I’m taking a look at some of the games of yesteryear, focusing again on the conquest of the new world
As promised, I got out my Colonization. Colonization was released in 1994, and that is the version that I’ve played the most. In 2008, Sid Meier’s Civilization IV: Colonization was released. It is developed on top of the Civilization IV engine, which seemed to have been the peak version for user-developed mods and scenarios. One assumes that, being an official product, it might have an advantage over a user-developed mod, but it is described in the marketing blurb as a “total conversion.” Game play in the newer version remains pretty much as I remember it from the original*, but with better graphics and other improvements that one might expect 14 years on.
That game play remains as addictive as even as more years have passed. It also remains, perhaps, as pointless as ever.
The original came out five years before Imperialism 2. It is the same style wherein the player must build up a rudimentary economy, from the basic raw materials to manufactured goods. One difference from Imperialism is that, instead of playing as the European Power (and eventually having to fight a European War fueled by your New World wealth), you play as the colonists. So the end game is to declare independence, fight a war, and win nationhood. As with Imperialism 2, the game style of having the player trying to optimize this supply chain was no longer in vogue by 2008, making the re-release less dramatic than it might have been.
I think I (and we, although I shouldn’t speak for you) have become lazier over the years.
Winning the game takes planning. You have to anticipate where you are apt to buy low and sell high. You have to figure when it is better to recruit new talent, and when it is better to increase your population organically (sans talent). Part of my mistake in the above game is that I made my city of Isabella way too production heavy, and as a result it was sucking food from all my other settlements. As a result of that, I didn’t expand my population like I should have. Then, hundreds of turns, and dozens of hours in, I realize that I’m not going to meet the revolution threshold, and the final phase of the game just can’t take place. Or worse yet, I don’t realize, and end up a few “liberty bells” short because I’m not quite clear on the rate than my “revolutionary fervor” is increasing.
In 1994, I’d play the game over and over, and I’d learn the relationships. Better players than I would either do some off-line math or, perhaps, develop a learned sense of how to pursue optimum strategy. But these days, if there is a calculation that the computer requires, I expect it to show me. Pop up a message – “Commander Dooface, you require 300 units of foof in the next 50 turns. In order to do that, you need to recruit more foo-farmers.” Am I spoiled? Am I lazy? Do I have an unreasonable set of expectation, even for state of the art games? Probably yes, yes, and yes, but I still feel like I can do better in selecting which games to play.
Not that it is impossible to figure out, either. After a couple of replays, you get a better sense of it. You need to work on “Liberty” from near the beginning of the game. Exploration, due to the rewards from discovering tribes and ruins, it a much faster way to generate early money as opposed to trade. The frustration of losing, and the addictiveness of the formula keeps one back at it, but to what end?
And that’s part of what I meant up front about the “pointlessness.” The game ends up not being about competing with various tribes and other European powers to develop a new world. It’s about building the blocks of the economy in just the right way. In the end, I don’t feel like I’ve taken my people through the history of the colonial period, really. Your achievement is that you cranked out just the right number of guns and trained up your units just-so. Where’s the glory in that?
I do have to say in defense of this game, the music is really good.
Real Time Strategy
I also broke out another old game, the expansion for Cossacks: European Wars called American Conquest. This was Real Time Strategy (RTS) released at what was arguably the height of the historical RTS genre. The original Cossacks came out in 2001, not so far behind the 1999 release of Age of Empires II: Age of Kings. In fact, the European release of Cossacks was about six months ahead of the American release. It gave the game a bit of that “underdog” vibe. It was clearly not a big American studio release. It had its sometimes-quirky translations, less mainstream countries and units, and just a graphical look that seemed more European, whatever that might mean. I remember wanting it to succeed (and it was ultimately a financial success) in part because it was not another Microsoft product.
When it came out, it had several major differentiators. The big pitch was around the extremely high unit cap. Instead of an upper limit in the 100+ range, Cossacks boasted 8000 units per side before maxing out. Another feature, and one that appealed to me, was the use of units in formation. With an officer and other special units, the basic fighting units could be grouped together into tactical forces which the could change formation. This was intended to bring some tactics and command considerations to the “mob rush” of typical RTS battles.
The gameplay is similar enough to its historical RTS predecessors. Various buildings are constructed in a town to provide the basic resources of the economy. These are used for construction and research. In a minor twist, the “peasant” unit is converted to a soldier, rather than being constructed separately. The name of the game is to build a sustainable economy, protect your “base” from enemy attack, and eventually sally forth to locate the enemy’s base and destroy it. The difference, such as those I mentioned, tend to emphasize a different timescale. An individual game will not be about advancing through the centuries. It is much easier to imagine playing an individual battle – although the mixing of technology upgrades, unit construction, building construction, resource gathering pretty much blows any historical fidelity out of the water. But that’s the case with the majority of RTS games, particularly those of this time period.
And this is, after all, the appeal of the RTS. This was another way that games tried to give a better context to tactical fights. This release (in Europe at least) was roughly concurrent with the release of Shogun: Total War, which eventually redefined the way an RTS did the strategic layer. Up until that point, it was abstractly (through the buildings and technology) integrated with the tactical game or scripted, as part of a campaign – both of which are evident in Cossacks.
I bought the original Cossacks not too terribly long after it came out – I probably waited for it to be discounted before I leapt. Part of my hope was invested in the marketing blurb that suggested the Cossacks battles would be far more realistic than its competitor RTSs. There was some support for this. Obviously, the higher unit count could make for something resembling a large scale, period battles (Cossacks targeted 17th and 18th century warfare – Horse and Musket era). The “formation” function, based on officers, was a nice upgrade on the Age of Empires formations and led to more importance being attached to facing. It also was pausible, allowing full inspection and commands to be given while halted, the need for fast reactions. In addition, the game speed is on a slider, so you can choose to play it as a frantic click fest, or play more slowly, with the units languidly responding to your commands.
