Ancient Strategy Games

Games journalist Troy S. Goodfellow just completed a very comprehensive retrospective on strategy games based in the ancient era. The scope is great as it extends all the way from Chris Crawford’s Legionnaire (1982) to Creative Assembly’s Rome: Total War (2004). (It’s telling, of course, that the first title belongs to a person and the last title to a company.) These are extensive pieces from a consistent point-of-view, including interviews with some of the older developers – exactly the type of series which would have been impossible to write before the Internet.

Here’s a good sample from the entry on Slitherine’s Legion (2002):

Most gamers are familiar with the uncanny valley – the idea that as photorealism and CGI get more convincing the more the human mind focuses on what is “off” about the animation. Strategy gaming has an uncanny valley, too. If one part of a system is persuasive, then it gets more difficult to accept generalizations in the other parts. Games can cross this valley, but they need to distract the user either with visuals or descriptive text – just enough to cover up the sleight of hand. By making the battle engine so compelling and period appropriate, Slitherine couldn’t help but draw attention to the cookie cutter cities, the weird unit recruitment system and how uninspired the strategic map looked most of the time. Then, given a chance to cut loose with a 3D battle engine in Legion: Arena, they stick on a really lame role playing segment where you level up troops and spend “fame points”.

If I had to choose the hardest thing in game design, it would probably be the decision about what and when to abstract. There is always a temptation for historical themed games to push hard on the realism on the stuff that designers are interested in and to punt the rest. Too much abstraction, of course, gets in the way of what Bruce Geryk has dubbed “touching history” – the reason why so many people are drawn to these games in the first place. Being more of a strategic than tactical mind, I think I’d prefer it if the battles were more general than the big picture stuff, but the trick is finding a nice balance somewhere in there.

We certainly ran into this problem quite a bit in the Civ universe – trying to make sure that the level of detail is consistent across all of the sub-systems (technology, diplomacy, resources, etc). In general, the problematic system is combat as the design challenges tend to suggest greater complexity, especially when compared with other, more tactical turn-based wargames.

For example, in the original Civ, Sid included Zone-of-Control rules lifted directly from hex-based games. They were an strange fit, both with Civ‘s broad audience and an already over-taxed AI. The extra complexity was at odds with the rest of the game, which split an entire nations production into three simple values: food, productions, and trade. Eventually, ZoC’s were dropped from the series.

Nonetheless, the simplified combat system has not been an overall success because – with infinite unit stacking and single city tiles – the game strongly encourages single-minded “island hopping” offensives, where the player concentrates their entire force on taking city A, then city B, then city C, and so on. The abstraction breaks down. Ultimately, Civ has succeeded over the years in spite of its combat system, not because of it. Overrunning knights with tanks is still enjoyable, of course, but the core fun of Civ comes from executing an over-arching strategy, not from the tactical military game.

I believe that we solved some of the franchise’s stickier problems with Civ4, but – I regret to say – not this one…

7 thoughts on “Ancient Strategy Games

  1. You now, I missed ZoC for a while. It was confusing at first, and then it became annoying. Still it was a good way to maintain a border in the days before you could easily keep foreigners out of your land. A couple of sentries in forts in a narrow band of land could block roaming settlers, giving you a chance to grab those hills.

  2. I also miss the zone-of-control rules a little bit, although really it has more to do with Civ’s stacking mechanic and the ultimate futility of trying to defend a broad empire against a single massed stack of invaders that can move around at-will. I suppose you could argue that it’s “historically accurate,” at least in the modern era. Still, it forces players to think about combat in a non-intuitive way, exploiting the peculiarities of the game engine rather than measuring overall skill. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, until you reach the point where a player must play in a certain way in order to have fun.

  3. Yeah, I’m surprised that I have come to miss the ZoC some too. Nonetheless, I think it’s largely an AI issue in that playing against an AI that used ZoC well would not be much fun…

  4. Whilst I disagree with ZoC in Civ (no battalion could adequately control a 100 mile square of land from enemy control) I do agree with the point that combat is too simplified which highlights huge game-play problems. Tho that should be no surprise considering I wrote a massive mod specifically to redesign combat. 🙂

  5. What, if you don’t mind me asking more than half a year after you wrote this blog entry, made you keep the infinite unit stacking and “single-minded ‘island hopping’ offensives” in Civilization IV? I suppose you must have considered some other mechanics and maybe even playtested those?

  6. That’s a good question. In retrospect, I focused on fixing non-military issues with the classic Civ model (ICS, corruption, city riots, resource micromanagement, boring worker options, standard research builds, etc.) that I considered to be bigger problems. In the grand scheme of things, combat seemed to be in better shape than the other sub-systems. Thus, once they were improved, combat sticks out as a bit of a sore thumb.

    Of course, I had hoped the new collateral damage rules would fix infinite unit stacking, but it turned out to be too crude of a tool – very difficult to make effective without being overpowered. As for the island-hoping problem, that would really require a rethinking of how city and territory conquest works in the game. Sid solved the strategic/tactical problem (with help from Empire’s example) by essentially having two separate games (a military one and an economic one) played on the same grid, which was a great innovation. However, the final kinks are still yet to be ironed out.

  7. Pingback: A hex map in Civilization isn’t the end of the world. | Between the Hexes

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