Advance Wars
By Noah Falstein

A Word of Warning

How can I begin to talk about one of my favorite games of all time? Perhaps I had better start with a fact that simultaneously may inspire you into believing that I am one of the best-qualified people to write about this game, and horrify you into doubting I should be encouraged to speak of it at all. Thanks to the built-in statistics in the Gameboy Advance and its successor, the Nintendo DS, I can confidently state that I have played the various editions of Advance Wars (from hereon abbreviated AW) in excess of 500 hours. 500+ hours commanding imaginary troops, tanks, planes, and ships, sending them into countless battles, investing intense, monomaniacal concentration, and greatly improving my cardiovascular health in the process, an oddity I’ll elaborate on later. In some senses I believe I have been playing this game far longer than that – since around 1973 – several decades before it was made.

By now I have established myself as either a recognized authority possessing admirable diligence or a raving fanboy admitting dubious sanity, or just possibly the two are not mutually exclusive. In defense of the former hypothesis, I offer my professional credentials. I’ve been making computer and video games since 1976, and making a living at it ever since graduating college early in 1980. I’ve worked on over 100 games in that time, including the arcade classic Sinistar, the LucasArts Adventure Games Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis, and several games more closely related to AW that I will mention in this chapter. I also wrote the game design column for Game Developer Magazine for six years, and since then have continued to write a design column for its sister web site, Gamasutra. I’ve taught classes and tutorials on game design on five continents, and lectured on games development at venues including the University of Chicago, Stanford University, and UCLA in the US, Institute National d’Audiovisuel, Filmakademie Baden-Wurtemburg, and the Berlinale in Europe. But deep down, when I play Advance Wars, I’m a 10-year-old playing toy soldiers.

My connection to AW is intensely personal, and I believe that my individual history can help illuminate and justify my professional admiration for the game, but I also realize that not all readers will care about the details behind my obsession for the game. So, true to my love of interactive design, I will present my autobiographical reminiscences and sidebars in sections marked Personal Reminiscence.

Advance Wars 101

I’m going to focus on the four AW titles that have appeared in the US on the Gameboy Advance and then the Nintendo DS. To be complete, these are part of a much larger Japanese series going back nearly 20 years to the Nintendo Famicom, and I understand there are differences in translation of the stories for European versions of the recent games, but anyone interested in a detailed comparison and analysis would be better off checking out the Wikipedia entries on the subject. Although AW is a popular game series with each version selling at least hundreds of thousands of copies, is a bit of a niche title as well, nowhere near as well-known as many other multi-million unit selling games covered in this book, and so a little description is warranted. I suspect that, like me, there are many who buy every version of the game, boosting overall sales but explaining how it is better known among game designers than the public at large. I’ll be writing primarily about the ‘core game’, the single-player experience that has remained quite consistent over the course of the series, and when I talk about features or enhancements that only happened after a certain point the series, or in a specific game I will say so.

Advance Wars is a turn-based strategy game with a military theme. That means it is in the same basic category as board games like Chess, Go, Risk and Stratego, or computer games like Panzer General, Empire, or Civilization. The player takes a turn, moving military units (like infantry, tanks, submarines, fighter planes, etc.) around a map and resolving battles. Then one or more computer opponents each take their turn as well (or other people in the multiplayer option). The core game is organized into scenarios, each of which is a multi-turn battle ending in either the destruction of all enemy units, or the capture of the enemy capitol. Each version of AW has come with a Campaign, a linked series of scenarios with a story behind it that are completed more or less in sequence, as well as varying mixes of individual scenarios that can be played separately. Each battle ends with a letter grade awarded to the player, and a numerical breakdown of how they did, encouraging improvement in speed, attack, and defense.

