Oliver Kiley(Mezmorki)United States
So I started writing a reply to a geeklist the other day...
And well, the reply got so long that I figured I might as wells posts its here for your alls enjoysments. And so, pitter patter lets get at er.
On a whim I started to categorize my games in my collection (about 150 or so) by their primary genre, using the genre descriptors we were developing in the new classification taxonomy.
While many games were easy to assign, many games were really not. And while the genre field was originally structured around the notion of "how do you win" as a way of being specific about what "genre" represents, I'm not sure how useful it actually is in describing many games.
Also, I fully admit on further reflection that the genres descriptors was a bastardization of Selwyth's original approach (which was laser focused on genre being a shorthand for "how to win"). We've mingled many of his specific things with stuff like "Engine Building" or "Worker Placement" or "Deck Building." While it seems innocent, it does sort of confuse things. Is "Stone age" a worker place game or a set collection game or an engine building game? It's probably all of those. But what one is relevant if you had to talk about the kind of game experience you wanted that led you perhaps consider Stone Age?
It got me thinking that maybe genre isn't really what we were looking to define here. It also goes to the consternation we've faced in the discussions around school of design and how useful that is (or not) in practical terms for describing the overall feeling or style of a game, which are much more diverse than the half a dozen categories we've identified. I still think schools of design are interesting as a historical marker for understanding games and their design influences, but less so perhaps for classification or practical game selection.
What got me launched on this was, as I said, trying to organize my own games into some logical buckets and groups. Call them styles of games if you will. I started thinking about what's going on in my brain when I walk over the game shelf to pick something out. What am I asking myself? Typically, I'm asking about the overall feelings and mood I'm looking for. How interactive is it? How long does it take to play? How brain burning is it? Do I want to laugh and socialize while I play? Or contemplate in relative silence?
This overall sense of style or "gestalt" (i.e. an organized whole that is perceived as more than the sum of its parts.) feeling for a game is what I'm sifting through in my mind. Lo and behold I talked about this exact thing 8-years ago, here and here.
What does this mean for this classification thing? Honestly, I have no idea at the moment. As interesting as all of this is, and as useful as this detailed classification approach might be for design and deeper game research questions, it might not be terribly relevant or useful from a practical standpoint. Genre is too fine-grained to be useful as an overall descriptor for many games, and yet schools of design are perhaps far to broad and less useful overall.
I mean, what is the genre for A Study in Emerald? It's deck-building game, but also objectives race and engine building (via the deck), but with a huge dose of area control. But none of that captures the psychological hidden role dimension of the game, which is part of the game's "structure" (not genre) yet it takes center stage in defining the overall experience. And it still fails to capture the off-the-wall narrative aspects and negotiation play. This game, and many others, sort of defies easy classification by genre. Calling it a "hybrid" sort of skirts the issue.
Lastly, in a more recent blog post, I ended up framing my collection along the following styles (with a few edits at present):
* Asymmetric wargames / COIN-like
* Block wargames (lighter + heavier versions)
* Empire builders / dudes on a map game
* Adventure games
* Beer & Pretzels / Take That!
* Light family games (various styles)
* Mid-wight family games (e.g. role selection games, tile-laying games)
* Spatial euros (heavier/deeper)
* Press Your Luck / Dice Rolling
* Cooperative + Solo games (of various weights)
* Social deduction / bluffing
* Special power card games (complex card games)
* Engine building / tableau building / clockwork games
* Auction games
* Rank & Suit / traditional card games
* Abstract strategy games
* Narrative games
* Party games
Within any of these categories, the other defining characteristic in my mind is weight. While some styles (e.g. beer & pretzels or party games) tend to align with a certain weight most of the time (e.g. light), other styles (like engine building or dudes on a map) can have a pretty big range of weights.
I'm sure there are many more categories than what I have above (i.e. Train games / 18xx are sort of a distinct thing), but I guess I feel like there is something that doesn't have as many finely sliced things as as the genre descriptors, but that certainly has more categories than what is captured in schools of design. But more importantly, whatever emerges is a pool of descriptors that better conveys the overall experience and feeling of a particular style of game in a shorthand, albiet inevitably imperfect, way.
What do you think? When you contemplate your collection or discuss the styles and types of games that you enjoy or play the game of "what game should we play" with others, what are the terms and words that jump out to you? Phones are open, as always!
Musings on games, design, and the theory of everything. www.big-game-theory.com
Archive for Theoretical Rambling
19 Aug 2020
- [+] Dice rolls
The title of this essay is a declarative statement. It’s of course open to debate and I’m not suggesting this is an unequivocal rule. But at least in my experience, when I think about the “crux” moments that are the pinnacle of strategic intrigue - where the fate of everything is hanging on the line or where you wait breathlessly to see if your gambit pays off - board games provide both a greater “density” and a greater “diversity” of such moments in comparison to strategy video games.
There are, I believe, a number of factors that contribute to this situation. There are things unique to the design needs and expectations of board games that enable “deep and interesting decisions” to come to the forefront. There are also things, on the video game side of the table, that frequently distract, diminish, or are otherwise at odds with their capacity for deep strategic gameplay. I want to explore both of these dimensions in an effort to tease out, if possible, some poignant ways that strategic video games - especially 4X games - might better capture the strategic depth they aspire to.
Before we get too deep, let’s consider for this article what I mean when I talk about deep, or interesting, or compelling strategic decision points (or the “crux” moments). Principally, I feel these moments exist when: (1) having read and understood the “game state” you are faced with having to decide between mutually exclusive courses of action; (2) these decisions are consequential and have a traceable link to your eventual victory or defeat; and (3) predicting the outcomes of your decisions are laced with enough uncertainty that player skill, experience and heuristics matter for good play (i.e. you can’t just look up an optimal build order and call it a day).
This definition is a lot to unpack. But let’s explore two facets of it.
The foundation of every board game is how you, as a player, take your turn. “What actions you can do on your turn” defines the entire structure of the game. It’s so fundamental and intrinsic to boardgames that we frequently take its importance for granted and move on to discussing the nuances of its execution (worker placement, drafting, action points, etc.). Suffice to say, most games limit how much you can do within the confines of a particular turn, and the mere presence of these limits creates a landscape of tradeoffs. Maybe you have three workers that you assign to actions each round. Maybe you have a menu of ten different actions you can do, but can only perform two of them on your turn. Perhaps you have a hand of six cards but can only play one each round. What do you do in this moment?
These kinds of intrinsic limits shape the structure of a board game. They are also, in a convoluted sort of way, a tacit acknowledgement to the fact that we can only affect so much change over a period of time. We can’t do everything at once, we have to prioritize. And at a more pragmatic level, limiting actions are a way of constraining how long an individual player’s turn might be. And so it affects the pacing and length of the game.
Strategic video games, especially 4X games, typically take the approach that you are omnisciently powerful. They assume that within the confines of a turn or paused gameplay moment, that you have infinite time and capacity to plan and execute your designs. You can queue up dozens of buildings or units in each of your cities, reengineer the design of every military force, adjust policies and politics, engage every foreign faction in diplomacy. And on and on. And you can do this EVERY turn, without limit (barring some occasional checks and balances tossed in by a developer to mitigate totally exploitive play).
This state of affairs has a number of ripple effects on a game’s potential depth. If you can freely do as much or as little “retooling” as you want each turn, your decisions are far less consequential to the outcome of the game. There is little depth in a system where you can queue up every building on every planet, and without cost reprioritize all of it a turn later when the game state changes just a little bit and something unexpected comes along. There is no requirement for “efficiency of action” in such games, no sense of momentum to your play that would be costly to redirect. A 4X game might last 100’s of turns and so playing around the margins of actions taking a few turns more or a few turns less to execute ends up being a study in routine optimization instead of long-term planning. Most it is just a wash.
Going back to boardgames, this idea of “efficiency of action” is central to how player turns are structured. Every turn, picking one course of action necessarily limits other courses of action. There are built in opportunity costs, sometimes known and sometimes uncertain, that affect your evaluation of the risks and rewards of your choices. By having limited actions, you are forced to navigate a layer of strategic prioritization, which intersects nicely with the overall structure and length of a game. If a game only lasts 10 turns then each of your decisions weighs mightily on the outcome. In a game lasting 100’s of turns with dozens of actions each round, any given action provides only an incremental effect on the outcome. Each action matters thus less, despite taking just as much time.
Nevertheless, some video games manage to tackle this. One video game that captures this notion of limited actions is King of Dragon Pass (and its successor Six Ages). In these games, each round is a season, and in each season you can only perform two actions. There is a huge menu of actions you can each turn: improving your settlement, engaging in diplomacy, organizing expeditions, performing rituals, go on a raid - and so on. This intersects with the event system, which triggers an event after each action you take - adding a layer of uncertainty to your actions and forcing you to carefully prioritize and strategize.
A Transparent Game State & Discernable Mechanics
Another major difference is that boardgames require players to manage the game state and execute changes in accordance with the rules. A consequence of this is that the rules have to be discernible by human minds. While there are certainly differences in the complexity of board games, most of them are built on rather simple procedures and basic arithmetic-level math.
Video games, on the other hand, rely on - wait for it - “the computer” to process the game state. As a result, the door is wide open to use whatever mathematical constructions and algorithms the designer can devise to process the game. This enables complex calculations where tons of variables and favors can be tossed into the design of mechanics and integrated with complex formulas and functions. While this creates an opportunity for modeling dynamic relationships or other complex phenomena, the result is that the mechanical underpinning of the game is rarely ever fully explained or known to the player. The game becomes a “black box”.
While 4X video games have made major advancements in using tooltips and in-game manuals/wikis to explain how systems work - this is usually kept at a conceptual level, as opposed to explaining each and every step in how things are calculated or resolved. In the other games, random events or outcomes might be based on hidden mechanisms whose operations are entirely unknown, intentionally, to the player. While this can play into creating emergent narratives or complex simulations - it does so at the expense of transparency.
When a game lacks transparency, I feel that results in a de facto reduction of the game’s potential depth. If you can’t tell how the game operates, and can’t discern how the current game state was arrived at, your moves - as “inputs” into the system - run the risk of being rendered arbitrary.
Of course, in practice video games work hard to provide feedback to the player so they move towards understanding the impact of their decisions. But by definition, feedback is retroactive. You’re giving the results “after” you’ve performed the action. By comparison, board games with their more discernible mechanics allow players to be more predictive and anticipatory “before” they perform an action. This in turn creates a clearer line of connection to player agency, and players are able to build better heuristics (experiential knowledge) faster, because the loop between decision factors to choices to results/impact is tighter and understandable.
At the broadest scale, that of the entire length or arc of the game transparency of mechanics and ability to read the game state has a high bearing on the strategic depth of the game. The more complex and obtuse, the harder it is to formulate a long-range plan with any reliability. The game may end up feeling like a series of isolated tactical puzzles that get solved in isolation, with no clear linkage or connection to an overall gameplay arc. This ends up with many 4X video games feeling very samey from game to game. You aren’t experiencing wildly different long-term strategies because the game just takes too long and individual choices are too disconnected from the big picture.
What to do about it?
I think 4X video game designers would benefit from going back to the genres roots, where one could easily explain and perceive how all of the mechanics work - much like one would for a board game. This may result in seemingly simpler games mechanically - but if the systems are transparent and well designed, may nevertheless result in an actually deeper game. As I’ve been tinkering around with the design for a 4X video game, one of my internal checks for a given system is always this: could I implement this system in boardgame and have it be discernible to players? If not - it needs more refinement and clarity.
On the topic of limiting actions - I think this is one area where 4X video games need to really push the design into new directions. But this will be challenge - as much of the 4X player base has grown accustomed to “being able to do anything, anywhere, at any time - with little to no consequence or tradeoff.” Despite wanting to play a seemingly heavy and challenging game - I think most 4X players don’t actually want to be challenged and forced to make tradeoffs.
My evidence for this resistance to tough tradeoffs is the frequent criticism of when a game, in part or in totality, appears too much “like a board game.” People see a thematic or practical oversimplification of a mechanic as being less valued - because in their minds they can imagine a more complex, nuanced, simulation-like way it could’ve been implemented that would make for more “realistic logic.” The irony is that going down the complexity pathway may in fact undercut the very depth and challenge one is hoping to achieve, for all the reasons outlined above.
For me, when a video game is described as “board game-like” my interest is increased. It’s a signal to me that the decisions and mechanics in the game are built around understandability and harder choices - whether it’s around limited actions or other constraints. And I am seeing, overall, a growing interest in these types of video games across a number of genres. Tactical RPGs, roguelikes, XCOM-likes, wargames, card-driven video games all seem to be embracing the “board game like” mantle as a positive. Yet such trends are lacking in the 4X video game space, and I’d love to see that changed.
As usual, let me know if you have thoughts, reactions, or experiences to share!
- [+] Dice rolls
Warning: This is going to be a meandering post on a topic I’m struggling to wrap my brain around. The intent of my fumbling is to trigger a discussion on the topic at hand, and thus better illuminate the subject and my own understanding. Let’s see if I’m successful.
Over the past few years I’m finding myself increasingly drawn to games that I have affectionately started to describe as “beautiful messes” to my compadres. A game that is a beautiful mess, in my mind, is one that dispenses with some portion of conventional gaming wisdom in order to do something strange, unusual, and often viewed as imperfect - and often results in a very different feeling experience.
These “beautiful messes” are often the result of unorthodox mechanics, frequently with rough edges and clunky or nuanced rules thrown in for thematic richness. More importantly, these messy rules create a “beautiful mess” out of the strategic or tactical game state as well, where they enable an often a dizzying array of emergent interactions, dynamics, and overlapping lines of play to all operate at once. These are the sorts of games where you setup it up players look at each other across the table and declare as one, “what in the heck are we supposed to do now?”
Let me pull in a few others angles on this topic. The geeklist What We Talk About When We Talk About Frameworks, way back in 2012, relates to these sorts of games. The geeklist was looking to describe and discuss Framework games, or games that had the players building a framework through play that shaped the topology (i.e. the lay of the land) of a shared strategic space. These games were generally seen as having the following characteristics:
(1) Direct player interaction (often through a primary shared space)
(2) Parasitism (i.e. ability to leech off other players’ assets or built entities)
(3) Constantly shifting incentives (i.e. the valuations of things are regularly in flux)
(4) Simple rules (but often hard to initially grok)
(5) Different ways to win but not multiple paths to victory (i.e. no pre-baked pathways)
Raveros summed it up well: Depth emerges because of creative play within the system. These framework games are perhaps oriented around the notion of emergence more so than other types of games. The designer provides this broad, flexible framework and the players are left to their own devices to build out the play space in a collective manner while nevertheless jockeying for the top position.
In no particular order, some of the Geeklist’s top candidates (one’s I’m slightly familiar with) for framework games include:
* 1830: Railways & Robber Barons (early 18xx game)
* Tigris & Euphrates (collectively building empires/networks with ownership frequently changing hands)
* Container (players building a shared economy)
* Innovation (dizzying array of cards and interactions with organic opportunities being created)
* Resistance / Avalon (creating a shared deception space?)
* Chicago Express (and other Cube Rail games)
* Indonesia (Roads & Boats might be a better splotter game example)
* Diplomacy (the geopolitical and negotiation landscape is built)
* Modern Art
* Bohnanza (questionable entry?)
* Pax Porfiriana (and other Pax-series games?)
* Acquire (I think this fits on the list too)
This is a really interesting list of games. A thread that runs through them is that players are either building a spatial arrangement of assets on a shared board, and that these assets are not completely and exclusively controlled by a single player (hence open-door for parasitism) and/or players are building a shared market (e.g. modern art or container) or other interactive space (e.g. web of alliances). In most all of these games, the decision spaces created tend to be quite large and thus give players a lot of latitude to exercise creative strategic thinking. There is little hand-holding and bad planning can lead to utter ruin. Conversely, threading the needle and executing a clever and brilliant strategy can let you steal and unexpected victory. I love this sort of thing.
Looking at the list above, I do see a slight dividing line between significantly simpler games mechanically (e.g. Modern Art or Bohnanza) versus more complex games (e.g. Pax series, Splotter Games, 18xx). The simpler games appear to fall under the older “German game” umbrella - where the thrust of the games’ conceit is around player engagement and interaction in shared spaces. When the complexity gets cranked up to higher levels, you get a sort of German game on steroids effect. These feel very different than medium or heavy weight eurogames - which aren’t built on this same framework concept at all (they are more about puzzle solving and optimization in a lower interaction environment).
In many ways, this post is also reviving a discussion I had with Nate Straight following his excellent Empire Builder and the Modern Train Game blog post (also many years ago). In discussing train games and their unique economics, our conversation swung around to many of the same games on the list above. Many of these were described as “freak” cases where it wasn’t easy to pin down exactly what the game was trying to achieve from a design standpoint. Was it an economic game or something else?
