This is Skeezix’s Brain on Gaming
That Late-Game Slog
I love the first couple hours of a Total War campaign. That feeling of cleverly marching my army around a small area, defeating the opposition, building up my economy to finally be able to support some impressive units…it feels great. I’m being challenged to think strategically and tactically, to outplay my enemies, to win wars before they even begin, and I’m on top of the world.
Then that feeling vanishes.
I love grand strategy games. I have all of Paradox’s current lineup on Steam (less the much-maligned Imperator: Rome), Civilization V with all DLC, and more besides. That feeling of figuring out intricate systems, mastering them, and then leading your faction (or nation, whatever) to final victory is one that keeps me coming back, time and time again. Though I may take breaks occasionally to play something less mentally demanding, I always return to my favorite titles to dust them off one more time.
As I hinted at in the first paragraph, Total War is one of my favorite franchises. Whereas other grand strategy titles rely on arcane calculations to determine who wins battles, leading to an often-unsatisfying black-box feeling (I’m looking at you, Crusader Kings), Total War lets you get in on the action, often allowing you to take a losing army and, via a brilliant turn of tactical thinking, lead it to victory.
If I had to choose which of Creative Assembly’s productions was my favorite, I’d probably pick Total War: Shogun 2. The game just feels good to play. It’s hard to describe, but something about the way units move and fight makes it a really great experience. Add to that the best DLC in Total War history, Fall of the Samurai, and you have a killer package.
At least…you do at first. A couple months ago, I started up a Fall of the Samurai campaign as Saga, a small clan starting in Nagasaki, far away from the center of the action on the island of Kyushu. I figured it would be an easy way to get back into Fall of the Samurai (I had just finished a standard Shogun 2 campaign).
And, sure enough, it was really fun. I betrayed my allies, cut throats, and led my army of spear-toting militiamen across almost all of Kyushu. Soon, the whole island was subjugated to the great lords of Saga. Feeling good about things, I made the fateful choice to skip out on supporting the emperor in the imminent civil war, and, instead, to declare myself President of the independent Saga Republic.
This caused an uproar, as expected. Soon, both Shogunate and Empire were sending their forces to attack me, navies blockading my trading ports and armies menacing my borders. The invasion of Shikoku, the nearby island, that I had launched soon turned into a near-disaster as large enemy armies came to crush me and had to be defeated. Often, I would escape the ruin of my large, well-trained force only by the skin of my teeth.
And then, slowly, the troops I had to defeat began to decrease in quality, if not quantity. The well-trained armies supported by artillery I’d been facing at the beginning of my bid for power were replaced by unruly hordes of the same kind of spear militiamen I had abandoned long ago. And my own troops just got stronger and stronger. My economy had blossomed, despite the naval blockade, so I was sitting on hundreds of thousands of koku, the game’s currency, and was making more every month than I knew what to do with, so I could fill my ranks with the most elite troops available.
What had begun as a fun, moderately challenging campaign, and had then morphed into a challenging battle of wits with the AI, had now become a boring grind. Every battle was the same. Sure, using artillery was fun, but it just felt unfair when the AI never had any of their own and simply sent their riflemen to die in hordes under the withering fire of my cannons. By the time I was using gatling guns, I would often fight battles where I would kill two thousand enemies or more without taking even a dozen casualties.
Worse still, armies move slowly in Fall of the Samurai. When it takes four turns to move from city A to city B, the AI player still entrenched in city B will have time to recoup the losses they took defending city A, meaning that I’d have to fight a bloody — for them — siege instead of easily capitalizing on the momentum I had gained from the earlier battle.
And sieges were no fun either. Since the AI never had artillery of their own (and when they did, they inexplicably never unlimbered it to fire), assaults were no more than me pounding their fort until I ran out of ammo, then cleaning up the survivors with cheap line infantry I kept around for just that purpose. There was no challenge to this exercise, and yet it could take upwards of fifteen or twenty minutes.
Battles on the high seas also began to drag. After I unlocked the powerful HMS Warrior, iron-clad queen of the seas, no enemy could seriously challenge me. But that didn’t stop them from trying, meaning I had to fight off three or four piddling wooden fleets every single turn. It wasn’t as if I could just turn on autopilot. Autoresolving, having the computer simulate the battle instead of fighting it myself, often gave me worse results than I could have achieved, especially in naval combat, so I had to fight most battles by hand.
All this added up to an utter slog. I would play for an hour or two at a time, and in some sessions I never captured a single settlement. If there was, by some bizarre chance, an army that could put up a fight and required me to try a battle a couple of times, I would sometimes never even finish a turn.
