Saturday, July 23, 2011

On Top Of The Rice Pile-Paradox's Sengoku Preview

We were recently afforded the opportunity to play a preview edition of Paradox Interactive's upcoming computer game of the "Age of the Warring States" in 15th and 16th Century Japan-"Sengoku". As this is a preview of an unfinished version (bugs were still being ironed out and play balance adjusted to make things ready for the game's Q3/2011 release), we're going to largely refrain from pro-or critical-commentary and concentrate instead on what you can expect to see when you click 'Start'.

Like most Paradox games, players might find things somewhat intimidating at first and be at a loss where to start. After all, there are over 350 areas of Japan to conquer-and almost as many possible characters to start out with. However, once you've assigned the councilor positions in your court, given them tasks, and raised your first army and sent it off to battle, it's easy to settle in to the proceedings. There are tips given for first time players when accessing different functions and screens to help you along. The object-to control 50% of Japan, declare yourself Shogun, and then hold that title for three years against an onslaught of enemies. The game runs continuously in daily turns, but like 'Europa Universalis' can be greatly sped up, slowed down, or paused as the player chooses. The preview edition contained two choices-both starting on May 26, 1467 (dates are given in the Western calendar rather than the Japanese lunar calendar). Choose from the Onin War (so named for the Japanese era in which it began) or the Kanto War (taking place in eastern Japan). Since the Kanto War not only featured the strongest clan in the game from a military standpoint (the Uesugi, the Shogunate Deputy in the east or "Kanto Kanrei") but also the fearless warriors of the Chiba, we decided to give it a go.

We started out as the Uesugi. The basic area of the game is the 'kori'-the 350 or so individual provinces of Japan that make up 'kuni'. Kuni are the traditional provinces of Japan readers might be familiar with from other games-Satsuma, Shimosa, Owari, Mino, and Mikawa, for example. In game terms, characters who only have 'kori' titles are termed 'kokujin' and usually owe their allegiance to their daimyo (who control one or more 'kuni'). Especially early in the game, daimyo roughly correspond to the samurai who held 'shugo' positions (governor of a kuni). The daimyo, in turn, owes his fealty to the clan leader. Clan leaders aren't what you would expect from the name-rather, they're the leaders of several allied families, not all of whom will carry the same family name. In game terms, Oda Nobunaga would be a clan leader, with the Akechi, Hashiba, Niwa, Shibata, Maeda, et al being considered part of his 'clan'.

The Kanto War was fought between the Uesugi and elements of the Ashikaga Shogunate on the one hand with their opponents being rogue elements of the Ashikaga and their allies in the Chiba (some of whom ended up fighting alongside the Uesugi). We chose to play as the Uesugi clan leader...even though he turned out to be a minor with a regent running the show for him. The Uesugi start out with an enormous military advantage, and it took only three years or so of game time to leisurely wipe out the opposition with minimal losses. The focus here was mainly on raising and deploying troops. Armies can be raised from local levies from each kori, or from retinues that are loyal to a specific leader and follow him around the map. There are only two basic troop types in the game-Ashigaru/jizamurai and mounted samurai with their foot retainers (infantry and cavalry, respectively, both with built in bowmen). Later in the game (after the arrival of the Portuguese) ashigaru can be outfitted with gunpowder weapons. This is historically accurate, since it wasn't until late in the Sengoku that daimyo began to group units by weapon type-and even then, a mounted horseman would have foot retainers running alongside them (no all-horse cavalry in Japanese warfare) and spearmen would have archers providing covering fire for them (as would arqubusiers). There weren't units of 'Kisho Ninja' or 'Naginata Warrior Monks' running around. Battles are fought and resolved automatically when opposing armies are in the same kori in a 'battle window'. Battle continues day by day until the morale of one side breaks or they're eliminated. If the attackers emerge victorious, they'll lay siege to the enemy castle, an undertaking which can literally take years for a well developed castle. While 'samurai cavalry' reign on the battlefield, 'Ashigaru infantry' is king of the siege, particularly if the player wishes to try a bloody direct assault on the castle. Moving armies from province to province is easy and takes place simultaneously with all other enemy movement, so you might find yourself chasing around an enemy force that changed positions before your movement was complete. Supply is covered in an abstract way by having a supply limit-units over an province's supply limit will experience attrition as the soldiers either starve to death or simply decide farming wasn't so bad after all and go home.

