Nerdsworth Academy

A few dragons floating on blocks.

Developer Diary | What about a Minecraft / X-COM hybrid?

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I was standing at the bus stop a week ago, shivering in the chilly twenty-nine degree weather when a rather peculiar thought crossed my mind: what if a game combined the worldscaping creation/destruction elements of Minecraft with the turn-based tactics of X-COM?

As the bus came and I sat down I let the thought gestate in my mind. I became more interested in it the more I mulled it over.

Core Mechanics

It seems like such a simple idea, but I can't think of any games that mix the two concepts... and probably for good reason.

It seems like such a simple idea, but I can’t think of any games that mix the two concepts… and probably for good reason.

I was thinking of making it a turn-based multiplayer battle game where you move your troops around a block-based, grid-like world and try to eliminate the enemy squad. Each turn, you move your squad of soldiers around the 3-D map and try to eliminate the enemy squad. Your troops could also use action points to place blocks in the map. The blocks would obstruct line of sight and would provide a fair amount of cover, but they could also be destroyed by weapons fire.

This would give the player a number of choices for each soldier: do I move to higher ground to spot enemy soldiers (and risk being exposed), or do I hunker down and build a wall? Or do I go in guns blazing and try to root out my enemy before they can get dug in. Or do I build a giant tower and get my sniper up there as soon as possible to have a wide view over the whole battlefield? It seems like the variation in tactics would be huge, provided the game was even remotely balanced.

Handling Blocks

I’m not sure how block inventory should be managed. Really, there are a number of ways to deal with this:

If only these soldiers could have put down some cover, they might not have all died horribly.

If only these soldiers could have put down some cover, they might not have all died horribly.

  1. Per soldier point-buy system – Before the battle each soldier is equipped with a set of blocks that they can then deploy during the battle
  2. Global point-buy system – The player buys blocks before the match starts, but can deploy them from any soldier
  3. Blocks can only be collected in game – Soldiers spend their turns mining blocks which can then be spent (much like Minecraft)

This is one thing that I think I would have to figure out while balancing the game, but I like option #1 the best, as then you could specify certain penalties for carrying too many blocks (such as lowering movement speed). This would allow players to specialize their soldiers more and would lead to more innovative strategies. How cool would it be to move your guys around in teams where one unit’s job is to throw down sand at the end of every round for additional cover for the rest of the squad?

Building a simple structure would provide cover for troops, but also key the enemy to where you are hiding out.

Building a simple structure would provide cover for troops, but also key the enemy to where you are hiding out.

But not all blocks would be created equal. My thought was that there would also be a fair number of block types, each with their own statistics or special abilities. Stats might include:

  1. Movement Over – Adjustment for when traversing over [Mud slows movement]
  2. Movement Through – Adjustment for moving through a block [Moving through water is slow]
  3. Sight Through – Modifier that affects sight cones through the block [Smoke helps to hide units, especially if not moving]
  4. Structure – The amount of health before the block breaks [A wood block will shatter before a stone one]
  5. Weight – How much a block slows down the soldier carrying it

Block types could even have a placement cost in terms of a soldier’s actions: you might be able to lay down three wood blocks a turn with a soldier, but only one stone block. Then that puts a difficult decision for the player: do I lay down a single block to protect one soldier, or do I lay down a bunch of light cover for my whole team?

Action Committee

When it comes to determining how individual units should be moved, I’d choose the more simplified action scheme of XCOM: Enemy Unknown, where you have the option to move and then do an additional action. While I enjoy managing Time Units in the original X-COM: UFO Defense it just wouldn’t work for a multiplayer game (unless it was play by email). Though I will admit that the movement system should be a little more flexible and allow for firing and moving, or in this case, firing and placing blocks.

In addition to placing blocks, your troops can also expend their movement points each turn to either pick up, push, or lay down blocks to act as cover and concealment. If I chose to include a simple physics system, blocks could also be used to trap enemies, deny line of sight, or even toppling structures and crushing enemy troops. I wasn’t thinking anything complicated or fancy, just simple “are there any supporting blocks?” checks.

The Pew Pew Pew – Weapons

Getting a wide variety of weapons to counter block tactics would be critical to the game's fun factor.

Getting a wide variety of weapons to counter block tactics would be critical to the game’s fun factor.

It should come as no surprise that I’ve been playing XCOM: Enemy Unknown like a rabid squirrel since it came out. I’ve been loving it. But I spent about a month before the reboot came out playing the original X-COM: UFO Defense from 1994, and I have to say that I like the way that the line of sight and weapons work in the original game.

When you go to fire a weapon from a soldier, you can target any space or block on the game field. The accuracy of the weapon would be based on the weapon type (and if I wanted to get really fancy, the individual soldier’s skill in shooting). Like the original X-COM, the shot is then fired at some angle toward the target, but that angle can be small or large, and depending on the distance, the shot might hit another block entirely. This randomness made X-COM highly enjoyable and I think it would work beautifully in a game that is focused equally on creation and destruction.

Cover, cover, everywhere!

Cover, cover, everywhere!

There would have to be a wide range of weapons and abilities to counter trollish tactics: such as moving a unit underground and blocking him into a hole. Perhaps I could add some kind of claustrophobia or suffocation mechanic. Or even make the core battle be a take-and-hold, to force players to try to get to a specific point on the map, thus limiting the amount of goofiness that might ensue. Blocks should offer some protection, but they shouldn’t be impenetrable. My thought was to include a mortar for firing over and destroying block walls, as well as some kind of laser that would pierce a single block, but you would still need to know where to aim.

I have to say that I’ve toyed around with it a little bit in my head, but I’m not much of a game programmer. I’ll have to experiment with it a bit and see if I can get a working prototype up. It seems to me that there is a lot of potential for a game that combines these elements.


Black Lightning said: 22 April 2013 at 21:40

Mabey add a minimap that shows troop locations and some weapons (Grenades?) that explode and effect the whole range, not just what isn’t blocked by blocks.

That would allow to stop “hidey hole” cheating.

    Sunhawk said: 23 April 2013 at 01:57

    I agree. There would definitely need some clever tools to prevent that kind of camping. Several kinds of indirect fire / no-line of sight weapons (like the grenades you mentioned) would help. My other thought was that certain weapons would pierce blocks. I don’t know that all troops should show up by default on the map, but I like the idea of some kind of utility that would allow you to find characters being… wormy. 😀

    The game types would also affect this; having something like king of the hill would make it so that the player had to move forward, or risk losing the game.

    Thanks for commenting!

Black Lightning said: 23 April 2013 at 23:38

Mabey there could be scanners that you could deploy but that would give you the results a couple of turns later. That would also help key you in to the troops locations without being too much, Like if the enemy was gathering for a stealth attack.

    Sunhawk said: 24 April 2013 at 22:23

    Hmm, I like the idea of the scanner itself being limited in some way to add the element of surprise to the game. Like you said, where the scanner works but is somewhat cumbersome to get going. Another thought I had was to have the scanner itself act as a mini-unit, so that you must move it close to the enemy for it to work, which then makes it vulnerable to being taken out by enemy fire.

    I appreciate your enthusiasm for this project! 😀

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