Oliver Kiley(Mezmorki)United States
Being the giant game geek that I am, holidays inevitably end up with friends and family asking me for recommendations. Not that I mind, as I am always looking for an excuse to talk games! But, I’m often left a bit flat-footed when it comes to making recommendations. Perhaps I don’t step back and reflect on what the standouts have been over the years. Or perhaps too much time is spent thinking about games from the perspective of critique and analysis, as opposed to “what should I buy?”.
So this thread will perhaps be the start of a new yearly tradition of rounding up games that I’ve played, whether new-to-the-year or just older classics worth mentioning. This first endeavor is going to focus on video games, primarily because the Steam sale is ending on January 5th and if anyone needs guidance on where to spend their holiday bucks, this might be useful.
Without any further fanfare, let’s just jump into things!
2020 Big Game Theory Video Game Recommendations
Tactical & Rougelike Games
Invisible Inc (2015)
Steam/ PC ($5.60, 78% off, for bundle with DLC)
Games that successfully deliver multi-layered, intertwined gameplay are rare. Invisible Inc is one of those successes. I should say that my patience for games focused on turn-based tactical combat (which this game does) is “normally” pretty limited, largely because so many of them employ nearly the same mechanics which result in nearly the same dry, unit activation order, optimization exercises. Invisible Inc brilliantly avoids this trap by forcing players to carefully balance stealth vs. combat attacks and moves in the physical space vs. the virtual space, all while under the auspice of ticking security timer that applies pressure and forces you into sub-optimal situations. Plenty of tough choices throughout the game, making it one of the most deeply enjoyable tactical games I’ve ever played.
Into the Breach (2018)
A clever, vaguely “chess-like” tactical game where you deploy 3 units onto a gridded battlefield and attempt to accomplish various mission objectives while keeping the enemy forces in check. Clever unit abilities combine in all sorts of ways. Each mission becomes its own intoxicating puzzle. I’m not normally one for puzzle-solving, but here the variability and consequential decisions always keeps me on my toes. From the developers behind Faster Than Light (FTL).
Crying Suns (2019)
Steam/PC: ($14.99, 40% off), iOS/Android ($8.99)
Mechanically, Crying Suns, which is a bit of a FTL derivative, tasks you with guiding your customizable space-jumping battleship across multiple sectors of space in order to solve an inter-galactic mystery, all the while staying one step ahead of hostile pursuers. What drew me in was the narrative and atmosphere. I’m not easily grabbed by video game plot lines, especially in this genre, but this one struck a chord. The aesthetic of the game quite engrossing as well. Gameplay is appropriately challenging and diverse.
Strategy / 4X Games
Interstellar Space Genesis (2019)
Steam/PC ($14.99, 50% off)
Games attempting to capture the feeling of Master of Orion 1 & 2 come and go like leaves in the wind, and nearly all of them are forgotten in time. ISG is the rare exception, drawing inspiration from MoO1/MoO2 where it matters most (in the scale, pacing, and tough decision making laced throughout the game) and innovating where there is room for improvement (exploration, UI, leaders, strategic resources). All in all, ISG is an exceptionally well designed game and, despite a few rough edges in the graphics, is one of the best playing and strategic 4X games around.
Steam/PC ($11.99, 60% off)
A wonderful mashup of real-time strategy (RTS) and 4X/civilization, Northgard has you managing a nordic clan as you seek fame, glory, and the blessings of the gods. If you’re in the mood for a shorter 4X-like game, there is none better. Despite the clan management scale of the game, it nevertheless captures the strategic civilization-like decision making better than most full 4X games. The victory system is finely honed, the UI flawless, and the decisions routinely tense and interesting.
Age of Wonders 3 (2014)
Steam/PC ($24, 65% off for collection bundle with all DLC)
Age of Wonders 3 is my favorite 4X game of all-time. No other 4X game delivers on the promise of deep strategic positioning and maneuvering as well as well as AoW3. This strategic layer is married to the best tactical combat system found in any 4X game. The variability in the game, due to different combinations of fantasy races, hero classes, and magic specializations is exceptional. Couple this with an awesome victory system that avoids the usual 4X late-game fumble and you have a winner. Age of Wonders: Planetfall is the newer game in the series, using a science-fantasy theme. It is also a solid game - but I think AoW3 provides the better overall experience at the end of the day. Make sure to get the bundle with the two DLC's - it adds tremendously to the game.
Total War: Warhammer I & II (2016 & 2017)
Steam/PC ($14.99 for #1, $20.39 for #2, 75% and 66% off)
The Warhammer Fantasy themed Total War games out grand-strategy most other grand strategy games, without even necessarily trying to do so. The scale of the game is huge, and both games can be combined to create an absolutely enormous world to fight across. There are a staggering number of different factions and leaders to choose from, most of which have a unique way of playing and asymmetric victory conditions. While I’m not a huge fan of the tactical battles (although the are awesome to watch!), the strategic layer alone is surprisingly engrossing. Expensive to buy into everything - but awesome to behold.
Battle for Polytopia (2020 for PC)
Steam/PC ($9.75, 35% off), iOS/Android
Self-described micro 4X polytopia boils the 4X concept down to about the barest essentials. The result is a game that remains surprisingly deep and challenging, despite it’s pint-sized scale and quick playtime. If you’re looking for a game you can play in 15 minutes that scratches the 4X itch, look no further.
Steam/PC ($9.99, 50% off)
When it comes to digital platforms for playing board games, TTS provides by far the largest library of games on offer (seriously, there are 1000’s of games available). The controls and UI takes some getting used to, and the system does NOT enforce game rules like other platforms. It is quite literally the virtual parallel to playing a physical game, complete with physics and everything. Once you get used to it, it’s a nearly limitless platform. Playing with friends while simultaneously in a video call (e.g. Discord) is the closest way to replicate playing a physical game.
Race for the Galaxy (2015)
Steam/PC ($4.89, 30% off), iOS/Android ($6.99)
The Achilles heel of many a digital boardgame adaptation is that most AI’s just can’t put up much of a challenge. Enter Race for the Galaxy. The official game uses “Keldon’s AI”, which was developed in a standalone game application that predates the official app. Long story short, the RFTG app puts up a tremendous challenge and serves up a great UI on top it. It goes without saying that RFTG is also an amazing and classic boardgame, and having such a solid digital version does the game justice.
Steam/PC ($10.49, 50% off), iOS/Android ($9.99)
Root has been one of my favorite board games in recent years, and the recently launched digital version of the game is really quite delightful. The artwork is translated into the digital realm in a great way. I’m not sure how easy it would be to learn the game from just the digital version - there are built in tutorials but they don’t really explain the underlying game concepts that well - but that aside this is a solid entry. As with most digital boardgames (Race for the Galaxy, above, being a big exception) the AI is a bit of a pushover. It’s available on Steam and mobile platforms.
RPGs / Action RPGs
Star Traders: Frontiers (2018)
Steam/PC ($7.49, 50% off), iOS/Android ($3.99!!!!)
This is an unassuming but deeply engaging game. Essentially, it’s a starship captain simulator, where you assume the role of captain (surprise, surprise) as you manage your ship and crew. You’ll explore a galaxy littered with different star systems and inhabited by different factions - much like the imperial houses of Dune. There is some solid writing in the quests, an absolute avalanche of content, and plenty of tough and interesting challenges to overcome. Excellent sandbox universe to immerse yourself in.
Children of Morta (2019)
Steam/PC ($10.99, 50% off)
Wins the award for the most amazing pixel art ever in a game. But in terms of gameplay, Children of Morta is an action RPG (think Diabo-series) crossed with a roguelike. It’s a pretty twitch heavy game and get’s pretty challenging at times, but it’s a lovely experience. The narration and pixel art is worth the price of admission. This is a great game to play on the big screen with a couple of controllers. It supports shared-screen coop so it's a fun game to play cooperative in person.
All of the games below fall within a pretty similar gameplay space, which is essentially first person shooter games structured as a 4-player cooperative multiplayer affair. If you've played and liked Left 4 Dead, these games are in the same spirit.
My wife quite enjoys playing this style of game (as do I) and these all have stood the test of time IMHO. YMMV of course, but I’m regularly playing all of these on a rotation of sorts. It’s worth noting that all of these games are best played with friends and using voice chat. During the pandemic, these have been a lifeline for us to keep in touch with friends and have activities to share together.
Vermintide 2 (2018)
Steam/PC ($7.49, 75% off)
Set in the Warhammer fantasy universe right during the “End Times” (i.e. before the Old World gets destroyed by Chaos). This game has an incredible atmosphere, great characters with amazing voice acting, and without a doubt the best melee combat I’ve ever seen in an FPS game. When the tide of rats, chaos cultists, and beastmen roll into view, the combat is tense, frantic, and fully engrossing. It’s one of those games that is high skill and consequently sucks you into a zen or flow state of total concentration.
Deep Rock Galactic (2020)
Steam/PC ($20.99, 30% off)
Dwarves, space dwarves, space asteroid mining dwarves (obviously), beer-guzzling space asterius mining dwarves while fighting off hordes of bugs. And of course silly hats. That about sums it up. This is a really enjoyable game with a fun, jovia, tongue-in-cheek atmosphere. Missions take place inside completely destructible environments as you and your fellow dwarves dig for rare resources and then scramble to get back out of the mine before the drop leaves you all behind. Good family fun.
Dying Light (Enhanced Edition) (2015)
Steam/PC ($17.99, 70% off)
I recently stumbled on this one, and I’m pleasantly surprised. This is a 4-player FPS coop crossed with an open world-style game (which are typically only ever single-player). Of course, it’s a zombie apocalypse open world, so you and your best buddies can have a field day scavenging the ruined city for supplies and resources. The signature feature is the incredible parkour system, allowing you near limitless freedom to climb and scramble your way through the world. The combat is a bit silly at times, but overall it’s a well done game.
There you have it! I’m going to try and get the board-game version out as soon as I am able.
How about you? Any video games that have really stood out to you over the past year? Love you hear from you all. Best wishes in 2021.
Musings on games, design, and the theory of everything. www.big-game-theory.com
Archive for Video Games
- [+] Dice rolls
The title of this essay is a declarative statement. It’s of course open to debate and I’m not suggesting this is an unequivocal rule. But at least in my experience, when I think about the “crux” moments that are the pinnacle of strategic intrigue - where the fate of everything is hanging on the line or where you wait breathlessly to see if your gambit pays off - board games provide both a greater “density” and a greater “diversity” of such moments in comparison to strategy video games.
There are, I believe, a number of factors that contribute to this situation. There are things unique to the design needs and expectations of board games that enable “deep and interesting decisions” to come to the forefront. There are also things, on the video game side of the table, that frequently distract, diminish, or are otherwise at odds with their capacity for deep strategic gameplay. I want to explore both of these dimensions in an effort to tease out, if possible, some poignant ways that strategic video games - especially 4X games - might better capture the strategic depth they aspire to.
Before we get too deep, let’s consider for this article what I mean when I talk about deep, or interesting, or compelling strategic decision points (or the “crux” moments). Principally, I feel these moments exist when: (1) having read and understood the “game state” you are faced with having to decide between mutually exclusive courses of action; (2) these decisions are consequential and have a traceable link to your eventual victory or defeat; and (3) predicting the outcomes of your decisions are laced with enough uncertainty that player skill, experience and heuristics matter for good play (i.e. you can’t just look up an optimal build order and call it a day).
This definition is a lot to unpack. But let’s explore two facets of it.
The foundation of every board game is how you, as a player, take your turn. “What actions you can do on your turn” defines the entire structure of the game. It’s so fundamental and intrinsic to boardgames that we frequently take its importance for granted and move on to discussing the nuances of its execution (worker placement, drafting, action points, etc.). Suffice to say, most games limit how much you can do within the confines of a particular turn, and the mere presence of these limits creates a landscape of tradeoffs. Maybe you have three workers that you assign to actions each round. Maybe you have a menu of ten different actions you can do, but can only perform two of them on your turn. Perhaps you have a hand of six cards but can only play one each round. What do you do in this moment?
These kinds of intrinsic limits shape the structure of a board game. They are also, in a convoluted sort of way, a tacit acknowledgement to the fact that we can only affect so much change over a period of time. We can’t do everything at once, we have to prioritize. And at a more pragmatic level, limiting actions are a way of constraining how long an individual player’s turn might be. And so it affects the pacing and length of the game.
Strategic video games, especially 4X games, typically take the approach that you are omnisciently powerful. They assume that within the confines of a turn or paused gameplay moment, that you have infinite time and capacity to plan and execute your designs. You can queue up dozens of buildings or units in each of your cities, reengineer the design of every military force, adjust policies and politics, engage every foreign faction in diplomacy. And on and on. And you can do this EVERY turn, without limit (barring some occasional checks and balances tossed in by a developer to mitigate totally exploitive play).
This state of affairs has a number of ripple effects on a game’s potential depth. If you can freely do as much or as little “retooling” as you want each turn, your decisions are far less consequential to the outcome of the game. There is little depth in a system where you can queue up every building on every planet, and without cost reprioritize all of it a turn later when the game state changes just a little bit and something unexpected comes along. There is no requirement for “efficiency of action” in such games, no sense of momentum to your play that would be costly to redirect. A 4X game might last 100’s of turns and so playing around the margins of actions taking a few turns more or a few turns less to execute ends up being a study in routine optimization instead of long-term planning. Most it is just a wash.
Going back to boardgames, this idea of “efficiency of action” is central to how player turns are structured. Every turn, picking one course of action necessarily limits other courses of action. There are built in opportunity costs, sometimes known and sometimes uncertain, that affect your evaluation of the risks and rewards of your choices. By having limited actions, you are forced to navigate a layer of strategic prioritization, which intersects nicely with the overall structure and length of a game. If a game only lasts 10 turns then each of your decisions weighs mightily on the outcome. In a game lasting 100’s of turns with dozens of actions each round, any given action provides only an incremental effect on the outcome. Each action matters thus less, despite taking just as much time.
Nevertheless, some video games manage to tackle this. One video game that captures this notion of limited actions is King of Dragon Pass (and its successor Six Ages). In these games, each round is a season, and in each season you can only perform two actions. There is a huge menu of actions you can each turn: improving your settlement, engaging in diplomacy, organizing expeditions, performing rituals, go on a raid - and so on. This intersects with the event system, which triggers an event after each action you take - adding a layer of uncertainty to your actions and forcing you to carefully prioritize and strategize.
A Transparent Game State & Discernable Mechanics
Another major difference is that boardgames require players to manage the game state and execute changes in accordance with the rules. A consequence of this is that the rules have to be discernible by human minds. While there are certainly differences in the complexity of board games, most of them are built on rather simple procedures and basic arithmetic-level math.
Video games, on the other hand, rely on - wait for it - “the computer” to process the game state. As a result, the door is wide open to use whatever mathematical constructions and algorithms the designer can devise to process the game. This enables complex calculations where tons of variables and favors can be tossed into the design of mechanics and integrated with complex formulas and functions. While this creates an opportunity for modeling dynamic relationships or other complex phenomena, the result is that the mechanical underpinning of the game is rarely ever fully explained or known to the player. The game becomes a “black box”.
While 4X video games have made major advancements in using tooltips and in-game manuals/wikis to explain how systems work - this is usually kept at a conceptual level, as opposed to explaining each and every step in how things are calculated or resolved. In the other games, random events or outcomes might be based on hidden mechanisms whose operations are entirely unknown, intentionally, to the player. While this can play into creating emergent narratives or complex simulations - it does so at the expense of transparency.
When a game lacks transparency, I feel that results in a de facto reduction of the game’s potential depth. If you can’t tell how the game operates, and can’t discern how the current game state was arrived at, your moves - as “inputs” into the system - run the risk of being rendered arbitrary.
Of course, in practice video games work hard to provide feedback to the player so they move towards understanding the impact of their decisions. But by definition, feedback is retroactive. You’re giving the results “after” you’ve performed the action. By comparison, board games with their more discernible mechanics allow players to be more predictive and anticipatory “before” they perform an action. This in turn creates a clearer line of connection to player agency, and players are able to build better heuristics (experiential knowledge) faster, because the loop between decision factors to choices to results/impact is tighter and understandable.
At the broadest scale, that of the entire length or arc of the game transparency of mechanics and ability to read the game state has a high bearing on the strategic depth of the game. The more complex and obtuse, the harder it is to formulate a long-range plan with any reliability. The game may end up feeling like a series of isolated tactical puzzles that get solved in isolation, with no clear linkage or connection to an overall gameplay arc. This ends up with many 4X video games feeling very samey from game to game. You aren’t experiencing wildly different long-term strategies because the game just takes too long and individual choices are too disconnected from the big picture.
What to do about it?
I think 4X video game designers would benefit from going back to the genres roots, where one could easily explain and perceive how all of the mechanics work - much like one would for a board game. This may result in seemingly simpler games mechanically - but if the systems are transparent and well designed, may nevertheless result in an actually deeper game. As I’ve been tinkering around with the design for a 4X video game, one of my internal checks for a given system is always this: could I implement this system in boardgame and have it be discernible to players? If not - it needs more refinement and clarity.
On the topic of limiting actions - I think this is one area where 4X video games need to really push the design into new directions. But this will be challenge - as much of the 4X player base has grown accustomed to “being able to do anything, anywhere, at any time - with little to no consequence or tradeoff.” Despite wanting to play a seemingly heavy and challenging game - I think most 4X players don’t actually want to be challenged and forced to make tradeoffs.
My evidence for this resistance to tough tradeoffs is the frequent criticism of when a game, in part or in totality, appears too much “like a board game.” People see a thematic or practical oversimplification of a mechanic as being less valued - because in their minds they can imagine a more complex, nuanced, simulation-like way it could’ve been implemented that would make for more “realistic logic.” The irony is that going down the complexity pathway may in fact undercut the very depth and challenge one is hoping to achieve, for all the reasons outlined above.
For me, when a video game is described as “board game-like” my interest is increased. It’s a signal to me that the decisions and mechanics in the game are built around understandability and harder choices - whether it’s around limited actions or other constraints. And I am seeing, overall, a growing interest in these types of video games across a number of genres. Tactical RPGs, roguelikes, XCOM-likes, wargames, card-driven video games all seem to be embracing the “board game like” mantle as a positive. Yet such trends are lacking in the 4X video game space, and I’d love to see that changed.
