Paradox often releases games in a fairly raw state, basically at a beta level, depending on input from their community of fans to rapidly iterate and polish the game post-release, with multiple patches. Crusader Kings II is, however, quite polished and playable out of the box (though there have been several patches since its release) -- doubtless, the fact that it's a sequel helps (although it didn't help Victoria 2, which was a bit of a mess when first published).
As with most of Paradox's games, Crusader Kings is a grand strategy game spanning a long stretch of history -- from 1066 through the 15th century. The game engine is based on Europa Universalis, but the gameplay is quite different, because the concerns of Medieval rulers were quite different from those of Early Modern ones.
It is often said that we live in an era of uniquely rapid technological change. This is untrue; if you had been born in, say, 1836, the start date of this game and the year of Her Majesty's accession to the British throne, you would over the course of your life have seen the rise of steamships, railroads, and electricity; the mechanization of industry and agriculture; the invention of modern chemistry and physics; a huge rise in population; and a revolution in geopolitical affairs with the emergence of America, Germany, and Japan as Great Powers. In truth, the whole of humanity has been embarked on rapid technological change since then, a fact which makes astonishing the persistence of irrational and antiscientific beliefs in the face of the evidence.
Victoria 2 is another of Paradox's grand strategic games, this one focussing on the Victorian era. Spanning the entire globe, it allows you to play virtually any organized nation of the period, from the mighty British Empire to one of the Indian princely states to, say, Haiti. Though there are diplomatic and certainly military elements to the game, the focus is on economics and politics; whatever nation you play, you spend much of your time attempting to foster industrial development and manage the political aspirations of your people. Among the elements nicely simulated are emigration from Europe and to the Americas and elsewhere, and the possibilities of German and Italian unification.
One reason for that, though, is a design choice which strikes me as remarkable -- interesting, but one I don't think I'd ever have made. In common with games of this type, Victoria 2 gives you many, many knobs to twiddle, many ways to micromanage. You can choose what factories to build where, what technologies to develop in what order, what social policies to adopt, and so on and so on. Except that actually you can't; the game shows you the knobs, and then for the most part says "but you can't use them." For example, if your governing party is "liberal" (in the 19th-century sense, meaning pro-market), then you may NOT build factories. That would be a violation of your laissez-faire principles. Instead, you can see what factories your country's capitalists are trying to build, but have to wait until they raise the funds to do so -- and can't really affect their priorities, even though the game's capitalists seem fairly obtuse about their own potential for profit. And their priorities may not be your own ("We need armaments! Not wine, for god's sake!").
Contrariwise, if you are a conservative presidential dictatorship, it is virtually impossible to impose any kind of social reforms, because the game won't let you twiddle those knobs -- freedom of speech? Madness!
Consequently, for much of the game you are sitting back, your only real choices which technology to develop next and where to send your diplomats, while hoping that some game event will occur that lets you do something else useful.
Still, it's interesting, strategically deep, and a decent simulation of the era; the one system that strikes me as notably odd is that for colonization. Essentialy, you must establish a "national priority" luring colonists to an area you want to take over; while this might be a reasonable description of, say, the settlement of the Great Plains or the Argentinean Pampas, it's certainly not a reasonable description of the colonial scramble for Africa. Except in parts of East Africa and Algeria, there was little European settlement, colonies were taken for reasons of prestige or geopolitics (preventing others from threatening communications with India), and were acquired merely by sending a handful of well-armed soldiers to primitive areas that lacked either the ability or the inclination to resist.
As with all games of this sort, there is a high degree of complexity, and yes, you will have to RTFM. But it is excellent of its kind.
Stéphane Bura is an eminent game designer, of both digital and tabletop games, as well as something of a game design theorist. His War and Peace is more of a thought experiment than a game; it is, he proclaims a "one-button Civilization". You make only one decision during play: to toggle between "peace" and "war."
One of the best games I ever played was 1480: The Age of Exploration -- a game that is no longer extant. Indeed, I suspect that the whole genre of similar games -- there were a handful -- is now extinct.
Rise of the West dates back to 1994, and looks as if it had been developed for Windows 3; it's a freeware implementation of Empires of the Middle Ages, Dunnigan's excellent boardgame which we reviewed a few days ago.
Jim Dunnigan is one of a handful of designers to have published in excess of a hundred games (it helps to run your own game company for a decade), and in my opinion, Empires of the Middle Ages is one of his best designs -- possibly the best of them all.
Supreme Ruler, like Making History or Europa Universalis, is an extraordinarily detailed and complex grand strategic game covering the entire globe, with economic, military, and diplomatic aspects. As long-time readers may know, I'm a sucker for this kind of game.
Unlike the others, Supreme Ruler is set in the modern world -- sort of. It's set in a hypothetical near future, which is canny of BattleGoat but also somewhat disappointing; canny, because if you try to simulate the real world, you're always going to get flack on minute levels of detail (e.g., "I am from the country of Mystflx, but why don't you show the iron mines at Qwertyuiop?"), so it's easier to create a game that is representative, but not an explicit simulation. Disappointing, because playing around with a good version of the real world would be interesting.
You can download the demo of Defcon, for Mac, Linux or Windows, and play a limited version of the game for free. You should do that now. What you'll get is a deep strategy experience coupled with a harrowing example of the artistic power of games: the gameplay is itself a poetic expression of the horrors mankind might be capable of, and the personal moral implications involved. You score a point for every million people you kill -- I think that sums it up.
Billy Suicide is the flagship title of Mike Lasala, who has the trademark style of featuring a protagonist who may as well be him, with photoreal frames circa the 3DO era. This game is somewhat similar to a game I wanted to do back in 2007, except in my take on it your suicide was inevitable and the things you did beforehand would determine how people behaved at your funeral, and the resulting aftermath. Billy doesn't dig quite as deep as that causal model may have, but the episodic structure of this game suggests that the one-day-at-at-time model could bear out in interesting ways.
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