I’ve been playing more than my fair share of strategy games lately and I’ve got something to say about it. The two games I’ve been deeply involved in are Stellaris and Total War: Warhammer. They’re similar in many ways, but strikingly different in their implementation of combat. But before we get into the nitty gritty details of why we’re here, let me just say that I hate to lose and that’s what brought me here today. Losing.
This is my first experience with the Total War franchise, so I apologize if I come across as a total newb. But let’s be honest, I am a total newb so that shouldn’t come as a total surprise. There are subtle nuances in both Stellaris and Total War. Specifics in how you manage your resources. How you build out and expand your empire. How you manage Happiness or Public Order. I’ve found that early on in Stellaris it’s important to put heavy emphasis on your industry and economy. Build out that capability first and then focus on your military later. I’ve loosely applied a similar philosophy to Total War and I have yet to put the hundreds of hours in that I’d need to assess whether that’s a universally good philosophy.
Early in my playthroughs of Stellaris I got caught up building out my military with every capability possible. I used and researched Kinetic weapons, and missiles, and lasers. I tried to have a balanced approach so I couldn’t ever be totally nullified by someone with good point defense or excellent shields. In doing so I drove myself nuts though and I was terribly inefficient. I learned that even though the advanced players of the game may talk about catering your military forces to counteract the strengths of your enemies, it makes far more sense for me to just focus on one technology and move down that path with purpose.
In my playthroughs I’ve focused on one weapon type, and I build out shields and armor as they come along, usually starting with shields. I try to make sure I have some point defense in my fleets, and I try to have some torpedos since they penetrate shields entirely. Beyond that I’m focused and I don’t worry at all about changing my fleet makeup to cater to my neighbors. It’s just too complicated and it isn’t something I enjoy. Total War though is another matter altogether.
Stellaris combat though is relatively simple. You point your fleet at something and then you watch. There’s no way to control anything after you’ve engaged your enemy, except after 30 days has passed you’re able to Retreat if possible. Combat in Total War on the other hand requires you to control the battle moment to moment much like a tabletop RPG with foam hills and toothpick trees. You place your troops on hills or in the trees. You cover them with hidden reinforcements. You’ve got to know that this army is ranged heavy, or that army has flying units.
My innately balanced approach isn’t serving me incredibly well though. I’ve done decently, but I think this game requires a far slower more methodical approach than I’ve been taking. Armies are terribly expensive and you can really only field one or two until much later into the game. I expanded too quickly and couldn’t defend or support my lands. I’m at war with almost everyone. I got myself boxed into a canyon with enemies on both sides and lost an entire army.
I’ve rambled some here, but this is the point I’m driving at. These games need to be much better about teaching you during the game. I’ve had to learn everything the hard way in these games. I’ve watched countless Stellaris Youtube videos, and I may have to watch a similarly large number of Total War videos too. The games aren’t very accessible as a result. For someone who isn’t willing to put the time in on Youtube, or worse, someone who isn’t willing to lose repeatedly trying to learn from their own mistakes … this game will be completely avoided.
Games need to develop a way for the difficulty in the game to morph and adjust to the player. There should be options on whether you want the game to coddle you or not, teach you or not, or just decently challenge you while leading you to victory. The threat of losing should be real, so I’m not trying to argue that it should be impossible to lose … quite the contrary. If you lose, the game should explain to you what mistakes you made and things to consider next time.
I know we’re a long ways off from this, but many of these games would benefit greatly from an ongoing and in depth learning tool. The tutorials or Tips that most games offer are woefully unable to meet the educational needs of these strategy games. Your players shouldn’t need to be intimately familiar with your games to enjoy every aspect of your game. Welcome newcomers. Teach them all the wonderful things you put in the game. You’re missing out on opportunities left and right to not only pick up new players, but to further engage your current users as well.