Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Making a Better 4X (Part 3)

...and we're back.  On with the show!

Ship Design:
Most space 4X games provide default templates for the player to use, but in my own limited experience designing ships and baptizing them in the crucible of war is a big part of the fun.  That said, constantly needed to update blueprints everytime a new piece of technology becomes available can get a bit tedious.  This is especially true in that it tends to come down to a fairly straight forward process, "what's the role of the ship?" after which the question becomes "how do I optimize the numbers?"  For combat vessels the process really boils down to attack, defense and mobility.  Each of these categories can be divided into three sub-components.  Attacking in space is a matter of deploying energy weapons, kinetic weapons, and guided weapons.  If you prefer World War 2 analogues then think of energy weapons being a bit like flak, kinetic weapons like guns and torpedoes, while guided ordinance is along the lines of aircraft.  If you've ever played the hyper-realistic tactical space combat game Children of a Dead Earth then it becomes readily apparent that none of these weapon types is unequivocally superior to the rest.  Defensive schemes employing the right mix of armor, shields and countermeasures have the capacity to neutralize pretty much any form of attack.  Mobility can be thought of as a culmination of three important factors as well - engines, delta-v and sustainability.  With regards to those first two points, current chemical rocket motors provide plenty of thrust, but at a poor fuel economy.  Meanwhile, electromagnetic plasma drives produce less power, but are able to get better gas mileage.  In a futuristic sci-fi setting the means of propulsion might be different, but I highly doubt the need to balance between these two conflicting concerns will simply go away.  Third in the mix is sustainability, or more specifically, the reliability of the various components that make up the spacecraft.  This also includes the crew, who need food, fresh water, oxygen and radiation shielding.  It's a lot to keep track of, but in reality most of these factors can be pushed into the background.  The important takeaway here is ship design as a triangle-shaped graph with each corner corresponding to the maximum possible emphasis that can be given to either offense, defense or mobility.  By breaking down ships in this manner it becomes easy for the player to make informed decisions regarding what aspects of a particular design they want to stress.  Looking for a raider or scout?  Choose an intersection near the mobility corner.  Want an escort or picket ship?  Lean toward defense.  Planning to make an all-out assault on a well fortified enemy starsystem?  Best set your sights on the offense point of the triangle.  Obviously more subtle variations can be made by selecting an area between two of the three points.  Alternatively combined fleets (a mixture of ship designs) can create some interesting dynamics as well.  More on that it the next section.

War and Peace:
Now we come to the final "X" - eXterminate.  In pretty much every space 4X this is done through violent interstellar conflicts.  Going back to FTL Gates, I like the idea of having multiple entry and exit points to each star system, as well as new routes which open up over the course of the game.  By doing this it's possible to launch raids through previously inaccessible nodes or probing attacks by sending strike forces through several different nodes at once.  Another option is a multi-pronged attack on a single star system in an attempt to overwhelm whatever garrison happens to be there.  Defense is still an option, but it requires planning in depth and a willingness to scuttle FTL Gates that are at risk of being captured by the enemy.  The dreaded "death stack" problem of players concentrating all their forces into a single massive fleet can be avoided easily enough by simply limiting the amount of ships that can traverse a Gate at one time before a cooldown period for the Gate is needed.  So rather than feeding forces piecemeal through a single point it's far more advantageous to have multiple fleets operating separately.  When two opposing fleets meet, it's a bit like jousting in that the time in which they are within weapons range of each other is exceedingly short (do to relativistic speeds).  Chances are this holds true even when both forces are in orbit around the same planet.  For this reason, I think a somewhat abstracted combat system is the best approach.  When you get down to it the 2D battlefields used in most 4X games feel a bit silly considering space is three dimensional.  That said, a turn-based system wherein the opposing fleets are abstractedly represented on either side of the screen would work well provided the player is allowed a degree of input such as setting formations and prioritizing targets.  Whether or not the two fleets take additional passes at each other depends on which side has the advantage in terms of overall mobility.  This can also lead to some interesting tactical decisions such as ditching slower ships so the faster ones can escape, or partitioning off a pursuit force made up of fast vessels should an opponent's hit'n'run attempt go sour.

Moving on, let's say that the player has achieved space superiority around an enemy colony.  In most 4X games there's really only two ways to go from here, orbital bombardment or planetary invasion.  Both tend to be very dull affairs and usually involve siege-like tactics mixed with systematic destruction.  The way I see it though, a player in this sort of situation should really have three options.  First, they could knock out any connections the colony has with space, essentially making it a non-contributor to the war effort.  Second, they can devastate the planet from orbit (an act that will likely upset empathetic being everywhere).  Third, the player could enter negotiations with the colonists for the surrender of the planet.  When you get down to it being a colonist in an interstellar empire is a bit like being a peasant in medieval fiefdom - the lord of the land may change, but what's expected of you will most likely remain the same.  As for's a logistical impossibility for anything bigger than an asteroid base or miniscule outpost.  One thing the original Master of Orion got kind of right was the number of troops needed for full-scale planetary conquest.  Typically the armies were measure in the tens (if not hundreds) of millions.  The lack of large-scale ground combat might sound like a turn off to some traditional 4X fans, but I think this unorthodox approach has some interesting gameplay mechanics baked in.

Next time I'll continue this section on War and Peace by going into detail on leaders, diplomacy and espionage... 

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