It wasn’t as if I could have lost at any point. Sure, losing an army in battle would have been supremely inconvenient, but no more than that. I had millions of koku at this point and could have raised as many armies as I wanted — it’s just that I didn’t want to have to manage any more armies. There were no stakes in most battles except the threat of even more grinding and boredom if I lost.
I kept expecting it to get better, but it never did. Eventually, once I had captured Kyoto, the enemy attacks did stop coming quite as thick and fast, but by then I was launching an amphibious assault on Edo, the final province I needed to control to win the campaign. In a sign of my utter exhaustion, I autoresolved the final siege after seeing that it would be an easy victory.
Thank you for bearing with me. The over eight hundred words you just read narrating my campaign must have felt almost as tiresome as the campaign itself, but I wanted to give you an impression of just how utterly bored and drained I was by the end of it. We’ve now both experienced the feeling I’m describing in this article, that feeling of the late-game slog.
This is a feature of every grand strategy game I have ever played. In Civilization, the game begins to take minutes on end to process turns, and wars, which were once quick, decisive affairs, now can only end when you take a half-dozen enemy cities. In Crusader Kings II, managing your dozens of titles turns into hours of work as you seek to pacify your vassals and keep everyone bribed and happy. In Hearts of Iron IV, the player has to deal with the problems of managing a huge, supply-draining army even as the game’s performance slows to a complete crawl, making the grind that much more torturous.
The problem is that the systems that made the game fun at the start, the economy management, the armies, the little decisions that need to be made about technology, culture, focuses, or whatever else, tend to multiply in number as the campaign goes on, turning the late game into a drag that never seems to end. Fighting battles in Total War is no fun anymore if you have to fight four of them in a turn. Selling things on the Galactic Market in Stellaris becomes busywork, clicking buttons over and over as you watch a huge stockpile get slightly smaller in return for resources you might maybe need…later.
This isn’t helped by the fact that the player is probably unbeatable at this point. In Hearts of Iron, no matter what nation they choose, having around a hundred divisions and a passable air force makes the human player practically unconquerable; cheap infantry is simply too good at grinding down enemy morale and fighting strength. In Civilization, the player is often so far ahead in technology by the Renaissance or Industrial Era that their units can simply one-shot the opposition, and is limited in their expansion only by the speed at which their men move.
That reduced difficulty makes decisions and events in-game feel much less consequential. If a choice might be the difference between winning and losing, you feel the need to consider carefully. If the consequence of choosing wrongly becomes simply that you will stomp the opposition slightly more slowly, a decision feels like a waste of your time. Often, I find myself doing things that I know are suboptimal, like not picking new techs to research, not organizing my government, not upgrading buildings, or what have you, simply because I can’t be bothered to spend the mental energy thinking about the choices I am presented with.
In short, I’m no longer enjoying the game, or playing it as it was meant to be played. My enemy is boredom, and my only goal is to get the achievement at the end of the campaign in an act of self-abnegating masochism.The systems designed to make the game fun no longer function properly, and all of the hard work, love, and care the game developers put into their product is running off me like water off a duck’s back. This is not how games should be.
What should strategy game companies do about all this? It’s not as if there’s a studio anywhere that’s successfully eliminated the late-game slog. Is it even possible to get rid of it?
I doubt it. If a game is going to give you fun systems to play with, and all grand strategy games must do this, eventually playing with those systems will begin to feel stale. Unless we dramatically reduce the number of decisions a player must make, turning a grand strategy game into something more like, say, chess, their number will inevitably multiply, and the late game will eventually begin to slow down.
One mechanism that can alleviate the slog slightly is when some decisions can be made automatically. For example, the autoresolve feature in Total War, while, of course, not removing the grind from the game, sped up my campaign from hell dramatically, and was probably the only thing that allowed me to finish at all. In Hearts of Iron IV, there is a feature, Continuous Focus, that lets you stop picking focuses in exchange for a boost to one aspect of your war machine, like airplane production.
Speaking of Hearts of Iron, though, there’s one thing that every grand strategy game studio needs to be a bit more careful about, and that’s late-game performance. That, more than anything else, is what keeps me from ever finishing a Paradox campaign. Obviously, improving performance is easier said than done, and there’s no miracles to be worked here, but it could go a little higher on the priority list — maybe they could work on optimization before releasing tons of paid DLC. Just a thought.
Does the late-game grind stop me from enjoying strategy games? Not really. The best part is at the beginning anyway, and I think I would rarely finish campaigns even if these problems were completely absent, since becoming powerful, which is kind of what you do in these games, makes things less fun. But that doesn’t mean I’m not still waiting for the game that finally manages to get these things right. I think I might be waiting a long time.