Wednesday, August 22, 2007

The PC Game of the Year 2007: Armageddon Empires

Remember this name:
Vic Davis

And these names:
Greg Nicolett, Matt Bradbury, Kate Davis, Michael Grills, John Hodgson, Richard Lim Boon Keat, Aaron Porter, and Zdenek Sasek.

Together, they have created one of the most interesting and engaging PC games I've ever played: Armageddon Empires.

Armageddon Empires is a hex-based, turn-based strategy game in a post-apocalyptic world. The feature set description on the game's web page is so well-written and complete that I'm just going to use it:
Turn based strategy game in a post-apocalyptic setting versus 1 to 3 AI opponents.

Hexagonal maps depicting the ravaged wastes of earth circa 2345 featuring 3 map sizes ranging from normal to huge.

4 playable factions each with unique units, art and playing styles.

Over 75 faction heroes lead your armies into battle. Heroes allow for larger, more effective armies and have their own special abilities that can change the tide of battle or even create new weapons and technology cards.

Over 200 unique units wage battle across the savage landscape; command infantry, cyborgs, robots, powered battle armor, armor, artillery, mecha, biomecha and many more.

Over 80 unique special abilities for heroes and units; abilities like multi-targeting, shock attack, double attack, fanatic, military genius and valor allow you to find exciting combos of play just like you would in a collectible card or miniatures game.

Collectible card game flavor without the expense. Each hero, unit or facility is a card that can be added to your play deck.

Board game mechanics. Roll a unit’s attack die versus another unit’s defense die and play special abilities and cards to alter the results.

Assassinate enemy heroes, sabotage enemy facilities, gather intelligence through espionage and stealth, hunt down enemy heroes and hold them prisoner.

Drop thermonuclear weapons on your enemies or load out your units with tactical nuke cards created by your leading technologists.

Customizable game parameters allow you to select deck point values, tile point values, map size, resource rarity, specials rarity, and victory conditions.

Challenging goal based AI agents see the same game you do and must gather intelligence, build armies and formulate plans just like you: “No cheating.”

That's right. 200 unique units and 70 heroes in a card-based deployment system. Board game mechanics (dice rolls) to resolve combat. Assassination, sabotage, and espionage.

Normally, I see a game description like this, try it out, and I'm woefully disappointed, either because the game isn't finished or because the programmer couldn't play balance the ambitious design.

Not this time. In a word, this game is glorious.

The game is polished and play balance is nothing short of superb--I've never played a game where risk versus reward was so finely tuned. The A.I. is very, very tough as well.

It's a game for people who like to think.

It's also remarkably attractive, particularly so for such a small dev team. The art work is first rate, and the music is terrific.

Oh, and if you're wondering about system requirements, here they are:

-Windows 98, 2000, XP, Vista
-Video: 1024x768, 32 Mb Video RAM (128 Mb Recommended)
-CPU: 800 MHz Processor (2 GHz Recommended)
-Memory: 256 Mb RAM
-200 MB free Hard Drive Space
-16 bit Direct Sound compatible Soundcard

That's got to be kidding right? This game has outstanding A.I. and all it needs is an 800MHz processor? No 3-D acceleration, either.

In other words, almost everyone can play this game--and everyone should.

I originally heard about this game from a thread over at Quarter to Three, followed shortly by a thread over at Octopus Overlords. The descriptions of the depth and variations of play in both threads hooked me completely, and I downloaded the demo.

And got totally lost. At first.

The unbelievable wealth of choices in this game gives it a stout learning curve, and the differences in how each game plays out means that there's no optimal strategy. I kept trying to find an optimal path, not realizing yet that because of the game's design, the only optimal strategy was to be thinking at all times.

Here's an example. I generally play as the Empire of Man, and I like to depend heavily on research (particularly genetic research), but unlike many other games, I can't conduct research with just a laboratory--I need a geneticist, which is one of the hero cards.

If I don't draw that card early in the game, I'm in trouble. Then I have to decide whether to discard lower-value cards in my hand to keep working through the deck--I might get the geneticist, but when the deck is out of cards, it doesn't regenerate, and I would have been able to put the discards to good use.

If I do get the geneticist early, and start researching, that's no sure thing, either. For one, research involves dice rolls--there are no guarantees, and each failure consumes some of my action points for each turn, as well as the resources used to conduct the research (which can be very high, depending on what I'm trying to create).

There's also no guarantee that my geneticist is even going to stay alive, because she could be assassinated by a rival faction. So I need a reconnaisance route around her home base to continually search for assassins, and if one makes it through my defense, I need to have an evacuation plan for the geneticist.

See what I mean about depth? That's just one tiny fragment of the game, and it requires a series of decisions that require me to evaluate risk versus reward very carefully. There are literally hundreds of decisions in a single game that require that kind of careful consideration.
So even though the strategy I prefer involves research, I have to understand all my options, have well-developed fallback strategies, and play accordingly.

Like I said, it's a steep learning curve. It can be very complex, and I had my head kicked in on a regular basis for the first 10-15 hours, even with the manual beside me as a reference. But even then, I realized that this game was truly something special, and it's more than worth the effort to learn.

I hope to have the first part of a play guide up by end-of-day Thursday that will cover the first 15-20 turns in a game. Again, there's no set strategy, but I can help you with a few very basic strategies. I'll also try to have mid-game and end-game guides (again, not "optimized" but with basic advice) some time next week.

Here's the page you need: Armageddon Empires links page. From there, you can see the answers to basic questions about playing the game, as well as links from there to the manual as well as a demo.

It's a terrific, fun game, and I hope you enjoy it as much as I have.

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