My Favourite Turn-Based Computer Games - Part One
Well it’s been a hectic few weeks/months and what I haven’t managed to get done is much in the way of any writing / editing work… But excuses are like arseholes (everyone has them) just like opinions are haha, so let’s not dwell on that…
What I have managed to do of late, in fragments of “down time” is re-experience some of my favourite turn-based games from over the years, and being somewhat renowned (among those who know me personally) for loving such things and being a little bit of a connoisseur in this area, I thought I’d share my favourites. -If you like your turn-based games and haven’t heard of/played some of these, you’re missing out! (A completely subjective opinion of course)
So what I wanted to do first, is to list some of the games that did NOT make my favourites list, many of which are considered the “greatest of the genre” and have achieved far greater popularity than most, if not all, of the ones I’ve cited as favourites. But then it’s not really a new insight that the most popular/recognised aren’t necessarily the “best” is it? (And this applies to any creative field)
I can’t claim this is a comprehensive list, or even that I’ve been fair/unbiased in my judgements (and I know that some of the games I’ve dismissed as “not as good as others” will cause great disagreement). So before I start arguments over “why I didn’t rate X game so highly”, let me just reiterate that these are just my favourites… So there :p
The Games that didn’t make my favourites list (and a brief explanation of why)
(1) The Civilization series. Alright let’s get this one out of the way first, as (one version or another) seems to regularly top “best ever turn based games” lists. I have the world of respect (and thanks) for what Sid Meier has done for games, and this game in particular (the original version from the early nineties) was a time-sink for many of my friends back then… So much so that they named our roleplaying group “The Jamestown Lumber Party” after the game, and I even had aspirations at one point to write a book based on the group… I’ve dabbled in a few iterations of the Civilization series (most notably Civilization Revolution for Xbox 360) and while they are great, they’re far from my favourite and I’ve never really had a desire to come back and play these again. To me there’s only so many times you can run through the whole “4X gameplay paradigm” before it becomes boring (once or twice I find is about where the boredom kicks in). Differing scenarios to me tend to amount to simply having different starting conditions, where the rest of the game plays out the same (and in my case, with the same strategy of military domination). The lack of actual story, specific events or a sense of connection with the game also contributes to my lack of enthusiasm (as does the lack of a punishing AI through means other than handicapping yourself). Note that I’m not a fan of “4X games” in general (which incidentally is what many, maybe most, of the top metacritic-rated turn-based games are) and none of these kinds of games make my favourites list… For the record, I much prefer these kinds of games in board game / tabletop miniature format, where your opponents are all human.
EDIT: Actually as my friend points out (who coined the term "The Jamestown Lumber Party" so he ought to know), this moniker actually came from the (somewhat similar) game Colonization, also by Sid Meier, that came out three years after the original Civilization. (See my memory really is quite fallible haha - nevertheless I think the general points I was making here still stand)
(2) The UFO/XCOM series. Okay so having offended the Civilisation fans I might as well offend the UFO/XCOM camp now as well haha (and there’s more to come!) Again I’ll admit I’ve only dabbled in a couple of these (playing the XCOM: Enemy Unknown iteration on iPad in particular quite a bit before getting bored) but the reason that I didn’t like these so much comes down a few things: the lack of an overall story (rather than a series of random encounters), lack of sufficiently different scenarios (they’re mostly takes on the same objective, using similar or same layouts and even the enemies don’t seem to vary that much apart from weapons), random events that can ruin your game (just because you were unlucky), and “real time” events (that I dislike in “turn based” games). That’s not to say I didn’t find a lot to like in these games, I did, they just weren’t among my favourites… In fact I think I even preferred its Commodore 64 predecessor: Laser Squad and the slightly later Jagged Alliance series (which didn’t make my list either).
(3) The Final Fantasy series. Again I’ll admit I haven’t played much of these as they didn’t really grab me (likewise the Chaos Rings series by the same publisher). Pretty graphics aside, the strategic combat (turn-based in some of the series but not all as I understand) wasn’t really there (IMHO), compared to other games, and as for Final Fantasy Tactics that I played on my iPad, well that for me probably had too many rules, creating a steep learning curve that overshadows engagement and gameplay. I’ll also concede that the “cutesy” art style didn’t appeal to me. But I can’t really say much about the story (that I understand is quite deep) as I didn’t persevere with these enough to find out.
