You Are Not Who You Think You Are

I fall in love at the drop of a hat. I haven’t lived long enough yet to recognize this as a failing, as some do. I like to think it’s a charming quirk at worst.

I don’t remember how I first stumbled across the Supreme Ruler 2010 website, but when I did, I fell immediately head-over-heels for the game. It was last year some time, and SR2010 was in the independent game maker’s development hell. Add a feature, push back the release date. Squash a bug, eliminate the release date entirely. Still, there were screenshots on the website; busy, multi-colored affairs festooned with tiny nuclear power plants and humvees. I remember reading an article in the New York Times about people who saw colors when they heard music; the average SR2010 screenshot looked like what I imagined those people saw when an orchestra was tuning up.

The website features list bubbled over with caps-lock enthusiasm. Supreme Ruler 2010 was to be a grand strategy game with an “EXTENSIVE ECONOMIC AND POLITICAL MODEL,� and would incorporate “SATELLITE IMAGERY� for “over 200 Regions World-Wide!� What could not be loved about such a game?

I have played strategy games for as long as I have played any games at all. As a child I learned chess from my uncle, who (according to my grandmother, at least) could have been a grand-master had he not chosen to be an accountant instead. At that age I thought nothing of the trade-off implicit in that statement, and focused instead on my excitement at beating someone of skill whenever he let me win.

My first video strategy game was probably Centurion: Defender of Rome for the Genesis. Coupled with its theme (which capitalized on my childhood obsession with Roman history) the poor AI immediately made it my favorite game ever. In a mere afternoon, my legions could subjugate the Mediterranean world, and I would be proclaimed Caesar. What more gratifying experience was there to be had than daily global conquest? Strategy games became my preferred genre from then on.

As I grew older, I hungered for more complexity and more challenge. I learned that other strategy gamers not only played games of greater width and breadth, but even had a name for themselves: grognards. I wanted to be a grognard too, and soon began saving money for PC strategy games (for the PC was the gaming device of choice for the true strategy gamer). I set out to find a PC game in the vein of Centurion.

My father (who had become an avid gamer in spite of himself) and I found Civilization II to be almost perfect. Here was a game where I could re-create my successes from Centurion, but on an even larger scale. Why start in Republican Rome when you can start at the dawn of time? Why conquer the known world when you can conquer the whole damned thing? Still, I wanted more depth, from the diplomacy in particular. Non-aggression pacts and what not were all well and good, but I wanted to sell arms for hostages! I wanted to demand retribution for Jenkins’ ear!

Our next find was X-Com, a squad-based tactical strategy game. Now this was a game that was rife with opportunities to complicate it. I could take my homogenized group of soldiers and assign them to squads and give them individual responsibilities within each squad. I could come up with an organized method for base nomenclature. I could devise overly-intricate tactical maneuvers for my troops to execute. It was almost perfect. It only lacked the scope of Civilization in order to achieve divinity.

In the ensuing years, I’ve played my share of strategy games, but none have really captivated my attention like those games from my youth. Games like Harpoon never really floated my boat. It’s not that I’m not a true grognard, mind you; I just need a game with better graphics than the ATM at 7-11. The trend in popular strategy gaming had become accessibility, which necessarily dictated a move towards less complicated, more streamlined games. Any games that had come out with any predilections towards being global dictator simulators (Evil Genius, Superpower and its sequel) had fallen short in quality.

So there I was, replaying X-Com for the umpteenth time when I found Supreme Ruler 2010. The previews were like siren songs. Screenshots of treaties over free trade zones and mobilization of military reserve units tantalized me. I desperately wanted SR2010 to fulfill its potential and be a ruthlessly complex wonder of strategy game creation. I waited patiently until the game was released, with no fanfare. During my morning news browse, my eyes would dart to the review sidebar on Gametab, constantly rebuked by the (n/a) which always appeared next to SR2010’s entry, signifying that no reviews had yet been published. In my fantasy, the reviewers were so stultified by the game’s intricacies that they were too absorbed in the gameplay to emerge with a review. But I couldn’t justify buying the game sight unseen, not without a review.

