The prevailing thinking behind many strategy games over time has been to not reveal too much information to the player. Give them the black box, hold information back, and then figuring out the model of your strategy game becomes an engaging moment-to-moment game in and of itself. I remember playing dozens of hours of Civilization II, figuring out optimal strategy. Each round, each victory, I’d raise the difficulty, playing with fewer benefits, and subconsciously understand more and more of the black box, the tactics, tech, units, wonders and strategies the designers had created and put into that black box. It was a lot of fun.
In the last couple of years, two of the biggest indie success stories have come from turn based tactics gaming, and both of these games have thrown the black box out. I think there’s a design lesson in that.
Slay the Spire is a turn-based collectible card roguelike game. It sounds like just spinning two random dials of the indie game wheel until “CCG” and “Roguelike” pop out but it is has surprising depth to it. The main designer was a pro Netrunner player and its design influences show. Developer Mega Crit deserve a lot of credit. Slay the Spire is a classic example of easy to learn, difficult to master. Its possibility space is large, the answers the game provides varied, and its compelling gameplay makes you want to come back to it again and again. And I think I know a big reason why.
Into the Breach is a tactical isometric game about big stompy robots and the bugs who
love fight them. It too is an easy to learn, difficult to master system, with large breadth and depth of tactics and compelling gameplay.
What is the thing linking them, besides tight gameplay, seemingly boundless depth, great music, great sound and deep systems? Simple. Perfect information.
In both games, we know the next turn intents of the enemy units before they execute them. Why is this important? Two reasons.
The first is that this makes each turn, each interaction with the enemy into its own mini-puzzle. How to keep all your units alive while taking out the enemies in Into the Breach is compelling moment to moment gameplay. Slay the Spire on the other hand asks you to build a deck that is resilient enough that you can block when the enemy attacks and attack when the enemy buffs (or go infinite, or a dozen other strategies, but let’s keep this discussion simple). This cycle repeats every single turn, giving you a new, interesting puzzle to try to suss out in both games. This checks the “compelling and engaging gameplay” box. StS and ItB are games with puzzles at the heart of them, and puzzles at different levels of granularity. There are moment to moment puzzles like what should I do this turn, that take place within the larger puzzle of, how do I build my deck/mechs to best combat the variety of enemies and encounters I will face. The answers are interesting, but the reason the puzzle is so compelling in the first place is the perfect information.
The second reason is that it means that when the players fail, they can’t blame the black box. It’s not ambiguity or lack of information that is to blame for their failure, but instead it is entirely on them. They know what the enemy is going to do, they have a large and obvious advantage in knowledge. This shifts the focus of failure from- I didn’t guess right, to, my strategy wasn’t good enough. Without ambiguity, the only cause of failure becomes the players themselves. By giving the players this advantage, the gameplay feels fairer (even though it’s just skewed even more in the player’s favor).
If you are making a game that involves moment to moment tactics, it might make sense to look at implementing perfect information into enemy intents. Obviously there is more to the success of these two games than perfect information- both games are brilliant, balanced and deep systems with huge possibility spaces, but the addition of perfect information certainly helps. When players cannot blame anyone but themselves, they can engage with the system more deeply, and give themselves more fully to the experience.