Wednesday, June 08, 2011

Pride of Nations Review

Pride of Nations, developed by AGEOD and published by Paradox Interactive.
The Good: Detailed yet controllable international trade and economic production, meticulous unit and leader attributes with automated garrisons, innovative diplomatic crisis mini-game, variety of colonial actions, optional assigned missions, population satisfaction triggers regional events, play by e-mail, inexpensive
The Not So Good: Lengthy boring turn resolution makes for a very slow pace, bland research options, only eight controllable nations with one campaign start date, four smaller battle scenarios disable economics, limited traditional diplomatic options to affect relationships
What say you? Manageable production and trade with supreme military detail, abundant colonial actions, and intriguing international crises highlight this typically fantastic turn-based grand strategy game, offered at a budget price: 7/8

This review also appears at The Wargamer

I like grand strategy games: getting control of an entire country and leading them towards economic and military victory on a large scale is a fine way to spend countless hours of your time. Two of the dominant forces in the genre are Paradox Interactive, known for their Europa Universalis series, and AGEOD, of Birth of America fame. Recently (well, a year and a half ago), they joined forces in an unholy alliance for grand strategy dominance. The latest title is Pride of Nations (originally entitled Vainglory of Nations, but nobody knows what a vainglory is), a grand strategy epic covering the Victorian period from 1850 until 1920. While this treads the same ground as the ultimately disappointing Victoria II, Pride of Nations hopes to combine AGEOD’s strong military pedigree with a substantial economic model and other auxiliary features in a more relaxed turn-based format.

Known for their high-quality 2-D maps, I was a bit surprised that the latest entry into the AGEOD canon lags behind its predecessors. Perhaps it has to do with the larger game scope (the whole world, instead of just Europe), but I was not impressed by the game’s blurry textures and lack of surface detail. The terrain is certainly less accurate than previous efforts on the small scale, with more squared rivers and fewer elevation changes utilizing subtle shadowing. It’s not all bad news, however, as the animations for ships and trains are a nice touch, but overall the map is not as good as I expected. The unit and leader portraits continue to be seemingly realistic and quite varied, placing you in a great historical context.

As with all grand strategy titles, the interface is an important aspect of the game design. Pride of Nations features over twenty map filters to highlight pretty much any aspect of the game: supply, strategic cities, weather, claimed regions, relations, colonial penetration, trade region, and more. There are also four map modes to cover the main parts of the game: military, economic, colonial, and decision. Building something in each mode (troops, factories, colonial actions) is accomplished by pressing the large gear icon next to the large map mode button. Pride of Nations also includes large displays for national attributes, military units and production, resource balance, population data, research, colonial targets, diplomacy, and overall objectives accessed using the F-keys, although there are no on-screen icons to serve as an alternate method. The “B” and “T” keys also lead to extremely helpful resource balances and trade controls. Pride of Nations maintains the intuitive tabbed unit organization method and features a ton of detailed tool-tips and messages to keep you informed.

Pride of Nations has basic sound effects for clicking on stuff and battles. More significant is the immense library of period-specific music (almost 150 songs) to put you in the mood for global domination. That’s about it for the sound, so…short paragraph!

In Pride of Nations, you control one of eight countries during the Victorian period from 1850 until 1920. There are only eight nations to choose from (the United States, Great Britain, France, Sardinia/Italy, Prussia/Germany, Austria, Russia, and Japan), although you can manually choose (though the console, the ~ key) to play as someone else. This, of course, begs the question: if you can change it, why not just list second-tier nations on a different page? Yes, the other countries lack events, but I'd still like to try out the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, China, the Ottoman Empire, or any of the other countries around the globe. Pride of Nations also limits you to one start date (1850), which means the grand campaign lasts 1,680 two-week turns. Turn resolution is also lengthy for me (between two and four minutes per turn), so even if all I did was press “end turn,” it would still take me almost one hundred hours to complete the campaign. Everyone’s orders are executed simultaneously, but you can’t do anything while the game processes each turn, except go grab a sandwich or something. The winner is calculated by prestige points that are earned through a variety of methods, including colonies, diplomatic crises, capturing cities, and missions. The game also adds various plausible, semi-random objective cities (up to twenty per nation) that are different for each game; this may alter your overall strategy in subsequent campaigns even if you play the same nation.

