Sins of a Solar Empire:
Gameplay

By Shamus
on May 5, 2008
Filed under:
Game Reviews

Mistwraithe once pointed out that most Real Time Strategy Games should be more rightly called Real Time Tactical Games, since the heart of the game is unit management, not strategy. Sins is a unique exception to this rule. In Sins, your ships are fairly smart. They know their jobs and will do them without a lot of coaching from you. It’s up to you to choose when and where you will strike, but once your ships are in the enemy system they can be trusted to do their jobs without you needing to babysit them.

Sins of a Solar Empire
I’ll reiterate my earlier comments that the game needs to do a better job of bringing new players up to speed. The tutorials do an adequate job of teaching the interface, but don’t give you a sense of what you should be doing, particularly at the start. This is a common lament, and I think it’s the biggest flaw of Sins. “Training” is something normally done in the single-player campaign as elements are introduced gradually, but since Ironclad didn’t include a single-player campaign, the only way to learn is to fumble around and lose a couple of times. This “drown until you learn to swim” approach to teaching new players is a bad idea. This problem is exacerbated by the fact that the AI in this game is simply outstanding.

This wouldn’t be a problem if Sins was just another RTS clone, but since it’s fresh and new and different, it needs to provide some way to ease players into its unique gameplay. The quickest and easiest thing would be to add an “advisor” that the player could turn to when they need some suggestions, as in Rome: Total War. It could just give the player a little hint and suggest doing whatever the AI would do when prompted. It could also be used to give the game a bit more personality. I realize that strategy games are not normally famous for their character development, but putting a face and a voice together would go a long way towards making the game less abstract, and would help define the overall personality of the three factions. Do not underestimate the power of personality.

The sad thing is that once you get over that initial hurdle of knowledge and competence, the game just isn’t that deep. The 4X side of the game pales in comparison to something like GalCiv, and the RTS side of it doesn’t offer a lot of variety. The best strategy is to build a well-balanced force of as many units as you can afford, and fling them at an enemy world. The battles come down to who brought the most ships. I’m still new to the game so perhaps I’m missing on some subtle nuances, but right now it all feels sort of spammy.

The research is de-emphasized when compared to traditional 4X games. Your typical boost from research will let you deal (say) 10% more damage. Compare this to your typical space conquest games where each technology step might double your potential damage output. The steps here are smaller and there are fewer of them, and so it’s just not possible to overcome an enemy with small numbers of highly advanced ships. Tech will give you an edge, but it’s not a trump card. As someone who enjoys turtling in and running up the tech tree in a 4X game, this is a disappointment.

Taking enemy planets comes down to bombing them clean and colonizing them yourself. There’s no “capturing” of enemy planet improvements, no technology theft, no spoils of war. This negates one of the great tradeoffs of 4X games, where you can elect to try and take control of a planet without destroying too much of it. It’s riskier, more expensive, and time-consuming, but sometimes worth it if you want their stuff. The clean-and-colonize routine is a lot less interesting.

The game looks spectacular. Space battles are a blast to watch. I really enjoy zooming in on a small fighter or bomber squadron and following the battle from their viewpoint. As they loop and dive, strafing enemy structures, you can see the planetary bombing in the background and the capital ships hammering away at each other. In the truly large battles, space will be thick with ships, missiles, lasers, explosions, and floating debris.

It’s worth noting that I can start zooming out when this is going on, smoothly pulling back from one lone fighter until I can see the entire solar system. I could even dive back into the fray, jumping into another battle taking place on another world. The game can handle this rapid change in scope without even stuttering. It’s brilliant.

Despite what probably sounds like a lot of complaining, overall I’d say the game has a lot to offer. It should at least merit a look from strategy fans for trying something new. I’d suggest checking out the demo.

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From the Archives:

  1. Cthulhu says:

    “The best strategy is to build a well-balanced force of as many units as you can afford, and fling them at an enemy world. The battles come down to who brought the most ships.”

    A problem which, unfortunately, plagues the overwhelming majority of RTSs made in the last 6-7 years.
    I hold out hope that Starcraft II will reverse this trend.

  2. JFargo says:

    That sounds fantastic, despite the flaws, and seems to eliminate some of the major problems I’ve had with RTS games for a while. I’ll definitely check out the demo later tonight and see if it’s everything you make me think it is.

  3. RPharazon says:

    I like games where you can leave your units alone for a while and not find them obliterated when you come back a minute later.

    Also, the “Drown until you learn to swim” thing is very annoying.
    Especially in Dwarf Fortress. A fantastic game, absolutely fantastic, but it can take you a month or more to actually learn and memorize and make sense of the game. Even then, it takes another few weeks before you learn how to manage everything efficiently.

    But damn, it is a really fun game. You can make completely enormous fortresses/mountainhomes, or you can watch it fall apart before your eyes due to stupid trivial social quirks that your dwarves develop. It’s usually the latter. You should try it, or at least make a blog post about it, Shamus.

  4. The Defenestrator says:

    Actually, I usually invade because killing everyone on a planet so my empire can have more elbow room is pretty nasty.

