No more turns

Role-playing survival game is willing to take risks

While I’m on what seems to be a never ending quest to find a job, I thought a good use of my time would be to try one of the many turn base strategy (or TBS) titles I have in my library and attempt to play one almost competently. So I pulled out the manual of Civilization 4 and prepared to read it when I remember all the work and frustration that went into learning it the first time and I decided to put the manual away again. Before I start this little rant against the TBS genre I’ll give a little prologue to my stance. The real time strategy genre was my first major foothold into pc gaming, and I didn’t start looking at the TBS genre until around 2003 with Civ 3 that was on sale.

Looking at my game library for TBS titles, I have what is considered the whos who of the genre, I have Galactic Civilizations 2,Alpha Centauri, Civilization 4 (and 3), Age of Wonders 2, Dominions 2,both Rome and Medieval Total War , and lastly Europa Universals 3 and yet I cannot stand playing any of them anymore(I still haven’t purchased Armageddon Empires, it’s still on my list). I have tried to get into each game on this list in the past and each time I’ve met with failure, hopefully through this entry I can see what went wrong with each game and hopefully help out the various designers in improving their games.

Lets begin with the essence of a TBS game, or otherwise known as the 4Xs . The 4X stands for the 4 major game mechanics featured in any TBS game and they are, eXplore,eXpand,eXterminate,and eXploit. The first 3 are pretty self explanatory while the last one figures into a diplomacy model and ways to interact with the AI to take them down easier. In case you haven’t figured it out by now, TBS games are played almost like a board game with each person or AI taking a turn and moving on to the next player. With the basics out the way now to turn to my beef with the genre.

First is the amount of energy required to even play these games, I know they’re turn base strategy titles meaning that they’re supposed to be slow. Yet I hate to have to play 10+ losing games before I’m suppose to “get it” and everything will click magically and I’ll have everything understood. It doesn’t help that each game is practically its own genre with different nuisances and hidden rules to learn. Unlike other genres there is very little carry over in terms of skills from playing multiple games like Galactic Civilizations 2 and going onto Civilization 4. While the general idea of game play remains the same(the 4Xs again) the execution of those mechanics will require you to start from scratch to play the game well. Chances are some hard core fans of the genre will come after you if you ever dare say that another TBS game is like their favorite. Trying to play Europa for the first time was impossible for me and I read through both the manual and the huge strategy guide that came with it, to no avail. Hurting this genre even more for me is the interface design.

Creating an interface for a TBS title has got to be a nightmare, as they are some of the most complicated games out there. The old rule of having everything important on the main screen is impossible as there are so many game systems to keep track of that the screen would become a jumbled mess without multiple sub screens. On one spectrum we have Europa with dozens of little buttons of various uses which open up sub screens with yet even more little buttons to click on. Then we have a game like Dominions 2 (and 3 from what I’ve seen) which has to have the worse interface ever to introduce people to it. All you have is are a few numbers on screen and the game map , that’s it. Civilization 4’s interface was halfway decent and is the easiest one in my opinion to understand from a first glance. Now that I’ve talked about looking at the game, it’s time to talk about what happens when all those little units meet.

Combat plays a huge role in TBS games , obviously as it is one of the Xs. There are 3 popular systems for combat in a TBS game, first is zero control by the player. In this combat plays out with no interaction by the player, two armies clash with each other and the winner is based completely on the combat system, Civ 4 popularizes this
system. Next is small control over combat, the player controls combat in the sense of directing fire or adjusting a slider. Winning comes from the player making the right decisions and of course having the right units under control. Europa and Armageddon Empires are two examples of this. Lastly is taking the player into a completely new system for combat. Here combat plays out almost like another game, with the success or failure gauge primarily on player skill and units controlled. The total war franchise and Age of Wonders 2 are fine examples of this style.

The majority of my problems stem from the first and third style. Combat to me needs to have the player invested in it to make it matter, playing Civilization 4 the combat felt very plain to me. It was hard to figure out how I would lose battles and attacking cities was a nightmare as one archer was able to kill 5 warriors at one time. On the other side, with combat moving to another system there is too much investment in my opinion with combat. I hate to have to spend 30 minutes fighting one battle that may or may not mean anything in the scope of things and then fighting another one right after it. Also the fact that you have to learn yet another game system makes things even more complicated for a new comer to grasp. The 2ND option is my favorite, as it provides the right amount of user input and gives battles a sufficient lasting impression without having to spend a long time on one battle.

