An Ode to Turn Based Strategy
The turn based strategy is dead. Christoph Hartmann, president of 2K games, the publishers of turn based strategy replacement substance XCom, said so last month, that turn based strategy was the old men sitting across from me in the coffee shop this morning talking about God. The kids don’t care about God, just like they don’t care about Ray Charles or turn based strategy. They want to shoot people and watch their heads explode in blood. They want to be masters of their own destiny.
But when I sit on my couch and I play this year’s remake of Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together, or when I boot up Solium Infernum and give it another play, I’m reminded of how vibrant, how necessary turn based strategy can be. And how, frankly, alive! Yes, alive, it is. Screw you, big publishers! Your beloved first person shooters are dead! Turn based strategy stands over it with its arm raised high, title belt in hand.
Okay, okay, the last part might have been going a little too far. But in terms of sheer creativity, turn based strategy is a comet streaking across the sky, reminding us of just how brilliant games were and how weird and incredible they can be.
Tactics Ogre , the classic, remains my gold standard of Strategy RPGs. It was one of the first to reach America, released (ported) on the Playstation over a decade ago, and it’s still one of the finest. The remake takes a punishing, old-school quest and modernizes it, creating a leveling system that is cool and clever and vital. It takes the cruel, arbitrary difficulty of the original and repurposes it into a pinnacle of fairness. You don’t quit battles you’re winning any more because the game got lucky and killed one of your troops forever, but rather because the enemy has fought you to a standstill. The new leveling system, which levels up classes instead of individuals, is wacky and absurd but manages to create an experience that allows for significant customization. In short, the game plays better than it ever has.
Couple this with a fantastic new translation, and we see what turn based strategy offers best: the grand sweep of war. First Person Shooters, the genre every game must be to sell a million copies nowadays according to brain-dead publishers, might offer us an on the ground approach to war, but turn based strategy can place us in the shoes of the leader, the man who makes the decisions, and give us grand, strategic choices. Few “modern” games outside of Deus Ex* really offer the player meaningful choices in terms of how to play the game (sorry, where to shoot a man doesn’t really qualify as a choice, and neither does letting you refuse a reward to be “good”), but this is all turn based strategy is: do you move this man here, or have him kill that guy? Do you play it safe, or do you press your advantage? Do you optimize your attack team for this, or for that? It is a grand collection of strategic options that make sure that no battles play out the same because of your decisions.
The traditional PC turn based strategy, modeled off of board games, offers even more choices, more emergent narrative. In Solium Infernum, a game about princes of hell, you begin as pieces on a board, but it can spawn so much more in the way of narrative vigor. Another player screws you out of a specific territory for turn after turn, and suddenly he’s the villain of the piece. Another lord invades your kingdom through its soft underbelly, and he’s a traitor. You murder a fellow lord against the commands of the Assembly, and you’ve suddenly become an outcast, damned amongst the forces of Hell themselves.
And it’s even better when all these players are your friends. You’ll remember that sweet headshot you pulled off on your girlfriend for a couple minutes, but that moment where you backstabbed your best friend in Solium Infernum at the height of his power will be legendary. Think of it this way: your buddies are going to forget that game of Halo you won in about fifteen seconds, when the next one boots up. You remember that game of Monopoly where your mother turned over the board, disowned your sister, and burnt the kitchen down with a teapot forever. Turn based strategy is like Monopoly, but without the soul crushing awfulness.
The thing, though, that draws me most to turn based strategy is innovation. In terms of innovation it’s the genre running fastest and freest, with new ideas appearing almost as fast as they can be consumed. For years, the genre has offered, effectively, experiences that could be described as very in depth board games. X-Com: UFO Defense, for instance, is just a massive, infinitely complex board game, where you move pieces around a board against a similarly empowered AI opponent. Games like Civilization and Heroes of Might and Magic were colorful games played out on distinct, ever-changing boards without the need for friends. Civilization, in fact, became a board game! They were good experiences, but they were not particularly novel except that you could play them all the time. Their voice was the voice of traditional board games.
