The Fire Emblem series is one of the gold standards for tactics games. In this series, a human and computer take turns to move characters on a grid with the hopes of winning battles through careful positioning.
It isn’t uncommon for these characters to have movement ranges of 7 and higher, especially if the character is on horseback. Seven might not sound like a large movement range, but here you can see it visualised on a Fire Emblem game map. It fills up almost the entire screen!
To compensate for this, they made most maps very large, covering several screens worth of space. They also added a zoom feature so that you can see more of the map at once.
But with so much space and such long movement ranges, it can become tricky to figure out which squares are safe and which are dangerous. To get around this, they let you visualise the enemy movement ranges. Below you can see all the enemies toggled on (shown in red).
This solves the problem, but in my opinion it also takes something away from the strategy. As you can see, virtually the entire map is red! In my experience, one of the strongest strategies was to position most of your forces just outside the red zone, and then place one or two tanky units inside the red zone as bait. The enemy rushes in to attack your bait units, leaving them wide open to counterattack on your next turn.
This strategy doesn’t always work, of course! You also have to take into account different weapon types and their super-effective bonuses, for example. But in my playthrough it worked often enough that I rarely had to try out new strategies. This is unfortunate, because the Fire Emblem series has plenty of supporting mechanics to help you outplay the enemy and I was barely using them.
I think the large movement ranges are at the root of this problem. If most characters could move just 3 or 4 spaces each turn, you could make the maps much smaller. With smaller maps, you would have a higher concentration of game pieces and therefore a larger number of possible interactions. So while I like Fire Emblem, I really miss Intelligent Systems’ previous series – Advance Wars.
Small Maps, Big Strategies
It’s easy to see how Advance Wars formed the prototype for the Fire Emblem games. It has the same grid-based movement and turn-based combat systems. But Advance Wars was also much smaller. Your basic foot soldiers could only move 3 spaces each turn (shown below). This meant you could easily see what’s inside its range and you could quickly count how many turns it would need to reach a particular location.
Tanks had longer movement ranges, but they were also greatly slowed down by forests (meaning in some cases, your foot soldiers were actually faster than your vehicles). The game also had ranged units, the most powerful of which was Rockets. You can see their attack range below:
This range is pretty big (up to 5 spaces) but note that they also have a “blind zone” around them (1 – 2 spaces away). Your units will be safe if you can move them into that blind zone.
To protect your ranged units, you can position your close-combat units in front of them. This forms a blockade that the enemy will have to destroy before they can reach your back lines. Consider the example below:
Here, yellow is in quite a strong position. Vehicles can’t cross rivers, meaning the bridge in the top-left provides a natural choke-point. An Artillery unity (blue circle) is positioned on this bridge. This unit has a range of 2-3 spaces, meaning it can fire on the enemy Medium Tank to its right. To protect its blind spot, a friendly Medium Tank (red circle) is sitting in front. And below both of these units is a Rockets (green circle) – which can fire on several enemies while also being protected by the river and the other friendly tanks blocking the road.
The small grid and low movement ranges encourage the player to make good use of space. You often see units bunched up together, overlapping their attack ranges and covering their back lines. If movement ranges and map sizes were doubled, it would be much harder to create these sorts of formations.
I would really love to see a Fire Emblem game shrink their grid to be something more like Advance Wars. But grid-based games aren’t the only kind of game that can benefit from small numbers.
When Tactics Add Up
Hearthstone designers often talk about keeping the game simple for new players. One of the ways they do this is by keeping their numbers small.
Most units have stats that can be counted on one hand. In the image below there are 5 units, but because they all have small stats it’s easy to count up your options (you can take out the enemy 3/2 with your 2/4, or with your 1/1 and the hero power).
Your mana is also easy to track. You get one extra crystal each turn, up to a maximum of 10. In this case, Flamestrike would be a really good card to play. It would cost all your mana for this turn but also deal 4 damage to all enemy minions, clearing them. And since each player only draws one card per turn, your hand is often quite small too.
In Magic: the Gathering the defending player gets to choose which units block which attacks. This encourages highly defensive play, where both players build up an army until one of them has enough power to overwhelm the opponent. This means the game tends to have a lot of cards on the field at once (especially since your mana is also represented by cards). But in Hearthstone, keeping units on the board for more than a turn or 2 can be quite difficult. By keeping the number of active cards small, the game is far less tactically overwhelming.
Oh boy, that’s a lot of cards to consider…
For a game aimed at the casual market, Hearthstone manages to create a lot of nuanced tactical situations. By keeping its numbers small they ensure the game is easy to understand. Greater understanding in turn supports complex planning, as players can more easily assess and calculate all their options. Hearthstone is a great example of how less can be more.
Chaining Actions Into Plans
Patch Quest, my own game, is played on a 3×3 grid of “patches” (each of which is a 3×3 grid of tiles). Each patch is a self-contained tactical challenge with randomized hazards. As you move across the board, old patches slide out and new patches slide in. This way, you can move across a large game-world despite only being able to see 5 tiles in any one direction.
The player can only move 2 spaces per turn, as shown below. This greatly restricts the player’s options, keeping each turn simple. But a turn only takes a couple of seconds, meaning the player can quickly chain together multiple turns into something more complex. The player can’t clear many obstacles in 1 turn, but a quick chain of 3 turns is another story.
The player also has a small health jar (only 7HP to start with) that fills up with various kinds of damage as you walk over hazards. The small size of the jar makes it easy to see at a glance how much health you have left, and therefore whether a particular move is worth the damage you would take as a result.
Some damage types also have bonus effects, shown by the lightning bolts. Here, soaked damage means the player is at risk of drowning.
I’ve intentionally kept the grid size, movement range and health values small so that the game is easy to reason about (and therefore easy to learn). But again, easy reasoning can lead to complex plans – especially over the course of several turns.
How Low Can You Go?
There are certainly some drawbacks to small numbers in games. In particular, you lose out on granularity. Many games give out upgrades that provide a 5% bonus to this or a 10% bonus to that. But if your numbers are smaller than 10 or 20, you can’t do this sort of thing.
Still, I believe there’s a lot of untapped potential in smaller games. Complexity doesn’t have to come from the size of a board or from calculating stats; it can also come from combining simple building blocks in creative ways.
As an exercise, you could try shrinking the map size, movement speeds or health values in your game. And these suggestions are really just meant to be a starting point. Depending on what kind of game you’re making, there are probably many other places where shrinking could increase clarity while also clearing space for advanced tactics. Personally, I would love to see more games experiment with going small rather than going big.
If you liked this article, why not read some of my other ones? (like this one on “sectioning” complex games into more understandable sub-systems). And if you want to learn more about Patch Quest, you can watch this video. The game is also available for free over here. Your support helps me find the time to write these articles.