Fragapalooza East 2002
Fragapalooza is perhaps the biggest gaming event in Toronto this year. It started on a cold windy Canadian Friday. I had the day off, I decided to go check it on the first day before the official tournaments got under way, hoping to get my time in to ask Paul Stephanouk some questions about Rise of Nations, my main purpose for attending the event! When I arrived there were gamers busily setting up their systems for the gaming-fest, the place was about half filled at that time. Most people were playing, Counterstrike, Wolfenstein 3D, or Warcraft 3. There were also a lot of people checking out the X-box displays, and playing Splinter Cell or Halo. The first day was pretty quiet, although there were some press coverage of the event. But overall the place was humming and ramping up for the Tournament!
After making my rounds observing the goings on at Fragapalooza, I eagerly made my way towards the Rise of Nations’ section. They had a bank of computers showing off, Rise of Nations (the press beta version), and also Impossible Creatures. Naturally I had seen screenshots of Rise of Nations so there wasn’t too many surprises from just observing these computers, so I found my way to Paul “Targa” Stephanouk to ask him some questions about the game directly. I introduced myself to Paul, as One_Dead_Angel from Heavens Games. So he immediately recognized my game site affiliations, and commented on how impressed he is with the work we are doing to promote fandom for Rise of Nations. He asked how I became involved, and I told him it was from my excessive postings in the forums. Also because of my civ summaries, Obsidian from Heavens Games asked me to help out with their Rise of Nations’ site. Okay, enough about me already. We’re interested in Rise of Nations and the folks at Big Huge Games! So in case you don’t know, Paul is a producer at Big Huge Games, which as he described is responsible for everything else the programmers and artists don’t want to do, and making sure everything they are supposed to do get done. Which in his words, includes “getting coffee” for everyone!
So I asked Paul aka Targa to demo the game for me. He went through the basics like what civs are in the game, the city based approach to development, and the mix of Turn-Based Strategy with Real Time Strategy Games. He showed me the various map styles that was available in the beta, and the various options available for gameplay. One thing that has impressed me from the start is the enormous amount of options that Rise of Nations provides to suit just about any gamer’s preferences. Many of you have already seen the many map styles, game variants that has been published on the various fansites, but that’s only the beta! More about this later! There are also a wide variety of game initialization options for handicapping and starting resources variants. Some of the interesting ones include options to randomize the starting resources (of course everyone gets the same resources), but having different resource starts also allows people to play games without preconceived ideas of build orders based on what resources one has at start. Another way Big Huge Games is addressing the issue of monotonous build order gaming, is to have civs which start off with different buildings so as to provide players a different gaming experience from each civ right from the “get-go”.
As part of the demo, Paul attempted to play a game against the computer at moderate level, a relatively low level for him, so he could play the game while I peppered him with questions. Things started pretty smoothly for Paul, but after awhile, the computer was definitely getting the best of him, attacking in multiple fronts! In his defense, he was distracted by my questions. However I was still duly impressed with the level of the AI. It was smart enough to conduct such an attack and using strategy to beat an opponent rather then out-and-out resource cheats to overwhelm an opponent, or on the other extreme being brain dead, and only attacking with a trickle of troops which you can easily slaughter. Paul said that one way they are designing the AI, in terms of scaling it difficulty level is how far ahead in age they allow it to surpass the human player. So on “Easiest” level the computer will never exceed the age that the human player has reached.
The user interface of Rise of Nations makes it very easy to see at a glance whether or not you are utilizing your units at full potential. However, the important “big picture” strategy is still up to the individual, and one of the reasons Rise of Nations is so good. It lets you think big! The irritating parts of micro-management are done for you. For example you can pull off your villagers from collecting resources to build a needed building, and then just let them be, and they will automatically go back to do the gathering tasks they were assigned to. Also as long as there is extra capacity and work/trade spots available, your villagers or trade units will automatically go do its job. It is rare to see an idle villager. Although it does happen, if you are used to the old booming strategies of continuous villager production, and just build villagers without keeping an eye on your economic caps. Having multiple cities is the only way you can really accumulate wealth, so being able to build more cities is crucial.