Now, turn based strategy is finding its voice, despite the near total lack of support from major publishers. Credit the Total War series (Sega, in general, actually–good on them) for setting off the first sparks in this explosion of creativity. The game sees turn based strategy, and then raises it a real time component, something that only a video game could do. Instead of just being about administrating and running an empire, something that could be done on a board, they added the ability to resolve your battles without relying on numbers.
King’s Bounty: The Legend helped too. It took the PC turn based masterpiece of Heroes of Might and Magic and out-did it by placing the player in a large, persistent world. It took turn based strategy and added considerable RPG elements to it, creating a mixture that’s better than peanut butter and chocolate. It’s expansive and addictive.
And on the console front, we had Valkyria Chronicles. Valkyria Chronicles took turn based war gaming and threw it on its head, allowing the player to play out everyone’s turn in a first person shooter by way of JRPG fashion. Even though the enemies can’t move on your turn, you’re given the ability to launch a grand strategy with elements of the boots on the earth part of war. It added to the recurring theme: that this was a genre where there was plenty of room for experimentation, and plenty of room for improvement. It could become a vital, important genre again by adding additional elements.
Now we’re seeing more turn based strategy games than we’ve ever seen before, and they’re all adding fascinating new twists to the genre. On one hand, there’s Frozen Synapse, a game we’ve talk about significantly in the past that adds significant new planning elements to the genre. Turns are simultaneous and intense, the result of significant planning, an idea probably cribbed from board games like Diplomacy but which plays out in a way decidedly interactive. We’ve seen the expansion of the PC strategy market to contain more games than there are board games about the Stone Age, featuring play by email wonders like the aforementioned Solium Infernum, freeware hotseat wonder Battle of Wesnoth, and online cooperative multiplayer title Blight of the Immortals (which you’ll see more coverage of in the future, I assure you). These are games attempting to keep the crucial social elements of board games while retaining the high strategy. On the other hand, we have vibrant innovations like Fray, which is attempting to add RPG elements to the wonder that is Frozen Synapse, and Xenonauts, which is attempting to provide the X-Com experience that XCom refuses to provide. Even Ghost Recon: Shadow Warrior, a big name title from the 3DS launch, is supposedly the best of the limited 3DS lineup. Imagine that: a new system whose killer app is a turn based strategy game*.
That’s really the most disappointing aspect of the XCom remake. Rather than try to take a “dead” genre and innovate it back into the public eye, something no doubt difficult but possible, something that would have netted them significant critical acclaim, they’ve taken the path of least resistance, making a first person shooter in an era where they saturate the market. They’ve said the genre isn’t vibrant, but there’s none other as tumultuous with innovation. There’s no genre so primed for a major publisher breakthrough than turn based strategy. Perhaps they could have made a game where you make strategic choices on a big map and then experience the on the ground segments as a tactical squad based first person shooter? Fallout 3 figured out a way to build on a classic franchise without completely violating the spirit and intent of the original game, so it doesn’t seem too much to ask for XCom to attempt the same instead of just cashing in on the old name with a first person shooter.
I have to, in the end, refute 2K Marin’s assertion that the turn based strategy is dead. There’s an imagination, a vibrancy, a emergent nature to the genre that makes it represent the best of video games. While the zeitgeist of the first person shooter is the intense, immediate thrill, turn based strategy offers the slow burn of strategy and wit, an unrelenting build up until eventually the walls come crashing down around your enemies as they are powerless to stop it.
*The original, which is still an eminently modern game despite its terrible graphics. I’d say it is ultra-modern, a game that feels like it was released in the future.
*Shoo, zombie PSP! We know Strategy RPGs are the only thing you offer! Shoo! I know I have a half dozen games for you and five of them are SRPGs. I know! Shoo, I say!