Stellar Relic

Author - Thomas Howell

Kaiserreich Imagines Germany Victorious in WWI


Kaiserreich, a popular alternate history mod for Darkest Hour, recently released its 1.7 update. Kaiserreich is an exhaustively complex scenario for the Hearts of Iron 2-derived strategy game Darkest Hour, packaged as a full modification, and celebrates its tenth anniversary this month as well.

I dearly love Kaiserreich. Its alt-history setting is well-thought out and realized. As in Darkest Hour or any Hearts of Iron game, players choose a nation and guide it through war and peace from 1936 on, making important decisions, designing and directing their armies, and so on. Despite the engine’s age, Darkest Hour is a great experience in its own right – the final and best iteration of HoI 2, and far superior to HoI 3.

In Kaiserreich, the Central Powers won the First World War. The defeated Entente powers of Britain and France fell to Socialist revolutions, with the royal family fleeing to Canada and a rightist French government in Africa. German colonies, greatly enlarged, extend across the globe, but a showdown between the forces of Syndicalism and Mitteleuropa is imminent. India is divided and headed for war, and the United States, robbed of the moderating influence of FDR, seems destined for a second Civil War.

Just a few months ago, Kaisserreich 1.6 released, overhauling the Indian subcontinent. 1.7 is a more modest update, though Mexico has received a good deal of necessary work. (Mexico is quite a fun experience, incidentally – if you’re lucky, you can intervene in the Second American Civil War and steal back the lost states.)

Kaiserreich Europe, 1936

Kaiserreich Europe, 1936

It’s an astonishingly flexible and polished experience, the product of a decade of work. The alternate history setting means that various gameplay elements can be balanced without making the whole exercise inaccurate. Unlike the standard HoI/Darkest Hour experience, which tends to play out WW2 along historical lines with historical actors, every playthrough of Kaiserreich is unique. Almost every nation has the opportunity to join a different faction, and the mapgame plays out in very unpredictable ways.

You can download Kaiserreich from this Paradox forums thread (I recommend the ModDB link). For those interested in the setting but who might not have access to Darkest Hour or the time to play it, Ofaloaf’s outstanding LP “This Land Is Your Land” is ongoing, serves as a solid introduction to Kaiserreich’s mechanics, and is a great read in its own right.

World of Warships Sets Sail

atagostellar’s latest foray into, uh, historical vehicular arena combat (there has to be a better way to describe it), World of Warships, has finally raised anchor from the semi-public beta and released publicly. How many tortured nautical metaphors can I fit into this post? Let’s “sea”!

By all accounts I’ve heard, World of Warships is Wargaming’s best offering yet. It is also impossible to acronym properly. Your friends will all assume you’re talking about World of Warcraft, and they will think you’re cool and normal, and you will hesitate to disabuse them of this notion. It can really torpedo a conversation!

The game features a wide selection of WWI and WWII warships, with destroyers, cruisers, battleships and aircraft carriers (in escalating order of size and juicyness). This weekend is probably a pretty great time to give it a shot – there’s an x3 experience bonus until Monday, and you can be sure that the servers will be clogged with players as charmingly new and inept as yourself. Give it a shot, landlubber! I like boats.

Take a look at Rossmum’s videos (especially the ones with commentary, like this destroyer and this battleship vid) to give yourself a leg up on the competition; Rossmum’s an old Wargaming pro and knows his stuff. Oh, and if you’re interested in 20th century warships, check out Shipbucket,, Navweaps, and Wikipedia’s Battleships Portal. That should be enough to get you hooked on these big deadly metal dildos of the sea.

Screenshot Saturday: Expansive Worlds


Videogames are confusing, beautiful, complicated messes, and the best way to convey that is through screenshots, whether they are beautiful, informative, or goofy. Each Saturday we bring you one screenshot each from a game we played. It’s Screenshot Saturday.


Dave: I’ve easily played – really played, not idled or AFKed – a solid 20 hours of Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain since last weekend. And I’m at 7% completion. I’ve barely made my way through any main story missions, as the open world, the combat, the reconnaissance, and the base building involved in the game are so satisfying. As a newcomer to the Metal Gear franchise who, nonetheless, heard a lot about the games in the past – I’m shocked. I thought Metal Gear was all cutscenes and snakes?

