Thursday, July 23, 2009

Decent Decius

Quick update on Fall from Heaven 2:

I've been playing through the scenarios, and wow, they are amazing.  Since getting through the Momus, nothing has been insanely difficult, just nicely challenging.  A few random thoughts:

I've been working my way towards the Lord of the Balors scenario for most of the time.  This requires doing all but the last of the Falamar scenarios, and all but the last of the Decius ones.  I think I touched on the Falamar ones before, so on to Decius:

Decius has kind of intrigued me for a while.  In the main FFH2 game, he's the one leader who appears for multiple civiliztions.  He has a neutral alignment, the same traits, and, weirdly, absolutely no flavor text in the Civilopedia.  Well, the reason why is twofold.  First, because his story is told in the Scenarios.  More importantly, because YOU are actually CREATING that story.

The whole design is really fascinating... as Decius, you make certain choices, and those choices profoundly affect the future scenarios.  Hm, this probably deserves a


label.  Anyways: Decius starts off as a commander in the Bannor army.  The first scenario is interesting, conventional, and smaller in scope than the latter Falamar ones.  You wipe out some barbarians, found the Order, and work with a Confessor to get rid of some goblins.  The Confessor grows increasingly militant, pushing you to not only kill monsters, but "evil" humans as well.  Eventually, he declares that Junil has declared holy war against the Lanun for their blasphemous Octopus Overlords faith, and charges you to lead it.  You and Rosier Oathtaker (can you see where this is going?) lead the charge to raze the OO holy city.  Rosier is increasingly doubtful about the righteousness of your cause, and when the Drown begin to march on undefended cities, Rosier takes a cursed OO artifact that empowers him to stop them.

At this point the scenario is winding down, but your destiny is being called into question.  Do you forgive Rosier and let him escape, or turn him over to the Inquisition?  I chose the former.  Later, as my troops were returning home, I was framed as an OO follower myself.  Discovered by the Bannor, Decius must flee, and make a choice.  Does he find solace among the righteous Malakim, and continue fighting on the side of good that has betrayed him?  Or will he renounce everyone associated with Junil and find a place among the dark cities of the Calabim?  Well, I had already played as the Malakim, and not the Calabim, so I decided to go to the dark side.

Because of that choice, the next scenario started me off in control of the Calabim.  This was a fascinating game as well... basically, you're being indoctrinated into the ways of the vampire lords.  It isn't a traditional, full-on, kill-the-enemy rush.  Instead, you focus much more on stealth and cunning.  The scenario requires you to found the Council of Esus, and use its advantages to weaken the Malakim without actually fighting against them.  It was the first time I'd used that religion, and I found it fascinating.  It doesn't play like any of the other six religions: there are no priests, no temples, just a shadowy network of agents to carry out your will.

Anyways, it was all very interesting.  You eventually wipe out the Malakim, which then leads to the third scenario.  Here, I could choose to remain as Decius, or lead either the Sheaim or Svartflar.  Since I want to eventually try a Svartflar game in the regular version, and wanted a change from Decius/Calabim, I went with Sheaim.  What followed was one of the most purely satisfying scenarios I've played yet.  There's an all-out war between good and evil: Sheaim, Calabim, Svartflar and - gulp - the Infernals against the Elohim, Malakim, Llofsjar, and - gulp - the Mercurians.  Nice!

It was a blast to finally have Flaming Corpses of my own.  Kaboom!  On the downside, the Sheaim start right next door to Basium.  I had to re-start the game a few times to figure out how to survive.  Once I got that straight, I needed to decide how to proceed.  Basium is incredibly powerful, and a hero from turn 1, AND Immortal, so I was tempted to save him for last.  On the other hand, I knew that if I took the fight to the other Good players, Basium's ranks of Angels would continue to swell out of control.  As painful as it was, I went to war against the Mercurians early.  During this time, I continued to research, of course, and also to explore the map.  The Llofsjar were to my north, Hyborem to the east, in the center of a mountain range; northeast of him were Svartflar, then the Calabim and Malakim below.  The Elohim lived directly south of the mountain range; they cast Sanctuary at the beginning of the game, which (I eventually figured out) keeps anyone from entering their cultural borders, so that was another good reason to focus on Basium.  (Actually, almost everyone cast their World Spell right away.  This felt like a good move for the Elohim, but incredibly dumb for Llofsjar - who needs an army of Treants when I just have a single Hunter in your neck of the woods?)

