Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Desert War

Last night I went to Fry's to pick up a replacement lamp and a $35 copy of The Warriors, Rockstar's latest amoral gangland epic. Once I got there, I realized that I had been thinking of Best Buy, and got in a huff about spending $50 on a game. So I walked out of there with a $7 lamp and no idea of how to spend my evening. After some spaghetti and an old Charlie Rose interview, I decided to do what I do every night: try to take over the world.

This time, though, with a twist. I decided to break away from my normal Civ IV game and try one of the scenarios instead.

Civ IV comes with two scenarios. One of them is called Earth 1000 AD, and is pretty much what it says: a game played on the Earth map starting shortly before the Mongol invasion. The one I played was Desert War, the requisite World War II scenario. It is played in the Mediterranean theater, roughly bounded by the Atlantic on the west, the African coast on the south, Turkey on the east and the peninsulas (Iberian, Italian, Grecian) on the north.

It's an interesting game which I've had a lot of fun with so far. The two sides are the Axis (Germany, Italy, Vichy France) and the Allies (Britain, Free France, and "Allies" e.g. America). So you have two teams of three nations each, along with two nonplayable neutral nations (Spain and Turkey). I think this scenario would be a lot of fun in multiplayer - you could break into two teams and tear into each other, or get a group of two or three together and take on the AI.

I opted to play as General Montgomery of Britain, mainly because I still feel funny about playing as Axis and because his traits sounded interesting. Now that I'm in the game, I'm VERY glad I chose him as the other two Allied nations are much more marginal. Britain starts in control of northeast Africa (roughly Libya and most of Egypt outside Cairo) and has two island bases in the sea. In contrast, the Allies hold Gibraltar and Cairo, while Free France has a few cities in the near Mideast (Beirut). As Britain you face combat early because Italy is about to roll into Libya; the other Allies are behind British lines or abutting neutral nations.

One of the things I'm enjoying most about this game is the combat. First of all, the scenario forces me to focus on military. The vast majority of improvements simply cannot be built, so all you can do is crank out units. There is science in the game (I recently discovered an advance that allows me to build the Matilda tank), but units don't become obselete, so it feels more viable to build up and use a large military. And the combat feels very elegant and well-designed; I think I've learned more about tactics in my few hours last night than over a month of regular Civ gaming. This is largely because everyone is at the same tech level; unlike my typical situation where I have a small, technologically advanced, poorly-promoted army invading a large, technologically inferior, well-promoted army, we now have six nations largely competing as equals. I've lost my crutches of advanced units (I love bombing nations before they discover flight), and gained a new respect for proper deployments and promotions.

For example, on my very first turn I could see a mix of Italian tanks and infantry massing on my borders. I pulled all of my nearby units into my closest city and had them dig in; doing this permitted me to take advantage of the machine gunners' city defense bonus and kept me out of the open desert. I expected them to immediately hit my city; instead, they marched in adjacent to it and stopped. I thought it was odd, then realized what was happening. The infantry couldn't attack on that turn because they used up their movement getting close. The tanks could attack, but if they only injured me, I would have a chance to heal my units before their infantry joined in. By waiting a turn, they could hit me with everything at once.

I decided to modify my original plan. First of all, while my defenders were in good shape, I couldn't be sure they wouldn't slip past me to hit a less well-defended town. Secondly, I had some artillery and aircraft at my disposal that would be of very little use defensively. I used some Wellington fighters to soften up a stack of tanks and infantry, then used my artillery to damage everyone further. From here I attacked with my infantry, finishing off the wounded survivors and getting some nice combat experience for my green troops. I left another stack alone; at full strength, I was pessimistic about my chances of damaging them.

The assault continued for a few more turns, including several attacks on the city itself. By then my machine gunners had begun to fortify, and gained some promotions as they beat back tanks. I had originally used my planes to attack positions simply because there was nothing else to do with them; as time went on, I came to see that they were invaluable. Without the initial damage they dealt against full-strength units, my later ground troops would not have survived their later attacks.

Of course, there was a naval show going on simultaneously. My entire navy started on those two islands, and I decided to branch them out and explore. My tentative plan was to use the ships to keep Italy and Germany from transporting ground troops down to Africa. I left my carrier safely in port as I didn't have a current need for it.

I had trouble finding any enemy ships, and then suddenly they appeared. With my ships spread around, they quickly managed to take out over half my destroyers and subs. My battleships survived, mainly because I had brought them down to Africa to help out by bombarding coastal cities.

For, you see, it was time to go on the offensive. When no more tanks or infantry were on the horizon, my units collected their promotions and headed west. What followed was a long and exhilarating desert equivalent of the "Island Hopping" strategy later used in the Pacific by MacArthur. Battleships would pound the city until its defenses reached zero. By that time my advancing ground forces (Infantry, Artillery, Machine Guns, Tanks) were outside the city. Meanwhile my three fighters were hitting the city and lowering the defenders' strengths. Finally I would send in my artillery, followed by the tanks, and if necessary (after the tanks were too damaged) send in infantry. My injured units heal within the city while the rest of the army presses forward to the next goal.

In this manner I have managed to conquer all of Italy's African holdings; when I continue the game tonight I will start in on Vichy France in my march towards Algiers. It's been a fun and rewarding process; my land forces have gained some significant experience, with one of my tanks reaching City Raider III.

My naval front has been slowly improving as I come to grips with nautical strategy. Again, my typical games haven't prepared me for this, as I am used to sinking galleons with destroyers. I have learned a lot from observing how the Italians kick my tail, and am adapting accordingly. First, stack your units. This is what I've gotten used to doing on the ground, but it's much less intuitive on water, since you have so much more space, more movement points and fewer obstacles. However, it's in your interest to do so. If the enemy sends two destroyers against your destroyer, the second one will kill you if the first one doesn't. By stacking, if your first ship survives the first attack your second one can defend at full strength. Even better, if they withdraw from combat (as subs often do), you'll have a full-strength vessel on hand to chase it down.

