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Turn Based Strategy Makes Me Care
by Mathew Stone on 04/20/11 09:28:00 am   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.

 

Let me tell you, dear reader, about the baddest little bomber I ever had in Advance Wars.

Advance Wars was a deceptively simple game. It wasn't shallow, it just didn't have much width. It was focused, with all the crap cut out of the picture. For me it was a lot closer to Dawn of War's goals than Dawn of War was; tactical strategic combat without the base building, just the action. Although, thanks to being turn based, Advance Wars had a lot more in common with Warhammer than Dawn of War did.

I don't mean to mispeak here, I enjoyed Dawn of War. The campaign was fun, the squad dynamic was good, the levling up and getting loot scratched all the right places, yes - but not once while I was playing did I think "oh boy this feels like Warhammer." Maybe that was purposeful on their part? Certainly, the nature of any tabletop game where you paint little men is ostracising to a degree, which obviously isn't conducive to sales. In any case, there was very little strategy. Which, funnily enough, is almost always the case with rts games.

Time is not your pal. Time is Fernand Mondego. He'll get you sent to prison while he marries your fiance, and then laugh about it. Time is, to steal a line, never time at all, and that is utterly insufficient in the sort of game where you're supposed to be making tactical decisions. Take Starcraft. That's got about as much to do with strategy as Duke Nukem has to do with portraying positive female roles in media. It isn't about strategy at all. It's about who can press buttons the fastest. Chess is strategic. Imagine how well a zerg rush would do in chess. Take as little time with each turn as possible and just run all those pawns forward as fast as you can.

No, a real time game mode is, in fact, an obstacle to strategic thinking. Time means pressure. Time means snap decisions. Time means less thinking. I don't know about you, but I'm not Nero Wolfe, despite what my gut might tell you. I can't marshall my facts in an instant, every instant, and make an instantaneous decison thereupon. That is beyond the scope of my mental capacity. Which is why I relish in the opportunity to consider the facts, to weigh my options, to deliberate upon any given situation.

Now I don't mean to say that rts as a genre is entirely bankrupt of anything worthwhile. Obviously that would be ridiculous. Tiberian Sun is on a high pedestal in my heart, as are Age of Empires II, Dungeon Keeper, Emperor Battle for Dune, and quite a few others. I'm just trying to question a few core values of the genre. I know that after the base building, unit selection, research, army composition, and everything else, my tactics usually amount to "okay, find the other guy, then just select everybody and tell them to go smash shit up over there."

I assume I'm not alone there. The real time construct doesn't allow much room for delicate positioning, perfectly timed flanking charges, tactical withdrawls, blocking troops a with troops b, or many other things I find myself making great use of in a turn based system. One of the many reasons I love Age of Wonders II so much is that combat isn't definite. If I take one NOD light infantry up against twelve GDI light infantry, I'm going to lose, guaranteed, every time. Does that seem right to you? That I literally don't have any chance at all? I mean, what are some of your favourite action scenes from movies?

Take the last few scenes in Serenity. Wash, the goofy guy with the funny lines, gets impaled by a gigantic spike. In that moment, your fear is brought to a high point - the least dramatic, most comical character has been killed, getting across the point that shit just got real. So the rest of the characters all hole up while Captain Mal has to go and take care of some other business. The reason this scene is so filled with tension is not only because we care about these characters so much, but because we don't know what's going to happen. We don't know who's going to live and who's going to die; but, thanks to Wash getting killed off, it's been established that pretty much anybody else is fair game at this point. Anything could go down.

Now, obviously I'm not expecting any rts game to build up as much of an emotional connection with LIGHT INFANTRY UNIT 13B as I did with Captain Mal, that would be ridiculous. The essence there, though, the uncertainty of the situation, simply doesn't exist most of the time in any rts game. Like I said before, twelve GDI light infantry versus one NOD infantry, NOD is going to lose every single time, no matter what, and that's complete bullshit.