After looking at the beta, I did get a special peek of the latest build of the game that Paul had on his laptop! The graphics are even better, as one might expect. But also some really nice additions that hadn’t been put into the beta. Such as civ specific skins for the user interface, and a splash screen for each civ at each game start with graphics of the unique units, and list of civ powers. I also got to see some of the other unique units from the other civs not featured in the beta, like the British Black Guard Infantry, wearing kilts! Paul also highlighted some of the civ’s unique powers and wonders. As some of you may have seen, each civ will have a set of unique powers that is represented as a “power of”, so as to form a theme and set each civ apart from others. Paul joked that the current build may be fun cause the civ powers are so potent but will likely be subject to play balancing. Wonder powers will also be enhanced so that they will be very much worth building, in some cases as powerful as a civ power, thusly it become important for your opponents to prevent you from using them to your advantage. For example: the Kremlin wonder power, at least currently has the ability to generates a free spy unit (and what a “sexy” looking spy unit it will be) that automatically respawns when it is killed, or the Terra Cotta Warrior Wonder that auto-generates troops for free at a set interval. They also added some new map styles in the latest build, and improved the graphics of some of the ones that has been released in the beta. I can say that the number of map variants and quality of each will be quite impressive once everyone else gets to see them.
They are in fact already at the stage where they are in the so-called “tweaking of the numbers” stage of development to make the game balanced, and finish off the components they have already decided on in the game. But they are confident in their ability to release the game on schedule, and Paul said that they should have a more firm release date within the month. It was a fascinating look at Rise of Nations, and even better to have seen the current build, which by now is probably outdated already, as they are working hard to make it even better, and polishing up the game. I thanked Paul for his time, then went off on my own to see how others play the game and try my own hand with the game against a Computer opponent. I observed some of the other spectators at the game, and also saw a few of the Microsoft staffers give the game a go. This would help me later on as I will describe. After observing awhile, I hunkered down at my own station and played a game. I chose Russia since I had a feeling from what I have learned so far, that it would fit my playing style, and seemed like the most powerful civ in the game. I tried a game as moderate also. I expanded my economic capacity, and attrition ability first and foremost. Expanding my cities so as to cut across the map to prevent being encircled, while trying to do just that to my computer opponent. I basically played defensively, building up my cities, and army. The computer opponent sent some forces at me but my massive defensive forces pretty much destroyed any invasion attempts. So when I made it to the Information age, I had a huge army and was researching all the “game-ender” technologies that are available to “finish off” your opponent once you have researched everything else in the game. There is one that is pretty interesting, called anti-missile shield, which prevents nuclear missiles from hitting your territory. This maybe useful I think to prevent spoil sports from using nukes just to cause Armageddon (whereby everyone looses), and of course prevent a nasty nuke from flattening your cities. Seeing that there wasn’t anything else I could research, I just sent my massive army at the computer, nuked it a couple of times for good measure and only a couple so as not to cause Armageddon of course. But I just had to see the spectacular nuclear explosion more then once!
Near the end of Friday, the Rise of Nations and Microsoft people were recruiting competitors for a mini-tournament just for the Rise of Nations fans, that was to be held on the last day of the event. I figured why not, so I decided to enter the tournament. Besides Fragapalooza would not be complete without engaging in some competitive gaming. So I signed up and then waited for Sunday and the tournament.
The Angel of Death Cometh
I arrive a little late on Sunday, so I got to play one of the Microsoft staffers as my first round opponent. The game settings for the tournament games were highest score at 45 minute time limit, auto gathering villagers, with sudden death capital elimination on a 2 player Sahara map (similar to the Arabia map from AOK). Using the press beta version and civs as our software platform. The tournament was one versus one with sudden death elimination after each round of competition.
