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The Curious Case of 4X Games, Efficiency Engines, and Missing Strategic Gambits

Oliver Kiley
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Ann Arbor
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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.

From gallery of Mezmorki


(#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.

Conclusion

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.
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