(4) The Heroes of Might and Magic series. Okay so that’s perhaps the three biggest turn-based games I just marked down, so let’s add this one that’s another giant of the scene. These could probably grow on me if I played them more, but to date I haven’t as I suspect they’ll end up like as simply another “4x borefest” for me, without any real story and insufficient differentiation between one combat and another. For the record I also played (and completed) the more recent King's Bounty: The Legend reboot that had a similar way of handling combat (and played its sequel Armored Princess a bit too). Nice graphics and addictive for a time, but I’m not actually sure why I played these so much considering to finish the game requires you to replay a similar combat on an essentially similar layout oh a thousand times or more?
(5) The Galactic Civilizations series. Very good at what it does: deliver a 4X game in a space setting with varied events, and the best AI I’ve seen in a game (not only do different alien races play according to different strategies, but they learn from your strategy and adapt such that the same trick may not work twice on them). And it does have a lot of variation in scenarios too. But the reasons why I don’t consider this (and their predecessor, the “original 4X series” Master of Orion) among my faves is that these games take too long and are mostly bereft of story in a significant sense. That and certain random events can really shift the whole balance of the game (such as an enemy discovering an ancient alien battleship from a deceased race that they proceed to annihilate you with) – though I read that Galactic Civilizations II addressed this (not that I’ve played it).
(6) The Fire Emblem series. I played a couple of these on Wii and Gamecube, and they are pretty awesome, almost enough to put them in my favourites. But ultimately they miss out for a couple of reasons: insufficient variation in types of enemies (mostly you fight different infantry and archers, with the occasional aerial unit thrown in – the Laguz, aka lycanthropes, featured in these games, to me are simply variations of the human units), and the fact that once you finish the game (with its walls and walls of text that can’t be easily skipped) there’s not much incentive to play through again. Still I thought these were very good and the stories are great (and I like the idea of permanent death as that forces you to be more cautious with your moves). I should note I haven’t played the most recent and highly-rated (according to metacritic) title: Fire Emblem Awakening (it doesn’t help that I don’t have a Nintendo 3DS), and nor have I played any of the related Advance Wars titles.
(7) Other games. There’s a bunch of other turn-based computer games that didn’t make my list, but I thought are still good for what they are. This includes The Battle for Wesnoth (great variety of scenarios and perhaps the best game of its type for iOS platforms, but a little-known PC game I’ll get to I found much better than this), Warhammer Quest (great at first, but quickly becomes a “rinse repeat” affair with fighting the same enemies in similar dungeons for the sake of getting some new item), Shadowrun Returns (very good but too easy and short, and didn’t inspire me to play again upon finishing), the Europa Universalis series (I have the first of these but hardly played it due to too much micro-management complexity and “real time” aspects), and recent indie games like Star Hammer Tactics (which I enjoyed a lot but it lacked sufficient variety in enemies and scenarios to keep my interest) and The Banner Saga (which starts very well and has some great ideas, but became too much of a “rinse repeat” affair fighting the same enemies on basically the same combat area). There’s also at least a couple of free online games (based on two classic tabletop games from the eighties) that I’ve yet to check out that could well be as awesome as they sound, namely Mechwarrior Tactics (turn-based BattleTech apparently still in beta) and Dark-Wind (a turn-based “Car Wars” style game).
(8) What’s not included in this comparison. I wanted to restrict this list to purely turn-based strategy games, so that means other “turn-based” type games weren’t included – this includes point-and-click games (and their text-based predecessors) as well as digital gamebooks (which I’m not in a position to make an objective evaluation of anyway).
So you may be wondering, if these are the games that didn’t make my list, what did then? Well read on and you may discover some relatively obscure gems that (I think) you should check out. I’ve selected eight games/series in all for my faves, so I’ll start from #8 and work up to my favourite:
I’ve long been an enthusiast of H.P.Lovecraft and co’s Cthulhu Mythos, and spent a hell of a lot of the last, er, twenty years running Call of Cthulhu role playing sessions (someday soon-ish I’ll do a post on my favourite Call of Cthulhu modules, given I have and have run most? of the official ones and a ton of “non-official” ones, but I digress). Not only that, but my own horror novel The Dark Horde is more than a little influenced by the ideas of the Cthulhu Mythos (but not Lovecraft’s writing style I might add, which I must say I think is quite abysmal in many respects – particularly characterisation and dialogue). So naturally I was quite excited (and somewhat sceptical) about a turn-based squad computer game based on the Cthulhu Mythos. I mean it sounded awesome, but would it actually deliver a horror experience and be true to the concepts of the Cthulhu Mythos? Well with Chaosium’s endorsement I had few doubts about the later, but making a turn-based game actually scary/intense is… well virtually impossible I think. But geez this comes close at times.