Decarabia and Haagenti

Thomas: The past few weeks have been busy. If I had the time, I’d be plowing through Shadowrun: Hong Kong and Pillars of Eternity right now. I don’t. What I do have time for is turn-based play-by-email games, and Solium Infernum is one of the best around. My fellow demons and I are vying for the throne of Hell, and I’ve built my avatar around Praetor combat. A Praetor a sort of Satanic lieutenant-cum-prize-fighter, and disputes between Hell’s aristocracy can be settled by their duels. As you can see, Praetor combat is a glorified rock, paper scissors. Also, I am terrible at it. My Haagenti was one the best duelist Praetors in the game, with a full 14 hitpoints, and my rival’s Decarabia nibbled him to death. This is when the game started to turn, and I knew I’d have to take my plotting in a different direction. Satan’s abandoned throne will not be secured in an honorable duel.


James: I’ve been spending most of my time in mad Max the past few weeks. It’s a hard game to recommend, honestly – it has split ambitions and never really seems to pick a design to stick with – but it has a satisfying vehicular combat system and some of the best-designed environments I’ve ever seen in an open world game. Also, you can pause the game at any time and take free camera photos of cars exploding while you punch people, so that’s pretty great too.

Jake Solomon On XCOM 2’s Strategy Layer


Earlier today, Firaxis Games’ Jake Solomon, the mastermind behind 2012’s XCOM: Enemy Unknown, took to Firaxis’ Twitch account to “dive deep” into XCOM 2’s strategy layer. The archived broadcast is available for viewing. For those of you who don’t want to sit through an hour-plus of (admittedly entertaining) banter and designer-talk, below is our take.

Details about XCOM 2 have been trickling out over the past few weeks. At Gamescom, that trickle became a flood, as Firaxis showcased their first demo footage of the Geoscape (strategy layer) and the Avenger (XCOM’s new mobile base/flying fortress). Jake Solomon and Pete Murray first played through the Gamescom footage in its entirety, then ran it through once again, taking time to pause and elaborate on areas of interest.

In XCOM: Enemy Unknown/Enemy Within, your Geoscape objectives were to research new technologies, build new weapons and devices, and respond to alien attacks. XCOM 2’s Commander has many of the same tasks, but a whole wealth of changes and additions, as well. The activities and objectives of a resistance group are very different from that of a global defense organization, and XCOM2 appears to reflect this.


Talented staff is hard to find for a gang of rebels on the run. Every engineer and scientist is an individual with their own mugshot, and these individuals can be assigned and reassigned to various projects by the player. Engineering (headed by Lily Shen, the daughter of your XCOM EU/EW Chief Engineer) is similar to the 2012 release, in that you use resources you’ve gained to build items. There are two major divergences here: first, there are, reportedly, many more items in XCOM 2 than in EU/EW. Secondly, instead of building individual weapons, you build a weapon “class” – say, Magnetic Rifles. At that point, you have an unlimited supply of Magnetic Rifles. This makes a great deal of sense, given the many ways to customize and upgrade individual weapons in XCOM 2. You can upgrade your weapons, paint them, even name them. Similarly, Rookies can be trained into specific classes – player’s choice – and once they are veterans, many more customization options unlock for the player.


One of the most interesting new tidbits dropped by Solomon is a detail regarding the Advanced Warfare Center, one of the later upgrades for the Avenger. Its primary task is to speed up the healing of soldiers – and as your squaddies become more advances and powerful, this will become increasingly critical. More intriguing, though, is that it apparently can uncover “hidden” perks within your soldiers as they level up. This means that it’s possible for soldiers to receive perks from outside their class – Snipers could conceivably receive Run And Gun, to use Solomon’s example. This is extremely exciting, and integrates the “Training Roulette” Second Wave option from XCOM EU/EW without losing the essential nature of XCOM 2’s classes.

As for the Geoscape itself, it is much different. In XCOM EU/EW, the strategy was clear: the entire world was begging for your help and players had to rush out satellites and fighters to save nations from spiraling into panic and leaving the Project. In XCOM 2, the player starts with control over a single region, and must expand the territory influenced by the Resistance by making contact with cells, gathering intel, and striking back at the alien occupiers. There’s a lot of stuff to actually do in the geoscape besides wait for missions – the Avenger flies around at your direction to influence events, investigate rumors, and support allies.


The aliens certainly aren’t static, either. They have their own plans, drawn from a large deck of objectives, and their own win conditions. The player encounters these through the “Dark Events” Geoscape popup, giving XCOM the opportunity to pre-empt or respond to alien activities. Players can spend Intel (one of the new resources, along with Supplies) to dig deeper into the enemy’s plans and flip hidden cards.

Solomon repeatedly came back to his “mantra” for XCOM 2: that, in comparison to Enemy Unknown, the sequel should be more unpredictable, more replayable, with Firaxis’ “hands off the reins.” This can be dangerous idea, particularly in terms of balance, but if anyone can pull it off, it’s Solomon, Garth DeAngelis, and the rest.