Ultimately, my impetus for writing this post was set in motion by a line of discussion in a geeklist, starting here, that was talking about how 18xx and other economic games fit into the broader School of Design idea. Such games, alongside other hard to place designs (i.e. Pax series), are frequently uttered in the same breath under the “framework” game notion. And so, as a working definition for this design school, we landed on this:Quote:Framework Game (Emergence Priority)I’m going to shift gears again and make two other points...
(aka sandbox games)
Games that provide players with a framework of mechanics that allow them to build shared dynamic spaces (e.g. geographies, markets, negotiations) over the course of play and which establish emergent lines of interaction (e.g. parasitism, shifting incentives). Frequently includes economic (e.g. Acquire, 18xx, Splotter games Container) and geopolitical games (e.g. Pax-series).
The first is that I’m interested in how or if the notion of a “sandbox” game fits into the framework game idea. When I think of sandbox games, at least in the videogame space, it often relates to games that provide a huge kit of parts and the player is left to their devices to make of it what they will. In this regard, it shares the same core as framework games in that players are “building” something that everyone collectively engages with.
However, sandbox games tend to be less formally structured as competitive games (think Minecraft) in the video game space, and are often more about exploring a big open world. In board game terms, this might lead to something more cooperative and/or adventure in nature. But I don’t think it has to be that way. Is Container an economic sandbox of sorts? What about a game like Innovation that gives you scores of cards to play with? I’ve seen sandbox games described as “no single clear path to victory” and/or where “winning” isn’t the goal so much as taking actions seeing where it leads. The games are, perhaps, more about emergent narrative building than they are a competitive affair.
A few other games that come to mind along these lines includes Archipelago, Xia: Legends of a Drift System, Feudum, Mage Knight, Talisman. TedW had this set of criteria to consider, which might shed some light on this notion:TedW wrote:You might be a sandbox game if:Some of the above overlaps extensively with how framework games operate. Pax Renaissance, for example, feels as much a framework game for building a shared board space as it does in being a sandbox per the criteria above. Many of the games discussed here, Splotter games, Sierra Madre games seem to overlap to an interesting degree. I’d also toss Study in Emerald into the mix as a sandbox, given the plethora of card options and dynamics that emerge. That said, I don’t think every framework game is a sandbox game, nor every sandbox a framework. But they seem to share much of the same DNA and both styles seem to promote this notion of emergence. And both are frequently big beautiful messes.
- The game is open ended
- You have an enormous number of assets (cards, technologies, attributes, etc) you can combine in a guhjillion ways
- The game is more about exploring the system than beating your opponent
- In any given came, you only use a fraction of the components.
- You have tremendous freedom in how you play the game
- It is epic in scope
- You can play the game 20 times and have 20 completely unique experiences.
Check out Sierra Madre games like: High Frontier (Third Edition), Bios:Megafauna (Second Edition), Pax Porfiriana, Origins: How We Became Human.
In some respects, I feel like the big beautiful messes discussed here, whether a framework game or a sandbox game or some hybrid of the two, are the avant-garde in game design. These are games, particularly the more complex ones, that push at the edges of typical game design norms and orthodox. They aren’t euro optimization puzzles, they aren’t wargames, they aren’t thematic straightforward dudes on a map games, they aren’t always family-friendly. They are crunchy and weird. They can be economic or geo-political in nature. But they take any of the above and twist it into something different and strange and messy.
I’ve played A Study in Emerald (first edition only!) a few more times recently. I LOVE that there is a pile of wooden zombie meeples in the game with about a half-page of rules describing their use and associated victory trigger, all contingent on drawing and using one single card (with only one copy of it in the game) and which may not even be included in the set of cards used in the first place! This is an extreme case of “chrome” - and yet - if zombies show up it can have a profound impact on the entire structure and flow of the game. Study in Emerald feels very sandbox-like in this regard. And while players don’t physically build a shared framework or structure in the game, the hidden roles (like Resistance) and created negotiation space (like Diplomacy) create a similar emergent framework feeling.
I played Pax Renaissance for the first time last night. What a gloriously beautiful mess. It exemplifies both this framework notion (tons of interaction over the map cards, but all via mostly shared assets) and the sandbox notion (tons of cards and inter-game variability, sudden and surprising victory, huge decision space). The game is absolutely a mess (and I should add that this brilliant reference card is a holy grail for helping ease the play). I loved my play of Pax Renaissance.
This got a bit longer than I intended, but hopefully it helps stir the pot of conversation on this topic a bit more. Please do share your thoughts on the matter and let’s see if we can find greater clarity or a common understanding of what a framework and/or sandbox game is and how they do or don't create compelling, interactive, and emergent play. Cheers!
- [+] Dice rolls
I caught a recent Ludology episode, which covered the 6 Zones of Play. For those who haven’t seen or heard of the 6 Zones of Play, it’s a concept framed out by Scott Rogers that breaks down the “physical” board and play space into… wait for it.... 6 zones! A cliffhanger, I know.
Briefly, the 6 Zones are as follows (this is my paraphrasing):
Zone 1 - Player’s Dominant Hand: This is where the most personal game assets are held or manipulated, such as a hand of cards.
Zone 2 - Player’s Off-Hand: Often used for manipulating other pieces or pawns elsewhere in the game space.
Zone 1 and Zone 2 are notable because there is a physicality to how far you can reach (without getting out of your seat or god forbid moving around the table). It’s also where the ergonomic design of the game can come into play (how many hands of cards and tiles do I have to juggle?).
Zone 3 - Personal “Tableau”: This is the area directly in front of the player that is not usually part of a shared board space. It might contain a player mat or is a place where you are playing cards/tiles or other assets directly in front of you.
Zone 4 - The Board / Shared Space: This is the main area in the center of the board, often a game map, where all players typically perform actions.
Zone 5 - The Sideboard: These are areas adjacent to the main board, which could contain stocks/supplies of common resources, the bank, victory tracks, markets, etc… this is usually also a shared space but not the primary focus.
Zone 6 - The Rulebook: Rulebook or supplemental information that governs play. May be needed in case of reference.
So, having established these zones, the Ludology podcast (with Scott Rogers himself) discussed the pros/cons of these different spaces and implications for design. I found the formalization of these spaces to be interesting as point discussion for design. However, I have some (shall we say very strong?) reservations about the conclusions they drew from the analysis of these zones. Their conclusion, which I am quoting from the original article, is thus:Quote:What is the point of identifying these Zones? The goal [my emphasis], as a designer, is to bring activity from the further Zones (4-6) into the closer Zones (1-3), so that the necessary information can remain in the player's view and easily accessed. Remember, all game play should be centered around the player and the closer you can keep a game's components and information "within reach" of the player, the more engaged they will remain in the game.I’m injecting my gaming preferences and bias into my criticism, which is to say that I think the above “goal” really only applies to the design of certain types of games, and is outright bad advice when applied to many other sorts of games. My primary issue is in suggesting that elements of Zone 4, i.e. the shared board space, be brought closer into zone 1-3. The discussion did acknowledge the impossibility of doing that for games with a shared space, but nevertheless prompted the issue.
Here’s my counter argument to this recommendation: the more a game pushes play into zones 1-3, the more the game focuses player attention on their own assets with a reduction in need (or opportunity for) interacting in shared spaces. Moreover, the more that player attention is focused on zones 1-3, the harder it is to see or process what’s happening in all the of the other players' zones 1-3, which are even further away from view/reach than zone 4 in the first place. It becomes a self-defeating cycle, where the intent of pulling play into zone 3 (i.e. avoiding the access issues of zone 4-6) actually creates even greater access issues and separation of attention for players. Consider whether you are focusing attention on ONE shared space versus having to split your attention between 2,3,4,5,n... other Zone 3 spaces.
That’s a lot to unpack. In the worst case (and my bias is showing through here) the recommendation would push designs towards multiplayer solitaire. If reading someone else’s zone 3 is too difficult, the design is softly incentivized to not make it necessary for players to keep track of or watch what other players are doing in their respective zone 3s. This directly cuts into the heart of interactivity and leads to a lot of “head down” gaming experiences. Surely many people enjoy this - but it’s not my preference at all.
What would I recommend as a useful takeaway from the 6 Zones of Play? Here’s my alternative recommendation:
Minimize the number of zones of play that are needed and strive to keep player attention focused on primarily just one or two zones (which ever zones those may be).
If a game focuses the design around just a couple of zones, regardless of whether that is leaning more towards personal space or shared space, the play experience will feel more streamlined and ergonomic. Players will be able to focus their attention better and more exclusively on those fewer zones and be able to dedicate more thought space to strategizing and planning instead of spending thought space
shifting focus between different zones, the latter of which is brain-power consuming “multi-tasking” instead of focused attention.
To critique my own work, Hegemonic failed spectacularly in following this rule. There are player boards with tech cards played (which players across the table need to be mindful of). There are two hands of cards. A hugely intricate shared board to fight over. A separate score tracker board. A pool of tiles to draft. It's a complex game so the rulebook makes too many appearances. It’s too much really. Were I to redesign the core of Hegemonic, I would strive to do away with at least some of that (just one hand of cards, no tech cards played in zone 3, eliminate the sector tile pool, etc).
A second critique I have is that the 6 zone theory intentionally ignored Zone “0” - which is the mind or thought space of the players at the table. I feel this is a major oversight. Yes, the 6 Zones are all physical space, but they represent areas where our thoughts and mental attention are to be directed. To ignore Zone 0 is to ignore the critical importance of thinking about the plans, intentions, and motives of the other players at the table. Good games (again my bias) make us consider what our opponents are scheming - whether that’s manifest through reading their board position or staring them in the eye and trying to divine their intent.
To summarize, I found the 6 (or 7) Zones of Play to be a useful nomenclature for talking about the design of the game, where you want player attention focused, and ergonomics. There is good stuff in the framework to be cognizant of. But I don’t agree with the premise of emphasizing Zone 1-3 at the expense of shared space or “mind space.” Not only might that lead to a self-defeating prophecy, but it can (and often does) lead to rather uninspired and non-interactive experiences (once again… my bias).
- [+] Dice rolls
Note: This article is mirrored at eXplorminate, posted July 15, 2016
For the past few years, a question has been haunting my dreams: What is strategy? A narrower follow up question is: What makes a compelling strategy game?
One reason this question has been bothering me, particularly in terms of 4X or Civilization-style games, is that so often the gameplay does not feel like what strategy is or ought to be, at least for me. If the gameplay isn’t strategy, then what exactly is it? And if I’m not getting what I want out of a strategy game, then what in the heck do I really want?!
I have a number of pet theories floating around these troubling questions, which might help me work towards an answer. Fair warning though, much of this article will be spent in the realm of “pontification” or “theorycrafting.” Back in the old days, we called this “BSing.” You’ve been warned!
That said, the concepts I’m trying to discuss are hard to wrap the mind around (well, my mind anyway), so I’ve tried to break my thinking down into bite-sized morsels. These morsels are parts of a bigger thesis I’m working towards. Usually the thesis statement goes at the beginning, but I’m saving it until the end for dramatic effect.
Games, Contests, Puzzles, and Toys, Oh My!
I’m going to start with something that might ruffle some feathers: many of the games we love to play aren’t really “games” at all. Game designer Keith Burgun, in his hierarchy of interactive forms, describes proper games as a “contest of decision making.” What does that mean? Let’s step back for a moment and consider Burgun’s hierarchy in full.
At the basic level there are toys. Toys are a system of interaction that may have any number of rules (from just a few to a great many) that describes how the system works or operates - but there are no prescribed goals. A big pile of LEGOs on the floor is a perfect example of a toy. It’s a sandbox where you can do whatever you want subject to the constraints (i.e. rules) of how the pieces lock together. Even then, you can break or bend the rules with few repercussions.
Now consider a puzzle. Puzzles are systems of interaction that generally have a single solution or prescribed goal state. A jigsaw puzzle has a correct final arrangement, just as we might follow the instructions to build a LEGO set and arrive at the “goal” of the finished castle/spaceship/hospital. Puzzles generally have optimal or perfect solutions - they are about solving for something.
At the next level are contests. Contests build on the notion of a puzzle by layering in a means of evaluating the result. With a jigsaw puzzle, it is either solved or it’s not. But in a contest, the end result can be measured in some objective way and compared across participants. A running race is a contest to see who can cross the finish line first. We could likewise start a stopwatch and see who can build a certain LEGO set the fastest. Generally however, there are few decisions to make in a contest. The optimal path is usually clear and it comes down to who can execute or solve it better or faster.
Finally we have games. Games introduce the notion of making decisions. The need to make decisions exists because the “optimal paths” to victory are unclear and interlinked with the decisions of other participants. You might not know what move your opponent is going to make, or what the results of a combat encounter will be, or what diplomatic arrangements your enemies are making behind your back. And so you have to make a decision about how to move forward without having perfect information and without knowing the optimal route to accomplish your goal. To round out the LEGO example, consider the game Mobile Frame Zero, which creates a miniature battle “game” out of constructed LEGO robots.
I need to pause for a moment and make an important distinction. Burgun’s use of the word “game” is very specific - and in this article I’m not intending it to replace the more common understanding of a game as a type of media (e.g. a video game or a board game). So, we can have a video game or a board game (or a sports game) that is structurally a puzzle, or a contest, or a toy, or a proper “game.” When referring to Burgun’s definition of a game, I will use the term “game” (in quotes) or the term proper game or strategy game to keep things clear.
Each step in the hierarchy builds on the prior, and so “games” are contests but with the additional element of making decisions. If we think about 4X games, it isn’t hard to imagine one manifesting as any of the four interactive forms. Imagine a 4X game with no opposing empires and no random events. Two players instead play separate instances of the exact setup and we see who gets the highest score at the end of a certain number of turns. We just made a 4X contest. Take out the ability to compare scores, leaving a singular, solved “win state” instead (e.g. transcend or colonize 50 planets!), along with no competing empires, and we just made a 4X puzzle. Strip out any sense of goals, and we have some sort of space colonization sandbox - a toy, or perhaps an empire simulation.
Internal vs. External Systems
Now that we have a basic understanding of interactive forms, we can examine how different mechanical systems relate to each type of form. In particular, there is an important aspect to 4X game mechanics that drives what sort of interactive form it is: internal versus external systems.
Internal systems relate to gameplay mechanics that exist and operate primarily within and amongst the assets you control directly in the game. In a typical 4X game (Civilization, Alpha Centauri, Master of Orion, etc.), internal systems include city or colony management: production queues, population happiness, tax rates, economic balance, research priorities, etc. Consider this: if there were no other players or empires in the game, which mechanical systems would continue to function more or less as normal? Those are the internal systems.
The external systems are gameplay mechanics that create and/or depend on interactions with forces outside of your control. Most often these are the interactions you have with other players or empires through the likes of military conquest, espionage, diplomacy, trade, foreign relations, and so on. Beyond other players or empires, it could also include asymmetric forces like random events, endgame threats, space amoebas, or other sources of randomness that add chaos and unpredictability to the gameplay. The key aspect to keep in mind about external systems is that they are outside of the player’s control.
These differences are critically important. In order to have strategic gameplay there has to be an engagement with external systems. Why? Because these external systems and resulting interactions, per Burgun’s hierarchy, are what enable a game to be a proper “game” - and not a puzzle or a contest. External forces provide ambiguities, which obfuscate the optimal paths to victory, and in turn create room for strategic play where we can’t be certain whether our long-term decisions will pay off or not. Moreover, being able to navigate these ambiguities better than your opponent is where skill matters in determining the eventual winner. Games that have many levels of skill (e.g. Chess rankings) and more elaborate heuristics, tend to be deeper and more strategic games.
By contrast, the more a game leans on internal systems, the more puzzle- or contest-like it tends to be (e.g. Apollo4X). In most 4X games, for a given setup, there is an optimal path to expand and grow your empire that follows the rules of the game. This optimal solution can exist because there are few (or no) external systems that make the potential results of the decision process unclear. Of course, external pressures might shift or change what you are optimizing towards during the game - but once that shift in direction is decided, the actions that follow are largely self-evident.
The Goal of Succeeding versus Surviving
A curious quality to games is the difference between succeeding (e.g. meeting a victory condition) and surviving. Some games are structured around the notion that eventually you will fail to survive. Consider the game Tetris. Eventually, the blocks will fall so quickly that the game becomes mechanically unwinnable, and so the game ends and you get a final score. Burgun’s iOS game Empire is the Tetris of 4X games. Eventually your empire will be overrun by external forces - the challenge is to see how long you can survive and how big your final score will be.
Survival games can also be driven by more passive or internal forces. There are plenty of survival sandbox games these days (The Long Dark is a nice one), and here it is less about keeping ahead of some menacing threat actively trying to kill you and more about managing your own affairs and assets such that they don’t unravel and lead to your demise.
Similarly, Paradox’s grand strategy games tend not to have specific victory conditions. Games usually end when the time period covered by the game is over, and the main question is whether or not you survived to that end point. Players might also establish goals of their own choosing during the game. In this regard, these games function more like Burgun’s “toy” definition - although I’m inclined to call them “simulation sandboxes” given the level of complexity and the potential for “failing to survive.” So does the lack of a defined victory condition make it less of a proper “game?” I’m not sure - but maybe.