A week after the game’s launch, the demo appeared on the website. The two hours that remained on my shift at work stretched on into eternity. As soon as I got home, I tossed the mail unopened onto the couch and worked my feet in tandem to get my shoes off while I downloaded and installed the demo. I started the first tutorial the way a child strips a wrapped birthday gift. The tutorial lectured me on the ins and outs of the interface. I impatiently demonstrated my grasp of the basics and moved on. I was eager to start banging my shoe on a podium. Next, macroeconomics were explained to me in excruciating detail, followed by a demonstration of how military units were commissioned and mobilized. This was all the depth and complexity I ever wanted, and I was exhausted. I hadn’t even launched a missile yet.

After a nap, I dove back into the game. I was absolutely resolved to understand its workings, and I was going to HAVE FUN damn it. I shotgunned through the rest of the tutorials and started a new campaign. Examining the map, I noticed that one of my neighboring countries was about half the size of mine. There was a wealth of other information to be had about that neighbor, but I seized upon this perceived weakness and rolled with it. I opened up the military advisor tab and noticed that I had a fair amount of infantry but no armor. Time to make tanks. The requisitioning menu offered me a dozen different flavors of tank, each with two dozen different varying attributes. I remembered the (n/a) on the Gametab entry, and for the first time understood it. I reached for a pad of paper and a pen, and started scrawling notes about the various tanks at my disposal. After a minute, a realization dawned on me. This was the game I thought I always wanted, but now that I had it, I didn’t want it at all. I was an imitation grognard, and I had been all along.

I fired up Civilization II, cranked the difficulty setting all the way down, and founded Rome again.

Comments

*Nelson Voice* Ha-Ha.

Great article, man.

So let me get this straight... you've been living a lie for a decade... basically yes?

I'll go get the noose.

Wow, great article Sanjuro. I have known the sort of disappointment you decribe -- disappointment with myself as much as with the game I'm playing -- many times. Part of me loves the idea of a Game To End All Games, a game so complex, engrossing, and all-encompassing as to provide years of gameplay value. But whenever there's a game that at first seems to fit that bill, but in the end comes up short, I can't help but feel that if *I* had been different, the game would have been better. As though the game *really were* that good, but *I'm* not devoted enough to enjoy it. The true fans of the game might brush me off like the Comic Book Guy brushes off Bart Simpson.

You and I have something else in common: Centurion was my first-ever strategy game, too! Although I played the DOS version, not the Genesis version. As I see things, that gives me at least an inch's advantage in case you and I ever break out the grognard measuring sticks!

Yeah, pretty much any game that has me taking pen to paper is in dire risk of losing me.

I feel that way about difficulty. With my spare time shrinking lately, I've been getting more and more impatient with gaming. As a result, I'll drop games if they don't entertain me in the first 30 minutes. Jade Empire for instance, didn't make it past the first battle with the raiders. Why? Because I had to load the game 3 times and died at the same place each time. "f*ck that" I said, I've got better things to do.

Except the game probably gets better later on, and I could always turn down the difficulty since I had it on the default. But I didn't even give it a chance. The moments of gaming goodness I've had always involve some form of difficult gameplay because there's no thrill to a game without any challenge. Yet I've dropped several games lately because I got stuck and just couldn't be arsed to keep going. I always feel like that's a failing on my part, even if the game is way too frustrating for it's own good

I just need a game with better graphics than the ATM at 7-11.

Seriously, I love turn-based strategy games but I have a hard time getting into them simply because most of them offer so little to me visually. I really loved Panzer General simply because I had a very good feel for what that unit on the screen was supposed to be. Not an abstract symbol with some text. See, I'm not expecting much, just try to meet my halfway here.

I also agree with Pyro. I don't play games to work at them. Brotherhood in Arms is a great example. Excellent WWII shooter, but it's more work than play. Everything is a damn procedure in the game. I traded it in before finishing the "first day" missions simply because it felt like more work than entertainment.