  5. Ben says:

    I’ve only been playing the demo thus far but I have pretty mixed feelings. As you’ve said it is a bit to pick up but I think I have the basics down. I would get torn apart vs humans but the computer is no trouble. The thing that’s been striking me with this game is it feels like it’s not quite a good unity of the elements it contains.

    The space combat for instance, as you say, looks pretty good and it’s really fun to zoom in and watch it. But all this did was make me want to go back and play homeworld 2. The ship designs in SINS (at least the TEC ships) are very uninspired and compared to watching squadrons of bombers getting torn up diving on a flak frigate in homeworld 2, they’re just not as elegant or as devastatingly epic to watch. Even with a large, powerful ship against a small, weak ship, it takes a fair bit of time for it to be destroyed. I regularly find I can jump a scout into a heavily defended gravity well while I am doing something else, then realise that the scout is getting hit by a capital ship and a host of smaller ships, and have time to order it to jump out. There’s no shocking loss of units here. Compare that to Homeworld 2 where each time you go up a class of ship, the power is an order of magnitude more. A destroyer can easily obliterate a handful of frigates before you can reinforce them. A battlecruiser can devastate a destroyer with a few good hits. Even your mothership will go down remarkably quickly if you let heavy firepower get close enough. It forces you to make better decisions in advance, collect better intel, keep your forces organised, etc. In SINS I haven’t felt that I need to plan my attacks because if they look like they’re going to go bad, I can retreat without having lost a single ship. The style of combat in SINS also let me down, since it’s all centred around gravity wells you end up with a more or less linear battle, like an RTS version of TF2. This feels especially affronting in a space game – again, compare it to Homeworld 2 with one of the better implementations of a true 3d space battle I’ve seen.

    As well, because Homeworld 2 has such clean, minimal graphics, it STILL holds up – running it in 1280×1024, I can’t fault it. With SINS I find even some of the little choices bug me – both HW2 and SIN give you an icon when you zoom out so you can tell what the ships are from a distance – but in HW2 it’s an unobtrusive bounding box – triangles, diamonds, etc, representing different classes of ship. In SINS the icon covers the ship entirely, making me wonder why they bothered to make the game 3d at all, since it’s taking place on a flat plane and when I am playing the battle from a distance to coordinate everything, all my units are sprites.

    HW2 had a much greater attention to detail, too. When you zoom in on a miner in HW2 you can hear the drill impacting the resources, the radio chatter as it returns to unload, etc, and this applies to all the units in the game – zoom in and you can hear them talking to eachother as they engage, win, lose, etc. – the effect is that you care more about your fleet and feel loses more acutely. I couldn’t care less if I lose a light frigate in SINS but I’ve totally lost focus in HW2 at times to micro the last two fighters of a group to get them home and reinforced because I felt for them. The exception to this is that I love the ability to rename capitals in SINS and it makes me very attached to them.

    The other half of the game being the grander scale, it reminded me of titles like Imperium Galactica II. I haven’t played some of the more iconic titles in the genre but it really feels like SINS is falling short here. In IG2 the scale was more or less whole sectors of galaxies and instead of nuking planets you assaulted them first from space (defeating any local fleet, plus bombarding any ground-based anti ship weapons) and then on the ground (your fleet had slots for tanks) so you could win a space battle but be beaten back in the streets of the city, and you could capture a planet outright or you could deliberately raze the important buildings and then withdraw. In SINS your choices are more or less a) commence nuking or b) destroy assets and go home, after which they can be instantly rebuilt with almost no effort. I was briefly interested in the embargo ability that one of the capitals has, but if you’re going to have a capital next to an enemy planet you might as well be nuking and half the time it will start nuking automatically anyway. There’s no motivation to find a deeper strategy. The mechanic for exchanging planets feels more like capture the flag where the flag takes sustained nuclear explosions for several minutes before you capture it.

    So I guess what I’m saying is this feels like an attempt to connect the HW2 style of RTS with the IG2 style of grander strategic game – but it doesn’t have the massive scale or depth of IG2 and it doesn’t have the detail and immersion of HW2, so all that is left is a mixture of reasonable ideas and sincere but uninspired design. I really enjoy it all the same but what I’m enjoying is the echoes of these other games that I liked and right now I can’t decide if I would rather buy SINS or just get my HW2 disc out.

    Also I can’t stand the music. Give me the deep resonant cellos from HW2. :P

  6. JohnW says:

    It’s a shame they can’t seem to get 4x right. You have the outstanding detail, not so outstanding tactical combat, and horrible AI in Space Empires V. Great AI but no tactical combat in Galactic Civ 2. This seemingly very limited in scope game, SOASE (only 3 races?! C’mon!). I bought Sword of the Stars but haven’t really played it yet. It’d be nice if these guys could all get together and put out a 4x game with all the bells and whistles.

  7. Galenor says:

    I picked up the demo a while back and tried a few games. Me being a noob at RTS’s (my friend lent me Starcraft which has worked as a personal bane of me) the ‘Drown until you swim’ premise really was a kick in the gut. I had no clue what to build first, what to build last, and whether or not colonising other planets should be done as soon as you start, or until you have a nice army to help the proceedings.
    I kinda learnt the pace of the game by making a game where i ally with a computer, and set it so i can see his stuff. That way i can say “At this point in the game, i should have this and that”, but to be honest, i had no clue how to get to that stage, what with all the research and prerequesites. I’ll keep cracking at it, though!

