Difficulty through configuration …

So, recently, Shamus Young answered a question on his Diecast about AI cheating. A comment on that post talked about “Europa Universalis” and how it generates difficulty more by which nation you play instead of by giving the AI benefits. If you want an easier game, play as a more powerful nation and/or one with a better starting position, and if you want a harder game, play as one that’s in a poor starting position and/or isn’t as powerful as the others. Another comment questioned whether that would work for most games, especially the Civ-style games that the post was mostly focused on. But I commented myself that I thought that it could work. Which was questioned. So let me delve into it a bit more here.

I played the original Europa Universalis a bit and liked it, but I’ve had more generic experience with Hearts of Iron, although I never seem to get the time to play them for long enough to really see how it all works. Still, for me with those games I’m more interested in the historical aspects than the strategy, especially for Hearts of Iron. Regardless, with those games Paradox’s main strategy is to model the nations more or less historically accurately and then let their advantages and disadvantages follow from that. While there is some of that in the Civilization games, that’s not really the primary focus. So a game trying to use that strategy for difficulty is going to have to come up with a different way to do that.

For the most part, other people in various places talked about the Master of Orion games, where you can tweak difficulty by tweaking the details of at least your faction, if not those of others. If you want to make the game easier, customize your race and give them various bonuses. If you want to make it more difficult, customize them to get various challenging negatives. Birth of the Federation also had this in small part, at least with the ability to set the various tech levels for each of the factions, which means that, at least, if you want an easier game you can just set your faction to a higher tech level than the others for an advantage (I never played at a disadvantage and so have no idea if a tech difference of even one level would be overwhelming or not).

So the way to do it, then, is by configuration. You let the player configure various things about themselves and their opponents to make things easier or harder. For a Civ-style game, this would obviously include things that you can already do that for, like which opponents are in the game (choose easier ones if you want it to be easy and tougher ones if you want it to be harder). But you could also allow the player to set starting locations for themselves and their opponents, advantages and disadvantages, units and unit strengths, tech levels, and so on and so forth. The combination of all of these could then add up to what the difficulty of the game actually is without having to rely on difficulty levels that require the AI to get extra bonuses not in the normal bounds of gameplay that thus make it feel like the AI is cheating just to give the player a decent game.

In fact, this approach can kill two birds with one stone. It can allow for difficulty that doesn’t depend on the AI cheating, while at the same time satisfying those players who just want to have a more customized experience. The more things you let the player customize that have an impact on the gameplay, the more room there is for them to tweak it not to personalize the game or make it more “historically accurate”, but instead to make it easier or harder. As an example, “Axis and Allies” — the computer game — lets you tweak the costs and abilities of the units, presumably primarily to make things more historically accurate. However, it can also be used to make the game easier or harder for one of the sides (they also added explicit rules from the board game house rules that can do that).

In fact, as I was thinking about this, I was wondering where I had seen instructions like “If you want the game to be easier, do this/select this, and if you want it to be harder, do this/select this”. Turns out, that was in some recent board games, such as Legendary. Computer games could make use of this as well.

That being said, one category of strategy games probably won’t work that well with this. That’s the Age of Wonders/Disciples sorts of games, where the focus is more on the combat than on building. There’s less meaningful things to tweak and since the factions are invented but are driven more by recognition you could end up deliberately making a more popular faction harder to play and so disappoint fans who wanted to play as them. There’s a bit of that in Civilization but the ability to tweak civilization abilities could help with that, if it didn’t force them to be too “fake”. And a game like Civilization can definitely use starting positions and resources to make up for a less than ideal civilization. I can’t imagine getting away with that in Disciples, though.

The biggest downside to doing this is that it puts far more onus on the player than it used to. This method requires the player to set the difficulty through configuration, which means that they have to understand the configuration and the impact each thing — and, of course, the combination of things — has on the overall difficulty. A lot of players will really just want to sit down and start a game without having to figure out what the game mechanics are, especially before they’ve had a chance to play the game and see how these things work in practice. To solve this, the designers can add a set of starting configurations and describe what the difficulty of each is, which is pretty much how scenarios work in Age of Wonders/Disciples. This would allow players who don’t want to know the details of the configuration to simply hop in and play a game, while those who want to tweak it would have free reign. That being said, you could run into issues where the default scenarios have unbalanced difficulties, but the configuration is too complicated to tweak easily. But that would be a failure of game design, not the method.

So I think that more strategy games could use the idea of driving difficulty through configuration rather than cheating. It’s an open question of whether that would cost more than it would be worth in the end.

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