Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Pandora - First Contact: Review

Version Reviewed: 1.0.2
What I like: Randomized and optionally hidden tech tree. Different take on city management. Very stable and quick AI turn times.
Not So Much: Poor manual only contains lore. Some features are a little light.
Other Stuff You May Like: Multiplayer
The Verdict: A solid entry into the 4X genre. While there is room for improvement this is a very good first version which can be enjoyed right out of the box. I hope the developers take it even further!

About my reviews

Official site: Pandora: First Contact

Disclaimer: This review is based on a free review copy provided by Slitherine / Matrix Games.


Once upon a time, in a land far, far away, there was a game called Alpha Centauri. Lots of people loved Alpha Centauri and Firaxis was happy. I haven't played it in well over a decade and don't remember the details of the game so this is where Alpha Centauri's appearance ends, other than being an inspiration for Pandora: First Contact. For those of you who don't reside in the Milky Way (Hey, nothing ever disappears on the internet. There may be readers outside the Milky Way in another 1000 years!), Pandora is a 4X game set on an alien planet. It plays similarly to a game like Civilization and contains most of the usual 4X trappings, while adding a couple new twists of its own.

Getting Started

Well normally I would say read the manual to start off, but since the manual only contains lore I would say you are free to skip it. I did. In general, I don't feel the need to read the lore about a game. Sometimes I read the flavor text within games, but I want to play the game. I wouldn't object to the lore being in the manual if the manual actually contained the instructions on how to play the game, but it doesn't. There are some helpful hint messages that pop up when encountering new aspects of the game and tooltips that go a long way to peer into the mechanics of the game, but they aren't enough to answer all questions.

Pandora contains the basic options one would expect when starting up a 4X game - world size, land formations, difficulty, pace of research and production, along with a couple more, but they are a little on the light side. There are only three types of maps - pangea, continents, and archipelago. There are 6 factions to choose from and no ability to create a custom faction. Each faction does feel different due to some pretty substantial bonuses, which somewhat steer the player towards a particular play style. This isn't to say you are  completely locked into playing a specific way, but there isn't as much flexibility as with Civilization.

While the bonuses do differentiate the factions pretty well, there aren't the other trappings players of Civilization have come to expect, like faction specific buildings and units.

Note: The game does provide simultaneous turn multiplayer, but this is only a review of the single-player aspect.

Game Play

The following should be familiar to any player of 4X games. Each faction starts on a shrouded map, ready to place their first city. It's so familiar I think I may have typed the exact sentence in a previous review.

The Economy

Pandora puts a twist on the tried and true Civilization model of city management and the economic game. Instead of assigning people to one of the city's surrounding terrain tiles, they are actually assigned roles. Farmers and miners work the land to generate food and minerals. When a person is assigned to be a farmer or miner, they automatically work the most productive portion of a terrain tile that pertains to their job, since a tile is capable of yielding food and minerals. Food and minerals are placed in the faction's stockpile to be used by any of its cities. This really makes sense for a space age game since one city should be able to ship resources to another city.

Cities don't increase in population by accumulating excess food. There is a natural growth factor. As the city's population grows, so does the growth rate. This is logical because when there are more people, there are more people making babies. For those people to survive, you must be generating enough food to feed them, or have enough in the stockpile to draw from. This feels more natural then the excess food method of growth and I rather like it. I do wish there were other factors that affected a city's growth rate, as this is a little too simplified.

When people are assigned the worker role, they generate production used to produce units and buildings. Each unit of production needs 1 mineral; otherwise the production capacity is decreased. People assigned to the scientist role generate research to give access to more advanced buildings, units, and more.

Would the toolbox of any planetary ruler be complete without a slider to adjust the tax rate? I think not! Setting a higher tax rate generates more credits, but at the expense of the city's morale. Credits can be used to speed up production, pay for building and troop maintenance, and grease the palms of other rulers' to buy their friendship.

Now all these workers doing their thing generate pollution; workers the most and scientists the least. Pollution makes people unhappy and reduces the city's morale. Not having enough housing also makes people a bit cranky. Morale has an effect on the productivity of the city's workers, so you don't want them to be unhappy for too long. One cool thing about morale is that your people will automatically migrate from cities of lower morale to those with higher morale. I've never really had to pay too much attention to it as something to manage, but it is cool nonetheless.

All of this is pretty easy to understand due to the tooltips, but I'm sure a manual would be of use to many people trying to learn the game.

The Lay of the Land

One aspect of Pandora that falls a little short is the terrain tiles. While there are some special locations that give different bonuses, there aren't any special resources to get excited about. One of the fun things in Civ is to find a source of a special resource. Pandora doesn't have any luxury resources or strategic resources. For those who don't know, strategic resources are needed to build certain units in Civilization. This makes acquiring enough of a supply a high priority and fuels the desire to trade and make war. Luxury resources are used to boost the mood of your peoples. Pandora feels a little flat in this regard since it doesn't have either, or something else to pick up the slack.

A Sense of Discovery

So the scientists are busy at work generating research and not before long they will discover one of the 100+ technologies. Researching a technology unlocks things that make your faction better in some regard - new buildings to construct in your cities, types of military units along with components to equip them with, general perks that immediately help your faction, and best of all ... operations. There are three features that make the Pandora tech tree stand out from many other strategy games. The locations of the techs in the tech tree are randomized, so the player doesn't always research the same techs in the same order. This presents fresh decisions each game instead of falling into the same pattern. Secondly, the visibility of the technologies can be limited to 0-3 techs beyond the ones currently available for research. This adds an element of surprise and discovery to every game. You just don't know what technology will be revealed further down the tree when you discover a new one. This forces the player to adapt somewhat the hand he is dealt. There is still some opportunity for planning depending on the option controlling how many techs get revealed. For those not feeling that adventurous, the entire tech tree can be revealed right from the start, but I think that would take a lot away from the game. The third feature is a little more subtle. There are multiple paths through much of the tech tree, so some techs can be bypassed entirely. Discovery could lead deep down one path without expanding another. This leads to interesting decisions about whether to try and make a beeline for more powerful technologies, which may take a while, or discovering the closer ones that provide a more immediate effect. There is a drawback to this randomization; the techs don't always progress logically through the tree - satellite reconnaissance leading to better recycling? It is a small price to pay for a set of features that adds much to the game.

Most of the technologies feel pretty typical for a 4X game, but where Pandora hits a home run is with the operations. Discovering an operation technology either unlocks a building or item that can be constructed. Once the building is built, its operations automatically generate every 'x' number of turns. Item-based operations are generated each time one of the cities produces the corresponding item. Operations are one of the highlights of the game and range from reconnaissance, unit repair, long range troop deployment and more. By 'and more' I mean some incredibly destructive weapons. Once acquired, select the operation, the target and watch the results.

I've seen the AI use some of the operations, but not others, and not with the frequency I use them. There is one operation that allows troop training, making them more effective in combat. It comes early in the game and performing it multiple times on a stack of troops really can boost their strength. I use them a lot, but I haven't noticed enemy troops with a very high level of training. Its liberal use should be a no brainer.

Some people may view this as a plus, but I think the pace of research is too fast. Even during the end game it isn't unusual to research a new tech every 1-4 turns. This can be tweaked with the pace setting, but that also affects production speed. Separate settings would be appreciated.

If You Build It They Will Come

What 4X game would be complete without the ability to build structures in your city to give various aspects a boost? If I counted right, Pandora has 36 such buildings. Most of them improve one aspect of the city's performance - troop strength, mining, farming, living quarters, pollution, research, production, morale, and tax income. They come in flavors of increasing strength as research progresses further down the tech tree. They are useful, but not too exciting. The lack of 'wonder buildings', like in Civilization, is sorely missed. The race to build my favorite wonders is one of my favorite parts of games like this. It is hard not to compare 4X games to Civilization.

The Big Stick

A 4X game isn't complete without some military conflict. In the early and even the mid game, the native life forms can be a threat. Of course there are the other human factions, who if not mollified can be a thorn in your side. Depending on the setting, the alien life forms may remain peaceful for a while or want to show you the door in a hurry.

Units are made up of 4 parts - the base class, weapon, armor and device. The class defines the base capabilities of the unit - infantry, tank, mech, boat, and plane. Weapons can only be equipped on particular types of units and may be tailored to combat certain unit types more effectively, or have some other perk to them - such as splash damage. Armor adds to the overall strength of the unit, making them more effective in most situations. Devices also modify the abilities of the unit giving them perks such as being more effective on offense or defense, able to see farther, attack multiple times per turn, and more. It combines into something a somewhat more complex than the typical rock, paper scissor system found in most 4X games. You won't get very far if you don't design your own units since the default ones are bare boned. Luckily it is a simple system to use and new designs can be created in less than a minute. I'm not a big fan of unit customization in general, but I didn't find this implementation too cumbersome. The unit workshop could be improved if it allowed the player to specify 'best available' for each option to reduce the amount of unit redesign as techs are discovered.

