Posts Tagged‘turn based strategy’

Endless Space 2: First You Get the Dust…

When I play 4X games I have one objective in mind: acquire a single victory. On average that will take me between 15 to 18 hours to complete as that’s how long it takes to grok the fundamental mechanics that will enable me to actually win. Even with titles I’ve played before which, you’d assume, would share similar fundamentals take just as long since it’s not often I’ll go back to revisit a 4X game between releases. The original Endless Space was something of an anomaly then with my first victory coming in at a swift 10 hours. Thus when I saw its sequel come out of Early Access earlier in the year I figured great, another streamlined 4X game that I can enjoy without the massive time investment. Well here I am, 22 hours of in-game time later and I’ve only just barely managed to scrape in a win.

So much for a casual 4X experience.

Set in the distant future where the currency of the day is Dust, a nano-element material that an ancient race used as a basis for everything. Your choice of race will heavily influence how you approach the game, which mechanics prove problematic for you and what aspects of the galaxy you’re able to uncover. Like all good 4X games the story that the game tells is the one you make by how you interact with the mechanics, your AI rivals and how you develop your civilisation.

Compared to its predecessor Endless Space 2 is a leap forward in terms of graphical fidelity. Partly this is due to the massive improvements that’s been made to the base Unity engine over the past 4 years or so, as it is far more capable of producing good graphics now than it ever was. However, and I’ll dive into more depth on this later, Unity also has some limitations and these start to become rapidly apparent as you start getting well into the double digit turns. Still when the game is running it runs well and the various bits of eye candy make it a much more visually pleasing experience.

At a base level not much has changed from the original Endless Space, mechanically speaking. You’ll be placed in a procedurally generated galaxy with a random number of planets, systems and constellations (something which you can control, if you so wish). You’ll get a home system, a colony ship and a scouting ship to begin your journey in dominating the galaxy using whatever method you choose. From there it’s up to you to explore systems, research technology and grow your empire to the point where you can achieve one of the 4 victory conditions (military, science, economy or score). Layered underneath all this are the equations which drive various aspects like population growth, your approval rating and so on, each of which you’ll have to optimise if you want to reach your objective. Like I always do I tended towards a science based victory condition and, whilst I don’t think that’s the hardest (military probably is, I think) it definitely felt like one of the more challenging paths to take.

It took me about 3 or 4, 1 hour games to get a handle on the basics so that I could sustainably grow an empire to the point where I was competitive with the AI. The main reason for this was forgetting that there’s a bit of a priority in Endless Space for what you should go for. The first thing to look for when establishing a new colony is food as that will dictate how long it will take for it to go from an outpost to a full colony. After that you want to develop your industry as that will determine how quickly you can build things, reducing the time to make the colony effective. Lastly you’ll want to prioritise whatever you need for your preferred win condition which could be any of the FIDS (Food, Industry, Dust, Science) resources. Once I remembered that everything started to fall into place however that’s when the cracks in the experience started to show.

Endless Space has actually been available since October last year through Early Access. Since then it’s undergone quite a lot of development with about 3 major updates since it first debuted there. However the game still suffers from numerous issues which are, unfortunately, game breaking in nature. I had one game which, at around turn 50, could not complete the current turn. Checking the forums I saw that others had had this issue and that a save and restart could resurrect them. Not so in my case unfortunately and so that game is simply unplayable. There has been another patch since then so it’s possible that it’s playable now but, right then, there was no option but for me to restart (I don’t tend to keep saves for every turn or anything like that). There are a lot of other issues I could point to but I’ll focus on what I believe is the most critical issue for this game: performance.

So my current PC, whilst not being the latest and greatest anymore, is most certainly overkill for nearly any game I care to throw at it. Endless Space 2 is no exception to this so I was surprised when, at larger turn counts, the game would start taking minutes to finish turns and would chug heavily while doing so. Puzzled I decided to fire up task manager to monitor CPU usage and HW Monitor to monitor my graphics. What I saw heavily indicated that the majority of Endless Space 2 runs on a single computation thread as only a single core of my machine was being utilised heavily. Similarly my graphics card would barely jump above 50% utilisation. Part of the blame is likely to lie with Unity as I’ve heard multi-threading can be a challenge with that engine. But, as someone who’s had to do his fair share of multi-threaded programming of late, I can’t help but think a good chunk of the computation that Endless Space 2 is doing couldn’t be parallelized. I’m not a game developer, of course, but when my system is under-utilised and something runs poorly there’s really not many other possibilities to consider.

