Electron Dance
30Mar/2112

The Watchtower

Suppose I could send a message back in time, to the beginning of this. What would I tell myself? It started with mere curiosity, a beguiling black and white screenshot. I could not know I was charting a collision course for obsession.

Death Crown (CO5MONAUT, 2019) absorbed me in the way “ambient strategy game” Eufloria (Omni Systems, 2009) did a decade ago. Death Crown is a pick-up-and-just-fucking-play blend of RTS and tower defence. As each battle is mere minutes in length, Death Crown nailed a personal sweet spot that offered a real sense of achievement while respecting human time limits. And the monochromatic hex aesthetic proferred a whiff of intoxicating nostalgia, triggering memories of Ogre (Origin Systems, 1986) that were burned into my visual cortex, a turn-based war game I adored but never bested.

I completed Death Crown’s main campaign two months ago, as well as the “Era of Human” DLC. That should have been the end of it: bugger off back to your digital shelf, mate. I made the mistake of pulling back another curtain, to peek at the “Domination mode”. I reeled: Domination mode was a sequence of thirty hard-as-nails levels that you had to survive with just three lives. Nice try, you bastards. Ha ha, but no.

But, sigh, I was having too much fun with Death Crown. I wasn’t quite ready to let go. It couldn’t hurt, I thought, having a crack at Domination.

Today, Steam casually declares that I’ve played Death Crown for over 60 hours. Suppose I could send a message back in time, to the beginning of this. What would I tell myself? That it’s going to fuck you up?

LOVE STORY

Newsletter subscribers will already have read the Death Crown essentials but bear with me as I’ll need to go into a tad more detail for this tale of pain.

The main campaign sets you up as Death who is obliterating a human kingdom because its king refuses to bow to his mortality. This involves waging war across single-screen hex battlefields. Gold slowly accumulates, and gold is used to pay for structures: mines that increase gold yield; graves which spawn skeletons to attack your opponent’s structures; towers that eliminate oncoming attackers.

It’s bite-sized real-time strategy that smells a little like tower defence as your control of the battlefield is more arm's length than typical RTS micromanagement. But the towers don’t carve out routes for your enemies to travel - they’ll just march straight at them and give them a sharp kick. All structures have a health rating and, under normal circumstances, will absorb multiple attacks before they collapse. To win, you must destroy your opponent’s citadel, the strongest structure on the board.

Critically, you can only build on hexes under your influence. Influence emanates from the graves, towers and the citadel itself… but not from mines. So if you were to surround your citadel with mines, you would be unable to expand your territory.

Ignore the black crystals at your peril, however. Every crystal caught by your influence upgrades the forces deployed from your graves. If you manage to capture three crystals, victory is normally assured, as beefed-up skeletons can tear down structures with a single hit.

The compelling combination of short rounds and deceptively simple rules has proven to be Electron Dance catnip. At times, I was lulled into thinking of it as a clicker as certain victories seemed all too easy.

Now Domination is a score attack mode: it makes a big deal of the leaderboard and you have only three lives to see how far you can get. But I’d argue it’s closer to a series of thirty puzzles. I ran into problems early as my lazy technique of cautious base building was more likely to fail than not. By the time I was ready to attack, the AI was already throwing hordes at me. If you let the AI dominate in this way, you might as well quit the match. It is possible, sometimes, to turn back the tide, but the average human is simply not quick enough to repair the punctures the AI is putting in your defences.

VII.

Hubris crumbled. I thought I was good at this game but one look at the Domination leaderboard convinced me I had a lot to learn. At the top of the board, there were incredible scores upward of 500,000; I was struggling for anything upward of 10,000. I convinced myself to walk away from Domination more than once, but it was never long before Death Crown seduced me back into its taloned embrace.

So, yeah, the early days were a fucking shitstorm. The AI’s habit is to build a bunch of mines then spawn barracks ad infinitum. Once the AI had engineered a crack in your front line, it was ready to exploit it; before you could buttress the damage, its minions were pouring through the crack, happy to convert your citadel into a kebab. Although it was useful to study the AI’s moves, mirroring the AI strategy wasn’t a winner. Sun Tzu would have called my performance shameful.

MACHINE LEARNING

I figured out the seemingly minor opening moves were critical, as if a butterfly flapping its wings in Hawaii caused apocalyptic destruction on my hexes. I had to figure out how many mines I should build before progressing to defence or attack. Too many mines and the AI will be trampling your shit before you even got started. Too many graves and you just won’t have the gold to react if the AI begins to dictate the battle. And it was not usually clear whether you’d played the right pieces or not until the match was in full swing.