There wasn't a lot of movement in the Mercurian war, but there was a lot of excitement.  I built some Adepts early, and my skeleton armies helped weaken his forces while the more powerful units you get at start were finishing off Angels and getting more XP.  It felt like tech and passive XP gain came much more quickly than normal, but I'm not sure if that was because of tweaked game parameters or just the way I was playing this game.  It helps that you start off at the second tech tier, so I didn't need to waste time getting the basics.  Back to the war: after an initial rampage, Basium fortified in his capital.  I had no chance to kill him without wiping out my entire army, so I concentrated on his satellite cities.  I would summon a bunch of skeletons, have them suicide-attack to weaken the strongest defenders, weaken them further with horses, then have my highest-promoted melee units attack and kill one or two defenders and gain valuable XP.  Then I would spend a few turns resting and summoning before repeating the cycle.  It was fairly effective - the downside was that his strongest defenders kept gaining more XP and became even tougher to crack.

The tide really turned for me once I got Ritualists into the action.  These evil priests cause massive fire damage and weaken the entire stack, plus they're surprisingly good fighters once they get a few promotions in from their passive XP gain.  That tipped the balance, and I began slowly taking cities.

Basium himself took more than a decade to kill.  By this time I had a few adepts promoted to mage, and their fireballs and other summoned goodies helped immensely.  Oh, and the "planar gate" would occasionally send me bizarre gifts from another dimension.  The most useful was a Mobius Witch, my first unit with Channeling 2; she became a summoning powerhouse.  Because Os-Gabella (sp?) has the Summoner trait, you can basically double the number of active summoned units you have, leading to some pretty impressive waves even with just a few casters.

FINALLY, Basium died.  I had to take out all of the other Angels in his stack first, and he was replenishing them almost as quickly as I was killing the others.  It was worth it, though.  Not only did I finally have a secure southern flank, and could kill other civs without worrying about righteous souls returning to haunt me, but Basium left behind a powerful relic, a +2 strength sword.  I picked it up with glee and began attacking the Elohim, whose Sanctuary spell had finally worn off.  I discovered a nice little trick that may or may not be an exploit: if you have a stack of attackers, you can have one person attack, then the second unit pick up the sword and attack, then the third take the sword and attack, and so on, with everyone getting the strengh bonus.  Sweetness!

I was really torn about how to conduct my research.  Part of me wanted to continue down the religious tech path so I could eventually get to the Sheaim hero - Abashi the Black Dragon.  I've NEVER built a dragon, and really wanted to play with one.  It's almost at the end of the tech tree, though, and I wasn't sure if I'd have time to get there.  Another part of me wanted to press on towards the advanced arcane techs.  The Sheaim unique unit replaces the Archmage, and has a feature where they can devour souls to regain the ability to cast magic.  Intriguing.  Plus, it would fit in very well with my Summoner trait.  Finally, I badly needed to upgrade my melee units with some iron.

Fortunately, this eventually proved to not be an either/or question.  One other thing I loved about this scenario was the strong team structure: you have the good guys and the bad guys, and everyone loves their team and hates the other.  This scenario is the only one I know of that has Permanent Alliance turned on, so you can actually form a permanent team.  It also supports Vassal States.  My defeat of Basium upset the balance of power, freeing Varn from vassalage.  On the evil side, Decius beat me to a Permanent Alliance with Hyborem.  After some research I concluded that each player could only join one team, so I joined with Faeryl Viconia.  Being in a PA is a lot of fun.  You automatically share your map and research with both sides, so every time one of you gets a tech, the other gets the same.  You can even combine research points, so you could reach new discoveries more quickly.  AND in diplomacy you can direct them to attack a particular city as part of coordinated military strategy.  All in all, a very cool system.  Now, in practice, I was the dominant partner in this alliance - Faeryl was researching at maybe 20% my rate, and had a weaker military - but it was still fun to play with it.

Outside of my immediate alliance, the fact was that everyone loved each other.  I think that Hyborem had a total attitude modifier of, like, +25 toward me, between our shared Ashen Veil, my Infernal Grimoire, our Civics, membership in the Undercouncil, and the simultaneous wars we fought.  So I saw some things that I had never seen before in any game of Civ, ever: Hyborem coming to me with a free gift of technology.  Uh... why, yes, thank you!  I decided to return the favor.  The victory conditions for this scenario are just to eliminate three good civs; you don't need to do it yourself, so I had every incentive to help the other evil civs as much as I could.  Once I realized this, I started gifting them all my techs; that way, we weren't duplicating research time, and could jump ahead of our rivals.