If you can get past those issues though the core game can be quite fun, however. In my first almost-won-this-damn-thing playthrough I got tantalisingly close to achieving a swift science victory. However, early on in the game, I had put myself at odds with the Riftborn as they were colonising a pretty strategic set of planets that I wanted. So I, of course, blockaded them and proceeded to push them back until I had what I wanted. Whilst this never escalated into full scale war it did mean that the military political faction grew in power slowly over time. Eventually they became the preferred party and, with only 2 techs of the endless left to research, ended a policy that allowed me to research tech 1 level above what I should have access to. Then, because I had little option but to clear out the Riftborn I ended up with way more colonies than I could handle. Then, about 10 turns later, my entire system was in open rebellion and that was the end of it. Thinking back on it now it’s kind of comical how I ended up making my own bed, even if it was incredibly frustrating at the time.

My one, and only, victory came care of an aggressive early expansion strategy that locked off key areas that I could exploit later on. Like most 4X games the AI will get uncomfortable with you at one point and launch an attack but, weirdly, they’ll usually do so at a fixed technology level. So, once you know what level that is, you just have to quickly research the next highest level (something I could do easily with my research advantage as Sophons). After that point it was pretty much just a waiting game with my eventual science win at 100 turns or so. Honestly, without the performance issues I think I’d probably be able to achieve victory much earlier as the later turns were taking about 3~5 minutes to resolve, especially if there was any combat involved.

Endless Space 2 is a much more ambitious version of its predecessor in almost all respects. The breadth of the world you’ll play in is much greater, the races deeper on a technical and lore level and the fundamental mechanics have many more intricacies for you to learn. Suffice to say the additional requirements meant that I spent much longer Endless Space than its predecessor. However it’s still very much shaking off its Early Access roots with numerous game breaking glitches, performance issues and general quality of life improvements needed. None of these are beyond the developer’s capability to deliver I feel and, if you’re reading this review a year or two down the line, it’s very likely that Endless Space 2 is a different game to the one I’m reviewing today.

Rating: 8.0/10

Endless Space is available on PC right now for $39.99. Total play time was 22 hours with 13% of the achievements unlocked.

Civilization VI: I Had a Life, Once.

The Civilization series is one of the most popular games to ever grace Steam. It consistently holds a spot in the top concurrent player list, beaten only by giants of the platform like DOTA 2 and Counter-Strike. The series has a long history with this year marking some 25 years since the original Civilization was released. Over those decades the core game has evolved considerably, culminating in the latest release: Civilization VI. With this being the Civilization game with the longest development cycle to date, a total of 6 years, anticipation was high but it seems that this iteration has fallen a little short of the bar that was set with Civilization IV.

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The story of Civilization VI is, as always, what you make it. The historic figures representing nations are back with their traits and behaviours heavily influenced by their real world counterparts. You’ll take control of one of them, setting out on a quest to achieve victory by one of several means. What path you choose will have a dramatic effect both on how your civilization develops as well as how others percieve you. You’ll need to employ careful strategy to ensure that your path to victory is achievable whilst your opponents is not, a balancing act that unfolds over multiple hours of game time. Indeed the narratives that build out of civilization games are as interesting as the core game itself, giving you war stories to share with your fellow Civilization brethren.

Compared to its closest predecessor (Beyond Earth) Civilization VI has improved both in terms of overall graphical quality and aesthetics. The maps are much more detailed with the various landscapes, structures and units lavished with additional polygons and higher detailed textures. The bright colour palette is a welcome change as Beyond Earth would feel a bit dreary after a long session. The models for the other leaders are a bit incongruous with the rest of the game, sitting in that weird spot between too realistic and not realistic enough. It’s clear that they’re meant to be caricatures but they’re just not stylised enough, sitting firmly in the uncanny valley. The UI has also been overhauled once again making things slightly more discoverable although you’ll still need an hour or so of clicking to figure it out.

