Originally posted on my blog here.
I've been playing a lot of Renowned Explorers: International Society of late. The game does a lot of things very well, but what I'm going to write about here is the combat system. The core of the combat system is a turn based strategy game where each character can move and then take an action. The game does a couple of things to make sure that this setup remains deep enough to keep the player making decisions.
First of all, the game is reasonably difficult. It's very fair and not so difficult as to be unreasonable, but still difficult. One of the results of this as a design decision is that it forces players to engage with the systems. Games that are too easy or ones that you can cheese your way past stop asking their players to learn once they've figured out a dominant strategy.
Renowned Explorers: International Society lets you eke out marginal advantages with how you sequence your actions and how exactly you position your characters and these margins add up to major, discrete rewards. Between forcing you to care about your skill through difficulty and giving you quick feedback and meaningful feedback by having battles go better, the game does a good job of pushing engagement.
The primary effect of all of your actions is either to damage an enemy or to heal a friend. They also have a number of secondary effects, and the trade-offs between all of these effects adds depth to the combat.
Every character has an active mood, some of which are positive, like excited which adds 25% to speech attack and some of which are negative, such as enraged which reduces the armor of the character by 25%. This is both for the characters you control and the characters that you need to defeat.
An optimization that this has lead to is where I've used one character to excite or encourage another character and then have the second character take out the enemy instead of having both characters attack the enemy. The first sequence is strictly better than the second. They both result in the enemy character being taken out, but the first one also heals the character being excited and gives him or her a bonus until something else changes the character's mood.
Most of the actions have a mood attached to them and performing that action adds one point to the global mood of your team. Also, taking out an enemy character adds one point to the global mood. There's a threshold required to change your mood and there's a rock/paper/scissors of the global moods, so being devious when your opponent is being aggressive gives you a higher chance to evade enemy attacks.
Again, this allows for sequencing to make a difference. Ending a turn with a mood that adds armor or speech defense can result in taking a lot less damage and so keeps your characters from falling.
Rewards and Flavor
The sum of all of the actions you take over the course of a battle and your mood at the end of the battle together determine the dominant mood of the encounter. Different dominant moods can have different end results. Being aggressive or devious to a nun can make your more religious characters sad and give them a permanent debuff for instance. Also, the specialists you hire often increase your reward for an encounter depending on the dominant mood. This means that while the best action (ie; one shotting enemies using the mood that wins the RPS) is often obvious, you're rewarded for doing things the more difficult way. Risk/reward mechanics tend to not only be a way to add depth but also often help players set the difficulty to whatever they find interesting.
Every attack does a random amount of damage within a range and the projection showed to you seems to be the lower bound of that damage. This lets the player gamble on taking a path that has higher potential for upside but is riskier. Additionally, some have a reasonable chance of missing. These force players to consider a larger set of possiblities than they would have to otherwise.
Why I Like This System So Much
The combat of Renowned Explorers: International Society kept me engaged for much longer than most games manage and that's because of two things that it did very well.
The first is that at the end of a turn I was clearly able to see a way that I could have sequenced my actions better. Really, all a game needs for this is sufficient depth that the best sequencing is not immediately obvious and multiple actions in a single turn. You see this quality in games like Magic: The Gathering and Hearthstone as well. Figuring out all of the actions that you are going to take in a turn and the best sequence to do them in before doing any of them is an easy way to immediately get better at any of these games.
The second piece is that it rarely feels like any mistake is enough to put you in a situation that you cannot recover from. The degree of control that you have over the systems is quite substantial. This is hurt a little by my biggest issue with the system, which is how much information it routinely holds from you, but is nevertheless enough to make the player always feel like playing well will be rewarded, no matter what the player did earlier in the encounter.
Renowned Explorers: International Society is a game that does a lot of things well and I would recommend that everyone play it. The theming and flavor are all excellent, but at its core it is a very strong turn based strategy game and that foundation is necessary for a game to sustain as a solid experience.