Galactic Civilizations III Impressions

Galactic Civilizations III is the latest incarnation of Stardock’s venerable turn-based space 4X franchise. You can buy it through Steam and you don’t need to bother with Impulse. But mind the system requirements, which include 64-bit Windows 7 at least. Me, I was a bit concerned how well it would perform on my aging system, but it turns out to run just fine, aside from a nagging memory leak that’s likely to get patched out fairly soon.

There’s a lot to like about GalCivIII. It’s visually attractive, boasting not just good graphics but excellent art direction as well. Race and ship design are quite robust, especially the latter, which you can easily sink hours into. The addition of Ideology is welcome; it gives your empire some personality. And as advertised, the largest map sizes are indeed enormous. They way I see it, space is big and playing space 4X games on tiny maps feels wrong and lacks the appropriate grandeur. While GalCivIII does give you small map options, it also lets you play on truly vast maps; in one of the games I have rolling right now on an Insane map, I’m 350+ turns in and have yet to meet another civilization. Which probably means that I should have opted for more during game setup.

On the con side, I’d have liked to see more options for customizing the physical layout of the play space. As it stands the available choices are kind of shallow. Also, the diplomacy system, in the grand tradition of Civilization-style games, is almost game-bustingly terrible. Non-player factions have two diplomatic modes; pay them tribute or they’ll declare war, or accept shitty trade deals or they’ll declare war. Similar offers by players are of course impossible — not even laughed off by the NPCs, but disallowed by the interface. You can disable tech trading when you set up your game, but all that does it take options off the table, and it’s very difficult to get a decent relationship with another empire without granting concessions and payola that you really don’t want to part with. This may be by design but it feels gamey and unnatural to me.

The UI is very intuitive if you’re familiar with this genre, although the tooltips aren’t all they could be, in a couple of places.

I’m also finding the tech trees a bit too heavily pruned; I’m close to topping out more than one in my 350+ turn game, and, while that’s a lot of turns, I don’t feel I should be that close unless I have a very narrow tech focus, which I don’t. I also dislike only being able to work on one technology at a time, but that’s more a quibble with this particular subgenre, where that’s very common.

This is stuff that might well be fixed in an expansion — and indeed largely was fixed over GalCivII’s development lifetime, but that’s part of the issue with this kind of iteration: steps forward are taken, but so are steps back toward some nebulous default un-expanded state. Features that we grew to see as necessities end up cut as superfluous in the crunch of getting the sequel out.

In general, too, I see GalCivIII’s current state as a couple of steps down in depth from the very mature Paradox grand strategy titles like Crusader Kings II or Europa Universalis IV. But it’s also way easier to get started playing because of the conventions of the space 4X genre at this level of abstraction; you start with one planet and a very small handful of other assets and it’s natural to learn as you go.

Despite these complaints I think GalCivIII is quite solid overall and a great deal of fun, and even my biggest problem with it (diplomacy,) can be alleviated by making adjustments in game setup to minimize the issues, by choosing the right map size and opposing empires. That it’s not a hardcore strategy sandbox in the vein of the Paradox titles isn’t a fault but a stylistic choice that many gamers will probably prefer. It’s a game I can see playing a lot of when I’m feeling a lack of patience for those richer games.

All that said, feeling the space 4X bug of late, I also picked up Distant Worlds: Universe at 50% off yesterday, and that’s more the Paradox speed, with enormous depth, a daunting interface and map sizes that are a match for GalCivIII’s largest — and with far more detail in each star system. So I expect to have a report on that at some point in the near future as well.

Crusader Kings II: The Charlemagne Campaign

Having more or less gotten the hang of Hearts of Iron III over a series of games in 2014, this month I returned to Crusader Kings II. Like all of the Paradox grand strategy games, it’s challenging to get into, with a complicated interface, brain-melting depth and vast scope both geographical and temporal. They demand patience and diligence and a willingness to roll with misfortune and play the long game. These are not so much my strong points.

I began the current game playing as Karl Karling, King of East Francia, in 769. This is the current earliest available start date, and Karl is, of course, the man known to history as Charlemagne and the subject of the titular expansion.

Big Chuck has it very easy in the early game. His brother Karloman, King of Middle Francia, will almost certainly die young, leaving that kingdom to Karl as well. I don’t know if this is scripted or not, but it’s happened in every game I’ve seen unless the player is playing Karloman himself. The two titles together are most of what one needs to found an empire, but to declare the Holy Roman Empire in particular you also need Papal approval and the throne of Lombardy, neither of which I managed to grab before Charlemagne’s well-ahead-of-schedule death in 795. But the Empire of Francia was founded, providing a top-tier title that cannot, in theory, be split by gavelkind succession.


