Ancient Trader

Who doesn’t love rock/paper/scissors? The gradual build up of tension, the misdirection and sleight of hand, the elaborate strategies and sudden reversals. What better choice of traditional game could there be to base a combat system around?

Placed loosely in the strategy category of the marketplace, Ancient Trader feels like Sid Meier’s Pirates! If it was a board game. Equipped with only a sailing ship and bizarre clothing, you head out to sea in search of the Ancient Guardian. It’s not entirely clear what the Ancient Guardian is, except that it eats sailors and is full of treasure. Presumably it’s also insanely dangerous. There must be easier ways to make a living than trying to kill it with playing cards. I’m pretty sure there’s a reason the old Gambit card-flinging trick didn’t appear in Moby Dick.

Yes, playing cards, more or less. As you take turns moving around the world map, trading goods between various ports, you will frequently run into miscellaneous sea monsters or fellow piratical ne’er-do-wells. Combat with these foes boils down to rock/paper/scissors with cards. You have three cards representing your attacks, and the enemies have two or three or their own. Each card has a numerical value, which you can upgrade at ports in exchange for hard currency, and the highest number wins.

The rock/paper/scissors element comes in with each type of card getting a +2 bonus over another: green beats blue, blue beats red, red beats green. The categorisation of the game as ‘strategy’ might lead you to believe there’s some depth to this combat system but it’s all illusory; it mostly comes down to just choosing the appropriate colour. There’s also a frustrating degree of luck involved; if the enemy leads with a card that you can’t counter effectively, then you’re immediately put at a disadvantage for the rest of the battle. It’s an adequate combat system, but it’s a little too simple and it means that the key to success is just buying upgrades as quickly as possible to ensure you have stronger cards than everyone else.

Don’t make me go baccarat on your ass

To that end you’ll want to trade, and fast. When you start a game the map is mostly concealed by cloud. It doesn’t take long to discover some ports though, and that’s when you can stock up on whatever is cheapest and run it to somewhere that pays better money for it. Not a deep system either, and it’s streamline for maximum ease, with each port’s asking price for cargo displayed right there beside it in huge digits that must terrify the citizens.

On top of the standard cargo, ports have a couple of other functions. Each port sells upgrades to one of your cards, and these are essential to success. The faster you can buy upgrades the more chance you have of surviving your travels around the map. Fall behind in upgrading and enemies will continuously rob you, keeping you still further behind.

From time to time someone at port will offer you a mission, perhaps to run cargo to another town within a time limit or to exterminate a particular sea monster. These can be a handy source of cash, but delivery missions can be infuriating if enemies attack you constantly en route to steal your money and miscellaneous goods. Maybe that’s why my pizza is never on time.

I have the power to disperse fog! I am a Planeteer!

Some ports also sell special items that don’t do anything in themselves but when combined reveal the location of the Ancient Guardian. Track down the beast, beat it to death with your cards, and the game is over. In principle this is the aim of the whole game, but in practice it feels like almost an afterthought. Having spent so long running errands, buying upgrades and fighting off predatory sirens, smacking down the Ancient Guardian with your maxed out cards can feel like a formality. I feel a bit sorry for the poor beast, going to all that trouble to build a terrifying reputation only be slain by the speediest salesman with the best Magic: The Gathering collection.

For a game based around showing your enemies some cards, Ancient Trader has a remarkable sense of style. The setting is half 17th century European colonisation of the New World, and half fantasy. All of this comes across in the old treasure map style of the visuals. Stark brown and red hand-drawn beasts from the margins of medieval maps writhe across a background of age-yellowed parchment. Well, I say ‘writhe’ but I mean ‘glide statically’. For all the attention lavished upon the visual presentation, the game contains basically no animation. In a way this fits the theme and doesn’t seem too out of place when you’re moving from space to space as though on a board, but it didn’t take long before my eyes glazed over and I stopped paying attention to anything except the colours of the cards at the bottom of the screen. Still, presentation is one of Ancient Trader’s strongest points and probably the feature that pulls in the punters. I know it’s what snagged my attention. Well, that and I’m a sucker for games about pirates. 

