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This makes me sad.
The people who care/think the most about games are not "in the audience for games". If you want to satisfy a large audience you can't make something which will satisfy yourself.
It makes me glad that I'm not being paid to make games, so I can just make what I like and not care that few other people will understand it.

I've found myself involved in a project that's making that same lesson very clear to me, Chris. I don't like the overall narrative themes of the game and have little understanding or patience for the appeal of the core game mechanic. And yet, I have to work to ensure it succeeds regardless of my personal biases, even when the publisher makes requests that cause a bit of teeth grinding on my part.

I think you're an idiot. If you feel passionately about a certain type of game, you owe it to your potential fans to make that game, and make it as pure and uncompromising as you possibly can. It makes no difference if most people won't like it. Some people would love it, and it could be their favorite game ever. And others will be convinced by your enthusiasm to try it and be pleasantly surprised. But you're never going to get those fans, you're never going to show them what they're missing. Because you're so afraid of putting a part of yourself into your games, that you'll bend over backwards to not do what you know needs to be done. You'll take the safe route. You'll say to the player "Here, have three different ways to play!" so that you don't have to commit to any one way. No, that's not how you make something worth making. That's how you make something which no one will care about. If there is some experience of value which people won't appreciate, you should trust them to come around. and demand that they come around. Stand in place on the highest peak, until the player decides to climb up after you. And the player will enjoy something he never thought he would. But you won't do that. You'll give the player so many concessions that he can pick the path of least resistance, and then when he doesn't get any experience worth getting you'll sit back and say "That's okay. I wasn't particularly attached to what I care about anyway.". And the player will walk away wondering why anyone bothered to make such a game. Grow a backbone!

Whoa. Settle down with the personal attacks there, Mory Buckman--you're way out of line. How do you propose Chris finance such a venture? Do you have some investment money for him? Because I can guarantee you that it's not such a cut and dried issue.

I'm all for sticking to your guns and making the games you want to play for a niche audience, but it requires certain sacrifices that not everyone is in a position to make. When I realized that the games I wanted to make weren't going to support a full studio, I backed off my initial approach and am trying another method, starting much smaller than I had originally planned.

But that's my personal choice and one I'm fortunate enough to be in the position to make. It's not our place to judge other people's paths, particularly when we're completely unaware of all the factors that led them along their journey.

Sometimes I wonder what a purely abstract game would be like. For example, what if Quake was simply cylinders projecting rays, or in this case, Civilization was simply the placement of certain nodes and the choosing between certain upgrades. I wonder if you could just remove the historical facade and yet have it play the same?

Nice post, Chris. Though I'm a fan of Civilization, I can sympathize with your position here -- though I do think that at the series has progressed, it's gotten closer to your initial hopes for it. But the tech tree is still alive and well, of course. :)

I've never been able to find anything more than an abstract, but someone has apparently written a paper on this very topic. Here's the citation, in case you're interested in trying to track it down:

Matthew Kapell, "Civilization and its Discontents: American Monomythic Structure as Historical Simulacrum," Popular Culture Review 13 no. 2 (Summer 2002), 129-136.

Hi Chris,

I do not understand what makes you think that your ideal strategy game could not be successful. Even if only 10% of the population would be interested in "real strategy", that seems to be a sizable niche. Sure, you might not be able to spend 5 MUSD on ultra fancy graphics but with the right people and enough talent and imagination (which I'm sure you have plenty), you could still do something cool on a budget.

After all, if a few guys at Introversion managed to do Darwinia in a profitable way (against all the other "tactics and logistics" games), what exactly stops you from doing the same for "real strategy" where you'd have no serious competition?

It seems to me that the problem is nothing more than a case of sizing your dev costs according to your target market...

Could you link to a design document for Art of War? I'm terribly curious.

I've also felt that the Civ games were too cut and dried - like a really insane math problem, plus graphics, plus a bit of randomness. But I have this criticism from the fundamental perspective of loving the games (btw - in Civ4, you can have a polytheistic nuclear nation).

My secret solution to this problem has always been a Mod that I don't have the skill to write: after a game of Civ ended, this Mod would write a brief history of your world, with characters and intrigue, names dates and places, and you'd get to read it.

