Epic Fourteen: Aggressive Action

As the sponsor for this game, I'll first start out by outlining the scenario design and then move on to my own shadow report. You'll also probably find some other random tidbits throughout the following pages... but think of this section as the unofficial "Comments from the Sponsor."

Epic Fourteen was essentially a reworked version of Epic Six. Since it had been almost a full year since our last Always War game at Realms Beyond, I thought we were past due for another fling with that most difficult of variants. With Blake's new AI from Beyond the Sword added to the mix, there was an even greater incentive to give it a try. For our leader choice, Boudica and her "forbidden" Aggressive/Charismatic combo seemed like a natural selection. The title of the game was also drawn from Civ3's Epic 14, replacing Alexander the Great with the Celtic vixen.

Now when it comes to an Always War game, the map and opposing civs become critically important to the overall scenario design. I initially was torn between running the game on Noble or Prince, then decided that I would get the best results by going up to Prince difficulty, but shrinking the map from Standard down to Small. This would also have the positive side effect of reducing some of the tedium of endless warfare. (There are so many units and so much fighting, Always War can be a real drain!) To keep things interesting, I added one additional AI opponent to the map; instead of the usual four opponents on a Small map, the player would have to deal with five. This was also done for reasons of symmetry, which I'll get to in a minute.

For the map, I looked at the new scripts included in the expansion and decided that the Donut one would be worth a game. On this map, all of the civs start on the outer edge of a thick ring, with the central portion (the "hole" in the donut) constituting a gigantic, impassable range of peaks. In order to make the starting points equally comparable, I had to turn the Jungle setting off for this map; when I did not do so, several of the AIs always started out buried in rainforests. Needless to say, that wasn't what I wanted! For the same reason, I switched on the "Balanced" resource setting to make sure the AIs would all have access to their various unique units. One side effect of turning off the jungles that I had not initially anticipated was that many of the "Calendar" happiness resources were entirely absent from the map (no sugar, dyes, etc.) I later had to edit some of them in so that the player would have a fair shot at managing happiness. I did this pretty unobtrusively, so I doubt that anyone even noticed - that's why I'm telling you now!

With the map set, it was time to pick the opponents. I let the game randomly pick leaders initially, until I got a group that I liked, then I hand-selected the same ones over and over again. (I will do this often when designing scenarios.) I wanted to have one of the insanely aggressive leaders present in this game, which of course turned out to be Montezuma. I positioned him next to the player, to provide an immediate and severe threat. On the other side of the player, I placed Suryavarman. This might seem like a random choice, but his Creative trait is designed to provide strong early-game defense, and I wanted to see how the Ballista Elephants would play out in an Always War setting. Behind those two, I placed the game's two Protective civs: Churchill and Wang Kon. They are both designed to be nasty civs to have to conquer, especially Churchill with his Charismatic trait, while Wang will tech like crazy and share his discoveries with the other civs. Finally, I put Augustus Caesar in the back lines of the AI team, across the donut from the player. Augustus and his Industrious trait are designed to steal wonders from the player, while his faraway location will make invading next to impossible. Even better, Augustus will have Praetorians to cause havoc for the player too (this is why he was selected over another wonder-heavy leader like Louis or FDR). All told, the AIs are designed to play as a team and work together to take down the player. I was extremely pleased with how this part of the scenario fell into place.

The last couple decisions were based on determining how tough the game should be. Since it was widely agreed that Epic Six was too easy, I threw caution to the winds and left on Tech Trading for this game. To be even more devilish, I deliberately placed ivory resources next to most of the AI starts, while stripping it away from anywhere close to the player's location. If the player wants elephants, he or she will have to go out and conquer them. There is some breathing room with this start, but not a great margin for error. I intended for this to be a very difficult game. Players will have to BEAT the map; nothing will be handed to them. Expect conflict early and often. The final variant rule, staying out of AI territory until after 1000BC, is designed to prevent worker stealing and pillage-n-park techniques. Everyone will have to defeat these AIs for real, not strangle them in their cradles.

