Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Shining Force II is like chess, plus it has a chess level!

at 6:00 PM

Isn't that sweet? Right in the middle of this serious-ass fantasy campaign about a late-term evil abortion comes a chapter titled "Rick Moranis vs. Archon" in which the player characters get shrunken down and thrown on a living chess board. It's a game of chess... for survival! Plus Harry Potter hadn't even done it yet so this is literally the first time in the history of fiction that real people were portrayed as fighting against chess pieces. 

Although, should I be bothered that the board isn't correct? Is that a thing of Japanese game designers not knowing much about chess (is it as obscure over there as go is over here?), or did they put like five queens and not nearly enough pawns on the board as an attempt at balance? Because they could've defined the pieces however they wanted to be balanced (since it's not like they behave like actual chess pieces). It's just kinda arbitrary that the board is wrong.

This really made me smile though. The Shinings Force, Fires Emblem, and even Xs-COM are what I mentally categorize as "chess plus" games, where the principles are the same as chess - threaten units with attack ranges, create traps, use placement for blocking - but rather than movement type as the major determining factor of units' value, you have numeric statistics and rock-paper-scissors balances (like Fire Emblem's sword-axe-lance cycle). Interestingly enough (to mention in this context), Shining Force II* is the game that really got me thinking along those lines.

Initiated combat in Shining Force II is unidirectional**. That means the immediate act of attacking an enemy unit does not negatively impact the player unit. Thus, instead of considering dealt damage against received damage (as is a key factor in Fire Emblem), an attack is valued by dealt damage vs. positional advantage. "Is it worth breaking my line for a big attack on that archer?" "Should I box in that high level unit instead of spreading out to attack weaker ones?" The matter of numerical damage aside, this is chess tactics, where the key determining factors of a move are positional - as important as whether a piece is captured are which pieces the move attacks (places in immediate danger of being captured) and which pieces it defends.

Turn order in RPGs usually follows one of two paradigms: the first, that used by Shining Force II, is unit turns, where the game determines a turn order of units based on their statistics, and the player moves a unit once when its turn comes up. The alternative is team turns, where teams alternate order and during their team's turn, the player can move each unit once (as in Fire Emblem). I don't think I've ever seen an RPG using straight up chess ordering, where a turn consists of a player moving any single unit once; you can see how that doesn't really facilitate RPG leveling/balance.

Team turns lend to a more predictive style of play where it's best to map out the opponent's likely next move and plan accordingly. Each player has complete control of the board that the opponent will face in their next turn. Though this does have its similarity to chess on a broad strategic level, the primary consequence is that players are actually making moves with gigantic multi-armed units rather than with individual pieces. There is so much a player can do with the moving parts of their army that a great deal of build-up is required, then rarely paid off, to execute individual turns. Though the player is controlling ostensibly independent units, they need to take into consideration a butterfly effect of consequences if the opponent makes a single unexpected gambit. Though this hints at grand scope, in effect it leads to an extremely safe mode of play wherein turns are constructed in such a way as to focus solely around guaranteed plays for one or two units.

With Shining Force II's style of turns, unit moves regain their chess-like significance as the primary agents of player strategies. Essentially, there is feedback after every decision point: when the player relinquishes control of a unit, they relinquish control of the game. The next turn may be theirs or the opponent's, but they won't be able to revisit that unit until the round is completed. Successful tactics need to account for how each unit on the map can benefit from each individual move, because they will get a chance to take advantage of it before an overall position is composed.

A more specific chess tactic available in Shining Force II but not in XCOM or Fire Emblem (referencing them a lot, but they really do provide the perfect counterpoint) is the sacrifice. Units are reset at the beginning of every battle in Shining Force II - a battle has no lasting repercussions except for experience point gains. Thus sacrificing a unit becomes a viable tactic. A sacrificial lamb can be used to spread out an enemy formation, lead an all-out attack, provide a momentary barrier, or to bait a trap. The lack of consequence threatens to lead to lazy play, where as a player gains the upper hand their strategy loosens and risks lose their meaning. The simple fact of it is that Shining Force II is balanced so that just isn't the case. There are of course guaranteed-win scenarios during endgame, but the pacing of the battles as tiered skirmishes means that a casualty at any point can lead to a substantial statistical disadvantage in the next skirmish. Sacrifices are still a major trade-off, and the presence of such a tactic only makes the game more strategically rich.

It may not inherently be a strength for a game to be chess-like in nature, but in my experience with strategy RPGs and Shining Force II in general it proves to be nothing but a boon. There is a reason chess is the most popular board game in the world and Warhammer isn't. That reason may have to do with date of origin and which game contains orcs; nonetheless, it's combinatorial complexity is something to aspire to, not compete against.

*For the record, I'm pretty sure everything here applies to Shining Force as well. I've just only played II.

**there is a tiny exception to this. Defending units, probably depending on their stats, have something like a 5% chance of doing a counterattack. It's so rare that it's not so much a factor in tactics as it is a forced non-determinism. I'm okay with this in Shining Force II (though it seems unnecessary given that the make-up and exact statistics of a player's squad in a grind-enabled game provides plenty of non-determinism anyway), but the similar implementation in Fire Emblem bothers me because of the drastic implications of a mistake in Fire Emblem. Get a bad roll on that 95% accuracy attack and you may lose a squad member permanently. 

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