Attrition and Escalation

April 3rd, 2015

I’ve made a fair bit of progress on the paper prototype lately, and it’s starting to run pretty nicely. One thing I’ve noticed in playtesting, which now seems really obvious, is that there’s no real way to give champion gladiators aggressive stats under this system. Champions are essentially commander figures, and the objective of each match is to eliminate them. This is much the way Warmachine works, and is perhaps my favorite feature of that game. It’s just really cool to completely change how your army works just by swapping one figure. And Warmachine is capable of having some pretty aggro commanders (or warcasters as they are known in that system). But having lots of battlefield space and complex board states right off the bat makes all the difference. If you start a game with nothing but aggro commanders on the board, they almost inevitably just run into each other and start swinging. And whoever started swinging first will most likely win. Not very exciting.

The way many tactics games and CCGs do this is by having a tough target as the objective, which has either none or very limited offensive ability. In Scrolls and Hero Academy you need to destroy rocks, for some mysterious, rock-hating reasons. In MTG you’re attacking a life total, which is basically the equivalent of a rock. Hearthstone is pretty similar, but adds a touch of offensive ability to the mix in the form of hero abilities and weapons. This system always forces you to choose between either affecting the board state, or working towards winning the game. And it works quite well.

Another possible objective is simply clearing the board of all opposition. This is what Banner Saga and many miniature games do. I believe most classic tactics games also fall into this camp. It all works fine as long as you start with a full board state, and then gradually grind each other down until one side is beaten. But I’ve never been a huge fan of this kind of pacing. It is what I would term attrition-style gameplay. The greatest complexity and most climactic battles happen right at the beginning of a match, and by the end you might each only have a single unit remaining. That seems incredibly backwards and downright anti-climactic.

Another possibility is resource control, which is what happens in Civilization or any RTS. It is a sort of middle ground between escalation and attrition. There’s obviously lots of interesting territory to be explored there, and I wouldn’t entirely discount the possibility of still including some aspect of it. Actually, I did have a heavy element of resource control in a much earlier prototype. The way resources worked is that you would cast a mana glyph on a particular tile, and then it would produce mana for you every turn. Basically the same as playing lands in MTG. But the twist was that your opponent could take them from you, which was kind of interesting but also created a strong steamroller effect. To some extent this effect is present in all resource control games, and it tends to be rather unsatisfying. The steamroller starts at that point where you know you’ve lost, even though you haven’t technically lost yet. The rest of the game isn’t really fun for either side after that. To save time people generally just ‘gg’ when it happens.

In escalation-oriented games the steamroller can happen too, but generally it becomes apparent only moments before actual defeat. Very rarely are you faced with a long, inevitable grind to finish off the match. This is what I’m aiming for, and it’s not an easy thing to do using the commander model. Balance between the champions becomes really critical when you’re starting with otherwise empty board states. And it also seems to be rather important that the champions really suck at directly hurting each other. There can be no room for making the match a one-on-one duel. But on the other hand, there’s also pressure to make the champions awesome. They are champions after all, and it feels odd for them to be weak. But I think there is a sensible balance to be struck here. Champions do need very different stats from other gladiators, but their defensiveness can make sense if they are cast in the right light as leaders and trainers rather than face smashers.

Here is a glimpse at the current state of things:

— Peace and escalated victories


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