His only legitimate son and heir, Otto (the bastard Pepin the Hunchback never having been legitimized,) found that theory translates very imperfectly into practice, as he was forced to put down a series of rebellions that threatened to break the newborn Empire into its constituent Kingdoms. At the same time the powerful Moors of Iberia declared a Holy War even as heathen Northmen began raiding the coasts of Francia in large numbers. Killed in battle against the Saracens at age 54, Otto lived only a year longer than his father, and left the Imperial crown to a six year old heir.

Thankfully young Charles II’s regency was capable enough to win the last wave of wars, and Charles eventually grew into a marginally competent leader. An able strategist but personally craven in battle, he set about on a series of wars to conquer the lands that had been lost in the wake of his grandfather’s death. But the great challenge, of keeping Charlemagne’s empire together after his death, has been met so far.

Now, in 839, Charles the Just is only 38 and looks forward to many years of rule — but his dynasty does not have a reputation for longevity, and he has been stricken by illness several times. He has reconquered much of what was lost but Bavaria, Pomerania and Denmark yet elude his grasp, and on his borders both Islam and nascent Sweden are in ascendance. Of partial Lombard heritage himself, he eyes their Kingdom in Italy jealously, but a major war at the wrong time could be disastrous.

So yeah, good times. I hope to finish this game this week, but at the current pace, with over 600 years before mandatory endgame, this doesn’t appear likely. I could, arbitrarily declare the game over at any point, but I’m unlikely to do that while Francia holds together. The next game, I’m thinking, with either be with the pagan Norse or the Byzantines, with whom I will attempt to re-establish the full glory of the Roman Empire. Or maybe I’ll play, for the first time, as a vassal count somewhere, maybe Lombardy. The cool thing is that all of these are just the tip of the Crusader Kings II iceberg; even after that there’s Republics to play, and Muslims, and Indian Rajas and Mongols and Zoroastrians…

New Projects

Not much work has been done on Velastreon for the last week or two. Yet I have not been idle. When the worldbuilding bug grew quiet I pivoted into full-throated Fantasy Heartbreaker mode and am revisiting my long-in-development fantasy rules system. I don’t have a name for it anymore — a recently Kickstarted project tread a little too heavily on the title I’d been using. So for now it’s just A2d10S: Ardwulf’s 2d10 System.

As is usual for me, I am totally rebuilding the character creation system, although a lot of the rest of the guts of it will stay the same. It’s retro but not OSR, and is as much inspired by RuneQuest and Rolemaster, among others, as it is D&D.

It’s not commercial, but I don’t care. It’s the game I’ve had it in me to create for decades. Maybe once it’s done and played I’ll take on something more contemporary or salable.

More as I’m ready to reveal it.

Pillars of Eternity Continues

For those keeping up with the YouTube Channel, I continue to play Pillars of Eternity. Here’s three more gameplay videos for the time being. There’s more to come, plus a return to a couple of old favorites.

More Pillars of Eternity

I’m continuing to play end enjoy Pillars of Eternity — and of course there’s video, embedded below. As much as I love the Dragon Age games, this is a proper successor to the Baldur’s Gate lineage.

I did have a client crash, and lost some video in the process. But by keeping the videos short… well, shorter, I’m minimizing the risk of losing gameplay time. And it’s working out pretty well so far.

There are some guides available online, but I’m trying to steer clear of them. But I did look up the first few companions and where to find them, just so I could fill out the party before beginning to adventure in earnest. I hired a customizable adventurer to fill in the final slot.

I’m not yet in a position to offer up a formal review or anything, but I am enjoying Pillars of Eternity a great deal so far, and can see sinking as many hours into it as I did into Dragon Age: Origins. Which I still have not completely given up on, by the way.

Ardwulf Plays: Pillars of Eternity!

I have hopped on the Obsidian bandwgon and am playing Pillars of Eternity. Videos below. Like Dragon Age: Origins, it’s touted as a successor to the classic Baldur’s Gate series of D&D RPGs from back in the day. Unlike Dragon Age: Origins (which, you may recall, I’ve recently played rather a lot of) it kind of is.

I’m enjoying it very much so far. Plan on seing more videos and posts about it in the future.

Worldbuilding with Excel

Recently I showed off a work in progress, the world of Veleastra. (All names should be considered placeholders at this point.) Some expressed interest in my use of an unconventional mapping tool, Microsoft Excel, to design the world’s landmasses at the global level. I did use Excel for a lot of the background math as well, although I “drew” the map by hand, essentially pixel by pixel, with unfilled cells representing land and with water cells colored in blue.

The last version of the world map that I shared, with the Super-Regions, Regions and Subregions indicated.

The last version of the world map that I shared, with the Super-Regions, Regions and Subregions indicated.

