Month: May, 2015

X-COM: Enemy Unknown strategy notes

X-COM: Enemy Unknown is a fantastic game where, over the course of about 30 missions, you confront an alien threat to humanity. It was the first game I bought for Xbox360 in 2013. Completing the storyline is enough practice at turn-based tactical combat for me for a while, but it has fantastic replay value after putting it down for a year or two. Which is what I just did.

  • The “economy” isn’t exactly straightforward, but there is an economic component to X-COM base management. Countries with satellites give you money; money and captured alien resources give you advanced technology for your soldiers; sending soldiers on missions lowers panic (if successful) or raises panic (if failed or aborted); launching satellites in a country lowers its panic; high panic causes countries to withdraw from the X-COM project. Send up lots of satellites early to build your economy, then recruit engineers to construct advanced equipment and build out your base, and recruit scientists to research new technologies.

  • If there’s one key to X-COM, it’s protect your soldiers. If your experienced soldiers die, your rookies won’t be able to complete tough missions on their own; if you abort or fail missions, your panic levels will shoot up; if the panic level shoots up, countries will withdraw from the X-COM project; if countries withdraw from the X-COM project, you lose the funding to hire and develop experienced soldiers. This is how you lose the game.

  • Soldiers are very fragile, at least until you tech to Titan Armor and Chitin Plating, and even then things can go south with undisciplined tactics, especially on a long mission. Don’t dash your soldiers out: this will trigger new groups of of hostile mobs and the soldiers not have any actions to take them out. Don’t send soldiers out to new areas of the map without clearing currently active mobs: newly triggered mobs will swarm your flanks and your dudes will die. The correct method is to slowly, cautiously move the soldiers out one move, then Overwatch to kill any hostile mobs with reaction shots. Save actions to deal with any triggered hostile mobs. Set up ambushes. Keep your squad together so they can focus fire and protect each other with Overwatch.

  • Alien weapons explode when their wielder is killed, but capture the alien with an Arc Thrower and you capture its weapon. Capturing alien weapons opens up plasma weapons technologies (rather than through the default tech tree). Sectoids use plasma pistols, but Thin Men use light plasma rifles, which opens up research on the game’s best weapons—plasma rifles and plasma sniper rifles.Skipping laser weapons to go straight to plasma is one viable strategy, just don’t take too long. Lasers for ship weapons are cheaper than plasma, and might be sufficient.

  • Snipers are the best, and mobile snipers are the best of the best. I was long a fan of Squad Sight, but this is useful only on open maps with long, clear sight lines. On crowded urban or UFO maps, it forces the sniper to rely on his pistol while moving.

  • Support may not rack up the kill count of Sniper, Assault, or Heavy soldiers (usually less than one kill per mission). But they are still fine riflemen, and Medkits to stabilize or heal are essential. Always take one, two if you can.

  • With the Heavy, take the extra Shredder Rocket, but be careful about the rockets of the Heavy. Nearly the worst mission in my current game happened when assaulting a downed UFO. My squad was clustered around a log, the Heavy missed with his rocket and blew up the log. This only killed one soldier outright, but weakened the squad enough that Mutons tore through it. Only two soldiers survived the mission, it was my first major setback in this game.

  • Sell items with no research benefits, such as damaged UFO computers and components, on the grey market. Other components are really useful for later production, save them up.

  • Engineers are more valuable than Scientists in the early game, since they’re needed to unlock the building of so many things while a lack of Scientists simply slows research. However, your need to research a variety of techs to finish the storyline and expeditiously get advanced weapons and armor (Arc Thrower, New Fighter Craft, &c.). So don’t neglect Scientists and Laboratories.

