Post Human W.A.R is out on December 14, after a six-years-long development (yes.), and we wanted to discuss tactical strategy by sharing our attempt to bring something new to the genre.
Usually, when we showcase our game, we try to highlight its unique world, because it makes for a good selling point: it’s an absurdist post-apocalyptic universe in which mutated animals fight off household robots and monkeys in shorts. Yet, when the project was designed, our primary goal was to create a challenging strategy game. Much of the pre-production was spent tweaking the gameplay, even though we had no idea about the universe in which it would take place. And in the end, even if we’re hoping to appeal to a wider audience with its humor, the game is still made for hardcore strategy aficionados. That's why this article will only discuss the gameplay aspect of the game: first by explaining the primary goals, and then by presenting the main choices we made to enrich the experience.
1) Defining pure strategy
As amateurs of hardcore tactical strategy, solo or competitive intellectual challenges, it can feel very frustrating when the outcome of a game is determined by something non strategic (a poor virtual dice roll is the best example).
Our first goal was to create an "untainted" strategy game, which meant ruling out all the non-strategy factors influencing the outcome of a game. These factors can be, according to us, separated in four groups:
Chance: It’s the most important, both by its obvious anti-strategic nature and because it is everywhere in video games. Chance is an extremely powerful game design tool to create replayability and diversity. But it's surprising it has such an important role in many strategy titles (Warhammer, XCOM, Fire Emblem). The first decision was therefore to remove all kinds of dice rolls from the combat systems: damages done by the units are fixed, there is no chance of dodging, etc.
Once we removed all the computer-generated chance, we also sought to get rid of a second type of chance: decisions made randomly by players due to a lack of information. That’s a fact, the unknown can also be a source of chance. Let's take a simple example found in strategy games: fog of war. One of my units can move either to the right or to the left, but whatever will be there is hidden by the fog of war. Now, on one side is a powerful enemy who will tear me to pieces, and on the other side is a wounded enemy that I can kill. With zero clue about which side is the good one, I have to choose at random. And this random decision will have a direct impact on the outcome of the game. To remove this second form of chance, we have made sure that no information is hidden from the players: no fog of war, no face down cards, etc ... The only exception is our Champion system, but we’ll come back to it.
Speed: A typical issue in the strategy games genre, which led to its separation in real time and turn-based. I personally spent a lot of time on Warcraft 3, but I was very frustrated when I realized that whatever my tactical choices were, I would always lose against the micro-management aces. You know, the guys who memorized all their keyboard shortcuts, and were able to give ten times more orders per minute than me. So we went and joined the turn-based family, so that players have time to think, and move all their units. Online, a countdown is obviously mandatory to avoid endless rounds, but we have made it flexible enough to still have the time to play.
Seniority: The heart of Post Human W.A.R being PvP, it was essential to us that, for every battle, players start with a strict equality, regardless of how long they have played the game for. This means your units won’t evolve from battle to battle, nor gradually gain new powers, etc. The only advantage of seniority is therefore the intellectual experience gained, and not an advantage in the gameplay. Start each battle with all the cards in hand, and then may the better player win.
Money: It makes less sense now, but Post Human W.A.R was originally designed as a free-to-play. Our course of action is still to avoid any pay-to-win, whether it is obvious (when you pay for more power) or more pernicious (when you pay to unlock alternative units to existing ones, not officially better, but they will allow you to better react to some situations).
We made the observation that if traditional board games like checkers, go or chess go meet the above criteria, it is much less common on the video game tactical scene.
Our constraints well established, it is now time to move on to game designing!
2) Gameplay through space management
Winning a war is all about positioning one's armies well.
We have chosen to present most of Post Human W.A.R's mechanics through the strategically fundamental axis of map space management.