  8. Tichfield says:

    I passed on Homeworld 2 when it came out due to reviewers saying it boiled down to tossing big groups of the biggest ships at everything.

    Now, however, I’m intrigued… Does anyone know where I can buy a *digital* copy of Homeworld 2? The ‘buy it’ link on the Sierra store is broken.

    On topic, SoaSE IS incredibly basic… I’m awful at RTS games, which made it perfect for me: an RTS with training wheels. Thanks to Sins, I’ve been able to try the Ground Control series and survive past the tutorials.

  9. Solka says:

    @RPharazon

    I tried Dwarf Fortress once, hearing how AWESOME UBERCOOL it is!

    I lasted a whole 10 minutes of the thing before deleting it from my hard drive. I just couldn’t handle the damn thing. I did not knew where to begin with, I did not knew what the damn pixel all meant, and I could not handle the command well without having to check the Readme file. Not to forget that I did not understood in the least what all the reports were all about.

    @Shamus

    You have reached the point where you have to wait until the ennemies’ cultural influence have passed out before colonizing a conquered planet?

    Shamus: Position fleet around the planet
    Capitain: Aye Aye Admiral!
    Shamus: Bomb them to dust!
    Capitain: Fire of the Gods launched Admiral!
    Shamus: All right, colonize it!
    Capitain: We can’t, Admiral! The dust have cultural loyalty to the ennemy! We should put up a propaganda program to convert the dust!

  10. ShadowDragon8685 says:

    The real problem with Sins of a Solar Empire is that, at small scale – a couple of players in a single solar system, even if fairly large – it boils down to a rush – a Zerg Rush of frigates, or a Ship Rush for a capital ship. Me and a friend played against two allied AIs, they each Zerg Rushed with frigates, we sacrificed our starting frigates in a pawn move to rush out a couple of capital ships. After that it was game over for the AIs, we just steamrolled them.

    On the other hand, at large scale, it gets incredibly laggy late-game, when you’re swinging around absoloutely monstrous fleets of capital ships and and absoloutely ridiculous numbers of frigates. It can get pretty dull, too; especially if you’re one of those types who, like Shamus (and me), prefer to turtle in and make a mad dash up the technology tree until you get to the point where a single warship of yours is the equal of several enemy fleets, followed by a mad race to industrialize, and then by the fleet of Death Stars.

  11. Turgid Bolk says:

    I figure ‘population’ doesn’t actually correspond to the number of people on the planet. Rather it’s an abstract number indicating the strength of your government, or the number of administrators. So what you’re really doing is bombing the enemy government’s people to death, and then instating your own government, which is impossible if the people still cling strongly to their former culture.

    So the planet’s actual population (presumably billions of people) is fine. This also explains the planetary defense forces around planets initially…they’re not just protecting an empty rock, they’re the ‘army’ of the people on the planet.

    This makes more sense to me, but why Stardock didn’t call that value ‘Administrators’ or ‘Government’ or something similiar I don’t know. ‘Population’ is a misleading term.

  12. Cineris says:

    @JohnW: Master of Orion 2 is the pinnacle of 4X games. The only reason they can’t get 4X games right is because game developers have this silly idea that they shouldn’t just copy MoO2, when of course they should. The only thing that’d improve MoO2 is some kind of editor that would allow you to design scenarios, units, races, tech trees, and so on.

  13. guy says:

    @Cineris

    Bah! they should have MOO2 and Galciv2 do the fusion dance! admittedly, after the 80th time, “crush enemy fleet using triple didgit firepower numbers” would get pretty boring.

    Also, Galciv needs a nuke from orbit option. knowing my fleet can launch dozens of black holes at the planet but having to wait until a transport fleet could show up was ANNOYING. as was fighting the dread lords on the ground.

  14. roxysteve says:

    [Shamus] The point about capturing improved assets is a good one.

    Years ago a friend gave me a copy of an up-to-8 player “wargame” The Romance of the Three Kingdoms, for the NES. It was quite revolutionary as far as NES games went, with a battery backup and a real wargame “feel”. The idea was to unify pre-Chin China under your leadership before the other players could.

    We first spent a frustrating amount of time figuring out that the wrong move would cause you to miss a turn while 50 other mini-states were cycled through. Then we started getting at each other’s soft underbellies. That worked well until a certain point was reached and things got fortified to the point that an army could invade a proivince/state, but both it and the province would be shredded as a result.

    Then I found out that horses were status symbols in the game. I had lots of horses in one of my provinces so I offered them to all of my opponent’s govenor generals. About a third of them defected and brought their provinces to my side with minimal wastage.

    Needless to say, this precipitated a new style of play, a cold war in which we measured our power by the so-called “horse gap”. Each player gave so many horses to his own generals that the value of the horse plummeted and they became not only worthless, but unvalued as status symbols. It was all great fun.