CCP Announces Iterations On New EVE Sovereignty System

ExeFile 2013-05-25 23-27-59-330

Yesterday, game designer CCP Fozzie announced a batch of changes to the recently-rebuilt EVE Sov system.

We previously touched on the new mechanics, commonly called “Fozziesov” or “Aegis Sov.” EVE’s nullsec players have been crying out for changes to the sov system for years now, and the Fozziesov mechanics are the product of months and months of discussion in Reykjavik. They also came with a promise to improve, patch, iterate and otherwise build upon the new system.

That promise is being fulfilled, as the reaction to Fozziesov has been far from uniformly positive. Many of the features are sound in principle, but require tweaking in practice. Most of the complaints seem to revolve around the amount of wasted time it takes to defend space, even against nuisance raids. Fozziesov has seen the rise of the “trollceptor” fleet: gangs of difficult-to-catch Interceptors roaming through space and triggering defensive timers with no intention of contesting them in battle, merely wearing down and annoying the defender with busywork. More overarching complaints, like the relative paucity of rewards for holding space, will have to be addressed as well.

The general thrust of the proposed changes seems to align with the most common player concerns with Fozziesov, as chronicled by Thoric Frosthammer and Wilhelm Arcturus. It is reassuring to see iteration come so quickly, and the promise of further work on Sov is good to see, as well. CCP put their “superstar” devs on point for this; with Fozzie working on mechanics and Punkturis building the interface, it’s hard to imagine a stronger commitment.

Most interesting, perhaps, is the “preview” of coming updates in the final paragraphs of CCP Fozzie’s post:

Galatea is just the beginning of our commitment to iterating and improving nullsec and sov. We are hard at work on the changing coming in future releases, including formal methods for dropping sov, the ability to turn IHub upgrades on and off, updates to the formula for calculating activity defense multipliers, new PVE experiences for sov nullsec and much more. Nullsec and Sov remain our focus here at Team Five 0 and we’ll be continuing to update you on progress as we go forward. We are listening to your feedback and continuing to observe the results of our changes as we make them.

These Galatea changes will also obviously not be the final changes to the capture mechanics themselves. We have some changes we know we want to make (like partially captured structures returning to defender control at a slow constant regeneration pace to reduce the need for “maintenance linking”) and others that we don’t want to rule out but that also need more investigation and internal/external discussion before making final decisions (such as ship restrictions on Entosis Links). Thanks to everyone who’s been providing constructive feedback so far, we hope you’ll continue.

The promised iterations are to be released, along with a host of other features and updates, on August 25 as part of the Galatea update.

Planetary Annihilation: Titans Releases on Steam


One of the best strategy games in history was released in 1997: Total Annihilation. Long-defunct developer Cavedog created a title that spawned a legion of fans and a few well-received spiritual sequels. The most recent, and most troubled, of these sequels is Planetary Annihilation. Today sees the release of a new stand-alone expansion, Planetary Annihilation: Titans – and it just might turn the franchise around.

These games, at their best, truly make the player feel like a commander – a general of armies – with warfare on a grander scale than other contemporary RTSes. Even in the original TA, players managed hundreds or thousands of units without feeling overwhelmed. It was one of the first ever 3D RTS games, where terrain really mattered and projectiles were true objects. In an oft-cited example, a shell from a Big Bertha artillery piece, flying across the map, could vaporize an aircraft that happened to be flying through the shell’s trajectory. Stuff like that can’t happen in Starcraft.

A sequel (in spirit) wasn’t released for ten years, but Supreme Commander eventually came out in 2007 to almost universal acclaim. Once again, it debuted features we take for granted in most strategy games now, the fully zoomable map being the most prominent. Supreme Commander 2, though worse than SupCom, continued the tradition, and is a fine game on its own merits.

Then Uber, a new developer with lots of old TA and Supreme Commander vets at the helm, announced a new title: Planetary Annihilation. This was one of the first big Kickstarter projects, and it soaked in cash from the legions of fans looking for a modern take on the old formula.

Upon release, my experience was similar to that shared by many old Annihilation/Commander fans: extreme excitement, followed by confusion induced by the poorly-written tutorials, followed by disorientation and disappointment. The “fighting across multiple planets in a solar system” thing is a great advance in theory. In practice, the planets are tiny, making battles feel cramped and their consequences swift. There’s no space to trade for time, and managing multiple bases across multiple planets and moons quickly became tiresome. The key selling point of the game just didn’t work.

A few years passed, and the developers at Uber patched and updated and patched again. By all accounts, Planetary Annihilation has become much more playable. Today, Uber capped this all off with the release of Planetary Annihilation: Titans, a stand-alone expansion.

