Internet!

Finally! As of one hour ago, I now have Internet at my place. Not slow, limited, cellphone net any more, but actual DSL with decent speed. (Also, my furniture got moved into my new apartment today, but… priorities!)

Limitless joy! I can now do and play whatever I want, without worrying about bandwidth and monthly volume! I can… I can…

oh.

updates

… right.

But tomorrow!

 

The Joys of Limitation

We live in times of endless choices. I just noticed again very acutely when I went shopping for some new furniture. For example, I want to get a new wardrobe, because my current one had never been all that great since I got it: It was a second-hand one that had been stored in a garage for too long during humid weather, and never fit together 100%. But I was fresh out of university, and it still looked good and I got it for free, so I didn’t care too much about the state of equine’s molars. Now that I move again, though, I decided I’ll leave it behind and get a new one.

IKEA has a nice and highly modular wardrobe system called Pax. The opportunities! But now I had to decide: Do I want a longer clothes rail and fewer shelves, or the other way round? Oh look, I can split just the lower part of the rail area: full length for coats, half-length (with some drawers below) for shirts. And they have shoe storage too? And 4 kinds of drawers and about 27 combinations frames and doors? But which should I take?!

The bottom line is, I’m still without a wardrobe. (I haven’t yet made my peace with it, to not leave the obvious pun unsaid.) The last couple of months made me make lots of, sometimes quite far-reaching, decisions. I feel like I’m thoroughly exhausted on decision-making for the time being. I just want a nice wardrobe, but not spend days on designing it. On the other hand, now that I know that there’s so much choice, I can’t just take a predesigned one, because I know I have the possibility to improve on that. So I’m stuck in decision limbo.

Choice is not always good.

For the same reason, it took me almost 3 weeks to decide which Internet provider to take. I tried asking around at the workplace for experience with providers in this area, and as a result, I’m still waiting on “real” Internet and currently use a mobile connection for my Internet needs. Which works… ok, I guess. Better than I had feared, but it comes with limitations. Which means there’s less choice in what I can do. For example, I’d rather not stream videos, because of the monthly volume limit. For the same reasons, I don’t dare to update too many online games.

This has an unexpected beneficial side effect. When I first realized that I had leisure time again, I was a bit out of practice and couldn’t come up with something to do with all that free time. The worst part was that I had to decide which of the many games available I should play. I have a large Steam library, and about a dozen MMOs I could choose from. But having a somewhat strict monthly limit, I realized I couldn’t really afford to update lots of games, let alone download new ones. So I had a look at which games needed no updating, and picked one of those.

Minstrel back in action!

Minstrel back in action!

Which is just a very roundabout way of saying that I spent some time in LotRO again for the first time in… maybe a year or two? I dusted off my Minstrel, and got going.

I’m actually surprised how little data MMOs (or at least LotRO) exchange with their servers. It seems as if the other background traffic of a mail program, browsers, etc. uses more volume than the game does, to the point where I can easily stay below 200-300MB a night.

LotRO is nice for some other reasons. It is a very relaxed game. At least the way I play it, I spend a lot of time just traveling through the world (which is still one of the best in any MMO I’ve seen), with some laid-back tab-target fighting without any strict timing requirements (which is important, because I often have about 300ms lag). It’s great! It’s almost like a meditation exercise. Except that this meditation exercise got me upwards of 30 levels, from before Moria into early Rohan. Who can say that about their yoga exercises? All you get from those are slipped discs.

There is one more reason that LotRO works well over the mobile connection. At some point, I did have to update the game because a small content patch had come out. If you ever played the game, you know that their updater is one of the worst in the business, because it’s excruciatingly slow. I’ve now proven by demonstration what I always suspected, that your line speed indeed has little influence on the time it takes to update: it works almost as fast over a somewhat slow mobile connection as it worked over my 3MB/s+ DSL. So relatively speaking, it’s going faster! (Well, in Bizarro world, which I like to visit every now and then when I come up with weird comparisons, thanks for asking!)

So even though Sid Meier supposedly said that good games are a series of interesting decisions, sometimes a game can be good even if (or maybe because) its decisions are very low-key and, at face value uninteresting.

