Land Combat Redux (Part 1)

I’ve had game development as a hobby for way too many years. In all those years, there is one design issue that I’ve worked on in one form or another pretty much constantly: how to incorporate tactical combat into strategic gameplay.

I’ve never been satisfied with any of the solutions I’ve come up with.

Creating a game where both elements are equally interesting is to me a sort of holy grail of game design, precisely because it’s such an incredibly hard balance to strike. Most games end up being about either one or the other – the game is either primarily about the tactical combat, or the tactical combat is the boring grind you have to go through in order to get to the meaty strategy/role-playing elements.

I may be tilting at windmills here – because is it even possible to strike that balance? A combat system that is boring to me, might very well be challenging in all the right ways to someone else and the balance depends on so many factors. I may find the turn-based combat in an RPG to be quite interesting to start with, for instance, but by the time I’m fighting my 50th battle against Giant Rats, however… not so much. But it’s hard to avoid this problem unless – like e.g., Banner Saga – you have an essentially linear narrative with hand-designed battles.

I can think of very few games that have successfully managed this feat. The poster child for mixing tactics and strategy, the Total War games, only manages this in the Warhammer games, IMO. Prior to Total Warhammer, any given TW campaign would be me playing out the first 10-15 battles, after which I’d pretty much hit auto-resolve for 99% of the rest of the game. You’d get all this great elite units in the late game, but never get to play with them because the battles ended up extremely boring. The Warhammer games are unique in that respect because the battles are so varied (i.e., many different opponents with completely distinct tactical styles) that the battles remain interesting even in the late game. Their use of scripted battles (the quests) and scripted enemy armies (Chaos in the first game) adds an additional layer of challenge that makes this the most satisfying blend of tactics and strategy gameplay I’ve seen yet.

X-Com is another game that attempts this feat, but which I don’t think quite holds up. The original game had a nice strategic layer – IMO – but the combat in the mid-game could easily become pretty boring (this was particularly bad in the sequel “Terror from the Deep”). I love the new games, which have much tighter combat and really fantastic pacing (especially War of the Chosen), but the improvements have come at the expense of the strategic aspects of the game which have been reduced to almost nothing. So while I really, really love those games, they don’t really scratch that itch for me.

In the indie space, the game that comes closest to achieving that fascination to me is Battle Brothers. The combat system in that game is excellent with a lot of depth, and an AI that manages to successfully punish the careless player both in the early and in the late game. Here again, I’d argue, the trick is the variety of enemies with very distinct tactical styles – it makes a huge difference whether you’re fighting Orks or Undead. I’m less impressed with the overland/strategic layer; while you can trade and do have some agency over the world, I feel the choices are somewhat limited. I wish there were more there – if there had been, I’d probably still be playing it.

“Darkest Dungeon” is another indie game that I like a lot with an amazingly well-crafted combat system, and again, variety is one of the keys. Where it falls down (for me) is it’s facilitation of grind mechanics. Grind is the enemy of a good tactical system because it leads to repetitiveness and – ultimately – boredom. I think the developers recognized this issue themselves, when they added more difficulty modes to try and hit the sweet spot for a broader audience.

Will the combat system in P&T2 be one that hits that spot? I doubt it – but it has ended up the way it is for many reasons, which I’ll try to cover in the next post.