5th best game of 2019: Age of Wonders: Planetfall

, | Game reviews

It’s been 25 years since I was captivated by Simtex’s Master of Orion and Master of Magic games.  Since then, no one has understood Simtex’s appeal to my imagination as well as Triumph Studios with their Age of Wonders series.  After wallowing luxuriantly in rich (if somewhat generic) fantasy, hammering away at their design like a dwarven smith banging on a mithril battle axe, they’ve pivoted to science fiction.  With Planetfall, they’ve given me everything I want in a 4X, but this time with robots, lasers, alien bugs, hovertanks, extradimensional threats from beyond the galaxy, all that jazz.

But this isn’t science fiction among the stars.  It’s planet-bound, and to Triumph’s credit, that’s clear in the name.  This is hoverboots-on-the-ground sci-fi in the tradition of Brian Reynolds’ Alpha Centauri, itself a vividly reimagined science fiction version of Sid Meier’s Civilization.  You won’t be mastering Orion because Orion is a star. You will instead be mastering Ringworld, Hyperion, Hoth, Pandora.  

And Triumph makes it look easy, because they understand how simple it is to make a great 4X.  Just put interesting units with interesting abilities in battles against interesting enemies for the interesting development of an interesting place.  That’s all there is to it. I mean, duh. Right?

Oh, is “interesting” too vague?  Fair enough. “Interesting” is one of those lazy words like “fun”.  I can just throw it out there and everyone will agree without even realizing it doesn’t mean anything.  Then it seems like I’ve made a point and we all nod agreeably. So let me elaborate by telling you how Triumph does manage “interesting”, in their previous games and especially in Planetfall.  They let me control the interaction among these things — units, enemies, development, places — by letting me choose among little bits and pieces, each with distinct personality. Interesting units with interesting abilities in battles against interesting enemies for the interesting development of an interesting place.

An attack that does 14 points of damage is not interesting.  But an attack that does 14 points of thermal damage because it’s a laser instead of a bullet is interesting.  Even more interesting is a thermal attack that does 14 points of damage and blinds an enemy so that its chance to hit is reduced by 40%.  And yet more interesting still is a powerful enemy robot that does a lot of damage, but it’s unable to actually hit anything with its accuracy reduced to 35%, so I just won a battle I might have otherwise lost.  Ready to go a step further? Because I won this battle, now I can add this territory to my colony, which gives my units extra armor that will help me survive my next encounter with powerful enemy robots that do a lot of damage.

Triumph takes a simple and uninteresting concept — 14 points of damage — and infuses it with meaningful detail, and furthermore gives this detail personality within the context of their rich (if somewhat generic) sci-fi.  The 14 points of thermal damage come from the Rapid Laser Cannons mounted on my domesticated tryannosaurs, which can blind their targets because they’ve been fitted with Flash Modules unlocked by my research into Crystalline Technology.  Oops, now they cost more Cosmite, so I’ve got to build a Cosmite Research Center in my colony, and I should consider securing the Spatial Rift in Ebony Cauldron to the south. Uh-oh, here come some Dvar space miners with flamethrowers. They’ve got thermal resistance.  Best laid plans, and all that. I’ll be glad to have that extra armor from the special alloys in the Starship Maintenance Bay at the Skyline Space Portal I just annexed.

This is the stuff of any good strategy game.  Decisions with personality that fit into a broader gameplay context.  That 14 points of damage in the tactical battles reverberates out, affecting which units I build, how I put them together, what I build in my cities, which territories I conquer, who I fight.  And then vice versa. All those decisions reverberate inward to the act of inflicting those 14 points of damage. It’s a symphony of reverberating detail.

Detail wants to sprawl, and Triumph Studios knows if they can’t reign it in, at least they can point it in one direction.  The Age of Wonders series focuses on the battles. It funnels all that detail into a corral with a hex grid where two armies meet.  There’s plenty of grand strategy, but the bottom line is the tactical battles. You play these battles not because you have to — you don’t — but because you want to.  You play these battles for the same reason you played them in Master of Orion: because you want to see the things you’ve unlocked and assembled in action. A Death Star isn’t much of a Death Star until it’s blown up Alderaan.  Similarly, a battleship with a black hole generator isn’t much of a battleship with a black hole generator until you’ve seen it in action. Until then, it’s a number on a stats screen. But once you’ve watched it annihilate a bunch of attacking Bulrathi spaceships, then it’s a battleship with a black hole generator.  