Maybe in another 10 levels, I’ll have recovered from my decision paralysis enough to order that wardrobe, after all.

I got a Hat

We gamers are all obsessed with hats, aren’t we? Maybe most of them, the TF2 people. But still, even in MMOs, hats reign supreme in the cosmetic category. Wilhelm loves them. Bhagpuss loves them. And those who went through the horrible grind to get the coveted Bloodsail Admiral’s hat wore it proudly (while they were busy grinding even more afterwards to repair their standing with Booty Bay).

I did some grinding for a very special hat, too. A hat like no other. Bespoke crafting, a one-of-a-kind. Behold.

the_hat

For those not familiar with the tradition: around here, when someone finishes their PhD, their coworkers build them a hat roughly resembling a mortarboard that is decorated with bits and pieces that lampoon (in good humor) noteworthy events or personality quirks. Sadly, all pictures from the event itself with me and the hat have coworkers and friends on it that are not easily croppable, and I don’t want to put those online without their knowledge. So you get the hat sans me.

Some grinding it was. The last months were a bit intense. In summer, I got a job offer I couldn’t (or didn’t want to) refuse. But they wanted me fast, so I started working there earlier than I had planned. (My plan had been to just slowly start looking around for jobs, then one of the first applications already turned out to be this apparently great fit.) Too early to defend beforehand, which made for some packed months. Get up, go to work, get back, study, go to bed. On the weekends, drive back to the old place, 3 hours each direction, to finish the preparations for the event.

Now I just need to print the final versions and send them to the respective libraries. Oh right, and move out of this company-arranged temporary one-room apartment and get my stuff from my old place into a new, real one. Lots of packing and unpacking in the near future. But around Christmas, I might actually have time to play games again. And maybe I’ll even have Internet in the new place by then… if I’m lucky.

Maybe then I’ll even find time to write again, and have ideas what to write about. To be honest, my writing here has been extremely spotty the last… 18 months or so. So I’m not holding my breath. But I’m also not willing to give up quite yet.

 

I may start with trying to fix the fancy live-updating blogroll to the right, which seems to have broken some time ago…

Another Summer (Sale) Gone

You know, it doesn’t really feel like summer yet around here. I think we had fewer days at above 30°C here than below 15 in the last month… and a lot of clouds. Seriously, summer is only about to start, anyway.

Nevertheless, every year around this time, Steam has its summer sale. I never fully understood why they named it that. I guess the idea is that people buy games for cheap to tide them over the summer when it’s warm outside, and sunny, and you could sit on the porch or balcony reading, or drinking beer and having a barbecue, or going swimming, or any other of these horribly disgusting things. In short: to give them reasons to not leave the house when weather isn’t enough of a reason not to.

Anyway.

When I first got Steam, I spent a lot of money on my first few sales. But after a year or so, I petered out, and I don’t think I purchased anything at all last season. My backlog had increased to the point where it seemed silly to pile more games on top, and I felt like I had genuinely gotten everything on Steam that I wanted. My wishlist ended up containing the same few games that I apparently didn’t want that much, after all: even during sales, I wouldn’t pick them up.

Of course, things would not stay this way forever. New games get released all the time, and eventually, there would be new interesting sales. And the time was this summer, apparently. I held steadfast for the first couple of days. But then, the first game I wanted went on sale.

June 14: Grim Fandango Remastered + Soundtrack, €9.99 @ 50%

Grim Fandango and I have a history. It is one of my all time favorite games, but I lost access to it. I’m certain I owned the CDs at some point, but they got lost, probably during a move. Moves are the worst, there’s always some stuff that gets lost. When I heard that they would release a remastered version, I went back and forth on whether to get that one or find the original version. That topic (original vs. remastered re-release) is probably a blog post in itself… But when it was available at 50% discount, quite shortly after (re-)release, I had my first impulse buy of the summer season.