Titans looks interesting. It adds the titular Titan mega-units (similar to the Experimentals from SupCom) along with a hodgepodge of other new toys. Multi-level terrain, which was shockingly not part of the original PA release, is finally implemented, as well as a totally rebuilt tutorial experience. Titans is priced at $40 for new buyers, with a 66% off promotion available for previous owners of some version of PA (bringing the price down to $13.60). Additionally, those who backed the original Kickstarter will receive Titans for free.

For those of you – like myself – who felt burned by Planetary Annihilation, now might be the time to give it another chance.

Floating Follies: Rule The Waves AAR Part 1

from Puck Magazine, September 1909

Rule the Waves is a game about building, maintaining, and commanding a great navy in the age of the dreadnought. In peacetime, you design, construct and deploy your ships, handle your budget, respond to events, play politics, and exert some influence on other areas of policy. In times of war, you do all this and additionally play out the naval battles yourself in the tactical layer.

I initially wanted to review this game for Stellar Relic, but Tim Stone already said almost everything I would say. Here’s an abbreviated version of my review: I love this game dearly. The best way to explain why is to write up a playthrough and show you some of the amazing emergent storytelling that this 1990s-looking oddity can produce. That’s what this is.

So! What nation shall we play? There’s a lot to choose from – all the European Great Powers of the turn of the century, plus Japan and the USA. The two included “custom nations” are Spain and the Confederate States of America.

Nation Select: Germany

I’ve gone with Germany. A game of Britain would be too easy. France and Italy are fun but I’ve played them a lot, and I’m a little tired of the Mediterranean. Austria-Hungary’s economy is too weak to be much fun. Germany, now… large economy, good technology, research advantages galore. It should be a challenge, but not an insurmountable one. I’m excited to see how I might stack up against Russia or the UK.


Tirpitz? No, we’d like Grossadmiral von Howell, please. I check the “manual build of legacy fleet” box and go for it.

Worth class Battleship

Every nation obviously has to begin with a navy when the game starts – it’s not like someone came up with the idea of putting guns on boats in January 1900. Normally, this “legacy fleet” is automatically designed and generated by the AI; “manual build of legacy fleet” means I get to throw it together myself. As technology unlocks, I’ll be able to build better ships, but the legacy fleet is limited to baseline tech. Above is me designing the current pride of the Imperial German Navy: the Wörth-class battleship. I’ll go more into ship design in the next post, but for now, it suffices to say that it’s not as complicated and terrifying as it appears.

Starting Navy

Here’s what the High Seas Fleet looks like I’m done: a core of six pre-dreadnought battleships (“B”), five armoured cruisers (“CA”), eight light cruisers (“CL”), and a hungry pack of 500-ton torpedo boats. They’re all fairly reasonable, balanced designs for their tonnage. Nothing crazy yet! This is just the legacy fleet. Oh, and I threw some cash at building bigger docks, too, so I can construct larger vessels in the future.


There’s a research component to the game, as well. I bump up my budget to the maximum 10% and prioritize ship design, armour development, and damage control, while deprioritizing submarines and a few other subsystems. This is a bit of a gamble, but I’ve decided to focus on Germany’s strengths. The Kaiser’s fleet will be tough.


The world of Rule The Waves is broken up into various zones. The vast majority of the German fleet is in Germany, of course, but I do in fact own colonial possessions that need protecting in Africa and the Pacific.


I decide to build up my defenses in the Pacific, improving the base in the Caroline Islands. I don’t expect to get in a war with Japan or the US (the great Pacific powers), but it’s nice to be prepared, and I can use the Carolines as a base for long-range raiders on other powers.

So: most of my preparations are done. I’ve advanced the game a couple of the monthly turns at this point, and since I’m not constructing any ships right now, the German Navy is flush with cash. I’ve got a decent battleline, I’m improving my bases, and with the benefit of hindsight, I’m ready to jump on any breakthrough in ship design.

In September 1900, my first three key technological advances are made.


With these research improvements and a massive $76 million budget surplus that needs to be spent, I decide it’s time to build the next generation of German battleships. And maybe start poking the Russians a little. I suspect a nice, easy war with the Tsar will help my the Imperial Navy’s prestige immensely. My intelligence budget is jacked up to the maximum and a wave of German spies are dispatched to the Slavic empire.

I have no idea how stupidly arrogant I’m being. Join me next time to find out!

