Genre/Divergence – Turn-based tactics

Genre/Divergence is a new series of features that dive into niche genres of gaming, exploring their history, impact on the industry and current standing. At their core is the topic of theme and variation. What defines the genre in its simplest terms, and how games have built upon and modified the central idea. Without further ado here is our first diversion: turn-based tactics. Please let us know what you think and if there is a particular genre you’d like us to tackle!

The Banner Saga's beautiful bacdrops are reminiscent of Wagner operas
The Banner Saga’s beautiful backdrops are reminiscent of Wagner operas

The turn-based tactics genre has a long and varied history, particularly on the PC where it has traditionally lived in the West and in the Japanese console scene. Mechanically the heart of the genre sees players take control of small groups of units which are moved around on grid or hex battlefields, using a variety of combat skills to defeat opposing forces. As the name implies, rather than unfolding like real-time strategy games such as Command & Conquer, the game flow is broken into a series of turns, allowing players to consider each move before locking it in. Tactics games thus draw heavily on ancient, abstract strategy games such as Chess and Go, which were famously played by the military elites throughout history as a kind of battlefield simulation. Furthermore, while ‘strategy’ implies an overarching plan, ‘tactics’ focuses on the nitty gritty move-by-move flow of a battle and is usually reactive in nature, seeing players (or military commanders) responding to shifts in the tide of combat. Meanwhile, in terms of narrative and character progression the genre draws heavily from the role playing (RPG) genre.

The meat of a tactics game comes from its systemic depth, rather than huge realistically rendered environments, meaning a few well designed maps strung together with thoughtful cutscenes and narrative can deliver a surprisingly satisfying and rounded experience

Seen as something of an old fashioned genre, tactics games fell out of favour as the industry continued to embrace more action oriented genres, but have seen something of a renaissance in the last year or so. This is thanks in no small part to the joint successes of Firaxis’ masterful remake of the beloved XCOM franchise, which proved that the genre was viable territory for a large scale publisher, and the latest entry into the Fire Emblem series, Fire Emblem: Awakening, which became something of system seller for Nintendo’s 3DS. With the floodgates open, a host of tactical games have now moved into fighting range, not least thanks to the impact of Kickstarter on small scale videogame production.

Guerrilla warfare: Tactics on Kickstarter

The poster child for Kickstarter tactics games has to be the recently released The Banner Saga by Stoic, which has wowed audiences with its bold aesthetic, a homage to 1970s era Disney cell animation. This, along with the less frequently explored Viking setting, provides a captivatingly fresh take on the genre. The Banner Saga is set in a dying world in which the sun has frozen in the sky, creating a perpetual, existential daytime (French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre often linked limbo to interminable Sunday afternoons). Meanwhile the world has been set upon by mechanical golems called the Dredge, not dissimilar to the robots found in Hayao Miyazaki’s Laputa: Castle in the Sky, another clear reference point for the art style.

The story alternates between two caravans of desperate humans and Varl, a giant race with an uneasy history with the world of men. As these long processions of people and oxen move slowly toward one another, fluctuating in size, they are dwarfed by the sublime mountainous landscapes; framed like shots in a Sergio Leone or Kurosawa film. It’s through these aesthetic choices, which reference classic works of cinema, that this relatively short game derives its sense of epic grandeur.

Casualties are inevitable, but getting to grips with the game's subtle character skill system will help your chances
Casualties are inevitable, but getting to grips with the game’s subtle character skill system will help your chances

It’s not only the game’s art style that carries the bulk of the story, but also its mechanics. Like many tactics games the game draws on an RPG inspired experience system to develop your troops; along with the general difficulty of encounters, the small ratio of experience points versus the many things they can be spent on builds a sense of tension that aptly reflects the dire straits the game’s characters find themselves in. As does the finite supply of rations that steadily tick down as you move through the wasted land. Meanwhile outside of the battles, stark decisions need to be made through a ‘choose your own adventure’ style story presentation. Like many tactics games, The Banner Saga seeks to give its core gameplay more drama by providing a meta game that provides context for and decisions that bleed into the battles.

