Trick or Treat Tactics

When this month’s Blogs of the Round Table theme was announced as “Tricks and Treats,” my mind went back to childhood Halloween evenings spent trick-or-treating with my sister, hauling pillowcases of loot back home to see what we had collected. Each house was different — some gave out great treats, others disappointing ones, some gave out nothing at all. Some of the homeowners liked to try to scare the kids before handing anything out, or they built little haunted houses leading up to their doors. Remembering that, I was reminded of a similar experience I’ve had in certain strategy games, especially of the 4X persuasion, with something Civilization players amusingly refer to as “goody huts” (even though they were “huts” only in Civilization IV; there is some unpleasant colonial subtext to this system in that game in particular, and they’ve since been replaced by ruins).

The basic goody system is shared across many 4X games, and boils down to this: on a new map, there will be objects strewn about (let’s call them stashes) that can be visited by a player’s units a limited number of times (usually just once); when visited, the stash is expected to provide resources (goodies), though it may occasionally do other things. It’s a location-based incentive system, in short, that molds the topology of player engagement with a space. Different 4X games differ in how obvious and varied the consequences of stepping on these goody stashes are, and ultimately these differences contribute to different narrative feels for each game.

To gather some food for thought, I revisited four turn-based 4X games from this decade — Civilization V (2010), Endless Legend (2014), Age of Wonders III (2014), and Warlock 2: The Exiled (2014). Conveniently, the first two and the last two of this list fall into two fairly distinct camps, though Civilization and Endless Legend differ more substantially between one another than do Age of Wonders and Warlock.

Piles of mana are nice, but it’s probably not much more than enough for a single spell or so.

Balancing Risks and Rewards in Ragnarök

Both Age of Wonders III and Warlock 2 are fantasy warfare 4X games, and both treat goody stashes almost identically. They tend to come in two flavors: high-risk/high-reward stashes that attract, produce, or host hostile neutral units, and low-risk/low-reward stashes that are unguarded but generally don’t provide significant goodies.

The main experiential difference between the two games is that most of the neutral enemies in Warlock wander around, while a few stay put; in Age of Wonders on the other hand, neutral enemies mostly stay put, while a few wander around. Warlock also spawns new stashes throughout the game that themselves spawn more enemies, whereas Age of Wonders does not aggressively respawn stashes and enemies in the same way; Age of Wonders also sometimes has enemies hidden inside dungeons that also double as stashes, providing some extra uncertainty.

In both cases, the games provide fairly obvious risk/reward situations for players to navigate. Players need to balance their desire to not lose any units in a fight with neutral enemies against the very real risk that other players might get somewhere first and claim the rewards for themselves. The result is that the goody systems in these games generate tension, occasionally leading to setbacks or reversals of fortune; extensive presence of neutral enemies also rewards early militarization, a key behavior for players since both Warlock and Age of Wonders are essentially magical showdowns with only shallow non-violent gameplay.

Never has a game made me excited about finding dusty ruins like Endless Legend.

Exploring the Past and Taking its Stuff

The approach taken by both Civilization V and Endless Legend differs from what you find in more warfare-focused titles. Civilization features ruins scattered around the map that can provide an array of bonuses to the first player to encounter them, all of them positive (though in earlier games, goody stashes might randomly spawn a roaming enemy unit instead). Ruins can grant players settlers to found new cities, cultural or religious strength, more powerful weapons, or even cold hard gold. Later in the game, with the Brave New World expansion, new goody stashes also appear as archaeological sites players can excavate for cultural artifacts to add to their museum collections.

Endless Legend follows a similar theming, with unguarded ancient ruins randomly scattered about the map that can be visited once and, later in the game, a second time for a chance at resources or other bonuses. There are two key differences — ruins themselves are permanent map features that both block city expansion and can be exploited by cities for resources; and ruins are often involved in some of Endless Legend’s many narrative storylines, either by triggering stories or as locations players on a quest might visit.

