Good things about Phoenix Point – the world-building

May 5, 2023 3 comments

OK so I’ve been kinda down on Phoenix Point here, but I have kept playing it, and although that’s mostly because I have a serious addiction problem with XCOM, it’s also because PP has some good qualities and particularly some good world-building, and I think that’s something you people would dig.

First, let’s get the yawn/eyeroll-inducing parts out of the way – yes it’s a
– postapocalyptic survival game
– with Mad Max collapsed-world petty kings
– and a “Lovecraftian” story
– and big machine guns
– and a pandemic that turns out to be aliens (always aliens), some of which look like they’re wearing your grandma’s underwear on their heads:

and more guns than people, just like America.

BUT its writers have actually read some Lovecraft, so it has a whole thing about deep time, hominid and human evolution (including a lurking shame in humanity’s DNA), long cometary periods, Yuggoth, and mind-control technologies. It even quietly raises some questions (without resolving them) about why aliens can control human minds. Is there some… basic compatibility between them?
AND YET in spite of this high level of literacy compared with most “Lovecraftian” video games, it’s still really the same level of seriousness as Stranger Things. It expresses that through occasional moments of satirical humour –


and it’s not even above Rickrolling you – each Haven of survivors has a motto; one of them is “Never gonna give you up.”

The soul of the game, though, is its three NPC factions, which have very distinct characters. In many ways, playing PP is about choosing between these factions – you are told quite explicitly that your own organization’s idea for winning is Pyrrhic – it’ll lead to the death of most of mankind, and anybody else’s idea is likely to be better. And each faction has its own technologies, so the wise player charts a course between them, gathering tools and strategy ideas from each. But the factions are designed as rivals with incompatible philosophies and they periodically throw questions at you, to find out whether you share their world view, and the designers have some fun framing those questions to make it uncomfortable for the player to just tell the faction what they want to hear.

They’re also…. strangely familiar. OK look, you could interpret them as takes on any number of historical prototypes – say, Romans, Persians, and Greeks; or the 3 dominant tendencies of late Weimar Germany – Nationalists, Christian Democrats, and Socialists; but to my eye, they look unmistakably like 3 (unflattering) faces of contemporary America: Authoritarian Conservatives, Religious Cultists, and Techbro Utopians. And the art does a phenomenal job of painting those three ideas, through their architecture and equipment, and their statements and approaches to problems.

The authoritarians call themselves New Jericho and their leader, Tobias West, is initially described to you as a billionaire with an uncompromising vision, but he is slowly revealed to be somewhere around Hitler on the dictator scale. Their buildings all look like mixtures of factories and barracks – the Military-Industrial Complex laid bare:

nice underground train or truck tunnel there.

and there’s a pervasive grottiness to life in their Havens – messy mess tables for mass meals, military barrack showers and unmade beds, because who has time for niceties when there’s a war on? They’re also the only faction with propaganda billboards everywhere:

and toilet rolls; toilet rolls feature prominently.

Their APC and aircraft look distinctly like part of a Vietnam war timeline and their guns are resolutely bullet-based. You just know they get off on “rolling coal” and go hunting aliens for sport in their spare time,

and their color palette is murky cold grey and camo green.

Which could be a look for the whole game, right? Mad Max havens, the militarized future – but then you meet the cultists – the Disciples of Anu, and they seem to be living in a completely different world:

one that’s learning to live with the virus, and embracing mutation and the strange new skills they’re developing. Their ruling class are mind-controlling priests, they fly zeppelins, which are partly alive and partly blinged out,

and all their biggest buildings are temples, full of statues. In fact, they’re suspiciously well-funded – almost as if their cult leaders had been preparing for an end-of-the-world event for years before it actually happened.

And, refreshingly, they’re not necessarily the enemy. Sure, they have bad days where they start shouting at you to cleanse the world of unbelievers, but then you calmly say no and then another leader comes in and apologizes and says that’s really not their teachings. They’re sort of Neo-Sumerian or cod-Mayan, but I suspect they’re most of all Tekumel-inspired. And they just might have the best solution to the whole alien-virus-invasion problem.

They also might be onto something with their Sumerian schtick, because it turns out human (or hominid) civilization has been around a lot longer than people think and you can go dig up some Antediluvian Tech from secret Indiana Jones sites and it’s got this kinda gold floaty thing going on that’s more similar to the Disciples than anyone else:

some kind of stone age particle accelerator? Funny how humanity never noticed it before
even the Antediluvians were not immune to the lure of Steampunk.

Finally, Synedrion are the Techbro Utopians and they have two big obsessions – on one hand, Ancient Greek gods and Athenian democracy, and on the other, Silicon Valley corporate parks and Apple/Dyson product design.

Their buildings are full of cantilevered overhangs (which are kind of a nightmare in a game that shows you slices through the terrain, floor-by-floor) and giant textured glass walls (which you can’t hide behind but also can’t accurately shoot through), and their half-green-spaced parking lots are full of charging stations and fountains and trees that play havoc with your jump jets. They’ve long since abandoned petrol and bullets for cold fusion and lasers, and you just know their uniform fibers are ethically-sourced – even if they’re also long-term toxic and a landfill menace for future generations. Their planes and ground vehicles were clearly designed by the same hairdryer guru:

and with similar goals in mind – they have the fastest speeds, highest costs, and smallest passenger capacities of any vehicles in the game, because that’s who their users are, right? High-flying executives, mostly working alone. If you need to carry more people, buy two of them. Duh.

And looking at the game’s arc through the eyes of these three factions, I find myself asking (as I did with XCOM2), “what will life be like in this world, after you solve the immediate crisis?” And I’m genuinely not sure which of the factions I would choose to go live with… the game does a pretty good job of setting you up for “maybe something can be saved out of each of them, but maybe none of them is right as it stands.”

Oh, right, but that Stranger Things limit on seriousness? So each faction has a color palette – militaristic grey for New Jericho, Apple white for Synedrion, and lush purple and gold for the Disciples of Anu (though they wear it with a certain restraint that makes it look cohesive at least, if not logical).

But you the player can customize your color palettes for each soldier, or you can check the “randomize” button, and I am so glad I did the latter. Because the palette they randomize from is fabulous.

I asked my engineers to build a copy of the Synedrion super-hoover, pictured above, and this is what they gave me.

It’s always like this. Here’s what the randomizer gave me for a stealth unit, comprising a Sniper, a Priest, and an Anu Berzerker.

And you know what? I love it. I would Berzerk too. And I can always find my soldiers against a feature-rich background.

ETA: I have now finished the game and have spoilery denouement thoughts about the outros (which someone has handily collected in a video). Ending spoilers follow:

…so remember the Hitler guy? Turns out he’s more of a Hitler/Stalin figure, obsessed with purity:

and uncompromising unity. His ending gets the strongest mismatch between image and text:

although I wonder if all US players would get that it’s mismatched – after all, it’s a mainstay of American militarist propaganda that “freedom isn’t free” – you have to have a bunch of people signing away their freedom in military contracts in order to “protect the rights of every individual.” Bush’s mantra was that Iraqis must die in war so Americans may live in peace.

The Utopian ending has you freeing the aliens from being mind-controlled by their evil overlord, which is a highly interesting deviation from the Lovecraftian norm and raises Chimera Squad questions about how humans are going to live in peace with independent, intelligent species that have totally different ecological requirements. But its imagery ducks all these questions and just shows you some Syd Mead/Dymaxion architectural renders that you’ve already seen:

The one that cracks me up is the lovin’ the alien Anu Cult ending,

because of the dude with a cowboy hat and tentacles. Like “yep partner, that’s how we be naow.” Considering changing the name of this blog to “bound by the chains of an imperfect biology.”

Architectural history for gamers 2b: mountains and misdirection

May 5, 2023 Leave a comment

So last post we’d finally got to the throne room at Kandy and discovered that maybe the god-king actually isn’t who we need to talk to. He sits there, absolutely immobile, a mysterious silhouette on a throne at the end of the ritual garden, while various courtiers tell you what he wants and how you should be bowing and scraping. What gives?

1796, the highest point in Kandy palace, the king enthroned – a god incarnate on Earth, and 6 Dutch East India Company officials, who are used to giving orders, not kneeling in front of distant monarchs they can barely see.

It turns out the god-king is supposed to make everything work (everything – the sun rising, the tides going in and out) just by being. Or by his Divine Will, if you want a kinda-Christian gloss on it. And so it’s vitally important for him to never lift a finger, because that would look like taking action, which is not what he’s supposed to do.

Typical PCs in this situation look around the room to see who’s really in charge – some back door or chink in the armor that can let them break into the system and make off with the loot. And Dutch East India Company officials are absolutely typical PCs. This whole throne room setup is not useful to them – you came on a pilgrimage to see a god on Earth and you got this close to the mystery, but the final veil cannot be pierced? Try telling that to the Company directors. Therefore it must be false.

And it turns out the throne room landscape is kind of a misdirection – the people who really have power are the various groups of Buddhist and Hindu priests who speak for the king and maintain the religious traditions on which the king’s power depends. The king might actually be powerless, or might be a player among players, or might be secretly running the show in spite of his immobility, but the priests can do things. A very similar situation existed in Bali during the same period, BTW – there, the real holders of power were the Buddhist priests who (can you guess?) …controlled the flow of water down the mountain.

A Balinese mountaintop temple, with attendant water channels
The Balinese lived on wet rice cultivation in the 19th century – these rice paddies run all the way down the mountainside.
And they need an enormous amount of water to operate – you have to flood them to germinate the rice, and then dry them out for the growing/ripening season
and it’s all controlled by the Buddhist clergy, who direct water to one rice farm or another, according to a calendar that only the priests understand, in order to ensure cosmic balance around the island and especially among the farmers who give generously to the monasteries.

So how can the king of Kandy balance the power of the different priestly sects? This is where James Duncan’s book on the subject really comes alive – he gets into the court politics and the competing discourses on which court power depends, and the arena in which the power struggles play out, and in the end it’s all about landscape design.

See, everyone has a stake in the king being accepted as divine – all the different priestly groups want a stable kingdom (with themselves at the top, naturally), and that means a king that agrees with the story they’re telling in their temples. Water is life and it is right and proper that the lake (or reservoir, actually) should be next to the palace – that wave-swell wall is a reminder that “the crown adorns the kingdom, as waves adorn the sea.” But past that, everyone wants different things. The Buddhists want Kandy tobe more like the ancient Empire of Ashoka, when the water was kept for the welfare of all, and everyone came to the Buddhist temples for education. So their ideal king would open up the lake and the temples for public access and would teach the kids Buddhist scripture, and incidentally keeps the Hindus down as second-class citizens. The Hindus, on the other hand, want the kingdom to be like other Hindu kingdoms on mainland India, with access to water and temples reserved for the privileged classes, the water being nicely channeled into walled parks and gardens, the better to echo the park-like top of Mt. Meru. In their view, the lake, temples and king should all be a bit distant from the common people, tucked behind the palace walls.

Now, a canny king would play these interests off against each other, alternately favoring one faction or another, or managing to please everyone a little bit with signs that could be read favorably by any group. So he walls off part of the lake beside the palace, and makes a garden for the Hindus to enjoy, but the other shore of the lake is open access to the Buddhist commoners. Or he sequesters a shrine behind a palace canal but puts a big Buddha statue on the hill above it, or he makes rich garden apartments for the Hindu aristocrats but puts them some miles outside the center of the city, so that the aristocrats feel guilty about not staying there. And the result is an ambiguous landscape full of contradictory signs, where making a change anywhere could lead to a shift in the balance and re-reading of the signs everywhere.

The South Indian Mayamatam Shastra (a sort of architectural manual that tells you how to construct everything from a garden to a kingdom) says “if the measurements of the temple are in every way perfect, there will be perfection in the universe as well.” Which is a great way to keep all your religious advisors haggling about temple measurements, while you get on with ruling and raising taxes and waging war and peace. On the other hand, “if the king swerve ever so little from righteousness, the planets themselves will desert their orbits… rainfall will diminish, all life on Earth will cease,” which is a great way to keep your king in line.

The last king of Kandy was not particularly canny. He came up with a sneaky plan to imprison the Hindu aristocrats in a new, highly desirable set of mansions, but in selling them the idea, he also wound up walling off the most important Buddhist shrine – so his scheme of trapping the Hindus in a gilded prison just looked to the Buddhists like giving their rivals a load of gold, stolen from themselves. He demanded that Buddhist peasants do the building work and took Buddhist temple lands away to expand the lake… with the intention of rebuilding things to restore the balance later. The whole plan might possibly have worked out in the Buddhists’ favor if it had been completed, but… the Buddhists understandably saw the raw ditches being dug and the disorder in the city and a wall of earth going up around their Shrine of the Buddha’s Tooth, and… they complained to the English (who had replaced the Dutch on the coast), that this bad Tamil king was cutting down their sacred trees and creating “great mountains of earth… a place where dogs and foxes defecate at night.” Worst of all, he had built a giant monstrosity of an octagonal tower for viewing elephant races or some other such Hindu-inflected nonsense:

The very order of the world was under threat. Perhaps the English could step in and mediate, restore order, and put the king in his place?

The English, of course, didn’t care about any of that. They wanted cheap and reliable cinnamon delivered to the docks down in the coastal city of Colombo, and to spend as little time in Kandy, where the cinnamon grows, as possible. So they brought in troops and put down the king, and then put down the Buddhist elites, and set up a cinnamon extraction factory, and then chopped down the bodhi trees to make room for a tea plantation, and nobody got their lake or their mansions. They could have their Temple of the Tooth, though… once its keepers had lost their right to landscape the kingdom.

That controversial octagonal tower even became an emblem for Ceylon tea at the 1924 British Empire Exhibition. Note also the bit of wave-swell wall, in the corner of the image.

So how do you use all this in games? The first thing is, if landscape communicates, then it can also lie – or at least have multiple interpretations. Potemkin villages, carefully-framed views that have wanton destruction just outside the picture, presentations that conceal the true nature of things – Lewis Mumford said the weakest regimes tend to have the most solid-looking buildings. The second thing is, landscape is no more static than anything else – it may be expensive to dig lakes or flatten hills but landscapes also change by having different people living in them, or by being imagined differently. Whom does it serve (and whom does it flatter), when you put up or take down a wall, bridge, or dam? Access to water and farmland and streets and markets can raise some communities up and push others down. Power over the people generally involves some power for those people – and nothing makes people feel ignored and aggrieved like an imposition thrown up on their land. Forts and churches want to be able to see each other, to send signals and know that all’s well between them – what happens when you put an obstruction in the way?

To take an example from fiction, one of my favourite moments in the recent Westworld TV series is where we discover the Great Designer has been designing a whole new corner of the kingdom, with a giant bucket scoop excavator hidden over the ridge of his ersatz Western wilderness park. It’s a literal case of politics via landscape – he’s taking back control of his creation from his creations.

