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Design Case Study: Unity of Command
by Jon Shafer on 05/02/12 11:40:00 pm   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.

 

You can read more of Jon's thoughts on design and project management at his website. You can also find him on Twitter.

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Along with writing articles on design and other subjects of a more general nature, I’ll occasionally be examining in detail a few games which serve as examples of excellent game design. Unity of Command is first on the list.

For those of you unfamiliar with the game, it’s a hex-based WWII lite-wargame in the vein of Panzer General. Some of you have probably heard that I’m a big fan of that game. Well, strap yourself in, because I like Unity of Command a lot more.


So What’s the Big Deal?

What really separates Unity of Command from other games (especially wargames) is that it stays focused only on what makes the game as fun as it can be. Most projects of this ilk throw in a lot of extra mechanics and stuff, either with the goal of making the game more historically accurate, because doing so just felt right, or – worst of all – simply because the design was thrown together sloppily, with little or no thought put into what the game actually wanted to achieve.

Thankfully, Unity of Command did not fall into this trap. To start with, the design of the visuals and the interface is exceptionally clean. I mean, really now, does this look like a wargame to you? (For those of you who haven’t seen many, the answer is no… this is what they usually look like.) The large bobble-head figures might look a bit cartoony, but this style ensures you never any problem recognizing what unit is what. In a game likePanzer General you kind of need to be an expert on German armor and able recognize the turret shapes and hull armor slope which identify a Panther versus a Panzer IV. Unity of Command also displays information about the units in a clean and simple manner, using icons to indicate damage, entrenchment, a unit’s movement status, the supply situation, etc. These sorts of tools help  avoid the feeling that you’re fighting the game tooth-and-nail for every shred of information.

The gameplay is also noteworthy, particularly in its omission of superfluous elements. As the French polymath Antoine de Saint-Exupéry famously said:

A designer knows he has achieved perfection not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.

It takes an extremely disciplined designer to stifle the temptation of piling on features and knobs, especially with subject matter as ripe to detail-bloat as WWII. The massive theatre of air warfare is represented only by individual air strikes that may be ordered a couple times per turn, and all this does is inflict a small amount of damage on a single enemy. While some might bemoan this as a massive simplification, the game loses nothing for omitting an elaborate aircraft system where where the player marches individual planes around from tile-to-tile, ensuring they don’t run out of fuel or get caught unawares by enemy fighters. The most important element of airpower – tactical support – is represented in a way no more complicated than it needs to be. Could a system with air defense, fighters, etc. be fun? Of course. All games are not made equal, and some can certainly be more complex than others. But reductive design is rare in strategy gaming, and Unity of Command serves as an excellent example of this approach working perfectly.


Let’s Talk Mechanics

One of the features which makes Unity of Command so unique is its supply system. More important than the absolute strength of units is whether or not they’re on the supply grid. If you manage to cut off a group of enemy units for a couple turns, even the biggest, baddest tanks will simply melt before your infantry. Instead of thinking about individual unit matchups, a player must be more concerned with the big picture – who is in control of what territory and how can one best exploit the situation?

The basics work like this. There are a few nodes on each map which generate supply, which is carried along rail lines when attached to a supply node. Every connected rail tile radiates supply in a range dictated by the type of supply node and the terrain being traversed. Capturing a supply depot or rail tile cuts off supply to all units formerly in that radius. Much of the gameplay revolves around finding ways to isolate enemy units from their supply sources, capturing them in order to fuel your advance, and protecting your supply net from enemy units.

The beauty of this supply system is that it forces you to constantly make difficult trade-offs… how do you weigh the relative importance of ensuring your army is properly supplied (the most important units, anyways), completing objectives and exploiting enemy weaknesses? It’s nearly always a tough call and you’ll be taking risks no matter which way you go.

This is a good point at which to discuss what seems to be one of the guiding design principles of Unity of Command: carefully budgeting your limited resources. I’ve already talked about air combat, and that type of philosophy oozes from every part of the game. Another couple-times-per-turn special ability is the supply drops, where you can instantly resupply any of your units, even when cut off. You’ll often find yourself with several important units cut off from supply, and deciding which 1 or 2 get the goods can be agonizing.