The people of Ruby are screwed if that 6 blows over

On its lower difficulty settings, the game is painfully easy. Your rivals rarely even attempt to obtain the special items to find the Guardian, so there’s really very little danger of losing. I find that the hardest setting is the place to be. Enemies will be a bit too strong and your rivals will be unrelentingly ferocious, constantly attacking you to steal your precious funds, but it’s the only way of preventing the game being an effortless frolic to victory.

The problem is that once you know how to play and how to go about winning, one game plays out much like the next. There are a handful of maps but aside from the locations of the towns it makes very little difference which one you use. Having an option for randomly generated maps could have made a world of difference in giving Ancient Trader some longevity but, as it is, one game on each map is quite enough for the game to wear out its welcome.

It’s a shame; the charming presentation and the novel offer of lightly strategic exploration have promise. Sadly the repetitiveness, the simplicity of the combat and the lack of challenge once you understand how to work the system make this Ancient Trader run aground a few hours too soon.

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Miasma & Miasma 2

It’s years since the PS1 was at its height, but even now I keep going back to Front Mission 3. Partly that’s because I haven’t seen everything in its branching stories yet, and partly it’s because I haven’t found another game like it since. I’ve played other turn-based strategies, turn-based RPGs, and other turn-based games that are based on turns (or perhaps turning bases). I never really took to Advance Wars, Disgaea made me sob with boredom, and Agarest: Generations of War was fun but confusing. I never expected that it would be an Xbox Live Indie Game that would remind me most of my beloved Front Mission 3. Enter Miasma and its recent sequel, Miasma 2.

All games of this sort need some form of implausible plot. Here it’s the domination of the world by a mind-controlling corporation called Vilhelm Industries, or VI (which launched me back to 1998 with every mention of ‘VI soldiers’. Something about ‘VI’ ticks the ‘VR’ box in my brain. Damn you, legacy of Hideo Kojima). As usual in any evil corporation/government/empire situation, there is a rebel group controlled by the player. I always think Shinra and Avalanch, but there are at least ten thousand other examples. VI manages to be all of the above evil bodies in one, so it needs a particularly vigorous rebellion to offset it. What it gets is the adventures of a bald man, a serious man and a woman who tends to wear a business suit for no reason, spread across two games.

Standing next to a red barrel? Have you never played a game before? Amateur.

The original Miasma had been on my radar for a while, and the recent release of its sequel prompted me to go back and buy it, because I have a thing about playing/watching series in chronological order. I encountered it quite early in my Xbox indie dabbling, but was put off by the combination of the price and the inaccessibility of the demo. Being new to indie games, I didn’t want to gamble great wodges of points on games I might hate, and turn-based strategy games don’t lend themselves to Microsoft’s prescribed eight-minute window for demos. I backed away but kept it in mind for a revisit. Fortunately, that dilemma is gone now. Although the demo still gives barely any idea of the game, the point-wodgery has been cut down to just 80 MSP. That’s no gamble at all. As it turned out, both of the Miasma games have a lot going for them.

The first game, Miasma: Citizens of Free Thought sees an amnesiac protagonist leading a cell of the rebel group CiFT (an acronym that doesn’t quite work – Citizens…if Free Thought? …into Free Thought? …ignoring Free Thought?). The cell has been cut off from the rest of the organisation and they have to kind of make things up as they go along. The combat, which forms the bulk of the game, is turn-based but immediate. When you give a character an instruction to move, attack, or use an item or ability, they do so immediately but no one else moves. Then after you’ve done everything you want to do, all your enemies move. You get a damage bonus for attacking from the side or behind, and periodically you can use abilities like healing and disabling EMP pulses. It’s not complicated, but it does require a bit of thought to make sure your surprisingly fragile characters aren’t wiped out.

Four pellets to the face, and one pellet pops out to buy milk.