With that, let's turn to my own shadow game. There's no better place to found the capital than at the start, so I did so:

As the sponsor, I knew the general outline for the map (although it had been quite a few weeks since I had edited it, actually, due to the delay we had starting this game). Knowing full well that there were no AIs on top of the player, AND that both Monty and Sury start with scouts instead of warriors (this was deliberate, by the way) I could begin with a worker build. I also would have enough of a safety net to research a religion out of the gate, rather than going for Archery ASAP. Now usually you would go for Polytheism/Hinduism in that situation, but again, I knew that Wang Kon was in the game, and he's one of the few leaders that has a preference for Polytheism at the outset. Thus the research into Meditation, where I will be guaranteed to land Buddhism.

Again, once you know the setup there's no point in trying to pretend that you don't have spoiler information. That's why this is a shadow and not a real report.

My warrior poked around the capital and found a goody hut a couple turns later. On the same turn that he entered and pilfered 31 gold, I found my first opponent:

Well, well, well. Looks like the game is afoot. As my warrior continued scouting to the north, I met my second opponent to the west, coincidentally on the same turn that Buddhism popped in Bibracte:

Will I be the only one who founds Buddhism? I guess we'll find out on report day. I certainly had a LOT of spoiler knowledge in this area. As my warrior continued to circle over to the west, Suryavarman foolishly left his scout in exposed position. My Combat I warrior was getting about 92% odds, so I sent him into battle. First blood to me:

This beat my first kill date from Epic Six (3160BC) by quite a bit. Excellent! Things were heating up quite nicely already. I could already see that Blake's improved AIs weren't going to lay down and give up the ship like those AI turkeys had done.

I researched Agriculture after Meditation so that my worker could hook up the corn at the start. What I should have done was research Animal Husbandry next, for the sheep and the (hidden) horses that I put at the capital. But it had been so many weeks since I created the map, I actually forgot that I had put horses there and held off on researching AH for way too long. D'oh! Just goes to show that even spoiler knowledge sometimes isn't enough to help you out. Instead, I researched Mining, and then Archery, the latter tech in direct response to this threat:

Here we have the downside of going worker-first at the capital. Churchill's starting warrior has marched down the east coast and is now causing all kinds of trouble. At this point, I was actually glad that I had tons of practice in this exact situation, from way back when in my multiplayer days. I never thought that I would be glad for all the chokes I had to fight through, but it actually came in quite useful! Don't panic, protect your worker, and look for an opportunity to break the enemy's grip on you.

After a couple of turns of inconclusive maneuvering, a window of opportunity appeared. Churchill moved his warrior onto flat ground, and my own warrior (now Combat I/Melee, thanks to whacking that Khmer scout!) had a chance to counter. I was getting 80% odds, quite good... but if I were to lose the fight, the entire game would be at an end. AI warrior walking into an undefended capital. Surely Sulla, the ultra-conservative player, would never go for those kind of odds, right?

Ahh, but this was a SHADOW game, you see.

The odds played in my favor, and down went the English warrior. Archery research finished a couple of turns later, and that ended the early-game threat to my capital. It had been a close call, but I managed to pull off my weak defensive start without any major screwups.

I soon encountered Augustus (2800BC) and Wang (2525BC) to fill out my list of opponents. After researching Archery I went on to Bronze Working, and then belatedly to Animal Husbandry, at which time I discovered the horses at the capital and kicked myself for forgetting about them. (I put horses and iron at the capital, but bronze a good distance away. This is also designed to reign in, if not completely stop, early game rushes.) The capital mixed a couple of warriors (to serve as scouts) with archers for actual defense. My settler completed in 2525BC and founded Vienne a century later:

Vienne was intended to do several things: lock down the nearest copper, provide a shield for the attacks incoming from Suryavarman in the west, and serve as a decent city location in its own right. Bibracte would spend the next two dozen turns cranking out two more workers, to give me a total of four overall. That may have seemed like an odd decision, but I didn't need more defenders (the archers I had were sufficient), I wouldn't have copper connected for a while yet, iron was still to-be-researched, and I didn't want any more settlers. What I would need was a fair number of workers to lay down roads, so that's what I concentrated on building.