In addition to the grand campaign, Pride of Nations includes four battle scenarios: the 1857 Sepoy Rebellion, the 1859 Risorgimento, the 1899 Boer War, and the 1904 Russo-Japanese War. These battles are varied in length, but only involve the military portion of the game, so they play out just like previous AGEOD titles. Learning Pride of Nations takes some time, and the tutorials do just an average job of teaching the basics to newcomers (unlike the fantastic multi-tiered tutorials of Victoria II). You can customize the game rules to your liking, adjusting the leader activation rule, use of randomized generals, attrition, sphere of influence for colonization, extending claims (so you can claim any adjacent province in a peace treaty), and AI behavior (including difficulty and bonuses). Pride of Nations allows you to play by e-mail, although it would be nice if they were centrally hosted like Frozen Synapse or Battlefield Academy. Pride of Nations continues to support user modifications, and the game is only $20. Wait, what?

One of the strongest aspects of Pride of Nations is the economy, something that had only been a simplified component in AGEOD’s previous efforts. Pride of Nations differentiates between state money and private capital. Basically, state money is earned from taxes (census, corporate, excise, tariff, income, and maritime) and used to purchase military units, while private capital is accumulated from trade and used to construct factories. The game features over thirty resources and goods that can be produced, manufactured, and traded. In general, goods are made to make your people happy (and make some money in the process), supplement the production of more advanced items, and trade those goods to other nations for a handy profit. The most important item to produce is manufactured goods, required to raise troops, build factories, and place most colonial or provincial actions; make sure you have a steady supply of it available. Pride of Nations assists in balancing your economy through the confusing commerce screen or the much more streamlined asset balance screen, which displays color-coded graphs depicting which goods have a biweekly deficit or surplus. Tool-tips displayed while hovering over each good shows trade areas that have the product for sale, which makes acquiring needed materials much easier. It’s usually a better idea to produce the most desirable goods yourself, so you can construct buildings to do so. It can be a bit daunting to choose which particular factory or farm to queue in which province, so the AI can make suggestions, shown in a tool-tip by hovering over the “total value” number in the asset balance window. If you can't produce a particular good domestically (say, tropical fruits in Russia), you can even place a factory in another country (as long as it's linked with a merchant ship and you sign the appropriate diplomatic treaty) and export the goods directly to yourself. Each building needs specific raw materials; if they are not available, the factory will temporarily shut down until you manually reinstate it and make sure the required goods are provided. The efficiency of the structure depends on the quality of available labor, regional satisfaction, available technologies, and local infrastructure. Overall, the assistance given by the asset balance window allows the player to make intelligent, informed decisions guiding their nation’s economy.

You won’t need to keep all of your produced goods domestically, and most countries will be deficient in at least a couple items, so trade important. Goods from several provinces are grouped into a trade zone; if you enter economic map mode and double-click on a resource icon, you’ll see a list of all the goods available in that zone and then simply click to increase values to add your goods to the international market or ask for items from neighboring nations. If several nations are competing for the same goods, technology levels and relationships determine the “winner”. While you can’t control who buys your goods (or if anyone will actually purchase them), Pride of Nations strikes a great balance between letting the user tweak the trade requests and automating the purchases each turn once the demands have been established. You can trade with any zone that’s a couple of zones away from your capital; reaching further zones is accomplished by using merchant fleets. These vessels park in special sea zones (inside an oval rope) that are connected with a number of trade zones and allow for trade with those regions. Since several trade zones are connected with a single merchant zone, there is significantly less micromanagement than if the relationship was one-to-one. Also, the goods availability seems to be pretty constant, so you’re not spending minutes each turn adjusting request levels. A cool thing is that you can use your navy to destroy a rival’s merchant ships (since the AI nations use the same system) and cut off their overseas trade. I like the system very much.

