March 2011 Archives

Play/Design Log

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I've been doing a lot of playing lately, of things all over the spectrum and often not in good range of an online writing tool.  Nevertheless, I'd like to capture some or all of those activities.  So!

Played in the last week ...

Time in Galcon

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When I first worked at Gamelab in 2006, Galcon went around the office. I played it, saw it as Risk In Space, observed that it was oddly compelling, and eventually moved on to another game -- perhaps Puzzle Quest. I didn't figure out what was getting me and the others in the office hooked, and lazily attributed it to being a really good and simple implementation. Then yesterday, I saw Galcon Fusion highlighted in the App Store, and picked it up.

Now, several years later, I think I know what was compelling before: time, working on several levels. Risk is turn-based, which allows the strategy to be contemplative. It will take a while (punctuated in turns) for your armies to move across the board, and you can spend a while thinking and rethinking your moves. You've got plenty of opportunity to consider your overall deployment, as does your opponent.

The draw of Real-Time Strategy games has always been not just having to think about strategy, but to do so on your feet. The game will not wait for you to analyze the exact probabilities of your moves' successes. To win you must really think at two levels: what is the likelihood of winning this conflict, and in the big picture, how does that move change your overall position. Tactics come back in to a limited extent. And yet strategy at the board-level is that much more important: your opponent doesn't have to wait for you to end your turn before sweeping in on a hole in your defenses, so you'd really best be watching them all the time.

Time also introduces a narrative element for me. The quick pace, the sweeping movements, introduces a dramatic element that is too attenuated by turns to really come across in the play. In Galcon, it's often a good idea to let your opponents wear down the neutral territories, and then send a massive fleet to secure the weakened planet for your side. In the time that it takes my ships to swoop in, I'm picturing a drawn-out war between the local independent state and The Other Side, where my "peacekeeping forces" sweep in to bring an end to the conflict. As a backwater planet that I've been ignoring for a while comes to my attention with the massive number of forces that it developed in my 'absence', I picture its populace proudly sending its troops off to The Great Effort for the first time.

Those stories could be in the turn-based version, but the hustle of the real-time game introduces cracks in my strategy, gaps in my attention, which provide hooks for a story. The Perfect Command that never makes mistakes is not interesting. In the mistakes or risks lie the stories.

There are a couple other major differences between Risk and Galcon, but they're still influenced by time. For one, while in Risk you are often limited by what regions can attack other regions, in Galcon it's all out in space. Any planet can move on any other planet, somewhat minimizing the distribution of the regions. Planets in close proximity are still useful, as they are more responsive and good for quick adjustments to your strategy, but it's not so completely about owning Kamchatka as the land-based Risk is, for instance. The time matters, though. If you have a string of planets in a line, you can make lots of little hops, keeping your forces balanced in response to the long-range attacks of your opponent. If you want to send a massive force off to a juicy planet halfway across the board, your opponent has lots of time to see it coming.

Another difference introduced by time is the raw numbers. Numbers build quickly in Galcon, in a way that would be tedious to keep track of on a board. This difference is more about Galcon being digital than it is about time, but the constantly ticking clock allows the numbers to be finer at one a second rather than 20 every 20 seconds, which allows more nuanced conflict.

Galcon is pretty simple. But that one tweak -- the introduction of time into a turn-based game -- has ripple effects that I didn't think until now could make such a difference.

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