Command and Control in Computer Strategy Games

The computer game Civilization starts you off quick and simple, with just one unit.  But it gets more complex as you build more units, cities, and discover more of the world and other civilizations.  Using all of your forces optimally takes a lot of time, and towards the end of the game it becomes a long grind.

Civilization is an extreme example, but many other games follow the same pattern – Sim City, for example. How an we maintain a quick pace throughout a game?

One solution is to think more closely about who the player is representing (an idea outlined in Nicholas Palmer’s books on board wargaming).  In Civilization, you play the leader of a nation, so should be making high-level decisions such as what to research or where to attack, not minutiae such as how many air units should attack Kiev.  That decision is left to capable generals or ministers.

In the old days of boardgaming, this sort of separation was not desirable – why make the player go through a lot of automated gruntwork?  But a computer can easily perform these chores, with its AI making all the trivial decisions.

Computer games often do have an AI that will run some things on auto-pilot, but the part they generally do not think about is making the AI an integral and necessary part of the system, rather than a crutch for lazy players.  So perhaps you could only give direct orders to four units a turn, for example.  This would make things go quicker and might well be more challenging – choosing 4 out of N units to control is a more intellectually challenging (but often quicker) task than giving routine orders to each of N units.  Ironically, card-driven wargames such as Memoir ’44 or We The People have already adapted this mechanic (although without the ability to auto-pilot unordered units).  And, of course, the early wargame of chess only lets you make one move a turn.

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