The sequel, Miasma 2: Freedom Uprising, changes this up a bit. It goes for the turn-based-but-simultaneous approach, where you give all your orders, the enemy commander gives all their orders, and then everyone moves at once. This took some getting used to after the first game, but it works well enough. It’s certainly more challenging, because you can’t guarantee that an enemy won’t move out of range or do something to counter your attack, like shooting you in the face while you’re still heaving your sniper rifle to your shoulder. It also means you can’t focus down enemies in the same way as previously. You can’t hit a mech or tank with everything you’ve got at once to take it out before it can act. In a way, this seemed to remove a lot of the strategy because too much depended on luck. In other games that use this system, like Flotilla, it can be very tactical because it requires you to try and cover all the angles. Here, though, you’re always hugely outnumbered so there’s no way of preparing for multiple eventualities.

I have mixed feelings about the altered combat system, then. Miasma 2 does have distinct improvements elsewhere though. The other component of both games, between combat, is conversation. In Miasma, this is handled through dialogue boxes against a slowly drifting shot of a building. I was fine with this – again, it reminded me of Front Mission 3 and its long text conversations in static rooms – but I can see why many people might not be, particularly those who aren’t wizened old game fogeys distrustful of any technology that speaks aloud. (Skynet!)

I like to imagine those options are all being shouted simultaneously.

Miasma 2 replaces this with a more palatable first-person wander around CiFT’s base, giving you the option to talk to whoever you choose, in whatever order you prefer. You can choose to chew the fat or just get down to business sorting out their upgrades. It’s a pleasant change of pace from the combat sections, and certainly more engaging than the static conversations of the first game. Having said that, the developers could do with working on their writing skills. When a character says almost out of the blue, “Hey, will you go to bed with me?” it’s more comical than emotional or interesting. It’s also a little jarring after having a near-identical (though actually better written) conversation with the same character in the first game.

The second game also suffers being almost continuously glitchy. Both games have their share of glitches, but while the Miasma has the odd one here and there, Miasma 2 is riddled with them. Characters models vanishing so you have to guess where they are, an enemy tank spawning in the same location as a friendly tank so the two merge and you effectively lose one of your most powerful units. A multitude of other oddities, too.

“I can’t shoot them, the ground isn’t red!”

This is symptomatic of the biggest problem with Miasma 2. It feels like the developers over-reached themselves. They clearly had ambitious ideas for improving on the first game, and while some of those ideas paid off, the price was functionality. That’s not to say Miasma 2 is bad or broken, but it is far too buggy and its increased interactivity depends too much on writing that isn’t up to the job. That’s why, advancements or not, I recommend the original Miasma over the sequel.

The Miasma games have kind of a Mass Effect phenomenon going on. The first game is slower and wordier than the sequel, but it’s also more competently executed. The second is more ambitious but maybe can’t quite pull off everything it aimed for, and whether its modified combat system is an improvement or not will depend on your taste. Regardless, both games are good, and worth playing if you have any interest in turn-based semi-RPGs. They aren’t long, but at 80 Microsoft points each they’re long enough. If you don’t like turn-based grid battles, these games might not be up your street. Even if you do, be prepared to humour their glaring flaws.

There was an old man from Flotilla, who looked too much like a chinchilla…

I am a tactical dunce.

I can just about battle through the early stages of a turn-based strategy like Advance Wars but fall quite dramatically on my comically contorted face as soon as the enemy commanders stop taking to the field blindfolded and hung over. Don’t even get me started on real-time strategies. I got about three or four missions into Red Alert before I started crying tears of mortal terror and burning shame. Only last year, Dawn of War kicked my ass with a boot the size of a small cottage. If I had been left in command of the Light Brigade, their charge would have plunged them off a cliff before even leaving camp.

There’s a reason I’m telling you this. I want you to understand just how inept a tactician I am so that you’ll understand the magnitude of my meaning when I say Flotilla makes me feel like I’m Ender.

You begin the game as an experienced captain of a tiny flotilla (of course) of two spacefaring warships. You have only seven months to live before a mysterious disease/parasite/exploding moose finally saps the last of your strength/eats the last of your spleen/showers you in intestinal moosery. It’s not clear what’s going on, except that you will be dead.

