Hidden Gems of PC Strategy (GOG Edition)
In Part 3 of our Hidden Gems of GOG series, the topic is Strategy. We decided to combine all types of strategy games into one article, so you will see a mix of real time and turn-based games across time periods and subgenres. Strategy games have been around since the dawn of time, but computer strategy games first arrived in the early days of the 1980s. While SSI’s Computer Bismarck (1980) is regarded by many as the first strategy pc game, Invasion for the Magnavox Odyssey (1972) is considered the venerable video game genre’s real start. Over time the strategy genre has seen numerous convention changes and experienced massive popularity up through the 1990s and to modern day, with notable games like Nobunaga’s Ambition, Starcraft, Heroes of Might & Magic, and X-COM: UFO Defense, just to name a few. Like always, GOG has a good mix of genre definers and unsung heroes; this is just a subset. I mean, everyone needs to play Total Annihilation!
Warhammer 40,000: Rites of War
Presented by Ack
In the grim darkness of the far future, there is only war. The Eldar, an ancient race who once ruled the universe, have been ripped from their empire and forced to wander on massive ships known as Craftworlds. The Eldar of Craftworld Iyanden have only now discovered the planet Davinuus, a Maiden World once terraformed and colonized by the Eldar many millennia ago. But Davinuus is overrun with human vermin who attack the Eldar when they arrive to reclaim their ancient artifacts. And something far more sinister lurks in the shadows of Davinuus and seeks only to consume. This is Warhammer 40,000: Rites of War.
Rites of War, developed by DreamForge and published by SSI in 1999, has the player take control of the Eldar forces of Craftworld Iyanden as they wage war first on the forces of humanity and then eventually unite with them against the legions of a Tyranid hive fleet while gathering the lost remnants of their very old history across 24 levels. The game was built using SSI’s Panzer General 2 engine, and combat is turn based with two variants, either one unit at a time or one army at a time. Players are required to build their army outside of battle and then field only so many forces in each mission. As units fight, they gain experience and level up, leading to better and better stats, and in the case of Eldar units, eventually enabling many of them to evolve into powerful Exarch units. Unfortunately they must live long enough to see this, as Rites of War features permadeath. Any unit killed on the field is permanently lost, and in later levels with extremely powerful enemies, replacing a lost veteran with fodder becomes foolhardy.
To counter this, players can rest their units to recovered wounds or even replenish squads completely if rested at certain locations. But because there is an easy means to rejuvenate fallen forces, Rights of War throws a lot of enemies in any given mission and imposes a strict limit on turns. While this limit is most often 40 turns, plenty of time to lay waste to all opponents, occasionally missions will drop to only 15 or so, forcing the player to push forward recklessly in a relentless march towards victory or slaughter.
Adding to the mix is the variety of units available in 8 types for the three sides, including infantry, armor, artillery, aerial assault troops, scouts, and even psykers. Psykers are unique in that they can use special abilities once a turn to influence the battle, such as launching massive attacks against an enemy from afar, boosting the defense of nearby allies, or inflicting crippling status effects.
Besides the main campaign from the Eldar’s perspective, the game offers a tutorial level, a series of stand-alone battles against the computer or up to three other people, and even a level editor to let the player change out units, starting positions, and even victory conditions, though not the physical contours of the battlefield maps. Different arrangements can be tried, tested, and played out again and again with different results. While the base campaign is locked to the Eldar’s point of view, these skirmishes enable players to devote time to humanity or Tyranids as desired.
Unfortunately Warhammer 40,000 purists may balk at the lack of size consideration for units, meaning a squad of Imperial Guard infantry appear to take up as much room as a Leman Russ tank or even a Tyranid Carnifex. But for the rest of us, Warhammer 40,000: Rites of War offers an interesting challenge with great replayability in a universe that knows only war.
Presented by Bogusmeatfactory
In 1987, when the world was swept up in the spirit of console gaming replacing the joys of the arcade, there was a game, so far ahead of its time being released on the personal computer that it still has left an indelible mark on the industry. Sid Meier’s Pirates! is a game about plunder and life on the high seas of the Caribbean during an era of piracy and political opportunity. In this title, you play a newly made captain of your own vessel, leaving the choices entirely up to you. Do you sail as a scourge to all merchant vessels as a pirate, or are you one of those very merchants, trading goods and services to the nearby towns? Do you work towards expanding the empire of one of the many nations stationed in the Caribbean, or do you work towards reuniting yourself with your long lost family? The choice is yours and it is that choice that makes Sid Meier’s Pirates! so special.
