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Joining an Eventful Discussion

November 5th, 2007 by Troy Goodfellow · 10 Comments · Cryptic Comet, Design, Imperium

It’s always nice when two independent developers disagree with each other on design stuff.

Vic Davis of Cryptic Comet, home of Armageddon Empires, recently posted a mini-dissertation on the role that events play in strategy games. He compiled a list of the purpose that events can play and how they can be used to challenge the player.

Events punish (your library is destroyed and your tiles all yield -1 resources per turn) or reward (A hero has shown up at your capital and desires to serve you). Even if the distribution of reward vs punishment is skewed heavily towards punishment, people enjoy this.

Michael Akinde, sole designer of the still in development Imperium: Rise of Rome, wrote a counter post to Davis, arguing that event mechanics interfere with good game design.

In short, events tend to reduce the role of the player as an actor in the game. The thing is – as a gamer, I am trying to play a game, but events are things that happen to the player. There is a pretty significant distinction between those two positions. I suspect that there is a good reason that Sid Meier’s famous quote defining a game doesn’t state “A game is a series of interesting things happening to you”.

Here are some (to my mind) obvious things to keep in mind when considering the place of event mechanics in strategy game design.

1) Randomness is a part of every game. Strategy games are, generally speaking, games in which you make decisions focused on forcing the odds to your favor. Attack with overwhelming force to get better combat results, use counters or terrain to negate enemy advantages, plan an alternate route in case your first choice of cards doesn’t appear. Games are, indeed, a series of interesting decisions, but decisions are only interesting in a climate of uncertainty. But this uncertainty should not be rooted in guesswork about things the player has zero control over or influence on.

2) Events only make sense in a game with a long play time. In a 20 minute RTS, an event that threatens your military viability is needlessly cruel since the player has little room to find an alternative. The unspoken rule of the penalty event is that it should distract but not destroy. Events should happen to every actor on the field, not just the human player(s), and provide similar challenges to each.

3) Events should be contextual, responding to choices the player has made or an environment the player is experiencing. In Civ 4, only people with the Slavery civic can get the slave revolt event. Only those with horses in their cultural borders can get quest events centered on chariot or stable production. Though sometimes things just happen (weather events, new resources, etc.) the player should be able to mentally or materially prepare for bad luck. The obverse postulate is that good luck should not be so easily manipulated.

4) The more complex the system, the less important events are. This gives the designer free reign to make a difficult choice. Will events be used to make the game more colorful, since, in the long run they won’t matter? Or will events be left aside so the player can focus on the underlying mechanics? There is no wrong decision here.

5) If events are used, the causes should transparent after a few encounters. I recently went bankrupt by event in a session of Europa Universalis III and I had no idea why since I hadn’t taken a loan in a century, had 800 ducats saved up and had a fair monarch. Only peeking in the event file gave me any clue as to what the hell was going on. Event text should have pointed to my high inflation rate and large number of gold producing cities.

6) Akinde’s strongest point is about the reliance on events to communicate a game’s theme. “[I]f the random events are the only way in which I can distinguish a game about Napoleon from a game about Caesar, then the game engine needs some work.”. Flavor events should be used sparingly, not as a fall back position to communicate what your game is about. “Mad Max joins your army!” is not the best way to tell me that I am playing in an apocalyptic wasteland.

7) However, if events are the chosen means to communicate a theme like a Medieval soap opera, then have controlling the effects of the events become a strategy in and of itself. You can do this by having cause and effect chains in predictable but uncertain directions.


10 Comments so far ↓

  • Alan Au

    I feel sort of silly commenting, since I agree with all of your points already. It reminds me of a story about a buddy of mine who used to play those Indy car games and turn up the realism settings. He had successfully gone several hundred laps when his engine blew out through no fault of his own. The lesson I took away from it is that failure events, especially the ones over which the player has no control, should be recoverable if at all possible.

  • Troy

    No fault of his own? He wasn’t doing some funky transmission thing? (I don’t play racing games, so I have no idea…).

    Sometimes things do happen through no fault of the player, and it’s part of the deal. Sports sims are like that because of the realism thing – it’s an expectation the player has going in.

    I still clearly remember the best player I ever had in Out of the Park Baseball. Young pitcher who threw four no hitters in two years and seven one-hitters, always had an ERA under 2.50, kept my low scoring team in pennant race after pennant race. Then, on opening day of his fourth season, he hurt his arm. Career ending injury. A Hall of Fame trajectory was stopped.

    But that’s part of the game, right? I accept that if one pitcher gets hurt, I just find a new pitcher, so there is a way around that. Similarly, in an Indy racing career series I expect one blown engine might not be the end of the world.

  • Michael A.

    A problem I find with the soap opera game is precisely this aspect of reacting to events versus player action. E.g., the going hunting with a neighbour event. What if – instead of having to wait for an event asking the player to go hunting to create a friendship – the player instead had the option of choosing to spend his nobles time by going hunting near a neighbours lands ? And in doing so (going hunting), the player was actually also making a choice in not spending his time with his wife, kids, army, and the myriad other activities that a monarch engaged in? I suspect the stories would be just as engaging with such a mechanism – but with more strategy involved.