Like in most grand strategy games, you are a magical, mystical national overseer, rather than the actual head of state, which changes over time because (spoiler alert!) people die. Your head of state is rated in three areas that affect different parts of your nation: imperialism (changing the military force pool and cohesion), administration (affecting production), and diplomacy (modifying prestige). Your nation is rated in eleven areas like technology, religion, education, and bureaucracy; unlike Europa Universalis, these attributes are mostly static, only changing through special events. There are also political factions at play in your nation; if your government type (there are four) supports elections, you can promote a specific candidate, although your people will generally vote for whoever is most desirable to them. Pride of Nations also includes decrees, laws, and industrial options that work like events triggered by the player that grant small bonuses in specific areas. Lastly, there are missions: accomplish various tasks like having the largest army or exporting cattle and earn a significant prestige bonus.

Keeping your people happy is important, as riots are generally bad things. The more goods you provide, the more satisfied your country will be. The people require food, consumer goods, and luxury goods; there are many choices in each category (eight to ten), so you don’t need to provide every single good in the game. National morale can also be improved by capturing objectives and winning battles. Each citizen is assigned a social class (slave, peasant, worker, middle class, upper class, or aristocracy) that determines where they can work, and rated in terms of satisfaction, militancy, education, nationality, ethnicity, and religion. Citizens can change class over time and cities can grow. Twice a year, each province undergoes a satisfaction check that can trigger an event (there is, of course, a table showing the probabilities): improved (or reduced) productivity, or riots that can result in destroyed goods and rebel units spawning in the province. This mechanic gives concrete, and somewhat randomized, consequences for your economic ability. The satisfaction-driven events highlight the population dynamics portion of Pride of Nations.

Pride of Nations features a lot of technologies that can be researched in several areas: army, navy, commercial, social, and industrial. However, this process is totally automated and subsequently not terribly interesting: you can speed up specific techs if you choose (for a large monetary investment), but I rarely ventured onto the research screen and discovered new technologies just fine. Of course, some would argue that this hands-off approach is more realistic, and the specific areas are influenced indirectly by what you build on the map (for example, more ports means more naval research). Plus, research is one less thing to worry about in an already complex game. Far more interesting is colonization, accomplished by using thirty or so different actions on prospective provinces. You can choose between exploration, military action, diplomacy, or development; all of these will increase your colonial penetration in the area (while some might result in a native revolt), eventually turning a protectorate into a formal colony or dominion. Pride of Nations also features a sphere of influence rating in each province (conveniently listed in a handy register of all potential colonial targets), which offers colonization bonuses in specific areas; this is meant to somewhat script where certain countries colonized historically. If you are the sneaky, underhanded type (and who isn’t?), you can even send military expeditions to rival colonies, hoping to cause a native uprising. The resource requirements for placing each action cuts down on the repetition, and requires you to decide where to best place each available action. Overall, the action-based colonization of Pride of Nations offers a lot more choices than simply sending a colonist every month until the settlement reaches a specified population level.

Despite your best efforts, there will be other countries in the world. Your diplomatic relationship with other nations is quantified as a numerical rating, and you are given a number of options for dealing with your neighbors: defensive treaties, alliances, and declarations of war are the typical choices. You can also promise support in a diplomatic crisis, grant (or request) military movement through their country, or start a loan. If another nation sends a request of their own, you can agree, disagree, or simply ignore the demand. There is a realistic delay for bilateral agreements, so you’ll have to wait a turn or two to see if the trade agreement goes into affect. Pride of Nations does not show the likelihood of acceptance before you send a request, nor does the AI provide any counter-offers, so you will get a lot of rejections without explanation. There is only one option to directly increase or decrease relationships, so you have to rely on secondary effects more often; this is a bit disappointing, making it tough to anger or please the nations of your choice. You are also somewhat limited in the number of diplomats at your disposal, so relationship ratings will not drastically change from turn to turn. You will need a casus belli for declaring war on other nations, a result of them having regions you claim as your own, or a diplomatic option that forges one. National territory changing hands was not a typical outcome during the time period, so most new lands will be colonies or claimed provinces (which are fixed). Surrounding that, there are five peace treaty options you can request: land (which must be designed as a claimed region), colonies, a monthly payment, a nation to be freed, or a decrease in army or navy size. Overall, the standard diplomatic options are a bit disappointing. So, how are you supposed to anger your neighbors enough so you can invade them? A crisis, that’s how.