As usual, let me know if you have thoughts, reactions, or experiences to share!
- [+] Dice rolls
20 Jan 2020
I've long been a fan of the 4X genre, while also being frequently critical of it and its many floundering conventions. Despite the renaissance and watershed of renewed interest in the genre, there is a worrying lack of design advancement in my estimation. A recent reddit post and ensuing discussion on r/4xgaming encapsulated nearly all my frustrations with the 4X videogame genre in a single question: Quote:Do you know of any [4X] games that will let you fight back after being beaten down, or have the AI be able to come back after you start to gain an advantage over them?This seems like such an obvious question to ask, and yet it’s one that apparently few, if any, 4X developers have seriously raised, let alone crafted gameplay mechanisms to answer. What’s fascinating about this question is that, while seemingly simple, it nevertheless strikes at two critical points: (#1) the core of what 4X games are; and (#2) the perennial frustrations players have with unsatisfying late game gameplay.
(#1) 4X games are efficiency engine games
What struck me in reading the comments relative to point #1 is that I think my waning interest in traditional 4X games is tied to the realization that these are largely in the same gameplay genre as efficiency engine styled euro games (of which I’m not usually a fan), despite the overt combat-heavy nature of the genre. This quote, in response to the question above, hits it perfectly:Quote:I don't think it is generally possible in 4X [games]. The genre is about ramping up production. Once you have a production advantage over someone, they're gonna die.A production advantage. The early stages of 4X games are always about exploring, and that exploration is always about finding the best opportunities to grow your short and long-term production. Production itself fuels everything else in your empire: development of cities/planets, construction of military units, building research facilities. Heck, most 4X games provide tools or technologies that let you convert production directly into other outputs (research, culture, political influence, etc.). It a fairly standard feature.
Like many euro-style board games that fall into the “efficiency engine” style of game (i.e. most worker placement, resource conversion, tableau-building style games), 4X games are about building a production engine in the most efficient way possible. Once you have a stronger and more efficient engine than your competitors, it’s easy to “snowball” your way to victory. Or more aptly, to “steamroll” your way to victory, as once you conquer one enemy, with their assets under your control you are even more powerful with an even greater production advantage over the remaining players.
To compound the problem, victory conditions are almost always a function of production outputs. Whether it’s an economic victory threshold, or research target, or outright conquest, in all of these cases having more production ties directly into making more progress towards victory. 4X games handle these even worse than euro board games, the latter of which usually provides some decision inflection point where you go from building the engine to instead generating victory points. 4X games usually don’t even provide that.
(#2) The late-game problem
All of this ties into point #2, which is that by the mid-game you usually know if you have a significant production advantage over your competitors, and if so, victory is inevitable.
The reddit post’s question drew a comparison to Magic the Gathering as a brilliant counter example. In Magic the goal is to drain your opponent's life total from 20 to 0. However, being lower in life isn’t a clear indication that you are in a worse position, and players with much lower life than their opponent can routinely stitch together a combination of clever strategic or tactical plays to defeat their opponent. In fact, many decks and playstyles hinge on this exact reversal or “back and forth.”
Sadly, I’m pressed to think of any 4X games where the above “reversals” or clever strategic strategic gambits are a core and frequently experienced part of the gameplay. If it were, I think it would dramatically reshape the late game experience. No longer would having a production engine advantage mean your position was secure and victory inevitable. If you’re opponent was positioning themselves to unleash the civilization equivalent to a Drain Life spell on your empire, turning your strength to their advantage, imagine the surprise and excitement that would result? Is such a thing possible?
What's even worse, is that the one layer of interaction in 4X games, military combat, is often poorly executed with minimal depth or interest at the strategic scale. Tactical level combat, if included at all, is most often determined before the fight based on what each side brings to the table. 4X video games struggle mightily compared to many area control or dudes on a map style board games, where aspects of strategic position and maneuver frequently offer up opportunities for tactical rebounds, reversals, or other strategic gambits.
The Solution lies with a different formula
Building a 4X game that encourages such reversals and back and forth gameplay would require a totally different approach to the victory structure of 4X games (i.e. decoupling victory from the production engine mechanics). Perhaps, it requires restructuring the very nature of 4X games in their entirety. That said, a few avenues of design innovation come to mind.
First, 4X games are usually designed as if they are competitive Player vs. Player (PvP) games, with empires starting out on roughly equal footing and progressing competitively from there. Of course, in practice, most 4X games are played in a single-player manner and the AI usually just can’t keep up or provide a challenge for experienced players. Imagine designing a “competitive” first person shooter game (i.e. deathmatch or team-style game), except you could only ever play against AI Bots that played by the same rules as the human. It would be a miserable failure.
Perhaps, 4X games should try focusing instead on Player vs. Enemy/Environment (PvE) with victory conditions and goals related to overcoming PvE obstacles (like in AI War or Thea: The Awakening). You can still have other players/empires you are competing against (or cooperating with), but the pressure for having a top-notch AI that competes directly with the player is off. Instead, design energy can put into creating global hostility/opposition/enemies that function asymmetrically and can be stacked with whatever bonuses or gameplay advantages to make overcoming it an interesting challenge for players.
Second, and related to the above, is that victory conditions should be decoupled as much as possible from the production engine. The most straightforward way of doing this is by requiring production to be diverted away from things that also benefit the engine itself and instead towards victory steps/goals exclusively. Investment in the victory goals should confer no advantages back to the production engine. It should be decoupled from it. There is ample room for quests or event chains, with no reward other than progress towards victory, to provide a vehicle for this. An ancillary benefit is that such an approach would allow the game’s lore and narrative to be tied to novel victory conditions, instead of relying on the same old victory tropes.
Third, there needs to be more avenues for significant interaction in 4X games. 4X games are primarily one-dimensional games, which is the relationship between board/map position and production. Better map position confers greater production advantages, whether through controlling juicier locations or amassing a larger territory. While 4X games often have systems for foreign trade, or diplomatic exchange, or espionage - these are, almost without exception, playing around the margin of or in direct service to the production gameplay dimension.
As an example of the second and third point using an unorthodox approach, consider King of Dragon Pass, a narrative-heavy strategy game. The brilliance of this game is that there are tons of interactions with rival clans. Often these interactions aren’t about getting production related benefits, but instead learning bits of lore or gaining political support that feeds into the rituals your clan needs to perform in order to become the titular King of Dragon Pass. It’s brilliant, and unites the lore and victory conditions expertly. I’ve yet to see a proper 4X game tackle anything remotely close to this.
More broadly, I think 4X games could make non-combat related interactions far more transformative in their possible impacts and rely on different foundations than the production engine economy. For example, plenty of 4X games have espionage and/or espionage focused empires, and yet rarely is it more than an annoyance to deal with (and is often uninspiring and repetitive to utilize yourself). But what if, like in the Magic the Gathering example, while lagging in your board position (i.e. “low health”) you were secretly building up a clandestine operation that would snatch away a huge chunk of your opponent’s empire or turn their own citizens against them in a highly impactful way. There is tremendous opportunity here, but it’s rarely realized.
Lately, I’ve really scaled back by my interest in 4X games, to the point that any traditional 4X game is a non-starter for me right now. In the same way that I maintain a general distancing from efficiency engine euro games, I think 4X games have slid into the same category. When I try out a new game and am met with the with the same exploration imperative coupled with the same production-derived victory conditions, I’m just not particularly interested. The game might have amazing lore and visuals (ala Endless Space 2), but if it’s not connected to victory in a novel way that fundamentally changes the structure of the game, it’s still the same old snowball/steamroller experience leading to an anti-climactic ending.
I’m at a loss for why more developers aren’t challenging the 4X formula and trying to do something different. So many other genres of strategy games, whether physical board games, tactical RPGs, tactical roguelikes, wargames, and more are fertile grounds for innovation with plenty of creative and inspiring designs. Yet 4X seems stuck in the same rut it has been since the dawn of Civilization (pun fully intended). Cheers.
- [+] Dice rolls
Note: This article is mirrored at eXplorminate, posted July 15, 2016
For the past few years, a question has been haunting my dreams: What is strategy? A narrower follow up question is: What makes a compelling strategy game?
One reason this question has been bothering me, particularly in terms of 4X or Civilization-style games, is that so often the gameplay does not feel like what strategy is or ought to be, at least for me. If the gameplay isn’t strategy, then what exactly is it? And if I’m not getting what I want out of a strategy game, then what in the heck do I really want?!
I have a number of pet theories floating around these troubling questions, which might help me work towards an answer. Fair warning though, much of this article will be spent in the realm of “pontification” or “theorycrafting.” Back in the old days, we called this “BSing.” You’ve been warned!
That said, the concepts I’m trying to discuss are hard to wrap the mind around (well, my mind anyway), so I’ve tried to break my thinking down into bite-sized morsels. These morsels are parts of a bigger thesis I’m working towards. Usually the thesis statement goes at the beginning, but I’m saving it until the end for dramatic effect.
Games, Contests, Puzzles, and Toys, Oh My!
I’m going to start with something that might ruffle some feathers: many of the games we love to play aren’t really “games” at all. Game designer Keith Burgun, in his hierarchy of interactive forms, describes proper games as a “contest of decision making.” What does that mean? Let’s step back for a moment and consider Burgun’s hierarchy in full.
At the basic level there are toys. Toys are a system of interaction that may have any number of rules (from just a few to a great many) that describes how the system works or operates - but there are no prescribed goals. A big pile of LEGOs on the floor is a perfect example of a toy. It’s a sandbox where you can do whatever you want subject to the constraints (i.e. rules) of how the pieces lock together. Even then, you can break or bend the rules with few repercussions.
Now consider a puzzle. Puzzles are systems of interaction that generally have a single solution or prescribed goal state. A jigsaw puzzle has a correct final arrangement, just as we might follow the instructions to build a LEGO set and arrive at the “goal” of the finished castle/spaceship/hospital. Puzzles generally have optimal or perfect solutions - they are about solving for something.
At the next level are contests. Contests build on the notion of a puzzle by layering in a means of evaluating the result. With a jigsaw puzzle, it is either solved or it’s not. But in a contest, the end result can be measured in some objective way and compared across participants. A running race is a contest to see who can cross the finish line first. We could likewise start a stopwatch and see who can build a certain LEGO set the fastest. Generally however, there are few decisions to make in a contest. The optimal path is usually clear and it comes down to who can execute or solve it better or faster.
Finally we have games. Games introduce the notion of making decisions. The need to make decisions exists because the “optimal paths” to victory are unclear and interlinked with the decisions of other participants. You might not know what move your opponent is going to make, or what the results of a combat encounter will be, or what diplomatic arrangements your enemies are making behind your back. And so you have to make a decision about how to move forward without having perfect information and without knowing the optimal route to accomplish your goal. To round out the LEGO example, consider the game Mobile Frame Zero, which creates a miniature battle “game” out of constructed LEGO robots.
I need to pause for a moment and make an important distinction. Burgun’s use of the word “game” is very specific - and in this article I’m not intending it to replace the more common understanding of a game as a type of media (e.g. a video game or a board game). So, we can have a video game or a board game (or a sports game) that is structurally a puzzle, or a contest, or a toy, or a proper “game.” When referring to Burgun’s definition of a game, I will use the term “game” (in quotes) or the term proper game or strategy game to keep things clear.
Each step in the hierarchy builds on the prior, and so “games” are contests but with the additional element of making decisions. If we think about 4X games, it isn’t hard to imagine one manifesting as any of the four interactive forms. Imagine a 4X game with no opposing empires and no random events. Two players instead play separate instances of the exact setup and we see who gets the highest score at the end of a certain number of turns. We just made a 4X contest. Take out the ability to compare scores, leaving a singular, solved “win state” instead (e.g. transcend or colonize 50 planets!), along with no competing empires, and we just made a 4X puzzle. Strip out any sense of goals, and we have some sort of space colonization sandbox - a toy, or perhaps an empire simulation.
Internal vs. External Systems
Now that we have a basic understanding of interactive forms, we can examine how different mechanical systems relate to each type of form. In particular, there is an important aspect to 4X game mechanics that drives what sort of interactive form it is: internal versus external systems.
Internal systems relate to gameplay mechanics that exist and operate primarily within and amongst the assets you control directly in the game. In a typical 4X game (Civilization, Alpha Centauri, Master of Orion, etc.), internal systems include city or colony management: production queues, population happiness, tax rates, economic balance, research priorities, etc. Consider this: if there were no other players or empires in the game, which mechanical systems would continue to function more or less as normal? Those are the internal systems.
The external systems are gameplay mechanics that create and/or depend on interactions with forces outside of your control. Most often these are the interactions you have with other players or empires through the likes of military conquest, espionage, diplomacy, trade, foreign relations, and so on. Beyond other players or empires, it could also include asymmetric forces like random events, endgame threats, space amoebas, or other sources of randomness that add chaos and unpredictability to the gameplay. The key aspect to keep in mind about external systems is that they are outside of the player’s control.
These differences are critically important. In order to have strategic gameplay there has to be an engagement with external systems. Why? Because these external systems and resulting interactions, per Burgun’s hierarchy, are what enable a game to be a proper “game” - and not a puzzle or a contest. External forces provide ambiguities, which obfuscate the optimal paths to victory, and in turn create room for strategic play where we can’t be certain whether our long-term decisions will pay off or not. Moreover, being able to navigate these ambiguities better than your opponent is where skill matters in determining the eventual winner. Games that have many levels of skill (e.g. Chess rankings) and more elaborate heuristics, tend to be deeper and more strategic games.
By contrast, the more a game leans on internal systems, the more puzzle- or contest-like it tends to be (e.g. Apollo4X). In most 4X games, for a given setup, there is an optimal path to expand and grow your empire that follows the rules of the game. This optimal solution can exist because there are few (or no) external systems that make the potential results of the decision process unclear. Of course, external pressures might shift or change what you are optimizing towards during the game - but once that shift in direction is decided, the actions that follow are largely self-evident.
The Goal of Succeeding versus Surviving
A curious quality to games is the difference between succeeding (e.g. meeting a victory condition) and surviving. Some games are structured around the notion that eventually you will fail to survive. Consider the game Tetris. Eventually, the blocks will fall so quickly that the game becomes mechanically unwinnable, and so the game ends and you get a final score. Burgun’s iOS game Empire is the Tetris of 4X games. Eventually your empire will be overrun by external forces - the challenge is to see how long you can survive and how big your final score will be.
Survival games can also be driven by more passive or internal forces. There are plenty of survival sandbox games these days (The Long Dark is a nice one), and here it is less about keeping ahead of some menacing threat actively trying to kill you and more about managing your own affairs and assets such that they don’t unravel and lead to your demise.
Similarly, Paradox’s grand strategy games tend not to have specific victory conditions. Games usually end when the time period covered by the game is over, and the main question is whether or not you survived to that end point. Players might also establish goals of their own choosing during the game. In this regard, these games function more like Burgun’s “toy” definition - although I’m inclined to call them “simulation sandboxes” given the level of complexity and the potential for “failing to survive.” So does the lack of a defined victory condition make it less of a proper “game?” I’m not sure - but maybe.
Most 4X games, however, concern themselves with the notion of victory and “succeeding” - being the first to reach a goal or victory condition. Granted, there may still be an aspect of survival at work, as other empires may decide to wipe you off the planet (or galaxy)! And so in many 4X games, there is a tension between the need to survive and the need to achieve victory; finding the balance is certainly a question of strategic decision making.
So what then are these strategic decisions?
The Balance of Actions
The next theory I want to lay out is an approach for categorizing the different types of actions or activities one might take in a strategy game. Personally, I want games that emphasize making interesting choices as opposed to making mindless non-decisions. Think of it this way: deciding whether to spend the afternoon at the park or going to see a matinee movie might be an interesting choice, but deciding to turn on the car in order to drive is a necessary (and boring) part of achieving either goal. We’ll get to what interesting means in game terms in a bit. For now, I tend to see actions in the following types:
Strategic Decisions: These are high-levels decisions that feed into how you are going to win the game. Most often, strategic decisions are influenced by external systems. Is my neighbor going to invade me (or not), and should I therefore strike first (or not)? How much should I invest in building military units versus funding empire growth? Who should I conduct espionage against or form an alliance with? What type of victory condition am I working towards, and how will I get there before everyone else? Do I need to shift strategies? Strategic decisions exist in our minds - they don’t play out in the physical game space. They are about establishing objectives that set you on a path to victory.
Tactical Decisions/Actions: These are the important decision points and/or actions players take to actualize their strategic decisions or to respond to short-term issues and events. They relate to how you will accomplish an objective. If a long-term strategic plan calls for subjugating a neighboring empire, how are you going to do it? What type of fleet will you build and what route will it take? How will you deal with enemy forces or planetary defenses? Unlike strategic decisions, the result of making a tactical decision is usually reflected by a change to the game state - e.g. I move my fleets to another system, and thus the game state has changed.
Optimization Activities: These are actions that relate mostly to internal systems and consequently ask you to solve or optimize for a particular objective. Do I build my research lab and then my production facility, or vice versa? A lot of time can be spent in 4X games optimizing a particular decision point, and, depending on the complexity and math involved, can be very challenging or relatively trivial. Adjusting the allocation of workers on a colony between production, food, and research is an optimization task as there is often a best solution for a given strategic goal. 4X games are occasionally derided as being “spreadsheet managers,” and the need to optimize outputs (or military efficiency) strikes at the heart of that criticism.
Upkeep & Overhead Actions: These are the routine actions that relate, again, mostly to internal systems and are part of the maintenance or upkeep of your assets. Generally, there is little choice in these actions, they are things you just have to do to advance the game state. In board games these upkeep actions are quite common (reshuffle decks, refill tokens, pay upkeep costs, etc.). We see these in 4X video games, too: tweak the ship design to add the newest laser weapons, add the newly-researched building to your all your production queues, send constructed units to the rally point, clear notifications to advance the turn. These are “no brainer” decisions that rarely require much thinking.
I’ve often found myself critiquing strategy games by asking “what percentage of my time am I spending on what types of actions?” The optimal balance is, of course, a matter of personal preference. For me, I’d much rather spend my time making strategic and tactical decisions, rather than running optimization exercises. Overhead actions, ideally, are just automated and resolved by a competent AI or streamlined UI - or else removed entirely. As a result, I tend to prefer games that emphasize external systems (e.g. more wargame focused 4X titles) over those focused on internal systems and hence optimizations and puzzle-solving.