    I will never forget the look on the face of the guy who gave me the game as his empire packed its bags and left for my side, taking with it the ricebowl of his empire.

    Steve.

  15. RPharazon says:

    @Solka

    Well, Dwarf Fortress has a pretty steep learning curve. I only got started with it a few days ago, but with the help of the guides in the Dwarf Fortress wiki, I got the hang of it pretty quickly. I just had to make a few physical paper notes to get the hang of it all. It’s the same with all roguelikes. With experimentation and accepting losses, you learn the intricacies of the game itself.

    That said, it’s UI could be a lot better.

  16. Amstrad says:

    @RPharazon

    Dwarf Fortress really can be excused when it comes to the crime of throwing you into the deep-end and the admittedly arcane UI when you consider that the entire thing is the work of a single developer and is available at no cost. It’s really a wonder that the game is playable at all, much less as deeply engrossing and complex as it is.

  17. Turgid Bolk says:

    Not to mention DF is still in alpha and constantly being developed and updated. ;) Eventually it will get more help and support built in, and better UI, etc.

  18. capital L says:

    “It’s a shame they can’t seem to get 4x right. You have the outstanding detail, not so outstanding tactical combat, and horrible AI in Space Empires V. Great AI but no tactical combat in Galactic Civ 2. This seemingly very limited in scope game, SOASE…”

    Another decade of Alpha Centauri then? Excellent…

    [yes, I know, it’s flawed too, but I said it]

  19. Captain Kail says:

    Hey, at least SINS doesn’t have an incredibly gamebreaking overpowered hero unit system, like in the Battle for Middle-Earth 2 and its expansion.

    I mean, it’s lots of fun, but there is something supremely frustrating about sending an excellent army of upgraded units that can all defend and compliment one another, and have it decimated by an annoyed Gandalf or Gloin.

    Unless you’re the one doing the decimating, of course.

  20. Mistwraithe says:

    I have previously posted on this forum that most Real Time Strategy (RTS) games are actually Real Time Tactics (RTT) so Shamus might be remembering my comments. It’s a one of those pet peeves of mine. Strategy shouldn’t be about who manages to click 500 times the fastest to micro manage their army best in the critical big battle.

    One way to avoid this is to make sure troops manage themselves well enough that you don’t need to micro manage them, or if you do then the benefits gained against a non micro managing opponent aren’t automatically game-ending. Sins does pretty well at this although there are still significant benefits to microing your engagements (not least the opportunity to try to keep your leveled capital ships alive).

    I enjoy Sins single player but I agree it could use more depth. They avoid tactics being overwhelming but they need to provide a wider range of meaningful strategic choices. I’m fairly hopeful that the next few patches (which add features) and the planned expansion will address this. Because when it comes down to it they have done an excellent job on the engine and core game.

    A campaign and a few more strategic options/trade-offs could allow Sins to replace Kohan as my favourite TRUE RTS.

    Almost! ;-)

  21. Daemian Lucifer says:

    “This problem is exacerbated by the fact that the AI in this game is simply outstanding.”

    Wait,what?No,its not.Sure,individual AI is great,and you can just send your units somewhere and deal with other things,but the computer knows nothing about expansion and army managment.Compared to Galciv,its etremelly poor.However,theres the multiplayer,so you can always try out some real game.

    Oh,and you can beat a large army of frigates with just a few well trained battleships.

    As for the technology tree,it is not that weak as you think.Structure unlockers and cap increasers are a must have if you want to win.And that 5% increase in itself is not much,true,but once it gets to 30%,multiplied by the size of your force,it does get to be quite significant(adding just 1 point of damage to a bomber gets you to about 100 extra points of damage whenever your squads attack).

  22. Shamus says:

    Mistwraithe: Yes. Your comment was the one I was thinking of, but couldn’t find. I’ve edited the post to cite the original comment now.

  23. LemmingLord says:

    When playing Sins, its’ a bad idea to sit and watch the pretty fireworks. The AI is good enough that your forces will win most even battles, and all battles where you have the superior forces. It is best to ignore the battles and go about your other business, especially in the larger maps. Micromanagement of your forces will get you nowhere, and offers no real tactical advantage, other then if you want all of your ships to take down the enemy capital ships. But other then that, ignore the battles and go do something else in the meantime.

  24. Log082 says:

    On the side discussion about Dwarf Fortress: Shamus, PLEASE take the time to check it out and learn to play. As others have noted, it is somewhat difficult to learn, but it is well worth it. I think it might appeal to you particularly because the developer is incredibly set on having everything possible be procedurally generated and, after creation, play out by logical rules – to the point where he taught him geology for the purpose of creating more realistic rock strata generation rules for the random word generator. For another example of this, and for some amusement for anyone who has played the game but hasn’t kept up with development recently, check out the latest dev logs about civilization wars during world gen. I promise you that they are hilarious.

  25. SolkaTruesilver says:

    @Log082

    They should make an updated version of Dwarf Fortress, with a minimum of graphics. They’ve done it for Nethack, why not for Dwarf Fortress?

