Gentle Curves And Sudden Turns

20 Oct
October 20, 2014

“What is best in life, Conan?”

“To turn the tables on your foes, to devastate their careful battle plans, to hear the lamentations of their women as you snatch victory from them!”

Or something like that. 😉

One of the tricks to designing strategy game mechanics, it seems to me, is to create an interesting mix of predictability and the capacity for surprising turn arounds.

Predictability is important, even though it may sound dull and unappealing, because a player needs to be able to plan ahead, predict possible enemy moves and adjust their strategy accordingly. Complete unpredictability is not really that fun, except for a bit of a laugh now and then. If you’re actually interested in strategy, you need to be able to analyze the field of play and have some reasonable ability to predict future game states from that.

This, for me, is the solid foundation upon which more interesting mechanics are built on. It’s constructed by the careful tuning of power curves and special ability balance and suchlike. You know that in System Crash, for example, a 5 Credit card is usually going to be more powerful than a 3 Credit card. You know that if it’s turn 2, neither player is likely to be have a 5 Cred card on the board. You balance unit strengths with weaknesses or counters, etc.

But this is where the ability to surprise comes in. The game needs to offer players some way to subvert and upset expectations. To turn the game state suddenly. It needs to have wild cards that can radically alter the game state in ways that you can’t readily predict, except to the extent that you can predict that your enemy is going to try something unpredictable. 😉

It’s the sudden turns that you remember the most, those moments where you flipped the game on its head and reversed your fortunes. Luck and skill play a large part, of course, but design needs to provide the player with the tools for enacting such turns, without letting them dominate the design to the point that all ability to strategize is lost..

Designing for that balance of gentle, predictable power curves and sudden turn wild cards is far from easy. In fact, it’s incredibly complicated. Add in the challenge of building an AI that can play these tricks itself and…well, it’s a lot to juggle. I don’t know if I’ve got it right. I certainly hope so!

I take comfort in knowing that System Crash is a living game, one which I plan to expand and deepen long after that first release. And I’m excited to see where it goes!

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