The problem with espionage in strategy games…

… is that it tends to boil down to a single die roll.

The key word is “single”. Consider spies in Civilization, agents in Total War, and paid assassinations in Crusader Kings. Even in games without tactical combat, where battle is ultimately a matter of rolling the dice, the player can determine the outcome of a war through superior numbers, technology, or manoeuvre on the strategic map. Since armies comprise multiple units, a single unlucky die roll won’t be decisive.

By contrast, spy actions in strategy games have traditionally been determined by a single, all-or-nothing roll. If it succeeds, wonderful. It it fails, the player’s lack of control over the outcome makes it a temptation to reload – especially as failure may incur the loss of an experienced, irreplaceable asset.

In the last few years, designers have grown wise to this. Now, it’s common to see spies and agents grant a passive bonus, or a gradual effect that builds up over time. For example, in the more recent Total War games, agents have both a “passive” ability (such as granting bonus experience to friendly troops, or extra income in a town) and an “active” ability (such as assassination or sabotage).

Personally, I think this is a big step forward. I find passive, predictable bonuses to be less fiddly and more conducive to planning. And by limiting the number of agents that can be deployed, relative to the number of potential opportunities, designers can require players to make “interesting decisions” about where to deploy their scarce agents1. I look forward to seeing what designers come up with.

  1. Consider spies in Civilization V, who can increase the player’s influence in a given city-state. Since there are far more city-states than spies, which ones do you choose?
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3 Responses to The problem with espionage in strategy games…

  1. Roberto says:

    Some games tried to solve that problem by imagining spies as “covert” units that could be used by the enemy until you intervened. In Knights of Honour, for instance, spies could be hired by your enemy as knights, and then you could just wait for the right time to “backstab” the enemy. Seven Kingdoms 2 had a similar approach, in that a well-placed spy could be devastating for your adversary. It’s an interesting approach, but it can be really difficult to use effectively, which is why I guess it isn’t more often used in strategy games.

    • Peter Sahui says:

      I remember that mechanic in Seven Kingdoms! It’s a cool idea; I suspect it would work best in multiplayer, due to the “mind game” involved.

  2. Pingback: Shield of civilisation: Thoughts on Total Warhammer » Matchsticks for my Eyes

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