The battles themselves take place on small grids with no terrain, refreshingly laying the emphasis firmly on unit placement, particularly so when the larger Varl units take up four tiles instead of one. The game alternates unit movement between the player and the Dredge and each unit possesses a single passive and active skill, which, though simple, can often turn the tide of battle. The game’s biggest twist on tactical combat, however, is the fact that a unit’s strength and health is one and the same stat, meaning the more damage your units take, the less damage they do in return. The emphasis in so many tactics games is to focus your attacks on a few enemy units to take them out of the fight before they can hit back, but here it often makes more sense to spread your attacks over multiple enemies to effectively neuter them. It takes a while to get your head around this clever quirk, which radically changes up the gameplay formula, and the game can often be a little obtuse with explaining its systems, but when you do figure it out, you realise how such a seemingly subtle change can make for an incredibly different experience.

Squad level combat: Small studios embrace tactics

The big advantage of the tactical genre is its low production cost threshold, consequently games can be made in a shorter space of time and a fraction of the budget and team size of most games. Yet despite this, the ratio of cost to length stays rather generously in the longevity side of the equation, with many entries in the genre smashing the 40 hour mark without having to resort to such well trodden indie strategies as procedurally generated content or pixel art presentation. This is because the meat of a tactics game comes from its systemic depth, rather than huge realistically rendered environments, meaning a few well designed maps strung together with thoughtful cutscenes and narrative can deliver a surprisingly satisfying and rounded experience.

Work in progress on one of Massive Chalice's maps
Work in progress on one of Massive Chalice’s maps

This all makes it a viable choice for companies used to working on a smaller scale, which goes some way towards explaining why so many studios known for their efforts in the point and click genre are now working on tactics titles. Following their success with the Broken Age Kickstarter, and building on his own tactics experience with Iron Brigade, Double Fine’s Brad Muir pitched Massive Chalice, a game that takes place over several hundred years, meaning the player will need to develop their kingdom and breed new warriors in between the usual squad based tactical encounters. This looks like it could lead to an interesting tension between retaining high level characters on the battle field or essentially retiring them to stud, in the hopes that they’ll pass some of that genetic material to the next generation. This will make striking a balance between short term and long term benefits essential. Taking the lead from the transparent lens that Broken Age was produced under, Brad has been leading regular live team streams, where he and the core team openly discuss development and show the work in progress, even down to the granular level of balancing character stats.

One of Battle Worlds Kronos' sprawling fights
One of Battle Worlds Kronos’ sprawling fights

Meanwhile King Art Games, who recently produced the charming episodic whodunnit adventure game The Raven, came from Kickstarter with Battle Worlds Kronos, a kind of tactical take on Command and Conquer, which sees you building bases and armies on huge hex maps using a turn-based system. Battleworlds Kronos features an interesting take on character activation, with each unit having two different actions attached to it including move and attack, but could also have a wild card action that can be used for anything. Large maps with rich graphics and many units make for lengthy campaigns, with fairly punishing AI, although the combat is thankfully deterministic, meaning a unit will deliver a predictable amount of damage. Deterministic outcomes usually make for a more strategic, rather than luck based experience, placing the emphasis on clever positioning of troops. A clean interface that clearly shows enemy movement and attack ranges, much like Fire Emblem: Awakening, which also uses deterministic resolution, emphasises tactical positioning and zooming out will seamlessly shift to a tactical overlay similar to the one found in Civilization V or the underrated real time strategy game R.U.S.E.

Blackguards' RPG setting ensures the obligatory tavern brawl
Blackguards’ RPG setting ensures the obligatory tavern brawl

Even fellow German studio Daedalic Entertainment, who have probably become most associated with the point and click adventure genre in recent years following a string of titles including A New Beginning, the Deponia series and The Whispered World, have gotten in on the act with their new release Blackguards. Like Baldur’s Gate before it, Daedalic have taken the wise choice of basing their game off of a pre-existing tabletop system, rather than building one from scratch. But rather than stick to the well trodden ground of D&D, their source is the slightly more exotic The Dark Eye, a German RPG which has been in existence since 1984. Over the last thirty years The Dark Eye’s setting of Aventuria has developed into a complex and well realised fantasy world, in which Daedalic have already produced two recent adventure games (Chains of Satinav and Memoria). Although the tabletop rules were only translated into English with the Fourth edition in 2003, the English speaking world’s first encounter with the IP was a series of PC games under the Realms of Arkania moniker in the early nineties and the rule set was later used in Drakensang: The Dark Eye in 2008, so Daedalic’s release ties into a tradition of expanding the reach of The Dark Eye through videogames.

