Tobold's Blog
Thursday, December 01, 2022
Pyrrhic victories

In 279 BC, after having won the Battle of Asculum against the Romans, King Pyrrhus of Epirus is reported to have said some version of "another victory like this, and we will be ruined!". Thus the term pyrrhic victory for a victory that comes with great losses. And unfortunately this is a concept that diminishes my fun in a lot of strategy / tactics game that I am playing, most recently Planetfall, but also classics like the Heroes of Might & Magic series.

In many of these games the surviving army of one battle is what you have as an army for the next battle. You get some reinforcements, and the survivors might gain some sort of experience and levels. But with reinforcements coming slowly, and veterans being hard to replace with fresh troops, and major loss of troops can be catastrophic for the rest of the campaign. The extreme case of that is tactical role-playing games, where you will want to never lose a single character. Thus you will want to engage *only* in fights that you are not only certain to win, but certain to win without any significant losses.

The game design problem of that is that roflstomping all enemies isn't as much fun as pitched battles. In D&D it is said that the art of DMing has a lot to do with making battles *seem* dangerous, without them actually being so. An AI you fight against in a computer game is usually less skilled at that sort of deception. So most of the battles I fought in Planetfall had me losing not a single unit, because I wouldn't engage if that was not the case. I only accepted losses for things like the final fight to eliminate a computer opponent, when ending a war was a big enough win to allow for losing some units.

The problem is a design where wins and losses snowball over the length of the campaign. I usually take perks for my Planetfall heroes that give them a better army at the start. Better starting troops means you can eliminate marauders from various resources and landmarks around your cities, which means faster expansion, which ends up with you getting access to more and better troops earlier. If you "won" your first battle while losing lots of units, your expansion would be seriously hampered by you having to replenish those troops.

Having said that, Planetfall is not the worst offender, because you start with tier I and II troops, and over the course of the game you get access to tier III and IV troops, which will be better than even veteran tier I troops. At a certain point in the game you can swarm the enemy with cheap troops and don't mind the losses. But 4X games in general certainly have a good start / bad start problem, where the effect of good or bad luck in the early stages of the game determines a lot of the outcome of the latter game.

Difficult HOMM3 scenarios tended to involve a lot of dodging the enemy until he split his forces, for sure. Though that applied more to wandering enemies, sometimes you had to defend your castle regardless of cost. I was rarely trying to preserve all my troops, though - if you are going to hit the enemy hard you can afford to take a few losses yourself.

It's kind of a default with computer-controlled enemies that get extra resources, though. How do you defeat them, if not by attrition?

I think the Kings Bounty games are a bit better in this regard - you don't really have a 4X strategy level, and your maximum army size is controlled by your hero's leadership skill. So if you have the gold, you can recycle the cannon fodder a bit more.

Disciples:Liberation, which I'm playing now, is more like a cross between an RPG and Kings Bounty than the classic Disciples which was like HOMM. In this you do try to keep your troops alive, but you have equal-ish battles so you don't feel bad about it - and mookd can still be replaced.

The good start/bad start issue is tied in with my biggest issue with strategy games in general. I tend to get bored or frustrated with with the late game. The start is full of possibilities and everything is still a challenge. By late game you are either steamrolling everything (if you started well) or struggling constantly (if you started badly). I usually just give up at that point and start a new campaign. I am not sure how it can ever be solved. I play a lot of Total War games and they have tried various approaches with mixed success. One approach is an end game catastrophe which knocks you back and forces you to fight for your life again. While this does provide extra challenge it isn't fun to lose stuff you built up over many turns. Another approach I probably prefer is to have a more structured campaign with a number of signature battles. You are more inclined to take risks and play creatively during a signature battle because the rewards are high often unlocking the next phase of a campaign. A lot of people don't like this approach however because it diminishes the sandbox nature of the game.
Yeah 4X games are a mixed bag at how they deal with this.

Mbp already mentioned Total War but I'd like to highlight Total War Three Kingdoms in particular because I really enjoyed how they handled their end game.

What this game did was after at least one faction, be it the player or AI, reached the King rank the game calculates the 3 strongest factions and they each declare their own Kingdom. Their capitals then become important because losing your Capital means you are forced to abdicate your Kingship.

Due to the sandbox nature of Total War games you often end up with different factions each time you reach end game, thus creating differing gameplay experiences each time. Also because Three Kingdoms has robust Diplomacy and Spy mechanics the player often has more options then simply capturing the enemies capital and forcing abdication by War although that's certainly the most straightforward method.

My most fun experience with that game was playing as a faction that cannot declare itself King because it's loyal to the Han emperor. I had set up spies in a few targeted factions and ensured they were strong enough by gifting them provinces that when the Three Kingdoms kicked off they each became a Kingdom. I then proceeded to destroy them internally through my spies until I was able to force abdication through diplomacy and only had to capture one capital seat through force.

This was so much more fun then the newest games (Warhammer 3) method of just spawning 10 stacks of high level troops out of thin air for a random faction and having them auto declare war on everyone.

Have you ever tried the Total War series Tobold? I don't remember reading any posts of you playing those games.
I played several Total War games, both historic and Warhammer. Never really liked the series all that much, probably because of the real-time battles. I much prefer turn-based battles.
Ah i see. Yeah the real time battles aren't everyone's cup of tea.
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