Bagger 293, ready for its close-up

It’s an old joke that killing the dragon and looting its hoard will tank the local economy by flooding it with gold – but what about the land developers that were being held at bay by the prospect of being barbecued? Or the cult that can now “reclaim” their holy mountain? Or the cult that has lost their nightly firework display, that proved God was still on their side? The pilgrim routes that are disrupted, the royal roads that can now cut across the goblins’ swamp? Which provinces and ethnic groups will profit, which will be pushed up into those suddenly-open mountain pastures, forced to dig bits of dragon-glass out of them so they don’t lacerate or mutate their sheep, while the Emperor’s retired Elite Guards swipe all the fertile, long-fallow farmland? If you knock down the black monolith on Druid Mesa, how will the aliens know where to park on the next planetary alignment?

Of course, the state of politics can be expressed in a hundred ways. But the power of landscape is, it’s always there. And if it changes, you immediately know about it – when something is rotten in the state, it leaves marks on the countryside. And vice versa.

…I guess I’m just repeating what Lorenzetti said in the 14th century with his murals, the Allegory of Good and Bad Government, for the Palazzo Pubblico, Siena.

Good government has blue hills, neat farms, and naked women flying in the sky.
Bad government leads to ghostly soldier figures, burning towns, and frescoes in a poor state of conservation.

Architectural history for gamers 2a: the holy mountain

May 4, 2023 3 comments

Not Jodorowski’s hallucinatory epic (sorry) but the whole concept of holy mountains as narrative landscapes.
…recapping the end of the last post,
Before the British conquered Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), it had an independent kingdom tucked into its central highlands, called Kandy (or “Candea” in 16th century Portuguese):

…ringed by forbidding mountains:

this is from before everyone agreed to do maps with North pointing up, so I’ve rotated it to match the map above

The Kings of Kandy ruled over a mixture of Hindu and Buddhist subjects and they presented themselves as ideal priest- or philosopher-kings in both traditions, ruling an ideal spiritual kingdom that was effectively heaven on Earth. This has been a pretty common ploy throughout… most places. China, India, SE Asia, central America, Greece…. So many places, in fact, that some early historians of religions tried to come up with ur-myths about the universality of the ideal kingdom as a mirror of the kingdom of the gods, and of the ruler being a pin or axis point that locks our dirty world together with the ideal god-world, which is usually located in a city in the sky or on a bit of land that touches the sky, i.e. a mountain top.

So a lot of temples are built in the form of holy mountains, like they’re the local version or access point to The Holy Mountain. Shown here, one of the Jain temples at Khajurato, India.
here’s a Buddhist one, from Borobudur, Java, Indonesia, complete with shlepping ascent trek and meditative wheezing.

In many Hindu traditions, that god-home mountain is Mount Meru, which is a very unusual shape:

…wider at the top than the bottom (that’s not actually perspective). It’s also square, but it’s shown trapezoidally on the picture above to show off the colors of 3 of the sides. Mt. Meru sits at the middle of the world (like Kandy in the middle of Sri Lanka), anchoring it firmly to the sky. From Mt. Meru, the world expands in all its glory until it reaches the 4 or 7 concentric seas that surround it, and beyond that is chaos and/or The Buddha. The whole thing is called a Mandala system, and it was as important to Chinese and Majapahiti political theory as to Kandyan.

Phew, that’s better: a nice, clear plan view, more like the maps we’re familiar with, no ambiguous perspective.

The god-home has 4 rivers that spring from a single source/lake and flow down the sides of the mountain, dividing the world into 4 continents – that same scheme finds its way into various Persian and Islamic cosmographies, which explains the 4-garden paradise or chahar bagh, centered on a water cross, that you’re probably familiar with from Mughal funerary parks or late Almohad palaces.

The popularity of the mountain-as-center probably has something to do with mountains being so damn visible from everywhere (and, just occasionally, powerfully explosive). There’s also a common feature that they tend to have people living on them who are regarded as original – either culturally older than valley-dwellers or at least less tractable – it’s an old saw that “civilizations can’t climb hills,” and the Portuguese and Dutch took a lot longer to colonize the hilly center of Sri Lanka than the accessible coast, just like the Romans had had a harder time Imperializing the mountain-dwelling Basques and Caucasus-folks than the valley-dwelling Goths and Franks (although James Scott says we’ve got it backwards – valley people get driven up into the hills in attempts to escape oppressive valley governments, which would support the general principle that ideologies are usually created to cover up the truth, not to represent it). And it’s remarkable how many stories there are around the world about mountains being the origin points for civilizations or the holders of ancient truth and wisdom – the Bugis have a creation myth in which they climbed down out of the sky, from the mountains of Sulawesi. In the Bible, Noah’s family repopulates the world after the flood from the peak of Mt. Ararat (an origin story asserted by, among others, Turkmenbashi).

So mountains come with inbuilt concepts of power and purity – whether that stems from their proximity to heaven or the strange vibrations in the air above the mountaintop, or their harshness, which is imagined to make people stronger. Concepts that stand in direct contradiction to the facts – that mountains suck for supporting polities (they generally have terrible topsoil and worse communications) and have historically hardly ever been origin points for empires (yes yes I know, the Inca. But they’re a special case – no beasts of burden or competition from lowlanders to speak of – they can be seen as more of a community of desperate solidarity than an ambitious and expansive imperial project).

OK so back to Kandy and its political ideology of being a mountain god-kingdom. In the 16th-18th centuries, if you applied to send an embassy to the kingdom from one of the cities down on the coast, they would send you a guide and the whole thing was presented as a pilgrimage. You’d have to bring gifts and pack elephants and it would take weeks.

And the path up the mountains was strictly laid out by the guide: setting out from a courtyard with a bodhi tree (like the one the Buddha died under) you pass through 7 “thorn gates” to have your initiation checked before reaching another bodhi tree just outside the hidden valley

and beyond that, you’d wait at the border of the great lake – source of the life-giving rivers of Sri Lanka.

If the chamberlain invited you across, then you’d ascend another 7 layers at the palace.

from the Wave Swell Wall (symbolizing the waters of the lake) to the Meru Gate, to the Cloud Drift Wall (entering heaven), to the Terrace (with a floor like the sea), Upper Terrace, Lower Audience Hall and, finally, the Throne Room, where the king was displayed, remotely, at the end of another indoor stage-set-like garden, attended by courtiers who would interpret your requests.

Dutch East India Company delegation to Kandy, 1796

So, how to use all this in games?

…published adventures often make some use of landscape in setting the scene – the entrance to the dungeon is in the ruins of a long-lost civilization, multiple layers of history inform the presence of different factions of enemies – but they seldom make the landscape set the scene in a way that makes it relevant to the current action, that frames what the game will really be about. Two notable exceptions are Patrick and Scrap’s Deep Carbon Observatory and Zedeck Siew’s Lorn Song of the Bachelor – the latter, in particular, has the landscape reconfiguring as the adventure runs, to show the current state of play. (Go read those books. I don’t want to spoiler them)

A great example from video game is Tim Schafer’s Grim Fandango, which not only uses a Holy Mountain pilgrimage as its overall frame, it also uses that frame to make it natural that the interaction possibilities and interconnection of spaces reduce steadily as you progress along the game’s journey. It’s a Noir detective story set in the Mexican Land of the Dead, and you start out in a mythologized, Americanized-Modern Mexico City:

which is a whole lot like Raymond Chandler’s LA, plus some of that kinda-Mayan styling that was so popular in the American West in the 1930s. The soundtrack is Mariachi bands and 40s jazz. The plot propels you out of this, into a sort of Tom Waits fool’s journey of thorny forests and doomed dockside casinos and a damnation/redemption narrative that’s more Spanish and Catholic in mood and Casablanca/Third Man in style, with art reminiscent of Diego Rivera murals, all set to tangos and 20s speakeasy jazz.

Along the way, your Jacquayed dungeons get steadily smaller and the puzzles get more elemental, until finally you reach the spiritual showdown, and it’s… a pre-Columbian mountaintop (perhaps Monte Alban) with nothing but the wind, heaven, hell, and pan pipes.

The story these shifting landscapes tell is one of choices narrowing down into destiny – you start in an expansive city, trying to do your job and accidentally discovering something’s wrong. Along your journey you get into claustrophobic environments of the trapped dead – souls who have lost their way and have nothing left to do but gamble and make each other miserable, clustered in a little town in a canyon, dominated by symbols of how they can’t escape – a gigantic ship and zeppelin that are unreachable because they’re too expensive, because you don’t have the right ticket. And finally the place of judgment is all sheer faces of stone with no refuges or toeholds.

“No ticket? I can’t do nothin’ for ya. Go back where ya came from.” You know I never noticed before how much that eagle looks like the US border control logo…

It’s also, by the way, the kind of narrative of Mexican nationalism you get if you go on a tour to see the ancient ruins – you start in the (relative) lowlands, taking in the big city sights to see how modern Mexico can be, then go up into the Spanish heritage staging towns below Monte Alban or Teotihuacan, and finally… stones, grass and sky. What we have left of the Aztecs, Zapotecs and Mayans.

Another way to go with this is to pick up on the fact that this little paradise is just a mirror of the greater one that you can’t visit. If mountain-shaped temples get their power from mimesis of the Original Mountain, like franchise outlets of a Master Brand, then having something go wrong with the power network is a great way to launch a campaign – what if the life-waters stop flowing from the Paradise spring? Or communications stop between the franchise and Head Office? What if the orcs next door have their own alternative mountain cult and the townsfolk are converting for access to cheap candy? Then the landscape the players know from their own local temple can inform their investigation – first as a standard to hold the rest of the world to (“hey, these pyramids don’t look anything like the ones we have back home!”), later maybe as a sign of how badly things have gone wrong (“you mean we’re the only ones that kill the goblins?”)

part 3 – Mountains of Lies – coming soon…

Architectural History for Gamers 2: telling stories with spaces

May 1, 2023 1 comment

We’ve talked about communicating via city walls and we’ve talked about buildings that want to tell you about their character, but we haven’t really talked about ways that ordering things in space can itself communicate messages. How landscape and architecture tell stories – about what happens in them, and about their visitors’ station.


…a giant mountain smokes in the distance, looming through all 400 pages of book 2. It’s your certain doom, but maybe your salvation;

or: you stand on a cliff overlooking a rich land of golden fields. Only the black rock fingers in the east spoil this view of an orderly, heavenly kingdom;

or: the thick moss curtaining the river banks suddenly opens to reveal a vine-covered temple, nearly reclaimed by the jungle. The dungeon lies under the central pyramid;

or: north of The Wall, all is snow and meandering tracks up craggy mountainsides that spiral on and on into the bleak white. Nothing could live here, which is why the dead have annexed it;

or: this place is not a place of honor. What is here was dangerous and repulsive to us.

early design for the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, New Mexico.

These are all communicative landscapes – they tell you what to expect will happen where the landscape gets special – and they transform you as you approach the special bit.

First, though, a few bits of theoretical orientation to bear in mind:

  1. there’s no meaningful distinction between landscape and architecture. (a) Landscape is often designed and sculpted – golf courses and American cemeteries get that picturesque quality by judicious use of earth-moving equipment and planting trees in just the right places. (b) You can’t possibly build a whole holy mountain (yes you can) but you can tell people which way to go up it by putting a path there, and then you can put, like, stages of the cross or something along that path to turn your little river-grotto into Jesus’s cave or whatever. Or you can just tell stories about it, that reconfigure its parts into a memory palace for your story elements, or you can tell people they must be this holy to go there.
  2. architecture communicates social order – it situates its users and assigns them a status, it expresses social hierarchy and specific roles – who is in charge of or responsible for whom. This is generally the most important thing architecture does – more than keeping the rain off or the grain dry. Social order is king: dry followers and dry grain, if they’re involved at all, are generally part of the project of social ordering.* And usually architecture does this as part of a complicated textual program that involves writing and rituals and everyday practice and rites of passage and so on. Very often, the actual built architecture refers to another place that’s so special you can’t go there, you just have to imagine it, so the architecture you can see is just a pale imitation of that greater, deeper reality, which means the users have to fill in the missing details (or scrub out the non-ideal intrusions) themselves.
  3. architecture is in the first place the assembling of ideas, and a lot of architecture is composed of nothing else. Societies “produce spaces” to keep their functions separate or to usefully intertwine certain concepts (like, say, indoctrination of children, by having them be born only inside a controlled institution, which is also where they’ll get their moral education). So landscape design is as much about steering the visitor’s thoughts and opinions as it is about moving their body.

It’s at around this point that someone (usually Vitruvius) inevitably complains that architecture is most of all practical. It has to be fit for purpose. But what purpose? Things aren’t “just practical,” they’re practical because they support a practice, which is to say, a ritual of putting society in its place.

So to really understand what a bit of architecture/landscape is doing – the full program of ideas it’s serving – you’ll probably have to read (and, yes, maybe even dance) about it. But also, there is a bit of this big program that is (maybe must be) communicated through spatial arrangement. Probably because it communicates below the level of discourse – that is, it doesn’t tell you in words (that you could disagree with, if you heard them) what it means, it just is and continues to be all the time you’re moving through it. You understand maybe without being able to put into words what you’ve understood. Holy mountains are solid and tall and difficult to climb – they have a sort of morality of perseverance built right into them, just like alcohol and hangovers contain a morality of brief euphoria and lingering painful consequences.

Landscape, even more that buildings, is a thing you generally can’t experience all at once, so its communications tend to happen over time, in series.

The pilgrim trail prepares the visitors by having them follow a specific path where you can frame their views and by revealing things one after another – so they can work like story beats, but also so the visitor can be put into a particular mood before they get shown the next thing.

After walking a few hundred miles of pilgrim track from Paris to get to Rocamadour in the south of France, you are first of all greeted with a sort of player map of the site, that shows the Ordinary People (like you) at the bottom, and then a set of gatehouses guarding the Holy People at the top:

Once you’ve checked into your lowly guesthouse at the bottom of the cliff,

you climb up a twisty path to get to the holy places

and along the way, when you’re out of breath and you’ve been turned around half a dozen times and everything gets a mystical soft-focus glow, you get shown the (local) Cave of Christ’s Sepulchre…

…hidden behind a gate, and… it’s oddly convincing that this is a sort of extension of Jerusalem.

So when you get to the paved abbey/church at the top and you finally get to go into another dark… cave-like structure:

you’re ready for revelations that you feel you’ve earned – special realizations reserved just for you, from the blue-shrouded figure above the altar.

The point here is, it doesn’t work if you can stroll in straight from the market. With apologies to Charles Reade, “make ’em shlep, make ’em wheeze, make ’em wait.”

If this sort of thing is good for spiritual awakening, it’s also good for inspiring awe in a king’s subjects.

Before the British conquered Ceylon, it had an independent kingdom tucked into its central highlands, called Kandy

or “Candea” in 16th century Portuguese, ringed by forbidding mountains.

