control and optimize everything. MOO makes me feel more like a smart player--or at least like maybe I can become one.

A new-to-me strategy game I'm starting into is AI War: Fleet Command. Maybe it caught my eye because of my affection for MOO; I don't know. I browse through a lot of games, and I'm not stuck on space warfare; I'm not a science-fiction buff or anything. But as it happened, both AI War and Sword of the Stars lured me in around the same time. I tried hard to like SotS, two or three times, but I just couldn't stick with it; the 3D map tends to be annoying, the real-time tactical combat feels like a different game entirely, and it bothers me that the game was designed for multiplayer but ends up being played solo (it plays OK, but there are some features that seem odd until you remember the game was meant for a group of players).

But AI War has none of those drawbacks. It is a real-time game, and that's something I've only been getting used to within the past year or so. But the timers and handy pause button make it OK. The only two hurdles I'm facing are the graphics and the complexity. Normally I don't care much about graphics, but in this game I sometimes get disoriented; I don't notice an enemy installation off-screen, and if I zoom out to see where it is in relation to my forces I'm confused because I seem to be seeing the whole galaxy--so it's going to take more practice for me to get used to all the zooming and scrolling and view switching. As to the complexity--well, it's enormous; and it's not just numbers and variety, but depth as well. Do I hack this enemy installation or destroy it? If I hack it, what kinds of defenders will I need to bring in, and how long will they have to hold out? How much attention will this draw to me, and will it be worth it? For someone like me, who tends not to think things all the way through at first, such questions start to sound impossible to answer. Luckily, it's only a game, so I can just try stuff--see what works and what doesn't.

AI War is an asymmetrical game, and that's often especially good for solo games, since even top-notch AIs aren't very good at emulating human play. In this game, the player (or co-op; there can be up to eight players working together) is vastly overpowered from the get-go. You're playing a game of stealth and gradual, methodical development; and you'll never be able to strangle the enemy, so you have to aim for his heart to win. IMO it's a brilliant concept for a solo/co-op game. Whether I'll ultimately like it is another question. In the past, I've tended to dislike stealth games except when the risk of face-to-face confrontation was minimal. In AI War, there's some confrontation from the outset, and it grows ever more serious until you lose or win. So, we'll see if that continues to intrigue me or finally drives me away.

Another asymmetrical strategy game I'm just beginning to get into is Victoria: Revolutions. I bought this one mainly because it's set in my favorite historical period (though the expansion takes it closer to the present than I'd like it to go--up to the year 1935). For years I've heard nothing but praise for Paradox games like Hearts of Iron and Europa Universalis, so I've long wanted to try one. I've just never had much interest in the periods covered by EU or HoI, whereas I've been happily reading and playing games about the Victorian Age all my life. Still, I held off on buying Victoria until GOG put it on sale and posted minimum requirements that made it look like the game might just run on my little old computer. I'm pleased that it does, though if it turns out I like the game I may be motivated to upgrade my system and buy Victoria II. For now, it's just an experiment.

It's always hard to learn a big, complex game, and it's much harder without any tutorials. (Someone designed a tutorial scenario for Victoria, but after downloading it I couldn't get it to run, so I'm ignoring it.) The manual is OK but doesn't really ease one into the game. So, I've had to browse around online, read a bit, and then start playing small practice games. I played one as Brazil (because an online article recommended it), and now I'm playing one as Belgium (because of another online article). I'm still only vaguely aware of what I'm doing or what all is happening in the world. But I've won a (scripted) war against the Netherlands, made some improvements, and gained some prestige.

The important thing to me, though, is always the feel of the game. If I don't like the feel of it, I'll ultimately reject it no matter how good it is.

And how does Victoria: Revolutions feel? Good in some ways, "meh" in others. Right now I'm comfortable playing minor countries because I don't have to worry about making huge, world-threatening mistakes. But as I start to get the hang of things, I look forward to playing as a major power in future games. I still love the historical period, and it's interesting to watch things progress.

On the other hand, I'm hesitant to take control of the one thing I probably should be learning to control right now: trading. I've been letting the computer do that, mainly because I don't want to. Trading is what spoiled Imperialism for me--having to at least accept or reject specific deals every turn, but also having a strong incentive to watch how the economic, political, and military dimensions of the game all play into each other. If I'm a mediocre military strategist, I'm an idiot when it comes to financial strategy, and my desire to improve in that area is also pretty low.

So, I like staring at the map and watching as history (or some variation thereof) plays out. I'll probably enjoy Victoria a lot more once I learn how things work. But if the game turns out to lean too heavily toward economics, I'll probably walk away in the end.

