I've played through each Advance Wars game that has been released stateside putting hundreds of hours into the games altogether. Despite my experience with the games, I'm only now coming to grips with how the game works in terms of the dynamics of turn based combat, the economic game, the interplay of the multitude of unit formations, the design of the land, sea, and air units, and the interplay of the CO design. I owe much of my understanding of the game's economic war from reading David Sirlin's summary of the StarCraft Class at Berkeley.
Advance Wars: Days of Ruin is, from my experience, the best Advance Wars game in the series by far. Gone is the over powered and odd slippery slope design of the CO powers as well as the automatic bonuses each CO gave to their units. Instead, AW:DoR features an intelligently designed system where COs can be assigned to units. These CO-units then have a range of effect that enhances nearby units, which encourages and rewards good formations and spacing. And because putting a CO on a unit costs half of that unit's production cost, playing to the new CO system can have economic ramifications as well. Because the CO is a unit, to counter the CO effects and any progress the opponent has put into building their CO meter, you simply have to destroy that unit. In these ways, the CO design was changed from a slippery, abstract force without much core interplay into a clean system that uses the established forms, functions, and dynamics of the game.
Beyond the CO design, AW:DoR modified the units across the board to create a more balanced experience overall. More on that in an article I'll write later. For the rest of this article, I wanted to highlight the difficulty design of AW:DoR.
AW:DoR's Difficulty Design
Unlike previous Advance Wars games, AW:DoR doesn't feature a hard campaign mode. Initially there were many who complained about the lack of a hard mode. But, taking a more critical-eye to the situation, it's clear that AW:DoR's difficulty design is another area of design that's superior to its predecessors. Before, the hard campaign in Advance Wars was simply the same maps with a few modified conditions. Sometimes the enemy units were increased. Other times some of the units were upgraded to more powerful versions of the same general type (tank, indirect attacker, foot soldier, etc.). The problem with this system is that typically, the same winning tactic/strategy from the normal campaign can be applied to the hard campaign level without changing much. This is mainly because the maps in Advance Wars are designed to greatly favor the player if they understand the map dynamic. It's like figuring out the puzzle/trick/secret of each map. Once you know the "secret" it doesn't really matter that the opponent has more units or upgraded units. For example, if the winning strategy is to sneak to the opponent's base and capture their HQ, that strategy will still work almost exactly the same regardless if your main army is attacked by a Md.Tank instead of a Tank. Furthermore, the more expensive units in AW are generally more powerful, but this usually comes at some other kind of drawback (less ammo, smaller movement range, less versatile "tires," weaker armor, less vision, etc.). So, there are some cases where the hard campaign can actually be easier than the normal (Kambei Arives from Advance Wars GBA).
For the reasons above, the levels in the hard campaigns in the Advance Wars series have been hit or miss. When they miss, they miss pretty badly. In such cases the odds can be stacked so overwhelmingly high against you, that the game seems to cease to work even on a simple level. Other times, the challenges can be even easier. Regardless, these are not the best ways to increase the difficulty of a challenge. When the hard campaign maps are a hit, the difference between normal and hard strategies aren't too big and, in my opinion, are not worth going back through. All of these points are true for every hard campain in the Advance Wars series expect for Advance Wars: Days of Ruin.
In AW:DoR, there is only one campaign mode. Now, veteran players don't have to play through the entire normal campaign first so they can unlock the hard campaign for a challenge. Instead, players can simply aim for a higher rank according to the ratting system to challenge themselves. It's true that every AW game has had a mission rating system awarding C through S ranks based on 3 criteria; speed, power, and technique. But, there are a few changes to AW:DoR's rating system design that significantly influences the strategies of a player seeking an S rank compared to the previous AW games (S ranks are award for a score of 300+ points). The details are thoroughly explained here, but I'll sum them up anyway. The 3 criteria are...
- Speed: Each level has a set "days" value. Beat the mission by that value and you get 100 speed points. Beat it in half as many days as the value and get 150 points.