This is why I haven't bought Forza. In theory it sounds like fun, but I know deep down that I will despise the car tuning crap and over emphasis on realistic driving so I don't buy it.

So your reason for stopping isn't because the game is bad, but because it's too complex for you? That's good to know.

I understand exactly what you are saying. I've seen in far more often in paper wargaming (boardgames). Everyone has their level of detail where the chrome overwhelms the game (to them). There are people that feel perfectly content sitting around playing games with 4,000 counters, 4 separate map sheets, where a three month period of a long war may take 8 hours to play.

I am not one of them. I get why they do it, but like you, I need a bit more simplicity in the structure of the game. I want to feel like I've accomplished something, and I just don't have the time I had when I was young to throw two weeks away here or there to make minor progress on a game.

I realize anyone answering this question is a longshot..

How's the level of complexity compare to Space Empires IV or Dominions 2? I'm looking for a benchmark versus things I know I can handle

I don't think complexity is the issue. I've played games that were a lot of fun that were incredibly complex. Micro-management isn't always bad either. The problem is that some games make things more complex than they need to be.

Again, it seems to be the difference between working and playing.

Botswana wrote:

I've played games that were a lot of fun that were incredibly complex. Micro-management isn't always bad either.

Any examples? To me, the issue is needless complexity. When "chrome" overtakes the point of the game.

Well, a lot of people complained about the micromanagement aspect of Master of Orion II, but I actually liked it. Besides, you could turn it off. Alpha Centauri was the same way, though I admit that later in the game it did start to be a bit much.

Star Wars: Rebellion had way too much going on. You ended up spending most of your time just clicking through the events. You could try to ignore it and let the game handle it, but it would never come close to what was going to be necessary. After awhile it was just too much. Oddly enough, I still beat the game from both the Empire and Rebel campaigns.

I've sort of fallen out from strategy games lately. I think another good one though with lots going on was Jagged Alliance 2. Though the inventory management got to be a bit much. It really needed a better method for selling things off or trashing stuff.

Nice article Sanj'. And I definitely know what you are talking about. And the older I get the worse it get's. And I agree with Pyro (as I'm sure many other's do) about spare time shrinking and therefore wanting to get into a game quickly and not have to be 'schooled' to play it. (Btw way, I loved Defender of Rome. Ancient Battles too.)

I use to be quite the grognard. It's embarrassing to know I'm barely a strategy gamer anymore unless it's really easy and fun. Shameful!:>)

And to Sinatar...Forza is plenty of fun without all the tuning, but even with it, how it's presented is concise and easy. As Sanj' mentioned in a different post, you put your cursor and it gives a brief, yet informative definition and you at it quickly (or not). But again, not necessary. I forgot who, Thin' or Cold', but they won a challenge with just a stock car and very little tinkering (if I remember correctly).

Svlad wrote:

How's the level of complexity compare to Space Empires IV or Dominions 2? I'm looking for a benchmark versus things I know I can handle :)

Having only played Space Empires IV and not Dominions, I can tell you that SR2010 is far more complex than SEIV.

I thought Master of Orion 2 was a definite step back. Basically, the developer took all the bad parts of Master of Magic, and jammed them into MOO, ruining what was otherwise a pretty good clone of Spaceward Ho!

Svlad - It's more like Hearts of Iron 2 or Victoria. Somewhat more complex because you have to really understand your military units and how they work together. But in the same realm as those. The strategy game equivalent of Falcon 4.

That said, it's been very well supported, and when I have not had enough brain-bending at work, out it comes so that I can chew away at it for a while more. I like it, and it's gonna stay on the HD even if I just dabble at it.

Take a look at the Battlegoat Forums, they have some threads for tips and strategies that may give you a feel for what goes on.

Sanjuro - Now I understand your comments in the discussion. I understand, I was just looking forward to having someone to ask questions of, and trade strategies and such. Oh well. Civ is a fine game.

Out of curiousity, did you ever try Victoria or even EU2? What did you think?