It took a while to complete the scenario, but was a lot of fun.  The Llofsjar are notorious turtles, so I decided to focus on the southeast.  The Elohim fell relatively quickly.  The Malakim were more spread out, so that took a bit longer, but I was insanely powerful at that point, and my columns of death marched over the sands.

Throughout this and the other scenarios, you get really cool story text and images as you proceed.  They're really gorgeous and well-done.  Most intriguing, they're particular to the leader and civ you have chosen, so I think replay value for the Decius scenarios will be huge - Os-Gabella was interesting, and her path did cross that of Decius from time to time, but I would have loved learning more about what the others were doing and thinking.

Finally, I had cleared the way to the elusive final scenario, Lord of the Balors.  This was a lot of fun as well.  The plot is that the Bannor had left one of their greatest heroes behind in their journey through Hell.  Capria has learned that he still lives there, and vows to return and rescue him.  The Malakim are always eager to fight the good fight, so they come along as well.  Basium needs no excuse to wage war against Hell.  And, for some reason, Keelyn of the Balseraphs is there too.

The four of you land at various points along a narrow coastline.  On the other side of a mountain range is... well, Hell.  Filled with, um, seven demon lords.  Fascinating.  Your goal is to defeat all seven.

I started this scenario as Basium - I hadn't played as Mercurians yet, and was curious what that experience would be like.  The Mercurians are similar to the Infernals in that they grow when living units die, although they get Angels with XP instead of Manes who can add to cities, and have totally different units and civics, so I guess they aren't that similar after all.  Ahem.  Anyways, I realized pretty early on that doing this would mean relying on the AI to do a good job of dying to give me units, but not such a good job at dying to leave me alone against 7 demonic lords.  Not only that, but I didn't actually start with the Basium unit.  I decided to try again - I was intrigued by the idea of the Balseraphs, who I still haven't played, but ended up deciding to play as Bannor.  Partly because I loved the image - the crusading armies of Bannor storming the gates of Hell - but also because I wanted to get a taste of Shatner's Unwashed Crusade.

As the Bannor, I settled between the Malakim and Balseraphs.  I decided to be greedy in my city placement... I'm not sure if resource placement on this map is pre-determined or random, but it was pretty crazily good for me: a single city could be placed to work six resources.  I also learned that you DO get access to a resource if you build a city on top of it, which I thought hadn't been the case.  (Now that I think about it - the deal may be that you don't get the increased yields, but you do get access to the tradeable resource itself.)  I was happy with my capital, and picked out another site to my west that had a similarly privileged position.  I could have easily fit three cities into the same area, and even four with minimal overlap, but I didn't want to spend a lot of time building settlers.  The way I imagined it, this would be a quick military in-and-out campaign, so I should focus on my units and not my cities.

You start exploring the fertile land outside, which has a few intriguing features, like an altar where previous armies had been sacrificed.  You can eventually discover three separate narrow passages that cut through the mountains and into Hell itself.  Broken Lands form a sort of pathway leading out from here.  I built a couple of Scouts early on to visit the many tribal villages both outside and within Hell, and set about exploring.

Hell is HUGE.  Even with freaking seven Infernal civilizations, more than 2/3 of it is totally empty.  It's also really interesting; I enjoyed the mystery of discovery.  There's a great variety in the terrain: an enormous lake of fire in the west, a huge sea of lost souls, narrow channels that cut through a radioactive marsh of punishment.  There are good barriers and challenges on the way through: certain unmovable (held) units, like wraits and balors and such, guard particular checkpoints, and you won't be able to get past them until you have won many promotions or researched more advanced fighters.  At the same time, you can usually take long detours around them, so there's still plenty to explore.  There are also some fear pillars (I forget the technical name) that keeps you from approaching them until you find the Timor Mask or can build arcane units to grant Courage.  (These pillars are quite deceptive - as you approach them, they seem to be guarding narrow passages, but they often are actually just dead-ends.)