    @Mistwraithe

    I’ve heard that in Dawn of War II, the troops will scatter when explosive fire is thrown on them. They will automaticly take cover while under heavy fire, etc… They will be able to handle themselves. I’ve read in in the lastest edition of PC Gamers.

  26. Turgid Bolk says:

    There are graphics sets available for DF. They’re not perfect since the game uses a few of the same characters for graphics and text, but they’re servicable. See http://www.dwarffortresswiki.net/index.php/Tilesets for install information and the link to the sets themselves. Takes a little doing, or just go for this easy install package which doesn’t require any fiddling with the init file: http://dffd.wimbli.com/file.php?id=62

    Enjoy :)

  27. Veylon says:

    Those are good points on Sins. I’ll have to fight with the modding system and see if I can’t make things a little more rational.

  28. Grue says:

    I’ll cast my vote for Homeworld 2 also. It wasn’t quite as good as Homeworld, but Homeworld was the best RTS of all time IMHO. I can still remember the soundtrack playing during the end credits when I finally won…

  29. Nicholas says:

    RE: Homeworld 2: This is one of the few games I have given up on fully in disgust. I flat out could not cope. Evidently I was spending money on the wrong stuff or something, but I couldn’t get past the second mission with getting wiped out.

    If Sins throws you in at the deep end, H2 also attaches an anchor and throws in some piranhas. And then pokes those piranhas with sharp sticks to rile them up.

    At least I can play Sins, and can actually win it

  30. Kobyov says:

    Yip, that pretty much sums up my experiences playing as TEC. Thusly, I quit and now play advent/vasari and find them much more satisfying. Maybe I just dont like the feeling that deep down, all my ships are really just cargo freighters with scrap welded on, but I find the game much more dull and shallow when playing as TEC.

  31. JohnW says:

    One of my problems is that I just can’t get in to playing the alien race. I always want to be the terrans. I don’t know if it’s an identifying thingy or what.

  32. Solka says:

    @JohnW

    Luckily for you, both the TEC and the Advents are humans. the Advent are simply.. evolved-ones..

    They are about as humans as the Aeons

  33. Derek K says:

    Dwarf Fortress:

    fromearth.net/LetsPlay/Boatmurdered/

    If that doesn’t make you want to play the game, nothing will.

    ELEPHANTS!

  34. RPharazon says:

    @Derek K
    Quite so. I quit Dwarf Fortress for a week because it was too hard to learn, but once I read through Boatmurdered, I severely wanted to play, and I taught myself through extreme use of the wiki.

    Yesterday one of my dwarves killed himself only a month into a settlement, and he was my farmer. I gave up then and there by digging tunnel from my fortress to a river.

    It was fun seeing the dwarves being swept away after repeated attempts to get through a river and dig the last tile. None of them drowned somehow.

  35. Markus says:

    Ah, it seems Shamus took our Rome: Total War suggestions to heart. Now I’m just waiting his review…

  36. Freykin says:

    I’ve pretty much given up on looking for new strategy games ever since a friend introduced me to Dominions. Now it’s on it’s third iteration, and it’s the most fun I’ve ever had playing a strategy game. If you haven’t heard of it, it’s worth checking out.

    http://www.shrapnelgames.com/Illwinter/Dom3/1.htm

  37. Okay, on the issue of “Real Time Strategy vs. Real Time Tactical…”

    I’m pretty damned sure that memorizing a rote build order and clicking through it as quickly as possible to send an Attack-Move rush to the enemy base has nothing to do with tactics at all.

    So most Real-Time Strategy games are neither Strategic or Tactical.

    Sins happens to be quite Strategic, so long as you’ve got a good game going–and the map isn’t so large it’d go on too long.

    But the only actual RTS games I could honestly consider “Real Time Tactical” games are the Total War games and games like them. Where there is no in-battle building and construction, all unit-buying and resource management is done on a separate strategic layer of the game (which is turn based and, in Medieval II, plays like a less-bogged-down Civ game).

    The battles themselves are about using terrain, wise judgement in troop formations, and knowing when to change your plan when something goes wrong. (Unless you’re cavalry-rushing the AI, which, as the Mongols in real life proved, works wonders on Medieval Europe.)

    If you want a *real* real-time-tactical game, give Total War a spin.

    EDIT: Dang, missed the mention of Rome up there in the post. Now I feel dumb.

  38. Cineris says:

    Re: Real Time Strategy / Real Time Tactical nomenclature

    It seems a little silly to try and keep defining down RTS games into narrower and narrower niches. Yes, RTS may be a bit of a misnomer, but trying to deride the genre as being “not strategic” or “not even tactical” is just wrong. You might as well say “Chess isn’t a strategic game, it’s a tactics game” — Which on some level might be true, but it also belies inexperience with the game. Strategy bubbles up inevitably, it’s simply a matter of being well-versed enough in the game (whether Starcraft or Chess) to see it.

    What’s the deal here, is it armchair generals too attached to the word strategy to even admit that something they may not be good at (rapid, fine motor skills coupled with high speed decision making) also contains strategy?

