Solving some major problems in turn-based tactical wargames

I’ve always been a turn-based tactical wargame fan, since I discovered they existed. I was super into X-Com (particularly the 1995 version), the Advance Wars games, Jagged Alliance, SRPGs like Final Fantasy Tactics, Western-style RPGs with tactical combat such as Temple of Elemental Evil or Fallout 1 or 2, or even 4X games that had more of a tactical flair (such as Master of Magic; and also I was pretty excited by the “one unit per tile” changes for Civilization V and VI). The appeal of Rogue-likes, for me, has also largely been driven by my love for turn based tactical games, with Auro being a “no RPG stuff, only tactics” logical conclusion of the Rogue-like.

Now I want to make my own squad based tactics game! And I’m already doing it! Actually, gameplay is basically done already, and most of the metagame stuff is done already too.

One of seven factions is also already mostly done. So from here, it’s really just a ton of content I have to make (more factions) and polish. Which is a lot of work, don’t get me wrong! But the path forward is quite clear, which is very relieving coming off the three-year-long somewhat aimless slog that was Escape the Omnochronom.

I’m going to talk about what’s specifically cool about Gem Wizards Tactics in a bit, but first I want to talk about things that I dislike about games in my favorite digital game genre. And along the way, I’ll be throwing in things that I really do like as well.

What’s bad about these kinds of games

  1. “First Attack” being too big a deal: This is a huge problem in every tactics game I’ve ever played except for the SSI wargames (most well known being Panzer General but my absolute favorite being Fantasy General). In almost every tactical game, you have an advantage just from going first, but especially if you are the first to attack. Assuming two units of equal strength, whoever attacks first, wins. So so much of gameplay, especially against AI, is just “skipping turn” and other stall type behaviors to make sure you’re the first to attack, and then you are, and then you win. It’s like… if you told me a new tactics game was coming out next year, I feel like I’m already pretty good at it, just because I know how to do this. Boring!
  2. Feel Puzzle-Like: I like tactics games, but I don’t like when they feel too much like puzzles. One really bad example of this would be in late game Advance Wars missions, some of which are legitimately a puzzle with just one or two “solutions” (I remember being fed up with the final level in one of the games and just literally Googling the solution and putting in the movements one by one to win). Another example would be tactical games that have too small a grid (anything from like 4×4 to 10×10 or so) and very simple gameplay, like many indie/mobile roguelike-ish or tactical card games often feel. I want to feel like there are many ways to succeed; ideally, if ten people play a match, it will go ten remarkably different, but all meaningful, ways.
  3. Maps that are too BIG: My favorite turn based war game of all time, Fantasy General, is super great in almost every way. Except once you reach the 6th mission or so, the missions start getting too long. And then they get twice as long as that. At some point the battles become these 5+ hour long slogs, and this is a problem for two reasons. One is that these are tactics games, and so much like the problem with had with very high-Elo Auro, you kind of are just making the player do the “tactics loop” some arbitrary amount of times. The second problem is that when you know you have to last another 300 turns or whatever it is, you completely lose the ability to make sacrifice plays. You basically just have to keep everyone alive constantly, and it starts to become more like the puzzle-like problem.
  4. Two-Screen Problem: Games like X-Com or Fire Emblem sometimes feel like the tactical gameplay is kind of “getting swallowed up by” the metagame. The metagame has a level of complexity and “skill” to it (or at least, knowledge) where it starts negatively impacting the tactical combat. I’m currently playing Fire Emblem Three Houses, and if I spend enough time doing all the mini fetch quests and whatnot between fights, I’m actually somewhat punished by a less-balanced tactical combat next time I fight. To some extent, this is also the tactical RPG problem, where you have these power bars going up and up constantly and the game difficulty can’t really keep up. This also tends to have a relationship with #2: you have some huge metagame and then some too small, mostly solvable minigame that’s the main gameplay (I hate to say it, but this was kind of how I felt about Into the Breach).
  5. Carelessness with information horizon: Outwitters was another one of my favorite tactics games, but one of its biggest problem was how careless it was with its information horizon. Okay so, fog of war, right? This game needs fog of war? Well then how come I can pump out like two one-cost units (scouts I think they were called) which have MASSIVE vision ranges, and then basically be able to see the whole map? If the game needs this information horizon in the beginning, it needs it later too.
  6. Time pressure: What’s making the player move forward and actually attack? In most tactics games, the answer is “basically nothing”, so you don’t. X-Com 2 (the reboot one, not Terror from the Deep) adds these little timed countdown timers that you have to reach, which is a decent solution, if a little hacky. I think there’s a bigger issue that this problem is actually pointing at which I will identify in this problem’s solution.