The three games I've so far discussed here are plenty to take up all my free time and then some. But I can never stop myself from exploring other promising games, or from continuing games I've started in the past. For a few years now, I've had at least one RPG going most all the time, and the one I'm just returning to after a brief hiatus is Geneforge 2. It's part of a series of five games, and I enjoyed the first so much that I jumped right into the second.

I mention Geneforge in this blog post only because I seem to more or less treat all games as strategy games. The other day, I asked for help in the Spiderweb forums, and one responder said, "It's all about the story." I smiled because I realize that's true for most RPGers, but it's not really true for me. I don't use cheats, but I have no compunctions about using a walkthrough, as I don't mind spoilers. Whatever's there in the story line I'm going to find out about sooner or later anyway; if someone gives me a heads-up about it, I'm just grateful. I pay only the vaguest attention to the story and characters in a game anyway; my purpose is simply to get through the game and win it. Figuring out how a game works and what I have to do to win, and then practicing enough that I actually do win, is pretty much all gaming is to me. The rest is just background entertainment--pleasant enough, and fun, but not what I focus on.

What I focus on, in any game, is the outcome. I want it to be a good one, and I'll do whatever I can comfortably do to bring that about. What I end up doing I suppose falls under the heading of strategy, and that's why I say I'm a sucker for strategy games. I'm not a great strategist by any means, but for me the joy of gaming lies mainly in steering things toward a win. Behind that, I guess, is just a desire (or compulsion) for mental exercise.
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Tue Jun 20, 2017 8:50 pm
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Entry Barriers

p55carroll
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I've been wanting to try some new games lately, and I've bumped into entry barriers, so I thought I'd write a little about them.

Sometimes the entry barrier (or hurdle) is what some call a steep learning curve. But the curve isn't always steep, and it's not necessarily a curve; it's just that the game is complicated and therefore difficult to learn. That's the case with two games I've been wanting to get into.

The first is AI War: Fleet Command. I bought the complete collection on GOG, but I wonder if I'll live long enough to do anything with the expansions. The base game, even at a low difficulty setting--or even in the advanced tutorial--is pretty daunting. I'm sure I could get it if I just settled down and let my enthusiasm propel me along. The tutorial is decent, and there are online guides and videos to help. But so far, my experience is getting well into a game (or into the last part of the advanced tutorial), saving it, and then being reluctant to come back. I know that when I return I'm in for some relearning and further learning, and I don't want to have to do that. So, if I'm the least bit tired, I go play a familiar game instead. Still, A.I. War looks like a terrific game, so I'm still looking forward to getting back in the right mood for more of it.

Then, for some silly reason, I went and installed Victoria: Revolutions again. It covers a favorite historical period and looks like the kind of game I could enjoy, but it's so big and complicated that I soon gave up on it the first time around. Now it's up again, and I've made some feeble attempts to learn how to play. One evening, I just fooled around on my own, trying to figure out the interface, but I didn't learn much. Then I read an article and watched some video clips, and when I returned to the game I felt I knew a bit more. I even fought a couple Civil War battles, which I thought was pretty cool even though I had almost no idea what was going on. Still, there's so much more learning to do that this is another game that has to just sit and wait for my motivation to build up again.

That brings up a concomitant hurdle. There's a sequel to A.I. War in the works, and Victoria II has been out for a long time already. So I feel like the games I'm trying to learn might be obsolete or else destined for obsolescence in the near future. That need not be a big deal, but it tends to dampen my motivation a bit. I wouldn't be able to play either newer game on my little, old computer anyway, but it's still hard when the crowd rushes for what's shiny and new and leaves me behind to play the older games by myself. Yeah, I know we're talking about single-player games and that there's not literally a crowd; I just don't like being out of sync with trends, I guess.

Another kind of entry barrier is technology. I'm still using an Acer Aspire netbook with a 1 GHz CPU, and that limits what I can play. It doesn't always limit what I buy, though. Recently I bought some games from GOG, only to find they won't install or run on my system. It's not the first time that has happened; I have several games of that sort in my library now, waiting for my next upgrade.

One game I bought was FTL: Faster Than Light. Or at least that's what I thought I was buying; I might have bought the advanced version by mistake. Anyhow, installation failed (or was taking longer than I could stand), as it was looking for "cloud saves" and apparently couldn't find what it needed. That's OK; I didn't need another game taking up my time anyway, so I'm happy to save this one for some future year.