While the combat was raging, we didn't neglect the home front. Your character can only control five or so provinces himself (his holdings are called a demesne) effectively, which tends to cut down greatly on the micromanaging. You can assign your Master of Arms to improve the castle (with eight levels of improvement, including moats, towers, and gateways)-again, this uses realistic timeframes for completion so they won't be finished overnight. Castles improve a province's defense and also increase the maximum size for levy troops. Your towns can be upgraded by the Master of Ceremonies with buildings such as inns, toll booths, and a courthouse that will increase your tax revenue and also increase the maximum size of your retinue forces. The Master of the Guard can open up guild slots for special buildings (four per province) that confer a unique benefit, such as lowering revolt risk or increasing the combat ability of troops raised there. One religious building can also be constructed in each province. Revolts can and do happen, and we had to put down a couple (one by followers of Shinto and one by townspeople).

This brings up the most involved and important part of the game-your character and his interactions with everyone else. Your player character can be a clan leader, daimyo, or a simple kokujin-and the game experience changes greatly depending on which you choose. A clan leader (like the Uesugi) is primarily engaged with creating alliances with other clan leaders, rewarding his vassals, keeping the clan together, and conducting military campaigns. On the other hand, a kokujin (like the Chiba in our second tryout) will be more concerned with bringing himself to the attention of his lord and plotting with others to eventually form his own clan or usurp the one he finds himself in. Starting out as a kokujin can be challenging, since if your forces represent less than 5% of your clan's army, you will have no direct control over them-the clan leader will raise, deploy, and dismiss them. You can't declare war on another province, and just have to hope your leader makes wise decisions that won't see your domain get mashed. The daimyo experience falls somewhere in between. Characters have three main attributes-martial ability, diplomacy, and intrigue. These attributes can be bumped by the ratings your wives have. Yes, wives-even though a Japanese could only have one legal wife during this period, the game lets you have FOUR (whee!). Just think of the other three as concubines, which a samurai could have as many of as he could afford. Anyway, they'll add a portion of their ratings to those of your character and can really help make up for any deficiencies. They'll also defend a province's castle when its levies are on campaign. Attributes can be raised or lowered by traits-and they cover pretty much everything. They're gained at birth from the traits of your parents, during childhood (characters don't become adults until age 15), through experience, and through lifestyle choices. A maimed character experiences a loss in martial ability and health, while a lunatic will be disrespected by his vassals and unpredictable as an opponent. An ugly character will find it tougher to enjoy diplomatic success, while a good looking diplomat will not only make friends but also be a hit with the ladies (becoming the Brick McBurly of his day). Lepers, drunkards, hunchbacks, stutterers, geniuses, imbeciles, and scholars can also be ambitious, ruthless, paranoid, humble, envious, or speak with a lisp-with attributes adjusted accordingly. Good traits can be bad (an honest man will be hated by the deceitful) and bad ones good (a drunk will be loved by other drunks-we enjoy our sake!).

Every character in the game has this level of individuality and complexity. And it's here where the real fun lies. Creating good relationships with other characters is crucial to success. Your vassals will become angry if you try to keep all conquered provinces under your control-they need to be rewarded for their efforts with lands, titles, and cash. And you should-you can only construct one building at a time per province in your personal holdings, but they'll help develop the clan holdings faster by doing the same in theirs. Clan leaders in particular need to work hard to keep the good graces of their vassals-there are many pretenders waiting to wrest control of the clan, and your proclaimed heir needs as much support as possible to see to it that your dynasty continues. This is vital-your character will almost certainly die before the game is over (death becomes much more likely after age 40), so you better hope your heir has been well trained and enjoys the favor of the vassals. Remember what happened to the Oda clan after Nobunaga's death? It basically became the Toyotomi clan. Having a high diplomacy attribute (or sending your Master of Ceremonies around to gladhand vassals on your behalf) will go a long way towards keeping their opinion of you high. Your relations with other independent leaders also go a long way towards a successful conclusion-you often need them when plotting against a larger foe. Kokujin and daimyo will also find that being diplomatic works wonders in gaining supporters for your eventual promotion to clan leader (or establishment as a new clan).