Units are rated for power (how effective they are at causing damage), speed (tile movement per turn), sight (how many tiles they can see), health (their current condition), and rank (combat experience). While units can be stacked (yea!), combat occurs between two units. This can make for some lengthy battles when besieging a highly defended city, but it is better than Civ V's 1 unit per tile limitation in my opinion. Stacks are susceptible to splash damage attacks, so that is something to consider before putting all of your eggs in one basket.

Pandora is lacking an interesting unit promotion system. As units gain rank, they are more effective in combat but don't acquire any special perks that can help make them unique.

The AI is capable of launching dangerous attacks on the player. It took me 4 games at the default difficulty setting before I achieved my first victory as I was wiped off the map in 2 of my first 3 games. Even after I got the hang of the game the AI would threaten and sometimes capture my cities. While it certainly performs better than the Civ V AI in terms of combat, it does sometimes attack a city with forces that don't have a lot of hope of winning. The AI also tends to keep a lot of the early game units without upgrading them. So there are some areas for improvement to up the challenge for the human player. The AI also can become predictable with their attacks, repeatedly going for the same city or two.

A helpful combat window is displayed to show the applicable modifiers, along with the suspected victor and casualties inflicted.


Diplomacy isn't horrible, but it is perhaps the weakest area of Pandora. The standard diplomatic options exist - non aggression pacts, map trades, economic and research treaties, alliances and declaring war. Greasing a faction leader's palm with some credits may buy some friendship for a while. Some factions are more predisposed to combat than others. It seems like the religious fanatics are the most trigger happy, followed by the militaristic one. With some effort you can keep almost everyone happy with you, but at the cost of how many credits? Factions will also demand tributes if they feel they have the upper hand, or offer gifts when they want to cement their friendship. There is also the cheaper option of just praising another faction to try and boost your friendship. It all feels very Civ Vish. While it is easy to see who likes you and who doesn't, it isn't clear as to why they do. I have no idea if close proximity affects the likelihood for hostilities or what factors are involved. The factions generally don't behave too crazily, flipping from friendly to aggressive, but there was a little of that.

After having a long time friendship with a faction, I decided the time had come for their land to become mine. I terminated my agreements and waged war. This didn't seem to have an effect on my relations with any other factions. It seems like if a faction attacks another faction that they are still friendly with, other factions should deem them less trustworthy. Then you can decide to take more time decreasing your relations by using the renounce feature so relations with your other friends aren't harmed, or attack quickly but at the cost of being viewed as deceitful.

It would also be nice if resource trading between factions was allowed, giving another motivation to have non-hostile relations.

Graphics, Audio and UI
So while Proxy Studios dropped the ball on the manual, they slam dunked the user interface. The main screen is uncluttered; important information is typically clearly displayed, events of interest each turn are displayed on the right and jumping to their source is just a click away. Research, production, and unit movement reminders are displayed prominently adjacent to the next turn button. Tooltips fill in most of the blanks. An economy window provides a sortable list of cities which can be managed right from the list. The diplomacy screen shows your relations with all of the discovered factions, the relative strength of each pertaining to their economy, military, research and diplomacy. My one complaint about the diplomacy screen is that the criteria used to judge the factions in each category aren't explained at all. I attacked and trounced factions that were ranked stronger than me militarily, so I think the rankings may heavily weigh quantity over quality. The criteria for the other categories aren't obvious either. The progress for the victory conditions is hidden away as tooltips for the corresponding tabs at the bottom of the screen. It took me a while before I stumbled across that.

The game does provide some popup messages for big events, such as a faction discovering nuclear weapons and black hole generators, or getting close to victory. Unfortunately for me it wasn't clear what the impending victory messages meant until I lost. Now that I know what they mean it isn't a problem.

The UI could also be improved by allowing the reordering of the build queues in each city. As it stands, to add an item to the beginning of the queue one must remove all of the existing items and then add the new item.

The graphics are good, but at the zoom level one is likely to play at some of the detail is lost. Zoomed in it is easy to see what type of weapon a trooper is carrying, but less so when zoomed out. The UI just gives it a clean crisp look that does its job and is pleasant to look at. I have no complaints.

The music was kind of forgettable to me, but this really isn't a drawback for me. It wasn't obnoxious or anything, just neutral. Really good music is more of a bonus than a requirement.


I've already mentioned the AI several times throughout the review, but I'll sum it up here. The default difficulty AI easily provides a challenge when learning the game and can be given more bonuses as your skill increases. It can put together successful attacks, but sometimes doesn't bring enough force. It does mix up its forces to some extend too. I don't think it quite knows how to take full advantage of some of the operations. City development seems reasonable, but they will squeeze an occasional city into pretty poor terrain.

Technical Performance

The game performed flawlessly without any crashes or hiccups. Even alt tabbing out while writing my review was smooth and caused no issues. Another item to note is that AI turn times were fast. Even late game turns passed by in a matter of seconds. In Civ V I would guess turns can take 5 times as long.

My specs: Windows 7 64-bit. Intel Core i& 860 @ 2.80 GHz. 8 Gig RAM. ATI Radeon HD 5850.

In The End...

After rereading my review I seemed a little down on Pandora, but as a whole that isn't the case. Pandora: First Contact is a very solid 4X offering, following many of the conventions of the 4X genre but adding enough of its own touches to make it feel like its own game. Research and the tech tree are strengths for me, along with operations. Operations almost make me forget about the lack on wonders, but not quite. If Pandora could add more techs that weren't simple, improve economy / production / morale / etc by X amount, research would be even more interesting. And add some wonders! I enjoyed having to learn a different take on the typical growth / production model of 4X games. Growth in Pandora feels more natural than the accumulate food method. I do wish it was a little more sophisticated, perhaps tie morale into the growth equation and have more things affect morale. Living in a city that is attacked should lower morale. Who works as productively when the threat of invasion is looming overhead?

The combat system is simple, but offers many combinations of forces with an easy to use unit designer. Because the designer is so easy to use it isn't a hassle to try and tailor your units to your intended targets.

Most of my complaints come from either missing some of the 4X staple features, wishing some of the systems were made a little more complex, or pertaining to game balance. I've made a number of suggestions in the game's forum. The developers have stated they are in this for the long haul, so I think the game will get improved with time. I think all of its weaknesses are fixable and they have a very solid base from which to build on. Pandora: First Contact is easy to recommend now and may get even better.

Edit 11/22/2013: I would like to add that I think the ability to produce wealth to obtain an economic victory is overpowered. Late in the game I was behind militarily. I moved most of my scientists to workers and produced wealth. I made 4-5% progress towards economic victory per turn. The AI continued to give me gifts even after I passed the 75% mark. Since 1 faction had black hole generators, they may have been able to wipe me from the map if they had enough time to break the non aggression pact and wait for the cool down to expire.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Dominions 4 - Thrones of Ascension: Review

Version Reviewed: 4.01
What I like: Deep mechanics, incredibly detailed world, excellent manual.
Not So Much: Information not always presented in an easy way.
Other Stuff You May Like: Multiplayer
The Verdict: If you have the time and love deep strategy games, give it a try. The world is detailed and immersive.

About my reviews

Official site: Dominions 4

Disclaimer: This review is based on a free review copy provided by Illwinter Game Design.


Dominions 4, for those who don’t know, is a strategic game set in a fantasy world with magic, mythology, and a whole lot of personality. The premise is a novel one – each player controls a different nation led by a pretender god vying to spread its religious influence. If successful, the pretender attains godhood and the game is won. The game supports human vs. AI and multiplayer via email or a host. My Dominions experience is completely in the single player arena, but many people swear that multiplayer is where the game shines.

The Dominions franchise has a reputation for being very deep and a little hard to penetrate. I would have to agree that there are a lot of details in the game and an abundance of content. I read the manual, all 100+ pages of it to try and digest the information. It is well-written and delves into the details of the game mechanics. I wish all strategy game manuals attempted to be as thorough as this one. Since I’m new to the game I wouldn’t readily realize if some of the details were missing, but I didn't notice information that was wrong. After reading the manual I did feel like I had a good grasp of the mechanics, but due to the vast amount of information I couldn't keep it all in my head as I began to play. I can’t imagine trying to play Dominions without reading the manual. In these days where it seems every franchise is getting streamlined, it is nice to play a game that isn't afraid to be complex.