  • The tutorial is fun, but it kills all but one of your starting rookies on the first mission. Protect your rookies, don’t play the tutorial if you can help it ;)

  • Don’t merely develop new talent, save your existing talent. Once your soldiers become Colonels, save them for when you really need them, and put them through psionic testing rather than risking them on missions. I learned this lesson the hard way in my current game, when my best sniper (and only psion), Col. Pieter “Xeno” Meek (65 kills over 20 missions), and my only other skilled mobile sniper were randomly killed on a very difficult cargo ship UFO mission. I had to spend extra months training new psions and snipers for the final mission, which came with the appearance of a huge orbiting battleship.

  • Spoilers! The story has three critical junctures: capture an Outsider to start the Alien Base Assault, develop new fighter craft then build the Hyperwave Relay to assault the Overseer Ship Crash Site, then send a psionic soldier in psi armor into the Gollop Chamber to end the game and begin the final mission. This halts all research, engineering, and other events, so be prepared. Sending a psionic soldier with psi Armor into the Gollop Chamber maxes out his psionic skills, and this soldier must survive the final mission. So don’t send a rookie!

  • IIRC new, more difficult alien types arrive every month.

  • Key technologies: Xeno-Biology unlocks the Arc Thrower and begins the storyline tech line. Alien Materials leads to Carapace Armor. Other techs: Arc Thrower (Xeno-Biology > Arc Thrower); Carapace Armor (Alien Materials > Carapace Armor); S.C.O.P.E. (Weapon Fragments); Firestorm aircraft (UFO Power Source > New Fighter Craft); Titan Armor (Carapace Armor + UFO Power Source > Elerium)

A comment on language learning

Someone on Hacker News asked about learning Russian, and I’m reposting this comment:

Don’t think about it as “language learning” or “language study”. That is not how humans learn languages. Think about it as “language acquisition”, something you will pick up over time. There is a bunch of research about this, much of it focused on classroom methods, however. Search for books on “second language acquisition”; but the only popular science book I know of isn’t coming out until August:

All humans learn languages by interacting with other speakers, constantly attempting to communicate more successfully ourselves, and trying to understand the communication of other people.

As adults, we have a harder time perfecting the target language’s phonology (or perhaps this just tends to fossilize), but we have a huge advantage in learning the grammar/syntax of the target language, because we already know about such things in our own language. We don’t have to make the massive cognitive leaps that children do—we’ve already done that. This is what all the emphasis on grammar exercises is about: trying to supercharge our language learning ability. But it has to be built on a foundation of interaction, comprehensive input, and effective communication.

Learning a language to near-native fluency levels is a years- or decades-long process, and most people will stop at a level that they find “good enough” and let their second language fossilize. And there’s nothing wrong with that, it probably is indeed good enough!

It’s a question of continually finding new motivations, and motivation over a long period of time, of setting new goals, and especially establishing an identity as a person who speaks that language. Just have fun, keep it interesting, engage in it constantly (or intensively). You’ll be more likely to keep at it if you enjoy it and don’t look at it as “miles of crawling through the shit”.

Disney songs in the target language

Or find target-language versions of catchy songs on YouTube, things you’ve heard before. If target-language versions are not commercially available in your country, use an online YouTube-to-MP3 converter and make a playlist or CD.
Do you want to build a snowman?
Love is an open door
Let it go
Part of your world
– Slovak: Kiss the girl
Tale as old as time
something there
A whole new world

Or really, [anything( where you can get some kind of comprehensible input. This kind of thing is passive rather than active, but those skills are important too ;)

Czech Vocab Image Library/SRS

Rosetta Stone software is quite expensive, but the general approach is to create a seemingly immersive environment by not using translation. At the basic level, it seems they use flashcards to learn vocabulary and basic grammar, but rather than translation-based flashcards, they are flashcards that associate images with words in the target language.

There’s more to Rosetta Stone than this, certainly. It’s an approach that has some obvious merit for beginners, alongside some pretty severe limitations for emergent speakers. One criticism of the company is that they tend to recycle images between languages, so that they are not as culturally relevant.