Released in 2012 on iOS, Android and PC, The Wasted Land by Red Wasp Design is a dark and at times quite intense and difficult turn-based squad game. Death is permanent (forcing you to redo the current scenario if any important characters die), but insanity is not (probably a good thing and certainly merciful considering how much your characters will bleed sanity in the later parts of the game). It does break some conventions of the role playing game, notably sanity and how easy it is to recover it, but that’s basically essential considering how much sanity you are primed to lose. The art style, sounds and atmosphere are terrific, the story/writing pretty good, the scenarios and enemies varied and the tactics required vary “a little bit”. I particularly enjoyed the earlier scenarios where my team wasn’t yet “tanked to maximise carnage and sanity resilience”, meaning that I simply had no option of trying to “clear the board” – no, the best I could do in these earlier missions was simply to try staying alive and keeping my guys together long enough to complete the mission… I wish the rest of the game had stayed like that, but alas it didn’t as I maximised my gun and airstrike skills, and my sanity-recovering skills. From about half way through the game, it became a breeze and nothing really threatened my team (which has to be a significant downfall in a “horror” game) – I simply kept a couple of guys with big guns on overwatch at all times, hit threatening far off enemies with the most powerful airstrikes I could muster, and maxed out on sanity-regaining magic to keep my team sharp and deadly. The much vaunted conclusion against a Great Old One and its supreme minions was over in um, a couple of rounds I think it was.
(From near the start of the game – before things get really messy)
It’s certainly shorter than say, XCOM: Enemy Unknown, and with a smaller development team (and consequently more criticism of bugs on release – but I know all too well how difficult it is meet what I would call the public’s unrealistic expectation that indie games can be as bug-free as major productions when there might only be one or two people coding/fixing them). But I prefer this for a more clearly defined (and better) story, a greater variety in scenarios, personally more preferable “dark” artwork and sound, and for just being based on the Cthulhu Mythos. And there’s now another campaign available as well, where you play the bad guys J
Most turn-based games developed for the iOS platform (and I would presume the Android platform as well) are really only suited for tablets where there is more screen space, and this includes every title mentioned above for iOS (with the possible exception of Chaos Rings). But here is a turn-based game that is actually designed to work well with a smart phone – you only play a single character and your movement is quite restricted, which combined with simple (but detailed) mechanics, makes it quite a perfect fit for smartphones I think. And it’s an awesome game.
Released in 2010 by Crescent Moon Games for iOS platforms, Rimelands: Hammer of Thor is a post-apocalyptic steampunk-ish kinda game where movement is real-time only until you reach combat, where-upon it becomes turn based (like Kings Bounty: The Legend for example). Maps are relatively linear, meaning that you can’t really get lost, and the story itself isn’t particularly memorable (well I can’t recall much of it anyway), but the graphics are excellent and the gameplay simple, strategic and addictive.
It is somewhat short (or so it seemed from memory) and the ending quite abrupt and unsatisfying (you get little more than “You win!” for overcoming what is easily the hardest battle in the game – though I read this has been addressed since). But for a cracking good turn-based game that doesn’t get boring and works well on a smartphone screen, this is the best I’ve seen (by far).
Battles are handled with dice and utilise a range of skills that you choose as you advance and level-up along three different skill trees (melee, ranged and magic). Combats are often quite difficult (and sometimes to be avoided!) and it does strike me that perhaps the skill trees aren’t completely balanced (ranged struck me as better than the others since I could defeat enemies from a distance without risking hits) but I could be wrong in that since I didn’t actually specialise in the others.
I just hope the developers get around to doing that sequel one day (this title being supposedly the first in a series) but maybe it didn’t make enough money to justify that…
This being only Part One means I’ll leave the rest for Part Two (and probably Part Three as well). My top six turn-based computer games are all games that I not only think are awesome, but they’re all games that I have enjoyed coming back to and playing again (and in some cases, again and again and again) – which for me is one of the ultimate tests of whether a game is truly great or not. Stay tuned!
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Brewin! I used to know you many many moons ago. It was a strange time in my life. Glad to see you doing so well- congrats on the republishing and am going to order your second book now!!!! I was going through my books and thought I would google you, cos that's the sort of creep I am