In a turn, a player moves some or all of the units on the map, and (usually) gets a chance to build new ones with money earned through ownership of cities and bases on the map. The units fall into three basic categories – land, sea, and air, built respectively on factories, ports, or airports. The precise units and their abilities have changed somewhat over the course of the series, but generally have had a mix of standard current-era military types of units that are familiar to all wargamers – infantry, armor, and artillery on the land, surface ships and submarines on the water, and fighters and bombers in the air. There are also transports in land, sea, and air version too. In general units move and then fire in a turn, with the typical exception of artillery that can move OR fire. The maps consist of rectangular grids of different sizes, with different terrain in each square. Each unit type has its own movement rules for different terrains, and consumes fuel as they move, and ammunition as they fire. They also have different costs, and specific attack and defense abilities that vary depending on what units they attack (or are attacked by), and the terrain the defender is in. There are 1-4 players in any given scenario, each shown with a different color, and each often has a leader who confers some unique extra abilities on the battles (a game element that has shown more variation than most over the course of the series).

This all sounds fairly complex, but one of the greatest strengths of the game is its elegant simplicity. One example is the way it enables the player to start with battles on small maps, with just one or two kinds of military units and no leader, and gradually increase size and complexity and variety over time so the player need never be overwhelmed. Over the course of the series, each new game has had a somewhat steeper learning curve, as is appropriate given the growing body of loyal players who buy each new title in the series, and for that matter the gradually growing sophistication of both the players in general and the resources online and in print to help people who are new to the game.

Personal Reminiscence 1:
— My Obsession with Wargames —

One of my early memories from my childhood in Chicago is of watching my brother play a Milton Bradley board game called Summit with his friends. It was the early 1960’s, that era of Cold War intrigue, and the game board featured the entire world grouped into countries and regions – big countries like the US, Russia, and China were shown independently, but less geopolitically critical regions like all of South America were lumped into groups. But the board was not the part of the game that seized my attention and provoked my imagination. Unlike the drab wooden pieces of many of our older games, Summit’s designers had anticipated the one critical word of advice Dustin Hoffman receives in The Graduate; Plastic. There were plastic flags that fit into a round plastic base, plastic poker chips in red, black, and white, and best of all, ranked bins full of round plastic counters with missiles representing military bases, and square plastic counters with “Steel Mill” on one side and a picture of a car on the other, representing a steel mill or factory respectively. And these counters came in a shining rainbow of colors – red for the godless communists of Russia, blue for the true-blue Americans, and vivid orange, green, yellow, and purple for the other major powers in the game. Currency was represented by manufacturing output – little black plastic I-beams – and five black I-beams were worth one fluorescent-orange I-beam, that I pictured still glowing freshly hot, poured from vats of molten steel. I loved those playing pieces. They spoke to me of the complexity and richness of the adult world, but boiled down to a candy-hued simplicity that tantalizingly felt almost comprehensible to my six-year-old mind.

Almost, but not quite. My brother was 17 when I was 6, and the sixteen page rulebook was beyond my understanding, like the family discussions about the nightly news coverage of world events that had inspired the game. The best I could do was to build little forts out of I-beams and steel mills, and bomb them with the missile-imprinted bases – under dire warning from my brother not to lose any of the pieces. But looking back from my current perspective forty years later, I’m struck by how prophetic my fascination with the game proved to be, shaping my choice of career and love of wargames.

Why So Many Designers Love This Game

As I mentioned earlier, although this game is by no means one of the best-selling ones on the DS, it is very well known among game designers. AW is a shining example of excellent use of several fundamental principles of design, and one of the most remarkable is the use of excellent unit balance. Game design is all about tradeoffs, and is both an art and a science, and unit balancing is one of the areas that demonstrate that. When creating a strategy game like AW which includes many different types of military units, a designer must carefully tinker with dozens of factors for each one. How fast does it move on each different terrain type? How much fuel does it use, and ammunition does it carry? What kinds of weapons does it carry, and how do those affect other unit types? What is the range of its weapon or weapons? From how far away can it see other units? If it can carry other units, which kind and how many can it carry? The ultimate characteristic that all units have is cost. There is a very simple economy, one point earned per city or base captured per turn, and bases can build new land units (ports build ships and airports build airplanes). It can be very challenging to make these choices, as making one type of weapon stronger can require adjustment to the defense of another or the range of a third, and those changes prompt yet other changes. Often a game may have unit types that look good in theory but in practice turn out to be fairly useless or at least overpriced. AW has an amazing balance among and between units, with no obvious bargains or white elephants. Some fantasy-based military strategy games finesse the problem of balance using imagination – or magic. Who knows how strong an Orcish Infantry unit is against an Elven Bowman, or whether a Fireball spell is stronger against Unicorns than it is against Griffons? This makes it easier to deal with imbalance.

