Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Age of Frustration

I continue my inexorable march through Civilization IV, and return to tell the tale.

This is the first time I've said this, but: I give up. Despite my best efforts, and some really good and specific warnings from Andrew, I have played myself into a corner in Age of Ice. I think I've learned from my mistakes, and would have a good shot at a second game, but right now I just don't have the energy to play all the way back to where I am now.

What went wrong? I think much of my problems can be traced to a single, colossally foolish decision I made. Keep in mind that the landscape of Age of Ice is incredibly bleak; most of the map is utterly barren, regularly pounded by vicious blizzards, with only a handful of locations that have promise. One of these is the sheltered mountain vale in which you start; another, held by Mulcarn, is next to a lake and protected by a magical orb that shields against the icy wind. The third is a location far to the north, within a mountain range and protected by exotic barbarian units.

I eventually penetrated this stronghold once I had sufficiently advanced units, and I almost salivated at what I found: a powerful barbarian city in the richest location I had seen yet, with access to gems (the only gems on the map), plentiful fresh water, and absolutely no tundra in sight. I captured the city, and gleefully added it to my empire.

The problem? Keep in mind, this city was as far north as you can get. And your capital (which cannot be relocated) is in the very southeast corner of the map. Overnight, my maintenance more than doubled. Adding insult to injury, the city had no culture, and so I could not even work the gems. Still worse than that, the city was a good thirty tiles or more distant from the rest of my empire, with hundreds of miles of inhospitable, icy forest and hills standing between us. It would take hundreds of years to bind it into my network, and in the meantime, I would need to guard against the hordes of frostlings ravaging the land between.

I grimly held on to my prize, but I fear it was my undoing. My research rate, which had started at 100% and was holding steady around 70%, plummeted to 30% or lower. My reserves ran low. I was doing fine militarily, but fielding a large army is expensive, and I could not cut back on defense while facing the barbarians and Mulcarn's forces.

For a while, though, I seemed to be making good progress. I fought a pitched city-by-city battle against Mulcarn's allies, causing them to sue for peace after I captured their capital city and took their part of the Godslayer. From there I regrouped for a time, upgrading my army and organizing my forces. The Doviello's last city fell to marauding Ice Giants, and I fought hard to repel the invaders, eventually recapturing and destroying the city.

Next, I started my first organized campaign against Mulcarn. Up to this point I had only been facing barbarians and the Doviello, and he had been putting his time to good use, investing in infrastructure and expanding his reign. Once again I carried out a city-by-city battle, tackling his more advanced technology with my primitive-but-highly-promoted veterans. It was painful, but eventually I took his capital, that magical land by the lake. This was by far the best city site I had taken yet, and it was the one city of his that I did not raze.

By this point I had exterminated the Doviello, crippled Mulcarn (or so I thought), and finally taken all three parts of the Godslayer. It seemed like I was in a good shape to finish the game. And yet, more than half the map was still unexplored; I did not know where the rest of Mulcarn's cities lay; and I was painfully aware of the repercussions of my slip in science. Things were turning around, though: in a stroke of luck, barbarians captured my far-northern city. I had a unit in the area who recaptured it, and this time I gladly selected the "Burn, Baby, Burn!" option. Overnight, my economy recovered, and I was ready to continue.

I eventually found Mulcarn, who was sequestered in a very remote spot on the far western side of the map. I also located the last of his cities, this one in the far northwest. I began making plans for the endgame.

It was all for naught. Whenever I created Kylorin, the one character who can slay Mulcarn, the dragon would spawn. Now, the good news is that the dragon is by far the most amazing unit I've seen yet... it's even more impressive than the already cool Red Dragon from the vanilla Fall from Heaven 2 mod. The bad news: it has an incredible range, a Sentry promotion, around 80 strength, and it is determined to kill Kylorin. I tried a variety of strategies - racing him along roads, taking him carefully through the undeveloped southern route, spawning plenty of fodder units to guard his path - but no matter what I tried, the dragon would find and kill him long before he approached Mulcarn.

In parallel with all of this, that northwestern city was dispatching a fearsome stack of doom against my empire. While he did not have horses, he did have everything else, including longbows, crossbows, pikemen and macemen. All I had standing against him were swordsmen, cavalry, a few catapults, and a single woolly mammoth. After a few attempts, I found a way to break his advance with acceptable casualties; however, just as I was rejoicing, the first wave of barbarian Mammoth Riders appeared from the frozen west, and my empire fell before them.

