Fleet Encounter Mechanics, Part 1

In a previous post, I talked about combat readiness (“CR”) as a means of tying the campaign and combat layers closer together, but also as a means of cleaning up existing mechanics. The mechanics surrounding battle are a perfect candidate, both because they need cleaning up, and because they wouldn’t work well with CR as they now stand. Changes to these aren’t just a consequence of adding CR; rather, they’re part of that process.

First, a quick recap of how things work now. When the player encounters another fleet, they can choose to attack them or leave. If either side wants to attack, the fleets engage, and each side has three options: “attack”, “defend”, and “escape”. Without going into too much detail, there’s a rock-paper-scissors mechanic there where attack beats escape beats defend beats attack. (“Escape” beating “defend” simply means a clean getaway, with “beating” in general meaning having an advantage in the battle, not automatic victory.)

Playing rock-paper-scissors vs the computer isn’t fun. The computer is either predictable or random, but in either case you don’t get the mind games that make it interesting vs a human opponent. The “escape” mechanic also doesn’t work well. The escapee has to run their ships across the map and retreat them off the enemy side, which is much more difficult than “attacking” and then retreating ships off their side of the map – which they could do without seeing a single enemy. If they do that, their ships take some automatic, random post battle damage to simulate a chase after this retreat, but that’s a problem in itself.  Either it does enough damage so that retreat from a real lost battle is disastrous, or it doesn’t do enough damage to stop “attack to retreat” being viable.

Adding in CR, the current setup is also open to being gamed. For example, a single Hound-class frigate fighting against an Onslaught-class battleship – the Hound could engage, then immediately retreat, causing a CR loss for both ships for being deployed in battle. However, the Hound both costs less CR to deploy and recovers it faster. So, it could reliably beat an Onslaught without firing a single shot but wearing down its CR.

There are also some concerns that would be nice to address given the opportunity. One such is that civilian ships – freighters, tankers, transports – don’t get to see much combat, because the “escape” scenario doesn’t work well. That’s a shame, because escorting/attacking those would add some new dynamics to combat, and the civilian ships have nice graphics that don’t get to see the light of day often. It’d also be good to see some attention being paid to outfitting them, rather than them serving as simple cargo/fuel/personnel capacity boosters.

Also, even if there was a reason to pick the “escape” option, part of what makes it not work well is that chasing down a ship often results in firing some last, desperate shots at it as it crosses the map border to escape. Borders in space? A necessity of the engine, perhaps, but not exactly a fact you want to rub the player’s face in repeatedly. Which this does.

New Mechanics
The most important consideration here is making CR impossible to game; that is to say, making it so that you can’t win a battle by getting the AI to waste CR and avoiding actual fighting. With that in mind, let’s dive into the new system.

When the player encounters another fleet, each side has the choice to either engage or attempt to disengage. If both sides want to fight, there’s a normal battle. If one side wants to run away and the other wants to fight, there’s something we’ll call an “escape scenario”. Multiple engagements are possible within the same encounter. We’ll get to the details of all that in a minute, but first let’s talk about the CR mechanics surrounding these choices.

Deploying a ship into battle reduces its CR, and ships with CR below a certain threshold can’t be deployed into battle. That’s the basic rule, and everything else is built around that.

So, let’s say both sides decided to engage, one side won, and one side lost. Any retreating ships from the losing side take an additional CR hit as they put on extra speed to disengage and push their systems to the limit. The intent here is to provide a real cost to retreating, so that it isn’t something the player does to, say, reload their missile ammo after a massive alpha strike, with the intention of coming right back for another round.

The winning side also has the following options (note that these options are available to both the player and the AI, whoever is the winner):

Harass the retreating enemy ships
This is an offensive option. The CR of the enemy ships left in reserve is reduced as if they’d been deployed into battle. (Presumably, they were called into action to cover the retreat of friendly ships off the field and/or had to scramble to avoid danger themselves.)

This takes care of strategies like deploying a single frigate to bait out as many deployments from the enemy as possible, and then retreating – if the player does that, the AI can pick this option and their reserves will still suffer the CR hit. The ships on the winning side will also be able to pursue and force an “escape scenario” battle if the losing side decides to disengage, and will have an improved starting position there.

Send out salvage teams
The middle-of-the-road, economic option. The winner gets improved salvage from any ships disabled or destroyed – on either side, during the last engagement only. They can still pursue if the loser decides to disengage, but won’t get an improved starting position.

Stand down
The defensive option. All ships that were deployed into battle regain a percentage of their deployment CR cost, with the percentage being lower for a harder-fought battle. The downsides to picking this option are the inability to pursue a disengaging enemy and the opportunity cost of not sending out salvage teams.

The number of enemy ships disabled or destroyed (rather, their combined deployment point cost) is used as  metric for how hard-fought the battle was. Other stats, such as hull damage taken or ship losses suffered, might make more sense conceptually – but would be more open to being gamed. For example, a ship that’s set up to avoid damage could then stand down to regain all of its CR. In practical terms, using “ships destroyed” works well to prevent harassment tactics from being used to drain CR, since it can’t be done unless ships are lost. This also takes care of any gamey CR-exhaustion-based “deploy and retreat” strategies; the winner can always pick this option to have some fighting capability left after the engagement.

Choices presented after winning the engagementThe Hegemony Patrol is soundly defeated. (Graphics/text not final.)

So, the engagement is over, the winner picks one of these, its effects are applied, and we’re back to square one: each side can pick to engage or disengage. Let’s say the losing side decides to cut their losses and run. The winner now has the following options:

Pursue them
Only available if the winner has combat-ready ships remaining and did not pick “stand down” after their last victory. Also unavailable if the slowest loser’s ship is faster than the fastest winner’s ship. Starts an “escape scenario” battle.

Harry their retreat
Available even if pursuit isn’t, this deducts another chunk of CR from every ship in the retreating fleet. That way, even faster fleets have something at stake when a  more powerful enemy catches up to them, even if they can’t be forced into battle. The only time this option is unavailable is if the fleet that’s disengaging is the fleet that actually won the last engagement. That allows a clean getaway.

Another reason for this option is to avoid the situation where the player is forced to pick “pursue” so the enemy fleet has to deploy to escape (using up CR), and then exit out of the battle without deploying anything themselves, just to achieve the same effect this option has.

Let them go
The losing side gets away without any repercussions. Not much reason to let them do so at the moment, but it might come into play when reputation is an issue, or if you simply want to leave the enemy fleet combat-capable for some devious reason of your own.

After one of these is picked, the winner gets to pick between sending out salvage teams and standing down, and the encounter is over.

All in all, an encounter consists of zero or more engagements, and at most one “escape scenario”. I should probably talk about what that is… but this post is getting a little long, so I think I’ll split it into two parts. Stay tuned for part two – coming sometime next week, and talking about travel drive, the “escape scenario”, and boarding.

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This entry was posted on Saturday, March 30th, 2013 at 3:03 pm and is filed under Development. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.