Alright, I’ve given the matter of Battle Authorization a significant amount of thought, and I’ve come up with something which I feel will allow the interesting tactics I mentioned above without enforcing a lot of special-case rules. I’ve been thinking a fair bit lately about how as much as possible should operate under the same uniform set of rules (I’m actually in favour of having only one victory condition: sole-survivor). This model is the ultimate embodiment of that principal, in terms of the tactical interface.
You’re not going to like it at first, I don’t think (whoever “you” ends up being), but I didn’t come to this conclusion lightly, and as you continue reading through and consider the implications this has for strategic and tactical gameplay, I think you’ll be able to see past the fact that this is a significant departure from a lot of unchallenged assumptions that just about everyone has regarding the role of the tactical interface.
The solution to the problem, which will allow all the strategic and tactical interest I mentioned in my above posts, is this: All action that occurs in a system takes place on the tactical map, under the same rules as ordinary combat, regardless of how many players are present (bear in mind that this doesn’t preclude the possibility of AI resolving system action for you, just that it will always take place on the tactical map).
In other words, a fleet holding position in a system takes place on the tactical map. A fleet moving through the system uncontested happens on the tactical map. A fleet bombarding a completely defenseless planet happens on the tactical map.
... I told you you weren’t going to like it... At any rate, there are obviously certain other aspects of the combat system that need to be addressed in relation to this principle. For starters,
Combat Authorization and When to Fight
I think we have all pretty much agreed that in multiplayer, from the start of the game, there are a set, player-selected number of battles the player can control per quantum.
In this case, there would be a certain number of system actions the player can choose to control per turn (SA points, for clarity, even if it’s a silly name). If the player wanted to manually control his fleet passing through a system for example, because he thought there may be cloaked ships hiding there, he has that option, but it costs an SA point, just like any other system action.
This means that the player also needs to define prioritized goals for each system action, each turn, as if it were a combat. This isn’t nearly as bad as it sounds though, because
- default orders for a fleet which has not moved since last quantum will be identical to the orders which they were given last quantum, and
- systems in which new objects are detected are clearly distinguished - via graphical indicators and list-sorting - from systems in which the situation has not changed at all since last quantum. (“New objects” includes your own forces, since that might make the player re-evaluate what he wants to do in that system. Systems where the player’s forces are the only things that changed however, should be distinguished from systems where objects unowned by the empire have changed/become visible.)
So this means that I don’t actually have to give orders to every single fleet in every single system every single turn - only the ones in which something interesting is actually going on. That is to say, when a fleet enters a system, you give it an order once and don’t even have to think about it, much less click about it, until something new happens in that system to draw attention to it. Thank goodness - I don’t actually have to micromanage every system in which I have a fleet stationed.
Ironically, the big problem with this isn’t in multiplayer, since each player still has a predefined number of SA points (though there is a problem in multiplayer too, and it’s actually very elegantly solved by the same mechanism that solves the single-player problem).
The big problem is in single-player, when the player will be compelled to manually control every single action in case he is engaged by stealthy forces.
The solution to this is a special rule for a situation in which a fleet is assaulted by stealthy forces which were not previously known to be in the system (I know I said that this system avoids special-case rules, but this is a rule for manual control of combat, not for strategic or tactical gameplay itself, so it doesn’t count at all, in any way, as the kind of special rule I was talking about earlier). Since there are no other players, and therefore nobody to keep waiting, it is entirely feasible for a given system action to occur automatically until forces belonging to a new empire (“new” meaning “not previously known to be present in the system") are detected, at which point  the combat in which the new empire is detected [/edit] is paused, and brought to the player’s attention  as soon as he is finished with his current combat [/edit], so that he can re-evaluate whether or not he wants to continue auto-resolution.
Usually, the player will choose to manually control the battle for at least a few turns, to see if there are more cloaked vessels, destroy the vessels he can detect, and try to discern any additional threat, then leave the rest of the system action to the AI (which should be possible at any time, in single-player or multi-player).
Note that if all assets (known to the player’s empire) belonging to a particular empire are destroyed, or leave combat through a starlane, that empire is considered to no longer be a part of the combat, and if any new ships belonging to that empire become visible, the player is notified once again (because that empire qualifies as a “new” empire), and can go back into the combat in question to re-evaluate the situation.