Most 4X games, however, concern themselves with the notion of victory and “succeeding” - being the first to reach a goal or victory condition. Granted, there may still be an aspect of survival at work, as other empires may decide to wipe you off the planet (or galaxy)! And so in many 4X games, there is a tension between the need to survive and the need to achieve victory; finding the balance is certainly a question of strategic decision making.
So what then are these strategic decisions?
The Balance of Actions
The next theory I want to lay out is an approach for categorizing the different types of actions or activities one might take in a strategy game. Personally, I want games that emphasize making interesting choices as opposed to making mindless non-decisions. Think of it this way: deciding whether to spend the afternoon at the park or going to see a matinee movie might be an interesting choice, but deciding to turn on the car in order to drive is a necessary (and boring) part of achieving either goal. We’ll get to what interesting means in game terms in a bit. For now, I tend to see actions in the following types:
Strategic Decisions: These are high-levels decisions that feed into how you are going to win the game. Most often, strategic decisions are influenced by external systems. Is my neighbor going to invade me (or not), and should I therefore strike first (or not)? How much should I invest in building military units versus funding empire growth? Who should I conduct espionage against or form an alliance with? What type of victory condition am I working towards, and how will I get there before everyone else? Do I need to shift strategies? Strategic decisions exist in our minds - they don’t play out in the physical game space. They are about establishing objectives that set you on a path to victory.
Tactical Decisions/Actions: These are the important decision points and/or actions players take to actualize their strategic decisions or to respond to short-term issues and events. They relate to how you will accomplish an objective. If a long-term strategic plan calls for subjugating a neighboring empire, how are you going to do it? What type of fleet will you build and what route will it take? How will you deal with enemy forces or planetary defenses? Unlike strategic decisions, the result of making a tactical decision is usually reflected by a change to the game state - e.g. I move my fleets to another system, and thus the game state has changed.
Optimization Activities: These are actions that relate mostly to internal systems and consequently ask you to solve or optimize for a particular objective. Do I build my research lab and then my production facility, or vice versa? A lot of time can be spent in 4X games optimizing a particular decision point, and, depending on the complexity and math involved, can be very challenging or relatively trivial. Adjusting the allocation of workers on a colony between production, food, and research is an optimization task as there is often a best solution for a given strategic goal. 4X games are occasionally derided as being “spreadsheet managers,” and the need to optimize outputs (or military efficiency) strikes at the heart of that criticism.
Upkeep & Overhead Actions: These are the routine actions that relate, again, mostly to internal systems and are part of the maintenance or upkeep of your assets. Generally, there is little choice in these actions, they are things you just have to do to advance the game state. In board games these upkeep actions are quite common (reshuffle decks, refill tokens, pay upkeep costs, etc.). We see these in 4X video games, too: tweak the ship design to add the newest laser weapons, add the newly-researched building to your all your production queues, send constructed units to the rally point, clear notifications to advance the turn. These are “no brainer” decisions that rarely require much thinking.
I’ve often found myself critiquing strategy games by asking “what percentage of my time am I spending on what types of actions?” The optimal balance is, of course, a matter of personal preference. For me, I’d much rather spend my time making strategic and tactical decisions, rather than running optimization exercises. Overhead actions, ideally, are just automated and resolved by a competent AI or streamlined UI - or else removed entirely. As a result, I tend to prefer games that emphasize external systems (e.g. more wargame focused 4X titles) over those focused on internal systems and hence optimizations and puzzle-solving.
The notion of survival versus success is also relevant to this topic. Strategic or tactical decisions are easiest to see as they relate to external factors (e.g. other empires), which in turn relate to the choices you make to move closer to success. Less common, but certainly possible, are strategic and tactical decisions relating to survival and internal mechanisms. Grand strategy games often latch onto this idea - where various internal pressures (e.g. mismanagement) can result in a revolt or collapse (e.g. a coup or assassination). This transforms them into external factors, which could then destroy your empire. But I feel like more could be explored along these lines.
The Deception of Complexity
Consider for a moment the classic board game Go. Go has a ruleset that can be explained in a few sentences. And while it’s one of the simplest strategy games, it also has nearly unrivaled depth. This no doubt accounts for the game’s lasting appeal over the course of thousands of years (yes, thousands). The key point is that mechanical complexity does not equal depth, and Go is a testament to the notion that great depth can emerge from simple systems. And so, if we can achieve great strategic depth through simplicity, what role does complexity then play in strategy games?
Complexity can affect gameplay in two fundamental ways. First, complexity can affect the size of the decision space. Playing Go on a 9x9 grid is less complex than playing on a full 19x19 board, where there are vastly more possible moves and game states. Second, complexity can affect the number of factors or layers that go into making a decision. Imagine a simple, multilateral wargame with no option for diplomacy. Now insert diplomacy - suddenly there is a new system for interaction that can influence your decisions for who to defend or war against.
But does this added complexity always make for a deeper strategic game? Not necessarily.
Perhaps enabled by increased computing power, I feel that strategy games have become more complex over time. For many, this added complexity is welcome because it means the game has more longevity - it takes longer to tease apart all the inner workings and to build up skill. We see this frequently in modern board games as well, where learning the rules of the system is a major part of a game’s appeal. Players discuss the joys and thrills of learning how a new system operates and what all the levers and cogs do. But this can be a double-edged sword.
In many cases, complexity merely makes the math of solving optimization problems more convoluted and challenging - diverting attention away from the real strategic interactions in the game. For example, many 4X games have giant tooltips filled with positive and negative modifiers explaining all the factors affecting a colony’s happiness. Maximizing happiness, and in turn productivity outputs, requires identifying what options you have to mitigate each of the contributing factors and determining which has the best net return. You might even conduct this optimization task across all of your colonies to determine exactly which one yields the most bang for the buck. In this regard, the complexity is making the optimization harder, but it doesn’t really deepen the strategic landscape - you are still trying to solve for the same X.
Moreover, once you’ve cracked the code and learned these internal optimizations, you have solved the major puzzle of the game - and can then beat it relatively easily over and over again. There might be strategic or tactical decisions to be made - but they are no longer as interesting and gameplay depth has been diminished as a consequence. A question to ask yourself is this: does a given strategy game become more interesting or less interesting as you play it more?
The Quest for Deep, Interesting Decisions
My ideal strategy game is one where I spend most of my time making interesting strategic and tactical decisions - compared to optimization and upkeep actions. But what makes a choice interesting in the first place? Principally, an interesting strategic decision is one where you have to make a choice and you are uncertain about what the long-term payoff of that choice will be. But you are not shooting blindly in the dark, either. This balance of uncertainty - and the nature of it - is crucial because otherwise the “game” is reduced to a solvable, though potentially quite complex, puzzle.
Uncertainty itself can arise from a number of sources, each of which has an implication on the strategic depth of a game.
One source of uncertainty is chaos or randomness in the game system. If random events, die rolls, or the Wizard-Kings of Probability have a bearing on your long-term decisions, then clearly the outcome has uncertainty to it. However, this may not make a deeper or more strategic game; rather it may just make it more unpredictable and harder to predict. Would chess be considered as skillful and deep if there was only a 50/50 chance to capture a piece? The randomness would make it difficult to strategize and diminish the potential gains for careful planning. In other cases, for example in a game like poker, high degrees of uncertainty adds another level - one of probability and risk assessment - to the optimization activities. It makes decisions more uncertain and harder to calculate, but maybe not in a fundamentally more interesting way. What makes poker interesting is that the randomness of the deal is filtered through the skills and behaviors of other players in an interactive way.
So then, the other major source of uncertainty is related to the interactions between players - and here is where decisions become more interesting. If “games” are understood to be interactive systems that are contests of decision making, then having to account for and react to the actions of your opponents is crucial. Player interactions are external in nature and manifest across a number of 4X game systems: diplomacy, military positioning, espionage, etc. They can also take on a number of different forms: open negotiation, bluffing and feigning, double-think, maneuvering, etc. The crucial skill is being able to read your opponent based on understanding their position, personality, and playstyle, and in turn identify your likely moves (and countermoves). This is where you can leverage your own wit or cunning to achieve a strategic advantage. This is where skill and experience comes into play.
Ultimately, what makes choices interesting is whether or not the strategic landscape of the game - the multi-layered decision spaces that exists in your mind - allows unique and consequential decisions to emerge. In the board game world, games are often discussed as having either “pre-baked” strategic pathways that are created by the designer (and to be discovered by the player) versus games that are more player-driven and emergent in the game states and situations that arise. The pre-baked path approach relies heavily on “learning the system” and on complex internal mechanics.These are often paired with limited player interaction and less volatility as a result. The player-driven approach is more in line with the “simple to learn, lifetime to master” notion - where the depth and interest comes from unique situations where player personalities mix in an interactive and dynamic environment. The former is predominantly about optimizations, the latter is concerned with strategic or tactical interactions.
Implications for 4X Game Design
I’ve laid out a number of pet theories in this article:
- The definition of a game versus a puzzle, toy, contest, or simulation
- Internal versus external systems
- Surviving versus succeeding (victory, goals)
- Types of actions (strategic, tactical, optimization, upkeep)
- The roles of complexity
- Interesting decisions, uncertainty, and player- vs. system-driven games.
What does all of this mean for 4X games? If I have one big critique (here is the thesis!) of 4X games, it is that they often emphasize the exact wrong things in their design (given my preferences), and so I don’t find many of them to be all that strategic as a result. In many cases I’m not even sure they could be classified as proper “games” (per Burgun’s hierarchy) - they feel, to me, more like puzzles.
Complexity appears to be increasing in 4X games, but much of this complexity is directed towards internal game systems: ever more intricate systems of colony management, internal policies, worker optimizations, more complex development pathways, and so on. Little of this really affects how interesting the big long-term strategic decisions are. In fact, the focus on creating compelling or interesting victory conditions (essential for a proper “game”) seems to be in decline - making the choice of what you are optimizing for all the more obvious. In so many 4X games, I feel your race selections and starting position railroad you down a certain track towards a certain pre-ordained victory condition. You might start the game game knowing you are going for a technological win because your empire/species is all about boosting technology. The decisions that follow from there are all about optimizing and solving for X. It’s a puzzle, not a game.
One of the challenges with complexity also has to do with the AI’s capabilities and level of cunning. On one hand, a shift towards greater focus on internal system complexity could be seen as a way to sidestep a weak strategic AI. However, the AI still has to navigate these complex internal systems, and often it ends up receiving bigger and bigger bonuses to compensate for its inefficiencies. This isn’t a good foundation to build a competitive strategic game. On the other hand, simpler game systems might be able to better leverage a computer’s brute-force calculation power to legitimately out-optimize or out-wit the player. I have a Go app on my phone and the AI, sans bonuses, absolutely trounces me. Go figure...
Other types of 4X games (and especially grand strategy games) take a different approach. They are using increasing complexity as a basis for building more detailed simulation models. Within this type of simulation, players are at liberty to decide their own goals and what game systems to focus their choices around. It is a sandbox experience and, short of a failure to survive, is not usually oriented around goals or victory conditions at all. This is, of course, a perfectly valid approach, and simulations have a great capacity to allow for player-created narratives to emerge. But in a certain sense, these really are not “games” either - at least in the strict sense of active competition for victory.
So, 4X games appear stuck between a puzzle optimization pole on one end and a complex simulation pole on the other. And neither of these really results in a focus on making interesting strategic decisions based on external, player-driven interactions.
Personally, I’d love to see a 4X game take a different approach and embrace mechanical simplicity - using it to build a more interesting interactive player environment. What would a 4X game with practically zero empire management look like - with all the focus instead on diplomacy, military maneuvering, controlling shared markets, and cultural exchange? The skill of the game, and its potential depth, would be less contingent on knowing the optimal pathways and instead about making strategic decisions within an emergent and dynamic game space, including the personalities and eccentricities of your rivals.
Most titles seem to drift towards either the survival/sandbox simulator or the optimization/ steamroller to victory. There are a few games that strive to zero-in on interesting strategic decisions and that focus more on external interactions as a result. Age of Wonders III, for example, has relatively simple empire management and de-emphasizes optimization tasks. Instead it emphasizes military positioning, maneuvering, and the careful use of magic resources - all higher level strategic or tactical decisions. This bring it closer to a proper strategy “game” than many other 4X games, at least given my preferences. I would put Master of Orion (the first one) or Sword of the Stars (the first one) in the same category. They are relatively simple games mechanically that emphasize external interactive systems over complex internal mechanics. But fewer and fewer games seem to follow in their footsteps.
As a parting thought, consider these various pet theories and whether they have informed or changed your perspective of 4X games that you have played. How do your own interests and preferences align or not with these concepts? Do you see other styles of 4X or strategy games that do or could exist? Do you feel that the games you play are are “puzzles” or “contests” or “games?”
As always, the comment line is open.
- [+] Dice rolls
Preamble: A Fool’s Quest
It may come as no surprise that I have aspirations to design a 4X game. I’m sure many of you reading the headline have entertained such thoughts as well. And while I have designed and published a 4X board game (and am no stranger to the design process) my spider-sense tells me that designing a 4X video game is like navigating a minefield. There is so much that can blow up. We also appear to be entering a heyday for 4X games, which begs the question “do we need yet another 4X game rampaging through the market?” Probably not. But that isn’t going to stop me from dreaming and putting forward a vision for what I feel would be something unique and different.
I’ve dedicated a fair portion of my writing to critiquing 4X games along a number of different avenues: bad endgame experiences, pacing and flow, strategic depth vs. routine optimization, snowball and steamroller, over-complication, underdeveloped systems, thematic incongruities, and so on. Throughout all of this, I always ask myself “If I’m so quick to critique, how would I do it differently?” For a long time I’ve been striving to understand what it is I’m actually looking for in a 4X game experience. Is it narrative? Is it challenge? Is it immersion? I think it needs to be all of the above, but wrapped together in a way that provides a meaningful and coherent experience.
Through all of this, there is one central thing keeps nagging at me as I look back on the many 4X games I’ve played: 4X games rarely have a satisfactory ending in terms of narrative or gameplay - and often both are lacking.
A design lesson I’ve learned is that, for strategy games at least, the end trigger and win conditions are the game. You have to conceive of a compelling conclusion to your game first, and then work towards building that experience. I think a lot of games do it backwards: they conceive of all the things they want players to do, and then figure out how to wrestle the behemoth they’ve created into a coherent game with some way to end it. How many games patch in new victory conditions post-release? It’s absurd if you think about it. Strategy games need to be designed around the victory conditions so that all the elements can be balanced and directed towards a compelling closure. So I don’t want to fall into the trap of doing it backwards.
4X games are often a letdown in terms of gameplay for reasons that have been discussed considerably of late. How many of you actually bother to finish a 4X game once you have passed the point of knowing victory is inevitable, if only you just hang on and grind through? That’s a problem having to do with the snowball and steamroller. Another issue is that victory conditions themselves are often silo’d as isolated offshoots of disjoined mechanics: you have some arbitrary economic win, or a technological win, or a military win, etc. Gameplay becomes a giant optimization puzzle to hit your chosen goal first. More alarming, this is often a goal you set right at the start of the game, based on race selection, and which rarely is challenged or changed during play. Strategy is about deciding on goals - and how much strategy is there really in a game where you set you set your goal in the the first 5 minutes?
The narrative problem that I have with 4X games can be summarized with this question: What does it mean for an empire to “win”? I’m tired of games built around conquering the world or galaxy, or becoming the supreme ruler, or achieving some technological triviality, or abstractly cornering the market, or whatever else. The end triggers for so many games are painfully arbitrary and hence unsatisfying from a narrative standpoint. More to the point, these sort of winner take all win conditions are not very enlightened or sophisticated, they translate colonialism into space. Whoopee. I think we can do better.
I read a lot of science fiction, particularly space operas from the likes of Isaac Asimov (old school) to Peter F. Hamilton (new school). These narratives are dramatic and visionary. They cover vast sweeps of time, and yet boil down to nail-biting and personal moments as the protagonists strive to stay one step ahead of whatever horrific menace is sweeping across the stars. I’ve never had the sort of tension and sweeping grandeur in a 4X game that you get from a novel - but I have some ideas for how it might happen.
So the challenge I’m laying at my feet is two-fold: First, conceive of a design for a space 4X game that would unify the gameplay with what it means to win through a compelling narrative frame that captures the boldness and imagination of the best of space opera. Second, I want to accomplish this with a game that is tightly designed, relatively quick to play (by 4X standards), and is emergent and engaging with getting bogged down by its own design.
PART 1: A Sketch for a Space Opera
A Dream Transcendent
Imagine for a moment that a game with the tightness and pacing of something like FTL (Faster Than Light) had an unholy union with a narratively curious game like King of Dragon Pass. Except instead of trying to fly a spaceship from point A to point B, as in FTL, you were guiding an empire among the stars. And instead of trying to become the king of all the clans, you were seeking transcendence and an ascension to the next level of galactic consciousness. This is the of the idea for Transcend. Let me elaborate.