So few games have ever created the sensation of a living breathing world quite like Pirates! Treasure fleets move from city to city, ignoble and infamous pirates plunder wealthy cities and the political balances shift as nations wage war and attempt to spread their power through conquered cities. You yourself can be a vital part in all of this as you sail from city to city, gathering information from taverns, recruiting your crew, outfitting your fleet and sailing for adventure.
The game itself can be split up into numerous styles. The initial overworld has you sailing in real-time using weather to navigate the treacherous waters and avoiding dangerous reefs. Here, you can find the cities you need to get supplies and talk to the local governments, as well as encounter ships to hear about rumors, or wage battle against. The battles themselves take place in real time as well, where you position yourself strategically to assail your foes with flying cannonballs. If you board your enemies, the combat is done in a traditional 2-D fighting game perspective where you select a variety of swords to duel against your rival captain.
The joy of the game is its sandbox nature. Your character ages, your crew can grow restless and your career can take many a turn for good and for ill. You have the option to select a variety of eras that shape the political landscape of the Caribbean, as well as the types of encounters you will find on the seas. Sid Meier’s Pirates! is all about the adventure that you create for yourself. No two games are ever alike and the replay value is monumental. Pirates! Gold features improved graphics and sound from the original and really stands out as one of the best games out there even to this day. So batten down the hatches and get ready for adventure!
Warlords Battlecry III
Presented by fastbilly1
Take one part Masters of Magic, one part Rival Realms, and one part Total Annihilation, put it in a blender with every fantasy race trope you can imagine, and you have an idea of what Warlords Battlecry 3 brings to the table. Building on past titles in both the Warlords and the Warlords Battlecry series, Battlecry 3 eschews all notion of balance and story and provides RTS fans with a fantastic mix of base building, micromanagement, and hero questing, which has yet to be bested by another RTS. There is no real game story. Sure, there is a back story explaining why races hate eachother, but the campaign mode is more of a loose aggregation of battles (called missions) against opposing races through hubworlds based on towns of Etheria. But what is brilliant about this series is that you have a hero and retinue, which will level up and continue with you through your campaign and multiplayer.
When you first build your hero it will be daunting. You have the sixteen different fantasy races and twenty eight different classes to choose from with no restrictions. Want to make a Lichlord Minotaur or a Daemon Daemonslayer? Then you get to choose the race you will play. Want your Daemon to lead an army of Fey, go for it. Warlords Battlecry 3 is an OCD gamer’s nightmare. Each Hero has four stats – Strength, Dexterity, Intelligence, and Charisma, which will change based on the Hero’s race, class, and experience, but they fall into the standard RPG reasoning. Strength = more physical damage and life regen, Dexterity = faster and nimbler, Intelligence = more magic power and xp, Charisma = discounts on building things and higher morale. Fair warning, it will take a few heroes to figure out how you want to play this game.
Actual gameplay is when this game gets complicated. There are four resources – Stone, Wood, Gold, Crystal, and these are typically gathered by capturing mines with your Hero which can be fed with building unites for better production. Now not every army is made equally. They all have similar buildings and units, but they have abilities that need to be known. A Zombie and a Giant Ant are both miner units, but a Zombie does Crushing damage and causes disease, so one on one they will destroy the ants each time. But those same Giant Ants have piercing damage and resistance, so they can go toe to toe with basic Empire swordsmen and win. And everyone can beat up the Fey early. But this is where the game starts to shine. Every army plays differently and this is only enhanced by the Hero unit’s build. Not every army needs every resource. The Swarm (insect race) for example does not need Crystal except for their Titan and their Anti Air tower, but the Fey desperately need them until midgame (they start producing units that generate Crystal). But turtling around a resource does not help when an opposing Hero is built for long range conversion and just stole the mines under your nose.
Perhaps this complexity is why Warlords Battlecry 3 faded into obscurity. Unlike Starcraft or Red Alert 2, there were just too many options and no way to make it a fair tournament game. But that is not what Battlecry 3 is. It is a hodgepodge of every fantasy trope you can imagine mixed together and set on the back shelf. For those willing to dig into the game, there is weeks of enjoyment waiting for you. Multiplayer is LAN only now, but tunneling software (ie Gameranger) works well.