June 16: Baldur’s Gate 2 Enhanced Edition, €6.79 @ 66%
June 16: Deus Ex, Game of the Year Edition, €1.39 @ 80%

It looks obvious: After I got the first remastered edition of a classic game, I fell prey and got another one right away. The truth is more complicated. Again, I went back and forth. I’ve actually never played Baldur’s Gate, neither of the two. Shocking, I admit. The reason I bought this one is that it was actually cheaper than the original version on GoG. Now I can play Baldur’s Gate… maybe… eventually. This probably wasn’t the best spent money. Though The Deus Ex impulse buy was probably worse: to be honest, I only got it because it was so cheap, which I know is a horrible reason, but I’ll invoke “I’m not good with money” as an excuse. At least I’m not good with money when it’s about wasting small amounts.

June 18: Broken Sword 5: the Serpent’s Curse, €4.59 @ 80%
June 18: Shadowrun: Dragonfall (Director’s Cut), €4.49 @ 70%

Two more games on the pile of “playing vicariously”. Broken Sword is a game series I heard good things about, and I intend to play that one… eventually. Shadowrun is a bit of an embarrassing story. I actually backed the original Shadowrun Returns kickstarter (though just with the minimal amount you needed to get the game). They even delivered, and I played the resulting game… not at all. This makes buying Dragonfall really silly. But I feel like I would like to play the game, I just never get around to it. I think this is precisely how Steam makes money.

June 19: Pillars of Eternity, Champion Edition, €36.84 @ 33%

Now we’re getting into the whaling area. This is by far the most I have spent on a game this year. I heard really, really good things about it. I absolutely intend to play it. I just hope I actually get around to it. Which, by the way, will mean that Baldur’s Gate, a 3-days-old purchase at that point, will definitely have to wait much longer.

June 19: Icewind Dale, Enhanced Edition €6.79 @ 66%

As will Icewind Dale. To be honest, that buy doesn’t make any sense at all. I’m just great with my buying decisions!

June 20: Europa Universalis IV, El Dorado Content Pack, €1.49 @ 75%
June 20: For The Glory, €1.99 @ 80%

June 20: XCOM: Enemy Unknown + The Bureau: XCOM Declassified €6.79 @ 83%

Those first two buys make sense, actually. I love Europa Universalis and have some trust in Paradox Studio. Though I’m not hugely interested in their content packs (which are generally just new models for armies and things like that), I generally put them on my wishlist and buy them when they go on large discount. My reasoning is that I’m not willing to pay the full price, but I am willing to pay a little bit, basically as funding for a company that so far hasn’t disappointed me much. For the Glory follows the same reasoning: it’s an older Paradox game, and it means supporting them with a small amount of money, plus rounding off my Paradox collection, satisfying my collector and completionist drive. The last one though? I have no idea. I would love to be able to claim I was drunk, but all I was drunk on probably was spending and discounts. I liked the XCOM games when they came out in the 90ies, but that’s about all I know about those two new games, which is, let’s face it, as bad as nothing or even worse.

All right, let’s tally up.

Money spent: €81.15
Average discount: 62% (down from €215.89)

Overall, a mixed bag, but I don’t feel like Steam stole my money. That would be a silly notion, anyway, because they didn’t make me spend the money, after all. 3 of 8 (or €48.32 of 81.15) I would’ve definitely gotten sooner or later. A few more were on my shortlist of stuff to pick up at a discount. I stuck to my unofficial rule of “never buy anything on Steam at less than 50% discount”, except for Pillars of Eternity, which I actually really want to try, and which is still quite new, so I figured even a 33% discount was a tolerable option.

Will I play all those games I bought this sale season? Certainly not! But I have hope that at least some of them, I will, potentially even before winter. And in that respect, I can live with that outcome.

Europa Universalis IV on Steam Sale

A prolonged work trip prevented me from updating my EU IV Spain Campaign AAR. I’ll get back to it again soon(tm).

In the meantime, if you think the game sounds interesting, or if you have any interest in grand strategy games, take a look at Steam today. EU IV is available for 75% off, both as stand-alone and as collection, which includes the first three expansions. (It sadly doesn’t include the Art of War expansion, which is really, really good). The collection is probably the better deal, but it’s up to you.