I should take a moment to highlight that the AI was not entirely predictable, either. It's difficult to avoid the impression it is toying with you as its computerized hand sweeps back and forth at the start of the game, contemplating different options as it waits for gold. And Death Crown often gives the AI a little helping hand because the AI isn’t that smart and can be fooled into handing you the keys to the victory car.

Gradually, lessons were learned. On level VIII, the AI pushed back against me and I was trapped inside my starting area, with no chance for expansion. The AI, meanwhile, kept spawning barracks until the numbers coming at me were overwhelming. I realised that if I could turn this around and put the AI under siege, then victory would be easy.

This led me to discover a powerful tactic that I dubbed tower-rushing. I cannot overstate this: it changed everything. Give me a moment to explain.

As I’ve touched on before, you can’t place structures around the AI immediately because your influence is initially restricted to the neighbourhood of your citadel. Towers and graves will expand the borders of your land, but this is the slowest way of spreading influence. There is a sneaky shortcut which involves destroying your structures.

In Death Crown, you can tear down one of your own structures and retrieve half of its value. Now imagine two towers next to each other, one is closer to my citadel, one is closer to the AI’s citadel. If I destroy the one near me, I get back some gold and with it I will soon be able to create another tower closer to the AI. This nudges my influence forward more quickly than if I’d just been waiting for enough gold to create new towers from scratch. If I keep doing this, I could walk this pair of towers right up to the AI’s doorstep!

Nothing was the same after this. Although I devised tower-rushing to besiege the AI, it was also useful to capture crystals quickly or simply impede AI expansion. But…  it didn’t solve all problems.

On level X, you face the Great Cube.

X.

The Great Cube has an additional power - it can vaporise any structure I build near it. So much for tower-rushing. The Great Cube is one of the bosses from the main Death Crown campaign and there I didn’t find it particularly fearsome but somehow the Domination edition was always a dicey endeavour. I would often lose a life or two… or three. The AI was always able to ship out an invasion while I was still playing with marbles. I tried doing the same back to the AI, focusing on attack, but somehow it always seized the upper hand.

Oh Christ, I’d forgotten how much grief The Great Cube gave me. After plenty of delicate experimentation, I eventually distilled a strategy which was guaranteed to crush the Cube into little itty bits. There’s no profound theory in it: it was just a case of carefully balancing resources vs expansion, securing crystals and harassing the AI just enough to slow it down. Perhaps the solution is beautiful, but as I barely need to think about what I’m doing anymore it’s become a little dull to play.

The challenge of the next ten levels is recognising what the fuck you’re fighting against. Instead of humans, you’re now battling against “The Swarm” - an enemy that doesn't feature in any campaign (at the time of writing). The trouble is, all that visual parsing software your brain has developed for human farms and barracks is about as useful here as a post-it note in a gunfight. It was like starting over. The Swarm’s mines were squelching sponges, its barracks were pulsating pods and its towers were whipping tentacles.

XIX.

The Swarm has no new powers or upgrades to accompany this, it’s simply visual fluff that made the game harder to understand. Some of The Swarm’s structures are bulky so when directing my armies to attack, I’d often miss the target hex and drag my armies to the one behind it... and the graves would remain asleep, still faithfully waiting for real orders. Imagine losing a war because your armies were sleeping. That happened. Many times. But repeated exposure eventually led to familiarity.

There are several cheeky Swarm levels. Levels XII and XIV are never guaranteed wins although the odds are clearly more in my favour than they used to be. Both levels have an open structure with multiple corridors of attack and the crystals spread out. I’d dominate one corridor only to find the AI pouring shit down the other. Tower-rushing was helpful but focusing on rushing sometimes made me vulnerable elsewhere. Just like The Great Cube, I figured out a basic strategy that boosted the probability of success. But it’s still not guaranteed; until I have the upper hand, both levels remain on the knife edge.

Sorry for moaning, but I need to get level XV off my chest. Divided into quarters, it’s completely symmetric with both you and the AI having two bases each. It has one unique feature, shared with no other level: zero crystals. This means towers are exceptionally robust and victory is difficult to nail down even if you think you’re on top.

XV.

XV can become a long slog and if you let the AI dominate one half of the level, you should expect to lose a life. While you can survive the loss of one of your citadels, you will not survive losing a quarter of the level. I probably still need to refine my approach to XV because it remains a bit touch-and-go, having to think on multiple fronts simultaneously. Nowadays, I always get through XV but passage may cost one life.

