I’ve been thinking recently about one of the major flaws in turn-based strategy games – the end game. How often have you reached a critical point in an epic game where you broke the back of your enemy? There comes a time when you simply know you’ve won, but actually grinding out the victory takes several more turns and since the challenge is gone they aren’t very rewarding in gameplay terms. Thinking about my two favourite strategy game series – Total War and Civilization, we can see different approaches to solving this problem.
The Civilization series has always had this problem. Once you play a few times you know when the game is lost and you know when it is won long before the final cut scene. In single player you’ll just quit and start a new game if you know you’ve lost. This is a big problem for multiplayer Civ, what incentive is there for people to play to the bitter end and let their enemy enjoy a proper victory? The trouble is — there’s no good solution for people quitting in the middle of a game.
When you know you’ve won in the single player it can still take a frustratingly long time to finish off your opponent, especially since the AI will generally fight to the bitter end regardless of how hopeless their situation is. If you like to play on really large maps the problem gets worse. The series has gradually tried to tackle this, partly with better AI, although they’re still far from perfect. The main way they’ve done it is to make the alternative victory conditions genuinely achievable, military domination is not necessarily the best option any more. This means you can have situations where you think you’re headed for glory but there is still a real chance of someone else snatching a last minute win with a different kind of victory. In competitive games, especially when you’re going for a spaceship win or a cultural victory it can get quite exciting, but there are still occasions when you know you’ve won and finishing it off becomes a chore. Micro-managing a large empire towards that final victory is simply not much fun.
Obviously Total War has a strong real-time strategy element but the turn-based side of the game suffers from exactly the same problem. The obvious difference here is that the players generally have the same victory conditions — it’s always based on conquest. The approach taken by the developers to combat the boring end game is different in Total War. In Medieval 2 they introduced the idea of the Mongol horde to spice things up but it wasn’t hugely effective. In Shogun 2 you’ve got the idea of realm divide. Basically when you become too powerful in the eyes of the shogun or your enemies they will unite against you. This even applies to your allies, although they might take longer to turn on you. It is a nice idea and in short campaigns it works well to create an exciting end game because it generally only happens when you are quite close to an outright victory. In longer campaigns it happens too early and you’re still left with a few turns where you know you will win but you have to play on and take those last few cities.
You also have to be very careful with resources in Shogun 2. If you don’t keep an eye on your food production and research the right arts then you can run into terrible trouble with rebellions. I guess this is another option to spice up an end game, some kind of revolution attempt or uprising within but it could just prove to irritating, especially if it was arbitrarily applied. The same goes for a disaster event, whether it’s a natural disaster or an alien invasion, would it really make the end game more fun? I do like the idea of a zombie style infection though, what game wouldn’t be improved by some zombies?
It’s not an easy problem to solve. Naturally you reach a certain level of momentum where if you’ve built a solid enough base in terms of power and economy then no opponent can really compete. Slogging it out for the simple reward of a cut scene isn’t always very satisfying and it often feels anti-climactic when you reach the end. If you’re into trophies and achievements then there’s another carrot dangling to pull you over the line but the lack of challenge in your last few turns will inevitably leave you feeling flat.
So what’s the answer? Post a comment.