Getting Started

Since Dominions is essentially a game of world domination having a variety of maps to play is important. There are 25 premade maps + 3 sizes of random maps. There is even a separate random map creator under the tools menu to create random maps of variable size. That requires an extra step or two, but it does allow for more control of the map creation process.

The peoples of Arcoscephale saw the coming of the new god and prayed. The energy stirred him from his slumber; the cries of the people gave him shape. Rob appeared to them in the form of a Gorgon, but he could have chosen another. If Rob’s advent was delayed he would have arrived with even greater power.

There are 3 different eras the game can take place in which affects the availability of nations and the magic in the world. There are dozens of nations spread across the eras, each with their own bit of history which feels consistent with the units they command. Some even have their own special twist on the standard mechanics. Most players will probably recognize the inspiration for at least some of the nations whether it is Greek mythology, Roman history, or something else. Even though some nations have similar units, they have their own set of stat tweaks or sets of abilities to give them a different feel. Other nations have much more noticeable differences.

Each nation has their own set of physical forms for their pretender god. The physical form defines the base stats and special abilities. In addition to these predefined abilities, the player gets to spend design points adding skills in schools of magic and dominion scales. There is a large variety of physical forms to choose from – blood spewing fountains, dragons, human forms, and more. Each form has its own back story which makes the world of Dominion a richer place to visit. The player gets even more design points to spend if they delay the arrival of their pretender god, which adds a nice strategic choice. And yes, I did just realize Rob the Gorgon is a girl.

The player also gets the opportunity to tweak some of the variables that affect the world – controlling the speed of researching spells, availability of money, or more. Most importantly for me is the ability to control the number of provinces players start with as I prefer to start small.

Game Play

The Economy

Like the Paradox family of grand strategy games, the world of Dominions is split into provinces of varying terrain. Terrain affects things like army movement, economic properties, spells and the likelihood of finding magical sites. The economic side of Dominions is actually pretty simple. Controlled provinces supply money and resources used to hire units and pay for their maintenance. The more provinces you control, the more money and resources available to train units. A handful of province buildings can be built, but there isn’t a huge variety here. It’s definitely not Dominion’s focus.

There are a couple of aspects to this system that make it interesting. Forts, a building that can be constructed, are the glue that holds the economy together. Controlled provinces don’t contribute their income unless it connects to one of that nation’s forts through provinces they control. Controlling expansion to make sure these lifelines remain intact is important.

Forts also provide access to recruit your national unit types. If a province doesn’t have a fort, only units native to that province can be recruited. These tend to be weaker than the national units. Forts also are efficient at utilizing the resources in its province and the surrounding friendly ones. More resources mean more units can be recruited from that fort. Fort development is one of the strategic choices regarding the world map.


And Rob spoke, “I need a prophet to help spread the word. Eurypylos, you will be he.”

A pretender’s dominion is the lands he exerts influence over because the people there believe in him. The belief begins in his nation’s starting province(s), but there are many ways to encourage is spread beyond the borders. First of all, the mere presence of the pretender will increase belief. How can people not believe if they see him with their own eyes? Temples can be built in the pretender’s name which helps spread the word, or the show can be taken on the road with units which have the priest skill. The pretender can also name a prophet to carry the torch of the fledgling religion. Inquisitors can even visit the provinces of rival pretenders to discourage belief in them.

Provinces that fall within the dominion of a pretender start to mold to his will. These are the scales that were set during pretender creation, scales of opposing values – order vs. turmoil, productivity vs. sloth, heat vs. cold, growth vs. death, fortune vs. misfortune, and magic vs. drain. Over time the pretender’s dominion will more closely reflect his will by migrating to his scales. Now you can see why it is an interesting trade off during pretender design, choosing less favorable scales for more design points.

Why is increasing dominion so important? For one, a pretender without dominion is nothing at all. He is eliminated from the race to become the one true God. A very real effect is the bonuses pretenders get in their own dominion and the penalties they get in enemy dominion. These can have a huge effect on their performance in battle. The bonuses and penalties also apply to the pretender’s prophet. Some nations receive special bonuses within their pretender’s dominion such as the ability to scry – free scouting reports that are more accurate than the ones provided my scouts. Armies have higher morale when fighting their pretender’s domain. There are more ways in which dominion affects the worlds. It’s important.

The only scale chosen during the creation of Rob the Gorgon is 2 on the sloth scale. This reduces income and resources in each province where sloth has spread (see my home province of Arcoscephale where there are 2 levels of sloth – the sawed wood), but also gave me more design points to be spent on my magic path skills. The reason I chose the sloth scale is that Arcoscephale philosophers get a research bonus in provinces that have sloth. It fits into their back story as they are modeled after the ancient Greeks, who used the extra leisure time provided by slaves to follow scholarly pursuits. It’s little touches like these that make each nation feel different.

To the east in Fowanshire lies a Throne of Ascension. Rob was pleased with its location as they usually bestow benefits to the nation that claims them. Legends say it is usually in the form of magic gems, but other benefits have been rumored. Once enough Thrones have been captured the other pretenders will be no more. I will be the One True God. We must send Pytho the Scout to see who is making Fowanshire their home because we must drive them out.

Capturing Thrones of Ascension is the default (and in my opinion most interesting) victory condition. It eliminates the need to completely conquer all other nations, either by military force or through the spreading of dominion.

Scouts are stealthy units that have a chance to remain undetected by enemy forces. They are useful for gathering intelligence about enemy troop strength. These scouting reports aren't perfect, but they are worth getting. There are other stealthy units too, even ones that try to seduce enemy commanders of the opposite sex or try and perform an assassination. These can be powerful tools in conquest, because units without commanders flee the field of battle. As you can see, we don’t have any useful information about Fowenshire yet because it hasn't been scouted. That little icon below its name specifies it is a wasteland – which produces less tax income.


If forts are the glue holding the economy together, commanders are the hammers used to get things done. Armies are useless without commanders – unable to move on the strategic map and will rout from battle. Deciding what tasks to assign available commanders is very important. They construct province buildings, conduct research, look for magic sites, cast rituals (spells cast at the strategic map level), and of course lead armies to go kill things. The amount of commanders that can be recruited per turn is limited; so many times you don’t have as many commanders as you want.


Rob the Gorgon had the seeds of magic power within him, but his people had not yet learned the spells to make use of this power.

The knowledge of spells must be learned through research. Only mages - units skilled in a magic path(s), or a few other types of units are capable of performing research. If they are assigned to research, they generate research points depending how skilled a researcher they are. Of course if they are performing research, they can't be traveling the world conquering lands in your name, so the need for research must be balanced with the need for spell casters. There are hundreds of spells divided into 8 schools of magic. Research is allocated to one or more of these schools of magic.

Knowledge of a spell isn't enough to cast it though. Each spell has a magic path requirement. There are 8 paths of magic that units can be skilled in to varying degrees. One spell may require a 3 level skill in fire magic, while another may require 2 in water magic and 4 in earth magic.

When deciding what schools of magic to research, take into consideration what paths of magic your pretender and units are skilled in as there isn't any benefit researching a spell that none of your units have the ability to cast. If you look at Rob the Gorgon above you can see he (she?) has 5 earth magic (hammers) and 4 nature magic (trees).

The magic paths you units are skilled in are fairly static, but can be improved with forged magic items or harnessing the power of magic gems gathered from magic sites. These same magic gems are also used to forge magic items and cast some spells, so choose wisely on how to use them.

Waging War

All the aspects of the game already mentioned are there for one reason, to support sending troops off to fight battles and take over provinces. The sheer number of different types of troops is staggering. Some are just basic variations of ranged units, light infantry, heavy infantry, cavalry, etc., but others are more fantastical. Dragons, mechanical warriors, summoned elementals; trust me when I say there are too many to mention.

While battles are hands off affairs, the player does have some control during the army setup. First, commanders can lead a limited number of troops based on their leadership. These troops can be organized into squads and can be positioned relative to each other – for example, protecting archers from melee attacks is generally a good idea. There are also a number of formations each squad can deploy in – box, line, etc. This mostly affects how easy it is for the enemy to get around your troops or break through their lines, but also has morale and speed implications.

Each squad can also be assigned a battle plan, such as attacking the closest enemy or trying to get to the rear most troops – which tend to be the missile units, spell casters, and commanders. Archers can be told to fire and keep their distance if the enemy starts to get too close. Taking out enemy commanders is a quick way to end the battle because without a commander the regular troops will rout. Getting to the troops in the rear can be difficult as contact with any troops along the way will stop their advance and force them to fight. Fast flying units have a much better chance to get to the rear unhindered. After the pre battle setup, you just get to watch the replay or view the after battle report.

