Thursday, October 12, 2006

Genghis Khaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaan!

I finally beat the Genghis Khan scenario; according to the final screen, I spent over 11 hours playing it. The good news? It was a lot of fun. Most amazingly, it felt incredibly different from the core Civ game.

I've played a lot of scenarios over the years, and while most of them have been good, only a few have radically changed the feel of the core game. Even my favorite Civ II scenarios, the apocalypse and the alien invasion ones, still had the same basic rhythm of balancing research, infrastructure and military production, albeit against more extreme circumstances than in the normal game. Khan, by contrast, actually felt closer to a turn-based version of Myth than Civ.

It took me quite a while to get rolling. As I've complained before, I'm woefully out of touch with Civ combat. I'm decent at fighting when I need to build a small army and seize a specific objective, but when my front is the entire world - well, that requires an entirely different perspective, one that does not come naturally to me. I'm willing to swallow moderate casualties if I plan to sign a peace treaty in the near future, but how many risks can I take when I have no cities left to produce more units? Is it worse to lose a quarter of my fighting force now, or to leave a hostile enemy on my flank?

The biggest structural change to the game is the much-discussed Camp unit. I really need to dig into the code to see how they implemented this; it doesn't seem like it would be that difficult, but it's quite impressive how it changes the game. Instead of having a stationary city that produces units, and the attending requirement to protect that city and establish supply lines between the city and the front, you can bring your cities with you and regularly generate new units. The difficulty of planning was difficult for me - you're never sure when you'll get a unit, or what type it will be - but the unexpected nature can also be fun, when a Mounted Swordsman spawns just when you need fresh cannon fodder.

I had thought that camps were your only option, but that's not the case; although you don't start with any cities, you can choose to keep the ones you capture. I never did this; I was planning to keep on moving, and felt that any contributions a city could make would be hampered by the time it would take to send its production to where I needed it. However, some technologies you get later on do require cities to leverage: specifically, the Chinese Cannon and War Elephant units can only be built in cities, not spawned in camps. I managed to beat the game without either unit, but certain battles would have been easier with them.

That brings up another point: the new "technology" system. In some ways this felt like a return to the classic Civ I/II system, where you get to steal a rival civ's technology when you capture one of their cities. In this scenario, every civ has one particular technology to take; sometimes you get it after taking two of their cities, sometimes just a single one. The technologies unlock new units (trebuchets, elephants, etc.), promotions (Siege Tactics, Encirclement Technique, etc.), or other interesting advantages (free Warlord unit, score bonus, etc.). Whenever you meet a new civ you are informed about the benefits of besting them, and this information can be crucial in determining your course of action. You can win the game without elephants, but it seems crucial to acquire trebuchets as soon as possible.

Oh, and Warlords? As in, the units? Tons of fun. Actually, quite crucial. You can only take a city by sacrificing a ton of units for it or by having very highly promoted units. Early in the game, that means Warlords are your only hope. Attaching a Warlord to a single unit will give that unit about five promotions, including access to some cool new unique ones (extra movement, better healing, etc.) Also, choosing promotions intelligently becomes essential.

In all, the Warlord unit makes you become more attached to your units, which is both good and bad. Good, because it makes them more interesting, allows you to differentiate them, and lets you experience higher abilities early on. Bad, because when your Warlord unit dies even though it had an 80% chance of winning the battle, well, that's just incredibly frustrating.

Over time, as you take more cities and spawn more units, the rest of your army gradually catches up. By the end of the game, some of my most experienced units weren't even led by Warlords. That's where the game gets really fun, in contrast to a normal game of Civ. It seems like in the typical Civ game, action moves quickly early on, but by the time you reach the modern age there's too much going on to move quickly. In contrast, in the Khan scenario, early on the game moves very slowly because your units are weak and it takes forever to gain experience, level up enough units, take a city, and heal before moving on the next city. Late in the game, though, your large and powerful army can pound a city under in a turn or two, and the wounded units can rest while the units in the rear leapfrog over them and move on to the next target. Not to mention the fun of splitting your army to pursue multiple targets, which I don't think I've ever seriously attempted in Civ before. Individual turns take longer at the end of the game, when you're moving 40 units instead of 6, but the amount of time between interesting actions is considerably reduced.