But AW doesn’t have that option. In a game like AW that uses fairly realistic units that resemble modern military units, there are expectations among players that the game units will have qualities at least similar to the real world units. But in order to be simple to learn and easy and fun to play, the designer must also simplify and cut corners. AW does this perhaps better than any other game of its particular type ever has. For example, the scissors/rock/paper relationship of different types of military units is beautifully captured. In the real world this is known as combined arms – using one type of military power against another, against which the first type is particularly effective. Take the sea units for example. Battleships are deadly to small surface craft and have great land bombardment capabilities, but are in turn vulnerable to submarines and bomber attacks. Cruisers are fairly good all-around units, and are particularly deadly to submarines and against air units at close range, but can be chewed up by Battleships at a distance. Sea transports are vulnerable to all other naval units, and the different releases of the game have tinkered with the individual characteristics of the ships as well as introduced small “PT
boat” variations.

This is not to say they simply blindly followed the actual abilities and costs of the real military units. For one thing, the units used in the game, though similar in some ways to real units, have their own unique qualities. For another, it would actually make the game less fun and harder to play to deal with problems in a totally realistic way. In AW, money is turned into infantry units or battleships instantly, and you can let money accumulate over time and then spend it instantly. Some similar precursor games used a more realistic method of having cities dedicate themselves to building a particular type of unit over time, so a Battleship might take 20 turns to build while an infantry unit takes only 1 turn. That’s closer to reality, but the instant AW method strikes me as both more flexible and less frustrating, and yet since it is available to all sides in a battle, still fair. Likewise, resupply is handled fairly abstractly. Most games of this sort allow units to repair and resupply themselves in a city (or a ship in a port, and an aircraft in an airport) and AW does as well. But in AW you have land transport units, called rigs in the latest version, that double as mobile supply centers. That’s actually pretty realistic – but the fact that they can resupply any other type of unit from an unlimited supply is not. The way they can resupply aircraft that merely end their turn adjacent to a rig is total fantasy, as is the way that one rig can completely resupply another that is low on its own fuel – park them next to each other and next turn both are at full, having refueled each other. If only we could solve the world oil crisis this way!

From a design standpoint, that’s a fascinating tradeoff. They could have ignored mobile resupply – but it adds several interesting strategic possibilities, including attacks on supply lines and the intriguing option of vanquishing a dangerous threat like an enemy submarine or fighter plane not by direct attack, but by luring it on and starving it of fuel. Submerged submarines in particular are fuel guzzlers, which beautifully balances their otherwise difficult-to-counter stealth capabilities, and emulates the reality of diesel submarines that have very limited underwater endurance.

A Dash of the Dice

Another example of wise design in AW is the way that random chance is employed. No randomness at all would have simplified production and testing and would make the game more chess-like. This would not only increase fairness by guaranteeing that each attack with identical forces and situations would be resolved the same, but would make the process of game development simpler and therefore cheaper. Randomness in a game means that the testing and debugging process will be more involved and expensive. Just because something works fine one time doesn’t mean it will do so the next when different random numbers come up, so there is a temptation to eliminate randomness to shorten the testing process. But the price is lack of excitement and realism. With some randomness, the possibility of a lucky break saving the day, or an unlucky one costing a valuable unit can make a nearly even match into a thrilling back-and-forth epic event. AW gives you the basic “odds” of an individual battle, showing essentially how many points of damage a given attack will do – but it can add a few percent to that total randomly (apparently with a bell curve), so an attack that usually will only severely damage an enemy unit most of the time may destroy it occasionally, opening a hole in enemy lines. The chance of extra damage being incurred goes up as multiple attacks are made on the same unit in the same turn, providing a tactical advantage as well. These things open up possibilities that add layers of complexity to expert play without burdening the beginner with complicated calculations and record keeping. As an example of a subtle design point that would be easy to miss, the attacks ALWAYS do the minimum stated, but may do more. A less experienced design would have the randomness sometimes add, and sometimes take away, making critical attacks that are on the cusp sometimes fail to destroy the enemy by a fraction of a point. That might be more realistic, but would be intensely frustrating for the player. Another similar subtle design choice they have made is the way that the latest version of AW handles unit experience. A unit that fires the shot that destroys an enemy gains a special point that slightly increases its attack and defense, and once it has gained three points it becomes a veteran unit and can gain no more. Again, a less experienced or subtle design would have gone the other direction, taking away capabilities from wounded units. In point of fact there have been many realistic wargames that incorporate the concept of morale and a unit “breaking” and running away when they have lost too many battles in a row. This is realistic – but intensely frustrating (in real life of course as well!) and the choice to leave it out of AW is a mark of very intelligent game design. There are many other subtle examples of choices that were made to keep AW playable and fun while bending reality a bit (or a lot), but perhaps it would be helpful to understand this better by referring to the ancient and recent roots of this entire style of game.

