Designer Diary | WARLINE: Maneuver Strategy & Tactics

A look inside the making of WARLINE: Maneuver Strategy & Tactics
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The Value of External Agency in WARLINE

Justin Leingang
United States
Austin
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Microbadge: Meet me on the battlefield!Microbadge: Wargamer of 5+ yearsMicrobadge: I love baseball!Microbadge: Belgian beer fanMicrobadge: Train Gamer
Something that is often undervalued in game design is player agency. It is not, however, player agency within the game systems that is undervalued (there is plenty of this going on in a large number of different games), but rather player agency outside of the game systems that is undervalued.

Taking a step back, let us consider what exactly is "player agency". Merriam-Webster (dictonary) defines agency as: "the capacity, condition, or state of acting or of exerting power". So, we can define player agency as the capcity (/condition/state) of the player to act or exert power. Player agency within a game system is the player's ability to act or exert power during the course of a game session--let us call this concept, "internal agency". Conversely, player agency outside of a game system is the player's ability to act or exert power outside of a game session--we will call this other concept, "external agency".

One concrete example of internal agency is, in Azul, a player's choice during game play to take tiles that primarily serve him scoring points (acting), or to take tiles that keep another player from scoring points (exerting power). Another example of internal agency is, in Citadels, a player's ability to dictate turn flow (exert power) by taking the King card during the character draft phase.

External agency is a trickier concept. On the surface level, external agency can be thought of as customization of the game systems, while not playing the game (before a game session, or any other random time while not engaged a game session). For example, adding or removing a game's expansions before playing--or, adding a new character into a character pool (for choosing during game play). However, there is a deeper level of external agencey--a level that has players changing the decision space that a game will have, or the scope that a game will have, or the feel that a game will have, or involvement in something greater than a single game session.

If you have read my Vision Guide for WARLINE: Tactical Fantasy Battles, you will already know that some of my weightiest goals are for WARLINE to be highly expandable and customizable--giving players the capability to shape the experience they are going to take part in. More specifically, my goal is to allow the player to craft an experience that fits his play style, his current mood, his time alloted to play a game, and depth at which he can dive into the sea of strategic and tactical decision making. WARLINE is rich with external player agency. A player can fully craft the play space before any given play session--from size, to shape, to meaningful content. A player can fully craft his toolset--from abilities, to number of actors. One can customize the types of decisions to be made, the number of decisions to be made, the goals, and even the narrative that wraps play. And all of this crafting takes place outside of game play. One way to look at it is that WARLINE has an entirely other game to be played, outside of "the game", which heavily influences "the game".

Though, let us get back to the specific topic at hand, which is not just external agency, but the value of external agency. There is no real easy way to concisely summarize the value of external agency--because the value is so broad and far reaching--so let us simply list out all of the positive returns (as applied within WARLINE) that come about when a game affords a large amount of external agency:

• The game becomes a canvas for your creativity. You can take ownership of the game, just as you take ownership of a piece of artwork you create.
• You can scale a game session to fit your allotted play time or mood.
• The game remains fresh and interesting for a very long time.
• You can continuously learn new and exciting ways to play and ways to succeed within the game.
• Your play experience can be dramatically different every time you play. Your strategies can be wildly different from game to game.
• You become directly involved in the game's development, guiding lore and future elements of play.
• Opportunities for community interaction increase. Players can craft and share scenarios, tales of battle, and custom armies; and share them with other players.
• The game exists itself as a community, not just a game. Events, leagues, and tournaments help bring like-minded players together to challenge one another in a fun environment.

There are many other reasons why WARLINE benefits from a high level of external agency--and I am constantly learning more and more about this value within WARLINE. It is thrilling every time the game comes up seemingly randomly in completely unrelated conversation, in some unrelated social environment, as when a buddy suddenly says: "I just had this idea for a battlefield with a forested island, where I am defending the trees--a source of living for a small lumber milling village at the center of the island. Your army deploys on the mainland shore, and must cross the body of water, invade the forested island, and burn as many trees down as you can--claiming the island as a strategic position for your greater machinations." In WARLINE, you can make this happen.

Similarly exciting to me are the times when a friend says out of nowhere, "You know that army you crushed me with, after you alighted an entire regiment of rayverns on the mountaintops, then stormed downslope to wipe me out? Yeah, I just thought of an army build out and deployment that will trounce you if we re-play that same battle setup." Like sports fans talk afterward about the moments they watched in a match, and how they feel they could have turned out differently, WARLINE players frequently discuss past battles, formulate alternate plans for success, and play them back out to prove one another's strategic and tactical prowess.

So, how can we summarize the value of external agency in only a few words? How about: External agency can turn a game into a lifestyle. I think that just about sums it up.

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From gallery of ElJayPlay


Above: An example of an unconventional custom battlefield, and a couple of large custom armies.


From gallery of ElJayPlay


Above: A creative expression of varied terrain on a double-size battlefield.


 


Above: For point of reference, the core battlefield and armies without any customization applied.

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I hope that you enjoyed reading. Until next time!
Justin D Leingang
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