In Age of Wonders II, not so. Some of the most thrilling battles I've had within the strategy domain have been when I've had one archer unit be ambushed by a full team of all manner of horrible beasts, but won anyway. There was uncertainty in the mixture. I'm not trying to say I need to win to enjoy myself. Dwarf Fortress is one of my favourite games, and nobody ever wins that. The losing isn't what bothers me, just the definite article. Give me a chance. Even if it isn't a big one. Give me the same chance that the Milenium Falcon had to get through the asteroid belt. Give me the same chance Indiana Jones had to beat the nazis. The same chance that Captain Algran and Katsumoto had in The Last Samurai. Yes, they lost that one, but it wasn't certain until it happened. It was not a predetermined event.

That's what makes turn based strategy so amazing, so tense, so weighted. Skill becomes a more important factor. I'm not attempting to assert that rts takes no skill - Jae Dong would very obviously destroy me in a matter of seconds - but strategic skill, truer to the heart of what these games should be about, takes a role more center stage when time is no longer your enemy.

Something very singular happened to me while playing Master of Orion II, one of the most dauntingly expansive games I've ever played. It's incredibly dense, and I still struggle to think how they managed to fit everything in there. One of the most interesting features to me was one of the victory conditions. You can get voted as Raddest Dude™ in the galaxy, which makes you king of everything. Although if somebody else gets voted in as Raddest Dude™ then you don't have to take it lying down. You can vote no, and the game doesn't just say "lolnope gameover for you."

Of course, at this point, everybody else has bowed down to the king of everything, so you become the rebel insurgency. Yes, you get to be the Browncoats. Every other planet in the system turns hostile to you, and you're almost guaranteed to get your ass handed to you. Almost, but not quite. There's that tiny little spark, that indefinite article that's so very important here. If you play your cards right, if you manage to do exactly the right things and exactly the right times, then just maybe you make it through this. Just maybe.

You also get random leaders throughout the game. Not Warcraft 3 style heroes who can destroy suns by blinking to hard. You get civic leaders who provide bonuses to things like scientific output and population growth, and you get the military leaders, who provide bonuses more like increased firepower and quicker movement. You have to assign the military leaders to specific ships for most of their abilities to take effect, so they're not just sitting back at HQ, they're actually in danger out there. They get experience and level up, so you get attached to them.

That's another problem I have with rts games. I never get attached to my units. I'm aware I just said above I don't expect to be as emotionally involved with my troopers as I am with Captain Mal, but I don't care about them at all. There's no time to care about them. Their life expectancy isn't much at all. Dawn of War side stepped this a bit with the squad system, in that I was still following the same units, but that was only in the campaign, not in anything else. In Age of Wonders II, that one little archer who single handedly fended off an entire invasion had an identity. I had a shared past with him. He became "that guy who did that thing" as opposed to just ARCHER UNIT 13B.

One of the military leaders I had in a game of Master of Orion II was much the same. I'd colonised a planet, and found him stranded there, so he joined me, almost at the start of the game. For a long time he was the only military ship I had; it was early days, and I didn't really have any reason to be paying the upkeep for extra ships. So, pretty much every time I wanted to protect a colony ship, had to try and repel pirates, or wanted to play some hit and run tactics, he was my go-to guy. Naturally, because he was my only ship, I was constantly fixing him up with any new technology I researched. The ship kept getting bigger and better, with more and more weapons, until eventually it was a Titan class ship, dominating the vanguard of my force.

Then I noticed something. I hadn't been paying much attention to really building up my planets, or colonising new ones, so while I'd been playing soldiers and building up money, one of the computer players had been pouring all of their efforts into population, which gave them a lot more voting power. So, they won the vote, and became the Raddest Dude™.

Obviously, I didn't want to just throw in the towel. I had a chance, after all, so I refused to join the super space alliance, and immediately got pounded by a dozen forces. Now, while my leader and his ship were pretty powerful, it just wasn't feasible to take on that many enemies. In the first turn, every other ship in my fleet got destroyed, and it was just him against everybody else. Dismayed, but still clinging to hope, I took my turn. He managed to take down a fair few of them, but there was still a throng there. Next turn, they managed to take out most of his weapon systems and half of his movement. It was at that point where I said, no more, and just flicked on the auto-combat, admitting defeat, and the loss of that leader I'd had for so long.