A Very Brief History of Wargames

The AW games are generally lumped into a genre called turn-based strategy, one of the oldest forms of board games and computer games around. Go is one such game, with a beautiful simplicity that is one of the hallmarks of classic game design. The abstracted military theme of AW makes the comparison with Chess inevitable, and although there are many key differences, in essence this is a valid comparison. In 1913 the novelist H.G. Wells published a set of rules for miniature figures called “Little Wars” – or to be precise: “Little Wars: a game for boys from twelve years of age to one hundred and fifty and for that more intelligent sort of girl who likes boys’ games and books.” This helped establish the idea of taking real-world war and abstracting and simplifying it to the point where even children could understand it, and it also factored in some of the rock/scissors/paper relationship of cavalry/infantry/artillery that is strong in modern games too. In 1958 the Avalon Hill game company was founded. Avalon Hill published many wargames and popularized the hexagonal grid on boards that became a standard for such games up through the 1970’s and early 80’s. SPI (Simulation Publications Inc.) grew as their chief rival in the 70’s and many of the early computer game designers (including the author) grew up on these wargames. In general they grew in complexity, with the largest covering 9 maps, with rulebooks 100 pages long, using thousands of cardboard counters, and taking hundreds of hours to complete. One key complicating factor was the bookkeeping, and the rise of the personal computer toward the end of this time both helped spell the end for these complex boardgames and provided a new venue for the players.

An Even Briefer History of Computer Wargames

Perhaps inspired by SPI, the company SSI (Strategic Simulations Inc) burst on the scene in 1979 with Computer Bismarck, and was notable for taking board wargames to the very early computers – originally the Apple II. Chris Crawford (who later went on to found what is now the Game Developer’s Conference) released his seminal game Eastern Front (1941) for the Atari home computer in 1981. This game captured much of the essential elements of the board games, but put the military units on a rectangular grid with a scrolling map, incorporated basic terrain effects, and provided a computer opponent – all features that would be instantly familiar to current AW players. For some years after this, computer wargames continued to owe a great deal to their SPI and Avalon Hill forebears, but early hard-core wargames based on board mechanics competed with increasingly animated and real-time variations (eventually RTS – Real Time Strategy – games like Command and Conquer) as well as a trend to simplify rather than complicate. Another big milestone that spawned its own line of top selling games was Panzer General, released from SSI in 1994. Panzer General, like AW, managed to find a middle ground between realism and playability, recreating key battles of WWII in Europe, but generally was much closer to real-world accuracy (and complexity) than AW.

The Rise of Empires

A key milestone in this trend to go from complex “Monster Games” to simple ones was the pre-World Wide Web game Empire, from Peter Langston (who was the first employee and founder of the Lucasfilm Games Group that eventually grew to become LucasArts). There have been many games called Empire, but Langston’s was one of the first, written originally in the early 70’s, and by the early 80’s popular as one of the most complex and detailed wargames available, played on the Internet back when one needed to know the names of each computer along the chain of connections in order to route email to each other. Walter Bright also created a computer game called Empire, which enjoyed commercial success (as implemented by Mark Baldwin) on the PC in the 1980’s. That in turn inspired the game Strategic Conquest on the Macintosh. The exact lineage of these games is hard to explicitly trace, and their influence on the Japanese market is a topic beyond my expertise, but for Western players the associations are inevitable. From my point of view the many predecessors make the design choices in AW all the more impressive, as they clearly have had the strength of conviction to follow their own divergent path.