  39. guy says:

    i read the boatmurdered thingy. it would be interesting to learn when exactly everything fell apart. i think it was really when they started capturing elephants with no idea what to do with them next. that lead to a build-up of elephants, who went rouge and caused some trouble, then the guy who came next had no idea why the traps were there, meaning he let them collapse, which lead to the elephant seige, which screwed things up plenty, and lead to the building of the array of anti-elephant superweapons, which lead to piles of dead things, which ruined everyone’s happiness, and killed several working dwarfs, and finally lead to the massive wave of breserk dwarfs, which doomed the fort. the lava was just the icing on the cake.

  40. Brandon says:

    People can play these games as tactical games, but they really don’t have to. Compare to a game like Myth which is only a tactical game, with little in terms of strategy options.

    Civilization and Alpha Centauri are definitely more strategy focused, but to be honest, I think when you make a game “real-time” rather than turn-based you end up automatically including tactical elements. Tactics involves being in the moment. That’s “real-time” if anything is.

  41. Solka says:

    @Guy

    Strange you say that, I’ve just been trough the 1st thread, and even if they struggled with rampaging elephant once, I think they managed to have a pretty nifty Fortress (even if I don’t have any idea of what is a “nifty Fortress”, game-wise).

    Once they got the Lava-thrower, they were invincible from outside invasion (that would be SO COOL to see in a D&D movie!!!). Just when one of the fancy-posters decided to explore the depths of the mountains, beyond the Lava River, did true monsters arised. But still, they could have simply decided to fill another chasm with lava.

    Ahh.. Lava.. is there a problem it doesn’t solve?

  42. Mistwraithe says:

    Thanks Shamus – my 2 seconds of fame!

    Using RTT (Tactics) vs RTS (Strategy) as terms isn’t ideal but the words still do a reasonable job of conveying the point.

    Cineris used the example of Chess and that you could just as well say Chess is a tactical game. And I guess by standard definitions of strategy and tactics you could make that argument… strategy and tactics are on the same continuum anyway and I think a good case can be made that they overlap too.

    However my beef with supposed RTS games is that there are plenty of them where the strategy (or strategic tactics if you prefer) can easily be overwhelmed by superior micromanagement of battles (what I have been labelling tactics, primarily because of its smaller single engagement focussed scale).

    If I have a better strategy but lose because someone clicked 120 times per minute vs my 60 times per minute in the key engagement then that isn’t an RTS in my view because strategy isn’t the most important determinant of victory. It might be a decent game still but it isn’t an RTS!

  43. MNF says:

    Except that they weren’t just clicking 120 times a minute. They were making 120 (Okay, somewhere closer to 30) good decisions a minute. The difference between strategy and tactics, if you go at it that way, is that when playing strategy, you have a lot more time to make a good decision.

  44. guy says:

    actually, did you notice the piles of dead bodies? eventually a cat was set on fire in the door by the lava superweapon, filling the fortress with smoke, which made everyone unhappy, then a super dwarf caught on fire and went on a rampage, and then so did everyone else.

  45. Ben says:

    I’m pretty damned sure that memorizing a rote build order and clicking through it as quickly as possible to send an Attack-Move rush to the enemy base has nothing to do with tactics at all.

    So most Real-Time Strategy games are neither Strategic or Tactical.

    Sins happens to be quite Strategic, so long as you’ve got a good game going–and the map isn’t so large it’d go on too long.

    I’m calling BS. “Most” RTS games can be beaten by build orders and speed but SINS is somehow different? Check out the tactics forums on the official site, there are many pages of discussion about the best build orders and spam fleets to use. And as the AI is half decent on its own, it is much more viable to do the attack-move trick here than in any other RTS game I’ve ever played.

  46. Solka says:

    During the 2nd replay? I remember in the 1st “Let’s play” thread, a special artisant created himself artifact-bracers and went on a rampage, but he was killed a little quickly..

  47. guy says:

    the link has the combined replays. it was pretty much a disaster zone by the end of the tenth year anyway, though. 50% nobles and starting to run out of food.

  48. guy says:

    oh, and yeah, the highest stat dwarf went rogue during the second replay and killed four dwarfs WHILE ON FIRE. then he was killed by a marksdwarf, who caught on fire, and by then it was too late to save the fortress.

  49. Mistwraithe says:

    Except that they weren’t just clicking 120 times a minute. They were making 120 (Okay, somewhere closer to 30) good decisions a minute. The difference between strategy and tactics, if you go at it that way, is that when playing strategy, you have a lot more time to make a good decision.

    My point was that peak rate of clicks (or good decisions to use your terminology) during the first major engagement determines the winner of many current day so called RTS games.

    That isn’t to say real tactics (as opposed to rapid clicks) shouldn’t matter. If my opponenent manages to use terrain wisely, flank my army, or force me to fight a drawn out engagement where he has supply and I don’t then maybe he deserves to win no matter how cunning my overall strategy is.

  50. Ben: Alright, you got a point there. But at the very least, Sins gives a player time to adjust and react appropriately on medium or larger maps, and it takes longer for a rush to actually reach you in more sizable games–thus giving one ample time to get geared up and in a position to actually make *choices* on how to approach a situation. I usually can’t say that about RTS games in general.