Mory Buckman, who needs to learn some civility, comes down firmly for the game-designer-as-artist paradigm. He's entitled to feel that way, but not everybody wants to be a starving artist; some of us quite legitimately hope for commercial success.

See my soon-to-be-published Designer's Notebook column on the Tao of Game Design.

Chris, my anthropologist father found Civilization (the board game, which inspired the series of computer games) intriguing, but pointed out that the ultimate goal of the game -- achieving Law, Democracy, and Philosophy -- was wrong. All human societies have law. They don't all have written law, nor do they all have the concept that no one is above the law, but they all have SOME kind of law. Perhaps it should have been characterized as "The Rule of Law," which is indeed a high achievement... subjugating the power of leaders to an abstraction like the law.

As for Philosophy -- the boundary between it and religion is pretty fuzzy, and one could easily claim that all human societies have philosophy too (secularism being a philosophy as well). Perhaps it should have been "Formal Reasoning," which took a while to develop.

And Democracy? "Democracy is the worst form of government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time." (Churchill, but unsourced.) I'm not convinced it represents the most perfect form of government that man will achieve.

I forgot to add, by the way, that the more I read about real wars the more I realize that strategy games cannot account for the human factor -- the peculiarities of particular individuals that have the power to turn the tide.

I just read an account of a mutiny aboard a Spanish warship circa 1740. The mutineers (forcibly pressed and maltreated Indians from what is now Uruguay) gained control of the quarterdeck and managed to trap the officers in the great cabin. They were a fair way to persuading the other sailors to join them and kill all the officers, when one lucky shot managed to kill their leader. The others all promptly threw themselves into the sea and drowned, and the mutiny was over.

Starcraft can't do that. I don't know of any strategy game that can.

I think you're selling yourself short. Sure, your type of gamers are in the minority, but they're also very underrepresented in the current industry. Sure, Nippon Ichi maybe appeals to only 1% of the gaming audience, if that, but they can be successful because they keep their development costs down, and more importantly, because they're the only game in town when it comes to grinding SRPGs. I'm sure your game could find an audience as well, particularly as a 15-20$ digital distribution game,

Given the timeline it was almost certainly Civ II. I loved that game despite (or, maybe, because) I sucked so badly at it.

Below is just one of Sun Tzu's many classic aphorisms. If there were a computer game or board game that truly gave you the ability to practice these kinds of strategies I would LOVE to play it:

"All warfare is based on deception. Hence, when able to attack, we must seem unable; when using our forces, we must seem inactive; when we are near, we must make the enemy believe we are far away; when far away, we must make him believe we are near. Hold out baits to entice the enemy. Feign disorder, and crush him."

Anyone know of such a game?

At last a game post I can comment on! Thanks to a housemate I got completely hooked for a while on Civ III, but many of the same things that bothered Chris also bothered me. The teleological view of history, for one - it seems the purpose of history is to end up with ourselves. I'm not convinced we were worth the wait. (It's true that Civ IV - which, to the despair of my wife, I've spent too many hours playing - is less linear, though). And culture being measurable by simple arithmetic (temples, cathedrals, libraries all produce culture points, which creates a kind of aura around your cities that pushes out their boundaries). The more you play the more absurd much of it becomes. But it is addictive.

I did find Sun Tzu useful in both versions of Civ I've played. He has some statements about choosing the time and place of battle, fighting on your terms, not the enemy's, etc. - proved to be good advice.

In terms of a strategy game, wouldn't the ultimate one be chess? I'm rubbish at it myself, despite all my attempts to improve, but there have been strategists whose play was so subtle you more or less have to be a grandmaster to understand what's going on in their games (often to do with controlling the centre from a distance, that sort of thing). Or so I've heard.

Nice post, Chris.

I'm a serious Civ fanboy, and your point about the tech tree has been made before. It's inherently a "progress narrative" and embodies certain assumptions about what is important and what isn't. As Alan Emrich noted back in 1991, religion in Civ is just the opium of the masses, for example; its entire purpose is to keep people from revolting.

Your strategic/logistical/tactical stuff means different things in the wargame/strategy game world. Most of Sun Tzu's thoughts are, in fact, tactical. Making use of terrain, picking the time of battle, etc. His strategic thoughts are oversold maxims that make nice epigrams, in my opinion, but are of little use in understanding how to make a game. Take that "know the mind your opponent" thing; until we have real AI personalities, this doesn't work so well. Multiplayer games are another thing altogether, of course. I've used an opponent's known tendencies against him.