Appropriating large spaces:
Unlike many other turn-based strategy games, such as Heroes of Might and Magic, King's Bounty or Duelyst, the map on which PHW's battles take place are large, or very large, and leave room for armies to get around without meeting each other if they really want to, like in an Advance Wars or Fire Emblem. They are also strewn with obstacles acting as cover (destructible or not), and special tiles. Therefore, the positioning of the units, according to their movement speed or their range, is the core of strategy. Be it on the micro level (keeping a unit safe behind another, or keeping a given distance with a dangerous unit so that it can’t attack) or on the macro level (dividing your army in half so that one half keep the enemy busy on one side while the other half goes around for a more favorable position). A few more mechanics also reinforce the interest of the maps’ size, like the Invasion, which gives an attack bonus to units who enter the opposing base.
In order to offer a flexible way to manage this space, the units can move a long way each turn. Or to a shorter distance and attack, before or after moving. Unlike the majority of games that do not let you move after an attack (XCOM, Heroes of Might and Magic, etc), this allows for hit-and-run strategies, typically by taking advantage of a range or speed superiority, so that the enemy can’t fire back.
The different stats of our units influencing this space management are their speed, range, but also their size. If most of our units will only fill one tile, a few fill up three or seven, and can thus be used as a shield or be easily blocked in their movement by the enemy (you can shoot and move through the allied units, but not through the enemies).
There’s also three different factions to be played in Post Human W.A.R. The difference in gameplay between the three factions is also based on their space management: The Wraaks (mutated animals) are faster on average, and therefore specialized in fast attacks, the Anthropists (dressed-up monkeys) have a longer range thus fight best from a distance, and the R-PATCH (robots) are more resilient and therefore have an edge in melee.
In order to enhance the players' control of space, we made sure to put in place special tools. In addition to common mechanics such as being able to display the field of action of enemy units, we have developed systems to measure the distance from one tile to another, which allows the player to simulate a ranged attack trajectory and see if it will be hindered by obstacles.
The goal of this kind of mechanics is to allow players to use their cognitive abilities more on strategic and tactical thinking and less on technical issues, which is fundamental to the game experience.
The combat system:
To keep the game easy to pick up and not overload players with information, we went for a clean combat system by minimizing the variables to take into account: Each unit has an attack value (the number of damage inflicted), a defense value (subtracted from the damage received), and health points (from which the damage is subtracted, at 0 the unit dies).
Abilities such as flight or projectile-dodging still allow for the creation of advantage triangles, based not on resistance / weaknesses to types of attack, but again on space management. For example: Archers lose the benefit of distance against dodge units, which usually can’t respond to flying attacks, which themselves are shot by remote archers.
And finally, some units have area attacks of different shapes depending on the factions (circular area, straight line, etc.). This is a good example of the importance of space management since when attacking, the player will have to make sure he’s targeting a maximum of enemies while being careful not to reach his own units (to avoid friendly fire!)
The resource system:
Players start each game of Post Human W.A.R with an equal amount of resource points (this initial amount can vary depending on the size of the game). The resource will allow them to hire units during the initial composition phase (each unit having a resource cost), and also to use powers to boost their units during the match. This allows flexibility in composition strategies, since some players would rather commit a maximum number of units, and others would rather keep some resource in store and boost their units at the right moment.
It is also possible to "recycle" a unit in battle, by sacrificing it to recover some of its original price: it’s a valuable way to dispose of units that have become useless at one point in the battle. On each map, there are also boxes of extra "wild resource" that can be picked up by units. An important work of level design allows us to emphasize the control of space: sending a unit to collect extra resource will often mean keeping it far from the battlefield, or bringing it dangerously close to enemy positions.
Finally, in addition to boosting up their health, strength or speed, units can also spend resource to generate obstacles around them, creating an evolving map landscape as some of the original obstacles are destroyed and new ones are created, each player trying to shape the terrain to his advantage.
Our last major "areal" mechanic is the Totem. It is a special obstacle, located inside each player's base. Destroying the opponent's Totem is not mandatory, but if you do, his units will lose health every turn. In other words, a huge advantage for you, and that is why one of your main goals will be to successfully get to the opposing Totem, either by moving your whole army or by sending a small commando detachment.
