Tobold's Blog
Wednesday, October 31, 2012
Grocery list strategy

Riftstalker posted a build order for XCOM. It tells you what you need to build at what time to beat the strategy part of the game at high difficulty levels. The list isn't complete yet, but I don't doubt it is correct. I just wonder why I would want to play a game that has such a list. In the case of XCOM I found a way around, cheating the strategy part to enable me to concentrate on the tactical part. But that isn't always possible. That is why I would like to see that sort of grocery list strategy gone from gaming.

Compare XCOM with Civilization: In Civilization the choices you make what technologies to research depend on your strategy. If you want a quick land grab expansion your best choice is different from if you want a military strategy, or a strategy concentrating on a few high-tech cities. In XCOM you are presented with an illusion of choice: There are no different strategies. And at higher difficulty level you either make the right choice, or you lose the game. Which then leads to a grocery list of choices to make like the one Riftstalker posted. There is only one best strategy, and it is always the same. In a world without communication you might have to play through several times until you learn what the right choices are. But in this day and age of the internet, somebody has that grocery list strategy already perfected and posted on his blog. All you need to do is tick the boxes in the right order and you win the game. Basically the strategy part of XCOM ceases to exist once you have that grocery list, reducing the strategy part of the game to a chore to do to get to the tactical part.

I find that sort of strategy far too limited. In a game that combines a strategy part with a tactical part I would like there to be several equally valid strategies, which each end up in tactical battles that play differently. Having just the choice between "the strategy that works" and "all the strategies that don't work" is not a choice at all, and thus ultimately boring. Not on the first play-through maybe, but it does kill replayability. I wish XCOM had an "advisor" mode where you can just switch off the strategy part, and the game just goes through that same grocery list automatically.

You already game-edit your way around this aspect of the game. Now you add additional justification by saying that the game is flawed because someone else said there is a repeatable solution and posted it on the internet for the hardest difficulty?

I don't know if there is just one unique solution on the top difficulty but assuming that there is, that same thinking would justification no one ever doing cross-words or play solitare.
There is a serious problem with the alternative of the grocery list: if the aliens act various different ways, then there are combinations where you simply cannot win, while there are also combinations when you win easily.
no one ever doing cross-words or play solitare

How many people would do cross-words if every cross-word was exactly the same, with exactly the same solution every time? How long would they play solitaire if the cards weren't shuffled but presented in always the same order?

There is a serious problem with the alternative of the grocery list

So are you saying that e.g. Civilization V doesn't work? Of course the difficulty depends on what the AI does, and sometimes the game is easier because you chose just the ideal strategy compared to the AI neighbors. But that still creates a much better replayability than if there was only one valid strategy.
I expect DLC will soon be available to add 2 new scenarios to provide a grid for this crossword.

Is the degree of randomness between playthroughs not high enough to vary strategic concerns? From what I can see about the hardest level it appears to be "Maximise sat cover and do tactical missions fantastically well in basic gear"
It does sound as if the game is a bit too predictable. You shouldn't know when the UFOs are coming IMO, or be able to say "ignore the March 12 UFO because there will be a bigger one on March 17". Games where this sort of thing defines the strategy are puzzle games rather than strategy games, even though they are often disguised as and even referred to as the latter.

Yes, strategy games can vary in difficulty between iterations. That's why you expect to play many times over, and figure out an adaptive strategy that will win a lot at your chosen difficulty level. (You define what 'a lot' means at a given difficulty.)

You also have the option of turning down the difficulty a bit and trying a variety of reasonable strategies, or strategies that appeal to you, or that suit the character of your chosen leader.

Another example: roguelikes played at the highest difficulty are strategy games rather than RPGs, but you can turn down the difficulty (if only by allowing an occasional reload) and make them more like RPGs if you prefer.

I enjoy puzzles, but if I want to play a strategy game, a puzzle is a poor substitute.