Games and Symbols of Hate


In June, Apple briefly removed nearly all games that featured the Confederate Battle Flag from the App Store. Controversy ensued, with much denunciation of Apple’s move – not all of it in good faith. Apple almost immediately walked back their blanket ban and reinstated apps that Apple perceived to be including the flag for “educational or historical uses”.

So: a relatively short-lived controversy, now many weeks in the past, and almost immediately resolved to the satisfaction of most rational people. Why am I writing about it? Well, I think there’s still a number of issues worth digging into here.

Intention & Ignorance

Firstly, let’s not kid ourselves about Apple’s motives. They are a big corporation that chases the mainstream political zeitgeist in order to be more palatable to their customers, not out of some moral certitude. They didn’t pull any games with swastikas in them back in June. They reversed their decision because they were criticized, not because they’d seen the error of their ways.

There were plenty of people angry about Apple’s action for the right reasons. There were reasonable people genuinely torn about it. There were folks, like the GamerGaters, operating in bad faith – not particularly interested in free speech or education, but in advancing a regressive political or social agenda. And then there were the people who were flat-out ignorant of historical reality. These are the people who have rainbow-ified their Confederate Flag avatars on Facebook and see no contradiction, as though Stonewall Jackson would have been fine with boys kissing boys. These are the game devs who decried the Apple decision by complaining about the “real racists”.

“Heritage, not hate”, these people say. But they don’t understand their heritage. Games can help remedy this.

hoo boy this is awkward

Thanks for the tips, Cromwell. Did you know that some historians consider you a “proto-Hitler”?

History’s Value

Let’s zero in on the historical aspects, here. It is the undermining of history that leads to this sort of thinking, whether through deliberate obfuscation of facts or misplaced romanticism and nostalgia. Misunderstanding, whether deliberate or not, leads to the same result; ignorance is only slightly more excusable than malice. Here are some facts regarding controversial conflicts that games deliberately avoid addressing.

The Confederate States of America was a traitorous insurrection founded on slavery. The war was started by the CSA to preserve slavery. Slavery enabled the Confederacy’s armies to remain in the field, and accompanied them to the battlefront. An educated person cannot, in good faith, create a game about the Civil War that does not at least touch on slavery.

Just as slavery was critically important to the Confederacy’s ability to prosecute their war, so the Holocaust and other Nazi atrocities are inextricably linked with Germany’s part in the Second World War. Slave labor helped to fuel the Nazi war machine. Anti-semitism, both by driving out some of Germany’s most intelligent and productive citizens (see: Einstein, Albert) and by the huge diversion of resources and rolling stock necessary for the Holocaust, probably expedited Hitler’s defeat by months or years. An educated person cannot, in good faith, create a game about the European Theatre of WWII without at least mentioning the real consequences of Nazi ideology.

And yet: most games about the Civil War or WWII don’t do this. They not only fail to educate, they deliberately avoid facts that could be seen as controversial. It is, admittedly, difficult to tackle these sorts of issues. Nobody wants a game about the Holocaust, unless it’s about escaping from it or undermining it. Decent human beings are not interested in some kind of Eichmann Simulator, and people who are interested should not be allowed to have it. Still, there are ways to educate players about the more troubling aspects of our past without forcing them to play-act war crimes.

Take the Pacific Theatre of WWII, which is terribly underrepresented as a historical setting in AAA games, was one of the most brutal conflicts ever, and full of both American and Japanese war crimes. Perhaps that lack of moral clarity is why developers prefer to turn to Europe. It’s a shame. I’d rather enjoy fighting over the Kokoda Trail or in the Battle of Shanghai  – as opposed to invading Normandy for the umpteenth time. There are complicated questions of morality and race here. What do you do when your comrades gun down unarmed prisoners? Such a game could educate players on issues of race, as well. What if the player was a Japanese-American interpreter? There’s so much to work with in history that has been left untapped.
The selected unit is the 1st SS Panzer Division Leibstandarte SS 'Adolf Hitler'.

The selected unit is the 1st SS Panzer Division Leibstandarte SS ‘Adolf Hitler’. There are no swastikas in Unity of Command, either.

The Symbols

Let’s circle back around to the Confederate Flag and the swastika and their ilk. Do these symbols add meaning and value?

Well, yes. From a game developer’s perspective, symbols have value, even in the hatred they inspire. One of the main draws of games with a World War II setting is the chance to slay Nazis. Players know that the swastika is a symbol of evil. It reminds us of Nazi ideology and its resultant bloodbaths and atrocities. This principle applies to other forms of media, as well. Tarantino’s last two films (Django Unchained and Inglourious Basterds) rely heavily upon it.