Honor is also a major factor in the game-basically, it's 'currency' you earn by rewarding vassals, gifting allies, and supporting the emperor that can be 'spent' on 'morally questionable' acts such as declaring war (especially on a friendly clan), having a plot discovered, or using ninja. If your honor goes negative, it's game over-there's a seppuku button to commit suicide that will restore a bit of honor for your heir when yours gets very low, but we never felt the need to use it. In fact, it looks like we maxed our honor out at 100 as the Uesugi despite a few reckless attacks on friendly clans.

Religion wasn't really much of a factor in the early game, as few of the provinces constructed temples. Shinto confers a bonus to honor, Buddhism to reinforcement rate, and late-to-the-dance Christianity an increase in tax income and firearms. All religious buildings are called temples, but we're really talking Shinto shrines, Buddhist temples, and Christian churches here.

Ninja can be hired to do a daimyo's dirty work-assuming your Master of the Guard can find one. They'll do it all, from rescuing hostages to burning down enemy buildings (and of course, assassinating enemy characters). They cause a hit to your honor and gold supply, and if caught, can lead to a major drop in honor. We didn't find a need to use them early, but they would likely prove valuable later on where enemies have built up. You can also use your Master of the Guard to cause a vassal to become disloyal to his liege-and perhaps more ready to join up with you. Ronin (and their attached forces) can be recruited for your retinue forces, and they contain some of the best fighters in the game.

Graphics look great, with several different views and filters of the map of Japan that will supply you with important information at a click. The interfaces are intuitive and also loaded with information, and the same info can usually be accessed several ways. There were the usual learning curve screw-ups on our part-for example, we had a stud as our Master of Arms and rewarded him with a landed title-which removed him from the position and left us having to fill it with a chump.

We at the Samurai Archives will be running an interview with the game developers and designers in early September, and also running a basic 'Sengoku Trivia' quiz contest (focused on the Onin War) for downloadable copies of the game in conjunction with our friends at Paradox-and of course, a full review of the game. You can keep up with the game's progress in the SA's Japanese Entertainment forum (which has links to the Paradox Forums, Sengoku Facebook page, Twitter, etc). Until then, we'll be doing our best to see to it that the Chiba end up at the top of the rice pile instead of being squashed by the Tokugawa during the Odawara Campaign.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

The History Of Japan-As Seen Through Paradox

Paradox Interactive has long been known as a producer of highly detailed, accurate, and immersive historical simulations for home computers. Their upcoming effort "Sengoku" promises to debut as the be-all end-all of strategy games for Japan's Warring States period (the Sengoku Jidai, which began with the Onin War in 1467 and lasted for well over a hundred years). Slated for a September release, we'll be doing an interview with the game's developers and designers along with an in-depth review. Until then, we'd thought we'd spotlight two other recent Paradox sims that between them stretch from the days of the Muromachi Bakufu in 1399 to the early years of the 20th century. "Europa Universalis III: Divine Wind" introduces Japan and China to the popular Europa Universalis series, while "Pride of Nations" is an original effort by AGEOD that covers the world's great powers between 1850 and 1920.

The original Europa Universalis was introduced in 2000 and proved to be wildly popular among strategy gamers, with two later versions of the game and four expansion packs. Currently, you can play as any of over 300 historical nations controlling more than 1700 provinces and regions in games that can stretch from 1399-1820. And in DAILY turns. Yes, daily-and we're not even going to speculate if it's the Gregorian, Julian, or Lunar calendar. "Divine Wind" is the latest expansion pack, giving a new dimension to the previously generic nations of Japan and China. While Europa Universalis II had released a special version (entitled 'Asia Chapters') giving life to the Orient for Asian markets, this is the first time it has done so in the West. Since this is, after all, the Shogun-ki, we'll be focusing on gameplay as Japan.

