Tuesday, 22 January 2008

PC games

Before I got into the boardgame hobby in a serious way, my previous hobby was PC games. And it was actually boardgames that brought me into the PC game hobby. I studied computer science in university, but never got into PC gaming during my student days. For the first few years after starting work, I also did not get into PC gaming, despite being surrounded by computers all the time. (maybe I should say because of being already surrounded by computers all the time). I played some Axis & Allies and Samurai Swords in my early working years, and one day a colleague (who was very much into PC games) told me that there was actually an Axis & Allies PC game. That's what got me into PC gaming. The Axis & Allies PC game was actually quite lousy. It has a poor AI (artificial intelligence, i.e. a computer player), and it has some bugs. There is not much fun or challenge playing against the computer, and sometimes halfway through a game you can get stuck because of bugs in the program. But I do have fond memories with the Axis & Allies PC game. Ricky (who also sometimes plays boardgames with me now) sometimes visited me, bringing his laptop, and then we play Axis & Allies using our two laptops and a serial cable. It was fun. Much time saved on setting up and rolling dice. He prefers playing the Allies so I usually play the Axis. I also remember playing this against Ah Chung when I worked in Hong Kong for a few months in 1999 - 2000.

The games which I played a lot during my PC gaming days (approximately 1999 to 2003) were Shogun Total War, Civilisation II to IV, Europa Universalis II, and Pharaoh. None of the hot RTS (Real Time Strategy) games like Age of Empires II, Starcraft, Warcraft, or hot FPS (First Person Shooter) games like Counter-strike. I like "thinky" games and not "reflex" games. Not to say that there is no strategy at all in RTS games or FPS games, but they are just not my cup of tea. Shogun Total War is probably the only exception. This game was a very innovative RTS. It is much more realistic because terrain, morale, fatigue, troop type, weather, season are all factors during a battle. Soldiers don't fight in messy masses, but in organised units of 60 to 100 men. Unit formation, facing, whether you are near friendly units or surrounded by enemy units, are all factors during battle. Ben (or was it Ah Chung) commented that it was like playing Warhammer (we played exactly one game, ever), but in real time and the computer does all the tedious calculation for you. I played a lot of Shogun Total War. Its real-time battles are more about maneuvering and using formations and terrain to your best advantage, before you even engage in hand-to-hand combat. So, in my opinion, it is much less about being quick with the mouse than other RTS games. I was surprised no other PC games followed this excellent example. RTS games in the few years after Shogun Total War came out did not learn from it, and still stayed with their boring (to me) formula. Later there were Medieval Total War, Rome Total War, and Medieval Total War II. However, I didn't play those much. The strategic map part of the game became much more complicated and tedious for me, and although the graphics improved greatly, the basic strategies remained the same as in the original Shogun Total War.

A screenshot from Shogun Total War. This is the campaign or strategic level view, and not the battlefield or tactical level view. There was a debate on whether this gun factory building exists in the game, and I took this screenshot to prove that it does to other fellow players.

I even programmed a campaign editor, i.e. a scenario editor for Shogun Total War.

I started playing Civilisation II a long time after it was first released. This is a turn based game, where you start in 4000BC as a tribe of nomads looking for a land to settle, and then you build your empire up to the modern age. You grow your population, develop buildings, discover technology, build wonders of the world, trade with other civilisations, fight wars, and eventually race to be the first to build a spaceship to send colonists to Alpha Centauri (although this is just one of the victory conditions). Civ is a very addictive and engaging game. I played Civ2 a lot, Civ3 also a lot, but Civ4 not as much. I do think Civ3 is undoubtedly better than Civ2, and Civ4 is undoubtedly better than Civ3. One thing that I like about Civ4 is the AI's have more character and don't behave like emotionless calculating machines like in Civ3. In Civ4 a weak AI who is angry with you may decide to declare war on you, or a much stronger AI right next to you who can eat you for breakfast but likes you may never attack you. They feel more human to me than the ones in Civ3.

In the PC games that I have played, I mostly played single-player games. It was convenient, because I didn't need to look for opponents, and time was flexible - I could play at any time that suited me. The games I played offer much for a single player experience, so I didn't need to look for other players. I did play some online battles of Shogun Total War against other players, which was quite exciting, but internet connection was bad (dial-up) and maybe online battles with other people was too much for me, so I conveniently went back to just playing campaigns against the AI (you couldn't play campaigns online against other players). The disadvantage of playing against computer AI's is they are not as smart as humans. Some games are complex enough that you don't really see the AI's "stupidity" unless it is very obvious, but in some games the AI behaviour can get quite predictable, and the game becomes not challenging.

Some games require little or no AI, like Pharaoh, a city-building game which Michelle played even more than I did. You build a city and watch it grow, and the individual people in the city behave in certain known ways (looking for work, delivering goods), which you need to take into account when developing your city. You don't need an AI to compete with you. You are just building your own city peacefully, trying to achieve certain goals, e.g. a certain population level, or a certain level of culture or wealth. Pharaoh is a truly beautiful game. It is more beautiful than its predecessor Caesar III, and I find it is also more beautiful than its successors Zeus, and Emperor: Rise of the Middle Kingdom. Well, Emperor was quite beautiful too. Pharaoh was fun. You plan your city and watch the little people move about being busy. It is a joy to watch your city bustling with activity. And you get to build huge monuments, which you will need a lot of patience for.

