Saturday, March 31, 2012

R.U.S.E - Review

Version Reviewed: ??? Latest Steam version as of review.
What I like: Slower pace than many RTSs. Beautiful landscape and useful zoom feature.
Not So Much: I’m getting too old for RTSs. Still gets hectic at times.
Other stuff you may like: Many play modes, multiplayer available.
The Verdict: B- (Good )

About my reviews

Official site:

With all of the recent talk about Eugen Systems’ recent offering, Wargame: European Escalation, I decided it was high time to finally play their older game, R.U.S.E. I had purchased it long ago during one of Steam’s sales and it languished in my library. Surprise! R.U.S.E. is a RTS set in WWII. You will command a familiar set of units - infantry, tanks, AT guns, artillery, etc. to meet your objectives. It’s slower pace may not appeal to those who enjoy hyperactive RTS, but may be appreciated by those who desire a more deliberate pace. While multiplayer exists, I didn’t exercise that aspect of the game at all as I am almost exclusively a single-player gamer. Like many of the games I review, multiplayer fans probably will get more out of the game than me as the mechanics themselves are enjoyable. Maybe my site should be One Guy, Too Many Single-Player Games Even When Multiplayer Is Offered.

Getting Started
The manual is fairly light, but does cover enough to get a good understanding of the game. The campaign acts as an extended tutorial, so those with prior RTS experience could jump right into the campaign. I’m rather anal when it comes to documentation so I preferred to read the manual even if not strictly necessary. The mechanics are not complicated at all to understand.

A 23 scenario story-driven campaign is available, along with battles, operations, and online multiplayer. The campaign uses cut scenes between missions to tell the story of your rise through the ranks as an American officer. Some scenarios seem to be loosely based, at least in spirit, upon real WWII operations and settings. This is not a historical strategy game per say, but more in the style of a WWII based action movie. The story was not that intriguing, but passable. The worst aspect was that the protagonist, who we are playing, was not that likeable. At times, I wished the game would let me choose his actions so I didn’t have to play such a jerk. Since this is a RTS and not a RPG, I just had to sit back and watch. The short scenarios can be completed in about 10 minutes, with some longer ones closing in on an hour. The campaign slowly introduces new units and ruses to the player. I played the campaign on hard and it didn’t get challenging until the 13th-18th scenario. After that there were several I found challenging. Once of the cool effects in the campaign is seeing battles ranging on in surrounding regions. It does nothing for game play, but makes the player feel part of something bigger.

Battles are engagements against the AI and have several parameters to adjust the play to your liking. Over 20 maps of various sizes are available to choose from, which determines the maximum number of players. The player can select a large map that supports 8 players, but leave some of the slots empty to create a wide open battlefield. Battles can be every man for themselves or split into teams. The time period defines the weaponry available and a time limit can be set so the game doesn’t go on indefinitely. Like campaign scenarios, operations are won by meeting objectives, but some of these objectives are just to outscore your opponents. Assets may already be present on the map at the start of an operation instead of the clean slate found in the battles. To be honest, I only touched on the battles and operations. After playing through the campaign for 30 to 40 hours, a handful of battles and an operation were enough for me. Since RUSE is a pretty good game I may revisit those aspects at a later date for my own enjoyment, but I tend to have a fairly short attention span. At times the AI seemed a little hampered in the campaign and more fluid in the battles.

Points are accumulated for your score by meeting objectives, destroying enemy units, and capturing or destroying enemy buildings. Victory in battles and some operations are determined by your score.

Game Play
Combat occurs on beautiful landscapes, crisscrossed with roads and rivers, painted with fields and forests. Attractive graphics don’t make a good game, but they sure do help. The player can zoom in to focus on one aspect of the battlefield, or zoom out to take in the big picture. This seamlessly morphs the display into a commander’s battle plan table. As the player zooms out, units in close proximity to each other combine to form stacks, which can be directed as a group. Zoom back in to order individual units. This works for the most part and is a great feature. Sometimes I did find I had to zoom in more than I wanted to get the units to separate enough to select, but it wasn’t a big deal. The last game I can remember that had such as useful zoom is Hegemony: Philip of Macedon.

Resource Management

Supplies fuel the war machine, and without enough you won’t field enough troops to win. Except for a small number of campaign scenarios, supplies are gained by building depots on special locations, after which supply trucks trickle back to your base to deliver supplies for use. Supply trucks always travel by road and are vulnerable to enemy attack, making good targets to disrupt the enemy. The AI will take advantage of unsecured supply lines. If a supply depot is destroyed, the location is free to be claimed by building another depot. Constantly destroying enemy depots can drain the resources of the owner, since the depot costs supply to build. Better yet, send in your infantry to capture the depot which will then fuel your war efforts. You do need to be careful with your resource management because if you don’t have the supplies to build a depot, you can’t claim the supply locations to generate more supply. Your headquarters usually generates a small amount of resources, but this didn’t always happen during the campaign. A couple times my carelessness forced me to restart as I couldn’t generate any new supplies.


