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Run Host! RUN HOST!!!

Gaming

June 18, 2006 09:44 PM PST

checkmate.jpg

Xbox Live is a great thing, probably one of the coolest things Microsoft has done. It has changed the way I play video games online: no more trying to find a random server with enough space for all your friends, then hoping that the ping time for everyone is reasonable, and that it isn't full of 14 year old griefers. Once you've found such a server, you have to somehow tell your friends about it, probably via IM, then jump in before the spaces are taken up. And good luck trying to communicate during the game. You could always set up your own server, but then you'd need a publicly accessible IP, and the person that ran the server would need to play each time the group played. Switching games would also mean switching servers, along with all the inevitable configuration issues and max player limitations.

Xbox Live eliminates the problems of moving, setting up and tearing down machines for LAN parties: you can stay home and play which makes spur of the moment pick-up games possible during the work week. I find that my favourite features are voice chat and having private servers. Voice chat in Midtown Madness, a game I'd ordinarily not play, gives it at least another order of funitude, nevermind the ease of coordination / taunting in games with team play. Since Xbox Live brokers all the server set up, private games are trivial to have and it works seamlessly across dozens of different games. The only connection problems I've encountered tended to be ISP specific, with Xbox Live being rock solid (I would love to see the code and design docs).

But even with all the convenience of Xbox Live, sometimes you just can't find enough people to play during the week, or agree on a time that suites everyone. Single player games, like my current obsessions Oblivion and Darwinia, are fun, but sometimes you want to play against the deviousness of human opponents. Or perhaps you want something more strategic, like chess, and less twitch like Halo rocket arena or StarCraft. For this, turn based games can be quite a bit of fun.

When I was in grad school (1994-5), my friends and I had very different hours so it was hard to get together to play network games. This was in the days of Doom running over IPX on DOS (remember pkzip?). We found this turn based game, VGA Planets, which allowed us to do all the game moves offline when we had time, then sync up several times a week to find out the results of what we did.

VGA Planets is a strategy game, loosely based on Star Trek, Star Wars and Battlestar Galactica, where each player takes a specific race and tries to capture as much of the galaxy as possible. You have to build ships, send them to planets to colonize, build bases and harvest resources, and of course, attack opposing players. One player is designated "Host", and they are responsible for managing the game. Each turn, the players plot ship movements and actions and package this up into a file that gets emailed to the Host. When all turns are received, the Host player runs a program called, unsurprisingly, "Host". This program reads all the player turn files and spits out the results: 2 or more fleets arriving at the same destination fight, spaceships are constructed, newly harvested resources become available, etc. The results are then emailed back to the players for the next round. Alliances can be made via email during the week, leading to all sorts of suspense and intrigue. When one player is late submitting their turn, anxious and jittery players send out emails exclaiming, "Run Host! Run Host!". An overview of the mechanics.

The first few turns are generally uneventful: you start with a scout and a freighter and one planet. But by the 15th turn, you've got several planets, starbases and shipyards and treason abounds. Resource planning gets much more tense, and it really feels like you are a general commanding distant systems with communications limited by the speed of light. Random events can happen, like a meteor hitting your homeworld and decimating the population (along with that planet's production capability), discovery of alien life that you can enslave or tax, galactic storms that send ships off of their planned jump trajectories. The mechanics of play are simple, but the fine tuning can be really fun: you might tax the planetary natives highly to generate more cash to fund your war plans, but their happiness over time drops along with their productivity. Some races possess cloaked ships for tactical assaults, or hyperdrive engines for extremely long distance jumps and in a battle, you can capture such ships and take them back to a shipyard for cloning.

Unfortunately, VGA Planets doesn't seem to have been updated in many years, with version 3 written in Visual Basic for DOS. Version 4 was in development for so long that it gained mythic status, but I believe that it is out now (beta).

Anyone know of other turn based games? They could be a fun addition / alternative to the on-and-off Thursday night Xboxing...


Comments (1)
J, July 5, 2006 11:03 AM:

XBox Live lets your 360 blog. Kind of a clever marketing idea.






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