I had seen the staffers play on the first day of Fragapalooza, so I had some idea on my opponent’s style of play, which I saw to be good at the economic side relying on nukes, but relatively weak on the military side. He picked China as his civ, and I picked Russia. My overall strategy was to play defensively, expansion and economy was my main focus and relying on the Russian Winter ability and a small defensive force at each city to by time, while building at least one major attack force for my main push when the time was right. That is, to play it safe. I was fairly confident I could beat my first opponent but I didn’t want to be overly so. My research upgrades mainly began with increasing my city building potential (civics track) and economic caps (commerce track). Developing these two main research tracks was my main priority all game, while advancing the other two tracks (science and military) when needed. Also building or researching things that can increase my borders and Russian winter attrition rate. Basically following the booming strategy as applied to Rise of Nations. The scores were pretty close in the beginning, but my strategy of massive territorial expansion was paying off as most of the map was under my control. I also made sure to build all economic upgrade buildings at all of my cities to maximize its economic potential and hitpoints (which effects how difficult it will be for an opponent to capture). I also built a set of each military building in each city. This is so that after the first military upgrade, I can place a few of each type of troop at each city to prevent an opponent from waltzing in on my city and capturing them too easily. I also placed a tower, or when resources allowed a fortress to help defend each city. My expansion was generally to create a country that cut across my side of the map, and where allowed envelop my opponent’s. However my worthy opponent was able to prevent this, so my first contact with his territory was at the center of the map. In addition, to my defensive forces at each city I was also building a main attack force at the center, with banks of barracks, stables, and siege factories. Punctuated by fortresses as I built towards his territory. Our forces met around the Enlightenment age, and the battle was furious but I came out ahead to hold ground with a significant force remaining. However it was not quite enough for me to confidently push forward. So I secured my gains with more military buildings to anchor the new territory, and pumping out troops like a mad man. I proceeded to dig into his first city. He put in a concerted resistance but I had aged up before him, and my industrial troops were mowing down his and before long I had captured my first city. He responded with some bombers of his own, when he managed to age up, and did some damage but I built some AA’s in defense and before long his bombers were resigned to the scrap heap. Continuing my push, I kept replenishing and increasing the number of my troops and pushing forwards into the middle of his territory. I also began to hit the population caps and I had to build a few wonders to increase them, as I could not research any more from the normal research tracks. Hitting the modern and then info age quickly, I managed to research some of the game ender techs like anti-missile shield, and max economy caps. By now I had cut his territory into two separate sections, this essentially cuts of any hope he had of accumulating any wealth as any trade units that could make it past my red guards, and T-80 tanks were withered away by my Russian winter. I also had been building a second attack force towards the North end of the map, and by now in my secret arsenal I had built two nuclear missiles. I sent a detachment of my northern troop group into his northeastern city to scout it, then sent a nuke into the city. I wished I had some bread around cause I could’ve made some toast with that nasty denotation! With the city a smoking heap, I sent my forces in to capture it, meanwhile I swung my main army group south, dropped my second nuke on his Southern city, and proceeded to march south-west across the rest of territory in what essentially was a victory parade! I was past my first hurdle!
Moving onto the second round without a break, I face what would turn out to be my toughest opponent. He chose the Japanese as his civ, and again I picked Russia. Why mess with a good formula right? I followed pretty much the same strategy as my first game against the Microsoft staffer. My second opponent was a competitor at the main Fragapalooza event. From the start I can tell this game was going to be a challenge. This opponent had made it past others in competition, and from the excitement from spectators I knew he was able to do some damage. Indeed, observing the scores as the game progressed, his was slightly above mine, with occasional periods where I was ahead. Although I was able to more or less contain his territory on two sides, and in mid game I was ahead in points for a significant stretch. After I defeating a small raiding force he had sent. I replied with a few raiders of my own around gunpowder age to harass his trade units, and out laying resource collectors. I also noticed that he had built up a significant, cavalry force. So of course I concentrated in developing a counter force of heavy infantry. I began to accumulate a rather large main military force on my northern borders, and then began to build a second force at the center, and pushing towards his center with cities and fortresses. I marched my troops into his first border city at industrial age. This fist city wasn’t too developed nor defended, so it was not much of an effort to capture. But just as I was about to move in builders and my troops to anchor my gains, he sent a huge countering force. I had to recall my troops towards my own territory to defend the two cities I had build to expand my center. He had built a massive force of tanks and anti-tank rifles, along with artillery, and flame-throwers. My earlier heavy infantry became anti-tank rifles, and I also build some a fairly well rounded mix of troops also but didn’t have any flame-throwers, which turned out to be great at flushing out my garrisoned villagers and destroying buildings as well. After a tough struggle my first city fell to his furious attack, and instead of capturing it, he just destroyed it. I had to build troops from further and further back in order to keep a defense up but it looked bleak for awhile as he was using well managed directed fire to mow down my troops. My score also began to take a beating, and he was now in the lead. My heart and mind was racing in order to deal with the unrelenting onslaught. He continued his push and began to whittle down my troops and defenses at the second forward city. Normally it would not be a game ender, since my core economy was still intact, but this was a timed game, and he was ahead. I could not afford the time to recapture these outlying cities. Meanwhile I had continued to accumulate an army on the North. Seeing that the time was running out, I sent the whole force straight into his backyard and into one of his main cities, where he had a pyramid wonder. As the time ticked down to the last minute, then seconds, my forces managed to capture the city in the last 10 second! He was too distracted by the battle at his main thrust, and had hoped his own city would hold out long enough. But the capture, created a big hole right in his heart, and a 140-point deficit out of a 20,000-point game! Truly an exciting game, that was close right down to the finish. Looking at the post game stats, he had a better military graph then mine, but I far outpaced him in terms of territory. But the overall points graph was like two snakes coiling around each other, with one notable and important leap for me at the end!!