Reflecting back on the game, here are some thoughts. You might want to skip these if you haven't played the game yet and don't want any strategy pointers.
  • Javelins are key! I tried to build a balanced army early, but if I had it to do over again, I would have based everything around Javelins and Trebuchets, only using my horse units for reconnaissance and field skirmishes. Virtually every non-barbarian battle you take is against Spearmen fortified in cities, and javelins are the only units that stand a chance before receiving insane promotions. Add to that their amazing 50% withdraw rate, which can be raised to 75% with a Warlord, and that means they will continue to survive and gain experience.
  • On a related note, as soon as you're strong enough to attack the Chinese who give you Trebuchets (is it the Song? It's been a while), you should. That unit is necessary for capturing cities, and capturing cities really is what this scenario is about.
  • Choose your targets wisely. In my game I pursued scorched earth, where once I started fighting a civ I didn't stop until they were defeated. However, I think that in some cases you're better off capturing two weakly held cities, taking the technology, then signing peace (or not) and moving on, ignoring the capital with six fortified spearmen behind city walls.
  • That said, if you can destroy a civ, you probably should - I think the score bonus is worth the effort. But don't break your army doing it; there are plenty of other targets around. If you want, you can come back to finish the job once you have more promotions.
  • Geography is fascinating. I basically started by conquering Mongolia / the Ughiers, then took out the weaker Chinese kingdom, then the stronger one, then Korea. When I went west, I wasn't sure whether to go north or south by the Himalayas, so I ended up splitting my army in two. This proved to be a masterstroke, as the southerners conquered India while the northerners conquered more Asians, then the two prongs of the army recombined for a forceful assault on Arabia. That said, I didn't really need the elephants, so if your army isn't strong enough to split, it probably makes more sense to keep north.
  • Along the same lines, deciding where to move your army is an interesting decision. I wiped out everyone to my east, then swung south and west, leaving nothing behind. I did this because I thought I needed to wipe out everyone and didn't want to have to come back in a hundred years to finish the job. However, there were still quite a few civs left to conquer on the edge of Europe after I reached 3000 points, so I could easily have left some of my opponents untouched. All that to say, choose your targets wisely, and don't waste time if the payoff isn't worth it.
  • Another consideration is barbarians. By the end of the game they were just out of control; any units I left behind to heal would be attacked by a swarm of four or more Eurasian horsemen, so I got in the habit of bringing my wounded along with me. Your horse are faster than them, and your javelins are just as quick, so as long as you keep moving you should be fine. Barbarians are a great way for your green units to get more XP, but don't contribute anything useful to your seasoned units. This might be an argument in favor of leaving some nations or cities behind; the culture will keep barbarians from rising, and the ones that do appear will have someone to bother besides you.
  • Your mileage may vary, but I think you're better off attaching your Warlord to a lone unit, preferably a Javelin, than a unit in a stack. This is especially true early in the game, where you need a true city-killer unit rather than a set of decent units. Also, I always gave my Warlord units Leadership before anything else, and never regretted that.
  • Good promotions: I actually am a big fan of the straight Combat promotions in this scenario. Once your Warlord units get to Combat Six and an extra 25% strength boost, they're nearly unstoppable. It's tempting to give your horse units a bonus against melee, but unless they have lots of other promotions it won't be enough to have a shot at the city. Try to have at least two units with medic, one to stay behind and heal and the other to move ahead with your army. Don't waste medic on a warlord; just give it to a horse that gets lucky in its first battles, because it won't be getting any more promotions.
  • The description made it sound like you could make enemies your vassals, which I generally tried to do, but didn't have any success. I'm not sure why, but I'm guessing that the fact I didn't have any cities throws off the game's calculations for vassal threshold.
And that's it for now. I'm still a little stunned that I spent the equivalent of half a day playing this (not to mention the time writing this up), so it'll be a while before my next game. I'm actually thinking of a vanilla game, not a scenario; I'm feeling nostalgic for my old scientific builder game, and would like to play with the non-military toys included in this expansion. My next scenario will probably be that pre-Revolutionary War one. I've deliberately refrained from reading much about it, but the bits I've heard make it sound interesting.

