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  • Adding Strategy To Your Tactics

    - Keith Burgun
  • I've been doing a lot of thinking over the last few years about short arcs and long arcs in strategy game design. "Short arcs" would be referring to local, short term operations - so in a tactical game, this might mean "defeating THIS unit" or "making sure that unit doesn't reach this area", etc. Longer arcs would be longer-term strategic projects, such as "move my forces generally up to the north" or "go for a certain kind of unit on the tech tree" - things like that.

    My background in videogame design is in traditional Rogue-like games. These games are interesting, because while they have long arcs in terms of the RPG mechanics and inventory management, in a way they really can be described as a looping tactical engine. In DCSS or Shiren, or even my own 100 Rogues, if you win the tactical game enough times in a row, you win the larger game. Winning the larger game can be expressed as a "tally" of how many times you won the short

    Thinking more about smaller turn based/tile based games, I find that a lot of the time tactics seems to become dominant. For instance, in my game Auro: A Monster Bumping Adventure, it started off as a "boiled down" Rogue-like. Eventually I came up with the bumping mechanism that is so central to the game. I thought of Auro, and Rogue-likes more generally, as strategy games. But ultimately, and not exactly intentionally, Auro was pretty much a pure tactics game. It's more just a result of a process of eliminating traditional design patterns that I found to be problematic.

    The classical way that developers have added longer arcs to tactical games has been to have a second screen, from which you draw a few variables, such as which troops have survived, what loot you've found, and things like that. You often have some kind of base building or RPG mini-game, as is the case in X-Com, or Into the Breach. But what if you're interested in asking the question: "how can I make the tactical game - the battlefield game *itself* - more strategic?"

    That was my starting place when I started working on Gem Wizards Tactics back in 2019. Since then I've picked up a few pieces of advice that I think are applicable to almost anyone making a turn-based tactics game, if they want to give it some longer arcs.

    Technique #1: Increase your grid size. If your grid is like 4x4 or 5x5, it's just going to be really hard to create longer arcs on a grid like that. Of course, you can still do it with integers in a spreadsheet, like for example a character that levels up slowly over time, and we'll talk about that in a minute. But in general, if you have a grid, I really recommend taking advantage of it. And if your grid is too small, it's going to be difficult to allow players to make "longer term decisions" with regards to positioning on that grid. The size your grid should be is going to vary wildly for most games, but I think in order to have longer arc grid-based decisions, you're going to need the grid to be at least something like 10x10, 12x12, or something in that ballpark. 

    Just a quick caveat that of course you also want to be careful not to make your grid so large so that the game just becomes tedious. The classical "entire turns spent just moving your units forward" problem has plagued many turn based games.

    Technique #2: Visible long term choices: Most games have some kind of "information horizon" (also see this video on the topic) - a line or a state, beyond which which information is hidden from the player. 

    Battle for Wesnoth

    In tactics games, this most often exists as a "fog of war". Fog of war is great in that it limits the player's "play area" roughly to a certain size - it prevents you from seeing the entire map at once. This means that the player is never asked to "calculate out" many moves in advance, because it's literally impossible to do so. This tends to have a very "freeing" effect over the player; in terms of hard calculation, they only have to look at the small area in this little radius here.

    However, it's also important to make sure that some things are visible, far off, through the fog. For example, in my game Gem Wizards Tactics, I have five towers around the map that are visible to the player. You can't see enemies that are guarding the tower until you get close enough, but you can see that the tower is there. In this way, the player has a longer term thing that they're aiming for.


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