Holiday Steam Sale: Prison Architect, Anno 2070, Starbound, Space Engineers

The Steam Holiday Sale is always, always a huge deal, and this year is no different at all. But that’s good — having the biggest deals on the mostest stuff is the sort of thing we keep them around for. It is time for a quick update because right now there are a few sales going on it’s worth talking about (and I’m using the blog because I kind of miss having actual multiple embeds to work with).
  • I’ve been boosting this thing for … well, ever since it originally made an appearance. Building and administrating a prison? Deciding to make it Club Fed or Doom Comes to Helltown? That’s awesome stuff, and Introversion Software has been delivering and delivering on a game that, while it purports to be in alpha, gives better buck bang than most releases.
    In fact, yesterday saw the release of Alpha 16, right after Christmas, and it is very, very clever.
  • I’ve been wanting this game for a while, not least reason being that SimCity was such a terrible disappointment in its latest incarnation. Despite being a couple years old in release-years (or maybe because of it), the game looks positively beautiful. Lightly isometric city-builder with what appears to be a hideously complex network of creatable resources and resources to both support industry and keep your population happy, mingled with both solo and online co-op/head-to-head economic and military struggle and hordes of ways to play it, plus three factions (I’m backing the one headed by an AI, of course) … this thing is crazy. Hell, I started playing the game before it even gave me a tutorial, since even from the main menu it has you voting in the World Congress and accepting daily missions …
    Now … here’s the thing. Anno 2070 is saddled with Uplay, Ubisoft’s truly offensive and in-the-way Steam-wannabe/DRM. It is, truly, a thing of horror to behold, and I’m saddened that +Richard Dansky has yet to bring those responsible before me so they can be properly beaten. It’s bad, is what I’m saying, and the fact that it runs underneath/over Steam while you play the game is … painful in many ways. I’d totally be behind Ubi developing a new version of this thing that drops Uplay entirely in favour of Steamworks.
    Other than that … beautiful. Fun. Complex. Everything SimCity wasn’t. Also both +Eric Thompson and I have copies, so in theory we can all jam out in multiplayer together … Always good for the krewe.
If you’re looking for a little more Let’s Play action (which sells more games to me than any staged trailers ever has):
  • OK, technically not a Steam Sale deal for the holiday. Instead, it’s an Early Access game with an awesome history of being Kickstarted by a huge fanbase, pre-generated by the success of the creator’s last game, Terraria. If you liked Terraria, you’ll love Starbound — because it looks very, very similar. The art style? Very, very similar. The interface? Very, very similar.
    But this is very, very different. Because this is space, you bastards, and in space we get our own mobile starships where you can build your own housing and production facilities, you get your own homeworld where you can store the ill-gotten plunder you collect from alien (and familliar) bases, prisons, mines, and other horrible places. You can run into entire procedurally generated ecosystems and wreck them utterly by locusting the whole planet, hollowing it out for your own resource consumption, then re-terraform it with stolen trees.
    That is how we of the +Operation BSU krewe roll in space on our server, anyway.
    This is a great time to get in on a fairly early alpha of this thing and start having fun. The developer promises there’ll only be one more universe/character wipe before more stable releases, but I’m having so much fun playing like every day is my character’s last, I’m not feeling bad about it. There’s still tonnes of quirks and little broken bits, but it’s alpha — real alpha. And it’s huge fun. Remember when Minecraft was in pre-release and everyone was both boggled by it and got hugely into playing even before there was a Survival Mode? This is like that, but with rudimentary survival/exploration systems well in place. I fully expect mods to roll out along with built-in bits that bring in the wiring system from Terraria along with something like the piping systems from Minecraft and advanced machines to construct huge automated complexes. It’s that kind of game.
    This is a game. You need to play it.
  • So, yeah. This is a game. It’s on Steam. It’s about building cool shit in space. I haven’t played it.
    Someone needs to buy it for me. I had to add one thing you could get me for Saturnalia, right?
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Artemis: Spaceship Bridge Simulator suddenly uncloaks on Steam Greenlight at $7 price point

Artemis Bridge Simulator Banner

I know it's actually been a while since I used the blog itself to post for Operation BSU; most of the content that I want to share with our readership and listenership is focused and singular, making it far easier to distribute via the Google+ community than to use the blog. But for some things you need a slightly more extended architecture, you need a means of sharing that can allow you do go on at some length with multimedia inserts. Since I'm really not interested in putting together a whole video (because I'm lazy, not because the content doesn't deserve it), it's a great time to bust out the blog.