    Cineris: I seem to be taking offense at the implication that I’m not a fast clicker. You’re operating on the assumption that I’m railing against the dull-samey RTS because I lack fast reflexes, not because I’ve played enough of them to be completely and utterly bored with anything they have to offer (the lack of higher thought in most ranked Battle.net games and tournament games tends to grate on one’s nerves).

    When an FPS like CoD4 or TF2 encourages more tactical thinking, situation awareness, and decision-making than a so-called “strategy game,” something’s wrong. Rote memorization of click orders is useless in these games, unlike, say, Warcraft 3. The situation changes, you adapt.

    Strategy is decision-making in the long-term, tactics in the short-term. Rote memorization and rapid-fire clicking isn’t making a decision, it’s “getting it done quickly enough.”

    Sins and chess give you time to think in the long term. While chess is ostensibly about “tactics” of maneuvering units, the nature of the game promotes long-term thought and planning, risk assessment, and even psychological confrontation. Hence, strategy. Sins… well, it’s one of the few RTSes that actually *have* a long term, and you have to give it credit for that. The Total War games and FPSes rely on success on problem-solving in the short-term, with changing situations and emergent obstacles that one must overcome as one plays. What if one of my units routs here? Who do I send to plug the gap in my lines? Is my opponent going to take the bait? (That last one applies a lot to FPSes online as to Total War, and when one’s opponent is caught up in trying to catch you, the answer is usually “yes.”) Most other RTSes, sadly, encourage a style of play where problem-solving is less useful than going online and remembering what buttons to press and pressing them as quickly as possible.

    And that’s what I mean. I wouldn’t even call most RTSes “Real Time Tactical,” because their competitive/tournament play discourage actual decision-making in any scope of time, long or short. And if a given round in those games lasts long enough that you actually do get to make a real decision as to what you intend to do while playing, then more power to you. But personally, I’d rather play a game that forces me to actually think on my feet.

    Like Team Fortress 2.

  51. Ben says:

    Dorian: I hear what you’re saying. I was very disappointed when I ventured online with HW2 and found that online play had nothing to do with exploiting the true 3D maps to catch your opponent from unfamiliar directions, or putting together balanced forces for hit and run attacks on supply lines, but more or less boiled down to 1) spam interceptors, 2) spam ion frigates, 3) send in destroyers and battlecruisers, and for all that it is a totally different game to starcraft, it still comes down to build order.

    I’m not sure that Sins is going to be any different just because it unfolds more slowly. If so, I am definitely interested to move from the demo to the real game but if not, the other issues I have with Sins weigh more heavily.

    I was talking with a friend recently about fixing that problem with strategy games by artificially limiting ourselves. We were considering Company of Heroes (being that it is a really well-made and enjoyable game) and our feeling was that it would be immensely more fun if you played it out like the Close Combat series. So we’d start off with a build phase, lasting until all players hit their unit caps, during which time the map would be evenly divided between players. After that everyone would agree not to build more units, and deploy for combat, with the object being to capture the majority of the map, not destroy the enemy base. With a fixed force size, everyone is going to be more reluctant to spend lives recklessly, and building a balanced, versatile group will be more important than a spam. Controlling forward points may not be the best idea if a better position is afforded by falling back and hurting the enemy before pursuing the advantage. The combat phase would continue until either an amount of time passed, or there was an agreement for cease fire, or something along those lines, and the game would be decided on a combination of territory control and surviving force strength. I think that would bring more depth to the game.

    I guess I’d like to know if Sins has depth beyond that or if it’s just a slower-paced version of the same thing.

  52. Well, at the very smallest maps, Sins does resemble a tortoise-like version of other, more traditional RTSes, complete with rushes (pre-patch, the “Siege Frigate Rush” was a terrifying thing to behold, especially since the AI liked to pull that trick a lot). Which is why I don’t play on the smallest maps, save for grinding achievements–which, ultimately, don’t mean anything. They’re just nice to have.

    But on large maps, wise choices and actual management decisions matter. The nature of fleet logistics, the research-tree foundations of it, and the choices of what sort of fleet(s) one wishes to build and where to build them… these all come into play. Basically, one can only build so many units at any given time, whether “hero” unit (Capital ships) or “grunts” (Frigates), and increasing one’s unit caps takes a long time–suddenly deciding to research a unit cap upgrade in response to an enemy offensive while your main fleet is off fighting pirates simply will not work. The slow nature of the game, and everything in the game, means that quick reflexes are nearly useless. It can take a whole minute to correct a strategic mishap (sending a fleet off to attack a target of opportunity while an enemy has plans to take out one of your best resource-producing planets), as one’s units move slowly, and require additional time to prepare their Phase Jumps from one site to another.

    Even if it lacks the same depth of detail as many turn-based strategy games, the thoughtful and deliberate nature of play in most Sins matches encourages foresight, planning, and good sense, in addition to the usual RTS virtues of initiative and “metagame preparation.” (By which, of course, I mean studying up on build orders.)

