One question I’ve been pondering as I go about designing a strategy game is that of clarity in game mechanics, and in combat systems in particular. Committed players of strategy games (and many other genres, for that matter) have long taken joy in pulling apart the math behind the combat resolution systems that drive the games they play, in part to seek an advantage or upper hand and in part out of simple fascination. This description of the mass queen experiment from the StarCraft2 Hacks blog is a great example. It runs through a bunch of math, based on things like minerals, gas, queens, hatcheries, food, game time, energy, “transfuses,” injections and more, and comes to the colorful but perhaps surprising conclusion that “Queens are better cost effective healers than Medivacs.” Food for thought.

What’s interesting to me is the question of where a combat system might lie on the spectrum from transparency to obfuscation (through complexity or by other means), how that stacks up against the combat results you as a designer want to produce, and whether a game is any the better or worse for your equations and calculations being deeply buried, or riding on the surface of play.

The Battle for Wesnoth, for instance, which is a really impressive (and free!) turn-based strategy game, is exceedingly clear about the math behind its combat mechanic. At any given moment, you know exactly what your chances are of winning any given encounter between two units, and you can discern, with hardly any poking around, why your chances are what they are (because Undead are highly resistant (60%) to most Physical attacks, for instance).

Others, like the Total War combat system analyzed in this 2006 forum post, take pages to explicate and are difficult to understand even with extensive documentation provided by the developers.

The system I’ve been working on lies somewhere between the two, though certainly closer to the transparent/Wesnoth end of the spectrum. If it survives in anything like its current form, it will be relatively easy to understand with perhaps a bit of calculation on the player’s part, though in many cases not so simple that you can do the math in your head. Note that the choices I’m making definitely do not grow out of a desire to make the system more or less transparent; they are driven by the kind of gameplay I want to produce, and the immediate and tangible questions it raises. E.g., how do you resolve combat between two stacks of units with various advantages and vulnerabilities, without requiring the player to make any additional decisions after sending his or her units into the fray? There are more answers to questions like this than at first meet the eye.

The questions I have about questions like those are these: What does it mean for a game to have a transparent mechanic, versus one that’s more obscure? Do players (those who are paying attention, at any rate) feel better knowing how they’ll fare before they go into battle? Does having a mechanic that’s too obscure to figure out (if there is such a thing) mean players will be less engaged? Does it take away some of the challenge if you know beforehand whether you’ll win or lose? Do transparent mechanics provide clearer paths through the content? Or do they lead players to reduce the number of alternatives they explore, since much of the exploration has already been done for them?

Or… do these questions apply to such a small portion of the player population that they’re not even worth considering? I’d argue that even if it is only a few who are so engaged as to do the math, this is still worth thinking about, for a host of reasons I won’t get into here. In any case, it’s interesting stuff to ponder. What do you think of it all?