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  • Designing Serial Strategy Games

    [07.20.21]
    - Kory Heath

  • Winning and Losing

    Although it isn't strictly necessary, most existing serial strategy games are winnable, losable, and irrevocable.

    Winnable-Since a run consists of a series of core game instances, logically there must be a final one. The goal is to reach it and win it, whatever that means in the context of that particular design. Scores are secondary, or non-existent.

    Losable-It's possible for a run to prematurely terminate in failure.

    Irrevocable-You live with your decisions. Many games provide some form of undo or reload, but it's usually limited.

    This overall structure reliably ties a series of core instances together into a compelling whole. However, its punishing nature threatens to relegate the genre to a niche. My definition of "serial strategy" does not mandate this particular goal structure (although of course it allows for it). We can imagine a serial strategy game in which you are guaranteed to reach the final instance, and in which your chances of winning that instance are dictated by how well you did in all of the previous ones. Or we can imagine that you don't win or lose the final instance, but simply finish it and receive a score or a star-rating. Time will tell whether such alternatives have wide appeal, or are even compelling enough to be viable. The genre is young. Experimentation is in order.

    Further Thoughts

    I'm a videogame designer at heart, but I cut my teeth on tabletop Eurogame design in the early 2000s, which resulted in things like Zendo and Blockers (neither of which is very Eurogame-y, but let that pass). Those experiences have shaped my current perspective, and inform my excitement about the serial strategy genre.

    It's surprisingly difficult to find an outlet for Euro-style game-mechanical design in videogames-especially single-player ones. We have genres like grand strategy, 4X, real-time strategy, tower defense, MOBA, CCG, auto battler, and turn-based tactics. These are a bad fit, for multiple reasons (not the least of which is the heavy focus on combat). We have indie "casual puzzle" games like ThreesDrop7, and Triple Town. Those are closer to what I'm looking for, but they exist within a narrow space. I love Mini Metro and the recently-released Slipways, but they feel like one-offs that don't clearly establish a framework for future design. I can count on a few hands all of the good single-player strategy videogames that exhibit that elusive "Eurogame flavor". In contrast, there are hundreds of actual Eurogames published every single year.

    The serial strategy structure can function as a delivery system for Euro-style mechanics in single-player videogame design. Slay the Spire-the most successful serial strategy game so far-lifts its central card-play system right out of Dominion. I believe that there are structural and systemic reasons why the above-outlined serial strategy structure is such a good fit for these kinds of mechanics.

    If I'm right about all of this, the next step in the evolution of the genre will be to expand outward into the space of non-combat games. Nothing in my definition of "serial strategy" dictates that these games have to be about combat. Eurogames themselves almost never are. Design space is full of beautiful and fascinating mechanics that have nothing to do with reducing hit points to zero. I don't have a moral problem with games about killing monsters, but I do think it's a shame that our new genre is (so far) ignoring vast swaths of design space. And, although I can't prove it, I suspect that there's a broad audience of players who would enjoy playing games that are "like" FTL or Slay the Spire, but in which you're settling islands, or planning routes, or placing workers, or collecting sets, or doing one of the thousands of other fun things there are to do in strategy games besides killing monsters.

    My aim is to explore the theory and practice of serial strategy game design (particularly of the non-combat variety), and to convince other designers to start exploring it with me. I'm interested in questions like:

    • Why are so many videogame genres a bad fit for Euro-style game mechanics?
    • Why is the serial strategy genre a good fit for them?
    • How fertile is the space of non-combat serial strategy games?
    • What happens if you take a game like CatanCarcassonne, or Ticket to Ride and try to make a serial strategy game out of it?
    • What design patterns can help us create compelling single-player, build-based core games?

    I'll continue to explore such questions in future essays and videos. I also plan to put my money where my mouth is. After nearly a decade of poverty and cowardice, I've scraped together enough cash (and gumption) to allow me to devote myself full-time to the design and production of one of these games. And-with some trepidation-I've decided to develop the whole thing in full view of the public. I'll be making prototypes to test my theories, and they'll be freely available to all who are interested. Follow me, and join the conversation!

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