Tobold's Blog
Thursday, August 25, 2022
Difficulty in turn-based games

In the Biggest Chess Games Database Online there are 1.8 million games registered in which white opened with e2-e4. In the same database there are only 32 games in which white opened with a2-a3. Clearly a2-a3 is a much inferior opening, and nearly everybody knows that, so that move isn't generally used. However, the database also shows that in games in which white opened with a2-a3, white won 40.6% of the games, which is more than any other move. So what I think is that sometimes when a far superior chess player plays against a much weaker opponent in a friendly game, the superior player deliberately makes this bad a2-a3 move, in order to give his opponent a better chance. Or the better player makes that bad move just for fun.

Earlier this month on Steam the game Hard West 2 was released. So I was reading Steam reviews to decide whether this would be a game for me, and the top shown review is negative and says: "Did not feel at any point that I was making any tactical choices, more like I was trying to puzzle out the solution intended by the devs, which made me feel a bit cheated on the whole "tactics" bit.". And I completely understood what the reviewer was saying, based on my experience with other turn-based tactical games: You might think that you have a lot of options, like you might think that in chess you have 20 different options for your opening move. But in reality some of these options are just way better than others. If you play at low difficulty, you can do sub-optimal moves and still succeed. But the higher the difficulty gets, the fewer and fewer options remain viable. Until at some point only one sequence of moves actually wins you the scenario.

I finished Symphony of War after 40 hours at normal difficulty, and still wanted another go. So I started a new game, with a bit of apprehension because of the problem described above. But it turns out that you can play Symphony of War at higher difficulty and still opt to keep permadeath turned off. Which means that while the game is harder at higher difficulty, there are still enough different options left. I am now some chapters into the second campaign, and I was able to make different choices and explore different tactics without the game telling me: "No, you need to make this exact set of moves".

That is especially important when there is some luck involved. In my first game I never got a drakeling offered for recruitment, so at the end of the game I only had the two dragons you get from the main story. In this second go I found a drakeling in the bazaar of chapter 3, before I even got the first story dragon. That will change things in me experiencing the second campaign compared to the first. In the tactical game I played before that, Battle Brothers, there was a lot of luck involved, and at high difficulty you could actually have such a bad start just by bad luck that the game became unplayable.

For me the fun of tactical games is to try out different things and see what works and what doesn't. But I prefer to fail forward, and not have to save scum until I find the one set of moves that the devs set up to work in that scenario. So I think I will give Hard West 2 a miss. As it turns out, at some point I bought Hard West 1 in a Steam sale and never played it, so I can do that one if I want a cowboy tactical game. I played Weird West for free on the Game Pass, but that game would have more accurately be called Weird Controls and wasn't turn-based, so I got tired of it quicker than I thought.

To be fair, 1.a3 isn't utterly terrible, I'd guess it leaves White still with a tiny advantage (because it's marginally better than not moving at all). You have to look at the last five or six to get moves that are objectively, indubitably bad...

Have you tried Into the Breach? It's a tactical battler that many have compared to Chess. Pretty tough but fair even on Normal (though some squads require much more skill to use effectively). Generally considered one of the top indie games of the last five years.
Into the Breach is on my long list of games that I own, but haven't gotten around to playing. That list is getting longer every year ...
I love Total War games but they suffer from the problem you describe. At higher difficulty levels the AI enemies are given bonuses in multiple areas which enforce a limited set of min-max tactics from the player. As an example of this melee infantry become very weak less on the highest difficulty while ranged infantry remains strong. If you want a more varied play style you need to stay on lower difficulty settings which often don't present enough of a challenge.

I think this problem often arises in games against an AI opponent due to the difficulty in scaling AI in relation to player skill so they just buff stats at harder difficulties instead. (In fact didn't someone famously say that players don't really want smarter AI even though they think they do because it just makes games less enjoyable).I am intrigued to know how Symphony of War manages to avoid this trap.

In contrast games like SpaceChem allow a huge variety of approaches while still remaining very challenging. SpaceChem doesn't have an AI opponent it just sets you a series of hard puzzles to solve with a large variety of tools to do it.
I agree that this is a problem that infests lots of strategy games and CRPGs.

I rarely play these games on harder difficulties because of this.

Larian, a studio whose games I like, is notorious for obnoxious encounters that devolve into trial and error on harder difficulties.

Total War like another commenter mentioned is also problematic on the higher difficulties because of this. The bonuses AI gets on Legendary difficulty are so absurd it means you basically have to rely on cheese strats or optimal "doom stack" army compositions and can almost never auto resolve battles.

I think the problem lies with game devs not being able spend a lot of resources on developing AI complex enough to handle the wide variety of choices for these games so they up difficulty by stacking the deck against the player.
Into the Breach is a wonderful game. You should give it a try. I say that as someone who loved that studio's previous game, Faster than Light, and played it absolutely to death. Into the Breach isn't as utterly replayable but I still spent a huge amount of time unlocking everything in multiple playthroughs.
I will second the recommendations of:

Paradoxically, the rogue-like style (having many resets and lost squads) makes me feel better about experimenting with various unknown (sub-optimal ... likely crazy?) builds. Bonus: "save scum" is not an issue!

PS: Adding game links in the blog post (where mentioned) would be quite convenient for readers.
Adding game links in the blog post (where mentioned) would be quite convenient for readers.

Agreed. It usually depends where I write my blog post. On the PC adding a link to a game is very easy, so I usually do so. Adding a link when writing a blog post on the iPad is a lot more hassle, so I don't always do it there.
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