There’s a negative argument in favor of including these symbols, too. Look at what happens in their absence. In Paradox’s WWII Hearts of Iron series, there are no swastikas. There is no mention of the Holocaust or war crimes or massacres. The end result is to suck the morality out of the game. The Nazis become just another nation to play. The Waffen-SS are portrayed not as murderous thugs, but as elite supertroops. In Hearts of Iron III, the tutorial is narrated by Hitler. This is the logical end-result of the Paradox mentality: games that run so far away from history that they become divorced from reality in a disturbing way. Mentioning something like the Holocaust becomes seen as sour grapes and responded to with accusations of “whining” or “that’s not what this game is about!”

Even when media effectively claims a historical setting but fails to include the relevant symbols, things can feel a little defanged. (Remember the idiotic doubled-armed Nazi salute used in the first Captain America movie? I’m sorry, the HYDRA salute.) I won’t wade into the controversy over the Wolfenstein games in Germany here, but similar thinking can be applied.

Of course, there are also games that traffic in and appropriate these symbols to cover for their own creative and narrative failings – with no sign of the victims of said evil. This is part of why the most recent Wolfenstein title was such a breath of fresh air: the Nazis weren’t just bad because they put swastikas everywhere. They did the awful things that Nazis do. This ups the narrative stakes and educates players. It’s good for everyone!

There are limits to this line of thinking. Most symbols are ambiguous, and some are basically unimportant. The swastika and the Battle Flag are uniquely charged with meaning. We can’t pat ourselves on the back for including the Italian flag in a game because of Italian war crimes. But we can say “hey, wouldn’t a strategy game based on the second Italo-Ethiopian war be cool? Let’s make it, and be sure to include the use of chemical weapons – it’d be disrespectful to whitewash history for the sake of a modicum of mainstream acceptability.”

Well, the trains guy doesn't like me, but at least I'm on good terms with Hitler.

Well, the trains guy doesn’t like me, but at least I’m on good terms with Hitler.

Myopic Accuracy, Educational Dissonance

Above is an interesting screenshot from the upcoming Decisive Campaigns game. How should I feel about having a “Good” relationship with the most infamous man of the 20th century? Um, probably not great! And that’s good! If you’re playing as a German officer in WWII, you should feel the dissonance of winning for evil. Only STAVKA-OKH has managed this.

Yes, historical wargames have an obligation to remind the player that war isn’t a game. Historical shooters have an obligation to teach us why we’re shooting. War is as much about moral choices as it is strategic or tactical ones. This is something the Total War games (which I’m generally not a fan of) do surprisingly well, in oblique ways. When a city is captured, the player must choose whether to Raze, Loot, or Occupy it. There are benefits and downsides to all three options, but it is made clear that by clicking the “raze” and “loot” buttons, you are effectively condoning the murder of civilians. I could never bring myself to do anything but Occupy, but the fact that the choice was there made me morally aware. It helped educate me about the stakes and consequences of conflict.

When you win Sid Meier’s Antietam or Ultimate General: Gettysburg, you should have a sour taste in your mouth, because you haven’t just won a battle, you have defended and extended the practice of human bondage. This isn’t preaching or moralizing – this is accurate. Not the myopic accuracy that enables a game like War in the East to model every aspect of the Nazi war machine, every piddling variant of Panzer, without acknowledging the monstrous actions of both sides of the conflict (and the flag that flew over one of them).

Yes, seeing the Confederate Battle Flag or the Nazi swastika right there on my screen makes me uncomfortable. It should. It makes me question my actions and contemplate history and morality in this video game. That’s good! That’s education. I’m advocating for cognitive dissonance, to push people to think, even though they could just be entertained.
It might not always be the best design decision – but it is the only morally viable one.

After The End: CK2’s Best Mod?

the west

The year is 2667, and North America is just starting to recover from the end of the world. Feudal societies and strange religions dominate the continent in its neo-medieval age. This is the setting for After The End, one of Crusader Kings II’s most popular and comprehensive total conversions.

Inspired by (among other things) the 1960 post-apocalyptic scifi novel A Canticle for LeibowitzAfter The End welds a convincing Fallout-style America to the Crusader Kings 2 mechanics. The initial release included only the East Coast, with the modding team gradually working west. After a surprisingly short period of development, Calfornia is playable and the entire map is filled out, from Bermuda to Seattle, the Arctic to Guatemala.


The actual event that caused the downfall of the United States 600 years before After The End is only hinted at – it could be plague, or nuclear war or something else. What is known is that it massively depopulated the continent and set civilization back thousands of years. Only by the 2600s is the recovery truly underway.

