I remember when Grand Strategy Games made up a substantial part of my gaming diet. In fact, the first PC game I played with any great ferocity was the original Civilization, sat at the back of university computer clusters and running it off the disks it came on. Over the years I've hopped across the genre as they've come out, but increasingly the large amount of time it takes to really get to grips with a game - I'm looking at you, Crusader Kings II - has really put me off. At the same time I've developed a real fondness for co-op gaming, and have played a couple of Strategy Games that offer fun co-op experiences. R.U.S.E. was fun, as I recall, as was Endless Space. The latters most recent stablemate, Endless Legend, was a return to the style I will always have fond memories of, a large flat map dotted with cities and small armies, battling for supremacy.
There is an instant familiarity to Endless Legend that hides a lot of changes under the hood. You are presented with a nicely generated hex-grid map, a couple of units including a settler, and off you go to build your first city. Here, the first change is apparent - the world is made up of provinces, each of which can contain a single city, and the borders of that provinces are the borders of your growing empire. Citys can gradually sprawl over multiple hexes, and resource gathering nodes can be built on separately if you need to. Suddenly, a lot of the messy business of border control and clustering cities and all that sort of thing changes.
Cities themselves have a similar overhaul. Each point of population can focused to increase production, food, research, etc, as usual, and the interface for it is slick and intuitive. It's also something you're always tweaking, as the world changes around you. See, this game also has cold seasons, where production crashes, and units move slowly. So in these stretches survival becomes harder, wars become harder, and you have to stockpile in the good years to get you through the bad. Unless you don't of course. Because that's the other thing that Endless Legend does that is clever.
I've played games with asymmetric factions before, but here we have something a little clever. Rather than simply being factions that get bonuses to say, food production, each faction here breaks the rules in their own unique way. Once can force alliances and treaties on you. Another can only ever have one city. Another lives only to consume everything before it, and cannot use the diplomacy system at all. Everyone is also on their own quest to finish the game, giving them changing objectives as the game progresses, filling that common "lull" time when you are just sitting there building up. Here, you can't, because you always have something to do.
As you can probably tell already a lot of the game systems are new twists on well-established genre tropes. The tech tree is open and fluid, which is actually more challenging given the dazzling array of choice. Army building and combat is dynamic and interesting, and near-by units automatically join in out of say, a local city, to assist. Minor villages can be converted or conquered, and minor races brought into your empire for bonuses, if that's your thing. Pretty much everywhere is elegant remakings of a game model 20 years old.
The only problem I have is that I seem to be rubbish at it. Honestly, I don't know what it is - even left to my own devices I can't build an empire that is stable and growing, or at least not being comfortably outstripped by one of the AI factions. I think there are a bunch of interactions I don't quite understand yet, and that some of the systems I need to "unlearn" old habits before relearning how to play Endless Legend as something other than "generic strategy sim". But, it's fun, even being rubbish, and maybe this next game, maybe this time, I'll get it right...