    Of course, that’s just my opinion – doesn’t mean it’s right. ;-)

  • Vic Davis

    Do you get the feeling Troy would like to see Michael and me suit up in some gladiator gear and go at it :) Seriously, I think you guys are right that the inclusion of some type of system of “random” events has the potential for really fouling up the game design. I do think that randomness is generally a good thing but those are fighting words for some designers. Maybe pseudo-random is a better description. Like Troy said if you are running a sound fiscal house then you shouldn’t get a pop up that tells you that your coffers are now empty. I’m sure it’s nothing new but one thing that I really started thinking was quite clever was the way in some Fantasy Flight games the event deck is used as a timer. The new Starcraft board game looks like it does this pretty well and I can’t wait to get my grubby hands on it.

  • Natus

    Damn! Vic beat me to boardgames in this discussion (like him I want to play StarCraft, but not pay for it until I *finish* playing.) I’m not too sure I’m knowledgeable about events in strategy computer games (other than Civ, of course), but I think the debate Troy cited could just as well be slated towards strategy board gamers. Events are tricky; I liked the ones in Warrior Knights and loathed the ones in A Game of Thrones. In card-driven strategy games, such as my beloved Here I Stand, players play events on each other, which I like a lot.

  • Alan Au

    On the subject of using events as a game timer, this is pretty common for German-style boardgames. Often times, the events themselves are “randomly” distributed, but the player has some notion of when the events are more or less likely to occur. The key is that events are expected and anticipated. Many players will specifically alter their board positions in response to when they think certain events might occur. I’m not entirely sure where I’m going with this, except to say that events should have some level of predictiability, or else give the player some opportunity to respond.

  • Scott R. Krol

    Originally I was with Alan, agreeing with all your points (although in regards of #1 randomness is a part of moststrategy games, not all. Two examples: chess and Z-Man’s “Duel In The Dark”), and so I wasn’t going to comment but now that folks have started discussing board games you guys have sucked me in. :)

    I don’t think you can really lump CDGs into the argument because unlike the computer games cited events in a CDG are the primary driving mechanic, and not merely flavor or added chaos.

    Vic mentioned card driven timers. Three other games that do the timer thing well are “Arkham Horror”, “Combat Commander”, and “Attack!”.

    AH’s mechanic is fairly standard, without delving into the game the players are racing against a clock, with event cards triggering another “tick” of the clock if you will. CC and Attack!’s timers are a little more interesting.

    In CC game time does not advance until the card deck is exhausted. The faster the cards are played, the faster time advances. Obviously then if you’re playing a scenario in which time is on your side you want to pass time as quickly as possible, while your opponent is looking to minimize that.

    In Attack! there are event cards which are primarily action cards. About 15 of these have a symbol at the bottom. When cards bearing 13 of these are played the game ends and victory is assessed. So when the count gets up to around card 11 folks start realizing that at any moment the game could end. Who is going to play the last two cards? It’s a great mechanic because while Attack! is a game of conquest, it never drags on forever and never involves player elimination.

  • Dave Long

    I dunno, I like random stuff in my strategy games when they’re turn-based. If you’re running a tight ship, you can respond to them and weather the storms they create.

    I mean, it’s kinda like running a government. You do the best you can for your people with what you have and try to prepare for the worst (hurricanes, floods, earthquakes, etc.) knowing that maybe one of those will land a crippling blow.

    I mean, as long as you’re not putting Potions of Instant Death into NetHack, you’re probably going to be ok having some random stuff coming up. A lot of people do like surprises. Maybe part of doing it right is presenting these events with some humor and well-written text that make people either chuckle or become more interested in your game.

  • Michael A.

    A discussion between Vic and I would probably be short, as our positions are not really that far apart. If it wasn’t clear from my piece – I’m not disagreeing with having randomness in games – but rather the fetish for random events that I occasionally run into in this field.

    Card-driven board games rarely have random events, as the player usually decides whether to play a card as an event or to use it in some other way. Decisions again…

    The closest board game mechanism to what I’m talking about is the “roll a dice and see what happens this turn” tables popular in many old (and a few new) board games. Ironically, one of my favorite board games – Republic of Rome – has this mechanic.

  • jonathanstrange

    Armageddon Empires’ randomness is a major part of it’s attractiveness to me; this is a short, sharp tactical skirmish game and the bolt-from-the-blue adds to the flavor – and it doesn’t eliminate strategizing. If the cards go against you this game, the next game is not so far off; it isn’t as though you’d carefully crafted a superb strategy over dozens of hours of gameplay only to see some deus ex machina rescue your opponent. In AE, you hit the ground running and sometimes you run into the wrong enemy army or mutant town and you’re toast. It’ s freaky but it happens.