First of all, I want to create a 4X game where what it means to win is something positive and evolutionary. Most 4X games presuppose that winning is only by achieving dominance in some way, and that other empire’s are inherently in a zero-sum competition with you. Hence, most 4X games task the player with overseeing yet another colonial era of manifest destiny. I think this is a tired concept, and coming up with something novel and positive means reexamining what it means to “win.”
I think modern humanity, as a whole, could move towards “winning” in some sense by achieving world peace and ending poverty, or achieving an equilibrium with planet Earth. Those are positive goals in my mind. Becoming the supreme ruler of earth doesn’t sound very positive to me - it’s draconian. So in Transcend, there is one singular winning condition: surviving to achieve transcendence with your culture. Achieving transcendence will open up a pathway to a higher plane of existence (e.g. accessing higher dimensional orders of reality) where other transcendent cultures thrive and continue their own quests for evolution and understanding in the universe. It’s a bit Zen-like, eh?
How your culture achieves transcendence will vary in unique ways depending on their physiology, consciousness, and morality. These starting conditions, which will be covered more later on, frames a sequence of positive goals you need to meet to successfully transcend, such as achieving empathy, equity, freedom, creativity, etc.. A race of artificial machines might need to learn empathy and compassion, or a culture of passive space slugs to learn when force is justified, or for humans to move beyond their rigid individualism.
In my mind, these transcendent goals provide a more compelling context for a 4X game’s winning condition than “I’m better/bigger than you.” So the idea isn’t a technological victory or any other specific win trigger, but rather requires players to build a strategy that employs all aspects of their empire as they pursue a series of culture-spanning transformations towards transcendence. This will also (hopefully!) create an opening to recognize and reward cooperation between empires. Such cooperation is a rarity, and most often a friendly handshake is just the precursor to a stab in the back. But here, it is possible for multiple races to Transcend and even work together to achieve it mutually, because it isn’t zero-sum. What I need to transcend may be very different from what you need, and there is room for both of us to succeed if we work together.
Yet achieving transcendence, in the absence of any external threats, must be a challenge on its own. Managing growth and resources so that your culture doesn’t spiral out of control and consume itself along the way, putting transcendence forever out of reach is central to the design. There needs to be internal pressure on the player. In metaphor, the path to transcendence is like navigating through a maze of tightropes, and there are plenty of opportunities to fall off.
There are also things trying to push you off the tightrope.
Whispers in the Dark
My space opera inspired design challenge also needs to apply external pressure on the player to keep them on their toes and prevent players from simply optimizing their way to victory. Enter the Galactic Threats. Galactic Threats are something big and bad that happens to the entire galaxy. Fundamentally their presence requires players to achieve transcendence before the galactic threat wipes you (and everyone else) out.
So the central strategic challenge in the game becomes balancing your own progress towards achieving transcendence while holding enough back to deal with the galactic threat when it shows up. You need to walk the tightrope but be resilient enough to not get pushed off by a strong wind. If you invest too heavily in one aspect of your empire, you might not have the flexibility and foundation in place to react when the threat comes knocking. And while players may be able to slow down the galactic threat, inevitably they will have to transcend to escape it - there is no other way.
Of course there is a further wrinkle: you don’t know what the galactic threat will be. The game will include a series of different threats, and one of them (or more than one on harder difficulties) will randomly be unleashed on the galaxy at some unforeseeable moment. And these threats can take a number of different forms, with only subtle narrative clues and events hinting at the storm to come. For example, an unfathomably massive black hole might appear in center of the galaxy and slowly starts pulling all the star systems into its maw, turn by turn obliterating them. Transcend before your empire is swallowed.
Another threat idea is “Galactic Hot Potato” (working title!), where a mysterious homing beacon is unearthed that starts summoning progressively stronger waves of extradimensional alien forces into the galaxy. Players need to cooperate to “pass the potato” and keep the aliens chasing it around the galaxy. Or maybe you can use spies to sneak it onto an opponent’s world to sic the aliens on them! Regardless, if the aliens get a hold of it, the motherships show up and you are all screwed. Prudent leaders transcend before the motherships show up. Or maybe some wild nano virus starts spreading throughout sentient life and turning your populace against itself.
Holistically, the galactic threats introduce an asynchronous form of opposition that provides a more compelling narrative structure to the game. On a basic level, it gives the player an interesting challenge, greatly lessening the burden for programming other AI empires to give the player a challenging peer-to-peer experience. Additionally, the threat system has the potential to open up more interesting gameplay, with opportunities for cooperation between players to occur as they collectively try to hold back the tide; yet with each culture still racing against the clock to transcend on their own. When combined, these two dynamics (transcendence and galactic threats) can move the genre beyond a mere repetition of the colonial manifest into something bold and new, and more fitting as a “space opera.”
The Supporting Cast: Design Goals
While the Transcendence and Galactic Threat systems address my overarching design goal of creating a challenging and narratively interesting victory system, there are other critical design goals to discuss. Establishing goals for a design is important to guide decision making and to keep the game focused around the experience you are trying to craft. While goals can certainly change, often times the constraint of holding the design to them can breed ingenuity. So what are these other goals? So far I have seven of them:
I’m longing for a 4X game that I can sit down and play to it’s conclusion in an evening or two and feel like I’ve been challenged and engaged the whole time. Contrary to the “just one more turn” sentiment, I want every turn to have tough choices and tradeoffs to make. I want less turns, but I want them each to matter more. There should never be a turn of “doing nothing but pressing next turn.” I want to compress the normal 4X experience so that all those crazy late-game technologies we drool about are actually employed sooner and have a bearing on the game. I’ve had this notion of structuring the flow and pacing of the entire game around 30 turns, recognizing that if I design for 30, I’ll probably end around 45 or 60 turns. Each turn, to capture the sweeping growth and transcendence of a culture, will need to represent a large chunk of time, and by necessity requires a bit more abstraction throughout the design. But I think that’s okay, because I want to …
Embrace the Fantastical.
Science fiction literature is filled with all sorts of awesome ideas: cultures going post-physical, hive minds, dyson spheres, ring worlds, starbombs, galactic cannons, miniature black holes, Helium mining from super gas giants, getting lost in subspace, etc. Very few 4X games really give you a way to engage with these ideas. With 30 turns, the idea is to bring these fantastical ideas to the forefront and let players utilize them earlier on as part of your grand strategy building on the quest for transcendence. I rather like the design doctrine of letting everything be “overpowered” - the gameplay results are usually far more interesting.
I want most of the numbers in the game the be less than 10. 4X games can quickly spiral into complex math and algorithms that obfuscates the gameplay, requiring players to jump through all sorts of mental gymnastics just to evaluate the potential outcomes of different choices. I want to keep the numbers simple so that evaluation of choices is driven more by a consideration of the context, needs, and opportunities as a discrete option rather than as a mathematical optimization exercise. In other words, I want to enable players to “shoot from the hip” in their decision making, which might also open up the design to a broader audience.
To the extent possible, I want to keep the theme and mechanics in alignment. I dislike, in general, “gamey” systems that exist without a clear connection back to the theme. If a mechanic or system can’t be clearly understood on the basis of it’s theme, then it needs to be reevaluated. If I’m doing something in-game that is totally illogical or counter-intuitive, that’s a problem. Games obviously require abstraction, but I want to abstract the various systems in the game to a comparable level. So many games go into great detail on ship design and combat, yet leave espionage or trade woefully underdeveloped. I want both to be compelling systems, even if that means neither might be as deep on its own.
One issue I have with many 4X games is that they don’t provide enough feedback to the player on the consequences of their choices or as to the state of affairs in the game world. Without adequate feedback and information, it can make it hard to understand why the game state is the way it is, and in turn is hard for players to build heuristics and develop their skills and strategies.
Big Picture Management.
4X games can quickly spiral into a management nightmare for many gamers (myself included). The core systems of the game will be designed starting from the end, i.e., what does an empire look like at the precipice of transcendence and how is managing that state of affairs interesting, engaging, and free of frustration? That’s the goal, and achieving it relates to both the core game system mechanics around empire and colony management as well as the UI approach. I want the game to focus on the “big picture” at the galactic scale, and not get too far in the weeds. Ideally, there would be few menu’s in the game, with information presented visually right in the main viewport.
Strategic Interaction, not Optimization.
I have a nagging feeling that a lot of 4X games are more like optimization puzzles than proper strategy games. Part of this is because interaction between empires is usually limited to warfare. If interactions are based only around warfare, then the player that can optimize best, and build the strongest military engine the fastest, will inevitably win. Typically, there aren’t enough other ways to interact with foreign empires that can apply pressure to the same extent that military force can. As a result, the “strategy” of most 4X games is rather one-dimensional and boils down to learning the optimization puzzle best. I want Transcend to embrace multiple avenues for interaction, both peaceful and aggressive in nature, so that building up a big military isn’t the only way to go and that other emergent opportunities can manifest as well.
In conjunction with the transcendence / galactic threat system, my hope is to create a more tightly designed 4X game. I want players to immediately be faced with compelling situations that require strategic planning, not number crunching, to navigate. I want the game to move at a fast pace to keep narrative constantly evolving over the course of the game, with other empires thrown into a highly interactive geopolitical arena.
Up Next: Species & Core Gameplay Systems (probably)
In Part 2, I will present the core gameplay systems that underpin the design, specifically the Admin System. The Admin system is envisioned as a way to frame the player’s role as the leader of your culture. How Admin relates to exploration, colony management, and the production model will be described in greater detail.
In the meantime, I welcome any discussion, theory-crafting, and criticism of what has been presented thus far. Thanks, and stay tuned!
- [+] Dice rolls
Theoretical frameworks are conceptual models or tools that help us organize our thinking and enhance our understanding of how different concepts interrelate. Much of Big Game Theory! has focused on developing frameworks to help make sense of games. This effort has been directed towards developing language, terminology and associated concepts to support both game design and game analysis. Whether you are a designer, a critic, or a player, these frameworks can help us articulate an idea, dissect a reaction or "feeling" we have, and be more aware of how games operate "under the hood."
One of my larger ambitions has been towards developing a "Science of Board Games." This post is the latest installment in this line of thinking, expanded to include all games (video games, tabletop games, etc.), and is an effort to unify different frameworks that have been presented by myself and others over the years. A shortcoming of many earlier frameworks is that, while they are useful, they are also not terribly specific. I’m interested in looking at a larger range of terms we use to discuss games and see how all of these terms might integrate into a more cohesive and unified model for understanding games.
The nod to "genomics" in the title of today’s framework relates to two notions. The first is the connection to the Game Genome Project, an on-going effort to map the possible characteristics of games that manifest through a series "traits", such as luck, theme, interactions, pacing, etc., and describe how they build on one another. Different expressions of these traits result in different gameplay experiences. Second, genomics (as in genetic science) relates to analyzing gene structure to understand how they connect to higher order functions. Similarly, I’m interested in how these fundamental traits or "genes" of a game translate into or emerge to create a total experience for players.
Conceptual Starting Points
Games are complex in the the interactions they create, the challenges they provide, the stories they tell, and the subjects they model. Conceptual frameworks have provided a number of approaches for helping designers, critics, and players to make sense of this this complexity. The Genomic Framework, which I will present in the next section, is based on three prior frameworks:
(1) The MDA Framework (Mechanics > Dynamics > Aesthetics) by Robin Hunicke, Marc LeBlanc, and Robert Zubeck (2004)
(2) Jesse Schell’s Tetrad (Aesthetics, Narrative, Mechanics, Technology) from the Art of Game Design (2008)
(3) The Unified Boardgamery Theory (Players, Theme, Rules, Components) by Oliver Kiley (2014) and based on work by Mark Major (2014).
After presenting my Unified Boardgamery Theory, I received a tremendous amount of discussion and input. As a reminder, my framework presented the four key elements of player, theme, rules, and components in a Venn diagram type arrangement. This diagram showed the relationship between elements as "overlaps", which in hindsight had the side effect of making it hard to read. The overlaps obfuscated a critical aspect of the diagram, which I did not even realized at the time. Rather than a series of overlaps, moving from lower order to higher order characteristics is actually a process that we can map. And we can map it by using the basic concept presented by the MDA Framework.
The MDA Framework presents a sequence of relationships between a game’s fundamental mechanics, the dynamics that are created from the those mechanics, and how players experience those dynamics through an aesthetic response. From a designer’s perspective, this sheds light on how we can approach mechanical design to solicit a particular aesthetic response, and can check this through playtesting to see if the right kind of dynamics are being created. As a player (or even a critic), we can start with our aesthetic response and work backwards to tease apart the dynamics and mechanical systems that created that response.
While the MDA Framework is incredibly useful for thinking about the process how mechanics lead to experiences. But it is generic and not as useful for thinking about the specifics movements and pathways within that process and how they relate to different fundamental properties of games. My question is always "what" are the dynamics that we should be focusing on and what are the fundamental properties that feed into building those dynamics. Both The Unified Boardgamery Theory and Schell’s Tetrad are more specific about what these fundamental inputs are and the characteristics that define them.
Schell’s Tetrad is useful in many respects, but I did not find it universal enough it’s scope to apply towards a broader range of games. For example, the notion of "technology" is cumbersome conceptually in the boardgame world. Also the aesthetics are really a higher order thing in my mind, created from the fundamental mechanical elements (as in MDA), so it feels out of place as a leg of the stool. Lastly, the Tetrad doesn’t address the "players" themselves as one of the fundamental factors in a game framework. Players are just as necessary as rules and components, and their role within any framework attempting to describe games needs to be considered.
My revelation was that the Unified Boardgamery Framework can be re-interpreted as a sequential process of building higher order characteristics from lower order one’s, and that this process matches the MDA Framework. Armed with this insight, I set about reworking my theory into a sequence, rather than as a series of overlaps. The result is something that adds more clarity and specificity to the MDA Framework, while providing a mechanism to integrate and relate the broad range of "trait" and "genetic" terms used to analyze games.
FIDA: A Genomic Framework for Game Analysis
FIDA stands for Fundamental, Intrinsic, Dynamic, and Aesthetic, and each of these terms relates to a different functional order within a game. It is "Genomic" in that it is a "trait-based" framework that identifies key characteristics of games. The Fundamental level includes the four basic building blocks of a game: players, rules, media, and theme. The Intrinsic level describes all six of the combinations of fundamental factors. The Dynamic level results from the Intrinsic-level elements coming together and creating challenge, immersion, narratives, and simulations. And all of these culminate with the Aesthetic level that describes the net experience and greater meanings. While similar to the Unified Boardgamery Theory, the Genomic Framework is structured as a process. And while we can navigate the framework from lower to higher levels, we can also navigate it from higher to lower to see what factors and traits feed into a particular element.
The "players" are the agents that are involved in playing the game. Players, assuming they are human, bring their individual attitudes, values, and motivations to the game. Players can also be artificial or non-human, for example the AI personalities that you play against in a video game like Civilization.
These are the process-oriented mechanics of the game that define how interactions take place and how the game state is changed from one moment to the next. In a board game, the rules are generally the "rulebook," and in a video game the rules are coded into the programming. There are a number of critical traits associated with the rules themselves, such as input-and-output operations, use of randomness or chaotic elements, how game systems integrate, establishing objectives, etc.. Rules can also exist outside of the rulebook or programming, such as house rules, rules of conduct, tournament rules, which can also have a bearing on how a game operates.
Theme ("Where, When")
I’ve discussed theme previously, but in the most basic sense theme is about the subject, setting, and scope of the game. The subject could be something like trading or empire building. The setting could be "in the Mediterranean" or "in space". The scope could be "managing a company" or "piloting a ship." What is important is that theme shapes the environment and atmosphere and provides context.
Media includes the technology, components, playing pieces, equipment, input devices, and everything else that gives physical (and/or digital) form to the game. In the absence of media, a game is just a collection of rules with no way for it to be played. The media often defines the boundaries of the game. While the rules of Chess stipulate how the play the game, the physical 8x8 board bounds the playing area and establishes the geography or landscape of the game. In a first-person RPG video game, the boundaries of the created world define the play space.
Roles are a factor of players and theme. Typically, the scope of of the game define what the players’ roles are within the game, e.g. captain of a ship vs. the CEO of company. The role may also define certain associations, thematically, between players or agents. For example, the player as emperor with AIs controlling governors. The role can define the perspective of the player, e.g. first-person or third-person. Roles are important for placing the players into the gameworld, and they define the perspectives and operating assumptions of the player.
Interactions are created at the intersection between players and the rules. The types of interactions created by the rules describe the overarching game format (e.g. competitive vs. cooperative) and how direct or indirect the interactions can be. Players, interpreting the rules, may develop internal "goal trees," which are the player-created mental models for how the player navigates choices and works towards accomplishing objectives within the game. Interactions relate to how players affect the game state, by way of the rules, as a consequence relates to player agency and how strongly or weakly a player can affect the game world.