One thing I miss from the old Civ II days is unbalanced scenario roles. Only certain civs are playable; in the Mongol Horde scenario, you can only play as Genghis Khan, not as the Indians or Song or Byzantium or anything. It has always been the case that only certain civs were meant to be playable, but it used to be that the only enforcement was some text advising the player which one to choose. I used to play a scenario once or twice the "right" way, but then go back and do something else. Like a WWII game where I played as Franco, declared war on France and seized part of it before Germany got the rest. Or when I was the Hodads and raced to see how quickly I could exterminate the human race. (Answer: about twenty times more quickly than I ever was able to exterminate the Hodads.)

Anyways. I knew that technically you can edit the XML and flip a flag to make anyone playable, but I'm worried that other players will be missing out on the fun. It always felt like squeezing the last bit of juice possible from a piece of fruit.

Unrelated news:

The fall television season is in swing again! And now I need to wait until November before seeing any more Family Guy or House. Curses! Both shows have been great, though. Laurie is as strong as ever on House (as an actor, I mean), and while I'm always waiting for them to run out of ideas on what feels like a constrained show, they haven't yet. And Family Guy continues to amuse, even though I now often think of the South Park episode about the show.

The first episode of Lost was good. I care less and less about the show as time goes on, but still enough to want to keep watching. It's probably a good sign that any time an episode focuses on one group of characters, I'm always wondering about what's happening with someone else.

My Cartoon Network viewing is expanding. In addition to Venture Brothers, my co-workers have also hooked me on Robot Chicken, whose archive I am currently plundering on YouTube. RC is the sort of show I would make if I was a TV producer, only much dirtier. Venture Brothers continues to be great; the serial aspect of it means the episodes keep getting stronger and stronger.

The cream of the crop, though, has to be Battlestar Galactica. I've only seen the first episode so far, but it's enough. That show just amazes me.
How sad is it that the single most relevant show on TV is a science-fiction show about humans battling robots? It totally is, though. What the show pulls off is amazing, putting its viewers (members of the wealthiest and most powerful nation on the planet) in the shoes of the poor, the desperate, the hopeless. The show not only displays the arguments for asymmetric warfare, it doesn't even apologize for what it's doing. Freely using words such as "Insurgency," "Occupational Authority," even "Civilian Police Force," the show makes it pretty hard to ignore the fact that the fantasy we watch shares a lot with the reality in our papers. I don't think any American can really understand the mentality of an Iraqi whose family was killed by an invading army, but we can understand the pain a blue-eyed, blond-haired man feels when his wife is killed by robots. Yes, that's a sad state of affairs, but I think anything which lets us exercise our empathy is a good thing.

Note for the easily angered: I don't mean to say that there's a 1-to-1 correspondence between the show and the occupation of Iraq. Nor do I mean to imply that Iraqis are justified in suicide bombing and other forms of violence. Personally, I think that both the real and the fake violence are unjustified. While I disapprove of the actions of the show's human characters, though, I whole-heartedly hope that more people will begin to THINK about what drives people to act violently, and maybe understand the person better while continuing to condemn the violence.

The show is great at evolving while continuing its strengths. One of the things that most struck me about it early on was the delicious paranoia. I remember those early episodes, wondering about who was human and who was a Cylon, and feeling the pang of betrayal as more were revealed. That paranoia, if anything, is stronger now that we need to worry about actual humans who collaborate with the Cylons. There's no magic test or anything to find out who the traitors are now.

I had to renew Truman from the library. I'm not yet quite to the halfway part. Roosevelt has died, VE day has been celebrated, and he's just about to meet Stalin for the first time. I have a bad feeling about this.

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