When large groups of troops collide in Forge of Freedom, you have three options – autoresolve, tactical combat or quick combat. The first is self-explanatory. Tactical combat lets you control a battle like a traditional wargame and the quick model is all about placing troops in general stances on a grid and letting the thing play out. Pretending you are Stonewall Jackson and fighting all the major battles takes a lot of time and the simplified model isn’t very satisfactory. So, most of the time, it’s all about the auto-resolution. And everyone knows that auto-resolved battles are a quick way to lose a lot of troops.
I noted this in passing in my Medieval 2 review. The AI had a tendency to build silly armies composed of nothing but catapults, crossbowmen and the occasional militia. If you fought the battle yourself, this was an easy combination to beat – a well-balanced infantry army with cavalry doing long flanking maneuvers to take out the artillery. If you auto-resolved against this configuration, you would usually lose half of your army. Automated generals are idiots.
The big difference is that the Total War series gives you strong incentives to control important battles. The combat never takes very long, is visually spectacular and can be decisive in a campaign. The Western Civilization games give you the last one, but to make the battle count, you often need to play a really long battle against a dim-witted opponent. Since the core of the game is the strategic map, there is nothing really interesting to see in the battles most of the time.
Imperialism may have been the first historical grand strategy game that gave you this choice. Would you be Napoleon, winning your own battles as you controlled your empire, or Bismarck, ruling from the capital and trusting your generals? As the technology advanced, the battles in Imperialism became artillery assaults followed by cautious advances and sacrificing skirmishers to draw the fire of defenders. And they were always less satisfying than the main game of commercial exploitation. Just like Total War, the naval combat was abstracted altogether and the capital knockout rules made the grand military strategy game silly, but the heart of Imperialism was the bean counting while you slowly prepared for the inevitable World War.
Then there is the third way – letting players watch battles that they have no control over. Dominions and Galactic Civilizations have taken this route. In some ways it is satisfying because the point of the battles is draw lessons for future combat – not demonstrate your own prowess. As every gamer knows from experience, a human brain can take low tech forces and wipe the map against better equipped or more numerous AI opponents. The third way reinforces the importance of research and resource management; the battles reflect decisions you have already made. No do-overs, take-backs or Teutoberg Forests. Watch and learn.
There is no right way, of course. But it does pose a design challenge. Take GalCiv. It follows in the wake of the legendary Master of Orion series which made a big point of letting the player get involved in fleet combat. Stardock decided against it and a thousand forum threads were born. Knights of Honor went for a real time version of Medieval Total War and let you fight battles while the clock was ticking in the strategy world. There will always be a solid contingent of a fan base that demands complete control over everything. Strategy games make them desktop gods, and not distant deities sitting on cloud – meddling omnipotent deities who need to know that the computer isn’t making mad decisions for them.
This is why auto-resolve is such a tempting button for developers. They can give all this control to people who want it, but tell the rest of us that we can press the button if we like. No one is forcing us to play the battles, so why take away from those who do want to? Part of the problem is that the disparity in outcomes between auto-resolve and manual control is huge. When I fight evenly matched battles in most of these games, I win 75 to 80 per cent of the time. CompuGeneral wins maybe half the time, often less depending on the type of battle. Every gamer, therefore, becomes Napoleon or Lee or Marius, the towering genius of the battlefield.
This is certainly flattering. I hate losing, and controlling all potentially close matches keeps me from losing. But it also feeds into those complainers (often the same ones who relish total control) who find “today’s games” too easy.
So should there be better auto-resolve algorithms? Should design teams be divided into wargame/strategy game parts so that each side is compelling? Is the third way going to become a more attractive way? Any and all thoughts are welcome.
EDIT: Just as I was finishing this post, I noticed that Michael Akinde has decided to drop the tactical battle component of Imperium: Rise of Rome, his eternally in development game about the Eternal City. Since he comments here from time to time, I hope he has something to add.