Commanders also have their own orders. It is generally a good idea to keep them safe since if there isn't proper leadership for the regular units, those units will rout. Some commanders are tough enough to enter combat, especially your pretender and prophet if they are in your own dominion. Mages can be told to cast specific spells for their first 5 turns, but after that only general orders can be given.

The hands off battles are simultaneously one of the cooler features and most frustrating. The level of involvement feels about right for a strategic level game. It would be nice to have some sideline shouts ala Football Manager during a battle to give the troops some basic guidance. There isn't any type of troop browser, so even if you know you're facing a certain type of troop (based on sending your scout into the province ahead of time), there isn't any way to view the stats and abilities of that unit. This either forces the player to try and remember the strengths and weaknesses of the units, keep a list, or consult external information. The unit stats and abilities are incredibly detailed and interesting, but I just wish there was an easier way to consult information within the game. Once the battle starts the player can gather information by right clicking on units, but by then you're already committed. It would be very helpful to bring up some side by side information about both your troops and the enemy’s when deciding whether to launch an attack. Of course the enemy information would have to only include what is known via scouting, but could include some general information about the enemy nation – such as what kind of magic their mage units typically use.

Compounding this issue is the fact that the player usually only knows the main types of troops they will be facing. Scouting reports don’t include information about single units, like commanders. Since many commanders have spell casting abilities it is impossible to know what you’re up against. On one hand this is good. Not having omnipotence makes the world feel more real, but it is an obstacle to learning the game. When you consider that there are hundreds of possible spells, the learning curve is quite steep. After some learning and remembering the nation summaries, the player can start to get a feel for what they might be facing, but the UI should provide the tools to evaluate your troops in relation to a potential target.

Illwinter made the underlying combat mechanics quite detailed. I got giddy just reading about how it all works in the manual, which went into nice detail. I feel like I have to share some details. Attack determines the likelihood of a melee hit, while defense is hit avoidance. Don’t forget to factor in the unit’s fatigue, which accumulates with each attack they make or spell they cast – some units accrue fatigue faster than others. Multiple attacks against a target in the same round are harder to defend. If the defender has a shield, did the strike hit the shield? If so some of the damage will be mitigated. Maybe the defender had a weapon that allowed him to repel the attack? Where did the strike hit? The head, torso, arms or legs? The size difference between the attacker and defender may limit where the hit took place. A human with a lance may be able to hit a titan in the head, but one armed with a dagger can’t. Location matters because some hits may cause afflictions. Damage is determined by the strength of the attacker, the weapon they use and the protection of the defender. There are 3 types of physical damage which get handled differently. Then there are missile attacks. The attacker doesn’t necessarily hit the target they were aiming at and gets less accurate at longer range. Even if it lands off the mark, it may still hit a friend or foe. Did I mention the insane amount of spells? How about the fact that mages can craft magic items which affect their user’s performance? Then there is the morale system that decides when units will rout from battle.

Units can also have special abilities that fill in details beyond the simple number attributes. Does the target of an attack inspire awe? If so, the attacker may be unable to go through with it. Is the unit a berserker who will never rout? Simple fire resistance isn't that unique or exciting, but what about a unit that can try and seduce a commander to your side before the battle begins? I believe there are over 200 such abilities, some standard fantasy fare, but others more imaginative.

There is so much to consider when deciding if your army can win a battle against its foe. It is definitely more art than science. I’m sure if any veteran players are reading this, they are laughing and saying it just comes with experience. Give it time greenhorn, Dominions isn't mastered in a day, or week, or month.

Unfortunately even with the full battle log turned on it can be difficult to determine what exactly is happening. Why is that enemy squad routing? When I right click on the fleeing members all of their morale seems pretty high. While the log shows some of the die rolls, I don’t think the morale checks were one of them. I feel that the battle log information needs to be a little more complete, especially regarding morale and spells. It would also be nice if there were some way to match the messages in the log with the units affected by the action.

Graphics, Audio and UI

Dominion’s visuals certainly aren't cutting edge, but in general are pleasant and able to communicate the information. Unit sprites while small exhibit a certain amount of character. Watching armies battle, with spells flying across the way generated a certain amount of excitement.

The music also fit the fantasy world perfectly. I feel I must have heard each song 100 times by now but I never wanted to turn it off. I would love for them to offer even more songs.

Dominions doesn't really employ standard UI practices, but after spending some time with the game it didn't take too long to get comfortable with it. The biggest issue was a lack of pertinent information. Spell descriptions don’t always clearly explain what the effect of the spell is. I find that frustrating. Members of the community stated they think it emphasizes the sense of wonder. You can decide where you fall on that issue.

The army recruitment screen basically just shows images of the troops to train. The player has to right click on the unit to get any useful information. This makes it impossible to compare different units. I resorted to making a spread sheet. The game really needs to figure out how to present information is a useful way. On a more positive note, many elements have hint messages that describe what they are and right clicking brings up extra information.


I have to agree with what I've been told by many veterans of the game. The game is complex enough, with plenty of content in the way of nations, units, pretenders, spells, and magic items, that Dominions can provide a challenge for the solo player for a long time. I've been playing on normal difficulty and have won about 50% of my games – many of those simple setups vs. 1 AI opponent. There is a lot of growing room. I couldn't begin to judge if the AI plays a smart game, but it provides me with a challenge.

Technical Performance

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

In The End...

In reviewing Dominions 4, I've felt that I’ve said both too much and too little. To get a feel for the game I think many of the game's details must be presented, but there are so many details it is impossible to include them all. Nor should a review mention them all. There are surely more entertaining and better written reviews, such as those at Quarter To Three, and Rock, Paper Shotgun to name a few, but I never really feel like I have a great feel for how a game plays from their reviews. I hope my review is useful to some folks.

Dominions needs to be applauded for not following the same design as typical 4x games. It certainly plays differently than other games I've played. I’m usually not too swayed by things like back story and flavor text in strategy games, but Illwinter does an awesome job making their world feel real. Every unit, spell and ability feels like it belongs. I think people who appreciate immersiveness in their strategy games will appreciate what Illwinter has done. The units and combat mechanics make battles come alive, because these beings feel real.

Now this game is probably not for everyone. Players should be prepared to read the manual, struggle through remembering the details of all the content, and look up mechanics that they forget how they work. That being said, this is not a game you need to be afraid of. The manual does a great job explaining so much. If you have the time and desire to learn the ropes you'll be rewarded with a rich experience. If you like deep strategy games, if you like fantasy and have the time, try Dominions 4. Now that Illwinter self publishes its price makes it a much more attractive purchase.

Monday, June 3, 2013

I'm Taking a Hiatus From Writing Reviews

First, thanks to those who have read the reviews I have published. As I'm sure you have noticed, there are many other sources of reviews that are much better written than mine. I tried to give enough details about the game so the reader could make an informed decision about whether a particular game would suit them, along with my options about the game. My reviews probably weren't entertaining like Tom Chick's over at Quarter To Three, or had the intelligent insight that Troy Goodfellow's Flash of Steel articles do, but I hope they at least helped some people make a choice where to spend their gaming dollars.

Thanks again for reading and I hope you'll join me again if I start writing reviews again at some point in the future.


Monday, April 29, 2013

Eador - Masters of the Broken World: Review

Version Reviewed: 1.0.4
What I like: A lot of decisions - explore current holdings or invade new provinces, building choices,  leveling up heroes and units, etc. Always seems like there is something to do. Tactical battles are fun! AI seems pretty good.
Not So Much: Turn times even makes normal size maps a bit of a chore. Still some bugs.
Other Stuff You May Like: A lot of game for $20, assuming the problems get fixed.
The Verdict: The game itself is very good, but AI turn times make all but the smaller maps tedious by mid game. Luckily they are looking into it and hopefully can fix it soon. You might want to hold off if you can't tolerate bugs - a small portion of which may prevent finishing some of your games.

Official site: Masters of the Broken World

Disclaimer: This review is based on a free review copy provided by Snowbird Game Studios.


Sometime last year I stumbled across a review of an old game, Eador: Genesis and found myself purchasing it on GOG. Even though the game shared many features with games such as the Heroes of Might and Magic series, Eador had a very distinct feel all its own. Once I learned that Eador: Genesis was getting a face lift in the form of Masters of the Broken World (MotBW), I decided to shelve Genesis and wait.

