DevDiary 9 - Satellite View
Hi everyone, I am Boyan Ivanov, co-creative director of Jagged Alliance 3, and today we are going to talk about strategy.
The 90s were a golden age for PC strategy games. It is no wonder that both big tactical games from that era - XCOM and Jagged Alliance – featured not only excellent tactical combat but also a deep strategic element. For me this blend is one of the key ingredients for their success and my own fond memories of spending countless hours with them.
From the early days of conceptualizing Jagged Alliance 3 it was clear to us that we had to capture this unique blend – turn based tactics, strategic gameplay in an open world and a quirky cast of characters. But what exactly is needed to make a fun and engaging strategic layer? And also, what makes a good strategic layer within the context of the Jagged Alliance series?
Strategic gameplay requires planning and tough decisions, managing different resources, be it money, time, or people. It also needs a big playground where these plans can unfold.
A Whole New World
Welcome to the Adjani Valley – the world of Jagged Alliance 3. This is what we call the Satellite View – the strategic layer of the game where you will command your squads of mercenaries.
As is tradition set by the game’s predecessors, the world map is divided into a sector grid. More than 160 of these sectors (including underground locations) have their own playable, handcrafted maps to explore. Collected into several different regions and environments, these maps offer not simply yet another battlefield but new characters and stories as we discussed in Dev Diary 8 – Quests.
Certain sectors are more strategically important than others. They can be parts of a city, diamond mines, ports that allow sea and river travel, hospitals or just a safe place to rest and relax. Other sectors can be enemy strongholds that are heavily fortified and send out enemy squads to attack you (but more on that later). Liberating these sectors and taking control of vital resources is key for success. Planning which sectors to prioritize and where to attack next forms the core of your long-term strategy.
Traveling is a key factor when making these strategic decisions. Certain terrains are harder to traverse. Marching through swamps without any roads is slow and tiring. Walking through the savanna is easier and even faster if there’s a road through the sector. There’s also water travel to consider - navigating along the coast or the Adjani River requires a port as your starting point. It is a much faster way to travel and even lets mercs rest but costs some money per sector traveled.
With all this in mind it is up to you – the commander – to explore the world as best fits your plan. Yet there are more considerations to keep in mind:
Your Agents of Chaos
You’ve scanned the world, chosen your targets, planned out how you’re going to get there. Now it’s time to send your agents – the mercs to implement this plan. While it is completely possible to go through the entire game with a single squad I feel that the strategic aspect of Jagged Alliance 3 shines the most when you split the party.
You can send out Alpha squad to capture a diamond mine and secure funds. Bravo squad can go after a particular side mission on the other side of the Adjani River. While mercs in Charlie squad will train militia and repairs items in the town you recently liberated. Squads are limited to 6 mercs, but there are no limits to how many squads you can have or where you choose to send them.
There are several things to consider when managing your mercs. You’ll need to assemble your team of course, consider if and when to hire additional mercs or perhaps part with some. You’ll need to treat their wounds and make sure they are fit for upcoming battles. Mercs will also tire out, especially when traversing difficult sectors, and need to rest. They can push through for some time if they are just tired, making them less effective in battle. However, if mercs become exhausted they will refuse to travel and have even bigger penalties in combat.
Operations & The Timeline
It’s not all fighting, marching and resting for your mercs. In sectors under your control you can assign mercs to different operations. These are tasks that can help you recover after a difficult battle or prepare you for upcoming conflicts. Let me give you a quick overview of each key operation:
- Treat Wounds – assign a merc as a doctor to heal the wounds of his teammates by spending Meds
- Hospital Treatment – available only in certain sectors, hospitals allow you to heal wounds very quickly but at a high monetary cost
- R&R – In city sectors your mercs can spend some downtime to recover faster and even gain the “well rested” status
- Repair Items – weapons and armor deteriorate with use, mercs with good Mechanical skill can repair items at the cost of some Parts
- Craft Ammo & Craft Explosives – tied to the Explosives skill, allows crafting of different ammo and explosive ordinance
- Scout Area – Mercs can spend some time gathering intelligence of nearby area gaining hints about enemy positions as well as nearby side missions
- Train Militia – train militia to defend certain key positions. Militia are allied soldiers which are not directly under player control but can defend a sector even when mercs are not present
- Train Mercs – allows mercs with high stats to train other mercs with the speed
Certainly some operations are more vital – ex. Treat Wounds. Others are a bit of a filler - Training - allowing you to fill the time of idle mercs with something useful as they are waiting for their comrades. Certain sectors may offer additional “unique” operations that are part of a particular side story like prospecting for diamonds to improve the output of a mine or simply waiting for the bus (I’m going to let you speculate what that operation is used for).