Complexity is a function of both the rules and the media. Adding more systems or layers to the rules can increase complexity, as can increasing the extent and geography of the game world. Tic Tac Toe becomes much more complex if the board size increased to a 5x5 grid. Other than changing the goal to require 5 in a row, the basic rules are still the same; yet the gameplay is more complex. Complexity can relate to the size of the breadth of the decision space (e.g. how many places can I go) as well as variability within the game (e.g. 52-cards vs. 104 cards in a deck).
Representation connects the media of the game, whether digital or physical, with the theme and context. In a video game this includes the graphics (models, textures) and audio (music, sound) that conveys the theme. In a board game, it is typically the artwork, illustrations, and flavor text.
Coherence and Interface are important bridging elements that connect across the framework and in turn feed into the all four of the Dynamic level elements. While they are based on the Foundational elements they are far reaching in their influence on a game’s dynamics and how those are experienced.
Coherence (Bridging Element)
Coherence is the relationship between the theme and rules, and describes the nature of that relationship. Theme can be "pasted on" or deeply connected to the rules and derived carefully from it. Games with greater coherence have better alignment between the rules and mechanics and illogical inconsistencies are relatively minimal. Coherent games can facilitate decision making (and possibly the sense of challenge) by providing a useful metaphor to facilitate decision making. Coherent games have positive impact on the narratives that are created as well as the sense of immersion (i.e. suspension of disbelief). More coherent games can provide better models or simulations of their subject matter, with greater fidelity and accuracy in representation.
Interface (Bridging Element)
The interface connects the players with the media and determines in turn how players interact with all facets of the game. Critical issues relative to interface relate to ergonomics and whether the game is fiddly or streamlined. It can also speak to the pacing and flow of the game and how smooth the experience is for players. Games with lots of upkeep or maintenance tasks, relative to decision-making tasks, may feel more disjointed and clunky. The interface is also critical for providing feedback to the player so that they can perceive and understand changes to the game state and how their actions have affected (or not affected) it.
Challenge relates to depth of gameplay. More challenging games are typically (though not always) more complex games with greater decision depth (i.e. more factors to consider in making good decisions) as a result from player interactions and changing game states. Challenge hinges critically on the interactions between players (and/or the environment) to create unpredictable situations that the player must try to overcome. Challenge relates to player skills and heuristics (i.e. learning effective play), which connects to the Modes of Thinking framework describing the balance and intensity of thought across Logistical, Spatial, and Intuitional types. Elegance is also wrapped up in challenge/depth, and is the relationship between strategic depth and complexity. More elegant games provide the same or greater depth with less complexity as an inelegant game..
Narratives are the "created" stories and dramatizations that occur over the course of playing a game. Narratives are player-centric and shaped by the game’s theme. But the rules of the game play a vital role in structuring the narratives that emerge throughout the course of play, by way of interactions. Think of the narrative as a the post-game story you might tell that describes the arc and progression of the game, the rise and fall of players, the dramatic high and low points, the tensions, etc. Games with stronger narratives are typically easier to re-tell, as they create a more engaging and novel experience each time.
Immersion is an often used yet rarely defined term - but I think it is central to how we experience and enjoy games. At the simplest level, immersion relates to our suspension of disbelief. More immersive games get us to more effectively buy-into the reality created by the gameworld and re-align our thinking and expectations to conform to that reality. Lots of things can break our sense of immersion: a bad interface or UI that "pulls us out of the game," artwork that doesn’t seem to fit, rules that don’t make any sense, cumbersome controls or ergonomics, no sense of presence in the player’s role, etc.
Games, as systems designed to abstract some real or imagined reality, are in effect simulations or models for the subject theme. At the dynamic level, games can function as models or simulations that provide opportunities for learning, study, or engagement that can go beyond simply playing the game as competitive (or cooperative) exercise. These can be witnessed by observing a changing gamestate overtime. And the fidelity of these models can be considered in light of how well (accurately, realistically, etc.) they function as an abstraction of the modeled reality.
Net Experience & Meanings ("Why")
The net experience level relates to the overall aesthetic reaction and experience the players have. While aesthetic is often used to discuss artistic characteristics, an "aesthetic response" is how someone "feels" about a work, artistic or otherwise, and is quite relevant to games I feel. For players, the line of aesthetic questioning is often "was the game fun?" And for players, what constitutes fun is central to the overall net experience of the game and what players hope to get out of it.
The many-faced monster of "fun" can of course take on a number of different forms; not all types of fun is equal for all players. The MDA Framework provides eight different aspects of fun that players may seek in the games they play. These eight kinds of fun are: Sensation, fellowship, fantasy, discovery, narrative, expression, challenge, submission, etc. Other aesthetic responses are possible as well, such a those that explore meanings beyond the game itself (pushing games into the realm of art perhaps?). All of these responses speak to something gained that transcends beyond the game itself; they are things that you can take with you when the game is over.
Additionally, the "types of fun" a game provides relates directly to the "genre" of the game. While there are many definitions and approaches to game genre classification, I’m attracted to the notion of genre being coupled to net experience, because it relates genre, which is a shorthand descriptor for a broad category of games, to the aesthetic responses that genre is trying to solicit. A fantasy MOBA, a modern FPS shooter, a eurogame, a dudes-on-a-map game, etc. all endeavor to tap into certain combinations of aesthetic responses. And these aesthetic responses come about as a function of different levels and flavors of the four central dynamics (narrative, challenge, immersion, and models).
THE GENOMIC FRAMEWORK IN ACTION
Key Relationships for Designing Games
The Genomic Framework imbeds some other interesting (to me at least!) relationships, especially as a game designer. The four fundamental components each have a close relationship with a certain dynamic: Rules with Challenge, Media with Simulation, Theme with Immersion, and Players with Narrative. And this isn’t by accident! A narrative-focused game, for example an RPG, relies heavily on how players engage with that narrative, and thus Roles and Interactions are quite important (along with the bridging elements, Coherence in particular). From a game design standpoint, focusing on those elements might be more worthwhile compared to focusing on other elements.
There is also a soft relationship between Complexity and Interface and between Roles and Coherence. Again, this is no accident. As the complexity of a game increases, the more critical it is that the interface be effective in presenting the player with information in an organized manner. Similarly, coherence depends in large part on players being assigned roles and perspectives that afford them the means to see and understand the inner workings of a game.
Critiquing and Analyzing Games
For a while now, I’ve used three terms as a way to critique games: challenge, immersion, and narrative. In some respects I’m surprised to see that those three are all central dynamics in the Genomic Framework - since I’ve been kicking these three factors around for longer than I’ve been considering this framework. Or perhaps it isn’t surprising, and this is all a convoluted way of justifying my analysis approach! Regardless, the Genomic Framework adds a fourth dynamic, Simulation, which is not as important for me, given my preferences, but is certainly of critical interest to many other gamers that relish in opportunities to learn and glean deeper insight about a game’s subject matter.
Whether we are analyzing a game as designer to figure out how we might improve the game, or are critiquing the game as a critic (or player), focusing on these four dynamics is vitally important I feel. They provide sufficient flexibility to cover (or relate to) nearly every topic concerning a game. They are tangible enough to still be spoken about with clarity, while being readily relatable back to the intrinsic or fundamental level characteristics. Being able to describe what the created dynamics are will allow the critic to make better predictions of the likely aesthetic responses or use it as a means to explain their own aesthetic responses in greater specificity.
So here is where this all comes full circle: The Genomic Framework provides a structure of relationships between nearly all of the game traits and characteristics I’ve been mapping through the Game Genome Project. It provides a way to slot in a term and our understanding of it along with how it feeds into or is fed by other elements.
I’d like to apply this framework towards analyzing a number of different games, to further test the water on how it functions. And of course, your feedback and discussion on the validity, integrity, or preposterous-ness of the framework is always welcomed. Thanks for reading!
- [+] Dice rolls
30 Jul 2015
The last year has felt that the various scions of the gaming world are on a collision course. Digital games are increasingly being released cross-platform on desktop, console, and mobile platforms. The boardgame market continues to grow and is spilling over into the mobile market place through digital boardgames at a faster rate. Videogame developers are taking note and designing and marketing games with "boardgame-like qualities".
Yet all of these interaction points, between serious (hardcore) gamers and mobile gaming, between boardgames and mobile games, and between videogame design notions and boardgame-like-ness, are sources of tension. But in every issue there is an opportunity, right? I can't help but forecast a bit into the future and envision an ecosystem of games that evolve at this nexus of gaming pressures: original and cross-platform digital games that embrace "boardgame-like" design principles and appeal to both serious/hardcore gamers as well as a broader segment of the market.
This post will break down these trends and provide some reflection on what I think it could mean. This is all total speculation and reporting based on my observations and discussions with others. Discussion of all forms is encouraged! Let's get on with the show.
The Growing World of Boardgames
I'll start off by quoting myself, as is the proper thing to do when one is in need of a reliable source of data! A thread on BGG was discussing the increase in the number of games released every year, and I pulled down some of BGG's data to see what the trends looked like.Mezmorki wrote:METHOD: I searched by year for games (not expansions) and tallied how many had 50 or more ratings to use in weeding out games that aren't actually published or widely distributed. I also made note of the top-rated game each year as a sort of reminder/benchmark.Basically, the number of games with any significant presence (enough to get 50-ratings) has grown from around 200 games/year circa year-2000 to around 400 games/year circa 2015. That's a lot of growth in a relatively short period of time, and says nothing about the volume of other games that get pushed out each year that doesn't make the cut of 50+ ratings (1000 or more games per year easily). This trend probably isn't surprising to anyone in the boardgaming world, but it's worth pointing out nonetheless, especially for people that aren't as deep into this slice of the gaming hobby.
Here's the data table:
YEAR QTY Top Rated Game
1990 85- The Republic of Rome (201)
1991 120 Tichu (62)
1992 137 Modern Art (179)
1993 114 Magic: The Gathering (121)
1994 116 Blood Bowl (Third Edition) (161)
1995 128 El Grande (26)
1996 133 Hannibal: Rome vs. Carthage (65)
1997 136 Tigris & Euphrates (33)
1998 153 Samurai (123)
1999 181 Paths of Glory (45)
2000 203 The Princes of Florence (59)
2001 218 Hive (145)
2002 239 Puerto Rico (5)
2003 302 YINSH (96)
2004 347 Power Grid (11)
2005 376 Twilight Struggle (1)
2006 353 Through the Ages (4)
2007 367 Agricola (6)
2008 402 Le Havre (13)
2009 432 Dominion: Intrigue (21)
2010 459 7 Wonders (18)
2011 440 Mage Knight (8)
2012 487 Terra Mystica (2)
2013 452 Caverna: The Cave Farmers (3)
2014 430 Dead of Winter: A Crossroads Game (16)
2015 69 XCOM: The Board Game (400)
Why is this relevant? I think boardgames of the modern sort are bringing "thinking" back to people as a form of entertainment. Certainly the amount of thinking can vary widely between a heavy weight eurogame and a social party game - but most at least it's pushing people into learning something new, interacting, and applying their brains in some capacity; which is a nice move away from slumping into a TV-coma. I wonder whether the increasing popularity of boardgames might be a mechanism for getting the broader public interested in games as a whole.
Surging Mobile App "Ports" of Boardgames
Having a digital (and most likely mobile) version of a boardgame for many people is tremendously appealing. For many of us in love with the hobby, finding time to attend an evening of gaming can be a challenge and is fraught with it's own bundle of frustrations (choosing which games to play, finding enough time, coordinating schedules, having enough beer, etc.). The unfettered convenience of having a library of boardgames at your finger tips that you can play asynchronously with your buddies (or total strangers) or against the AI opponents is remarkable.
True, you lose the face-to-face interactions and some of the tactile pleasures of manhandling meeples, but I also think a nicely designed mobile app can have it own charms. I recently asked people what the appeal was for pass-and-play, and to my surprise a lot of people jumped in and commented about how much they use pass-and-play modes on mobile boardgame apps. In such cases you can still retain a bit of face-to-face interaction, so even that is less of an issue.
Others have also been commenting, with increasing frequency of late, about the rise of solo boardgaming. Solo gaming, in a way, feels like the natural extension of cooperative games, you just remove the other players. Furthermore, a lot of my geekbuddies have been pointing out how complex eurogames are perhaps better as solo experiences anyway. It sets the stage for mobile gaming.
I also wonder about the pure practicalities of playing mobile boardgame apps. It's a LOT cheaper to buy the mobile version of Eclipse or Small World, or countless other games than it is to buy the physical version. For the list price of a mid-size boardgame I can buy half a dozen boardgame apps. It also takes up zero physical space, and with the millennial trend towards minimalism, I can't help but think the digital versions have an additional appeal for reducing the amount of junk you need to lug around when life keeps you on the move.
Last, I keep thinking about the environmental and logistic realities of physical boardgames. How much energy is spent manufacturing a cargo container worth of components and shipping it around the world by boat and train, warehousing it all, lugging it to conventions, sending it to distributors and then to stores, etc. It's kind of crazy to think about it. Digital games utilize existing IT infrastructure and have comparably less impact per game. Plus, digital games aren't likely to go out of print. How many digital apps are no longer available, for whatever reason, compared to how many boardgames are out of print?
The Cross-Platform Videogame Paradox
Increasingly I feel that developers are designing games to be cross-platform between desktops (PC/Mac/Linux), console systems (PS/XBox), and mobile devices (iOS/Android). Other things being equal, if you can sell a game across multiple platforms you have the opportunity to reach a broader audience and market, and can leverage your work in creating a game to earn more revenue. The Unity game development engine and software suite is likely contributing to this trend, as (from what I can gather in my readings) Unity makes it relatively easy to deploy a game across platforms.
Curiously, this trend seems to be on the rise despite a lingering stigma around mobile gaming. As a recent TouchArcade article highlights, there is still a widespread stigma from larger videogame circuits directed at mobile games. The example the TouchArcade article references is the game Race the Sun, an endless runner type game that was intended to be a mobile game. However, the savvy developers released their game on desktop platforms first, garnering attention and coverage from non-mobile outlets and avoiding the "just another mobile game stigma" in the process. They subsequently released the game on mobile platforms, garnering further attention for bringing such a cool desktop game to the mobile market. Its crazy to me that this should ever happens, and underscores that people are making judgement about the game and its merits based purely on the platform.
This stigma is due to a few different factors I think. First, for many serious gamers looking at the mobile market all they see are free-to-play (i.e. pay-to-win or timer-based) games, which is the antithesis of what serious gamers want. This perception is wrapped up in fears about the "dumbing down" of the gaming industry (which has some truth to it). The growth of free-to-play game models is also spilling over into a deskstop/console games, and understandably this has many gamers very worried and concerned about the fate of serious games.
I also think this stigma is fueled by many serious gamers (both players and media personalities) questioning why they or any other serious gamer would ever want to play on a mobile device in the first place. I recently interviewed Rocco Bowling, the developer of Starbase Orion, for eXplorminate. Rocco had this to say:rocco wrote:In my non-scientific, common-sense reckoning of things, as a person develops in their life, more and more things start to take priority. Gamers graduate school, gamers get jobs, gamers have kids. These things take up more and more of their time, leaving less and less time for dedicated gaming. Your 4 hours a night turns into 1 hour a night, which turns into gaming only on Tuesdays. What’s a core gamer like that supposed to do? Quit gaming? Succumb to the inane world that is “casual” mobile gaming? I believe these dedicated, but suddenly very busy, gamers would love to play a core game during the bits and pieces of time they have throughout their day.I think Rocco's quote tells a big part of the story and explains, for Rocco at least, why a premium game like Starbase Orion has been so successful as a serious "gamer's game" despite being on a mobile platform. And there are plenty of other reasons why a serious/core gamer would want to play on mobile as well. Many of these I discussed in the previous section: convenience, asynchronous play, portability. But this hidden market of premium game is at odds with the stigma surrounding mobile games as a while. When you consider the financial incentives developers have to go cross-platform, it does create a bit of a paradoxical situation: You want to make a game cross-platform, but doing so opens you up to the anti-mobile stigma. What a mess.
Too often people associate “mobile” gaming with “casual” gaming. I have much respect for companies like Super Evil Megacorp; they made VainGlory, a core game on mobile without compromise. I believe there is a bright future for core gaming on mobile, for those crazy enough to walk that path.
Debunking The Myth: "Serious Strategy Games Won't Happen on Mobile"
I discussed this issue on another forum, and I want to refine my response and present it here as part of this larger conversation. Of all the possible "serious game genres" like first person shooters, real-time strategy games, RPG's, I think "strategy games" as a broad umbrella are ideally suited to mobile platforms. Let's break it down a little:
Why would anyone play a "strategy game" on a mobile device?