MotBW is a turn-based 4X game set in a fantasy world, with magic, monsters and a ton of buildings to build in your stronghold. Starting from your initial province, your hero(s) will expand your holdings until all enemy capitals are captured - if all goes as planned. There are no alternative victory conditions.

As I've mentioned in practically every other review I've done I'm not into multiplayer gaming, so please refer to other reviews or the official forum to see what is provided for multiplayer.

Getting Started

MotBW provides a lengthy campaign and randomly generated worlds to conquer, so replayability shouldn't be an issue. I won't get into the back story too much here because my reviews tend to be too wordy as it is. Essentially, the world has been broken into shards and it is up to you to conquer them. The campaign provides some lengthy dialog to read if you want some context for your conquests. Some of it is amusing, but sometimes I found it goes on for too long. If you find yourself wanting to get to the action it is easy enough to abort the conversations and get to the game itself. 

The campaign starts off with a tutorial shard to ease the player into the game. Frequent tutorial messages are displayed to introduce new aspects of the game and continue well past the first shard. I found the tutorial extremely useful. The campaign slowly unlocks buildings as shards are conquered which also helps new players into the game because MotBW has a lot of buildings with complex prerequisite relationships. In fact, unlocking buildings is part of the campaign's meta game. The player chooses which shards to conquer and therefore which buildings get unlocked. Shards also generate energy which can be used to purchase rewards to make a particular shard easier to conquer.

The randomly generated 'non-campaign' shards have a variety of options to customize the experience. Most of the options involve the type of terrain the shard will contain, but several other settings exist as well. There are 8 sizes of shards (from 6x6 to 20x20), up to 15 AI opponents, fog of war and diplomacy can be toggled on or off, and 12 different types of shards that affect different aspects of game play - such as the rate experience is gained. These different shard types can shake things up enough to breathe some variety into the game. Creating the largest world with the maximum opponents had initial turn times of around 30 seconds on my core i7 system with 8 gig of RAM. Since turn times tend to increase I didn't stick with it and switched to an average world with 3 opponents. Initial turn times were around 5-7 seconds. Note: The diplomacy options appear to not be functional as the only options which were enabled were to make war or peace. It would have been nice to be able to trade and make alliances, but even without the those options the game still offers plenty to do.

One word of advice, do not judge the game based on playing the beginner difficulty level. Beginner is fun for learning the game, but starting with fewer resources really changes how the game plays. Also, on beginner the player gets an estimate regarding how difficult a battle will be.

World creation settings
The manual seems to be a work in process. It currently covers the basics well enough to get started.

A Primer

In the Beginning...

Good always overpowered the evils of all man's sins. Sorry, my brain took a turn somewhere else.

The first choice is deciding the class of the starting hero:
warrior - standard melee brute
scout - ranged fighter, good at well ... scouting
commander - weak, but good at buffing his troops
wizard - relies on spell casting

The beginning game of MotBW starts like many other games of its type. One lone hero surrounded by the fog of war. While more powerful than the starting units, the starting hero is quite weak compared to their future selves. Heroes are very important as troops can't move around the map unless they are commanded by a hero. Heroes have a lot of characteristics that determines how they perform, which improve as they level up. The number of troops they can command, damage they can take, spells they can memorize, and more is based on their characteristics. Every time they level up, the player also gets to choose a class-based special ability to further customize their hero. Later they can either specialize in their class or take on an additional focus. Heroes can also equip a wide variety of items that are won during their battles or purchased at stores. Equipment can make a huge difference in the outcome of the battles.

Heroes have attributes that effect their performance in many ways - melee & ranged attack and defense, counterattack, magic, and more!

As heroes improve, they can lead more numerous and powerful troops. The same goes for spells. Even my starting warrior can cast tier 1 spells provided I build the required buildings or find scrolls, but it will take some development before his repertoire grows. His spells will never be as powerful as a wizard's, but he will be great at busting heads. Spells can provide an alternative set of skills, such as healing or a couple ranged attacks to augment any class.

After hiring a hero of a particular class, heroes of that class gets more expensive - a little motivation to spread the love around. Each class definitely has its own feel, so it is worthwhile playing with a variety of hero classes.


The shards in Eador are sectioned into provinces. Most of these starts off as neutral and one of the races will call the province home. Naturally, you need to expand your holdings by claiming these neutral provinces for your own. Sometimes you may be able to persuade them to join your realm with some coin, or by completing a task, but more often you will probably have to take their lands by force. The races respond differently to your requests to parlay and add some personality to exploration.

Provinces earn the owner income in the form of gold and gems. Gold is the game's form of currency, used to pay for buildings, troop recruitment and maintenance, and event responses. Gems are typically used for items of a more magical nature. As the population grows, so does the province's income. Each province also has a mood indicator and if the inhabitants are unhappy, unrest will start to accumulate. Eventually this discontent will come to a head and the populace will revolt. You can try to keep them happy to prevent this, or if it becomes inevitable at least station some guards there to quell the rebellion and retain control. The game could really use a tooltip to explain the factors that go into a province's mood. Guards are actually an interesting aspect of the game as they can have effects other than combat performance. Choosing the right guard isn't always the matter of choosing the one strongest in combat.

Optional fog of war shrouds the map

Provinces also hold special locations, which can be visited and explored. Most of these contain creatures to 
defeat and loot to be gained, but there are other types as well. Shops selling equipment may be discovered or even locations doling out a quest. Some locations grant access to recruit units not available in your stronghold. Attempting to conquer any of these special locations launches a tactical battle against the location's inhabitants. One of the primary questions to ask yourself each turn is whether to try and take over a new territory or visit a special location in a province you already own.

Special locations for the selected province
The terrain is varied and affects many aspects of the province. Some may generate more gold income, while others contain greater amounts of gems. Swamp takes longer to travel through than plains. The tactical maps depend upon the terrain of the province too.

One of the features that differentiate MotBW is the concept of a province's exploration level. The population of a province may be limited until more area of the province is explored. Exploration may also uncover more special locations to visit. The scout class is a natural at exploration. The act of exploration isn't interesting in itself as the player just assigns a hero to explore and the results are reported the next turn, but the concept does add another important item to consider each turn.

Provinces may also contain one of many strategic resources, which are used to construct some buildings and troops. If your empire doesn't have access to these resources, you must pay extra to purchase these from the global market. This can significantly raise the price of items, increasing the amount of gold needed.

Eventually one of the AI players will be found and their capital must be captured to eliminate them from the game.

Your Stronghold

The most complicated aspect of the game is keeping track of the enormous amount of buildings that can be constructed in your stronghold. There are almost 200 different buildings in all. Many have complex combinations of prerequisites. There is a basic and advanced interface to manage your build queue. The basic interface arranges buildings in a wheel organized by building type and level. It requires more clicks than the advanced interface, but tries not to overwhelm the player. Information about the selected building is clearly presented, along with its immediate prerequisites. Even though it can take a lot of clicks, the simple interface is easy to navigate. All of the building icons can be clicked to jump to their entries and the arrow buttons work just like the ones in an internet browser to navigate recently visited buildings.

Simple building interface

The advanced interface displays all of the buildings at once, along with all of the prerequisites for the selected building. I switch between them depending upon what I'm looking for. All of the buildings highlighted in red are the prerequisites that must be built before the selected building.

Advanced building interface

Buildings are used to unlock pretty much everything in the game - troops, spells, shops that sell equipment, other buildings, static bonuses, and provincial guards and improvements. The game definitely provides a lot of choices when it comes to building improvements, either in your stronghold or provinces. One stronghold building and one provincial building can be built per turn at the start of the game, providing you have the resources. MotBW also places a limit on certain types of buildings, forcing the player to make some choices.


96 spells are divided into 6 different schools, with each school having 4 different levels. All of the spells are unlocked by building the appropriate buildings, or you can be lucky enough to find a scroll on your travels. Most of the spells are cast in combat, but rituals are cast at the strategic level. While people who have played games of this type probably won't find the spells particularly unique, they are varied and add interesting options to both the tactical battles and the strategic layer. Magic will definitely play a prominent role for the wizard class.


There is a lot of combat in this game, and that is mostly a good thing. Combat is turn based, played out on a hex grid. Sides alternate taking action with all of their units. Each battlefield has mixed terrain based on the province they are in. Plains, forest, hills, and swamps each have their own characteristics, from bonuses and penalties to movement costs. Swamps may slow down your troops, but creatures native to those lands, like goblins, can move through it freely - even gaining a defensive bonus.

Actions cost stamina and if a unit gets too low its performance will suffer. Resting will help the unit slowly recover, but hopefully it isn't getting attacked because there is no counter attack while resting.