In the campaign the player primarily leads the American forces, but during other modes of play there are 6 countries to choose from (Japan was also added via DLC). Before a particular unit type is constructed, the player must build its corresponding base (infantry and recon, artillery and anti air, armor, anti tank, airfield, and prototype for more powerful units). Once a base is placed for construction, headquarters sends out a construction unit to the location. This unit travels by road to reach the destination and can be destroyed by the enemy. Unit construction occurs pretty quickly, so planning in advance usually isn’t that critical. Many units can be upgraded to a stronger class, such as light infantry to rangers.

Units follow the rock, paper, scissor approach, but with some adaptations depending on the circumstances. Infantry is good vs. other infantry, but if hidden in cities or forests can ambush units, allowing them to down more powerful foes. Tanks beat infantry, AT guns beat tanks, etc. Units are rated for their effectiveness at fighting infantry, armor, airpower, and destroying buildings.

How Foggy Is the Fog of War?
Each side can see the location of all of the enemy units, but there are nuances to the system. If an enemy unit isn’t in your line of sight, you only get a general idea of what the unit is. When a unit is in your line of sight its exact type is revealed. Infantry and some of the other units can be hidden in cities and forests. These units are not revealed at all until they launch an ambush, or are spotted by an enemy unit. Recon units excel at discovering hidden units with their large line of sight, making them very valuable. Some of the ruses also alter these rules and will be covered later. Ground line of sight is interrupted by buildings and forests, while air recon doesn’t have that limitation.


Ruses represent the deception and misinformation of war. Every couple of minutes each side is granted a ruse to deploy, which can be banked for later use. The map is divided up into sectors and a ruse only affects one sector. Two ruses can be deployed in a given sector at the same time. There are 10 ruses in all and range from deploying fake buildings and assaults, hiding your units or buildings from the enemy if they don’t have line of sight, seeing enemy orders and units, increasing your unit speed, ordering your units to fight to the death, and reducing the morale of the enemy. Ruses didn’t have as big a role in victory as I would have thought they would, but are definitely helpful. In my opinion ruses should be slightly more powerful and less abundant, so they are special.  


Combat is pretty simple, select your units and click on the target. Before committing to the attack, the UI gives you an idea for your chances of success. Units automatically engage enemies within their range of fire. A unit will try to withdraw from battle once too much damage is inflicted upon them. If they can relocate to a safe spot to recover, the unit can return to battle. Since there isn’t a strength or combat readiness value, I assume they return at full strength. Since this recovery period isn’t very long, morale is definitely handled as one might expect in an RTS and not a more serious wargame.

User Interface
The UI is pretty typical for a well-done RTS. Panning, rotating and zooming the map are all easily accomplished. Building units is also made simple. Select the unit from the ever-present menu, or use the appropriate hotkey and click the spot where you want the unit to deploy to. No panning the view back to the base is necessary.

The UI displays all of the relevant information the player needs to track: supply balance, number of ruses available, what ruses are deployed and how much more time is left before they expire, how much time is left in the scenario, and the current score.

Planes can be quickly selected to attack enemy units and buildings and return to their airfield when out of ammo or fuel. All in all the UI assists the player with the management if their units.

There are scripted moments in the campaign that cause a change of view which is sometimes disruptive. It is compounded if it occurs when trying to produce units or give orders. It occurred enough to annoy, but not to totally ruin the experience.

Difficulty and AI

As mentioned earlier, the campaign was pretty easy until the later scenarios, even when playing on the hard difficulty setting. In the campaign at times the AI would attack with forces much too weak to cause significant damage, and wouldn’t claim some of the supply depots. I didn’t notice these issues in the battles. Perhaps the campaign scripting prevented the AI from making optimal choices. On hard, the AI did best me a couple times in the battles and was pretty aggressive.

Graphics and Sound
The terrain is quite attractive and is quite a sight both zoomed out and at close range. The unit models are detailed enough but aren’t in the same league as the terrain. Frequent verbal alerts are given when buildings are complete, a unit is destroyed, and other pertinent moments. Sometimes the chatter was a little too frequent, but was better than no feedback at all. It would be hard to find fault with the presentation of RUSE.
Unidentified units displayed as counters
Units spotted with spy ruse

Technical Performance
The game performed flawlessly without any crashes or hiccups.
My Specs: Windows 7 64-bit. Intel Core i7 860 @ 2.80 GHz. 8 Gig RAM. ATI Radeon HD 5850.

In The End...
R.U.S.E. sits somewhere in between a typical click-fest RTS and a more cerebral strategy game. The pace is slower than many RTSs, but can still get hectic with the number of units and large area to cover. It can be just my age starting to show as my brain and fingers aren’t as nimble as they once were. I would have appreciated the ability to pause the game and still issue orders. Such a feature would have emphasized the strategic elements of the game. RUSE made me realize that I really do prefer turn based games, or at least pausable real-time games. I don’t enjoy the feeling of being rushed and like a more deliberate pace - even though this is a slower pace than most RTSs I have played. I’m getting too old. During lulls in the action the ability to speed up time would have been appreciated too, but like real life time can’t be altered.

The AI generally plays a good game, especially in the battles. It did fall into some patterns at times where I could survive an onslaught and then counter attack. Sometimes in the campaign nearby units didn’t help allies or the AI didn’t develop available supplies.