Excellent read, Halo-Killer. I'm with Lobo. This site rocks. And so do you.

Wow, that came off like a candy Valentine heart didn't it? Be mine! Bleh.

Hmm. Civ. Als, if only you could play it in small bite-sized chunks. Like a PBEM CIV game! That's be great! yeah, Then you'd just have to find someone DEPENDABLE to play with and you'd have the world by the short hairs, huh?

As I spend more of my work week behind a desk and staring at a computer, I have less and less desire to sit in front of a computer and play games. I'm usually more than happy to let the WoW junkies have the PC while I play the X-Box, watch a movie, or read. It's sad but in a way, I don't care. Wierd. I always worried about getting older and losing my zeal for wargames and games like RTW and MOO. Now that it is happening, I wonder why I cared. I guess it's like going senile. Not so bad 'cause you don't notice.

There's a small part of me that hopes there wil be some sort of revival in my future. I think I need a vacation.

This article sums up my fear for Spore. I want to like it; I want that so much. I just don't know if I'll have the patience for it. I'm sure it will be immediately interesting, but I don't know if it will be immediately rewarding, and like an ADD kid, I'm finding that I need more stimulation to keep my interest. (I'm not sure if that's because of a mental shift I've taken, or because I have less free time, or because I already have good games. Anybody's guess, really.) The more I think about it, the more I figure Hellgate:London is going to own me for a couple of months.

I think it is a combination. But I believe the biggest factor is the lack of free time. Work, overtime, family commitments, and household chores leave me with little free time and little energy for playing when I finally get a chance to plunk down in front of the PC.

If I didn't have my PBEM wargames I would only play on Thursday and sometimes Saturday nights, if then.

Sanjuro, your great piece had kind of struck a cord with me. I miss getting lost in a game like MTW.

Great article! Centurion was one of my first strategy games, too...

And Civ II is one of my all time favourites. But I often wonder now, if Civ II were to be released NOW instead of a decade ago, would I have the patience to get to know the game? Or would I just toss it aside for a low-effort gratifying game of Half Life or GTA? I recognize the agonizing guilt when I get the feeling I'm just scratching the surface of a game but am too lazy to dig deeper. There's just too much choice nowadays...

But then again, a game should appeal to ME not the other way around. Rome: Total War succeeded where Medieval and Shogun failed: it dragged me into it, thanks to the new tutorial mode integrated in the campaign. When the tutorial ended I kept on playing and got totally addicted.

Micro-management isn't always bad, if every single part of it is fun. My example: Pizza Tycoon! Micro-management included blowing up your competition, holding pizza competitions, creating your own pizza's, hiring staff, trading weapons (and some food occasionally), doing jobs for the mob, ... and every single piece was fun. Which is not the case in many other games, often there's not even a point to it. Yet you feel guilty for not taking advantage of every nook and cranny of the game. For this, I blame the game not me

I have a confession: Hi everyone. My name is Larsson. (group: Hi Larrson) I'm...I'm a poser grognard. There, I said it. I feel better now. It's shameful but true. I browse websites looking for 'thinking man’s games’ with a superior smirk on my face. Disdainful and proud, only perusing games for adults, not 13 year olds with ADD.

Then, I truly confront looking at nothing but blurry pixels and staff level symbology, lines of supply, logistical development, combined arms coordination and hex stacking limitations. And, in the words made famous by Reservoir Dogs "I pussy out".

The best balance I've found is the Combat Mission series. Fairly realistic modeling, but with the visceral thrill of burning tanks. Dammit when I win a fight I want corpse to gloat over! Removing a counter from the map is not the thrill it once was.

Now if that BF2 demo would only download faster...

Awesome article Sanj, it was testicle-fresh.

What did you guys think of Star Wars: Rebellion? How does it compare to these uber-complicated games?

