Tracer Rounds – My History of 4X Gaming
Rearranging history, one X at a time ~
Anyone that pays even half-conscious attention to GrogHeads knows that I’m a sucker for a good 4X game. Heck, most of the time, I’m a sucker for a bad 4X game. I can’t help it. They appeal to me in a way that no other kind of game can. And what’s odd, is that despite being a wargamer (albeit a bad one – another column for another time) it’s rare that I win 4X games by rolling over the world under my armored boot. There was one epic Civ2 game where I once played the Celts and conquered everything but maybe 1 city, and had every wonder you could build in the game in my clutches, but outside of that game about 15 years ago, I’ve rarely been the warmonger. (edit! I did conquer a bunch of the world the first time I played Venice with the Gods + Kings expansion to Civ5).
My love affair with 4X games predates the term, even. Alan Emrich is usually credited with coining the 4X term in 1993. My first foray into 4X gaming dates all the way back to 1983, with Dragon Magazine #77 and King of the Tabletop, a Tom Wham game about building your realm and crushing your neighbors. You had a “playing deck” full of critters you could recruit, along with cities, treasure, magic, and mines. You had another “land deck” full of lands you could draw to build your realm; and note to MtG players everywhere – the lands in KOTT way back in 1983 were swamps, forest, mountains, and plains (and deserts instead of islands, but go with it). You had mercenary characters to recruit, and monuments to build. Random events might bring on an earthquake or brushfire. And for a bunch of 6th-graders playing at lunchtime with each other, and occasionally their student teacher (here’s to you, Mr Blankenship!) it was a ton of fun.
For a kid who was already a multi-year veteran of wargames like Panzer Leader and SPI’s ModQuads, KOTT was the bomb-shizzle. In virtually every wargame, there are 2 kinds of victory conditions: kill people or occupy ground. In KOTT, not only were either of those options present, there were multiple options present, and all at the same time. You could amass prestige, build a Grand Muniment, or plow your buddy’s face into the gravel. At the same time! The artwork was typical Tom Wham cartoonishness, but very functional and fun. And it all played in a lunch hour, though occasionally a longer lunch hour.
It was several years before I really fell for another true 4X game. In between, I played a lot of RPGs, and built a lot of worlds as a wish-I-could-do-this-for-a-living RPG “writer” who threw together a LOT of ideas on an original 128k beige-box Mac back in the mid-80s. It was still world- and realm-building but not competitively as in a 4X game. The Black Arrow, Red Shield game included in the X10 module sort of scratched the in-between itch of RPG realm-building and wargaming. Similarly, Dragons of Glory (DL11) for the original DragonLance series did much the same thing. I had a foray into BattleTech in the late 80s that again included a lot of world-building, but not competitively so.
And then came the late stages of my time in College, when Civ 1 found its way onto my poor old overworked PowerBook 145B. There were many times that I found myself saying “one more turn… one more turn… Oh crap, the sun’s coming up.” We talk about the Civ series on the GrogCast (coming up in a week or so) and I don’t want to be overly repetitive, but essentially, I was hooked. Totally, completely, in-the-tank hooked. I’m a huge history buff, and the chance to shuffle the deck and rearrange, recreate, and rewrite history was just fantastic. I could choose what to build and how to build it. I got the hang of the relative dis/advantages of each of the civs you could play and how to make the most of them – trying to time their golden ages for maximum effect, which buildings had the best payoff for each, and which units were just bad-ass shit-kickers.
Since then, I’ve played every iteration of Civ there is, but I’ve still yearned for a good tabletop equivalent. I’ve even written about the challenge of mixing-and-matching what I like about different games into the “perfect” 4X tabletop game. I like the simplicity of the maps in Tiny Epic Kingdoms, but combat leaves you in a lurch, even if you win. I like the speed with which Eight-Minute Empire goes around the table, and the way in which the cards serve double-duty.
Obviously, I’m a sucker for a good Civ5 game, have covered both a base G+K game, as well as the Scramble for Africa scenario for GrogHeads. But really I’m looking for my own chance to control the arc of history, the destiny of millions through the eras, and the fortunes of the future for my peoples. I like being able to trace the developments of history as they flow through new history books from parallel universes.
And yet, I’m also more than willing to just build a darn cool city. One of the best features of 7 Wonders was summed up by a former co-worker of mine, who once said “who cares that I lost, look at the cool city I built!” You do something very similar with Dominion, too. Even when you don’t win, you still have a decent sense of accomplishment based on something you built, and that can be an accomplishment all its own.
The best of the 4X games are those that offer you multiple pathways to victory. 7 Wonders, and Civilization, and King of the Tabletop all do this quite well. Dominion and Tiny Epic Kingdoms not so much. Picking not only how to get there, but where you’re going, makes for a solid 4X game, and makes for the most enjoyable of the 4X games that I’ve played over the years. To me, it’s always been a perfect marriage between the basic battlefield prowess of a wargamer with the more expansive events that appeal to a history nut, along with the razor-thin balance of a good game design.
This week’s soundtrack:
I had something else in mind until a friend of mine started a drunk Facebook thread about how much he loves The Scorpions. Favorite Scorpions tune? Big City Nights, easy. Solid riff, excellent lead lines under the verse, expansive lyrics that bring the big 80s back to life, and a drummer (Herman Rarebell) who knows how to hold a fill just a perfect half-beat longer than anyone else, creating a coiled spring of tension just waiting to explode into the next part of the song (like right before the first chorus). Pure 80s hard rock magic.
Game that caught my eye:
While looking up the links for King of the Tabletop above, I was surprised to find out it’d been re-published as Kings & Things, which looks pretty darn cool. Now I’ve got another out of print game to chase down. Dammit!
What I’m doing this week when I should be playing games:
Cleaning up after Christmas. Yes, it’s MLK weekend and our Christmas tree is still up. Time to clean up. Eesh.
Wouldn’t it be cool if…
We all actually got along as well as Dr King imagined? People quit being assholes to each other for any reason, not least of which would be skin color? That people quit using skin color as an excuse or a vehicle for blame or any other discriminating factor?
This week’s quote:
We met a very interesting guy in the grocery store the other day – he was a WWII veteran of the 101st. While chatting with him, he joked about being airborne, and said “you don’t need a parachute to jump out of an airplane; you need a parachute to jump out of an airplane twice”.
Until Monday attacks us again… Bayonet 06, out!