Monday, January 10, 2011

The Personality of Civilization 5

Before I dive into the details of scaling a PC game to a board game, let’s discuss the gameplay features of Civilization 5 that I find give the game its “personality” and make it so fun to play. First I will analyze each aspect from a high-level game design perspective to expose the effectiveness of it, and then I will show how it relates to Civilization 5 gameplay. Once these aspects are identified, my goal then is to preserve these gameplay elements in the form of a board game.

(Please note that my analyses will reflect my personal tastes in games, and will serve mostly as a comparison between different game genres and the core rules that define them. Feel free to disagree. :) )

Variety in Victory Paths and Avoiding the Inevitable Defeat

Generalizing at a high level, many games allow players to achieve victory in one way by one means. All players must perform the same tasks to advance directly toward victory. There may be deviation paths on the way towards achieving that victory but players never really stray far from the general steps taken toward winning. Effectively everyone’s overall strategy is the same.

For example: In Mario Kart the goal is to cross the finish line first. This is achieved by driving forward, navigating the turns, and avoiding obstacles more deftly than your opponents. All players drive around the same turns and dodge the same obstacles. There are some shortcut paths on the race course, but generally all players perform the same sequence of actions in order to win.

For example: In Monopoly the goal is to get the most cash and bankrupt all other players. This is achieved by owning property and building hotels. All players must buy property to get cash, and then use that cash to make hotels to get more cash. There are a few incidental ways to get cash such as chance cards and free parking, but otherwise all players must do the same thing to win.

There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with this paradigm of game play, except when one player excels above the rest. It can be frustrating when halfway through a game someone advances far enough beyond everyone else that his/her victory is secured. When this happens, for the remainder of the game players are just going through the motions until the game ends, since their victory or loss was inevitable.

For example: In Mario Kart, there’s that one guy who ends up a full lap ahead of everyone else. What then? There’s no way for the player in the lead to lose (unless he completely screws it up) and there’s no way for the other players to close the gap (short of a dozen blue shells). The final result is already decided with several minutes left in the race. The fun lessens because their actions no longer affect the final outcome of the game (besides battling for seconds place).

For Example: In Monopoly usually the first player to get hotels on the board ends up with more money than all the other players combined. Short of a long series of unlucky rolls, that player is going to win and everybody knows it. For the next hour and a half everyone is subjected to a slow and inevitable defeat. (That is unless everyone gives up. Seriously who actually finishes a game of monopoly?)

My point is that games are the most fun when it’s a close finish and all players have a chance of victory. This way it’s more exciting when the victor emerges at the end of the game; the victor feels accomplished and the losers are proud to have been a valid contender. Otherwise, if the final outcome of the game is decided halfway through the game, it’s boring for both the victor and the loser. Stadiums will empty if the Yankees are leading the Orioles 8 – 0 in the 7th inning. Pro Starcraft players surrender all the time if they lose a crucial battle (when normally it would take several minutes to play out).

So how should a game compensate for those moments when a player surpasses all others? In games with one victory path there is really only one option: handicap the leader in an effort to balance the playing field. This mechanic could be in the form of giving the losing players a more powerful weapon or throwing more difficult obstacles at the leader, but really this is cheap. The leader feels cheated and the loser receives free unearned benefits. Besides, we shouldn’t fault players for being good at the game.

The solution here is variety. Give the players multiple means to victory. That way if a player is falling behind on one victory path they have the option to switch to another. This gives players a chance of recovery in the face of defeat.

For example: In Team Fortress 2 (and in many other FPSs) if a player is pwning you every time in machine gun combat, you have the option to switch to a sniper and take out your opponents from a distance. Likewise your opponent then has the option to thwart your snipping dominance by playing as spy. With the variety of classes players have the option to try something new when the battle isn’t going their way. Players enduring a losing battle now have hope with the knowledge that their actions can still affect the final outcome of the game.

This finally leads me to Civilization 5. Here, you can win in many ways: Military Dominance, Cultural Victory, Science Victory, Diplomatic Victory, or Highest Score (when time runs out). In a game that can take days to play, this gives players the freedom to completely switch strategies in an effort to regain the advantage on an alternate victory path. So when I discover that Napoleon has already taken over half the world, I can drop my efforts on a military dominance victory and begin researching boat-loads of technology for the science victory. This gives every player a fighting chance up to the end (to a certain degree).

