Tobold's Blog
Tuesday, May 30, 2023

Janous asked me to talk about anonymity. I have talked about that before, but not recently. In the earlier days of the internet, it often seemed to be a place of infinite freedom. These days the internet is more often seen as a source of misinformation and hatred. A very old observation about the internet is that anonymity plus an audience can lead to bad online behavior. But would removing anonymity lead to a better internet?

It might not come as a shock to you that Tobold isn't the name that is printed on my passport. So to some degree, I chose anonymity on the internet. Why? I happened to be at university in the late 80's and early 90's, so I had access to the internet relatively early. And I was already discussing games on Usenet. But I was also studying to become a scientist, and had my first scientific publications. And when I tried to find my scientific "footprint" on the internet, it turned out that by having used my name for both gaming posts and scientific posts, a search would mostly turn up the game stuff, simply because games interest more people than deep science. That was obviously a bad move for a scientific career. So I adopted the name of my first AD&D character, Tobold, as my internet pseudonym. And kept my real name "clean" for anybody who was searching for my patents or scientific publications. Anonymity / pseudonymity has a clear use case for me.

I used to joke that the internet would be a much nicer place if everybody's posts would be automatically forwarded to his mother. Parents and other people in your social environment tend to be the guardians of your polite behavior. On the other hand, knowing your real identity also allows strangers to attack you in the real world, and do more harm to you than they can if they would be just limited to using words online. "Doxxing", finding out and publicizing real world information about people, has become a method of attacking somebody online.

Having said that, the internet as a whole has moved somewhat away from total anonymity. It has been replaced by something which isn't unlike my pseudonym Tobold identity: The influencer identity. Because we have moved away from text towards more video and streaming, hiding your face, which is part of your real identity, has become more difficult. I know a few gaming streamers that never show their face. But showing your face and carefully selected pieces of your life increases your audiences trust in you, which is key if you want to exploit that parasocial relationship for money, personal gain, or political influence. Everybody can publish whatever on social media, the problem today is getting heard over the cacophony, and that requires an audience that trusts you. Even one of the most hateful platforms on the internet, Twitter, frequently has people using their own name; and before they messed it up, your influence on Twitter went up with a verified identity blue checkmark. It turns out that you don't need anonymity to spew hate on the internet, as long as posting a lie or even death threat on Twitter under your real name still hasn't any real-world consequences.

Consequences of online behavior would obviously be the way to improve online behavior. Unfortunately we are in a very bad situation here: Law enforcement isn't doing much about online slander, libel, misinformation, or even threats. On the other side, an army of online vigilantes can go after anybody more prominent and dig up "compromising" information online, like a photo of the target having worn blackface for Halloween or a school play several decades ago. These days your life might get ruined for something which clearly isn't illegal (and was even socially acceptable at the time you did it), while others get away with illegal behavior. It just depends who is after you, and how motivated they are about it.

Consequences for online behavior by law enforcement would mean the state monitoring everybody online, with all the negative consequences that a "social credit" system like the one in China could have. And humanity has some history with governments punishing people for what they think or what they are, and all these histories also involve regular people informing and denouncing others. I could imagine the internet getting much worse, if we raised the stakes and made it easier for people that actually hurt others whose opinions they disagree with.

In summary, I don't think removing anonymity online would still achieve very much in this world. There is less and less connection between bad online behavior and anonymity: Your real name is basically anonymous, because in a global context so few people out of so many actual know the real you. Much disinformation comes from influencers that aren't anonymous, with which you have a parasocial relationship, in which you think you know them, and trust them. And unless you use really sophisticated tools, finding out your real identity from your online profile doesn't pose much of a challenge to anyone motivated enough to want to harm you in real life. Finding out *my* real name is as easy as using the "buy Tobold a coffee" button on my blog, although that also tells me *your* real name, as PayPal is using real names for personal accounts. Please note that finding out my real name with the purpose of getting me fired for the opinions I posted online won't work, as I am already retired. We are still a few decades away from your pension depending on your social score.

