Against tactics games and the connect-four CCG

#2
Very nice article! I don't have quite such a bad feeling about small(ish) grids as you - I still think you don't need that much room to create a system with a mix of arc lengths - but it seems like it's definitely an issue as you say.

A question. When you said
But the smallness of the grid means we have to do one of two things to avoid making the entire game feel very solvable:
...
1. Allow players to just endlessly look-ahead and calculate tons of stuff to figure out the best move
...
2. Use wild, high-impact randomness to reset or half-reset the game state every turn or every few turns...
Is it just me or did you miss out a step there?! What about
"2. Use contained, low-impact randomness to prevent players endlessly looking ahead."

Have we given up on input randomness nowadays?
 

keithburgun

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#3
Contained, low impact randomness doesn't break up the calculation, really. These systems are simple enough that if the randomness isn't wild, big-impact, players can kinda just solve the whole thing (not like solve-solve, but get close enough where the gameplay is kind of dead).
 
#4
Yeah you could be right. The amount of randomness required does seem worth investigating though. Also it's not clear how moving to a board with more grid positions necessarily changes things. When you say small grid "systems are simple enough..." it sounds like the idea is that the higher complexity is going to be preventing the calculation, which seems kind of like the chess approach (uh-oh!) Or is it because the larger grid has more scope for using an information horizon defined in terms of visibility range? I.e. there are more likely to be 'off-screen' areas in which things can happen.
 
#5
Great article!

You mention one solution: increasing board size. I see the benefits to this method, though one drawback is that above certain board sizes you are forced to use scrolling, which brings accompanying UI problems. My own approach has been to make the board as big as I can without needing scrolling and then to try to design within that limitation.

I think another way to enhance strategy is to add an economic progression that develops over the course of a single match (intra-match). Many of these games do have an economic progression, but that progression stretches across multiple matches (inter-match). An example of an inter-match economy would be a game where you buy new items and units in between battles.

It seems far more interesting to have intra-match progression, because then this progression is more closely tied to the smaller tactical arcs. An intra-match progression can add some much needed persistence to a game with an ever-changing small board.

If done right, the player should have to make interesting decisions between (a) the best tactical move for the particular moment, and (b) the better strategic move that might put their economy in a better position 10 turns from now.

I think it should work even better if the opponent/enemies/obstacles also have an economy of their own, one that is easy to understand, and the development of which depends in part on randomness and in part on the player's action. This way the player is building a strategy in response to a slowly evolving threat that they can kind of anticipate but not fully. I think this is the hardest piece of the puzzle to pull off, and one of the reasons why it is often easier (IMO) to design 2 player rather than 1 player strategy games.

This last point is where a game like Imbroglio falls down for me. While Imbroglio does have an intra-match economy that is strongly tied to the board, the threats don't really have a correspondingly interesting progression of their own. The walls move around randomly, and more and more enemies appear, but the the enemies don't vary their strategy in any meaningful way that you might respond to. (Also the game has other issues that I won't get into now.)

I'm in the middle of trying to make one of these games myself, as part of a bigger project called UFO 50. Due to interface limitations, my board is only 5x6, so I am working on developing this intra-match economics thing, and trying to give an interesting yet understandable progression to both the player and to the enemies. It's tough to pull off, and I'm not sure how successful I'll be in this particular game, but I think it's a fruitful direction to push in.
 
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keithburgun

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#6
you are forced to use scrolling, which brings accompanying UI problems.
Usually true, but solvable in two ways: making each square kinda small (not great) and having the camera fixed on your character (Auro/Escape the Omnochronom) (great, but limiting to certain kinds of designs).
 
