Sunday, 4 April 2010

From the Chronicles of The Holy Roman Empire - Chapter 1

Chapter 1

The lay of the land

I am pleased to be the chronicler engaged to put into writing the events pertaining to the rule of our most Holy Emperor Henry.

In the year of our Lord, 1102, the mighty Holy Roman Empire spans some 14 regions from Saxony in the north to Provence in the south and from Bohemia in the east to Flanders in the west. All is ruled by the chivalrous emperor Heinrich who has, through his sons, expanded the borders of the realm for the past two decades. These years have also seen a great reformation of the agricultural system, which will, God willing, pave the way to a prosperous future. In addition, a great effort has been put towards expanding the mines in the empire, with the Austrian silver mines worth a particular mention as they have become a source of great wealth

Hostilities against the Papal state have not been pursued during this period, although the state of war has not been revoked. It is widely thought, in learned circles, that the emperor has been in contact with the most holy Pope Gregory concerning the current situation, but little is certain. Something which is known, on the other hand, is that the Polish continues to honour our alliance and have directed their forces towards the Baltic coast in an attempt to further spread the word of God.

On the other side of our glorious empire, the lands of the French have been split by the activities of the British. The ceasefire in place is tenuous at best and rumour has it that further campaigns are being planned. As the area around Île de France holds considerable wealth the French have the means to field a large quantity of troops.

On our southern borders the Venetians and the Milanese have renewed their hostilities and declared open war. Although there has been only skirmishes for the past decade, I have been informed that the Doge Domenico of Venice has assembled an army in the city of Bologna, which will be ready to march come spring.

On the northern border our Viking friends have undertaken long exploratory voyages with their speedy long-ships, plying up and down the Baltic Sea and journeying far to the west around the British Isles. Perhaps they too are anxious to expand their borders?

With the multitude of conflicts brewing around Europe the Emperor, in his wisdom, has ordered the building of new facilities to hold an expanded army, as well as starting the recruitment of suitable soldiers.
Thus securing the borders of our prosperous union of duchies, kingdoms and cities our Emperor continues to safeguard the interests of the Holy Roman Empire and all his subjects.

May the peace last for ever!

Saturday, 27 March 2010

From the Chronicles of The Holy Roman Empire

Time for another gaming diary, one that will span multiple updates.

As stated in the last post, my thirst for medieval warfare has been rekindled and so, I now set out to conquer the known world as portrayed in the Medieval 2: Total War-mod “Lands to Conquer”, playing as the Holy Roman Empire (aka. The HRE).

Why the mod?
Most people familiar with the game know that the vanilla AI isn't very bright. Besides improving on this, the mod also rebalances the world, making it a bit more historically accurate and at the same time a bit more challenging. This particular mod stays quite close to the original and doesn't make any changes to the areas of the map, although it does distribute then a bit differently. Most of the work done lies in the rebalancing of the units. For more about the differences please visit this link.

Why the Holy Roman Empire?
In short: Because of the potential for challenging game play as well as drama.
The situation of the HRE at the start of the campaign (beginning in the late 11th century) is quite interesting: The empire covers vast tracts of land located in the heart of Europe and is surrounded on all sides by Christian monarchies. At the time, the Holy Roman Emperor is not highly thought of by the Pope after the Investiture Controversy . This is translated in the game as the Papal state being at war with the HRE along with a minimal rating by the pope. Any aggressive behaviour towards the aforementioned neighbours can be expected to result in an excommunication, effectively limiting expansion on the home front. This home front is, of course, rather large. To guard these borders can be a costly affair as the wide spread nation prohibit the use of a larger centralised defence force. With better part of the realm land locked, trade routes are of lesser value than those of, for example, the regions of the Italian peninsula.

If the mod reflects history well enough there should be some trouble keeping the already existing empire together as well, since in reality it was a hodge-podge of states, territories and free imperial cities. A plethora of revolts and uproars could and should plague the reign of Coin, further adding to the excitement.

The Style
I thought it could be fun to try something new, so this gaming diary will be written in the style of a chronicler at the court of the Holy Roman Emperor. The chronicler will have full access to the Royal archives as well as the meetings of the Council of Lords and should be able to give full account of the proceedings. I'll be using modern language to make things easier on both writer and reader but try to add enough flavour to make it interesting.

