My current stream game on my Twitch channel is one I’ve attempted multiple times before but never managed to finish: Fire Emblem Echoes. Echoes is a remake of the second Fire Emblem title, a game that experimented with a very different approach to some of the core mechanics of the series. Dungeon exploration with random encounters, having no party size limits in main story battles, spells slowly weaken the magicians casting them – there’s a lot that is unique about Echoes that we don’t really see in any other Fire Emblem title. One particular aspect of Echoes is infamously bad: the map design. Most of the game’s maps are just two armies charging each other in open fields. There’s little terrain to take advantage of and because of the need to protect certain units in the army (like healers), inevitably a lot of battles turn into a formation where your other soldiers circle up around the weakest links and simply endure incoming hits until you win the battle. The unremarkable maps – especially inside of dungeons – cause a lot of the battles to feel same-y and it makes each one a slog to get through.
Map design may feel secondary in a tactics game to the other core gameplay elements, but it is one of the most important parts of making the actual tactics aspect of the game feel relevant. Poor maps de-emphasize tactical positioning and allow you to always succeed with the same approach, or at least make it so that only a certain type of approach is viable. A good map supports the type of play that has you making tactical decisions, where each turn is a problem to solve, an opportunity to seize, or a disaster to mitigate. Great map design may stand out in your attention – “oh man, remember that map?” – or it may become one of those elements of a game where not noticing it is a sign of quality; the map gets out of the way so that the other aspects of the game shine brightly. There are advantages to both and there are plenty of solid examples of how to make maps well in tactics games, so let’s explore a few different approaches to map design that lead to more engaging combat experiences.
Keep It Tight: The Punchy Battles of Into the Breach
Into the Breach is a tactics game that redefined my expectations for the genre. It uses the concept of perfect information to forecast the opponent’s turn to you and then gives you the opportunity to counteract that turn by defeating or repositioning foes so that their efforts are wasted or actively work against their interests. Part of what makes the game special is that individual battles are bite-sized; battles only last around three to five turns and each one of those turns feels action packed. The only way a turn is uneventful in Into the Breach is if you worked hard to earn that, defeating enemies and blocking spawns effectively to completely prevent any opposition from manifesting itself on a given turn. An important element of what makes Into the Breach battles so compelling are the maps you are dealing with; despite being procedurally generated, each one feels like a personalized puzzle to solve because of solid design decisions.
The size of the maps is an important factor. A big map opens the possibility of entire turns spent simply crossing space. “We’ll fight in a minute, I just gotta walk over to you first!” Into the Breach avoids that problem by placing battles on an 8×8 grid. You are in each other’s faces and your movements during a turn have to take into account the positioning of your allies, your enemies, and the other details of the environment that could limit your actions or provide opportunities. Buildings, mountains, and hazards interfere with your ability to move around or to aim an attack, forcing you to make hard choices about the course of action that will have the fewest repercussions.
Which leads us into the second feature of Into the Breach maps that makes them noteworthy: objectives. In some tactics games the only thing important on the map that you really need to preserve is the group of characters you are controlling. The soldiers, the mechs, the knights, whatever it is, the only things that matter are your units. Into the Breach fills each map with buildings that provide power to your energy grid, which is a necessary resource you have to protect. Having your grid fully depleted ends a run, so buildings need to be protected. That means that every map in Into the Breach is not only a mission about protecting your mechs – there are a dozen or so tiles that are precious to you that you have to watch over as well. Certain buildings can be tied to other objectives that influence your rewards, making some buildings more important than others and challenging you to make choices about what you want to protect the most.
Into the Breach maps work because they are tight and dense. Every turn requires meaningful action and every square on the map is vulnerable in some way. The distinct shape of any one map is not particularly relevant because every map follows a design philosophy that serves your ultimate objectives in the game.
Interactive Environs: The Magic of Wildermyth
Wildermyth was my favorite game of 2022, and if you thought I wasn’t going to be talking about it just because it’s a new year, think again! While it’s easy to praise Wildermyth on the basis of the game’s quality writing and the mythmaking that its procedurally generated narrative enables, the tactics are no slouch either. The game has a simple yet robust class system where three different unit types use a combination of character abilities, gear, pets, and transformations in order to build unique units with lots of possibilities for battle. Importantly, many of these units have tools for interacting with the world in ways that advance your tactics. In other words, the design of Wildermyth maps is directly integrated with the core mechanics of the game, similar to Into the Breach.
Mystics in Wildermyth are spellcasters, but they don’t work like magic units in most fantasy RPGs. There’s no spell list or magical tomes to manage. Instead, mystics interfuse their soul with that of an object, communing with that object to unlock its potential and use it to devastating effect on the battlefield. Different objects grant different spells: a wooden bookshelf might explode in a violent splinterblast while a roll of textiles in a fabric shop might be used to constrict enemy movement. Mystic abilities do not work without stuff for them to interfuse with, so by necessity every Wildermyth map has to be full of objects that add flavor to the environment. Plant life, statues, shelves, tools, torches – each one provides a unique opportunity for a useful interfusion, and their presence on the battlefield creates a space that is interesting for your characters to navigate.