Units also lose morale when wounded or friendly units die. Like stamina, their combat performance is affected by their morale. If their morale is low enough the unit will flee. Killing enemy units improves morale. Some spells can also strike fear into units - bringing them ever so closer to fleeing.

I've found that the units recruited in the stronghold start off a bit duller than the ones encountered in the wild. Many don't have much in the way of special abilities until they have some experience under their belt. This doesn't seem to be true of units on the other side of the battlefield.


As far as I can tell, the diplomacy options haven't been developed yet or some bug is preventing them from becoming enabled.

Let's Play

Up until now I've been playing on beginner because there is a lot to get familiar with in this game, especially the buildings. I decided to kick up the difficulty to expert, which is the level where the player doesn't receive bonuses. Right off the bat I can tell I'm going to have a harder time. My starting resources are dramatically lower, so I can't use my typical opening. This means I won't have my usual repertoire of starting spells and I won't be as nicely equipped.

The special locations in my starting province look too tough for me to handle at this time, so I can't milk them for loot and experience. One is a harpy lair and after bribing the leader with some gold I could get the OK to hire some for my army. Unfortunately they are tier 2 creatures, which I can't command yet. They are also evil, so hiring them will lower my karma. The effects of karma need to be explained better. The manual states it only effects your relationship with other masters (your AI opponents), but posts on the forum state you get more negative events with bad karma and more good events with good karma.

The barbarian tribes to the south offer the best income, but I don't think I could handle them either. I settled on attacking the goblins even though their province is pretty poor. Maybe they will have some suitable locations to explore.

Let's try to talk

I'm not going to pay you so I can retreat.

Will they be open to an alliance?

I think they underestimate me
I guess they think I'm too weak to entertain an alliance with me. I didn't really want an alliance with this goblin scum anyway. The battlefield is quite hilly since we are in a hilly province. Goblins like the swamp, but will find none on this battlefield.

My slinger softened up the approaching goblins while my hero damaged them with a couple weak spells. Since the slinger was on a hill he could shoot a bit farther than normal. Once the goblins got close my militiaman and hero beat them down with melee attacks. This used up a bit of stamina so I eventually had them rest, but the goblins were getting low too, especially after getting hit with a fatigue spell. This brought him to 0 so he was unable to act until he rested. Alas it was too much for the militiaman, but my other two units survived and I acquired a new province! One thing I prefer in MotBW over a game like Heroes of Might and Magic is that unit stack sizes don't increase, so no attacking with 10,000 swordsman causing 80000 damage.

The fog of war was peeled back to reveal some new neighbors. To the west is the land of the dead, which provides no income since it is pretty much uninhabitable to the living. To the north lie some holy lands which have iron! That can be useful. Having iron would save me 17 gold for any unit or building requiring 1 iron.

There be iron in thar hills!

Let's check the market prices of iron
I'm a little weak after that battle. Let's see if I can peacefully acquire the promised lands to get the iron. Then I can build a swordsman school to add a bit of strength to my army.

Apparently they think I'm a sinner, but agree to join my realm. Unfortunately the inquisition province guard remains and can't be disbanded. I guess that is what they meant by 'they won't follow my orders'. The inquisition takes any income from the province, but luckily leaves me access to the iron. The inquisition also makes the populace unhappy. I can only get rid of the guards by attacking them or letting the province revolt and then retaking it if the rioters defeat the guard. For now I'll be happy with my iron.

Nobody expects the inquisition!
After building the swordsman school and a trek back to the castle I hire one swordsman. I'm not used to the money problems in expert difficulty and now realize with the swordsman's maintenance my cash flow is now negative. It's time to visit the ancient crypt in my new province to hopefully get some cash. Items start to wear out, so while I am at the stronghold I pay 6 precious gold to get them repaired.

The crypt is home to 2 skeletons and 3 zombies. The undead share some useful traits (useful for them, not me). Their combat performance doesn't drop when they are wounded. They are tireless, so trudging across these hills won't reduce their stamina.The undead also never have morale issues. I guess they don't care when an ally dies, perhaps because they are already dead. Skeletons have a very high ranged defense so my slinger is useless against them, but the zombies are a bit squishier and more vulnerable to those attacks. I bit off more than I could chew and lost the battle - my hero sent to my castle for resurrection  This cost gold - more than I have, so I will have to wait awhile before I could continue. Not a great start. Luckily my expenses are down since all my troops died! Yea...

Another feature that adds some personality to MotBW is the random events that occur from time to time. They aren't fully random because at least some of them are based on the current conditions of the provinces. They typically have at least 2 responses - a good one and a bad one. I typically play the good guy. One aspect of these events I don't like is that you can't really get a clue as to what your responses will do. Take this event for example.

What will happen if I thank him? Or bless him? Or select the other responses? The top two are obviously the 'good' responses and the bottom two the 'bad' or selfish responses. I would prefer more transparency into the possible outcomes, such as the 3rd one gives a 50% chance of getting half peacefully, a 25% chance of getting attacked, and a 25% chance of him declining and giving the player the choice of attacking. I'm sure some people prefer the surprise of having the outcomes completely unknown, but I like to make informed choices.

In this case I gave him a blessing, even though my gem supply was limited. He in turn gave me 400 gold which I could keep or distribute to my people. If I was playing on beginner, I would distribute it, but on expert I really need that gold. The more provinces you own, the more events that seem to occur. This can actually become too much. I wish the event frequency was configurable.

...much time has passed. I'm on turn 115 and after building up my economy I decided to press the attack on my neighbor. One thing that makes it difficult to know when to attack is that you can't view the hero of another player until you attack him. I almost pulled off the victory in this battle, but his hero was about 11 levels higher than mine and he had a tough troop with him. I will resurrect my hero and try to hit him while he is still weak.

... Looks like the AI got the best of me on my first game at expert. I am slowly losing a war of attrition with my holdings getting smaller. It's time to try again.


While the interface is generally good, there are places that could benefit from more information. When hiring a provincial guard, there is no way to look at the stats for those guards. Only a brief explanation describes them. Once I visit a location, it would be nice if it were tracked in the list and the inhabitants noted, since it is possible to retreat and come back later. Other areas could be improved, but none of these shortcomings dramatically affect play.

Some of the terrain is difficult to identify in the tactical battles. Some plains look like hills to me. The popup window in the advanced building interface can be a little awkward and get in the way. Tooltips could pop up a little faster. It would be nice if the terrain info window in combat would only appear while holding down the right mouse button and disappear on release instead of having to click a button. Sometimes using the keyboard arrows to scroll isn't responsive, forcing the user to release the key and try again. In general there are some areas that could use some polish to improve the user experience.

Difficulty & AI

There is a great range of difficulty settings and they affect more aspects than just getting bonuses. The lower levels limit how much the AI will improve their lands. Also at the beginner level the player gets a hint about how hard combat will be, so they can make a more informed decision about whether to continue the attack. The AI has held its own against me when playing on even footing at expert level. The tide will probably turn after I get more experience under my belt.

The AI can definitely give the player a challenge even though I have seen some questionable moves in combat. Sometimes the AI chooses a poor order to move their units, causing a unit to take an inefficient path to their target  The AI has sent his healer to a quick death by assaulting my melee units. The AI will usually finish off a weakened unit, but there have been times where they didn't for no reason apparent to me. It doesn't appear that the AI ever holds back his melee troops. Since they always pursue your troops, the player can sit back and try to pick the best place to defend. 

Graphics and Sound

The upgrade in visuals is the primary reason to upgrade to Masters of the Broken World over Eador:Genesis. I find them worthwhile and they really do enhance the experience. This is a nice looking game. I'm a sucker for orchestral-type music in fantasy games and this has it. I'm not sure how many tracks there are, but it can probably get repetitive to those who are susceptible to that. I don't recall hearing any tracks that were grating or a distraction.

Technical Performance

I did have 1 crash to desktop error, but didn't lose much due to the autosave feature. Going back a couple turns let me get around the problem. I also had a problem where the game hung when I ended my turn and couldn't continue. There have definitely been some smaller annoyances too. At times the game doesn't allow me to move my hero on the map until I enter the stronghold interface and exit again. With the last update the turn times were negatively impacted. Even on a small map with 2 AI opponents turn times approached 30 seconds until I eliminated the offending AI player. Then times dropped back into the 2-5 second range. On an average map with 3 AI players turn times increased from 7 seconds on turn 1 to just over a minute by turn 85. The developers did let me know that they are looking into this. I would probably avoid playing on the larger maps with lots of AI opponents until the issue is resolved. Other than my 1 game that I couldn't continue, the problems have been annoyances rather than critical issues.