The notion of survival versus success is also relevant to this topic. Strategic or tactical decisions are easiest to see as they relate to external factors (e.g. other empires), which in turn relate to the choices you make to move closer to success. Less common, but certainly possible, are strategic and tactical decisions relating to survival and internal mechanisms. Grand strategy games often latch onto this idea - where various internal pressures (e.g. mismanagement) can result in a revolt or collapse (e.g. a coup or assassination). This transforms them into external factors, which could then destroy your empire. But I feel like more could be explored along these lines.
The Deception of Complexity
Consider for a moment the classic board game Go. Go has a ruleset that can be explained in a few sentences. And while it’s one of the simplest strategy games, it also has nearly unrivaled depth. This no doubt accounts for the game’s lasting appeal over the course of thousands of years (yes, thousands). The key point is that mechanical complexity does not equal depth, and Go is a testament to the notion that great depth can emerge from simple systems. And so, if we can achieve great strategic depth through simplicity, what role does complexity then play in strategy games?
Complexity can affect gameplay in two fundamental ways. First, complexity can affect the size of the decision space. Playing Go on a 9x9 grid is less complex than playing on a full 19x19 board, where there are vastly more possible moves and game states. Second, complexity can affect the number of factors or layers that go into making a decision. Imagine a simple, multilateral wargame with no option for diplomacy. Now insert diplomacy - suddenly there is a new system for interaction that can influence your decisions for who to defend or war against.
But does this added complexity always make for a deeper strategic game? Not necessarily.
Perhaps enabled by increased computing power, I feel that strategy games have become more complex over time. For many, this added complexity is welcome because it means the game has more longevity - it takes longer to tease apart all the inner workings and to build up skill. We see this frequently in modern board games as well, where learning the rules of the system is a major part of a game’s appeal. Players discuss the joys and thrills of learning how a new system operates and what all the levers and cogs do. But this can be a double-edged sword.
In many cases, complexity merely makes the math of solving optimization problems more convoluted and challenging - diverting attention away from the real strategic interactions in the game. For example, many 4X games have giant tooltips filled with positive and negative modifiers explaining all the factors affecting a colony’s happiness. Maximizing happiness, and in turn productivity outputs, requires identifying what options you have to mitigate each of the contributing factors and determining which has the best net return. You might even conduct this optimization task across all of your colonies to determine exactly which one yields the most bang for the buck. In this regard, the complexity is making the optimization harder, but it doesn’t really deepen the strategic landscape - you are still trying to solve for the same X.
Moreover, once you’ve cracked the code and learned these internal optimizations, you have solved the major puzzle of the game - and can then beat it relatively easily over and over again. There might be strategic or tactical decisions to be made - but they are no longer as interesting and gameplay depth has been diminished as a consequence. A question to ask yourself is this: does a given strategy game become more interesting or less interesting as you play it more?
The Quest for Deep, Interesting Decisions
My ideal strategy game is one where I spend most of my time making interesting strategic and tactical decisions - compared to optimization and upkeep actions. But what makes a choice interesting in the first place? Principally, an interesting strategic decision is one where you have to make a choice and you are uncertain about what the long-term payoff of that choice will be. But you are not shooting blindly in the dark, either. This balance of uncertainty - and the nature of it - is crucial because otherwise the “game” is reduced to a solvable, though potentially quite complex, puzzle.
Uncertainty itself can arise from a number of sources, each of which has an implication on the strategic depth of a game.
One source of uncertainty is chaos or randomness in the game system. If random events, die rolls, or the Wizard-Kings of Probability have a bearing on your long-term decisions, then clearly the outcome has uncertainty to it. However, this may not make a deeper or more strategic game; rather it may just make it more unpredictable and harder to predict. Would chess be considered as skillful and deep if there was only a 50/50 chance to capture a piece? The randomness would make it difficult to strategize and diminish the potential gains for careful planning. In other cases, for example in a game like poker, high degrees of uncertainty adds another level - one of probability and risk assessment - to the optimization activities. It makes decisions more uncertain and harder to calculate, but maybe not in a fundamentally more interesting way. What makes poker interesting is that the randomness of the deal is filtered through the skills and behaviors of other players in an interactive way.
So then, the other major source of uncertainty is related to the interactions between players - and here is where decisions become more interesting. If “games” are understood to be interactive systems that are contests of decision making, then having to account for and react to the actions of your opponents is crucial. Player interactions are external in nature and manifest across a number of 4X game systems: diplomacy, military positioning, espionage, etc. They can also take on a number of different forms: open negotiation, bluffing and feigning, double-think, maneuvering, etc. The crucial skill is being able to read your opponent based on understanding their position, personality, and playstyle, and in turn identify your likely moves (and countermoves). This is where you can leverage your own wit or cunning to achieve a strategic advantage. This is where skill and experience comes into play.
Ultimately, what makes choices interesting is whether or not the strategic landscape of the game - the multi-layered decision spaces that exists in your mind - allows unique and consequential decisions to emerge. In the board game world, games are often discussed as having either “pre-baked” strategic pathways that are created by the designer (and to be discovered by the player) versus games that are more player-driven and emergent in the game states and situations that arise. The pre-baked path approach relies heavily on “learning the system” and on complex internal mechanics.These are often paired with limited player interaction and less volatility as a result. The player-driven approach is more in line with the “simple to learn, lifetime to master” notion - where the depth and interest comes from unique situations where player personalities mix in an interactive and dynamic environment. The former is predominantly about optimizations, the latter is concerned with strategic or tactical interactions.
Implications for 4X Game Design
I’ve laid out a number of pet theories in this article:
- The definition of a game versus a puzzle, toy, contest, or simulation
- Internal versus external systems
- Surviving versus succeeding (victory, goals)
- Types of actions (strategic, tactical, optimization, upkeep)
- The roles of complexity
- Interesting decisions, uncertainty, and player- vs. system-driven games.
What does all of this mean for 4X games? If I have one big critique (here is the thesis!) of 4X games, it is that they often emphasize the exact wrong things in their design (given my preferences), and so I don’t find many of them to be all that strategic as a result. In many cases I’m not even sure they could be classified as proper “games” (per Burgun’s hierarchy) - they feel, to me, more like puzzles.
Complexity appears to be increasing in 4X games, but much of this complexity is directed towards internal game systems: ever more intricate systems of colony management, internal policies, worker optimizations, more complex development pathways, and so on. Little of this really affects how interesting the big long-term strategic decisions are. In fact, the focus on creating compelling or interesting victory conditions (essential for a proper “game”) seems to be in decline - making the choice of what you are optimizing for all the more obvious. In so many 4X games, I feel your race selections and starting position railroad you down a certain track towards a certain pre-ordained victory condition. You might start the game game knowing you are going for a technological win because your empire/species is all about boosting technology. The decisions that follow from there are all about optimizing and solving for X. It’s a puzzle, not a game.
One of the challenges with complexity also has to do with the AI’s capabilities and level of cunning. On one hand, a shift towards greater focus on internal system complexity could be seen as a way to sidestep a weak strategic AI. However, the AI still has to navigate these complex internal systems, and often it ends up receiving bigger and bigger bonuses to compensate for its inefficiencies. This isn’t a good foundation to build a competitive strategic game. On the other hand, simpler game systems might be able to better leverage a computer’s brute-force calculation power to legitimately out-optimize or out-wit the player. I have a Go app on my phone and the AI, sans bonuses, absolutely trounces me. Go figure...
Other types of 4X games (and especially grand strategy games) take a different approach. They are using increasing complexity as a basis for building more detailed simulation models. Within this type of simulation, players are at liberty to decide their own goals and what game systems to focus their choices around. It is a sandbox experience and, short of a failure to survive, is not usually oriented around goals or victory conditions at all. This is, of course, a perfectly valid approach, and simulations have a great capacity to allow for player-created narratives to emerge. But in a certain sense, these really are not “games” either - at least in the strict sense of active competition for victory.
So, 4X games appear stuck between a puzzle optimization pole on one end and a complex simulation pole on the other. And neither of these really results in a focus on making interesting strategic decisions based on external, player-driven interactions.
Personally, I’d love to see a 4X game take a different approach and embrace mechanical simplicity - using it to build a more interesting interactive player environment. What would a 4X game with practically zero empire management look like - with all the focus instead on diplomacy, military maneuvering, controlling shared markets, and cultural exchange? The skill of the game, and its potential depth, would be less contingent on knowing the optimal pathways and instead about making strategic decisions within an emergent and dynamic game space, including the personalities and eccentricities of your rivals.
Most titles seem to drift towards either the survival/sandbox simulator or the optimization/ steamroller to victory. There are a few games that strive to zero-in on interesting strategic decisions and that focus more on external interactions as a result. Age of Wonders III, for example, has relatively simple empire management and de-emphasizes optimization tasks. Instead it emphasizes military positioning, maneuvering, and the careful use of magic resources - all higher level strategic or tactical decisions. This bring it closer to a proper strategy “game” than many other 4X games, at least given my preferences. I would put Master of Orion (the first one) or Sword of the Stars (the first one) in the same category. They are relatively simple games mechanically that emphasize external interactive systems over complex internal mechanics. But fewer and fewer games seem to follow in their footsteps.
As a parting thought, consider these various pet theories and whether they have informed or changed your perspective of 4X games that you have played. How do your own interests and preferences align or not with these concepts? Do you see other styles of 4X or strategy games that do or could exist? Do you feel that the games you play are are “puzzles” or “contests” or “games?”
As always, the comment line is open.
- [+] Dice rolls
22 Jan 2016
Hello fellow readers! It’s been a little time since posting, but I felt a year-end recap and look-a-head into 2016 was in order. Please bear with the Smorgasboard nature of this post, but do feel free to bounce around, sampling which ever delights strike your fancy.
- Articles & contributions!
- Wot I’m Playing!
- Game design projects!
I think over the past year, the nature of my boardgame playing has changed considerably. Two kids in the house, full times jobs (plus an extended sidejob), family obligations, friends having kids, my kids now also having friends, etc. introduces a set of constraints. Days spent hunkered over monstrous game boards and drowning under avalanches of meeples and hexagonal chits have dwindled.
Of course, and as I’ve mentioned before, it isn’t all bad. My daughter (now almost five) continues to like playing and “playing” with all sorts of games; and my two nephews are in the mix as well. We were on a big family trip at the end of last August and collectively played a lot of Eight Minute Empires: Legends, among other games. I had played a number of games previously, but I was surprised how much the kids really got into it. My 7-year old nephew used his allowance to buy his own copy when he returned home! While the game is somewhat dry mechanically (as a simple area control game), the artwork really makes it connect for people. I do love this game.
I also picked up Mice & Mystics over the summer, which was a big hit when trapped inside the cottage on rainy days. The Mouse Guard graphic novels have been making the rounds with the kids in the family, so the Mice & Mystics game slotted into their swirling sphere of perception nicely. It’s a well designed game and perfect for gamer dad facilitating play with the kids. The rule set is loose and flexible enough that we can take some liberties and the game doesn’t totally fall apart. My only complaint is that it can be a lot to setup and tear down quickly, and when you are working with 30 minute attention spans, I end up spending less time playing than organizing bits. But fondling bits never discouraged me … ahem …
I’ve also fallen deeply in love with Shadi Torbeys Oniverse games, as illustrated by Élise Plessis, whichincludes Onirim, Sylvion, and Castellion. First of all, the artwork and presentation is just amazing. I absolutely love the art style and how the boxes are assembled. As single-player games (or two person co-ops), Z-Man hit the mark with creating a compelling experience just in opening the box. It feels like luxury.
I’ve probably played Onirim 60+ times by now. Mostly in two-person cooperative mode with my wife. The game, in contrast to many cooperatives, feels less like a puzzle and more like a strategic thinking game. By contrast, in Forbidden Island (for instance), you can play nearly perfectly but just get screwed based on how the cards are shuffled. In Onirim, that can certainly happen, but it feels more like you have control, and if you plan and think carefully about your choices, you have ways of nearly eliminating the blind luck of the draw factor. It’s hard to describe, but the game works really well, and I haven’t even dabbled with the seven (!!) included expansions.
I play Sylvion a bunch in solo mode over the summer, and also quite enjoyed the game. The design is based on a lane defense concept, usually seen in videogames, where you are defending your forest from an on-rush fire elementals trying to burn it down. There is an interesting two-stage approach to the design, where in stage one you draft a deck, which you then use in stage two to defend. There are various strategies and synergies to pursue in how you assemble the deck, so there is lots of decision space to explore. As for Castellion, I just got it over the holidays and have only dabbled with it. Unlike the prior card-based Oniverse games, Castellion is tile-based, but I like where the design is going. More on that to come!
I also stumbled across the kickstarter for Keep and picked that up. I had a chance to get it to the table when some friends were over, and I’ve also played a bunch of the two player game with my wife. The game is a simple drafting card game (with 50-some cards) in the vein of Sushi Go. You do the usual “play cards to your tableau and then pass your hand” routine, with scoring occurring all at once at the end based on various synergies between your drafted cards. There is a nifty hidden action element to the game (that I think more could be done with), that adds some wildcards to the experience. It plays quick and is frankly all I’m asking for in a drafting game. Whereas 7 Wonders ends up feeling overwrought, here you get a game that accomplishes nearly all the same things but without the bloat. And it fits in your pocket.
Over the holiday’s I also picked up: Gubs (haven’t played), Dragonwood (meh), Friday (haven’t played, but intrigued!), Red7 (flopped), and the Mouse Guard RPG Boxed set (I’d love to start an RPG with kids in a few years, and this just might work).
One thing that unifies all of the above is that they are all smaller box games. I started out in the hobby gaming world playing more small box games (Drakon, Flux, Muchhkin - don’t judge), and in many ways it is nice coming back more towards that end of the spectrum. Especially in light of having kids with short attention spans and not having the flexibility to spend 20 minutes setting a game up in the first place! Small boxes will inherit the earth. Or something!
Articles & Contributions
I’ve continued to write a number of video game reviews and articles over at eXplorminate (which has been growing its readership steadily over the past year). A few things worth mentioning:
I had an opportunity to play and review Invisible Inc.. If you like turn-based tactics games, Invisible Inc is one of the finest I’ve ever played. It is largely focused on stealth gameplay, set in a sort of corporatized neo-Noire Dick Tracy-esque dystopian cyber-future (how’s that description!). This is like Neuromancer: The Videogame. It has a great sense of style and art direction, with the gameplay being an interwoven tapestry of stealth, spatial planning, hacking, and timing that is really quite intoxicating. One of my favorite games from the past year.
I reviewed a number of other games as well, including This War of Mine, Crowntakers, Eclipse (iOS version). This War of Mine is a pretty engrossing (though somber) survival management game. Crowntakers a pint-sized party-based roguelike romp. And Eclipse is the kingpin 4X boardgame ported to iOS. All solid and fun games in their respective genres.
Most recently, I reviewed Darkest Dungeon, which just released on January 19th. This is worth a moment to describe. Darkest Dungeon is an “operational roguelike,” which means that you are managing a roster of heroes (fools) along with their base of operations (a sleepy-hollow-esque hamlet in this instance). You send your heroes on various quests (battling Lovecraftian horrors in this instance) in hopes of reaching the final goal/mission. It is a roguelike in that your characters have permadeath and you can’t reload when things fail, but it is a little more forgiving as there are always more heroes showing up to test their mettle. The gameplay is really solid and innovative in a few key areas (see the full review), but more than anything the game has a tremendous sense of style. I love the graphic novel look; and the voice over narration, both the writing and the delivery, is outstanding. Excellent little game; if you are into this sort of thing.
Wot I’m Playing
I succumbed to a game, and that game is Payday 2. This is a FPS (first person shooter) game, which is also a 4-person cooperative multiplayer game, and which is also about pulling off all manner of illicit heists. The game takes its cue from the vast swaths of heist-movie history, from Heat to Die Hard, and plenty of other references. I have a longer review in the works, but I’ll share a few things for now...
Not many video games manage to suck more than 20 hours out of me. Payday 2 is one of them, and since last November I’ve logged well over 200 hours. In part, this is because this is one of the first games in the past many years that all my local friends have also got into playing. So while we haven’t been able to get together for boardgame nights as often, we’ve been getting together via Payday 2 to heist the night away. Certainly this is part of the appeal.
To paint a broad picture, the game lets you pick a heist, from a large list, to perform. Heists can range from robbing convenience stores and drilling into bank vaults, to intercepting drug deliveries and breaking comrades out of jail. It’s all morally dark territory for sure; you are playing the bad guys after all! Heists are either “loud” (in which case you go in with guns blazing) or “stealth” (in which case you sneak your way to the objective), or some combination of the two. With 30+ different heists, many of which can be accomplished in very different ways, and a staggering 300+ achievements, there is a lot to see and do in the game.
It also incorporates a rather sophisticated RPG layer. Successful heists earn you money and experience points (XPs) that you use to purchase new gear and learn new skills. There is a staggering 180 skills in the game, 100’s of moddable weapons, along with a host of equipment and other perk specializations. Given that an individual skill build is limited in how many skills it can have active, there are tons of ways to customize how your character works and performs. It’s all quite engaging … and really deep man. The game also strikes a nice balance (IMHO) between being serious and being tongue-in-cheek. This rubs some people the wrong way, but I appreciate the humor the developers have woven into the game.
To be honest, other than a few family boardgames here and there, I haven’t been playing many other games. Payday 2 has clawed me deep.
I’ve continued to advance a number of different design projects.
First up, is my design concept for a pseudo-4X strategy game, Transcend, which I outlined in a prior blog post. This design is for a digital game, and given my total amature status when it comes to programming, might remain a pipe dream … but we shall see.
I did manage to make a few technical steps, using excel of all things. I came across an article that talked about how someone re-created XCOM in excel. I thought to myself, “Well I love spreadsheets, I love excel, I can stumble through scripting … maybe I should see what I can do.” Lo and behold after a few hours (well, more like 10), I came up with this:
Yes, that is all excel, and is a semi-functional mock-up of a UI. On another tab there is a big “generate galaxy” button, that runs VBA scripting to randomly generate a star field of 15-30 stars, generates 0-4 planets in each star system, and assigns planets a few key properties (size, type, etc.). It’s very crude and rudimentary, but it works, and provides a functional basis to start layering lots of other data and attributes into the galaxy generation. Eventually, different excel buttons would turn on/off different data overlays on top of the main star view. I do a lot of data visualization professionally (GIS spatial analytics mostly), and it always bothers me that data in 4X isn’t presented more graphically/spatially (always miserable tables) - so that’s something I definitely want to address with this design.