Friday, May 26, 2023
Cheating, Gacha, and Loot Boxes in Zelda

I turned my Switch to airplane mode today, so that it wouldn't update Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom from version 1.1.1 to version 1.1.2. The reason that I don't want the update is that the old version has a duplication glitch, which is fixed in the new version. And I rather like the ability to duplicate items, so I am not going to update until I think I don't need it anymore.

As I said in my review, Tears of the Kingdom is a huge game, which will take me a lot of time to finish. A duplication glitch doesn't give me access to items I couldn't have found yet, but it enables me to produce more of an item which I otherwise would need to grind. I know how to get let's say Zonite Charges, it just takes a lot of time. Duplication (which produces up to 4 items in one go) is a lot faster. And Zonite Charges are easy to duplicate, because the item you want to duplicate needs to be in the last slot of your inventory, and if I sort by type, that is where the Zonite Charges are. Having lots of those doesn't trivialize the game in any way, it just allows me to get more Zonai devices, and thus build more interesting stuff.

Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom now also has Gacha machines. Don't worry, they aren't connected to any real money transactions. I think they were put in as a joke. You feed them Zonite Charges and get Zonite Devices out. However, just like Breath of the Wild, there are a sort of loot boxes in the game, for which you will need to spend some money. There is a function where you can scan an Amiibo figurine, and get a chest and some random foodstuff. Fortunately you don't actually need the real Amiibo figurines, which are expensive. You can spend about $25 for Zelda Amiibo NFC cards, which contain a clone of the NFC chip that is normally in those Amiibos. Scanning that card works as well, and is a lot cheaper. The only disadvantage is that this actually feels more like cheating than the duplication glitch, because the chests can contain gear which you haven't found yet.

Tuesday, May 23, 2023
Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom

I have been very busy these day. The move to the new house is approaching, and then I finally got Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom in the mail, some days after release. On the positive side, I preordered the game at $70, and ended getting it for $60, due to Amazon's pre-order price guarantee. So now I have been playing TotK for several days. It is a great game, and very much a sequel to Breath of the Wild. But let's have a look at it in more detail.

The game starts with you and Princess Zelda triggering a cataclysm by venturing into the caves below Hyrule castle, in spite of family traditions specifically warning you against that. In that even you, as Link, lose Zelda, and most of your power, and you must spend the rest of the game to get your power and princess back. So far, so Legend of Zelda usual.

The actual gameplay starts on a tutorial island in the sky, where a mysterious ghostly being, who turns out to be an old king of Hyrule, guides you through the steps necessary. That involves exploring several shrines, in each of which you gain a power. All that is very similar to Breath of the Wild, but the powers have changed. While in Breath of the Wild you had a Magnesis power that allowed you to lift metal objects in the air, you now have a far more powerful Ultrahand ability; it also works on non-metallic movable objects, and you can rotate those objects and attach them to each other. Which means that you can now build stuff. And because in the game there are devices like fans or flamethrowers, you can build functional stuff: A fan-powered raft, a cart that carries a time bomb into an enemy den, even a plane. In shrines you can 't use the devices from your inventory, so there are tons of puzzles to solve with whatever materials you are given. Other new abilities are the ability to fuse your weapon or shield with some material, producing for example a hammer out of a stick and a rock, or attaching a flame-thrower to your shield. And you get an ability to "dive" upwards through rock, which is very helpful for leaving a cave, or reaching high-up places with a ledge. Having said that, the basic principle of using your abilities to explore the world and solve shrine puzzles is still very recognizable Breath of the Wild.

Following the main quest a bit after the tutorial you get back to the ground of Hyrule, and get your paraglider back as well. Personally I find the "new" Hyrule a bit confusing, lore-wise. I imagine that we are in the timeline after having won Breath of the Wild, and some changes can be explained by the cataclysm (been there, done that, in World of Warcraft). But there are a lot of references to history, and all traces of the history presented in Breath of the Wild have been deleted. There are no more guardians, your Sheikah Slate is now a Purah Pad, with more or less the same functions, and people still refer to Zelda as "princess", not "queen". At least this time you have been gone for only a short while, and haven't suffered memory loss. So now there is a brand-new story, with a brand-new ancient powerful race, and a brand-new evil Ganon archvillain.

