Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Galactic Civilizations 2: The Nitpicking

Since the first time I've played Galactic Civilizations 2 (roughly when it came out) there have been a few years. A couple of expansion packs have been released - I read about them, but didn't try them out. You know how TBS games work - once you burn out on them, you really don't feel like touching them again anytime soon. [DISCLAIMER: might not apply to TBS enthusiasts in your area. Replace "enthusiasts" with "maniacs" in the previous sentence for a more true-to-life interpretation].

But anyway, recently I had an opportunity to give them a spin on a friend's machine. Enough said that it compelled me to get them for myself. Since the last add-on, Twilight of the Arnor, incorporates all the (or all the best) stuff from the previous one, this is what I play, and what I will be talking about (and nitpick on).

First, some history and personal recommendation: if Disciples (another amazing TBS I think you should probably play) struck me as "here's another way to do fantasy TBS that WORKS", GalCiv was clearly a case of "here's what you get if you take all the good parts of space TBS games and mash them together - oh, and we've improved it". When it first came out, GalCiv was like, the long awaited worthy successor to Master of Orion 2 (<--- the TWO is very important. There was a MoO 3. We don't talk about it). GalCiv 2 is essentially more of the same good thing, with improvements.

Some quick highlights of the things I really like about it: firstly and rather most importantly, the interface is fuckin' EXCELLENT. I can manage my economy from one panel! Heck, screw the last part - I CAN MANAGE MY ECONOMY!!! (this comes from someone who was perfectly able to go bankrupt in Civ in under 10 turns). Then, in no particular order: building planetary improvements on a square grid (don't forget the bonuses), clear listing of improvement benefits and maintenance costs, production focus, government types, influence, ethical alignments, ship builder... (decided to stop before writing the whole list of features. You'll see for yourself)

About the last expansion, Twilight of the Arnor - the main improvement is the introduction of unique tech trees to each race (in addition to the Super Abilities from Dark Avatar). I'd say that 50% if not more of the tech trees still overlap, but that's still a MAJOR change - the 12 races all play differently now, which gives the game a huge boost in replayability. Definitely pick it up - it's what made me get back in the game., that was the 5-paragraph introduction to the actual nitpicking content, which will probably be shorter :D [edit - was disproved]

Why nitpick? Mostly, because the game is really so good, any complaints I manage to muster against it will seem to be just that - nitpicking. However, I have hope that, should there be a GalCiv 3, this post will be used to iron out the last bad bits and create THE ULTIMATE SPACE TBS!!! (Or rather not since noone... er... only one person (sorry Gabi :p) will read it anyway.)

Firstly, these are problems I encountered while playing games that suit my own style of play - that means few habitable planets because if I have to manage more than 5 the game stops being fun, and AI difficulty around medium setting because I'm not too good at the game (and possibly never will). Either that, or I just enjoy crushing the poor computer players. Anyway, YMMV. Tread lightly and all that.

(In no particular order, except the first)

THOSE DAMN CONSTRUCTORS!!! Really had to put this at the top of the list, because it's driven me crazy ever since GalCiv 1. Don't get me wrong - I love starbases. They are a huge part of the game, and they improve gameplay oh-so-much. But having to build them out of individual ships, each built at an individual planet... surely there must be a better way? And don't tell me about waypoints - they help setting starbases up initially, but are less and less useful the more starbases you have. And there's never any reason not to build starbases - and even if you reach the limit, there's hardly any reason to stop upgrading them, thus requiring an endless stream of constructors, which I finally just stop producing when I reach that fine line between annoyance and insanity.
Possible solutions: a new starbase construction system that doesn't use constructors at all, or maybe starbases could build their own upgrades.

The colonization rush - this problem, also present since GalCiv 1, is actually a basic issue of space TBS games. To illustrate it, let's look at a different type a TBS, a land-based one (say Civ). There, if you need to build a new city, you build a settler then you send it over to any land tile of your choice. Depending on the size of the water bodies, that's between "quite a lot" and "the whole damn map". Yes, you would want a good tile with access to water and farmable lands and all that, but in a pinch, you can pretty much deploy it anywhere.
Not so in GalCiv. Here, most of the terrain is empty space. Habitable planets make about 1% to 5% of the total map. The fact they are at a premium is an understatement. Furthermore, whoever colonizes a planet first closes this possiblity for everyone else - finders-keepers, indeed! Thus, the early game is pretty much a rush for the best planets, and luck really does play a large part in it. If you play with few habitable planets like I do, you might not get any new colonies at all (which probably means you just lost the game, but it will take you 200+ more turns to realize it). Even if you play with an abundance of planets, the rush doesn't disappear, it simply changes focus. Since high-quality planets will usually subvert culturally small planets in the same region of space (esentially conquering them without military action), the early game changes from "get the planets" to "get the BETTER planets". There's no accident that strategies that emphasize colonization are extremely effective, even though the developers themselves have tried to address the problem (they even introduced new planet types that can't be colonized by everyone at the beginning. This doesn't work as well as you'd think since every race can still use the basic, Earth-type planet, by far more abundant).
Possible solution: take colonization out of the hands of the player. Make colonies pop up depending on other factors (essentially, "how well your empire is doing", however you decide to define that). I don't think there's any other satisfactory way to address things - it's a basic problem and needs a radical solution.