The first thing you'll notice is that instead of the game using historical 'clans', it uses a system popular in Japanese gaming-having the nation controlled by the Genpei Toukitsu, the "Four Famous Clans" of Minamoto, Taira, Tachibana, and Fujiwara that almost all samurai supposedly can trace their roots to. Since the game covers roughly 400 years and the entire world, this was probably a good choice-with all the other nations, it simply wouldn't have been possible to keep track of all the tiny clans that emerged and were destroyed over the years. Just think of the 'Genpei Toukitsu' as representing the different clans that descended from them. While you're perfectly free to try anything you want anywhere in the world (we invaded Ming China on Turn One just to see if we could), this will cause disruption and unrest among your people, so it's best to concentrate on consolidating Japan under your leadership first. After all, only the Shogun can effectively carry on diplomatic relations with outside countries.

Juggling your economic resources to keep your people happy, developing your provinces with buildings, and recruiting military units are the basic building blocks of this type of game. However, you can also recruit leaders and other 'great men of history', each with their unique strengths and weaknesses. As the economy and technology develop, more and more choices and options open to players. Missions are given to players and can range from elaborate to simple-our first mission involved adding to the nation's culture by cultivating the art of tending to cherry blossoms. These missions sometimes require concurrent advances in different fields along with using up specialized personnel. Diplomacy allows players to do something as subtle as insulting a rival to provoke a war and leave your opponent looking like the bad guy. You can sponsor artists and writers to heighten the nation's culture. Keeping your military tradition high is crucial in insuring you will have effective generals and admirals to recruit. Battles are played out on a strategic level, and there are no 'real time' tactical level battles. Players can set priorities for their nations by adjusting sliders that determine how much of a country's resources will go into them. Each aspect of the game has repercussions for every other aspect, meaning that a wise player will not just look at the immediate effects of a decision but also how it will affect other factors over time.

The level of depth and options in Europa Universalis is staggering. You can recruit all sorts of agents-spies, admirals, conquistadors, diplomats, missionaries, all with different functions. Spies can perform all sorts of actions, ranging from counterfeiting another area's currency to undermining their guild structures and spreading false rumors. Unlike many games of this ilk, steamrolling province after province without provocation will result in bad things happening to the player. Unbridled aggression will drive up a player's infamy, a game device which fits in well with Japanese history-think of how Oda Nobunaga or Taira no Kiyomori tended to unite the ranks of their disorganized foes. Provoking opponents into rash attacks or coming into a war on the side of an ally who was 'unjustly attacked' provide much safer avenues for expansion.

One area in the game we noticed that comes up a bit short is 'localization'. Most game terms are European (understandable, since the game is centered on Europe, and having more than one set of commands would cause mass confusion). Likewise, many of the portraits the game uses are of Europeans and look completely out of place when matched up with a Japanese character. Many of the Japanese characters have clearly Chinese names. Overall, given the scale of the game, this a relatively minor annoyance.

Graphics are effective, relatively uncluttered, and there are multiple intuitive interfaces and filters that will tell you at the click of a button virtually any bit of information you'd ever want to know. Even though the game runs day-by-day over 400 years, it can be sped up greatly so the days fall away like a fluttering desk calendar. It can also be slowed down or paused during times of great activity where precision is paramount. And of course, playing as Japan just scratches the surface of what's on tap. Virtually any nation you can think of in any time period covered is available, offering a whole new gaming experience. Exploration, colonization, and developing new technologies become a big part of gameplay. While historical technology can be sped up by infusing it with development cash, it becomes much harder to do so the further it diverges from its historical appearance. Victory is determined largely by the goals players set for themselves-obviously, making France, England, or Russia the #1 nation in the world will be much easier than doing so with a small Germanic state-or even Japan. But often realizing a modest goal with a small faction is far tougher than meeting a large goal with a large nation. This makes for an almost endless variety of game experiences, as the goals for each nation are set by the players themselves and are easily changed from game to game. While there are no scenarios per se, there are bookmarked years that allow players to start the game in years of note-like the discovery of the new world, the League of Cambrai, the Thirty Years War, and the American and French Revolutions. There are ample mods for the game, which we'll delve into later in the review. Anyone interested in the game would likely be better off buying the "Europa Universalis III: Chronicles" pack which includes the original game and all the expansions, including Divine Wind. It's far more convenient than buying them separately.