Master of Orion 2
Presented by MrPopo
Master of Orion 2 is the seminal space 4x by which all other space 4x games are judged. It built upon many of the ideas first put forth in its predecessor and created an experience that still has people playing to this day. Which is not to say that it is a perfect game; if you know what you’re doing you can break the game in half. But you have just as many ways to stack the deck against yourself, which is part of the appeal.
In MoO2 the first thing you do is decide what race you’re going to play. A race has a selection of benefits and weaknesses; one might be good at science but have a weak military, while another has massive population capacity but is so repulsive that other races won’t engage it in diplomacy. However, you also have the option of creating a custom race. This takes you to a screen where you pick your racial traits using a point buy system. Positive traits cost points, while negative traits refund points. This is the first place the game can be broken. As it turns out, the devs didn’t balance everything as well as they should have. There are certain traits that give you such an overwhelming advantage that unless the point cost was “all of them” they would still be undercosted, while other negative traits have such little impact that they are free points for better traits. Custom race essentially becomes your difficulty selection; you can make things as easy or as hard for you as you want.
Once you get in game you will have a lot of the standard 4x stuff that you’ve already seen in Civilization. Planets are your cities and have a population cap based on the size of the world, its biome, and your technology level. You can build structures on the planet for a variety of bonuses and can build starships in the starport. These ships include scouts, a variety of warships, and colony ships for settling other planets. The game includes a starship builder; you can create the exact loadout you want on your ships which includes a variety of pieces of non-weapon equipment that can give you an edge. The game also lets you opt out of it and let the computer update the designs automatically as you unlock technology. Your ability to explore is limited by your engine technology; you can only travel a certain distance away from any colony based on your engine level. One neat feature the game has is that there are a variety of officers and administrators. These can be assigned to colonies or fleets and provide a variety of bonuses. Administrators can add to a colony’s production or reduce waste, while officers add combat bonuses to ships in your fleets.
Combat in MoO2 is an extremely hands on affair. Rather than the highly abstracted “move your unit(s) onto the enemy unit(s) and roll numbers”, when you encounter an enemy fleet you go into a separate screen to engage in a turn based strategy battle. You move your ships around, fire the weapons at one or more targets, and can utilize any special equipment you equipped your ships with. This is another area the computer can take over for you if you like if you’d prefer. This is also another area where the game can get broken in half, as there is a combination of devices you can use that make you effectively invincible when used properly. But ignoring that, it’s still quite interesting that the game is essentially two games in one; 4x and turn based strategy.
The Banner Saga
Presented by Noiseredux
Part one of a proposed trilogy, The Banner Saga tells the story of a great war erupting between beings known as The Dredge and the unlikely alliance of Vikings and The Varl, a race of horned giants who are facing extinction. The remaining Varl are literally the last of their kind. As such, victory over The Dredge would be bittersweet. And that’s sort of the heart-string-tugging appeal of this game. Nothing comes easy, and even triumph is accompanied by tragedy.
Imagine if you took Oregon Trail and set it in a Viking fantasy world that was hand-drawn by Don Bluth or 1950’s Disney illustrators. Also imagine that it also incorporated the sort of choices you might expect to see in a Telltale adventure game. Now imagine that the battle system is a turn-based tactical one reminiscent of Shining Force. Though these elements seem miles apart, the resultant combination is an extremely unique and gripping game.
The Banner Saga was created by Stoic, a team of developers who had previously worked together at Bioware. From that fact alone it should come as no surprise that this will be an emotional, story-driven game. In fact it could even be a valid complaint that the battle system – while no doubt fun – is actually quite watered down compared to other more recent tactical games. In fact it really feels closer to a digital board game than a video game battle system proper. But that’s
okay because The Banner Saga is bigger than the sum of its parts. The gorgeous art; the somber music; the feeling of hopelessness that hovers over your party like a dark cloud – it’s hard to compare this game to any other even while it is made up of many recognizable pieces.
This is the sort of game that you play while shut in from a snow storm. It’s the sort of game you play when you can’t sleep at two in the morning. It’s slow-burning, tragic and haunting. And highly recommended.