I just finished Warhammer 40,000: Squad Command for the PSP. While I loved the game, I was reminded of The Oregon Trail toward the end of the single player campaign. Of course, the graphics, sound, and gameplay were head, shoulders, knees, and ankles above the Apple IIe classic. The specific parallels that I saw were (1) the infinite ammo loop given to the player, and (2) the ability of the player to use time as a resource.
In Oregon Trail, you guide your family on the journey from Independence, Missouri to Oregon’s Willamette Valley. As you faced harsh weather, dangerous rivers, bandits, and dysentery, you had to set your pace, hunt, and trade to survive. You could leave between the months of March and August, but you had to take the weather into consideration. If you leave too early, you face tough, cold weather on the front end; if you leave too late (or rest too often) you face a harsh winter toward the end. If you played as the farmer, you received the least initial resources, but were awarded a 3x multiplier on your final score.
When I was permitted to play this game in school, I faced an artificial time constraint imposed by my teachers. That is, we only had 45 minutes to complete the game. This required a grueling pace, and limited time for preparation. Needless to say, we usually lost, and we never achieved a good score.
Years later, when I had the opportunity to play the game at my own pace, I discovered two things. First, there actually was no time limit in the game. That is, there is nothing that says you have to complete the trail in the first year. Second, there was a recursive element to the game. Food and bullets traded at about 1 bullet/pound, but hunting brought about about 30-50 pounds/bullet. These two elements broke the game.
My strategy was to choose the farmer, and establish the largest family possible. I bought few supplies: 2 oxen, no spare parts, a few clothes, about 100 lbs of food, and LOT of bullets. As soon as I left the fort, I stopped, set up camp, and hunted until my food supply was maxed out. I then traded, traded, traded for nothing but clothing and more bullets. Once my food supply was low, I hunted again, and repeated this several times. Usually, if I started in April, I could have enough clothing to get through the first winter. After hunting and trading for about three to four years of game time, I had at least 3 of each of the spare parts, a large team of oxen, etc. When I was comfortably equipped, I took a nice leisurely pace through the trail, eating well along the way.
Now, why did Warhammer 40,000: Squad Command remind me of Oregon Trail?
As I played, the difficulty progressed through the first 13 missions. In the last two missions, however, the game gives you a “Whirlwind Tank” with unlimited missiles. If you hide your men around the corner of a door, you can cover that door fairly easily. The AI is programmed to avoid such traps, so a well covered bottleneck can hold the enemy units off indefinitely. Since your missiles do not require line-of-site aiming, you can lob them at the enemy from the safety of your side of the bottleneck. The problem is that the AI is smart enough to avoid your trap, but not smart enough to run away from repeated missile blasts. Unlimited ammunition, the ability to turtle up, and the lack of a time limit makes for an easy win.
Once again, the Mighty Doug learned how to bore a video game’s AI to death.
On the whole, this is an enjoyable game, but I have one recommendation to game designers: when you make a turn-based game like this, always put time limits on the players. Take a lesson from Laser Squad Nemesis. Pain and fear are essential here; the more fear you instill with the challenges, the more satisfaction you deliver with the victories.