The other game which I played a liked a lot was Europa Universalis II. This is truly a niche game. It is quite difficult to learn. It is about the Age of Renaissance and Age of Discovery in Europe. It was a time when Christianity splintered, a time of sailing and discovery and colonisation. This is a game about managing a nation, its domestic policies, its religion, rebellions, exploration, piracy, technology, trade, alliances, diplomacy and warfare. There is a lot of history in the game, occurring as events throughout the game, sometimes giving you choices to steer your nation in a direction you want it to go, with different effects to your nation depending on your choice. There is a very interesting concept of Casus Belli (cause for war) and reputation. You need to have legitimate reasons for declaring war, to avoid taking a big hit on your reputation, which is important when engaging in diplomacy. Nations of different religions have different strengths and weaknesses. I learnt a lot of European history from this game. Two other things I remember fondly of are the excellent soundtrack and the simple yet impressive opening scene - the camera pans through a dark church, a solemn hymn was being sung, and the camera finally rests on the bright artwork of the window, backlit by sunlight from outside. The text during the opening scene sets the tone for the period in the game.

I later played Hearts of Iron (covering World War II) and Victoria (covering the time between Europa Universalis II and Hearts of Iron, I guess), which were by the same team that did Europe Universalis, but I didn't play them as much.

After I got into the boardgame hobby at end of 2003, I gradually stopped playing PC games. The good thing about boardgames is it is an activity that Michelle and I can do together. And when my children grow older I hope to be playing boardgames as a family activity. I don't know whether I will get back into PC gaming. Maybe when I have a lot more free time, but that will probably quite distant in the future. I had fun, and I remember these games fondly.


Han said...

I had also mostly stopped playing PC games. My fondest memory is playing Heroes of Might & Magic. I even played its' predecessor: King's Bandit (or something like that).

I have played through 1 to III, didn't like IV, never play V. For nostalgic reason, i still has those games and still play once awhile.

Hiew Chok Sien said...

We've been gaming for a few years and I never realised you did some PC gaming too. I have heard of Heroes of Might & Magic but have never tried it.

I'm planning to get Europa Universalis 3 (and I have not bought any PC games for 2 years I think, the last one was probably Civilisation IV), but I wonder whether I will really be able to sit down to play a full game of it, or even half a game.

wankongyew said...

I hope this isn't out of line but as someone who still plays PC games, I'd like to recommend some that are a bit out of the mainstream. I won't give the URLs (except my own reviews!) because you can easily google them if you're interested.

Armageddon Empires

This is a short game that feels a lot like a boardgame. You build a deck much like a CCG and then deploy cards from your hand to conquer a hex map like a wargame.

It has a post-apocalyptic theme but best of all, a full game can be completed in 3 to 4 hours, depending on the size of the map you choose and the number of AI opponents. It's basically made by just one person, Vic Davis, with artwork commissioned from different artists, including one Malaysian. My review: http://calltoreason.org/?p=36

Dominions series

This is a series (the latest is 3, there's no point playing the earlier versions) by a couple of guys in Sweden. It also has a very boardgame-like feel with a fantasy theme. Each player takes on the role of a Pretender who wants to be God and there are a wide variety of ways to customize your Pretender and your faction. You then set out to conquer a Risk-like map. Tactical battles are automatic. Basically you tell your units where you'd like them to be positioned on the battlefield and what tactics you'd like them to use and then the computer tries its best to carry them out without any further intervention from you.

This game is famous for the huge variety of stuff in it. Clockwork Soldiers, vampire queens, Chinese wizards, ancient Titans etc. You name it, it's in there.

Dwarf Fortress

This is basically the ultimate city builder game in existence. However it has basically no graphics (uses ASCII only) and has an extremely obtuse interface (based on deep keystroke-based menus, very old-fashioned). You control a group of seven dwarves who set off to start a new colony. You must carve out new dwellings for them, provide them with food, and eventually defend them from outside threats.

As your fortress becomes more successful, you attract more dwarven immigrants. This increases your workforce but also means more mouths to feed and more demands. Each dwarf has a unique personality, skills and memory of past events. You can fill your fortress with anything you can imagine. Throneroom, armory, artistic friezes on walls, numerous traps, smithies, dining halls, cages for prisoners etc.

This is a freeware made by just one person, Tarn Adams. My review:

Hiew Chok Sien said...

Thanks for the recommendations. I have not heard of any of these games! But I very very rarely play PC games nowadays, even less than when I wrote this blog post, which is almost 2 years ago. I'll tag these recommendations. Maybe some day I will come back to do some PC gaming. But I'd probably try Fall from Heaven 2 first. :-)