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4x games have become incredibly bloated and need to learn from boardgames

Gamingtodaynews1g - 4x games have become incredibly bloated and need to learn from boardgames

Full disclosure, I'm stealing this idea from /u/kawaiisocks based on this comment and I think it warrants discussion as a topic.

4x games, for those who don't know, are large scale strategy games that see players (typically) managing an empire and engaging in war, diplomacy, trade, exploration, and resource exploitation to drive economies and military engines. The namesake is originally short for "EXplore, EXpand, EXploit and EXterminate" but they're also often known as grand strategy games.

The most common examples are the Civilization series as well as many of Paradox's games (Stellaris, Crusader Kings, Europa Universalis) – at least among video games.

I personally like these types of games, to a point, I always get very excited to play them and then after a couple hours come to the unfortunate conclusion that I don't know what I'm doing anymore. My play quickly starts to lack intentionality outside of a vague attempt to expand. Intentionality is essentially informed decision making, allowing you to decide based on intent rather than whim, randomness, or make decisions that go against your intent due to a lack of information.

Decisions in these games are important, but too often I find myself defaulting to a non-decision because the consequences are unclear and difficult to comprehend. Cause and effect is very difficult to parse without intimate game knowledge, and suboptimal decisions seem to not matter much until it's too late.

I'm sure many have similar experiences. A "I had no idea this was going to be a problem 30 turns ago," and not because like someone declared a surprise war on you – simple stuff that really should be predictable but aren't because our minds become fatigued by an overload of information – no matter how many explanations and tooltips the games offer. And hell, some mechanics are straight up hidden. The games rely on computers to do hundreds of different calculations with many diverse and large numbers that are no problem for computers, but my feeble human mind can't wrap itself around them all. There are too many things, how can anyone fully comprehend the consequences of their or their opponent's actions in any given game? This causes player actions, aside from a few very dedicated fans, to lack intentionality.

Board games do not have this problem because they cannot rely on computers as administrators, everything must be comprehensible to the players or else the game does not work

This initially comes across as a major limitation, but I find it incredibly liberating at the same time. It means designers have to make a game that players need to understand how each mechanic works in its entirety and regularly keep in mind. This means a ton of the fat is cut and numbers and admin is kept manageable (ideally, some still fail at this).

Twilight Imperium is one of the largest board games out there. It clocks in at around an 8-12 hour playtime. Victory is decided one way: Who gets to 10 (or 14) points first. You can at most get one to three points in a single turn, with the largest point gains being open knowledge. Despite its massive size, it is incredibly slim compared to most video game 4x games.

Twilight Imperium is an epic space opera about politics, trade, and conquest. It features dozens of races with unique playstyles – it is has a rulebook with some 100 different items. People start in a home system and expand out, trying to remain King of the Hill to gain points (just one method of several) in a space that's too small, yet war is too costly, leaving players in an uneven tension trying to control as much space as possible without becoming weak. It's massive, yet even on a first playthrough – though there is a significant learning curve – players can act with intentionality. It's not because the game is simple, it's not, but it is manageable and comprehensible.


In Civ VI I couldn't tell you how to get to certain techs, I'd have to consult the tech tree which I can never memorize. It takes many turns to get there, how many? Don't know. Based on what? Science buildings. How many? Don't know. Depends on how many cities and other techs I have. And if I get inspirations for others.

In TI4 – how do I get the top of the line red tech? Have three other red techs or (there's four total) or a combination of that and one or more of the planets with red tech bonuses. That's it – easy to plan for, if I want something, I know how to get it. When do I get that tech? Well, if I can get a "gain technology" action off (which happens regularly, but has costs associated) I can get one tech – so if I beeline it for that red tech, I can get there in like four rounds. Or – if I grab a red tech planet, three rounds! Ah, and the war sun requires three red, one green, one yellow – so if I really try I can unlock this super powerful unit within six rounds and be a menace, potentially.

Now that's not a great strategy, most of the time war suns aren't bothered with because the cost is high – but they do offer a real clear advantage. The important thing I'm trying to show here is that mentally calculating a plan is relatively easy. Plans rarely hold together with the changing landscape, but you can make them, you can act with intent – you can say "I want this, this is cool" and visualize the path to it. Where there is uncertainty is combat, and that uncertainty is due to the nature of dice rolls being unpredictable – but this is to the game's benefit. The game's deliberate with its uncertainty, allowing the possibility for unexpected defeats and victories, making the decision to initiate a conflict a known gamble.

What's also uncertain is how the other players will act and what you can or cannot convince them of. Everyone is different, but figuring it out requires engaging with the players. This is great! This is what you play a social game for after all. You're not here to try to figure out how some obtuse AI calculates their decisions, you're seeing if your friend is going to hold a grudge over that last battle. You can sort of do this with video games, but I find most 4x games deemphasize this. Board games are, by nature, more open with information – and they typically play into this. Again, it allows one to act with intentionality – I might not be aware of what will happen, but I can make educated predictions and play around that possibility space. There's only a few spaces I have to worry about, not literally hundreds of tiles with fog of war over them.

TL;DR: Board games are actually mentally manageable by nature, or at least are intended to be. Video games have gotten away with letting their mechanics and admin bloat to a degree where grand strategy and 4x games require either expertise or being okay with not making informed decisions most of the time. And I don't believe this is to the benefit of these 4x games, I believe it makes them bloated and frustrating once the novelty wears off and you're tasked with dozens of fiddly mechanics that the game doesn't even expect you to know, but are impactful.

Sorry about the rambling. This could absolutely be better organized. But eh.

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