eXplorminate’s Staff Picks for 2015

Greetings and Salutations, dear reader. Another year is quickly coming to an end and we’d like to share with you some of the games that we enjoyed in 2015 and why. Our eXpansion and Game of the Year write-ups will follow shortly. So, pull up a chair, get your drink of choice and enjoy.


Most Fun with a Game I Expected To Hate: Civilization: Beyond Earth – Rising Tide

Rob “DevildogFF” Honaker – Staff Pick


There’s no secret about it: I thought Beyond Earth was a mediocre game at best. I didn’t expect much from its first (perhaps only?) expansion and I almost ignored the streams entirely. How could a moderately-improved diplomacy system and water cities do anything to improve a sloppy game?

Well, as it turns out, it did enough for me to actually start enjoying Beyond Earth. The developers didn’t just leave it with the aforementioned improvements. They added some much-needed lore, a bunch of additional relics and archeology sites, fun new affinity hybridizations and many more small items that would take too long to write about. The revamped diplomacy system became even better just a few short weeks after Rising Tide released with two patches that introduced War Score haggling and various other improvements.

While I haven’t had quite as much time this year to play games in general, I kept going back to Rising Tide more often than I ever expected. And I have every intention of returning to it again once things settle down in real life. Beyond Earth may still be flawed in a few ways that Rising Tide didn’t quite overcome, but it did enough to make me eager to return to its various worlds and explore the last two affinities I haven’t won with yet. Accomplishing that was no small task and my hat is off to Firaxis for finally taking a chance or two. Sorta.

Oh, and that soundtrack! So. Good.


Most Improved eXisting game: Endless Legend

Nate “Nasarog” Lobos – Staff Pick


Disclaimer: I have been accused of being an Endless Legend fanboy… but I don’t care.

Since Endless Legend was released in September of 2014, it has undergone many changes. Some were cosmetic while others fall into the category of “under the hood.” In 2015, EL saw two full eXpansions with Guardians (new mega-units) and Shadows (new faction and espionage gameplay), as well as two micro DLCs – the Lost Tales (additional quests/events) and Echoes of Auriga (music tracks) along with countless free updates that include many quality of life improvements, such as a major AI update, new heroes, new items, group quests, and a new victory condition.

What really stood out for me, though, was the Shadows DLC/eXpansion. While Guardians added megaunits, one could still ignore their presence. On the other hand, Shadows introduced a new faction, the Forgotten, with completely unique gameplay (ignore science and buy/steal tech) as well as a new espionage mechanic – something that was requested by many players. That makes a total of three completely unique factions in Endless Legend. The Broken Lords that ignore food and grow by consuming dust, the single-city Cultists of the Eternal End that turn minor races to their cause and now the Forgotten. With such rich gameplay, Endless Legend continues to impress.

What this shows is that Amplitude Studios not only supports its products, but appreciates the community. Each patch comes with free content that the community sometimes gets to vote on as part of the G2G initiative. Amplitude asks their players what they would like to see worked on and add all kinds of additional content, as well. To me, that is the mark of a great product. How could EL not be a staff favorite?


The Methuselah Award for the Game I Can’t Stop Playing: Civilization V

Joshua “Gwydion” Jacobs – Staff Pick


There are so many great, new 4X games available right now. The Endless series, our adopted love child Thea, Sorcerer King/Legendary Heroes, Galactic Civilizations III, even Firaxis’ own Beyond Earth. I’ve had my chance to play pretty much all of them, but you know what? I keep coming back to Civ.

It’s amazing to remember that Civ V was considered a disappointment when it first launched. The AI was bad, the features felt limited compared to Civ IV and, in general, people felt that the patented Civ experience had been dumbed down.

Now? After all the expansions and patches, we really might have the (blasphemy coming in 3… 2…1…) best Civ game ever made. The progression gives me hope that, eventually, Firaxis will get Beyond Earth right. Or, at the very least, that Civ VI is something I should already be saving my money for.

I could be marshalling my Draconic forces through the enchanted forests, endlessly tweaking my space fleet to wipe whole planets clean, or lying my behind off to appease the Sorcerer King. Instead, I’m once again choosing the Shoshone (my personal race of choice) to drive fear into the hearts of Gandhi and his rabble of historical losers. Civilizations V is the game that just… will not… die. And that’s why it’s more than deserving of an award this year.


Most Successful Game of 2015: Galactic Civilizations III

Troy “TC” Costisick – Staff Pick


It’s been kind of a down year for 4X games. In 2014, we had three major releases: Age of Wonders 3, Endless Legend, and Civilization: Beyond Earth. This year we’ve gotten some terrific indie entries, but only one major studio (Stardock) launched any games this year: Sorcerer King and Galactic Civilizations III. GalCiv III has gone on to succeed in a myriad of ways.

