Strategy games that built to climactic endings

How does a strategy game provide a satisfying late-game experience?

This, I think, is a two-pronged problem. Part 1 is avoiding the things that actively drag on the endgame: micromanagement (see my previous post) and the snowball problem, when someone – usually the human player in a single-player game – runs away with the game early on, turning the endgame into a tedious exercise in mopping up. In this post, though, I’ll focus on Part 2, which is the reverse: designing the game so that it builds to a tense climax, much like the traditional three-act plot.

Here, I think the highly open-ended nature of Paradox games works against them. In contrast, I can think of at least three games that set the player a clear victory condition that could only be triggered during the endgame: the Civilization series, Emperor of the Fading Suns, and Rome: Total War (if you played a Roman faction):

  • The space race in the Civilization series: Probably the best-known example here. One of the victory conditions in Civ is to build an interstellar colony ship, which requires near-future technology and a powerful industrial base. If several advanced civilisations are left standing by this stage of the game, the net result is a frantic race during which you watch your rivals tantalisingly piling component after component onto their ships. Will you be able to first research, and then manufacture, new parts for your starship in time?
  • Rushing for the capital in Emperor of the Fading Suns: This game cast players as aristocrats vying for the throne in a Feudal Future (think a cross between Dune and Warhammer 40K). Each player had a certain number of votes, which could be seized in combat, and to declare yourself emperor, you had to win two elections: first when you claimed the throne, and again after ten turns. The catch was, you had to have a noble in the capital in order to cast your vote. And while the capital was a “safe haven” neutral zone for most of the game, that ended the moment someone grabbed for the throne. Once that happened, it was time to rush your troops and fleets to the capital and slaughter the rival nobles there. Your foes could be wreaking havoc across half the galaxy, but that didn’t matter just so long as you controlled the capital, and cast the deciding votes…
  • The Roman civil war in Rome: Total War. This one, I admit, I haven’t done myself (ironically enough, I never got far enough in a R:TW game due to the “micromanagement” and “game became a foregone conclusion” problems mentioned above). But the concept, as I understand, was that if you played a Roman faction, as your power grew, the Senate would eventually demand more and more outrageous things from you, culminating in an order for your faction leader to fall on his sword. When that time came, it was time to cross the Rubicon and fight your fellow Romans. Beyond the gameplay coolness of building up to this moment, it makes perfect thematic sense for a game about the rise of Rome to culminate in civil war between the Roman triumvirs. It’s too bad the campaign was single-player only, because similarly to Emperor of the Fading Suns, I imagine the dynamics between multiple human Roman players would have been great.

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