General Chernyayev has taken Tashkent. We do not know why.
– Russian Minister of the Interior, Pyotr Valuev, 1865
Strategy games are, at their core, about greed and ambition. Yes, almost every game is a power fantasy, but strategy games properly understood are about gaining the most while spending the least. Since most strategy games have a territorial or possessive element, they take on an acquisitive side.
The trick of good game design is directing that acquisition.
A very simple game with very simple goals, like Risk, does not have this problem. Math and common sense tell you where to push and generally for how long. Yes, the dice may betray you a few times, but that doesn’t mean your strategy was bad – just your luck. Similarly, traditional real time strategy games are about elimination, so its all economic efficiency and keeping your peons alive while churning out high end units – the goal determines the strategy.
Most wargames propel forward motion with objectives. Wargames usually presume the strategic plan is already place, so you are graded on whether you can get to Stalingrad or hold Little Round Top or stop a breakout at Hattin. Usually little hexes of terrain are given magic abilities to confer victory or defeat – abilities that do not apply to a hex or two north or south. There is a time limit and a clear goal and you go. Most of the time you will realize that you will fail long before the battle is over, but you know where you are moving and why – history has told you.
Empire building games and sandbox strategy games, however, have a problem. Even if you have clear winning conditions (last man standing, diplomatic victory, recognized prestige) there are long points in the game where it is not immediately clear what you should be doing or why. You are surrounded by enemies, or maybe friends. You have a dozen systems to master. And knowing which way to turn your attentions can sometimes be a chore.
Players can and will, on their own, evaluate their options and go for the pure cost/benefit analysis. Where is my weakest opponent? What do they have that I want? Who is my greatest threat? How can I weaken them? But for many designers, it seems that expansion and forward momentum needs to have a reward or a prize or reason. No one should be going to Tashkent without a clear purpose.
Thus we have the mission system in empire building games, generated to push players forward into directions that are historical (Europa Universalis III), risky but rewarding (Total War games) or minor flavour (recent Civilizations). The decision/mission system in EU3 has proven to be a deft way to guide the player through history without forcing him/her down a path, but the other two approaches have proven be more interesting from a pure design perspective. What is the message being sent, where do these missions fit within the ‘world’ of the game and, what reason is there to spend blood and treasure to fulfill the goal?
4X strategy game missions are kind of like sidequests in role playing games, only, in most cases, much less compelling. A side quest is almost always scripted to have some interesting, but optional, battle at the end with some pretty sweet loot, and never interferes with the main plot. This is why they are called sidequests. Yes, you can rush through the main plot if you just want to finish the game, but there is rarely any reason (if you’ve time) to not do a side quest. The plot will wait for you.
Missions in strategy games aren’t like that. Though ostensibly designed to give you something to shoot for and a goal to pursue to push your own user generated narrative forward, they, as often as not, poke you in the direction of places and incidents and enemies that you really did not plan on. The game, after all, moves on without you. Napoleon will not sit back and wait for you to build the Great Wall just to keep Singapore happy. The Spanish don’t care that you are on a mission from the Pope to destroy Portugal. They are side quests – because they contribute to but are not the main objective – yet they are not really at the side. They are entwined in the game you are already playing.
Done properly, with the right spirit in mind, this can lead to excellent in-game decision making. Choosing a mission that you know has risks but has a prize that might turn the tide of war, deciding to abandon a mission and accepting a penalty because the cost of continuing is outweighing any perceived benefit, the advantages for world-building and story making, etc.
But, as often as not, you find yourself a bit like Minister Valuev, quoted above. You have taken a mission objective city or province, or constructed the troops that were requested by the Senate or Pope or whomever and that’s sort of it. You get your prize and now you have a new city to manage that you might not even want, or armies to maintain that could be obsolete in two turns or drain your treasury. The missions, like some conquistador spirit in the code, can prod you to undertake tasks that distract from sound strategy instead of enhancing it. They are often there more for colour than for anything else.
Now, I have nothing against colour, or missions even. Done properly, it can turn out to be a brilliant mixture of obligation, resentment and design work. I think that the Senatorial missions in Rome: Total War were some of the best balanced parts of the game because the rewards were generous and the senatorial standing was an integral part of moving towards the excellent end game. It all fit together.
And the counter option is even worse – games that use missions as goody huts, to borrow the Civ expression. If you complete a very, very modest chose then you will get a very, very modest reward. There is no real reason not to complete the mission, therefore there is no decision at all. And if you fail, no one really cares.
But the why remains, even in the case of good mission design. What tools do you take out of the players’ hands when you tell them what the next target should be? How do you teach proper economic management when the Pope has a bag of gold ready when you sack Paris? At what point in the game do you introduce certain types of missions – remember that you don’t tell a level one rogue that there is a dragon causing trouble in the next valley.
Let me be clear – in no way am I advocating the elimination of the mission concept. As I have said, it has been done well in the 4x arena more than once. And there are many ways to do it and so much depends on the setting. However, using it as a crutch or internal gamification idea to give the player a feeling of progress is a bit of lie that some designers can fall into if they don’t understand the place of missions and quests in an empire builder. A mission to found a new city when I am already overstretched is a temptation that many players might fall for. Starting a war in the east when the real enemy is in the west for 30 pieces of silver doesn’t just ask the player to be blind – it dulls his senses by subtly hinting that the real problem is ‘over there’; who do you believe? The computer or your lying eyes?
Of course, experienced players generally find a way for it work out victory wise. Though it is weird that the war stories they tell afterwards often leave out the fact that the battle that changed history was started by a computer picking a target out of a hat. If the experience is fun and interesting, maybe it doesn’t matter.
Maybe I’m to much of a purist and want every important original decision to come from my own imperial brain. In the end the important thing is that the Russians held Tashkent – whether they wanted it or not.