Apologies for the size of this posting. Hope readers find it interesting. F.O.
Tactical-engines and in-game tech research
In any game like Master of Orion, it is obvious that in-game technological research and tactics go hand-in-hand. With advancements in tech, units are able to specialise; and with specialised units, new tactical opportunities flourish. This, of course, has been the case through history, itself: with every innovation, new tactical advantages have presented themselves, advancing possible strategy. Many Historical TBS/RTS games offer players new options in tactics as the game's own timeline of invention unfolds: a tactical evolution through technological innovation.
The sci-fi TBS/RTS game offers the same, only that its research tree brings into being future technologies that have never existed. Entering into the realm of new & possible technologies is very exiting and gets the imagination running; but often a comprehensive tactical-engine just isn't there to please.
Some examples of issues that arise here are:
- A new tech, in its own class, does nothing different to techs in other type-classes of equal power and requires no particular counter-tech to repel. Its difference is cosmetic
- A new tech is too powerful and/or cannot be countered. Units using this tech unfairly unbalance the game
- A new tech can be countered too easily by more primitive, pre-existing tech
- A new tech is well-balanced and has qualities that open-up new tactical possibilities; but the game has a confusing pseudo-scientific research tree or the tech is inappropriately named/poorly explained, bewildering or misleading players as to the tech's actual in-game function and/or what other techs counter it
- Races are generally able to develop all techs, in all science-branches, during play and, as a consequence, surviving players reach a stalemate in late-stage gameplay. Victory through comabt is then only achievable by outnumbering the enemy through tiresomely producing absurd quantities of units
- Too many tech options on each branch of the research tree (where only a limited few can be researched), leads to races developing novel combinations of tech, but which end-up becoming mismatched on the battlefield (leading to strange wins and odd losses)
The worst problem, however, occurs when so many dazzling, never-seen-before techs are included in the research tree, that the team developing the tactical engine have no hope of exploring all the tactical possibilities these new techs create. This leaves the engine unable to provide the means by which players are able to exploit these innovations and the new tech is nothing more than eye-candy.
Although some Historical games also have incompetent engines, perhaps those that do function well have had an easier time with history on their side: being able to draw-upon centuries of mutual innovation of tech & tactics; providing tactical engines that fit its in-game tech like a glove. Because of this, I feel that sci-fi games should ground themselves in basics: modelling its future techs on the function of historical tech, in order to utilise the wealth of those tech's known tactical capabilities. A tactical engine like this can stand on the shoulders of history and offer the imagination rich strategic possibilities.
I'm not saying that never-seen-before tech offering genuinely new tactical capabilities shouldn't be included, only that these capabilities need be known before such a tech is introduced - and to fully research/play-test these is often no mean task ... especially as these capabilities cannot become part of a player's strategy if they do not complement the function of other tech, or positively affect other tactical aspects.
Some of the tactical aspects new tech can potentially influence are:
i) Unit formation: the function of new tech can rewrite a player's overall battle-strategy - as a taskforce or an entire fleet (eg A player's main attack fleet draws enemy fire, as small, fast vessels outflank the enemy and attach newly-researched "limpet-mines" to the hull of the enemy command ship)
ii) Terrain: open space may provide its own random terrain (eg asteroids, space debris). New tech could also create terrain, such as:
- Minefields: automatically create impassable terrain
- Gas-cloud dispersing weapons: much like gigantic grenade launchers, firing gas into strategic locations on the battlefield Example grenade types could be:
- Electromagnetic gas-cloud: creates an ECM field, disrupting ship sensors & computers, other systems (maybe even life-systems). A critical hit could temporarily disable an entire ship. There may be a % chance that disabled ships in formation crash into each other. The effect is similar to weather in other ground-combat games, in some respects.
- Light-dampening gas-cloud: disperses or disrupts laser-fire and affects laser-targetting systems.
- Metal-chaff cloud: creates a field of metal foil fragments. Any missile passing through has % chance of exploding.
Each grenade creates one cloud/field of gas, which exists for x number of rounds or until countered/cleared (eg by explosion). A missile, for example, must roll for % chance of exploding on every field passed through.
All these gas-cloud types can be fired either between yourself and the enemy, onto the enemy, or onto yourself (should you wish). This tech can also be used to facilitate surprise attacks and ambushes.
