I have a confession to make: the “4X Renaissance” has felt more like the dark ages to me.. Whether it’s the feature creep, strange design decisions, or age old problems that continue to plague the genre, I’ve had a hard time getting into most of the big, recent releases. And I don’t think I am alone in feeling some frustration with the stagnation of the fundamental mechanics of 4X games.
Indie developers have responded with some interesting twists and new ideas. But for every Thea: The Awakening or Star Ruler 2, there are a host of other titles firmly rooted in the concepts of the past. The bigger the title, the more likely the game is to have very traditional fundamental mechanics. And it’s no secret which games have seen the most commercial success. Innovation doesn’t seem to be winning the battle of the balance sheets.
All of this 4X existentialist angst has led me to look for ways to get my turn-based kicks in other genres. Recently, traditional war games have proven to be an interesting avenue to do just that. War games might seem like an odd choice in a way. After all, if there is any genre of games that are more stuck in the past than 4X games, then traditional, grognard war games have got to be it. I mean, this is a genre that proudly uses the NATO unit symbols as often as it displays actual units on the map.
Despite their well-earned reputation, stone age mechanics, and obscure rules, I think there are some important lessons that 4X developers and gamers can learn from the strange and opaque world of war games.
War games come in all shapes and sizes. There are tactical-level games like Field of Glory II, where the player controls individual units in a single battle. At the other end of the spectrum, there are theatre-level games like Hearts of Iron IV and Gary Grigsby’s War in the East where the players conducts war across entire campaign fronts on a macro level. No matter the scale of the conflict, someone has made a war game that is designed to model it, as the extensive Slitherine/Matrix catalogue can attest.
Meanwhile, 4X games often struggle with the concept of scale. I feel the issue is that many 4X games can’t seem to pick a scale for the game and stick with it. Why is this a problem, you ask? The scale of a game has a lot to do with how the mechanics work and interact with each other. The concept of regions in Endless Legend is a way of setting what the scale of the game is and how it plays. EL takes place on a single planet. The region system is an interesting way of visualizing this on the map, but it also serves as a way to represent the fact that cities usually control or influence large areas of land outside their walls. But the region mechanic is more than simply a thematic backdrop in EL. City and district building, resource gathering, and minor faction interaction are all intimately tied to the region system. Remove the regions, and EL is a very different game.
When the scale of the game isn’t clear, or when the game seems to be taking place on more than one scale at the same time, there are going to be problems. Civilization V is a high profile example of this situation. Civ V is a great game, especially after a few years and a couple of great expansions. But the scale is confusing at best and is responsible for what I believe is the game’s main flaw. You guessed it, intrepid eXplorminate readers, the problem is one unit per tile (1UPT).
The choice of 1UPT is easily my single biggest issue with Civ V and is certainly the most famous one. As anyone familiar with the game knows, the AI was terrible when it came to moving its military units effectively on the map. Even God and Kings and Brave New World, some of the best expansions in 4X history, were not able to fix the problem. Many of the complaints at the time were that the AI was just bad; it was too stupid to move its own units. While I am sure that is true to a degree, given that convincing 4X AI is notoriously difficult to create, I would argue that the main problem was one of scale. The scale of the units and the scale of the map just wasn’t the same. The AI was being asked to make tactical unit movements on a strategic scale map. It was a mismatch the AI was virtually destined to struggle with, considering that even adaptable human players often found moving units to be awkward given the constraints of the world map.
The point is, 4X games would be well served by a more strict, war game-like approach to scale. Fortunately, it’s not a foreign concept to the genre. The infamous “doomstacks” of Civilization IV came with issues of their own, but the AI was certainly better at using them than anything we saw in the sequel. Perhaps the most common approach is to separate the strategic and tactical parts of the game. Age of Wonders 3, the Endless series, the Master of Orion titles, and many other games have have chosen this path. It’s a solution that works well enough, though it is often unclear whether 4X developers are considering the scale of their games when they implement a separate tactical mode or are simply continuing yet another genre tradition.
Scale impacts other aspects of 4X games too. A common complaint about space-themed games is that space can be boring. It’s mostly, well, empty space. The interesting stuff happens on planets, or in their orbit, but there are large sections of the map where nothing ever occurs. I will go out on a limb and suggest that maybe an entire galaxy isn’t the best scale for a space 4X game. As sexy as galaxy-spanning conquest sounds, maybe a more interesting game could be made on a smaller scale. A large solar system with many habitable planets and moons, associated space stations, and terrain like asteroid belts and planetary rings could actually be a more interesting setting for a space 4X game. Quick, someone make that game for me!
A good war game is usually a focused one. You might wonder what I mean by that. You see, there aren’t many war games that try to recreate an entire war. The thing about war games is that almost all of them are historical – they are trying to accurately recreate the conditions and the strategic and tactical problems that commanders and armies faced in real life. As a result, the mechanics of a war game are often heavily based around the deciding factors of the historical battle or campaign it’s trying to model.