Then I tried installing Arcanum: Of Steamworks & Magick Obscura, thinking maybe I'd like an RPG as a change of pace. Another Troika game, The Temple of Elemental Evil: A Classic Greyhawk Adventure, runs fine on my system; I just couldn't get past a certain point in that game. But Arcanum doesn't run right; the main screen is mostly missing, and what there is of it is extremely distorted. So, I sighed and uninstalled that game too.

Others in that condition include Majesty: The Fantasy Kingdom Sim and Baldur's Gate II: The Collection. I figure I'll need a new computer before I try those games again.

It's just as well, though, because I have about a hundred more games in my library than I ever have time to play. And most of the time when I'm ready to play something, I feel like playing a familiar game instead of trying to learn something new.

Even familiar games have their hurdles, though. I suppose that's just the nature of games. Once you learn how to play, you start working to improve. Sometimes even that's enough to make me think twice before loading up a game. Lately I've been playing my old standby, Master of Orion, as well as another old favorite, Fantasy General. Both games make me pretty tense at times. I feel like I know what I'm doing, but what I do sometimes doesn't work, and I tend to take it personally. If it's due to mistakes I made, I tell myself I'm stupid; if it's due to chance, I complain about being unlucky. I marvel at those who can calmly assess the situation without being attached to it--who can just learn, have fun, and let it go.

Still, as my skill at a game improves, I raise the bar. I've started playing Master of Orion on Hard level instead of Average, for example. I experimented with Impossible but decided I'm not ready for that yet. So, some part of me wants a challenge, but another part of me wants to just relax and have fun. It's not easy finding a game that will satisfy all parts of me at once. One part usually has to make a sacrifice for another.

In any case, though, it always feels good to be past the entry barrier and feel somewhat competent at a game, even if I'm still playing at a beginner level. At least I can get reoriented easily as soon as the game loads. Often--usually, I guess--I start out with some misgivings about playing any game: I worry that I'll suck at it and things will go wrong. But once I start actually playing a familiar game, my concern fades to the background, and then I can just have fun and take things as they come.

With a new-to-me game like A.I. War or Victoria, it's kinda the same: once I get back to it, some of it looks familiar, and I can use that part as a base from which to explore more. But then, pretty soon, I find myself struggling with basic things I've forgotten or never knew, and that makes it hard.

As to the opposite effect, being bored by an all-too-familiar game, I don't experience that much, if at all. I choose good games in the first place; and a good game, to me, is one that I can keep learning about and improving at for years. Offhand, I can't think of a game I ever got bored with; it'd have to be something as simplistic as tic-tac-toe. I just don't get bored easily, especially with intellectual pursuits.

That's probably why variety is more often a negative than positive thing to me: I'm happy enough with one game, and then I'm presented with a dozen others, each claiming to be even better. Sometimes I can't resist investigating, but I'm disappointed more often than not. Variety appeals to those who get bored, but that's not my problem. My problem is summoning up the courage and motivation to surmount entry barriers and then tackle ongoing challenges.
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Mon Jun 12, 2017 9:11 pm
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Strategic versus Tactical

p55carroll
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Games are like songs: you never get tired of playing the best ones over and over, and you can enjoy them all by yourself.
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"Fun I love, but too much fun is of all things the most loathsome. Mirth is better than fun, and happiness is better than mirth." (William Blake)
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There's no end of discussion on what these two terms mean. Some definitions are better than others, and some seem applicable only in certain contexts. One remark I like is just a footnote in Mahan's The Influence of Sea Power Upon History: 1660–1783; he says "tactics" concerns what happens when opposing forces come into contact, and "strategy" concerns planning and maneuver before opposing forces come into contact. Probably oversimplified, but it seems to help me keep things straight.

Anyway, I'm thinking of games about war--the different look and feel of tactical versus strategic games. What brought it to mind was the game Ground Control going on sale. Apparently I had put it on a wishlist and then forgotten all about it, as the name didn't ring a bell.
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Wed Jun 7, 2017 5:54 pm
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Forth to the Past

p55carroll
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"Fun I love, but too much fun is of all things the most loathsome. Mirth is better than fun, and happiness is better than mirth." (William Blake)
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I guess I've come full circle--or maybe never really left my starting point--when it comes to computer games.

Around 1995 (give or take a couple years), I found myself in a very happy place. I was enjoying a couple of the 5-Star games, I could choose between Master of Orion and Master of Magic, and for a real-time change of pace I had Red Baron (I might have also had two other Aces games by then). To my wargaming mind, it meant I had ready access to top-notch games on the strategic, operational, and tactical levels.
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Tue May 30, 2017 9:29 pm
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