On the gameplay side, the biggest change is that Hyrule now has three layers: The regular surface layer, in which you can visit places you know from the previous game, an underground layer that is as big as the surface, and a sky layer, which is a lot smaller, because it consists of some sky islands and a lot of air between them. So Tears of the Kingdom is more of the same of Breath of the Wild, and bigger. Which is probably what most player wanted.

For anybody who hasn't played Breath of the Wild yet, I would recommend playing that first. I am actually very happy that I played BotW again this year for a while, to get back into the game. Tears of the Kingdom has both a lot of game mechanics that are the same as BotW, and a lot of new stuff. Overall that is a *lot*, it doesn't feel as tight in design as BotW, and the overall effect is a bit overwhelming. More so than BotW the "open world" aspect can leave you a bit lost as to what to do next, because there is simply so much, and you have trouble deciding where to start. My recommendation would be to not worry, and just run after whatever looks interesting right now. If you are a completionist, Tears of the Kingdom is a nightmare, there is just no end to it. If you just want to explore a new world and have fun, Tears of the Kingdom is a great game.

Tuesday, May 16, 2023
Internet speed

When I discovered my very first MMORPG, Ultima Online, in the 90's, I was still on a dial-up internet connection. That not only was very slow, but also pay-per-minute. So my first foray into MMORPGs ended after a month, when I received a $500 telephone bill. I restarted online games a few years later, when I got my first unmetered DSL connection. It also was much faster, at 6 Mbit/s. DSL works over the copper telephone line, and over the years the technology improved, without changing that line. In 2010 I went from ADSL to VDSL, which at first had about 20 Mbit/s speed. And with subsequent updates the speed went up further, to now about 70 Mbit/s.

As I mentioned before, I am currently building a new house. Moving away from the city to a more rural area has certain advantages, but of course internet speed was a worry. In most places in the world, rural internet is a lot slower than urban. But it turned out that in this case the opposite was true: My new house is on a new street, so they had to build new infrastructure for electricity, water, gas, and internet/telephone. And because Belgium is currently starting to roll out fiber optics, they didn't even bother to lay the old copper cables for telephone and internet in the new street. They went directly for fiber optics.

Yesterday the cable guy installed the fiber optics internet connection to the new house. So I was able to test it, and got a whopping 700 Mbit/s internet speed for downloads, 200 Mbit/s upload. Actually measured, not theoretical (in theory this is a 1 GBit/s connection). And that was over WiFi! The only problem is that I have 700 Mbit/s in the garage, the speed drops to 50 Mbit/s in the living room, and there is no signal at all on the first floor. I built a low energy house with great thermal insulation, but that also stops electromagnetic waves to some extent. Fortunately I had thought ahead, and all the rooms in which I am most likely to use internet come with Ethernet ports, which are connected to the router in the garage. And I already have a Technicolor OWA0130 WiFi Booster, which can be plugged into one of those Ethernet ports. So I am hopeful that I will be able to have both plugged-in internet devices like TVs and computers, as well as fast WiFi internet everywhere in my house.

Note that 700 Mbit/s is nearly 90 MByte/s, but you can only achieve such download speeds if the server on the other side is actually providing data at that speed. I've read that Steam is not providing data faster than 60 MByte/s, so further increases of download speed on my side would be useless. Note that a typical 10 GB game download at that speed takes just 3 minutes, and the unpacking and installing might actually take longer than the download. My internet plan comes with a 3 TB/month limit, and at maximum speed I could download that much data in less than a day; not that I can imagine wanting to download 3 TB of data. The speed is even more useless for streaming, because streaming for example Netflix at the highest possible 4K/UHD resolution just takes up 15 Mbit/s or 2MByte/s. I can stream maximum resolution Netflix on 45 devices simultaneously, if my subscription would allow that, before I'd run into a speed limitation.

So this is probably the end of the line for my internet speed. Faster internet exists, but serves no practical purpose. If my internet provider offered me a 2 GBit/s instead of 1 GBit/s connection for $10 more per month, I would decline.

Sunday, May 14, 2023
Age of Wonders 4 - We can always dream

Age of Wonders 4 is a great game, but not a perfect one. And so one can't help but notice things that one would wish that they would be better. Now there are a few things where I am pretty sure that at some point in time they will be improved, either by a patch, or by one of the 4 already announced DLC. For example, minor inconvenience in the UI, on the hero screen you can't quickly switch from one hero to the next. That is one of those things that will most probably be patched at some point. But what about the improvements that are unlikely to happen?