As a bold space explorer and/or pirate you want to have a final few adventures before the end, so you take your pair of destroyers out into the wild vastness of space once more. This is the back story, and it’s really of no importance other than providing an excuse for your encounters and justifying a limit to the number of them you can have. A full Flotilla adventure usually runs to around the 30-60 minute mark, but they’re randomly generated so it’s easy to replay whenever you’re in the mood.

Flotilla comes in two parts. One is the framing bit, where you select planets from a map of space and speed your ships over to them to read an often silly encounter. Sometimes a haughty royalist deer will deny you entry to his people’s territory. Sometimes a crazed hippo will blindly open fire on you, or shady penguin crime lords will seek your head as payback for disrupting their operations. It’s all a bit Douglas Adams, and it’s quite charming as long as you get in the spirit.

'Elp me, guvna! Yer me only 'ope!

The meat of the game jars with this a bit. Defy the haughty deer, defend against the hippo, and stare down the penguins – battle must ensue. This is where the game’s subtitle, ‘Orbital Battleship Maneuvers’, comes into play. Unlike the adventuring parts, the battles are serious, strategic affairs that play out in stark orange against the depths of space, full of gauges, trajectory arcs and flat plane grids.

When I first played the trial version of Flotilla, this was what put me off. I played a one-off skirmish, and the whole thing was so confusing that I deleted the demo and barely gave it another thought. The problem is that Flotilla doesn’t explain itself very well. It’s actually quite simple once you realise what’s going on, but to a non-strategic person with only the eight-minute trial period to work it out, it might as well have been a thousand graphs of insect mating statistics for all the appeal it had.

It was only months later, when someone on a forum mentioned loving it, that I went back to give it another try. Armed with a little foreknowledge about the key bits of combat, I found I really enjoyed it.

The adventure sections mostly just serve to get you into battle, along with the odd non-combat incident that gives you chance to gain more ships or trade some upgrades. The aim in each battle is to eliminate the opposing fleet, but it isn’t as simple as just landing hits on them. These engagements are turn-based but simultaneous – you give orders to your fleet, the enemy commander does the same, then all ships carry out their orders simultaneously for thirty seconds in slow, balletic near-silence.

This unusual format isn’t the only thing you have to cope with; orientation of ships is vitally important, and can decide whether yours cruise away victorious or get ripped apart. Every ship is heavily armoured on the front and top, but very lightly armoured at the back and underneath. They don’t all have the same weapons though, and some have the advantage of range while others can rip right through your armour.

True to the idea of space combat, ships don’t just power forward; they make a quick shove for momentum then spin and roll as directed, in order to present their strongest defence to the enemy.

That guy's rear and bottom are taking a pounding. Ho ho. Ahem.

To win battles in Flotilla, you must predict how your opponents will move, how fast and how far, which of your ships they will shoot at, and manoeuvre to attack their weak spots while not exposing your own.  Baiting them into moving the way you want is an effective strategy, but a risky one. More than once I’ve lost ships just by underestimating the speed of a beam frigate. Flotilla requires some thought and a little luck.

When things do work out, and you manage to obliterate the assorted anthropomorphic animals that want you dead, Flotilla hits its peak. I have had some really awful battles where I was torn apart in a couple of rounds, but I’ve also had some spectacular victories. It’s deeply satisfying to face down a fleet of five powerful warships with just two tiny destroyers, and emerge victorious with not a single casualty. This is why Flotilla makes me feel like Ender. Despite my traditionally appalling strategy skills, something in this game makes sense to me.

For people who aren’t very experienced or comfortable with strategy games, I can heartily recommend Flotilla. Don’t be put off by the illusion of complexity; once you realise that it’s all about rotating your ships to keep them safe, the whole thing becomes easy to understand. Those of a tactical bent might find the game a little easy, but there is a hardcore mode that I haven’t dared attempt, and I think the lighthearted tone of the encounters and the shortness of each complete game makes it a lot of fun for an occasional play regardless of expertise. I don’t often recommend indie games priced at 400 points, but Flotilla has earned it.

You won’t spend all day playing it, but you might find you come back every few weeks for a new adventure, and to kick a smug deer’s ass one more time.