Convenience. As Rocco said, mobile devices can go anywhere with you, and the accessibility they provide is good whether you are waiting in line for 30 minute, on a 5 hour plane trip, trapped in a hotel, on vacation, or hanging out in your living room. Most mobile games/apps can be opened and launched in a fraction of the time it takes to get a game launched on a PC (close down other resource hogging applications, launch steam, sign-in, etc…). The “barrier to entry” (i.e. booting up a given game) is much lower in mobile than PC.
Comfort. Basically, playing a mobile game is not sitting at your desk on your PC, something a lot of people spend their entire workday doing. I can pull out my iPad when sitting on my couch, or next to the fire, or sitting under a tree by the river, or up in bed before I pass out for the night, etc. I don't need a full keyboard + mouse setup to play most strategy games, so I don't need (or want) to spend more time at a desktop if I don't have to.
Touch-interface. This is somewhat related to the above about comfort, but for me, and I suspect plenty of other people, a well designed touch-interface has its own tactile charms. That UI button is closer to feeling like an “actual button” when I press it with my finger directly. With a traditional keyboard + mouse there is an extra layer between what you see on your screen and how you interact with it. I’m not intending to debate that one set of inputs is better than the other (they all have pro’s and con’s), just recognize they are different and can be appealing in to different people and different circumstances.
Multi-player and asynchronous play. For multiplayer asynchronous turn-based games, having the game on a mobile platform is extremely beneficial. You get a notification (e-mail, game-center popup, etc.) that “it’s now your turn” and you can load the game up from anywhere, jump in quickly, take your turn, and pass the baton to the next player. The convenience factor of mobile really helps facilitate multiplayer gaming for strategy games that would otherwise be relegated to extended live-play sessions or play-by-email (PBEM). It takes me longer to boot up my PC and launch most strategy games than it takes me to actually complete my turn, and I can do all of this much quicker on a mobile device.
Preference: For me, the only reason I play a given strategy game (or other mobile friendly genre) on my desktop and not on my iPad is because they game I’m interested in doesn’t exist for iPad/iPhone. I simply find it more enjoyable to game on my iPad and I don’t feel that I am missing any part of the PC/Desktop experience. I use headphones, so sound isn’t an issue, and retina displays coupled with a much closer viewing distance negates in part the benefit of having a big monitor. And, if there there was ever a genre of games that can stand on its mechanics and game design, rather than an audio-visual wow fest, it’s strategy games.
Mobile devices can't handle the demands of modern strategy games! It'll never happen!
Complexity. It’s worth noting that the games that spawned the 4X genre (Civ, Master of Magic, Master of Orion, etc.), and are at high complexity end of the strategy game spectrum, ran on computers slower in every way than a decent smartphone or tablet is today. If those older games are the benchmark for our complexity demands, why again can’t such a game be accommodated on mobile? There are plenty of examples of quite complex and deep games on mobile platforms already (a port of the classic PC game Ascendancy, Starbase Orion, etc.).
Reading about the design process for older games, where processing and memory limitations were a far more limiting design obstacle, I see no reason why games of similar complexity to one's from 20+ years ago can't work on today's mobile devices.
Rather, it is our graphic expectations that are probably the biggest hardware limitation between mobile and desktop. Personally, I think a good and engaging visual design is more important than flashy graphics for a strategy game. And it’s entirely possible to make gorgeous looking games that work on mobile. But there are limits to what mobile can do graphically compared to desktops, and if the most cutting-edge graphics is a major requirement for, obviously that's an issue. Personally, I feel strategy games have a less pressing of a need for ultra impressive graphics anyway, as their game play is what I care about.
User Interface: The UI does need to be more streamlined to work on a mobile's limited relative screen space. Yet that isn’t a bad thing. Personally, making an effective and intuitive UI for mobile can result in a better UI anyway, as it forces the UI design to be more effective and efficient in its presentation. In some ways, its too easy to make a horrendous UI on PC and get away with it (examples I probably don’t need to mention abound) by spamming popups and tooltips all over the palce. Restrictions and limitations can foster innovation, and I think games intended for cross-platform have a greater need for an exceptional UI to make it work, and so it raises the bar.
The Rise of "Boardgame-Like" Games
The culmination of the trends and industry challenges discussed above points a big fat arrow towards the rise of "boardgame-like" games. You have boardgame players reaching into the mobile and videogame market space by way of boardgame ports. You have app developers saying, "hey there's a market here for premium strategy games given successful boardgame ports." And you have serious videogamers turning towards premium mobile games (strategy titles among them) for all the various reasons that have been discussed.
The culmination of this article is the following messy sentiment (I'm imagining a developer saying this): "Whow, these hobby boardgames create deep/challenging experiences with relatively simple mechanics, and as a result are appealing to both serious and casual gamers! We can create new boardgame-like games that can tap into both audiences while also delivering a game that is at home on both mobile and non-mobile platforms. It's a quadruple win!"
I've come across a number of videogames that make reference to "boardgame-like" properties, or mentions that game developers play and were inspired by boardgame. Sid Meier's crew behind the Sid Meier's Starships! supposedly drew influences from boardgames (I'm wondering which ones, because the game isn't that great IMHO, but I digress).
The question then is what exactly constitutes a boardgame-like game? Obviously a proper "boardgame" or tabletop game is one that is played entirely with physical, analog game components and that requires to the player to process all the changes in the game state. When making the jump to a digital medium, what is it about the fundamental design and operations of boardgames that can make the jump as well? I think there are a few underpinnings to games with a more "boardgame-like" design.
Transparency of Mechanics. Given that boardgames are analog and humans have to "process" the game state, it goes without saying that the rules that determine the mechanics need to be understandable and manageable. So in boardgames, the mechanics are fully "transparent" to the player. There is no black box of programming algorithms that you dump decisions into and then get the results spit back at you. When you do something in a boardgame, you can follow the mechanical how's and why's your decision led to a particular result.
This is a departure from the design of a lot of videogames, where there can be all kinds of hidden shenanigans going on in the background that shape the game world and respond to player actions. And for a lot of types of videogames, this approach works well. First person shooters, or heavily narrative, experience-first type of games come to mind, where you don't really want the mechanics and numbers getting in the way of your sense of immersion.
The design appeal is that if the mechanics are transparent and comprehensible, it makes games easier to learn the game and moves players towards improving their skills sooner, which hopefully triggers their sense of reward and keeps them playing.
Simple Math & Systems. Put simply, most boardgames don't require complicated algorithms, formulas, or functions to process changes in the game state. Math is kept comparatively simple. In most games there is no need to write numbers or anything down, although occasionally that can prove useful. In other games, there might be more complex optimizations or cost-benefit type decisions to work out, but rarely do they require a calculator, and most are still predicated on relatively simple math equations.
In videogames, as mechanics are processed by a computer, it is tempting and commonplace to have all sorts of higher order mathematics underpinning gameplay systems. On one hand, this opens up the door for more realism and simulation fidelity in a game, i.e. the dynamics that your game creates can be a more accurate model of the game's assumed reality. On the other hand, even if these formulas are known and presented to the player, it is vastly more complex to work through the ramifications of a particular decision if you try to run it through the math.
The design appeal for basic math and simplicity also goes back to accessibility. In the boardgame design realm, there is always an interest in reducing complexity while retaining or increasing strategic depth. Complexity is not necessary for creating depth; and a boardgame-like game may embrace this sentiment as well and resist the urge to layer more systems into the design and instead keep it simple.
Action Choice Driven. Boardgame require structure to how players take and perform actions in the game. There are mechanics that control the order in which players take their turns, or limits the range of actions or choices that are available to players are a particular moment in time. Part of this is born out of the practical realities of playing a physical game, i.e. most games aren't a free for all of chaos with players taking their turns whenever they want.
Part of it also relates to things like reducing downtime or analysis paralysis. If players have a menu of six actions and they can only perform one on their turn, it keeps their action planning focused and the pace of the game moving. If a player has a menu of six actions and they can perform any number of them in any order, player turns will take forever.
Yet the net effect of boardgame action mechanics goes beyond just managing these practicalities; they are often a source of strategic depth and challenge on their own. Turn order and ways of changing turn order can add a strategic element to the gameplay. Being restricted to one or two actions a turn forces the player to make trade-offs that consider all the moves of their opponent more carefully, and so on. So many of these uniquely boardgame mechanics can readily transcend beyond their roots and have applications in other types of games as well.
Wrap-Ups & Wishful Thoughts
This became way longer than intended, so thank you for bearing with me to end if you are still reading this!
In summary, I'll say that this has been a challenging set of topics and issues to pull together. And I'm not sure I succeeded fully in the endeavor. But the takeway from all of this is my sense that boardgames are penetrating their way back into videogame design practices. In part this may be due to digital ports of boardgames raising awareness. It may also be due to developing cross-platform games being ideally suited to strategy games and board-game like design notions. If the game is relatively simple yet deep, it can probably be implemented effectively on mobile platforms and it may stand a better chance of attracting both casual and serious video gamers. And among boardgamers, if there is a slowdown in physical game acquisition, digital boardgame-like games offer fertile grounds to explore.
- [+] Dice rolls
30 Apr 2015
I’ve been struggling to write a holistic critique of the 4X genre for a while. On one hand, I ask myself “why is such a critique even necessary?” On the other, I feel that the genre is at a crossroads. Different tensions, for good or for bad, pull the genre in different directions. Trying to understand these tensions, which shape the genre’s landscape, will (hopefully) illuminate more challenges and opportunities in 4X design. Of course, I have my own aspirations of making a 4X videogame, so understanding the current “state of affairs” is important for designing in an informed manner and navigating through this messy environment.
Thankfully, a recent Three Moves Ahead (3MA) podcast on 4X games gave me the needed kick-in-the-pants to get me writing. The 3MA episode, intentionally or not, provided a rather scathing critique of the entire 4X genre and its failings, as well as highlighting a few small bright points of promise. I felt myself doing the proverbial headbang dance as I listened to the podcast, as many of their reactions and sentiments echo my own. Engaging in the 4X genre is a bit of a shattered dream, where we sift through the shards in hope of finding that one perfect game. But so often we cut ourselves on the glass.
The “Shattered Dream” is a 3-part article that will critique the 4X genre in a number of ways. Part 1 will focus on defining the 4X genre and relevant sub-genres. Part 2 will dig into what I feel is the primary tension in the genre: the desire to craft detailed simulations of other worlds and provide players with a deep strategic game. Last, Part 3 will look at how various tensions play out in the market space for 4X games and what promising avenues of innovation (and massive potholes!) lie ahead.
Part 1 - A Fragmented Genre
Much of my writing has focused on the classification and taxonomy of games. And it is important to recognize that no classification scheme will ever be perfect and cover all cases adequately. However I feel that the byproduct of discussing classification is that it forces us to explore game characteristics in detail. And this understanding is beneficial regardless of whether it culminates in a useful classification system or not. With this disclaimer out of the way, let’s begin.
The term “4X” refers to eXplore, eXpand, eXploit, and eXterminate. The term was originally coined in a preview article for Master of Orion (the first) as a shorthand to reference the scope and nature of game - and the 4X term has grown in use ever since. It is tempting to use the label as a literal definition for classifying games, and hence for a game to be a 4X you need to have “The Four Elements” in place. But I think this ultimately doesn’t work; it becomes far too inclusive if taken literally. For example, most RTS games in the ilk of Starcraft or Age of Empires could fall under a 4X definition.
Rather, I think the “spirit” of the 4X label is what is important; which is that the 4X games strive to capture a grander scope than a RTS or turn-based wargame. There is usually some degree of empire building and management present, with the player filling the shoes of a real or assumed leader, often with an omnipotent view and uncontested control over their domain. The time scale is usually long, with a players’ empires growing and advancing. There is usually a balance between internal pressures mechanics, like managing the happiness of your population or the upkeep of a burgeoning bureaucracy, and external pressures such as military threats, hostile environments, and diplomatic posturing.
Yet within this umbrella, there are some useful sub-genres to consider. And it is these sub-genres that I feel provide the most salient lens through which to view the nuances and diversity of the 4X genre. As with past game classification efforts, it is important to consider the historic origins of these sub-genres. Furthermore, I’ll use the opportunity to reference Wittgenstein's Family Resemblance concept. Essentially, rather than trying to adopt a rigid “in or out” approach to classification, we need to recognize that genres are a collection of commonly, but not always, associated traits and that games that fall within a particular genre may only exhibit a portion of those traits.
Here we go:
Empire Builders - The 3MA podcast used the term “Empire Builder” as an alternative to 4X games to describe those that emphasize empire building. Civilization is certainly the most iconic example of an Empire Builder, and some of the key characteristics include: (a) Internal pressure mechanics like upkeep costs, population happiness and approval, diminishing returns, etc.; (b) External pressures from foreign competing empires; (c) Multiple and divergent victory conditions (e.g. conquest, technology, culture, political); (d) Relatively detailed “Management Unit” (MU) optimization requiring you allocate workers or resources within each MU.
Examples: Civilization, Endless Legends, Endless Space, Armada 2526, Distant Worlds, Galactic Civilization
4X-Lite - In trying to ascertain what games get branded with the “4X-Lite” label, the best I can tell is that these are games that downplays internal empire management in favor of a focus on warmongering. The games are often “simpler” from a complexity of mechanics standpoint but place far greater emphasis on the production, movement, and positioning of military forces. Victory tends to focus primarily (or exclusively) on military related win conditions such as outright conquest or domination of the map. In some ways, I think of these almost as “pure 4X” games because they are most directly aligned with the 4X’s and have relatively few other systems bolted on.
Examples: Sword of the Stars, Age of Wonders, Neptune’s Pride, UltraCorps, Master of Magic, Warlock, Star Drive 2
Heroic Strategy - There is some overlap between this and the previous category, but Heroic Strategy in my mind are games with many 4X elements but often with a strong focus on RPG-like character development of a smaller pool of characters. Oftentimes, “empire management” is handled through the development of a single or primary town/castle where units are recruited.
Examples: Heroes of Might and Magic, Disciples
Grand Strategy - This is a term most aptly directed towards paradox’s landmark titles, like Crusader Kings and Europa Universalis. Sometimes, these are described as 4X games where you cut out the opening exploration phase of the game (since generally the geography is already known) as well as the late game victory dash by having more focused scenario-based goals. The heart of such games tend to be in relatively more complex empire planning, force organization, leader/character management, and nuanced diplomatic mechanics.
Examples: Europa Universalis, Crusader Kings, The Last Federation, Imperia 5X
RTS-4X Hybrid - These are games that cross the line between a typical real time strategy (RTS) game like Starcraft or Command & Conquer and a 4X game. While any 4X game can be “real time” (e.g. Distant Worlds, StarDrive 1, Star Ruler) many of these are intended to work in a “pausable” real time fashion where “who can click/think fastest” is not really a factor in your success. The RTS-4X Hybrids blend the need for fast thinking (and clicking) found in a typical RTS game with the grander design scope seen in most 4X games, with players often having to navigate far bigger technology trees, diplomatic relationships, and internal empire considerations along the way.
Examples: Sins of a Solar Empire, Rise of Nations, Haegemonia
Campaign Driven - The last category is reserved for games that feature a 4X type system that provides a structure for a campaign, with individual tactical battles (turn based or real-time) taking the center stage. The campaign level can vary quite a bit in terms of complexity and scope, but is nonetheless in the service of providing context (and consequences) for the tactical battles that are the focus of the game.
Examples: Total War series, Dawn of War Soulstorm campaign
Tension Point: On Genre, On Blitzen!
Why is this important? I think these sub-genres (the title of which are open to debate!) have existed for a while without much formal recognition. Yet these go a long way towards explaining people’s perspectives, tolerances, preferences within the genre. Personally, I am tired of seeing comments like “this game is garbage because there’s no depth in empire management!” when the intent wasn’t be an empire building game in the first place. It’s like saying a free-for-all deathmatch arena shooter is bad because it is not team-based and doesn’t use modern military weapons. They are both FPS games, but an arena shooter (ala Quake-series) is much different from a team-based military shooter (ala Battlefield-series).
By calling everything under the umbrella “4X” all the time, it presupposes certain expectations on games and in turn biases our outlook of them. For instance, we assume that it should have some exploration elements, a way of expanding, a way of exterminating, and so on. This creates tension across the genre between our expectations (whether well- or ill-conceived) and the desire for encouraging diversity in the genre. Having said of all of this, genres (and sub-genres) are still useful for understanding games, making comparisons between them, and having more consistent language that gamers can use. But they can also be a trap that confines what we think is possible. If we think too strictly in terms of genres, particularly as designers, we can blind ourselves from seeing and pursuing genre-breaking game concepts.
Part 2 - The Dueling Pianos: Simulation vs. Game
Complexity does not equal depth
If there is one point I hope to get across in this article it is the above line. I think there is a misconception in the 4X community that the only way to have a deep game is to have a bunch of complex systems all intertwined into some giant mechanical monstrosity. But depth in decision-making is different from the complexity of the game. Decision depth is an emergent property of the gameplay that comes about as players are required to make tough trade-offs; whether that be in allocating resources, making diplomatic arrangements, positioning forces, or advancing your empire.