And today we've got an interesting sort of thing that came together purely by accident. I was off surfing the Steam recent additions, like I do regularly in order to have something to say on Sunday nights when I am Head Panelist on The Media Outsiders, when I saw something really strange. For years, literally, I've had an ongoing interest in a nontraditional game which takes as its inspiration the Star Trek bridge crew, a group of people with individual and specific jobs working together to fly a starship through a series of missions and return home safely. I don't think I'm the only one with that particular fantasy and it is certainly not limited to Star Trek fans – in fact, my guess is that Battlestar Galactica fans would be even easier and hungrier target. And for years, there has been one singular choice for doing that sort of thing, for putting together a crew with their own stations and running a series of missions as a team.

That one singular game was Artemis: Spaceship Bridge Simulator. They've been selling it for $40, which is a perfectly reasonable price to ask for any kind of game that you expect people to play in an extended fashion, but it's doubly – perhaps trebly – important to note that for $40 you had open license to put Artemis on up to 6 PCs, one for each bridge station and one central server to run the game itself. When you look at it like that, $40 starts to look like a bloody steal. That's a huge amount of gameplay for a very reasonable price. The author of the game has always maintained a 100% satisfaction-or-your-money-back-guarantee, going so far as to say if whatever means that you paid for it with originally interest too much hassle to get a refund through he'll personally write you a check and snail mail it to you. That's the kind of developer he is, and that's the kind of game he wants to put out.

Already, we're off in unexplored territory in the galaxy of indie gaming development. That there are some big clanky balls. You have to respect that kind of self-confidence.

You know what else you need to respect? Gameplay like this:

That's right, you just saw a bunch of people like us – real geeks – sitting around in a room wearing uniforms appropriate to the game, cooperating (as best they can) to fly a starship, destroy enemies, rescue star bases, and be big damn heroes. And they are not alone. Over the last several years, the developer of Artemis has encouraged people to shoot video of their play sessions and put it on YouTube and in exchange he's been giving away free copies of the game.

I'll just let that sink in. Just add a little more to the fire, I'll point out that many of these people are using/playing the demo which is available for free and provides only 3 stations: Helm, Weapons, and Science. People would enthusiastically video themselves playing, really enjoying themselves, and then – sometimes without them even deliberately and intentionally going out to be recognized – the author would send them a free bridge license.

How cool is that? How awesome is that? This is a game that very deliberately has no DRM; it is not difficult to copy this game to multiple computers because it's intended to be. You copy this game to multiple computers to network them so that you can play the game. The author has decided that making that difficult would make getting people to play his game more difficult and that would be bad for sales, much worse than the absolute certainty that there is not only piracy going on but people simply passing around copies of the game as people want to join their crew and drop out. This is a very deliberate and simple and direct decision that is resulted in Artemis being one of the best and only games of its type. It hasn't starved to death because no one's playing it, it hasn't failed to continue selling because people are pirating it – it's hugely popular in its niche and everyone loves it.

Even some of the luminaries of the YouTube viral video generation have publicly been really into it:

That's Freddie Wong and the Corridor Digital crew – guys who put together some of the most interesting and most exciting videos on YouTube – playing Artemis and having a good time. Perhaps an incompetent and flailing good time, but a good time nonetheless. This is the kind of thing that this game leads to, and that's fantastic. That's something you're not going to find anywhere else, for good or ill.

So – that brings us back to the start of this whole thing. $40 for an entire bridge license. 5 seats, one server, $40. Perfectly reasonable.