Of course there are a number of factors make it clear that this game isn’t even remotely intended to be a historical wargame. While fighting can be in these officer-lead formations, there is no connection between the formations and actual units. Formations can be created to be a number of different sizes (15, 36, 72, 120 or 196 – which one assumes is down-scaled from reality in any case) of like units, but does not correspond to some kind of realistic order of battle**. Unit behavior is also insufficient to model actual battles. There is no realistic consideration of morale. Units can be told to hold ground, but otherwise they seem frequently pursue the enemy to the last man, either yours or his. Units won’t (and practically, can’t) be called back once they start advancing and they won’t break and run. They either kill or are killed. On top of that, as with any RTS (including the best of the today’s – for example a Company of Heroes – works by the constant ability to create more soldiers and feed them, usually piecemeal, into the battle. There is no fatigue, no supply, no fixed set of reserves that, once you’ve committed them, that’s it. You send your soldiers to die and, when that happens, you make some more.
I will say, and this applies to much of the RTS genre, and especially games of that time, that with some judicious scenario editing, approximations of historical battles would seem feasible. A scenario does not have to have peasants and farms and the buildings used to advance technology. If one creates only army units and pre-organizes them as needed for the battle in question, it should play out quite differently. There are quite a few user-made scenarios out there, but I’ve never tried to work through them. In the end, I didn’t feel that Cossacks lived up to my expectations as a historical wargame, and as an RTS something like Age of Kings was more fun. I left off without playing too many battles, and never went for the expansions.
Columbus took a…
To fit in with this period, I took a look at the Columbus campaign that came with the American Conquest expansion. I picked up this game fairly recently, as it can be had for quite a bargain.
The Columbus Campaign would seem to be a tutorial. It starts with extremely easy and simple goals involving exploration and the construction of the basic economic buildings. I say “would seem” because (as far as I can tell) the GOG version of this game ships, not with the original players manual, but only with an editing and multiplayer manual. This is odd. Nevertheless, having played but not for years, it is easy enough to use the tutorial and its in-game help to reacclimate myself to this game. I’m pretty sure I have both a printed manual as well as other digital versions around here somewhere, but I’m lazy. I think I mentioned that, but I’m too lazy to scroll back up and look.
I’ve never really got the hang of how to play and win the RTS genre. Once a scenario starts to become challenging, I find myself building an army, then losing it, and then repeating many times until I finally get it right. Against an AI opponent, unless there is a built-in time or resource limit, this usually will prevail in the long run. I’m pretty sure it’s not the right way to do it, and I’d almost certainly lose against a human opponent. Ultimately, to win the final battle for this campaign, I noticed what both the friendly and enemy AI was doing. They had set the rally point next to the enemy, so a constant line of soldiers swarmed towards the enemy strongpoint. Eventually, I overwhelmed them with numbers and won the battle. Up until then, I was trying to build “formations” and win through superior tactics and positioning. It seemed like brute force was the better bet.
I didn’t realize, until it was part of the tutorial, that enemy buildings can be captured by sending soldiers in through the front door. Once inside, they battle however many enemy are defending the building and, upon defeating them all, take the building for your own. The computer enemy in all cases I saw used the standard RTS tactic of, once a building is unprotected by nearby units, attacking the building itself, slowly chipping away at the hit points. It’s a slow process, and is easily countered by sending new troops to chase of the attackers and then workers to repair the damage (see above screenshot). Much faster is to leave the building intact and stream soldiers in to overwhelm the defenders.
All-in-all, this is another old game that is fun to play, although having nowhere near the addictiveness of Colonization.But like the former, the experience leaves one a tad empty. The tutorial campaign provided some structure without being too taxing, so that was nice if simple. But the random maps don’t have that direction and therefore are without context except being another RTS set in the early 16th century. In Age of Empires, you start out as a stone age village, attempting to develop the technologies that will allow you to “win the map.” Here, you’ve got to build a sustainable source of food/wood/iron/stone/gold/coal, and then go fight the enemy. But what does that mean? It has even less of a connection to the actual historical colonization of the New World than even Colonization. What it does bring to the mix, the focus on tactical battles, is tainted by the lack of historicity there. The Spanish defeat the Indians by being able to train up new units faster? What may have worked a little for the 17th century battles of Cossacks, doesn’t quite translate to this setting. On the other hand, judged purely on what it tries to be – Real Time Strategy with historical flavor – it actually does a pretty decent job of it.
Maybe we can come back to this game and see if it does better with, as the original subtitle advertised, European Wars.
*I actually remember an interesting part of the end game where infantry units would be regulars or colonials. Initially, only the “crown” had the regulars, but I recall a way for the rebels to produce them as well. I didn’t come across this in the new game. Instead, the game seems to use the standard Civ 4 unit promotion mechanism. I kind of miss the flavor of the old version, although I’m too lazy to go back and check if I’m remembering it right.
**The issue becomes even more apparent when the series moves to the Pike and Shot era, where the mixed-infantry unit becomes a key player on the battlefield. In my own mind, the troop representation is about 4 men to a sprite, so a formation of 15 would be a small company of that time period. That would put the 196 formation at something similar to the large Pike and Shot units, but you have to chose either all (in the case of the Columbus campaign) halberd or all arquebus.