Ironically, Civ 4 has a pretty decent personality matrix. Some of the leaders will take religion more seriously than others. They have preferred civics that they will not deviate from, giving you a strategic edge if you know what is going on.

First of all: thank you for your blog entry.

I.)
But I think you perception of civ is full of prejudice.
I personally hated all civ-games until #3. then i was hooked the moment I grasped that there was an underlying system of game mechanics worth mastering. Like the first time i _got_ chess (which is kind of linear, isn´t it?).
I was having fun reenacting policy. There were treaties broken by the AI, Allies to be appeased and nuclear bombs to be readied. You could win by culture, diplomacy, war or space rocket. So many possibilities. It was mindblowing. If you liked, you could even mimic(ry) real events (peaceful gandi etc.).
Problems arose as I started to master the system. It became a treadmill and boring.
But then the expansion "conquests" happened. The developer "just" changed the tech tree and adjusted some key gameplay mechanics and the game and me started into a new romance. More: They put in great scenarios. The scenarios i liked best were historic, had a custom tech tree and some interesting victory condition. so you had to adjust your gameplay for every scenario. It was a very surprising experience for me. And afaik, civ IV excels on everything i just said. I don´t mention modding...
to sum up: I don´t know what your Art of War game would have looked like, but a) great strategy games don´t need to suffer from linearity (chess), b) the linearity of the "technological" progress game mechanic you perceive is a fraction of the gameplay of civ, c) this "restriction" makes mastering AND changing of this subsystem possible (can you remember the exhilaration you felt, as you experienced the secret low-gravity level in quake I for the first time?).


II.)
i don´t think most people want just to reenact history. After civ III I started playing the Hearts of Iron series (set in WWII). It´s so much fun to start Barbarossa with your german tanks or try to keep those cocky germans out of la france and make munich french. It´s fun to relive history _and_ it´s fun to challenge it. I think you obliterate (in an unnecessary arrogant way) the fictional power inherent to known scenarios in favor of an pseudo-elitistic struggle for openness of what? historical advancement? or military decision making? The familiarity of one part of a gameplay system can help you to adept to not so well known parts. That´s why the gameplaywise superior alpha centauri "tanked" (or because of it´s ugly duckling look).


III.)
But wait: the longer I think about your text, the more i get the feeling that you made two arguments that don´t fit together. One about civ, one about your game.
1. Civ has a linear tech tree. That is bad because it limits my choice? Are all tech trees bad? Or just the one, that doesn´t allow you to launch nukes as a polytheistic country?
2. Does your AoW game have technological advancements? How are they implemented?
3. Is your AoW game limited to the perspective of the general?
4. What are some of the choices one could make in your AoW game, that are not realized in other games you have played?

(i changed my argument three times. I´m indeed quite confused. it´s getting late here. But i think, you made some of my latent thoughts rise up tonight. Thank you again. even if I tend to disagree with everything you said except that ideology in game mechanics leaves an eery feeling :)

I learned, by your analysis of Civilization, that game designers who don't play popular games make terrible assumptions about those games and are doomed to repeat the mistakes of other game designers.

I met Brad McQuaid a year before Vanguard:SoH was released. Surprisingly he told me that he had never played World of Warcraft. Unsurprisingly, his game completely flopped and his company went under, if you don't know what your competition is, how can you even try to compete.

I also met one of the class designers who worked under Brad McQuaid, he had played all the popular MMOs, including World of Warcraft, and unsurprisingly the Class Balance and systems surrounding the classes were very well fleshed out, with unique combinations of abilities and skills that went well beyond what World of Warcraft or any other MMORPG is currently offering, but could not save the game from it's ultimately poor other attributes, made it suffer in the marketplace.

Imagine thinking that you're an Olympic Class Athlete, but can't even run the mile in under 4 minutes. Sure, you may be "good" but would people pay money to see you compete?

If you are currently working on a strategy game, particularly anything turn-based, and have not played Civilization 4, you owe it to yourself and to the people that buy your game to play it today, spend 5 less hours typing up blog entries, and 5 more hours playing Civilization 4.

