Northern Beholder

Where history and gaming collide.

Month: November, 2014

Conquest Timers: The Artificial Padding of Grand Strategy Games

As a gamer, I’m a fan of a good grand strategy game.  While their universal ability to consume whole days of time means they don’t form a regular part of my gaming schedule purely for reasons of self-preservation, every now and again I will indulge and sink my teeth into a meaty title just long enough to conquer whichever slice of the world (or galaxy) is on offer today.  Such games come in both turn-based (Civilization, Total War) and real-time (Europa Universalis, Crusader Kings) offerings, and they key differences between them and other titles is the way in which their gameplay represents the passage of years of time, and the available playing field spans continents or whole worlds.  In a grand strategy game, you do not control an army, but whole nations – and the depth of the game systems from cultural to economic to diplomatic reflects it.  The scale on which the player operates is such that individual armies and battles are often abstracted away with unit markers and dice rolls, rather than being the focus (the famous exception being the Total War games, which offer both a turn-based grand strategy map and the ability to directly control your armies in real-time combat).

No matter which style of gameplay they fall into, however, all grand strategy games face the same problem: How to stop a player from simply overrunning their opponents and bringing the game to a close quickly once they begin to gain an advantage.  The solutions vary, and some are far, far worse than others.

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Dawn of War II: Stealing Player Resources is Bad

I’ve recently begun playing Warhammer: Dawn of War II again.  It’s a fun little squad-based RTS/RPG hybrid, which is best described as “Diablo with Space Marines”.  The player controls a maximum of four squads (out of a total choice of six once all are unlocked) with customizable stats and equipment, each filling a different niche, and has to manage a series of crises across three star-systems by choosing where and when to deploy, and then fighting through the provided map to complete the objectives of the day.  It’s a bit repetitive, not least in the maps department (multiple areas get re-used over and over for new missions, changing only deployment position and enemies) but enjoyable in that frantic Diablo way.

At least, it was enjoyable until I got to the most recent mission.  At the end of the last mission, one of my squads – the Tactical Marines, lead by Sgt. Tarkus, the first squad you start with – declared they were going to stay behind to help secure the area.  I was a bit annoyed, because Tarkus is the cornerstone to pretty much every one of my engagements, but when the next mission popped up in the exact same area I was relieved.  I was going to get him back immediately!  Sure enough, once I started he was just north of my position and came back under my control when I approached him.  He remained under my control for about five minutes, at which point I found him yanked away from me again, turned into an NPC and set to guard a location while I had to go elsewhere.

Now, losing Tarkus alone is bad enough – he’s the ‘tank’ of the group, able to soak immense damage and taunt enemies away from weaker squads – but what’s worse is the items I had deployed on him.  In addition to upgrading basic gear, all squads can equip consumable accessories.  Because Tarkus is basically unkillable, he holds all the really important ones, like medic kits, grenades, and anti-tank weapons.  And the game just took him away without giving me a chance to put those items on other squads (he wasn’t available to take gear off of in the pre-mission planning screen either).  So now I have to do the entire mission without any healing and take down multiple enemy tanks and mechs using just the semi-effective heavy melee weapons of my commander and assault squad.

Game developers: If you’re going to take away a key resource the player has invested a lot in, first of all, don’t – give us a choice of who to make stay behind so we can choose someone less crucial to the team.  Second, if you really need to take away one specific person, make sure – especially in any game with RPG elements – that the player has forewarning of this so we can remove essential items and use them elsewhere.  Nothing sours an experience quite like having all your gear taken away before you’re thrown in front of the boss monster.  It feels – and this is the killer for any game – unfair.