Sea power in strategy games: How to ensure it’s not an oxymoron

By now I must have played the Civilization games for sixteen or seventeen years, but never did I see an armada to match that in my latest game, over the weekend. Multiple stacks, each consisting of several to half-a-dozen modern warships, destroyers and battleships and carriers, lay massed off my shores. It was a splendid sight.

There was one slight problem: It wasn’t my fleet.

And I felt rather like the German major from the Longest Day, who, upon seeing the Allied fleet poised to invade Normandy, howls to a disbelieving superior that there must be “five thousand ships out there!

But the really odd thing isn’t just that fleets that large are a rare sight in Civilization. It’s that fleets that large are so often a moot point in Civilization, where on the map types I play (balanced, continents, Terra), control of the seas is often just not that important. This made me think: How does a strategy game designer ensure that sea power is worthwhile, that it isn’t an oxymoron? And what factors influence this?

Geography is the first and most obvious. If I’m fighting someone on the same continent in Civilization IV, investing in an amphibious landing force, and warships to protect it, has little point when I can just drive my tanks straight across the border. You can contrast, say, Europa Universalis, where the European powers have to invest in navies to protect their overseas colonies from one another.

But there is a second factor: how well does the game represent the importance of sea lanes to trade and communication? My example here is Empire: Total War, which modelled this in two ways. Much of your income comes from trade, and firstly, this often travels along defined sea routes. Put a ship astride your enemy’s route, and you can seriously harm his/her war chest. And second, certain spots on the map allow you to park lucrative “trade ships”. Again, hunt down your rivals’ trade ships (or just interdict their routes), and you will hit them where it hurts.

The third factor I can think of is the ability of navies to project power inland. This is best seen in any game where warships can bombard distant targets: plenty of RTSses, but Total Annihilation is the one that sticks in my mind; Advance Wars; even Civilization V (going by descriptions I’ve heard). When you can flatten wide swathes of territory from the sea, navies become important.

These are factors I’d like to see more strategy games play up. Warships are inherently cool, hence all the documentaries about aircraft carriers. Particularly for a historical or quasi-historical game, they add a lot to the flavour of the period. And they give players one more choice to juggle: do I invest in ships now at the expense of an army and infrastructure? It behoves designers to ensure that choice is an interesting one.

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