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Jon Shafer on Unity of Command

Here’s a game that I own, played, enjoyed (a lot) but for reasons I can’t quite grasp never wrote a review for because — well like I said I have no excuse. I accept my shame.

But I really like Unity of Command. It’s easy to get into and is a logical step up from the Panzer General model. So consider that a truncated review. Buy it.

But I always find it interesting when a game designer writes a review of a game in his field and that’s what Jon did this week. So read on to get the goods on Unity of Command from the man who designed Civ V. And honestly where else are you going to get a Antoine de Saint-Exupéry reference?

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Along with writing articles on design and other subjects of a more general nature, I’ll occasionally be examining in detail a few games which serve as examples of excellent game design. Unity of Command is first on the list.

For those of you unfamiliar with the game, it’s a hex-based WWII lite-wargame in the vein of Panzer General. Some of you have probably heard that I’m a big fan of that game. Well, strap yourself in, because I like Unity of Command a lot more.

So What’s the Big Deal?

What really separates Unity of Command from other games (especially wargames) is that it stays focused only on what makes the game as fun as it can be. Most projects of this ilk throw in a lot of extra mechanics and stuff, either with the goal of making the game more historically accurate, because doing so just felt right, or – worst of all – simply because the design was thrown together sloppily, with little or no thought put into what the game actually wanted to achieve.

Thankfully, Unity of Command did not fall into this trap. To start with, the design of the visuals and the interface is exceptionally clean. I mean, really now, does this look like a wargame to you?

(For those of you who haven’t seen many, the answer is no… this is what they usually look like.) The large bobble-head figures might look a bit cartoony, but this style ensures you never any problem recognizing what unit is what. In a game like Panzer General you kind of need to be an expert on German armor and able recognize the turret shapes and hull armor slope which identify a Panther versus a Panzer IV. Unity of Command also displays information about the units in a clean and simple manner, using icons to indicate damage, entrenchment, a unit’s movement status, the supply situation, etc. These sorts of tools help avoid the feeling that you’re fighting the game tooth-and-nail for every shred of information.

The gameplay is also noteworthy, particularly in its omission of superfluous elements. As the French polymath Antoine de Saint-Exupéry famously said:

A designer knows he has achieved perfection not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.

It takes an extremely disciplined designer to stifle the temptation of piling on features and knobs, especially with subject matter as ripe to detail-bloat as WWII. The massive theatre of air warfare is represented only by individual air strikes that may be ordered a couple times per turn, and all this does is inflict a small amount of damage on a single enemy. While some might bemoan this as a massive simplification, the game loses nothing for omitting an elaborate aircraft system where where the player marches individual planes around from tile-to-tile, ensuring they don’t run out of fuel or get caught unawares by enemy fighters. The most important element of airpower – tactical support – is represented in a way no more complicated than it needs to be. Could a system with air defense, fighters, etc. be fun? Of course. All games are not made equal, and some can certainly be more complex than others. But reductive design is rare in strategy gaming, and Unity of Command serves as an excellent example of this approach working perfectly.

Let’s Talk Mechanics

One of the features which makes Unity of Command so unique is its supply system. More important than the absolute strength of units is whether or not they’re on the supply grid. If you manage to cut off a group of enemy units for a couple turns, even the biggest, baddest tanks will simply melt before your infantry. Instead of thinking about individual unit matchups, a player must be more concerned with the big picture – who is in control of what territory and how can one best exploit the situation?

The basics work like this. There are a few nodes on each map which generate supply, which is carried along rail lines when attached to a supply node. Every connected rail tile radiates supply in a range dictated by the type of supply node and the terrain being traversed. Capturing a supply depot or rail tile cuts off supply to all units formerly in that radius. Much of the gameplay revolves around finding ways to isolate enemy units from their supply sources, capturing them in order to fuel your advance, and protecting your supply net from enemy units.

The beauty of this supply system is that it forces you to constantly make difficult trade-offs… how do you weigh the relative importance of ensuring your army is properly supplied (the most important units, anyways), completing objectives and exploiting enemy weaknesses? It’s nearly always a tough call and you’ll be taking risks no matter which way you go.

This is a good point at which to discuss what seems to be one of the guiding design principles of Unity of Command: carefully budgeting your limited resources. I’ve already talked about air combat, and that type of philosophy oozes from every part of the game. Another couple-times-per-turn special ability is the supply drops, where you can instantly resupply any of your units, even when cut off. You’ll often find yourself with several important units cut off from supply, and deciding which 1 or 2 get the goods can be agonizing.