Moving on it’s time to talk about the AI. Playing a TBS game is a complicated endeavor for human players, and it can be even harder to program an AI to play the game at equal skill. Many TBS titles instead of programming intelligent AIs, instead level the playing field by tweaking the rules against the player and for the AI. This drive me crazy as I hate this kind of balance, and it seems more like kicking the player in the crotch instead of giving the player a meaningful challenge. Fortunate not all TBS titles suffer from this, and I have to commend Galactic Civilizations 2 and Armageddon Empires on delivering intelligent challenging AI. Which were most likely created using some form of voodoo from my understanding 🙂 .
The other side of this is diplomacy or the eXploit system, this is where the facade of playing against actual opponents is shown. In many titles with a diplomacy system , it feels very mechanical and never really plays out requiring a tactical skill by the player. I never feel that I could really bluff or trick my opponents with it, and I eventually never go to the diplomacy screen.

At last it’s time to talk about my biggest issue with the TBS genre in general. In one interview by Sid Meier (the creator of the Civilization series) he describes a turn base strategy title as a set of interesting choices (paraphrasing here), my problem is that in most titles that is a complete lie. There are alot of choices, but only a few that are right. I remember reading a build order list for newcomers to play Civilization 4, for those that don’t know me those are the bane of my existence for strategy titles as it takes out the strategy. When trying to play Civ 4it’s very easy to not have that worker built in time, or you spent one turn too long getting a technology research and that could screw you up completely by the AI. Worse is when you play for 10 hours to find out that you probably should have zigged at hour 5 instead of zag and now the AI’s army is going to decimate you. For some people they find that fun and a learning experience, to me that is a punch in the face. I don’t like to play video games as a shopping list experience (ok build 2 warriors, now research fishing, now build a worker, etc) I want to be able to improvise, if plan A fails I shouldn’t be screwed I should work on plan B which comes around 5 seconds after plan A fails. I can take losing if it’s the eventual outcome of a war gone wrong, or they built the better economy, I don’t want to lose because of one very fast blitzkrieg that came about out of no where.

Three TBS titles that avoid this fate are Alpha Centauri, Galactic Civilizations 2, and Armageddon Empires(this from my time played with the demo). One reason is the degree of customization, in Alpha and Galactic you can customize your units and build new ones to your liking. Not only does this add extra personality to the game, but it helps avoid those quick losses,if the enemy is attacking me with X I can create Y to fight them effectively. While in Armageddon Empires you create your entire army from your deck which adds personality and allows for interesting choices. Also by limiting your army (and the AI’s) in that manner it adds a degree of importance to battles while still providing chances for hell mary plays with stealth units. Personality , customization in some manner should be a prerequisite system in any strategy title (which goes back to my love of CCG based systems: ).

To be honest I’m not sure what the perfect solution would be, one part would be making titles more user friendly and providing an extensive manual and tutorial. Still alot of these problems I will admit are more of my opinion then anything else, which makes me wonder if I create a TBS game in a style I like, how popular would it be? Lastly I just want to say I have nothing against the designers behind the games I’ve mention or the fans of their respected games,it’s just I’ve yet to find a TBS game that I really enjoyed.


  • Fenerous

    What is your experience with games along the lines of Advanced Wars and Fire Emblem or do you classify those in a different genre than the TBS games you mentioned in the post?

  • That is a good question, I don’t considered them the same breed as the games I mentioned, as the Fire Emblem and Advance Wars series do not adhere to all of the 4X game mechanics (just exterminate). I do like the 2d Fire Emblem series,but found the 3d ones too clunky to play .

    Advance Wars is a light TBS game in my opinion as it does let you build an army as well as control it. But the customization and strategic options are very limited compared to a TBS like Civ or Age of Wonders for example.

    I’ve read impressions of the new Civ game made for the consoles and it might just be for me. Still a complex TBS game, yet simplified for the console market.