I guess it's time to let the reader in on what I was planning. The AIs in this game were simply way too strong to deal with head-on in a normal clash of forces. What I needed to do was decapitate the opposition by removing one of their leaders, cutting the 5 on 1 battle down to much more manageable 4 on 1 numbers. As such, I decided even before playing that I would build ONE settler and the spend the first hundred turns of the game building up to eliminate one of the AIs with Gallic Swordsmen. Montezuma, as the closest and most dangerous AI on the map, was the obvious target. That meant that I would not be building a lot of cities, or chasing wonders, but beelining to Iron Working and cranking out the swords. The Adventure Twenty-Three (Speedy Gonzales) reports from sooooo and uberfish were enormously instructive in this regard, so I owe a big thanks to both of them!

I discovered Iron Working in 1600BC, by which date the plan was well underway:

Two of my workers are out in front, building roads towards the target. They are protected by an axe (sharing the tile with the forward worker) and chariot, while being screened by an advance warrior scout on the Aztec border. Meanwhile, worker #3 chops forests at Bibracte while worker #4 improves Vienne. As soon as I had the iron connected, I swapped over to Gallic production. Through a mixture of chopping and whipping, I quickly began turning them out in significant numbers.

As the turns ticked down towards the 1000BC date, my advance forces skirmished with Montezuma's early probes:

Notice that there are two Jags moving around, the group down by my capital's borders and another one just leaving Aztec territory. I maintained control of the road, which gave my axes (promoted to Combat I/Melee, of course) the mobility needed to contain the Jag threat with ease. As soon as they moved out of forest cover, they were going down. Thus even though Montezuma was already sending significant forces my way, I was able to handle them without breaking a sweat. Some of my Gallics were even able to take out isolated archers, promoting to City Raider II in the process.

I engaged in so much fighting with Monty, my first Great General was already popping as soon as 1225BC:

One thing I lacked was a dependable healer, so I paired Sun Tzu with a chariot and turned him into a Medic III unit. I figured it was more important to ensure the success of this attack than add a Military Instructor to the capital. (There would be plenty of future Great Generals for that!)

Everything was ready to go by 1000BC:

I ended up with five Gallics, three axes, and my Medic chariot. That's a decent, if not overwhelming force. Would it be enough to be decisive? Since I couldn't enter Aztec borders until 1000BC, I didn't have any idea what Montezuma would have on defense. It turned out that Teotihuacan had two archers and two axes defending. I attacked first with a City Raider II Gallic, and won the battle at 40% odds. After that it was a romp; I lost a single Gallic sword and took the city with ease:

Just the way I planned. Pause a turn or two for the Medic III unit to work its magic (and wow, that's definitely semi-broken) and then we're ready to go after the Aztec capital, Monty's sole remaining city. The only question was whether it would be packed full of defenders:

Nope! Montezuma even whipped out an archer between turns, but it didn't matter. A single axe and three archers, two unpromoted, weren't enough to stop my attacking stack. I actually had some bad luck here, losing two Gallics at 80%+ odds, but even the poor dice rolls weren't enough to make a difference. Monty exited the stage in 850BC:

Buh bye! And for those of you who suffered endlessly at the hands of Monty, I feel your pain. Just look at that capital! I definitely did not want to have to face an insane Montezuma cranking out the maces and elephants down the road. So my strategy worked out pretty much the way I planned it to go; the AIs were just so strong, I felt it was extremely important to remove one of them at the first opportunity. But now, the hard part of the game was just beginning. My territory was divided between two cities in the south and two in the northeast, connected by a flimsy road that took a half dozen turns to traverse. Before I could think about attacking anyone else, I would have to consolidate this extremely exposed position. Indeed, I would be hard-pressed just to defend what I had in the following turns!