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December 15, 2011

So You Want to Be a Warlord

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: — inky @ 10:28 pm

This past couple weeks I’ve been playing The Company, a facebook game by Flying Lab Software (aka the folks who brought you Pirates of the Burning Sea). Since, as mentioned, I’ve been playing it for two weeks, that makes me an expert and I will now present an analysis.

To quickly summarize, the premise of the game is you’re a commander of a mercenary company in generic dirty-fantasy land. Think Black Company or The Blade Itself and you are right on target (I assume the former in specific was direct inspiration). You recruit soldiers and form them into squads of various kinds (light infantry, scouts, archers, paladins, etc), and then send them off to complete contracts of various types and difficulties, which gives you gold, which you use to buy equipment to form new squads, or to build things back at your home base (to improve existing squads, or let you get new kinds of squads). Building and fulfilling contracts costs turns, which regenerate over time. Occasionally random events occur, either to your group as a whole or to individual soldiers, which give you some kind of choice as to what to do and usually result in gaining or losing traits or money, or soldiers getting injured.

So this is a pretty good basis for a game. I haven’t seen anything quite like it before, and the intrinsic level of remove of the player from the game matches the premise — I’m bummed when soldiers die but they’re intrinsically replaceable and what’s most important is advancing the interests of the company, just like a real commander.

Where it mainly falls down, I think, is in the details. And by “falls down” I guess I mean “has as many problems as the typical facebook game”. Like, in theory this is nominally a story about a wily commander building up their company by skillful planning and deployment, but in practice it’s about a commander doing whatever seems like the most obvious thing and hoping it works. To put it another way, there isn’t really much strategic or tactical depth in the game.

For instance, take contracts. A typical contract has a short blurb, then says it costs, say, 10 command points (turns), pays 3200 gold, and requires one infantry squad, one scout squad, and one miscellaneous squad. You assign squads of the appropriate types and hit go, and then it runs one skill test per squad (combat, discipline, and maneuver being the most common) and it tells you if you win or not. If you’re like me, you have a bunch of different kinds of squads so you can take a bunch of different kinds of contracts, which means that you only have a few squads of each type — so when it says you need a scout, you only have one or two to pick between, making that not much of a choice. And since you don’t get to influence the success/failure of the execution, the only thing you can really do is pick which contracts you take. But that’s not much of a choice either — just take all the contracts you can handle, because the only real limiter is waiting for turns to regenerate, and there’s no penalty for not doing a contract if it looks too hard. (If you want to be ultra-efficient you can start skipping contracts with a bad gold/turns ratio, but it’s just a matter of waiting a little longer to get the turns back so it doesn’t really matter.) There’s a little more difficulty when the contract calls for a miscellaneous squad or when the contract has randomized events with it, but this doesn’t add tactical depth, it just means you have to guess what’s going to come up and hope you picked the right squad.

This kind of false tactics also comes up in the selection/design of squads. There’s a whole bunch of different kinds of squads: scouts, light/medium/heavy cavalry, knights, light/medium/heavy infantry, light/medium/heavy spears, medium/heavy pikes, sappers, “veteran” versions of all of the previous, etc. But in practice the distinctions are either obvious or don’t matter. You need at least one scout, one cavalry, one infantry, and one engineer to be able to fulfill most contracts, but in those categories there’s usually a best one and you can ignore the others, or the difference is close enough it doesn’t matter which you pick (this one has 10% to one stat, this other has 10% to another).

I think there’s a combination of things you could do to fix this. Since it’s a facebook game, you probably want each individual event to be resolved in just a few seconds, which means the tactics have to come in the assignments of squads to contracts, not in the execution of those contracts. So the first step is to give the player more information about the contract before they take it up, and have less restrictions on how they approach it. For instance, the contract could say that the fight takes place on the plains and the enemy is known to have two squads of heavy infantry. In that case, you might decide to send in some heavy infantry of your own, or you might decide to use cavalry and take advantage of the terrain. This also adds some strategic depth to the game: you can decide to specialize in infantry and send them in even when they’re less-suited (relying on training to win out, and skipping contracts when they’re totally unsuited) or you can decide to be a generalist, and use the terrain to compensate for weaker units.

Another issue with contracts is you can only execute one at a time, and they stick around until you get to them or decide to skip them. That means you can always send your best troops to the each contract. Instead, what if multiple contracts were running simultaneously, and you had to choose where to allocate your squads? Again, there’re multiple strategies: specialize into a single contract you know you can win, or spread out across several.

Once you add some more tactical depth like this, it becomes easier to differentiate the units. Unit X is good on several terrains and bad on others, whereas unit Y is ok across everything and good nowhere. Unit Z hits hard but takes longer to recover, so if you want to do several contracts in a row you’ll have to leave out Z on later fights.

This has been mostly griping but I do like a lot of the little story touches about the gameplay. Time passes as you spend command points and your soldiers age and eventually retire, meaning you need to keep rotating new recruits onto your squads. The setup that you need the right equipment to make a squad but can then rotate people on and off it (and the quality of the squad is determined by the skills of the people that compose it) works out nicely – if one of my knights dies, I can pick if I want to pull someone out of the heavy infantry as a replacement, or if I’d rather use a new recruit. The events that show up occasionally don’t make much of a difference but they’re a good break in the action from combat and add flavor. I wish there were actually more of the story touches — like, I wish I could name my squads and my company and customize my base more, and I wish there were enough contracts I could refuse those not in accordance with my company’s style.

Overall, I don’t think this game has a lot of long-term play in it, but it’s been totally fun the time I’ve spent on it, and I’m pretty sure you *could* make a more elaborate and longer-term game in this style.

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