Stellaris First Impressions

I’ve long wished for a space 4X game done is the Paradox style. For a long time, the Distant Worlds series was the only game in town, high-priced and primitively adapted to the modern GUI as it was. Now we have the long-awaited Stellaris, from Paradox itself, and it is at once very much in the style of their grand strategy games, and at the same time differs from their earlier games in a number of intriguing respects.

As the developers have explained it, Stellaris plays out in a three-act framework. In the first act you play a 4X game, in the second you play a more typical Paradox grand strategy game, and in the third you face some kind of final confrontation generated by the game based on the actions of the players. There’s really a fourth part, a prologue of sorts in which you create your species and would-be interstellar empire, that has huge ramifications on how you will play the rest of the game.

I’m closing in on the end of the first act in my own game, and the demarcation line isn’t a clean one. Perhaps I have just drawn a short straw; perched on the galactic rim, I have a vast expanse of uncolonizable space immediately to antispinward. On the one hand, this has seriously crimped the eXpand element of the 4X formula; but on the other, it’s kept alien enemies largely off my ass, including one “fallen” empire, advanced and powerful but stagnant and decrepit.

From the pre-launch video playthroughs I’ve seen (press copies issued to various YouTube bigshots had their blackouts lifted late last week,) this experience seems like a bit of an outlier… but nobody seems to be having quite the same early-game experience even with relatively similar races and empires. Which suggests a lot of variability to gameplay even in the early stages. This is a good thing.

Just because my colonization has been a bit crimped and I haven’t had that much contact with other empires, though, doesn’t mean the time has been spent sending ships out into empty space; there’s a lot to do even in unoccupied parts of the galaxy. There’s quite a bit of space-based life, some of it placid and some of it hostile. There’s also pirates, typically by dissidents from your own empire and using its cast-off hardware. There are also systems to survey and anomalies to investigate, and deep-space stations and mining and science outposts to build. I felt like my empire was straining against its borders, but maybe the solution is to find natural borders and let the game progress from there, developing your empire internally.

How well Stellaris segues into the second phase of gameplay is something I’ll be finding out in the next few hours of play. Meanwhile, though, my early impressions are very positive. The early exploration and colonization driven gameplay is a lot of fun, the randomized tech progression mixes things up nicely, and the choices you make designing your empire have a huge impact on your experience. So far it’s pretty much what I wanted from a Paradox Space Strategy game.

Not that there’s no room for expansions to richen the experience. Diplomacy in particular has lots of room for elaboration. But following the typical Paradoix model we can expect that Stellaris will get robust DLC support over the next several years, turning it into as deep and engaging — and opaque — a space game as we’ve seen anywhere. It’s good to get in on the ground floor of that.

On the flip side, by its very nature Stellaris is Paradox’s most approachable title, because everyone starts with just one planet and can grow and develop, with the player learning the game as she goes, before rubbing shoulders with other empires. In Europa Universalis IV, for example, you really shouldn’t start playing with a small country with hardly anything to manage; you’ll have few options and powerful neighbors that will obliterate you after a single mistake. Stellaris completely avoids that issue.

I’m going to keep playing and I am likely to have more thoughts down the line as my game matures. My first impression is very positive — if you don’t opt to pick it up now at full price, keep an eye on it when it goes on sale. If you enjoy space 4X at all, even if you think it stalls in the mid-game, Stellaris is still going to provide some quality hours.

Good News & Bad News

It was an eventful week for MMORPG fans. In bad news, EverQuest Next was scuttled by Daybreak and 40% of Wildstar’s staff was given the golden toe by NCSoft in preparation for that game’s looming closure. In better news, Black Desert Online launched with a decent bit of buzz and the live stream of Pantheon: Rise of the Fallen surprised a lot of people.

The abortion of EQNext is symptomatic of two things, I think. One is the obvious haplessness of Daybreak, a company displaying no clear signs of knowing what it is doing at any level. The other is the relative decline in what I’m forced to call “Immersive World RPGs.” The perception is that there’s no longer a market for triple-A games of this kind. This may or may not actually be true, but with the cancellation of EQNext I can’t think of any that are in development in the west. Even the extant games are slowly shuttering or evolving away from the immersive world.

Of course, there are a host of such games brewing at the indie level. Two that I have my eye on are Richard Garriot’s Shroud of the Avatar and Brad McQuaid’s Pantheon: Rise of the Fallen, both of which are slowly progressing under small development teams. In both cases some, shall we say, less than triple-A quality stuff has been shown; the early Pantheon footage was scarily primitive-looking.

But both games are coming along. On Friday, Visionary Realms streamed the first-ever gameplay from Pantheon, live and unscripted. It was “pre-Alpha,” whatever that even means anymore, and while we only saw a small part of the world, the game has obviously come a very long way indeed.

For one thing, it looks terrific. The Unity 5 engine has really come through here, and this looks as good as anything I have seen using that platform. The character and spell animations are obviously still placeholders (which the devs mention) and there was some graphical glitching but overall it looks tremendous.

More impressive, though, was the actual gameplay. Six devs just playing, with no cheats, and hashing out strategies on the fly, first for clearing out an Orc camp and then penetrating a cult’s mysterious sanctum. The novel Pantheon mechanics of colored mana and atmospheres were on display, but the coolest thing was that stuff happened that the devs didn’t expect. I cannot overemphasize the importance of this point; true emergent gameplay isn’t even seen as desirable in MMOs anymore. The Pantheon team appears to get why it’s awesome and why it belongs in an Immersive World RPG.