Now, there is a problem that needs to be solved in multi-player as well: Players are compelled to use all of their SA points, even if it’s totally unnecessary, just in case something important happens in one of the random system actions they chose that they should be aware of. This leads to maxed out combat time, every turn, on boring non-actions. Not fun. The surprisingly elegant solution to this is to simply apply the above rule in cases where the player who detects a “new” empire in a system still has some remaining SA points. This will effectively discourage the player from using up all of his system actions on random junk like passing through an empty system, because if he does waste them like that, he actually won’t be able to control his fleets while they are really being intercepted by cloaked ships. In essence, it actually encourages to player to save his SA points in case something comes up, which will end up decreasing total combat time per turn. (Edit: It's better if the combat manager works so that the player who is alerted of the new presence can be brought into the battle at any time, since he won't be in a combat when that can happen /edit)
In addition, the amount of time spent by the intercepting player in pause while waiting for the intercepted player to become available would be no greater, and in fact less that the amount of time he would have had to spend waiting around before the combat even started anyway, if the intercepted player had to be in the combat from the beginning (edit: should that player choose to manually resolve the combat. If he would have just auto-resolved, this actually does take more time. However, it is still preferable that this situation never come up, due to good combat scheduling /edit). Thank goodness once again - players won’t actually be spending any more time in combat than they would have otherwise; they’ll actually be spending less time in combat, because part of the combat between two empires can occur while one of them is engaged in another battle.
Presumably, this rule would also be applied if there was no set system action per turn limit in a multi-player game, ie all players have infinite SA points.
Battle Quanta (or Action Quanta, perhaps?)
On each Battle Quantum in which something is detected to have changed, the player is taken to the screen with the big list of all systems in which he currently has forces. As I’ve explained, no extra thought or clicking is given to the systems in which there is nothing new to report. What happens though, when there are systems in which the player could potentially take action, but nothing has changed which the player can detect?
Obviously, not all the quanta can just be auto-end-turned through just because there are no combats. But 9 out of 10 can be. If there is nothing which has changed in a system in the first quantum, the player can just click “continue”, and the quanta will auto-end-turn until something new is detected. If the player doesn’t want to do anything, this totals to a single extra thought and a single extra click (has anything changed? No. Continue). If the player does want to do something, well, he has the opportunity to do so, as he should.
Should the player, for whatever reason, want to take a system action in a different battle quantum (for example, reinforcements will be arriving the following quantum, and he wants to start the assault before they arrive, but not so long after that they can’t give timely reinforcement), but no new forces will be arriving in the system that quantum (and therefore the auto-end-turn would just roll by it, if nothing is detected in that quantum), he has the option to click “continue to quantum X” instead of plain old “continue”, in which case auto-end-turn would roll by until either something new is detected, or until the specified quantum came up, whichever happens first. This allows plenty of options for the player without a lot of extra clicks.
So I’ve explained in great detail how my system would work, and in doing so, a lot of the benefits of this system are implicit, but I’d still like to clarify exactly how this will improve the player’s experience:
- Players cannot be arbitrarily drawn into “combat” with an unseen enemy, who chooses not to show himself for the entire combat
- There do not need to be any special rules for colonization, bombardment, dropping troops and spies or the amount of time it takes to pass through a system, since these things are built into the system itself and take place according to exactly the same set of rules as all other in-system action
- Cloaked ships have a more interesting tactical advantage over unaware ships passing through a system, colonizing a planet, etc. since they can choose to engage the ships anywhere on their flight path without having previously alerted the other empire to their presence by summoning the emperor into combat
- No additional time is spent in combat in multi-player games - in fact, less time is spent because it is possible to resolve part of a combat without the presence of one or more of the empires involved
- If the player wants, he can observe the mundane actions of his fleet until he eventually gets tired of the majestic view of his ships flying through a system; it offers potential for a bit of in-character diversion, though the player is by no means compelled for any strategic reason to “waste” (a subjective term) his time in this way
There are probably more advantages that I haven’t thought of, since unifying everything under a single set of rules tends to iron out difficulties before you even know they exist.
At any rate, this is probably a huge digression from everyone’s assumptions about “combat”, but I feel that there are really significant advantages to this system, with no (as far as I can tell) obvious drawbacks, aside from an extra click here and there. Although my knowledge of the 4x space genre is certainly less than complete, I don’t know of any 4X space strategy game that uses this method, so while this would be a bold move for FreeOrion, it would, in my opinion, be an extremely rewarding one.
Warning: Antarans in dimensional portal are closer than they appear.
Last edited by Bigjoe5 on Wed Feb 17, 2010 8:52 pm, edited 2 times in total.