Even unit types are an exercise in design by limits: there are only a few unit classes, most notably a single type of armor. Each scenario you’ll have a handful of tanks which can easily roll over infantry, which always make up the vast majority of the enemy army. The question isn’t if your tanks can win, but where to use them to maximum effect. A couple tough fights can also wear them down, forcing you to choose between pushing forward and pausing for a moment to heal back up. Across the board, Unity of Command does a superb job forcing you to make tough decisions.

Room for Improvement

I’ve spoken at length about the good aspects of Unity of Command, but like every game there are a few knocks against it.

One aspect that I’ve seen given mixed reports is the mechanic where you must spend Prestige (essentially your score) to gain new units or reinforce existing ones. This is interesting mechanic for some, but frustrating for others. It reminds me a lot of the dilemma that I often find myself facing in RPGs where your character has a limited amount of mana to cast spells, potions to heal, etc. These items are obviously in the game to be used, but my natural inclination is to want to ‘preserve’ these resources for later, instead of spending them now. Much of the time ‘later’ never comes, and having just defeated the final boss I still find myself with a full inventory. It poses an interesting question: why are some resources like money so easy to spend, while others like single-use items so much harder to part with? I imagine it has something to do with the uniformity and homogeneity of money, whereas items like potions feel more ‘individual’ and evoke the feeling of “well, if you use this it’s gone forever and you might not get another one.” Then again, Prestige in Unity of Command is much more like money than items in an RPG. I’d be curious to hear further thoughts on this subject. Anyways, back to the topic of this article!

One of the few areas where I felt the interface was lacking in Unity of Command is the need to enable overlay modes in order to see certain information. For example, by default there is no way to see how much supply you have available on each tile. You can memorize the rules for how it spreads over the terrain, but this is a level of expertise that very few players will reach. My preference would have been for this information be clear even in the default game view, particularly given how important it is. A very basic solution could be a simple graphic which appears at the very edge of your supply range. You wouldn’t have all of the nitty-gritty details, but this would be enough to let you know when you were exiting the ‘safe zone’.

The biggest strike against Unity of Command is a fairly inflexible ceiling on the amount of replayability the game provides. All of the maps are fixed, and the number, type and location of every unit is the same every time you play.

Is it a puzzle game? This is a question frequently asked about Unity of Command. Honestly, it’s hard to say. There is often a very fuzzy line between puzzle games and strategy games. Part of what pushes Unity of Command in the strategy direction is that it’s excellent AI constantly keeps you on your toes. You might think you’re in really good shape, only to discover during the AI’s turn that you left one part of the front a little too weak, and an enemy unit managed to cut off supply to your entire army. Puzzles rarely ask players to adapt to situations that dramatic.

The Takeaway

Puzzle game or not, Unity of Command isn’t something you’ll be playing every day for the next two years. Then again, the number of games you can say that about is so miniscule that it’s hard to ding Unity of Command too much for it. What I will say is that the game is both extremely fun and highly instructive for designers, and a few minor drawbacks fail to dull Unity of Command’s luster in the slightest.

While playing I was constantly making comments to myself along the lines of “yes, this is another thing they did right!” Which… unfortunately… isn’t something that I do much anymore, simply because I can’t help but view games through a very critical lens since joining the development club almost a decade ago. It’s now nearly always the failures which stand out to me rather than the successes. Even so, Unity of Command found a way to charm me. It’s a breath of fresh air, not only in wargaming but strategy gaming in general. Other games have much to learn from it, and hopefully this article can play a small role in spreading the word.

If you haven’t already (what are you waiting for!), head over to the Unity of Command website and pick up this game. It’s only $30, and well worth it.

Jon Shafer on Lowering the Gates

The essay below is from Jon Shafer. Jon’s Wiki page says he was, “lead designer and principal programmer of the video game Civilization V at Firaxis Games.”

Yeah, yeah whatever. Show off.

Jon’s also a friend of mine. He plays in our Out of the Park Baseball league as owner/GM of the up and coming Caledonia Geckos. (Hey he named them…) His blog, Jon Shafer on Design should be a regular haunt for strategy fans, or just game fans in general. He asked me to post the essay below, in full, here at No High Scores, which I’m more than happy to do. It’s a great read.

The essay is about how to lower the point of entry for strategy games — making them more accessible early on. One thing Jon says that is spot in this:

More players quit a game in the first hour than the rest of playtime combined.

So consider this our first “guest” column here at No High Scores. It’s a good one.

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Something I recently spoke about at PAX East was my number one hope for the future of strategy games: reducing the barrier to entry. There are several ways this can be done – without sacrificing a game’s depth or complexity. I’ll discuss a few in detail, namely: good tutorials, good user interface and good demos.

Tutorials have long been one of my biggest pet peeves. The ones you find in most games are terrible and the reasons why are obvious: they’re no fun to work on, there’s no glory in making a really kick-ass tutorial, and they’re really hard to get right. However, a good tutorial is extremely important, and well worth the required grunt work.