PanzerGrenadier… Fail

My planned PanzerGrenadier game and accompanying video playthrough… did not go well. I was an hour into playing and filming and what I was doing was simply not fun. I talk about some of the reasons for that in the embedded video.

Fundamentally I think it comes down to a lack of depth, which appears to lie in the system but also in the maps and scenarios. One would expect this comparing it to ASL… but I think that even Combat Commander, a game I’m not exactly wild about, beats the pants off of PG in this regard. I would be curious to look at Lock n’ Load as another point of possible comparison.

I’m a little pissed at myself for having hung onto this for all these years before realizing that it’s simply not for me. For those who like it, enjoy. I have six of the early out of print products (the original PG itself, Heroes of the Soviet Union, Akrika Korps, Desert Rats, Airborne and Battle of the Bulge) now available for trade. Hit me up on BGG if you’re interested.

Roads to Moscow is now on the table.

Normandy Games

I’ve been looking lustily at Dan Holte’s The Battle for Normandy for some time. It is an impressive game: the whole of the Normandy campaign though early August at the Battalion level. Big maps, tons of counters and much detail.

At the same time I have now played a game of Mark Simonitch’s Normandy ’44, also from GMT and covering basically the same thing but on one map and at the Regimental level.


Bear in mind that I have played the one but merely watched a bunch of video and looked at the rules for the other when I say that Normandy ’44 appears to me to be a much superior game. The Battle for Normandy looks decent, I will grab it if the opportunity arises, and would look with great interest upon an eventual second edition. But given that it is out of print and is unlikely to return to the P500 soon, thereby keeping prices inflated, I’ve moved it from the top of my (short and tight) wantlist to close to the bottom.

I remain interested in another, lower-scale game covering the Normandy campaign, however. The two I am looking are are both from MMP: the Tactical Combat Series entry The Greatest Day appears to be a bit too fine-grained, but despite its ugly (IMO) map their Day of Days is getting a look as well. I suppose I should also drop Atlantic Wall into the mix as well, since it also has the right scale and covers the campaign for the full timeframe that I’m interested in.

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Springtime for Germany (Episodes 10-12)

I am scheduling the Hearts of Iron III videos so that a new one is released each day so I don’t choke anyone’s YouTube or G+ feeds and also don’t have dead days with no videos. Now that we are actually in the war I’m going to slow down the pace of blog posts to provide deeper analysis on each episode. I am currently well ahead of today’s batch of videos and plan to remain so. But I’m also trying to avoid spoilers – there are going to be some twists in this game, and some challenges, especially as the war builds to its full fury in (I anticipate) 1942-43.

This batch of videos includes the breakout and initial prosecution of the war in Europe… although of course unpleasantness in Asia and Africa has been ongoing for some time. The view that the historical war started in September of 1939 with the German invasion of Poland is a Eurocentric one; the Japanese invaded and conquered Manchuria in 1931, attacked China proper in 1937, and the two nations fought continuously until the end of general hostilities in 1945. It was a nasty war, at least as bad as the stuff that happened in Europe and in some ways worse.

Episode 10 runs long at almost 50 minutes; I wanted to complete the conquest of Poland within a single chapter and that’s just how long it took. In-game, however, Poland surrendered on the 12th day of the campaign, about three weeks faster than they did historically.

As a general thing I tend to overcommit to the Polish campaign. Certainly I did so this time around, and you’ll see the ramifications of that in the following episodes. Had I used two fewer Corps in Poland things would have gone more smoothly in the west. Even one would have made a difference.

Note that any additional non-HoI videos (I have a few in the upload pipeline) will be in addition to the current series of playthrough videos. I’m also working on a Churchill instructional video which will take a while to film and meticulously edit. When it’s ready it will just be posted without interrupting the scheduled HoI episodes.

Episode 11 of Hearts of Iron III pitches the game’s the first curveball this time around, albeit a relatively minor one. Instead of waiting passively for a German invasion, the Dutch joined the Allies on the same day that Poland surrendered, effectively putting them into a state of war with Germany. At that point, figuring I’d have a relaxing period of sitzkrieg ahead, I was still in the process of slowly rolling forces west after the fall of Poland to support the thin defensive line against the Low Countries; only the Rhine frontier, opposite France, was even cursorily well-defended from my side. But I left obliged to commit to an offensive with the Dutch in the war.

The campaign proceeded pretty ahistorically even aside from its start date nine or so months early, with some Dutch counterattacks succeeding against the meager German forces present even though I was gaining ground overall. With this in mind I waited to declare war on Belgium until the Dutch were pretty thoroughly rolled up. This game me time for forces to arrive from the east and avoided the unfavorable offensive position the Germans face when invading both Belgium and the Netherlands at the same time.

Usually the Belgians put up a pretty good fight. This time they collapsed rapidly, and by then I was already striking into France, with the forces from the east reinforcing an initially limp offensive.

Learned: Strategic movement costs extra supplies and on arrival the relocated units are on a cooldown, so they can’t attack right away. But it would have been worthwhile to use strategic movement to bring my eastern forces west, since they were needed to support the fighting that was already fighting going on. They would have been in the action much sooner had I done so.

One of the virtues of playing Germany as an HoI newbie is that you have two relatively forgiving campaigns to warm up with before taking on the war’s game’s major challenges, the subdual of the British behind the channel and the overwhelming of the Soviet Union. The trick is that the two require different tools: Britain air and naval and the USSR land power. So often a German player will try to pick one or the other. This time, with multiple games as Germany behind me, I’m going for both, accompanied by the side strategy to keeping the USA out of the war. So while I’m not a noob at Hearts of Iron III, the new strategy is causing the game to display behavior that I have not seen before.

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