I also started using excel to build a dynamic model for how the game’s economy and pace of development would proceed. This includes an “end turn” button that lets me queue up orders for planetary improvements, drawing down global resources, and then process the turn. I want Transcend to be much faster paced compared to other 4X games (e.g. get to capstone high-level technologies and developments within 20-30 turns). So experimenting with these dynamic economy models early on are important. I did a cruder version of this (also in excel), when working out the pacing and economy of Hegemonic (which is typically 6-9 turns) - and I think that was one area of the game that really worked well. Resources are in just tight enough supply that you have lots of ways you “could” proceed but have to prioritize down to just a few. I’ll keep plugging away (and I have the next dev diary in the works already).
I’ve also been circling back to one of my first game designs, which is Shifters. I had a chance to playtest it some over the summer during protospiel, and a number of times since. It’s interesting to see how many times this game has been torn down and rebuilt - but finally I’m quite happy with how all the pieces are fitting together. As a game intended to be a lighter weight, take-that style card game, smooth gameplay is important. To this end, there are a few cumbersome spots in the design to streamline. But it is really coming together and I’m contemplating how to best move forward with the design. Probably starting to talk to publishers - but I might also print a number of decks through printer studio and sell it for close to cost via BGG. We’ll see.
And that, ladies and gentlemen, is a wrap.
- [+] Dice rolls
13 Nov 2015
Note: This article is cross-posted on eXplorminate. If you enjoy this article, please check out eXplorminate's coverage of 4X and strategy games. A gentle reminder that there is also a dedicated site, off-BGG, for Big Game Theory! ~ Cheers!
The world of roguelikes and roguelike-likes (i.e. games with a selection of roguelike elements) is on the rise. In some ways, I wonder whether this is driven by the Nintendo-generation’s (or earlier) nostalgia for games that were f-ing hard. The kind of hard that made you throw the controller across the room. The kind of hard that didn’t have a save feature, let alone autosaves. You know what I mean. These were the games you had to leave paused with the TV off, crossing your fingers that the power light didn’t catch mommy’s eye in the dark of the night, prompting her to shut the thing off and ruin that flawless run. Those were the days; games were brutal and our perseverance was put to the test.
Maybe Oregon Trail had a role to play. It’s spawned its share of imitators and tributes. We’ve got Organ Trail, the recent zombie-themed remake. Then there’s BEDLAM, a modern-day Oregon Trail. Even FTL could be taken as a futuristic homage, come to think of it. Did many of us cut our teeth on Oregon Trail without realizing that it was priming us for a love affair with roguelikes? Curiously, Oregon Trail, first released in 1971 (!!!) predates many of the original early roguelikes (ahem, Rogue from 1980). This makes me wonder about the hidden influence Oregon Trail might have had on the rise of roguelikes, their underlying mechanics, and the surging popularity of roguelike elements woven into other genres.
I mean, we ALL played Oregon Trail right? We can all relate to Jenny and her snakebites. As the ideas and mechanics behind roguelike games start to permeate into other genres, I often find myself trying to make distinctions between them and understand how different “roguelike elements” are used in one game compared to another. I’m having to split hairs by saying this game does X and that game does Y, so they are different, you see! And when you knead additional trends into the genre-dough, like the RPG-ification and survival-craft-ification of everything, then it gets really complex. Where does a roguelike tactical RPG end and a roguelike survival-craft game begin!?
So, for my own sanity and the purpose of this eXposition, I’m going to stab into the dark, embarking on my own little adventure to define a number of roguelike and related terms that pertain to a lot of current games these days. ‘ere we go!
First off, I want to talk about the format of roguelike(-like) games. The original Rogue and its direct descendents were all Individual-based games, which means that you controlled a single individual character. Then there are roguelikes where you are controlling multiple individual lives. Let’s call these Party-based games. Some roguelikes feature dudes and dudettes onboard some sort of vehicular contraption (like a spaceship, a boat, or a wagon). We can call these Crew-based games. Or perhaps you are controlling a roster of characters where only some subset of them is used at once. The game then becomes more Operations-based, with you managing the resources and facilities for this burgeoning roster of ill-fated individuals that you send off to their deaths. Step up in scale from there and we find ourselves suddenly managing an entire community of people in a Clan-based game. And it’s only a matter of time before we get our first Empire-based roguelike. Frankly, any number of 4X games could probably qualify, if played in some sort of hardcore, all decisions are permanent mode (with no save scumming!)
Examples! You need examples!
Individual-based: Rogue, Out There, Pixel Dungeon, Diablo (hardcore mode), Hoplite
Party-based: Crowntakers, This War of Mine
Crew-based: FTL, Sunless Sea, Bedlam, Oregon/Organ Trail, Flame in the Flood
Operations-based: XCOM, Darkest Dungeon, Invisible Inc, Hunters 2, Massive Chalice
Clan-based: King of Dragon Pass, Thea: The Awakening, At the Gates
Empire-based: Age of Wonders 3 (when I refuse to reload save games!)
Strategic-Layer & Tactical Space
Next up is whether or not the game has additional “layers” to the gameplay at a higher (strategic) level and/or at a smaller (tactical) level. The strategic level often has to do with things like base-building, choosing missions/operations, resource and personnel management, etc. For example:
Invisible Inc: Selecting missions from a global mission screen based on risk / reward
XCOM: Base building, economy, and threat mitigation
Darkest Dungeon: Base building, roster management, hero advancement, economy
King of Dragon Pass: Clan development
Thea: The Awakening: City development
Other games have a separate tactical space where battles or other types of conflicts are resolved at a finer grain of detail. For instance:
Crowntakers: separate turn-based tactical combat mode
FTL: real-time (pausable) ship-to-ship combat
XCOM: tactical combat missions
Darkest Dungeon: dungeon delving quests of doom
Some games, of course, have both a tactical and strategic-management space (e.g. XCOM, Darkest Dungeon) with no in-between space per se, unlike Crowntakers (for example) which has the overworld map you navigate. This might be a function of their “operation-based” nature. Taking another example, This War of Mine is similar in some respects, with a distinct strategic, base-building phase and a separate tactical scavenging (yes, that’s an awesome new term I made up) phase. Yet unlike XCOM or Darkest Dungeon, in This War of Mine the base-building/management environment is presented in the same side-scrolling structure as the scavenging missions.
Turn-based vs. Real-time
This is a obviously a biggie for many people. Proper roguelikes are turn-based, so you can contemplate whether you will step left or step right and the odds of picking wrong and stepping-on-a-trap-that-will-insta-gib-you will be. But of course, developers are messing with the formula so we have these real-time things invading the turf. It’s fairly obvious when a game is real-time or turn-based, so I’m not going to spew off more examples (yet).
Now we are getting down to the details. As a bit of history, roguelikes are named in reference to Rogue, a game from the precambrian era of gaming, i.e. 1980. Rogue, and the many derivative works that followed (and the earlier stuff that preceded it), generally had three key ingredients: a procedurally generated environment for your unlucky hero to explore, turn-based gameplay, and permadeath.
Permadeath means, generally speaking, that when your character dies, they stay dead. No save points, no free-saving, just death. Time to restart folks. From the beginning. Game over man. It’s important to note that for permadeath to actually have significance, the game will not typically allow manual saving and reloading. Otherwise, you could save scum to your heart’s content in order to avoid the deathtraps and missteps that constitutes a hallmark of the roguelike genre. It would undermine the entire point and challenge of the game to have free saving.
Some games, particularly those at the party-based level and beyond, might feature permadeath for individual characters; but provided that some of your characters live you can continue to press onward. Some games, like Diablo 2 for example, have optional “hardcore” modes that turn a traditional infinite-life game experience into a die-once-and-it’s-over-buddy experience. So while Diablo 2 isn’t traditionally viewed as a roguelike, it operates quite a bit like one in hardcore mode (aside from the real-time nature of the gameplay).
Suffice to say, any game can potentially be a tiny-bit-more-roguelike if you can tame your urge to save scum and instead elect to throw your computer out of the window when you die. That will, short of having an actual permadeath system, do the trick nicely, I think.
Having a unique and random world/dungeon/pit-of-despair/bog-of-eternal-stench generated for each play through is another pillar of the roguelike temple. Nowadays, all game environments are procedurally generated (I’m not being that serious), and in the near future all games will be procedurally generated too (I’m being a little serious). The point of procedural environments is not to put the strategy game guide people out of business, but rather to create a tremendous amount of uncertainty and a new delicious menu of risk each time you start a new run.
Of course there is a grey area here, and quite a few games combine procedural environments with a dose of handcrafted splendor to ensure that certain milestones or locations are present in the world from game to game. Some games simply have certain elements randomized in their initial placement. For example the location and standing of your clan in King of Dragon Pass relative to the other clans is different each game, which adds a little variety to each play through.
Survival & Status Decay
A cornerstone of many roguelikes is a system for survival and/or status decay over time. In other words, if you stand still or run around in circles, you will eventually run out of food, water, torches, or gold doubloons and meet a grisly death due to starvation, dehydration, insanity, or turncoat mercenaries. Many roguelikes have a system for auto-healing, but requiring a constant influx of resources (i.e. an upkeep) means that you can’t just wait around until you all heal up; you have to keep moving. The incorporation of survival elements seems to be increasing across many genres of games, and it seems our endless cultural fascination with all things zombies strikes at the heart of this desire (hence we get Organ Trail, DayZ, Savage Lands, Don’t Starve, and so on).
As a side note, many games are predicated primarily around survival such that the game is essentially “endless” until you fail to survive. There is no winning condition, only a losing condition. A familiar example of this is the puzzle game Tetris. There is no “beating” Tetris, only losing. Of course, when you lose you also get a score, and the challenge then becomes to play it again and earn a higher score. A number of roguelikes work with this principle too, such as the endless modes in Invisible Inc, Flame in the Flood, and The Long Dark.
Instead of survival pressure, some roguelike games have a time pressure and/or external threat mechanic that forces the player to make forward progress. For example, in FTL there is the forward march of the rebel fleet that spreads further across the map each turn. You have to keep moving forward or else you’ll get caught in the wave of rebel scum and perish. Other games have external pressures that are not such a hard line, but nevertheless force action. In Crowntakers, each day that passes sees the enemies grow stronger and stronger. If you dilly dally too much, the opposing forces will become too difficult to deal with, and you will be unable to survive. The main difference between survival mechanics and time pressure mechanics is that survival is about maintaining your internal condition, while time pressure is based on an external force putting pressure on you to act decisively.
Achievement-based unlocks are systems where accomplishing a certain feat or goal in one run-through of the game will unlock a new feature or additional content that is available to you on the next run-through. Beating certain goals in FTL with certain ships will unlock new starting ship options. Your score in Invisible Inc - when your team finally (and inevitably) succumbs - earns you points towards unlocking new starting agents for a subsequent run. In Hoplite, doing specific awesome things unlocks new abilities that you can then use over the course of the next run. In Dungeon of the Endless you can unlock new escape pods that affect your starting position on future runs, as well as new party members to use in your current and future runs.
Persistence and Carryover
Some roguelikes have systems where certain characteristics, items, or other resources carry over between playthroughs. For example, in Wayward Souls you can collect gold during your runs, which you can then use to purchase permanent character stat boosts for the different classes. In Crypt of the Necrodancer you get to hold onto gems that you can use to purchase better starting equipment the next time around. In the Flame in the Flood, you can leave items on your doggie’s satchel which will return to you the next time you start over. In Crowntakers, “easy mode” lets your characters keep their experience and level-gains across multiple runs. In Thea: The Awakening, the levels deities earn remain for future games. In some cases, the gains are “persistent” across all future runs (e.g. Wayward Souls), and in other cases the gains only “carryover” for the next run (e.g. Flame in the Flood).
These persistent, carry-overs differ from the achievement-based unlocks in that they are less about opening up new content and options (i.e. variety) and more about making subsequent runs progressively easier. It becomes a soft-handed way of letting people that are terrible at roguelikes (err, ahem … don’t like the “challenge”) still make forward progress in the game if they put in the effort. Many consider this a serious breach of the roguelike contract, yet others applaud these efforts for making roguelike games more accessible. You’ll have to decide for yourself what side of the line you are on. Or maybe you’re one of those oddities that likes to put their hands on one side of the line, and your feet on the other?
Flame in the Flood’s eternal champion, Aesop the Dog, let’s you carry over a few precious items between plays.
Legacy & Inheritance
This set of mechanics doesn’t appear to be used as much as the others I’ve mentioned, but there are a few games I’ve seen that are playing with the idea, so I’ll mention it. In five years when this is the hot new thing, I’ll look like a genius. Anyway the idea here is that there are carry over effects between runs that affect the gameworld rather than you as a player. While not a roguelike, the upcoming game Descendants: Voidborne uses this idea. Essentially, it’s a 4X-ish game built around a series of shorter matches. When a match ends, by reaching a victory condition, the next game you play starts by re-purposing the final game state from your previous game. For example, maybe you built a big huge galactic empire and finished one game, but afterward a rebellion broke up the empire such that in your next game you start off as one of the smaller rebel factions. It’s an interesting idea for sure. Curiously, the board game Risk: Legacy did this exact thing, requiring players to make permanent alterations to their game pieces and the board itself that affect how the game would work on future plays. Pretty rad!
RPG Skill Progression
The RPG-ification of all games has been underway for quite a while. Rare is the game that doesn’t have some sort of stat tracking leading to minor skill improvements, level-ups, and aren’t-you-are-so-special unlocks and perks. I mean, even modern multiplayer shooters like the Battlefield series are rife with achievements feeding rank advancement and gear unlocks. Where does it end!? Certainly not with roguelikes, which have been a natural concubine to the succubus that are RPGs. Of course, some games emphasize this more than others. In FTL, your crewmates have a few basic stats that improve over time as they get better at certain tasks. That is quite minor compared to the sorts of skill tree min-maxing that you might undertake as a hardcore mode Diablo player.
RPG Items and Loot!!!!
Loot is synonymous with all good things for most gamers. Loot is where the heart is. I’m hard pressed to find anything remotely resembling a roguelike that doesn’t have some system of loot collection as a core element of the game. You need loot to improve your weapons and armor. You need loot to improve your food stuffs. You need loot to improve the engines on your spaceship. You need loot for trading, for survival, for glory, for victory… Ahhh… You get the point. Loot!
I should mention that many classic roguelikes have a particular flavor of loot known as the “unknown” item: be it a potion, a sword, or a brightly colored mushroom. Drinking, equipping, or ingesting such items might bring you fantastic benefits and powers, or might cause a terrible belly-ache and curse your character for all eternity. You just don’t know. The random, unknown nature of loot can add an interesting check to the usual “all good things” aspect of loot collection. Maybe, just maybe, you’ll think twice next time.
Speaking of loot, what better use of loot than to make newer, better and bigger loot? Hence we arrive at the third horseman of the videogame apocalypse: crafting.
Crafting increasingly is seen in all sorts of games and meshes well into the milieu of roguelikes. Crafting is “almost” hand-in-hand with survival mechanics, although there are exceptions. Terraria (arguably not a roguelike) is all about crafting, but there is no survival imperative. Diablo 2 has crafting with the glorious cube, but again no survival need. I suppose large swaths of MMO’s fall into crafting without survival need territory too. But in the world of roguelikes they typically go hand-in-hand, with players needing to craft various items to maintain their survival as well as creating more powerful gear to advance deeper into the dungeon.
Economy & Resources
Economy is most often associated with operations-based games like XCOM or Darkest Dungeon, where you have a global pot of gold (or other resources). These resources need to maniacally allocated to certain tasks, be it building satellites, managing workers, or sending your depressed, broken crusader out for a raucous night at the bar to lift his spirits. While the need to balance a flow of money often mimics a survival mechanic, running out of money is not usually grounds for immediate termination. In Crowntakers or FTL you have nice little bank account than you can freely spend down to zero if you want. You won’t be able to buy anything, but your game isn’t dramatically over either, at least in the short term. At a greater scale, Thea: The Awakening seems to be bringing the menu of roguelike mechanics to the resource and economy-based 4X gameplay.
Last, but not least, is the notion of special narrative events. Choose your own adventure style gamebooks are making a comeback in the digital age as technology makes these sorts of things far more engaging than mere words on paper (although purists will disagree). Some of this, I feel, is rubbing off in terms of roguelikes and related games with narrative-driven event-based systems that add a quasi-procedural dimension to the storyline. For example, King of Dragon Pass uses 100’s of special events that must be responded to in ways that are rarely cut-and-dry. Events can push your progress down a different path and/or come back to haunt you years later. But the result is a unique experience each time you sit down to play. I haven’t played it myself, but I wonder about the kinds of events that are created in a game like Dwarf Fortress and how that shapes a unique and rich narrative there. Sorcerer King is a recent 4X games that leans heavily on narrative events to shape the experience as well.
It is interesting to see how the design of many games, particularly games that seek to challenge the player in a single-player setting, increasingly draw on roguelike elements to ramp up the difficulty. I’m only half-joking about an Empire-based roguelike, as I’m sure the big one is just around the corner (and Thea: the Awakening and Sorcerer King aren’t far off the mark). So many of these mechanics, like survival or crafting, can scale up or down to work as well with an individual hero as they do with managing a settlement of people. External threats and pressures require you to stay one step ahead of the rebels in FTL. Is it hard to imagine a similarly functioning mechanic that threatens your space empire? AI War was already headed in that direction.
For me, the shared attributes between survival-craft games, RPGs and roguelikes all speaks directly to strategy and strategic thinking, albeit in slightly different ways. Dealing with these mechanics requires us to plan ahead. This need to think manifests within roguelikes (for me anyway) as it does in many typical strategy game genres. The result is that I’ve become far more interested in games outside of my usual circle. These games all provide a high level of challenge and depth despite being in different genres.