Part 2 to follow……

* for a really cool and complicated, totalizing vision of architecture ordering society, check out Pierre Bourdieu’s classic study of the Berber (or Kabyle) House, in which all the episodes of social life, birth, marriage and death, are set out in the ideal ordering of a family home. One of Bourdieu’s observations is that the whole world of traditional Berber men is made up of stuff that’s offered properly to the right or the left hand – a sort of manly ordering of the habits of the body, and that inside the house that whole order is reversed… because the house is orientated for the woman, who sits at her loom facing the door, waiting for her man to come home with his hunting trophies.

How to have fun playing Phoenix Point

May 1, 2023 6 comments

I persisted with Phoenix Point, the alt-universe version of XCOM by the original designer, and it’s almost, mostly a good game! But most players are never able to access that goodness because, as I’ve noted before, it has some serious problems with information design. And its interface and gameplay are different from XCOM in some important ways, which it fails to tell you about… which is weird when you consider that the majority of Phoenix Point players are apparently XCOM players who are looking for similar games.

So here’s a quick guide to getting past the problems and finding the fun in PP, to keep you from having to go through 3 restarts and waste dozens of hours like I did. I’m not really offering a strategy guide – this video does a good job of that – I’m doing something more basic: letting you know about pitfalls in the basic presentation of the game. If you think it might be fun after reading this, you’ll probably have fun with it. My next post on the topic will be about the game’s world-building, which is actually quite good.

  1. Disable the Festering Skies DLC. It might be because I’m running it on a Mac, or it might be a bug or a weird RNG artifact, or maybe I’m just not appreciating the fun of being stopped cold after 20 hours of play, but my experience is, it doesn’t work. And from watching videos it seems like it wouldn’t be much fun even if it did. On the downside, you’ll miss out on fighting with aircraft!!! On the upside, even when they work, the aircraft fights seem to be like a bad phone minigame. So, avoid.
  2. “Cheat” in every way you can think of. The game expects it – seems, in fact, to actively encourage it. This is a design philosophy I’m familiar with from reports of how Gygax ran his D&D games – Gary expected you to listen closely to what he was saying, look for exploits (like oil flask grenades), and try to outwit him. That’s what this game is about, too. A very basic case in point: some players think it’s bad form to exploit the inventory system, which operates in a kind of no-space dimension, teleporting gear to wherever you want it, so you can strip the armor off one person in Mexico and put it on another one in India. I’m here to tell you, it’s supposed to be like that. The game is full of weird, non-naturalistic boundaries about when things are in a definite place or no-place: trust it when it offers you a crock. Moreover, its resource economy, in which you can’t build a research lab because you’re using all your materials making bullets, is balanced (to the extent it’s balanced at all) with teleporting bullets in mind. So if there’s a misprint, exploit it. And be ready to savescum around some balance issues. In particular….
  3. Check if your starting position is unwinnable. You cannot trust the RNG on this, either at the individual mission level or the whole game level. Regarding individual missions, nobody gave any serious thought to ranking the enemies and balancing encounters, so when you load a level, sometimes it will have 3 boss monsters that all attack you at once, and sometimes they’ll be 3 entry-level mooks. I am giving you permission to reload (the game autosaves just before every mission, probably for exactly this reason). Regarding the whole game, if it starts you in South America, you should probably restart. In any event, before you get invested in playing the game, you should spend an hour just scouting around with your aircraft to make sure that there are representatives of all 3 NPC factions somewhere near you – and then reload so you don’t lose all that valuable early-game time. If one faction is missing, then many of the winning strategies are simply unavailable to you. You could treat that as hard mode, but the game is already hard mode.
  4. Watch the interface closely, it often contains more information than it really tells you up front. If you mouse over an enemy, for instance, it shows you how far than enemy can run, or the area of effect of its attack, which is information it otherwise withholds. And double-check your troops’ loadouts – PP is just fine with sending your people out to missions without any weapons or armor.
  5. Try not to rely on metaphors or what the game interface implies – the fact is, PP operates in its own universe, which only sometimes looks like ours. For instance, the ring around your airplane that contracts as you fly seems like it could be an indicator of the remaining range before you refuel. It isn’t. It does represent a sort of range, but it resets every time you pass over any Point of Interest, no matter what it is – an unknown thing, the base of an enemy you’re at war with, a thing that used to be unknown but you spent time examining it and now you know there’s nothing there. Doesn’t matter, a dot on the map resets your airplane range. Another example: after you build a Containment Facility, you can capture disease-aliens but only, only if you paralyze them – mind control doesn’t count. Or the manufacture/scrap screen – you can guns to get resources back from them, but you can’t scrap vehicles. That’s just the physics of PP, same as teleporting inventory.
  6. Pay attention to what is spatially located and what isn’t. Some buildings inside your bases only serve the particular base they’re in (power gen, aircraft hangars, satellite uplinks, medical bays). Others can be anywhere and just contribute to a global counter (research labs, manufacturing facilities, archaeology labs, stores). New gear, vehicles, and recruits get auto-delivered to whichever base you state… and you have to watch the interface like a hawk because you will definitely accidentally send them to Base #1, the default, unless you’re hyper-vigilant.
  7. Only build what you really need. Activating bases is expensive – broadly speaking, you should only activate them where their satellite scanning range will reach red mist zones. And every base needs power generation and a satellite uplink, but apart from that, you should limit what else you build. As a rule of thumb, a total of 4 research labs, 4 manufacturing sites, and 2 stores is enough for your worldwide empire. I also assign 2 bases to be stables for training and healing recruits – those act as squad headquarters and I put one in the Americas and another in Eurasia, to be able to respond to haven defense missions before they expire. Each stable gets 2 living quarters (repairs troop fatigue), 2 medical bays (repairs troop damage), and 2 training facilities (which give xp to recruits for whom you don’t currently have an aircraft) (those figures might not be optimal, but they’re working for me). Aircraft hangars and access lifts are irrelevant – in theory they could repair aircraft, in practice that’s never needed unless you foolishly activated Festering Skies. One more thing: you will have to go to Antarctica (which is just like any other continent – has people and farmland and so on). Some people think that means you need a base at the south end of South America, but my experience says this is not true – if you’re flying Helios aircraft, which you should be, you can get to Antarctica without building a special base for it.
  8. Beware of accidental clicking. Sometimes you get a second chance (like when you’re assigning gear to troops most of the time before you go on a mission but not always) but in general, once you’ve clicked there’s no undo. I use TAB to go through any list – personnel, bases, whatever, because it’s unambiguous that I’m selecting from a menu, not choosing to do something with the current item.

9. (super important) The soldier advancement screen doesn’t work the way you’d expect from XCOM. It looks superficially similar, but it’s NOT QUITE.

On the left there’s your dude’s own inventory of stuff they’re carrying, and under that the no-space complete inventory window. Familiar enough. But on the right, there’s skill advancement and above thatthe interface to increase your character’s Strength, Willpower, and Speed. I didn’t spot that for 40 hours, and it’s the thing you should do first.

Speed is the single most important stat for any character. Spend points on it first. Then Willpower, which is both your morale (your ability to keep fighting) and a resource you spend during fights to power your special abilities/skills. Only bother with skills once you’ve improved both Speed and Will to at least 12, and then balance stat and skill increases to maximize them all. Strength is the least important – it determines your damage with melee weapons (only important for Heavies, Berserkers, and people who have the randomly-assigned “use melee weapons” talent) and how much loot you can carry from scavenging missions. Only increase it when there’s nothing else left to spend points on.

At 4th level, every character unlocks the ability to multi-class. And every character should multi-class – but probably only after they’re 5th level in the first class, with good high stats. There are only 3 classes to start with – Sniper, Assault (runner), and Heavy (melee/jumper/heavy gunner), and the only multi-class really worth pursuing out of those is Sniper/Heavy, because you can use the Heavy’s jumpjets to reach a high sniping platform. But as you befriend the 3 NPC factions, you can unlock their classes… and then things get wild. This page explains the exploits that open up by combining different classes’ abilities, and they’re in general not obvious.

I draw your attention to the typical PP logic behind the Berserker (pictured in the example above). You first encounter berserkers as fast-running melee specialists, cracking heads for the Disciples of Anu – their heavy pistols make them annoying at close range and they will cut you to ribbons if you let them get into melee range, and they are all born with a giant hammer in one hand, so… melee troops, right? No.
“Berserkers are essentially a meta-class. There is no reason at all to use Berserker as melee fighters. It’s probably the one thing they are actually bad at, and this is neatly reflected by their skill set.”
Their first skill is Armor Break (shredding, in XCOM parlance), but “using this with a melee weapon is a very poor choice indeed.” It turns out one killer app is to multi-class berserker and sniper – the berserker can learn a skill of very limited utility – turning their 2AP melee attack into 1AP, allowing them to melee twice as often in one round at the cost of being useless the next round… but if they’re also a sniper, that turns a 3AP sniping shot into 1AP, and if they get the armored head mutation you can overcome the next-round hangover and…
…’s a big collection of Gygaxian crocks: exploits that lurk just below the surface that a new player sees, that completely change the balance of the system for “system masters.” And the whole game is built like that. A further crock: pay attention to your characters’ randomly-assigned talents, because if a character can buy e.g. sniper rifle talent, then you don’t necessarily need them to have the sniper class, so then you could use the skill crocks from 2 other classes with your sniper rifle. Multi-crocking, if you will.

On missions:

  1. Forget XCOM and its move-then-shoot structure. In PP you can not only shoot-then-move, you can also split up your move action square by square, and unspent squares remain available after you’ve done anything else. So never move like you would in XCOM, where you advance to a good shooting position and stay there to shoot. No. Instead, advance just far enough that you can possibly hit an enemy (the interface shows you a line of sight if one exists), then shoot, then use your remaining movement squares after shooting to sneak back into cover before ending your turn.
  2. Always, always click “free aim.” This lets you look down the gun sights and reveals several important things…
    (a) that your gun can’t see the enemy (heavy weapons are fired from knee height), therefore you won’t hit them;
    (b) that a friend is in the way, so you’ll hit them instead;
    (c) that the enemy’s waiting animation periodically exposes their head – wait for that moment, then hit “free aim,” which freezes them;
    (d) that if you moved sideways one square, you’d quadruple your chance of hitting the target.
  3. Sniper rifles are like other guns but better. PP is very proud of its “realistic” shooting mechanic, which is “your bullet hits some pixel inside the gun sight.” In recompense, it doesn’t care at all about other weapon features, like e.g. having a minimum range for sniper rifles or rocket launchers. So use your sniper rifle from melee range and shoot them in the nostril. But be warned, there is one exception: Hera paralysis pistols. If you stand right next to an enemy and try to shoot them with that, the game doesn’t understand and pretends there’s no target. So leave 1 square of empty space between yourself and your Hera target.
  4. Shoot them in the leg. Heads in PP control specific functions… but not life. Aliens’ heads are often purely decorative. And heads are small, therefore harder to hit. But legs are always important. Also, the best place to shoot an enemy in order to do the most damage is the place you’ve already destroyed – you’ve probably shredded the armor or other special factors off it, so all your damage goes through.
  5. Everyone has 3 kinds of HP – health (shown on the health bar over their head), will (morale – never explicitly stated but you can guess a lot of the time, and it’s affected by lots of factors during a fight), and resistance to paralysis (explicitly stated after you’ve hit them with some paralyzing ray). The shortest path to victory is identifying which one of these is lowest and attacking that.

OK, so now you’re actually playing the game. How should you treat the NPCs? Where should you concentrate your efforts?

  1. One of the questions I often ask of a game is, “what sort of philosophy does this game have? What’s the rewarded approach? Should I be a good, co-operative, pro-social pan-humanist or a selfish, nationalistic psychopath?” PP’s answer is, you must start as a psychopath but later switch to co-operative. This is because you cannot begin useful social relations with the NPC factions until you’ve done some crimes for them – specifically, sabotaging (not merely raiding!) the specific facility they ask for. Each wants you to sabotage another faction, so you must do the sabotage round robin and attack all 3 factions to please the others as quickly as possible. Because for some reason in the first week of game time, people get less upset with you. After that, you must be nice to them all and try to climb the ladder of their trust, which never again demands that you hurt relations with the others. It makes no sense but it’s true. You are frequently encouraged to screw the factions in various ways (steal their research, raid their bases, opine against their philosophies) but you should resist because the costs always outweigh the benefits after that first learning sabotage moment.
  2. Winning is all about exploring quickly, and that takes aircraft. You start with 1 Manticore – the aircraft your own faction can make. The sooner you can get a second, the quicker you can double your exploration rate. AND your success on missions depends strongly on fielding a full squad of 8 soldiers, which (essentially) means deploying 2 aircraft to each mission. AND as your awareness of the world increases, so does your responsibility for defending faction havens, so eventually you’ll need at least 2 full squads, which is to say 4 aircraft. So build more aircraft as quickly as you can. You could steal them (it’s actually trivially easy to do so by exploiting a land vehicle) but see the costs of annoying the NPC factions in the preceding point. Players who make videos say “heist 2 Helios aircraft from Synedrion immediately, you’ll progress much faster” but (a) I’ve never had the opportunity to do so and (b) their advice might be out of date or just irrelevant, depending on where the Synedrion havens are and just how quickly the faction-annoyance costs change and… you really, really want Synedrion as a friend, so my advice is, it’s probably better to build your own aircraft and befriend Synedrion and eventually they’ll teach you to build your own Helioses. I did that, it was fine.
  3. You do want Helioses, though. Aircraft speed is a very important factor in (a) how fast you can explore, (b) your ability to defend havens that are attacked by aliens. Faster aircraft = fewer squads needed, so even though Helioses are expensive, they work out cheaper because you can get away with fewer squads. Anu’s Tiamats are just bad and dumb except if you use them for the Legacy of the Ancients content, below, and New Jericho’s Thunderbirds are never better for anything. Oh, also, you might think that the greater range of the Tiamat would be important in, say, crossing the oceans. It isn’t. The only way from Eurasia to the Americas (and the only way from Antarctica to South Africa or Australia) is over the north pole. Effectively, PP is played on a Dymaxion Projection minus the sea areas, so think of that when you’re deciding where to put your stables.
  4. Make friends with all the factions, like the video strategy guide linked at the top of this post says. I think the priority order is Synedrion, then Anu, then New Jericho, but really you want to be besties with all of them, because that’s how you unlock their character classes, skills, tools, research and (in the end) win conditions, all of which are better than just relying on your own organization’s inventions.
  5. Exploit vehicles and the weird mechanics of how your dudes ride in vehicles. Missions to get vehicles are 100x easier with a vehicle. But mostly leave the vehicles in your bases, because they can’t level up and that means robbing your dudes of xp.
  6. Don’t worry about which of your dudes kills which enemies – xp are handed out to the whole squad for mission success far more than for individual kills.
  7. Trade with faction havens. You (almost) can’t avoid making a profit, and trading is built into the game’s expectations. And each faction trades one of the three resources, so keep all the factions happy and trade with them.
  8. Build replacement equipment. You start with a generous package of guns and armor, but they will all get destroyed. The game doesn’t tell you this, nor does it say “oh no your equipment got destroyed,” it’s just missing one day when you go to equip it on a character. Don’t build lots of it in advance, just a couple of spares so you don’t run short. Oh, and keep your wonderful Hel II cannons to use on only the toughest enemies. You won’t get any more until you research them, which you can’t do until you’ve performed an autopsy on a late-game alien enemy, so guard those Hel II rounds.
  9. Pursue the Legacy of the Ancients content, which starts with a mission called Rise by sin, by virtue fall, because it unlocks superior weapons, including the most important single weapon in the game – a sniper rifle with the damage of a heavy cannon. On paper, this weapon doesn’t look like a game changer, but (a) most alien effects have shorter ranges than the sniper rifle, (b) lots of enemies’ toughness is designed to be just outside the damage effectiveness of ordinary sniper rifles, and (c) there are various crocks that make it easier to shoot more than once a round with a sniper rifle, so… it adds up. OK, but… this content has its own interface stuff, which is the worst-explained part of a badly-explained game. So here is a walkthrough, which I hope will make things clearer:

– after you’ve done several story missions, you get the chance to build archaeology labs and archaeology probes, to look for Antediluvian Sites. And you get a string of missions to steal info about a series of weapons to research. So do the missions and research. But you can’t build any of these weapons without a bunch of new weird materials, so you also…

  1. Build exactly 4 archaeology labs, anywhere in the world – it’s the cheapest and fastest way to do everything else. 5 is a waste.
  2. Then build 3+ archaeology probes. You can deploy these over half the Earth’s surface, centered on whichever aircraft you have selected at the time. They show you their scan circle, so… try to optimize those circles to cover the land area efficiently. Don’t worry about the sea or isolated islands. They will do a cute pink scan-sweep for a while, then when their scans are finished they… disappear. You may or may not get a message that you’ve found something. You will not be told what you’ve found or where.
  3. Despair because the interface hates you and there is no help file to tell you what’s going on. OK, fine, here’s a help file:

    If you’ve found something, then a new Point of Interest has been added to the Geoscape. It looks like a green eye:

i.e. almost exactly like a Synedrion haven:

so you have to scour the areas you just scanned to look for that eye. But where did you scan? The interface just hid that information! OK, go to launch another probe…. and the area you’ve already scanned will light up pink! So that’s where you look for the eye(s).

