Speaking of turn-based strategy, today I’d like to talk about combat-oriented turn-based strategy games, specifically games that use the action point (AP) system.
In these games, you control a small group of individual units (usually soldiers). Each unit is rated differently in various categories like weapon skill, speed, hitpoints, etc. The players (or the player and the computer) take turns, and on a player’s turn he gets to move all his pieces based on how much AP they have. Typically one AP will move a unit one square or hex on the map, so units with more AP will move across the map faster. They may also be able to make more attacks in combat because each attack typically costs a set amount of AP. Some examples of these games are the Jagged Alliance series of games, the Front Mission series, the Final Fantasy Tactics series, and the X-COM series.
So, where did the AP system come from? Who first invented it?
If you trace the roots of these games, they all come back to the same parent. Readers with a knowledge of game history are probably nodding and saying, “Yep – they all come back to X-COM!” But the roots go deeper than that. While X-COM was the first tactical combat game to be a big hit, it wasn’t the first, by a mile.
You see, several years before Julian Gallop designed X-COM, he designed a little game for the ZX Spectrum called Laser Squad. (Shall I mention yet again how much we missed out because the Spectrum didn’t go over well here in the States?) Anyone who plays Laser Squad will instantly recognize it as an X-COM prototype. So Julian invented the AP system, right?
Nope. Laser Squad was basically just a computerized version of one of Julian’s favorite board games – a game very few people have heard of, called Snapshot. Snapshot (and its sequel, Azhanti High Lightning) were actually boardgame supplements to the Traveller series of science fiction roleplaying games. They were designed to be broken out whenever the party of Traveller adventurers boarded some derelict alien spacecraft, so that any ensuing combat could be played out in boardgame fashion. Julian programmed it in and created some custom scenarios for it and created Laser Squad (and its sequel, Rebelstar). And in doing so he invented the computerized AP-based tactical combat game.
Well, now that I’ve expressed my appreciation and documented some of the history of these games, I’m going to talk about the two biggest problems these games have. The two problems are related, and both stem from the boardgame roots of these games.
The first problem is, what do you do with units that still have AP at the end of their turn?
The second problem is that having one side move all its units, then the other side move all its units brings up some very unrealistic results. In both Snapshot and Azhanti High Lightning, if you had a unit with enough AP he could step out from behind a corner, fire his weapon up to three times, and then retreat back behind the corner without any opponents being able to do anything. And guess what, you can sometimes do the same thing in Jagged Alliance 2.
Designers have fought these two problems in various ways. Fallout, for instance, kept the total number of AP you had to spend on a turn very low (ten was the highest, if I remember correctly), and then added the number of unused AP you had at the end of your turn to your armor class, thus making you harder to hit. This wasn’t bad, but in Fallout you only controlled one character. The same system wasn’t as effective when you used it for a whole group, as Fallout Tactics proved.
Both the Front Mission and the Jagged Alliance series fought this problem with interrupts or counterattacks, which were cases under which you could spend your units’ AP on your opponent’s turn. But in both cases, your units needed a lot of AP to be able to interrupt, and in the case of Jagged Alliance they also had to make a perception roll just to get the interrupt.
Most recently, Front Mission 4 tried a different tactic – allowing units to be linked together by the player. Therefore, if one unit attacks, all linked units with AP attack, and if one unit counterattacks, all linked units with AP join in the counterattack. It’s too confusing, and improperly linking your units will cause them to waste AP. But in the end it was just another attempt by designers to find a way to allow all units to use all their AP on every turn.
So what’s the solution?
Well, it doesn’t appear that there is “a” solution. One solution is to allow all units to move in the order of their speed scores. But this has the problem of the double reward – faster units move sooner and get to do more on their move. Okay, then couple it with interrupts…except that this has the effect of making combat feel very choppy; a character will barely get started doing their thing before somebody else gets to butt in. This is realistic, but may not be that playable.
What I’d like to try is creating a system where everyone moves simultaneously. When one of your units needs input, the game pauses, allowing you to give that input – but the input isn’t acted on until the game unpauses, at which point everybody starts moving again. Combat might not be broken up so badly because you could tell a unit, “Run over here to the other side of the map” and that unit won’t require any new orders until he gets there. You could also tell a unit, “Fire at this enemy using aimed headshots until he is dead” and that unit also won’t require additional orders until his situation changes. I’ll need to prototype this to see if I can get it to work.
Basically, although the boardgame roots of this series have served us well, it’s time to discard them and truly use the new medium of the computer to transcend the previous games in this genre.
Nine years after this post, what is your opinion on games using the “active pause” system, which seem to be what you described?
I almost like it. It does seem to be “de rigueur” nowadays and I’ve played several games (most notably Dragon Age) that use it.
The problem I have with it is that every couple of seconds I’ll just pause and check what everyone (including the enemies) are doing in order to see if I need to change anyone’s orders. I feel that it would be better if, when the combat state significantly changes (an enemy dies, a character gets below a certain amount of mana or HP, a boss starts to cast a big ‘ol spell) the game auto-paused so I could then deal appropriately with the change. I don’t think I’ve seen a game do that.