And then I saw this on Steam:

Artemis on Steam

That is the current entry on Steam for Artemis: Spaceship Bridge Simulator. You'll notice that it is not $40. In fact, what they're selling on Steam is a single seat license (implicitly with server) for $7. That means that if you want to play the game, and you want to play it with other people – which is the only reasonable way to want to play it – everybody can buy their own seat license, nobody has to put all the money together upfront, and it only runs each of you $7. For 5 stations, that actually puts you $5 cheaper than buying Artemis from their website, plus you get all the advantages that Steam brings like automatic updates, news updates, built-in group and community chat (a really easy way to pull a crew together from people you don't know), the whole 9 yards… Except for DRM.

I'm going to say that again: except for DRM.

As far as I can tell, it looks like the distributed copy of Artemis through Steam is exactly the same as you would get if you bought a multiseat license from the website. There's a server, there's a client, and neither one of them appears to actually check with the Steam login architecture to validate that it is running under an active Steam account.

I don't think this is an oversight. I don't think this is a mistake. I think the original author of Artemis made a choice to distribute the game through Steam just as he has been distributing the game over the years to an ever widening community. He is taking the chance that if you want to steal, there's no way that he can really stop you in a real sense, so there's no point in trying. Trying would just annoy legitimate customers who are trying to use what they paid for. Instead, he's giving you the tools and hoping that the game itself is compelling and motivating enough for you to go out and seek him out to pay him to reward him for making you happy. By moving to Steam, he's just made that process that much simpler. Not only that, he has reduced the amount that you have to pay in order to feel like you've successfully purchased a product that he has produced that made you happy.

But let's take this one more step. After all, we're talking about a bridge simulator, something that requires multiple computers sitting around free, one for each station, right? That's a lot of stuff. Your friends might each have their own laptop and can drop by to play Artemis, but even a laptop is a little unwieldy. Surely we can do better than that, right?

You are absolutely correct. Artemis 1.7, the last major version, released a bridge station interface capable of running on a tablet for both iOS and Android.

Artemis on Google Play

The price for a single seat, non-server tablet license? $3. Just in case lugging a laptop around with you in order to the science officer on the bridge of the Artemis is too much work, you can lug your Nexus 7 or iPad with you and play on the same server. Okay, technically, this is a little problematic because as I noted the mobile version is still at 1.7 and the PC version was bumped up to 2.0 last month; they are not inter-compatible. Yet. The mobile version is slated to be updated to version 2.0 sometime in the next month.

This is some seriously awesome stuff. This is the sort of thing that we like to talk about as being possible in the indie games development world but end up getting sidetracked into an endless stream of side scrolling, shader enabled, strangely incestuous games that get all the press and then disappear. This is a guy who want you to play his game, he wants you to play his game with other people, and he wants you to share that experience with as many people as possible – not only because doing so improves his market penetration via word-of-mouth, but because I believe he legitimately wants you to have fun and enjoy yourself.

If you guys haven't already jumped on board the Artemis bridge, now would be a great time to drop $7 and get the latest version on Steam, find some folks ready to go out into deep space, and enjoy yourself. If you're thinking that you would really like the flexibility of having a tablet-based bridge station, I don't think there's anything wrong with the idea that you should hold out for another month until the mobile app versions update and then drop a whopping $10 for an "official" server, one PC seat license, and one tablet license (and incidentally all the PC seat stations you really need to play since you can copy the client off your own PC), and be privy to one of the most exciting experiences available in gaming today.

Sadly, cute Comms officer
not included.
And if you find yourself really dedicated to the idea, if you find yourself devoted to the concept that you are a bridge crew member and really want all the little bits and bobs that go with that, the Artemis site has your hook up:

$150 for a complete set of 6 Artemis bridge officer uniform accessory packs, that's right, a standalone fastenable collar, epaulets, and gauntlets, all Velcro-fastenable and adjustable, and ready to slap on your favorite bridge crew so everyone can look the part.

Man, I really wish that I was devotee enough to want to buy those things.

I really wish I had the time and effort to pull together a set of cheap PCs and/or tablets, get a full bridge license, put together a nice, solid mobile Artemis deck, and they go from con to con running Artemis and having a great time. Because that's what it looks like, a great time.