XVIII is my favourite of the Swarm levels which looks terribly unfair at first glance. You start out completely naked with two enemy citadels either side of you. It took a fair few goes, but with the right opening moves, this level is yours. I am never, ever defeated on this level and it always delivers an emotional victory - a feeling like I won against terrible odds, even though I am following the same strategy masterplan each time.

XVIII.

And we’re here, now. I can’t put it off any longer. Level XX. Suppose I could send a message back in time, to the beginning of this. What would I tell myself?

THE WATCHTOWER

Level XX delivers a reprisal of the Watchtower boss. This is a boss I struggled to defeat in the main campaign because of its special power: stealing your graves and towers. A stolen hex acts like a barrier and perforates your influence. It's just really bad. The only way I defeated the Watchtower was to grow fast before it had a chance to do too much thieving. The Domination version of the Watchtower confrontation is far more insidious. Crystals are placed at distant locations, walled off by spikes, making it impossible to control all three crystals at the same time.

Failure was assured.

XX.

In no time at all, the Watchtower would have an unstoppable army while stealing the occasional grave or tower in a key location. There seemed to be nothing I could do to stop it. Trying to capture crystals was an exercise in self-flagellation and once the Watchtower had just one crystal, its forces would corrode my defences like that acidic blood dripping through two decks of the Nostromo in Ridley Scott's Alien.

One particularly galling defeat happened incredibly fast; the Watchtower grabbed a grave I’d built adjacent to my citadel and that was it, I was done. If an enemy hex lies beside your citadel, it is an open line of attack that you cannot disrupt and almost certain doom. The AI marched its troops straight in.

Every time I reached XX, having fought through 19 levels to get there, I would lose. Disappointed, I took a look at the few strategy pages on Death Crown and identified the “solution” to the thieving conundrum. Is the Watchtower about to steal one of your structures? Just destroy it. It can’t steal what doesn’t exist. Christ! Why didn’t I think of that? What an arse. This still wasn’t enough to disrupt the constant numbing rhythm of defeat.

But I remember my first XX victory.

I had more than a few graves and my skeleton troops eventually managed to get through to the citadel. This was unusual because the AI was constantly dropping towers to fix any damage you inflicted on its little empire and, without crystals, taking out towers was a slow process. Yet through some quirk of fate I broke through that one time.

I continued to win - but win infrequently. My strategy was to accept the pounding and hope I stayed alive long enough to get lucky. I fought a losing war that I sometimes won through luck.

I was distraught. It was taking an hour to get to XX and, once there, I’d experience bitter defeat. I didn’t have enough practice at the levels beyond XX so whenever I did get through to the final ten, I would fail miserably. I was losing heart. This Death Crown drug in my veins was turning toxic.

XX was impossible. It had broken me.

KNIFE THE WOUND

I sought out others who had also fallen before XX.

I was overjoyed to discover a full Domination run on YouTube but the euphoria was extremely short-lived. It was for an old version of Domination and the levels were entirely different! I suspected the universe had put into motion a very special plan to torture me. Perhaps as proof of this secret conspiracy, I learnt the Death Crown fanbase were complaining that XIX was impossible on the rejigged Domination. Yes, the level before the Watchtower. The developer had even put up a YouTube video showing how you could beat XIX. Are you kidding me?

I was hemorrhaging self-confidence. What if all those high scores on the Domination leaderboard had been won on the old version of Domination? Was there any point going on?

I abandoned Domination temporarily and bought the Death Crown Demon campaign DLC for a change of pace. To my surprise, I was too good for the campaign. I blasted through it, losing only twice. Tower-rushing turned out to be devastating to the campaign AI. And so there was only one thing to do… head back to the bitterness of Domination. To XX.

Domination had morphed from this slow, evolving puzzle into Confidence Destroying Defeat Simulator 2021. When I’d lose a life on an earlier “solvable” level, I’d hurl the mouse across my desk in disgust. Fucking game. What was the point in playing for 45 minutes to lose my shit before I got to the real fucking deal? Defeats were making me angry. It didn’t help that I found an occasional bug on XX, when the destroy action would sometimes fail to work and after I thumped E repeatedly on the keyboard in vain, the Watchtower would calmly step in and take the hex I had been trying to protect.

God damn it. When would this punishment end?