Fly out to the eye icon, click “excavate” (which starts an 8 hour counter, during which you can fly elsewhere/do other stuff) and after excavation you’ll learn it’s either:
– an orichalcum mine or forge
– a mutane gas field or refinery
– a living crystal quarry or refinery.

THEN you send a squad to do a horrifically tough mission to kill all the ancient guardian robots at the site (no, there is no option other than killing them). After THAT:
– if it’s a mine, gas field, or quarry, station an aircraft over it to slowly extract its new weird resource. The most efficient option for this is a Disciples of Anu Tiamat aircraft with one basic Muton on board (by the time you get to this content, you’ll know what all that means). This is, AFAICT, completely safe. Nothing in the game can attack that aircraft/muton (provided you’re not running Festering Skies)
– but you can’t use that resource until you have its forge/refinery. Each resource has multiple extraction sites but only one refinery.

There is no advantage to owning more than one extraction site. You can speed up extraction by stationing multiple manned aircraft over it. And you must have extraction and refinery sites for all 3 resources to make the sniper rifle. So send out probes and excavate sites exactly until you have the 6 sites you need. And only attack the sites you need – if you’ve already got an orichalcum mine and you find a second one, leave it alone.

You can use some of the resources you get to rebuild a Guardian, to help you defend the site in the future. I have been doing this and my defense missions have been comically easy… but I don’t know if that’s because I got the Guardian or not. YMMV.

So, now you should be equipped to enjoy Phoenix Point. That’s all I’ve got for now. Feel free to ask me questions – I often miss comments to this blog, so the best way to talk to me about this is to hit me up on discord, where I am richardgrenville#1863

Architectural History for Gamers, 1a: medieval and early modern forts

April 3, 2023 4 comments

You may recall in the last installment I said that walls weren’t that big in the Neolithic. That’s the sort of statement that’s liable to get me some blowback, because we have a bunch of sites that have been inhabited since the Neolithic, and nearly all of them went through a long period of having walls – particularly the grand dame of ancient walled enclosures, Jericho.

But they really grew out of – and on top of – the old Neolithic settlements, by simply filling the old buildings with rubble and layering new buildings on top, constructing a tell mound, which is probably the root idea behind so many megadungeons under cities.

detail of excavations at Jericho, looking atypically not-ochre

….so the idea of raising a walled fortification just might be an accident of history: the imitation of a prototype that happened as a bi-product of long habitation. The obvious corollary, for gamers, is that city walls are probably dungeons. Either straight up labyrinthine shells full of working monster ecologies of backfilled ghost cities, filled with undead/spirits/genii loci.

of course, this sort of thing doesn’t happen by accident.
It took religious weirdos centuries to shift all the
bones of Paris’s ancestors into an unmapped maze
under the city center

We get from the tell mound to the deliberately-constructed city wall via some very heavy Sumerian protesting:

“Go up on the wall of Uruk and walk around, examine its foundation, inspect its brickwork thoroughly. Is not (even the core of) the brick structure made of kiln-fired brick, and did not the Seven Sages themselves lay out its plans?”

The author(s) of Gilgamesh were big on big walls – tall and thick, immune to sapping – the kinds of walls you could ride around on a 4-horse chariot to bring the Kingly Presence to all parts of the city’s defense.

Why? What were these walls defending against? Battering rams, sure, and lots of dudes with spears.

secretly I think this is an early form of that stuttering
multi-image thing anime does, to show someone’s going
very fast and hard

And maybe, sometimes, well into the late bronze age, catapults. But I think the big disruptive technologies, which meant Çatalhöyük type mounds were no longer enough, were horses (which encourage retreating to a fort) and bows – missiles with reach. It’s very hard to make a spear reach effectively higher than about 12′ from the ground but a bowshot… that makes high, thick, sheltering walls a necessity.
(swords, BTW, are crap for attacking castles, movie cliches notwithstanding. Unless you can discount the high wall somehow, ie negate the castle bit, a sword is a heavy, useless encumbrance with no reach or strength. Movies love to show heroes with swords attacking castles but they always just project them to the top of the wall where they can melee. Here I’m firmly on team spear or, better yet, pike.)

The castles we know are shaped by horses and bows.

Yeah, so, the Vikings attack coastal France and start calling it Northman-dy and then they attack England with arrows

surprise! there’s controversy about whether Harold really got shot in the eye!

and then they pacify the countryside by building a bunch of these instant-tell-mound+wall forts – motte and bailey castles, where the tell (motte, “mount”) is made from wooden baulks plus dirt, a walled keep is built on top, and a wooden palisade is put around the whole thing, enclosing a training yard and animal-pens. The basic design has been around for a couple of thousand years, but the Normans suddenly start pumping them out pseudo-industrially.

Where the Vikings raided, the Normans go on punitive expeditions to extract “taxes” and then retreat to their castles when the locals start to organize against them. The whole trick with this kind of colonialism is to work the locals as hard as possible and hide all the surplus they produce inside your keep. Then when they come with pitchforks you barricade yourself inside and threaten to set fire to the grain that’s stored against the coming winter.

Then when the peasants’ brief moment of unity passes, you use the castle as a hardpoint for raiding the surrounding countryside. The same basic pattern spreads from Denmark to England to northern Europe to Sicily – everywhere the Normans go.

Reconstructed keep of Saint Sylvain, 1040 CE
Chateau de Gisors, Anjou (Everything looks better in France)

The Vikings/Normans don’t invent the motte-and-bailey, nor are they the last to build them. Dutch wool traders, for instance, had maintained their own Vliegburcht (“flight fort”) in the middle of Leiden, from well before the Viking incursions to the 19th century – it actually got used during the 17th century wars.

the Leiden Vliegburcht/burg, built 449 by some Angle or Saxon
It’s weirdly hidden behind a load of ordinary-looking houses today.
Even though it’s startlingly tall, you can’t see it from the canal at all.

So the thing with these flight forts (and all forts, frankly) is that they’re not big enough to shelter everyone in the community. Typically it’s the administrators, the rich ruling families (same people in the Netherlands), and the dedicated military folks who get to benefit from the walls. Middle class weavers, shopkeepers etc… more likely not. Frankly, the whole concept works best when you have a completely militarized society, where there’s a strong division between fighting folk and the commoners who support them. Like, say, the knightly orders that came out of the Crusades.

Krak des Chevaliers, Syria – one of the headquarters of the Knights Hospitaller,
converted from a Kurdish fort… so, a Crusader castle on both sides.
It’s pretty much the apogee of the horse-and-bow fort.

The basic form is the same as the motte-and-bailey, just… heavily ramified. It’s not self-sufficient; it can only survive through constant resupply or constantly raiding the surrounding countryside (the Hospitallers do both). In many ways it’s like an industrial outpost – a loot factory.

The wall-and-courtyard form is repeated two or three times, so it’s effectively a castle-within-a-castle. The outer wall, crenelated and pierced with arrow slits, is all about giving defenders arrow superiority. If your invaders include Orlando Bloom and inevitably jump up on top of that wall then you fall back to a second motte inside the first, and so on, fighting all the way back to the high tower, which contains not the princess but the chief administrator. If you’re feeling bold and murderous you actually might open the front door and let enemies into the courtyard between the outer wall and inner stronghold, the better to murder them in captivity, from both sides at once.

At root, it’s all about visibility and bowshots.

I show you Krak des Chevaliers because it’s still a pretty businesslike presentation of a castle. If instead you go to Carcassonne, in southern France, you’ll have fun and some great food but you’ll get more insight into 19th century aesthetics than 12th century military practice, because they were heavily romanticized by the visionary architect Viollet-le-Duc, a man whose plans for beautifying France included recarving some of the Alps for picturesque effect. His restoration is fascinating, but not nearly as reliable a guide to any particular historical moment as he would like you to think.

So anyway, back to practical fortification. The logic of horse-and-bow forts is to make attacking more expensive – forts are sometimes rated by the ratio of deaths expected among attackers and defenders. The main way this works is making the bows of attackers less useful than those of defenders – it’s harder to shoot up than down, and bowmen atop the wall can effectively generate a killing zone around the wall. They keep attackers in a vulnerable position looking up (where stuff can be dropped on their heads) for a long time (while they’re trying to climb the wall). In practice, seizing such forts was fairly rare. Instead, you would besiege them: the attackers can’t get in but they can keep the defenders from getting out, which leads to a game of patience chicken, where attacker and defender dare each other to sit still and starve. The forts are warehouses for food, water and fuel, often enough to last multiple years – and sieges would continue accordingly. An army in the field, on the other hand, is a disastrous ongoing expense – not only does it need constant shipments of food, water, fuel, men, and other supplies, it ties up huge numbers of workers, preventing them from doing their regular jobs, like farming. And armies are significantly more expensive to maintain in winter than in summer – first they can march faster and easier in summer, second, it’s easier to get supply caravans to them when the roads are dry and firm. Keeping a besieging force in the field over winter is the sort of thing kings have to plan ahead for, storing up surplus crops for many years.

Aside: In the 14th century the city-states of Florence and Siena spend so much time besieging each other, they risk bankruptcy and capture by other city-states. In the end the Florentines resort to flinging dead donkeys over the Siena wall, to induce plague. Some mystery disease does, indeed, break out and Florence is finally able to definitively take away all Siena’s toys. Nowadays Florence is a somewhat modern city, while Siena is a museum town… ie a much better place to see some unusual medieval architecture.


From ancient times to about 1350, castles like this (walls of ancient Rome) rule supreme. But then everything changes when the Mongols attack – not quite overnight but… over a century or two.
Aside: D&D’s supposed period, based on its technology, is the late 14th c, which is super weird – it’s like the very last gasp of this long castley era, perpetually stuck on the indrawn breath right before it collapses.

Here Come The Guns (Prologue Montage):
– around 1000, somewhere in northern China, a bald monkish guy comes up with a dust that goes bang.
– By 1200, shipboard cannons have been developed that are good enough to kill the king of Vietnam.
– In the 1300s Mongols, Mughals and Ottomans start building big cannons for knocking down castle walls,
– and in the late 1400s, Europeans, having had a bunch of their castles reduced to rubble, think they might give this new technology a try. The inflection point for this is usually cited as the Fall of Constantinople to the Ottomans.

This particular gun cracks me up – it’s a rebuild
of the cannon used to demolish the walls of Constantinople.
The Ottomans had to bust a Hungarian gunsmith called Urban
out of jail in order to build it, and the gun was named after its creator -.
so this gun that blew holes in the most celebrated walls in the medieval world?

Urban renewal.

The Fall of Constantinople (1453) is a mighty legend, because the walls of Constantinople were themselves legendary. Built before the Roman apocalypse, they were one of the first places that stopped the Arab conquests dead. Then they rebuffed the Kievan Rus and the Bulgars and the Ottomans (4 times!)… while the population of the city withered to something like a 20th of its peak, laid low by disease, unemployment, poor food supplies, and Venetians. By the time Mehmet the Conqueror got around to blasting the walls in 1453, he’d already demonstrated the technique on all the major castles of the Balkans and Levant. So you might think that the crowned heads of Europe would already be looking on uneasily, but… Constantinople was a name. People figured if you could sack it there, you could sack it anywhere.

Is there any better way to commemorate people being dismembered
with explosives, that to embroider images of the event laboriously
into a curtain? The Battle of Pavia, 1525,
where the Italians beat back the hated French

So France immediately starts investing in cannons and hiring cannon-founders and cannoneers. And then in 1499… they attack Milan with them. The walls of Milan were local legends, second only to those of Constantinople in the minds of Milanese worthies, until Louis XII’s cannons knock ’em down, and then Pisa the next month. Several Italian city-states stop squabbling with each other long enough to get their brightest minds working on a new kind of wall – the trace italienne: a rammed-earth rampart, which could disperse the impact of the cannon ball. Michelangelo is one of its first architects of this new fort style, being made “governor and general prosecutor of fortifications” of Florence in 1529. When Leonardo offers his services to the Pope and eventually the King of France, it’s principally as a fortifications engineer versed in the trace italienne and only incidentally as an inventor, natural historian, and artist (he winds up in Amboise, France in 1534, which probably annoys his Italian friends).

The trace italienne plays to the weaknesses of 15th and 16th century cannons, just like the old medieval high-walled fort was designed to generate bow superiority for the defenders. Early cannons are very inaccurate – not really all that useful for indirect fire, where the projectiles fly a long distance and rain down on defenders – that’s more an 18th century thing. People mostly either fire early cannons more-or-less horizontally on a flat trajectory or use wildly inaccurate high-trajectory bombards, parked right under the walls, which rely on medieval defenders being surprised. So the trace italienne puts a load of inconvenient ditches and an angled glacis around the walls, to make it hard to drag heavy cannons anywhere near the defenders and to generate a wide killing zone around the castle, plus slopes to scatter flat-trajectory cannonballs uselessly upward.

