<< Portico: Round Table Post: Genre Blending for Good

9/12/2005

Round Table Post: Genre Blending for Good

One of the challenges in this month's gaming blog roundtable is to take a flawed game and suggest how it could be improved through melding with other genres. This is the challenge that I have taken up. [click on read more for the full deal]

Strategy games in general are genre crossers. Any flight or subsim with a dynamic campaign has a strategic componet - some very explicitly (Secret Weapons of the Luftwaffe). Sports management sims are really business strategy games, and now many action sports titles have "franchise modes." The Celtic Kings series from Haemimont tried to include role-playing elements, but the first was mostly an adventure game in its "campaign mode." We even have an action-RTS on the way (Rise and Fall: Civilizations at War). Has any fantasy strategy game strayed very far from the D&D worldview?

Still, some titles try to ape a similar game and neglect the possibilities beyond their own stated genre. Take the so-flawed-it-hurts Pax Romana. This ancient world strategy game from Galilea by way of Dreamcatcher tried to be Europa Universalis with togas. A big map, lots of diplomatic options, different trade goods, abstracted battles - you could tell that the lead designer worked on the original version of the Paradox classic. The use of "stratagems" (think special power cards) was a minor innovation and has been carried on almost unchanged into Great Invasions.

It also had an excellent political minigame. You would lead a faction in the Republic (divided into anachronistic groups) and campaign for office. There was an effort to balance the prize of political triumph since repeated victories would send your successful candidates overseas to lead armies, depleting political strength at home.

There was never any real identification with your almost faceless horde of backbenchers. They had political and military skills, but you never really had much of an idea who these people were. They had names, of course, but little else. You would play a "wedding" stratagem to convert an enemy to a friend, but there was no real union between the two of you. The senators and equites you courted were little more than chits with different values attached. The factions had marginal differences between them (plutocrats got more money, for example) but there was never a sense that this political game had much connection to what was happening in Rome.

What Pax Romana needed was more role playing. Instead of a faction, you would play a family navigating the treacherous waters of the Forum. You wouldn't necessarily be committed to a faction with set policy; your strength and weakness would depend on how well you and your successors could adapt to the changing demands of the people, the merchants and the army.

Would this work? Look at Crusader Kings. CK is really a role playing strategy game. You have real characters and real families. Greedy vassals hate you because you are honest. Bastard step-children plot against you and your heirs. Crazy relatives start killing people. Now take this role playing and make player success contingent on winning wars to boost popularity, or forging marriage links to ensure electoral success.

The great weakness of the political game in Pax Romana was the sameness of it all. Playing Caesar felt no different from playing Scipio. It didn't matter who the faction leader was, especially since you could easily raise enough legions to trump any military weakness in your generals. Differences between orators and commanders melted away.

In my review of Knights of Honor (CGM July 2005, p.62) I wrote: "If game designers want to personalize decision making, they should give the decision makers personality." Why bother naming the politicians at all if they turn into the same person after a while? The D&D class system is an effort to draw stark lines between character types. In CK, a duke or king with a poor military rating will make the player more reluctant to send him into battle. In Supreme Ruler 2010, your ministers have ideologies that may make them skeptical of your decisions. In Rome: Total War, the piling on of retinue and attributes combine to create a three-dimensional image of a son known only as Lucius the Mad.

Would this be easy to do? No. The already kludgy grand strategy game might have to be further simplified. The entire game shift would be from the "conquer the world" mode to the "accumulate fame and prestige" mode. Considering how few people had anything kind to say about the strategy component of Pax Romana, this might not be a bad thing.

Would this have been enough to save Pax Romana from obscurity and disdain? Likely not. The interface was terrible, the documentation inadequate and the stability absent. Most of this was the result of a rushed release, but some was just poor design.

Would it make the game better? I think so. For many of us fascinated by ancient history, the general rise and fall of great powers is less interesting than the characters who made it so. Would anyone care about Carthage if it weren't for the towering genius of Hannibal? The fall of the Republic is such a compelling time period because we feel we know Caesar and Pompey and Cicero and my old pal Cato Uticensis. By letting the player bend the Mediterranean to his/her will with realistic characters instead of generic chits, Pax Romana could have made this world come alive.

2 Comments:

Anonymous Bruce said...

I dunno man. I'm not sure that I want a lot of backstory to my strategy game characters. Actually I am sure, in the sense that I know I don't want it. Everybody ends up going down the same road once they put personalities in the game, and I end up managing personalities rather that deciding on strategy. Have the factions be abstract and not personalized if it makes the mechanics cleaner.

9/14/2005 12:09:00 AM  
Blogger Troy Goodfellow said...

I certainly wouldn't recommend it for all games. In a straight two or three party election game, it doesn't really matter. And if the game is a casual board game type thing and the guys are just called "Senators", I appreciate the abstraction.

But once you've gone down the road of ascribing motives for the faction, named the politicians, I think that a role playing or team management element would work. Especially in the case of Pax Romana which had so little else going for it.

9/14/2005 09:09:00 AM  

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