As I’ve written about before, decision depth (at a particular decision point) is a function of the major trade-offs or factors at work in influencing your decision and evaluating its potential outcomes. These factors can be economic, spatial, or intuitional in nature. For example: how to use a limited pool of strategic resources (e.g. casting points in Age of Wonders); or where to stage your military forces to maintain map control or chokepoints; or what diplomatic arrangements to pursue with what foreign powers. Complexity only serves to increase actual decision depth, and not merely the challenge of identifying or evaluating such decisions, when it makes these strategic (or tactical) factors more ambiguous.
The “deepest” choices are when players are faced with two or more equally viable or valuable appearing options and the player needs to rely on their experience and heuristics to make the right decision. Complexity, if it does not provide adequate feedback to the player to help build their heuristics (e.g. methods of effective play) simply makes choices harder to identify or evaluate and actually inhibits players from engaging with any potential depth. It might “feel” like the game is deep because it is mentally challenging - but these sorts of optimization hurdles are a pretense to getting to a decision point, not a decision point on their own.
In the worst situations, complexity can backfire when you’ve “figured it out” only to realize that at the end of the tunnel the actual decisions are obvious; that the game is an optimization puzzle of sorts and not really a game. An often used metric for a game’s depth is how many levels of skill there are among players (e.g. Chess rankings). If there is just one or two large skill levels (e.g. “I have it sort of figured out” versus “I’ve figured it all out!”) then it ultimately isn’t a deep game even if it has taken considerable effort to understand. Once you know the formula for success and can apply that every time the game will be short lived in terms of real depth.
Pacing & Flow
The 3MA’s podcast spent some time discussing issues of pacing and flow in 4X games, noting that pacing is key to making games fun in a “one more turn” sense as well as to making the “arc” of a game as it moves from the opening exploration to late-game victory exciting. Sadly, this an area of 4X game design that is perhaps the hardest to do well, especially for many of the newer indie studios making their first foray into game design. Many of the genre favorites are classics, I feel, for the very reason that they got the pacing right and kept players engaged throughout.
One way of evaluating the pacing and flow of a game is consider the types of actions that players can take. I’ve identified four general types of actions that range from most to least engaging and interesting (at least for me!):
1. Strategic Decisions - These are high levels decisions about your strategy, such as what victory condition to work towards, what mid- to long-range goals you are establishing (e.g. what opponents to ally with or fight), where to colonize next, what geographic areas are strategically important to control, etc.
2. Tactical Decisions/Actions - These are important decision points and/or actions that are taken to resolve your strategic decisions or to respond to short-term issues and events. For example, how you assemble an army or fleet and which general route they take or how you allocate the use of a limited strategic resource. These decisions can exist at the strategic scale as well as the tactical scale (if there is one in the game).
3. Optimization Activities - Should I build my research lab and then my production facility, or production then lab? A lot of time can be spent in 4X games optimizing a particular decision point, and depending on the complexity can be very challenging or relatively easy. Some players really enjoy these sorts of activities, other don’t. For example, I’d argue that ship building is a protracted optimization activity to construct ship/fleet to accomplish a particular tactical or strategic objective that you’ve previously identified. Adjusting the allocation of worker populations is likewise an optimization task, there is often one best solution/approach for a given strategic goal.
4. Managerial Upkeep/Overhead Activities - Last are routine management and/or upkeep tasks that require attention to move the game forward. Things like keeping unit/building queues up-to-date, remembering to build transports every few turns, upgrading ship designs to use lasers 2 instead of lasers 1, clearing notifications so you can process the next turn, pathfinding your forces to a given rally point, etc.
I feel that better games maximize the amount of hands-on time spent with #1 and #2 relative to #4. #3 (optimization) is more a matter of player tolerance, although personally I don’t like too much emphasis on optimization. The point here is that good pacing keeps players engaged by giving them meaningful strategic decisions on frequent intervals, rather than abandoning players to long stretches of just managing the consequences of a decision. When too many of the decisions in a game are trivial or obvious (often too many #3 or #4 actions), the game can feel far less deep and engaging. Streamlining the design, and providing ease-of-play automation that doesn’t detract from legitimate decision making is important.
Narrative Arc & Goals
The “narrative arc” of a game does not refer to it’s actual plot or storyline, but rather to the structure of the game itself as a story; with an opening, middle, and late-game phase that culminates in (hopefully) a well-earned and awarded victory. While good pacing is key to making the gameplay engaging and flow well, the overall narrative arc of the game helps shape your memory of the experience. Good games are memorable games.
How many times do we start a 4X game only to abandon the session part way through when it becomes obvious who is going to win or lose? In my mind, games that push us towards aborting a game early fail to provide a compelling narrative arc. If we already know how the story ends, we don’t bother finishing it. Creating an interesting narrative arc is undoubtedly a challenge, and is wrapped up intimately with the goals and victory conditions of the game.
In my experience, a lot of 4X game developers, particularly newer ones, don’t spend enough time (for whatever reason) refining the narrative arc to create excitement. Snowball & steamroller issues are part of the problem that push games towards a foregone conclusion: the player that optimizes early exploration is best positioned to expand/exploit the best, and hence best positioned to exterminate their opponents with no counter-threat. So addressing this issue is critical.
The victory conditions in the game are also a vital part of the narrative arc - and ideally the game is designed such that all players are kept in a state of tension all the way to victory. Runaway leaders and foregone conclusions are not much fun, but if you can counteract snowballing by providing alternative ways to achieve victory (perhaps as a high risk, high reward option) then it can help to keep the game close. Age of Wonders 3, while remaining focused on warfare (as a 4X-lite), combines typical conquest with a leader assassination and king-of-the-hill style victory options. A player that is steamrolling militarily can be eliminated from behind by killing their leader and capturing the throne city. Alternatively, other players can grab seal points and force the steamrolling player to divert focus away from conquest and claim seals instead.
The 3MA’s podcast further criticized the typical conquest, research, economic, etc. victory system used in so many games because it tends to put game mechanics into silos. If you only care about research and can otherwise defend yourself, you just focus on research until the end of the game and aren’t really incentivized to engage with the other elements of the game. These disconnected goals lead to a sort of disconnected play experience that doesn’t culminate in an interesting closure to the narrative. Achieving victory tends not to signify much beyond hitting an artificial threshold before your opponents, there is little thematically memorable about it. And for games that can take dozens of hours to play, the drab “victory screens” are a further taint on the experience.
At the end of the day, the narrative arc should culminate in an exciting and hard-fought win, not a tedious grind to an inevitable victory. 4X games need to pay serious attention to victory conditions and how these set the stage for a compelling arc and drive the gameplay forward.
Tension Point: Simulation Toy vs. Strategy Game
Keith Burgun recently wrote a thought provoking article, Videogames are Broken Toys, about how many so-called games might actually be better understood (and hence designed) as toys instead of games. To a certain extent I agree. I think about open sandbox games like the Elder Scrolls or the X-series, and indeed they are very “toy-like.” They are an environment for interaction, where the player can establish their own goals and interact with the systems to whatever extent they want.
I have a pet theory about 4X gamers, which is that there are two camps of preferences (which occasionally intermingle in the night). One set of preferences is for detail and “simulation” - and you often see people clamoring for the ability to micromanage 1000’s of colonies across a vast intergalactic empire. Another sentiment is that some people “love watching the galaxy unfold” into a living dynamic system. Indeed, Distant Worlds seems to be the darling game here, where you can literally automate everything and watch your empire take on its own life. Likewise, the player is at liberty to engage with whatever part of the system they want to, and automate the rest. In my mind, these are both very “toy-like” notions, and the more complex and intricate the toy, the more it people enjoy manipulating it.
The other set of preference is more aligned towards a fair, competitive, strategy “game”. Here, streamlining and simplification is tolerated (and even preferred) when it brings the decisions and their consequences to the forefront of play, even at the expense of simulation realism. More clear-cut discrete choices that rely less on complexity and more on transparency is important. As a “game,” feedback on what worked or didn’t work, via the UI or reporting, is vitally important to building heuristics and better strategies. To use Keith Burgun’s terms, a game is a “contest of decision making” - and the more focused the gameplay is around those key decision making points, the more successful it is as a strategy game.
All in all, a game’s leans towards simulation or “game” has ramifications for the complexity, pacing, and narrative arc of a game. Individuals will all have a different preference points between these poles, and I suppose the insight for developers is to consider carefully their intended audience and how they can craft the best experience (narrative arc) within that context. Getting this right takes no small amount of effort, and in a way it is unfortunate that so many games are released in the genre missing this key stage of refinement or leaving it to post-release development.
Breaking out of Orbit
Rooted in the Past & The MoO2 Conundrum
A tension in the 4X genre (and the videogame industry as a whole) from a marketability standpoint is that innovation is risky and tried and true designs sell better. We see this as evidence for successful games being serialized or reimplemented under a different guise. It is amazing to me that some of the mechanics seen in the early civ games or Master of Orion 2 (like allocating workers in a city) has remained a hallmark of the genre 20-some years later. How many recent or upcoming space 4X games are trying to snatch the MoO2 mantle? Why are we still clinging to a Civ template?
The 3MA’s podcast was suggesting that the genre is stuck in a bit of a catch-22. The biggest market opportunity is rehashing (or modernizing) a proven design concept – yet indie and AAA studios alike often fail in this endeavor. Either the polish and execution is off, or the developers just didn’t understand why some of the older titles worked successfully and replicate those lessons their own game (e.g. Alpha Centauri to Beyond Earth = fail).
For games striving to be more revolutionary and innovative, unless the game is exceptionally polished and well-made, the audience is even smaller and the marketability even less. Without a bigger budget (production values, marketing, attention, etc.), innovative titles that are amazing in concept often fail in the execution due to buggy launches, crude UI’s, unengaging graphics, lack of press coverage, and so forth. Many indie games, whether going innovative or more traditional in their design, are barely able to get a feature complete release together, let alone do the necessary refinements to the pacing and narrative arc to make the games stand out in comparison to the old classics.
I am increasingly feeling that the era of Early Access and the expectation of post-release development is partly to blame for why games seem to come up short. During the heyday of the 90’s, a game needed to be very solid at release because most people would never patch (or even know to look for a patch assuming it was possible) once they brought it home. The game was the game, for good or bad. And people also frequently waited for reviews to come out before purchasing, so they would know whether they were about to step into a buggy mess or not. As a consequence, a LOT of time was spent polishing and balancing before launch to make sure the gameplay was as genuinely compelling as it could be, that there was ample room for real strategizing, and that the AI provided real opposition.
With Early Access and games being released well-before their time becoming the norm, it just paints a poor picture of the entire genre. How many 4X games come out with bad reviews but are eventually patched or expanded to be great games a year or more down the line? A lot of games are improved and turned from bad or mediocre to great – but in this situation you’ve lost your ability to reach a wider audience with a positive launch and you’ll never make-up the lost sales. All of this poor perception keeps the genre as a niche; the mainstream crowds don’t have much tolerance for waiting.
Of course, Early Access and crowdfunding is largely responsible for enabling indie devs to get to market in the first place, adding their take on the genre. Without these tools, we would likely see far less diversity and innovation than we do now. So I don’t intend to be overly critical of these new tools either. A lof of games seem to go into Early Access before being feature complete, and get released soon after being “feature complete” - which really doesn’t leave enough time in my opinion for polish and balance with all the systems in place.
Reimagining the Challenge, Asymmetrically of Course
I feel like we are, perhaps, on the precipice of a new era of 4X games. Should we manage to secure a few good (or exemplary) reimplementations of past favorites, e.g. our darling Master of Orion modernized, it might leave the door open for pursuing alternative styles of 4X games. And a number of games have been released or are under development that are exploring new asymmetric designs as a way to provide a novel experience to players while still building on the 4X language. One of the primary goals of such endeavors is to get around the typical need for competent, human-like AI opposition. Without a strong AI to challenge and pressure the player, so many 4X games just feel flat and underwhelming. So if you can’t change the AI, change the game.
Jon Shafer’s “At the Gates” is one such game, where the player is primarily responsible for leading a migrating city around the map, absorbing different clans along the way. The opposition comes from various external threats, none of which are intended to be analogous to the player. Similarly, Arcen Game’s AI War pits the player as a tiny flee-of-an-empire against a vastly bigger AI empire, requiring the player to build up without gaining too much attention from the less-than-friendly AI. Keith Burgin’s iOS title “Empire” has the player managing cities that deplete their natural surroundings and must constantly be relocating, yet this is set against the backdrop of a growing corruption that will eventually overwhelm the player and lead to their defeat. The challenge is to see how long you can live - and much like a game of Tetris, eventually time runs out.
These Aren’t the Boardgames You Are Looking For
Another trend that I’ve been seeing is more reference to digital games that use “boardgame-like” mechanics in their design. While what constitutes boardgame-like is a topic all of its own, I think part of it comes down to transparency, streamlining, and providing fewer but more challenging decisions. For 4X games, this relates to the earlier section on complexity and depth. Boardgames, by virtue of having to be “processed” by the players at the table tend to be far more transparent in how their mechanics work, and create depth through challenging situations rather than relying on complexity alone as a stand-in for depth. The effective depth-to-weight ratio is higher for most boardgames than video games I feel.
Curiously, 4X games have their roots in boardgames from the 70’ and 80’s (as does Civilization). With a number of highly successful 4X boardgames (Eclipse in particular, also available on iOS) showing what is possible in a non-digital format, perhaps it is an opportunity for 4X video game designers to look back over the fence and learn a few tips. Perhaps, by streamlining games but maintaining the depth, we can make 4X games more accessible to a broader audience or even make it easier to build competitive AI’s. Unfortunately, one recent title, Sid Meier’s Starships, missed the mark and its claim to have been influenced boardgames suggests that maybe it was looking at the wrong boardgames. But there is hope.
On Finding Greater Meaning
The 3MA’s podcast discussed to topic of meaning in 4X games, which is a great final point to this long-winded article. In short, they commented on the notion that at the core all of these 4X games are really the “same game.” They are all an embodiment of a colonial-era manifest to become the supreme lord of the manor. On one hand this isn’t surprising given the “ingredients” of the 4X genre of exploring and laying claim to unknown lands and exterminating your way to victory. But this begs the question - can the genre do more?
What is it that compels us to relive the same narrative over and over in different flavors or via a slightly more polished implementation? Why must it always end in blood or economic monopolization or diplomatic unity? Can or should the genre be an opportunity to speak to a different, perhaps post-colonial, narrative? This prompts bigger questions about meaning in video games and to what extent games can provide a greater commentary on the human condition beyond tickling our fancies. What happens after we conquer the planet? In a way, Burgun’s “Empire” is a reminder that all of our civilizations will eventually crumble to dust and be replaced with something else - I’d like to see more games put the player in those reflective situations.
I also remain eternally fascinated by my relatively recent discovery of King of Dragon Pass, which is a sort of mash-up between a clan management, 4X, and a choose your own adventure. Here is a game where the player is not an omnipotent ruler of their domain, but a single person with only so much time in the day for making decisions and taking actions. It is a 4X game of sorts, but the perspective is shifted and the entire tone is immediately more immersive and reflective. Could such an approach be applied to a more traditional 4X title? Could it sell?
A Menagerie of Tension
To sum up, the 4X genre is fraught with tensions. Some are internal to the design of the games themselves, such as the balance between simulation and streamlining or designing an open sandbox versus a tight strategy game with a compelling narrative. Other tensions relate to the legibility of the genre itself and the extent to which 4X is even a useful term, or whether the sub-genres can gain traction as a shorthand. Yet more tensions exist in the marketability of 4X games, with the drive to pay homage to the past and take on less risky (more profitable?) projects or to tackle more revolutionary design concepts. And of course, there is tension in the development process of the game’s themselves and the mixed-messages and needs of Early Access and crowd-funding.
My hope is that cunning developers can navigate all of this. We can each imagine our perfect game (or games!). And should the genre grow and mature the chance of that one game being made goes up, somewhere, somehow. There might be more chaff along the way, but it’s the dream that keeps us sifting through the broken shards of glass. And if all else fails you can always set sail and try to make your own game right?!
- [+] Dice rolls
05 Feb 2015
- Issue #1 - City Spam & Snowballing
- Issue #2 - “One Big Battle” and the Steamroller
- Issue #3 - Micromanagement, Tedium, and Drag-out
These three issues are, I feel, the central challenge of 4X game design. And how the design of different games in the genre handles (or fails to handle) this interlinked challenge does as much to differentiate titles as to account for a game’s overall success, failure, or lasting legacy.
Issue #1 - City Spam & Combating the Snowball
Typically in 4X games, controlling more territory gives you access to more resources, which can transpire into a force advantage to enable you to win the game. “City Spam” is the notion that good gameplay heavily incentivizes placing as many cities as you can, or taking over as many colonies/planets as you can, in order to control the most territory. And then there is “Snowballing” (think of the snowball rolling down the hill getting bigger and bigger). Snowballing is the notion that as a player gets a resource advantage over another player, they can apply that advantage towards growing their resource base at a faster and faster rate, and quickly surpass their opponents’ capacity. Thus city spam typically leads to snowballing, although snowballing can also be driven by other factors.