There were times when I wish Eugen Systems favored realism, such as when an AT gun placed within a forest could fire through the forest to hit a tank on the other side, but all in all RUSE succeeded in straddling the line between a typical RTS and a deeper strategy experience.

Score: B- (Good)

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Gratuitous Tank Battles: Preview

Version Reviewed: Beta 1.002

Official site: Gratuitous Tank Battles
Disclaimer: This preview is based on a free copy provided by Positech Games.

Many people have probably heard of Gratuitous Space Battles (GSB) and the accompanying expansions. Did you know that the gratuitous battles are making their way to planet Earth? Even though I never got beyond the demo for GSB, I always appreciated the name. These are battles just for the heck of it. There isn’t any base building or resource harvesting, just bullets, lasers and death.

What if WWI never ended, and instead of being limited to bolt-action rifles and machine guns there were mechs, lasers and shields (oh my). The bolt-action rifle and machine guns are still there, but I imagine they have been improved somewhat since almost 200 years have passed. Gratuitous Tank Battles (GTB) takes you to this alternate history.

GTB is basically a tower defense game that allows players to customize their units and lets the players go on the attack. There are online components, such as recording challenges for other players, sharing user-created maps, and an in-game messaging system to communicate with your fellow players.

I got the impression that GTB is feature complete (it is a beta build), and that balancing and bug fixes are the focus of remaining changes.

Getting Started
The manual does a nice job describing how to perform tasks within GTB, while injecting bits of humor and back story. The humor does add a little bulk to the manual that doesn’t directly contribute to learning the game, but not too much. It’s a matter of personal preference whether you like some personality added to your game documentation. While I never felt lost after reading the manual, I do feel it could have covered some of the combat calculations in detail, which I’ll get to later.

An in-game tutorial also exists to introduce players to the game who don’t wish to read the manual. The first time each screen is visited, some helpful text is displayed introducing the screen components and can get the impatient player into the game fairly quickly. The tutorial is mostly just text boxes, with the occasional press this or that.

A fairly short linked-scenario campaign exists. User-created maps and challenges can be downloaded within the game to increase the overall content. Virtually all of the scenarios can be played as the attacker or defender. For added variety the user can play against a scripted AI, or let the AI adapt to your game play and have freedom to choose its own units. This is a nice feature for those players who wish to play scenarios multiple times with different strategies, while the scripted AI lets players try to crack the same nut multiple times until they are satisfied with their performance. There are 3 difficulty levels when playing against the non-scripted AI and I found the default to be a good challenge.

Game Play
Writing a preview for GTB presented me with a proverbial chicken and the egg problem. Which comes first, designing units or fighting battles? Personally I jumped into the battles and used the premade units to start, but I can imagine tinkerers going straight into unit design. Unit design provides a natural place to discuss the characteristics of units, so that’s where we will go.

Units and Unit Design – Basic Training
Units come in 4 different types (turrets, mechs, tanks, and infantry). Turrets are stationary buildings (think towers). Mechs and tanks are machine-based mobile units, while infantry are person-based mobile units. Turrets and infantry are used in defensive scenarios, while any of the mobile units may be deployed when attacking.

The starting point of any unit is its hull, which define the components that may be placed on the unit. While turrets, tanks, and mechs share many of the same components, there are many that are not available to all hulls.  Hulls also come in small, medium and large varieties too, so while a medium tank hull has 1 defense slot, a heavy tank has 2. Many hulls also have three flavors varying by cost and weight, allowing you to reduce the weight while paying a greater price when you deploy the unit in battle.

After selecting the hull it is time to trick out your war machine with a variety of components. There are weapons (how to destroy the enemy), defense (for saving your hide), target acquisition (better accuracy), loaders (how fast ammo is reloaded), propulsion (how fast your units move), and augmentations (give bonuses to your unit in a variety of categories). Typically the different grades of components in the same category just give greater bonuses at a larger cost and possibly a different weight.

Weapons are more complex and have a variety of statistics. Damage, range, rate of fire, effectiveness vs. armor / shields / tanks / mechs / infantry / turrets, ammo capacity, and reload rate differentiate the weapons that can be equipped on your designs. Out of all the different hulls I examined, I didn’t see any that had multiple weapon slots. The effect is that a unit will have a useful attack against armor or shields, but not both. It’s not difficult to discern the effect of most of the weapon attributes and you can get a pretty good idea of the firepower based on the damage, fire interval and accuracy. It is more difficult to judge how much of an effect the range will have on a unit’s effectiveness.

Weight becomes a factor when playing attacking scenarios, as a heavy unit is a slow unit. Different grades of propulsion systems can help mitigate the weight of heavier designs, but in general heavy units are slower than light ones.

There are also a variety of cosmetic customizations those so inclined can perform to tweak the look of their units. I practically never bother doing this in any game as I generally don’t care, but I did find it useful to modify the color based on what type of unit my design should be effective against. This technique makes deploying a unit in battle a more efficient affair, as when I saw a bunch of shielded mechs striding down the path I would build one of my blue turrets.