Others have written interesting (and controversial) pieces about the nature of games and the differences between a game, a puzzle, and a toy. Many modern games, for example open world sandboxes like Skyrim, are functionally more like a toy. Save systems and a general dumbing down of gameplay (for lack of a more PC-term), mean that fewer and fewer of your choices have lasting consequences - you can always reload or undo a decision that did not go well. More to the point, there is no “winning” of the game as a whole. Sure, you can accomplish a quest (or the major plot lines) but you can continue playing afterwards if you want. Like a pile of LEGOs, the goals you face- if you even have one beyond exploration - are self-determined. There is no toy fail.
So in many ways, I feel like the rogue-ification of games, which tends to reintroduce consequences and hard choices, is a move away from games as toys and back towards games as “games.” There is tension when it is possible to fail and lose everything. And this threat of failure and loss makes such games (for me), more impactful, rewarding, and engaging. I play them differently, with more focus and careful consideration, and beating them feels all the richer as a result. Fortunately, we appear to be having a heyday for these types of games. Keep ‘em coming, I say!
Now it’s your turn. Are there major gameplay devices related to roguelikes (or other genres) that I missed? Ones you don’t agree with? Share away!
- [+] Dice rolls
Preamble: A Fool’s Quest
It may come as no surprise that I have aspirations to design a 4X game. I’m sure many of you reading the headline have entertained such thoughts as well. And while I have designed and published a 4X board game (and am no stranger to the design process) my spider-sense tells me that designing a 4X video game is like navigating a minefield. There is so much that can blow up. We also appear to be entering a heyday for 4X games, which begs the question “do we need yet another 4X game rampaging through the market?” Probably not. But that isn’t going to stop me from dreaming and putting forward a vision for what I feel would be something unique and different.
I’ve dedicated a fair portion of my writing to critiquing 4X games along a number of different avenues: bad endgame experiences, pacing and flow, strategic depth vs. routine optimization, snowball and steamroller, over-complication, underdeveloped systems, thematic incongruities, and so on. Throughout all of this, I always ask myself “If I’m so quick to critique, how would I do it differently?” For a long time I’ve been striving to understand what it is I’m actually looking for in a 4X game experience. Is it narrative? Is it challenge? Is it immersion? I think it needs to be all of the above, but wrapped together in a way that provides a meaningful and coherent experience.
Through all of this, there is one central thing keeps nagging at me as I look back on the many 4X games I’ve played: 4X games rarely have a satisfactory ending in terms of narrative or gameplay - and often both are lacking.
A design lesson I’ve learned is that, for strategy games at least, the end trigger and win conditions are the game. You have to conceive of a compelling conclusion to your game first, and then work towards building that experience. I think a lot of games do it backwards: they conceive of all the things they want players to do, and then figure out how to wrestle the behemoth they’ve created into a coherent game with some way to end it. How many games patch in new victory conditions post-release? It’s absurd if you think about it. Strategy games need to be designed around the victory conditions so that all the elements can be balanced and directed towards a compelling closure. So I don’t want to fall into the trap of doing it backwards.
4X games are often a letdown in terms of gameplay for reasons that have been discussed considerably of late. How many of you actually bother to finish a 4X game once you have passed the point of knowing victory is inevitable, if only you just hang on and grind through? That’s a problem having to do with the snowball and steamroller. Another issue is that victory conditions themselves are often silo’d as isolated offshoots of disjoined mechanics: you have some arbitrary economic win, or a technological win, or a military win, etc. Gameplay becomes a giant optimization puzzle to hit your chosen goal first. More alarming, this is often a goal you set right at the start of the game, based on race selection, and which rarely is challenged or changed during play. Strategy is about deciding on goals - and how much strategy is there really in a game where you set you set your goal in the the first 5 minutes?
The narrative problem that I have with 4X games can be summarized with this question: What does it mean for an empire to “win”? I’m tired of games built around conquering the world or galaxy, or becoming the supreme ruler, or achieving some technological triviality, or abstractly cornering the market, or whatever else. The end triggers for so many games are painfully arbitrary and hence unsatisfying from a narrative standpoint. More to the point, these sort of winner take all win conditions are not very enlightened or sophisticated, they translate colonialism into space. Whoopee. I think we can do better.
I read a lot of science fiction, particularly space operas from the likes of Isaac Asimov (old school) to Peter F. Hamilton (new school). These narratives are dramatic and visionary. They cover vast sweeps of time, and yet boil down to nail-biting and personal moments as the protagonists strive to stay one step ahead of whatever horrific menace is sweeping across the stars. I’ve never had the sort of tension and sweeping grandeur in a 4X game that you get from a novel - but I have some ideas for how it might happen.
So the challenge I’m laying at my feet is two-fold: First, conceive of a design for a space 4X game that would unify the gameplay with what it means to win through a compelling narrative frame that captures the boldness and imagination of the best of space opera. Second, I want to accomplish this with a game that is tightly designed, relatively quick to play (by 4X standards), and is emergent and engaging with getting bogged down by its own design.
PART 1: A Sketch for a Space Opera
A Dream Transcendent
Imagine for a moment that a game with the tightness and pacing of something like FTL (Faster Than Light) had an unholy union with a narratively curious game like King of Dragon Pass. Except instead of trying to fly a spaceship from point A to point B, as in FTL, you were guiding an empire among the stars. And instead of trying to become the king of all the clans, you were seeking transcendence and an ascension to the next level of galactic consciousness. This is the of the idea for Transcend. Let me elaborate.
First of all, I want to create a 4X game where what it means to win is something positive and evolutionary. Most 4X games presuppose that winning is only by achieving dominance in some way, and that other empire’s are inherently in a zero-sum competition with you. Hence, most 4X games task the player with overseeing yet another colonial era of manifest destiny. I think this is a tired concept, and coming up with something novel and positive means reexamining what it means to “win.”
I think modern humanity, as a whole, could move towards “winning” in some sense by achieving world peace and ending poverty, or achieving an equilibrium with planet Earth. Those are positive goals in my mind. Becoming the supreme ruler of earth doesn’t sound very positive to me - it’s draconian. So in Transcend, there is one singular winning condition: surviving to achieve transcendence with your culture. Achieving transcendence will open up a pathway to a higher plane of existence (e.g. accessing higher dimensional orders of reality) where other transcendent cultures thrive and continue their own quests for evolution and understanding in the universe. It’s a bit Zen-like, eh?
How your culture achieves transcendence will vary in unique ways depending on their physiology, consciousness, and morality. These starting conditions, which will be covered more later on, frames a sequence of positive goals you need to meet to successfully transcend, such as achieving empathy, equity, freedom, creativity, etc.. A race of artificial machines might need to learn empathy and compassion, or a culture of passive space slugs to learn when force is justified, or for humans to move beyond their rigid individualism.
In my mind, these transcendent goals provide a more compelling context for a 4X game’s winning condition than “I’m better/bigger than you.” So the idea isn’t a technological victory or any other specific win trigger, but rather requires players to build a strategy that employs all aspects of their empire as they pursue a series of culture-spanning transformations towards transcendence. This will also (hopefully!) create an opening to recognize and reward cooperation between empires. Such cooperation is a rarity, and most often a friendly handshake is just the precursor to a stab in the back. But here, it is possible for multiple races to Transcend and even work together to achieve it mutually, because it isn’t zero-sum. What I need to transcend may be very different from what you need, and there is room for both of us to succeed if we work together.
Yet achieving transcendence, in the absence of any external threats, must be a challenge on its own. Managing growth and resources so that your culture doesn’t spiral out of control and consume itself along the way, putting transcendence forever out of reach is central to the design. There needs to be internal pressure on the player. In metaphor, the path to transcendence is like navigating through a maze of tightropes, and there are plenty of opportunities to fall off.
There are also things trying to push you off the tightrope.
Whispers in the Dark
My space opera inspired design challenge also needs to apply external pressure on the player to keep them on their toes and prevent players from simply optimizing their way to victory. Enter the Galactic Threats. Galactic Threats are something big and bad that happens to the entire galaxy. Fundamentally their presence requires players to achieve transcendence before the galactic threat wipes you (and everyone else) out.
So the central strategic challenge in the game becomes balancing your own progress towards achieving transcendence while holding enough back to deal with the galactic threat when it shows up. You need to walk the tightrope but be resilient enough to not get pushed off by a strong wind. If you invest too heavily in one aspect of your empire, you might not have the flexibility and foundation in place to react when the threat comes knocking. And while players may be able to slow down the galactic threat, inevitably they will have to transcend to escape it - there is no other way.
Of course there is a further wrinkle: you don’t know what the galactic threat will be. The game will include a series of different threats, and one of them (or more than one on harder difficulties) will randomly be unleashed on the galaxy at some unforeseeable moment. And these threats can take a number of different forms, with only subtle narrative clues and events hinting at the storm to come. For example, an unfathomably massive black hole might appear in center of the galaxy and slowly starts pulling all the star systems into its maw, turn by turn obliterating them. Transcend before your empire is swallowed.
Another threat idea is “Galactic Hot Potato” (working title!), where a mysterious homing beacon is unearthed that starts summoning progressively stronger waves of extradimensional alien forces into the galaxy. Players need to cooperate to “pass the potato” and keep the aliens chasing it around the galaxy. Or maybe you can use spies to sneak it onto an opponent’s world to sic the aliens on them! Regardless, if the aliens get a hold of it, the motherships show up and you are all screwed. Prudent leaders transcend before the motherships show up. Or maybe some wild nano virus starts spreading throughout sentient life and turning your populace against itself.
Holistically, the galactic threats introduce an asynchronous form of opposition that provides a more compelling narrative structure to the game. On a basic level, it gives the player an interesting challenge, greatly lessening the burden for programming other AI empires to give the player a challenging peer-to-peer experience. Additionally, the threat system has the potential to open up more interesting gameplay, with opportunities for cooperation between players to occur as they collectively try to hold back the tide; yet with each culture still racing against the clock to transcend on their own. When combined, these two dynamics (transcendence and galactic threats) can move the genre beyond a mere repetition of the colonial manifest into something bold and new, and more fitting as a “space opera.”
The Supporting Cast: Design Goals
While the Transcendence and Galactic Threat systems address my overarching design goal of creating a challenging and narratively interesting victory system, there are other critical design goals to discuss. Establishing goals for a design is important to guide decision making and to keep the game focused around the experience you are trying to craft. While goals can certainly change, often times the constraint of holding the design to them can breed ingenuity. So what are these other goals? So far I have seven of them:
I’m longing for a 4X game that I can sit down and play to it’s conclusion in an evening or two and feel like I’ve been challenged and engaged the whole time. Contrary to the “just one more turn” sentiment, I want every turn to have tough choices and tradeoffs to make. I want less turns, but I want them each to matter more. There should never be a turn of “doing nothing but pressing next turn.” I want to compress the normal 4X experience so that all those crazy late-game technologies we drool about are actually employed sooner and have a bearing on the game. I’ve had this notion of structuring the flow and pacing of the entire game around 30 turns, recognizing that if I design for 30, I’ll probably end around 45 or 60 turns. Each turn, to capture the sweeping growth and transcendence of a culture, will need to represent a large chunk of time, and by necessity requires a bit more abstraction throughout the design. But I think that’s okay, because I want to …
Embrace the Fantastical.
Science fiction literature is filled with all sorts of awesome ideas: cultures going post-physical, hive minds, dyson spheres, ring worlds, starbombs, galactic cannons, miniature black holes, Helium mining from super gas giants, getting lost in subspace, etc. Very few 4X games really give you a way to engage with these ideas. With 30 turns, the idea is to bring these fantastical ideas to the forefront and let players utilize them earlier on as part of your grand strategy building on the quest for transcendence. I rather like the design doctrine of letting everything be “overpowered” - the gameplay results are usually far more interesting.
I want most of the numbers in the game the be less than 10. 4X games can quickly spiral into complex math and algorithms that obfuscates the gameplay, requiring players to jump through all sorts of mental gymnastics just to evaluate the potential outcomes of different choices. I want to keep the numbers simple so that evaluation of choices is driven more by a consideration of the context, needs, and opportunities as a discrete option rather than as a mathematical optimization exercise. In other words, I want to enable players to “shoot from the hip” in their decision making, which might also open up the design to a broader audience.
To the extent possible, I want to keep the theme and mechanics in alignment. I dislike, in general, “gamey” systems that exist without a clear connection back to the theme. If a mechanic or system can’t be clearly understood on the basis of it’s theme, then it needs to be reevaluated. If I’m doing something in-game that is totally illogical or counter-intuitive, that’s a problem. Games obviously require abstraction, but I want to abstract the various systems in the game to a comparable level. So many games go into great detail on ship design and combat, yet leave espionage or trade woefully underdeveloped. I want both to be compelling systems, even if that means neither might be as deep on its own.
One issue I have with many 4X games is that they don’t provide enough feedback to the player on the consequences of their choices or as to the state of affairs in the game world. Without adequate feedback and information, it can make it hard to understand why the game state is the way it is, and in turn is hard for players to build heuristics and develop their skills and strategies.
Big Picture Management.
4X games can quickly spiral into a management nightmare for many gamers (myself included). The core systems of the game will be designed starting from the end, i.e., what does an empire look like at the precipice of transcendence and how is managing that state of affairs interesting, engaging, and free of frustration? That’s the goal, and achieving it relates to both the core game system mechanics around empire and colony management as well as the UI approach. I want the game to focus on the “big picture” at the galactic scale, and not get too far in the weeds. Ideally, there would be few menu’s in the game, with information presented visually right in the main viewport.
Strategic Interaction, not Optimization.
I have a nagging feeling that a lot of 4X games are more like optimization puzzles than proper strategy games. Part of this is because interaction between empires is usually limited to warfare. If interactions are based only around warfare, then the player that can optimize best, and build the strongest military engine the fastest, will inevitably win. Typically, there aren’t enough other ways to interact with foreign empires that can apply pressure to the same extent that military force can. As a result, the “strategy” of most 4X games is rather one-dimensional and boils down to learning the optimization puzzle best. I want Transcend to embrace multiple avenues for interaction, both peaceful and aggressive in nature, so that building up a big military isn’t the only way to go and that other emergent opportunities can manifest as well.
In conjunction with the transcendence / galactic threat system, my hope is to create a more tightly designed 4X game. I want players to immediately be faced with compelling situations that require strategic planning, not number crunching, to navigate. I want the game to move at a fast pace to keep narrative constantly evolving over the course of the game, with other empires thrown into a highly interactive geopolitical arena.
Up Next: Species & Core Gameplay Systems (probably)
In Part 2, I will present the core gameplay systems that underpin the design, specifically the Admin System. The Admin system is envisioned as a way to frame the player’s role as the leader of your culture. How Admin relates to exploration, colony management, and the production model will be described in greater detail.
In the meantime, I welcome any discussion, theory-crafting, and criticism of what has been presented thus far. Thanks, and stay tuned!
- [+] Dice rolls
The last two months have been crazy. But it seems like the last two months are always crazy, so I suppose that’s no excuse for having not updated the blog. And despite my effort to make the What’s Going On!? series a more regular thing - it seems I haven’t. But you’ll all forgive me I’m sure, because now, ladies and gentlemen, it is time for another What’s Going On!? Roll the excuses ...
The “eXplorminate” eXcuse
One excuse is that I’ve been continuing to write articles for eXplorminate. The first is a nice little Q&A with Starbase Orion developer Rocco Bowling. I’ve written about Starbase Orion before, and in the realm of Master of Orion successors, I think it remains one of the best over the past many years. It is great to see that the game continues to get development and support. I’m keeping my spider-sense alert for news of Starbase Orion 2, which rumor has it is in the works.
I promised in the last What’s Going On!? article that I’d do a proper review of This War of Mine. I’m happy to say that I have accomplished that goal, and there is a review of This War of Mine over at eXplorminate. This War of Mine is 11bit’s amazing war-torn civilian survival game, that is challenging, immersive, and hauntingly grim in a way that few other games manage to accomplish. If you are at all interested in roguelike games or survival-craft games, this is one to definitely check out.
Moving more into the board gaming orbit, I also did a review of Eclipse at eXplorminate, looking primarily at Big Daddy Creations iOS app version. But of course much of the discussion focused around the core gameplay experience, which has much in common with the physical meat-space version of the game. Long story short, I do enjoy Eclipse and think it does an excellent job delivering on its promise. I also happen to enjoy the game MUCH more as a digital app. Many of Eclipse’s downsides (in my opinion) relating to randomness are easier to swallow when I knock out a game in 30 minutes on my ipad compared to being stuck at a table for four hours surrounded by ancients. Anyway, check out the review.
The last bit of eXplorminate activity is a review of Invisible Inc. I mentioned last time that I’d be looking at this title more, and I am so glad that I did. Simply put, Invisible Inc provides the most fun that I have had in a turn-based tactical RPG game in forever. While the strategic side of the game is fairly thin, the stealth-based, net hacking, tactical espionage missions are just awesome. The game blends puzzle-solving, intuition, and strategy into a multi-layered experience where you are constantly having to juggle way too many things: gear, detection, power, unconscious bodies, surveillance, and more. The game’s character and execution is just wonderful as well. The narrative is the weak point of the game, but that shouldn’t stop you from digging in. If you like turn-based tactics game, Invisible Inc gets a giant glowing green light from me.
I have pile of other stuff in the works that will be cross-posted between this blog and eXplorminate, so stay tuned.
The “I Was On Vacation” Excuse
But I was on vacation. Unfortunately, I had to bring along a trunk full of games, and even sadder was that my family and extended relations kept wanting to play games! The audacity!
As I’ve mentioned regularly, my time for playing big boy games has been challenged over the past year or so (two kids does that, especially in light of other responsibilities). But, this means that I’ve increasingly been shifting focus to playing games with my kids (at least with the four year old who doesn’t try to eat all pieces) and my nephews. Here’s the highlight reel of what me and the fam have been up to:
I picked up Mice & Mystics during the summer, using my hard earned father’s day bonus to selflessly purchase a board game “for the kids” instead of buying yet-another-cardboard space-waster for my shelf of unplayed games. My kids/nephews have been enjoying the Mouse Guard graphic novels (as have I), and playing a game set in a similar world seemed like a no brainer, especially in light of their past interest in HeroQuest. Mice & Mystics is pretty great, with a fun story and lots of character. Given its cooperative nature, it makes it easy for me to sheppard things along, and the 4, 5, and 6 year olds have all made it through a number of quests at this point. They really get into it, which is just awesome to see.