Random events: please note I'm not talking about the Mega Events here. Those are intended to be mind-fuckingly destabilizing, and I respect that, because I can turn them off :D. No, I'm considering the normal, garden-variety random event - many are ok, but some are just too swingy. The biggest offender seems to be the "Precursor Ranger" (a random race gets an uber ship). My first-hand experience with this is thus:
1st occurence: the weakest race in the galaxy (maybe 2nd weakest) gets this. Within two turns they declare war on me. I look at the stats on that thing, compare them to my usual fleet (far better than anyone else's up to that point) and go "holy crap". Fortunately, I was playing an evil empire with access to amazingly powerful weapons (no, really, I'm pretty sure the "extra evil" beam weapon is broken in half - just compare it to the extra weapons from the other branches). I put together a fleet of small ships with nothing but guns (defenses would've been SO pointless). Because of my eagerness in going out to attack with less-than-full fleets, I lost two of them before blowing up the damn thing. Note that I couldn't afford to place engines on my ships so it would've been possible for the computer player to avoid my fleets indefinitely with the Ranger's high speed, although in this case I still would have been able to invade his worlds.
2nd occurence: I'm playing as Torian (super-breeder pacifist lizards), on a bold attempt to conquer the galaxy by influence without building any military ships at all. Everything was going smoothly (unsurprisingly I had been attacked but the invasion fleets found out that high population + high soldiering + high population growth = I win land battles forever). Then the Ranger pops up. At first I misread the event and thought the Altarians got it, which would've been cool (they are perpetually good guys, will stay nice to you forever if you are nice to them and they never backstab). Unfortunately, it was actually the Arceans (far less friendly). Seeing the thing in action, I decided there was time to do something about it.
So I BOUGHT it from them (for a bunch of techs and some shinys). Yes the game is cool like that.
Unfortunately, I didn't realize the long-term implications. Next turn, because of this one ship, I was already the top military dog. The evil empire I was at war with practically begged for peace soon and were willing to trade an arm and a leg for it. Within 10 turns I was receiving unsolicited tribute just because that behemoth was so damn imposing. My "peaceful" game turned into pointlessness.
Lesson learned - I should've decomissioned the Ranger the moment I got it.
So, possible solution: um, balance or remove this, please? And while you're at it, take a look at all the other random events and make sure the balance is ok.

Ethical events: a good idea which could use some polishing. Firstly - they are extremely important if you want to change your alignment from the default, yet they are too random to be reliable. Maybe there could be a way for players to make these events occur, every now and then. Secondly, the bias for evil is silly. What would really work, actually, would be if the better bonuses were specifically OPPOSITE to your alignment, since it seems to me that it's better for most races to keep their initial alignment throughout the game.

The United Planets: another good idea, and this one could use even more polishing. Firstly - the bills vary wildly in usefulness and effect on the game, yet they are completely random. A way for players to get into some political games in order to push certain bills for voting would make for a rather interesting addition. Secondly, the bias for good is silly. Depending on what bills get proposed, evil races might get the really REALLY short end of the stick very early in the game without being able to do anything to prevent it.

[Yeah, I see a pattern here, although it seems to be an oscillating one :D]

Thirdly, the voting system is beyond silly. If you get only two choices, it's ok, but if you get more, it's really just a matter of luck (unless you happen to just control more than 50% of the votes, which is something many people strive for because otherwise you have almost no control on the outcomes). Also, most of time you have no idea what the other races will vote for, not even the ones that are allied to you.
Fourthly, you CAN leave the UP, but the penalties make it unlikely for you to ever want to. And the computer never does it either.
Possible solution(s): make the UP a much larger and complex system, with the possibility of getting bonuses based on how well you play the political game. Remove or lessen A LOT the penalty for leaving the UP - losing access to the aforementioned bonuses should be enough.

The space resources: basically the same problem as the colonization rush, but mining starbases are easier to blow up than staging planetary invasions. Still, if you are unwilling or not in a position to go to war, you're stuck. The computer never seems to want to sell his mining starbases either, the bastard. And those resources can make a difference, too.
Possible solution: allow the trading of these resources in the same way trade goods are handled, or maybe under a different system.

No multiplayer: err.... there's no multiplayer. There's some Metaverse stuff where the players can compare scores and stuff, but not the real thing. You wouldn't think it's that hard to implement in a TBS, really.
Possible solution: add multiplayer. Really, that would work out amazingly.

I'm sure there was more stuff. In fact, I had a few things I had labeled "minor nitpicks", but can't seem to remember them atm. I'll edit them in later.

Meanwhile, if you like TBS games, try GalCiv 2. You probably won't be disappointed.



Blogger Andrei said...

Thanx for the tip on Braid. Really really awesome.

Keep up the good work, m8 !

3:07 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home