Planning a Tactics Game 

Posted by Radek on October 5th, 2010.

Categories: design, trudy's mechanicals.

Tactical games are something of a sub-genre that’s a bit difficult to nail down.  Plenty of Tactics games have been released over the years — on both PCs and consoles — with many similarities and differences.

Despite a loose definition, a common thread among them is a focus on turn-based battles between individual units. These conflicts usually take place on wholly isolated maps and center on moment-to-moment maneuvers rather than the long-term goals of strategy games.

Our whole team has always enjoyed these titles, but none of us have worked on them in the past. As a result, we had to do some research before diving into production on Trudy’s Mechanicals.

Tactics Ogre Remake Planning a Tactics Game

A Tactics Ogre remake was recently announced for the PSP; the original still stands as a pioneer among console Tactics games.

We played a bunch of the most notable entries that fall under the Tactics banner, and took some high-level notes on “the good” and “the bad” of each title. Here are the highlights of those lists:

The Good

  • Units possess unique abilities and physical attributes that provide various combat options.
  • Maps are varied aesthetically and can grant passive modifiers, e.g., it’s harder to move through mountainous areas, troops can hide from long-range attacks behind buildings, etc.
  • Units tend to grow stronger as the game progresses, creating a steady stream of rewards while modifying how the battles play out.
  • Bonuses for side/back attacks and elevation are intuitive and fun to exploit.
  • Where available, fog of war creates a strong need to explore the map while facilitating ambushes and other tactics.
  • Outsmarting the AI by utilizing all of the above factors is extremely satisfying and a key component of the genre’s appeal.

The Bad

  • Controls rarely accommodate for the most common use case, e.g., it often takes as many actions to use an antidote (rare) as it does to launch an attack (common).
  • Terrain is usually static and non-interactive, e.g., it’s not possible to blow up bridges or set forests on fire.
  • Movement and attack ranges can only be checked for one unit at a time, creating a lot of busy work where the player needs to cycle through all the enemies in order to pick the optimal location for his own unit.
  • Attack animations — especially when presented via separate screen cinematics — are quite lengthy and devoid of any interaction.
  • Unit types and abilities are often duplicated from game to game. For example, in a fantasy-themed title it’s common to have a melee warrior, a long-range archer, a spearman with an extended reach, a mage that casts destructive spells, and a generic healer. This approach makes many of the games feel too derivative while missing the chance to introduce possible new tactics.
  • Conflicting variables make it hard to predict battle results, e.g., rock-paper-scissors unit weaknesses are combined with terrain modifiers, facing directions, weather, time of day, zodiac sign, faction allegiance, etc. As a result, some games feature an attack preview that informs the user of the likely outcome. This works well enough, but presents another manual check and input-step that interrupts the overall flow.
Shining Force Forest Planning a Tactics Game

Running around in Shining Force as Zylo the Werewolf without any terrain penalties was great fun.

As an iPad game, we’re aiming to make Trudy’s Mechanicals as quick and accessible as possible. Using this goal as a filter, we paired down the above points to what we considered appropriate for our own title:

Our Takeaway

  • The most common actions should only take one touch/swipe to execute. For example, tapping a valid enemy should make the current unit approach it as close as necessary in order to attack (preferably from the side or back if possible).
  • Visual indicators should be provided for range (which enemies are in the current unit’s range, and which enemies can also attack that unit), health, “elemental” weaknesses, and any other metrics necessary to plan the optimal course of action.
  • Fog of war might be an interesting concept, but it’s not very intuitive and should be avoided alongside any other potentially confusing mechanics such as terrain modifiers that contradict facing/elevation bonuses.
  • Usable and destructible map objects should be sprinkled throughout the levels in order to add extra combat options and make the world feel less static.
  • Unit levels and inventories should not be implemented in order to avoid extra micromanagement and potential multiplayer issues. To compensate for the removal of the leveling-up reward stream, each successful mission should provide the player with a permanent upgrade such as a new recruitable unit or the ability to use more in-level objects.
  • Attacks should take place on the same screen and appear quick and vicious in execution. In order to achieve this, the attack’s kinetic impact and visual effects should by styled after action games instead of abstract strategy titles.
Laser Squad Nemesis Planning a Tactics Game

Laser Squad Nemesis was one of the first games to feature a deep planning segment that culminated in all units executing their commands simultaneously.

Of course there were also numerous other considerations: Should the maps be 2D or 3D? Should movement be grid-based or more organic? Should randomization elements be added to extend replay value?

Eventually a lot of these questions answered themselves, but a solid mission statement really helped to lay down the groundwork and guide future design decisions.