Eight Minute Empire: Legends was stuffed into the game trunk as well. I wasn’t sure how well the abstract nature of the game would go over with the kids, but two of them really got into it. It is a testament to the amazing artwork of Designer/Publisher/Artist extraordinaire Ryan Laukat, that the games suckered in the kids so well. The set collection and area control are also very “visual” gauges of your score, which makes the decision making easier. It plays quickly, has plenty of opportunity for strategizing (or can be played more casually). It is among the best of the “high gravity games” that pack a lot of punch in a small box and compressed playtime. I love it, and might pick up the expansion at some point too.
I also have a new budding romance with designer Shadi Torbey and artist Élise Plessis's Oniverse. In particular the solo / coop card games Onirim and Sylvion. I’d like to gush even more about these games later, but I’ll give you the short take here. First of all, I absolutely freaking love the artwork and the whole package for these games. Z-man has done an amazing job of making the act of playing with a deck of cards feel like luxury. Folding open the box inserts is like cracking open a fresh box of chocolate each time. I can’ help myself from drooling.
In terms of Onirim, I’ve probably played well over 100 games over the past few months, most of these with the base game in cooperative mode with my wife. We’ve been playing it a bit in the vein of Hanabi with keeping our table talk to a minimum (which makes it much harder BTW), and it’s been a great experience. We’ve gone from losing almost every game to winning almost every game, which is a nice acknowledgement that skill matters. Still, you can get the bad hand that just doesn’t work. But the game does a great job maintaining tension throughout. I don’t feel a huge need to dive into the expansions, but I’ll probably test the waters more in solo play.
Sylvion is likewise a gorgeous game with a clever set of rules. I’ve played about 6 or 7 games so far, and feel like I’m just scratching the surface. I’ve found it a bit easier than Onirim, so I suspect I’ll be adding the expansions in in short order to ramp up the challenge a bit. Sylvion, for those not in the know, is a pretty slick interpretation of a tower/lane defense type game that are more commonly seen video games - yet the translation to a board game works well in this case.
I picked up Red7 from the illustrious Carl Chudyk. I played a few hands during the vacation with some of the adult types. Unfortunately, the experience confirmed my suspicion that Carl’s games, though simple mechanically in the case of Red7 at least, are really aimed at gamers. There is a certain sort of action planning, look ahead, and mathematical gymnastics that you need to go through to get the most out of his games. If you aren’t inclined towards such things, his games are going to feel dry, flat, confusing, and frustration. Which is the reaction had by most of the table. There is a genius at work in his games, but you have to want to stroke the genius to appreciate it. Ah well...
The “But I Was Glued to my iPad” Excuse
My family, sensing my inner need for games, gifted me some itunes bucks before vacation, so I loaded up my iPad with some new goodies. I tend to stay up way later than the rest of the family (a habit which will probably catch up me in time), which affords me a couple of hours most nights to nerd on out my platform of choice, be it board games or video games.
The first one to mention, and which was recently updated with a free content patch, is Inkle’s 80 Days. This is an absolutely phenomenal game. The game is based on a steampunk interpretation of Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days, but structured as a choose your own adventure style gamebook. Inkle’s Sorcery series (which I also love) cemented their mastery of the digital gamebook, and 80 Days is no exception. In 80 Days, you assume the role of valet for the preeminent Mr. Fogg, tasked with principally with tending to the luggage and securing travel arrangements. Sounds dry, but it is so rich. The narrative and writing is superb, and there are a plethora of decisions to make in planning your route and finding opportunities to sell collected items for a profit, earning funds to continue the adventure. The game drew me in quickly and didn’t let go until I finally collapsed into a heap. If you are at all interested in digital game books, this is one to try.
In a nod to board gaming, I grabbed Battlelore: Command, a fantasy game based on the Command & Colors wargame system. The app is nicely done with great visuals and solid gameplay. I played a number of missions and they can be quite challenging. I’d love to see this game expanded with additional content though.
I have a pile of other iOS games I’ve been dabbling with, in no particular order:
- Warhammer 40,00: Deathwatch (meh, I liked Hunters 2 far more)
- Spacecom (cool slow-time RTS 4X game)
- Battlestaion: Harbinger (ship/fleet building roguelike thing, sorta like FTL, okay)
- Xenowerk (top down action RPG, meh)
- Space Marshals (top down action RPG, humorous, looks promising)
- Galactic Keep (sounds awesome on paper, haven’t played yet!)
I’ll write up more on these eventually. But not just yet.
Last, but not least, is Organ Trail. No, I’m not talking about the game Oregon Trail, the pioneer themed game that you played during grade school in some dilapidated computer lab. This is Organ Trail, the zombie themed game that you can play right now on iOS or Android in your very own home. Organ Trail has you loading up a station “wagon“ (wood siding and all) to embark on your very own cross-country adventure amidst the crescendo of a zombie apocalypse. It will all feel very familiar. Jenny got bit by a zombie. Joey has dysentery. Your wagon broke a tire. You need more bullets. You’re running out of food. And so on. If you like Oregon Trail, and you like zombies and station wagons, then take a look at Organ Trail. It’s really the same thing, but with Zombies. And it’s still just as good.
The “Buried Under Too Many Heavy Games” Excuse
This next excuse has to do with all the big grand games I’ve been playing recently. It’s ghastly to think about it. But I feel like I’m in a golden age for the sorts of games I like to play. And while the menu seems to be growing by the day, there is still the unpleasant task of separating the wheat from the chaff. So let’s get on with the drudgery.
Say what you will, but the 4X video game sphere is undergoing a period of galactic inflation. The number of games coming out that let you play emperor, dictator, or supreme peacemaker continues to grow and with more on the way. Earlier this year I had a chance to play around quite a bit with two often confused game: Star Ruler 2 and StarDrive 2. The former is a real-time 4X game with a number of inventive and clever mechanics, particularly around the concepts of creating resource networks between planets and the card-based diplomacy system. In practice, I found the game a bit too dry and cumbersome to convince me to continue with it, which is a shame because I love the ideas behind it.
The latter, StarDrive 2, is a turn-based reworking (for lack of a better term) of the often criticized original StarDrive. As a point of comparison, SD2 is about the closest we have to a modern Master of Orion 2 game, and it is really quite close to the mark. Except that it isn’t. It seems to have all the right pieces in place for an exceptional experience, but it needs a lot more tweaking and refinement to get the systems working better and to make the gameplay more challenging and varied. It looks good on paper but overstays its welcome quickly when you start playing. Still, it has an awesome ship builder, great visuals, and might be worth a shot. An expansion is in the works, which if coupled with improvements to the base gameplay, could turn this into a great title.
I’ve also put myself up to checking out Sovereignty: Crown of Kings, on behalf of eXplorminate. The game is still in early access, but it feels a bit like a streamlined fantasy version of Paradox’s grand strategy magnus opus Europa Universalis. I’ve never been able to get into Europa, as I just don’t have the attention span to wade through all the numbers and figure out the various systems. If I could figure it all out, I’m sure I’d love it. Oh have I tried. In contrast, Sovereignty takes many of the same ideas but keeps it all at higher more abstract level, and I can dig that. It also has a tactical battle system that feels very wargame-y (in a good way), a magic system (why not?), a slick agent/espionage system (yes!), and tons of diplomacy options (naturally). I need to give this one more time on the front burner, but so far it feels like something I could really dig into.
Then there is Thea: The Awakening, another early access title that has been generating some buzz for its unique combination of settlement management, strategy RPG, roguelike elements, and survival-craft. Here again, I need to spend more time with the game, as on paper it sound exactly like something with the potential to consume me. But in the short time I’ve played with it, I found it overly fiddly and detailed in a way that threw up too many roadblocks between me and the unfolding narrative. But my experience is limited and the game is still in early access, so anything is possible. I’ll be playing this more and watching its development closely.
The “Just One More Run” Excuse
My appreciation of roguelike games (and games with roguelike elements) continues to blossom. I’ve got something more specific in the works about this, but until then I’ll share a little about the games I’ve been fawning over.
Darkest Dungeon. I bit the hook and grabbed Darkest Dungeon. I told myself to wait. I told myself that it will be better when it’s all done. I said I’d never do it. But I did. I lied to myself. I bought the game. And not since I and a close friend had an entire movie theater to ourselves, where we watched nothing other than Van Helsing while screaming and swinging our fists in the air, has a game got me so pumped. Maybe it has something to do with its Van Helsing-ish mixture of Sleepy Hollow meets Lovecraft at the gates of hell (to name a few of my favorite things). But whatever it is, developer Red Hook Studios has got it. The game’s atmosphere (especially its amusingly dark narration) is just perfect for setting the stage for the grisly operation you will be running. Essentially, you have the pleasure of managing a hero mill. Heroes come to town, literally by the stage coach, and you feed them into the maw of various dungeons on your way towards unlocking the darkest of dungeons. Heroes are far more likely to come back from the pits a broken shell of their former selves, afflicted by disease, psychosis, and other crippling ailments. So you send them off to the sanitarium while you get the next load of fresh meat ready for the ginder. This all sounds awful, but I assure you it isn’t. Check it out.
Crypt of the Necrodancer. A friend of mine recently got married, and so we did the bachelor party thing of gathering up as many canoes, kayaks, rafts, coolers, and beers that we could to float down a river as far as it would take us. Curiously, the river ended up, somehow, at my house where I, somehow, had Crypt of the Necrodancer cued up, somehow, on the “big screen.” Crypt is a roguelike with a twist, which is that everything moves to the beat of the completely outrageous techno music that constitutes the game’s high-energy soundtrack. The game is funny, hard, and silly. And it features local co-op, making it an ideal candidate for hanging out with a bunch of jolly friends, keeping the good times rolling after a raucous day on the river. It’s also a pretty damn fun game on its own.
The Flame in the Flood. I just started in on this one. But it plays nicely into my theory that Oregon Trail was one of the first roguelike games. In the Flame in the Flood, you are tasked with navigating your way down a river in a flooded world. The river navigation sequences are eerily reminiscent of the final river stage in Oregon Trail. The rest of the game has you stopping at islands and scavenge around for various craftable materials, used to keep yourself nourished, hydrated, warm, and healthy. The game is still in early access, and the story/campaign mode is not in place yet. So right not it is a “how long can you last” type game. What is present, however, is well produced and engaging. But the game is also HARD. Whether it is too hard or not (for me) remains to be seen, but it’s a cool game nonetheless.
Massive Chalice. The games keep coming! I picked this one up too, and have been tinkering with it a bit. I’m not sure that it is all it’s cracked up to be, although I’m enamored enough with the idea of it that I’ll keep playing. Essentially, the game marries a tactical RPG combat game with a lineage management sim. As a sort nebulous overlord figure, you establish various royal houses and arrange various marriages that will lead to the birthing of various offspring that you can train and deploy in the various tactical combats that you will be variously called upon to conduct. It’s a nice execution, with a reasonable balance of detail in the systems. But I’m not sure how much variety there is over the course of the game, even with all the various things mentioned above.
Almost done. Hang on.
The “Bitten by Nostalgia” Excuse
In an earlier blog post, the one about old school FPS games, I reminisced about Doom and Quake. That reminiscing has led me down a rabbit hole of actually playing these old gems again. Not only that, in the case of Quake (one of my all-time favorite games), I’ve put myself through the horror of getting my own multiplayer server running. This has been a total cluster-f^&k operation that has culminated in me learning more than I ever knew there was to know in the first place about home networking, DNS servers, flashing router firmware, and the command prompt. But I overcame.
More horrifying is that I successfully convinced many of my local friends to dig out their ancient copies of Quake and join with me and the Dark Lord Sauron on the server, that we may rekindle long-extinguished flames. And it happened! A number of us have been playing Quake deathmatch across the trove of custom levels I’ve collected. I even went nuts and started to re-catalogue the 100’s of maps I have. Take a peep at if you dare.
Last, I’ll mention a game I’ve been playing a bit that has captivated me in a number of ways. The nostalgic way is that mechanically, the game plays like a japanese-style RPG, reminding me of playing final fantasy on my Nintendo. The aesthetic way is that the art direction, soundtrack, and narrative is just amazingly well done. The third way is that I’ve been playing the game with my daughter, who seems as enamored with it as I am. The game is Child of Light, and among other things is a nice case study for the kinds of creative design and execution is possible from a AAA studio with a AAA budget when unshackled from the usual AAA constraints.
Child of Light is a side-scrolling adventure RPG about a young princess trapped in a sort of fairyland dreamworld, on a quest to free her bed-stricken father from a comatose state. The overarching story isn’t terribly original, but it is presented in a very touching manner and all of the text is structured to a rhyme and meter. The game world feels like this wonderful little mystery box that you get to explore the nooks and crannies of, and my daughter loves flying Aurora (the protagonist) around and looking at things. It’s like a picture book. There are even some local co-op features built in so that we can play together. And finally, the sound track. I’ve listened to the soundtrack so many times on YouTube, especially when I’m working. I don’t know what it is about it, but it beckons to me. Check out the video below, and see if Child of Light beckons to you as it does to me.
- [+] Dice rolls
30 Apr 2015
I’ve been struggling to write a holistic critique of the 4X genre for a while. On one hand, I ask myself “why is such a critique even necessary?” On the other, I feel that the genre is at a crossroads. Different tensions, for good or for bad, pull the genre in different directions. Trying to understand these tensions, which shape the genre’s landscape, will (hopefully) illuminate more challenges and opportunities in 4X design. Of course, I have my own aspirations of making a 4X videogame, so understanding the current “state of affairs” is important for designing in an informed manner and navigating through this messy environment.
Thankfully, a recent Three Moves Ahead (3MA) podcast on 4X games gave me the needed kick-in-the-pants to get me writing. The 3MA episode, intentionally or not, provided a rather scathing critique of the entire 4X genre and its failings, as well as highlighting a few small bright points of promise. I felt myself doing the proverbial headbang dance as I listened to the podcast, as many of their reactions and sentiments echo my own. Engaging in the 4X genre is a bit of a shattered dream, where we sift through the shards in hope of finding that one perfect game. But so often we cut ourselves on the glass.
The “Shattered Dream” is a 3-part article that will critique the 4X genre in a number of ways. Part 1 will focus on defining the 4X genre and relevant sub-genres. Part 2 will dig into what I feel is the primary tension in the genre: the desire to craft detailed simulations of other worlds and provide players with a deep strategic game. Last, Part 3 will look at how various tensions play out in the market space for 4X games and what promising avenues of innovation (and massive potholes!) lie ahead.
Part 1 - A Fragmented Genre
Much of my writing has focused on the classification and taxonomy of games. And it is important to recognize that no classification scheme will ever be perfect and cover all cases adequately. However I feel that the byproduct of discussing classification is that it forces us to explore game characteristics in detail. And this understanding is beneficial regardless of whether it culminates in a useful classification system or not. With this disclaimer out of the way, let’s begin.
The term “4X” refers to eXplore, eXpand, eXploit, and eXterminate. The term was originally coined in a preview article for Master of Orion (the first) as a shorthand to reference the scope and nature of game - and the 4X term has grown in use ever since. It is tempting to use the label as a literal definition for classifying games, and hence for a game to be a 4X you need to have “The Four Elements” in place. But I think this ultimately doesn’t work; it becomes far too inclusive if taken literally. For example, most RTS games in the ilk of Starcraft or Age of Empires could fall under a 4X definition.
Rather, I think the “spirit” of the 4X label is what is important; which is that the 4X games strive to capture a grander scope than a RTS or turn-based wargame. There is usually some degree of empire building and management present, with the player filling the shoes of a real or assumed leader, often with an omnipotent view and uncontested control over their domain. The time scale is usually long, with a players’ empires growing and advancing. There is usually a balance between internal pressures mechanics, like managing the happiness of your population or the upkeep of a burgeoning bureaucracy, and external pressures such as military threats, hostile environments, and diplomatic posturing.
Yet within this umbrella, there are some useful sub-genres to consider. And it is these sub-genres that I feel provide the most salient lens through which to view the nuances and diversity of the 4X genre. As with past game classification efforts, it is important to consider the historic origins of these sub-genres. Furthermore, I’ll use the opportunity to reference Wittgenstein's Family Resemblance concept. Essentially, rather than trying to adopt a rigid “in or out” approach to classification, we need to recognize that genres are a collection of commonly, but not always, associated traits and that games that fall within a particular genre may only exhibit a portion of those traits.
Here we go:
Empire Builders - The 3MA podcast used the term “Empire Builder” as an alternative to 4X games to describe those that emphasize empire building. Civilization is certainly the most iconic example of an Empire Builder, and some of the key characteristics include: (a) Internal pressure mechanics like upkeep costs, population happiness and approval, diminishing returns, etc.; (b) External pressures from foreign competing empires; (c) Multiple and divergent victory conditions (e.g. conquest, technology, culture, political); (d) Relatively detailed “Management Unit” (MU) optimization requiring you allocate workers or resources within each MU.
Examples: Civilization, Endless Legends, Endless Space, Armada 2526, Distant Worlds, Galactic Civilization
4X-Lite - In trying to ascertain what games get branded with the “4X-Lite” label, the best I can tell is that these are games that downplays internal empire management in favor of a focus on warmongering. The games are often “simpler” from a complexity of mechanics standpoint but place far greater emphasis on the production, movement, and positioning of military forces. Victory tends to focus primarily (or exclusively) on military related win conditions such as outright conquest or domination of the map. In some ways, I think of these almost as “pure 4X” games because they are most directly aligned with the 4X’s and have relatively few other systems bolted on.
Examples: Sword of the Stars, Age of Wonders, Neptune’s Pride, UltraCorps, Master of Magic, Warlock, Star Drive 2
Heroic Strategy - There is some overlap between this and the previous category, but Heroic Strategy in my mind are games with many 4X elements but often with a strong focus on RPG-like character development of a smaller pool of characters. Oftentimes, “empire management” is handled through the development of a single or primary town/castle where units are recruited.
Examples: Heroes of Might and Magic, Disciples
Grand Strategy - This is a term most aptly directed towards paradox’s landmark titles, like Crusader Kings and Europa Universalis. Sometimes, these are described as 4X games where you cut out the opening exploration phase of the game (since generally the geography is already known) as well as the late game victory dash by having more focused scenario-based goals. The heart of such games tend to be in relatively more complex empire planning, force organization, leader/character management, and nuanced diplomatic mechanics.