My specs: Windows 7 64-bit. Intel Core i& 860 @ 2.80 GHz. 8 Gig RAM. ATI Radeon HD 5850.

In The End...

Once the kinks are ironed out, Masters of the Broken World will be a great addition to the turn based strategy genre. Even with the problems, I have had more fun than not. While most of the improvements over Eador are cosmetic in nature, there has also been some retooling of the campaign and the addition of different shard types. There are a lot of choices to sink your teeth into at the strategic level - expand your holdings vs exploring your current provinces, what improvements to build from the expansive selection, leveling up heroes and units, event responses and more. The tactical battles are great fun. Unit abilities, spell choices, and terrain all factor into whether you're victorious in combat. I think most players can find a difficulty level to provide a good challenge.

Whether you should buy the game now or later depends on how you feel about bugs and some needed polish. If you can tolerate some annoyances and are a fan of this type of game, by all means get it now. Lots of fun can be had as is. You probably want to avoid larger maps and numbers of opponents until the turn times are tamed, unless you don't mind doing other things while the AI takes its turn. If you're not tolerant of such things it may be best to hold off. A downside of not playing the larger maps is that I haven't been able to make use of many of the buildings because the game doesn't last long enough. The developers have come out with several updates already and I believe they are committed to improving the quality of the game. Once the major issues are fixed I can see myself playing this one for a long time to come. Until then, I will probably dip my toe in for a quick fix.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Distant Worlds + Expansions: Review

Version Reviewed:
What I like: Component system for ships, character traits received are based on in-game actions, transparent diplomacy.
Not So Much: Abundant resources take away from their strategic value, space too wide open - huh?
Other Stuff You May Like: Huge, huge scope. Those with imagination can create their own space opera.
The Verdict: While parts of the game were compelling, the game was too high level and became monotonous for me. The very thing that turns me off (the huge wide-open galaxy), will be a huge plus for others.

About my reviews

Official site: Distant Worlds

Disclaimer: This review is based on a free review copy provided by Matrix Games.


If one were to look at a feature list of Distant Worlds, they may think it is a 'typical' 4X space game in the same family as Galactic Civilization, Endless Space, or a more grounded 4X like Civilization. Distant Worlds has colonization of planets, research, space combat, diplomacy,  espionage, trade and more. After I read the manual, played the tutorials and started getting my feet wet I flip flopped between a cool confidence that I understood what was going on and a panic that I bit off more than I could chew. The scope of the game is enormous - the standard galaxy has 700 stars. There are 16 strategic resources required to build the myriad of ship components. The goals are familiar though - grow your empire's population, expand its borders, and build a healthy economy to show your dominance over the lesser inhabitants of the galaxy.

Distant Worlds is a purely single player experience.

Getting Started

There surely isn't a shortage of volume when it comes to learning materials for Distant Worlds. The manual weighs in at 80+ pages long; there are 2 tutorials that cover the user interface fairly well, and an in-game encyclopedia.  I found the manual a little too user-interface focused. The screens are explained, but I didn't feel like it delved into the mechanics in enough detail so I felt fully comfortable jumping into the game. In many places the in-game encyclopedia had text similar to the manual but did have some useful information the manual didn't. I really recommend reading the manual and doing the tutorials, and at least browsing the encyclopedia since Distant Worlds has so many moving parts.

There isn't a campaign or scenarios in Distant Worlds, but there are events that tell a story of sorts. These can be turned off if you prefer a purely sandbox style of play.

One area that Distant Worlds definitely excels is the amount of configuration available to the player. There are two primary areas of configuration - how the galaxy is set up and how much automation the player wishes to employ. Both areas allow a lot of customization.  

Game Play

Distant Worlds is all about colonizing huge galaxies and then bringing the hammer down on your foes. This isn't a game where staying small is a viable way to win the game, unless you choose to disable all of the standard victory conditions. Since they are based on population, territory, and the economy you have to grow your empire to succeed. The race specific victory conditions add more variety and some flavor to the victory conditions, but they are usually only part of the equation. If you're more about the experience instead of winning, you could just disable them all I suppose and just play. I chose to start with a minimal starting position - 1 colony, a handful of ships and an entire galaxy to explore. Hundred of stars dot the galaxy and my empire is one tiny blip. I have a much easier time keeping track of my empire when I build it up from scratch, but options do exist to start from a more advanced position.

My homeworld
My homeworld's system

The entire galaxy - my starting colony is the yellow circle.

One of my favorite aspects of 4X games is building up the economy. Games like Civilization are very hands on. The player improves the terrain and has a large selection of improvements to build. The economy in Distant Worlds is rather abstract and hands off. There is no food to manage or workers to order about the planet surface to improve productivity. The varieties of improvements that can be built on a colony are limited compared to other 4X games. An AI controlled private economy controls mining and transporting the resources. You merely give it a nudge by building mining stations. Building my own mines was just busywork and the AI automation kept the resources flowing so I didn't even need to do that. 

Our tools for managing the economy are few - colonize high quality planets since they support a larger population and result in a larger tax base and try to make luxury resources available to increase the colony's development level (also increasing the tax base). Each colony can have a different tax rate to try and balance population growth and tax income, but it isn't a particularly rewarding task - especially as your empire grows. Luckily that can be automated and while maybe not quite as optimized seems like a good alternative.

Resources is where Distant Worlds tries to differentiate itself from other 4Xs. Sure, games like Civilization required strategic resources to build some units, but Distant Worlds requires a large variety of resources for building anything. Ships are collections of components - weapons, engines, reactors, etc... and every component requires resources to build them. In addition, every ship requires fuel (the type of fuel required depending upon the ship's reactor). New technology makes more components available and they may require different resources than your current components.

How do we get these resources? The private economy. Once our explorers uncover locations to mine resources, the private economy starts sending out ships to mine those resources and make them available on the market. We can help their efforts by building mines, but the rest is out of our control. We must still pay for these resources when it comes time to build things. It would be nice if the player could manually request some resources for a colony or port if they knew they would be using them in the future. Another interesting option to get the player involved would be to allow the player to specify the price they are willing to pay for the resources. If you pay a higher price than another empire, your shipment would get higher priority. We just have to rely on the private economy to make sure the resources will get to the projects when needed. This all works for the most part, but I didn't find it involving or interesting.

While we are being critical of the economy, there is one more aspect that I don't like. With approximately 10-20% of the galaxy explored, I secured all but one strategic resource. I think Distant Worlds had the opportunity to really differentiate itself in the way it handled resources, but due to their abundance they didn't become a huge factor. If resources were more scarce, there would be a lot more reasons to go to war or find a trading partner for that resource you absolutely have to have.


The makeup of the galaxy is unknown until we explore it. From the galaxy map we can see the number and type of stars, but we have no idea what the planets in those systems are. Certain star types are more likely to have inhabitable planets. Explorer ships can be given orders to explore individual systems, entire sectors or automate them completely. Exploration is far too tedious to control yourself except at the very beginning when you only have a couple exploration ships. Since it unlikely that the player will look at each system as it is explored, checking the expansion planner or colonizable planet list periodically is a must. Unfortunately that  just isn't as engaging as peeling back the black shroud that covers the world in Civilization. Also stumbling into the primo real estate in a game like Civ is so much more exciting than seeing that a planet has 95% quality and a couple of resources that you're not going to have trouble acquiring anyway.

There are times when it helps to take a more hands-on approach with exploration, such as when searching for pirates or another empire's home world, but for the most part they can be sent on their way and forgotten about. In their travels they will uncover valuable planets to colonize, resources to mine and special locations that may boost research or have other surprises. The galaxy map is an excellent tool for locating many items throughout the explored galaxy.

There is a lot of exploring left to do. We've explored 3 systems!
The vastness of space was too unrestricted for me. Strange, I know. I prefer the space lane approach with more restricted movement. Space lanes create bottlenecks, naturally creating tension in certain systems. That type of restricted movement goes against the entire design of Distant Worlds though. Distant Worlds strives to create a wide open galaxy, filled with possibilities. 


While the economy in general is boring and manually controlling exploration is tedious, I found colonization to be more interesting. Initially colonization starts off at a fairly slow pace since planets have to have a large enough population to send out colony ships. For a while this will only be your home colony (if you start off at the least developed setting like I do). At the beginning construction of colony ships is also fairly time consuming so they can't just be churned out.

