We have a brand new ‘Best in Show’ to share with you today – moving away from the usual suspects of GamesCom or Paradox Convention, we spent a few days with wargame specialists Matrix and Slitherine to see what they have been up to. As one of the last bastions of niche PC gaming, they are a go-to company for games that typically lack that ‘mass-market’ shine that a lot of companies have been chasing after. Sometimes it works – as many would argue Paradox have achieved with their Grand-strategy series – but a lot of the time something is lost in trying to chase that particular appeal. Wargame developers especially I’ve always found to be a bit stubborn in this regard, and rarely to the compromise for fear of corrupting the core wargaming experience.
What was remarkable though about the ‘Home of Wargamers’ 2014 event however was just how far the niche had come along. Bar one or two exceptions, many of the wargames I saw last week showed real concessions, either in actual implementation or simply in developer attitude, to an idea that wargames can still be complex, deep and challenging, while also making them less impenetrable.
So, without further ado, let’s have a look at some of the more interesting games I saw at the Home of Wargamers 2014 showcase.
Close Combat: The Bloody First
Slitherine have been custodians of the iconic Close Combat games for a good number of years now, although the games themselves haven’t really changed since the classics that were made over a decade ago. That’s all set to change with Close Combat: The Bloody First. The developers watching over the franchise have spent the past few years developing a brand new engine, for a brand new era of Close Combat.
It’s technically a 3D engine, but it’s less about visuals and more about how the game interacts with itself and with the player. Check out the screen shots and you’ll see they haven’t deviated too much from the classic ‘top-down’ view (if anything, it’s slightly angled), but the fact that everything is rendering in 3D improves things like path finding and line of sight. The new engine will also support a lot of editing for textures, sound and game data, so it will be extremely mod friendly.
As far as the game itself, there’s a mixture of new and old thinking going into the Bloody First. To bring back that element of attachment you often felt to your troops in the early games, you’re only following the exploits of a single regiment – the Bloody First. The ‘strategic’ or ‘campaign’ map is also going back to how it was in games like A Bridge Too Far, with a series of set-piece missions as opposed to random bits of map that you move your troops between. There will be persistent rewards for your troops, and you can customize their equipment. There will also be versus and 2-player Co-op multiplayer.
We’re excited to see how the Bloody First shapes up, as it’s about time this franchise was brought into the 21st Century. The lead platform for this game is the PC, but there is a tablet version planned. Release window is later in the year.
Also of note: Slitherine are also releasing Close Combat: Gateway to Caen, the last game to be released using the old/classic Close Combat engine.
To End All Wars
The new game to come from AGEOD, To End All Wars essentially covers the First World War, although like all good grand-strategy wargames, it’s more of a light sandbox set in the era of the first world war. I’ve always found AGEOD games to be especially impenetrable, but they do seem to have gotten a bit wiser under Slitherine’s guidance. The game uses a brand new engine they’ve been developing, although it’s mainly under-the-hood improvements to help with the complexity of it all.
To be honest, we’re rather excited about it. There’s a neat interactive diplomacy interface embedded right into the game map, the map of Europe is very detailed, allowing for more in-depth tactics and strategy, and they’ve even managed to abstract the rest of the world into the game in a fairly reasonable manner, so that you get the full ‘global’ scale that the first world war comprised of.
The only thing I’ll say about it at the moment is that ‘Trench Warfare’ is kind of glossed over. Units left stationary in a province will build up a defence or fortification level, and that’s about it. You can do some covert or special actions with your troops to try and bring that level down prior to an attack, but I don’t feel this is going to represent the realities of the Western Front that well. Obviously, there’s more to WW1 than popular media projects, and the other fronts were actually fairly mobile and flexible, and the game is more designed for that. I still found it a bit disappointing that a more significant nod couldn’t be given towards that aspect of the fighting – but I doubt it’s going to ruin the game or anything. No tablet version of this game, and we have a rough release window of July at the moment.
Fun Fact: Purely by accident, To End all Wars can actually be considered to be a hex-based game, as every land province has six other land-provinces surrounding it.
Distant World's Universe
An oldie but a goodie, Distant Worlds was originally released way, way back in 2010. It was a bit rough around the edges to begin with, but has since been improved upon over the years through subsequent expansions. Distant Worlds Universe is considered the ‘definitive’ edition of Distant Worlds, and the release comprises of the base game, along with everything the expansions added, along with some additional developments, tweaks, and a little bit of extra content as well.
For those of you unfamiliar with the Distant Worlds game – it’s a space 4X that deals more with function and depth over visuals or style. The game is capable of generating galaxies of over 700 stars, each with its own system, which then each have planets orbiting them. The interface is incredibly scalable, and when you zoom in to your closest point, you can see 2D planets orbiting around the star. It’s a very narrow view of the world though, so if you want to make sure things don’t collapse around you you’ll need to watch out for the big picture. The world has a completely internalised economy that you can exploit, and there are many aspects of the game that can be automated to tailor the experience to suit what you want to do. Hell, you can just be the general and go fight where the AI tells you to fight, with the ships they give you. Make no mistake this will be a micro-heavy experience though.
Distant Worlds Universe is actually releasing pretty soon – May 23rd – so by the time you read this there won’t be many days left to wait.
Warhammer 40K Armageddon
Well now, this is certainly a bit of a coup for Slitherine. With the demise of THQ, there was a lot of speculation over where the 40K license would go. Creative Assembly getting the fantasy-based Warhammer franchise wasn’t a big surprise, but I have to say I didn’t see this coming. Not that Slitherine don’t deserve it, but they’re hardly the most mainstream or mass-market of companies, and in today’s videogame climate that can mean a lot more than perhaps it should.