That’s actually just to name a few. But I want to set out to fix all (well, most) of the problems with these games (one that I am notably keeping in is some output randomness in the combat, although I am using Ella Hoeppner’s dynamic dice to help make it more uniform—thank you Ella!)

Now let’s talk about Gem Wizards Tactics and how I am solving these problems!

Solutions in Gem Wizards Tactics

  1. “First Attack” being too big a deal: I have taken the combat system from Fantasy General, where units attack each other simultaneously, regardless of who initiated the attack. Furthermore, in Fantasy General and in Gem Wizards Tactics, if you have a friendly archer next to you when I attack your unit, I’ll actually take even more damage than you will because the archer gets to do supporting fire first! In general, in GWT, you’ll only get the advantage from playing smart: setting up flanks, using terrain, using abilities and smart unit counters. Not from just “attacking first”.
  2. Feel Puzzle-Like: I’ll address this and the next point, in #3.
  3. Maps that are too BIG: There seems to be a belief in tactical war game designer brains that everything just has to progressively get bigger and bigger for some reason. I guess because people associate “epicness” with hardness, or because it narratively (I guess) makes some sense that you fight some huge hours long war as the “final boss” or something. But they need to CUT IT OUT!!! I’ve already pointed out the issues with this above. Gem Wizards Tactics will have ONE map size, right now I’m playing with around 30×30, and I might wiggle that a bit up or down (likely, a touch down) as needed. It will be just long enough to work with the gameplay arcs in this videogame, and no longer. And it will also be big enough where units can move around and do stuff: enough room to set up terrain effects, to RETREAT sometimes (look up the wounds/resting system in Fantasy General to see another really cool thing about Gem Wizards Tactics, btw).
  4. Two Screen Problem: Gem Wizards Tactics does have a metagame, but you can’t really do anything in it. The whole structure is, you’ll play about 10 missions or so. Each mission, you’re winning and losing land (yes, you actually will lose some missions, imagine that, right? :O :O :O Most tactics games have two states, winning, and reloading.) I you reach a certain upper or lower land threshold, you win or lose the campaign. After each mission, 2 random surviving units level up (a pretty flat stat bonus) and then you’re given a choice for the next mission between three possible next missions. These options show you the map type (more grassland, more mountains, simple stuff like that), any unit rewards you will get for winning the mission, as well as the land you will be awarded for winning here. Land is just an integer by the way, nothing silly. Other than that, you select a faction up front (from the seven Gem Wizards factions), and there’s an Auro style single-player Elo for campaigns. There are more details too, but I assure you that the level of “skill” players can show in the metagame is very low and narrow. You basically just gotta get good at tactical fighting to win Gem Wizards Tactics campaigns.
  5. Carelessness with information horizon: In this game, you do not produce units during gameplay, and no unit has a vision range greater than 5 tiles (actually, all of them have vision of exactly 5). I’m not sure of the unit cap but it’ll be somewhere around 10-12. That’s pretty much it. There’s no “scouting” abilities or anything like that. Oh and there’s also no “Ambush!” output randomness.
  6. Time Pressure: I’m using a pretty simple solution, that’s something like “over time the enemy gets more and more reinforcements”, basically the enemy just is spawning more and more troops over time. So you just only have so long while you can reasonably capture the enemy towers (that’s the objective by the way, OR you can make the enemy surrender; I’ll write about this at some point in the future).

This is already a pretty long article, but before I sign off I just also want to say that this game will have a lot of componential complexity-variety. Firstly because there are seven factions each with about 7 of their own unique unit types and abilities, but also because there will be a pretty good amount of cross-pollination. Mission rewards can be units from other factions, not just your own. You start out having 1 enemy faction that you’re fighting, but between every other mission, there’s something like a 30% chance for it to add another enemy faction into the mix, and then you’re fighting two factions (same number of overall troops, though).

I’m really excited to have this as another route for talking about the Gem Wizards universe and exploring all their weird cool tactical abilities. The Business Demons have a bulldozer unit which paves roads as it moves, which is good because they (unlike most factions) do not have a cavalry unit and can use the extra mobility. They’re also big on lighting everything on fire, which can be really useful, although you’ve gotta be careful to not set the whole freaking map on fire because only a few of your units are resistant to fire. I’m excited to design the rest of them.

Above: Agneth Sparrow, the Business Demons’ wizard.

I am making incredible progress and I already basically have something like a vertical slice of this game, but I definitely could use some support for it. If this all sounds cool to you, like if you support the making of this thing, consider signing up to become a Patron on my Patreon. Patrons of any level get all my games for free, including early versions of Gem Wizards Tactics. And also, spreading this link around to friends who might be interested in such a thing would also be very helpful. Thanks for reading!