Bytes & Pieces: Starcraft: Too Much Like Two

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StarCraft is, arguably, the king of video strategy gaming. It’s survived from its roots back in 1998, through one sequel and some expansions and still sees regular play today. Not only that, the demanding skill level of multi-player has made it a key event in e-sports.

That might make it look like a shoe-in for a licenced board game version. But there’s a catch: as a real-time strategy game, StarCraft has many aspects that won’t translate to the turn-based tabletop. In some ways it’s a worse problem than that faced by adaptations of out and out action games. StarCraft traps a tabletop designer in a vice of two competing models which can resolved on a computer but not on a board.

Non of this stopped Fantasy Flight from trying, though. And what we got was one of the most innovative designs of the 2000’s.

While widely recognised as a design classic, however, we’re not here to discuss its merits. We’re here to look at how it manages to be like its parent game. And the perhaps surprising answer is that it tries too hard, for limited gain.

When you lay out the StarCraft board, it looks nothing like the game on a screen. Instead of battlefields, players are competing over a whole pocket universe. This might seem off-putting to veterans of the PC version, but it makes sense. We could have had some sort of modular terrain to create a similar effect. But by increasing the scale of the game, designers can smooth away much of the detail they’d have to replicate. Plus, it gives the game a much more epic feel.

The miniatures sitting on top of the planets offer a much more immediate connection to the video game. They come in a startling array of shapes and colours, all modelled after PC game units. It’s obvious that players might have complained if their favourite troop type wasn’t in this adaptation. But their staggering variety is symptomatic of where the game design goes wrong in aping its digital cousin too closely.

The biggest issue is that there’s both too much diversity, and too little. New players have to learn the capabilities of all these units all at once. The video version has slowly built-up tutorials to get to grips with this information, but there’s no such luxury here. The different races are well modelled, though, and respond well to the strategy approaches used in the video game. Zerg still swarm, and Protoss still use a lot of technology.

On the flip side, it’s questionable whether the differences are significant enough to make the diversity worthwhile. Take workers, for example. They don’t do a lot in the board game. You get the sense they’re only there because they’re in the video game. That’s not smart design: it’s throwing the kitchen sink in for the sake of the licence.

The one area where you really have to watch what units you’re sporting is in combat. Thanks to the combat card mechanism, it matters how many troops you can match to the cards you’re holding. It’s a great system which allows players to mitigate luck through smart choices. It also mimics the fog of war, because while you can see units on the board, you don’t know if the enemy has the matching cards. In those respects, it’s a good, streamlined mechanic that mimics the level of combat tactics in the original.

Getting all the pieces to mesh together is problematic. There are a lot of rules. There are a lot of counters. The table footprint is enormous. All this stuff can, again, be kept under the hood in a video game, or taught piecemeal. In the board game it can be overwhelming. The result takes a handful of plays just to get your head around. Developing real skill is a long-term commitment. Which, perhaps, mimics the original in a very positive way.

Ultimately, winning in the video game comes down to a mixture of speed planning and speed clicking. The board game wisely doesn’t even try to replicate this. Instead, your actions each turn are encapsulated by the order system. This is the strategic meat of the game, and all the players get the same amount to use per turn. So, while there’s no advantage to picking orders quickly, there’s plenty in picking them carefully.

It’s worth repeating that none of the issues highlighted here are major mistakes. StarCraft remains a fantastic multi-player battle game, with a fine blend of strategy, luck and diplomacy. In which respect it’s also much like its inspiration. It is, however, over-complex. And a salutary lesson to designers that often, when it comes to the tabletop, less is much, much more.

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