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  • Designing Serial Strategy Games

    [07.20.21]
    - Kory Heath
  • In the winter of 2012, I was unemployed and living in a tiny apartment in Greenbelt, Maryland. When I started feeling the unmistakable scratchy-throat tingle of a new cold, I decided it was the perfect time to crack open a game that had been on my radar for a while and was generating all kinds of indie buzz: the kickstarter success-story FTL. Over the course of a dreamlike week, I logged more than 40 hours of play. (Who needs a job?) Now, in 2021, I still count it as one of my all-time favorite games.

    I knew that FTL was a founderwork which would spawn a genre-not of "sci-fi ship vs. ship battle games", but of a certain kind of board-gamey, strategic videogame in general. In 2014 I tweeted:

    A few years later, Slay the Spire became a massive indie success. I'm approaching 1000 hours of play, and I love it even more than I love FTL. Other games in this vein have popped up like mushrooms-Into the BreachDicey DungeonsMonster TrainGriftlands. It's a thing.

    We don't have a great name for this thing. The above games are often classified as "roguelikes", but the term is highly contentious, and in any case, I want a sub-term that specifically refers to games like FTL and Slay The Spire, as opposed to Nethack and Spelunky. "Roguelike deckbuilder" is a thing, but I've never heard anyone refer to FTL or Into the Breach as deckbuilders. With a hubris typical of all game designers, I propose a new term: serial strategy.

    Serial Strategy Defined

    A serial strategy game is a run-based, procedural, short, single-player videogame in which a single run consists of a strategic core game played many times in a row and embedded in a build-based overgame.

    Run-based-The game is designed to be played over and over again.

    Procedural-Every run is different.

    Short-A single run can be played in one sitting. One hour seems to be the evolving standard, analogous to the 90 minute standard in film.

    Single-player (or co-op)-The primary "opponent" is a system or an environment. These systems and environments tend to be algorithmically transparent, but often exhibit complex emergent behavior.

    Strategic-The primary focus is on skillful thinking and planning, as opposed to dexterity-based execution or undirected exploration.

    Core game-A strategic sub-module which has a beginning, middle, and end. It tends to last somewhere between five seconds and five minutes. One can imagine a modified version of the core game as a short stand-alone game.

    Build-based-Over the course of a single run you gradually develop a unique "build" of characteristics, abilities, and/or items. The uniqueness stems from the fact that during any given run you'll only encounter a random subset of the possible build elements, and you'll only acquire a subset of that subset. These elements tend to be less like numerical stats and more like discrete special powers that synergize with each other and the game's environment in complex and surprising ways. Details of the build can dramatically affect the play of the core game during a particular run.

    Overgame-This refers to all of the gameplay that happens during a run that's outside of the core game. The overgame is supplementary. A run is always heading toward a final instance of the core game, and every overgame decision directly or indirectly affects that final instance (or increases or decreases the chances of reaching it).

    Note that "overgame" is not equivalent to "metagame". The overgame happens over the course of a single run, and it ends when the run ends. The term "metagame" can be used to refer to gameplay or permanent progression that occurs between runs. My definition of serial strategy is metagame-neutral. Inter-run state-change may be elaborate, minimal, or non-existent.

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