A dozen human warriors stand in formation, armor grimy and torn from days of campaigning. Across a muddy field howl a troop of orcs, snarling and chomping their fangs in anticipation of blood. With a battle cry the orcs surge forward, each pumping powerful legs in hopes of reaching battle first.
The humans are composed, adjusting their formation as they march forward in step. The six spearmen lock shields and take the lead, 8-foot iron tipped spears held rigidly in front. Behind them four crossbowmen quickly ratchet back strings and slip in heavy quarrels into the groove. Protecting the flanks are the company leaders, the giant captain who formed the band and the lieutenant who is its heart.
The men stop as the crossbows take aim. The next moments are a blur as the orcs close the distance and the bows twang, reload and fire again. Not every bolt lands but those that do hit with eerie precision. A bare chested orc is hit twice, as is the next lightly armored soldier. Then quarrels thunk into the massive berserker in the center of the mob. Three, four, five quarrels find their mark, the volley preternaturally stopping the instant the orc’s heart stops beating.
The orcs split their force, half continuing to charge and half stopping short and pulling out small curved bows. They return fire, aiming for the crossbowmen killing their mates. They somehow glean that one of the crossbowmen has lost the chain shirt under his vest and they pore arrows into him, efficiently moving targets the moment he dies, before his body even slacks.
The front rows meet. Orcs are impaled on spears as their mates take advantage of the sacrifice and engage the humans in melee. The two sides are face to face, exchanging blows. Three humans hack at a large orc. His friends ignore him and focus instead on a single human in the center of the formation, a rookie recently joined and poorly equipped. The crossbowmen directly behind him the rookie ignore his please for help, instead aiming at the wounded orcish bowmen far behind scoring easy kills.
Turn based is my favorite flavor of battle. I wish real life was turn based. I’d be much more successful with unlimited time to ponder every move. But I hate how it causes melting and ruins the feel that you’re engaged in something like a real battle. Every warrior, despite stone age equipment, total darkness and the chaos of battle, has perfect tactical awareness. Hive mind archers focus fire on the least armored and switch targets the moment HPs are reduced to zero. Soldiers somehow divine which opponents cause the most damage and silently mob them, ignoring dying friends near by. Entire formations adjust instantly to cover a single favored soldier, newer troops gleefully sacrificing themselves to keep a stranger alive a moment longer.
Battle Brothers, which I otherwise loved, was particularly prone to this. Past the mid-game I just gave up on having a healthy core of archers. There was no way to keep them alive. The moment the front rank soldiers broke free and took away their cover, the enemy archers all ruthlessly focused fire on one lightly armored bowman at a time until they went down. In a real battle I imagine most people would fire at enemies directly in front of them (especially a crazed one wielding a battle ax charging directly for them) even if there was a wounded enemy far to the flank who could be taken down with one more arrow.
I thoroughly enjoyed Darkest Dungeon but never finished in two separate playthroughs (I braved the dark again after the decent Crimson Court expansion). Specifically because of heart breaking perma-death melting. My only level 6 Hellions (a squishy glass canon that makes many boss battles considerably easier) fell prey to the curse of surprising your enemies. Three out of four survived my initial onslaught. Because they were surprised they went last in the first round, and then thanks to RNG fuckry all three went first in the second round. More fuckry ensued and my precious Hellions who I shepherded through months of game-time, took 6 hits and were reduced to a puddle. It felt cheap without having a chance to block or heal. I couldn’t bare the drudgery of leveling up another Hellion nor did I want to muddle through the next few boss battles without a reliable front line DPS machine. So I quit a game I love. Twice.
While my old boss always told me to come with solutions and not problems, this is a problem which I don’t know how to solve. The few thousand game designers whose games I’ve played haven’t found one either. We’ve all accepted that this is just how turn based battles work. Designers account for it and skew difficulty assuming you will play this way. But it is a problem if you’re trying to simulate a real battlefield with some sort of fidelity and games that have turn based combat are
What’s the Solution?
Simultaneous turns can alleviate much of the problem. Without knowing which shots will hit and how much damage they’ll do you have to overcompensate and possibly waste shots if you desperately want to take out a specific target. I like that decision making process, weighing the risk of not bringing down a crucial target with the reward of having more shots to spread out elsewhere. But simultaneous turns introduce their own immersion-breaking problems. Enemies can cheerfully walk by each other without engaging or reacting because both sides guessed ending locations incorrectly.
So maybe that’s the solution. Simultaneous turns but with customizable intelligence. A handful of “if” statements or criteria, some under the players control, some based on environmental input. Shoot that guy unless someone is charging you. Walk over there unless an enemy gets close enough to engage. Implementation would be cumbersome and difficult to learn but I wonder if the resulting decisions would be worth it.
Real-time-pausible is another solution and one which should convey the real chaos of battle the best in theory. In practice its almost always too busy. Without clearly defined turns, something important is happening at all times. Difficult battles devolve into microsecond pauses and adjustments until it becomes actually slower and less fluid than turn based.