This is possible in part because mystics are not the only characters who interact with these objects on a mechanical level. Units can use objects for cover against ranged attacks from distant foes, or with the help of specific pets or interfusions, can set up a wall which gives them a bonus point of armor against enemy attacks. Warriors with the raider ability can shatter objects to deal damage to adjacent foes while hunters with ember arrows can look for campfires or torches to increase the damage of their attacks. And objects can be useful tools for enemies, too; they can interact with them same as you, interfusing or taking cover or destroying your cover as needed. Objects on the battlefield are tools to take advantage of for either side, encouraging tactical positioning and opening up interesting mechanical opportunities for your heroes and their foes.
Wildermyth maps work because they are integrated from the ground up with the game’s combat mechanics. Each map by necessity must be full of objects to use for mystics to accomplish their interfusions and for other unit types to use them for cover or to augment their abilities. This ensures that every map is outfitted with interesting terrain for the characters to utilize.
A Personal Touch: Unique Map Mechanics in Path of Radiance
This whole conversation got started because of Fire Emblem, so I wanted to wrap up today’s thoughts by returning to Fire Emblem and reflecting on a game in the series which I thought did map design well. Path of Radiance was my first Fire Emblem game and while there are some ways in which it hasn’t aged gracefully, it is still one of my favorites. A lot of the games I have highlighted today for solid map design use procedurally generated maps or have a finite set of common bases that are then populated with objects or obstacles to deal with. In Path of Radiance, each battle takes place on a unique map designed specifically for that chapter, and this opens the door for custom map mechanics and shapes that help to make specific maps really interesting and memorable.
Intentional design behind a map creates an opportunity for tactical battles to be a puzzle for the player to solve. One example is the map for the Great Bridge that connects the country of Crimea with Daein. Your Crimean forces are trying to reenter their home country from the Daein side while Daein controls the bridge from the Crimean side. The bridge is riddled with traps – a footsoldier who steps onto one of the trapped tiles will lose the rest of their turn, getting locked into place without any opportunity to attack, use an item, or reposition. This of course makes fliers more appealing on this map, but the enemies also have deadly ballistae set up at specific intervals along the bridge. Navigating the traps to take out the ballista so your fliers can move in provides an interesting puzzle to solve. Another example is the defense map on the way to Begnion where a ship carrying the Empress is attacked by beorc pirates as well as raven laguz corsairs. Empress Sanaki’s ship is the center of the battlefield with your units on Nasir’s ship on one side while the enemy pirate ship is on the other side. To protect Sanaki, you have to move to the central ship from your own and then keep any foes from reaching her cabin door. The easiest way to do this at first is to man units on the connecting planks between Sanaki’s ship and the pirate ship, creating bottlenecks that force enemies to approach you one at a time. However, halfway through the map, the raven corsairs get involved, and as flying units they can easily surpass your bottlenecks and fly directly to the parts of the ship they are interested in: the treasure chests. Claiming the treasure for yourself means changing your approach: do you bring a thief to open up the treasure yourself while everyone else holds the defensive positions? Or do you divert units from your bottlenecks to focus on taking down the ravens? Changing the conditions in the middle of the battle in order to render your initial, obvious strategy less effective creates an interesting new challenge.
Now making a custom map for each battle isn’t a guarantee that every map is going to be good. (I’m looking at you, Begnion desert map where you recruit Stefan, Tormod, and Maurim.) Some unique map mechanics or shapes end up being boring or actively discouraging. But the advantage of a custom map is that rather than fading into the background as just a fundamental part of a game’s core design, maps can stand out as noteworthy features of particular chapters that works hand in hand with the narrative to create a more memorable experience. The map’s design or gimmicks can tell you something about an enemy general, the culture of a particular nation or army, or the preferred tactics of specific unit types. Late in Path of Radiance you battle a group of bandits at the church where Reyson’s sister Leanne was imprisoned by Daein. The bandits controlling the church decide to use the monks there as human shields. During the battle, the monks are enemy units, some of whom can even attack you, but you are encouraged not to kill them because they are fighting against their will. Competing this battle without killing any monks earns you an amazing reward, but navigating the map by shoving around a bunch of priests while the big scary bandits threatening them come to attack you creates a unique challenge. The mechanical puzzle presented by the map – don’t kill certain enemies on the map – reinforces what is happening in the story and tells you something about the essential character of the enemy you are facing. The opportunity to use the map not just as an interesting mechanical setpiece but also as a tool for storytelling is another big advantage of having a distinct map for every chapter.
The maps in Path of Radiance are noteworthy because each one is designed with the challenges and interests of that specific chapter in mind. Game mechanics specific to a particular map create unique puzzles to solve, and the ability to custom tailor a map to the current goings-on in the narrative allow the map and the story to work together to create memorable moments.
So what makes a good tactics map? My argument is that a good tactics map gives you something compelling to do with every turn. The shape of the map as well as the objects or terrain force you to make choices and prevent you from simply using the exact same strategies every time you battle. They challenge you to make the most of what your characters can do and sometimes, they throw you a curveball that asks you to figure out a new plan when you first plan goes awry. Maps don’t have to be memorable as long as their essential structure supports the gameplay of the tactics game to which they belong, but a map can be elevated into something truly special by blending the mechanics of the battle with the narrative elements taking place around it. That’s my perspective on a solid tactics map, but I am curious to hear your thoughts on the matter, adventurers! If you’ve got a tactics game in mind that does maps really well, let me know about it in the comments below.