As the player completes battles, more hulls and components are unlocked. Unfortunately, the stats of the components are not displayed when it comes time to choose an item to unlock. Some information would definitely be welcome. GTB starts with many items already unlocked, so new players still have many equipment choices. I found it weird that in some cases the more advanced component was available before the less advanced one (i.e. Armor Penetration 2 was available before Armor Penetration 1). Perhaps this is just due to the beta status of the game.

Creating new unit designs is a very easy process, either by starting from an existing design or from scratch. Select a hull, drag and drop components, and let the killing begin!

This Means War!
Now that your arsenal is designed, it is time to wage war. I started with the 8 scenario campaign and played through to the end as the defender in a couple sittings. The player must obtain victory in the scenario to unlock subsequent ones. The goal for the attacker in any scenario is to get enough of his troops to the exit point(s) before time runs out. Each type of unit is worth a different amount of victory points, with infantry and supply trucks being the most valuable. The defender wins if he can prevent the attacker from reaching the goal. Each scenario has its own victory point and time limits, along with separate supply rates for each side which will be discussed later.

Like most tower defense games, units can only be deployed at predefined locations. There are generally many places to choose from, but you don’t get free reign. On offense you only have a handful of choices at the predefined starting area(s).

Supply is the currency of war in GTB and is used to purchase units. Each side has an initial supply allotment to deploy units before the timer starts to count down, but the player doesn’t know what the opponent has deployed until the timer starts. Once the battle begins in earnest, each side accumulates more supply at the rate defined in the scenario, which could favor one side over the other. New units can be deployed as your supply balance allows. One additional constraint is that different unit types have limits. For example, only 4 large turrets can sit in your inventory at a time. Once a unit is deployed, the inventory will slowly increase back to the maximum amount. The UI does a good job at letting the user know how many units of each type are ready for deployment.

Turrets take time to build depending on their resource cost, while other troop types are deployed immediately. Since only turrets and infantry are allowed on defense, I frequently used infantry as a stopgap measure when the enemy breached my more solid defenses. This isn’t a good habit to get into as infantry seems more expensive for the amount of firepower they provide. It is odd, but turrets are more versatile in that they can be decommissioned for a partial refund, but infantry must stay in place once deployed.

There are also support units that provide a bonus to units in range, such as repairing or healing units and increasing their rate of fire. Mobile versions of these are available for the attacker. They do add a nice strategic choice – build more units or improve the ones I already have.

For me, the primary challenges on defense were:
- Keep an eye on new enemy units and build defenses to counter them.
- Determine where to build new units. Since they take time to build you want to deploy to where the enemy will be, not where they are now.
- Spend supply now or save for something better.

When on offense, your units march down the path from the starting point(s) to the ending point(s), while engaging the enemy on the way. When provided with multiple paths, they will try to choose the less dangerous one, but an alert commander can give a particular path priority. To be honest, I only played a couple of the scenarios as the attacker. I didn't feel compelled to play more as I express 'In The End'.

What’s Your Status, Sir!
After the battle finishes, detailed reports are available to determine how units performed during the battle. In theory, by examining the battle report an astute commander should be able to determine where they can improve. I have successfully played many tower defense type games (Defense Grid, Anomaly Warzone Earth, Unstoppable Gorg, etc…) and could always determine where I needed to improve when I failed during a scenario. For some reason, this eludes me in GTB. Most scenarios I beat within a couple tries, but I believe there were 2 in the campaign where I beat my head against the wall because I had no idea why I was failing. I was losing fairly quickly and just couldn’t determine what I needed to change to be successful. I eventually made it with some trial and error, but it was rather frustrating. Several people have commented that Unstoppable Gorg was difficult, and there were some scenarios that game me trouble, but I could always figure out where I went wrong (i.e. – I couldn’t handle the speedy units or have the firepower to take out the tough ones.).

Custom Maps and Challenges
If you decide you can’t get enough of GTB, you are in luck. The game ships with a custom map editor, that allows you to, well, create custom maps. I did some minor editing of an existing map and within a couple minutes I was easily able to edit the available paths the attacker can take, modify the terrain graphics, and designate tiles as defensive deployment areas.

I didn’t see anywhere within the editor to limit the valid unit designs for the scenario, but from examining the stock scenarios it looked like it could be done by creating some text files and putting them in a folder within your scenario.

The online map / challenge browser is pretty friendly too. Players can rate each submitted challenge for fun and difficulty, so it shouldn’t be too tricky to find the ones worth playing. This should add a lot of replay value for fans of the game.

Controls are straight-forward throughout, with options to perform them with the mouse or keyboard. As a whole I have no complaints about the UI as it is well-done, so I will mention the areas that don’t keep up with this standard. In general controls were responsive, but when zoomed in the mouse wheel zoomed back out much slower than I expected. This only seemed to occur when zoomed in pretty tightly. Another slight annoyance was that the slider button in the scroll bars didn’t always respond when I would click and drag them. Since the game is still in beta hopefully these issues can be addressed.