Advance to the Present

The demise of the board game company SPI was generally acknowledged to be due to catering increasingly to the hard-core avid players, creating an ever-shrinking pool of hard-core customers. They kept demanding more complexity and detail, and when the company delivered on that the games appealed only to the most avid fans, who wanted them to go even farther, with inevitable results. So the designers at Intelligent Systems deserve immense credit for their work that is probably not apparent to casual observers. Certainly, they have built upon the work of others, but even more impressive is what they have left behind. Albert Einstein once said, “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler”, and this is a wonderful design principle that is powerful in its essence but very difficult to follow. The AW team has clearly taken it to heart, constantly fighting the tendency to add complexity that eventually doomed the SPI Monster Board Games, and yet never simplifying so far as to take away the essential heart of what makes this sort of game fun and satisfying. Each new version of the game has featured new gameplay and units but has also dropped some of the ones from previous games that I presume proved to be less popular or workable.

Whiny Pre-Adolescent Girls

As much as I love most aspects of AW, there is one unavoidable blot on their otherwise shining record – the stories and characters in each of the four AW games. In each game, the single player campaign follows a set of characters through a progression of battles that form a story. In reality these all break down to “the good guys band together to defeat the Ultimate Bad Guy”. The first two AW games don’t really even try to rise above this very simple storyline. They chose different countries and their respective leaders as familiar echoes of Japanese, American, and Russian equivalents only very mildly disguised or shuffled a bit.

Even worse, the people in charge of the armies in these games were often depicted as teenagers – or much younger kids. It’s not an atypical thing for anime fans, but I felt it clashed with the fairly serious nature of the combat. Given the kid-centric audience on the original GBA that was the platform (and indeed the source of the name) of this series, and the Japanese Famicom Wars predecessors, the interminable pointless bickering among characters might have been necessary, but I applaud Intelligent Systems for always letting players just jump past the story with no serious consequences.

One thing that drove me crazy in particular was the inclusion of annoying, peevish, screechy girls, depicted as about 9 years old as best I can tell, in charge of enemy forces. Their main role in the stories seems to be to throw tantrums whenever they can’t get their way. I can’t tell where this is coming from – perhaps one of the lead designers had an issue with his little sister, or maybe it’s just a cultural divide, but I saw no redeeming value (and plenty of reason for annoyance) in this recurring theme.

The latest in the series, Advance Wars: Days of Ruin does make an honest and sincere attempt to create quite a different darker, more adult world and storyline. They set it in a post-apocalyptic world, and use the science fiction storyline to justify some of the oddities of the game system (automated factories that can create any military unit, for example) although they wisely still don’t try to explain how a ground unit can resupply a fighter plane as it flies overhead…

As I began to play this latest chapter in the game, I was at first pleased that they had made a sincere effort to create a storyline that might appeal more to Western audiences. Unfortunately, I didn’t enjoy it much more than the previous ones – it still felt quite contrived, scenes went on interminably, and there was little reason to care about the characters. Given the recent advances in the quality of storytelling and writing in games as is evidenced by games such as Portal, Mass Effect, and Bioshock just to name a few from 2007, this was disappointing. But I was at least appreciating the fact that the leaders of these armies were, although often young, at least of an age that made sense for people in armed forces. In particular the Ultimate Bad Guy was an older creepy character. So imagine my dismay partway through the storyline when the UBG hands over some battles to – a pre-adolescent whiny spoiled girl. They try to justify it with some science fiction rationalizations, but it remains the one flaw in the series for me. Happily, it is easily bypassed and ignored, and doesn’t affect the gameplay.