The Spain Campaign, Part 2: Not all according to plan

Last time, we set up colony in Cape Verde as penal colony. After firing up the game again, the first few years are uneventful. Austria calls me into a war against Hungary, and I accept so they won’t be annoyed at me, but I then just ignore it. The battles are at the other end of Europe, and setting up colonies costs money during the settlement phase; I can’t afford losing armies at the moment, and Austria is well capable of fighting this war on its own.

In the meantime, I set sail from Cape Verde and go south-westwards. Just a few weeks later, my explorer and his fleet set sight on the first land (I first mistyped and wrote “lad”, which is actually just as true and somewhat funnier. “Hey lad, is this the New World?”) in the New World, at the westernmost tip of South America. Being the first nation to find the new continent comes with a large prestige bonus.

Again, more after the cut because many pictures…

The Spain Campaign, Part 1: Getting Started

After all that introduction in the last post, it’s now time to get started in earnest. As a reminder, this is the political situation at the start of the game:

euiv_europe_startmap

Now, there are a few strategic decisions to make first, because they shape the at least the next few decades. To finish the reconquista is a given. However, what about Aragon and Burgundy?

More, with many pictures, after this cut…

The Spain Campaign

One of my best buys in the last year or so is Europa Universalis IV. It’s a grand strategy game from the grand strategy experts at Paradox Studios. For some reason, I hadn’t heard of the series until Europa Universalis III was on one of those ridiculous sales on Steam, and I bought it for probably 5 Euros or something like that. The problem, as often is the case with those sales, is that I ended up with several games, and EU III fell off the radar again, not the least because is already was quite old at the time and the graphics were… well. Not quite up to par any more. Also it looked complicated, which, I guess, is the whole idea of grand strategy games, but I never got around to wrap my head around its intricacies.

Enter EU IV, which was on sale a few months ago. Even though my last 9 months were very deprived of game time (writing my dissertation and silly things like that), I managed to rack up quite a large amount of hours. In fact, just last week, it managed to dethrone the previous king of play time, GTA IV (plus expansions)… which really surprised me back when I noticed, because I never felt I had played that much GTA… oh well.

In honor of the occasion, I’ll try, for the first time, to write a more detailed description of what I do in a game, with a plan to do so over several installments. It will be some sort of AAR (After Action Report), and I’ll try to make it understandable to people who have no idea about the game. The reason is threefold: First, I want to have a chance to have something to write about regularly, if I can’t think of anything else. Second, I hope it’ll entertain my readers, and maybe make some of them interested in the game. Finally, I hope it will remind me to take more screenshots while I’m playing. I noticed that one of my largest problems is that I want to write about something, but I need visuals to show what I mean. But I generally forgot to take screenshots while I’m playing, and later on regret it. So for this series, I’ll try to take screenshots until I’m blue in the face.

Despite the fact that I’m now beyond 200 hours played, I still don’t feel like I have an in-depth understanding of all the mechanics in the game. My games so far were mostly land expansion based: I played France, a suggested choice for first-timers, because their armies have strong bonuses and make it easy to conquer and defend. I then played Poland, reforming into Commonwealth. Next, I played the Palatinate, and went expanding within the Holy Roman Empire. Finally, my last game was with the Ottomans, going for one of their special nation goals, “Unify Islam”, which basically required you to expand the Ottomans, a small regional power in 1444, into pretty much the borders of the Umayyad Caliphate (plus Anatolia and Greece). And because a post talking so much about taking more screenshots should at least have one, here’s the end of the campaign, when I reached that goal:

eu4_61

For this new campaign, I want to try out something else. Whereas before I mostly did land-based expansion, this time I want to build a world-wide colonial empire, with dominance on the seas, powerful trade steering, and colonial viceroyalties. At the same time, I don’t want to ignore Europe completely, but rather try to expand there by alliances, marriages and personal unions instead of the sheer power of armies. Thus, I chose Spain for this game. Only, there’s no Spain in 1444, so I’ll go with Castile.