The defenders’ own cannons turn the ditches and glacis into a killing zone, but they’re only really effective at the job if there are several lined up in ranks together. And they have blind spots (“dead zones”) near the walls. So you angle them into each other by mounting them on projecting bastions, to generate interlocking fields of fire, so there’s never a safe corridor by which attackers can approach. That’s why the forts are characteristically star-shaped – the star is surrounded by triangular killing zones where you can get shot from 2 or more lines of guns.

turns out this basic idea had been around since the Roman empire, when it was applied to bows

Italian architects were already primed to be excited about star shapes, which had featured heavily in utopian ideas of ideal cities since the 1450s – Francesco Sforza had commissioned a bunch of star-shaped designs for rebuilding Milan… which were never built.

Filarete’s 1450 design for the city of Sforzinda (named unsubtly after his patron)
features a House of Vice and Virtue, a ten-story structure with a brothel on the bottom
and an academy of learning at the top

So the demands of the new fortification quickly get wedded to enlightenment ideals of mathematical perfection to produce a novel kind of Vitruvianism (essentially the idea that The Best architecture will generate The Best society) based on ideal forts, which would naturally be symmetrical, have social hierarchies clearly expressed in them by height and centrality and so on, and best of all, be awesome showcases for the complicated mathematics that their architects had mastered.

Scamozzi’s 1593 design for Palmanova, which actually did get built
a defensive fort-town in Venice’s agricultural hinterland

Bastions settle down into a broadhead-arrow shape, formalized as the ravelin. And ravelins become a whole field of art in their own right.

The Dutch, of course, incorporate canals and barges in their defenses, the better to move heavy stuff like cannons around.

This design would never have worked in the bad old days of bows, when attackers could surround a single bastion and cut it out of the defenses, but the new, longer range of cannons allows the killing zone to be extended far out into the surrounding countryside, so attacking any one of these detached bastions means facing the cannons from 2 or 3 of them plus the city wall defenses. Suddenly you can plan out whole valleys as killing floors, where attackers are always overlooked by multiple cannon nests. Infantry tactics and armament change, mercenaries develop into the first standing armies, and before you know it everyone’s talking about a military revolution.

Since you can now detach ravelins, you can also leave them open at the back to allow their defenders to rush out for bayonet work (confident they can retreat to a secure fort long before the cavalry get anywhere close), leading to the invention of demi-lunes…

demi-lune of St. Etienne at Besançon, after the city transferred to France
from Austria, which had received it as a wedding present from Spain,
which had received it in marriage from Burgundy.
demi-lune at the Castillo de San Fernando, a masterclass in ravelin architecture

…so you have a new form that’s associated with violent power. It’s big, extravagant, and mathematical. And this is the Baroque period so, of course, like everything else it becomes… a feature of ornamental garden design. (BTW we live in a neo-Baroque era, so if you think the violent garden thing is funny, then… this)

OK fine this one is 19th century neo-Baroque, from Magdeburg,
but mock fortifications were totally a thing in Louis XIV’s palaces.

As usual, though, the future is very unevenly distributed…

Pendennis keep, Cornwall, England, constructed 1540s.
Part of Henry VIII’s massive coastal defense spending spree
after he embroidered a giant target on his back by
declaring himself a heretic – the Spanish would
finally get around to sending the world’s largest
death fleet after his younger daughter in 1588.

By 1545 the English have just about caught up with the Balkans a century earlier – they have cannons but their forts are still high-walled medieval style, with cannon-ports instead of arrow slits (see also Dubrovnik, or “King’s Landing,” to TV audiences). In the middle of their little Tudor civil war, they become aware that their fortifications are obsolete as they’re being built, so during Elizabeth’s reign they get reworked to bring them more up to date…

Pendennis castle, long view, complete with earthwork
cannon fort surround, constructed 1597.

OK, but back to the future: the Netherlands (long regarded as a “defended garden” by the Dutch Stadthouders) develops a more or less completely militarized countryside via a network of ditches, enceintes, and gunboat canals. Remember that burchtfort in Leiden? Here’s what Leiden looks like now (with fortification canals dug during the 1590s):

3 lines of defenses: the burchtfort in the centre (small circle), a partial ring of canal/ditches showing the old (14th c) moat around that, and then a wavy canal of cannon fort bastions enclosing a rough rectangle around that.

Of the many great fortifiers that follow during the 17th century, two names dominate:
van Coehoorn (1641-1704), who did Berlin, Karlsruhe, and many other Dutch and German cities;

Berg op Zoom, the portfolio piece that got van Coehoorn the Berlin gig

and Sébastien de Vauban (1633–1707), fortifier-royal to Louis XIV. Both men are masters of artillery, the key qualification for a fortifier: both develop new methods for attack and defense, acting as their own arms race.

Between them, they invent trench warfare – the only way to attack a fort city. Cannons fire in a flat trajectory, so the way to approach them is by digging tunnels or open trenches, below their sight-lines. When artillery eventually becomes accurate and powerful enough to hit a town over the horizon, defending cities, even with walls like these, becomes effectively obsolete… but trench warfare remains viable through the American Civil War and WW1, provided you can create new trench forts quicker and cheaper than artillery can find and destroy them – that’s why WW1 essentially turns into a giant trench-v-trench sapping exercise.

Since cannons become the key to wars, and sight-lines are key to using cannons, warlords quickly become very interested in topographical surveying. In Britain they create a government department literally called the Ordnance (cannon) Survey, which still makes large-scale maps today. In France they create a library of relief maps to delight the heart of any minis wargamer:

Vauban gets commissions to redesign a ton of towns in France and on its borders – in particular, Louis has a grudge against the Duchy of Savoy, down in the Alps, which is (a) Protestant and (b) smells vaguely Italian. So he sets out to conquer it and gets Vauban to make it defensible, with mixed results. Embrun, in particular, Vauban called “unfortifiable, hopeless.”

So Louis has him build another town down the road – Mont-Dauphin – so he can starve Embrun of all trade and income. But nobody moves in, and Vauban’s boring town plan gets blamed.

Vauban’s last work is the whole town of Neuf Brisach. inner enceinte de sûreté, the bastion wall around the city,

and an outer enceinte de combat, a system of concentric star-shaped earthworks.

Vauban’s influence survives his death, despite engineers slowly improving artillery through the 18th century, until an artilleryman becomes emperor of France in 1804, when France suddenly adopts explosive shells and starts expanding again.

Cherbourg, Brittany, refortified 1810

So out of this, what are the useful lessons for game designers?

  1. Defenses evolve symbiotically with modes of attack: each develops to take advantage of the other’s weaknesses. So. If you have fireball-wizards or intelligent swarms of rats, what are the affordances and weaknesses of those attack modes?
  2. But that evolution doesn’t happen overnight. It can take years for an idea to travel across a cultural divide. If the Ottomans had mounted a serious attack against England in the 1530s, they would’ve found the place unready for the same cannons with which they attacked Greece in the 1330s.
  3. Everything we build is cultural first, functional second: we tend to think of functional design as the simple operation of cleverness in solving problems – what will work to achieve the desired result? – but functionalism always has culture behind it. What results are desired and why? Why is it necessary to fortify this place in particular? And important functions always get expressed in other ways, culturally. So what art, what values, what other fields of endeavour get tied up with your military interests?
  4. People will go to enormous lengths to defend their stuff… sometimes their defensive works are much more expensive than the things they’re defending. There’s a danger here for the defenders, though: the more they invest in one mode of defense, the less they want to switch to another mode. France continued the ruinously expensive practice of Vaubanizing their cities long after the guns they were defending against had been replaced by new ones that Vauban never anticipated. People who are familiar with the history of the Maginot line are probably shaking their heads right now. But that same impulse, to get ready to fight the previous war rather than the current or next one, keeps cropping up throughout history. So
  5. The devil you know may have already been replaced.

Architectural History for Gamers, 1: why build city walls?

March 29, 2023 5 comments
Restored walls of the Ark (fortress), Bukhara, Uzbekistan

I’ve previously tried to sneak some architectural history into the gaming space with my maps of classic dungeons and D&D tourism series. This is a lot more direct – a distillation of some lectures I’ve given on topics around cities – why they happen, why they take the specific forms that they do, what the essence and function of various city structures might be. I’m putting them here because I think they might be useful for worldbuilding – if you think about the why of a thing, it informs the what and how.

So. Why build a city? Or, if you’re in a Jane Jacobs mood, why do cities form?

…..ok, before I go any further I should warn you that a lot of what follows is fairy stories. Any time anyone tries to tell you about what people were thinking or why they did things, you have to be skeptical. Look at the news – people can’t tell you why they’re doing things right now. Imagine how unreliable our information is about other countries, or times from which we have no eye-witnesses to interview. Imagine how much of what we “know” about prehistoric peoples is just made up – stuff that “makes sense” to us. And yet. When we’re telling the history of cities, we keep going back to our place of maximum ignorance – trying to explain how they first came to be.

The usual answer is that they’re either defensive formations – a group of families huddling together to dissuade raiders – or overgrown homesteads, where layabout children can wait for jobs to become available. Once you’ve hunted and gathered more than you can use this week, it’s nice to be able to trade some of it, maybe turn it into something unique that other homesteads will want to exchange for their surplus. With surplus and trade, you wind up with routes and hubs – centers of interchange, where it’s useful to hang about for a bit, waiting for other traders to show up and buy your stuff. Therefore roads and crossroads and market squares, eventually a network of hubs, each with their own identity and stored trade goods/treasures. And eventually you get surplus labor, i.e. bored people who invent stuff, and then the city becomes a center for novelties. And eventually those layabout children get jobs designing games or some other frippery. Lewis Mumford called the city “a point of maximum concentration for the power and culture of a community.” Jacobs said it inevitably becomes the center of invention, because of what Spiro Kostof called “a certain energizing crowding of people:” the fizz of ideas being exchanged in the public square, the availability of surplus materials, concentrated together where they could be recombined.

So here’s the ancient ruins of Khirokitia, on Cyprus, inhabited roughly 9000 to 6000 years ago. A concentration of round houses built along a road (or “great wall” – honestly either interpretation can be supported, all we have is the foundations – but it looks like it links them together). Note, the “wall” around the whole thing is an archaeologist’s intervention – as far as we know, the community had no built defenses beyond the walls of the houses.

It might have looked something like this, only without the bombard damage on the big house, which conveniently shows that it has 2 storeys inside.

And here’s more-or-less contemporary Çatalhöyük, in Turkey – a city of unprecedented density (over 2000 people!), continuously occupied for over 7000 years.

Don’t pay too much attention to the captions – archaeologist James Mellaart was convinced everything was either a shrine or a proto-Roman courtyard. Now we know the “courtyards” were rubbish tips.

2 things to note:
1. the houses are so tightly packed together that they’ve gone square instead of circular… which means one wall can work for two houses!
2. there are no roads between the houses at all.

Why no roads? Because people got into their houses – and from house to house – via the flat roofs. Which is an ingenious form of defense (against wild animals, other communities)… if you don’t mind the cost of making every roof in the place load-bearing, strong enough to have all your neighbours traipsing across it at any moment.

…also, all those ladders. I’m glad it’s not my job to carry big pots of water into the middle of all that.

Didn’t you say this post was going to be about walls? Yeah, it seems walling in communities was actually not that popular during the Neolithic – there were plenty of other ways to defend against the sorts of threats people faced in the years while they were inventing pottery. High castellated walls in particular seem to only become a thing once there are more effective missile weapons than spears.

But they still show some characteristics that walled towns would share:
1. they’re compact. People have clustered together and been accepted by their neighbours, and they’re clearly different from whatever is outside.
2. they share communal costs. Maintaining houses, common structures, and defense are all group responsibilities.
3. they show a clear inside/outside boundary, between domestic stuff that is close to hand for raising children and reproducing society and the stuff that doesn’t fit, that people don’t want in the collective front yard, which all gets ejected from the centre (or buried in a midden). This also happens in (unwalled) Kayapo villages in the Amazon rainforest in Brazil:

I can’t quite believe I’m retreading this old 19th century conceit of forest peoples being “primitive,” best considered alongside the ancient world, but this example does fit the theory neatly. This photo, of course, is of a totally museumified village, so you have to take the anthropologists’ word for its representativeness.

Here’s the anthro theory of the Kayapo village – that it’s a set of social categories expressed as a concentric spatial order. The community gathers in the centre (ritual hut and dancing space, shown in red, the Kayapo colour of sociality/engagement), they have individual family homes around that (in the unmarked white zone), and outside that ring of houses is the dirty space (in the Kayapo taboo/ignore color, black), before you get to the forest.

No physical wall is expressed but there’s a clear inside/outside, and what goes outside is… the same for the Kayapo as for ancient Romans – lepers, outcasts, tanners, burials, catacombs (OK, the Kayapo don’t build catacombs, but they are all outside the city wall in Rome).

So the theory of the city wall that’s common in architectural history and anthropology is that it expresses something like this:
– a social boundary thats separates the local community from the undifferentiated space of the outside
– a liminal zone where stuff can be ejected, therefore an area of non-stewardship or non-responsibility
– a controlling device that keeps threats (animals, raiders) out and productive citizens in.
The wall unites the city – it is usually its single biggest public work. Building city walls shows up repeatedly in ancient Greek foundation myths, as the critical moment of founding. Our word “urban” refers to the walls (urbs) of the city. Vitruvius’s ideal city is walled, and Aristotle’s definition of civilization (itself a word derived from civitas – the city) is a situation where a woman will be safe, because her scream will be heard from the city walls (and therefore any city that’s too big for the scream to carry must be too big to be properly civilized).

OK so, some principles.

1. walls define the community

instead of showing you a load of Greek stuff I’m going to China. These are Tulous – multi-family community houses – built by the Hakka minority in Yongding, in the mountainous southwestern part of Fujian.

Tulous are houses and towns. Surrounded by a defensive ring wall, they’re made up of several separate houses (segments, if you fancy a trip down the history of anthropology) built together. Communal activities happen in the middle courtyard, private ones in the individual houses’ courts. Property is shared communally within the tulou: the whole community is thought of as an extended family.

(it is BTW rather unfortunate that Disney’s live action Mulan decided to put the nationally-identified saviour of China in a Hakka tulou, given how the Chinese have recently been trying to erase the Hakka and incorporate them in the national “harmony”)

So the whole ring is the whole community, and the segment (one house) is a cake slice of it:

With living space on the outer rim and work space closer to the middle. The next tulou over is another, separate community, or was, before the Han ostracized and museumized them.

2. as a corollory, walls express inequality

Once you have specialization and division of labor, you get hierarchies and status differences and separate sub-communities and administration. In the classic/prototypical Islamic city this leads to a social division in the city – a high town of nobles and administrators is walled off from the low town of workers and producers. The walls may be practical or ceremonial – either way, their primary role is communicative.

