Talking of Small Battles

So, for the past couple of weeks most of my time has been spent working on getting a playable alpha version of Small Battles ready and into the hands of the testers. It will be a while after that before the game itself is ready for release, but I want to start testing it as soon as possible, as I need to get three things right with it in addition to building something that works for historical battles: it needs to be simple, it needs to be fast, and it needs to be tough.

The Small Battles game engine is intended for use in resolving the battles that may take place in Dwarf King (and perhaps – in future – in Pirates and Traders 2). This is where the requirement for streamlined gameplay comes in – the battles have to resolve quickly enough that they don’t become the game, as is the case with e.g., Total War. At the same time, the battles have to be interesting enough to play that they don’t become a chore.

My personal favorite example of a game that manages this delicate balance is the battle engine in Conquest of the New World. With its simple 3×4 grid, it managed to boil battles down into a neat little tactical problem. Unlike most tactical battle games, where you can usually bring a third of the opponents army to the fight and still defeat them handily, Conquest’s system was simple enough that the AI could savage you if you did not bring the right force to the battle.

The thing that I felt was lacking in Conquest, was the feel of fighting a historical battle. However, there are several games that do attempt for more historical flavor within small grid form. “Conquerors and Kings” is one of the earliest I know of, though the finest example of a system that captures historical combat at this scale is without a doubt Lost Battles. If you have the slightest interest in ancient warfare, get that book.

Ironically, one of the first things I implemented back when I threw up my “indie development” site back in 2000 was a grid-based battle system (and I had an eye on Conquest even back then), so in some ways this is familiar territory. I’ve learned a lot since then, though.

Currently, the battle engine is up and running, and the game can be played either 1 v 1, 1 v AI or AI v AI (if a side receives no orders in a turn, the player takes over and issues orders). The AI is pretty simple, but it’s good enough to throw its forces at you. At the moment I’m experimenting with a 7×6 grid, though I’m strongly considering limiting it to a 5×6 grid (similar to Lost Battles).

I am currently waiting on the first batch of unit art before I post any more screenshots and let any testers at it. In the meantime, I’ll be working on making the user interface a little bit more friendly and implementing more of the combat factors. The latter is a tricky balance of adding enough to satisfy my innate urge for historical fidelity with the need for interface simplicity/transparency. Complexity is worthless if the player doesn’t understand what that complexity does.

Game development schedule for the next 1-2 weeks: implement the last pieces of Small Battles to get the alpha version running. Fix the bug in Pirates and Traders for xxhdpi devices (essentially the HTC DLX for now). And finish cleaning up the writing for the new adventure being added in Pirates and Traders.

Busy evenings ahead.