The available unit designs are in a horizontal scrollable list at the bottom of the screen. Unless you really differentiate similar designs it can be tedious to find them in the list. It would be helpful to have filters to reduce the list, such as only show units with laser weapons. Another option could be to let the user hide the unit for that scenario, or to disable it in the unit designer without deleting it. The panel that this list is on can also block the action, so the player can’t see what is going on. The panel can be hidden to reveal what is below, but then the player loses access to building units. I would prefer a stationary panel, but restrict the viewing area to above this panel.

Graphics and Sound
GTB makes a great first impression. The bold logo in the middle of the screen, surrounded by cool drifting smoke really sets the mood for some futuristic warfare. Inside the game proper I wasn’t as impressed, but the visuals are not bad by any means. The animations also provide some useful feedback, such as shields lighting up when taking damage. Music is fairly typical and somewhat repetitive. It could be right at home in a movie like The Rock. Guns make appropriate sounds. Nothing was bad, but didn’t knock my socks off either.

Technical Performance
Other than a couple minor issues that I would expect to be corrected by release, the game performed flawlessly without any crashes or hiccups. One error I encountered in the last build was corrected in the latest one.
My Specs: Windows 7 64-bit. Intel Core i7 860 @ 2.80 GHz. 8 Gig RAM. ATI Radeon HD 5850.

In The End...
Gratuitous Tank Battles puts me in an awkward spot. On the surface it appears to have the features that would combine to make for a fun game, but I had to force myself to play through the campaign. I’m at a loss because there isn’t an obvious problem I found with the game. The combat was hectic and challenging at times, but uninteresting. The player has a lot of choices when designing his units, but I didn’t feel compelled to do any more than I had to. If there were some truly unique and interesting abilities to design units with, the unit customization could have been an interesting aspect to the game play. In the end it’s essentially just rock, paper scissors – lasers beat armor, ballistics beat shields, machine guns and flamethrowers beat infantry. There is a little more than that, but nothing that really elevated it to the next level for me. I prefer the clearly delineated units in other tower defense games to creating my own variations. My guess is that fans of this series would not agree with me.

Even though I have a lot of experience playing tower defense and strategy games, there was an odd disconnect in my brain between the result of the battle and how I got there. Again, I am unsure why as I read the manual and understood the mechanics of the game.  

Perhaps part of my lack of enjoyment is that inside the game, none of the character that was narrated in the manual shown through. Defense Grid and Unstoppable Gorg oozed character through their alien pores. I don’t really play strategy games for the story, but an enjoyable narrative can take a good game and ratchet up the entertainment value. It does bother me to be this negative about a game that I only have vague objections to, but I know when I’m having fun and it just wasn’t happening.

That being said, I do think it is an improvement over Gratuitous Space Battles, which was even more of a black box to me. My guess is that if you liked GSB, you will like Gratuitous Tank Battles (perhaps even more). I do think GTB has the potential to pull in a wider audience too.

The support from Cliff at Positech has been outstanding, and even though GTB is not for me I wish him much success and I hope my opinion is in the minority. As a former software developer I enjoy seeing developers like Cliff succeed.

Monday, March 19, 2012

The Atari 2600 : Cutting Edge Add-Ons

Like many current computer game players, I cut my teeth on Pong and the Atari 2600. My paper route fueled my growing game obsession. At $40-$50 a cartridge, one game cost a week's complete earnings. By the time we moved from my childhood home, I had acquired over 100 different Atari 2600 games. It is depressing when  I consider how much money I spent, but what's done is done. There were two very cool 3rd party add-ons I owned and I never met another person who has ever heard of them. I know people are out there who played them because there are Wikipedia entries and YouTube videos showcasing them and I didn't post them.

The Starpath Supercharger
This device plugged into the base Atari 2600 unit at one end like any normal cartridge, but also connected to a cassette player line out. Games were distributed on cassette tapes. The additional memory provided by the Supercharger allowed for more advanced graphics. Escape From the Mindmaster featured very primitive 3-dimensional mazes and challenging puzzles.
see: Starpath Supercharger Wikipedia entry for more info.

The Gameline
Like the Supercharger, this device plugged in like a cartridge. Unlike the Supercharger, this device had a built-in modem and connected to a phone line to download games. These were fairly cheap and typically cost 10 to 25 cents to play. I believe you could buy access to a game for a week. There were also contests with Gameline credits as the prize.
see: Gameline Wikipedia entry for more info.

Do you have fond memories of these obscure gaming devices or other devices that were ahead of their time, or was I the only sucker who dumped their paper route money into these time sucks?

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Conquest of Elysium 3: Review

Version Reviewed: 3.0
What I like: Imaginative back story for classes and game mechanics, wide variety of monsters to battle and classes to play, lots of replayability.
Not So Much: Not a lot of choices to make, creature sprites too small, stalemates can drag on for too long, stacks of doom.
Other stuff you may like: Multiplayer (did not use).
The Verdict:  C+ (better than average )
Fans of multiplayer will probably get more mileage.

About my reviews

Official site:
Conquest of Elysium 3
Disclaimer: This review is based on a free review copy provided by Illwinter Game Design.