I've read the entire post twice now, and I have to say that I'm not entirely sure what the foundation (or even the substance, really) of this objection is. Your argument begins with an objection to the constraints of the technology tree. I can understand that. Just hazarding a guess, it sounds like Civilization 2 (in particular the technology dependencies based on the "discovery" of the Monotheism technology seem like they fit for that, and the personality matrix for opposing leaders was a lot more primitive in that one), and you've got a point in that the only discoveries that the player's civilization can make are discoveries that were made in actual history, generally in the order in which they were discovered. What I don't quite get is how that implies any kind of materialistic view of history, or even why that would be bad. Civilization at least theoretically bases itself on actual history, and in many cases things developed the way they did for logical reasons. Civilization is in some ways caged by history - I'd be interested to see if you thought the same thing about Alpha Centauri, which was a much more speculative science fiction game in pretty much the exact same mold.

What I'm definitely not getting, however, is how any of that relates to the notion that gamers don't want to play "strategy" games, with strategy here being defined as somehow incorporating knowledge and understanding of your opponent in formulating an approach to the game. I'd go so far as to argue that you DO have to gain that understanding to succeed at advanced levels, even in RTS games - you must grasp what tactics the computer will employ to address your advance, or how to keep from inciting the wrath of other players in a multiplayer game while you build up your own infrastructure. These seem to be precisely the kind of strategic decisions that you're looking for - the only difference is that they take place in the metagame and not strictly within the game ruleset, which I suggest would be a pretty rough place to try and code that sort of thing anyway.

Maybe I'm reading this wrong and not getting what you were thrusting at. I'm certainly not the world's biggest strategy gamer (it took the release of Civilization: Revolution to get me to finally finish a game, and I love that franchise, and my RTS skills could be described as rudimentary at best), so I understand how I might be missing something.

The ultimate strategy game youve been thinking about was actually invented about 4000 years ago in China ;)

Meet "Go":

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Go_(board_game)

I do recommend it to be played face to face, but like internet games as well. A newbie friendly server with lots of players from many many countries:

www.gokgs.com

lippo: I think probably he's heard of Go before. But perhaps, even though this one game has a little bit of depth, it is still possible for other games to be worth playing.

broq: Go has life times worth of depth actually, but i wont start a flame war about that. I play alot of games all the time: board games, computer games of all genres, "real" roleplaying games, FPS clan matches, email Go etc - but Go is the one game i never get bored of and always eventually come back to play.

Theres always new things to learn and try - while meeting new people at the same time as well.

Game that hooks strategy and tactics hand to hand with endless variety and chance to play the game as aggressively or as solidly (defensively) you want just cant suck :)

Ian Davis said: "Sometimes I wonder what a purely abstract game would be like. For example, what if Quake was simply cylinders projecting rays (...)"

Have a look at Jodi's "skinning" of Wolfenstein3D: http://sod.jodi.org .

Ernest Adams counters Mory Buckman's surprisingly uncivil but impassioned plea for the idea of game-designer-as-artist by saying that "some of us quite legitimately hope for commercial success."

To expand on that slightly, and side-stepping the ever-tricky ethics of money (now there's a topic crying out for a thoughtful piece of work), there is surely a more than legitimate role in society for people who take pride in making things for the pleasure of others, rather than for their own enjoyment. I think there is even a case for saying that a creative person who focuses solely on their own enjoyment or artistic integrity is being at least as anti-social as someone who uses their creative gifts to produce mass-market tat purely for monetary gain.

But of course, making money from entertainment doesn't necessarily come from affecting people's lives in a positive way. And the latter is surely the ideal goal!

(Not that I'm suggesting that Chris's behavious precludes this. Just pointing out an alternative form of 'artistic integrity' - one that does indeed focus on the audience rather than the self.)

Dear all,

Thank you for your detailed and interesting comments! I want to be clear that I have no beef with Civilization at all; this piece accounts my attitude when I was younger, and more arrogant - it is not intended to represent my view on the game today. Civilization clearly meets the play needs of its audience brilliantly - so well, in fact, that it discourages me from wanting to explore the strategy videogames market because it is clearly already well served by this franchise and others like it.