Sunday, 14 March 2010

The Most Exciting Event of the Whole Game!

Wow, the past week has been very busy indeed with a decided lack of gaming as well as posting.
To keep up the flow I'll post a humorous gaming anecdote from the world of Medieval II:Total War.

The Pitch
First time I played the game, which was after all the patches had been released, I decided to play on medium/medium as I had heard that the AI had been improved since Rome: Total War but still received considerable bonuses for the units in combat space. After realising that I didn't really fancy playing any of the factions available at the start I signed up for a Short Campaign as the proud city state of Venice as it's bang in the middle and thus surrounded by states to interact with. Having a small empire to start with would allow me to get to grips with all the new concepts before being severely challenged by internal and external strife; I remember all to well the rebellions that could explode in the face of the Holy Roman Empire in the original Medieval: Total War, or the Western Roman Empire in Barbarian Invasion, the Rome-expansion pack. Besides, it would be very interesting to see if the Creative Assembly had retained the over powered Italian Infantry unit.

As I start playing the game I realise how utterly dreadful the AI actually is. I will not go on a rant about that though, the faults of the game have been listed at great length by others in other places. The interesting bit came after I had invaded Genoa and Florence: Being allied with the Papal State, the Pope and his armies had right of passage in my lands. The Pope used this liberally and sent a large stack of units north and west towards France. However, on the way there his got stuck outside Genoa and turned back towards Rome. On the way to Rome the army got stuck outside Florence and thus turned towards Genoa again. This sequence of events repeated every turn, regular as clockwork: 1 turn, move to Genoa, get stuck, 1 turn, move to Florence, get stuck.

Now, what could be the cause for this constant patrolling? Did the Pope believe the coast between these two great cities to be infested by bandits? Was the general mad? Maybe he lived a double life, with a wife in each city? Unfortunately, the world will never get an answer as the Most Exciting Event of the Campaign happened, after about 60 turns of patrolling.

On the horizon, a ship!
Suddenly, from the great city of Rome, comes a mighty fleet. My spies relay news of this unique occurrence in agitated voices. With ornately crafted and painted hulls gleaming in the sun and the masts transforming the sea into a forest, the grand papal army is loaded aboard in a great hurry.
I send orders to the Genoese fleet to follow the Papal armada closely and not let them out of sight. “Where could they be going?”, I wonder. No crusade has been announced and the Pope doesn't have many enemies.

The fleet steered south, towards the African desert landscape. At the tiny fortress of Tripoli, the army departs the ships and lay siege to, wait for it, the Sicilians. Despite having been the best of friends for a long time the Pope thought it prudent to prune the family tree of the Sicilians a bit and takes a trip to Tripoli to shorten the head of the residing crown prince. In an epic siege which, of course, the player does not get to see (in hindsight I should have put an army of my own next to it in order to participate since I was allied with the pope) the defending Sicilian army is obliderated and swallowed by the desert, never to be seen again.

That's it
And that's the whole story. After decades of patrolling the papal general goes bananas, travels to Tripoli and declares war on Sicily, killing their crown prince in the process. Then he converts the tiny Motte and Baily into a city. The last shows that the Pope had at least some sense in his holy head...

Speaking of mods: In the wake of writing this post I've started a game as the Holy Roman Empire using the mod “Lands to Conquer”. I'll be sure to make a couple of updates on that!

Saturday, 6 March 2010

Starcraft in the dark

The other day I played a couple of rounds of Starcraft against my brother with random teams on random maps new to us both.
This is a variant that increases the value of information and the importance of scouting as high as we can push it, which makes for some very interesting games full of deceit and cunning.
Tools such as denial of map information, a form of containment, suddenly becomes viable as the other contestant doesn't know what's out there. If you can dissuade your competitor from exploring a certain area then he or she might miss an excellent expansion or a key defensive point for long enough that you may exploit it first.

For example, on one of the maps we played I discovered very late that I had a semi-hidden third entrance to the base, which I had left completely undefended. Shrouded in shadows the scenery suggested that there was nothing there and so I didn't prioritise the exploration of that area until late in the game. Fortunately for me I had managed to keep my opponent busy through needling attacks on one his expansions, so he didn't have time to capitalise on my mistake. In the end, I had to give up that game for lost as the results of my appalling macro skills reared it's ugly hydra-like head.