The auto-combat did a very peculiar thing. It sat there doing nothing for a little while, then ran the ship directly next to everybody, and set off the self destruct. Because it was such a big ship, the explosion was equally large, and it took out every single enemy. In one fell swoop, it ended the fight right there, letting my planets live for another day. A few turns later my colonies got obliterated, of course, what with me not having any forces left at all, but how strange is it that the auto-combat did such a thing? I never would have considered blowing him up. I liked him too much.

Nothing even approaching that has ever happened to me in any rts game. The stakes are never that high, because I never really care about anything. Instead of "FUCK, NO, THAT WAS CAPTAIN TERRAN, HE'S BEEN SAVING OUR ASS SINCE DAY ONE" it's just "well damn there goes my war elephant, guess I better build another one. Oh well."

Now, he was a unique unit, in that he was a leader, and not just a rank and file, but I don't think that's a terribly important factor. I had a similar experience in Advance Wars 2 with one of my bomber units, mechanically no more unique than any other.

It was the last mission in the campaign, and I was controlling 3 different forces teaming up against the bad guy. Soon enough, things took a sour turn, and I thought I was more or less done for. I still had a bit of money, though, and instead of thinking about which unit would be most useful I just thought "balls to this, I'm going to die anyway, might as well just blow it all on one bomber."

Which turned out to be a very good decision after all. At that point, most of the rest of my army had been taken out, so it was just him and the dregs left. Surprisingly, he managed to take out a few key targets that had been pummeling me, and from there, I managed to secure a foothold and start mounting a defensive operation to get myself out of the hole.

Eventually, we pushed them back, and started to mount the offensive, with that bomber at the head. This being a rather long map, and me favouring tactics of attrition, I was locked in battle for quite some time, and that bomber unit kept zooming around the map, taking out the big guys wherever he could, then rushing back to base to heal up.

I was growing pretty fond of him. After all, it was pretty much entirely thanks to him that I was still alive, so he wasn't just some shitty plane, he was that awesome bomber that drove back the red menace when duty called.

So then we came to the crux of the matter. The aim of the mission was to take out some pipe. I think it was a supply line, or a power cord, or something like that. Anyway, to make things more exciting, they'd gone and hidden its health, so I couldn't see how much damage my units were doing to it. We attacked it a few times, then fell back, but then came the last volley.

My bomber was in range to take another stab at it, but at the same time, they had a few long range anti air units close enough to strike back. I didn't have anybody close enough to take them out, so it was either bomb the power line and maybe get killed, or retreat and try to rally some forces to try again, maybe getting overwhelmed in the process.

I couldn't decide what to do. I must have sat there for a good twenty minutes making up my mind. It was the figurehead of my forces, it was a tough call to make. Live a coward? Die a hero? Possibly survive and win everything? I was at a loss.

Eventually I did send him to bomb the power line, and it did destroy it, ending the game there with a win, but, again, the only reasons that this was such a tense situation were that I cared about that unit, and I didn't know what was going to happen. You don't get a scenario like that in rts games, and that's a damn shame.

Hell, these situations don't even have to be dramatic, they can be comical too. A friend of mine was playing X-COM for the first time and forgot to arm his troops, or armed them badly or something, and he ended up with everybody brandishing stun sticks or some such, except for one or two guys with a rifle.

They went to repel some aliens, and when they got out of their ship, the ufo was right there with two aliens in it. Instantly, they killed the only troops with guns, so he swarmed them with soldiers wielding gigantic purple batons, and beat them to death. The image of these two hyper advanced space aliens getting taken out by a horde of angry guys with poles was brilliant, and ridiculous things like that happen all the time in X-COM. Again, though, just compare this with Tiberian Sun. If I had one or two dozen light infanty up against a mammoth tank, I might as well just give up right there, because I already know what the outcome is going to be.

Indefinite articles inject excitement into games. How many times were you thrilled, frightened, and completely immersed in Fallout's combat, because you had no idea what the fuck was going to happen next? Like I said earlier, my intention is not to rag on every rts game ever made and say they're all worthless. I just think that they still have a lot to learn from turn based games.


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