Archive for April, 2006

Costikyan on paper

Sunday, April 30th, 2006

Armageddon Empires is very much a board game played on the computer.  Greg Costikyan has penned an excellent article in The Escapist www.escapistmagazine.com on the history of board games and their influence on their digital offspring.  It’s a great read so don’t miss it if you have an interest in board games or computer games.  Read it here: www.escapistmagazine.com/issue/42/13

2D or not 2B

Saturday, April 29th, 2006

There is an elephant in the room and I am going to talk about it.  Armageddon Empires is a 2D game.  There isn’t a single polygon with a texture stretched over it in the entire game.  Although they look 3D, even the dice you roll were modeled by a 3D artist and then converted into a series of bitmaps.  I’m not going to take a position on either side of the great debate over which is better.  You can read a pretty good thread at QT3 about that here: www.quartertothree.com/game-talk/showthread.php?t=25653 .  My personal opinion is pretty much summed up by the lyrics from The Byrds’ song  Turn! Turn! Turn!:  “To everything there is a season….” 

The 2D vs. 3D debate rages in multiple dimensions so to speak.  From a technical perspective however, 3D is the future.  Even if the game is presented in 2D the engine will most likely be rendering texture “images” on polygons (triangles or rectangles) with the view locked top down.  Directdraw, which before the last ice age programmers used to do 2D types of stuff (bliting etc.) is basically an appendix hidden inside the newest versions of DirectX. 

Armageddon Empires basically boils down to this:  Add some 2D cards with beautiful artwork to your deck.  You can drag and drop them and click on them for more info.  Play them to a flat playing board and arrange them into groups called armies depicted by counters on a hex board. You can right click on the cards to get a context sensitive menu to perform certain actions….build a resource collector, create a technology card, assassinate an enemy hero in the same hex or attack an enemy card…you get the idea. You can click on the counters on the board to view your cards or right click on them to issue orders like move, go to stealth mode, perform an air assault (para-drop) or hunt an enemy hero in the same hex.  All of this is displayed in stunning 2D.  So technically Armageddon Empires is pretty primitive but as Han Solo once quipped:

…..she’ll make point five past lightspeed. She may not look like much, but she’s got it where it counts, kid. I’ve made a lot of special modifications myself. 

The next dimension of the 2D vs. 3D debate is basically over visual presentation and viewing perspective.  The differences can be best illustrated by looking at the Baldurs Gate Infinity engine games which sported some hand painted background masterpieces (using Direct Draw to blit the background to the screen) and Neverwinter Nights which used an OpenGL engine to create its environments www.bioware.com .  The crisp detail in the backgrounds and even on the sprites vs. the more fuzzy 3D terrain meshes and character models is noticeable…it’s a completely different aesthetic.  However as each generation of 3D card has gotten more powerful the “crispness” difference has gotten smaller and smaller.  More polygons and better texture processing has meant much cleaner graphics.  Animation also has significant advantages when done with a 3D engine.  Shared assets, easy scaling and ease of modification make 3D the way to go now. So if you want to go beyond the laying down of a large texture that looks like a beautiful old world map ala Dominions 2 www.shrapnelgames.com/Illwinter/d2/1.htm and allow the user to move over a topography with 3D models of units then you can do that and it looks pretty nifty ala Rome Total War www.totalwar.com/community/rome.htm .

To everything there is a season, and by making a virtue out of necessity I chose the flat map approach for the strategic layer of Armageddon Empires.  Beyond the retro visual appeal of the flat map, I think there is a benefit to the conceptual properties of choosing such an approach.  In a Zen like way the abstraction of the playing space focuses the players’ attention on the strategic interaction of the game’s pieces.   The same abstraction goes for the tactical combat.  Armageddon Empires lines up the cards in rows mano a mano and has at it like a CCG brought straight to the computer.  In order to compensate for the lack of flashy animation, I’ve made sure to put extra effort into the card art.  I’ve been fortunate to find some very talented artists to work with and one of the strengths of this game is definitely going to be its card art. 

Armageddon Empire’s 2D design choice isn’t particularly better than any other but it is satisfying in its own way.   Just as appealing is a tactical combat system like in Dominions 2 where you line up your units in a battle planer, give them some scripted orders and finally watch the whole thing unfold in 3D.  The new Heroes of Might and Magic V www.mightandmagicgame.com/us/  is another approach where animated 3D unit depictions battle it out on a rotate-able grid.  Finally, an indie game project  by a gent named Jasper at Brass Golum studios www.brass-golem.com  has the foundations of what looks like a great tactical module for a turn based game….3D, hexes and unit orders….To everything there is a season.

Executive Summary:  Armageddon Empires is as 2D as they come.  It lacks flashy animations but its simple presentation and beautiful card art have an appeal all their own.

Elements of Design

Thursday, April 20th, 2006

When I set out the blank paper in front of me on my desk and starting jotting down features for a computer turn based strategy game, I already had a pretty solid idea to whom I wanted to sell the game and what it needed to offer to be successful.  The selfish and probably foolish notion was that I was going to make a game that I wanted to play.  I’ve been playing TBS’s for as long as I’ve been seriously computer gaming, although I did admittedly get in a little late.  I missed out on the classics like Civilization and the Masters of Magic and Orion since I was deployed overseas during the early 90’s.  My first TBS was MOO2 around 1996.  The 4X formula is still a thrilling marvel to this day with games like Civ 4 www.firaxis.com and Galactic Civilizations II www.galciv2.com  keeping gamers up until early in the morning managing far flung empires and clicking the next turn button “just one more time.”  