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The base game remains largely the same as it always has in Civilization games with the noted addition of a few more mechanics and a reworking of some others. Instead of all your improvements being built in the city centre you’ll now build districts for things like military, science and culture. These districts house their own improvements and have their own adjacency bonuses, making their placement a little more strategic. Units are now able to be stacked in a limited fashion, making it a little easier to handle larger armies. Tech advances can now be boosted by completing certain activities, reducing their research time by half. Culture victories are now a viable route to victory with their own tech tree called Civics, opening up a set of advantages that aren’t available elsewhere. Other than that the core game will be familiar to those who’ve played the series before, ensuring that one more turn always turns into more.

If you’re like me and only¹ play Civilization or similar games every so often then you’ll likely be as overwhelmed as ever when you start out. Thankfully it’s pretty easy to get going with Civilization presenting you with a quick start game right off the bat. However even selecting “I’m not familiar with the Civilization series” in the tutorial options still leaves a lot to be explained, requiring several trips to the Googles to help out. It’s probably best to learn by doing and failing as attempting to theorycraft your way to victory can be a torturous exercise, especially when you don’t know the right questions to ask. I think it took me about 4 failed attempts before I settled on a game which looked winnable and maybe 12 hours of total game time. For someone who hasn’t played a civilization game in 2 years I don’t think that’s too bad!

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Once you’ve set your sights on a particular victory condition it becomes easy to figure out what you should be prioritising. Like all strategy games running for the victory condition as hard as possible will likely see you fail as the other empires can outplay you quickly if you’re only focused on a single tactic. Thus the early game usually revolves around striking a balance between your preferred victory condition and ensuring the others don’t get ahead of you. This means you’ll usually have a smattering of various different victory paths going at the start before you can really dig your heels in and charge for the goal. I had (predictably) set my sights on the science victory and spent the entirety of my 20 hours in the game figuring out how best to achieve it.

Whilst this particular victory condition does give you a few notable advantages (like better units and buildings long before your opponents) it is incredibly vulnerable to things like spies and religious attacks. It’s also probably the one that takes the longest to achieve overall as you not only have to research all the required tech but also construct it. Each of the components takes around 20 turns to complete, more if you don’t have a great person to boost your output or a heavily upgraded industrial zone. In the end I think I won at turn 450, just shy of the game’s time limit of 500. Had that time come I would have still won just on points, but that would’ve felt hollow compared to achieving an actual victory.

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As I mentioned before some of the mechanics of Civilization VI are a little esoteric, requiring a bit of searching to understand them completely. Amenities, which is the replacement for happiness, is influenced by numerous things that aren’t made readily apparent. Early game it can be quite frustrating as there aren’t many ways to get them, especially if the AI isn’t extremely friendly with you (a near impossible feat it seems). Veterans of the series will likely have an easier time understanding what’s going on here than I did but for new comers it can be a little off putting. If you’re lucky enough to have dual monitors (like myself) then it might be a non-issue, just make sure you’ve always got a blank tab ready to go.

During my play through there were numerous design choices which drastically reduced player quality of life when playing. Spies had to be constantly set to guard whatever resource you wanted to protect, meaning every 6 turns would be spent sending them back to where you came. The AI is as illogical as ever with long time allies suddenly declaring war on you for no good reason. Worse still the AI will constantly denounce you for anything you do to them but has no qualms about doing the same back to you. Strangely, and I’ve not found out if this is a bug or not, cities that had been ceded to me would often result in the other empire denouncing me as a warmonger (even if it was from a war they started). This wouldn’t be an issue if it happened once or twice but it’d usually happen every 6 turns or so.

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Civilization VI is another great instalment in the series, even if it doesn’t live up to the high expectations that it’s predecessor set all those years ago. The updated visuals are great, ensuring that the long hours spent staring at units and buildings don’t get stale as quickly as they used to. The core mechanics revitalise the core game play ensuring that Civilization VI isn’t just a new coat of paint on an old engine. There’s a few rough edges, some of which I’ve heard have recently been patched out, but the overall quality of the game is still high. For long time fans of the series Civilization 6 is sure to keep you coming back for turn after turn, the hours ticking away as you build out your empire once again. Newcomers will also find a lot to like, if they can make it past the wall of bewildering choices early on. Overall Civlization 6 is a solid title in this series and that will likely be reflected in its continued popularity long after release.

