I’m going to riff some more on events in strategy games. My original design concept for Armageddon Empires was to incorporate a random event generator into the game but that was cut when I realized that the effort was going to be a bridge too far. I had the frequency selection option stubbed out on the new game settings menu and I had also built in a system to globally modify the players’ data and abilities. Things like making research more costly, draining resources and transfering intel to other players. In fact these types of events are all possible with the espionage system that works within the game. When I went to actually implement the event system I found that there was a tremendous amount of work needed to get it right. The UI for Espionage events was going to function as the display area for any random events. This was part of the original design intent and why the button to view espionage is called “Events.” The idea was that the randomness of any events would be an additional red herring/masking factor in trying to decide whether you actually had a spy messing up your infrastructure or just a bit of bad luck. The extra art for all the random events on my list became a real issue. The game already had over 400 pieces of art so the axe fell.
What’s the purpose of events random or not in strategy games? Here are a few design goals I can think of.
1. Thrill of the unexpected: Simply put people like the feeling of seeing what is behind curtain number 1. That’s a little misleading because there is a choice being made and then the observation of some result….a new car? But the feeling translates to the idea that on any given turn something unexpected may occur.
2. Random Reward and Punishment (The Spice of Life): Events punish (your library is destroyed and your tiles all yield -1 resources per turn) or reward (A hero has shown up at your capital and desires to serve you). Even if the distribution of reward vs punishment is skewed heavily towards punishment, people enjoy this. Don’t think so? Go spend some time in Vegas or Atlantic City or just your local reservation casino. The psychology is pretty fascinating on this but people generally believe that they are luckier than the jerk sitting next to them. Being the “I” of your universe tends to do this.
3. Simulating “Real” Life Challenges: Events can introduce unexpected challenges that must be overcome. The enjoyment of this is based on points 1 and 2 above but there is an additional component as well. Players may like the idea that despite the abstraction, the game does mimic real life a little. Most games are structured so that you work against an opponent who is yet another agent in the game system. The idea that the system itself is working against you is appealing to some players. The general must fight not just the enemy but the weather and terrain as well.
4. Shaking up the snow globe: Events can function as a way of shaking up the game state. However, the more you shake the more you are likely to piss some players off. Changing the game state incrementally is likely to be tolerated more than a catastrophic change. It’s a difficult curve to follow though. Humans love challenges. That’s probably why they are playing your game in the first place. Galactic Civilizations 2: Dark Avatar has a mega-events feature: Plagues, Pirates and host of other game state shifting events. These range in severity but they are all going to get the players’ attention.
5. Choice and Consequences: Sometimes events are coupled to some component of the gameplay mechanics. In the Dominions games by Illwinter you create a pretender god as your avatar. There is a lot of room for customization and one of the areas you can change is the Luck/Unluck scales for your domain. Choose more luck and the odds favor positive random events. Choose Unluck and you are likely to see some labs burnt to the ground and some provinces lost to marauding heroes.
One of my favorite games is Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri (SMAC). In SMAC if you go crazy and “pollute” the planet then you can get the Volcano event. The terrain of the game alters and often right in the middle of your painstakingly zoned and terraformed city state a huge lava spewing volcano emerges. I will not reload! I will not reload!
6. Theme: Events can enhance the game narrative. Every strategy game tells a story. Some board games use event cards to not only dress up the theme a bit but also to direct the unfolding game story. The board game A Game of Thrones by one of my favorite companies Fantasy Flight Games has an event deck mechanic that is absolutely brilliant. It not only adds fantastic thematic elements, it also controls core gameplay mechanics.