I’ll also play Ironman, which is one of the coolest features of the game. In Ironman mode, your save game is saved in the (Steam) cloud. You cannot save and load manually, and the game is automatically saved almost constantly. This means that save scumming is almost impossible. I have a tendency to get onto the slippery slope of save scumming in my games. It generally starts with innocent curiosity: “I wonder how the game behaves if I do A. It might be catastrophic, though, so good thing I can roll back!”. It progresses to “I don’t think I can take this nation, especially if its allies join. Let’s see if they do if I declare war!”, and ends up in depravity with “I bet I can win a war against this far more powerful nation if I just get lucky and win this 1:3 odds battle between the main forces. I bet it won’t take more than a dozen reloads until it ends in my favor!”. Ironman mode is probably the killer feature that made me play this game so much (as opposed to Civ V, for example, which I paid more for, and which I played a lot less): it protects myself from my save-scumming tendencies, and keeps the tension: a bad decision might actually cost me dearly, with no way to undo it. It also makes me more risk-averse, but that’s a price I’m willing to pay.

So. Castile. Ironman mode. The date is November 11, 1444. For reference, this is the state of Europe: (Like always, click for larger version)

euiv_europe_startmapNote how France is fractured, though many of those minor states are its vassals. The Hundred Years’ War is still trucking. The Emirate of Granada still controls southern Spain. Germany and Italy are divided between many powers (no surprise there, they’ll still be 400 years later in “vanilla” history). The king of Castile is a simpleton:

starting_king_castile(For reference, those numbers go from 0 to 6). Though at least his Moorish adversary isn’t any better:

starting_king_granadaNext time, I’ll start in earnest, writing about the first few years into the campaign. Who to ally? Who to rival? Expand where and how? And the most important: when will the next major patch roll around, and will it mess with old save games like 1.9 last year, which put Brazil into Russia and unexplored colonial provinces into Sweden (I hope not!)?

Small Game Saturday: Touch Pianist

Now, hold your horses. The title might make it seem like it’s going to be a regular series. We both know that this isn’t going to happen with my erratic posting schedule. I’m also generally not a huge fan of “casual games”, or what passes for that. However, it’s Saturday, and a nice small game was brought to my attention, so, at least this Saturday is Small Game Saturday!

The game in question is called “Touch Pianist“, runs in your Browser, and is like Guitar Hero. But it’s for the piano instead of the guitar (duh), and it uses just one button. What sounds like a pretty dull idea is actually quite fun. I’m not sure it still passes as a game, per se, but it’s good for an afternoon of entertainment and potentially even some education.

If you turn your screen by 90 degrees (or alternatively, your head), you can see where my comparison with Guitar Hero comes from.

If you turn your screen by 90 degrees (or alternatively, your head), you can see where my comparison with Guitar Hero comes from.

I played the piano for many years, and as halfway decent at that, without trying to sound immodest. Most of the stuff available in Touch Pianist I could play on a real piano back then (except for fugues; fuck fugues…). However, I stopped almost completely 15 years ago when I moved out and couldn’t take the piano with me. These days, I’m missing the practice to properly sight-read most stuff, so Touch Pianist is quite fun. It reminds me a bit of my very first driving lesson, where my teacher told me to steer, and he’d take care of the pedals and the shifting. Touch Pianist takes care of the notes, and all you have to do is the rhythm.

Which is easier to say than to do. Some pieces, like the “tutorial” moonlight sonata, are slow and have regular arpeggios that basically just require you to hit a key as regularly as possible. But once you get to pieces with trills and cadenzas, and switching meters, it becomes a different animal. On the other hand, these are more interesting to play: especially the Chopin pieces allow you to create a genuine interpretation of the piece, even though all you do is control the rhythm.

Rachmaninov's hammering chords are clearly visible in his Prelude op. 23 no. 5.

Rachmaninov’s hammering chords are clearly visible in his Prelude op. 23 no. 5.

For me, the hardest part is not having the score in front of me. With pieces I don’t know, I have to guess the rhythm by the distance between the dots, instead of looking at the notation. Also, if the rhythm or meter changes suddenly, I regularly run over and only realize when it starts to sounds wrong. Nevertheless, it’s very addicting for such a simple game. I played with it for about an hour straight before I had to stop: the constant scrolling of the dots and the background gave me motion sickness. Something that could be fixed in the next version, maybe?

Give it a try! It’s fun for a lazy weekend afternoon. You can find it at http://touchpianist.com/.