As the venerable Paul Czege pointed out, it would have been relatively easy to do this fractally, by putting a formula in each cell and using conditional formatting to determine the cell’s color based on that value. This method could also have provided other useful data, such as elevation values. But I did it by hand, for reasons of aesthetics and personal preference, and because I could make the world fit neatly into the mapping system I devised for it. So I’d better talk about that.

I started by plugging in numbers for the mass and diameter of the planet, then computing a density and surface gravity based on those values. I wanted a world somewhat larger than Earth but still basically Earthlike, so by setting these parameters up in a spreadsheet I could play with the numbers until I got results I liked. But to do so I also needed to look at the other extreme, at the smallest scale, of individual hexes.

I’m a fan of the six-mile hex, because it’s geometrically elegant and because I think it works well for travel and exploration-based adventuring and nation-building. However, I’m just as happy to say that hexes are about six miles across and call it a day, since I plan to present distances in in-setting units anyway. So I made the hexes 10km across — a unit you would never see in a finished product. Ten kilometers is equal to 6.2 miles, and that’s close enough for me. Then I could figure out how many hexes I needed to span the world’s calculated circumference.

Where hexes get tricky, though, is that the distance from one hexside to the opposite hexside (with hexes stacked vertically, as is traditional,) is different from the distance between opposing vertices. So some irregular setup is necessary to get approximately square groupings of hexes, which I needed for my mapping system. I settled on 10km because an array 12 hexes wide and 10 hexes tall, with the horizontal distance between hexes measured from the centers, comes out to 103.9km wide and 100 km tall. So more or less square. I call this 10×12 hex grouping a block, for lack of a better term. Not only is it an area that’s manageable but containing plenty of space for interesting adventure, but it will also fit nicely on a standard 8.5″ x 11″ page. A larger subregion is 4 blocks high by 6 blocks wide, and the still-larger region is 3×3 subregions. The super-region is six regions wide by four regions high — but the polar regions (about 80-90° north and south latitude) are excluded, and they center nicely on the equator.

None of this would be presented as such in a finished product, of course, save that one block is what you’d see on a one-page map. But it’s a convenience that I’m using to structure the map and to provide approximate locations to place cultures, nations and other setting elements. So a given “region” might be more or less the Llythran Isles, while another might be mostly the timeworn remnants of once-mighty Imperial Attalos.

So back to Excel. I set this all up as a grid of square cells with the subregions, regions and super-regions marked at the appropriate cell boundaries (there was no need to denote blocks, since one block was a single cell,) painted the whole thing blue, then decided which super-regions contained land and which did not. I removed the cell color on those that did, leaving them white. Then I did the same thing at the regional level, again for subregions, and then one final time for the blocks/cells. It took substantial fiddling and several shifts of the grid until I was happy with the result — the map that you see in this post.

Now, Excel is obviously not an ideal endpoint tool for fantasy mapping. So while I now have a digital image of the world map with a 432×192 resolution, it needs to be punted into something I can produce a finished map in. I’m using Campaign Cartographer 3. Setting up the same Super-Region/Region/Subregion/Block grid — this time including hexes — at the appropriate scale in CC3, I “printed” the Excel sheet to a .png file, then dropped it into CC3 as a background graphic scaled to fit that grid. More or less, which is close enough. I can trace over the rough Excel graphic at increasing levels of detail until I have something that works printing one block per page.

There are many places here where I did fairly rough calculations: Earth is not a perfect sphere, for example, whereas my math assumed that Veleastra is. I figure that’s close enough, and my figures supply verisimilltude without me going bananas trying to calculate the surface area of an oblate sphereoid. And because my maps leave out the extreme polar regions, I have some room to clean things up a bit (There is a north polar archiapelago, so I’ll need to do a map of that.)

The current version of the world map, with the grid hidden.

The current version of the world map, with the grid hidden.

For the curious, Veleastra is 8,879.67 miles in equatorial diameter, compared to Earth’s 7,296.33 miles. The former world is about 25% more massive: 7.388×10^24 compared to Earth’s 5.972×10^24 — but Veleastra is less dense (perhaps due to vacant pockets in its interior, unknown to the inhabitants of the surface) at 4.83g per cm^3 compared to Earth’s 5.49g/cm^3. Veleatra’s surface gravity is about 1% less than Earth’s (9.656m/s^2 versus 9.796m/s^2,) but her total surface area is about 26% greater. These numbers might seem organic — and they’re intended to appear so — but this is an illusion. They are in fact precisely calibrated to fit the mapping system but are obfuscated by the not-quite-square dimensions of the block and the inexact conversion between metric and Hillbilly units.

Now the work of massaging the rough map into a usable state has commenced. Thankfully I only intend to map one Super-Region, and then to zoom into a single region within it. So I don’t need to block out every single nook and cranny of the planet.