Sunday, February 28, 2016

Episode 117: Strategy and Tactics

This is episode 117 of Roguelike Radio, where Mark JohnsonDarren Grey, Rob Parker and Twinge discuss tactical and strategic gameplay in roguelikes.

You can download the mp3 of the podcast, play it in the embedded player below, or you can follow us on iTunes.

Topics Discussed:
  • Do strategic choices in classic Roguelikes extend beyond the food clock?
  • Does team based combat drown the player with tactical decision making?
  • Can a player truly make an informed strategic/tactical choice without spoilers?
  • Do too many Roguelike games fail to properly communicate a players poor strategic decisions?
  • Do modern real time Roguelikes even require strategy?
  • Did Mark come up with a winning 7DRL idea?
  • Find the answer to these and more in episode 117!
  • Games discussed: FTL, X-COM, Fire Emblem, Nethack, Angband, ADOM, Binding of Isaac, Hoplite, Dwarf Fortress
  • Cameron Kunzelman's talk on The Artisanal Roguelike
  • Article on Spectacular Mortality
  • You Only Live Once

Join us next time for an interview with John Harris, writer of @Play and author of the newly released book '@Play: Exploring Roguelike Games'.


  1. There was talk of providing players with meaningful feedback about their choices post-death in improving future play, but I think there is an issue which got danced around: teaching the strategic game. Death logs and inventory lists provide insight to obvious tactical errors, but often give very little insight to strategic issues. Furthermore, tactical errors may mask glaring strategic errors because they're usually the more immediate cause of death.

    Let's use TOME as an example even though many of these issues can apply across all roguelikes. First, take a very common killer: stun/confuse. Getting stunned can either be a minor nuisance or completely devastating depending on which talents get put on cooldown. In the early game, dying to stun is a tactical error. You should be attempting to mitigate it through positioning/selective engagement because you haven't found the gear to build resistance. In the late game, dying to stun is a strategic error, as you've had ample chance to gear against it. But realizing that good stun/confuse resistance is important isn't that obvious because the early game has taught players to deal with it in a different way.

    Fights in TOME can vary wildly and an enemy that kills you in 3 turns may barely touch you upon re-engagement (an experience people playing w/multiple lives can likely attest). This reinforces the tactical elements even though a better strategic plan would have mitigated the worst case scenarios more effectively for the fight. Learning how to run away in roguelikes is a crucial skill, but sometimes you have to let the player know "no, you should've been able to fight this now, your strategy just stinks". How can that be done?

    The sheer # of talents/resistances/status effects also provides an opaqueness to the strategic layer which makes it hard to discover what is important and what isn't. Gear choice is also confusing. How important is armor vs. defense? Should I focus my gear on saves or resistances? I mean, knowing what each of these things do helps, but doesn't give the player a good idea of how they actually play out. How do you signal to the player the piece of gear they thought was worthless is actually exactly what they need?

    DCSS has an issue with this as well. Strategically, skill choice is a HUGE part of building a successful character, but actually training the right skills at the right time is not something the game teaches you. Most players start off by training their weapon or main spellcasting stat, but the game doesn't start you off that way, it has you training 6+ skills, some of which are basically exp traps (throwing). Why?

    I think better signaling and teaching strategy within the game would go a long way in aiding roguelike accessibility.

    1. I agree that it would vastly improve accessibility and help players to feel that their deaths were their own fault rather than the RNG shafting them. It's tricky though. I'm struggling to come up with a way to do that (at least with strategy rather than tactics) while staying away from tedious tutorials.

  2. I love these nitty gritty discussion episodes. Cheers for making me not be able to mentally correct people when they (...or I) misuse the terms tactical and strategic.

    I didn't understand why one person said they restart Isaac if they take damage on the first two levels! I know the game's difficulty increases as you play it more and win at it more but right now I've had about 5 wins and I still receive enough hearts to make up for any damage taken at the start. Completley trivial detail, I just found it odd.

    1. I have a long an storied history of making completely counter-intuitive decisions.

    2. It also depends on the character I'm using. I've been fooling around with Judas, Azazel, and Eve, trying to get better at my twitch game instead of just getting through by sheer force of health with Magdalene.

    3. "I have a long an storied history of making completely counter-intuitive decisions"

      Ha, fair enough! So it's more that you're imposing the limitation rather than thinking you won't make it if you take any hits at the start? I can see that then I suppose.

      The amount of health (HP/heart containers) you get is so wildly inconsistent in this game! I recently had a run with Eden where I started with two hearts and didn't get any more up until level 4 at which point I died in one of the toughest rooms I've seen. After cursing my luck, I played again with Eve and now (Utero) I've almost maxed out my HP!

      Something that's very apparent is the frequency bias as I call it. If you get a pill (possibly card, definitely pill) of one type, you'll see that type of pill again and again in that playthrough. I first noticed this in Brogue (not with potions/scrolls but equipment) and to my surprise it happens in Isaac so clearly it's intentional. One of my first pills in this run was an HP up so I was set from the get-go.

      I know what you mean about having tons of health, once you can afford to take a few hits it's harder to stay as sharp as you were when you were vulnerable. Anyway, Isaac (Rebirth, Wii U) has me majorly hooked.

  3. This comment has been removed by the author.

  4. I'm new to roguelike scene. Just bumped into this. Awesome podcast!

  5. Good video on strategy and multiplayer game design:

    "Strategic decisions are those with irreversible long-term consequences"

  6. RE: 28:10 - Why people blame bad luck on defeats in FTL compared to in Binding of Issaac.

    Akin to why (some) people feel safer in cars rather than in airplanes. Direct micromanagement of the situation gives humans the illusion of more safety than they actually have.

    1. Heh, I really like that analogy :) In action games there is definitely more of a sense that the mistakes were your fault, even if you don't realise the mistake was a decision you made 5 rooms ago.