At this point, of course, I was completely stuck. The only way I could realistically hope to take down Mulcarn in advance of the dragon was to build out roads towards his stronghold, or possibly get on the order of thirty fodder units that could keep a human shield between the dragon and Kylorin. However, there was no way I could survive long enough to prepare those measures before I fell to the barbarian invaders. And I was so far behind in the tech tree that I simply did not have the forces to stop my opponents. After expending myself against Mulcarn, I didn't even have the raw units to slow them down while my research caught up. And until my cultural borders expanded, I would not have access to iron, and so even once my tech did catch up I would be stuck with my older, copper-based units.

So, I say it again: I give up. At least for this game. Here are the lessons I will take to my next attempt.
  1. Try a different starting hero. I went with the hunter, who was cool and useful. One of his best characteristics is a 50% withdraw rate, which makes him invaluable when softening up units. However, over the long haul, I think the sorceress (I think her name is something like Epona) would be more useful; she's the one magical unit, and can create a fireball that sounds very useful, and would also serve a similar softening-up purpose.
  2. Most important: control my number of cities! I'm convinced I would have had a shot at winning the game if I hadn't held onto that northern barbarian city. Now, there is at least one advantage to a larger empire: more cities means more free units supported, and the size of the military you need means that you'll generally be spending at least as much on your army as you will on city upkeep. However, many cities end up being a net liability for you. Even if a city looks tempting when you capture it, carefully examine the surrounding terrain and try to imagine what it will look like after the blizzards come through. In retrospect, I think you probably want to only hold on to five cities:
    1. Your starting capital. It's well-protected, can grow thanks to the terrain and fresh water, and has a few resources.
    2. The barbarian city to your immediate west. It isn't a great location, but it will give you access to gold, as well as allow you to keep building military units when your capital is focusing on something else.
    3. You'll probably want to build a city south of that barbarian city so you can access the horses. It's probably possible to win the game without cavalry, but they can be invaluable for scouting and softening up units in the field.
    4. Most Doviello cities are rotten, but the capital is one of the best in the game. It has a mammoth camp, is protected against ice, comes with copper, and should end up being one of the most productive cities you have.
    5. Mulcarn's capital. Even after you remove the orb, it's hard to argue against the plentiful resources, not least among them some tempting iron nearby.
  3. Be VERY careful with your research order. Don't bother researching techs unless you gain an immediate benefit from them.
  4. Keep enough cash on hand to upgrade units when you get the chance. This is key to getting highly promoted advanced units.

So, that's that. I still need to go back and finish the FfH2 game I put on hold for this. After that, maybe I'll give this another shot.

In the meantime, though, I'm still working my way through the scenarios. Over the weekend I started on Afterworld. Without giving too much away, I wanted to share some thoughts.

Much like Fall from Heaven 2 and Rhye's of Civilization, the most impressive thing about this mod is how DIFFERENT it is from the core Civ experience. In this case, it doesn't just change the rules, it changes the genre. Playing Afterworld feels almost exactly like playing a tactical turn-based shooter, like X-COM. Everything is upended, and you need to relearn how to play a different style of game.

To give just one example: in this game, line of sight is critical. In addition to a location, each of your units is also facing in a particular direction, and can only see things that are in front of them. This adds a lot to the paranoid atmosphere of the game; you can turn around, and suddenly discover a Bleeder who's been slavering behind your back. There are big tactical considerations as well, of course, and as you move through the structure you'll be sweeping your gaze left and right, trying to scout out as much as you can so you or another of your units can take necessary action.

More than anything, I was reminded of the movie Aliens. I doubt this is a coincidence; the bantering between the hero units and the overall atmosphere of the game seems to directly derive from that seminal movie, and the overall atmosphere is more horror than sci-fi. I'm not complaining, of course, I just think it's interesting.

My one complaint so far is that it gets a little tedious. So far I've only discovered 2.5 enemies (there's also a Rabid Bleeder that's just a bit stronger, along with a security droid), and the progress through the game feels very rote: advance, sweep, shoot, repeat. Hopefully there will be more variety as I get further into the mission.

I guess one other thing I will add is that, while I enjoy the colorful dialog that pops up as you play, it is a bit frustrating that you can't interact with it. Sometimes messages will flash by while you're focusing on something else, and as far as I can tell there isn't any way to rewind or review what's already been said. This doesn't seem to impact gameplay, but it is a big part of the game's character and something I'd like to see more of.

That's it for now. It's kind of funny that I'm playing through three games right now, and all of them are Civ IV. It's a great testament to Firaxis's stellar work on the engine, and to the community that's grown up around modifying it.

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