I see my role as game designer as an advocate for players in the development of videogames. To this end, I study players constantly, and I look for what might be enjoyed - and especially for new opportunities. To adapt this to a commercial position, I therefore look for projects with a potentially viable audience. The satisfaction of my job comes from making games that *other players* love; if this accords with making money, my clients are all the more happy. :)

When one develops commercial videogames it is hard to want to play them after they go Master, because one has toiled so hard in their construction. For this reason, I rely on other people to make the games that I want to play - that way, I can enjoy my play experiences thoroughly.

Now a few specific responses...

---

Brog: "If you want to satisfy a large audience you can't make something which will satisfy yourself. It makes me glad that I'm not being paid to make games, so I can just make what I like and not care that few other people will understand it."

Very astute! When I was younger, I hungered for this autonomy of design but I am at best an adequate programmer so it was not really a viable path for me. I'm very happy with the path I am on, but I am ecstatic that there are people like you out there making whatever it is you want to make, as it is from such an approach that the most delightful curiosities spring into being!

Corvus:
"even when the publisher makes requests that cause a bit of teeth grinding on my part."

You are in professional game development now - I recommend buying several spare sets of teeth. I'm on my fifth set of molars already. ;)

Mory:
Firstly, let me say that if you suspect I am not being true to myself, you have every right to challenge me on this (although, as others have commented, it might have been possible to do so more politely!) But I think you have slightly misread the situation here.

It is not that I am aching to make Art of War, and that I compromise and make other games instead. Art of War is one of dozens of projects that interest me, but I see for it very little commercial prospects - nor any viable way for me to pursue it at this time. (I will never be the programmer-auteur as programming, while among my skills, is not my calling). I *am* actively making many games that accord with my desires for certain new kinds of gameplay, not all of which will see the light of day.

But beyond this, as I say above, what is rewarding about game design for me is not making games that I want to play, but making games that satisfy other players. This is the reward for me; I would much rather play other people's games for my own entertainment as the struggle to implement a design effectively robs the finished game of its appeal.

I may yet make Art of War - but I feel that this would be an indulgence. If and when I have proved myself sufficiently that I can pursue a "vanity" project, I would consider resurrecting Art of War. But as it stands, I love many of the projects that I work upon, and most of all I love to hear from a player who has enjoyed one of my games as then I know that I am truly fulfilling my calling as a game designer.

Ian Davis: "I wonder if you could just remove the historical facade and yet have it play the same?"

I don't think you could - it is surely part of the mass appeal of Civ (in so much as these games have mass appeal) that it draws upon the familiar. But this is a side topic too large to explore here!

Dan Bruno: Thanks for the link! Sounds fascinating.

Olivier: "It seems to me that the problem is nothing more than a case of sizing your dev costs according to your target market..."

Yes, this is a basic problem. And to be sure, Art of War could be viable on a small budget. But there is more to the market than this: the smaller projects warrant less (or no) marketing, and thus sell radically less. Thus there is an exponential effect at work whereby the bigger projects, being more commercially viable to promote, sell exponentially more copies on the back of the marketing.

There is a fallacy, widely believed by gamers, that "a great game sells itself". But I'm afraid, even with the effect of word of mouth, marketing sells games. We have to make do with a great game being its own reward, which is easier for the programmer-auteur than it is the professional game design consultant! :)

Bret: Sorry, I never got beyond paper notes with Art of War so there is nothing much to show.

The big question for me was representation - how do you represent purely strategic issues, since they are so abstract? I got as far as realising this was a game about people, and thus however you represented it the generals and so forth would be the key element. I had the idea of letting the characters develop "schemes" which would be the basic unit of action within the game, and had some baseline mechanics for how this might work.

Gathering information from spies, as well as recruiting spies, and rooting out double agents, would have been a crucial part of the game, so in part this game could almost have been "Spy Master". :)

But I think that the actual battles would also have been needed, and therein lay the real problem: the work involved in implementing the battles was disproportionate since they weren't supposed to be the focus of play, but I never worked out how to avoid showing the battles in a strategic battle game and still keeping the player's interest! :) Perhaps I could get away with a text account of the conflict a la Lords of Midnight? Seems fairly dated, though...

My major inspiration for this was the descriptions of the battles in the Three Kingdoms historical romance, which are much more interesting than the equivalent accounts of (say) Greek battles. I feel there is much more that could be achieved in this area, but in time, someone will doubtless explore the territory that interests me here. It doesn't have to be me personally. :)

"btw - in Civ4, you can have a polytheistic nuclear nation"

Hooray! :)

Ernest: Interesting perspective here; I quite agree with this criticism, but it all seems to work in the context of the game (the boardgame, I mean, although presumably the videogame as well).