I've come to view naval combat in this scenario as a paper-scissors-rock type of game.
  • Battleships are the strongest ships in the game, and can crush cruisers with ease.
  • Cruisers have the range and strength necessary to chase down and destroy subs.
  • How do you destroy a battleship? Either by using two battleships of your own (expensive!), or by using subs. Subs can withdraw 50% of the time, more with flanking promotions. Send a couple after the battleship, none will sink it but each will damage it and about half will survive. Then you can send in a battleship or cruiser to finish the job.

Understanding this has made combat more sensical and fun for me. Before I viewed the ships as simply tradeoffs between strength and speed of production (build 1 good ship or 2 fair ships?). I thought of combat as just smashing ships into each other until one side won or lost. Now I'm much more careful, only operating near my naval bases (so injured units can make it back safely), keeping an assortment of ships around at all times, scouting out with my fast ships before bringing the battleships around, and very carefully managing my promotions (Flanking for my subs, a mixture of Combat and Navigation for the others).

Right now I think Italy and Germany strongly outnumber me on sea, but my remaining ships are gaining a crucial edge in experience, and I expect to rebuild my armada over the next few months. I have the luxury of being able to focus on land combat now, but once Algiers falls I'll need to turn my sights towards Sicily and Greece, and there's no way I'm letting my tanks onto undefended transports. I'll need to support my transports and carrier once that phase starts, but I think I'll be on track to make it happen.

One thing they've kept from Civ II scenarios are events, which I love. The only one so far has been Rommel landing in North Africa with a contingent of Panzers, but I'm hoping I'll get a good one for me soon.

On to my list of complaints:
  • The Civilopedia has been improved a lot in the main game as of patch 1.52, but is hopelessly broken in this scenario. There are links that don't go anywhere, visible text keys, and downright false information (it claims that Universal Suffrage eliminates maintenance costs from distance to capital, which is completely false).
  • The AI still loves pillaging, which is even more annoying here. Some Allies and Free French are attempting to help me in my march across the continent. However, rather than, you know, attack the Italians, all they do is pillage the roads I'm trying to move on. Which is idiotic, since (1) pillaging roads gives you almost no gold, and (2) I always seize the city a few turns later, and need the roads then to keep the advance going. I have built some workers whose only job is to clean up after my allies.

Cool things:
  • In a permanent alliance, all allies share Line of Sight (I can see everything they can) and research. So, by having everyone research the same thing, you can theoretically discover it thrice as fast.
  • The map is really well-designed. It looks like the Mediterranean, and has a variety of strategic challenges (total exposure of African desert versus rugged hills of Italy, open water of the sea's center versus narrow straits around Gibraltar and Sicily).
  • Every nation gets some unique units (like my Vickers planes and Matilda tanks).
  • It really is a total conversion - new civics (only 3 categories instead of 5), drastically altered tech tree and resource requirements (so you can build a tank within a few turns even if you're surrounded by desert), new leaderheads, and so on. Playing this makes me very excited about the possibilities for user-created mods.

My tips for you if you decide to try this scenario:
  • For a single-player game, it looks like you'll have the most fun as the British, Italians or Germans; they have the most cities and units early in the game. In multiplayer games, it might be a good idea for less experienced players to take the other nations so they can observe and support the experts. (This is just speculation, but if you want to try a single player game as a junior partner, your first priority will probably be seizing adjacent cities to build up your industrial base.)
  • All your initial units have 0 experience. Your first priority should be building barracks in all your unit-producing cities; those 4 XP would take at least 2 battles each for new units, and will help them live through those battles. (In retrospect, I should have built barracks even before I let my cities finish their initial build orders).
  • This is always true in Civ IV but especially true here: protect your units. Never leave an injured unit alone in the field.
  • Don't spread yourself too thin strategically. Make sure you have the resources to accomplish one task before you start on another.
  • Be very aware of your costs. You start with 0 gold in the treasury and will soon get a negative income as you move troops into enemy territory and seize cities. You can't afford a fire sale, so always make sure your gold is good before ending a turn.
  • I just recently figured this out, but the requirements for Drydocks is different here than in the main game. Build Fortifications (same as City Wall), then Base of Operations (like Castle), and only then can you build Drydocks. It takes a while, but not long compared to building, say, a Battleship.
Update: Switching to Corporatism does, as the Civilopedia says, eliminate maintenance costs based on distance to capital. Guerilla is supposed to eliminate maintenance from number of cities (like Universal Suffrage is supposed to), but for some reason isn't a selectable civic for me even though I've researched it. Mobilization reduces War Weariness by 50% (like the Civilopedia says), it does not eliminate it entirely (like the Civics screen text says). Switching over to these civics has given a good boost to my economy and allowed my largest cities to stave off encroaching riots. All hail the military-industrial complex!

Update 2: Whoops, I lied. Earth 1000AD isn't a scenario/mod, it's a map. The other real scenario is American Revolution, which I played a little right after getting the game but didn't go really far in. It's cool to see how they re-use assets there; the English leader is George III, with Frederick's animated leaderhead. (Desert War just has static pictures for leaderheads.) There's also a scenario called Greek World, but that's another one that just starts you off with a few settlers and units, and in my opinion isn't nearly as cool as the other two. I'm thinking now (idly) about turning my own hand to scenario creation, which I enjoyed so much back in the Civ II days.

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