Along with writing articles on design and other subjects of a more general nature, I’ll occasionally be examining in detail a few games which serve as examples of excellent game design. Unity of Command is first on the list.
For those of you unfamiliar with the game, it’s a hex-based WWII lite-wargame in the vein of Panzer General. Some of you have probably heard that I’m a big fan of that game. Well, strap yourself in, because I like Unity of Command a lot more.
So What’s the Big Deal?
What really separates Unity of Command from other games (especially wargames) is that it stays focused only on what makes the game as fun as it can be. Most projects of this ilk throw in a lot of extra mechanics and stuff, either with the goal of making the game more historically accurate, because doing so just felt right, or – worst of all – simply because the design was thrown together sloppily, with little or no thought put into what the game actually wanted to achieve.
Thankfully, Unity of Command did not fall into this trap. To start with, the design of the visuals and the interface is exceptionally clean. I mean, really now, does this look like a wargame to you? (For those of you who haven’t seen many, the answer is no… this is what they usually look like.) The large bobble-head figures might look a bit cartoony, but this style ensures you never any problem recognizing what unit is what. In a game like Panzer General you kind of need to be an expert on German armor and able recognize the turret shapes and hull armor slope which identify a Panther versus a Panzer IV. Unity of Command also displays information about the units in a clean and simple manner, using icons to indicate damage, entrenchment, a unit’s movement status, the supply situation, etc. These sorts of tools help avoid the feeling that you’re fighting the game tooth-and-nail for every shred of information.
The gameplay is also noteworthy, particularly in its omission of superfluous elements. As the French polymath Antoine de Saint-Exupéry famously said:
A designer knows he has achieved perfection not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.
It takes an extremely disciplined designer to stifle the temptation of piling on features and knobs, especially with subject matter as ripe to detail-bloat as WWII. The massive theatre of air warfare is represented only by individual air strikes that may be ordered a couple times per turn, and all this does is inflict a small amount of damage on a single enemy. While some might bemoan this as a massive simplification, the game loses nothing for omitting an elaborate aircraft system where where the player marches individual planes around from tile-to-tile, ensuring they don’t run out of fuel or get caught unawares by enemy fighters. The most important element of airpower – tactical support – is represented in a way no more complicated than it needs to be. Could a system with air defense, fighters, etc. be fun? Of course. All games are not made equal, and some can certainly be more complex than others. But reductive design is rare in strategy gaming, and Unity of Command serves as an excellent example of this approach working perfectly.
Let’s Talk Mechanics
One of the features which makes Unity of Command so unique is its supply system. More important than the absolute strength of units is whether or not they’re on the supply grid. If you manage to cut off a group of enemy units for a couple turns, even the biggest, baddest tanks will simply melt before your infantry. Instead of thinking about individual unit matchups, a player must be more concerned with the big picture – who is in control of what territory and how can one best exploit the situation?
The basics work like this. There are a few nodes on each map which generate supply, which is carried along rail lines when attached to a supply node. Every connected rail tile radiates supply in a range dictated by the type of supply node and the terrain being traversed. Capturing a supply depot or rail tile cuts off supply to all units formerly in that radius. Much of the gameplay revolves around finding ways to isolate enemy units from their supply sources, capturing them in order to fuel your advance, and protecting your supply net from enemy units.
The beauty of this supply system is that it forces you to constantly make difficult trade-offs… how do you weigh the relative importance of ensuring your army is properly supplied (the most important units, anyways), completing objectives and exploiting enemy weaknesses? It’s nearly always a tough call and you’ll be taking risks no matter which way you go.
This is a good point at which to discuss what seems to be one of the guiding design principles of Unity of Command: carefully budgeting your limited resources. I’ve already talked about air combat, and that type of philosophy oozes from every part of the game. Another couple-times-per-turn special ability is the supply drops, where you can instantly resupply any of your units, even when cut off. You’ll often find yourself with several important units cut off from supply, and deciding which 1 or 2 get the goods can be agonizing.
Even unit types are an exercise in design by limits: there are only a few unit classes, most notably a single type of armor. Each scenario you’ll have a handful of tanks which can easily roll over infantry, which always make up the vast majority of the enemy army. The question isn’t if your tanks can win, but where to use them to maximum effect. A couple tough fights can also wear them down, forcing you to choose between pushing forward and pausing for a moment to heal back up. Across the board, Unity of Command does a superb job forcing you to make tough decisions.
Room for Improvement
I’ve spoken at length about the good aspects of Unity of Command, but like every game there are a few knocks against it.
One aspect that I’ve seen given mixed reports is the mechanic where you must spend Prestige (essentially your score) to gain new units or reinforce existing ones. This is interesting mechanic for some, but frustrating for others. It reminds me a lot of the dilemma that I often find myself facing in RPGs where your character has a limited amount of mana to cast spells, potions to heal, etc. These items are obviously in the game to be used, but my natural inclination is to want to ‘preserve’ these resources for later, instead of spending them now. Much of the time ‘later’ never comes, and having just defeated the final boss I still find myself with a full inventory. It poses an interesting question: why are some resources like money so easy to spend, while others like single-use items so much harder to part with? I imagine it has something to do with the uniformity and homogeneity of money, whereas items like potions feel more ‘individual’ and evoke the feeling of “well, if you use this it’s gone forever and you might not get another one.” Then again, Prestige in Unity of Command is much more like money than items in an RPG. I’d be curious to hear further thoughts on this subject. Anyways, back to the topic of this article!
One of the few areas where I felt the interface was lacking in Unity of Command is the need to enable overlay modes in order to see certain information. For example, by default there is no way to see how much supply you have available on each tile. You can memorize the rules for how it spreads over the terrain, but this is a level of expertise that very few players will reach. My preference would have been for this information be clear even in the default game view, particularly given how important it is. A very basic solution could be a simple graphic which appears at the very edge of your supply range. You wouldn’t have all of the nitty-gritty details, but this would be enough to let you know when you were exiting the ‘safe zone’.
The biggest strike against Unity of Command is a fairly inflexible ceiling on the amount of replayability the game provides. All of the maps are fixed, and the number, type and location of every unit is the same every time you play.
Is it a puzzle game? This is a question frequently asked about Unity of Command. Honestly, it’s hard to say. There is often a very fuzzy line between puzzle games and strategy games. Part of what pushes Unity of Command in the strategy direction is that it’s excellent AI constantly keeps you on your toes. You might think you’re in really good shape, only to discover during the AI’s turn that you left one part of the front a little too weak, and an enemy unit managed to cut off supply to your entire army. Puzzles rarely ask players to adapt to situations that dramatic.
Puzzle game or not, Unity of Command isn’t something you’ll be playing every day for the next 2 years. Then again, the number of games you can say that about is so miniscule that it’s hard to ding Unity of Command too much for it. What I will say is that the game is both extremely fun and highly instructive for designers, and a few minor drawbacks fail to dull Unity of Command’s luster in the slightest.
While playing I was constantly making comments to myself along the lines of “yes, this is another thing they did right!” Which… unfortunately… isn’t something that I do much anymore, simply because I can’t help but view games through a very critical lens since joining the development club almost a decade ago. It’s now nearly always the failures which stand out to me rather than the successes. Even so, Unity of Command found a way to charm me. It’s a breath of fresh air, not only in wargaming but strategy gaming in general. Other games have much to learn from it, and hopefully this article can play a small role in spreading the word.
If you haven’t already (what are you waiting for!), head over to the Unity of Command website and pick up this game. It’s only $30, and well worth it.