The first map we played was a small 2 player map on which there was no easily found natural expansion. I was lucky enough to get protoss as my team and quickly got some zealots over to an easily defended ramp where I also smacked up a shield battery and later on a photon cannon for detection. When my probe encountered purple creep the fact lay clear to the day (or the dusk, as we played in the evening): My brother is a zerg!
I should have realised this from the sounds he made earlier in the day and the size of his fangs, but I guess I've become used to it.

Knowing what I had in front of me I went for some dragoons while reaching for corsairs to harass his overlords. Remember: none of us knew the map we were playing so denying him the scouting from his overlords could be vital.
After having a few skirmishes zergling vs. zealot I gathered a few dragoons to make a push while at the same time annexing that far away "natural" expansion. This turned out to be a good move as I found a budding hatchery in the mirror position, and lightly defended at that. Knowing that this would grab my brothers attention I attempted to cut of his reinforcements with a second team of mixed zealots and dragoons, but they never got to their intended position as my first team desperately needed help. Outnumbered, my brave soldiers managed to dance around enough, through my microing, to ensure the destruction of the horrific zerg outpost whilst the reinforcements strove to join the fun.

At this point I realised that I didn't have any observers. As the thought registered in my brain, spikes started shooting up out of the ground, throwing my ranks into disarray. You can't fight what you can't see.
With none of the infrastructure in place to build the little blighters I quickly set a probe on construction duty and at the same time ordered up another gateway to up production of zealots and dragoons. On the front line my brother tried baiting my brave blue-skins to advance, no doubt to lure them into a trap. Keeping a firm leach on my fervent zealots I dashed in and out with my dragoons instead, managing to take out a few hydralisks and zerglings. When finally I got a reaver and some probes out, queens and a landing party came out of nowhere, destroyed a mining expansion! I quickly rallied what troops I had roaming the country-side and punished this intrusion (or extrusion rather). At this point I had a good containment of the zerg and went in with everything I had. In a reckless assault, where micro got lost along the road of macroing in all the troops, the last zerg base finally fell and victory was mine.

The Aftermath
It was great fun to add an exploration element to the game. As mentioned, scouting and denial of information became very important. Not knowing where the good first expansions were did perplex both me and my brother and things such as not scouting my own base properly could potentially have lost me the game. In games of this variant there is definitely room for tactics beyond what's normally used and a greater possibility for playing mind games.
Although many veterans will find that there aren't many good maps around that they haven't played, it could be worth finding one and trying it "blind" with a friend (or an enemy). There are some great games in store for those brave enough to take a step into the unknown.

Monday, 1 March 2010

Advertising at its best

Well, I've gone ahead and made a horrible little banner to tag onto my account over at xkcd.

It's not much, but it's better than nothing!
I'll make a new one later on when I have more time.

That's all for today!

If any of my fans suddenly feel the urge to try their hand att making a banner I will not be ungrateful =)

Sunday, 28 February 2010

Civilization IV - An observation on the power of the Inca

1. Introduction
In the past, whenever I have viewed a Gauntlet game, found in the "Hall of Fame" section of the forum at CivFanatics, where the rules allow the player to select the civilization to play as, I have wondered about the little sign stating "Must not play as Inca".

So I asked myself: "What about this smiling man with golden earmuffs could be frightening enough to ban the whole of the Inca civilization for competition purposes?"

Is he a homicidal maniac? 
No, that position is taken by the insanely murderous and psychotic Montezuma of the Aztec. He'll turn on you and try to drag you to the sacrificial altar if you so much as peer quizzically at his odd-looking hat.

Does he have Super Powers?
Not that I can see. Huayna Capacs' Traits are Financial, which give him an extra commerce in any square where at least 2 commerce is being produced, and Industrious, which increases his wonder production by 50% and allows him to build Forges twice as fast as normal. It's a good combination, but it doesn't seem over-powered to me. Sure, it allows for a high research rate to get to the wonders, and then an advantage in getting them, but wonders are not an instant "I Win"-button.

Having the Celtic Boudicia with her lovely combination of Aggressive and Charismatic (Free Combat I promotion for melee- and gunpowder units, double production speed of Barracks and Drydocks combined with -25% experience needed for unit promotions, +1 happiness per city and +1 happiness from Monument and Broadcast Tower) let's you rampage through the world like a drunk gorilla at the annual Ice-Sculpture Competition, crashing into city after city with a bunch of highly promoted soldiers, smashing everything in sight and generally making a mess. (Speaking of drunk: Boudicia looks a little woozy herself!)

