Off Topic: The Ideal Fantasy Strategy Game
Because, well, this is what I’m thinking about this week: (1) I’ve been doing a little more writing of late, and that’s a good thing , (2) I’ve been doing a lot more reading lately (more on that later) and (3) I’ve been thinking a lot about Fantasy Strategy games – particular of the computerized variety.
The former item is all hush-hush, because, well, you know… An artist does not reveal his art until his art is in a revealable state, which mine is not (it’s mostly been background writing, so far: notes, character briefs, and so forth). The second I’ll talk about soon.
So, there’s nothing for it now but to talk about the latter. I don’t normally talk about video games on this blog. But hey, what can I say? I like video games. In particular, I like RPGs, Adventure Games and Strategy Games.
Recently, Dear Wife bought me a game that’s long been on my “to play” list: Okami, and I’ve enjoyed playing that quite a lot so far. Okami fits squarely in the RPG genre (or, if you prefer to be pedantic, it fits in the CRPG genre; I like RPGs both in the C- and non-C- forms, so I don’t really get bothered by it). Okami has a wonderful, whimsical, and artistic style to it that tickles me just the right way, and it’s definitely a game worth checking out, especially if RPGs appeal to you.
But interestingly, even as I’ve enjoyed playing Okami, I’ve found my mind turned toward another genre of games: Strategy games. Especially Strategy Video/Computer Games. Especially especially Fantasy Strategy Video/Computer Games. And the more I thought on the subject, the more I (a) wanted to play one and (b) lamented the fact that the perfect Fantasy Strategy Game did not exist.
Which, of course, got me thinking about just what constitutes the perfect FSG.
And that suggests several questions: is it Real Time or Turn-Based? What features does it have?
Before getting to that question, I’ll talk about my history with the strategy genre. I was first introduced to Fantasy Strategy Games with Warlords II back in the early 90s. I have fond memories of wasting way too much time trying to conquer the world in this old turn-based strategy game. Eventually I picked up Civilization III, which was an excellent game but suffered only minorly for not being, you know, fantasy. (At least not without extensive hacking; which maybe can be done with Civ games, but I wasn’t up to that challenge). I also played an obscure real-time strategy game called Knights and Merchants. Of course, I played Starcraft (sci-fi rather than fantasy) then Warcraft III, Age of Empires II and I’ve also sampled Age of Wonders II, and played Battle for Middle-Earth. I have missed one of the ostensible 800-pound-gorillas in the fantasy strategy gaming world, that being Heroes of Might & Magic. Nevertheless, I’ll probably be referencing the features of these various games as I discuss my ideal game.
Which gets me back to the question I asked above. What surprised me was this realization about the games I play: I enjoy and play these different genres of game for different reasons. In RPGs and Adventure games, what I’m most interested in is story. I want the game to have an interesting and engaging story, and the game elements, features, and system are secondary considerations. With Strategy games, however, the opposite is true: I’m mostly interested in the features of the game than the story. What is the system like, what can you do, how exactly is the strategy abstracted? Story is important, but secondary to these considerations. (In fact, one of the “features” I want in a good strategy game is the ability to do random pick-ups, against either or both computer and human opponents, without having to worry about an ongoing story, allowing me to create my own story for the world I’m playing in.)
So, now you get to listen to me talk about what features I want in an ideal Fantasy Strategy game.
The first is obvious: I like sci-fi and sci-fi themed strategy games, but I’m most interested in fantasy-themed games. That means magic, usually means the traditional fantasy races (elf, dwarf, orc, human, and a good mix of others), means a pseudo-medieval setting where the primary weapons are swords and spears and bows and horses and so on. I’m obviously not alone in that market.
My second preference is less obvious (and one that hasn’t been done frequently). I like RTSs. (Real Time Strategy games; though, to be fully pedantic which in this case I will, they should actually be called RTTs, but they’re almost always tactical games, not strategy games. Specifically, tactics refers to particular actions taken and decisions on the battlefield to maneuver for battlefield advantage, whereas strategy refers to the higher-level planning, logistics, and decision-making to gain advantage in a broader-level conflict, i.e. a war. I have yet to play an RTS where my actions and decisions have a substantial effect on the strategic concerns for the overall war.) I also like Turn-based strategy games. There are advantages and disadvantages to both. (To harp on my earlier, pedantic point, I enjoy both tactical decision-making as well as broader strategic decision-making.) At the pace of most RTSs, for instance, it seems difficult to incorporate true strategic decision-making: it’s much easier to build a campaign as a series of pre-planned combat encounters. Most turn-based games, meanwhile, although allowing for a lot more strategic concern, lack the immediacy of frenetic, fast-paced combat that RTSs provide. (Many even abstract actual combat encounters away entirely.) Some turn-based games even opt for the weaknesses of both: having a series of turn-based, battlefield-level encounters without any of the larger strategic and logistic implications.
