Strategic Primer’s “Central Question”

archer loosing arrowIt’s been awhile since I’ve talked about the history of Strategic Primer, the strategy game I’m developing. But in all that I’ve said before, I don’t think I’ve gone into my reasons for continuing to develop Strategic Primer.

Partly, of course, there are my mythopoeic and generally creative impulses: the deep-seated desire to build something, and in particular to build a “secondary world” or worlds. For almost as long as I can remember, I’ve had at least some tendency to try my hand at creating things of one sort or another.

But that can’t be the only explanation, since at about (more or less) the same time as I first started developing Strategic Primer, I discovered text adventure games and spent many hours trying my hand at designing and programming text “adventure” “games” of my own—and while I still would like to return to that should I ever have time for it again, I find I don’t much care if that time is “next year,” “in two decades,” or “in eternity.” Why has Strategic Primer stuck with me, and come back to me, when adventure game writing has not?

One chief reason, I think, is that central to the design of Strategic Primer is a question I always want to ask—or more than one, maybe, but this one leaps to mind just now—whenever I’m playing almost any other strategy game. The particulars of the question change depending on the game and the details of how my play-through went, but the essence is the same, and is captured well enough by this instance:

If my small unit of archers defeated a troop of pikemen last week, and there’s a company of cavalry that’s going to attack them any day now, why can’t they use the pikes (that the pikemen left on the battlefield) to defend themselves?

romans-60601_640I suppose a traditional wargame might be able to handle this, and certainly could come to an ad-hoc ruling. The tabletop roleplaying games I’ve played, or read enough about to be able to say, either include rules for parallel situations or are so specialized that a comparable situation would never come up—but a tabletop role-playing game usually puts each player in charge of one character, not a unit of soldiers, and any situation exactly like this would most likely be resolved by referring to the “mass battle” rules.

In most computer strategy games, and some tabletop strategy games, with very few exceptions a unit is defined by an immutable set of capabilities, as though an archer (to return to the example) cannot even put down his bow. This is generally reasonable, since presumably he is expert with it and neither trained nor markedly proficient with any other weapon, but when using weapons immediately to hand would produce far better results than their official equipment even with the handicap of a complete lack of training, the realism of the simulation breaks down.

In Strategic Primer, on the other hand, support for at least something along these lines has been designed in from the very beginning. In the first campaign, which I have to admit was mostly ad-hoc or worse, there was a “Rabble” unit that was designed to turn into a more effective unit after a couple of battles, a mechanic that was partly about experience but partly (in original concept, if not in execution at the time) about the equipment. And if I recall correctly, a situation where a player wanted to re-arm a unit with superior weapons arose in that campaign at least once.

In subsequent campaigns, the situation hasn’t come up in practice. In the aborted second campaign, players started at such a high technological level that the abstraction of immutable unit capabilities would have worked well, if the campaign had kept going beyond the preparations for a first turn. And in the current campaign, players haven’t had more than a couple of interactions with each other, all of them peaceful, though the related problem of “where the tools to make the tools come from” has been a recurring theme.

However, after the first campaign, the rules have always accounted for such impromptu or deliberate equipment changes. In the aborted second campaign, I had introduced the idea that units, other than the “prototypes” gained when new advances were discovered, could not be built; instead, existing units (and fortresses, for fixed defenses) were to be upgraded with “improvements,” which could include both equipment and training.

In “the middle period”, when I thought at great length and in some depth about the design of the game without testing my ideas, I abandoned that game mechanic almost entirely. (The “almost” because I have ideas for smaller scenarios in which players would face challenges without the ability to build new units, within a larger campaign in which they of course could do so.) But I made many attempts to codify a “module system” that would encompass the entire spectrum from what I’ve termed the “central question” (above) to the notion that a laser cannon is much the same whether it’s a fixed defense, a unit in its own right moved by a truck of some kind, or one of many weapons in a spaceship’s complement. Because I’ve wanted the system to be fairly generic, and especially to be generally applicable, I still have not come up with a system I am satisfied with.

Then I began the current campaign. In the interests of getting something running quickly, I set aside, for the time being, much of the complicated modeling I had tried in the intervening years, but I also got rid of “units” as a monolithic advance category. Instead, players could invent or discover “Jobs” (training, roughly equivalent to character classes in an RPG) and “Implements” (equipment), and could combine them as they saw fit. I also added a parallel category (with its own separate numbering scheme) of “Suggested Unit Configurations,” for combinations of manpower, training, and equipment that either the player wants to refer to or some source material suggested, but the operative word there is “suggested.”

And because this campaign initially gave players highly limited manpower and several competing priorities, the ability to reassign manpower and equipment within units has been essential, for all that the scale began small enough that organizing the manpower into “units” as such came only recently, and (as mentioned) there hasn’t been much military organization yet. Similarly, the helper programs for players to use don’t represent equipment very well, and even the app to manage units by moving workers between them is a fairly recent addition. But the concept has been there from the beginning.


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