The outcome of the battle of Gettysburg, for example, during the American Civil War was heavily influenced by the terrain of the battlefield itself. So a hypothetical war game about that battle would almost certainly focus on how terrain affects unit movement, terrain-based attack and defense bonuses, and similar mechanics. Meanwhile, games about the eastern front of World War II, like Unity of Command, will tend to focus on the relative mobility of the German units compared to their Soviet opponents. Why? Because the speed of the German armored advance was the deciding factor of the early battles of the eastern front.
Put another way, the question of focus is to ask what a particular game is about. A Gettysburg game might be about the effect of terrain on unit movement and combat. An eastern front game is usually about using speed to control territory and outmaneuvering your opponents. War games, the good ones at least, usually know what they are about and their rule sets and mechanics will focus on those concepts.
Let’s compare this idea to most 4X games. I will pick on poor Civilization again because it’s an easy example. Civ titles are usually about all of human history! The earlier entries in the series were significantly more focused since victory conditions were limited. But modern Civilization games have several victory conditions that are available in every game unless the player opts out of them during the setup phase. Compared to the average war game, a title like Civilization VI starts to feel very unfocused indeed. Much the same could be said about almost any space 4X title.
To be fair, that’s kind of what the 4X genre is. It’s all-encompassing by its very nature. People who like 4X games want to control an entire empire and go from one planet in a backwater of the galaxy to ruling everything that exists. We want to decide questions of industry, politics, economics, and war all at the same time. It’s a big part of what makes a 4X game fun. Fortunately, the concept of focus doesn’t have anything to do with trying to pry our imperial power out of our iron fists.
Focus isn’t about the theme of a game, or even the size of a game. Focus is about a game’s mechanics. And while it is true that mechanics can, and should, be informed by the game’s theme and scale, focus is also about the emphasis developers choose to give some mechanics over others. Age of Wonders 3 is the one of the best examples of this principle in action. It has all the parts of a 4X game, but it’s pretty clear that the game is about its excellent tactical combat system. Triumph Studios clearly put a lot of time and effort into the tactical battles and chose to streamline other aspects of the game, especially on the strategic map. A lot of 4X fans have criticized AoW3 for having a shallow strategic layer or not enough city management, but to me the game’s focus on its tactical combat system makes the game more interesting, not less. I would argue that if AoW3 were just a Civ clone with a fantasy theme it would be a worse title for it. Age of Wonders 3 knows what it is and it does it well. The tendency of many 4X games to try to include everything, only to add more stuff in the inevitable DLC, often has the effect of watering them down and obscuring their best parts.
If 4X developers can figure out what their game is about, and focus the mechanics around that idea, we will end up with a lot more interesting games. When every game has to check all the marketing boxes of supposed 4X features, the result is a group of games that may look and sound different from each other but ultimately play the same.
Quick! Close your eyes and picture the stereotypical war gamer. Who did you see? Probably some rivet-counting grognard who has memorized the relative speed and armor plating thicknesses of the M4 Sherman tank and the German Panzer V. Often, war gamers are also enthusiasts of military history as much as they are lovers of strategy games. So some level of hardware nerd-dom should be expected.
It is important to remember, however, that war games are still firmly rooted in the realm of tabletop games designed to be played in the real world. That means that players are required to manually resolve things like attacks, eyeball distances before resorting to official rulers, “lucky dice” manipulation, damage tables, and movement ranges without the benefit of a computer doing the heavy lifting after they push the “end turn” button. So, if a war game includes a lot of details about a certain aspect of the game, it’s most likely because those details really matter.
In a way, this idea ties back into the idea of focus. War games are usually detailed in the areas that the game designers think are important to accurately modeling the historical nature of the conflict the game is trying to recreate. If a war game has a lot of detailed rules about how much ammunition infantry units can carry with them, or how far tanks can go on a single tank of gas, it’s because the game is making the argument that supplies were an important factor in the battle. In other words, good war games tend to be more detailed in the areas the game is focused on.
But you don’t want insane levels of detail everywhere, all the time. You really have to pick your battles (see what I did there?). Good war games know this, and they aren’t afraid to abstract the parts of the battle that don’t matter as much. If the weather really wasn’t a factor in a particular historical battle, then your aren’t likely to find a war game based on that battle that has a lot of detailed rules and mechanics about the effects of the weather on the units involved. Weather effects will either be highly abstracted or might not be in the game at all.
When we look at our beloved 4X genre, we often see games that try to be equally detailed about every feature or mechanic, as if one of them might feel left out otherwise. The effect is that the mechanics that really matter are obscured by those that don’t. Have you ever played a 4X game that featured some mechanic that you could basically ignore and still win? At the risk of some bruised feelings, I would point to the Academy quest in Endless Space 2. It’s a fairly detailed system that the player can safely ignore and still win the game. Ignore it, and nothing bad happens to you; it won’t even inconvenience you in any way.
