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GenCon 2014 – Paradox Talks Runemaster

Cyrano grabbed a few minutes with Troy Goodfellow of Paradox at GenCon, and had a chat about Runemaster.

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Paradox Interactive isn’t just some software company: not to wargamers, and not to me. This, after all, is the band of Swedes that took a nigh-unplayable board game and turned it into one of the most successful strategic wargame franchises in PC gaming. This is the company that created the greatest medieval soap opera simulator in the history of everything and layered it on top of a robust conflict engine that lets me (and, apparently, some of the contributors to this very site) fancy themselves rulers of obscure kingdoms. And this is the company that soon (never soon enough, mind) will release one of the most anticipated World War II strategy games to come along in quite some time.

This is a company that has nurtured the wargame like its own child and kept alive the grognard fire during the harsh winter of console ascendancy.

So why, then, am I standing in the Paradox Interactive booth at GenCon talking to Troy Goodfellow about a game that involves the participation of men, elves, dwarves, and other fantasy races in the coming of Ragnarok?

And, let me say, talking to Troy Goodfellow about Ragnarok is weird in and of itself. He’s a widely-published games critic, co-founder and co-host of the “Three Moves Ahead” weekly podcast, and overall fanatic for the history of the Great Patriotic War. What, then, does he think he and the Paradox team are bringing to Runemaster, the up-coming turn-based, tactical RPG set in a world confronting the Norse eschaton?

The answer, reassuringly, is the ability to simulate people killing each other in various ways. OK, ok…Goodfellow, now an assistant producer at Paradox, and I spoke about other things…

Like the Clausewitz engine, for example. This is the system, first built for Europa Universalis III in 2007 that’s lurking under Runemaster’s hood. He said, early in his tenure with Paradox, he was invited to corporate and given a quick run through an earlier version of the game. He asked what it was running on and, when given the answer, admitted to being shocked.

Based on my own plays through the alpha of the game available at GenCon, I think most users will be shocked too. The game is in the family of Heroes of Might and Magic in that there’s an overmap where heroes are minted, armies raised, and experience gathered. It’s worth noting in passing that the game does not include city building or development. Heroes get their armies the old-fashioned way: at barracks.

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The map is described as procedurally generated which *editorial comment follows* can mean different things to different people and the real value of which can only be determined by actually playing the game *editorial comment ends*  One thing the 3D map certainly is, even at this early stage, is lovely.  Unlike HOMM and the other games to which it will be compared, Runemaster feels there’s more space to make trouble in.

When armies collide matters get a good deal more intimate as the combat can be resolved on a tactical map that uses a hex grid to regulate movement and combat.  The eternal challenge of any game that tries to blend the tactical with the strategic is making sure that the former doesn’t take too long or involve too much tedium, causing players to retreat to their starting places or generally make the exercise tedious.

The tactical maps I had a chance to see were generally bigger than what I’ve seen in Runemaster’s competitors, but nothing near the sweeping fields of the recent iterations of the Total War series. I also thought the selection of mythical beasts and beings was very nice and they were well animated.

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How Paradox manages to draw all of this out of the Clausewitz engine is one of those things that makes people like me look on coders much like ancient man must have looked at his shamans, and even Goodfellow admitted he doesn’t know exactly how they do it, but he admires what they’ve done.

What he has done is offer a fair amount of input into both the story of the game and the quests that move it forward. Given the part of the world Paradox calls home, one suspects Ragnarok might even be a topic of barroom conversation for the relatively small (8-10 member) production team. Goodfellow said the story of Runemaster is set at a time when Ragnarok has gone from concept to imminence.  Players are asked to choose between allying themselves with the Aesir and Order who wish to delay — or perhaps even prevent — the end times and those who see it has an opportunity to bring about worthwhile change, or at least to get themselves a stake in the new order of the worlds. I will note in passing that there’s much here in common with the meta-story of Google’s ridiculously popular Ingress node-hacking game, except with Norse gods instead of XM.

Goodfellow said a lot of effort has already gone into making sure the quests make sense — he’s involved in the process of localization into English — but also that they stay true to the tone that Paradox is trying to set for the whole of the game.

And then there’s that combat thing. Goodfellow said flatly that combat is something that Paradox knows how to simulate, and in lots of ways. It knows how to balance systems and how to fine tune even good ones to make them better or more challenging — two things that are not necessarily identical. I didn’t get to spend a lot of time with the tactical combat system, but based on other accounts and their multimedia offerings, I’m hopeful that there can be the sort of depth in the combat system that Paradox has built into its other games. More than anything, though, given the company’s confidence in that area, it gives it the ability to really stretch into things like art, theme, character building, and quest construction that will let the role playing side of the enterprise prosper.

The game, expected in the first part of 2015, is to be released on the PC, Mac, and PS4, the latter announced just before GenCon.

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One of my favorite parts of my conversation with Goodfellow was discussing his views on the long-term viability of the PC as a gaming platform. He and I both lived through the days when PC gamers were told our days were numbered and it’s clearly with no small measure of satisfaction that he says that PCs are a space in which Paradox — and gaming generally — is going to stay. He pointed to the diversity of offerings — in terms of price point, theme, and subject — as well as the strength of digital delivery as reasons for PC software remaining as successful as it has been.

With Hearts of Iron IV in prospect, knowing that Paradox is staying in the PC space is reassuring indeed…even if we might have to make room there for a few elves.


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