My ideal, then: a “Real Time Strategy” game that has the pacing of a Turn-based Strategy game at the macro, strategic level, and the pacing of an RTS at the battlefield level. This is not impossible to achieve. It’s even been done in sci-fi games. It just takes the realization that it takes a long time to move military forces around, whereas combat encounters can start and end in a comparatively short amount of time. One technique I’d use to drive this home: a day/night cycle. Unless a unit is being pushed hard (or belongs to a night-loving race) it will move during the day and stop to camp at night. You, the player, can still do stuff at night: the game never “stops” for your or anyone else’s turn, but it moves slow enough while there’s no battle going on for you to do more strategic things like manage your economy and order your troops to move to a new defensive position. Even if a battle is going on, because this is happening in real time, you can ignore it (and let the AI of your troops manage on their own) if other matters require your more immediate attention. (For what it’s worth, I am aware of the existence of a non-Fantasy strategy game that attempted something like this model, though I don’t recall the name of the title.)
The next most important feature regards the question of empire expansion. In most RTS games, you attempt to exploit strategic locations in the relatively small game area map to build individual buildings that support your soldiers (in most games, different buildings to generate different troop types, and other buildings to perform “research” to upgrade and improve your current soldiers and a few buildings for managing your economy and resources. In most turn-based strategy games that I’m familiar with, meanwhile, control over individual buildings is typically abstracted away, and often, so is control over where cities/towns/castles/whatever are located. In these games, the cities and buildings are already distributed over the map; you start with one “capital” or “home base” city, as do each opposing player, and the rest are “unaligned” or “neutral”. These neutral cities are typically non-aggressive and easily conquered. So here, my ideal is something like the Civilization model, where nothing is a given, and the empire is built from scratch, and where you scout out the best locations to harness the most useful resources.
Which gets me to the next feature: the economy. Civilization is an interesting example: for the most part, your cities are either connected to a resource or they aren’t. Some resources can be used up, but in practice this is pretty opaque – you don’t really have a good handle on that until the resource is gone, and it’s pretty rare that that happens. Warcraft and other games are more typical: effectively 3 or 4 resources, gold (or money of some kind), typically followed by wood, then food or some resource that limits army size, and maybe one or two others like stone or metal. Knights and Merchants is unusual. There are an immense number of resources in that game, and most resources are refined products from more raw materials. For instance: woodsmen produce logs, the logs are transported to the carpenter to make refined lumber/boards, and lumber can then be used to build buildings or as raw materials for weapons like spears. Or with regard to food: you have farmers who can grow grain, which is then milled into flour in mills, then baked into bread in bakeries. Pig farmers produce pig carcases and pelts. Butchers turn the carcasses into sausages and tanners turn the pelts into leather armor. And so on. You need to stockpile weapons of various types to make soldiers of various types (swords and metal armor to make swordsmen, halberds and metal armor and horses to make knights, leather armor and spears to make light infantry, and so on). The complexity of the economy means most of your time in that particular game is spent micromanaging the construction of buildings used to refine resources and the acquisition of those resources.
My ideal: 3 resources is too few, and too abstracted. 20 or 30 resources is too many, and requires too much micro-management. I like gold/money, wood/lumber, stone, metal/ore and generic food. I also like having things like mounts (horses and others) being a resource – and not just horses. In a fantasy strategy game, that might mean, for instance, having a Griffon Aerie or a Dragon’s Nest on the map that you can then capture to supply griffins or dragons as mounts for flying units. I don’t necessarily want to have to keep track of how many swords I have on hand, I just want to make sure I’ve got a blacksmith amply supplied with metal ore who knows how to make swords, and when I need a swordsman, he makes the sword right then and there. There’s an implied resource, but I don’t have to manage it directly. Likewise, I don’t necessarily want to manage the entire refinement process from wheat to bread, but I like the idea of access to food limiting population and army size and growth. In many games this is abstracted as “X # of farms = Y army size” limit. Instead, I like having an army that comes from the general population: you can only recruit soldiers from humans that already exist, and so your army and general population are jointly limited in their growth potential by the food access. Need more food? Build more farms and/or find more fertile/productive places to build farms. (And yeah, I like the idea of farms being somewhat variable in their productivity based on some sort of “fertility” resource available in the environment.) And as long as you have a population of free/uncommitted labor, you have a source of recruits for your army. If you have no free labor (i.e. everyone’s busy doing something productive to the economy and can’t be recruited to fight) you can resort to temporary conscripts (which will hurt your long-term productive capacity and damage your economy) or you grow your economy so your population increases. So, basically, I’m interested in an economic model that is detailed and nuanced but not too detailed and nuanced: I’d like a lot of A/I under the hood and I manage the macro-variables and let the A/I handle the micro. And it’d be a mix of what you see in Civ games, Knights and Merchants, and most other traditional fantasy strategy games.
