Saturday, February 9, 2008

armageddon empires

I've mentioned in a couple previous posts that I'm playing a computer game called Armageddon Empires. It's a unique piece of work in the current video game environment. For one, it was designed and programmed by a single individual, Vic Davis, who is attempting to get his own independent game company (Cryptic Comet) off the ground. His primary sources of inspiration are boardgames and collectible card games (CCG's). Armageddon Empires is programmed in Adobe Director, which makes it a little unwieldy. The graphics are nondescript - most of the time, you're staring at a hex-based map dotted with uninteresting icons or sets of virtual dice rolling (seriously). The play is turn-based: slow and deliberate and far from flashy. Some have complained that the learning curve is a little steep, and there's no in-game tutorial to help you learn the ropes. Finally, there's no multiplayer option, so you can't take it online and pit your strategies against other human opponents. For this reason, the success of the game is heavily dependent upon the ability of the artificial intelligence(s) to put up a good fight.

After reading all that, many of you might wonder why in god's name anyone would play the damn thing. But it's simply one of the best strategy wargames I've ever played, in any format. The critics seem to be agreeing: Games for Windows gave it 9/10 in a recent review, PC Gamer UK gave it 84%, and Gaming Trend picked it as their Best Strategy Game of 2007. This kind of press for a small, indie company and comparatively ugly turn-based game is simply unheard of.

Armageddon Empires (AE) is set on post-apocalyptic Earth, where there are four races vying for control of the wasteland: the Empires of Man (the final remnants of the massive human industrial-military complex), the Machine Empire (think Terminator and the Matrix), the Xenopods (think Alien), and the League of Free Mutants. Each race possesses some minor strategic differences: for instance, the Empires of Man have a strong air force, while the Free Mutants are designed for guerrilla hit-and-run tactics. I particularly enjoy playing the Machines - they start off slow and their units are expensive, but their Mech's are insanely intimidating and they can develop game-ending WMD's.

The goal of the game is very simple: destroy all your opponents' headquarters. Play occurs on a square, brown hex-map (you can choose small, medium, large, and huge sizes). You put units into the field, form armies, march them around the wasteland, engage enemy armies, and eventually attempt to assault their HQ.

One of the many unique aspects of the game is its use of a card-draw mechanic. You start the game with a deck of virtual cards and begin with an opening hand of seven. These cards represent units (your infantry, armored divisions, artillery, mechanized units, dragons, etc.), facilities (laboratories, academies, intelligence centers, etc.), and heroes (generals, spies, scouts, and administrators). As an example, to the right is one of my favorite Xenopod units, the Psyker Team. Every unit costs something to come into play and possesses a number of defining attributes, like: attack rating, defense rating, hit points, and special abilities. The Psyker Team can use Confusion against biological units, causing them to attack members of their own army. As you might guess, these guys work great against the Empires of Man but are worthless versus Machines.

Another defining aspect of this game is its use of Action Points (AP's) to determine how much you can do each turn. This is a common gameplay mechanic in many boardgames, and even some turn-based RPG's, but you don't often see it in the modern climate of RTS base-building and resource-gathering. It costs AP's to draw cards, play units, build armies, move armies, conduct research, assassinate enemies, sabotage facilities, etc., etc. The number of AP's you have each turn is determined by an initiative roll that each side makes; the result of this can be influenced by spending resources. Therefore, on some turns you might want to accomplish a number of different things - like, converging several armies onto a single opponent's base after conducting an air attack - so it would behoove you to spend some resources to try and win that initiative roll. But if you do that, you'll have fewer resources to spend on units, facilities, and research.

To really get a feel for how AE works, you have to see a game in action, or pick up the demo and try it yourself. I took some screenshots from my most recent game, and will try to show off some of the more innovative aspects of the game in this sequence. I'm playing as the Xenopods on a huge map against two AI opponents: the Empires of Man, and the Machines.