We could go on and on giving details for Europa Universalis, but we still have "Pride of Nations" to cover. While similar in play to the Europa Universalis series, Pride of Nations is even more elaborate. While the main playable choices are the USA, Great Britain, Germany, France, Japan, Russia, Austria-Hungary, and Italy, you can actually play as virtually any country on the map (albeit without getting country specific 'events').

We started off as Japan again, and found that the game rewards players that proceed in an historical manner. Thus your early goal is to keep the Tokugawa Shogunate in business, putting down rebels and earning valuable Prestige Points that make your nation stronger. Early turns in our mini-campaign were spent building up Japan's basic economy as quickly as possible while also putting together a small fleet that could trade with Southeast Asia. Trying to speed up history and getting rid of the Tokugawa will result in a shattered country that could provide easy pickings for circling Europeans. The change in the political climate will come soon enough, and it's important to have a Japan that can economically take advantage of it-as well as one with enough prestige to count on the world stage.

The strongest aspect of the game is the military component (an aspect of play that AGEOD has excelled at), an armchair general's fantasy. You have all the building blocks you need to form any unit from a company to an army, and they can be combined in any way imaginable (although there is a minimum size for an independent unit). Supply units, engineers, infantry, artillery, cavalry, and more-they're all here. Leader units usually have a photo of the historical leader on their counters, and clicking on each unit will show an illustration of their uniforms and arms-again, specific to each country. Individual ships will have a photo of the historical ship on the counter wherever possible. Garrisons are raised automatically as needed (representing a sort of 'local militia'). Each unit is rated in a mind-boggling variety of categories-range, ammo, cohesion, aggressiveness, speed, discipline, and recon being a few. There are over FIVE HUNDRED special abilities a unit can possess. Combat is again played out on the strategic level-no tactical battles. Units can simply march to a location, or use rail and naval transport (if you have it).

Pride of Nations also emphasizes logistics and supply. Putting together a large force to send to East Africa is easy-keeping it alive once it's there is a whole other story. An army far from home that doesn't has access to plentiful ammo, food, and replacement parts is an army in a world of trouble. Whether it's horse drawn supply attached to units, rail, or naval transport, setting up your the supply network is all important. Attrition to units via climate, disease, and moving through rough terrain can deplete an elite unit in no time. Much like the real world, non-battlefield casualties account for just as much damage or more than those sustained in battle. And also much like the real world, the army with the best logistics will be the one in the best position to win. Players with the patience and ability to put together a strong supply network will find the going much easier. Other than the Takeda series of games, we can't recall a sim involving Japan where supply was such a crucial element.

Diplomacy is a bit abstract-there are the standard options for making alliances, defensive treaties, and right of access along with less common ones like making inter-country loans. Declaring war is somewhat difficult-it's not as easy as just saying so. Players will need a casus belli to do so, which often comes out of a 'crisis'. This is an event generated by the game and is determined by several factors-the state of diplomatic relations between counties, troops gathered on a border, or a disputed parcel of land being some of these. This triggers a crisis where the player has six turns to either go up by three dominance points or simply be ahead at the end. Dominance is established by press conferences, oratory, calling for a resolution or delay, or attempting to gain the support of third parties. Winning a crisis might garner enough prestige points to justify declaring war on an opponent.