Personal Reminiscence 2:
— My Own Advance Wars —

Like many game designers, I made my own games as a child and young adult, just for fun. Many of these games had wargame themes. The ultimate expression of this, at least in terms of complexity, was a game I made in the early 1970’s, when I was about 16. I had just discovered the SPI wargames around this time, but found their obsession with realistic detail and complex rules too frustrating. I wanted something halfway between their games and the ultra-simple wargames I loved to play with my friends, like Stratego and Risk.

My game was set on a large board that I ruled into small squares. Each square was colored to show a type of terrain – flat land, mountains, sea, etc. There were four countries, one in each corner of the map, with their own national colors: red, green, blue, and black. Cities were scattered over the map, each shown with a star. The four main countries had capitol cities as well, and the objective of the game was to capture all the enemy capitols.
Players could build tanks, artillery, infantry, and various naval and air units (little cardboard rectangles with drawings on them), each with their own attack and defense strengths, fuel and ammunition limits, and movement rules. I kept track of fuel and ammunition with tiny yellow or brown squares that I laboriously piled on each military unit and “spent” as they moved or fired, and refueled when they returned to friendly territory or were met by mobile supply carrier. All I have left of the game are a few small film containers filled with the fuel and ammo counters.

In retrospect it was all strangely prescient of AW. Of course both the people at Intelligent Systems and I had access to the same history of board games that I did, and must certainly have played many of the same computer game precursors or their Japanese equivalents as well, so it’s not too strange. Still, the choice of the same four colors to denote the different countries was particularly eerie. At the very least it helps explain my own obsession with this game that feels as if it were custom made to my
personal tastes.

Advance Wars AI

One feature that has shown gradual but always positive improvement in the series has been the AI. When a computer scientist talks about Artificial Intelligence, the term usually is expected to mean the rather highfalutin goal of the reality of having the machine think like a human or even better – and for most of the history of computers, has fallen woefully short. In the 1960’s, we thought that we would have computers like the infamous HAL by – of course – 2001. In fact HAL was supposed to have “woken up” years earlier than that, in 1992 according to the film. He was capable of independent thought, judgment, even lip reading – although ironically the state of his game graphics as evidenced by the chess he played was way behind what the computer games industry managed to achieve even by the early 1980’s. In addition to insisting on good graphics, in the games industry we are happy to settle for the illusion of reality, or in this case the illusion of human intelligence. We’re happy to “cheat” if necessary to make a computer seem more human than it really is. Come to think of it, I guess HAL cheated too…

In Advance Wars, the AI in the first GBA title was adequate, but nowhere near as good as another human. This is actually a continuous problem in the strategy games genre. To return to Chess, even though that game is so well understood and comparatively limited in scope, it has only been fairly recently that computers can beat the best human players, and with Go, an even simpler game in terms of rules, the best human players are still well ahead. The GBA AW AI could only win against an experienced human by stacking the deck, and starting with a significant advantage in terms of initial territory and/or units. It was quite easy to sacrifice a relatively cheap infantry unit by putting it in reach of the enemy forces, letting them come forward to kill it, and then smashing the much more expensive units the AI had deployed without regard to the consequences.

Gradually, over the course of the four AW games, the quality of the enemy AI has increased. In the most recent Days of Ruin game it has reached quite a remarkable peak. As an avid player of the series in the single-player against the computer mode, I had grown used to maps with one, two, or three opponents. In the previous games the computer opponents would all cooperate against the player – generally necessary because they didn’t individually play as well as a skilled player and needed to cooperate. But with the newest AW they play for themselves, so a four player map can mean the three computer players contend against each other as well as the player, making for a much more fair feeling as well as some really fascinating battles. The maps are not all symmetrical either, with some positions superior to others, protected by a mountain range or other terrain features like rivers and woods, or with more cities and bases within easy range of the early conquest. Starting in an inferior position can challenge even the most expert player. The Fog of War feature, where positions of units in the distance or under the cover of forests or cities are hidden, always was frustrating in single player games in previous AW iterations, with the enemies clearly ‘cheating’, using advance knowledge of the actual position of player-controlled units to conveniently ‘find’ them. But in the latest version, the computer players seem much more human, and can be enticed into ambushes or deceived by stealthy tactical moves. Creating a sense that computer-controlled enemies are following the same limitations as humans is an area where the art of game design overlaps with the science of computer programming, and as with so many other areas the Intelligent Systems people have shown
amazing mastery.