The recently released title, Warhammer 40,000: Gladius – Relics of War seems to be avoiding this pitfall. The game doesn’t feature a detailed diplomacy or trade system because that’s not what the game is about. The detailed parts of the game are the unit statistics and abilities. The combat mechanics and terrain bonuses are pretty nuanced for a 4X title because it’s Warhammer! Meanwhile, other typical 4X features are either abstracted or just aren’t in the game at all. The official eXplorminate review is still on its way (and I am not the author of it) but it appears that the developers put the fine detail into the areas that the game is focused on, just like a good war game.
Let’s talk about AI for a moment. As all eXplorminators know, 4X games often devolve into a kind of race. The player and his/her AI opponents all start with a single city (or planet) and race to expand their territory, exploit resources, and do the rest of the X’s. That’s all well and good, except for one small detail: The AI usually sucks at it and most of us don’t have to play a game for very long to figure it out.
War game AIs, on the other hand, seem to do a little better in my experience. For one thing, the factors we have already discussed (scale, focus, and details) tend to make things easier on the poor AI. But the other thing that helps the AI is that in many war games the human player and the AI have very different goals. In a game like Unity of Command the player, as the German army, has very different objectives than the AI playing as the Soviets. The Germans want to break through the Soviet lines and control key cities on the map. The Soviets’ goal is to slow the German advance as much as possible by inflicting casualties, cutting off supply lines, and trying to maintain control of the roads in the area. Since the goals are different, the AI doesn’t have to be capable of executing the German army’s objectives. It only has to be programmed to try to achieve the Soviet battle plan. It also helps that many war games have turn limits, which makes defensive delaying tactics valid for the AI.
I know what you’re thinking and/or shouting at your computer screen at this point, “Hey Micah, it’s not fair to compare the relatively constrained AI of a war game to a wide open 4X game!” I actually agree with you. As I write this article in 2018, the current state of AI development in strategy games is that the larger the scope of your game, the more open its structure, the harder it is to create a convincing AI to compete with the player. On the flip side, if you give the game a tighter focus and/or other constraints, the AI is going to have a much easier time posing a credible threat. So yeah, it’s not fair. The AI in a traditional 4X game is basically set up to fail because we are asking it to do something it just can’t do very well.
The problem with 4X titles is that most games still subscribe to the “include everything and the kitchen sink” theory of design. You know, if some is good then more must be better, right? I am also not the first person to observe that as 4X development budgets increase, the feature creep goes up too. A lot of money involved seems to translate into games that must be bigger, they must include more things, they must be… More! The problem, of course, is that no one seems to be able to create an AI that can handle it all. For anyone to expect that any typical, kitchen sink 4X is going to include an AI that even approaches true competence is pretty unrealistic. We have all witnessed the cycle – we hope for it every time; we are disappointed every time.
Asymmetry is part of the answer to this problem and, fortunately, we have seen a few recent 4X games experiment with the concept. Sorcerer King, and it’s standalone follow up Rivals, made a valiant effort at creating a 4X game where the AI had very different goals than the player. The player was tasked with taking out the world’s big bad guy, while the AI playing the big bad guy was attempting to destroy a certain number of magic crystals scattered throughout the world. SK was hindered by flaws that aren’t really relevant here, but the concept was great and it worked, more or less.
Thea: The Awakening is another game that took an interesting approach to asymmetry. Instead of an opponent on the map, like in a traditional 4X, the AI (to the extent there was one) took on more of a dungeon master role. In other words, the game essentially focused on generating obstacles for the player to overcome, rather than attempting to simulate an active opponent. While Thea might not be everyone’s cup of tea, the system works well and the game certainly achieved what it set out to do.
I hope we continue to see 4X developers willing to experiment with asymmetry in the future, and I think war games are great place to look to see it in action.
What’s the point of all this?
Perhaps the single most common criticism of the 4X genre as a whole is that it is stagnant. The games are stuck in the past, too beholden to the genre’s classic titles. The graphics get better and the particle effects have more particles, but the underlying mechanics haven’t changed much. A certain level of stasis may partly explain the tremendous interest in Stellaris and its popularity among gamers that goes well beyond the reach of most 4X titles not named Civilization. Stellaris has been plagued by issues of its own and seems to have transformed into a very different game than when it was released, but at least it is different. No one can make a credible claim that the game is just another Master of Orion 2 clone.
My own recent foray into war games has shown me that some of the traditional problems that 4X games struggle with over and over again might actually have solutions if we are willing to take on the benefits of lessons learned in other strategy sub-genres. I am not suggesting that 4X games make some fundamental shift or morph into some other, yet to be named thing. But I do think the 4X world would be better off if we can find ways to incorporate some of the design considerations of good war games into how we develop, play, and think about 4X.
It may be that the heyday of kitchen sink 4X design has passed. We are no longer constrained by how much stuff can fit into a game for technical reasons. But just because we can have more stuff, doesn’t mean we should or that we will be any happier if we do. If anything, the main technical constraint developers face is creating an AI that can handle all the features and systems 4X customers claim they want. If that is so, a 4X future informed by war game design principles might mean fewer games that take place on a grand scale. But if those games are better, if they are more interesting, if they require more meaningful strategic and tactical decision making from the player, maybe that’s OK.