What about his people then? Do they employ the sacrificial altar like the Aztec?
No, the unique building for the Inca is the Terrace, a modified Granary which provides an extra +2  culture per turn. That doesn't seem very over-powered to me. Sure, it's useful for a Cultural victory or for strengthening your cultural borders or even as an alternative to building a monument, but it won't win the game for you. Furthermore there is no synergy with the wonders apart from the added culture if you go for a Cultural victory.

So what's left? Could it be their Unique Unit?
Ah, now we're getting somewhere. Could their Unique Unit be a blood thirsty monster? Let's take a look at what's called the Quechua. Historically this unit is fictitious: Quechua is the name of the language of the Inca and so the usage here might at best allude to the unit being a "Quechuan soldier". The equipment the soldier is carrying is somewhat more realistic as the Inca knew how to mix tin and copper to make bronze and were known to use shields covered in leather for defence.

In the game the Quechua replaces the common Warrior and is thus the first unit the Incas can build. On top of the normal stats of a Warrior the Quechua is granted the promotion Combat I, which gives a 10% boost to it's damage output, as well as an extra 100% vs. Archery units. This is, apparently, what makes the Incas dangerous enough to ban.

Remember the earlier premises? The civilization is banned in Hall of Fame games, which are played against computer players at high difficulties. A known fact is that computer players start with Archers instead of Warriors at higher difficulties. Adding it up these individual pieces, the bonus of the Quechua, the fact that computer players start with Archers and the immediate availability of said Quechua, we have in front of us a picture, nay, a billboard, shouting at us: GO ON, RUSH THEM!!!

2. The Quechua Rush
In order to successfully capture an enemy city using Quechuas you need only two units per defending Archer plus one in reserve in case you are unlucky. The probability of victory against an unpromoted Archer defending a city is at worst (City with cultural defence at level 2 giving +40% defence, 25% fortify bonus and on a hill giving an extra 50%) 36.8% for an attacking unpromoted Quechua. As the archer is virtually guaranteed to be injured during this fight a following attacker will have a considerably higher probability of success. As about a third of the initial attacks will be successful, on average, the need for the Quechuas to travel in teams of two decreases as the number of defenders increases. Still, it is prudent to use the "2 attackers per Archer plus 1" approach as it is virtually guaranteed to win.

Eliminating close-by enemies and stealing their capitals, which are generally placed in rich areas, will give the player at the very least a powerful start, if it doesn't win the game outright.

3. The weakness
Of course, this wouldn't work in multiplayer. First of all, a normal player wouldn't start with archers as defenders effectively turning the Quechua into a 10% stronger Warrior. As Warriors have +25% bonus when defending a city the Quechua rush looses its bite. Factor in that a competitor might research a stronger attack unit such as the Axeman (if they have a source of copper), the Chariot (if they have access to horses) or even the Spearman (without a requirement) and the situation could be quickly turned in their favour.

This can happen in a game against computer controlled players as well if the distance between the starting positions is too great or if the players start on isolated islands. Given enough time the computer players will produce their own Axemen and become impervious to Quechuas.

4. Conclusion
Finding out the (not so) hidden qualities of the Man with the Yellow Hat and his collection of Curious Quechuas gives us another tool to use when we feel like lowering the difficulty level a bit. The Quechua Rush can be used to devastating effect if the enemy is using Archers to defend, but will meet with disaster if the other player is a human, left alone for long enough or in a completely different part of the world.

If anyone is interested in a further explanation of the mathematics behind the combat figures, please make a comment and I'll make a post about that as well.

Saturday, 27 February 2010

Gaming Diary 1 - Minesweeper

This is an example of what's called a gaming diary.
Basically I play a game, note down what I'm doing and why, get some screen shots or videos to illustrate important points and then I type it up and then it might turn out something like this (but probably with a game more exciting than Minesweeper):

1. The Basics

Minesweeper is one of those games that come with all Windows versions since version 3.1 or something. The concept is pretty simple: You have a field, represented by little clickable squares, in which there are mines. Your job is to clear the minefield by a) flagging all the squares where there is a mine or b) revealing all other squares. To help you in your job some thoughtful person has left numbered cards in some places which tell you how many mines can be found in the eight squares surrounding each card. With a bit of time and patience, it is usually possible to find all the mines, though depending on the version you are playing you might find yourself having to guess between a number of squares.

