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How to make video strategy games feel like board games

Page: DesignArticle.Article-MakeVideoGameLikeBoardGames - Last Modified : Mon, 20 Mar 17 - 21 Visits

Author : Eric Pietrocupo

Now that I decided to focus more on video game design in order to break many of the constraints imposed by board games, I started to fear that I could fall in the trap of strategy video game and get the many issues I hate about them. I want to break the restriction of board games, but video games have only the sky as it's limit which can easily make me fall into one of it's design traps. So I thought that I should set my self a certain amount of restriction so that the game I design have a similar feeling to board games with additional capabilities that board games cannot have. Like I said on another of my website "Lack of restrictions creates bad design" and this is what I want to avoid. So I set up a list of rules or guide lines to follow when making strategy video games.

Restrictions on Data Structure

Reduced number of variable values : Video games can handle much more variables than board games, but that has the issue that the player constantly need to consult the status of those variables. If more constants were to be used, the experienced player would be more likely to remember those constant which prevent the need to lookout for information changes.

Reduced number of visible data : Some data could be hidden from players to make it easier to implement certain mechanics which are more easily explained to players as text. In that case, it's ok to keep those numbers but hidden. You do not want the player to manage dozens and dozens of variables making the analysis very tedious and complex. This is why it's better to abstract and combine values. It reminds me of Endless Space where each character had various stats with a skill tree that generated tons of micro bonus making it very hard to determine who was the best character for a job.

Reduces value ranges : It's easier for humans to handle small number especially when they need to do the computation themselves. Now because the computations are handled by a computer I have seen many different value ranges. The worst examples that passes to my mind is again in Endless Space where the defense level of a planet can reach 1000000%, which defies the concept of a percentage where the maximum is 100%. Or the 3 types of weapon in the game (kinetic, laser and missiles (if my memory is correct)) have 3 different ways to compute damage using 2 to 3 different stats. So that when you want to compare for example a kinetic weapon with a missile ... well you can't. So the key here is to keep numbers low if calculations could be required by the player. Percentages is the largest value that could be used because they are very popular and convenient to use.

Avoid micro modifiers: I think it was in a game of civilization V, I had the incense resource around my starting city that required me to develop the calendar tech, then build a plantation into place to finally in the end get a +1 to my happiness. So it took me around an hour to finally pull out a resource which gave me a minor modifier. Board games tend to avoid those because there is no computer to stack those tons of micro modifiers. So everything you do, build, acquire, have a much more meaningful impact.

In the similar vein, there are some 4X games like Warlock, Planar Conquest, and Elemental where wizard traits you can use to design your character has weak meaningless bonus that has little impact on the game. Make those bonus meaningful, give something that is strong enough to be worth differentiating them from other wizards. Use the Unreal Tournament balancing technique: "If all weapons are abusive, then the game is balanced".

Avoid the modifier combinations: You know, the 50% of the 80% of the 30%. Give a flat modifier, make then stackable, but don't multiply them. Sometime the "Multiplication" is much more subtle. Like in Xcom, there are some skills where you can get let say a +25% chance to hit, but only if you are in a specific situation for the modifier to trigger. Still, that "Situation" has a probability to trigger that could be expressed as a percentage, which somewhat ends up as a % of the %, so the 25% is not as good as you thought, because it only trigger a limited amount of time. Still, you can try to force that trigger if the game allows it. For example, if you have +25% while flanking your ennemy, you could try to always flank your enemy to have more chance to gain the benefits.

Restrictions on Command and Actions

Low number of turns or avoid micro progress: The game should allow the player to do a lot of things in a turn. Possibly most game actions should only take 1 turn. I always find it frustrating in many 4X games when making a building takes 20 turns. The advantage of acting now or in 1 turn is that the actions are not delayed, therefore you do not need to remember that an action is going to be completed later since it's already done. So it requires less memory from the player. I have this issue in civilization games where every turn I check which building is in construction because I cannot remember what my cities are doing besides many other things to remember.

Having a low amount of turns is also very interesting for asynchronous multi-player games. Because the number of times where you have to wait for other players to finish their turn is reduced. If a game last 400 turns, you will have to wait for other players to finish their turn 400 times thought the game which will make the game much more longer than if the game only lasted 20 turns. Micro progress is also related to this issue where you can play for hours to finally in the end capture of only 1 city "Hey a city, ... 1 down 20 to go".