I always thought it was a shame that Francis Tresham doesn't get the credit he deserves (although this is not Sid Meier's fault!)

style merchant: You're on the same page as me here! This is precisely the kind of idea I hoped to capture in Art of War, along with the use of spies which is described in quite good detail by Sun Tzu.

Theo: "The more you play the more absurd much of it becomes. But it is addictive."

I think we can all swallow quite a lot of absurdity if it's fun. :)

"In terms of a strategy game, wouldn't the ultimate one be chess?"

If 'strategy' means 'state space search'. I have always felt that any game which can be executed more efficiently by an algorithm than a human is not the epitome of anything but efficiency. ;)

Troy Goodfellow: My last analysis of Sun Tzu's Art of War showed up many areas that could convert to game form. I don't think you need the uber-AI to make this work; a system which identified just a few character traits - Proud, Vain, Stubborn etc - could easily be parameterised. It works in board games, which is what gives me confidence it could be applied in a videogame.

You could also construct it as a covariant branching "narrative" of some kind - think of the strategic elements of battle rendered in a dynamically composed event tree; you could even make conversations the central mechanics if you were a crazy person (and most days, I qualify!) But this, perhaps, would be too much work...

Daniel from Germany: thanks for your detailed comment!

"But I think you perception of civ is full of prejudice."

I know this to be so! :) But remember I am mostly accounting my attitude to the game when I was younger. This is a story, not a critique.

I think your comment suffers from having to guess at what Art of War was intended to be, although it is none-the-less interesting all the same. Hopefully some of my discussion above has given this a better context.

If you still want to discuss any of your points in the light of the additional information, feel free to leave another comment! I will be happy to talk it over with you.

Adam Henrickson: I don't make strategy games. I've chosen another direction. But if I did make strategy games, I still wouldn't feel obligated to play Civ of any flavour. I would, however, spend more time watching people playing it. I feel I learn more from watching other players than I do from playing myself - I think this is the mark of a professional game designer that they don't rely solely on their own perspective for assessing any game.

Brian Seiler: "I'm not entirely sure what the foundation (or even the substance, really) of this objection is."

I have no objection; this is a story about how Civ influenced my life even though I never played it. It's not intended as a critique of Civilization.

"What I'm definitely not getting, however, is how any of that relates to the notion that gamers don't want to play "strategy" games"

I'm not saying gamers don't want strategy games - gamer hobbyists certainly do - I'm saying that this group is a niche market, and one that is already well catered for. Since it doesn't appeal to me to target this market at this time, why should I do so? There's no personal argument, nor is there a strong commercial argument.

iippo: It's funny, but I don't remember the rules of diplomacy and spies in Go... >:) Neat game, though.

Michael Mouse: "...and side-stepping the ever-tricky ethics of money (now there's a topic crying out for a thoughtful piece of work)"

Interesting! I'll add that to the hopper of future ethics topics.

"...there is surely a more than legitimate role in society for people who take pride in making things for the pleasure of others, rather than for their own enjoyment."

Thank you! This is indeed how I see my role.

Bezman: "But of course, making money from entertainment doesn't necessarily come from affecting people's lives in a positive way. And the latter is surely the ideal goal!"

It's a constant struggle, to be sure! :)

---

Alright - lively commentary there! I hope the notes I have added here serve to bring this into clearer perspective.

Best wishes!

With regards to the psychological aspect of strategy and warfare, the answer is pretty obvious - any game that pits humans against each other in a space with imperfect information and variable outcomes will result in Sun Tzu's "warfare of deception".

Heck, even Rock-Paper-Scissors (when played best-of-N rather than a single throw) is a masterful game of psychology :)

I get the impression that a Chris and lot of commenters seem focused on solo play... you're never going to get satisfying psychological battles against a computer.

(and in contrast, Chess against a human is complex and interesting *precisely* because there's a human on the other side - one who can be tricked or demoralised into not following the perfect algorithm, who might have personal habits that prevent a complete search of the option space...)

On the other hand, they've yet to invent a computer that can play even a passable game of Go ;)


Incidentally I'm a big fan of Supreme Commander. :)

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