Monday, May 28, 2007

Galactic Civilisation 2 War Report and 4X Game Issues

Recently I have been playing Galactic Civilisation 2 which is the type of game that would be traditionally referred to as a Strategy game, but as I understand it now large scale galactic colonisation games including expansion strategy games in general now all come under the genre title of '4X' which stands for eXsplore, eXpand, eXsploit and eXsterminate. I have played many galactic conquest games over the years with them being one of my favourite genres, as games are long, non-linear and all strategy decisions have lasting consequences. But there are a few long running issues with the genre that GalCiv2 has actually fixed.

The problem with most 4X games is that once the player has more than ten planets (or settlements if you where playing Civilisation for example) it becomes increasingly difficult for the player to manage all the production queues of the growing number of colonies. Eventually turns take hours and the player will even forget what they wanted to do for a given turn so their strategy becomes watered down and undirected with some planets build queues being wasted simply because they where forgotten. It is in the large scale games that a good AI can easily win against a tired player as the AI doesn't get tired, doesn't forget about a planet, what it was doing with a particular planet and performs all actions with a mindset on every aspect of their empire and avoiding all potential expansion problems perfectly. The only disadvantage the AI has is if it was poorly built and then will occasionally do something stupid.

My idea of fixing this build queue issue for a game I wanted to build was to use levels of abstraction with things like fleet construction. So to build up a fleet a player would set a fleet marker, virtually construct the fleet that they wanted to be there at that marker and then press build. An AI would then choose planets and set build orders to build that chosen fleet for the player as quickly as possible and then when each ship finished building it would travel to the marker. Then when the fleet is finished the player is notified and they can play with their new fleet. The advantages of this is that the player wouldn't need to tell individual planets what to build, which is complicated by the fact that different planets have different build times and are various distances from where the player wishes to constitute their fleet. Having an AI take care of this would help the player out a lot as it could look at all the player's planets, their build time and assess wither it would be quicker to build two small ships on separate close planets or decide that building two ships on one distant planet with result in a faster build time for making the desired fleet.

There are other issues that come with 4X games, but the above one is solved in GalCiv2 by having all planets with a shipyard infinitely build ships. You actually have to specify that a planet not build anything for it to stop producing ships. Also if the player chooses to change what ship is currently being constructed at a shipyard, the work that has already gone into making the ship is put straight into the new build order so the player isn't penalised for changing their mind. This coupled with allowing the player to create long build lists for planet structures and auto-upgrading planet structures when new ones are discovered on the research tree means that forgetting about a planet is quite difficult. Especially since GalCiv2 has such good summery screens that detail everything about your empire and even notifies you as soon as a planet's build queue is empty on the turn summery screen.

There are still many problems that haven't been solved in GalCiv2 like that of planet development where the player will sometimes overcompensate in a particular field like research on all their planets, but GalCiv2 is a great game and did an article called GalCiv 2 War Report which is an account of a massive twenty day (real world time) GalCiv2 game. The article is long which is why I waited for them to finish writing it before posting about it and GalCiv2, but it is very funny so is well worth reading if you have the time.

I has a look on YouTube to see if there was any good gameplay videos of GalCiv2 that I could put in this post and found an excellent series of videos that talk about how the team went about debugging the AI. And I can attest that GalCiv2 does have a good AI because the different races always feel like they have personalities and if they win it is because they deserve to win and not because they cheated.
For reference the spore weapon that is talked about in the video is a very powerful invasion weapon that sends down a plague to the planet that crystallises all non-plant life. Meaning you don't need to send down troops to conquer the planet because as soon as your ship enters orbit around the planet everybody is already dead.