Examples: Europa Universalis, Crusader Kings, The Last Federation, Imperia 5X
RTS-4X Hybrid - These are games that cross the line between a typical real time strategy (RTS) game like Starcraft or Command & Conquer and a 4X game. While any 4X game can be “real time” (e.g. Distant Worlds, StarDrive 1, Star Ruler) many of these are intended to work in a “pausable” real time fashion where “who can click/think fastest” is not really a factor in your success. The RTS-4X Hybrids blend the need for fast thinking (and clicking) found in a typical RTS game with the grander design scope seen in most 4X games, with players often having to navigate far bigger technology trees, diplomatic relationships, and internal empire considerations along the way.
Examples: Sins of a Solar Empire, Rise of Nations, Haegemonia
Campaign Driven - The last category is reserved for games that feature a 4X type system that provides a structure for a campaign, with individual tactical battles (turn based or real-time) taking the center stage. The campaign level can vary quite a bit in terms of complexity and scope, but is nonetheless in the service of providing context (and consequences) for the tactical battles that are the focus of the game.
Examples: Total War series, Dawn of War Soulstorm campaign
Tension Point: On Genre, On Blitzen!
Why is this important? I think these sub-genres (the title of which are open to debate!) have existed for a while without much formal recognition. Yet these go a long way towards explaining people’s perspectives, tolerances, preferences within the genre. Personally, I am tired of seeing comments like “this game is garbage because there’s no depth in empire management!” when the intent wasn’t be an empire building game in the first place. It’s like saying a free-for-all deathmatch arena shooter is bad because it is not team-based and doesn’t use modern military weapons. They are both FPS games, but an arena shooter (ala Quake-series) is much different from a team-based military shooter (ala Battlefield-series).
By calling everything under the umbrella “4X” all the time, it presupposes certain expectations on games and in turn biases our outlook of them. For instance, we assume that it should have some exploration elements, a way of expanding, a way of exterminating, and so on. This creates tension across the genre between our expectations (whether well- or ill-conceived) and the desire for encouraging diversity in the genre. Having said of all of this, genres (and sub-genres) are still useful for understanding games, making comparisons between them, and having more consistent language that gamers can use. But they can also be a trap that confines what we think is possible. If we think too strictly in terms of genres, particularly as designers, we can blind ourselves from seeing and pursuing genre-breaking game concepts.
Part 2 - The Dueling Pianos: Simulation vs. Game
Complexity does not equal depth
If there is one point I hope to get across in this article it is the above line. I think there is a misconception in the 4X community that the only way to have a deep game is to have a bunch of complex systems all intertwined into some giant mechanical monstrosity. But depth in decision-making is different from the complexity of the game. Decision depth is an emergent property of the gameplay that comes about as players are required to make tough trade-offs; whether that be in allocating resources, making diplomatic arrangements, positioning forces, or advancing your empire.
As I’ve written about before, decision depth (at a particular decision point) is a function of the major trade-offs or factors at work in influencing your decision and evaluating its potential outcomes. These factors can be economic, spatial, or intuitional in nature. For example: how to use a limited pool of strategic resources (e.g. casting points in Age of Wonders); or where to stage your military forces to maintain map control or chokepoints; or what diplomatic arrangements to pursue with what foreign powers. Complexity only serves to increase actual decision depth, and not merely the challenge of identifying or evaluating such decisions, when it makes these strategic (or tactical) factors more ambiguous.
The “deepest” choices are when players are faced with two or more equally viable or valuable appearing options and the player needs to rely on their experience and heuristics to make the right decision. Complexity, if it does not provide adequate feedback to the player to help build their heuristics (e.g. methods of effective play) simply makes choices harder to identify or evaluate and actually inhibits players from engaging with any potential depth. It might “feel” like the game is deep because it is mentally challenging - but these sorts of optimization hurdles are a pretense to getting to a decision point, not a decision point on their own.
In the worst situations, complexity can backfire when you’ve “figured it out” only to realize that at the end of the tunnel the actual decisions are obvious; that the game is an optimization puzzle of sorts and not really a game. An often used metric for a game’s depth is how many levels of skill there are among players (e.g. Chess rankings). If there is just one or two large skill levels (e.g. “I have it sort of figured out” versus “I’ve figured it all out!”) then it ultimately isn’t a deep game even if it has taken considerable effort to understand. Once you know the formula for success and can apply that every time the game will be short lived in terms of real depth.
Pacing & Flow
The 3MA’s podcast spent some time discussing issues of pacing and flow in 4X games, noting that pacing is key to making games fun in a “one more turn” sense as well as to making the “arc” of a game as it moves from the opening exploration to late-game victory exciting. Sadly, this an area of 4X game design that is perhaps the hardest to do well, especially for many of the newer indie studios making their first foray into game design. Many of the genre favorites are classics, I feel, for the very reason that they got the pacing right and kept players engaged throughout.
One way of evaluating the pacing and flow of a game is consider the types of actions that players can take. I’ve identified four general types of actions that range from most to least engaging and interesting (at least for me!):
1. Strategic Decisions - These are high levels decisions about your strategy, such as what victory condition to work towards, what mid- to long-range goals you are establishing (e.g. what opponents to ally with or fight), where to colonize next, what geographic areas are strategically important to control, etc.
2. Tactical Decisions/Actions - These are important decision points and/or actions that are taken to resolve your strategic decisions or to respond to short-term issues and events. For example, how you assemble an army or fleet and which general route they take or how you allocate the use of a limited strategic resource. These decisions can exist at the strategic scale as well as the tactical scale (if there is one in the game).
3. Optimization Activities - Should I build my research lab and then my production facility, or production then lab? A lot of time can be spent in 4X games optimizing a particular decision point, and depending on the complexity can be very challenging or relatively easy. Some players really enjoy these sorts of activities, other don’t. For example, I’d argue that ship building is a protracted optimization activity to construct ship/fleet to accomplish a particular tactical or strategic objective that you’ve previously identified. Adjusting the allocation of worker populations is likewise an optimization task, there is often one best solution/approach for a given strategic goal.
4. Managerial Upkeep/Overhead Activities - Last are routine management and/or upkeep tasks that require attention to move the game forward. Things like keeping unit/building queues up-to-date, remembering to build transports every few turns, upgrading ship designs to use lasers 2 instead of lasers 1, clearing notifications so you can process the next turn, pathfinding your forces to a given rally point, etc.
I feel that better games maximize the amount of hands-on time spent with #1 and #2 relative to #4. #3 (optimization) is more a matter of player tolerance, although personally I don’t like too much emphasis on optimization. The point here is that good pacing keeps players engaged by giving them meaningful strategic decisions on frequent intervals, rather than abandoning players to long stretches of just managing the consequences of a decision. When too many of the decisions in a game are trivial or obvious (often too many #3 or #4 actions), the game can feel far less deep and engaging. Streamlining the design, and providing ease-of-play automation that doesn’t detract from legitimate decision making is important.
Narrative Arc & Goals
The “narrative arc” of a game does not refer to it’s actual plot or storyline, but rather to the structure of the game itself as a story; with an opening, middle, and late-game phase that culminates in (hopefully) a well-earned and awarded victory. While good pacing is key to making the gameplay engaging and flow well, the overall narrative arc of the game helps shape your memory of the experience. Good games are memorable games.
How many times do we start a 4X game only to abandon the session part way through when it becomes obvious who is going to win or lose? In my mind, games that push us towards aborting a game early fail to provide a compelling narrative arc. If we already know how the story ends, we don’t bother finishing it. Creating an interesting narrative arc is undoubtedly a challenge, and is wrapped up intimately with the goals and victory conditions of the game.
In my experience, a lot of 4X game developers, particularly newer ones, don’t spend enough time (for whatever reason) refining the narrative arc to create excitement. Snowball & steamroller issues are part of the problem that push games towards a foregone conclusion: the player that optimizes early exploration is best positioned to expand/exploit the best, and hence best positioned to exterminate their opponents with no counter-threat. So addressing this issue is critical.
The victory conditions in the game are also a vital part of the narrative arc - and ideally the game is designed such that all players are kept in a state of tension all the way to victory. Runaway leaders and foregone conclusions are not much fun, but if you can counteract snowballing by providing alternative ways to achieve victory (perhaps as a high risk, high reward option) then it can help to keep the game close. Age of Wonders 3, while remaining focused on warfare (as a 4X-lite), combines typical conquest with a leader assassination and king-of-the-hill style victory options. A player that is steamrolling militarily can be eliminated from behind by killing their leader and capturing the throne city. Alternatively, other players can grab seal points and force the steamrolling player to divert focus away from conquest and claim seals instead.
The 3MA’s podcast further criticized the typical conquest, research, economic, etc. victory system used in so many games because it tends to put game mechanics into silos. If you only care about research and can otherwise defend yourself, you just focus on research until the end of the game and aren’t really incentivized to engage with the other elements of the game. These disconnected goals lead to a sort of disconnected play experience that doesn’t culminate in an interesting closure to the narrative. Achieving victory tends not to signify much beyond hitting an artificial threshold before your opponents, there is little thematically memorable about it. And for games that can take dozens of hours to play, the drab “victory screens” are a further taint on the experience.
At the end of the day, the narrative arc should culminate in an exciting and hard-fought win, not a tedious grind to an inevitable victory. 4X games need to pay serious attention to victory conditions and how these set the stage for a compelling arc and drive the gameplay forward.
Tension Point: Simulation Toy vs. Strategy Game
Keith Burgun recently wrote a thought provoking article, Videogames are Broken Toys, about how many so-called games might actually be better understood (and hence designed) as toys instead of games. To a certain extent I agree. I think about open sandbox games like the Elder Scrolls or the X-series, and indeed they are very “toy-like.” They are an environment for interaction, where the player can establish their own goals and interact with the systems to whatever extent they want.
I have a pet theory about 4X gamers, which is that there are two camps of preferences (which occasionally intermingle in the night). One set of preferences is for detail and “simulation” - and you often see people clamoring for the ability to micromanage 1000’s of colonies across a vast intergalactic empire. Another sentiment is that some people “love watching the galaxy unfold” into a living dynamic system. Indeed, Distant Worlds seems to be the darling game here, where you can literally automate everything and watch your empire take on its own life. Likewise, the player is at liberty to engage with whatever part of the system they want to, and automate the rest. In my mind, these are both very “toy-like” notions, and the more complex and intricate the toy, the more it people enjoy manipulating it.
The other set of preference is more aligned towards a fair, competitive, strategy “game”. Here, streamlining and simplification is tolerated (and even preferred) when it brings the decisions and their consequences to the forefront of play, even at the expense of simulation realism. More clear-cut discrete choices that rely less on complexity and more on transparency is important. As a “game,” feedback on what worked or didn’t work, via the UI or reporting, is vitally important to building heuristics and better strategies. To use Keith Burgun’s terms, a game is a “contest of decision making” - and the more focused the gameplay is around those key decision making points, the more successful it is as a strategy game.
All in all, a game’s leans towards simulation or “game” has ramifications for the complexity, pacing, and narrative arc of a game. Individuals will all have a different preference points between these poles, and I suppose the insight for developers is to consider carefully their intended audience and how they can craft the best experience (narrative arc) within that context. Getting this right takes no small amount of effort, and in a way it is unfortunate that so many games are released in the genre missing this key stage of refinement or leaving it to post-release development.
Breaking out of Orbit
Rooted in the Past & The MoO2 Conundrum
A tension in the 4X genre (and the videogame industry as a whole) from a marketability standpoint is that innovation is risky and tried and true designs sell better. We see this as evidence for successful games being serialized or reimplemented under a different guise. It is amazing to me that some of the mechanics seen in the early civ games or Master of Orion 2 (like allocating workers in a city) has remained a hallmark of the genre 20-some years later. How many recent or upcoming space 4X games are trying to snatch the MoO2 mantle? Why are we still clinging to a Civ template?
The 3MA’s podcast was suggesting that the genre is stuck in a bit of a catch-22. The biggest market opportunity is rehashing (or modernizing) a proven design concept – yet indie and AAA studios alike often fail in this endeavor. Either the polish and execution is off, or the developers just didn’t understand why some of the older titles worked successfully and replicate those lessons their own game (e.g. Alpha Centauri to Beyond Earth = fail).
For games striving to be more revolutionary and innovative, unless the game is exceptionally polished and well-made, the audience is even smaller and the marketability even less. Without a bigger budget (production values, marketing, attention, etc.), innovative titles that are amazing in concept often fail in the execution due to buggy launches, crude UI’s, unengaging graphics, lack of press coverage, and so forth. Many indie games, whether going innovative or more traditional in their design, are barely able to get a feature complete release together, let alone do the necessary refinements to the pacing and narrative arc to make the games stand out in comparison to the old classics.
I am increasingly feeling that the era of Early Access and the expectation of post-release development is partly to blame for why games seem to come up short. During the heyday of the 90’s, a game needed to be very solid at release because most people would never patch (or even know to look for a patch assuming it was possible) once they brought it home. The game was the game, for good or bad. And people also frequently waited for reviews to come out before purchasing, so they would know whether they were about to step into a buggy mess or not. As a consequence, a LOT of time was spent polishing and balancing before launch to make sure the gameplay was as genuinely compelling as it could be, that there was ample room for real strategizing, and that the AI provided real opposition.
With Early Access and games being released well-before their time becoming the norm, it just paints a poor picture of the entire genre. How many 4X games come out with bad reviews but are eventually patched or expanded to be great games a year or more down the line? A lot of games are improved and turned from bad or mediocre to great – but in this situation you’ve lost your ability to reach a wider audience with a positive launch and you’ll never make-up the lost sales. All of this poor perception keeps the genre as a niche; the mainstream crowds don’t have much tolerance for waiting.
Of course, Early Access and crowdfunding is largely responsible for enabling indie devs to get to market in the first place, adding their take on the genre. Without these tools, we would likely see far less diversity and innovation than we do now. So I don’t intend to be overly critical of these new tools either. A lof of games seem to go into Early Access before being feature complete, and get released soon after being “feature complete” - which really doesn’t leave enough time in my opinion for polish and balance with all the systems in place.
Reimagining the Challenge, Asymmetrically of Course
I feel like we are, perhaps, on the precipice of a new era of 4X games. Should we manage to secure a few good (or exemplary) reimplementations of past favorites, e.g. our darling Master of Orion modernized, it might leave the door open for pursuing alternative styles of 4X games. And a number of games have been released or are under development that are exploring new asymmetric designs as a way to provide a novel experience to players while still building on the 4X language. One of the primary goals of such endeavors is to get around the typical need for competent, human-like AI opposition. Without a strong AI to challenge and pressure the player, so many 4X games just feel flat and underwhelming. So if you can’t change the AI, change the game.
Jon Shafer’s “At the Gates” is one such game, where the player is primarily responsible for leading a migrating city around the map, absorbing different clans along the way. The opposition comes from various external threats, none of which are intended to be analogous to the player. Similarly, Arcen Game’s AI War pits the player as a tiny flee-of-an-empire against a vastly bigger AI empire, requiring the player to build up without gaining too much attention from the less-than-friendly AI. Keith Burgin’s iOS title “Empire” has the player managing cities that deplete their natural surroundings and must constantly be relocating, yet this is set against the backdrop of a growing corruption that will eventually overwhelm the player and lead to their defeat. The challenge is to see how long you can live - and much like a game of Tetris, eventually time runs out.
These Aren’t the Boardgames You Are Looking For
Another trend that I’ve been seeing is more reference to digital games that use “boardgame-like” mechanics in their design. While what constitutes boardgame-like is a topic all of its own, I think part of it comes down to transparency, streamlining, and providing fewer but more challenging decisions. For 4X games, this relates to the earlier section on complexity and depth. Boardgames, by virtue of having to be “processed” by the players at the table tend to be far more transparent in how their mechanics work, and create depth through challenging situations rather than relying on complexity alone as a stand-in for depth. The effective depth-to-weight ratio is higher for most boardgames than video games I feel.
Curiously, 4X games have their roots in boardgames from the 70’ and 80’s (as does Civilization). With a number of highly successful 4X boardgames (Eclipse in particular, also available on iOS) showing what is possible in a non-digital format, perhaps it is an opportunity for 4X video game designers to look back over the fence and learn a few tips. Perhaps, by streamlining games but maintaining the depth, we can make 4X games more accessible to a broader audience or even make it easier to build competitive AI’s. Unfortunately, one recent title, Sid Meier’s Starships, missed the mark and its claim to have been influenced boardgames suggests that maybe it was looking at the wrong boardgames. But there is hope.
On Finding Greater Meaning
The 3MA’s podcast discussed to topic of meaning in 4X games, which is a great final point to this long-winded article. In short, they commented on the notion that at the core all of these 4X games are really the “same game.” They are all an embodiment of a colonial-era manifest to become the supreme lord of the manor. On one hand this isn’t surprising given the “ingredients” of the 4X genre of exploring and laying claim to unknown lands and exterminating your way to victory. But this begs the question - can the genre do more?
What is it that compels us to relive the same narrative over and over in different flavors or via a slightly more polished implementation? Why must it always end in blood or economic monopolization or diplomatic unity? Can or should the genre be an opportunity to speak to a different, perhaps post-colonial, narrative? This prompts bigger questions about meaning in video games and to what extent games can provide a greater commentary on the human condition beyond tickling our fancies. What happens after we conquer the planet? In a way, Burgun’s “Empire” is a reminder that all of our civilizations will eventually crumble to dust and be replaced with something else - I’d like to see more games put the player in those reflective situations.
I also remain eternally fascinated by my relatively recent discovery of King of Dragon Pass, which is a sort of mash-up between a clan management, 4X, and a choose your own adventure. Here is a game where the player is not an omnipotent ruler of their domain, but a single person with only so much time in the day for making decisions and taking actions. It is a 4X game of sorts, but the perspective is shifted and the entire tone is immediately more immersive and reflective. Could such an approach be applied to a more traditional 4X title? Could it sell?
A Menagerie of Tension
To sum up, the 4X genre is fraught with tensions. Some are internal to the design of the games themselves, such as the balance between simulation and streamlining or designing an open sandbox versus a tight strategy game with a compelling narrative. Other tensions relate to the legibility of the genre itself and the extent to which 4X is even a useful term, or whether the sub-genres can gain traction as a shorthand. Yet more tensions exist in the marketability of 4X games, with the drive to pay homage to the past and take on less risky (more profitable?) projects or to tackle more revolutionary design concepts. And of course, there is tension in the development process of the game’s themselves and the mixed-messages and needs of Early Access and crowd-funding.