Whilst most tactics games abstract or filter information in some form, Blackguards immediately makes it apparent that it is going to be an unapologetically complex experience

The first thing that is apparent when playing Blackguards, aside from its unremittingly dark tone, is the depth of its systems. The use of tabletop terminology (your stat screen is labelled as ‘character sheet’) and the presence of dice rolls to describe damage ranges, make it clear this is based on a pen and paper system, as do the labyrinthine skill trees and talent lists, all of which are rather dauntingly visible from the start. Whilst most tactics games abstract or filter information in some form, Blackguards immediately makes it apparent that it is going to be an unapologetically complex experience, which will likely prove too great a hurdle for those testing their feet in the tactical waters after Fire Emblem. It also seems that there is no attempt to trim the skill trees based on the character class the player has (games like Diablo III give you a balanced and unique set of abilities to play with for each character), which means it could be easy to paint yourself into a corner or over dilute your character by throwing points into inappropriate stats.

Add to the complicated systems (many of which remain partly opaque even after the tutorials and tooltips have done their work) some pretty challenging encounters and steep difficulty curves, and you have something approaching the Dark Souls of the genre, which certainly isn’t a bad thing. Whether the game will attract a fanbase as dedicated as that game remains to be seen, making this a risky first step into the genre, but one that could potentially be a rewarding one for player and developer alike.

The remake of Tactics Ogre received a welcome overhaul of its script amongst other things
The remake of Tactics Ogre received a welcome overhaul of its script amongst other things

The advance guard: Where it all started

For me the Tactics genre will always be synonymous with designer Yasumi Matsuno, who developed two of the most influential entries: Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together in 1995 and Final Fantasy Tactics released in 1997 on PSX. Tactics Ogre uses a fixed rotatable isometric presentation, that has aged better than the now garish 3D of games like Shining Force 3 and Vandal Hearts, and Matsuno drew on medieval European influences to create a more grounded, realistic setting. Indeed its darkly mature narrative, said to be inspired by the Yugoslav wars and ethnic cleansing in Bosnia, and the forking path of its narrative driven by real moral choices that change the direction of the story in fundamental ways, mark the game as truly ahead of its time. Even when it was reissued on PSP in 2010, complete with a system that allowed players to revisit pivotal points in the story to explore the alternative branches, it felt disconcertingly modern. Meanwhile Final Fantasy Tactics, in addition to providing an epic narrative even more deep and morally complex than Tactics Ogre, leveraged the job system developed in the mainline Final Fantasy games to deliver a fantastic system for developing your characters that allowed for maximum flexibility and specialisation.

Shining Force 3 fully embraced 3D textures
Shining Force 3 fully embraced 3D textures

Meanwhile on the Saturn, Sega’s own tactics series Shining Force, which began life in 1991 with a first person dungeon crawler called Shining in the Darkness, had reached its third instalment and made the transition to 3D. Like the Final Fantasy series and many other long running RPG series, Shining Force 3 had evolved from the simplistic storytelling of its origins to a plot full of political intrigue, religious factions and warring states. The Shining Force series is thought to have originated many of the genre’s basic systems, which are used and developed in games like Final Fantasy Tactics, and Shining Force 3 also features a friendship system in which units confer stat bonuses to one another much like Fire Emblem. Shining Force 3 remains a favourite amongst fans of the series, many of whom believe it’s high time Sega considered it for a remake.

Meanwhile the two biggest defining characteristics in the long running Fire Emblem series are its permadeath system, in which characters who fall in battle are lost forever, and, since its third outing Monshō no Nazo in 1994, a relationship system. Although it has altered slightly from game to game, the system can be best described by the phrase ‘a couple that slays together stays together’, as it sees units who pair up on the battlefield develop their affection for one another. A combination of characters that form real bonds with one another and the threat of permadeth makes for a fascinatingly tense take on the genre, which has been further enhanced in Fire Emblem: Awakening with hundreds of individual cut scenes between characters.

