Posted by: markfender | April 3, 2013


Remember how last week I demanded that action RPGs should be simpler? New genre: same idea.

Xcom-Enemy-UnknownThere’s a very good reason that X-Com: Enemy Unknown won several Best Game of the Year awards last year. Because it is awesome. But why is it awesome? It is my belief that it manages to be awesome by NOT being the original X-Com. It steals a lot from boardgame mechanics to create a simplified experience with no less tactical depth than the original. And I’d like to see more of that from the strategy game market. Because strategy games are impenetrable.

The original X-Com was a great game for its time, but it needed to be updated. The 19 buttons on the main GUI are too many. And there’s no really good reason to offer three different firing modes, with their varying chances to hit and damage, except that you can. But, just because you can do something, doesn’t mean that you should. X-Com: Enemy Unknown did the smart thing by minimizing this idea (It’s still there, but hidden in the special abilities of individual characters). It’s a simpler to understand game, which allows for a more nuanced understanding by the average gamer.

Computers, of course, offer the ability to handle more information than the human brain can adequately track. They allowed us to create deeper and more precise simulations within our strategy games. Obviously, computer strategy games should work towards their strengths and that strength is handling data. But that data should be hidden from the user in some manner. According to a 2005 article published in Psychological Science, the human brain can handle about 3 variables before it starts to suck, with the odds increasing exponentially with each additional variable. So, a game like Galactic Civilization II looks supercool with all that detail, but your brain isn’t really accounting for it all. It can’t. That crazy amount of data is actually hindering your ability to make sound strategic decisions.

Another example is the MOBA. League of Legends is already a pretty easy system to grasp – you control one guy with a couple different abilities. But then there’s that item shop, with it’s 800 minor stat increases and RNG increases and the whole thing is way more than it needs to be. Because someone crunched all the math and figured out the best couple of options a long time ago. And if you don’t follow that specific pattern, you’re a newb. Spreadsheets figured out the optimal choice again and the human brain doesn’t need to bother anymore. So, why is it even there? Conversely, look at something like Banner Saga:Factions. Do you put that last point into Strength or Armor? There’s only 11 possible points, so choose wisely. That’s a meaningful choice that you can concretely analyze, not whether to choose the Fiendish Codex (+30 Ability Power +6 Mana Regen per 5 seconds +10% Cooldown Reduction) or the Void Staff (+70 Ability Power Magic damage ignores 35% of the target’s Magic Resist (applies before Magic Penetration)). I’m obviously exaggerating here, but it does seem like these games are rewarding the ability to analyze multiple variables more than they’re rewarding actual strategic gameplay. To compare like to like, compare Banner Saga to a more traditional gridded turn-based tactics game, like the Disgaea series. Banner Saga characters have six stats and an ability. Disgaea characters have 26 stats, plus multiple abilities. What exactly are those 20 extra stats adding to the game?

Which is where boardgames come in. These are usually pared down systems meant to be grasped by the human brain. Yes, there are a ridiculous number of variables in a game like Small World (what with the random race/ability thing), but at its base level, I’m looking at the number of provinces around me and counting a number. It’s simple to grasp but has a ton of strategic depth (because of all those potential variables). But, if I look at a game like Fallen Enchantress, there’s so much detail in every single province, not to mention equipping my heroes, creating armies, handling spells, and trying to compare my stats with the enemy I’m facing, that I’m ignoring all of that strategic depth when I make individual decisions. Which seems kinda pointless. I just stare at all that detail, and then just go play X-Com. Those sorts of deep strategic games have their fans, of course, but I think the game would be a lot more fun if it had a simplified manner of presenting its information to you. All those numbers are not creating tactical and strategic depth – they’re just creating a data deluge.

So, why choose a strategy computer game over a boardgame? Well, for one, there’s usually an AI in the strategy game – Instant opponent! Secondly, a computer can do things that cannot be modeled well in a boardgame. That aforementioned AI for one. 3-D terrain for another. Fog of war. Information management. Data handling is the most obvious strength and its the easiest strength to cater to – gamers are always looking for more. But the level of data is overwhelming at this point. Let’s take a step back and make the computer handle the stuff that we can’t do well with boardgames. Tack simpler, easier to understand, boardgame-derived rules and mechanical systems on top of that, and you’ve got yourself a brave new strategic game that caters to the strengths of everyone involved – the computer and the human. Things like Banner Saga: Factions and X-Com: Enemy Unknown are good examples of the latter. I don’t need to know exactly how much range, height, and cover are affecting my percentage chance to hit in X-Com – I just need to know that those things are a factor. The computer can handle all the math behind the scenes. But it’s also not overloading me with options either – I can throw a grenade, shoot my gun, go on overwatch, or maybe use another ability.

To make this a constructive post, let’s create an example. One of the hot new trends in boardgames right now is worker placement. In a game with multiple resource types and several possible actions, you are restricted as to how many and what type of resources you gather, as well as how many and what type of actions you can take by the number of workers you have available. Each worker can perform one task each turn. Generally, you place your little meeple on a square on the board that tells you what resource you gather or what action you take (There’s also the possibility of not being able to place more than one meeple on any given area, but that’s generally a concern for multiplayer). It’s a fast way to prioritize your actions for the turn – presenting strategic depth through a gradual winnowing down of possibilities. That idea isn’t anything new in video games. Games like Civilization or most RTSs feature settler/gatherer units that go out and gather resources. You make them in your base and then point them at the resource nodes. They gather the resources and come back to your base. You then use those resources to make more of them, or build tanks. Your choice. That balance and your choices create the strategic level of play for those sort of games. But what if we could simplify that whole process? What if you only had three or four “workers” all game that you’d dedicate to various tasks? Gather Metal, Build Tanks, Train Troops, Reinforce Base, etc. You’re basically representing the strategic level of gameplay in a different format, but one that simplifies the whole process. And that leaves you more room to spend time making the rest of the game have increased tactical depth. Besides, who cares about all that base-building stuff in the last fifteen minutes of a Starcraft 2 match? Nobody. I’d rather just set my resource gathering, my base building, and my unit creating at the beginning of the match and then move on with the interesting part of the game – makin’ zerglins’.

Boardgame worker placement systems are pretty binary. Either you’re getting the benefit or you’re not. And those benefits are easily quantifiable because you have so few workers to dedicate to them. But we’re talking about the power of computers here. We can make a worker placement system that actually works on a percentage basis. I can dedicate 33% of my resources to Plane Production, 24% to Spotting Bogies, 16% to Training, and 27% to Ray-Bans in my Top Gun real-time strategy game that I just made up and the computer knows exactly what 24% of Spotting Bogies actually means. And if my troops need Time Off to Attend Goose’s Funeral, then the computer can handle that temporary drop in production. But there’s not that whole base-building system that doesn’t make a lot of sense aboard an aircraft carrier in the middle of the Pacific.

I’m not exactly setting the world on fire with this idea. After all, lots of games make you prioritize your resources. A simple example is making scientists or engineers in X-Com. Scientists make research happen quicker but engineers make building stuff faster. It’s essentially the same concept. But I think framing this in a boardgame analogy creates a different design space for strategy games. It’s a new way of looking at the basic ideas that surround these sorts of games and maybe, just maybe, doing something different with them – something that harnesses the problem-solving of the player with the data management skills of the computer. The balance for too long has been on the data management side. I’m not as good at that as the computer – Why make me worry about it?


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