Conquest of Elysium 3 (CoE3) is a turn-based strategy game in a fantasy setting. It is a game of exploration and war. There are no peaceful victories, as the only goal is to eliminate all other sides that stand in your way. Unlike many other strategy games of conquest, there isn’t any base-building, research to manage, or a complex economy. A wide variety of neutral creatures roam the land that will make you think twice before sending out a small scouting party as encountering a hungry Chimaera will make necromancer food out of even well-staffed armies. Whether by might or magic, your expansion will be violently opposed. Since I have only tinkered with the Dominions 3 demo (another game created by Illwinter) I cannot compare these two games, other than state CoE3 is much more streamlined and less complex. Whether you are a solo player (like me) or enjoy multiplayer games, this game has options for you.

Getting Started
Even though CoE3 is a streamlined strategy game, Illwinter provides very good documentation describing the game mechanics in detail. After reading the manual I felt very comfortable jumping in and starting a game. Unfortunately there are not any tutorials, interactive or otherwise, which are always welcome. Tutorials usually teach the basics of a game a bit faster than reading a manual, but the lack of tutorial didn’t slow me down too much.

CoE3 is a game of randomly generated skirmishes, without any form of story-based campaign or hand-crafted scenarios. I do enjoy a well-done story-based campaign, but the randomly generated skirmishes do provide a great deal of replayability. My guess is that Illwinter would do a wonderful job at creating a story-based campaign as they seem to put a lot of effort into creating an interesting back story for their character classes.

I suspect using the random map generator is the most common way to play CoE3. There are 5 map sizes, ranging from tiny (30 x 20) to enormous (70 x 52). Most of my games were played on a large map (50 x 36) and I estimate they typically lasted several hours. Custom maps can be created with the included map editor, but none are included with the game. There are also 6 different societies to choose from, representing the time period the game occurs in and effects many aspects of the game world – size of settlements, number of bandits roaming the land, and other map features. This can have a noticeable effect on the game as resource availability is affected.

There are 17 different classes to select from, each tweaking game play enough to provide at least a moderately different experience. The main distinguishing features between the classes are what kinds of troops are available and are how they are acquired, which resources are of primary importance and any special rituals available. For example, the Necromancer can raise the dead from battle sites and settlements at the risk of losing their sanity, while the Baron receives yearly conscripts from controlled farms, hamlets and villages. Demonologists can summon politicians (I mean demons), but had better offer enough campaign contributions (I mean sacrifices) or risk losing control of said demon.  Enchanters can create portals for faster travel through the lands. This is only a small sample and the manual does an excellent job at describing the details of each class. For some class descriptions brimming with atmosphere and personality, check out Tom Chick’s game diaries.

A total of 8 different players can be added to the game and can be set to a specific class or randomly assigned one. The player can individually change the difficulty level of each AI player from a set of 10 choices. More advanced levels provide resource bonuses and access to more powerful troops to the AI players.  

Game Play
Winning is achieved by crushing all enemies. A player is eliminated from CoE3 when all of their commanders or all of their citadels are lost. Commanders are special troops who have the ability to move about the map without the aid of any other troops. Typically, they are also leaders – they can be grouped with other troops, allowing non-commanders to travel the lands. While commanders are typically stronger than grunt units, they will quickly be eliminated without an escort. Citadels are the structures where troop recruitment can take place and vary depending on the class.

Look and Ye Shall Find
Like any game about exploration, the initial view is limited to your starting point. As your troops go forth in search of resources and the enemy, more land is revealed. Once exposed, the terrain is always visible, but you must have an adjacent army or controlled map structure to see enemy or neutral troops. This fog of war is represented by a light grey shroud on the map. Some structures extend the line of sight to 2 squares when they are manned, such as the crystal tower in the screen shot below. Unfortunately, not all enemies are honorable and may employ stealthy units. The unlucky commander will locate them by stumbling into the same location. A well-prepared commander includes a scout in his army to uncover adjacent stealthy units. Surprises are better suited for birthday parties, not the battlefield. It is a pretty simple system that rewards scouting and holding structures that provide line of sight. I’m not sure the reward is enough though. Having certain structures provide even more line of sight would make them more valuable and worth fighting over. I am inclined to think that the AI isn’t savvy enough to try and avoid detection by avoiding these structures and try to find an approach to remain undetected.

The Lay of the Land
The terrain determines the travel cost into the location. Seasons also affect movement as winter’s snows make movement more costly. Formally impassable waterways can be crossed when frozen, but don’t be caught in a spring thaw as most unit types will drown. Some units are more adapt at travel through certain terrain. Everyone knows if you have to travel through the mountains there is nothing better than being a dwarf. Mountains and certain structures also provide a defensive bonus to troops residing at that location and can be the deciding factor in a close battle.

A Simple Economy
Terrain also dictates where certain resources are found (forests have herbs and fungi, hills and mountains may have mines, etc…) and the season makes some resources more or less plentiful. There are no structures to build or techs to research. The economic side of CoE3 is very simple. Move one of your troops into a square with a resource to claim it and the resource is collected until an enemy or neutral unit takes control away from you. Important resources should probably be protected with troops, or at the very least an army stationed not too far away. There can be a lot of neutral units about and can be quite aggravating to have them steal unprotected resources. 

