Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, an early 20th century writer and aviator, said “a designer knows he has achieved perfection not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.” This is never truer than in designing for mobile, where gamers want something they can pick up and enjoy immediately. Adapting the strategy genre to this type of play is particularly difficult. Strategy games provide a variety of tools and a long-term goal, which can be achieved in a number of ways. Players make big-picture, strategic decisions and more specific, tactical decisions and weighing up the options before choosing the best course of action and then seeing your strategy succeed is the fun part. Strategy games are only enjoyable when the player has understood enough to make smart choices. In mobile games, designers have to strike a balance between simplicity which allows everyone to play the game and complexity which gives rise to interesting decisions.
Advance Wars manages to be so complex and rewarding without putting off its relatively impatient audience by using the simplest design solutions that it can to create multi-layered decisions . The most interesting decisions force the player to choose between successes in different areas – do I lose a base and the corresponding income and ability to recruit certain units here in order to save some units or lose the units but hang onto the base till reinforcements arrive? Advance Wars dispenses with strategy game mainstays which it does not require to create this gameplay: diplomacy (you are permanently allied or at war with each CPU), technology, agents. However it does keep different types of terrain and bases, income and recruiting units, and the effects of your particular general, not to mention of course combat on land, at sea and in the air. This many elements could easily be overwhelming in a handheld game but the balance is struck by introducing them gradually and by only making some elements complex. For example, the settlements: cities, bases, airfields and ports all produce 1000 income per turn and all have 10 hit points which is very straightforward, but each produces a different set of units. The temptation is to give each base type its own rules: “bases should have higher defences than airfields”, “cities should produce more money than bases”, etc. Of course they should and it could add another layer of strategy but if the player will lose the sense that they are correctly weighing up all the options, this is something to take away.
Another balancing act is how much information to display prominently. Advance Wars hides some of its complexity in menus. Civilization 5 does a similar thing, placing some of the heavier and more numerical information where the experienced player can access it easily but the beginner will be unlikely to see it. This helps beginners because if you, the player, need to feel you are doing well – not as simple as your game character/faction succeeding in the tutorial – reams of information that you don’t understand won’t help. Advance Wars masters the trade-off between initial appeal based on how much fun a player can have in their first session, for which simple mechanics are crucial, and lasting appeal, which is often born out of complexity. They keep the complexity at a manageable level cramming as much variety and nuance and emergent strategy into the mechanics they are allowed and letting their dreams of representing the effects of what your general had for breakfast die on the vine. He probably would be more effective with a good bacon sarnie in him but that’s another game entirely.
Military Meals (iOS) will be released on the AppStore next week.