As I’ve spoken about in a previous newsletter, I’ve been here before, becoming obsessed with a game to the point where it’s unhealthy. But was this unhealthy? It wasn’t making me sick but it was definitely gorging on my time. I couldn’t quit. I had to keep playing and playing until I beat it… but every attempt just hurt. It was like sticking a knife in an old wound every day, a ritual that was the opposite of cathartic and served only to highlight your own fallibility. Do something else. Why are you still doing this? Because the developers obviously think the level is solvable, maybe? I can’t give up now. I can’t give up I can’t I can’t I can’t

A MESSAGE SENT

Deep breath.

What is the real problem here? It’s the crystals. If the AI gets hold of a crystal, it’s pretty much the end. Perhaps the solution was to tower rush the crystals? But they were so far away and located in opposite directions behind spikes...

New experiments revealed that while I could tower-rush the left crystal and block off the AI, it would then jump on the right crystal and I was toast. But it was so close. Maybe it was just a case of tuning the opening moves like so many other levels?

Yes. Yes, it had to be. I began to earn control of the map; provided the AI didn’t get all the way around the right crystal to block me off, I was in with a chance. And, God, the fight was always one long, exhausting howl at the moon. I had to service an enormous front-line scanning for the Watchtower trying to steal a hex while sweeping the mouse back and forth looking for towers about to buckle, back and forth, back and forth, waiting for enough gold to spawn another grave. Maddening. All it took was one mistake and the Watchtower had me.

Yet from this emerged a strategy. My strategy isn’t perfect and it seems inefficient, dragging on for over five minutes. But you betcha if it takes an hour to get to XX and is victorious against the AI most of the time, I’m not going to keep experimenting. Thus, even now when I see XX appear, I still feel a subtle tightness of the chest, a pang of apprehension.

On March 13 2021, I earned the achievement that only 0.8% of Death Crown players on Steam have earned: completing Domination. I am currently fourth place on the Domination leaderboard.

Suppose I could send a message back in time, to the beginning of this. What would I tell myself?

“You’re fucking amazing.”

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  1. Dang. I’d been eyeing Death Crown before, this pulled it to the top of my list. I may never go through the struggles of that challenge mode, but you’ve made the game sound challenging in a way I can wrap my brain around. I’m in that camp of people who find the theory of RTSs compelling but the practice overwhelming.

  2. Thanks Stephen! I love this game way too much even though has numerous UI flaws. I want to try the original campaign again but I suspect my battle-hardened experience from Domination means I’ll just walk most of it like I did the Demon DLC.

  3. Seems like the common pitfall of the marathon challenge: the opportunity to practice the part that requires the most practice has the steepest time-price per opportunity, which is the inverse of what should be true. Roguelikes and ‘old-school hard’ games like Battletoads have a similar issue, and I think this is the source of the toxicity you mention.

    Modern masocore games like the flourishing I Wanna Be The Guy subgenre have solved this with frequent checkpoints and instant resets. For all their fearsome reputation, they’re a good deal kinder to the player.

    I’m personally haunted by the memories of Ghosts n Goblins and Crypt of the Necrodancer, to mention a couple. I do love those games though – I think you have to love a hard game to get to the point where the love and the hate dissolve together in this way.

  4. Hey CA. Yes, I couldn’t really rail against it too much, because the normal campaigns will let you try the same level you’re stuck on as many times as you want. You never lose progress. Domination was obviously for the hardcore and I appreciated the forced repetition because (a) I loved playing Death Crown and (b) I was sharpening my tools with every attempt. But that Watchtower level was just a confidence-destroying monster. I *really* wanted a chance to practice this one repeatedly without having to wait an hour.

    I don’t know whether I would approve of this level in a final build. I think if you have “a solution” or perhaps a pretty fast mouse hand, it might seem like it’s no big deal. But it is a big deal.

    But like you say, this is about embracing the pain. My assault on Domination sits alongside chasing the achievements for Hoplite. Most roguelikes have this structure. This is literally all about the blood, sweat and tears. It is respect earned through grind.

    Maybe it’s time for Cinco Paus again.

  5. I intermittently pottered around through Eufloria up till I think the next to last level and then after an OS update the text all stopped displaying. This wasn’t as frustrating as it sounds, I think I was inspired to look at it again after a gap of a few months by reading someone saying “After my OS update the text all stopped displaying!”

    Anyway it was fun to be contemplative to but I somewhat felt like I was making my way through the levels without really understanding what I was doing? Also there’s a lot of procgen graphics which I almost never saw because there was never a reason to zoom in. I should perhaps mention that I do not play RTSes at all.

    I have some thoughts about the roguelike difficulty curve, and there has been a discussion at the CRPG Addict where people are like “Gosh why don’t they just make handcrafted levels instead of procgen ones” and I DEFINITELY have thoughts about that, but I am supposed to be doing things other than expressing those thoughts right now.