Some elements of this approach can be done using spaced repetition software such as Anki. I’m working on a library of culturally-relevant concrete nouns in Czech with matching images. This is pretty laborious to assemble, since I’m looking up words in an English-Czech dictionary, cross-referencing them in the Czech-English dictionary, looking up words in English and Czech Wikipedia to get a sense of their taxonomy, and doing a Czech Google Image search to see what the most common Czech-language results are for it. This list is very loosly based on this one for no particularly good reason, but modified for appropriateness and cultural relevance. For the time being, this focuses on concrete nouns, although visually illustrable verbs might be a good addition. I suspect that I’ll start a translation-based deck for abstract nouns and concepts (such as grammatical terms) or common phrases, but I want to keep the main Anki deck in Czech only. So later, with greater comptence, I might add text-based flashcards that, for example, give a Czech definition of a Czech term.

Having learned French badly, I’m determined to learn the morphological categories of words alongside the word itself as much as possible. Since the Czech word jeden/jedna/jedno “one” is inflected for gender, all of these cards will use phrases like jedna kočka to have gender indicated is a more naturalistic phrase. This won’t always be possible, since some Czech nouns are inherently plural. Also, good Czech dictionaries also list the genitive form to make clear the declension paradigm, and I will do this if possible. Noun gender, noun declension and verb conjugation are probably going to be the most difficult grammatical paradigms for me, but I’ll worry about the latter two in a bit.

After building this image library, I’m going to use PocketMod to create some simple children’s picture books in the target language. These needn’t be more difficult than eight pages of Co je to? To je kočka “What is this? It’s a cat”. Our families do a lot of reading together, and reading is a good way to interact, build vocabulary, and increase comprehensible input. Children past the age of two can acquire hundreds or thousands of words per year, depending on how much they read, but we have to start smaller.

In the meantime, look at the Little Czech Primer.

Czech dictionaries and Wikipedia

There are a couple of convenient online English-Czech dictionaries. I used for a long time, but it’s just a simple wordlist, without noun gender, sample sentences, &c. has much more information (it’s missing the genitive form of nouns).

The Internetová jazyková příručka, or the older (1960s era?) Slovník spisovného jazyka českého, put out by The Institute of the Czech Language of the Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic, is a much richer dictionary (all in Czech).

One of the best resources for language learners is the multilingual Wikipedia. If you look at the left-hand navigation menu, there is a Languages menu that frequently offers a Čeština version of the current page. This is a really useful way of gaining perspective of what a word or idea means in a Czech context. For example, we can click over to see that The Lord of the Rings is Pán prstenů in Czech. Google Chrome offers automatic machine translation of Web pages, which is another way to make more sense of Czech-language Wikipedia. Search for a term in and see what comes up, then click on Obrásky “Images” to see some pictures. Google Translate is machine translation, and thus riddled with inaccuracies and weird errors, but can be useful for some limited purposes.

Some first steps with Czech

Some thoughts about Czech, after a week of reading (first my original 1993 edition of Teach Yourself: Czech and now James Naughton’s Czech: An Essential Grammar).
Co je to? “What is it/this?”
Co jsou to? “What are these?”
To je… “This is…”
To jsou… “These are…”

Like all languages, Czech is very easy and very difficult. The writing system is beautiful and easy to read. Czech is fun to say, although every language’s phonology takes some exposure and practice to grok. The main difficulties will be the gender system and the noun cases. I’ll write something later to explain what these are. They certainly look large, complex, and daunting, but this is also a place where adults have an advantage in being able to tackle the grammatical paradigms systematically. Learning these will be hard, but it’s just one or two humps of grammar when everything else is fun and interesting.

Radio is a great medium, not merely for things like Sound Czech, but simply for hearing people actually speaking the language: is the national Czech broadcaster, with several streaming Internet programs and podcasts.