Also, an excuse to scream, "main screen turn on!" And who doesn't want?
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Review: 5150: Star Navy, Or How I Blew Up Rebels With Booty (I Like Booty)

5150: Star Navy cover
5150: Star Navy in the flesh.
Last night +Eric Thompson and I decided to give the new set of mechanics in 5150: Star Navy a good bashing. If you don't know what 5150: Star Navy is or the creators of Star Navy, Two-Hour Wargames, let me give you the quick rundown:

THW creates what they refer to as "immersive wargames," but what they really mean is that they create wargames which live somewhere in the space between traditional wargames and role-playing games. For geeks like us, that means that we can legitimately indulge in the pleasure of moving plastic or metal figures around on a mat with mechanics that generally support doing the unexpected, going outside the usual limited set of wargame actions that you can take. Mechanics which are written fairly loosely are sometimes a problem for a lot of players coming from the tabletop wargaming side of things, but for us coming from the RPG side of things they provide more of an opportunity.

This isn't intended to be an exhaustive AAR, more a listing of impressions and thoughts that I had while going through Star Navy so that you can make an informed choice as to whether this is a product that you might be interested in learning more about.

5150: Star Army cover
5150: Star Army
5150: Star Navy is THW's entry into the space combat wargame genre, basing its setting in their already extant 5150 series of ground-based wargames, 5150: Star Army (which targets fairly large unit operations on the ground) and 5150: New Beginnings (THW's more ambitious squad-based/RPG-focused 5150 game). So far there is no official miniature set associated with the Star Navy ships and it is highly advised that you "just play the game" – THW's catchphrase for their entire game line. Like THW's other sets, Star Navy is supposed to allow for both co-op/same side gaming and head-to-head; I'm very fond of same side gaming when it comes to my wargaming tables, so this is one of the aspects of the game that really spoke to me.

The book itself is currently my possession as a PDF with the hardcopy slowly winging its way across the world toward me thanks to physical manifestation. That at least meant my reference times were much faster than if I were trying to leaf through a physical book.

I decided before the game that we just wanted to run a very basic exchange of fire with some simple enemies. I grabbed two Free Companies squads, each with one heavy cruiser and two light cruisers. Against us was arrayed some of the really crappy ships from the Gaea Prime Rebels. (It really helps that they only have two kinds of ship.)

Set up for a simple one-off scenario was a little more complicated than it needed to be. THW produces very table driven games, that's just the nature of the beast and that's what you get when you open the box. There's never been a question about that. Star Navy occasionally reads as though someone forgot to insert a few of the tables in the hurry to get out the door. For example, in any given combat there is a side that controls the local planet and the one side that is attempting to assault the local planet. How do you decide which is which? At the beginning of a Campaign, it's dependent on part of the Campaign set up, but that's much further into the book then where you will be interested in setting up a basic skirmish. A number of rules and sections are like that, occurring after the point at which their first referenced without enough of a hook to let you understand how to make use of them or where they're at for fuller explanation.

I'm a great believer in "just play the game" so when in doubt, I picked two options and rolled 1d6 with low being one option and high being another.

I also decided that there would be no weapons other than guns and missiles available on our board. Yes, I know that seriously changes the play dynamic of some of the ships which use hangers/fighter craft heavily. I just didn't want to deal with having to manage fighters as well as capital ships, especially given the particular sloppiness with which the fighter system is written. (And that probably deserves a little more explanation; the fighter system in Star Navy is the mechanical equivalent of the grappling system in every RPG ever written. What I'm saying is it's a bit of a mess. It's written backwards, with the process of how you actually resolve a fighter interdiction being presented in the opposite order from how you will actually use it in game, the writers can't decide if they're talking about single fighters or squads of fighters, which is a big problem when you're trying to decide whether you should be matching up fighter swarm versus fighter swarm or individual fighter in swarm versus individual fighter in swarm, and it's just generally murky.)

So – set up. I decided we would just set up as though we were doing a standard patrol mission, as the attackers, with control of the local planet. After all, no one likes rebel scum.

Before we go another step I should point out that this gameplay actually took place online, using the Roll20 online game table. In the past I've used both MapTool and Tabletop Forge, and in the future I'm going back to MapTool. While Roll20 worked, issues with zooming in and out of the map conveniently and other interface issues around moving tokens made me miss using MapTool fiercely. A lot of people are really enjoying Roll20 and I don't begrudge them a bit. But as far as I'm concerned it is not quite up to the place I need a tool to be.