Today there are a multitude of versions, some with sophisticated systems acting in the background to ensure that the board is solvable purely through logic and some
with simpler systems that make sure that your first click never hits a mine. The game has even inspired the people over at College Humor to make a trailer for Minesweeper - The Movie.

I first remember playing the game on my fathers ancient laptop some time in the very early 90's. The laptop, which weighed enough to make it all but desk-bound, displayed a beautiful playing field in black and orange on which I clicked on mine after mine. After a while I realised that there was a system to it and that it might not be such a good idea to click on the mines. In the end I managed to win a few games and was probably rather proud.

2. Let's clear some mines!

OK, so we come up with a really nice start. Usually you don't see half the board cleared in one click, but hey: Got to be lucky sometimes!

We can immediatly see 4 mines that need flagging and then a fifth which appears as the sweep proceeds.

We keep moving from right to left in order not to miss anything. With the 2 wedged in between two mines we can safely clear all the remaining squares around it.

The 3 appearing at the six o'clock position could be cause for alarm, thus prompting an attempt at circling around it.

Flagging the second mine at the top left and clearing the surrounding blocks reveal a 2x1 island, effectively isolating the remaining block.

Through inspection we can quite easily see the pattern appearing and so the perilous 3 is neutralised, but quickly joined by another of its kind.

At this point I make a mistake. My hand slips and instead of clicking the square immediatly below the second 3, I hit the one just to the left, thankfully revealing another 3 instead of losing the game.

After pausing to collect myself I then flag the final two mines and solve the board, clocking in on an abysmal 176 seconds, but glad to have gotten there at all after the earlier mishap.

3. The Aftermath
In reflection there wasn't anything wrong with the tactics applied, though improvements in the motorial skills-department is a necessity. Next time should probably see a raising of the difficulty level as well, but seeing as this was an exhibition game I think the level was appropriate.

If you want to try it for yourself you can find the game in the folder "accessories", sub folder "games" if you use a Windows OS or download a copy of the World Rankings-certified Minesweeper X.

Friday, 26 February 2010

The First of Many?

A glorious dusk greets the dawn of Gaming with Coin, the very latest in semi-interactive entertainment.

Of course this could turn out to be a complete train wreck, but without enough content to even warrant that morbid fascination which a train wreck seems to conjure.

Speaking of trains there is a real danger of some finding their way into this blog as I have recently discovered the open source version of that magnificent Chris Sawyer-classic Transport Tycoon Deluxe. As the name suggests this game is about the proud business of logistics.

The player assumes the role of the owner and director of a small company, presumably with the aim to make it a large company and accumulate wealth, moolah, oof, spondoolicks!
At the feet of the freshly inaugurated entrepreneur lies the map, portraying a landscape rich in forests, coal mines, factories and cities (or cola wells, sugar mines and toffee quarries if you have chosen Toyland rather than the standard Temperate tile set) crying out for a complicated network of roads and rail tracks to cover its hills with trains and trucks scuttling about like beetles, with aircraft soaring high above and ships ploughing the glittering seas below, in order to deliver all kinds of goods and convey all sorts of people.

The sheer potential is almost poetic. Connecting all these resources with their proper destinations and balancing the system so that all needs are met and no wasteage produced should be the nirvana to strive for. The harmony that could be achieved...

Of course that's not going to happen(unless you go into the settings and change the rules, but let's not go there now), as there are competitors. Sure, you could go for AI's who can sometimes be a challenge, when they are not just appearing mentally challenged, but the new multiplayer system is where you get to play against the most ravingly greedy bastards imaginable. The sneaky underhand tricks that some people apply... well, let's just say that it is awe-inspiring.
I've been out classed by many people in my long life of gaming but I think this is is the lowest score I've ever had. I went so far into the red (in debt that is) that I couldn't find my way back on track with a map.

Anyways, it was great fun and I can't wait to get back at those entrepreneurs, moguls, magnates and millionaires once I've studied some of those "tricks of the trade" that are neccessary to get ahead in the transportation business.
Hopefully I haven't scared you away but rather inspired you to try your own hand at becoming a Transport Tycoon.