The economic aspect of the game is excellent. It's largely based on manufacturing while keeping your population happy enough to prevent rioting. Manufacturing allows for lucrative international trade in conjunction with a merchant fleet. These are vital for procuring raw materials and items not found in your country (a real problem for resource-starved Japan) to keep those factories running and the cash rolling in. The level of detail is so layered that a player can actually set up a factory in a different country (pursuant to an agreement to do so) and ship finished goods back to the homeland. Another nice aspect is the distinction between private and government funds-government funds are raised from different sources and are used mainly for military funding, whereas private funds bankroll factories. Colonization is obviously a big help in supplying whatever resource a country might be lacking in, so most of the game's battles center on colony disputes rather than direct invasions of the mother country. In countries that have elections, you can also attempt to push one candidate over the other (although as always your people might have different ideas!). Social classes, education, religion, nationalism, and ethnicity all have a hand in determining the stability of the home front.

Graphics are a bit more whimsical than in Europa Universalis, with tiny animated ships traversing the globe. We found the old fashioned real-time clock in the upper right a nice reminder that we needed to keep track of things in the real world, since the game is very addictive. Another nice touch was the background music-over 100 selections that reprise some of the more memorable period tunes. The map has several different modes (military, economic, decision, colonial) and several filters can show the supply grid, key cities, and even the weather. Unlike a lot of games, turns are simultaneous-when you click end turn, all of your orders made during the turn are then executed at the same time that every other country's orders are executed. This makes things far more unpredictable, as enemy forces will often move before an attack can be carried out.

Even with all of the research that went into the game, there were still some things that made us groan in the set-up. Shimazu Nariakira was shown as Daimyo of Tosa on Shikoku, not in Kagoshima (Satsuma) on Kyushu. Likewise, one of the Tokugawa is shown as being in control of Hiroshima and Tokugawa Yoshinobu is installed as a leader in Edo in 1850 (when he's only 13 and should be in Mito). Thankfully, he hasn't been made Shogun yet.

The biggest complaint among players of the game centers around its length. The Grand Campaign runs for 1680 turns, and on top of that the computer AI takes a LONG time between turns to make its decisions and sort out/coordinate all the orders given by all the factions. Mods are on the way that will double the time periods each turn covers (halving the number of turns), and hopefully some sort of patch that will address the AI decision making lag. If you're really impatient, there are four short 'battle scenarios' (including the Russo-Japanese War) that remove the economic element and allow you to slug it out-with the Spanish-American War scenario also available as DLC.

Pride of Nations is an amazing game that provides players with an avalanche of information, options, and materials but somehow makes it all manageable. With the different situations facing each country, it also has unlimited replay value-which is extended even further by the AI giving each country different objective cities each playthrough. With a strong military aspect, an excellent economic and diplomatic component, and establishing trade and colonialism as an integral part of success, it takes its place at the top of the list in grand strategic games.

Paradox makes their strategy games mod-friendly, so there are tons of interesting player-created mods for Europa Universalis and there are probably just as many on the way for the recently released Pride of Nations. Mods range from simply setting up new scenarios to changing the map, introducing new artwork and unit appearances, and plugging in new scripts. The load screens for the games even allow you to choose any mod you've downloaded before booting up! The best place to find mods to download is at the Paradox Interactive Forums...not to mention the skilled and knowledgeable players that will be able to help you out in any situation you might get into. Both games also offer online multiplayer (both LAN and online), with up to 32 different players taking part in the same campaign for Europa Universalis.

Both of these games make for great learning tools for those who don't just want to read about why history played out as it did, but also to experience it. They're the descendants of the monster board wargames of the 1970's and 80's with the advantages of greater depth and zero recordkeeping. While you won't get the 'real time battles' of "Total War-Shogun 2", you will get a much greater sense of running a faction's diplomacy, economy, and military along with an unmatched level of control and detail. There are no quick fixes here-you have to be thinking out your strategy years in advance, just not a couple of turns. You won't find more involved, well-researched, and addictive history games than these. Did we mention how inexpensive they are? Europa Universalis Chronicles lately has been on sale at Gamersgate for under $10, a steal. Pride of Nations is less than 20 bucks. Considering the amount of well-spent time you can enjoy playing them, it's the cheapest entertainment option around.You can find "Europa Universalis III Chronicles" and "Pride of Nations" on, or (recommended) in downloadable form at venues such as Gamersgate or Steam.