As we initially developed the Satellite View we stumbled on a problem that play testers were struggling with. It’s difficult to keep a mental picture of all these events and how they fit with each other. Which operation will finish first? When will a merc contract expire? Do I have time to get to a particular location?
The timeline was the answer to this problem – it helps keep track of different ops, merc contracts and provides a clear sense of how time flows in the game. Each operation, squad travel times and important occurrences are marked on the timeline. You can easily see the sequence of events that will take place in the near feature and hover over an event to gain more information.
Time = Money
Managing time is a crucial skill in the strategic aspect of Jagged Alliance 3. Even more so when you realize that time is money in the game.
Keeping mercs active in the field has ongoing costs – you have to renew contracts periodically. You can choose the time frame of the contract but there might be complications. A merc will occasionally want to renegotiate if they’ve gained experience and gone up a level. Some may require more money the first time you hire them if they see you as an inexperienced commander. Some may outright refuse to join your team if you have someone they don’t like on the payroll or if you’ve caused the death of too many mercs under your command.
With the contracts ticking away as time passes in the Satellite View you will want to optimize the time of your mercs. Chose which sectors to attack first as travel time is a factor, pick operations that will help you prepare but don’t waste too much time on them as there’s an implicit cost. Do you need to keep such a large force of mercs on payroll or could you even hire some additional help?
But how do you make money? Well the answer is simple – diamonds! Specifically diamond mines are your best source of income. Controlling them adds money to your account daily but make sure to protect them and do keep in mind that some mines might deplete and you’ll find yourselves without income.
For a quick infusion of cash you can go on the hunt for diamond shipments. The enemy sends out diamond shipments from time to time. Naturally they are well guarded. With skill and some luck you can intercept these shipments, take out the enemies and cash in the prize.
Of course you have your starting funds and some extra cash early on from your employers. One of the main long term challenges in the game is to be mindful of your finances and this becomes a key skill when you play on higher difficulties.
While we are on the topic of managing resources, you may have noticed my quick mention of Meds and Parts. These are two resources that are often used in operations. Each squad carries their own supplies of Meds and Parts. While they are not as crucial as Money be mindful of them or you may find yourself in a bind without enough resources to recover after a tough fight.
War for Territory
As your mercs fight their way through Grand Chien, capturing sector after sector, your territory and resources grow. But it can fall back in enemy hands. The Legion and other foes can muster counter attacks and will try to recapture lost sectors. Diamond mines are often on the top of their list.
Enemy strongholds, called guard posts, can generate attack squads and send them to attack your positions. In turn you can train militia in key sector to defend them. There are even multiple types of militia – rookies, veterans and elite. When an enemy attack squad reaches your positions a you’ll have to defend this sector or auto-resolve the conflict. If only militia is present in the sector auto-resolve is the only option as you don’t have active mercs there.
This creates a sort of thug of war between you and enemy forces as you fight for control of key strategic sectors. It also creates a very different dynamic from play through to play through as all attacks are procedurally generated and depend on what you’ve captured.
Guard posts are a prime target for attack on your end but they are very well defended. In fact going guns blazing can lead to epic fights where you are outnumbered many times over. However, there are other approaches. Each guard post can be weakened through a set of mini-missions – they are represented as shields next to the guard post icon. To learn more about these mini-missions you’ll have to use the scout operation and complete certain tasks.
Open World Strategy
As you can see the Satellite View of Jagged Alliance 3 offers a lot of strategic considerations – managing squads, mercs, time and money. Also fighting an active opponent that will try to recapture what they’ve lost. The ultimate goal of all these mechanics is to give you, the player, freedom and the tools to approach the task of saving President La Fontaine as you best see fit. You are up against overwhelming odds and there’s a lot more to discover along the way. Build up your strength, find allies, capture key sector and let your mercs become stronger over time. And your next time around you can try a different team and a different strategy.
That’s it from me for today. To see the Satellite View in action, join us on our stream this Thursday, June 15th at 17:00 CEST on the THQ Nordic channel: http://twitch.tv/thqnordic