Still, here we are, and Slitherine have given us some more details of what they’re planning with Warhammer 40: Armageddon. Simply put, it’s a hex-based Wargame that follows the events of the Second Battle of Armageddon, a planet in the 40K universe that long-term fans will definitely recognise. It’s being made by the same people who made Panzer Korps, along with help from another studio, and it promises a rich game that follows the ‘easy to learn, hard to master’ mantra you’ve probably heard before.
It won’t’ be following anything like the table-top rules, as to be frank Games Workshop doesn’t allow anyone, to create a licensed product that resembles the main game too closely, so controlling your vast armies will actually be very simple. The complexity comes from how you emply them though. Over 300 units each possess around 20 stats each, can wield a multitude of weapons, as well as possessing passive and active abilities. There’s also a respectable amount of customization when it comes to your army list. About the only thing you can’t customise that well is the looks, because again the license only covers Armageddon, and they don’t want anything ‘non-canon’ slipping in.
There’s more we could say, but we’ll leave it for future coverage – of course if you want to know anything more, just ask! Armageddon is another one that’s targeting a PC and tablet release, and it’s due out later this year.
Space Program Manager
Another non-wargame, Buzz Aldrin’s Space Program Manager deserves a mention because, well, it’s about space! Space is cool. Seriously though, this looks like it’s shaping up to be a robust management game, or ‘software toy’ as the developer so quaintly put it. IT started off in 2007 as a personal project, and has gone through several changes and iterations – including being picked up by Slitherine and adopting the official Buzz Aldrin brand.
The game is going to be deployed in three stages, with Stage 1 comprising of the initial release. This stage encompasses the Space Race, and early Space Flight technology in general, up until the 70’s when man was landed on the moon. You can play a campaign as either NASA, the Soviet Space Authority, or a fictional ‘Global Space Authority’, where the main goal is to get a man on the moon. There is also a sandbox mode where there is no end-goal, you just deal with dynamically generated short-term goals (which are also in the campaign mode) and play around with all the different missions and technology they’ve added into the game.
Phase 2 involves more contemporary space-projects like the International Space Station, and Phase 3, which is near-future ends the game completely with a manned mission to Mars. There is currently no time-frame on how long it will take to roll out the last two parts from the release of Phase 1, and we’re told the campaign can last between 10 – 15 hours (with the sandbox adding yet more time). Still, this seems like a game with a finite amount of content in it, so we hope there’s no to big a wait, although there will be a multiplayer mode as well.
This is another game due out ‘soon’, as it’s slated for a Q2 release this year, but we don’t know anything more specific than that.
This was a very interesting game, and a strong contender of ‘Best in Show’. A fantasy grand-strategy game, fans of Europa Universalis will feel right at home here. Set in a unique world that comprises of 35 factions, your job as the player is pick one and lead it to glory. Each faction is drawn from a handful of races, and each faction will have its own style and ‘alignment’, which will set it apart from other factions of a similar race, including special abilities and affinities. It’s turn based, and each faction has their own specific goals tied to the lore of the world and their play style.
The gameplay involves diplomacy, events, researching ‘spells’, trade routes, army stacks... all the things a veteran player should recognise. There is also a pretty slick seamless transition from the campaign map, to the battle map. Granted, the battle-map is a fairly no frills 2D hex environment, but it was still pretty neat to not have any loading or anything. Tactical battles can only be fought if you have an army with a hero in it, and we’re told there are only two hero’s allowed per faction. You can still choose to skip the battle and auto-resolve, but armies without a hero have to automatically skip.
The campaign map is beautiful to look at, even if it’s ‘only’ 2D, and the only thing we’d say about it at this point is that the icons that represent things – like monuments, armies etc… need to be more pronounced so they stand out better. There’s multi-player, of course, and the only information we have on the release window is Q3 2014.
Best in Show: Qvadriga
To be honest, all of the above games were pretty special, but we only chose Qvadriga as our ‘Best in Show’ as it caught us completely by surprise by its quirkiness and charm, not to mention out-right compelling gameplay. This is Slitherine’s ‘Magicka’ in many respects, although it hasn’t achieved the same kind of sales.
If you think of Football Manager, and replace football with Roman Chariot Racing, you’re in the right frame of mind. In Qvadriga, you’re managing your own team of Chariot racers, and the ultimate goal of the game is to win a series of matches in the grand arena in Rome. Before you do that though, you must race your way through the slums and side-shows of the Roman Empire, working your way up the ladder by winning yourself fame, glory and a chance at the top spot. You’ve got to hire people to man your chariots, you’ve got to hire the chariots themselves, even the horses pulling them.
It’s not just the management aspects though – you actually get to race the races themselves. There’s nothing fancy here, just a artistically styled 2D race arena and chariots, but while racing you have to control things like lane switching, speed… and you can also employ tactics like whipping your horse, or your opponents, and knocking them off their chariots. It’s a wonderful little game, and one I highly recommend you check out. It’s been out on PC for a while already, and the tablet version was being showcased at the event, so you shouldn’t have any trouble finding it.
That about wraps it up for this one – we saw a lot of interesting games in a short space of time, so sadly we’re not able to talk about all of them. Slitherine and Matrix are doing some interesting things over the coming year though, so you should keep an eye out on them. Expect more coverage from the HOW14 soon.