I think the biggest improvement I would wish for is the artificial intelligence on the strategic level (the tactical AI is already very good). It is currently possible for the player to game the diplomacy system so that the AI opponents don't declare war on you. Setting difficulty higher just results in the AI opponents having a lot more troops, which is not very relevant if they don't attack you, and just tedious if you attack them. Tedious because only 3 stacks from each side can participate in a battle, so an enemy with 9 stacks instead of 3 just means you need to fight him three times.

The AI is also fundamentally incapable of thinking more than 1 turn ahead. If a distraction appears, the AI will chase after it. The AI is good at amassing troops for defense, but totally fails at moving troops forward to attack. After now 78 hours in, I still have exactly zero times an enemy besieges one of my cities; which incidentally makes the whole construction of defense structures useless.

I can imagine that some patch or DLC adds a parameter to the realm creation which makes the AI more aggressive, or diplomacy more difficult. Right now you can only set parameters making diplomacy with free cities more difficult, not with AI factions. Less likely, but already implemented in other 4X games like Civ6, would be a system in which factions have an overall strategy like "expansionist" or "aggressive", which you could choose when setting up your game. What I would really wish for would be an AI that simply would be better at playing the strategic game, but that is unlikely ever to be patched in. I'm not even sure this is something we'll see in Age of Wonders 5. For comparison, the Total War series of games now has 15 games, and the AI still sucks.

Then there is a list of improvements where I don't know if they will be improved or not. That concerns mostly the water and underground areas. In AoW4, curiously, both ship combat and the 4X gameplay in the underground half of the map is less good than in previous editions of the game. Naval combat in AoW4 looks like it was designed and programmed by an intern, offering just a water surface with no obstacles; the animations are comically bad, with all units being displayed as identical ships, repeatedly ramming each other to attack. The underground areas of AoW4 have comparatively few features and resources; you can't even conquer the whole underground without moving to the surface, as areas frequently aren't connected in any way underground. There is a system of digging through earth, but it is half-baked at best; you can find treasures or monsters, but no permanent resources for your underground cities. Having seen both of these areas designed better in previous games makes me think that this would be possible, but I am not sure that Paradox will want to put resources into these improvements.

Thursday, May 11, 2023
Age of Wonders 4 - A review

I have played Age of Wonders 4 for 66 hours now, which I would say is enough to write a review. Of course I can't claim to have seen *everything* yet, as there are so many possible different combinations of options. But I have seen both custom and scripted worlds, played at different difficulty levels, and have a good idea of all game mechanics.

Overall, Age of Wonders 4 is very good. It combines the strategic 4X play with tactical battles in a way where both sides are about equal in complexity and fun. If you want tactical battles to be at least equal in weight to strategy, this is probably the best Paradox game you can get.

The "unique selling proposition" of Age of Wonders 4 is the absolutely crazy amount of options you have to set up a game. You can create a large number of different worlds, and combine that with an even larger number of different factions. There are a lot of cosmetic options in there, but also a lot of options that impact gameplay. There is always magic, but you can choose between going for more conventionally strong troops supported with magic, up to building a faction where most of your troops are summoned magical beings. You start out with one of 12 different tier 1 tomes of spells, but get access to 42 more tomes during the game. If you always wanted to play a faction of spider-mounted toadmen paladins wielding fire magic, Age of Wonders 4 makes it possible. The only downside is that this makes all factions a "collection of traits" with a cosmetic skin on top, the races aren't memorable anymore.

Once you get started, you will quickly fall into the typical 4X "one more turn" mindset, keeping you playing for hours. Age of Wonders 4 is a truly fascinating game. It is better than most other 4X games in keeping the late game as interesting as the early game. Even the neutral armies, the "barbarians" of Civilization, get considerably stronger over time and bite you in the ass if you failed to deal with them earlier. Combat is handled with an excellent system, where you can first run the combat quickly on automatic, and then based on the outcome of that decide whether the fight is interesting enough for you to do manually. As you can always retry manually, you don't have to be afraid to get screwed by auto-combat. And auto-combat is actually quite good, so you can really speed up the game by running all those one-sided battles automatically, and just play the interesting ones.