Several factors go into selecting which planets to colonize. A high quality planet will be most lucrative in the long run, but planets closer to your home world or existing colonies may be easier to protect. Do you want to try and grab particular colonies that are close to your expanding neighbors? Will colonizing a particular planet upset your neighbors? Should that medium quality planet with lots of resources be colonized or just mined? Should research focus on unlocking technologies that allow us to colonize more planet types? Due to these choices, I like to manually control colonization myself instead of automating it.

Some planets have independent peoples already living on them. If they are peaceful and accept your colonization attempts the existing population can provide a nice boost to its development.


Research is handed a little differently than other 4X games I have played. The research potential defines the maximum amount of research your empire can perform and increases more quickly in the earlier stages of an empire's growth. To actually realize that potential, your empire must build research stations. Each station produces research in one or more of the 3 fields - weapons, energy /construction, and high tech / industrial. It is best to locate these in research-friendly locations found in the galaxy to get a boost to research output.

The tech trees have more independent paths than many games, which allow the player to specialize in a particular area. If your empire has a thriving economy, throw some extra money at research to reduce the time to finish the current project.

Research is very tied to ship design as unlocking new techs invariably makes more ship components available.

Ship Design and Combat

I haven't played an enormous variety of space based strategy games, but Distant Worlds has the most involved ship design that I have seen. The amount of variety in weapons goes beyond the laser, ballistic, missile model. Distant Worlds have those of course, but also have other weapons - area of effect, fighter and bomber hangars to add to larger ships, support modules that aid in shield regeneration. Weapons have different ranges, damage amounts, fire rates and more. Ship speed and turn radius also affects combat performance. I have a hard time figuring out why the ships perform as they do in combat, such as how much speed and agility actually has an effect. I don't think the variety of components will disappoint most ship designers.

Long range scanners can pick up an oncoming attack, but stealth components can mitigate their effectiveness. Even use components that can prevent the enemy from warping out of combat to save their hide. If it is overwhelming then the player can rely on AI ship designs.

Individual components can be damaged in combat. The player can't target these individually, but it is nice to see a ship's performance affected instead of an ambiguous hit point number being the only indication of taking damage.

Who Else Is Out There?

The first other inhabitants of the galaxy you are likely to encounter are the pirates (if they are enabled). They have a tendency to attack lightly defended mining locations and can grow in power if left unchecked. Pirates also try making money by selling information and providing 'protection'. Have enough positive interactions with them and they may be willing to attack an enemy for you. Sometimes they can be a little too chatty with repeated offers to provide their services. I tend to want to kill them. That leads to other problems though. As pirate bases get wiped out, more will appear in other locations, leading to a galactic game of whack a mole. I found this a bit frustrating, especially with the constant alerts that I was being attacked.

The build order screen is useful to queue up ships to build when you don't care where they are built. I'll join these up into a pirate hunting fleet.

What is a huge galaxy if it isn't populated with other empires trying to enforce their dominance? Relations take a reasonable progression from wariness upon first contact, to a general warming if you share compatible governments. Cooperation over time can lead to trade agreements and protection pacts. If relations go sour trade embargoes may ensue or eventually war. There isn't a huge variety of diplomatic stances, but empires seem to behave in a rational manner. I have had an enemy alternate between trade embargoes and war and peace, but other than that I haven't seen any unreasonable behavior. I appreciate the transparency in diplomacy.  


Since I started of playing Distant Worlds with all of the available expansions I'm not always sure which features were part of the base game or added later. I believe characters were added in Legends. Governors give bonuses to the colonies they manage. Ambassadors work on improving relations with an empire. Admirals and generals improve ship and troop performance. Scientists boost research and intelligence agents perform espionage. Most of these characters are pretty generic and just result in bonuses to their respective area. The exception is espionage and is definitely the highlight of the character system. Stealing maps and research, sabotaging construction and colony development, assassinations and rebellions are all part of the arsenal. Agents are skilled in different areas, so they excel at different missions. They gain experience and improve too. Intelligence missions are transparent, like diplomacy so you know your chances of success and decide if the mission is worth the risks, because getting caught is going to provide some diplomatic fallout.

Characters also grain traits based on their in-game actions. My leader gained the 'lawful' trait after I took out a pirate base. Touches like that are nice. The game responded to my actions and gave me a meaningful consequence.


The amount of automation options give player the best chance at finding a configuration that works for them. Even if you automate certain aspects of the game, you can set automation parameters to help shape the AI's approach.

User Interface

Certain aspects of the UI are quire powerful and help the player manage their vast empire - the selection box, galaxy window and expansion planner are some examples. I love the graph depicting each empires progress towards victory.

Many of the economic reporting tools are much too limited to be of great help. Income and expenses could use a report to show their values over time. For example, it would be nice to see how your tourism income grows as you build resorts. The same is true for resource stockpiles within your empire. Since I didn;t have any shortages this wasn't a big issue, but if resources were more scarce it would be very helpful to see if their balances were trending up or down so adjustments could be made to supply if necessary.

The alert system is hit or miss. Attack warnings come a mile a minute with pirates popping up all over the place, and at times messages scroll right off the screen. There is a log to look back at, but that requires jumping to a different screen. Other events don't have any alert at all, like discovering where a pirate base is located. It would be very helpful to see a list of discovered planets and what type they are before researching the colonization techs so the player can decide if it is worth investing. Tooltips are not implemented everywhere. None of these issues makes the game unplayable, but improving the UI in some areas would surely help.

The interface also doesn't scale to high resolutions. At 1920 x 1080 the resource icons and some other items are absolutely tiny. I never had a problem reading the text, but I could see how some people might.

The UI falls a bit short to help the new player plan for what resources they may need. We can look at each ship and base design to see what resources they need. 
Our initial colonization ship requires 9 different resources!
Does this colony ship require a lot of resources? A little? Who knows? There isn't any screen that shows the resources required to build something along with the resources available to our empire. That information is on another screen. Another option is to look at all the available components (31) and learn what resources they require. It turns out more than half of the strategic resources are used in the construction of the initial components. 

The expansion planner is a place to learn what resources are currently available to your empire and where to mine more.

Graphics and Sound

Other than the UI elements being too small at high resolutions, the graphics are perfectly serviceable for a strategy game. The music got on my nerves and I turned the volume way down. The combat alert sounds were a bit grating too.

Technical Performance

The game performed nearly flawlessly. I did have one crash. As the game progressed and more ships were zipping about, the game seemed to get a little more sluggish but never to the point that it was a problem.
My specs: Windows 7 64-bit. Intel Core i& 860 @ 2.80 GHz. 8 Gig RAM. ATI Radeon HD 5850.

In The End...

I tried very hard to get into Distant Worlds but so far it has eluded me. First I put in a lot of time making sure I understood what is going on. I tried to automate as little as a could since I am a control freak and actually didn't get overwhelmed, but that was when I decided handling exploration and mining was tedious and added nothing positive to my experience. Even though the game has some cool concepts, my interest disappeared through a black hole.

I have to admit I'm not a space fanatic. I have enjoyed space strategy games, but they are not my go to genre. I can see the appeal of a huge galaxy, waiting to be discovered, for those who have the space bug. Players with active imaginations, creating their own narrative to carry them along may find this giant sandbox the perfect place to host their space operas. Very few games inspire that type of treatment from me. I usually rely on the game to carry me along.

I believe this is just one of those games where it either clicks with you or it doesn't, without too much in between. After reading the manual and getting my feet wet, I actually thought I was going to like this one. After a certain point, the more time I spent with it, the less engaged I became. The hands off economic system was probably the biggest drawback for me as I typically enjoy that aspect of improving my empire in 4X games. Trying to grow my colonies by acquiring luxury resources didn't give me enough to do. 

The huge wide expanse of space will probably be welcome by many players, but it was just too open for me. That's probably why I never have enjoyed a naval-based war game. I think those who enjoy designing their own ships will find the component system satisfying.  

If you don't feel like the negatives I pointed out will be a bug turnoff for you, don't be afraid to give the game a try. It seems intimidating at first, but if you can take the initial couple of steps things fall into place. Spend some time investigating ship designs and what resources they use so you gain an understanding of that relationship. Once that hurdle is cleared, the rest isn't as hard as it seems, but do read the manual! Don't be afraid to automate aspects of the game you find tedious. For me it was exploration and construction ships. While I can't say Distant Worlds gave me much entertainment, I can truly say I respect what it does. Watching a universe full of ships going about their business can be quite captivating. I really want to like Distant Worlds because of what it tries to be, but playing it sort of wears me down. It's kind of like if you're an introvert and you force yourself to be more social and go to parties. You can keep your energy level up at the beginning, but eventually your personality takes over. If you're not a 'party person' parties just make you tired.