In the modern age of strategy gaming, the lines between what is and what isn’t a 4X game have become increasingly blurred. Thea: The Awakening and Sorcerer King are two prime examples of games that use the usual tropes of 4X in new and interesting ways to create a novel experience for the player. We might call them 4X-Lite or 4X-Like games, but it’s clear that they are still 4X games (for the most part).
In the case of Last Days of Old Earth, we have a game that uses the basic attributes of 4X, but somehow ends up not feeling like a 4X game at all – despite calling itself that. Instead of being a 4X, I think LDoOE by Auroch Digital is an excellent example of a straight-up Turn Based Strategy game.
So what is this game all about?
LDoOE is inspired by cult classic PC game Armageddon Empires. It is set on post-apocalyptic Earth (kudos to Auroch for doing something other than fantasy or space). The human Skywatchers and robotic Automata factions are on a mass migration to the Equator where the weather is still warm. Since machines and humans can’t find any way to coexist, they fight battle after battle while they traverse the globe.
Units are expressed in the game via cards, and I get the sense that LDoOE is heavily influenced by Magic:The Gathering – the games share a lot of the same basic mechanics. Units have offense, defense, and hit point values. They can have special abilities that let them break the normal rules of the game. More powerful cards tend to be more expensive to put into play. And so on. You never play a card game, per se. In combat, units have 3D models. The cards are just a handy reference tool.
The object of LDoOE is to find your enemy’s base and capture it. In this, it doesn’t differ too much from SK or Age of Wonders 3 (AoW 3), although it is much less climactic than those two titles. You win by placing collectors and fortresses around the map in order to extend your zone of control until your enemy’s base falls within it. Once you can attack the base at full strength, you just pound your enemy until you win.
So what attributes does LDoOE have that are 4X?
Well, to begin, it has a fog of war. For me, that’s an important clue that I might be playing a 4X game – as the fog of war makes “eXploration” a important early game activity. While I’ve reviewed other games like Arcane Sorcery that did not have a fog of war and called them 4X-Lite, I think if a game lacks this mechanic it’s on thin ice when calling itself a 4X.
LDoOE also has a very traditional looking zone of control that begins with your starting city then moves outward. It can be eXpanded by establishing collectors and fortresses. Your units within your zone of control get a bonus; when they are outside of it, they get penalties. That’s all very straightforward and in the flavor of 4X.
Exploitation is present in that there are several different resources in the game that need to managed: Materials, Population, and Energy. Each of these appear as deposits all over the map and must be mined using collectors. Collectors are built by hero units and they provide income to your resource pools each turn. This is all very similar to the way luxury or strategic resources work in Endless Legend, for example.
Finally, LDoOE has turn-based tactical combat. It has a separate tactical battleboard that is reminiscent of what you might see in a game like Planar Conquest. Two armies bash away at each other until one is defeated. It all works in the most classical way with only a wrinkle or two that I’ll mention deeper in this eXcursion.
So what 4X game elements does LDoOE leave out?
It sounds like LDoOE is a 4X game for sure, right? Well, no – I don’t think so. A review piece may not be the best place to discuss what makes a 4X game vs. what doesn’t, but I believe this game provides an excellent case study for the difference between a “real” 4X and a TBS.
Let’s go back to the beginning of 4X: Civilization (1991) and Master of Orion (1993). These two games have defined the genre. Both involve more than just eXploration, eXpansion, eXploitation, and eXtermination. In fact, the four X’s are in some ways too reductionist for what a 4X game really is. Civ and MoO both involved a lot of empire management. Civ had buildings and wonders you had to build, while MoO had terraforming and planetary improvements. LDoOE doesn’t have anything like this. There are technically “Facilities” in this game, but they are little more than what we might call a city enchantment in AoW 3.
Also, Civ and MoO had research as a major game component. In order to procure more advanced units and buildings, you had to research them. There is nothing like that in LDoOE. Auroch’s game gives you “cards” which you use to build a combat deck. There are no restrictions on what cards you can put in your deck, only restrictions on how many. Winning skirmishes or finishing the campaign doesn’t give you access to new cards. You get all of them right up front.
One other major component that Civ and MoO had was diplomacy. There was some way to interact with your opponent(s) without resorting to combat. LDoOE does not allow the Skywatcher (humans) to interact with the Automata (robots) anywhere except on the battlefield. There can be no truce, no alliance. It’s an all-or-nothing knife-fight to the death. A 4X game requires more than that, in my opinion.
I think if any two out of the three of these subsystems were present, I could call LDoOE a 4X game. But as it is, I think Auroch has mislabeled this game and consequently, missed its target audience. 4X gamers need more than just the four X’s to be happy. I think Auroch may be learning that now – response to the launch has been tepid at best.
What’s Good About This Game?
The nice part about LDoOE is that it’s simple. Cards do what you’d expect them to do. Special abilities such as “Counter Attack” or “Infantry Leader: 2” are named in a way that instantly communicates their function. The designers didn’t clutter up the game with a bunch of wistful names and unintuitive abilities that could confuse the players. Bravo!
Combat is likewise easy to understand. There’s initiative, just like in most any tabletop RPG. Whoever wins goes first, naturally. Each side takes a turn attacking, one unit at a time. Units in the front row can only attack other units in the enemy’s front row unless they have the “Reach” ability which allows them to attack one row further back. At the end of combat, if heroes were present and they lost, there’s a chance to capture and kill them. It only takes one, maybe two combats at most to get comfortable with the system. That’s a nice change for once.