The one weak point of Age of Wonders 4 is that the AI isn't quite as good on the strategic level. That becomes very visible if you are allied with an AI player, share vision with him, and have observe mode on: You can watch the AI moving troops from left to right one turn, and from right to left the next turn. The AI is constantly splitting up stacks and running in different directions, with no visible goal or purpose. AI enemies are reasonably good at lumping all their troops together for defense, which makes playing at high difficulty settings, where the AI gets a lot of additional troops, rather tedious. But the AI, allied or enemy, is horrible at attacking or following some sort of cohesive strategy. While different AI factions have different sets of likes and dislikes in diplomacy, they seem to lack the other part of the agendas in Civilization 6, where different leaders would actively pursue different strategies.

Fortunately the AI factions aren't the only challenge in the game, or the only content. There are lots of neutrals to fight, ancient wonders to explore, and events and quests to deal with. Depending on the chosen distance between factions, you might not actually have a lot of interaction with other factions for large parts of the game. That also makes Age of Wonders 4 somewhat pointless to play as multi-player. The option exists, but if you and your friend just play independently of each other for hours, why bother? Also, Age of Wonders 4 is by no means well-balanced, some combinations of traits are simply far more powerful than others.

I am already well past the "1 hour played per dollar spent" mark, in spite of buying the game at full price. On Steam, Age of Wonders: Planetfall is currently on place 8 on the list of my most played games, and it is likely that Age of Wonders 4 will surpass that. The large number of options when setting up a world and faction makes the game very replayable. And that is before the 4 DLCs already announced add even more options. I'm not sure that they, or any patch, will address the issues with the strategic AI, which keeps me from considering the game perfect. But Age of Wonders 4 is certainly a very good strategy and tactics game, and good value for money. Recommended!

Wednesday, May 10, 2023
The creator economy

Because videos about new games appear faster on Twitch than on YouTube, I've been watching a lot of Twitch streams about Age of Wonders 4 lately. And, with me always interested in economics, that provided some interesting insights. First of all, Twitch is a lot more heavily monetized than YouTube. I have a "YouTube Premium Lite" subscription, which costs $7 per month, and that turns off all advertising on all YouTube channels. On Twitch, advertising is per channel, which means you would need to subscribe to all channels you follow, at $4 each, to get rid of all ads. Twitch also has tier 2 and 3 subscriptions for $8 and $20 per month, as well as "cheers" using paid for "bits", plus the possibility to gift subs. Links to other services that allow donations to the streamer, like Patreon, are also frequent.

At first glance that appears a bit strange. Compared to $10 basic (without ads) Netflix subscription, a $4 Twitch subscription, and especially the higher tiers, seems overpriced. $4 to see a single content creator's stream ad-free, who can't possibly stream 24/7, doesn't seem like good value for money. But observation shows that subscriptions and gift subs are quite common, even on smaller channels that don't have thousands and thousands of viewers. So what is the motivation for voluntarily giving a content creator money, if you could just watch his content for free with ads?

I think the secret is the parasocial interaction we have with content creators. Just like with celebrities or even fictional characters, we think that we know these people, that they are our friends. But in reality the relationship is one-sided, the person we think we "know" is barely aware that we exist, and the facet we've seen is very limited. Between that imaginary friendship, and the equally imaginary "community" in chat, we are tempted to show our appreciation with those subscriptions and gift subs. It is a quick way to achieve a perceived "status" with the creator and his audience. Which is why nearly all Twitch streams reward those subscriptions and gift subs with some sort of positive feedback, prominently showing it over the stream, and awarding special chat emotes to subscribers.

In a world where increasingly everything is subscription-based, that is somewhat dangerous. Companies and individuals want your subscription because they know you are unable to keep track of everything. It isn't easy to actually know how much you spent on subscriptions this month, as the payments tend to be at different times and possibly via different channels. Already a lot of people spend more money on a bundle of commercial streaming services than they used to pay for cable TV. "Cutting the cord" doesn't necessarily mean saving money. And if you start to subscribe to a bunch of Twitch content creators as well, you'll end up with extremely high cost for entertainment, without even being properly aware of what you are spending. The creator economy has been estimated to have surpassed the 100 billion dollar mark in 2022. Are we really getting our money's worth here? Or are we paying for imaginary friends?