I have to admit that during this scenario, I was way worse than usual when it came to saving and reloading my game.  With so few units and so many opponents, I felt only a little guilt about reloading if I didn't like the results from a tribal village.  As such, I ended up discovering a lot of great techs from them (including free advancement all the way to Astronomy), a free Settler, and other great goodies.  I also made good progress with clearing out the barbarian lairs stocked by undead that give you good XP from grinding.

After only about 10 turns or so, I was surprised to discover that I had founded the Order.  It looks like the three living civs automatically get their proper religions at this time: Order for Bannor, Empyrean for Malakim, and Octopus Overlords for Balseraphs.  This caused a little tension, but the rules of the scenario lock everyone into war and peace, so I wasn't worried about needing to fight against Keelyn.  Also, for better or worse, tech trading is disabled, so I didn't need to keep people too happy.   I believe that Permanent Alliance is off as well, though I'm not sure how to tell that for sure.  What I WAS concerned about was Keelyn.  She was at war with the Infernals, but was also Evil, so her dead units would come back to oppose me.  I decided that my first order of business would be to convert her and Basium to the Order.  This was easier than I expected, and then we were united in Good.

When you found the Order you also get a free Crusader, long before you unlock the tech to build more.  I joined him to a Great Commander that I got from a village and sent him into Hell.  He was followed later by Valin.  By this time my scouts had determined that western Hell was largely unoccupied.  The crusader became my hammer.  The map is way too big for seige equipment to be feasible, so I would rely on heavily-promoted city crackers.  He began taking out the weakest, westernmost cities.

After the scouts, the first thing my capital had built was a Mages Guild, and I carefully built a steady supply of Adepts throughout the game.  I got to Sorcery around the time my first Adept had reached 12XP.  I had access to 2 Law Mana, and 1 each of Body (built on a mana node so I could get Haste), Earth, and Spirit.  The Hosts of Eijendhar (sp) were a crucial tool in my battles.

As is often the case when playing with the Order, my strategy relied heavily on mutually supportive units.  My Confessor would Bless, the Hosts would weaken defenders, then the Crusader would strike the fatal blow.  XP climbed higher and higher, and over time I built up an impressive army.  At a certain point, it seemed like every laid I explored gave me a free acolyte-class unit (Savant, Disciple, Zealot, etc.), and once I gave them Combat 1 and Demon Slaying, they became quite effective units.  Capria's Spiritual trait gives such units free Mobility 1, which is WAY more useful than I would have expected, especially on a map like this.  I could strike against a stack and then move my wounded units safely out of range.

My endgame strategy gradually came into focus.  I knew that I eventually wanted to research Fanaticism so I could experience the fun of a Crusade.  However, I wanted to get to Iron Working before that so I could actually build Demagogs and do sufficient damage.  As the research continued, I continued patiently chipping away at the weaker demon lords.

There are some really interesting events and flavor texts that you encounter during this scenario.  At various times, a demon lord will approach you and offer you peace in exchange for some act of obsesiance on your part.  I thought this was interesting, but always turned it down... I just couldn't imagine a Bannor ever compromising like this, and in any case, the demons never actually threatened my cities.  Hyborem built Rosier the Fallen pretty early on, but stacked him with a bunch of movement-1 axemen, and they seemed to just wander through Hell.  Other than the occasional hellhound, the infernals almost never sent anyone out to attack us.

All Infernals are at war with all living civs, but some of the Infernals are also at war with one another.  I tried to avoid these paired civs when I could so they would continue to weaken one another, but it wasn't always feasible, so I sometimes ended up eliminating the weaker civ.

I stumbled across a great semi-hidden tactic.  I think that the map is laid out to encourage you to fight through the mass of the Infernals and end the game with an assault on Dis: you work your way through the fallout, battle Duke Sallos, then work your way north through Meresain, past another altar flanked by snake pillars that offers more flavor text ("Many other human armies have passed this way before, but you are the first to do so without chains."), and finally into the valley where Hyborem holds sway.  All cool, but what's ALSO cool is that there's an extremely narrow passage at the extreme top of the map.  I found and followed this passage while trying to find the last city of another Infernal lord, and discovered that it led to the backside of Hyborem's empire.  Once through that passage, I was only steps away from Dis.  Hooray!  I had brought my strongest units through here, and although it took a few turns, we managed to slay Hyborem himself - YES - and raze Dis, with its Prophecy of Ragnarok and various other evil wonders - DOUBLE YES!