The next thing I think about is the campaign model. Most RTSs follow the model of multiple self-contained scenarios. The only thing that carries over from scenario to scenario is your hero. If you mine extra ore or chop down extra lumber, you don’t get to use those extra resources in the next scenario. If you build an impressive and large army: poof, the whole army disappears in the next round. Where did they go? I have no idea. In Battle for Middle-Earth, each scenario you beat earns some bonus that does carry over: possible an extra amount of resources or some other such bonus. More importantly, your army sticks with you. If you recruit a bunch of knights, you keep those knights in the next scenario. And they earn experience. In practice what this means is that by the later levels you’re arriving with a huge army already, and you do very little unit-building (only enough to replace fallen units).
I like a different approach. I want to be able to see the entire theater of war all at once: I don’t want it divided piece-meal into scenarios where you force me back into the stone-age each time. I don’t want to have “research” new technologies all-over-again that I already unlocked a dozen times so far in this campaign. That’s silly. Of course my blacksmith knows how to make “refined steel blades” or whatever… he’s been making them for fifteen scenarios already! This goes back to the Civ model, again – your army is your army is your army for the whole campaign. You build it up and: congrats, you have a bigger army. Getting it to where it needs to be (and knowing where that is), that’s the strategy part. I know it makes for an easier-time developing an interesting story to use this scenario model. But as I said: story is the secondary concern. Make the strategy features work, first, then figure out how to do the story.
(As it happens, I have a few models for how to make story work in this grand-unified-campaign model. First: time-based story triggers. At time “X” story-event Y happens, regardless fo whether you’re ready for it. Second: location-based story triggers. When your hero/army/whatever explores Location “X”, story-event Y happens. Third: event-based story triggers. When you accomplish “X” or complete “Y” or otherwise do something, then story-event Z happens. Note that the first two are really subsets of the third. Basically, the whole idea being that instead of “beating the scenario” being the trigger for advancing the story, the story cuts are woven organically into the flow of the campaign.)
The challenge, perhaps, is that as you go further in the campaign, it becomes easier and your victory more inevitable. Once your army is massive-huge and you own most of the land, your conquest is all but assured. Civ games make up for this by allowing multiple victory conditions. About to subjugate the world to your military rule? Watch out, your aggressive military action may gain you universal opprobrium, and in response the nations of the world unite against you and elect a peace-mongering UN Secretary General. Congrats: you lose, even though the world was at your mercy. Okay, so there’s no “UN Secretary General” in your typical fantasy world. But regardless, it is possible to keep the pressure mounting through the last throws of the end-game. Besides, strategy gamers aren’t going to let a thing like the inevitability of their victory stop them from actually playing through to that victory. Savoring the utter defeat of your enemies is half of what strategy gaming is about.
Okay, so I’ve already put way more thought into this than it officially needs. The rest is easy: I want flying units. I want logically consistent combat strengths and weaknesses. I want ranged combat to be meaningful. I’d like to be able to make impromptu use of my environment in combat. And so on. Most of these are features that you’ll find in existing games, and aren’t particularly novel like some of my other suggestions.
Anyway, to my knowledge, the game that combines all of these into one does not exist. I can haz sooper-awesum purrfect fantasy strategy game plz? Kthxbye.
If this game does exist, and you know if it, please, for the love of all that you hold dear, enlighten me of its existence so that I may covet something that is real instead of just made up and in my head.
If, on the other hand, you are a developer looking for a new project, consider this an invitation to make the perfect fantasy strategy game. And consider this my official application for the job of writer/consultant.
For all the rest: have you played any good games lately? Tell me of your favorite games and most enjoyable gaming experiences.