Early game: reconnaissance, HQ defense & resource gathering

This screenshot shows the opening turn. The cards in my hand line the bottom, and it's not looking good. I don't have any cheap recon units or scouts/spies that I can get into play quickly. One of the strongest aspects of AE is its emphasis on reconnaissance to combat the "fog of war." You don't know where the enemy is, nor where anything interesting might be, and the only way to find out is to get some recon units into the field ASAP. If you fail to use recon effectively, you will quickly fall to a massive AI army marching through your backdoor. The green coloring represents my "supply range." Any unit or army of mine that falls outside this zone will suffer major penalties to its attack potential. It is therefore crucial in AE to extend your supply range if you wish to strike out into the wasteland. More on this later.

On a positive note, the terrain is helping me. If you look to the northeast of my HQ, you'll see a mountain range. This series of mountain hexes makes it difficult for me to explore, but it also means that I'm less likely to get attacked from that direction. I can now concentrate on setting up recon and defense to my northwest - and placing a single recon unit in the mountain pass to the east. Too bad I don't have any recon units to play. My best hope is the Gangrel, which not only has recon capacity but also stealth and commando. He's a one-man (one-bug?) wrecking machine, designed for quick strikes at resource gatherers behind enemy lines. The problem is that he's too expensive - I won't be able to bring him out for at least another 5 turns.

Midgame I: build an army & establish a forward base

Ok, we're progressed quite a bit. It's now around turn 25 and I've successfully built a small army, established a forward base, and garrisoned some defense at my HQ. In addition, I've built a nice variety of resource gathering facilities in the southwest quadrant of the map. Imagine the spice-gathering machines from Dune. They have no intrinsic defense and are easy targets for enemy commandos, so I like to post a small, mobile army that can at least scare off little recon units from trying something stupid. What you've unfortunately missed is my recent battle with the Empires of Man. They actually attempted to establish a forward base in my neighborhood but I easily defeated their engineers with a Monstrosity.

My goal at this point is to solidify my position with more units, place recon in the desert pass (between the 2 mountain hexes) and send a spy north to find out where the Empires of Man HQ is located. Luckily, I've drawn this fellow. Mi'go is a master saboteur, with the stealth ability to sneak past enemy recon. Eventually, using Mi'go, I locate the Empire's HQ. I first use him to sabotage their local resource gatherers, thus reducing the amount of resources they can bring in each turn. I then plant him right on the enemy HQ - because he's stealthed, the AI can't see him. He now provides me with some excellent intel (I basically get to see who the Empires of Man are putting into play), and I start to sabotage their local facilities and research laboratories. This is so satisfying, I can't even express it. The way that AE handles espionage is absolutely incredible - far more interesting and useful than the espionage in Civilization, for example. In addition to saboteurs, there are assassins (who can kill heroes) and spies with the Espionage ability. I'm actually the victim of Espionage right now: a stealthed enemy spy is sitting on my HQ (I can't see him or do anything about it...yet) and is disrupting my homebase operations (for one, he made it more expensive for me to form armies for a period of 5 turns).

There are two ways to counter spies. Slap down some heavy recon and hunt for them. There are even some Bounty-Hunter heroes that can help you with this. I choose the other path: building an Intel Nest in my HQ. This not only makes it harder for enemy spies to conduct espionage on me, but it also makes it easier for me to "sniff" them out and capture them. As soon as I play this card onto my HQ, I don't hear any more from that pesky enemy spy. Sweet.

After winning a major victory against the Empires of Man in the field, Mi'go is showing that their HQ has lackluster defense. It's time to strike, and strike fast. I take my single army, led by a hero named Nya'lrax, north to siege their HQ. Because of my forward base, their HQ lies within my supply zone and I don't have to worry about any penalties. But attacking an enemy garrison is usually a little tricky, and I'm hoping there are no surprises waiting for me.