Monday, May 08, 2023
Age of Wonder 4 - The Eternal Court

48 hours played of AoW4 now, and finished story realm number 4, The Eternal Court. Only 2.6% of players of AoW4 on Steam have done this, according to the achievements. While the realm was challenging, I do assume the lack of people completing this is because most people play custom realms instead of story realms.

What was interesting about the map was, that is was rather large. So I placed my cities farther away from each other, giving them more room to expand. That worked well insofar I never had that many resources as in this game. The only disadvantage was that moving troops from one city to another took a lot of time, at least until I reached teleporter technology.

I played as Ratticus Rex, another feudal faction, but using the Tome of the Horde. Then I went for a mix of astral and nature tomes, all of which enabled me to summon a lot of units. Basically the strategy was to overrun the enemy with hordes of disposable creatures, and not worry if some of them died. Very helpful for that was the Awaken Instinct spell from the Tome of Nature's Wrath. After I move my troops in contact with the enemy and have all of them attack, I cast Awaken Instinct, which heals my troops, gives them all of their action points back, and afflicts them with Berserk for 2 turns. There usually aren't any enemies left at the end of those 2 turns.

There will probably not be a blog post about story realm 5, Grexolis. From what I can see on the Steam forums, this one is just crazy hard. I'll have a look at it on easy difficulty, but am not sure I'll beat it. Less than 1% of players on Steam did it. And I don't really like missions that you are designed to lose.

Thursday, May 04, 2023
Age of Wonders 4 - Enchanted Archipelago and Crimson Caldara

I now have 24 hours of Age of Wonders 4 played, and finished the second and third story realm: Enchanted Archipelago and Crimson Caldera. I played both with the same leader / faction: Feudal dark elves, riding on spiders, but using order and nature magic with a good alignment. I played both stories on normal difficulty.

The Enchanted Archipelago was the least fun of the three stories up to now. The AI isn't great with ships, and the graphics and animations of ship combat in AoW4 are strangely sub-par. Even Planetfall had nicer ship combat. But this second story mission still wasn't terribly difficult, and I finished it in under 40 turns.

The Crimson Caldera was a lot more fun, and quite challenging. It showed, how you can get a very different experience by messing with some parts of the game. Diplomacy was basically turned off, and right from the start I was at war with 5 enemy AI and about twice that many free cities. I can see how with DLC and mods there could be a lot of interesting rules variations and scenarios for AoW4. A big lake of lava in the middle of the map saved me from being assaulted from all sides, but it meant that I also had to take the long way around to conquer all the enemies. That took 112 turns overall, so I finally got into the end game. On the final turn I cast the spell that starts the countdown for magic victory, but then used the bonuses that spell gives to conquer the last enemy capital and leader.

The culture you choose in AoW4 gives you access to three tier 1 units, two tier 2, and one tier 3. You need to upgrade your city to tier 2 and 3 to get those units, so at the start you can build just the tier 1. Other units, up to tier 5, come as part of the tomes. Sometimes you get other types of units from events or as loot, but mostly you'll have the units from your cultures and your tomes. I now completely explored the feudal / order combination. I don't think I'll play that particular combo again anytime soon, because one ends up doing a lot of similar battles over a hundred turns, if you do them manually. But on the side of spells for quite a while I relied on a cheap nature spell, Mark as Prey, from the Tome of Beasts. I makes one enemy unit suffer flanking damage from every attack, regardless from which direction that attack comes. For just 5 mana that ends up being a lot more efficient than casting any damage spells.

With the "beta (hotfix)" version I was able to play the game without crashes. Today Paradox patched the main version of the game, I assume using the same fix. Still they accumulated several hundred negative Steam reviews complaining about crashes. I guess that is only fair. It seems the release version had lots of problems with regular Nvidia graphics cards, and that is something you would think should have been tested before release.

This weekend I'll be playing the fourth story mission, The Eternal Court. I'll make a new leader and faction for that, but haven't decided yet which one.