Units and Armies
Typically troops are acquired by recruiting them at a citadel at the cost of resources. Acquiring additional citadels is important to increase your capacity to recruit more troops per turn, as each citadel can only recruit one group of ‘standard’ troops per turn. At times, special mercenaries become available and can be purchased in addition to standard troops. Some classes have additional methods of acquiring troops, such as summoning, charming, and reanimating the bodies of fallen troops.

Action points (AP) dictate how much a unit can get done in a single turn. There are slow (2AP), medium (3AP), and fast (4 AP) units. APs are spent on movement or special actions while entering battle uses up any remaining points. One interesting twist is that you can complete an action, such as move into a mountain square, even if you only have some of the required AP. In this situation remaining APs are deducted the next turn, so you may get caught with your pants down and unable to react to an approaching enemy.

There is a great variety in the types of creatures encountered in Elysium. Each unit has some basic statistics determining how much damage they can take before death, susceptibility to fear and magic, and the amount of damage they can shrug off from successful attacks. There are many special abilities on top of these base attributes, such as causing fear to the enemy, taking less damage from certain types of attacks, regenerate during combat, and exploding upon death. The combination of all of these characteristics gives each unit its own distinctiveness. This is perhaps one of CoE3’s greatest strengths.

Units gain experience over time and through battle, with four levels of experience providing moderate benefits. In my opinion, gaining experience over time should be capped. To me, this represents a units training. A unit that doesn’t see battle for 100 months shouldn’t be as experienced as a more battle tested one. Also experience through combat is the same whether one weak enemy or a dozen powerful creatures are defeated. This system is too streamlined for my tastes. After providing such varied units it seems a shame that some systems are rather limited.

While the combat model has many factors, it is a hands-off affair. The player’s primary influence is deciding the unit makeup of his army as some units are much better suited to do battle against some creatures. In one game I was fortunate to summon an invulnerable (can’t be harmed by normal weapons) creature while one of my enemies didn’t seem to have any other method of causing damage. Promptly taking advantage of these match ups unquestionably brings victory much faster.

Spells can be the deciding factor in battle and the player can adjust his spell caster’s memorized spells before the confrontation starts. In practice I have found that the default selections are almost always good choices, but there may be enemies where it is worthwhile to change the memorized spells. It could just be coincidence with the spells my forces acquired, but perhaps not. Once the battle begins, the spell caster will randomly select memorized spells to cast. I definitely prefer a more hands on approach as there aren’t a lot of decisions to make. Creatures also have slots to equip magic items, further augmenting their abilities.

Combat is at its best when there are less than 40 units or so involved. Stacks of doom (huge armies) detracted from game play in Civilization 4 and the same applies to CoE3. Once the stacks contain too many units it becomes rather tedious to evaluate enemy armies. This is exacerbated by the small unit icons and having to either remember all of the attributes of each unit or right-click on each one to view the statistics, abilities, spells, etc…. CoE3 would benefit from enforcing a command limit on leader units to limit the army size. Perhaps this limit could increase slightly with battle experience. In any case, evaluating a battle with 500 units wasn’t my idea of fun. A unit summary line for each side allowing the player to see how many units of each type there are at a glance would also help. After some experience it certainly gets easier predicting the outcome of a battle.

One of the characteristics of a unit is what battle rank it occupies during combat. Melee fighters typically are in the front rank, ranged units in the middle, and spell casters in the rear. The defenders always attack first. Each unit performs their attack in turn, starting with the rear rank and working up to the front rank. Then the attackers take their turn. Once one side is eliminated the other is declared the victor. Since ranged units and spell casters are usually weak in melee combat, you have to make sure they are protected by enough melee units. Some spells and attacks are not limited to attacking the front ranks, so don’t let your strong front line lull you into a false sense of security. I think it is a mistake for the game to always have the defender attack first. The defender already receives a defensive bonus if they occupy favorable terrain and a strong defensive force can significantly damage the attacker before they get a chance to act. The current system promotes turtling a little too much. A balanced initiative system that allows a mixture of units from each side to attack in turn would be more enjoyable in my opinion. Perhaps the defender could get a bonus to initiative to model the difficulties for an attacker to overcome a prepared defender.

Decisions, Decisions
Practically all meaningful decisions revolve around the management of your troops and the spending of your resources. Since one never knows what type of mercenary will show up, a player has to decide if they will spend their resources on standard troops or wait for the much-needed scout or commander. Also, certain classes can use resources to ‘level up’, so the choice of saving the resources for a permanent upgrade or spending them now on troops becomes important.

How many troops should be left to protect acquired assets vs. how many to take on the offensive? Should I create a stack of doom or spread out to cover multiple areas? These are questions you will ask yourself. Some neutral wondering monsters are pretty tough and can easily defeat a weak detachment guarding one of your mines or performing scouting duties.

Some of the systems could benefit from being made a little deeper. For example, if a demonologist performs too many sacrifices at a town, why not reduce the income generated from it?

Difficulty and AI
My games were all played on the default difficulty level where the AI doesn’t receive any bonus and I had a mixture of results. The AI will take advantage of unprotected resources or weak armies wandering about. When I took care to protect my commanders and citadel I usually didn’t have a large problem obtaining victory. The AI did battle me to a stalemate in game where I gave up, so I would chalk that up as an AI victory. In another game the AI barely expanded, even though it took me a long time to find his position. I have no idea what he was doing.