I've yet to play XCOM, so I don't know if there is more than one victory condition like Civ V. But don't fool yourself into thinking there isn't a grocery list for each Civ V victory condition on the higher levels. On Deity there is one way per victory condition and one way only to win (which are posted all over the Civ V boards)...and even then sometimes your starting position will screw you.
When playing on the highest difficulties, min-maxing and enforced strategies are to be expected. This is the case in strategy games (Civ included), heroic raiding, ultra-competitive MOBAs etc.

The "optimize everything perfectly" mentality is not there to cater to you (being very casual) but to the really hardcore crowd that really enjoys coming up with those "grocery lists".

And Gevlon is correct. Take FTL, for instance. The random elements in there could mean that you get dug into a hole early on in the game, one that you can never get out of. For the rogue-like genre (where each game takes about 1-2 hours to finish) this issue is something taken into consideration, but when you get into the 15-20+ hour games, having such RNG issues is simply bad game design.
From what I've read in developer interviews and comments over the years, they always design the single player to be balanced around "Normal" difficulty. They do want higher difficulties to be beatable, but they are okay if it limits the game to one winning strategy.

I think this is a problem with game difficulties in general. Having three or four truly different difficulties is having to balance three or four games. Developers just don't have the time usually to do that.
You are right, the strategy element of the game is has always been pretty limited in the XCom franchise. You are on a rail, just trying not to starve to death until manna starts falling from heaven.

I just enjoy it for what it is, but it's not really a very deep series. It's really fun for what it is, but it isn't the kind of game you can play for two years straight.
I hadn't noticed a main 'killer' strategy. Admittedly, not playing the 'rush to max satellite' game does result in a few countries leaving before your resource engine reaches critical mass, and maybe that gives a 'worse' ending or something? I don't think so?

I enjoyed the power plant/workshop juggling against the need to try and absolutely minimize my collateral damage in the tactical component so I could afford to produce more fun toys. Seeing if it was possible to skip some stages of production entirely, making do with antiquated basic weaponry to jump directly to plasma instead... Carrying medkits only to compensate for shitty basic body armor... Equipping my assaults with laser rifles instead of standard shotguns and never bothering to waste resources on researching or building scatter lasers, changing their playstyle and allowing those resources to be spent elsewhere. These are fun things to try out that totally affect your tactical play.

I doubt the online shopping list did what I was doing, because there were definitely hairy, inefficient moments, but I've had loads of fun playing like that.
Thanks for reading my post!

To be honest, I'm not a leader when it comes to build orders, I'm just a good followers.

Someone asked me last week: "why do you start at wraiths when jungling as Maokai?" I had no idea! The guide says throw three saplings, kill wraiths, I do it. I did optimize the timing on the throws but I'm not going to write a guide, or test for that matter if I can start at wolves.

Going back to Xcom, I agree that there is indeed little variability between the UFOs and the story/council missions. I think the original had more variety, and subsequently, higher replay value.

Yet, I did beat Xcom last night for a third time (normal, classic, impossible), while I didn't even finish Terror from the Deep (I was almost to the end though).

On a side note, I have posted Civilization 5 Deity victory build order too some time back.

With the previous installment (Civ 4), I had 9 out of the 15 Deity slots on the Civfanatics' Hall of Fame for a while.
I think the next "frontier" is finishing the game before day 100.

Last night when I downed the Overseer and then cleared the "mothership", I was definitely outclassing the enemies by a long shot.

I just moved my 2 colonel snipers along the central path with my two assaults going the sides to flush the aliens out. I never stopped and I got to the "boss" in record time.

I was in so much hurry one of my snipers didn't have time to reload. Thankfully, you really only need one sniper in there: double tap and it's game over.

I'm curious about the shortest path story-wise. Plasma snipers mean it's game over at the tactical level (since the rest already have plasma rifles).

The real test is getting the Overseer UFO down. I've never managed to down it with the normal fighter jets, I've always used Firestorm. If you could down one with fighters, that will make the day 100 victory possible.
< said...
I think the original had more variety, and subsequently, higher replay value....while I didn't even finish Terror from the Deep>

The original was bugged so it only had one difficulty setting. Lower difficulties mean you can experiment and don't have to follow the optimal path.

High difficulty demands perfect play which actually means less play, more grocery lists copy/paste.

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