Wednesday, May 03, 2023
Age of Wonders 4 - Valley of Wonders

I have now played just under 8 hours of Age of Wonders 4, and basically completed the first Rise of the Godir story quest, Valley of Wonders, twice. I have to retract an earlier statement that this would be good to play in hard mode: While this is still relatively easy to win at the hardest difficulty, the end becomes a bit tedious. Like in all strategy games, the AI just cheats at highest difficulty, producing and maintaining far more units than they should be able to.

So in my first game, at hard difficulty, by turn 28 I had built up 3 powerful stacks, which in Age of Wonders 4 is the maximum number of units you can have in a battle. But the enemy had 6 stacks of units. That shouldn't be a problem, because you can fight 3 stacks, and then another 3 stacks, if you don't have too many losses in the first fight. On automatic, your losses tend to be higher, so I tried on manual. By the way, that is one of the really great features of Age of Wonders, the ability to first try automatic combat, and then based on the result decide whether you would like to do the battle manually instead.

So I start the big manual battle, 18 of my units against 18 units of the AI. Big fireworks and spell effects everywhere. And it turned out that the release version of AoW4 couldn't handle that. Oh, the joys of playing a game on release! Game crashed, reproducibly every time I tried to do that battle, with a "graphics card driver crash". I found the solution to that problem on the Steam forums, I had to install a beta version called hotfix from Steam. I also updated my graphics card drivers, and set shadows to off.

Then I decided to just start Valley of Wonders again, at normal difficulty. I still used the same hero, Jacko Alltrades, an orc berserker, with his capital city New Orc City. Knowing better what to expect allowed me to optimize my strategy a bit, and I easily won the game on turn 42. Interestingly the Valley of Wonders scenario is not a totally fixed map; instead the two maps I played were similar in terms of where the major plot locations were located, but differed a bit in geography and placement of everything.

The faction worked better than expected, in spite of using lots of different affinities. I had more or less randomly taken the Chosen Uniter trait, which among other things lets you start with 2 Whispering Stones. You need Whispering Stones to persuade free cities to join your cause as a vassal. With the Valley of Wonders only *having* 2 free cities, on the second game I was able to get them both, which made me extremely powerful.

The thing that worked less good was the Tome of Souls I chose to start with. It is the basic necromancy tome, allowing you to recruit skeletons and bone golems. However, it uses a new resource for that, souls, which you get from killing units. I ended up having far more gold and mana to recruit regular units than I had souls to recruit undead, so at least in the shorter Valley of Wonders scenario this wasn't a great choice of tome.

By finishing Valley of Wonders, I unlocked the second story scenario in the Rise of the Godir campaign, called Enchanted Archipelago. So today I will create a new faction, a bit more seriously this time, and play that second scenario. Except for the crash, I had a lot of fun up to now.

Tuesday, May 02, 2023
Plans for my Age of Wonders 4 start

I rarely get really hyped for a game. For example, I really do look forward to Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom; but I did order a physical copy of the game on Amazon, and they'll only mail it on release day, so I will have to wait at least a day or two before I can play it. With PC games, I frequently wait until they are on sale, which has the added advantage of the game having received some patches since release. But for Age of Wonders 4 I am extremely hyped. I pre-ordered it, and I can't wait to play. I actually know not only that it is going to be released today, but found out the exact hour, 6 pm CEST, in a bit over 8 hours as I am writing this.

I have also already watched several Twitch and Youtube streams and videos to learn a good deal about the game, as 4X games can be a bit daunting. And by understanding a bit more about the game, I came up with a plan on how I want to start playing. This is based on an understanding of how 4X games work, which is exponentially: The faster you expand at the start of the game, the more resources you have at your disposal in the earlier game, and that can snowball your way to victory.

The problem with that system is that the human brain has problems understanding exponential growth. In Age of Wonders 4 that mainly results in people having serious problems in getting the difficulty settings of the game right. If you launch yourself into a fully custom world and just crank up all the difficulty settings to high, these difficulties will in fact multiply to quickly become unpleasant, sometimes even unwinnable. For example, if you both make the neutral armies guarding the various treasures of the land harder, and your own starting army weaker, you can end up not being able to gather any stuff in the early game, and that will severely punish you later.