I was finally approaching discovery of Fanaticism.   Once I had it I spent just a few turns wrapping up the last few buildings I wanted.  With an eye towards Crusade for the entire game, my (eventually four) cities nearly exclusively focused on building peaceful buildings to boost research, commerce, health, and happiness.  Shatner had warned me that once I entered the Crusade it would be too late to do anything about my economy.  The most crucial thing was to get access to Iron - there was only one deposit outside Hell, located at the very southern end of the map, far from my capital.

The Crusade finally started.  I called Rally and began moving my huge forces towards Duke Sallos while my few super-powerful units were working on finishing off Hyborem.  I watched in amazed glee as my economy tanked.  I had been running a surplus at 100% research for much of the game (thanks to Code of Junil, Bazaar of Mammon and God King), plus I had been pillaging Infernal towns, villages, and cottages after I destroyed their cities; as such, I had more than 3000 gold in the bank at the start of the crusade.  By the height of the crusade, I was running a deficit of -70 gold per turn.  It felt... great.

After Fanaticism I researched Engineering, and was amazed at what a huge military difference it made.  By this time my Infernal conquest had given me a total of nearly 20 Workers, and I had set them to the task of extending a road from my capital into the bowels of Hell.  Two Workers could build a road in a single turn, so by leapfrogging each other, they could lay down four tiles of track in a single turn, and have the military catch up for protection.  With this road in place and Engineering, I could march units across nearly the entire width of the map in relatively short order.  My greatest fear came when I ran smack into Rosier.  If he attacked my huge stack of Workers, I'd be in deep trouble.  I managed to dramatically raze Hyborem's final city before Rosier could finish the job, killing him from afar.  I cheered.

After Hyborem and Rosier were dead, the war became absurdly easy.  My countless Demagogs, Crusaders and Champions (along with the odd Flag-Bearer) rode ruthlessly over the remaining cities of Duke Sallos and Meresin.  Or nearly so.  I discovered to my horror that each of them had one city left on an island.  Across an ocean within Hell.  FRACK!  How on earth was I going to cross that?  Would I need to build a Settler and bring him all the way in?  That would mean ending the Crusade!  FRACK!

I called it a night and slept on the problem.  I half-hoped that the designers had left in a secret teleporter or something to get over there.  Eventually, the answer came to me.  Duh - I had been razing all the Infernal cities, because I had no desire to maintain land inside Hell, but of course I had the choice to keep them.  Fortunately, of the three remaining mainland cities, one of them was a port on this interior ocean.  I took it the next day, parked in my strongest units as I razed the remaining two cities, then, once the disorder was suppressed, paid for scratch for a brand-new Galleon.  800 gold?  No problem!  Loaded on my Crusader (who by now had more than 250 XP, with Blitz, Commando, and every other useful promotion), Valin (who was nearly as good but without Blitz), and my best mage and Confessor.  We sailed over to the last Meresin city, made an amphibious assault to destroy it in a single turn.  A few years later, we did the same thing with the last refuge of Sallos.

Success!  All hail the unwashed crusade!

The final victory screen was very satisfying.  It felt weirdly upbeat and triumphant after the relentelessly dark tone of previous scenario victories.  It pleased me greatly.  It also made me more curious about the details of the story, so I spent the next thirty minutes poring over the Civilopedia, learning more about Donal Lugh, Sabathiel, and the history of Erebus until the time of the Age of Dragons.  The story owes a huge debt to Tolkien's Silmarillion, but that can be a compliment.


All in all, I was really happy with where these scenarios went.  Oh, and I was also happy from a technical aspect: unlike the earlier scenarios, I didn't get any crashes in these, and very rarely freezes.  It's weird that there's such a difference between the scenarios in this regard - I guess it must have to do with the python code, but still, it's strange that they're so random.  Now that everything's working well, I'm carefully keeping my environment the way it is, not taking any updates to Wine or installing the new patches for BTS or FfH2. 

I think that "Lord of the Balors" is a good cap to the scenarios as a whole, and would be a logical ending point for the game.  Now that I have beaten it, I'm wondering whether the reward will actually do me any good in the rest of the scenarios - I'm not sure if there are Infernals in the remaining ones or not.  Either way... I could stop here, but the experience has been so interesting that I'm sure I'll eventually play the remaining games.  At the very least I want to follow the story lines for Falamar and Decius to see how their tales end.

Man... can you believe that they're giving this stuff away for free?

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