Rating: 8.5/10

Civilization VI is available right now on PC for $69.95. Total play time was 20 hours with 16% of the achievements unlocked.

¹ I initially wrote “old” here (accidentally!) instead of only but I think the sentence works either way 😉

Endless Space: The Galaxy Is Yours, Should You Want It.

I’m no stranger to turn based strategy games but I can’t say that they’re my favourite genre. Whilst I, like many of my generation, grew up on titles like Civilization, Alpha Centauri and even more esoteric titles Warlords I can’t say that I’ve sought any of the more recent instalments that some of those games have. Long time readers will know that I’m much more partial to real time strategy, preferring the intense encounters that last at most an hour or so rather than the calculating, often multiple hour long games that turn based strategies tend towards. Still I’m a sucker for anything space related and when Endless Space came on sale recently I felt compelled to give it the once over.

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Endless Space takes place in the distant future of 3000AD where you take control of one of 9 species (or even one of your own should you choose) competing with others in order to colonize the galaxy. Depending on your race your motivation for expansion can range from simply wanting to tend to these worlds and see them flourish to conquering everything that stands in your way, ruling over it with an iron fist. Realistically the story is left up to you to create as the process of expansion, diplomacy and war will build your own unique story within the Endless Space world.

Graphically Endless Space is somewhat simplistic but vibrant enough so that you don’t get bored with it. Most of the planets look pretty much identical except for when they have some kind of anomaly on them and the ships differ between each race but they all have their own distinct style about them. The music was also quite good with the general background tracks having invoking this feeling of wonder as you click through your planets and line up tasks on your quest to conquer the galaxy. Overall it’s not bad, just very simple in comparison to many other space based games that have been available recently.

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There’s no campaign to speak of in Endless Space, rather you’re given a whole bunch of options to create a game world which you can play in. You get control over a pretty wide range of parameters including things like galaxy type and size, number of opponents and the speed/difficulty of the game. You also get your choice of race, from a total of 9 options, but if you’re so inclined you can also create your own race with its own set of benefits/disadvantages. This can be quite fun if you want to try out playing in a particular way as the races that are best designed for colonization might not be the best for war (and vice versa).

The galaxy is then procedurally generated meaning that no 2 game worlds will be exactly the same (unless you use the galaxy seed number in order to recreate it). You’re then placed on your home system, typically a system that has a full set of planets, and given a scout ship and a colony ship to explore the universe. Depending on where you got placed this can mean exploring several planets before hitting a blockade of some description (typically a worm hole that you need to research some technology in order to cross) or you could be trapped with only a few measly systems to look at. It’s sometimes worth restarting the game if you find yourself in a not-so-great position as you’ll struggle to overcome that initial disadvantage as I found out several times over.

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There’s many different types of worlds in Endless Space ranging in size from tiny to giant and encompassing all the major types that we know (and have theorized) to exist. You’ll only be able to colonize a couple types when you first begin but as you research more technologies you’ll be able to colonize more and more of them. They all have their own advantages/disadvantages so there’s a lot of strategy in colonizing certain ones first and then leaving the others until later. This is because depending on the planet it will have one of the resources (called FIDS: Food, Industry, Dust, Science) that it produces more than others and choosing the right one can be the difference between an effective colony and one that takes dozens of turns to start working.

This is probably my main gripe with Endless Space as whilst the resources are explained a bit in the tutorial menus that pop up it’s pretty easy to forget what does what and end up in a position where you can’t seem to get ahead, no matter how hard you try. Food for example is what dictates how fast your populations increase but there’s no direct way of seeing how it affects it (you can just see total food and when your population will increase and by how much). After reading a couple strategy guides it was clear that there’s a definite progression to how you should focus your resources (it’s food for pop, then industry and then science/dust depending on your play style) but the tutorials don’t really make that particularly clear. The main issue is just how many different things there are to do in Endless Space and the tutorials come so thick and fast at you initially that its hard to take it in.