Our forces had the great advantage on the Long-Range Scan, so we had a massive advantage in set up. Attackers would be coming in 45° off of the defenders' vector, at up to double the thrust of our fastest ship. Movement in Star Navy is pseudo-Newtonian, not requiring you to turn your ship to apply a different vector but you do continue going in whatever direction and speed you're headed unless you apply thrust. Table was 6' x 4' and thanks to our massive LRS advantage we got set up 5 feet away from the defender. Which is a little challenging if you are supposed to set up with a 45° inbound vector.

THW games are usually quite explicit when it comes to forces controlled by the game mechanics. They have a PEF (Possible Enemy Force) system which requires acquiring line of sight to a PEF to resolve it into whatever force it might be followed by at least a loose set of tables to help determine how that force will operate, based on what kind of force it is. Star Navy completely eliminated that segment of the game at the tactical level as far as I can tell. There was no guidance on how enemy forces should be set up other than within a foot of the contesting force side of the board, or was there any sort of driving architecture for determining what the enemies would do on their activations. That's actually kind of a big deal. We ended up just sort of running the enemies as we would've run our own forces (because we're cool like that) but it felt weird. After playing games like All Things Zombie and 5150: Star Army where the mechanics actually provide some level of control of the non-same side forces, it felt like a significant omission. In the campaign game, where action occurs on a larger scale map before contact is made and the battle occurs, there is some guidance about how PEF forces move in the strategic sense but not once engaged tactically.

Once we got set up, decided how the enemies would actually function in the context of our game, and started pushing around some pixels and making some shots, the mechanics smoothed out quite a bit. It is more than possible to have a matchup between ships where one can simply not destroy or even damage the other; ships with equal guns and shields will simply drive around each other and throw rocks and loud insults until the end of time. The guns can never possibly break the shields so there's no way to do damage and cause some sort of tactical change. That's where missiles come in; since missiles are not affected by shields, only AA and AA has a statistical chance of failing as does dodging, you need a mix of vessels with both. (Missiles have the drawback of only having a 12 inch range and a 180° front firing arc, which means your missile carriers need to be foresight-full if they're not maneuverable.) Guns take a -1 to hit if you're greater than 36 inches away, but as we discovered that's not necessarily a big deal.

I've mentioned that the movement system in Star Navy feels quite nice. I will reiterate that here. Movement had a nice mix of trying to predict where the enemy was going to be and trying to maneuver your own ship to be in a safer arc – assuming you were up against a ship with missiles since guns have a 360° firing arc. All you care about with guns is range and shields, and the latter will make a much bigger difference than the former. Missiles require that you get in close and keep the target in your front, which can be a bit challenging. Fighters, when we add them to the mix, have a movement range of 24 inches and no requirements on their turns, meaning they can get to a target and start putting damage on it fairly easily – assuming they get through any screening fighters and ships' AA.

In a real sense, that covers all the ways in which ships can do damage to one another in a space combat game. While I might want some sort of "space torpedo" that has an independent, multi-turn lifespan and is somewhat harder to destroy than a fighter but cannot attack fighters itself, that's a pretty minor thing and it can probably be hacked on with just a tweak of the fighter rules. I would also like some sort of more flexible limitation on firing arcs, allowing me to designate ships with broadsides as opposed to everything turreted. (Fans of Full Thrust will know what I'm talking about.) That would force a bit more maneuverability/need to maneuver and add a bit more interest on top of the already pleasant maneuver game.

There's one more aspect that's extremely important in THW games in general, and in Star Navy in specific, and that is the degenerative effect on Reputation for a ship that takes damage. Reputation represents a ship's morale, capability, skill, and overall quality. Any attack that actually does damage requires a check on the ship factions' table of behaviors versus their Reputation. Not rolling under the ship's current reputation on 2d6 (individually) means the ship begins accumulating -1 to Reputation, leading to a bit of a death spiral. A drop in Reputation can lead to a ship simply choosing to flee the battle rather than take any more damage, even when relatively undamaged. Attacking the morale of an attacking force provides an interesting pressure on command to try and keep the low Reputation ships out of harm's way while still allowing them to apply some sort of tactical force. Woe betide the commander whose flagship gets driven from the board because that will knock down the Rep checks of the rest of their force for the rest of the game.