Crises are a new adaptation for diplomacy, important enough to earn their own paragraph. So here it is! During each turn, the game automatically checks for places of friction (usually nearby troops, or a disputed province or colony, plus bad relations) and might trigger a crisis. The two sides then fight over the region and a large pot of prestige; other nations can join a side (using the “promise local support” diplomatic option) and earn a share of the prestige if their side wins. Whichever side is more “just” in the conflict (usually the defender) contributes less prestige to the pot, and whoever earns three dominance first wins. Every turn, each side picks an agenda from the following list: delay (good for the defender), debate (same as delay but with a possible dominance change), propose congress (attempt an end and increase in dominance), silver tongue or pressure support (get third parties on your side), call press conference (win dominance), conciliation (resolve crisis), or contest on legal points (prolong the crisis). Essentially, each side attempts to either lengthen the crisis or add dominance to their side. After six turns are completed (or one side earns three dominance points), the victor is determined and prestige is awarded. A diplomatic crisis is a neat little mini-game that is far more interesting than simply going to war.

War it is! Good thing Pride of Nations has a veritable cornucopia of military units at your disposal. The military side of the game is very similar to previous AGEOD efforts (this is a good thing), so veterans will know what to expect (and can probably skip the next three paragraphs of this review). Military units are placed into containers, usually corps or army-sized empty units that hold a number of different elements. Most controllable elements in Pride of Nations that can be moved between containers are corps, division, or occasionally brigade size, so most nations have a limited number (around ten) of units you must handle (stationary, automated garrisons not included), reducing military micromanagement significantly. Each unit is composed of smaller elements that cannot be altered, consisting of various things like air units, ships, armored cars, artillery (both light and heavy), cavalry, engineers, and infantry (line or elite). Each unit is rated in many areas: initiative, range, protection, discipline, damage, cohesion, movement speed, detection, hide value, weight, and combat values at various ranges. Units may also be given several special abilities (from a list of over five hundred) that further affect combat and movement. Leaders are similar: also given special abilities, they are rated according to their experience and leadership skills, and can be promoted or demoted over time (senior officers are intended to be promote first, even if they are not as good as a younger choice).

Unit construction is straightforward: choose a unit from a filterable list (only corps-sized units, only artillery, only cavalry), and provinces in which it can be constructed are shown in green. Then, simply drag and drop and recruiting will commence. Reinforcement of existing units involves a mix of manual and automatic actions: you must specify which kinds of units will get reinforcements (line infantry, support, engineers) and assign reinforcements to those groups on the war ministry screen, but then the game actually delivers the units automatically. This strikes a nice balance between giving the user control and removing some of the tedium involved in the process. Overall, Pride of Nations gives you plenty of flexibility with your military unit composition, while still remaining manageable thanks to the increased minimum size of the units in play.

Pride of Nations gives you plenty of orders to give to your units. First, you must decide on a posture for each unit: passive (always avoids combat), defensive, offensive, or all-out assault. You can also specify retreat rules, from “never” to “always”. Moving units around is drag-and-drop, although you can specify to use rail or naval transports for faster travel (though this does use coal or oil). A number of special orders can also be given to your units: seek shelter, forced march, sortie (attack the assaulters outside the fort), evade, build forts or depots, or synchronize a move between several corps. You can also hide units in enemy territories to perform raids, more likely if a small unit has a high hide value. Options here are pretty typical, but welcome in their scope.

