Faction Design

Post by: Grant Rodiek

I wanted to give you a bit of reprieve from Field Marshals, especially as it has been the topic of so many columns lately. However, when I was fishing for column ideas, the most excellent Eric of the great blog Games & Grub asked me for tips on designing factions and balancing them. This has been my focus for a few weeks now on Field Marshals and I want to help where possible.

I’m not an expert on faction design. Really, if anyone is it’s Colby Dauch and crew with Summoner Wars.  I have learned a few things and I will try to abstract it somewhat so that it’s useful even if you aren’t designing a war game. There are a few key points I wish to make:

  • The key to designing a faction is knowing which knobs you can twist.
  • Only make a faction as complicated as it needs to be and nothing more.
  • Make the factions unique at a high level before designing the details.
  • Every faction should have a strength and a weakness.

What do I mean by factions? By faction, I mean different entities within the game that follow different rule sets. These could be a character class (ex: Rogue, Ranger, Warrior) or in the case of Field Marshals, different armies. The Summoner Wars Master Set ships with 8 factions.

Factions can be e a great addition to your game because they provide a great deal of variety. Just when you think you can’t lose with the Orcs, take a chance playing as the Elves only to find you need to relearn the game somewhat. Factions also cater to different play styles. Some players prefer stealth and subtlety, others go straight for the throat. From an aesthetic standpoint, factions give you an opportunity to appeal to players with different visuals, tell new stories, and generally expand and enrich your game world.

However, factions aren’t always the right solution and shouldn’t be approached without deliberate intent. They can quickly expand your game content out of hand, add a great deal of complexity to an otherwise simple rule set, and will most assuredly create a balance headache for you.

The key to designing factions is knowing which knobs you can twist. Factions are essentially exceptions and variants built upon a core, refined rule set. You do not want to design factions within a completely open sandbox as you’ll begin creating ridiculous things! Only begin faction design once you have a very firm understanding of your game.

It’s like grammar. Know the rules backwards and forwards so that you can break them at the right moment.

I’ve spent several months testing Field Marshals with a single Army. Every player used the same Army with the same Tactics. As a result, I’ve been able to focus on the map layout, add things such as Fortresses and Seaports, refine victory conditions, player turns, movement, turn order, and more. I always knew I wanted to consider factions at some point, but I avoided the distraction for a very long time.

As a result, I now know what features are available to allow me to craft a compelling faction.

  • Factions can have unique Tactics: Tactics are the core of Field Marshals. They are separated into Offensive, Defensive, and Support Tactics. Defensive and Offensive Tactics modify the otherwise non-random aspects of battle and Support Tactics let you do things like taking an additional Move or building a Fortress.
  • Factions can Reinforce differently.
  • Factions can battle differently. Better “fighting” armies may have a more favorable attrition rate in direct battle.
  • Factions can move differently.

One thing that I should note is that I’m not using all of these things. In fact, 90% of faction play will be entirely manifested in an Army’s Tactics. I’m making a slight tweak to Reinforcements such that 2 factions will do it one way and the other 2 will do it another way. That’s it. If I’m successful, I may craft additional factions that further bend the rules.

For now, I don’t want to add more complexity simply because I can! I want players to be able to shift between factions relatively easily. The difficulty (and fun) should come through learning to master the faction. If every faction required players read 4 pages of rules, they’d quickly set my game on fire.

Only make a faction as complicated as it needs to be and nothing more. This is a continuation of a previous point, but it’s worth stating again and again. Just because you are able doesn’t mean you should design several wholly unique rule sets. If your factions can be unique and meaningful with just 2 rules, then you’ve done your job. Factions are one of the best ways to over complicate and ruin your game if you aren’t careful.

I was worried initially that I would need completely new iconography for the different factions. I was also worried that I’d need to design 8 Tactics for each Army (which was the number the vanilla army had in the previous iteration). However, as I dove into the actual implementation, I conceived of some clever ways to deliver on the fiction and keep the iconography universal between every faction. I also found that 4 unique Tactics were more than sufficient for each faction.

With only 4 unique Factions, that means, at most, there are 4 players, 4 Armies, and 16 total Tactics in a single game. That’s not an insane number, which means it should be possible for players to follow and, within reason, anticipate the moves of their opponents. Only testing will verify this hypothesis, but I believe I’m moving in the right direction.

Make the factions unique at a high level before designing the details. I’m designing a war game with historical footing in 19th century European warfare. It was relatively easy for me to create 4 unique factions using this backdrop for inspiration. I planned the factions at a high level initially to ensure they were distinct and unique. With faction play, especially early in your game’s life cycle, there is no room for subtlety. Be bold.

If you cannot create something unique at a high level, don’t bother fiddling with the rules or implementation. The unique rules and variations for each faction need to be obvious for your players. The conceit needs to be plausible, else your players will be consulting the rules or ignoring your over-designed implementations. Minor tuning changes may not be sufficient for creating unique factions.

My current 4 factions are as follows (Don’t worry too much about the names. I’m still fiddling with story/world development).

  • Imperial Army: They are designed to be the basic, well-balanced Army. They are inspired by the professional regular armies of Prussia and Britain. The Imperial Army are essentially the Terrans from Starcraft, if that helps.
  • Yorkan Clans: The clans are heavily inspired by the Native American tribes during the Indian Wars of the American West, the Spanish Guerrillas during the Peninsular War, and the Vietcong. They are a guerrilla Army focused on hit and run tactics, Ambushes, and not getting caught in a head to head battle.
  • Royal Brigade: This is a highly mobile, cavalry based Army. They are honestly more inspired by the Blitzkrieg tactics pioneered by the German Army in World War II. Speed, mobility, encirclement, and hitting the enemy in his flank.
  • Republik Militia: These are the rabble that have risen up under the promise of a better, democratic government. They are ill-trained and led by politicians turned Generals. They don’t fight well, but they have large numbers and can manipulate their opponents through political means.

One thing that helped me visualize these four factions is that the Army I have been testing featured many of the same Tactics. Now, the Tactics are distributed such that each Army has a very small, but unique subset of powerful choices that make them unique.

Every faction should have a strength and weakness. After you conceive the base idea for your faction, you should immediately begin to answer the following two questions: What is this faction good at? What is this faction bad at?

For the guerrilla Army, they are good at appearing in unexpected places of the map and hit and run tactics. They are everywhere you don’t want them to be. However, they are very bad at straight up fights. If you pin them down, they will be in trouble. It’s key to move them and time your strikes well, because going toe to to with the Imperial Army may result in failure.You may find at this stage that your answers sound very similar for different factions. If this is the case, you may want to take a step back and revisit the high level concepts.

Quick Recap. Know your overall game before you being fiddling with factions. Treat factions as exceptions to the core rules. Design within a limited framework and seek at all times to limit complexity. Focus on boldly unique entities. Subtle blends should be reserved for “down the line.” Every faction should have a strength and a weakness.

Did this help? Did this answer any questions? If not, post your additional questions below in comments. I always want to improve my content, so if I could have explained a point better, please tell me!

2 thoughts on “Faction Design

  1. Pingback: Handful of Fun | Hyperbole Games

  2. Pingback: Balance Testing | Hyperbole Games

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