- Disabled/destroyed ships become impassable terrain in battle and can be used tactically. With the option to self-destruct, ships can be purposefully detonated to create impassable tactical terrain: ancient war battle-stylee! (Self-destruction also causes a damaging explosion. Kamikaze ships with explosive cargo could be used as a weapon.)
iii) Line of Sight: assuming it is ship sensors that read the position & capability/ordnance of enemy ships in battle, then these sensors must have Line of Sight to make that reading. Ships moving behind terrain become invisible & non-targettable (although area effect/static weapons still affect them). This way, surprise attacks become possible. Equally, direct-fire weapons obviously need LOS to function. Research can improve sensors so that they can sense further and through terrain (eg through an ECM field), but the latter is perhaps researchable only at the higher-end of the research-tree. Advanced sensors could also show ships more fully on the main map.
Some Essential Points for a tactical-engine:
1) A quick, intuitive method of deploying units in formation. Formations can be provided as 'templates' into which units can be dropped, at the start of & during battle. Different templates should accomodate different scenarios: eg epic battles, skirmishes, dogfights.
NOTE: people on the forum have often discussed the need for gigantic fleets in FreeOrion. Although epic battles could be fun, if ease of control isn't there, the game will become frustrating. I would like to have as many ships in battle as can be had before it starts to become unmanageable. I still also want the option to be able to micro-manage special taskforces or manoeuvres (and therefore select particular combinations of units for special taskforces). Skirmishes amongst small fleets or dogfights amongst small-ship taskforces can also turn-the-tide of war with the advantage of surprise, or when ally & enemy fleets are spread across the galaxy.
2) Reward/success given to tactics which:
- divide the enemy's collective strength
(eg breaking an enemy's defensive line or outflanking an enemy by: exploiting known offensive/defensive enemy weaknesses; exploiting tactical weaknesses of the enemy's current formation; isolating/neutralising support/defensive/offensive/command units key to the enemy formation being used). Ships attacked from the side would take 150% damage; from the rear 200% damage.
- reinforce your own collective strength
(ie by using formations that complement your strongest offensive/defensive capabilities and/or support weaknesses amongst your units and/or has weaknesses that you know the enemy is unable to exploit).
3) Coding built-around all possible tactical capabilities offered by tech in the research tree, plus all Race Abilities that affect battle.
NOTE: What a tech can & can't do and what counters it (and how), should also be a clearly explained in the game's information. Some people feel that a stone-scissors-paper approach to offence/defence vs counter offence/defence leads to dull, simplistic gameplay. But I don't believe this to be true. As said above, games can end in stalemate when tech becomes too easily researched. Offence/defence can have a simple measure vs counter-measure approach if tech research, at the higher-ends of the tree, becomes more difficult. If late-stage research is more demanding and players have to choose to specialise in just a few fields of scientific-advancement (and generally accept that not every tech will become available to them in one game), tech will generally become more valuable (as a practical and tradable/diplomatic resource) and also more varied on the battlefield. Players can also never predict what an enemy is going to throw at them on the battlefield anyway, so space combat will always be more demanding (and fun) than stone-scissors-paper.
Some Non-essential points:
1) Some games do not encourage mostly defensive play (eg some of the most sophisticated planetary-defence tech is often not enough to give even a small fleet of warships a run for their money). I would like non-offensive methods of gameplay to be more viable, especially if playing as a pacifistic race.
2) Victory conditions in combat: obliterating your enemy need not be the only method of winning combat. New combat strategies can be engineered by players to achieve any of the following:
- destroy your enemy's command ship
- board an enemy command ship and capture/kill the Commander
- disable x% of enemy ships (from space, eg ECM field; or by boarding)
- outflank or block x% of enemy ships
... and demand retreat or surrender. Enemies can then choose to fight to-the-death, retreat or negotiate the return of captured troops/ships through diplomacy. (A player could use the latter to ask a defeated enemy to remove a blockade on a planet, withdraw from battle elsewhere, cease war etc etc. Perhaps by blockading and threatening an enemy planet elsewhere, you can force them to remove themselves from a current battle?)
3) The ability to make ambush/surprise attacks.
4) To encourage constant ship re-design, old ships can be recycled more cheaply than other units. Captured enemy ships can also be used and/or recycled.
5) Spies can be sent to enemy homeworlds to steal statistical data on level of completed enemy research and logistical data on types/numbers of ship in fleet, general armament, special units etc. This can be used to prepare for battles with a particular race.
6) If Galactic Law is established by a Senate, all Senate members are forbidden to declare war on another player without the Senate's vote/consent. Any player going to war without consent will find the defending player supported by the Senate fleet.
7) Reinforcements can join long battles.
Being able to switch-off combat (as in Moo2) for quicker games is useful.