Greg's Design Blog

A collection of posts by game designer Gregory Carslaw, including mirrors of all of his blogs maintained for particular projects. A complete index of posts can be found here:
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Turn Based Strategy

United Kingdom
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Original Post

I enjoy some good turn based strategy, the latest X-Com game was fantastic (Enough to inspire me to play it on ironman, probably one of the most stressful gaming experiences I've ever had). I've backed the Jagged Alliance kickstarter since (Look at the updates, they're doing all of the right things!) and have high hopes for it if they get the money together. There is something grand about setting the perfect plan in motion and watching it come together that a twitch shooter just can't capture.

While most boardgames could be described as turn based strategy (since you take actions in turns and play strategically) only some of them tickle my brain in the same way. Typically these are either tightly defined skirmish games or big 4X games, but as with everything there are a few exceptions. I enjoy playing boardgames and computer games that try to achieve the same things; it's interesting to see how each medium overcomes its limitations. Since this is a boardgame blog I'm going to focus on elements that computer games do well and the cool things that boardgames try to do rather than the other way around. If nothing else that'll stop me nattering endlessly about AI.

A lot computer games implement a fog of war (A term accepted despite it not functioning like fog or ceasing in peacetime) which hides information that a player could not know. They're aware of what they can see and things that they can remember which won't have changed and that's it. This is possible in a computer game since the computer can track the game state and reveal it to the appropriate players at the appropriate times. In a boardgame it's much harder for the game to do this since the players provide the processing and revealing things to some but not all of the people sitting at a table can be difficult or impossible depending on the game.

The most direct solution is to have a player take the role of the computer. In Descent the keeper tracks the locations of the hidden room and can make monsters appear only in areas that the players cannot currently see. In Ninja the ninja player has a copy of the map and secretly notes their location, revealing information to the guard player as appropriate. These solutions are workable, though sometimes a little clumsy. Other interesting solutions involve trying to take the essence of the situation and emphasise the best parts. Space Hulk uses the iconic blip counter to indicate that there might be enemies at a certain spot. This cuts to the core of what makes the fog of war interesting and emphasises the key point. Rather than most fog of war actions being "I've revealed something new, once again there was nothing there" as it is in a computer game, reveals are exciting as they are more infrequent but are more likely to show something up. This is not to say that they're better than a computer game, as the computer handles reveals so effortlessly it is okay for most of them not to achieve anything, but a boardgame requires time and action from the players so the reveals need to be more meaningful. The thing to take away is the value inherent in adapting ideas from one medium to another rather than trying to produce the best possible copy of them.

Turn based computer games tend to provide the player with asymmetric situations, this might have started out as a way of overcoming AI limitations but I think it adds something significant to the game. One of the great feelings in turn based strategies is coming up with a plan to overcome significant odds, having it work and getting that feeling that you managed to triumph against a superior force using only your wits.

This is hard to replicate in a boardgame, especially where two players are facing off against each other. I've had games where both players had the impression of being the weaker force, but I'm not sure if it can be attributed to the game design rather than the player's imperfect understanding of the situation. It'd be interesting to see something deliberately designed in that direction, though I suppose the feeling couldn't survive the players switching sides for their second game. Many-against-one games can go a way towards capturing this feeling, but most players will quickly recognise that a dozen goblins don't really count as outnumbering them if they're so weak. Cooperative games have the edge here, from a design point of view it never feels like cheating to do everything you can to make your players lose. One group I know refers to Space Hulk: Death Angel as 'Death Dudes' for the frequency with which everyone is killed by superior forces.

This solution works well, but I think it'd be interesting to see a really good implementation of asymmetric power in a boardgame. It seems to be taken as red that games should be balanced, two players of equal skill who sit down to play should have a roughly even chance of winning. I wonder what would happen if someone deliberately made and marketted an unbalanced game, so that players of unequal skill could each play their best game and have an exciting result. A few games offer handicap options if one player keeps winning, but they seem halfhearted and people are reluctant to use them. Maybe this deserves a post in its own right.

Turn based strategy games very often offer a huge scope, Civilisation feels like the prototypical example, but if far from unique. I've got a lot of memories of playing Masters of Orion with good friends until the sun came up. They can offer this because you can save the game and walk away at any time (at least in theory), so it doesn't matter if the game requires a few hundred hours to play.

A board game struggles to offer a similar length of campaign; it takes up space on the table so you can't just leave it there. Games that have tried to match this often fall into one of two camps. Some try to capture an epic scope in a short timeframe, I played Race for the Galaxy for the first time recently and was impressed with how a quick game can provide a definite feeling of progression. Other's try to enable the long game, some simply write scenarios that have recommended play times in days and hope that you can find a spare room to house the game in while it happens. Attempts to replicate the save game, in boardgame form, have also been tried.

I'm torn here; I recognise the elegance of capturing the feel of an epic scope in a short game and appreciate playing that sort of game. On the other hand there is something awesome about bringing a game that's taken months to play to its eventual conclusion. I'd love to see a game that found an excellent way to handle a long campaign, simply having persistent forces in the style of Bloodbowl or Mordheim doesn't quite capture that for me, but having to write down the state of large portions of a game is a real headache. Maybe Risk: Legacy does it well. I want to try that game out sometime.

Well, three thoughts about adapting computer games to boardgames feels like a good number. I know from discourse analysis that people prefer three item lists too (To the point that people will add "...and other stuff" if they're trying to make a two item list persuasive) so I'll stop there. Feel free to contribute other stuff,
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