Bukhara Ark, containing the emir’s palace and vizier’s offices. When first constructed, this wall was surrounded by commoners’ houses, but the Soviets tore them all down to leave it marooned in a level plain.
The wall of the Ark is in blue, the city wall encircling pre-Russian-invasion Bukhara in pink.

Aside from protecting the rulers from the citizenry, walled subdivisions might also maintain boundaries around foreigners’ quarters (usually outside the locals’ wall, rather than walled in, although the caravanserai/fondaco is a special walled building type for enclosing foreign merchants), royal hunting parks/gardens/harems, and family compounds, as in those hilltop walled towns of Tuscany that everyone loves to cite as birthplaces of rationalist humanism:

Tiny San Gimignano still has 14 giant towers, each guarding a separate noble family compound that at one stage completely screwed the town’s street plan and traffic flow. UNESCO offers an overview from the viewpoint of preservation, Medina Lasansky has a whole book about how the city you see today is Mussolini’s reinvention.

When the Ottomans conquered Constantinople they put up a load of mosque-hospital-bath complexes, free for the use of all the city’s Muslims, to show the citizens the benefits of converting to Islam and being good Ottoman subjects. But they walled them off, so that the city’s Jews and Christians, who didn’t have the right to enter, would be both excluded and intrigued. The walls became a symbol of social hierarchy.

The Suleimaniye kulliye in Istanbul, walled off from the rest of the city even though it’s supposed to serve the public.

3. walls have gates, and pirates and emperors love a choke point

Control over the boundary = control over community membership. And if you can control who goes in and out through a narrow choke point, then you can have power over them every time they want to cross that boundary.

diagram of a city: the community is orange, the outside black.

So the second purpose of building a wall is to restrict traffic to a single point where you can extort money from it.

The choke points of Europe’s waterways are a wargamer’s or toll-taker’s wet dream. If you want to get from Mariupol to the Atlantic you have to cross the Kerch Strait, the Bosphorus and Sea of Marmara, the Dardanelles, the Marsala gap, and the strait of Gibraltar, and every one of those chokes has been used as a toll gate.

High, thick walls have a propaganda effect – look how safe you are in here – but the everyday point of the wall is toll-taking.

House for weighing imported goods to assess customs duties, Amsterdam. In this case the wharf is the gate.

One of the oldest types of neighbourhood associations in Europe is the Gate Defense Association – a communal organization that collects all the tolls and then redistributes…. some of them… to the deserving poor and public works like… repairing the church or the association’s HQ.

gates of the Ark, Bukhara

4. walls state what you are prepared to defend

The Mongols tore all the city walls down when their empire was expanding, then put them back up when it started contracting: if you control the countryside, you don’t need them. If you need them, then you only really control the city. That impulse, to add or subtract walls from cities, has played out many times in Europe and Central Asia. For an emperor, walled cities are potential sources of rebellion, fortresses of power for over-mighty subjects. The license to crenellate your manor house is a barometer of state power.

If you charge customs on goods that enter the city wall and also refuse to defend the parts of the city that fall outside your wall, you get faubourgs – commercial districts that operate (comparatively) freely from state intervention. And of course if the city extends too far beyond the walls, you have to build new walls (funded by new toll-gates).

For a legendary unplanned example, check out Baghdad as it stood under the wise and pious Harun al-Rashid:

Baghdad was planned and built from scratch by Caliph al Mansur and his vizier Khalid ibn Barmak to be the Caliphal seat, the perfect city of peace, round as the world because it represented the world – or at least the world of Islam, the abode of peace. There were ideas about being able to shelter the whole population of the realm within its encircling walls. And it had four gates pointing to the four corners of the Islamic domain and/or four greatest other cities in the Islamic world – a fortress, a symbol, and (at last) an administrative center capable of governing the vast and unruly Caliphate. It was, by several orders of magnitude, the biggest single building work conducted under Islam. al Mansur’s brother had recently been propelled into the Caliphate by a bloody civil war, his reign depended on slave soldiers and propaganda. Baghdad was to prove that there was substance to the new world he promised. The specs were outlandish – millions of tons of baked and glazed bricks, bronze, copper, and gold domes, viziers’ offices and barracks and mosques and great parade grounds, and the whole thing was to be enclosed in a stout, circular wall. There was just one problem: to build such an orderly monster, you had to import hundreds of thousands of workers, who needed somewhere to live, and markets for food, and stores for materials, and brick factories….. And so before the Round City could be raised, there first had to be built a sprawling, unplanned, supposedly temporary city for the workers. And of course today there is no trace of the Round City, but Baghdad the sprawl remains. And that’s why the Arabian Nights is full of stories in which Harun (al Mansur’s son) disguises himself to walk outside the palace among the common Baghdadis and discovers terrible injustices, which he demands Ja’far (Khalid’s grandson) put right.

Successful cities outgrow their walls and successful territorial states have progressively less and less use for them – a bloody great wall in the middle of your city plays havoc with traffic flow (by design).

Paris in the 19th century, showing concentric walls showing several eras of the city’s expansion. Before Haussmann’s road-building program

The traditional thing to do (in London, Paris, Vienna, and Moscow, at least) is to tear the walls down and turn them into unusually broad streets, maybe with a line of trees or a whole park to show how important they are – the origin of the Parisian boulevard (bulwark) and Vienna’s Ringstrasse (ring-road – because the walls form a ring around the old city). And I know it sounds contradictory, to first build a giant wall and then flatten it again, but trust me, that’s easier than displacing all the people who would’ve built houses all over that prime urban land if the wall hadn’t been there.

The Ringstrasse is now one of Vienna’s top attractions, as well as the means for visiting the others. Not bad when you consider it used to be a rubbish tip.

Paris’s last wall, erected in the 19th century by Thiers, became the Paris ringroad – which is not leafy or park-like, but with its notorious traffic jams and noise it could be considered a defense of a sort.

Next: how to defend your walls, or: fortifications through the ages.

XCOM in the mirror – Phoenix Point

March 20, 2023 6 comments

In the previous posts in this series, I’ve praised XCOM for its focus, clarity, and elegance. It gives you the right amount of information at the right time to allow you to make informed decisions. It aims for simplicity, winding up at a level of complexity that allows for good tactics. In those parts of the game where it’s less clear, it’s also less successful.

Those posts are all retrospectives – written after I’d had a chance to absorb and think about XCOM’s lessons, not as I was experiencing them.

This post is different: it’s about Phoenix Point, another game made by some of the same developers, which shows how you can get it wrong, where XCOM gets it right. And it’s written as I’m in the middle of trying to get to grips with it.

Phoenix Point is what happens to XCOM when its enthusiasts want more of everything. More enemies, more complex variants on those enemies, more research, bases, faction diplomacy, decisions, action points per round, weapons… and most of all, more ways to get into a position from which you cannot win. At the same time, less information up front – more interface ambiguity, more traps hidden in subsystems, which slow you down in your race against the enemies, more forcing the player to take leaps in the dark and then backtrack later. The overall result is more confusion, more paralysis, more stress (of the “I think I unwittingly did something wrong last week and now I’m screwed” variety), and less fun.

Geoscape view looks familiar! Each of those little circles with logos inside is a site I’ve explored. Blue and pink logos are bases of different factions, whom I can befriend or raid or rescue from disease/alien incursions, which come out of the red areas.

On the tactical level, where XCOM has 2 action points, for MOVE and SHOOT, PP has 4, so you can have actions that take 1, 2, 3 or 4 points… the result of which is that your heavy gunner and sniper, who have 3-point guns, are slowed to a crawl, having only 1 point left for movement. Where XCOM has a lot of one-shot kills, PP routinely takes 3 characters’ actions to take down one enemy soldier… the result of which is that combat is much slower and less predictable, tactically – because most of an enemy squad will escape any ambush you set, or turn the tables on you by failing to die and instead swarming you. And where XCOM gives you infinite reloads, PP wants you to gather up ammo from the battlefield (or, by default, leave it there when you end a mission… so you get into a situation where you’ve probably killed all the enemies but maybe not, but you don’t want to Do The Thing to declare victory because there might be some valuable bullets lying around in the opposite corner of the map). And where XCOM has a sometimes-enraging %-to-hit counter, PP has a touchy-feely “how much of this circular sight does your enemy occupy” interface, which takes multiple clicks to access but maybe appeals to sniping enthusiasts but… those guys are probably playing Call of Duty instead.

In brief: XCOM = quick and deadly, PP = slow, fiddly, and less tactical.

Character Advancement is both less clear and less varied than XCOM 2. There are 3 classes and everyone can dual-class at level 4, so your squad of 6 people certainly contains duplicates – it winds up being a sort of class-and-a-half system. Why would you do this? The main reason I’ve found so far is to overcome class restrictions on equipment. Snipers can’t normally get the Heavy’s jump jets, which is the only practical way to get to many of the sniping platforms in levels. Dual-class, like Omar, below, and you can jump to a sniper’s perch… and leave your short-range Heavy gun at home. Update: turns out more classes unlock later in the game but they have, like, funny heads? Or mutato-cyborgo bits? I have no idea, and they won’t ever explain. The fun will be in finding out.

Ammo management is a huge part of the game, but there’s no clear interface for reloading a weapon. And there are like 6 different minor variations on every basic weapon because…………..? I guess to make ammo management harder. So that’s why you end up with a giant Storage bin on your loadout screen. For 2 dozen ammo types. Update: and there will be more kinds of very similar weapons as you advance. Also, make sure you never fire that stripey cannon shown in the picture below except in direst extremis, because you’re never getting any more ammo for it.

But where the game really makes strides is the strategic layer. This was kind of rudimentary in XCOM. Now it’s…. a lot more complicated.

This video, ostensibly offering tips for the strategic game, actually provides a really thorough list of its design problems. First, it says the way to win the game is to strike before the aliens get to show you much of the content (which, OSR sensibilities aside, seems like a funny way to spend your development dollars). Friendly relations with other human factions are vital, so you should murder the first few humans you meet for their stuff, because the bad will that generates will only grow more expensive later (mixed messages, anyone? What sort of character are you playing, anyway?). And you should avoid researching anything that you can get by any other means – the video explicitly calls most of the research options “traps:” wasteful sinks for time and resources. Avoid developing your bases, building aircraft (steal them instead – but early on, before factions get properly mad at you for doing so), and try to win faster than both the aliens and the human factions’ mutually-assured destruction countdown. In other words, absolutely do not try to explore the things that the game puts in front of you. Along the way, there are several sub-games you should exploit without getting attached to them: a gold-farming trade game, diplomacy that’s kinda doomed, and a flying Godzilla, impossible to attack, that destroys the friends you first invest in.

Do I sound bitter? Well, I’ve only sunk 20 hours into it, and I’ve already realized that I should probably restart rather than sinking another 20 into a lost cause. I bet that puts me ahead of the average player.

The experience has, however, reinforced one thing for me: the importance of managing the player’s cognitive capacity, when learning a new game. Dribbling out information, letting the player grok the basics before getting fancy with special conditions. Some folks resent XCOM’s hand-holding tutorials, which callously kill off your soldiers to show you that soldiers will die and throw grenades at you to show you how dangerous they are and so on. When you’ve gone through XCOM’s 0-level funnel-like first mission, you think “that was really basic, I totally could’ve handled more options” ….but XCOM is smart to start with that funnel, allowing you to figure out movement and cover without thinking about the affordances of different character classes.

PP offers a very unattractive alternative, where you’re assumed to know how XCOM works, therefore you’re ready to have your expectations subverted. It throws you right into its XCOM++ world with all the options open from the start and… it’s overwhelming. Hundreds of (trap) research topics; pages and pages of (mostly probably irrelevant) lore about factions, your own history, the aliens; half a dozen separate base/aircraft/weapon/manufacturing systems to optimize, much of which, apparently, not worth the bother. And laced through it all, a basic failure to explain. To take one, stupid example, look at this interface element:

a yellow, dotted circle around your aircraft. It shrinks as you move toward a goal.

I bet you think it represents the range the plane can go without refueling at a friendly base, right? I was pretty scared even to approach that edge. I thought I might have to always have enough fuel aboard to make it back home. No. The plane can auto-refuel (if, in fact, that’s what it means at all) at any abandoned graveyard/alien base/curious swamp-grotto you’ve explored. You can tell it to go somewhere far outside that circle and the circle will just keep re-setting to max every time you pass over an icon. It took me 20 hours to find that out by accident. There is no manual where the dotted circle is explained.

If only the game dribbled that stuff out a bit, maybe its complexity would be a virtue, not a vice. So my positive lesson from this not-so-positive experience is, an empire-building game/earth-girdling campaign begins with a single step. Is there exploration? Let the players explore a small map (maybe an island or cave) first, revealing the next, bigger step when the first one is internalized. Is there redundant research? Let the players do some useful research first and then give them clues about what redundancy looks like, before having them lose a game to find out… There is never a point in the game where you should abandon this design principle: any time you’re about to radically expand the scope, even late in a campaign, add a little training, where the players can figure out the new possibilities before they have to depend on them. And for god’s sake, teach the players about any new thing with a good, reliable example, before betraying their hopes with a treacherous one.

Update: this is reinforced by the fighter plane minigame, which unlocks around hour 40. If you want to know why that ends the game (for me, at least) read below. If you don’t need any more reasons to avoid, then avoid this too.

——— actual whining below ————

LATE ADDENDUM: I get obsessive about video games – in general I avoid picking them up because I find it so hard to put them down again, but Phoenix Point has offered me an off-ramp after 60 hours of play, and I’m taking it. I mention it here because I feel there’s a lesson about RNGs and the need to place some limits on them.

PP has a small but real chance of just throwing a giant boss monster into a level full of mooks. Specifically, a super-beefed-up version of the Acheron into a game where the ordinary Acheron has just appeared. The Acheron is itself a Swiss Army knife of disasters – it introduces a new mechanic that directly erodes your soldiers’ abilities to resist it, it summons 1d4 mooks a round (which means it might double the monster count of a level in 2 rounds before you even know it’s there), it jumps, giving it more and different mobility compared with other monsters, and it’s a plain old giant bag of hit points and damage-dealing. So randomly throwing one into a level is wildly destabilizing, like making the level 6 times harder, where the regular monsters are supposed to offer a “balanced” challenge. It’s like having “red dragon” on a wandering monster table for a first level dungeon and then locking the players in one room with the dragon so they can’t run away.

OK, fine, reload the level, it won’t have the Boss, continue playing. If you allow savescumming, I guess this is just the game scumming back. But… what if you have a similar random avalanche waiting to kill the player, that gets set at the beginning of the game and that only goes off, say, 40 hours into play? 40 hours is a lot – maybe the player could plan around it? Maybe it’s not that big a deal if they know it’s coming?