GalCiv III has achieved a 76% positive rating on Steam. Its MetaCritic score is 81 and according to SteamSpy, it has sold almost 200,000 copies. Those are all great numbers for 2015. By comparison, Sorcerer King has a 70% positive rating on Steam and the second best seller of 2015 (StarDrive 2) has moved only around 55k copies.

I think 2014 will go down as a turning point for our genre. Conversely, I think 2015 will go down as a year of innovation and planning. In a year where the focus was more on games that were in development, GalCiv III found a way to appeal to a broad section of the market and establish itself as a major player in the Space 4X genre. The game has its detractors and, in some ways, they are justified in their criticism. Stardock’s game has plenty of warts. But it cannot be denied that GalCiv III outsold all other new 4X and 4X-like games combined. I feel that is an accomplishment worth noting.


The Saint-Exupéry Award for Awesome Minimalism: Invisible, Inc.

Ben “rogue_LOVE” Martin – Staff Pick


“A designer knows he has achieved perfection not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.” If Antoine de Saint-Exupéry was right about that, Klei’s Invisible, Inc. strives for perfection, and comes pretty close.

Invisible, Inc. screws the focus in as tight as it can. You have your small squad of agents, a limited number of abilities, and maybe a few items you’ve scrounged up. Not many inflection points, for sure. But really, that’s where the game excels. Invisible, Inc. does a lot with very little by making you do a lot with very little. That means every decision can make or break you. If I’m playing Civ V, I can put a mine where I should have put a farm, and probably be OK. But in Invisible, Inc., with limited (or no) rewinds, something as innocuous as forgetting to close a door can doom an entire campaign. That kind of tight balancing and tighter gameplay is utterly gripping and heart-pounding. It’s also a great complement to the cyberpunk atmosphere and back-to-the-wall, under-the-gun plot.

With Invisible, Inc. on one end of the scale spectrum and Thea, the Awakening firmly at the other, perhaps we’re at the cusp of a bit of a paradigm shift within a section of the greater strategy community. I’m hopeful that in the coming years we’ll keep seeing more streamlined entries like these alongside the more traditional wide, macroscopic entries that are the genre’s standbys.


Game to Restore My Faith in 4XCivilization: Beyond Earth – Rising Tide

Dallin “Kearon” Holden – Staff Pick


Words cannot describe how excited I was for the release of Civilization: Beyond Earth, nor can they encompass how disappointed I quickly became once I played it. After the release of Civilization: Beyond Earth – Rising Tide most of the hum around the game seemed to suggest that the expansion fixed a lot. Needless to say it is the only 4X game I’ve booted up since I finally purchased it a few weeks ago!

While I still have a few complaints, the Rising Tide expansion isn’t just an improvement, it makes the game fun! Anyone who knows me should be aware that the Civilization series is the yardstick by which I determine if 4X games are “up to snuff.” Finally, the Beyond Earth series is in the ballpark of the best Civilization games. The artifact system is perhaps my favorite new addition that has actually changed my style of gameplay. Now I don’t stop exploring when I’ve found a city to conquer or land to settle, I need more artifacts! No, seriously, I’ve found 16 but that isn’t enough!

Besides the many improvements in the game it makes me excited to see what Beyond Earth has in store for us in the future. Rising Tide proved that not only can the game get better, but it has solidified the series, moving it from something mediocre to something great.


Best Patch to a Game You Should Already Be Playing: Dwarf Fortress 42.01

Brittany “BirdyBot” Chell – Staff Pick


This year, Tarn Adams, developer of Dwarf Fortress, gave fans an early Christmas present with the release of patch 42.01 (quickly followed by .02 and .03). The game was already astounding. Dwarf Fortress occupies a strange space in the industry; It’s a mixture of strategy, roguelike, city-builder and fantasy-history simulator. For the uninitiated, Dwarf Fortress places the player in the role of Fortress Overlord – responsible for the happiness and well-being of dwarves. Each world is procedurally generated including races, geological formations, biomes and unique history.

So what makes this patch so special? “Toady One” has added, among other features, the long-awaited real-time army movement. This means that sieges that arrive at the gates of your Mountain Fortress are spawned and travel across the map to massacre you. In Adventure mode, you can see these moving armies roam across the land. This is groundbreaking because it adds a layer of complexity and realism onto DF’s already heaping plateful. Remember the story of Hannibal crossing the Alps with elephants? This can now happen in DF, but with wolf-riding goblins, ogres wielding socks etc.

