I was inspired to make a series of posts on the concept of turn based battles (from here on TBB) by this video, which, to simplify its argument a little, says that TBB is held back primarily by inefficient use of the player’s time and unsatisfying reward treadmills. In other words, people don’t like TBB because they spend too much time watching things happen and not enough time earning shiny things for their successes. I agree that these are both flaws in your typical TBB game, but I don’t believe that they are the primary reason for TBB’s declining popularity. In fact, I don’t think that TBB is even in decline at all. To my view, the most significant headwinds against TBB design are threefold: an overly rigid expectation of what TBB is, a lack of focus on interesting decisions in combat, and excessive reliance on combat to power the gameplay loop. I’ll expand on each of those points as this continues, but I’d like to use this post to focus on the first.
So, premise aside, what’s my perspective coming into this? It wasn’t long ago that I’d have told you I thought TBB was a dying design, but right now there are more turn based games (4) than real time (3, with the remaining 3 all being Uchikoshi visual novels) in my top 10. I’ll get into what those games are and why I believe they succeed in a later post, but suffice to say that TBB can be an excellent design choice and that many games, from traditional JRPGs to others that might not look like TBB at first glance, have succeeded in bringing out its full potential. And while some games could certainly work just as well with a real time system or even without combat at all, several my favorite games make TBB such a central mechanism that they’d be unrecognizable without it.
Now, if you were to ask a random gamer on the street to name a game with TBB, one of the answers you’re most likely to get happens to also be the most successful IP in history: Pokémon. Although the original RBY games are older than many series fans today, the modern battle system wouldn’t be all that unfamiliar to someone who fell through a time portal after defeating Champion Blue on their GameBoy. Battles still take place between teams of up to six Pokémon, each of which has up to two types and up to four moves. If all the Pokémon on one team are knocked out, that combatant loses. Alternatively, a battle might be between the player’s team of six and a wild Pokémon, in which case the battle can also end if the player catches their opponent. In either case, the last team standing wins and type matchups are king.
What’s interesting about the venerable Pocket Monsters battle system, though, is how it inspires two very different reactions. Each new release is almost inevitably criticized as being full of insultingly easy and tedious battles. And yet, while that sounds like the combat is holding the game back, just about any other game would kill to have half the popularity of websites like Smogon or Pokémon Showdown that dedicate themselves to discussion and practice of that very system. Meanwhile, other dedicated communities have found the challenge they’re looking for in formats like Nuzlocke that reimagine the game’s design without changing any code. Considered together, it’s clear that TBB isn’t the problem here: GameFreak secretly has a brilliant system that people love to engage with, but the core games simply don’t make use of its strengths in moment-to-moment gameplay. It’s such a strong battle system, in fact, that Showdown can succeed even with every other part of traditional Pokémon completely removed.
Another surprise about Pokémon’s system in particular is that while it does have the random battles, long grind, and repetitive animations that TBB is typically criticized for, the formats that fans most love don’t necessarily remove any of those elements. Nuzlocke emphasizes grind and randomness even more than the regular gameplay does, but it greatly raises the stakes of those formerly pointless battles by enforcing permadeath and limiting your ability to replace Pokémon. Showdown and many other formats generally remove or greatly speed up animations, but some players choose to leave them on. Pokémon speedruns even turn animation length and textboxes into a cost of performing actions, or, in other words, part of the strategy. Even the TBB’s supposed greatest weaknesses can be strengths in the right context.
And with that, we’ve arrived at my first point: TBB isn’t broken, it’s just been trapped in an expectation that it must look like traditional JRPG slugfests between a player team and an army of randomly spawned mooks. You might argue that, no, Pokémon is a unique case with a fanbase devoted enough to do their own design work and that those fan’s success doesn’t say anything about other TBB systems. There’s no Final Fantasy Showdown, after all, and it’s quite a bit harder to make a living peddling competitive Persona builds than to sell hacked shiny Greninjas with perfect IVs. And while you wouldn’t be wrong, we’d both be ignoring the elephant in the room of TBB. An elephant made of 20 billion printed cards that might individually sell for hundreds or even thousands of dollars.
Yes, it’s time to talk about Magic: The Gathering, which I have never played. Thankfully, I don’t need to know much about it to tell you that it is objectively turn based and that it nonetheless has the kind of fanatical, enduring popularity that most games can only dream of. And it’s not alone. Hearthstone is a fully digital game it inspired that remains one of the most popular games in the world, to say nothing of Slay the Spire and the legions of indie roguelikes it paved the way for. What’s more, their design is by no means alien to the RPGs most people associate with typical TBB. Slay the Spire may not look much like Final Fantasy VIII at first glance, but the comparison is more apt when you remember Triple Triad, FFVIII’s mini card game that’s still being played almost 25 years later. RPGs know how to make card games and they know people love them, but for some reason most designers just have not made the leap to merging card and RPG designs.
If that sounds like every RPG needs to become a card game, don’t worry. Physical RPGs have a lot of design lessons to offer on how games could keep a more recognizable structure without sacrificing any fun. Consider Gloomhaven, the current most highly rated board game in the world by BoardGameGeek’s widely respected ranking. It’s a fully turn based system with levels, missed hits, potions, and just about any other RPG trope you can think of, yet practically every fan will tell you that combat is the highlight. Instead of selecting actions from a set menu, you play two cards each turn that each have two possible actions and an initiative value. You choose your initiative before knowing what the other players and enemies are doing, but you can decide which two of your four possible actions to use when your turn in the order comes around. No matter what you do, those cards and their unique abilities will be unusuable until you’ve rested, which entails giving up one of your used cards to refresh the others. Running out of cards means instant death, so each action is a precious resource that must be used to maximum effect.
The third elephant in the room of overly rigid RPG expectations is named Final Fantasy. Well, Final Fantasy Tactics to be precise. Here we have an entire subgenre of TBB RPGs that practically never face any criticism for having dull battle systems. Fire Emblem? Disgaea? XCOM? People not only love these games, they often love them for their combat first and foremost. Nobody is playing XCOM for the story, but they are telling stories about heroic playthroughs without losing a single soldier and making mods that add in even more combat. At the same time, people very much are playing Fire Emblem for its narrative, yet very few consider it held back by the oodles of combat players are forced into between every major story beat. And what do you get if you take a strategy RPG like these games and strip it down to the bare minimum of its mechanics? Probably something that looks an awful lot like Chess or Go. Games that have spent hundreds (thousands in Go’s case) of years among the most popular games in the world despite being both turn based and simple enough for a child to learn.
As you can see, TBB is thriving if you look beyond the traditional JRPG formula. These broad classes of turn based success prove that there’s no binary choice between what we’d usually call TBB and real time combat. A dev who wants to bring something new to the JRPG table doesn’t need to simply invent a new synonym for Limit Breaks – they could instead take inspiration from card games, physical RPGs, or the wide world of strategy video and board games. Still, you shouldn’t take this to mean that a variation on JRPG combat can’t work. As the example of Pokémon communities shows, more traditional JRPG TBB is a force to be reckoned with when it plays to its strengths. In part 2, I’ll take a look at what makes the games I talked about today work so well and how “normal” TBB systems can and have learned from them.