The AI did seem to know when to avoid initiating a fight, but would sometimes venture too close to one of my stacks and get caught. I also baited the AI to return to a location by repeatedly taking one of his resources until I could get a stronger force in the area to eliminate him.

Much of the difficulty comes from the random starting location, along with what neutral creatures are roaming through your area. A strong neutral stack can put a damper on your resource grab and expansion. Luckily for the player the neutral stacks seem to wander about in a random fashion, passing by resources more frequently than claiming them. For some creatures this probably makes sense, but for intelligent ones (or bandits) they should probably go for the resources a bit more. If they do this I never noticed.

User Interface
Once you get accustomed to some of the non-standard behavior it isn’t bad. Terrain information displays at the bottom of the screen when your mouse hovers over a map location. Many items display information when the user right clicks on it. Unfortunately the use of hint / info messages was a little inconsistent. During game setup the difficulty levels didn’t have any in-game explanation. The same was true for the demonologist rituals and sacrifice level, along with the rune smith rituals. I didn’t go back to check everything so there may be more.

During the initial game setup the player can’t back track to a prior step if they decide to change a setting. Nor can they quit all together. They must finish setting up the game, then fully exit the program, start it back up and start anew. This isn’t as bad as it sounds since the game starts up quickly and there are only a handful of settings, but it was annoying in a couple situations. On a related note, the player can save the game anytime he wants, but can only load the game from the main menu. This means you must save, quit the program, start it back up and then load the save from the main menu. Illwinter’s wanted to dissuade people from cheating by reloading a save when things go bad. In many games it is too tempting to become lazy and abuse the save system, but in the end I think it should be the user’s choice. After all, it is the player who should decide how they have the most fun. I can understand limits in a multiplayer game, but not when playing solo. At least the game starts up very fast.

Resource balance and income is displayed on the primary screen and right clicking displays the sources and any income calculation. It is valuable to have this information at your fingertips to plan your actions.

Troop management is made simple with a variety of features. This is good since troop management is where a player spends the most time. The unit management screen displays all troops grouped by their commander. Clicking on a unit jumps to its location on the map. The player can also iterate through commanders with remaining action points at the press of a key. If a commander is going to stay put for an extended period of time, give him the sentry command so they are skipped when iterating through the commanders. One aspect of troop management that is weak is the only way to view which units are injured is via a hotkey on the unit transfer screen. The only way to view how injured they are is to right click on each one to view their hit points and to see if they received any permanent battle wounds.

I also wish the combat screen had a button for stepping through a single attack. Watching a single attack would get tedious in the long run, but would help to understand the combat mechanics when starting out.

There are lots of hotkeys for those inclined to learn them.

Online / Multiplayer Features
CoE3 can be played with multiple human players via either hotseat or network play. One player starts a game as the host and players join by typing in the hosts IP address. Play by email or match making services are not available. I am strictly a solo player, so I am unsure how the multiplayer experience is.
There are no online features aimed at the solo player, such as a scoring or leaderboard system.

Graphics and Sound
The graphics are primitive, even by turn-based strategy game standards, but doesn’t interfere with the game play for the most part. I found the terrain to be clear, but smaller elements are sometimes difficult to spot. I had the most trouble spotting one of the camps, even after I knew its general area. One nice graphical feature is the ability to seamlessly zoom out to view a large portion of the map. The mouse wheel zoomed slower than I would like and there wasn’t an in-game option to configure its responsiveness. The units on the main map are easy to distinguish when zoomed in fairly close, but during the battle view the units are so small it is difficult to tell similar units apart.

Combat sound effects are even more basic than the visuals, but truthfully it doesn’t matter so much in a game like this. Where the sound shines is the musical score. I have yet to see a comment about the music that didn’t praise it and I have to agree. I’m sure I have heard each song many times over and it never becomes grating. A big step up from the Tropico 4 soundtrack.

Technical Performance
The game performed flawlessly without any crashes or hiccups.
My Specs: Windows 7 64-bit. Intel Core i7 860 @ 2.80 GHz. 8 Gig RAM. ATI Radeon HD 5850.

In The End...
My first inclination was to dislike CoE3 for its lack of choices. I enjoy the city building and research aspects of games like Civilization, so the lack of equivalent features seems like a hole in need of filling. This is compounded by the lack of tactical control during the battles. After playing the different classes I began to enjoy the game more. While the basic focus remains the same for each class, there are enough differences to make each class feel fresh. Combine the variety of classes with the random map generator and you have a lot of replayability. The variety of units and their abilities makes evaluating enemy armies challenging. The opposing forces of expansion vs. protecting what you have creates a welcome tension in the game, as does deciding whether to spend your resources now or save them for a greater benefit later. Players who enjoy role-playing or have an active imagination can probably create some interesting stories for their games. Conquest of Elysium 3 is not a game that will keep me hooked for a week at a time, but will be a pleasant distraction in between other games. I hope future iterations in this series make improvements to take it to the next level.

C+   (better than average )