Can turn-based games be saved?

I’m not so curmudgeonly that I don’t understand that gaming trends will change as demographics do so I understand why turn-based strategy games aren’t as hot as they once were. Believe it or not, there was a time when playing a game with alternating turns against the computer was quite popular. Not only did we have strategy and tactical games that did this, but a majority of the computer role-playing games were done this way as well. In many ways the modern Japanese RPG is a throwback to this bygone era.

I’m sure my fellow contributors are waxing nostalgic as they read this.

Oddly, while adventure games were pushed out of the market by technological advances and hardcore sims pushed themselves out by their cost, turn-based games are likely a victim of their own inability to adapt. The last three turn-based games I played all shared the same problems and flaws of every game I’ve played in the genre. Turn-based games will never have the same fan-base as say, first person shooters, but they still have a niche if someone could properly exploit it. Just consider changing the following.

Mission Time
Let’s not beat around the bush, getting a single mission done simply takes too long anymore. A standard mission can easily last for an hour and as the game introduces grander set pieces I have spent four hours trying to get through one mission. When I say “trying to get through”, I don’t mean attempting, getting beaten, and then trying again. I mean the cumulative time I’ve spent between the saving and loading of the same mission because I simply did not have the time to do it in one sitting.

Even worse if you have to replay a mission. If I spend four hours to fail a mission and the game doesn’t allow mid-mission saves, I’m going to walk away. I simply don’t have that kind of time to spend.

The problem with the length of time per mission is that there is no feeling of progress. A minor scuffle with a random encounter or a minor force should not take more than half an hour. Oddly, tactical games are often worse than strategic games. These games lack pacing, which makes even a well designed game a complete slog. Remember, this is a GAME, something to be done as a recreational activity. As much as I love turn-based games, when it becomes work I’m going to move on to something else!

Like the old arcade shooters, turn-based games or all stripes have continually focused on their more hardcore players. This is a grand mistake that will only shrink your customer base. This is not a difficult concept.

“Easy” should be easy. This should be a difficulty that casual players have a reasonable chance of beating the game at without going through some of the intense strategic exercises and elaborate resource management that a game might offer. Easy does not mean the game is without a challenge, it simply means that someone who has not read Sun Tzu’s Art of War still has a reasonable chance of victory.

Also, in all cases you should include difficulty levels. A huge mistake is trying to make a single difficulty for all players. What usually ends up happening is the difficulty curve fluctuates between “casual stroll through a warzone” to “apocalypse now!” and frustrates everyone. I know it takes more work, but “Easy” for casual players, “Normal” for experienced veterans, and “Hard” for obsessive compulsive fans.

I’m going to pick on tactical games here specifically, but this still applies to their more strategic oriented cousins. Any attempt at “realism” goes out the door when I am assaulting a force twice my size or greater. If these games were attempting true guerilla style warfare, where I could perform more “hit and fade” attacks I wouldn’t mind. Since the victory condition is often to wipe out every enemy though, the idea that my group of six soldiers is going to defeat thirty enemies who are often better equipped and completely fresh for the fight is ludicrous.

Also, if hits are based on a skill percentage against a random number generator, then that means at optimal range my trooper with a 75% marksman ship should hit 3 out of 4 times, not 1 out of 5. On the flip side, if the enemy is supposed to represent an untrained militiaman they should not hit 4 out of 5 times. If I’m the skilled force of soldiers able to take on five times my number then their performance should indicate some competency at combat. Either that or the level of incompetence should be spread equally between my troops and the enemy.

Furthermore, and this ties into the pacing problems, my victory condition should be met without having to find the one enemy guy hiding in a closet or hiding in the bushes.

Modern Graphics
For the most part the recent games I have played actually had serviceable graphics and that is all I am asking. However, I continue to see attempts to do things on the cheap. If you think “This is a Strategy game so graphics aren’t important” then you need to go play Dawn of War. That game makes it feel like there really is a battle taking place in front of your eyes rather than having a bunch of pixels who simply move to your commands. Real-time strategy games have figured out that what happens on screen can affect the level of immersion.

I want to be drawn into these battles, I want to care about the units, I want to see what is happening on screen. The technology has been available to go beyond wooden animations and obtuse sprites. The graphics don’t have to be spectacular, just “good enough”.

Recognizable IP
How many more people would play a game if it was G.I.Joe vs. Cobra instead of an obscure historical campaign or a bunch of mercenaries we’ve never heard of before? Without doing a specific movie tie-in, there are plenty of recognizable IP’s to be licensed that are a perfect fit for this genre. Even without taking something like Star Wars, Transformers, or G.I.Joe, the genre still needs a new franchise. The Panzer General series had many spin-offs and sequels, Jagged Alliance was a name so strong that we still see derivatives trying hard to associate with it. (“Jagged Edge”, “Jagged Union”, etc.)

Fix the above problems and find an audience. Quit focusing on a handful of grognards who still worship a time before fully realized 3D graphics were even possible. Make the genre modern, make a quality game, and then focus on building your audience rather than pandering to a tiny niche. It’s probably too late to do a new Jagged Alliance or Steel Panthers. Above all, quit trying to copy the old games because all we’re cranking out are pale imitations that make the same old mistakes but can’t claim the same level of quality.


  1. I don’t know. Turn based strategy games seem to be doing just dandy on the DS and PSP. The main consoles, not so much…

    And there is a new Disciples game coming out, so that’s a nice thing to see.

  2. This first thing I thought of when I started reading this was the old Gold Box D&D games on my PC.

    I think your point of mission time is the biggest detractor for me, and also the reason I only play these games on my DS. The ability to close the lid and come back later is the only thing that keeps me going.

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