Even unit types are an exercise in design by limits: there are only a few unit classes, most notably a single type of armor. Each scenario you’ll have a handful of tanks which can easily roll over infantry, which always make up the vast majority of the enemy army. The question isn’t if your tanks can win, but where to use them to maximum effect. A couple tough fights can also wear them down, forcing you to choose between pushing forward and pausing for a moment to heal back up. Across the board, Unity of Command does a superb job forcing you to make tough decisions.


Room for Improvement

I’ve spoken at length about the good aspects of Unity of Command, but like every game there are a few knocks against it.

One aspect that I’ve seen given mixed reports is the mechanic where you must spend Prestige (essentially your score) to gain new units or reinforce existing ones. This is interesting mechanic for some, but frustrating for others. It reminds me a lot of the dilemma that I often find myself facing in RPGs where your character has a limited amount of mana to cast spells, potions to heal, etc. These items are obviously in the game to be used, but my natural inclination is to want to ‘preserve’ these resources for later, instead of spending them now. Much of the time ‘later’ never comes, and having just defeated the final boss I still find myself with a full inventory. It poses an interesting question: why are some resources like money so easy to spend, while others like single-use items so much harder to part with? I imagine it has something to do with the uniformity and homogeneity of money, whereas items like potions feel more ‘individual’ and evoke the feeling of “well, if you use this it’s gone forever and you might not get another one.” Then again, Prestige in Unity of Command is much more like money than items in an RPG. I’d be curious to hear further thoughts on this subject. Anyways, back to the topic of this article!

One of the few areas where I felt the interface was lacking in Unity of Command is the need to enable overlay modes in order to see certain information. For example, by default there is no way to see how much supply you have available on each tile. You can memorize the rules for how it spreads over the terrain, but this is a level of expertise that very few players will reach. My preference would have been for this information be clear even in the default game view, particularly given how important it is. A very basic solution could be a simple graphic which appears at the very edge of your supply range. You wouldn’t have all of the nitty-gritty details, but this would be enough to let you know when you were exiting the ‘safe zone’.

The biggest strike against Unity of Command is a fairly inflexible ceiling on the amount of replayability the game provides. All of the maps are fixed, and the number, type and location of every unit is the same every time you play.

Is it a puzzle game? This is a question frequently asked about Unity of Command. Honestly, it’s hard to say. There is often a very fuzzy line between puzzle games and strategy games. Part of what pushes Unity of Command in the strategy direction is that it’s excellent AI constantly keeps you on your toes. You might think you’re in really good shape, only to discover during the AI’s turn that you left one part of the front a little too weak, and an enemy unit managed to cut off supply to your entire army. Puzzles rarely ask players to adapt to situations that dramatic.


The Takeaway

Puzzle game or not, Unity of Command isn’t something you’ll be playing every day for the next 2 years. Then again, the number of games you can say that about is so miniscule that it’s hard to ding Unity of Command too much for it. What I will say is that the game is both extremely fun and highly instructive for designers, and a few minor drawbacks fail to dull Unity of Command’s luster in the slightest.

While playing I was constantly making comments to myself along the lines of “yes, this is another thing they did right!” Which… unfortunately… isn’t something that I do much anymore, simply because I can’t help but view games through a very critical lens since joining the development club almost a decade ago. It’s now nearly always the failureswhich stand out to me rather than the successes. Even so, Unity of Command found a way to charm me. It’s a breath of fresh air, not only in wargaming but strategy gaming in general. Other games have much to learn from it, and hopefully this article can play a small role in spreading the word.

If you haven’t already (what are you waiting for!), head over to the Unity of Command website and pick up this game. It’s only $30, and well worth it.

- Jon


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Comments


Michael Joseph
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Nice to see a war game get some coverage around here :) Actually one of my favorite games series Total War got some mention in the Creative Assembly interview from a couple of days ago. It's not quite a classic style war game but it's close. Let's keep it up!

War game developers and their communities are still alive and fighting. They may not sell millions of copies but their developers have learned to survive for over a decade now in the trenches of niche development. And some publishers like http://www.matrixgames.com/ has made publishing war / tactical / strategy games their bread and butter.