Limiting Management Units
4X games have tried to combat city spam in a number of different ways, one of these is limiting the number of management units directly. By “management unit” I’m referring to cities, colonies, planets, star systems, or whatever the “thing” is that houses your empire’s population, conducts production, etc. Basically, where a production queue is housed is probably what the management unit is.
Warlock 2 (for example) uses a system where only a few of your cities are fully under your control, and other cities get related to secondary support cities that help your empire but in a less direct and less powerful way. Endless Legends uses a region system where each large region can only have one city – hence hard capping the number of possible cities in the game.
These approaches aren’t particularly ideal solutions in my mind. One of the challenges is in rectifying such ideas as a compelling design mechanic in relation to their logical thematic implications. Endless Legend’s region system can be painfully arbitrary seeming at times, and doesn’t make much sense thematically. If no one is occupying these pre-defined regions, how did they even become named regions? What is responsible for determining their borders? From a gameplay point of view they do reduce city spam and they do force a careful consideration of where to place a city within each region as you expand. But it feels forced, a mechanic made to solve a mechanical problem and not one flowing nicely out of the theme.
Alternative Forms of Counter-Pressure
Another approach for dealing with snowballing is to keep the game highly interactive and give tools to the players (and the AIs!) to exert a counter-pressure on snowballing empires. This counter-pressure should come in ways that don’t fundamentally rely on the economic disparity that caused the snowballing to begin with. For example, this counter-pressure could come about through trade, diplomacy, or espionage systems. If for example, lagging empires could exert large trade sanctions or easily form temporary alliances to coordinate attacks (e.g. “Bash the Leader”) there’s a good chance of fighting against the snowball.
Unfortunately for single player games, getting an AI to behave in a coordinated manner is difficult, and likely explains why we don’t see more of this in 4X games. But in games with multiplayer support, this can be a critical aspect of the gameplay. Neptune’s Pride (and Diplomacy for that matter) are entire games designed around these diplomatic negations and pressures. There is the sense that if you get too big you paint a big target on yourself and get attacked on multiple fronts – hence you need to tread lightly and expand judiciously to not attract the ire of your opponents. This dynamic rarely exists in single player 4X games. Bigger is just better most of the time.
Diminishing Returns for Expansion
Last, snowballing can be countered through escalating marginal costs or diminishing returns. Basically, these are mechanisms employed to make continued growth more and more costly the more that you grow. Many 4X games introduce a bureaucracy type element or empire upkeep that consumes Gold or SpaceBucks as your empire gets bigger, making each new expansion hurt the overall efficiency of your empire. Other games use expansion disapproval type mechanics, where your citizens start getting upset and unsettled as your empire gets bigger.
The escalating cost system seems to be the better approach to solving city spam and snowballing in a more organic fashion. The game can be designed around a certain ideal empire size (number of management units) and players can chose to operate above or below that line if it makes sense strategically to do so. Unfortunately, this is also one of those situations where conveying the gameplay ramifications of such mechanics in a clear way is often hard to do. Many 4X games don’t provide a clear understanding of how these mechanics work and when they start to kick into effect, so learning the heuristics of good play is more frustrating than it ought to be. In addition, it often isn’t thematically logical that a big empire suddenly becomes less happy or less efficient due just to its size. In fact, bigger empires could be more diverse with people being happier as a result. Or economies of scale kick in and the empire could actually be more efficient!
Issue #2 - “One Big Battle” and Stopping the Steamroller
The result of unchecked snowballing is that, for many in 4X games, matches are decided by “one big battle.” The player with the biggest production and military advantage presses the attack and corners a defender. If they are able to stack the odds in their favor in advance, winning a key fight is often a foregone conclusion. And once the bulk of the defenders army is destroyed the aggressor just “steamrolls” their way to an inevitable victory, with their forces uncontested as they take over the opposing empire.
Stopping the steamroller is wrapped up in the above issues related to snowballing. Minimizing snowballing can slow down the steamroller – but not entirely. Ultimately, the streamroller effect is tied to conflict mechanics. If two players enter a conflict with equal force strength (both are equally snowballing), but winner of the first fight only takes 25% or 50% loses, while the loser has been eliminated, the winner has a tremendous force advantage moving forward in the game.
Managing Force + Battle Size
One approach that many games employ to minimize conflict outcome disparity is having Force Size Limits. Endless Space and Endless Legends are two games that come to mind in this regard, where each fleet or army can only contain a certain number of units. This is another case where I think the mechanical solution can work but isn’t very logical or compelling from a thematic standpoint, and leads to other strange effects. In Endless Space, you can end up with dozens or more fleets all stacked in one location, which adds tremendous overhead to managing your forces and breaks what would be one awesome space battle into a series of smaller and less thrilling engagements.
Age of Wonders 3 has a fixed stack limit of 6 units per hex, and when battles happen the target/defender hex plus all seven hexes around them are drawn into the battle, allowing up to 42 units in a single fight (7 hexes * 6 units per hex). It’s similar to the army size limits that the Endless games employ, and it does dovetail nicely into how tactical fights play out. Yet the system does create its own idiosyncrasies with being able to the game system a little and stack the odds for a fight numerically in your favor. Having a mechanism for drawing in reinforcements of over the course of a protracted battle could be a cool expansion on the basic concept.
Civ 5’s “one unit per tile” (1UpT) system is also a move in this direction. In an effort to eliminate the “stacks of doom” we instead get a “carpet of doom” that makes even less sense thematically and in poses a more serious tactical-spatial challenge for the AI.
Starbase Orion (iOS 4x game) takes a more flexible and nuanced approach (like the flexible escalating marginal cost notion above). Ships require a certain amount of command points (think upkeep) across your entire empire. You can have more ships than command points, but it starts diverting credits away from the general coffers at a really high rate. Regardless, the command points system creates a soft cap on the maximum force size of any one player’s empire – which can keep players a little more even. Yet command points ramp up as your empire develops and grows, so a snowballing empire will just have more command points to support a bigger fleet. And with battles tending to be “all in” the outcomes of a single battle can still be decisive for the game as a whole.
Curious Conquest Mechanics
The conquest mechanics of many 4X games are, in my opinion, one of the more confused and underdeveloped aspects of 4X games. In so many games, eliminating a city’s or planet’s defending army lets you, relatively painlessly, take it over and claim it as your own. Rarely do games require a sustained occupation to convert population – an occupation which could dramatically slow down the steamroller effect and give time for the defender to regroup and launch a counter-attack.
Armada 2526 does a, conceptually, good job of tracking the population of different planets that you capture. When you capture a “alien race” star system, the system is still occupied by the civilians of the alien race – they are often not too keen on their new overlords and suffer major happiness woes as a result. These woes can cascade into revolts and rebellion unless you maintain a fleet presence to “keep the peace”, marines on the ground, or build security centers. An interesting detail is that you can’t actually build marines of an alien race as a way to keep the peace, so it can be quite hard to ‘tame’ a hostile alien population.
I’m still waiting for a 4X game that layers in some sort of cultural affinity system – where for example the population of empire A might really like the culture/people of empire B based on long-term cultural exchanges. This affinity would make fighting across these cultural line highly unpleasant for both sides, and put some counter-pressure on attacking and being overly aggressive.
Fighting on Multiple Fronts
Another, often untapped, opportunity is the extent to which 4X games encourage players to split up their force and be able to attack on multiple fronts. In so many games, the best strategy is to keep all your forces in one spot for maximum devastation when the battle comes. This can be a result of how combat is designed, but it also has a lot to do with strategic movement and intelligence gathering. If you don’t have a way of moving past or around a big fleet (either through speed or stealth or both!) to raid cities or planets behind the line then there is little incentive for players to keep their forces dispersed and defending (and attacking) in multiple different locations.
Age of Wonders 3 does a relatively good job of enabling this sort of play. Scouting and map awareness is critically important, but there are also an abundance of fast moving and stealthy units. It’s entirely possible for players to be in a cold-war state along the frontlines with smaller pockets of forces infiltrating behind enemy lines to try and steal weakly defended cities. Unfortunately, outside capturing cities there is little for a raiding part to do – you can’t destroy resource nodes or structures with your raiding party, and so are somewhat limited in your capacity do deal clandestine economic damage.
I’m not a fan of “star lanes” in space 4X games, but they do create a topography for space with choke points and the like that can make it possible for a compact defensive force to hold the line in some locations while you press the attack in other locations. So that’s another approach to encourage multiple fronts.
Uncertain and Unpredictable Outcomes
The more certain the outcome of a typical battle is, the more unfortunate the impact of the “one big battle can be.” Uncertainty can be a mechanism that keeps a stronger player from holding off on their attack, wondering whether or not they have the strength to win, or what the costs of victory will be. This pause in aggression may be enough to let a lagging player mount a stronger defense, which prompts the attacker to question their advantage again or enables the defender to attack on a different front.
One game that manages this notion well is UltraCorps. Fleets can contain 100’s or even 1000’s of units, the combined strength of which is all rolled up into a few firepower measurements. But the way the combat mechanic itself works is never a guarantee. Outside of doubling the firepower of your opponent, it’s often possible to sustain heavy losses or outright lose the fight even with a noticeable firepower advantage. A few lucky hits early on in a combat round that takes out a key capital ship, for example, can have a compounding effect on the course of the battle. The system keeps things tense and interesting and you are almost always going to sustain moderate loses in a fight.
Armads 2526 detection system also keeps players on their toes in a nice way and makes the gameplay more uncertain. Unless an enemy fleet is relatively close to a sensor array, you won’t know the exact composition of the fleet headed your way, you might only get an approximate number of ships in the fleet. If the fleet is even further way, it’s just a blip, and you have no idea of whether the fleet is a single scout or decoy, or a full on invasion force.
Persistent Damage of Units
This is a smaller concept, but one that that many games use to good effect. For example, in Starbase Orion, damaged ships remain damaged unless the fleet returns to a system with a Starbase and remains idle for a number of turns. This is a nice way of putting the brakes on an invading force, because even if you don’t win the big fight, you can still do a lot of damage and make the next fight easier (assuming of course you have more forced on hand). Unfortunately in Starbase Orion’s case, battles can often be quite decisive, and often a winning force will come out of the battle with minimal damage and loses, and if the defender went all in on the fight, it’s probably all over for them.
Issue #3 - Micromanagement, Tedium, and Drag-out
The above two issues, city spam fueling snowballing and the One Big Battle leading to the steamroller effect, combine with the desired scale of most 4X games to create very unsatisfying late game and end game experience for many. City Spam results in players having to micromanage a large number of cities or colonies – often more than players might want to manage to maintain their production advantage. Winning the One Big Battle then leaves the player in the position of having to “mop up” the waning empires in a tedious, drawn out affair devoid of tension or deep decision making. A lot players just quit the game at that point and call it a win.
Bring in the Micromanagers!
An often employed approach to minimize late game micromanagement is to rely on planet/system/city AI managers or governors. The theory is that as your empire grows and grows, you are less and less concerned with optimizing the output on each and every management unit, and hence are more willing (no delighted!) to relinquish control to an AI manager. Personally I find this a really unsatisfying approach – and especially when a game is close and the hour grows late. If I’m fighting for my life to keep a snowball/steamrolling opponent at bay, the last thing I want is an AI governor buying stuff I may not need and consuming resources and time in the process. Yet, if the game requires me to manage dozens and dozens cities/planets/systems as the only alternative, that isn’t a good prospect either!
Generally speaking, if a game as AI managers that operate in any sort of shadow, left to their own devices sort of way, red flags go up.
Better Living Through Technology!
A different tact is to give players tools that make management tasks easier even as the game scales up. One of the most brilliant systems I’ve seen in this regard is the “custom build focus” mechanic used in Starbase Orion. Briefly, you are able setup and SAVE a custom build queue depending on a particular goal you have in mind for the development of a given planet. This queue bulls from all of the possible planetary developments that can happen in the game. For example, you could create a custom “Research Planet” queue that includes all the +research buildings, but maybe also sprinkles in some +production buildings (to make research faster), and maybe at the end of the queue a Starbase or other special projects.
The game handles the queues perfectly and it dovetails with your technology progress – so if you haven’t unlocked “Research Labs III” the custom queue will move on to the next queue item that can be built. If there is nothing currently available to build, the queue can have its default behavior specified (e.g. generate more taxes, boost growth, stockpile production, etc.) so that you don’t need to bother switching the planet focus around manually. At any time, you can swoop in a manually override the queue with a new build order, and when that manual order is done the planet will revert back to its custom queue.
All in all, this system makes it possible to manage many planets and systems quite easily. It accomplishes the same goal as AI managers, but it puts the decision and tools in the players hand and keeps the process far more transparent.
Swift Closure and Alternative Goals
The tedium and drag-out of the late game is at its worst when players are required to effectively exterminate all of the opposing empires to win. If the only goal extermination, and you’ve already won all the possible one-big battles, and the steamroller is steamrolling and the snowball is snowballing, then what is there to look forward to? For all that I like about Starbase Orion, the end can be a slog when it’s clear you’ve already won. Providing alternative win triggers can be a good way to combat this issue.
Age of Wonders 3 has a pretty clever win trigger. Each player/empire has a single “leader” hero, and normally if they die your leader respawns at your throne city a few turns later. However, if you manage to kill someone’s empire and capture their throne city before they respawn, you immediately win! If course, this goal can happen at any time, and often you see players, especially in human vs human games, strategize around assassinating a leader and using concealed units to capture the throne behind enemy lines. This is great for keeping players on their toes throughout the game, but also works well to avoid the end-game slog. After the “one big battle” you can usually scout around and find the enemy leader and make a push right to their throne city for a win.
Age of Wonders 3 also introduced a clever “Seals” victory, which is a sort of multi-point king of the hill system. Maps will have a number of great seal locations (based on the number of players) and holding a seal earns you charges. A variable “charge limit” can be set for an automatic win. With the Seal victory condition enabled, players end up fighting a lot around the seals, pushing people off when they get close to winning in an attempt to secure a win for themselves. This system gives an alternative to cities for forces to target and fight over, and the charge limits functions a bit as an timer to prevent the game from heading into tedious endgame scenario.
Last, Age of Wonders 3 also has a nice “surrender” mechanic – where if you capture a bunch of an enemy empires cities in a short period of time, and you have a large force advantage, the AI will just surrender outright to you, with their leader and throne city coming under your control.
Of course, civ and 4X games have often had all sorts of alternative victory conditions (research, economic, cultural, diplomatic, etc.) – and these can be very compelling ways of minimizing the slog of end-game conquest. Of course, unless you are in a tight race with other empires, achieving these victories if often an underwhelming experience of hitting “next turn” for dozens and dozens of turns on end until you amass enough money, research, culture, population, or whatever to meet the win threshold. In other words, these can feel pretty anti-climactic.
Asymmetric and Unconventional Designs
A current trend in 4X game design, which I think is trying to solve all three of these issues at once, is to just radically rethink the entire formula for what it means to be a 4X game.
An asymmetrical design is one option, such as in AI War or The Last Federation where the “players” empire or domain of control is fundamentally different from the challenge they are up against. No longer is the human starting out in the same situation as the other AI empires. Instead, the human starts out operating in a completely different way from their opposition, and both have fundamentally different ways of winning or losing. In speculating, I think we’ll see a lot more advancement and experimentation with these ideas.
Other games have taken more of an unconventional approach to the empire builder. “At the Gates” and “Empire” (an iOS 4X game) have players managing a sort of roving/nomadic city-state-clan-thing that may settle down in an area for a period of time, but eventually be pushed to migrate and move to a new territory. These games are asymmetric as well, as there are no other roving/nomadic “players” that you are competing with. Nevertheless, they providing a compelling solution to the central issues. There is no snowballing per se because you are hard limited to just a few (or just one!) “management” unit. Likewise, the smaller scale and focus of the game relative to the asymmetric opposition you face makes steamrolling a non-issue. What are you steamrolling against in these contexts? It goes without saying that management tedium is largely a moot point as well.
The issues discussed above (snowballing, steamrolling, management tedium) and the various attempts at resolving them, has defined much of the 4X genre at a fundamental level. How different mechanisms are employed to combat these issues and how those mechanisms sit relative to the games theme does a lot to differentiate the core feeling and experience of different 4X games and speaks to multitudes of tastes and interests among 4X gamers.
Recent years seem to be a little golden age for 4X and civ-style games, and it will be fascinating to see how many of the innovative ideas and experiments will be received and which will stick on ceiling as a good idea for the future of the genre.
In the meantime, I’d love to hear your thoughts on these issues. Are there creative solutions to city-spam or steamrolling you’ve seen in games that I didn’t mention? Other creative ideas you’ve had to meet these challenges? The phones are open!
- [+] Dice rolls