    With strong enough fleets, certainly the “Attack Move” method could work–overwhelming an opponent through the economic and strategic equivalent of a sledgehammer–but to even get to that point, in larger games, requires wise decisions, a bit of luck, and good judgment. But just overwhelming an enemy with a single overpowering fleet isn’t the only choice–nor is it the best choice. Often, I find that I have at least two or three sizable operating fleets, each assembled for a different purpose, and usually one of those fleets will be designated the “insurance policy” in case I over-extend myself or an opportunistic enemy jumps to the system while I’m busy. Someone has to hold the fort long enough for me to call back one of my expeditionary fleets or produce an ad-hoc defensive fleet, and the planetary defenses of any given world can’t fend off a full-on invasion alone.

    In crowded games, politics, diplomacy, and black-market manipulation also play an important part, and if you need time to get up to par, militarily, these are always fine options.

    So Sins is certainly a different beast from C&C derivatives. Shamus is right in that it’s not quite as detailed as turn-based games, but the strategy involved isn’t as shallow as the lack of minutae would imply.

    But most of this comes through in large games with many players (usually a lot of AI opponents, though if you can toss in one or two real human opponents with time to burn, go for it), that’s where it starts feeling less like slow C&C, and more like a real-time GalCiv. Indeed, the slow nature of the game really does make a world of difference.

    I’m tempted to paraphrase one editorial, whose point was basically “the quality of an RTS’s strategic thoughtfulness is directly inverse to the speed of the RTS’s pace.” It was in PC Gamer (US).

    [As an aside: Yeah, battles require more forethought and decision making when you can’t instantly reinforce or replace your forces and infrastructure on the fly. In Sins, you don’t necessarily need to make gentlemen’s agreements to do so, since the amount of time and the logistical effort to replace and reinforce generally acts as its own limiting factor. Though if you want to make such agreements beforehand anyway, nobody’s stopping you!]

  53. Mistwraithe says:

    Dorian (and Ben), I’m not sure if you will check back to this thread. But if you do then I just want to say that it sounds like you should investigate (and ideally play) the Kohan games if you haven’t already (and apologies for mentioning Kohan in every second post I make!).

    Kohan (particularly Kohan Ahriman’s Gift or KAG) has starting build orders and they matter – doing a good build will give you a distinct advantage against an opponent who does a bad build. But speed of executing your build makes very little difference – a player can be afk for the first 30 seconds of the game without it hurting their team much.

    What really matters is how well you (or more likely your team since most online games are 4v4) scouts the map features, opposing factions and positions and then decide how to take advantage of the information.

    Opposing teams start off far enough apart and the maps are big enough (in time to travel across) for the game to generally have a good phase of probing raids and defence with fast units, before teams expand, tech up and by late game (if it goes that long) are duking it out with major armies. However it is unpredictable and split up starting positions or one team deciding to tank heavies early and build forts for supply right in your face can completely change a game.

    Companies automatically heal in supply, the only sensible behaviour is to keep your armies alive at all costs (so they can heal) rather than throwing them to their deaths ala most so called RTS, being flanked hurts, leveled companies get significantly better, towns and forts have automated defensive forces, resources don’t run out but there is a big trade-off between producing gold (which you can buy things with) and producing resources (which you can support armies with), just as there is a big trade off between expanding fast and tanking troops, meaning that your choices really matter.

    Etc.

    Try it if you haven’t ;-)

  54. […] into “Real Time Strategy” games with posts on Starcraft and Sins of a Solar Empire. In this post, Shamus begins by bringing attention to the observation that “Real Time Strategy” is a […]

  55. July says:

    I might’ve agreed with the “RTT” theory a few months ago. But to anyone following the Starcraft pro-scene, you’ll know that it’s simply not true.

    Even I don’t know the half of it, to tell you the truth. Boxer vs. Joyo- Boxer is on the verge of losing, but he comes back with a strategy based on the features of the map.

    Best vs. July in the OSL- July, the underdog, plans out the entire best-of-five to take the psychological advantage.

    ForGG vs. Jaedong- I don’t want to spoil it, but one of the players executed amazing timing with their attacks, even while being outmicroed, and managed to win.

    On a low level, nothing has strategy. Even in chess, the most common feature of amateurs is that they make good tactical moves, but don’t think ahead, whereas the greats have at least 20 moves planned out in their head at any point in time. It’s the same thing in Starcraft. The strategy is there. How much depends on you. There are build orders that counter each other, and there is such a thing as winning by choosing a good build order, but the best players don’t choose at random. They anticipate their opponent and choose that build in order to win. (no pun intended) Also, if you come in with a new, creative build that wins against standard play, why shouldn’t you be able to win games with it?

    Now to address the issue of fast-clicking being needed. Well, that’s a feature of RTS games, like it or not. In fencing, you have to practice your point control to get anywhere. It’s interesting to see. RTS’s blend strategy and physical practice. But if Boxer practices from dawn to dusk every day and he can make 300 clicks per minute, I see no reason why I should be on the same level at him as far as micro goes.

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  1. By Real-Time Hair-Splitting at Augury on Mon May 12, 2008 at 12:13 am

    […] into “Real Time Strategy” games with posts on Starcraft and Sins of a Solar Empire. In this post, Shamus begins by bringing attention to the observation that “Real Time Strategy” is a […]

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