Midgame II: eliminate an opponent & develop war industry

This is what a battle looks like. My army is on the bottom of the screen, composed of a Corrupter, Psyker Team, Monstrosity, Enzyme Thrower artillery unit, and general Nya'lrax. Units in your back row are usually out of range of enemy fire, so this is the place to keep your general and artillery. The Empires of Man army is without a general, but has a decent infantry unit (the Emperor's Own) and a hard-core Mech, the MeBU-II Vengeance. Normally, I'd be a little freaked out by this one but I've got a strategy in mind. Because I have a general leading my army, I win initiative each combat round and get to attack first. I use my Psyker Team to confuse the Mech, causing it to attack and destroy its own infantry support. Then I just use my Monstrosity and Corrupter to take out the Vengeance before it has time to figure out what happened. The Empires of Man HQ is mine and they are eliminated from the game.

I build more resource collectors in this region of the map, and place some basic defense in my newly conquered garrison. Meanwhile, back at my own HQ, I've built both an academy and a lab, and put some scientist-heroes into play. I have them researching tactics and genetic enhancement. This process basically gives you additional cards which you can then attach to units in play. As with most things, AE gets research right - you really feel like you're developing new abilities that may turn the tide of war. Here's a screenshot of the administrators and scientists working for me in my HQ:

Note that I have my Queen card in play. She provides me with some great bonuses, and is really necessary if you want to get the most out of your scientists. I begin work on a Plasma Blossom bomb.

It's time to focus my energy on the Machines. They've been relatively quiet this game. Every now and then I catch one of their Spider-Bot recon units moving into my territory, and I quickly air-raid them to oblivion before they can spot my HQ. But a little exploring into the center of the map reveals that the Machines have not only established a massive set of resource collectors, they also have their Colossus unit in play, under the command of one of their most dangerous cyborg generals. This is something to worry about, and I decide to play aggressively and push forward to their HQ to try and end the game before they get their Colossus over my defensive mountain range.

Endgame: final push, air raids & WMD's

We're looking at the Northeast corner of the map now. My HQ (for reference) is far to the South. There are 3 Machine armies maneuvering near my first base, and if they take it they'll have an effective launch point for an invasion. The good news is that they've left their HQ relatively poorly defended. I have a couple options here: I can march an army in and try to win with the brute-force approach, or I can try and blow up their HQ with my Plasma Blossom. Just for kicks, I go with the latter. I attach the bomb to a Pod Hovership that has the ability to fly close range to the Machine's HQ hex. I drop the thing, roll the dice, and damage their HQ for 18 points: more than enough to destroy it. I win, game over on Turn 51.

This was a pretty fun game: my opening hand and terrain set-up provided an interesting challenge, and I just barely got an army out in time to repel the Empires of Man. Once I won a crucial battle in the field, taking their HQ was relatively easy. As for the Machines, they made the classic error of leaving their backdoor open and putting all their strongest units out into the wasteland, searching for my bases. It was a simple matter for me to avoid their minefields, and drop a god-damn plasma bomb on their head.

Herein lies my primary issue with AE: the challenge of the AI's. They're decent, and trust me, when you first begin playing, you'll struggle to win. But once you learn the dynamics of the game, the AI's just can't handle the processing power of a human brain. Vic Davis is promising further development of the AI, along with a free expansion pack, within the next month. The expansion pack will focus on the Independent forces in the wasteland. They didn't play a role in the game I described to you, but they can shake things up periodically. You might encounter Snake Plissken, for example, leading a ragtag band of raiders out in the desert - and maybe convince him to join your side, if you pay enough cash. Or you might run into a horde of Rad Zombies, protecting a junkyard of useful parts. I like the Independents, but they could certainly play a greater role in the game.

Hope you enjoyed this brief (!) overview and game report. There's obviously much more to AE than what I've described here, but hopefully this gives you a sense of the strategic and tactical depth of the game. There are dozens of cards for each race, and you can design and tweak different decks to your heart's content before starting a match using the in-game deck editor. Try building an Empires of Man deck around tactics and tank divisions. Or a Mutant deck with kamikaze troops. There's so much flavor here, by the way, it makes your mouth hurt... if you're into post-apocalyptic shit, that is. Which, obviously, I am.

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