Personal Reminiscence 3:
— Artificial Intelligence and Natural Exercise —

My own interest in enemy AI comes from my early game developer days, programming the arcade game Sinistar in the early 1980’s. I also co-designed the game and worked out a way for the enemy units to appear fairly intelligent even with the very limited computer resources of the time - 1Mhz microprocessors and extremely limited RAM, literally thousands of times slower and smaller than what is available today. So I have a programmer’s appreciation of the difficulty in making a computer-based enemy appear to have human intelligence while controlling many units of different capabilities. I encountered some similar difficulties working on some modern naval combat simulation games at LucasArts: PHM Pegasus and Strike Fleet.

Although the internal workings of the game AI are generally opaque to players, I can conclude from my many hours of play – um, research – that over the course of the games in this series, the programmers and designers at Intelligent Systems have changed their approach several times. There appears to have been a fundamental shift away from having each unit attack independently, and towards balancing priorities based on the objectives the units have to accomplish, like capturing the enemy HQ, destroying enemy units, protecting their own units, and resupply and repair. As I discovered in my own games, thinking in terms of balanced objectives, and even having the objectives themselves internally assign enemy units to attack them can be a very effective way to turn the problem inside-out and save a lot of processing time.

The Stealth Tutorial

All games are teaching tools, training people how to play them as they progress. The early AW games did this explicitly with a separate tutorial. Since then they have increasingly integrated the tutorials into the single player campaign progression. That’s preferable from several points of view. A beginning player doesn’t feel singled-out for training when it is integrated into the main game play. And it provides a nice ramp-up of difficulty even for more experienced players who are familiar with earlier games in the series, and gives them a chance to learn how the rules have changed since the previous one – since each AW has introduced new units and changed the functionality of old ones in at least some ways. The end of each battle also provides the player with extensive statistics and information about how they did in the battle, which can be skipped over, or carefully scrutinized to learn how to do better next time.

There is also a more technical reason for integrating the tutorial into the main game play. Game developers learn quickly to see as much of the work that went into the game as possible. In the movie industry this is called “putting the money on the screen” – you don’t want to spend a lot on things the player may not see. If there is a separate tutorial, some players – perhaps most – won’t ever look at it, and for them the effort and resources invested in the tutorial is basically wasted. Integrating them gives both experienced and novice players a chance to see the work that went into the tutorial.

Personal Reminiscence 4:
— Heart Healthy! —

This is probably a good point to explain my earlier comment about AW being good for my cardiovascular health. As must be abundantly clear by now, I’m very intent on – some would say obsessed with – this style of game. Years ago, around the time the first AW title came out on the Gameboy Advance, I realized that I could play it on a recumbent exercise bike in the gym, which left my hands free. I normally am bored silly by aerobic exercise, but with AW to distract me I have consistently been able to greatly increase the time and effort I expend on the bikes, eventually quadrupling the amount of calories I can burn in a session. I know it’s not just getting in shape that does it – when I forget to recharge the game console’s battery and don’t have it to play on, my endurance drops right back to “pre-AW” levels. I highly recommend this technique for fellow AW-lovers and exercise-haters, although it may result in some odd glances from fellow gym members.

Progression Complexities

There is another area in which putting the money on the screen matters. The sequence of battles or levels of the game and how they are presented is an interesting and potentially subtle area of game design. There is always a strong incentive for game designers to take the simple, straightforward approach of just linking levels together into one long, unbroken chain. Finish battle 1 successfully and you can fight battle 2, and so on until the final battle. If you give players a choice of which battles to fight, you add complication in the interface, risk having players miss important information, or disrupt the smooth progression of the story or tutorial. But games are interactive, and giving the player meaningful choices is a critical way to satisfy them. Having to progress in a linear fashion through battles 1-2-3-4 and on does not allow much room for choice.