Another added feature is “locations” including the Tavern, Library, and Temples. Here, visitors and citizens of your fortress can relax, socialize and work on their skills. Since the early days of Dwarf Fortress, the dwarves have had social traits and preferences. With this patch we see these proclivities in action. Got a dwarf that worships a goddess of war? Now you can set up a temple filled with magma pits for his awful goddess and witness him contemplate death as he worships. Just the other day, I had my first tavern brawl that involved two bards; they were pulling each others’ hair like feuding rock stars when I checked the combat report. Oh Dwarf Fortress.

And sure, there’s bugs, but it needs to be said that DF’s bugs are some of the best in the business. For example, some players were experiencing the mysterious death of all the cats in their fortress. The reason? With the addition of Taverns, “Toady One” also programmed in alcohol poisoning. Now while dwarves are in taverns, they might spill alcohol and even die if they get too inebriated. Cats, who have free run of the fortress, would step in these puddles of liquor, and since they have the tag to self-clean (lick themselves clean), they were poisoning themselves with the dregs left on the floor. I’m not making this up! It’s been fixed as of now, but it’s moments like this that make me thank Armok that I took the time to learn to play this masterwork game.


Biggest Risk Taker of 2015: Sorcerer King

Micah “Marlowe” Dutro – Staff Pick


In a genre that is often accused of stagnation, it’s a real breath of fresh air when a development studio is willing to go out on a limb and experiment with the old tropes of 4X. With Sorcerer King, Stardock Entertainment dared to do just that. From the outset SK is different. Its premise is that the game starts just after a “traditional” 4X game has ended except, in this case, the player lost. The player is tasked with rebuilding the shambles of its once great civilization and uniting old enemies to face a common threat – the world-ending ambitions of the Sorcerer King.

Stardock took some big risks by combining a traditional 4X game with roguelike elements. For one thing, there is a repetitive element to the game by its very nature. Just like a traditional roguelike, the starting point and end goal are always the same. There is only one real victory condition. But a good roguelike is often more about the journey than the destination itself, adding variety through a dash of well-controlled randomness and multiple styles of play.  

Sorcerer King has this part of the roguelike spirit in spades! A great random map generator, a nice variety of minor factions for potential enemies/allies and multiple leaders and hero units mean that, even though ruining the Sorcerer King’s day is the goal every time, there are many different ways to get there. Mix in the trappings of fantasy 4X in the form of world-altering spells, tactical combat and a wandering monster or two and you have a truly genre-straddling game that works and plays well.

Is this Stardock’s best fantasy strategy game to date? Well… that’s hard to say. Many have made the case that Fallen Enchantress: Legendary Heroes is the better game. But Sorcerer King is certainly the most innovative fantasy 4X game that we have seen in a long time, even if it falls flat for some players. Sorcerer King deserves a lot of credit for challenging the old tropes of the 4X genre and fans of both 4X games and roguelikes will be hard pressed to do better than Stardock’s 2015 fantasy-themed release.


Most Sneakily Influential Game Ever: King of Dragon Pass

Oliver “Mezmorki” Kiley – Staff Pick


When it came time to choose a game for my staff pick, I was conflicted. I’ve played so many wonderful games this past year, how could I choose just one? Suddenly, it occurred to me that this was the moment for bold decisions, the golden opportunity to finally put my secret agenda into action. So like the man-lion that I am, I pounced on my prey, finding the prize to be none other than King of Dragon Pass.

I’m not one for conspiracy theories, but I am convinced that King of Dragon Pass (KoDP) is one of the most sneakily influential games ever, and it is only just dawning on our collective consciousness that this is so. King of Dragon Pass is an odd beast – it is a Frankenstein monster that’s part clan management, part choose your own adventure, part mythmaking, part roleplaying and part unforgiving strategy game. As a quasi-4X experience, it is the most successful game (that I’ve ever played) in actually putting you in the shoes of Lord of the Manor.  It’s like a 4X in the first-person narrative perspective. Mind blowing.

KoDP’s influence is taking root. We see its narrative and managerial focus manifest in games like Thea: The Awakening. We see its limited action point and time constraint-type mechanics in the up and coming grand strategy Imperia 5X (and maybe Stellaris too). KoDP is a brutally hard game and it taps into the roguelike-ification vibe that we’re all grooving on these days. People talk about KoDP with a sort of whispered reverence. There is nothing else quite like it, yet there are so many lessons we can pry from its tangled jaws.

