Jan 252013
 

I recently found out that the awesome Spectrum game The Lords Of Midnight had been updated for iOS, so I promptly coughed up the £2.99 asking price and downloaded it.

I remember playing the original on my Spectrum when I was probably nine or ten years old.  I paid zero attention to the actual quest, I had no idea on how to even attempt to win the game, but I’d just spend hours exploring the landscape, admiring the views, recruiting a few allies and battling dragons and random passing armies.

Lords Of Midnight Spectrum

Spectrum version

Released back in 1984, this game was completely different to anything else around at the time.  The concept of an epic 3D war game just didn’t exist back then.  These were the days of the text adventure, of brief text descriptions of environments and guessing commands to type into a  terminal window.  Actually seeing graphics of armies marching across the plains in front of you as you moved through the landscape was revolutionary.  Also new was the variety of gameplay with two completely different ways to win the game, leading to two very different game styles.  The first was as an war game, gathering armies together for an assault on the enemy stronghold.  The second was to guide Frodo Morkin to the Tower of Doom, on his own, to destroy the Ice Crown.  It was all very atmospheric.

However, due the the very complex (at the time) nature of the game, it was quite demanding of the player – to have any chance of winning you really had to manually map the game world and keep track of where your characters were in relation to one another.  That was far too much like hard work to me, which is probably why I never bothered with it.

iPad version

So how good is the new version, and how does it stand up today?  In short, I was surprised at how well it’s stood the test of time.  The quality of the port is top-notch.  The style of the graphics has been preserved really nicely, just recreated in high resolution, so it’s unmistakably the same game.  Nicely, the landscape smoothly scrolls when moving or looking rather than just drawing discrete frames at each location.

The touch controls work well enough.  Some of it feels a little clunky, such as the Think screen and having to go to a whole options page to search and attack, but that’s just to keep it as faithful as possible to the original and you soon get used to it.  The vital addition to the game though it that it now has a built in map.  This shows the area of the world that you’ve seen so far with the locations of all of your characters.  It’s so much easier to get a handle on what’s going on than I remember, and it makes the game much more enjoyable to play.

In actual gameplay terms it holds up well enough as a fairly simple strategy game, and I think it would pass as a newly released mobile game today.  My current game sees Morkin dodging whole armies as he sneaks ever closer to the Ice Crown, while further south Luxor is heading up a desperate defence as more and more armies from both sides pile into a massive meat-grinder battle that’s been going on for days.

The meat grinder

If you’ve got fond memories of the game first time around you’ll love this version.  Even if not I’d still recommend checking it out to see what the granddaddy of all modern wargames was all about.  The game is still fun and challenging, but it was never really about the deep strategy so much as the atmosphere of experiencing the world of Midnight, and it’s still got that in spades.

Jan 092013
 

I’ve been playing a couple of space games lately, which is good because I like space games.

FTL

You’ve probably heard of FTL, if you’ve not already played it.  It’s a small game from a two-man team, and was funded by a successful Kickstarter campaign.  The game is basically about flying your ship through randomly generated sectors of space, facing random enemies and encounters and picking up random loot.  What makes it great compared to some of the overblown epics you might have played is that you have one life, there is only one autosave and a whole playthrough only takes an hour or two.

I’m not going to describe the game in detail because that’s been done to death elsewhere.  What’s interesting is that it plays very much like a board game.  Pick a location to move to, draw an event card, pick an action and roll a dice to see what the outcome is.  The combat is realtime and has enough nuances to make it interesting (especially when it comes to the harder enemies and the final boss), but you could definitely see something like this working as a solo tabletop game.

The problem I tend to have with random single player games is I don’t like losing by pure luck.  This is a problem I often find with computer adaptations of games like Catan and Carcasonne, where there is some element of skill but a lot comes down to pure luck of the draw.  When playing against real people this isn’t a problem because, I think, there is still a winner in the room.  But when losing to a computer there is no winner, only a loser, and nobody likes to be a loser…

Having said that, I don’t have that problem in FTL.  Games don’t come a lot more random that FTL, but if you’re getting unfairly screwed you find generally find out in the first few minutes of the game so you can just restart.  Another reason is that you shouldn’t really expect to win.  The game is hard, really hard (and that’s just on the easy setting).  If you just go in with a goal of unlocking a new ship, getting one of the achievements or playing with a different play style (e.g. focus on boarding actions, drones, ion cannons etc) then dying isn’t really a failure, it’s the expected outcome.  I think I’ve just been spoilt for too long with spoon-fed “experience” games, but FTL is a perfect antidote.

So I very much recommend you take a punt if you’ve not played it.  It usually seems to be up for sale for under a fiver, so for that you really can’t go wrong.

 

Endless Space

I picked up Endless Space in the Steam sale and I’ve been playing around with it a bit.  My first comment is this – it is most definitely not wife-friendly.  The most common question in the house recently has been “What are you playing, that boring game again?”

It is not a boring game (well, if you’re into this kind of thing).  True, there will be a lot of staring at spreadsheets and production queues, but it induces in me exactly the same “one more turn” compulsion that keeps me up late into the night as the various Civilization games over the years.  There is good reason for that – it is basically just Civ In Space.

Instead of cities you have planetary systems, instead of city buildings you have system improvements.  The resources types are exactly the same: food to increase system population, production in each system to build improvements and units, “dust” (gold) to rush constructions, science generated by each system, strategic and luxury resources to unlock new constructions and keep your population happy.  It’ll all seem very familiar.  But that’s not necessarily a bad thing, and it’s all really slickly presented with a nice intuitive interface.