I ask because I am an ADD gamer, I grew up on shoot 'em ups and FPS and other twitch games of the like. But a friend once gave me Rebellion, and I loved it, even tho it looked like the spreadsheet kinda game that grognards were always talking about, and I owned that game on any difficulty. But, hell, I have problems handling stuff like Rise of Nations, or conquering Rome:Total War in a level higher than "Normal", so I wonder if that game was an anomaly or if it was too easy or why exactly is sushi so popular.

What did you guys think of Star Wars: Rebellion? How does it compare to these uber-complicated games?

Dirty skimmer.

From above -

Star Wars: Rebellion had way too much going on. You ended up spending most of your time just clicking through the events. You could try to ignore it and let the game handle it, but it would never come close to what was going to be necessary. After awhile it was just too much. Oddly enough, I still beat the game from both the Empire and Rebel campaigns.

Just to clarify on the events. It would be notices that you were out of resources on Planet X while Planet Y might have finished a fighter. I think about 10% of the game is actually moving your units and engaging in actual combat. At least after you've got some serious growth. Come to think of it, even early on you're mostly managing the different events.

The space battles could be very cool though if you ever had a formidable enough armada.

Mex wrote:

Awesome article Sanj, it was testicle-fresh.

What did you guys think of Star Wars: Rebellion? How does it compare to these uber-complicated games?

I ask because I am an ADD gamer, I grew up on shoot 'em ups and FPS and other twitch games of the like. But a friend once gave me Rebellion, and I loved it, even tho it looked like the spreadsheet kinda game that grognards were always talking about, and I owned that game on any difficulty. But, hell, I have problems handling stuff like Rise of Nations, or conquering Rome:Total War in a level higher than "Normal", so I wonder if that game was an anomaly or if it was too easy or why exactly is sushi so popular.

Star Wars Rebellion was a nice idea, poorly implemented. The problems there were the god-awful interface, and the feeling that the game could run on autopilot. I really wanted that one to work, but it didn't.

Interestingly, for me I don't think of "complicated" with respect to RTSs. One RTS may be a bit more complicated than another, but the "difficulty" in them usually seems to stem from how fast you can click. Note this is not the traditional "fastest clicker wins" insult to RTS. I really liked Rise of Nations, for example. I'm saying, however, that if you could slow just about any RTS down to something nearing turn based, they are not that complicated. It's the need to balance decisions under time pressure that makes them complex, not something inherent in the game itself.

That is not the case with turn based games, or games like Supreme Ruler 2010 or Hearts of Iron II, which I see as turn based games masquerading as real-time (SR2010 even has a turn based option as I recall correctly).

Again, I compare this to something on the board gaming front; the difference between Settlers of Catan and A World in Flames. Eventually, a game gets so many pieces, so much "chrome," that the game itself starts to drown under the weight of the complexity. You often notice this when you are doing things that are inappropriate at the stated scale of the game - e.g. moving individual named regiments in a grand strategy game.

SwampYankee is making me cry.

The biggest failings of SW: Rebellion were the horrible strategic and tactical interfaces. The game's designers sought to emulate the UI of Win95 in the game, and as a result the game required that the player open and manage dozens of small windows. At the same time, the player had to deal with a constant stream of messages about the various goings-on in the galaxy -- each one with its own window, if I recall correctly.

The game was supposed to be revolutionary for its 3D, ship-to-ship combat; think Homeworld, but in 1998 instead of 1999. Anyway, it was a total disaster, so much so that I decided that it was impossible to have successful 3D real-time combat in space, and was later shocked when Homeworld came out and proved me wrong.

I see Rebellion as the end of the Golden Age of Lucasarts. Up till that point, you could bet money that anything with LucasArts' name affixed to it was worth buying. After Rebellion, not so much. It was a disappointment of the highest order.

Hey, I read your reply Bots! I just wanted to know if it was like, harder or easier than those other uber-strategy games that are supposed to be so hard. I found Rebellion really easy to manage.

Easier, Mex. Much, much easier. Rebellion was a bit light even when compared to something like MOO2, which itself was streamlined nearly to perfection.

Oh, I was hoping I was some kind of untrained uber-strategist, but apparently I should be happy I can manage two kinds of shotguns in Doom.