First, we need to master the sound system of the language as much as possible, and probably memorize some essential phrases through translation. Check out:
BBC Czech Quickfix
Omniglot’s Useful Czech phrases
Česká abeceda pro děti
Czech-American TV ABCs

I’m working on an image library for learning/practicing vocabulary, and trying to figure out the best way of learning the noun declension paradigms. More on this later.

On heritage Czech

Last year my son started kindergarten (he is just finishing now), so it has been about a year and a half since we were shopping for schools and considering his language education. At the time, I advocated a dual-language-immersion (Spanish/English) elementary school (which has very impressive) while my wife advocated a prestigious self-directed learning school (Louisville has a hybrid school choice/lottery system rather than strictly neighborhood schools), and he ended up getting admission to the latter. That put off his language education for a time, but I started researching his school’s programs a few weeks ago after happening across the pop-ling book The Bilingual Edge while browsing Amazon. So I looked into what his school offers, and it was much worse than I feared: Two years of French or Spanish in grades 9-12.

Having gotten through high school and college with a poor, passive understanding of French, I cannot help but have a jaundiced and perhaps unfair view of foreign language instruction in American secondary education. But I am still skeptical that two years of high-school instruction are going to teach students much language effectively.

Today most advocates of language instruction cite the economic and social value of learning a prestigious national language. This can be a problem for speakers of less-prestigious languages, but conventional classroom instruction is still insufficient.

Real multilingualism is extraordinarily precious. I know what it means to actually speak a language, rather than simply having studied it in school. I studied French in school, and can still read some, although I’ve never been able to actually speak it much. I lived for a year and a half in Japan and can speak Japanese conversationally, although my Japanese is pretty fossilized these days. I love languages, and actually speaking an oral language is important to me. And learning an oral language together, we have so many options: Latin! Icelandic! Indonesian! Hah.

Thinking about this over a few days, the options narrowed: my wife studied German, but German doesn’t interest me much. Japanese is very difficult to become literate in. I’ve been working on getting my French more up to speed. Spanish is the “useful” language all the people are studying these days. But Czech was another candidate.

Czech is a heritage language in my family; my maternal great-grandfather immigrated to Kansas from Czechoslovakia a century ago. My grandfather’s first language was Czech, but he quickly shifted to English; thus, I was raised as an English monolingual by English monolinguals. Yet we had some awareness of Czech linguistic heritage, such as the original pronunciation of the family name Dvořák and a few greetings. We went to Czech cultural festivals in Oklahoma, such as the Yukon Oklahoma Czech Festival and the Prague Kolache Festival. My first trip abroad was to Olomouc in the the Czech Republic as part of a Sister Cities exchange, and both of my sisters did this, too. If my sisters are on board, we can create a common field of use, establish functional oral use of the language. At the least, we can increase the kids’ heritage-language exposure, which is not a bad thing.

A good part of my graduate work, also, was on heritage language recovery and revival. I read plenty of the eminent Yiddishist and sociolinguist Joshua Fishman, such as Reversing Language Shift and Can threatened languages be saved?, and Leanne Hinton. Mostly this was about the revival of indigenous languages in the aftermath of colonialism, like the revival of Ainu in Japan or the amazing things Native American language revivalists are doing. But much of this applies to immigrant heritage languages as well.

Language learning and acquisition is about motivation, identity, and use. You have to be highly motivated to speak and use the language, find places to speak it constantly, claim an identity as the kind of person who speaks the language. Czech doesn’t have the resources of Spanish or French, but the one doesn’t preclude the other. The more I thought about it, the more enthusiastic I got about Czech.

So I spoke with one sister on Derby Day, May 2. She wants to teach her daughter a language, also Czech, French, or Spanish, and is fine with Czech. So I’m planning on spending May preparing and try to begin interacting in the target in June. Hopefully we can scale up to more immersive interaction over a period of months or years.

2015 Derby Disclosure

Dortmund, Firing Line, American Pharoah.

Hit the trifecta! I always box it, though.