Yeah so the story is, if you buy the complete PP now, it comes with all the later DLCs auto-installed. And one of those DLCs has a flying Godzilla that randomly wrecks everyone you’re trying to trade with. It sets you up for a whole arc where some people will get wrecked but then you’re in another arms race to learn how to resist it and eventually you can fight back. And to get you started and give you some hope, the DLC also straight up gives you a fighter plane to fight it with, at exactly the same time the Godzilla appears. It’s all scripted – hey, here’s your fighter… oh noes a Godzilla, go fight it. Except my fighter plane arrived in Africa and my Godzilla’s in Brazil, and the plane doesn’t have the range to cross the ocean in between, so it can only get there via the north pole, and only if I’ve built a daisy chain of bases where it can refuel. It would take, say, 20 more hours to navigate a path for it to come and fight. During which, I think, the only way I could resist the Godzilla at all is by researching and building another fighter plane.

So I tested that idea – made a new savegame, invested a couple of hours, tried to arm up a new fighter (knowing it would bankrupt me, prevent me from pursuing any of the other half-dozen life-saving technologies… but that’s actually a typical feeling for the XCOM strategic game so); for science, I decided to sacrifice my morning. And… the fighter minigame has no documentation. I don’t know if it’s not working because I’ve failed to do something, or because I can’t find the fire button, or what. Maybe I just gave my fighter some missiles to carry rather than a missile launcher (a thing you can do with infantry, and no the game doesn’t warn you that anything’s wrong). Maybe I need a new pilot or gunner class that the game didn’t tell me about. Maybe it’s an actual bug. I dunno, the interface has nothing to say.

So, that’s my off ramp. Thanks, PP.

Learning from XCOM, 5: the bit that would be better as a TTRPG

March 14, 2023 9 comments

Ok, so I’ve been singing the praises of XCOM here for a while, but it’s not flawless by any means. A friend tried the game, based on my posts here, and did not like it at all, principally because of the various doom counters that it uses to make you feel like each mission has larger consequences than just success/failure in the moment.

My experience was that when they work, the game’s various hurry-ups put you in this interesting double-bind where:
– you need the toys that the strategic game unlocks in order to survive the next tactical mission,
– you also urgently need another tactical mission to raise money for the strategic game.
So you’re constantly worried about just surviving to the end of the month. A worry exacerbated by soldiers needing to heal, your second-best squad being some levels behind your first, etc.

My friend’s experience was that the strategic game was a hectoring cacophony of doom counters and impossible threats and constant interruptions preventing any sort of coherent thought. It was especially galling that the aliens continually did stuff that was deliberately designed to be far out of the player’s reach, so there was no chance to save all the days or all the people (the aliens also occasionally go on spite murder rampages, which are supposed to discredit your resistance – and yes, it’s upsetting to have a counter of civilians you’re supposed to save, and see them being picked off before you can even get to them. It’s storytelling – these aliens are despicable murderers – but it’s also kind of an anti-game moment – are you not playing this in order to prevent exactly that?).
My friend did not appreciate the feeling that the game was sadistically making them feel stressed and powerless, watching things spiral out of control.

There’s a possible macho response to this – that that’s the difference between surfing and drowning – but my friend is an experienced game player. And anyway, if you signed up for a squad tactics game, that doesn’t mean you signed up to surf a noisy wave of countdowns. Which seems like a generally applicable thing to say about games: if you have a game that does one thing well, it’s probably best not to require your players to also do some other thing, in order to experience it. Multiple flavours can combine to taste even better together, but if you put peanuts in my chocolate then I will spit the chocolate out and consider it wasted.

And after some consideration, I think the issues are really intrinsic to XCOM being a pre-programmed video game, where the strategic/campaign level would be better handled – more responsive, more free, more explorable – as a TTRPG.

The strategic level of the game has a lot in common with the boardgame Pandemic Legacy – and XCOM2 especially has a lot on common with Pandemic Legacy 2 (hereafter PL2).

It consists of a map of the world, on which things go wrong every month and you get a chance to place workers to fix some of them. Like PL2, you don’t have access to the whole map to begin with: you only get to know about stuff that’s happening around your contact network, so as your contact network expands (through communication tokens with locals, and radio masts), so does your understanding of the plot.

Here we are, fairly late in the XCOM2 supplement War of the Chosen, having made contact with 3 other resistance factions.

The first and greatest weakness of the XCOM implementation of this strategic layer is, it’s essentially passive. It’s a “race against time” but your method of racing is largely… waiting for missions to pop up. And, while you wait, hoping that not too much goes wrong before you can research plasma rifles. In a TTRPG you could handwave the waiting and invite the players to take on proactive missions – spy on the aliens, find caches of tech, rescue experts, and raid supply convoys. Then the players would always be busy with something when a surprise mission lead comes in. But that’s… a whole other game to program.

That waiting weakness leads to the other great problem XCOM digs for itself: it has to artificially generate urgency, in the form of a race against a Secret Alien Scheme (represented by those red and black squares at the top of the screen – as the aliens progress on their scheme, the squares turn red – that’s the primary doom counter). XCOM has a nice tech tree (for which it never shows you a map), a set of resource-gathering dependencies (always expand your network first, that gives you money for little things like medicine and weapon powerups) and a story, told in missions you access in series, via research. But if it weren’t for the hectoring doom counters you could just take a leisurely stroll through all that content, unlock all the branches of the tech tree, and level your soldiers up to max. It’s only the doom counter that makes your choices, about what to prioritize and what to defer, difficult or stressful ones. Because now you have to anxiously wonder if it’s better to spend time doing an autopsy on the new bugsquid or trying to figure out more efficient radio, whether you must expand east toward the alien base you’ve heard about, or south toward a nest of potential friends. And whichever thing you choose, XCOM will force your stress level a bit by dangling things just out of your reach.

But why is this a weakness? Aren’t races and tough decisions… cool?

Well, first because XCOM doesn’t give you any information about the likely outcome of your tough decisions – it’s really keen on the story of you unlocking secrets so… it’s a long series of leaps of faith in the dark, rather than the kinds of carefully considered risks that the tactical game excels at. And second, because the way XCOM’s race works is – boom, the RNG pops up a mission:

(some missions are monthly regulars, some are triggered by you hitting certain milestones, some are on some other mysterious schedule).

and you can either go fight it in tactical mode or ignore it – which is the same as fighting it and failing. If you win, you might set the aliens’ doom counter back, buying time to see what happens when you choose “nest of friends” and ignore “alien base lead” on the next decision fork. But if you lose/ignore the mission, the doom counter clicks forward. Which is, obviously, a positive feedback loop or death spiral – failure means you have less time. And that death spiral is intensified because:
(a) you don’t get whatever rewards the mission could have handed out,
(b) your reputation with the people funding you gets worse, so they may give you less funding,
(c) during the tactical mission, some of your soldiers probably got killed or injured, which means you lose their xp progress, their readiness for the next mission, and any unique equipment they had.

And (d) you trigger a flurry of “we can’t afford to lose like this, the aliens will win” NPC voiceovers, which are surprisingly stressful and effective at making you feel bad. If the aliens’ doom counter gets all the way up to 12, BTW, you get a literal doom clock:

and scare windows, just in case you weren’t feeling the failure.

Notably, XCOM never tells you that you’re doing well. Or, if it does, it does it with a broad wink that says “hubris? Pride before a fall? You know what comes next.” (skip to 51:30)

So this “race” is really just a challenge to:
(a) accept and win all the missions that pop up
(b) guess the right order in which to develop your base, soldiers, and informant networks.

In contrast, Pandemic Legacy has a negative feedback loop – if you’re not doing well, it gives you more resources. And in PL2, where you’re uncovering the mysterious map as you go, you know that you don’t know where you should prioritize expanding, so you take action and hope for the best. And, critically, although your decisions change the way PL2 plays, they don’t lock you out of winning or put you on a long, torturous path to assured destruction in several turns’ time, which is what XCOM explicitly threatens to do, even though that threatened destruction might really be farther away than they suggest.

So, XCOM and PL both have arbitrary cutoff victory/failure conditions. XCOM’s aliens win if their doom counter goes off, the player wins if they reach a critical research point and definitively sabotage the Secret Scheme, at which point the story beats have set you up to believe in eucatastrophe. PL is limited to one year (12-24 game sessions), at the end of which you might lose outright but are much more likely to score a limited, weird victory by stopping some of the diseases or limiting the damage they do. Anyway, you’re guaranteed to at least understand what’s going on and why.

BTW Phoenix Point, an off-brand XCOMalike made by the XCOM developers, doubles down on the Pandemic elements of the game – now instead of aliens it’s a virus that turns your fellow humans into aliens, some of them distinctly copyright-infringing.

And it makes a point of telling you, at the end of the tutorial:

But imagine if you were playing a TTRPG and all you needed to provide, for the players to go looking for trouble and plot heists, was:
1) a map with some targets on it*: e.g.:
– mystery lab,
– supply depot,
– places with frequent street battles that point to resistance cells (actually, these are all things that XCOM2 tells you are going on, but the only interaction it gives you is “sit and scan this for 6 days and get 50 supplies or an engineer.”)
2) some random tables of mission ingredients and complications, e.g.:
– destroy the transmitter
– put false info in the dead drop
– person you’re supposed to retrieve is unwilling
– ambush
Then you wouldn’t necessarily need to provide definitive end conditions – or you could have them emerge through play. Think Game of Thrones’s endless political roil, out of which emerges a win/lose dyad of zombies or Targaryen world-empress. For any long campaign, the players would find out enough about the world to potentially set their own win conditions, if they even want that.

…I’m actually (still) implementing a thing like this, called Countercolonial Heistcrawl, so I’m not going to anticipate that by writing a reduced version of it now, but… in the spirit of this blog post series, here are some principles, learned from XCOM, for making such a thing. Note – I am not talking specifically about making an alien invasion/human resistance game, for which this video covers the bases of XCOM’s story very neatly, but rather any warbox game where you have a strategic overlay (or “campaign”) that sets goals for a series of tactical missions (or “dungeons,” if you like).

Principle 1: the game continues as long as the players want to play

Or, “don’t impose a limiting win condition at the start.” Players are apt to give up if they lose all their followers but… Babur, the first Mughal Emperor, was just an idiot with a horse and a sword when he set out to restore his ancestor Genghis Khan’s empire. His son Humayun lost it all, being reduced to a horse and a sword, and got it all back (with a surprise twist ending!). Neither one accepted that their game was over. In the history of (actual anti-colonial) resistance movements, it’s very rare for anyone to definitively be done away with and never heard from again. Instead they mostly just lose ground – resources, reach, personnel. There are cases, in fact, where every individual person in a movement dies, or the leader dies, and a couple of generations later a new resistance movement forms around their memory and ideas. From a game-running perspective all of this can just be counted as the same player – if they get knocked right down, they get a negative feedback boost to keep them in the game. So then the stakes of the game are not elimination but capability. If their factions have levels (of reach, influence, military might), those can be drained but the faction doesn’t die unless it chooses to.

If the game is getting stale, by all means change things up, maybe introduce a story that can definitively take out an enemy – but you don’t have to Ragnarok the whole setting: any single definitive change can act as a campaign keystone, leaving room for a sequel with somewhat different rules.

Principle 2: information is not just power, it’s also interactability

XCOM’s tactical layer is a superb model of clarity in information – you know your chance to hit, you know what damage you’ll do, you know where the enemies are and you quickly learn what they can do… and the result is you, as a player, can interact in a sophisticated way with the game. XCOM’s strategic layer is a blind graveyard of opportunities that you stumble over – or cheat your way through by reading other players’ stumblings. You have no idea what to build because the game doesn’t tell you what anything does; you can’t guess at the likely outcomes of research projects; and there are myriad easter eggs in the design that would get you to difficult destinations… if the game told you how they worked (skullmining, I’m looking at you). I get that the designers want the aliens and their tech to be mysterious. I get that they want you to feel joy in discovery. But. The practical result is that you can’t play these parts of the game strategically, you’re just surprised at every turn.

So don’t do that. Instead, think about what you really want to be a surprise reveal, and let everything else be meaningful information that the players can use. Tell them how strong they are (give their faction a level rating, if you like) and what they can take on. Tell them what is rumoured to exist in the wilderness (and make the rumours mostly true), the likely outcomes of research, what their options are for expanding and what those choices mean, even what the next obvious step is, trusting that there will be enough surprises and mysteries and missed connections to make their busy times interesting. It’s when they can choose between two obvious steps that they will surprise you with a creative third option that you hadn’t considered, not when they’re paralyzed by a dizzying load of Decisions on Zero Information.

And when you really want a surprise, tease it – if the player anticipates it, half expects it, they’ll be interested and alert when it finally shows up. XCOM2 War of the Chosen has these three super-enemy nemeses – The Chosen – who can unexpectedly show up and destabilize any mission. Each one gets a theatrical entrance, each one taunts you and laughs villainously, and each one is announced with a set of strengths and weaknesses when it first shows up. So these Chosen, out of all the game’s elements, show real design thought regarding their lines of clarity and unknowability. They’re unpredictable but still interactable. They’re a surprise you can try to plan for, an extra enemy you dread. They make you wish you’d planned better, they don’t make you throw your hands up in the air and say “how was I supposed to know about this?” That’s a good surprise.

Principle 3: the world is made of agent units (targets), and those are dungeons

As players explore/trade for info/spy/listen to the radio, the map gets populated with targets. These targets are elements or agents of the enemy’s network of power – that is, their organization is broken down into modules (or, from another perspective, players can cleverly identify weak points) where attacks can make a difference. So a target is a railway signals box or a warehouse or a general or a genetics lab or some bit of enemy infrastructure that they depend on, that you can disable or appropriate, the loss of which has knock-on effects for the enemy’s operations. Ideally, you draw up an actual network of dependencies, tying these points together. Attacking targets is played out in tactical mode.

Per Principle 2, recon can tell the players the threat level of (almost) any target, so the players can compare it with their own to get an idea of whether they can hit it, take it down, take it over, or leave it for now as a long-term goal, for when they reach level 5.

XCOM really only has 3 types of missions:
1. Kill all the enemies
2. Sneak into an enemy installation and steal/destroy something
3. Get a resource safely across the map to an exit point
and that already allows for a lot of different sorts of challenges, that are not really all dungeons. But you could have a lot more –
– show someone something (especially: show a potential ally the enemy behaving badly… by getting them to chase you).
– plant/construct something in the enemy’s operations – this could be installing a bug, or planting evidence to destroy trust between enemy agents…
– pull enemies into an ambush

Defeating targets gives the players rewards and puts a hole in the enemy’s network. The enemy’s network heals with time, but if you shoot it full of enough holes fast enough, it may drop entire capabilities/departments.
Rewards could be:
– information (new targets),
– expertise (new tech/toys),
– personnel (new soldiers),
– resources… etc.
If you merely destroy a target, you might get a subsidiary reward (local resistance contacts, defectors, info etc). But if you take over a target of equal or higher level to your own group (extract useful resources/abilities from it), you level up.

Principle 4: separate the game ingredients by function and give them a face

This is a thing XCOM does very well – your research subgame is a scientist with a personality. Your make new toys subgame is an engineer with a personality. It makes the bits of game easier to find and understand – this is a new technology, therefore research, therefore go talk to the scientist character. That is a thing we can make multiple copies of, therefore it’s engineering.