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Ship design is one aspect that I felt unnecessary at first as I was able to get away with the default ship designs without too much hassle but its actually one of the more satisfying aspects of Endless Space. One of the research trees is dedicated to improving your ships (whilst another, which is for colonization, has the ship hulls in it) with various weapons, shields and augmentations to make them more effective in combat. Reading some strategies online suggests that the best thing to do is to make ships specialize in a particular role as this is more effective, especially when you’re behind in technology, but I found that my FACE OWNER (pictured above) was pretty capable of eliminating most targets without too much hassle. This is probably because I had a major technological advantage at this point so your mileage will certainly vary in this regard.

The combat you engage with said ships isn’t particularly great either taking the form of you simply clicking the “auto” button and waiting for the result or flipping over into manual in order to increase your chances of winning. To be honest since you get an upfront meter of how likely you are to succeed there’s not much incentive to engage when you’re not at an advantage. If you do decide to go manual there’s a few things you can do to tip it in your favour, like using abilities or playing cards (much like Master of Orion I’m told) but you’re never going to be able to pull off a major victory unless you’re less than about 20% different from your opponent.

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You can avoid conflict almost completely if you instead choose the diplomatic path and ply your opponents with gifts and open borders. I found this path to be pretty one sided as I was never able to figure out how to make deals with them that were favourable for me and not them which is something the AI does constantly. I can remember after one engagement I was offered peace but only if I offered them additional things as well even though I had military and production superiority. Of course the next course of action was to deny it and simply blockade them until it improved, which it did, but I would’ve much preferred to simply tip the deal in my favour rather than having to dedicate way too many resources to forcing a better deal out of them.

Again I think this is because Endless Space is pretty comprehensive in the game mechanics it employs and whilst the tutorial gives you some insight into how they work it’s not the best guide. Thankfully there’s quite a few sites dedicated to strategies and explaining the mechanics a bit better and after reading a few guides I was satisfied that I understood the game better and was able play for hundreds of turns without getting steamrolled by an AI. This is when the game came into its own as the last 4 hours or so I spent with Endless Space were really enthralling, mostly because of the narrative I built up in my head.

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I was attempting to play as a colonizer, a peace race of Amoebas who would spend their time running from system to system building up a peaceful empire and leaving my opponents to their own devices. It didn’t take long for one of them to take a dislike to me, probably because I accidentally sent a ship to one of their systems, and I spent much of the initial game keeping them at bay whilst tending to a peace agreement with the other. For a long time all was good and my once fierce opponent decided to not pursue me any more, leaving me to my peaceful empire building. However my expansionary prowess did not go unnoticed and I soon found myself at full scale war.

My race had not many ships but the industry I had built up was phenomenal and it was time to put it to use. My scientists were retasked to weapons research almost instantly outstripping my rivals in terms of fire power. My biggest industry systems were put on ship production duty being able to pump out a massive warship every turn that was capable of decimating entire enemy fleets without taking a scratch. My border systems were reinforced ensuring that no one would be able to invade them without giving me ample time to react. The result was a devastating show of force and after one system was invaded the enemy begged for peace and I gave it to them.

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However the other empire had become nervous about my new found presence and began breaking deals with me. They became suspicious of my activities and not too long later declared open war. They won many battles against me, using their superior fleet size to their advantage, but yet again my empire dedicated itself fully to war and not too long later I pushed them out of my boundaries. I then began a full fledged invasion of their territory, laying waste to fleet after fleet and capture half a dozen systems before they crawled to me with an offer of peace. I declined and continued my rampage, furious that the people I had done nothing to antagonize would declare war against me. In the end I accepted their peace offering of 2 systems and eventually won by constructing the required wonder.

Endless Space is a game that rewards you the longer you play it, taking you from humble beginnings on a single planet to a galactic civilization that is a mighty force to be reckoned with. There’s a steep learning curve, one that could be a lot less steep with some more work on the tutorials, but once you’re over that hump its incredibly satisfying. The narrative I built in my head of a peaceful race that is not to be trifled with was a great one and it was without a lick of dialogue or a single cutscene. If turn based strategy is your thing or you enjoy games that reward methodical, calculating play then Endless Space is right up your alley. Just be sure to set aside your weekend for it – you’re going to need it.

Rating: 8.5/10

Endless Space is available on PC and OSX right now for $29.99. Game was played on PC with around 10.5 hours of total play time with only a single win at 220ish turns.