After The End’s developers milk their fantastical setting as far as they can, filling the map with great flavor. My personal favorite is the work they put into the religions. The various forms of Christianity form a plurality, of course, though with some tweaks and oddities (ask Pope Praised-Be, who reigns in St. Louis, for more details). But the fracturing of society means that more fringe beliefs have exploded in popularity. There are the Rust Cultists, who scavenge for old-world relics and prize the technology of the ancients. Consumerism is a radical new belief whose adherents worship the Almighty Dollar and tirelessly perform the ritual of Shopping.


My favorite might be Americanism, which worships the Founding Fathers as gods and includes the President as a sort of democratically-elected Freedom Pope. Players who run for president can spend their ducats to hold opinion polls and launch attack ads dispatch Attack Heralds to demonize their opponents.


Also quite fun to play are the Atomicists of the Southwest, who hold holy the relics of the nuclear age. Those who receive the Blessing of the Atom earn the respect of their brothers in the faith – and also, probably, radiation sickness.


Of course, it’s not just the former United States featured in the mod. In Canada, Ursuline Catholics, High Church Anglicans and neo-First Nations groups like the Haida battle for dominance, all the while contending with the piratical Brethren in their lairs along the coast of the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Mexico mostly follows the mystical Catholic-derived Sagrado Corazon religion, though neo-Aztec beliefs are spreading in the south.


Part of the fun is something that Europeans have enjoyed about CK2 for some time: digging around, finding your home county, and turning Podunk City into the capital of a sprawling empire.As an example, my home of Oklahoma is a divided, multicultural land, with white Texan and Dixie cultures ruled over by resurgent Comanche and Cherokee tribespeople. Local sports teams are often reincarnated as mercenary bands. Look out for the cavalry charges of the Brave Men of Atlanta, or the California-based Cult of the Apple.


The mod is loaded with easter eggs and references from American history, pop culture and folklore. This Reddit post compiles many of the best, and players can almost always spot a new tidbit of local flavor. Look for Kate Beaton in the Maritimes, the Always Sunny crew in Philadelphia, and Lovecraft references galore in Occultist New England.

This wonderful, engaging setting is welded on to CK2’s already excellent gameplay. The latest versions of the mod take advantage of the new Horse Lords mechanics, with Tribal and Nomadic governments roaming the northern Great Plains, and Silk Road-style trade routes splayed across the continent.

There are a few flaws and bugs that occasionally crop up, as you’d expect for a mod that is constantly in development. Still, I can’t help but be honest about this: I have genuinely enjoyed After The End, and plan on playing it quite a bit over the coming weeks. If you’re interested, the places to check out are the CK2 modding forum thread and the Github repository.

Expect to see After The End streamed on our Twitch sometime soon!

War Thunder: Newbie Diaries

War Thunder

I played War Thunder for the first time on Monday.

I’d always looked askance at the Gaijin title as a false claimant to the throne, particularly when Ground Forces was announced as a competitor to World of Tanks. WoT has always been close to my heart, despite being terrible at it. I remember playing in the Beta days, when the premium Hotchkiss was an invulnerable killing machine in the lower tiers. It’s hard to shake the affection, even after realizing that without a crutch I am truly terrible.

Still. War Thunder is looking better and a clean slate has its advantages. Maybe I won’t tank (ha ha ha ha!) my win rate as I have in World of Tanks? I played the tutorial ages ago. Let’s see how this game is nowadays.


This machine doesn’t look exactly sturdy.

Looks like I picked the Japanese tree when I was doing my tutorial run. That’s Japan’s entry-level fighter, the Ki-10. It makes sense – when I think of Japanese aircraft, I think of the Zero and Oscar – relatively light aircraft with extreme maneuverability. In flight sims I’m typically pretty bad at boom-and-zoom, so nimble dogfighters appeal to me.

Anyways. Let’s hit the “To Battle!” button and see what happens.

Red or Blue?

Friends? Friends??

Maybe I should have given the tutorials another playthrough. I’m not sure what side I’m on: Red or Blue. Is Red always the enemy? That’s how it is in WoT, but this game is different in a lot of subtle ways. I make a snap decision. The Reds must be friendly, because there’s so many more of them visible.

This is the wrong choice.

I chase a Blue airplane around, slowly acclimating to the controls and missing a lot of shots. Then a Red Russian I-15 biplane opens fire and relieves me of my misconception about who the bad guys are. After a few minutes of dogfighting, he kills my pilot and the Ki-10 drifts into the ground. Scratch one me.

In my second action, I dive from high altitude and put a few bullets into an OS2U seaplane before misjudging my speed, smashing into it and killing us both. I do not get any screenshots of this shameful display. Scratch two mes.