There’s plenty of room to grow. The few abilities the units have are interesting and suggest deep strategy, but that’s not how it works out in practice. The abilities are mostly simplistic: debuff an enemy unit, buff an ally, etc. There isn’t any way to chain abilities together for a large effect or any way to take multiple turns at once. It’s all very much punch-counterpunch.
The main map also has a copious amount of tooltips to help the player understand what he or she is looking at and what to do. The learning curve for this game is not steep at all, so you can basically jump in and start playing right away. That’s refreshing in an era where we hold up very complicated games like EL and AoW 3 as prime examples of 4X.
Finally, the art, UI, and music for the game are pretty darn good. They are very reminiscent of EL, and that is never a bad thing, IMO. If you’re going to copy a game, EL is a great title to steal from.
What’s Not Good About This Game?
This biggest problem I have with LDoOE is its lack of content. The Skywatchers only have 35 different cards. The Automata have just 33. When M:tG launched back in 1993, its first set had 295 cards and you could theoretically mix and match any of the colors in any way you wanted. In LDoOE, you can’t mix and match Skywatcher and Automata cards, so you’re stuck with just a few dozen to play around with. This lack of card choice severely restricts what kind of decks you can build and, thus, the replayability of the game.
I feel like LDoOE is meant to be more of an online multiplayer game than a skirmish or campaign game. I regard this as another flaw in its design. In order for online multiplayer to work, you have to have a large community. People have time to play at all hours of the day, and if the community isn’t large enough to supply a steady stream of players 24/7, multiplayer quickly breaks down and the game becomes abandoned. Judging by the number of Steam reviews for LDoOE and frequency of posts in its forum, I think it can be safely assumed that the community is rather small. Multiplayer will probably not work for this game, and with a rather weak skirmish and campaign system, it’s hard to see the incentive to invest in this title.
Auroch would have been much better served by making the single player game more robust, in my opinion. That’s how people are going to come to the game first, and they have to like that before they’re going to get into the multiplayer aspect. LDoOE isn’t marketing itself as primarily as a multiplayer title, so the single-player systems have to be what hooks the players and brings them in.
What’s The Final Verdict?
I think the mechanics of this game are well designed. The deckbuilder is very functional. Cards have interesting abilities. Combat is fun. The eXploration and eXploitation facets of play are enjoyable. And honestly, I like that the learning curve is shallow – I’ve gotten a bit weary of complex games. There were few bugs in the game during Early Access, Now that it’s officially out I haven’t noticed anyone reporting many problems at all.
The AI is capable, but because the game is so simple to learn, it doesn’t take long for the player to master it and be able to easily defeat the AI. The game does not have any difficulty settings, so there is only the default AI and that’s it. I’ve been told the AI is 100% “fair” so the player ends up with a huge advantage once the initial awkwardness of getting used to a new game has passed.
LDoOE suffers a bit from snowballing – where the more you win, the more likely you are to continue winning. As you collect more resources and/or take away resources from your opponent, the harder it is for them to come back and beat you. That’s the case with many strategy games, though. But with LDoOE’s singular focus on combat, there are no other mechanics (like diplomacy or a technology advantage) to help out the underdog.
The biggest problem is there isn’t enough variety in the content to play with. You can’t easily build theme decks like all infantry or all heavy armor because there are not enough cards to provide effective theme-based choices. Moreover, there isn’t a lot of synergy between cards. You can’t try oblique strategies to winning, such as using mostly bomber units to blast enemy positions so that a cheap, weak force can simply walk in and take enemy holdings. There is no way to set up some kind of amazing combo deck that wins only if it assembles the right units in the right order at the right time. A big appeal of deck construction games like Magic or Hearthstone lies in these sorts of dynamics – but they aren’t present in LDoOE, sadly.
Likewise, map sizes are so small and so similar that finding your opponent is almost never a challenge. Hero units aren’t varied enough to matter, and since you must have a hero leading each army, you end up playing each session with nearly all of them anyhow. The game doesn’t force you to make hard choices.
LDoOE just needs more – more of everything. I enjoyed the time I played it, but at $25, it’s hard to justify purchasing. I’d be a buyer at $15 with the current amount of content, I think. It’s clear that the developers at Auroch absolutely know how to design a rich strategy game. They just didn’t put enough content into it.
TL;DR: Last Days of Old Earth by Auroch Digital is a prime example of a turn-based strategy game that is not a 4X game. The lack of research, diplomacy, and empire management keeps this from being a deep strategic experience. Its lack of content ensures that you will experience everything the game has to offer in just a few hours of play. LDoOE needs a lot more content to be worth its asking price and attract the number of users necessary to make multiplayer viable.
You Might Like This Game If:
- You’re a fan of non-4X Turn Based Strategy games.
- You really love the low-poly art style of games like this
- You enjoyed Armageddon Empires and wonder what a modern take might be like
You Might Not Like This Game If:
- You’re expecting a full-fledged 4X experience
- You prefer single-player to multiplayer
- The part of strategy card games you like best is the deck building
Troy has played 20+ hours of Last Days of Old Earth on his Windows 8.1 Dell Inspiron 7000 Series 7537 BTX 17” laptop with Intel(R) Core(TM) i7-4500U CPU @ 1.80 GHz, 16GB Ram, 64- bit Operating system, x64 processor, and 2GB NVIDIA GeForce GT 750M graphics card.