While the underlying purpose of a tutorial is to teach new players the rules of the game, this should really be secondary to another goal – being fun. The whole reason people play games is to enjoy them (duh) and their first impression will go a long way in shaping their future experience. If you have to spend a large chunk of time grinding through something boring in order to get to the good part – why bother? There are other games and forms of entertainment which don’t force you to pay this ‘time tax’.

Some might argue that it’s impossible to make a tutorial fun, but that’s absolutely false. How you ask? The answer is simple: by making the tutorial a priority and actually designing it to be fun. If all you do is haphazardly throw information at the player and don’t bother to incorporate actual gameplay, of course the tutorial is going to be as much fun as watching paint dry. The best tutorials always provide an experience very close to the core game. If your game is about combat, let the player have some say in how to attack the enemy, instead of providing a list of precise, inflexible instructions noting exactly what to click in what order. (Most) people are told what to do every day from 9 to 5 (or so) – they don’t also want to be told what to do in their free time.

Forcing the player to perform a series of actions where there’s no room for creativity or engagement is the worst possible introduction. Don’t lose sight of the fact that the reason why games as an entertainment medium are popular is because they give the user control over what’s going on. Also remember that the tutorial is someone’s first experience with the game. More players quit a game in the first hour than the rest of playtime combined. The first experience needs to be the part of the game which stands out and shines. Unfortunately, the opposite is often the case.

A good way to pace the amount of information a player must digest is to embed your tutorial in the core game experience, instead of having all of the instruction take place in a separate tutorial mode. The player jumps right into a game and is provided information about the different elements of the game as they become relevant. A good example from Civ 5 is that every time a new type of resource is discovered by the player, one of the advisors pops up and explains what it does. We didn’t bother teaching the player what iron or other strategic resources were good for until it actually mattered.

Some might argue that you need to know the whole context of the game in order to make informed decisions, and this is true to some extent. However, the reality is that most players just aren’t going to be able to keep everything in their head and apply all of that information the first time they play a game. It takes time and experience to build up to an understanding of deep strategy, and to get to that point players have to feel comfortable at every stage along the way. The end goal is to have as many people enjoying your game as possible, and throwing everything out at the very beginning undermines this in a major way.

Some players still desire the safety net of a formalized tutorial, so it’s wise to also ‘package’ all of the in-game help into a custom-tailored scenario which ensures the player runs into all of the learning moments in the order the designer prefers. This is the approach taken in both Civ 5 and Stardock’s upcoming game Fallen Enchantress.

The big downside to this approach is that… well… it’s a lot of work. It can be hard to ignore the allure of needing to spend only a couple days whipping together a few screens of text, but don’t forget the important point from above: the tutorial is the entry point for a large percentage of players, and as a developer you need it to be one of the best parts of the game. Do you want first-time players talking with their friends about your cool game, or just the few screens of text that you only spent a fraction of the total effort on? Or worse, talking about how the idea seemed neat but they just couldn’t figure out what was going on?

Outside of a full-on tutorial system, an easy way to ease players into a game is simply to nudge them in a direction at the start. “Hey, there’s this quest you should probably go on, and we’ll give you step-by-step instructions on how to complete it, but if you want to do something completely different that’s cool too.” Players want freedom, but most also want at least a little structure and positive reinforcement, and throwing out a few optional goals is the best way to make everyone happy.

A game’s interface (UI) also has a huge role to play in bringing new players into the fold. The most important interface items should have the most weight on the screen. Size matters (at least with UI) and the more prominent something is the more likely a player is to pay attention to it. Organize logical groupings of UI controls in a single area, and section them off from unrelated ones. Make sure buttons look like buttons, and that it’s obvious that everything you can’t click on is to be ignored. For good reason, artists like to play up style but always remember the most important part of a user interface is the usability. You don’t want players to feel like they’re fighting the game in order to perform actions or get the information they want. I’ll have more to say on the topic of UI in a future article.

The last thing I’ll talk about is demos. I’ll sum it up this way: demos are great, and every game should put one out before it’s available on store shelves (digital and otherwise). If you’ve made an awesome game then you want people playing it and talking about it. Someone is a lot more likely to try out a game that’s free than one that’s 30 or 60 dollars (just ask any free to play developer). Going free-to-play is a big leap and definitely not right for every project, but every game benefits from a demo. This is especially true for strategy games, where demos are by far the best tool in a marketer’s arsenal. There’s a big difference between seeing a few screenshots and actually getting to play and find out first-hand what all the fuss is about. Like a good tutorial or UI, a demo takes quite a bit of work and is usually not the most exciting development task, but they all can make a huge difference in a game’s visibility, player enjoyment and ultimate success.