And developers are taking advantage of faster hardware. War games have come a long way since Steel Panthers ya know. They have a deep history and a long future...

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wargaming

Justin Nearing
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Funny, I just revisited Panzer General 2 for a nostalgia filled weekend.

However, my comment relates to this: "why are some resources like money so easy to spend, while others like single-use items so much harder to part with?"

Both money and items can be thought of as currency. Currency is created and sunk in the game. The question becomes, "What factors cause players to sink some currencies more easily than others?"

Many people will avoid spending currency if possible. Thrift has been a positively-reinforced in western culture since the Reformation, and it seems in-grained in our culture to not "waste money". This can present a problem for game designers- specifically the problem you have mentioned here: An use case where the player does not sink currency.

The values you can control as a designer responsible for a currency is the scarcity of earning currency compared to the value the currency provides. Scare resources, such as a premium currency is social games, are more likely to be hoarded, and will only be used if the player really feels they need it. The easier it is to get premium currency, the less value that currency holds. The conversion value of that currency is also important- if, for example, the health of a RPG character did not improve unless they used a health potion, then the player is encouraged to use them if the character is hurt.

Really, it's a question of supply and demand!

Jon Shafer
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Thanks for sharing your thoughts Justin! You definitely make some good points.

Along with the basic forces of supply and demand, a designer also has to find ways to make players COMFORTABLE with the idea of spending. If they’re aren't pushed towards using up their resources early on, they'll grow accustomed to not doing so - making it increasingly unlikely they'll get into the habit of it later.

Mana in RPGs is one that seems to play by its own rules though. Not only is it a non-unique resource like money, in nearly every game it also regenerates automatically! I've noticed my tendency to save up mana is confined more to JRPGs than western ones. I wonder if this is is at least partially the result of melee attacks nearly always being a viable alternative, and the skills which use mana are often only marginally better. Players are thus, in a way, 'trained' to prefer melee attacks. The ever-prevalent grinding where you must fight frequent but unchallenging battles can't help either - "I'm fighting SO much that I can't afford to use up my mana just in case I have to fight something harder like a boss."

(Certainly not everyone has a problem spending their mana, so if you're out there reading this are saying to yourself "well, *I* have no problem using up mana!" I do in fact acknowledge it's not a universal 'affliction'!)

As you mentioned, Justin, one of our knobs as designers is how much value you get out of spending. I'm a big fan of large, powerful effects and I think if players know there's a huge reward for spending - they will nearly always do so. The key to making this work is preventing players from using these kinds of abilities TOO much. I think they have to be rechargeable though, otherwise players will just hoard them for the REALLY hard boss fights (which may in fact never happen).

Though... I might argue that regular-and-predictable boss fights don't really add all that much value to games anyways. Not only do they STRONGLY encourage the hoarding behavior that we designers want to get rid of, they often also fall into the so-predictable-they're-boring bucket. But I suppose that's a topic for another article!

- Jon

Jonathon Walsh
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One of the important differences is when you can spend something. Money is typically only spent at a shop or in town. This generally makes it psychologically easier to spend money. There's no reason to horde money like you do with potions, because if you get into a dire situation you'll be unlikely to spend the money anyways. You aren't saving a resource for an emergency because during an emergency the money is worthless. There's also the perception that it's always possible to go back to a store to spend money later on so if you do spot something when you don't have enough money for it you can always save up and go back. With potions or other items you can use them at any moment, so no moment ever feels like the right moment. There's always likely a bigger emergency about to happen so you try to save potions and other such things because the items you are saving will never be worthless.

Even in something like an RTS where you can spend money at anytime, money is still worthless in an emergency because of build times, so it's better to be prepared than scrambling to dump a float of money.

I haven't played Unity of Command, but it seems like maybe you'd want something where there's a limiting factor to how fast you can spend prestige so players are encouraged to spend as they save up more.

On a side note... I always found it interesting in JRPGs (at least the older ones I've played) that mana potions are more expensive than hp potions which is what really encourages auto-attacking. With the cost balance that way it's far easier to replace hp than it is to replace mp so you suffer longer, more boring, fights because you want to consume the easier to replace resource (HP).


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