Actions vs Adjustments: There are many games, especially simulation games, where the "Decisions" you take consist in adjusting values like for example the tax level. It reminds me of the Overlord NES video game where the max population was the size of an integer (32768), so when you reached max pop, you increased your tax level to make sure your population growth did not exceed 0%. Making adjustment is an illusion of decision, there is always a right answer to keep the value in balance. But to get interesting decision, you must perform action that has positive and negative consequence. There is no action that has the perfect consequence by placing all values exactly where you need them. Instead, you have to weight the positive and negative consequence of each action and evaluate which one is best for you. This is what makes interesting decisions, while adjusting values are boring decisions.

Gaming is not working: All humans needs to perform some kind of work to remain alive, this is why we play games when we are tired of working. Now, some video game designers have made games which are in fact digital work. I have seen this on many mobile apps that ask you to tap on resources to collect them instead of getting collected automatically. It's OK if you are making a dexterity game, but in a strategy game, it's only work because there is no decisions involved unless there is a good reason for not collecting a resource. Avoid those working tasks.

In board games, there is something similar called the bookkeeping which is about players updating the status of the game. Certain games have very few decisions and a lot of bookkeeping, which means that most of the time spent by players in the game is about updating the status of the game. This is less likely to happen in video games because the computer update the game for the players. Still, remember that games is about making interesting choices, if there is no choices, there is no game.

Faster Game-play: With the help of the computer, board game as video games can be played much more faster. When I was playing Duel Master on the Nintendo DS, a duel could take from 5 to 10 min while in real life, it would take 10-20 min. Faster game play makes it more convenient for remote multi-player games and allow to make more playtests. Now play time is variable from a player to another and there is no really way to evaluate that. For example, a civilization V game on a tiny map should take around 3 hours to finish, well for me it takes 30 hours. Why? I don't know, it's probably related to the design of the game which has many issues currently listed here. The best way to time your game would be to have various play tester time their game-play. It's also more interesting to have a shorter game playable multiple times in different ways, than 1 very long game. This is why I like Civilization revolution, because it plays in only 8 hours, ... I saved 22 hours.

Avoid other player interruption: Board games can have direct interaction between players, that allows negotiation but also playing take that cards while others playing their turn. This must be avoided in video games, sometimes you can get around that by making some changes to the game. For example, in "Magic the gathering" the digital game, many times during the game, there will be a 5-10 second timer that will trigger after for example playing a card. This is the delay that your opponent has to react to your action by playing an instant spell for example. It becomes very annoying because after each phase, you delay the game to ask the opponent if he wants to do something. But in Duel Masters, they solved the issue by making players play only cards on their turn which remove the need of an interruption timer.

Restrictions on User Interface

Seeing the mechanics: Being able to see how the game works increase the strategy level of the game because players can plan ahead the outcome and the odds. Depending on the game, it could be useful to keep certain computation hidden, else showing dice roll to the player to explain why they failed, is a good idea. By extension, seeing opponent's movement is also important. I remember playing an implementation of Settlers of Catan on Linux. The turns were resolved so fast, that the only way to know what happened was to look at the logs. Not very convenient to play especially for newbie.

Using Board game piece like interface: Displaying the information to the user as board game piece is more interesting and easier to visualize that using only a list of data. In Romance of the 3 kingdoms 2, you had list of officers with soldiers attached to them. They were displayed with text and numbers on a black screen. It does the job, but it's not very elegant. Displaying the same information as token would have been much more convenient. It's also much more convenient when doing manipulations. For example, selecting your units to send in battle is much more convenient by swapping tokens on the screen (especially for mobile games) than clicking the check box of the units you want.

Also using icons instead of text or numbers could also be more convenient. But don't over do it, I remembering Nobunaga's ambition on the SNES, all the data were identified with Icons which I had no clue what they meant because I did not have the rule book. On the other hand, master of magic Identified many abilities and stats as icons. Board games does the same as it allows to clamp a lot of information on little space.

So those are the restrictions so far. Use whatever you like, I might add new rules as I discover them. Enjoy!

Related Threads

Before making this list of rules I asked a bit on Board game geek and the Board game designer's forum for more ideas. You can see the original threads here if you are interested in seeing the discussion:

Board Game Geek
Board Game Designer's Forum

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