Third life. I stay at medium altitude and speed this time, looking for targets of opportunity. Target spotted! It’s another I-15, maybe the same one. My Ki-10 manages to slip behind him and score a few hits with my 7.7mm machine guns. The I-15 dives to escape me, cutting it very close to the ground – too close. There’s an unusually tall treebank in the way. The I-15’s ailerons twitch as it tries to pull left for just an instant before it smashes through the branches and into the ground. It’s credited to me; I may have damaged his control surfaces. Who cares! I have my first kill!

I-15 Crash

You can just barely see the wreck.

And the match ends. I spend a moment idly thinking about how planes with radial engines look like normal aircraft with condoms on as the score screen comes up.

I click on a bunch of research and unlock things. I think I might have screwed up – I use almost all of my “Golden Eagles”, which are apparently the premium currency. I started with about 100. I now have 10. Oh well!

I use my research points to unlock the next tier of Japanese fighter, the A5M. I’m very excited to try my new baby out! Next battle, please!

Burning A5M


My new baby burns merrily about thirty seconds into the new battle. Good night, sweet prince. It’s back to the Ki-10s with me. But with a little bit of experience under my belt…



… things are getting…


The Ki-10 is really quite decent down at the treetops here.

…somewhat easier.

I have to take an aside here and praise the control scheme and realism level in Arcade mode. The aircraft all have individual flight characteristics without a punishing level of realism. There are no flat spins or unpredictable stalls, just balls-to-the-wall dogfighting. I can appreciate an absurdly realistic flight model as much as the next dork, but this is straight fun.

Well, that’s settled. I like the planes. Let’s try tanks.

Tutorial For Me, A Baby

What is a “tank”

Now, as mentioned, I have been playing a decent amount of World of Tanks lately (I just reached the T-43 on the Russian medium tree). I’d heard that some aspects of War Thunder’s simulation were more realistic and fleshed out and that the playstyle was more deliberate. This turned me off a bit, honestly. I enjoy my slow games (look for a review of Rule The Waves coming soon!) but I enjoy these F2P windowed-mode games because I can dip in for a bit of twitchy action and move on. “World of Tanks, but slower” seems, well, worse.

Thankfully, War Thunder robbed me of my preconceptions. After playing through the surprisingly-decent tutorial and being wowed by the physics, gunnery and overall feel, I take my dinky BT-5 into my first Arcade Tank battle.



I crank her up to full speed, travelling across a grassy field from our spawn to the town in the center of the map, and… oh my god. My tank can drift. This is fucking hot. I’m starting to see the appeal of this physics model. A couple of minutes are spent driving in circles and seeing if I can roll my Russian tin can.

Eventually, I slalom into town like a jackass and take up position north of what I think is some kind of capture point. A panzer shows up and shoots the hell out of me.

I'm in trouble.

I’m in trouble.

The Panzer IV knocks me out and I am subjected to some Disturbing Imagery.

When you’re knocked out in War Thunder, you get an “instant replay” cam that follows the enemy shell in slow motion as it impacts your tank. The camera then gives you an “xray” view of the inner workings of your tank, showing the shell’s penetration point and the damage it does to individual components and crew members.

Xray 1Xray 2

There is something gruesomely enjoyable about the x-ray cam, seeing those shell fragments rip through the crew. I remember reading, years ago, about Italian tanks in WWII. Their crews called them “iron coffins.” They were built with rivets instead of welding. When the tank took a hit, even a nonpenetrating one, the rivets would shear off the plates and bounce around inside the crew compartment like bullets. After the battle, someone would open up one of these apparently “abandoned” machines, which might have little or no visible external damage, and find the crew inside turned into ground beef.

In any case, I don’t ruminate on this for long. Taking a more cautious approach into town, I sidescrape alongside one of the buildings, leaving just my turret and a bit of angled armor visible to the avenue of approach of the enemy.

Dead PzIv

Panzer IV goes down.

A Panzer IV and a Panzer 35(t) start peeking over the hill facing the town. Their shots bounce, mostly. The Panzer IV gets close and engages me from behind a pile of rubble. My driver is knocked unconcious: I have to stand and fight. I’ve figured out my gun handling a little better. First the IV, then the 35(t) go down.

I feel like a hero. Eventually, an M2A4 infiltrates the town and takes me out, ending the battle. Not bad for a first engagement, right?


If it wasn’t obvious, I very much enjoyed my first few bouts in War Thunder. The air and ground Arcade modes were easy to pick up and genuinely rewarding, with quick progress through the research trees. The community seems less toxic than World of Tanks’, as well. Give it a shot, if you haven’t, and make sure to join the discussion in our Game of the Month thread.