- Power: The more enemy units you destroy in fewer attacks the better. 1-hit-KOing enemy units is the optimum tactic. It doesn't matter how many enemies there are, how many you kill, or how many units you have. It's all about the quality of your attacks.
- Technique: Like a perfect war general/environmentalist/conservationalist, the less you use and the less you lose the better. Also, this score is tied to how many enemy units the opponent throws against you. So, like in the initial waves of the "300" movie, if you can take out a lot with a little and not lose any, you're golden.
In previous Advance Wars games, technique was determined by how few units you lose, how many enemy units are pitted against you, AND how many total units you had to work with. But with the old AW games, there wasn't a conversationalist attitude. The more units you built, the better your score was even if you didn't use the units at all. Simply producing units at the end of the game (when you probably have the advantage and the economy to support it) was an easy way to pump up your score. This difference in itself drastically changes the strategies needed to S rank missions between the old AW games and AW:DoR. For the old games, a simple tactic/strategy to achieve a high score is "build as many units as can that are as strong as possible and simply run over the opposition." It's simple, even linear tactics/strategies like this that don't highlight the variation and interplay of the AW core design. Tactics like this are why many think that quality strategy games like Advance Wars and StarCraft aren't really as deep as people say. In both of these strategies games, there is a surprising amount of gameplay, depth, and versatility that can come from using a few units as opposed to a huge army.
The "Interplay" of Difficulty Design
image by RETROnoob
With AW:DoR's rating system, each of the 3 rating criteria encourages a simple, linear strategy individually. But when you combine them together, trying to achieve a high score in each category becomes quite difficult because the simple, linear strategies begin to work against each other. Because each criteria counters or makes achieving a high score in the other categories more difficult, we can think of AW:DoR's difficulty design as being a sort of triangle of interplay where each option fills up a unique design space while affecting the other options. Here's how...
- Speed: Often times the fastest way to win a mission is by capturing the opponent's HQ. By focusing all your resources and moves to this goal, you don't have to necessarily worry about destroying enemy units or defending your base. The bottom line is, if you get to their HQ first and block the enemy's attempt to stop you, you win. Period. Such an extreme tactic can easily result in sacrificed units which work against your technique score. Also, by ignoring enemy units, your potential power score drops as well.
- Power: Destroy as many units in a few hits as possible. The easiest and possibly best way to do this is by using powerful units and by letting the enemy weaken thier units from your counter attacks (which works best when they attack your powerful units). Building the economy to produce many powerful units takes time, which works against your speed rating. When you can't build a lot of powerful units, you can build some combination of powerful, medium, and weaker units to try and get the job done. The more units you build as a buffer for strength in this way, the more you work against your technique score.
- Technique: Technique is the most complex criteria to optimize. The general tactic is to build as few units as possible and to lose as few as possible while fighting or allowing the enemy to produce as many units as possible. Producing too few units can be very costly. But even this tactic depends on what you can build (land, sea, air), how those units can be used offesively (terrain limitations), and what kind of units the opponent has or can produce. Even if you take care to hold off until you can build a few strong units, having fewer units naturally means you can create less effective walls/formations. In this way, you have to balance out how much you think you can handle and how much you're willing to risk based on how well you can analyze the battle field. Furthermore, as I've explained previously, waiting to build a few strong units takes time and building many weak units makes it harder to achieve a high power score.
Advance Wars: Days of Ruin's difficulty design is far better compared to the modal design of its predecessors. I really appreciate how each criteria of the rating system are simple concepts that are easy to grasp. If only the game did a better job of explaining these finer design details. I believe that developers should do a lot better job of informing the player. Being forced to figure out such secrets and intricacies of game systems on one's own is too hard without being connected to some kind of growing community. At least, this is what believe. After all, if it takes a long time fan of Advance Wars this many years of practice and study to reach this level of understanding, then something needs to change.