UFO: Enemy Unknown featured building multiple bases
UFO: Enemy Unknown featured building multiple bases

Outside of Japan, tactics was being explored in a very different way by western developers Mythos and Microprose in the form of the XCOM series, which launched with UFO: Enemy Unknown in 1994, exchanging the whimsical chivalry of JRPG fantasy settings with Arthur C Clark inspired hard sci-fi, and moving the emphasis from romping around a battlefield with a sword, to managing reams and reams of statistics, data and resources. Base building, research and managing the world’s opinion of the XCOM project were just as central to the games as getting out there and shooting little green men in the corn fields. It’s almost as if the developers didn’t want you to have any fun as you set about saving the world and gamers, gluttons for punishment as we are, loved it.

However, perhaps the longest running western tactics genre, and one that clings most closely to a fantasy tradition, is the Heroes of Might and Magic series, developed by Jon Van Caneghem at New World Computing, as well as its spiritual precursor King’s Bounty (1990). Canegham helmed the series until its fourth mainline entry, when the studio was closed down and the series found its way into the hands of Ubisoft. The most highly thought of and influential title in the series is Heroes of Might and Magic III. These games see players exploring huge maps with heroes heading up armies, scouring the landscape for trinkets that are packed into every crevice, and engaging in pitched turn based battles. Meanwhile towns can be built and upgraded to spout more and more soldiers and creatures. Like XCOM, Heroes of Might and Magic lays much more emphasis on the macro level of its real time strategy, exploration and base building, rather than the nuts and bolts micro management of battles that Japanese tactics games embraced. This remains a stark point of contrast between Japanese and Western takes on the genre.

XCOM: Enemy Unknown's modern graphics, cover system and dynamic cut aways made tactics sexy again
XCOM: Enemy Unknown’s modern graphics, cover system and dynamic cut almost made tactics sexy again

Renewed hostilities: The rebirth of the genre

Firaxis’ recent resurrection of the XCOM series, drawing on their not insignificant experience with strategy games like Civilization, captured the spirit of the original whilst they significantly streamlined gameplay. Laying the emphasis more on the away missions and the growing strength of your soldiers, Firaxis fed that into the meta game of building your base and managing the global threat level through satellites. The tactical and strategic elements of the game are perfectly fused: you rip technology from the cold dead hands of little green men during your global sojourns, which you research and make your own back at the base, eventually fighting the aliens back with their own weapons. In our interview with designer Ananda Gupta, he discusses this gameplay loop amongst other things.

Unlike Fire Emblem: Awakening, which clearly defines how much damage you will do before you attack, XCOM is based on a hidden dice roll to give a damage range and attacks are all based on percentage chances, meaning things will sometimes not go as planned (furthermore the game saves the random number seed used to determine the outcome of the attack, meaning that reloading the game and taking the same action will result in the same outcome). Rather than frustrating, this locked in uncertainty seems to tie in with the game’s theme of battling an unknown threat.

Advanced Squad Leader, which is notorious for its complexity
Advanced Squad Leader, which is notorious for its complexity

Of course tactics games are heavily indebted to the world of table top gaming. Strategic miniatures and chit based war games, like Advanced Squad Leader, have been around for decades, and have seen their popularity soar recently, with dozens of Kickstarted projects broaching the million dollar threshold and new companies beginning to challenge established brands thanks to crowd funding and cheaper component production methods. What videogames bring to the table, so to speak, beyond intricate narratives and pretty graphics, is for the administrative book keeping to be mitigated by the computer, which can handle all of the troublesome sums and fiddly rule sets these games are famed for. No wonder high street megalith Games Workshop has recently felt the time is right to issue a computer version of their cult table top strategy game Space Hulk, no doubt building off the momentum of XCOM. Meanwhile Privateer Press, one of the newer companies, are also going down this route by developing a tactics videogame based off their popular Warmachine system.

Table top RPG Shadowrun, which had some well loved outings on the SNES and Megadrive, has also made a comeback to videogames in the form of Shadowrun Returns by Harebrained Schemes. The game uses a movement system similar to XCOM: Enemy Unknown, but with some original twists provided by the fantasy-meets-cyberpunk game world’s outlandish range of classes (Deckers can plug directly into the matrix to control the environment, whist Shamans control powerful spirits which can potentially backfire and become rogue agents). The strong emphasis on roleplaying and the fact that the game ships with a sophisticated game editor promises a potentially endless quantity of user generated content. But Hairbrained Schemes aren’t just counting on the audience to do all the work; they are also supporting the game, with their recent DLC Dragonfall arguably surpassing the base game.