All Things Zombie cover
All Things Zombie
Star Navy is not as drop-in/dropout friendly as previous THW games have been, and certainly not nearly as drop-in/dropout friendly as All Things Zombie which is the gold standard in games which can deal with people coming in and out on a regular basis. I believe Star Navy could be made to be so, but out of the box we're missing several pieces that would make it much more reasonable. There are some definite flaws in the presentation of Star Navy in terms of editing and structure that can occasionally make it harder to understand the intent of the game than it needs to be. There seem to be a couple of missing sections here and there, not just enemy command in tactical battle but actual Quick Reaction Sheets which should be present in the back of the book for factions which are described in the book itself, like the Gaea Prime Rebels which have no QRS and it doesn't even help to know that they are Gaea Prime forces because Gaea Prime has both a Planetary Defense Force and a Star Navy QRS. (I decided that the rebels use the Star Navy QRS and probably should have decided that they used the PDF QRS. Live and learn.) There is a transparent pitch to the upcoming expansion books for Star Navy which include one of the major setting factions, The Bugs, with no description of what that will actually contain other than some more ships. I can only guess that it will involve some significant additions to mechanics to cover bioorganic ships. That would help a lot, since the "ship construction system" in Star Navy is minimal at best. THW games are not known for their obsessive need to point balance armies, and that's a good thing – balance is a thing that seems to happen post hoc when you look at multiple engagements. In this case, some sort of discussion of how to create a balanced Order of Battle for a fleet might not go amiss. While there are several examples and mechanics are simple, trying to create your own material that works with the material that already exists could be a challenge.

Now, having said all the bad things, let's say some good things.

Star Navy does the job, and it does the job very well. The job is to provide a mechanical platform for ship to ship combat, one that flows quickly once you understand the basics, one that gives you opportunities to make interesting decisions, one that allows you to model a number of different mechanisms to do a thing through the same mechanic in order to simplify description. The game is fun. That is the ultimate goal of the game, to be fun. It achieves that. You can take any models that you have or build any icons that you want to use and start banging ships together pretty quickly. The mechanical resolution system integrates morale and skill neatly and effectively.

… When I start trying to put things together like that, it looks like the number of negatives outweighs the positives of the game, and that's not really what I want to convey to you. The problem is that I have a lot of experience with space wargames. I love space wargames. You give me some ships and some space and some guns and I'm generally happy. I have Renegade Legion: Leviathan on my shelf, for the love of God. I played DirtSide 2 and Full Thrust, I've been active on all of their mailing lists since before there was a web. I love space combat. 5150: Star Navy is a worthy game to sit next to them. It's a game at the very beginning of its conceptual life, with constrained tactical options and a number of rough edges. It includes two ways to play ongoing campaigns, not just a war of factions but you can also decide to run your own pirate gang, go out and plunder merchant ships, and dodge the law. That is supported within the context of gameplay, mechanically and textually. That's pretty cool stuff. That's unusual stuff. The focus on morale as an important aspect of space combat? That is some important and unusual stuff. So don't go away from this review thinking that I don't like 5150: Star Navy. That would be wrong. I want you to be aware that there are many games in this field, and I'll provide links to a number of them at the end of this post, not because I don't want you to buy Star Navy but because I want you to go out and buy all of these or some of these as well as Star Navy to get a better idea of what is possible in the field of space combat.

I definitely plan to run Star Navy again with all the bells and whistles turned on. I'll probably set up a faction versus faction conflict and go through the whole nine yards there on setting up and running missions. My intent is to actually record the goings-on with Hangout so that people can see and experience how gameplay actually happens. We'll see how that goes.

TL;DR version: 5150: Star Navy is a solid space combat game. On the Squid/Fudge cognitive scale it gets a +3.

5150: Star Army:
Omega Warrior:
Dirtside 2:
Stargrunt 2:

5150: Star Navy:
Full Thrust:
Renegade Legion:
Steel Rain: Tactical:
Hard Vacuum:
Fleet Action:

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