So given that a warbox depends on information, give the sources of that information personalities – and assign different ones to streams of different reliability, so the game can set up a language for establishing the level of confidence that the players should invest int them: game mechanics/advice comes from Judi Densch, the enemy informant is Andy Serkis, and the supplier of rumours is Steve Buscemi.

Curiously, Phoenix Point doesn’t do this. So maybe there is a need for posts like this one, full of obvious advice, after all.

* actually, it looks like Phoenix Point might adopt exactly this sort of structure for its strategic layer. I’ve just started playing it and… there’s a bunch of targets to investigate around my base in the upper Amazon, including some supply-scavenging missions. Just when I thought this series was over. OK fine, I shall play more and report back with an addendum.

Maps of classic dungeons 4: the rats in the walls of the Opera Garnier

March 1, 2023 1 comment

Screenshot 2023-02-17 at 12.47.06 PMAlexis Dornier: Stilt Studio. If you like that, see also his Birdhouses resort in Bali.

Part of the myth of modern architecture is that it’s all function. But that’s hardly ever true – and even when it is, somehow the expression of that function tends to come across in an ostentatious, theatrical way. 

Screenshot 2023-02-17 at 1.08.40 PMArkwright’s cotton mill, Cromford, 1771

Take this cotton mill building, for instance, often forwarded by British people as the birthplace of the industrial revolution. It’s supposed to be purely, practically functional. You can tell because it’s unadorned – no fancy pillars or porticoes or stepping of the facade architecture – and it’s sometimes cited as an important moment in the development of the new clean modern movement in architecture; if you’re wondering why the industrial age abandoned ornament just when it could mass-produce it, the relative cheapness of these buildings is your answer.

Cromford_Mill_GatewayAnd yet even Arkwright’s mill was theatricalized, as a place of work, with this entrance gate, reminiscent of a medieval castle barbican or a prison. The gate announces that within these walls is the place for mechanical labor.    

Architecture can’t really help communicating. Splendor – which Arkwright’s mill self-consciously eschewed – also has a function – if it didn’t, people wouldn’t spend so much on it. It tells a building’s inhabitants how to feel and behave, what to pay attention to and, conversely, what to ignore. An institution’s buildings are its visible presence, its self-portraits, and theatrical settings – showcases for its power, arenas for its executives’ performances. 

How-FosterPartners-Elevated-Apple-Store-Design-Azure-Hero-1600x900Foster & Partners: Apple store, Macau

Corporations love gigantic foyers and atriums, that both dwarf the visitor and offer an interior world to get lost in. Hotels and cruise ships have grand social gathering spaces – dining rooms and ballrooms – where they can make a spectacle of their guests. And temples have whole complex schemes of teaching spaces that make their creeds visible. Theaters of theology.

Anatomy Theater, University of Leiden short, theaters are everywhere. And theaters are dungeons and dungeons are theaters: they frequently contain self-consciously theatrical storytelling spaces – the old raised dais at the end of the room, the sacrificial altar, the monster pit, the pentagram in the middle of the floor. Also, fairly often, these theatrical parts of the dungeon are left as set dressing – whoever made the temple, they’re not here any more and instead it’s giant rats or opportunistic hobgoblin mercenaries, staining the tapestries.

But a theater is a terrible thing to waste – especially one dedicated to fiction. The lies people tell you can be so informative about what’s really on their minds.

Ok, so, some theory.

Theaters (arenas, ritual spaces) dramatize the functions of society.
Justice is theatrical – prisoners and executions are displayed in public to show an example to the rest of the court.
Power is theatrical – both to attract the court’s attention and to set a standard that enforces humility among the servile classes.
And rituals/displays show a society its own structure – as well as offering moments when that structure can be suspended, changed, and re-asserted. Weddings, promotions, judgments, declarations are all status changes for members of the community – moments of structural vulnerability, where stuff is up for grabs, where everyone has to update their hierarchies.
(Victor Turner wrote the classic book on this – the whole thing is interesting)

And/So theatrical rituals offer moments of crisis where PCs can insert themselves to maximum effect – Bond and John Carter routinely escape right at the moment of their spectacular, exemplary punishment, when all eyes are fixed on them – the intended display of the tyrant’s power instead becomes their spectacular humiliation. Years of careful plotting are undone in a way they wouldn’t be, if the whole thing hadn’t been so damn public. And when the heroes escape, they don’t just illustrate the contingency/risk that gives the ritual its power, they also tell us about the holes in their captors’ moral architecture: Carter can slip out of his spectacular starvation chamber through the same tunnel the tyrant uses to enact his sadistic urges – the tyrant is defeated by his own vices, embodied in his theater of cruelty.

But it’s also worth thinking about how a theatre divides its space into the scene – what you are required to look at, to understand the drama – and the obscene – both that which is hidden behind a curtain because it’s too upsetting for the public, and that which is off the stage: the stuff that is necessary to the production but which the audience has to ignore – the lights, flies, and rude mechanicals that make the magic happen. And, fairly often, simply people right there on the stage whom you must pretend are not there (kuroko, servants, boom operators).   

People fret about the obscene becoming visible, but it’s just as useful as a (open) secret place, from which one can observe without being observed. Bond gets inside (infests) Goldfinger’s model of Fort Knox (showing us how the villain’s plans are paper-thin) and learns all of Goldfinger’s plots from that blind – even the bit where Goldfinger plans to betray his mafia allies.

In The Hunchback of Notre Dame the spy gallery is the cathedral bell tower, which offers a commanding view of the bustling square and its centerpiece gallows. While the tyrannical archdeacon sets up a punishment theater for the burghers of Paris, to condemn Esmeralda for failing to return his love, Quasimodo uses his bellside perch to spy on the proceedings from above – a nice reversal of the panoptic power of the state. Also he improbably uses a bell rope to Tarzan down to her and snatch her away from the archdeacon’s own rope necklace, which is probably super Freudian or something but I digress.

gargoyles and saints, locked in an endless staring match

Getting up to that bell tower, by the way, involves entering a rabbit warren of passages – the private scurryways of a very public building, which the archdeacon only barely understands. If you’re intimate with gargoyles then you’re definitely not in a place intended for the worshipful visitors – or at least you weren’t before Victor Hugo’s novel made the bell tower tour one of the most popular parts of a tour around Paris’s Old Dame.

I can see the king’s bedroom from here

And then there’s the actual theater: a building devoted to fixing the audience’s gaze on only one place–the royal box, where Louis XIV and his court just might let their guard down, as they watched their entertainments. Or the stage, if Louis XIV himself (or his wife, or his mistress) were performing.

the Opera at Versailles in the mid 19th century, dressed for a rather staid performance by Queen Victoria

The quintessential theater, the Platonic ideal of the modern palace of illusions, if you like, is of course an imitation, rebuilt on a grander scale, of Louis’s court theater – Paris’s Opera Garnier. It was commissioned by the commoner emperor Napoleon III to form the centerpiece of his “theater state,” and had to be capable of accepting the bourgeoisie as well as dukes and visiting royalty.

The Opera Garnier, Paris’s other hunchback – the giant peaked-roof carbuncle spoiling the symmetry of the dome houses the flies – all the scenery-changing machinery that turns a stage into a cave into a forest or a mean peasant’s hut.

This is the Opera that’s now mostly famous for its Phantom… which was originally written off the back of the fame of the building itself. So it goes with the ravages of time.

I wish I could tell you that Victor Hugo wrote both The Hunchback of Notre Dame and The Phantom of the Opera, and that these two epics about disfigured men with yearning hearts hiding out in Paris landmarks were both scathing satires on the French society of their day – that from their secret vantage points they laid bare the hypocrisies of the powerful. Both do indeed theatricalize French society – Notre Dame offers a “god’s perspective” from which we can see the venal goings on of the city. The Opera Garnier, (at least when it was first built) was a factory for fantasies, both on the stage and in the auditorium, the perfect metaphor for the pasteboard Second Empire. And Hugo had plenty to say about Napoleon III as a pasteboard character – “Napoleon the little,” “the nocturnal strangler of liberty”, that would fit snugly into the whole Phantom thing. But unfortunately Phantom was written in 1910, 25 years after Hugo’s death, by melodramatic mystery scribbler Gaston Leroux and if there is, indeed, a common moral shared by the two books it’s something about the dangerous power of being a sexy woman in a city full of deformed horny romantically-inclined men. At best, they could be partnered with Cyrano de Bergerac to make a series on ugly monomaniacs of Paris, 1630-present.

But let’s forget the sad accidents of history for a moment and pretend that the two books and buildings really are in dialogue. Because they are, regardless of their mere authors’ intentions. The books’ obsession with vertical limits – Quasimodo’s heavenly tower and Erik the Phantom’s subterranean sewer-palace – seems to says something about the anatomy of Paris as a great beast impelled by carnal drives, looking to the stars, etc. The secrecy of the spaces suggests a Paris of labyrinths – which it is, from sewers and catacombs to “secret” entrances to the Louvre and other landmarks. To say nothing of the Law. And the physical structures of the buildings…

Here’s the thing. Notre Dame is a labyrinth, sure – from subterranean crypt to chorister’s gallery to belltowers, there’s plenty of places for ecclesiastics to get up to no good. A family of urchins could easily hide in its decorative niches, posing as statues when the organist shuffles by. And, like most cathedrals, it has a wooden skeleton, so it’s not just a giant pile of stone. But the Opera is another sort of labyrinth altogether – the sort of collection of hanging facades with big holes behind them that you could only build in the 19th century, with metal frame construction and a limitless fund of decorators. The grandiose rooms that make up the public front of the Opera

are surrounded by hundreds of other spaces, many of which can’t really be dignified by being called “rooms,” which threaten to engulf it.

detail of a longitudinal section model of the Opera Garnier, at the Musee d’Orsay, Paris

The famous auditorium is that rather small gilded space, 4 stories under the dome. The skyscraper next door is the stage and flies.

There are at least 3 buildings in that building: the gilded front of house, the actors’ backstage, and a third hidden set of service and maintenance spaces, which are not just tiny scurryholes but whole galleries and kitchens and staircases and staging areas – an architecture of supports and buttresses and food carts and stagehands and whispered orders, where the rooms are cut into by the backsides of domes and mock plaster pillars. These are the spaces that even the Phantom doesn’t talk about: room for an army of goblins – or of plumbers, seamstresses, and waiters. Like Manhattan or Disneyland, where the public thinks they’re standing on solid ground they’re really on the upper floor of a building that extends below their feet for several stories; a whole other city that leaks into their view only through steam blasts and the occasional odd clank.

The front/maintenance divide continues into modernist works, of course. Eero Saarinen’s masterwork design for Bell Labs (which was instrumental to creating this internet thing we’re using right now) was a featureless box on the outside, leading to a classic grandiose atrium inside

but the bit that made the internet work was between and around the famously pristine labs, in the service corridors and closets

Nowadays these cable tangles have got big enough to demand whole skyscrapers of their own, and the front of the theater is your cellphone screen.

the windowless block of a “hut hotel” (telecoms data exchange), suggestively dropped on Manhattan’s Avenue of the Strongest

OK, great. So what do you do with all this?

The first thing is obviously to imagine and then make use of all the ductwork, plumbing, and behind-the-scenes service spaces that your dungeon’s Death Cult Temple demands. Does your local post-apocalyptic warlord live in a palace that used to be a big public building? Then he can’t possibly know all the murder-holes that lurk behind the seemingly-solid walls. Have you always been bothered by the weirdness of classic D&D maps, of rooms connected by long noodle corridors? Now you know that those black “solid” spaces are just rusticated fronts stuck over service corridors that connect to other dungeons, maybe displaced half a floor or half a genre up or down from the version you fell into. How do goblins and ghouls get everywhere? In this swiss cheese environment, the occasional secret door seems like a jokey lampshade.

Do you guys still watch Die Hard? Then you know how grandiose ductwork can be. But just in case you missed Bldgblog’s amazing post on the topic, here’s a reminder. Describing the Israeli Defense Force’s invasion of Nablus, it talks about squads blasting their own passages through a basically hollow spatial labyrinth, which wasn’t previously suited to their movements, but which they turned into an architecture of continuous surprise:

“soldiers moved within the city across hundred-meter-long ‘overground-tunnels’ carved through a dense and contiguous urban fabric.” Their movements were thus almost entirely camouflaged, with troop movements hidden from above by virtue of always remaining inside buildings. 

Breach-charging through walls, floors and ceilings, they deliberately avoided the expected entry points – doors and windows – that the architecture offered them. From Lethal Theory:

In the IDF we now often use the term “to smooth out space” when we want to refer to operation in a space as if it had no borders. We try to produce the operational space in such a manner that borders do not affect us. Palestinian areas could indeed be thought of as “striated”, in the sense that they are enclosed by fences, walls, ditches, roads blocks and so on . . . We want to confront the “striated” space of traditional, old-fashioned military practice [the way most IDF units presently operate] with smoothness that allows for movement through space that crosses any borders and barriers. Rather than contain and organize our forces according to existing borders, we want to move through them.’

…which makes me wonder why D&D parties are typically so respectful of the frame of the dungeon. I mean, obviously the answer is because it’s set up that way, like a Skinner box, part of the invisible rulebook of dungeon delving, which also blocks out the rest of the world with its social consequences etc, to produce a murder-palace full of monsters and trophies, sure, but… if you’re also interested in dungeons as heists, then it makes sense to set them in heistable spaces. And to be aware that spectacles always turn back to face their viewer, who is also on display – the royal box at the opera allows royals to watch the audience and vice versa. The invading murderhobos, who think they’re being sneaky as they inch up their darkened 10′ corridor are being studied for their tactics and equipment – if the dungeon boss isn’t a complete idiot.

And if you’re interested in dungeons as heists then you can build dramatic cues right into the map. Let’s say you have a boss with personality – a Strahd or Acererak or Alp Arslan, and you’ve been thinking about the space for the final showdown. There are advantages to making it a theatrical space, beyond the merely melodramatic – it can be at the focal point of the dungeon, where everyone can see the fight. Its boundaries can be clearly marked, so the players can prepare themselves – and do their homework -before stepping into the arena. And of course they can’t step into that space without themselves becoming part of the spectacle – what are their stakes? Why should they be hesitant to grab that cup, defile that fane, take over that dark lord’s sepulchral domain? The theatrical is also where you find the thread that pulls the villain’s whole architectural scheme apart – the whip-carrying slaver that everyone loves to hate, the feast you can ruin to turn the court against the villain, the seemingly minor functionary who turns out to be critical to the alarm-raising system. If you’ve done your homework, you can make your grand entrance deliberately, confident that you have your own surprises waiting in the flies.

You didn’t think I’d write all this without mentioning Renzo Piano’s and Richard Rogers’s Centre Georges Pompidou, did you? The sneaky trick here is, they shifted all the vital infrastructure to the facade in order to leave uninterrupted space inside for a clean, pristine and reconfigurable gallery box, all the better to show whatever crazy ductwork modern artists can cook up.