Not satisfied with hexes or squares, Yasumi Matsuno is seeking to mix things up by introducing triangles
Not satisfied with hexes or squares, Yasumi Matsuno is seeking to mix things up by introducing triangles

Yasumi Matsuno is also making a comeback into the genre he helped to build with his newly Kickstarted project Unsung Hero: Tale of the Guardians, in which he will bring his characteristic storytelling depth to a new fantasy setting, episodically exploring both sides of an epic 77 year struggle between kingdoms. Interestingly the game is being made by Playdek, a studio that have made their name in recent years making exquisite ports of popular hobby board games to iPad (Lords of Waterdeep, Agricola, Summoner Wars). Although this is their first original game, making it an ambitious foray into videogames proper, the studio’s firm grounding in developing the systems for some deeply tactical board games makes them a good fit for the project. Additionally French board game designer Christophe Boelinger is working with Matsuno on a card game to accompany the release, tying the two together in an interesting way. Boelinger is responsible for the quirky tactics game Dungeon Twister and the brilliantly complex Archipelago, which manages to mix cooperation and backstabbing perfectly as players compete to create the wealthiest colony whilst working together to keep down the native population.

In conclusion, with Kickstarter and small scale development on the one hand and renewed interest in large scale publishers like 2K, things are looking pretty good for the tactics genre, which has for so long only been considered for non-canonical offshoots of established series (i.e. Fallout Tactics) or of interest to a super geeky niche subset of gamers interested in Japanese RPGs or spreadsheets.

Tactical games are interesting because they operate at a different pace to most games, giving you the time to think long and hard about deep systems and individual actions, rather than the frenetic reflex driven nature of most videogames. And yet, unlike grand strategy games such as Civilization and Europa Universalis, they maintain the unit level focus that is essential for a strong character driven narrative.

5 to try

Final Fantasy Tactics: The War of the Lions

A masterpiece of the genre and one of the finest works of game designer Yasumi Matsuno, this PSP revision of Final Fantasy Tactics not only lovingly polishes the game, but adds some of the most jaw droppingly beautiful cut scenes ever conceived (courtesy of illustrator Akihiko Yoshida, a long time Matsuno collaborator), fully voice-acted and rendered in ethereal pastel shades. There’s some irksome slowdown during certain spell animations, but the pros of this update massively outweigh the cons. As with all of Matsuno’s games the localisation is a stunning achievement, managing to be archaic, even Shakespearian, without slipping into the usual clichés (the game was retranslated by Tom Slattery).

XCOM: Enemy Unknown

Few could have imagined that Firaxis’ remake of the Microprose classic could have had such an impact. Whilst retaining the spirit of the original, every aspect has been overhauled and modernised, resulting in a truly immersive experience that will be a benchmark for the genre for years to come, just as the original was.

Fire Emblem: Awakening

When you consider that there are over 30 playable characters in the game and each is capable of having uniquely scripted (and usually very interesting) support conversations with every other character, potentially resulting in marriage and a child, who in turn can have unique conversations, you start to realise the scale of Fire Emblem’s meta-game. Along with its brilliant deterministic battle system, which means that you only have yourself to blame for each hero’s untimely death, the game creates believable bonds between characters, creating an emergent narrative like no other.

The Banner Saga

The Banner Saga’s elegant aesthetic that draws on cinematic classics from Walt Disney and Hayao Miyazaki, to Akira Kurosawa and Sergio Leone, underscores and emphasises the game’s inherent sense of tension. Meanwhile a few simple tweaks to the tactics formula completely alters the way you play, making The Banner Saga an important example of how a tried and tested genre can be subtly but fundamentally overhauled.

Valkyria Chronicles

Set in an alternative Europe during a war similar to that of World War II, Valkria Chronicles, published by SEGA, represents a high budget entry into the turn based genre, scrapping grid movement for close up, third person perspective, rendered in gorgeous cell shaded art. Valkyria Chronicles remains one of PS3’s most interesting exclusives and attempted to take the genre in a fresh direction. A bold experiment with a charming story, the game was a little before its time, but undoubtedly blazed the trail for modern tactics games such as XCOM: Enemy Unknown.


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