In both games, players have much less of an idea what they’ll be getting than they do in the more warfare-focused 4X games (where the answer is usually gold or mana, perhaps with an item or two), but they also have much lower risk due to the scarcity of neutral enemies. The result is that hesitating to loot the stashes is mostly pointless — you want to visit these places as soon as you see them, no caveats, and the wider variety of possible outcomes fosters a sense of wide open possibilities. Instead of encouraging militarization and risk-reward calculations, then, the goody systems here encourage exploration and discovery. In both cases, stashes continue to have an impact later in the game (especially in Endless Legend), which creates a sense of history and leads us to another point — besides simply incentivizing different player behaviors, the way goody systems are implemented provides each world with a distinct narrative flavor.

Yay, a ruin for me to plunder!

A Goody Tasting Class

Worldbuilding is a key element of narrative in systems-driven games like 4X games, and I think I think all the approaches to the goody system outlined above contribute to their respective games’ worldbuilding. Really, the goody system is a small case study for the more general phenomenon of mechanics and systems constructing or bolstering a game’s narrative flavor. Here’s a quick rundown of how my narrative experience of each world was influenced by the goody system in use.

In Warlock 2, enemies wander away from their posts, and goody huts disappear as soon as someone claims them. You want to get there first, but you could easily lose some key early units in the attempt, leaving you vulnerable. Even as you clear out monster lairs, they keep spawning, sometimes forcing you to peel away units from your wars against other players in order to keep things safe at home — and rewarding you with more resources if you do. The result is a hectic whirlwind of action and combat and uncertainty — the flavor of a scrabble, or a mad dash.

In Age of Wonders III, things are more deliberate — most neutral enemies stay put, the ones that move come from camps that need only be cleared once, and the most dangerous stash guardians are marked and isolated in dungeons. Once an area is tamed, it mostly stays tamed, and instead your attention turns to the ever-advancing front of war against other factions. Clear; consolidate; advance; rinse and repeat. The narrative flavor here is conquest, deliberate and unambiguous.

In Civilization V, ruins create a specific kind of narrative relationship with the past — the past is something to be consumed and incorporated into an existing culture. You arrive at a ruin, take whatever parts of it have value, and discard the rest. The ruins that appear later in the game are similar — they may pay homage to the player’s own past, but even then, the player can choose to commemorate them with a monument or to consume them in favor of a fungible good. The past, in Civilization V, is a resource to be harvested, fuel to hasten the inevitable march of history. It’s a narrative flavor of progress, in a crude material sense.

Endless Legend offers a different relationship to the past with its permanent, quest-driving ruins. The past here never goes away — it’s something that persists, that must be considered and planned around, that can be revisited anew rather than simply examined once. The past connects stories and accomplishments, and it can both teach and hamstring a society. On Auriga, the game’s fictional planet, the past is always present in the back of my mind, giving the world a narrative flavor of history, of age.

One fairly simple and similar system, four games, four flavors. All of them, I found, were quite engaging in their own right.

Trick or Treat?

These four games use superficially similar goody systems to build these different narrative understandings of the world in which they take place, and to create different incentive and risk/reward systems that drive gameplay. I’m sure more could be said about them, too, even though these goody stashes are such a small part of the 4X experience overall.

And yet, even being so small, I think the way the goody system exists in each of these games is a clear reflection of that game’s overall character, too. Civilization has often been criticized for its industrial, linear understanding of exploration and progress, and that’s a phenomenon that seems to be fractal, cropping up even in some of the game’s smallest designs. Endless Legend is well known as an exemplar of strong narrative, atmosphere, and worldbuilding by the standards of the 4X genre, and we can see here that this extends even to the way it deploys searchable ruins in its design. Both Warlock 2 and Age of Wonders 3 use goody systems that reinforce their overall different approaches to fantasy warfare.

Ultimately, while goody systems may seem small and fairly tropey in this genre, used properly and coherently they can still contribute to and reinforce an overall experience in deliberate and appreciable ways. A little trick for achieving a greater treat, if you will.

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