Anecdote: this mechanism was initially designed to prevent the parties from dragging on too long, for instance with players constantly running away. Prior to that, another now-mechanic had to fulfill this role: the now abandoned Radioactive storm, which under certain conditions gradually destroyed the map and tightened the battlefield.
3) Introduction to psychological warfare
Despite our efforts to develop interesting space management strategies, the depth of Post Human W.A.R's gameplay long remained hindered by our one and only possible win condition: destroying all enemy units. To address this, we have designed a mechanism that has evolved greatly over the time of development and is now essential in PHW: the Champion.
In the initial composition phase, each player promotes one of his units as his Champion. If you manage to kill the opponent's Champion, you win the game. Quite simple. This mechanism was initially put in place to deepen the gameplay by allowing an alternative victory condition to the full massacre of the opposing army. But it has actually allowed us to give the playing experience a new dimension thanks to a simple principle: each player doesn't know which unit is the opponent's Champion.
Bluff as a second layer:
From then on, a layer of psychological analysis is added to pure martial tactics, in order to try to guess who is the opposing champion and deal the fatal blow. That initial choice is an important step : will you choose a long-range unit that will stay in the back, a fast one that can escape, a strong one that can survive... Or a more vulnerable one, to bluff the enemy?
During a game, each player will have to protect his champion while acting like they’re not, and at the same time try to decipher the opposing units’ movements. When you have your guess, you have to focus down the suspected unit which may leave you exposed, or in the need to recycle one of our own units to then boost one decisive attack. But if it can be a good way to turn the tables in a losing game, it can be dangerous if the killed unit eventually turns out to be a decoy.
At first, we were worried about how players would use the Champion mechanic. The early access was a very interesting laboratory for that. We would witness players trying to guess who the champion was, taking ill-considered risks when their choice stopped (with sometimes impressive foresight), and others purely ignoring it, and methodically destroying all the enemy’s forces.
In the first part of this article, we talked about removing all the unknown in order to avoid decisions made at random by the player. The Champion could be seen as an exception to this rule; it is actually not a total unknown, it’s an unknown controlled by each player. In our previous example of a fog of war hiding or not a dangerous enemy, the player had no clue as to which side was safe because he had not seen anything behind the fog. Here the clues exist, because two opposing units are never positioned in the same place, nor have they followed the same course: the enemy has to have given us keys to make assumptions, and so our decisions will never be at random.
As mentioned above, the game's early access served as a laboratory for tweaking the Champion mechanics. And since such an idea is rather rare in strategy games, it was reinforced in order to make the experience unique to the genre (at first, killing the Champion simply weakened enemy units, like destroying his totem). It is also during this early access that we set up the Revelation mechanics: at any moment, a player can choose to reveal the identity of his Champion to his opponent, in exchange for an important boost in attack, defense and speed. Triggered at the right moment, this mechanism can reverse the course of a fight, but obviously creates a huge risk if we can not win quickly. Again it was interesting to see the different styles put in use by early players. Some players reveal their Champion relatively early, preferring to drop the bluff to benefit from a more powerful unit, and others risk it at the last moment, when their Champion is the only unit they have left.
To conclude to this article, it is interesting to note how our game has evolved a lot since its first design doc, while the constraints listed in the first part have not moved at all. Our first prototypes were fairly classic for the genre, but over the years of development we sought to exploit more of our specific elements: the ubiquitous management of the martial space, and psychological mechanics. Through experimentation and iteration, these have developed into a gameplay that, we hope, will bring a sense of freshness and novelty to tactical strategy enthusiasts.
If your still reading me now, thank you so much for your time! We really appreciate.
If you aren't fed of Post Human W.A.R yet, you can join and battle us online (Steam Page) or come chat on our Discord channel.
We will certainly be back on Gamasutra with a Post Mortem article in the coming months.