Land Combat Redux (PART 2)

So, if it wasn’t obvious from the previous post, I think one of the key elements in making a replayable tactical combat system is to have a variety of enemies with very distinct styles. That, unfortunately, tends to be a problem when you are trying to model historical combat. It can be particularly problematic in the setting of this game, which is the era of pike and shot.

Although to be fair – for a game set in the era of pike and shot, the roster of units in a Carribean is not terrible. Apart from the eponymous pike and shot units that make up the majority of the troops, the setting does give the possibility to add cutlass wielding seamen, natives with spears and bow, and a variety of sharp shooter/skirmish types (Buccaneers and Cimaroons). It’s still not a lot to work with, but it’s something – and one way that I’ll try to add some variety to the combat is to try and make each of these unit types have a distinct role in the combat system.

Another aspect I hope will add variety is the way the battle system scales. You will use the same battle system to fight duels/fights between a handful of your crew as you’ll use to fight battles involving 1000s of troops – though the rules and effect of weapons change according to the scale. A pikeman in a street fight, for instance, is a completely different threat from a regiment of pikemen on a battlefield.

My original plan for the combat system was a hex-based combat system (you can read a bit about it if you go back in the blog), and there exists a version of this battle system in my code repository. I was far enough along this path that I even have commissioned hex tiles for that combat system. Unfortunately, I never quite felt that it worked as it should. The fact that Pirates and Traders is a mobile game was also a problem, as it essentially inserted a very complex tactical game into what is (I think) a complex enough game to begin with. Battles took a long time to resolve as well – maneuvering units, turns of combat – resulted in a need for lots of screen presses and lots time. Much as I love hex-based combat, I eventually realized that this was not the right format to achieve the results I wanted.

I worked on a number of variations on this theme (several of them to the point where they were playable). I switched to a square grid, in order to try and simplify (and speed up) movement. I’m a big fan of Sabin’s  Lost Battles, and one of my variants was a version of that game. Dropped that as well, because it led to even more complex gameplay (facing, lead units, arcane movement rules) that was difficult to streamline. I rather dislike JRPG style combat, where positioning – and pretty much everything else that matters in real combat – is pretty much entirely absent. But I have to admit that after several years of trying to design a combat system for a device which needs to be both simple to play and contain depth, I see the attraction.

As I mentioned in the previous post, I’ve played Darkest Dungeon. I like the combat in that game, and it would have been easy enough to create something similar for P&T2. But it would also have failed to capture some of the elements that I think are vital in terms of creating a good combat system for mass battles; space, terrain, and directional attacks (i.e., outflanking). And how would one represent lopsided battles?

The game that gave me the idea for the approach that I – finally – decided to take with the combat system is an old free game developed by a friend: Hoplites, by Gottardo Zancani. It’s an ingenious little card game that successfully reduces the complex and lengthy Great Battle of History series of boardgames into a fast-playing, card-based game while still maintaining much of the essence of the conflicts involved. Although the battlefields in that game are reduced to two opposing lines, terrain and outflanking retains its importance for the outcome of the battles. Most of the game variants I’d developed had the possibility to “stack” units – keeping that idea while playing with the Hoplites concept of battle lines resulted in the system that will eventually be released.

The basic idea is that every battlefield is split into two facing lines – the attackers and the defenders. These lines are then split into five zones: left flank, center left, center, center right, and right flank.

You deploy your units inside each of these zones- up to four per zone (meaning that, at most, you can have 20 units deployed on each one side, though most battles will have 8-12 per side). Units in a zone are ordered; so there is a front unit (which will tend to be the main target for enemy attacks), and units ordered behind them. Units at the rear will typically be unable to attack, unless they are artillery. Units can attack the enemy units in the sector in front of them, but if there are no enemies, they will be able to attack neighboring sectors in the flank.

So basically, these are the elements that I’m trying to put into the combat system:

  • Unit Variation (within historical limits): Pikes, Shot, Warbands (pirates), Sharpshooters, Archers, Artillery and Cavalry.
  • Multiple attack options for the units. A given unit will usually have a couple of different attack options for its primary weapon/mode.
  • Spatial complexity. Depth and width on the battlefield, as well as terrain effects and outflanking.
  • Morale-driven. Given this is a historically-based game, units will tend to run long before they’re all dead. Casaulties matter, of course, but fatigue and morale matter more.

Not all of these elements will be in place from the start, though; have to work a bit to get all the units introduced, terrain is not quite ready (need to get some graphics for that as well), and I’ll probably be tweaking and re-balancing the combat system for a while even after the general release is done. But – hopefully – the core gameplay is going to have enough of that elusive combination of simplicity and depth, that I can start focusing on some of the many other game play elements that I want to get into Pirates & Traders 2.