#7
Usually true, but solvable in two ways: making each square kinda small (not great) and having the camera fixed on your character (Auro/Escape the Omnochronom) (great, but limiting to certain kinds of designs).
My biggest problem with the fixed camera solution is that it imposes a memory tax on the player. Once you've seen part of the map once, you really should have it memorized, if you are playing optimally.
 

keithburgun

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#8
My biggest problem with the fixed camera solution is that it imposes a memory tax on the player. Once you've seen part of the map once, you really should have it memorized, if you are playing optimally.
Not necessarily true. Important info goes on the minimap. Unimportant info gets remixed when it's far enough away.
 
#9
Oh, that's an interesting way to do it! Sounds very specific to your game though. Very interested to try it and see how you've implemented things.
 
#10
I think this article gets at the heart of why I don't automatically enjoy strategy games the way I used to: because most strategy games are really tactics games. (Makes me think of how Final Fantasy Tactics is commendably honest in its name...)

I think one possible differentiator between the two is the ability to have Pyrrhic victories (per wikipedia, "a victory that inflicts such a devastating toll on the victor that it is tantamount to defeat."). I'd say the majority of tactical games don't have the depth to allow for this, unless it's something basic like "you sent all your units over there to destroy a thing, but left your base undefended and lost".

On another topic, I often wonder how well-received chess would be if it came out today. Chess really wants you to think like a computer, calculating every branch of the decision tree. At high level play, it seems like the most "human" decisions are when to stop looking many moves ahead, and what heuristics to use decide which array of future moves to study most intently. I very much agree with your criticisms of chess, and tend to see both modern tactical games and games with heavy look-ahead as flawed in different ways.
 

keithburgun

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#11
I think chess would not be well received at all if it were released today, and go... honestly, go is so bad by modern standards that I can't even picture a designer HONESTLY presenting it as a game design. It's just really obviously not enough of a developed thing to present to people.
 
#12
I'm 100% behind your arcosystem theory, but I arrived at it from a radically different origin. The baseline inspiration for design of my current passion project (not that I have time to work on it anymore due to programming contracts for other games) is Final Fantasy Tactics, but I never was a big fan of how discrete each mission was. Functionally in 99% of missions, the outcome was "win" or "lose" with nothing in between, and more realistically, it's only "win" because you can't progress in the game campaign on a loss.

So my design goal was to take that discrete mission rubric and try to make it more interconnected with the general game campaign by introducing optional objectives and modifying the game's story based on actions within missions (such as slaying an enemy belligerent vs. sparing them). I mention story here because I think that's a key differentiator between myself and what I've read of Keith's design philosophy; I'm a firm believer that interactivity is strongly contextualized by circumstances, which can be readily communicated through visual and narrative means. A rags-to-riches novel of a city kid who saves up hard-earned cash to buy a house is much more interesting than a robber baron who simply whips out his checkbook and buys an entire city block of real estate, after all. It's the same action, but one is much more powerful to the audience and evokes stronger emotions.

Tactics games could definitely benefit from having light strategic arcs, no matter whether those arcs are mechanical (like Into the Breach) or narrative in nature.
 

keithburgun

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#13
I'm a firm believer that interactivity is strongly contextualized by circumstances, which can be readily communicated through visual and narrative means. A rags-to-riches novel of a city kid who saves up hard-earned cash to buy a house is much more interesting than a robber baron who simply whips out his checkbook and buys an entire city block of real estate, after all. It's the same action, but one is much more powerful to the audience and evokes stronger emotions.
I'm not sure I actually do disagree with this. I think the narrative or thematic layer matters a lot. It's not usually my focus, but I don't deny it. But if you think we do have a disagreement and want to dive into that, start a new thread about it and I'd be happy to discuss it.
 
#14
Ah, I misinterpreted this statement then from the article:
I call these the interactive merit chasers: people deeply involved in the problem of “how do I make a deep, semi-evergreen, elegantly designed system that’s fun to play just because of its rules alone?”
Personally I'm willing to occasionally throw out the concept of fun/elegance if it's to evoke a certain emotion. But just like your concept of arcs, I think that it should only be done periodically to make the fun/elegant moments of the game stand out a bit more.

The Bob Ross approach, if you will.