Wednesday, April 5, 2023

Game 366: Islandia

A follow-up to our Time Lords PBEM session, Scribe, myself, and forum regulars Argyraspide and Porkbelly (Drake) played Islandia next, another of Julian Gollop's juvenilia. Be sure to read Scribe's account - it's more detailed, and because this game does not conceal your opponent's movements as Time Lords does, two fully detailed after-action reports would be mostly redundant. Consider mine a BRIEF, if you like - initially I wasn't even planning on publishing this.

The goal of Islandia is to make money by conquering and defending islands, each of which produces an unknown quantity of goods whose value fluctuates with supply and demand, and to do this, you may produce, from your central port, armies to invade and defend islands, transport ships to get them there, explorers to scout them and report on productivity and defense levels, and steamships and battleships to attack your opponent's boats. Prices on all of these, too, fluctuate with supply and demand.

The supply and demand rules hint at a MULE-like economy, but in practice, there's not much players can do to interact with it - prices are what they are, islands that produce a lot of stuff are cash-valuable, and there's little reason for concern with the specifics of what gets produced. You cannot, for instance, starve your opponent's armies by embargoing food, or monopolize ship production by taking over the lumber industry.

Being placed near Scribe, opposite Drake, and with Argyraspide given an unfavorable position to begin with, my initial strategy was to block Scribe's port with some expendable transport boats to deny him access to the entire right-half of the sea, quickly drink his milkshake on island 'L' to his south, expand eastward, and send a few battleships counterclockwise around the mainland to harass Argyraspide and Drake.

Alas, Drake took 'L' from me before I could see profit from one coconut, my eastward expansion efforts suffered failure after failure, and Scribe offered a non-aggression zone around island 'G' which in retrospect I should not have accepted as quickly as I did. 'G' was central to my theater, and crucial to my strategy of using it as a launching point to invade the rest of the east isles, but I grossly underestimated Scribe's ability to reach and conquer the more distant islands as quickly as he did.

'G' is mine, but F+A just won't fall, Scribe took three islands, and Drake is about to.

Island 'D' turned out to be particularly wealthy, and Scribe invested in fortifications to triple the combat effectiveness of its defenders.

About midway through the game, after numerous failed invasions on F+A, numerous frustrating stalemates at sea, and even some speculation among us that the combat algorithm might be reversed, Scribe managed to take back 'L' with a pitiful invasion force, up against fortified defenders who outnumbered his 5:1.

So I changed my invasion strategy. Instead of trying to take islands by overwhelming force, I'd attack them with just one army at a time. And it worked! I took F, I took A, and even took D.

As it turns out, fortifications do absolutely nothing. Apart from that, combat isn't bugged, per se, but the BBC Micro's RNG appears to be a bit biased toward extreme values, as I tested in a BASIC combat simulator.


I spent not a dime after this point, and used the rest of the time in the game ferrying troops around to conquer and re-conquer islands with minimal force, often losing them back to Scribe the very same turn, but his tactics operated at a huge loss, and mine didn't, nearly earning me back what I had initially spent.

But in the end, Porkbelly's strategy - throw a bone to his weak neighbor in exchange for peace, and reap the southwest with minimal interference while Scribe and I fight - was more successful, and finished first place by a wide margin.

The final game state. I lost all my land, boats, and armies, but at least I have money.

GAB rating: Below average. This isn't a great game - it's simplistic and yet has terrible balance problems. Moving your ships around is annoying thanks to some ambiguous border detection rules that make it unclear where they can and can't go, and can so easily cause you to forfeit your turn with an illegal move that we voted to allow use of save states to undo input errors. Combat is screwy and expensive fortifications don't even do anything. Bugs and weirdness abound too - one time I had a large army annihilated on a completely undefended island, and in the aftermath a single defender spontaneously generated. Argyraspide reported purchased battleships that failed to deliver and never showed up. Explorers always exaggerate an island's worth by 300%, and going by the code this seems to be intentional - how come?

But this is a serviceable game, much improved over the wacky but irredeemable Time Lords, and provided some moments of interesting strategic action. The claustrophobic maps can be frustrating to navigate, but being forced to maneuver close to your rivals also means nobody is ever truly safe to go on and do their own thing. It's hard to say, though, how much strategic depth came from our mutually wrong assumptions that the combat worked as advertised - would a replay devolve into nonstop spam of canal-blocking transports and one-man army invasions back-and-forth? Neither Scribe nor myself are inclined for a rematch - we've got better things to do, like play Gollop's obscure ZX Spectrum strategy game Nebula.

1 comment:

  1. Nice AAR ! I never realized you attacked with only 1 army in the later part of the game.

    If my timeline is right, Islandia was released after Gollop had left Red Shift. Red Shift had effectively lost all its developers, so it is possible the game was not playtested, or even considered "unfinished". That would explain the missing code for fortification, and the undocumented features.


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