My hope is that cunning developers can navigate all of this. We can each imagine our perfect game (or games!). And should the genre grow and mature the chance of that one game being made goes up, somewhere, somehow. There might be more chaff along the way, but it’s the dream that keeps us sifting through the broken shards of glass. And if all else fails you can always set sail and try to make your own game right?!
- [+] Dice rolls
05 Feb 2015
- Issue #1 - City Spam & Snowballing
- Issue #2 - “One Big Battle” and the Steamroller
- Issue #3 - Micromanagement, Tedium, and Drag-out
These three issues are, I feel, the central challenge of 4X game design. And how the design of different games in the genre handles (or fails to handle) this interlinked challenge does as much to differentiate titles as to account for a game’s overall success, failure, or lasting legacy.
Issue #1 - City Spam & Combating the Snowball
Typically in 4X games, controlling more territory gives you access to more resources, which can transpire into a force advantage to enable you to win the game. “City Spam” is the notion that good gameplay heavily incentivizes placing as many cities as you can, or taking over as many colonies/planets as you can, in order to control the most territory. And then there is “Snowballing” (think of the snowball rolling down the hill getting bigger and bigger). Snowballing is the notion that as a player gets a resource advantage over another player, they can apply that advantage towards growing their resource base at a faster and faster rate, and quickly surpass their opponents’ capacity. Thus city spam typically leads to snowballing, although snowballing can also be driven by other factors.
Limiting Management Units
4X games have tried to combat city spam in a number of different ways, one of these is limiting the number of management units directly. By “management unit” I’m referring to cities, colonies, planets, star systems, or whatever the “thing” is that houses your empire’s population, conducts production, etc. Basically, where a production queue is housed is probably what the management unit is.
Warlock 2 (for example) uses a system where only a few of your cities are fully under your control, and other cities get related to secondary support cities that help your empire but in a less direct and less powerful way. Endless Legends uses a region system where each large region can only have one city – hence hard capping the number of possible cities in the game.
These approaches aren’t particularly ideal solutions in my mind. One of the challenges is in rectifying such ideas as a compelling design mechanic in relation to their logical thematic implications. Endless Legend’s region system can be painfully arbitrary seeming at times, and doesn’t make much sense thematically. If no one is occupying these pre-defined regions, how did they even become named regions? What is responsible for determining their borders? From a gameplay point of view they do reduce city spam and they do force a careful consideration of where to place a city within each region as you expand. But it feels forced, a mechanic made to solve a mechanical problem and not one flowing nicely out of the theme.
Alternative Forms of Counter-Pressure
Another approach for dealing with snowballing is to keep the game highly interactive and give tools to the players (and the AIs!) to exert a counter-pressure on snowballing empires. This counter-pressure should come in ways that don’t fundamentally rely on the economic disparity that caused the snowballing to begin with. For example, this counter-pressure could come about through trade, diplomacy, or espionage systems. If for example, lagging empires could exert large trade sanctions or easily form temporary alliances to coordinate attacks (e.g. “Bash the Leader”) there’s a good chance of fighting against the snowball.
Unfortunately for single player games, getting an AI to behave in a coordinated manner is difficult, and likely explains why we don’t see more of this in 4X games. But in games with multiplayer support, this can be a critical aspect of the gameplay. Neptune’s Pride (and Diplomacy for that matter) are entire games designed around these diplomatic negations and pressures. There is the sense that if you get too big you paint a big target on yourself and get attacked on multiple fronts – hence you need to tread lightly and expand judiciously to not attract the ire of your opponents. This dynamic rarely exists in single player 4X games. Bigger is just better most of the time.
Diminishing Returns for Expansion
Last, snowballing can be countered through escalating marginal costs or diminishing returns. Basically, these are mechanisms employed to make continued growth more and more costly the more that you grow. Many 4X games introduce a bureaucracy type element or empire upkeep that consumes Gold or SpaceBucks as your empire gets bigger, making each new expansion hurt the overall efficiency of your empire. Other games use expansion disapproval type mechanics, where your citizens start getting upset and unsettled as your empire gets bigger.
The escalating cost system seems to be the better approach to solving city spam and snowballing in a more organic fashion. The game can be designed around a certain ideal empire size (number of management units) and players can chose to operate above or below that line if it makes sense strategically to do so. Unfortunately, this is also one of those situations where conveying the gameplay ramifications of such mechanics in a clear way is often hard to do. Many 4X games don’t provide a clear understanding of how these mechanics work and when they start to kick into effect, so learning the heuristics of good play is more frustrating than it ought to be. In addition, it often isn’t thematically logical that a big empire suddenly becomes less happy or less efficient due just to its size. In fact, bigger empires could be more diverse with people being happier as a result. Or economies of scale kick in and the empire could actually be more efficient!
Issue #2 - “One Big Battle” and Stopping the Steamroller
The result of unchecked snowballing is that, for many in 4X games, matches are decided by “one big battle.” The player with the biggest production and military advantage presses the attack and corners a defender. If they are able to stack the odds in their favor in advance, winning a key fight is often a foregone conclusion. And once the bulk of the defenders army is destroyed the aggressor just “steamrolls” their way to an inevitable victory, with their forces uncontested as they take over the opposing empire.
Stopping the steamroller is wrapped up in the above issues related to snowballing. Minimizing snowballing can slow down the steamroller – but not entirely. Ultimately, the streamroller effect is tied to conflict mechanics. If two players enter a conflict with equal force strength (both are equally snowballing), but winner of the first fight only takes 25% or 50% loses, while the loser has been eliminated, the winner has a tremendous force advantage moving forward in the game.
Managing Force + Battle Size
One approach that many games employ to minimize conflict outcome disparity is having Force Size Limits. Endless Space and Endless Legends are two games that come to mind in this regard, where each fleet or army can only contain a certain number of units. This is another case where I think the mechanical solution can work but isn’t very logical or compelling from a thematic standpoint, and leads to other strange effects. In Endless Space, you can end up with dozens or more fleets all stacked in one location, which adds tremendous overhead to managing your forces and breaks what would be one awesome space battle into a series of smaller and less thrilling engagements.
Age of Wonders 3 has a fixed stack limit of 6 units per hex, and when battles happen the target/defender hex plus all seven hexes around them are drawn into the battle, allowing up to 42 units in a single fight (7 hexes * 6 units per hex). It’s similar to the army size limits that the Endless games employ, and it does dovetail nicely into how tactical fights play out. Yet the system does create its own idiosyncrasies with being able to the game system a little and stack the odds for a fight numerically in your favor. Having a mechanism for drawing in reinforcements of over the course of a protracted battle could be a cool expansion on the basic concept.
Civ 5’s “one unit per tile” (1UpT) system is also a move in this direction. In an effort to eliminate the “stacks of doom” we instead get a “carpet of doom” that makes even less sense thematically and in poses a more serious tactical-spatial challenge for the AI.
Starbase Orion (iOS 4x game) takes a more flexible and nuanced approach (like the flexible escalating marginal cost notion above). Ships require a certain amount of command points (think upkeep) across your entire empire. You can have more ships than command points, but it starts diverting credits away from the general coffers at a really high rate. Regardless, the command points system creates a soft cap on the maximum force size of any one player’s empire – which can keep players a little more even. Yet command points ramp up as your empire develops and grows, so a snowballing empire will just have more command points to support a bigger fleet. And with battles tending to be “all in” the outcomes of a single battle can still be decisive for the game as a whole.
Curious Conquest Mechanics
The conquest mechanics of many 4X games are, in my opinion, one of the more confused and underdeveloped aspects of 4X games. In so many games, eliminating a city’s or planet’s defending army lets you, relatively painlessly, take it over and claim it as your own. Rarely do games require a sustained occupation to convert population – an occupation which could dramatically slow down the steamroller effect and give time for the defender to regroup and launch a counter-attack.
Armada 2526 does a, conceptually, good job of tracking the population of different planets that you capture. When you capture a “alien race” star system, the system is still occupied by the civilians of the alien race – they are often not too keen on their new overlords and suffer major happiness woes as a result. These woes can cascade into revolts and rebellion unless you maintain a fleet presence to “keep the peace”, marines on the ground, or build security centers. An interesting detail is that you can’t actually build marines of an alien race as a way to keep the peace, so it can be quite hard to ‘tame’ a hostile alien population.
I’m still waiting for a 4X game that layers in some sort of cultural affinity system – where for example the population of empire A might really like the culture/people of empire B based on long-term cultural exchanges. This affinity would make fighting across these cultural line highly unpleasant for both sides, and put some counter-pressure on attacking and being overly aggressive.
Fighting on Multiple Fronts
Another, often untapped, opportunity is the extent to which 4X games encourage players to split up their force and be able to attack on multiple fronts. In so many games, the best strategy is to keep all your forces in one spot for maximum devastation when the battle comes. This can be a result of how combat is designed, but it also has a lot to do with strategic movement and intelligence gathering. If you don’t have a way of moving past or around a big fleet (either through speed or stealth or both!) to raid cities or planets behind the line then there is little incentive for players to keep their forces dispersed and defending (and attacking) in multiple different locations.
Age of Wonders 3 does a relatively good job of enabling this sort of play. Scouting and map awareness is critically important, but there are also an abundance of fast moving and stealthy units. It’s entirely possible for players to be in a cold-war state along the frontlines with smaller pockets of forces infiltrating behind enemy lines to try and steal weakly defended cities. Unfortunately, outside capturing cities there is little for a raiding part to do – you can’t destroy resource nodes or structures with your raiding party, and so are somewhat limited in your capacity do deal clandestine economic damage.
I’m not a fan of “star lanes” in space 4X games, but they do create a topography for space with choke points and the like that can make it possible for a compact defensive force to hold the line in some locations while you press the attack in other locations. So that’s another approach to encourage multiple fronts.
Uncertain and Unpredictable Outcomes
The more certain the outcome of a typical battle is, the more unfortunate the impact of the “one big battle can be.” Uncertainty can be a mechanism that keeps a stronger player from holding off on their attack, wondering whether or not they have the strength to win, or what the costs of victory will be. This pause in aggression may be enough to let a lagging player mount a stronger defense, which prompts the attacker to question their advantage again or enables the defender to attack on a different front.
One game that manages this notion well is UltraCorps. Fleets can contain 100’s or even 1000’s of units, the combined strength of which is all rolled up into a few firepower measurements. But the way the combat mechanic itself works is never a guarantee. Outside of doubling the firepower of your opponent, it’s often possible to sustain heavy losses or outright lose the fight even with a noticeable firepower advantage. A few lucky hits early on in a combat round that takes out a key capital ship, for example, can have a compounding effect on the course of the battle. The system keeps things tense and interesting and you are almost always going to sustain moderate loses in a fight.
Armads 2526 detection system also keeps players on their toes in a nice way and makes the gameplay more uncertain. Unless an enemy fleet is relatively close to a sensor array, you won’t know the exact composition of the fleet headed your way, you might only get an approximate number of ships in the fleet. If the fleet is even further way, it’s just a blip, and you have no idea of whether the fleet is a single scout or decoy, or a full on invasion force.
Persistent Damage of Units
This is a smaller concept, but one that that many games use to good effect. For example, in Starbase Orion, damaged ships remain damaged unless the fleet returns to a system with a Starbase and remains idle for a number of turns. This is a nice way of putting the brakes on an invading force, because even if you don’t win the big fight, you can still do a lot of damage and make the next fight easier (assuming of course you have more forced on hand). Unfortunately in Starbase Orion’s case, battles can often be quite decisive, and often a winning force will come out of the battle with minimal damage and loses, and if the defender went all in on the fight, it’s probably all over for them.
Issue #3 - Micromanagement, Tedium, and Drag-out
The above two issues, city spam fueling snowballing and the One Big Battle leading to the steamroller effect, combine with the desired scale of most 4X games to create very unsatisfying late game and end game experience for many. City Spam results in players having to micromanage a large number of cities or colonies – often more than players might want to manage to maintain their production advantage. Winning the One Big Battle then leaves the player in the position of having to “mop up” the waning empires in a tedious, drawn out affair devoid of tension or deep decision making. A lot players just quit the game at that point and call it a win.
Bring in the Micromanagers!
An often employed approach to minimize late game micromanagement is to rely on planet/system/city AI managers or governors. The theory is that as your empire grows and grows, you are less and less concerned with optimizing the output on each and every management unit, and hence are more willing (no delighted!) to relinquish control to an AI manager. Personally I find this a really unsatisfying approach – and especially when a game is close and the hour grows late. If I’m fighting for my life to keep a snowball/steamrolling opponent at bay, the last thing I want is an AI governor buying stuff I may not need and consuming resources and time in the process. Yet, if the game requires me to manage dozens and dozens cities/planets/systems as the only alternative, that isn’t a good prospect either!
Generally speaking, if a game as AI managers that operate in any sort of shadow, left to their own devices sort of way, red flags go up.
Better Living Through Technology!
A different tact is to give players tools that make management tasks easier even as the game scales up. One of the most brilliant systems I’ve seen in this regard is the “custom build focus” mechanic used in Starbase Orion. Briefly, you are able setup and SAVE a custom build queue depending on a particular goal you have in mind for the development of a given planet. This queue bulls from all of the possible planetary developments that can happen in the game. For example, you could create a custom “Research Planet” queue that includes all the +research buildings, but maybe also sprinkles in some +production buildings (to make research faster), and maybe at the end of the queue a Starbase or other special projects.
The game handles the queues perfectly and it dovetails with your technology progress – so if you haven’t unlocked “Research Labs III” the custom queue will move on to the next queue item that can be built. If there is nothing currently available to build, the queue can have its default behavior specified (e.g. generate more taxes, boost growth, stockpile production, etc.) so that you don’t need to bother switching the planet focus around manually. At any time, you can swoop in a manually override the queue with a new build order, and when that manual order is done the planet will revert back to its custom queue.
All in all, this system makes it possible to manage many planets and systems quite easily. It accomplishes the same goal as AI managers, but it puts the decision and tools in the players hand and keeps the process far more transparent.
Swift Closure and Alternative Goals
The tedium and drag-out of the late game is at its worst when players are required to effectively exterminate all of the opposing empires to win. If the only goal extermination, and you’ve already won all the possible one-big battles, and the steamroller is steamrolling and the snowball is snowballing, then what is there to look forward to? For all that I like about Starbase Orion, the end can be a slog when it’s clear you’ve already won. Providing alternative win triggers can be a good way to combat this issue.
Age of Wonders 3 has a pretty clever win trigger. Each player/empire has a single “leader” hero, and normally if they die your leader respawns at your throne city a few turns later. However, if you manage to kill someone’s empire and capture their throne city before they respawn, you immediately win! If course, this goal can happen at any time, and often you see players, especially in human vs human games, strategize around assassinating a leader and using concealed units to capture the throne behind enemy lines. This is great for keeping players on their toes throughout the game, but also works well to avoid the end-game slog. After the “one big battle” you can usually scout around and find the enemy leader and make a push right to their throne city for a win.
Age of Wonders 3 also introduced a clever “Seals” victory, which is a sort of multi-point king of the hill system. Maps will have a number of great seal locations (based on the number of players) and holding a seal earns you charges. A variable “charge limit” can be set for an automatic win. With the Seal victory condition enabled, players end up fighting a lot around the seals, pushing people off when they get close to winning in an attempt to secure a win for themselves. This system gives an alternative to cities for forces to target and fight over, and the charge limits functions a bit as an timer to prevent the game from heading into tedious endgame scenario.
Last, Age of Wonders 3 also has a nice “surrender” mechanic – where if you capture a bunch of an enemy empires cities in a short period of time, and you have a large force advantage, the AI will just surrender outright to you, with their leader and throne city coming under your control.
Of course, civ and 4X games have often had all sorts of alternative victory conditions (research, economic, cultural, diplomatic, etc.) – and these can be very compelling ways of minimizing the slog of end-game conquest. Of course, unless you are in a tight race with other empires, achieving these victories if often an underwhelming experience of hitting “next turn” for dozens and dozens of turns on end until you amass enough money, research, culture, population, or whatever to meet the win threshold. In other words, these can feel pretty anti-climactic.
Asymmetric and Unconventional Designs
A current trend in 4X game design, which I think is trying to solve all three of these issues at once, is to just radically rethink the entire formula for what it means to be a 4X game.
An asymmetrical design is one option, such as in AI War or The Last Federation where the “players” empire or domain of control is fundamentally different from the challenge they are up against. No longer is the human starting out in the same situation as the other AI empires. Instead, the human starts out operating in a completely different way from their opposition, and both have fundamentally different ways of winning or losing. In speculating, I think we’ll see a lot more advancement and experimentation with these ideas.
Other games have taken more of an unconventional approach to the empire builder. “At the Gates” and “Empire” (an iOS 4X game) have players managing a sort of roving/nomadic city-state-clan-thing that may settle down in an area for a period of time, but eventually be pushed to migrate and move to a new territory. These games are asymmetric as well, as there are no other roving/nomadic “players” that you are competing with. Nevertheless, they providing a compelling solution to the central issues. There is no snowballing per se because you are hard limited to just a few (or just one!) “management” unit. Likewise, the smaller scale and focus of the game relative to the asymmetric opposition you face makes steamrolling a non-issue. What are you steamrolling against in these contexts? It goes without saying that management tedium is largely a moot point as well.
The issues discussed above (snowballing, steamrolling, management tedium) and the various attempts at resolving them, has defined much of the 4X genre at a fundamental level. How different mechanisms are employed to combat these issues and how those mechanisms sit relative to the games theme does a lot to differentiate the core feeling and experience of different 4X games and speaks to multitudes of tastes and interests among 4X gamers.
Recent years seem to be a little golden age for 4X and civ-style games, and it will be fascinating to see how many of the innovative ideas and experiments will be received and which will stick on ceiling as a good idea for the future of the genre.
In the meantime, I’d love to hear your thoughts on these issues. Are there creative solutions to city-spam or steamrolling you’ve seen in games that I didn’t mention? Other creative ideas you’ve had to meet these challenges? The phones are open!
- [+] Dice rolls