How devastatingly boring would it be, if there were only one means to victory, to find yourself losing with hours of gameplay left? Like in Risk, if an opponent takes over half the world, you’re finished! Game over man, game over!

Randomly Generated Maps, Adaptive Strategizing, and Experience’s Roll in Game Mastery

Another excellent feature in Civilization 5 is the random map generation. Not only is it aesthetically amazing, but it allows for a completely new game to unfold every time. It also forces players to pursue different strategies depending on their starting location and nearby resources. A player placed in a desert must rely on buildings to provide food instead of farms. A player placed near mountains will have a great natural defense, allowing the player to spend less on military defense. A player void of any nearby iron spots will be forced to expand outside of their comfort zone to obtain it. A player with a surplus of luxury resources will be more active in diplomacy and trade. A player starting on a peninsula won’t have to worry much about border conflicts. Etc… In Civilization 5, you must adapt to your environment. This is a refreshing feature especially when comparing it to games with static starting conditions.

When playing games that have the same starting conditions every time you play, the original breadth of viable strategies ultimately converges into a few optimized ones. Whether refined empirically or logically proven, a few strategies will be discovered to win over most other strategies. The game becomes deterministic and the victor becomes the player who can cleanly execute a set memorized actions. The more experienced players then benefit greatly over newcomers, since his/her exhaustive knowledge of the optimized strategies can insure a victory.

For Example: In chess the pieces are always arranged the same way at the start of a match. It’s a game which has been exhaustively explored by chess masters over thousands of years. In a match against a chess master even the very first opening move requires years of tedious research and perfecting; otherwise they will draw upon their catalog of memorized opening strategies to gain the upper hand. In fact the set of actions in chess have become so optimized, that some tournaments add variety by starting the players off with alternate piece positions.

Game mastery should not be so dependent on the amount of time you spend playing it/researching it. When a player’s defeat is due to his/her ignorance of a pre-perfected strategy, that’s extremely lame. Overall random maps help to prevent the power-gamers from breaking the game.

Small, Expensive Armies and Frontline Battlefield Tactics

In Civilization 5 the long/expensive build times and relatively small army sizes make every single unit on the board valuable and non-expendable. On average creating a unit requires 10-20 turns to complete. In addition the military units are less abundant than most other strategic war games (an 8 unit army is usually considered to be a large one).

All this, combined with the fact that only one military unit can occupy a tile at a time, places a great emphasis on frontline battlefield tactics. The movement of each unit is important, and the loss of even a single unit is considerable. It forces players to look at the whole battlefield and rely on strategic positioning and flanking. There are also varying tactical bonuses which may apply depending on a tile’s terrain type. This gives tactical players a chance to shine. A small army used effectively can fend off an army twice its size.

This is in contrast to games like Starcraft, where battles are decided by throwing waves of units together and letting them clash. There is a lot of tactical preparation prior to the battle, such as insuring the army has a proper mix of units, but once the two forces meet and the battle commences players are left with few tactical options. Effectively players are limited to only one real battlefield tactical decision: if/when do I retreat. In this environment, a small army has a much tougher time fending off armies twice its size.

Now I’m not saying that games like Startcraft are boring. If you have über micro skills you could do some quick and fancy tactical maneuvers mid-battle to greatly affect the outcome of the battle (such as focusing fire on specific targets or activating special unit abilities like the ghost’s lock-down). Also there is a thrill watching as the epic battle unfolds and anticipation in waiting for the battle’s victor to emerge. The point I want to make here is that players have a limited window of opportunity to perform effective frontline battlefield tactics as the battle ensues. (Admittedly this is primarily due to the real-time nature of Starcraft as opposed to the turn-based nature of Civilization).

When playing Civilization 5 I feel like a frontlines field officer who carefully commands his men, as opposed to other strategy games where I fell like a general who broadcasts orders to move a mass of troops from point A to point B from the comfort of his command center. Call me sentimental, but in Civilization 5 there is a more personal connection with the troops, which I enjoy. In Starcraft, if I lose a few zerglings, I hardly blink an eye. In Civilization 5, if I lose a catapult, I pound my fist in rage and curse at my enemy!

No comments:

Post a Comment