The first thing I wrote on the paper was:  Game should be intimate.

As much as I love the sprawling empire games, I have often wished for a game that was a little more focused and concise.  I started playing a lot of board games and noticed that I loved the fact that unlike the traditional monster war games like AH’s Third Reich www.boardgamegeek.com/game/1563  and World in Flames http://www.boardgamegeek.com/game/1499 , most modern (Euro or Euro-influenced) board game designs kept the decision space very tight and managed.  That’s fancy talk for saying that you get a fairly limited number of important decisions to make each “turn” and their payoff is usually pretty immediate.  This is something that I also enjoy about collectible card games.  Most CCG’s rely on some type of resource mechanic to prescribe a players’ range of action during any given turn.  This can also be said of many computer TBS/RTS’s where you have to spend research points, harvest wood or create shields.  The thing I always liked about CCG’s was the scale.  It costs 3 mana to play a card. You have 3 cards on the field and 1 of them has a special ability.  Your opponent has 2 cards in his hand.  These are small numbers that a puny human brain can process easily.  So my first resolution was that I would always strive to keep the numbers low.  Units that had attributes like Attack or Defense would be assigned numbers ranging from 0 to 10.  If somebody got a bonus it would be +1 and not +500 or worse +50%.  A +1 Sword was a rare item to be treasured and passed down to an heir.  No vorpal blades in this game baby.  Well, you know what I mean.  I also wanted to keep the total number of units down to a manageable size.  A game like Starships Unlimited www.apezone.com/starshipsunlimited.php  does a great job of this.  The game is about the starships and each one makes a difference.  I wanted each unit to count in Armageddon Empires.  Not that they should all be created equal but I didn’t want a game where you have 90 units stomping all over the board and you don’t worry about losing one because your unit factory will just pop a new one out next turn anyway. Don’t get me wrong, such a system can work great for a game with an epic sweep like Civilization.  I just wanted to try something a little different.

Because of this design choice, i.e. emphasis on the small, I came up with the following ideas for Armageddon Empires

Basic Resources

  1. There would be four and only four resources.  They would never be allowed to pile up or be spent in large amounts.  I would develop a resource generation system that was relatively stingy and a cost system for player actions that was efficient.  Because the game was set in a post-apocalyptic future, I chose to name the resources humans, materials, energy and technology.  I have to admit that part of the fun was envisioning ways for players to harvest humans and convert them into other resources.  The matrix needs batteries and soylent green is people after all.
  2. An overarching control mechanism would be used to force the players to make choices about what they wanted to do each turn.  In a flash of unparalleled originality I dubbed the system Action Points.  Action Points would be doled out each turn based on who won an initiative roll.  They would always be doled out in numbers that you could manipulate with some basic elementary school math.  If you want to bomb the other player with that attack card it’s going to cost 2 action points and 2 energy points from your resource stockpiles.
  3. Players would use unit cards depicting things like infantry, tanks, mecha, and powered battle armor to form armies.  The armies would be comprised of a reasonable number of units (8 max plus a hero).  The players would be encouraged to love and nurture their armies.  They would name them and watch them earn experience points and grow more powerful.  If an army lost a unit or received a new one then its experience rating would suffer until either the shock of loss wore off or the newbies had been broken in and indoctrinated in the fine traditions of the regiment.  Armies would also earn fame points for doing things like destroying the enemy and capturing important hexes.  If an army’s fame reached a certain level the player could assign it a special award card that recognized its service and gave it permanent bonuses.  It would be a very intimate thing.
  4. The units themselves would have low comprehensible attributes and a player would easily be able to get a solid feeling of how two units stacked up against each other if it came to blows.  More about this later when I discuss combat mechanics.
  5. Finally, the playing board should be relatively small.  I relented a little and opened up the playing board to some larger sizes but those work best with the maximum number of opponents and large decks. The basic medium size map is only 9 hexes by 12 hexes.  On paper it sounds small but in a 2 or 3 player game it allows for enough room for some early exploration and resource expansion.  I’ll discuss the supply rules in the future, but in Armageddon Empires you can’t usually just locate the enemy and Zerg-rush him into the dust.  Unless you get lucky with a good draw that provides you with a mobile supply unit or catch him with his pants down and his Stronghold lightly guarded, then your out of supply army is going to be sucking wind all by itself in the vast deserts of eternity.  Needless to say the board is designed to be intimate.  The hexes are large and tactile and randomly generated…..more about the board later.

Well, that’s it for this entry.  I’ll address another design point next time.

Executive Summary:  Armageddon Empires is designed to be approachable for the math challenged and an intimate experience for gamers feeling alienated or put off by late game drudgery.

 

 

Welcome!

Tuesday, April 18th, 2006

Welcome to Forgotten Lore, a blog about game design and my game “Armageddon Empires” in particular. I’m Vic Davis, the founder of Cryptic Comet and the lead designer/programmer on the project. The purpose of this blog is to let me sound off on how this computer turn based strategy game is coming together and hopefully in the process generate some interest among it’s target demographic….geeks who love games like Dominions 2, HOMM, Panzer General and MOO. Over the next several months and into the fall, I will post about the game’s design, significant milestones and playability. The goal is to have Armageddon Empires ready for release in October 06 to coincide with the Independent Games Festival submission deadline www.igf.com .  If you have stumbled through the back door and found this blog please take a look at the game at www.armageddonempires.com/Armageddon_Empires.html and if you like what you see, spread the word.  This is a small indie outfit and we need all the fire support we can get!

Thanks

Vic Davis