Over the series of the AW games the designers have experimented quite a bit with the level progression. They have always paid attention to giving the player choice, in the first titles through a structure I call a convexity that many other game designers use. This means that players start with one or two directly linked levels, but then can choose from among several optional levels or at least choose the order in which to do them. This can be meaningful in terms of progressing through the game as it makes it less likely that the player will get stuck on one battle and be unable to progress. There is a problem of the weakest link in the chain in the sense that if all the battles are linked together one after another, inevitably one battle will be tough for the player to finish and may stop him. AW deals with that by having optional battles that are not part of the main progression but are unlocked by completing battles that are. And it is also possible to complete a battle with a low score and letter grade, letting the player progress but giving an incentive to come back and do better later. In the most recent AW, Days of Ruin, they have made the campaign totally linear, but linked in many optional battles that unlock as you successfully complete them, all laid out intuitively and simply on a 2D rectangular grid.

As a final observation, the Intelligent Systems designers have made use of a rather subtle but important game design principle I call “parallel challenges with mutual assistance”. In plain English, this means providing several different options for the player at any given point (the parallel challenges) while ensuring that if the player chooses and succeeds at a given challenge first, it will make the other challenges slightly easier to master. Many great games have done this in the past – roleplaying games like Diablo II for instance let the player gather more weapons and armor and level up their character on one quest so they can face another quest with a better chance of success, and first-person shooters like Halo let you collect weapons and ammunition. Most games that feature parallel challenges make it possible for a player simply to get better at playing the game, increasing their chance of success when they come back to a challenge that was too tough the first time. In AW, players learn how to use the different units and commanders, gradually finding better ways to guard their weak spots and exploit those of the enemy. Also, unlocking new commanders by progressing through the campaign can make it easier to complete other single-player maps by using the new commanders’ abilities. Like the previously noted ability of players to choose in level progression, this is another way that AW lets the player self-tune their own ability to get through the game, making the whole process less frustrating and more fun.

There are many aspects of the game that I have not even touched on – for instance the ability to play with other humans and not just against the computer, using the DS wifi link, or the map editors that let players create their own maps and battles, or the experiments in the series with puzzle maps, or real-time play, multiple commanders on one side, and so on. But just because I’ve spent hundreds of hours playing the game doesn’t mean you will enjoy having me spend hundreds of pages writing about it. Suffice it to say that this marvelous series of games has always had surprising depth, making it possible for players to get wonderful value for their investment in the game, and providing countless examples of excellent design choices for game developers to marvel over.

Personal Reminiscence 5:
— A Consummation Devoutly to be Wished —

Where will Advance Wars go from here? I fervently hope sales are good enough to warrant more releases in the series. The recent increasing diversity and popularity of casual and downloadable games bodes will for them. Here are just a few possible directions I would love to see them explore – some certainly more practical and commercially viable than others:

WWII Realism – a story truly crafted for Western audiences, following the tradition of Saving Private Ryan, or Flags of our Fathers/Letters from Iwo Jima
WWII Abstraction – An AW take on the Panzer General series, following key European campaigns or Pacific Aircraft Carrier battles but with the simpler AW units and rules
Space Conquest – take on the long tradition of “XXXX” space games, with planets and orbital factories taking the place of cities and ground factories, exploring deep-space as well as planetary surface combat but keeping AW’s elegant simplicity
Alien Ground Combat – stick closer to the current AW scope, but set it on an alien planet with humans versus one or more alien races
Fantasy – Blend AW with their Fire Emblem line, creating large fantasy battles reminiscent of Lord of the Rings but using the clean AW conventions for combat resolution

As with so many other aspects of the game, the possibilities are virtually endless.

Elements of Victory

To sum up, the AW series is remarkable in many ways. It represents a milestone in the long tradition of turn-based strategy games, and fully deserves its place in the pantheon of all-time great efforts in that regard. It manages to deftly unite simple and clear elements with richly detailed strategic complexity and increasingly challenging computer opponents. Similarly, it blends the abstract playability of Chess and Go with the true-to-life exciting unit interactions of realistic modern combat, while somehow finding a middle ground between the two extremes. And finally, it provides an amazing amount of depth and replayability for such a simple basic game. This series is truly a classic among video games, and deserves serious attention by both aspiring and established game developers.