The same is true of all the intricate sci-fi detail in Planetfall, whether it’s my tryannodon’s flash modded rapid laser cannons, or my Amazonian huntresses whose bio arrows infect their targets with sprouting infestation that turns them into sentient vines when they die, or my Syndicate indentured servants whose pulse repeaters now have targeting systems that give them a significant damage boost when they attack from the flanks, or my psi-fish Medusa’s building maternal rage as all her little psi-fish spawn fall in battle and culminate in a massive psionic blast across the battlefield that lights everyone on fire because she’s got a flame focus module.  I unlocked these bits and put them together. Of course I want to see them in action. These tactical battles are interactive dioramas where I admire the models I’ve built.

Building units is a fundamental part of Planetfall which is again a lesson learned from Master of Orion.  If you didn’t like designing spaceships, first of all, why were you playing a game about designing spaceships?  And second of all, you won’t like Planetfall. It’s all about researching, choosing, and assembling bits and pieces that determine how your armies work.  It’s also all about the science fiction names for these bits and pieces, about appreciating its imaginative technobabble-verse. If you didn’t like the imaginative names of technologies in Brian Reynold’s Alpha Centauri, first of all, why were you playing a game about imaginative science fiction?  And second of all, you won’t like Planetfall. It’s all about knowing the difference between an Aether Storm and an Ionic Infusion. I mean, duh.

Just as 14 points of damage isn’t interesting, neither is the fact that 1+1=2.  But Triumph understands how putting two things together is more interesting when it makes something more than its sum.  Before you even start a game of Planetfall, you choose a race and its secret agenda, in whatever combination you want. This combo will be the foundation for your armies, your tech tree, your cities, and your special abilities, not to mention the impetus to play more and different games.  The concept of choosing two things to make a third has always delighted me. I vividly remember pairing two classes in Guild Wars and Titan Quest. Any two, freely paired. A Mesmer/Elementalist and Storm/Hunter Sage one game, a Monk/Ranger and Nature/Rogue Illusionist the next. Small World, a glib little territory control boardgame, is based on choosing a fantasy race and an adjective, each with its own rulesets that make unique combos:  berserk elves, swamp orcs, sea-faring dwarves, marauding leprechauns. In these cases, one plus one is more than just two. It’s something new you haven’t tried before.

Remixes of the usual tropes breathe new life into those tropes, and Triumph’s Age of Wonders series has been doing this for a while.  In their meticulously realized (if somewhat generic) fantasy worlds, halflings don’t have to be thieves and dwarves don’t have to be warriors.  Have a halfling warrior or a dwarven thief. Heck, have a halfling necromancer. No, seriously, have one. You can do it in Age of Wonders III. Go for it.  Dismantle and reassemble and mismatch the familiar pieces however you want. In Planetfall, last time I played amazonians tapping into the holy power of interstellar psionics.  Basically, the nature faction plus transhuman enlightenment. Celestial Amazons. This time, it’s an insect hivemind summoning dark power from beyond hyperspace. Basically, alien bugs plus nihilistic cosmic power.  Voidtech Klackons. Oops, Kir’kos. I meant Kir’kos. Voidtech Kir’kos. Actually, I did void the game before last. So how about underworld tech hackers invoking the power of galactic starfire? Yeah, that’s it. Syndicate Promenthians.  Now press the start game button. Let’s see what you got for me this time, Planetfall. Let’s remix and play out this symphony of reverberating detail.

Of course, this mix-and-match approach will only be as good as the imagination that goes into its parts. Paradox tried something similar with Stellaris, using a set of opposing attributes.  But that game’s spreadsheet-dry sci-fi doesn’t have room for the kind of glee, personality, and interactivity that drives Planetfall. Stellaris is the rasp of pages turning in a ledger. Run your index finger across the paper, along the row and then down the column, find a number that supposedly suggests the high-concept sci-fi in one of those dull classics you felt obligated to read and even more obligated to pretend to like.  But Planetfall is a shelf of old sci-fi dime store novels in the back of a tiny bookstore inexplicably still in business. Pick the lurid title that calls out to you best. Pull it out and delight at the splash of imaginative cover art. This is your story for today.

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The best of 2019:
10. Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3
9. Transport Fever 2
8. Rebel Galaxy Outlaw
7. Phoenix Point
6. Field of Glory: Empires
5. Age of Wonders: Planetfall
4. Void Bastards
3. One Finger Death Punch 2

  • Age of Wonders: Planetfall

  • Rating:

  • PC
  • Hoverboots-on-the-ground sci-fi in the tradition of Brian Reynolds' Alpha Centauri and the culmination of Triumph Studios experience making great 4X strategy epics.
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