There are many factors that affect combat other than the units themselves. Climate (rain, snow, harsh, and very harsh) affects movement, attrition, and combat. Units will lose strength as they move, especially through bad weather or desert, or when they run out of supplies. There can also be epidemics that can destroy some of your units. Having military control over a region will enhance cohesion between units and increase the likelihood of neighboring friendly units joining a nearby battle. Combat is entirely automated, using all of those fancy attributes discussed earlier to determine a victor. While this is a bit abstract, on a game of this scale, it’s the only practical way of doing things and at least the results involve detailed calculations. Supply is an important ingredient for continuing an effective attack: ammunition and other items are automatically distributed from cities, depots, harbors, and forts to your troops in the field. The game will actually use rail lines if you have the rail points left to transport goods even faster. You can also place a supply wagon in a container for a temporary solution just in case. The supply system is meant to discourage operations deep behind enemy lines where you’ll quickly run out of the basics. While the process is quite sophisticated, I found it a bit confusing in some situations: for example, I had some units garrisoned inside cities run out of supplies (I guess in Russia, getting those goods to Siberia and Georgia is tough). A little more explanation as to why units are out of supply would be helpful (the units in question were in “green” supply areas, so I don’t know what the specific issue was).

Your computer opponents in Pride of Nations seem to be pretty competent, especially when you consider the relatively complex nature of the game. The AI handles each of the game’s aspects in varying degrees of activity. The computer is the liveliest diplomatically, drawing up proposals frequently and developing plausible responses to human-made offers. The AI also likes to enact new laws, adjust trade, and trigger crises with neighbors (especially over colonies). The computer is a bit slower colonizing and they are a little cautious in battle, failing to invade territories defended by inferior units on occasion. Still, overall I was pleased with the level of competence exhibited by the computer. Of course, since it takes so long to run a single turn, all of that computing time had better be used to make a decent AI opponent.

Pride of Nations is a detailed yet manageable grand strategy game thanks to a happy compromise between giving the user control and automating the truly menial tasks. Between adjusting trade, constructing factories, expanding colonies, negotiating diplomatic crises, enacting new laws, and producing and moving military units, there’s almost always something to do each turn in Pride of Nations, and you never feel like the game is playing itself entirely. A large part of the game is managing your economy, made easier by a predictable, straightforward trade system where you can request and sell goods in trading zones free from every-turn tweaking. You can access distant trade areas by simply placing merchant ships in specific sea zones, a great system that allows you to mess with competitors’ economies through naval combat and consolidates the many sources of goods into distinct locations. You can also attempt to manufacture additional goods yourself and consider the AI suggestions for the best provinces to construct in. AGEOD’s detailed military returns, as each of your leaders and units are rated in many areas and exhibit a host of special abilities to assist in combat. Military units are easy to manage thanks to a reduced number of large armies, and garrisons are automatically formed and disbanded in towns and forts when needed. The AI offers up a proficient foe and ally, and I could not identify and specific areas of exploitable weakness. Your country will change over time as new heads of state and political factions come to power. You must also satisfy the population with plenty of goods and low taxes while gaining prestige by completing missions, winning battles, and colonizing the world. New colonies are established by sending expeditions, improving the province, and (of course) bribing the local chief. Diplomacy is different thanks to a unique crisis game where international tension is resolved by each side playing actions to gain dominance in the disagreement. Research is almost entirely automated and generally can be ignored. The grand campaign only includes one start date along with lengthy turn resolution; additional battle scenarios only highlight the military portion of the game. The interface is decent overall, giving access to tons of data to direct your nation once you learn how it's organized. Finally, Pride of Nations is only $20, a significantly low price for such a large amount of content. Overall, there are only two things I would change: more start dates for the campaign and more user input into research (plus a faster CPU for quicker turn resolutions). The remainder of the game is outstanding and Pride of Nations should immediately be in any grand strategy gamer’s library. Containing some brilliant game design, Pride of Nations is definitely a grand strategy game of note.