After the second game, it was time for the finals. So I decided to take a short break to relax and get some food! After a half-hour break, the Microsoft staffers spotted me hanging in the wings while I checked out the rest of the Fragapalooza events. So it was time to battle again. I settled down in my seat with a hot tea, and a pounding heart, still riding high from my last game. Taking a few sips and cracking my knuckles in preparation, I hunkered down with a strategy of repeating my victories and strategy with the Russians, while going over what I could improve for my final game. Having a close game in a timed game while exciting is cutting it close. So I was intent on being in tune with keeping an eye on the time, while playing this time. This time I was facing a Russian civ as my opponent. So it was truly a test of will and skill this time. No excuse for beta balancing issues. We were at a level playing field. This game was the finals! So I expected my opponent to be even more challenging then my previous two. Indeed initially he was ahead in points, but before long I was making big gains in points, and in territory. I again was on a massive territory and city expansion path, and managed to envelop my opponent’s territory on three sides. In around medieval age, my opponent sent in a massive cavalry force. He attempted to attack my capital, in hopes I think to eliminate me with a sudden death capitol victory. But I was not worried as I had carried out my tried and true strategy of building defensive buildings and a small army at each city. While my forces defended my capitol, I swung my main battle force that I had been building on my southern zone, straight into his flank. His cavalry force was literally caught between a rock and a hard place. Defensive towers on one side, some defensive troops and a tough city at his front, a huge defensive force chomping at his heals, and top it all off with sweet sweet Russian winter! His precious horsies were reduced to jam by my Russian meat grinder in a matter of minutes! After this point, my score far outpaced his. I learned one thing from this match, and that is for the Russians, territory is not only your friend but also a potent weapon. In after thought, it seemed he had invested his entire resources and efforts into this rush strategy but lacked a plan besides this. As I aged up, and continued to envelop his territory, there was little else I could do but push into his territory, and little else he could do in response. Victory was already assured with the now massive score difference. So in the last minutes of the game, I sent my main army into his north, and brought together all my defensive armies into his east in a two-prong attack, to apply the coup de gras. I had bombers and tanks along side arquebusiers against his arquebusiers and pikemen. It was a rather anachronistic final battle. As the last seconds ticked away, I continued to keep my focus on the game, orchestrating my troops into his last two cities, and doing research upgrades to the end. As the victory splash screen popped up, I was declared the Rise of Nations Tourney Champ.
Veni Vidi Vici
For my efforts, I won a Microsoft wireless keyboard and mouse, an impossible creatures T-shirt, an autographed Rise of Nations’ poster from Paul Stephanouk, and a championship plaque. Me, the finalist and Paul had our pictures taken, with Paul giving an enthusiastic double thumbs up at the successful event. In the excitement, I didn’t even remember to take my fresh drink from my computer station after I left or to even find out who won the overall Fragapalooza tournament! Oh well as long as we I got my Rise of Nation’s fix, who cares!! To summarize my experience at Fragapalooza, I have to repeat the words of Julius Caesar; “I came, I saw, I conquered!” I might also add, collected…. some cool prizes!