I should mention that I’ve never beaten the game. Oh, have I tried. Many, many times I tried, yet some calamity or another always befalls me. First, it was not having enough cows and my people, disgusted with my ineptitude, left me to tend to my crumbling dreams. Then I was driven off by some crazed neighbor and a bunch of duck people. Another time I did something truly horrible with some artifact that cursed my people for an eternity. See all the fun times you can have? KoDP delivers lots of fun times.

King of Dragon Pass just launched on Steam this past year after seeing an updated re-release on iOS a few years ago. You can party like it’s 1999 anytime – just load up King of Dragon Pass.  Want more excitement? Word on the street is that a sequel is in the works. I’m ready to pounce.


Most Underappreciated Game of 2015: Star Ruler 2

Dave “Daveheart” Gwynne – Staff Pick


Blind Mind Studios’ grand attempt at pausable real-time, 4X strategy title came out of the gate strong in its late winter release, but never quite found its footing with the game-buying populace. As a result, in a sad turn of events, the studio announced shortly after release that it wouldn’t be long before they closed their doors.

Despite these unfortunate circumstances, Star Ruler 2 is nothing short of an outstanding game. It casts itself on a grand scale of empire management and expansion, yet seamlessly incorporates immaculate attention to detail in several of its key features – particularly in ship customization and diplomacy.

This is most definitely a title that should not be forgotten and the developers (although no longer on the project full-time) have continued to work on an expansion. You have to admire the grit and determination that keeps them going despite the realities of time and finances. That same dedication is evident in the core gameplay of Star Ruler 2. The attention given to the underlying game mechanics is extremely impressive. If there’s one title you need to pick up in the Steam winter sale for 2015, this is it.

5 replies »

  1. I’m not a staff member so someone would have to adopt this – I would suggest a ” most improved older 4x game ” and nominate Galactic Civilizations 2 – the new 2.20 version mostly done by modders but adopted officially by Stardock..

    To sum up my reason – I have played over 60 games of GC2 on the largest map – most of them on challenging or tough – the two levels over normal – on the largest map I can usually win in between 5 and 7 game years – without allies – with the last year just mopping up.

    I am currently on my second game of this new version on the largest map at challenging – I am now in the 12th game year and am in 4th place out of the 5 major remaining civs. 2 of those civs have been my allies for last couple of years. We are just holding are own against the Thaylans in first place and the Drengin in second place.. So it’s a lot more challenging and I am seeing weapons used I have never seen before as the previous games did not last long enough.

    There are lots of other improvements but that is the net effect on my game.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Fantastic writeup! Here’s some thoughts…

    Endless Legend: You should wear a badge, Nate. “Endless Legend fanboy. And proud of it!” I’m only now starting with it and I didn’t feel this engrossed in a game writing, artwork and general atmosphere since Crusader Kings 2. Amplitude delivers all these elements in spades and it’s not difficult to understand how someone may want to waste so many hours with it.

    Civilization V: Joshua, I hear you. Despite its early flaws, I got myself 80 hours on the game even without any of the expansion packs and just the early DLCs. It’s actually funny you mentioned this game. 2015 was a difficult year for my gaming. Work got too much in the way. Only now I am getting back to normal. And I was just starting with Civ V again last week, having put a couple of hours into it, when the Endless Legend Collection steam key arrived at my door. Won’t be putting much time on Civ V for a while now, but you bet I’ll come back to it sooner or later… just like you.

    Gal Civ III: Troy, I laughed. Nothing wrong with what you are saying, but for some reason I just imagined the following exchange:
    Troy: Most successful game of 2015, Gal Civ III! Woohoo!
    Nate: Idiot.
    Troy: What did I say?
    Seriously though, Gal Civ is such a complex and intricate game and an obvious attempt at improving Gal Civ II mechanics across the board, that I have no doubt it is just going through the same improvements process that other games before it had to take to become legendary. Gal Civ III place in the sun will probably happen in 2016.

    Sorcerer King: Micah, did you also consider Thea, The Awakening? I haven’t played any of the two games, but from all I know from them, I feel that Sorcerer King does follow a common pattern to 4x strategy games, only deviating slightly. Whereas Thea, The Awakening is a bigger outlier. Looking back at what Dave wrote further down about Star Ruler 2 and what is happening to its developer studio, I cannot help but think that Thea, The Awakening developers faced a much greater risk with their “deviant” 4x than an established studio like Stardock.


  3. Good write up! I was surprised to see Civ:BE in this list, however i never did pick up the expansion. I definitely agree on Star Ruler 2 being under appreciated. I had picked up Star Ruler 1 in a steam indie sales pack some years ago, installed it.. wtf only 300mb? it must be bad! Absolutely loved it! Size doesn’t always matter.



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