Combat is rather abstract.  Each fight is played out at three range bands – long where missiles dominate, medium where lasers work best, and close which favours projectile weapons.  Your only control is picking an “order” card for each phase, using a board/card game concept again.  Some are offensive, some defensive, and each card cancels out a different class of card.  So if you expect the opponent to play a defensive card in a phase you can for example use the “Sabotage” order which will cancel it out.  It’s a bit random and takes some getting used to but it adds some more interactivity over Civ’s battle system.

My main problem with the game, and it’s exactly the same problem as Civ has, is that it all gets a bit bogged down about half way through.  When you’ve got 20+ systems to manage, with half a dozen finishing constructions each turn, it takes an age to micromanage what they should all be doing next.  Turns start taking 5-10 minutes each and the game can start to drag a bit.

The tech tree is also huge, and you’ll need a couple of games under your belt to become familiar with all the upgrades.  A couple of times I’ve come across some amazing technology (e.g. the planetary exploitation upgrades) that would have provided some massive boost to my empire if only I’d noticed it 20 turns earlier.

Overall though, it’s a decent game.  If you like Civ games you’ll love it.  If you don’t then you probably won’t.

Jan 022013
 

The usual image of board games is of a sedentary pursuit, with players taking their time to decide their next move or roll some dice.  These games can be incredibly tactical and intense, but one thing that’s usually not associated with board games is adrenaline.

I’ve played two great games recently that are completely different from this, and I’m going to tell you what makes them awesome.  The games are Space Alert and Galaxy Trucker.  They are both designed by the same person, one Vlaada Chvátil, and they both include the element of real-time gameplay.

Space Alert

Space Alert is a co-operative game for four or five players.  You play the crew of a spaceship sent into hostile territory who must survive for ten minutes.  What makes this game different though is that those ten minutes are played out in real time, to an accompanying soundtrack CD.  Every minute or two the ship’s computer will call out a new threat that has to be dealt with, and as a team you have to work together to defeat each threat before it tears your ship apart.

During those ten minutes you put down cards to plan out what your little crewman is going to do.  With each action you can move to a different room, or you can press the A, B or C button in each room which either fires the guns, powers up the shields, moves power to where it’s needed, or a few other special actions.  All players plan out their moves, but the move cards are placed face down so nobody can see what anyone else is doing – you have to talk to each other to make sure all threats are being dealt with.

Finally, after the ten minutes are up, there is the “action replay” phase.  Each player turns over their action cards and replays on the board what actually happened.  If all went well and the team played as a cohesive whole then a whole pile of alien spaceships will appear and be blown away by coordinated volleys of laser fire, and you can congratulate yourselves on a job well done.  More often than not though one player will be pressing the fire button on the main laser but nothing will happen because someone else drained the batteries to power up the shields and nobody remembered to throw more fuel into the reactor and the missiles were fired too early and the target was out of range and…  and it’s just funny to watch what you thought was a bulletproof plan fall to pieces as your ship does likewise!

Playing this game is completely unlike playing any other game.  You will experience ten minutes of pumping adrenaline, shouting and panic as five people all try to coordinate their actions against the clock.  Make a mistake, lose track of what room you thought you were in, press the fire button at the wrong time and the whole carefully laid plan can fall down around you.  Everyone is relying on you, and you are relying on everyone else.  But each game only takes around 20 minutes, so if you fail horribly (and you will), just get back up and try again.

Galaxy Trucker

I love Galaxy Trucker.  It’s very high on my list of “Games to try with people who don’t play board games”.  The premise is simple: build a spaceship out of junk and fly it to the other side of the galaxy, and hope it makes it in one piece.

This is another game of two halves, one frantic half against the clock and a more sedate resolution phase.  The best bit is building your spaceship.  Each player has a board with squares on in the rough shape of a spaceship.  In the middle of the table is a pile of face-down square tiles.  Each of these tiles is a ship component (such as an engine, laser or crew compartment), and each has different shaped connectors on each edge.  You build a ship by taking a tile, looking at it, and then either connecting it to an existing compatible connector on your ship, or placing it back on the pile face-up.  But, there is no turn-taking.  Everyone plays are once, grabbing pieces, looking at them, and deciding whether to attach them or put them back on the table.

What you’ll get is a mad dash as everyone grabs components looking for the best bits for their ship.  But as you’re taking new tiles you have to keep an eye on what’s being thrown back, in case it’s that battery with the awkard connectors you’ve been looking for.  As the tiles start to run out the panic can set in as you realise you still need to find shields or engines and you just can’t get them.

It’s all so tactile, and the few rules about how components fit together are pretty simple and all make sense.  It’ll take five minutes to explain the basics to new players before they’re building their first ships, and this is what makes it so approachable for novices.

After the building phase there is a simple adventure phase, where random event cards are used to throw asteroids, pirates and planets full of loot at the players.  Bits fall off the ships when they’re hit, and there is great comedy potential as you watch a lucky asteroid hit cleave your friend’s precarious construction in half before it limps to the destination with nothing but a crew compartment attached to an engine.  But nobody minds because the whole thing is over in 20 minutes again so you just move up to a bigger and better ship and try again.

So, Space Alert and Galaxy Trucker are two of the most fun games I’ve played recently, and I don’t think that it’s a coincidence that both involve real-time gameplay.  I appreciate a complex strategy game as much as the next geek, but playing these games scratches a different itch and comes much closer to what we think of as playing in the traditional sense.