  6. Confession, Matt, I only ever played the original prototype “Dyson” not the full commerical version. I think I never got over the name change. But I was still obsessed with the prototype!

    In a few years, the roguelike definition will weaken again – it does not even have to be randomly generated. By 2030, it won’t even offer permadeath.

  7. Purists will refer to games of the 2030 definition as roguelikelikelikelikes.

  8. OMG I was NOT trying to start an argument over the definition of roguelikes what do you take me for

    Anyway I’ve already played a roguelike without permadeath or procgen, you can’t scare me. (I’m not totally positive that this winds up being any more roguelike than Ultima IV and *is struck down by a duck penis*)

    So OK, the thing about the classssssic roguelikes is that I find they’re often about improvising and managing risk, and managing the resources that let you reduce risk. In a save-and-restore-and-fight-the-big-boss kind of game, it makes sense to roll the dice on a strategy that has a small chance of winning that tough battle, because if it works you never have to deal with that battle again. With permadeath and procgen this would be foolish. Though sometimes you get in a situation where you have to roll the dice, but if you get in a lot of those situations eventually you’ll get hosed.

    This is particularly notable if you’re going for a Conclusão in Cinco Paus. You can chance your way through a few Jogos fine. To get through fifty Jogos you have to have a pretty reliable strategy for not getting killed, and for knowing when things are going south and you have to skedaddle, and also when recognizing the rare occasions when you do have to roll the dice, and keeping them rare.

    Another, concomitant, thing about roguelike difficulty is that good roguelikes of any length will usually get easier as you go along, up to a point. You ought to be able to gain strength faster than the enemies at least at the beginning, so you have options that will make the midgame easier than the beginning, and *then* maybe there’s some hard-as-hell stuff you have to gear up for. This is usually the pattern in Cinco Paus, or Brogue, or nethack IIRC. That way you don’t have to spend too much time repeating a dull initial stage. Brogue also cuts down the repetition by giving you drastically different items early on that will shape your strategy.

    …or you sometimes you don’t succeed in gaining enough options early on and when you hit the midgame you instantly go splat. That happens every so often in Brogue.

  9. Hello Matt. I think that’s an interesting observation that roguelikes are about learning to play *safe* and to survive; sure, there are sometimes elements of celebrating performance (see Go the Distance although that’s more of rewarding adaptability, really), but if your goal is to reach some form of goal… yep, you gotta learn to stop roguerushing.

    Domination, here, is essentially a score attack mode and your score gets higher with progress. So there’s a strange tension between finding safety on your journey to the end but you’ve got to experiment a bit if you want bump up the score. I played through Domination again yesterday and I started to take on a bit more risk, to find ways to boost score. I still defeated all 30 levels without losing a life. Score was high but not quite high enough to even beat my last high score. But this has definitely been a very roguelike-like playstyle.

    The magical thing about roguelikes is… when you get good at them, wow, that’s some brilliant feelgood gaming. You feel smart, possessor of rare skills. You can sometimes even impress people. I guess we’re back to Go the Distance again.

  10. Fun fact, I provisionally titled this article Go the Distance II.

    Reminds me, the Hoplite-like Enyo is entertaining, has a goal to reach level 10, and has no upgrades you collect along the way. But I also can’t recommend it. I find it very punishing of mistakes – there are just so, so many ways your play can go wrong. A tiny mistake will kill you from the three dozen unforeseen consequences – and the rule set is really complicated. It’s an example of a roguelike that is diverting but I couldn’t praise it.

  11. I was looking through old comments to find out who I needed to ask about the hidden fish in the Moonlit Grotto level of Fishbane, and I found this old discussion of whether Starseed Pilgrim was unfair, and there again I feel like the answer is that it asks you to manage risk. You’re not guaranteed to get the seed that will help you, but you can set things up so bad draws are less disastrous and you’re better placed to deal with good draws.

    This is like what I just said about roguelikes (in fact somewhere else in the comments I asked if Starseed Pilgrim was a roguelite and promptly slapped myself down) but now that I think of it, it sounds exactly like Tetris.

    And elsewhere in the comments was some stuff about why I think the “handcrafted levels are better” can be misguided; some folks say that roguelikes present something like puzzles, but a puzzle wouldn’t reward you for an economical solution by making the next puzzle easier, while roguelikes reward you for conserving resources. And “figure out how to conserve your resources through a preset obstacle course” is basically one giant puzzle, and a kind that most people don’t like, that’s why Infocom’s Journey bombed.


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