Studying The Early Mechanics

Second in a series documenting the development of a project.

Playing games at the office.

Paper Prototyping

Given the similarities between a turn-based computer game and a board game, this prototype was relatively easy to write.  It should also turn out to be close to the finished mechanics, although we used made-up to-hit chances rather than figuring out attack trajectories.


One of the main aims of the prototype was to examine whether 'micro-turns' would work.  In essence, this is the idea that each action a unit takes has a time cost, and that unit cannot act again until that number of miniature turns have passed.  On the same mini-turn, different units act according to initiative order.

A similar system worked well for the short-lived World of Warcraft Miniatures Game, producing a sense of simultaneous activity.

However, in our playtesting we discovered it was very unsatisfying.  Despite having a chart showing which units would move on which micro-turn, and in what order, the players never felt like they knew which unit was going to move next.  Possibly the increased number of units (the miniatures game has only 2 or 3 per player) or the large number of unit types meant that the system became to complex to hold in the mind.

In addition, the players discovered that the more time consuming actions, such as aimed shots with a sniper rifle, were almost never used.  The risk of being unable to act while enemy units swarmed up on yours seemed to counteract the almost guaranteed kill that could be obtained.

As a result, with players taking actions that cost only 2 or 3 micro-turns, there was much more clustering of each player's units than expected, and more often than not, one player would take a turn with most of their units, then the other would do the same.

Conventional Turns

Playing the game with conventional turns, where each player makes all their moves then watches the other do the same, proved far more satisfying.

Units now had a budget of action points (6 per unit per turn) and the costs of the actions must be paid from that budget, rather than acting as a sort of cool-down.  The high-cost actions were used far more often.  It was obvious to each player when each of their units could act, and that clarity allowed the tension of the individual dice rolls, and the opponent's turn to take centre stage.

Summing Up

Along with some very useful feedback on the actions the units could take, we were comfortable enough with the feel of the game using conventional turns to begin building a grey-box prototype.

The freneticism of the original design would not be there, but with a bit of balancing (the minion units on the alien side were too strong and too few, for example) the game would nevertheless be tense and fun.

Next time... gray boxes and bean soldiers.

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