An Essay On Ludic Wars

Working on game design has made me quite receptive to the unfathomed diversity of gameplay techniques, and on their mimesis.

Indeed, the mechanisms in use for simulated combat are not the monopoly of combat games. It is all abstract mathematics in the end. But the systems in use are designed to achieve that ultimate goal of games and entertainment: a player should never know who wins, up until the very last, glorious move.

The most obvious play to settle on is the Game of Numbers. Whoever has the highest number wins. This is in the most rudimentary game of dice, in the War card game, and to some extent in many exchangeable card games. Many games which pretend to feature complex statistical battles can easily be reduced to a Game of Numbers. Most casino games are, as well, given the illegitimacy of techniques such as card counting.

The issue is that the main driver of player interest, choice, is absent from that design, reducing it to a sandbox simulation for the player to watch. It can be fun in a look-at-an-anthill kind of way; it just isn’t that kind of fun. Especially when the player realizes that, in the grand scheme of things, they are the ant.

Here is another mechanism. I call it “Rock Paper Scissors”. You have atomic units to which are assigned traits. Some traits give an immediate, hard-coded advantage against hand-picked others. Those traits create a mathematical oriented graph, where each vertex is a trait. Usually, the graph is set to be circularly orientated, so that it can be approximated by a Lotka Volterra simulation. It ensures that the player can’t stand on one foot, that they cannot rely on the best option, because which trait is the best option alternates with time. This generates an emergent skill game where player choice is king: learn the Lotka curves, and choose which trait to assign to units to beat the odds.

Find this in most strategy games, both RTS and TBS. Many exchangeable card games have that, too, let alone the famed titular game.

One last mechanism. Move Traits. Most successful in Chess and all its derivatives, it is designed to give different move operations to units of different traits. It is heavily seen in RTS: each unit can move on different terrain (land, sea, air) with different speeds. The realism greatly impedes on the combinatorial explosion this mechanism gives, which is too bad, since that is what creates Chess’ emergent gameplay from seemingly simple rules.

Of course, this is far from an exhaustive list. Go uses a completely different system, Constriction. Surround an enemy, remove all of the air (or a particular resource), and they die. This mechanism appears in a reminiscing way in modern RTS games, through their implementation of economy, and the resulting attrition game it generates. However, yet again, the attempt at realism destroys the potential for interesting choices: instead of a global economy, one in which you can trade a part of your territory for a more important piece. I wonder why global economies are still a thing in games. In the end, it makes the only interesting resource in those game not metal, nor gold, nor lumber, but people. All other resources are global, and therefore, generate no amount of relevant choices.

Above all, the game mechanic that I am most afraid of, and which a poor attempt at the Constriction system leads to, is The Waiting Game. This system is designed to make you wait for the completion of a building, or the collection of resources, or the exploration of a map. It is directly designed to both make the game realistic, which it needn’t be (and never is anyway), and to give ponderation to elements of the economy. This takes more time to make, but is more valuable! The Waiting Game literally makes the player wait artificially for something which could be executed instantly, creating a map from a make-believe economy to something that actually holds value, the passing time.

However, The Waiting Game interrupts suspension of the player’s disbelief and forces them to multitask into chores which were not the actions they wanted to make, nor the game they wanted to play. I won’t even go into the paroxysm of this, so-called free to play games that add one layer to the mapping of fake value to real value by offering to exchange wasted player time with fiat money.

Where I am heading with these thoughts is this: just like tools can work together to make a huge variety of outstanding devices and objects, these game mechanics can be combined to make a plethora of games with outstanding behaviors. Unfortunately, most games combine them in the same way, leaving much of the vector space of all possible great games unexplored.