Having said that, Age of Wonders 4 has a story campaign, which acts a bit like a tutorial game to learn how to play. And while all other maps are randomly generated, the story campaign has fixed maps with fixed challenges. And obviously those challenges aren't too hard to start with. Which means that for the tutorial, which only has three basic difficulty settings (easy, normal, hard), I think I can start on hard without a problem, because for example the neutral monsters still aren't very powerful. Takeaway message here is that if you play the story, "hard" means slightly challenging; but if you create a custom game and set the difficulty to "hard" or even "brutal", that sets several different options to difficult, and those difficulties multiply with each other, with the final result being frustrating, rather than challenging.

What I noticed that many people do is first make a very difficult world, and then try to make the most overpowered faction possible to beat that. I decided to do it the other way around: By playing at the relatively easy story campaign world, I'll get a more interesting challenge if I make an underpowered faction and leader. So I was thinking of creating Jacko Alltrades, a leader that has 5 different affinities at the start. You can't make 6 different affinities, because the choice of tome always gives you 2 affinity points of that tome.

Currently I was thinking taking the barbarian culture, which gives 1 point each in chaos and nature. Then I will take two different traits, for example 1 each in order and astral. And top that of with a tome that gives 2 shadow affinity. Taking a lot of different affinities means that I get the slowest possible growth in the empire tree, where each point of affinity gives you one point of progress in that branch per turn. In terms of the old Magic the Gathering, I am building a 5-color deck, when I know that specializing in one or two colors would be far more efficient. I don't think it is possible to completely gimp yourself when creating a faction. All the options have some advantages. I am only avoiding early synergies, and making it harder to reach level IV and V tomes, and the game isn't likely to last that long.

It will take me some time to play through the story campaign. But I think that I want to play all of it before moving on to custom realms. And for custom realms I think that I will mostly play on custom difficulty, that is to say not set all the difficulties all at once with a basic "hard" option, but go into the advanced options and set things like monster strength, starting resources, and so on individually. 4X games have a sweet spot, where they are challenging, without being frustrating, and that needs some fine-tuning to reach.

Monday, May 01, 2023
Races in Age of Wonders 4

I’m still waiting for the release of Age of Wonders 4 tomorrow before I can actually play it. But the game is already available to a larger group of streamers since Saturday, so Twitch and YouTube are full of AoW4 content. And while there is some consensus that this is the best 4X game to have come out since Civ6, I couldn’t help but notice that there is some smoke and mirrors trickery going on here.

One of the biggest selling points of AoW4 is the extraordinary variety of choice you have in creating your world, your leader, and your faction. This is something 4X players really care about, and most 4X games produce a lot of DLC that offer players more factions to play. For Age of Wonders 4, there are 10 possible factions in the game from the start (Human, Elf, Orc, Dwarf, Halfling, Goblin, Cat, Rat, Toad, Mole). And there are already 4 DLC announced which will contain a lot more races, like Draconian and more anthropomorphic beasts.

But if you look closely, you will notice that the game calls these races “physical forms”. Because, as it turns out, they are purely cosmetical. While every race comes with a default body trait and mind trait, those can be changed. You can make halflings with the traits of orcs, and vice versa. Adding more physical forms to the game is just fluff, which doesn’t add replayability.

It is in the next step of faction creation, where you select a “culture”, where the core identity of your faction is being set. Unfortunately there are only 6 of those (feudal, high, barbarian, industrious, dark, mystic), with only a single mention of 1 additional culture being added in the DLC. But culture determines what units you will have, major bonus features of your faction, and some city buildings. Culture also determines 2 of your 6 starting affinities. This all adds up to make culture your most important choice in faction creation, and your dark elves will play somewhat similar to your dark dwarves, because being dark culture has a much bigger impact than what race you are.

I do hope that more cultures will be added to Age of Wonders 4. But it seems to me that adding a new culture is a lot of work, as it contains a whole new set of units from all tiers. Adding a new race just as a physical form is a lot easier, because it is just new artwork, and doesn’t change gameplay.


  Powered by Blogger   Free Page Rank Tool