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Battle Realms - The Little Things

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At the time of its release back in 2001, Battle Realms was critically acclaimed and enjoyed by fans worldwide, it was packed with innovation, deep strategy, and an immersive world filled with meaningful detail. Battle Realms is a game defined by its setting -- an RTS that combines resource management, unit development, and tactical gameplay with storytelling inspired by the Kung Fu movies and oriental culture.

Let's remember what makes Battle Realms a truly unique game together with IGN and Peter Bartholow, former designer at now defunct Liquid Entertainment (IGN Article - July 31, 2001).

Here you will find a comprehensive list of the "details" in Battle Realms. These "details" combine to give players a completely different and more strategic real-time strategy gaming experience.

A few key themes run through these "details." At Battle Realms' core are the dual concepts of choice and opportunity cost - many gameplay elements have alternatives, and the player can only choose one ¿ there are no "incorrect" choices, only choices that shape and define a player's strategy. As we explore gameplay details, we'll illuminate where these choices come into play.

(Note: The article was written before the release of the game, some individual aspects of the game were changed at the time of release).
Setting the Stage: The Core Gameplay Dynamics
The Living Resource System
At the start of every real-time strategy there is the inevitable production stage. From day one, Liquid Entertainment wanted to make a real-time strategy game that did not rely on production competence for success. In other real-time strategy games, out-producing your opponent will often lead to victory as you storm through their base after a large clash in the center of the battlefield. In order to prevent this from happening, Battle Realms limits production's effect on the war effort.

It all starts with a single Peasant Hut. The Battle Realms peasant has a lot in common with the workers and peons of other real-time strategy games. Peasants harvest rice and water, repair buildings, put out building fires, and water the rice fields. But the Battle Realms peasant has two major differences that completely change the way production is handled.


First, peasants are not bought. Peasants spawn from one's peasant huts at a rate determined by the number of units the player has and the number of peasant huts he's built, up to a maximum of 30 units. As a player accrues more units, the rate of peasant production slows to compensate. Second, all soldiers start as peasants and must be trained before they become better units.

Perhaps the most profound example of the roles of choice and opportunity cost, the fate of each and every peasant is important. Should this peasant train into a military unit to fight the good fight, or would he prove more useful as a farmer or on call to extinguish fires set by the enemy?

Unit Alchemy
By spending time in training buildings, any peasant has the potential to become a noble samurai. Each clan has three core training buildings and one or two additional buildings, depending on the clan, for producing support units such as healers. By training a peasant through the core training buildings, one can create seven basic military units. For example, training Dragon peasant at the Alchemist's Lab creates a Chemist.

But the unit's training isn't necessarily over - train the Chemist in the Target Range, and you get a hybrid unit, the Powder Keg Cannoneer. A player creates his most powerful units by training a peasant through all three buildings, so in this case, our Powder Keg Cannoneer could visit the Dojo and finally learn the ways of the Samurai.


Once again, choices come into play - is my Powder Keg Cannoneer useful as he is, or should he take the final step and become a Samurai?

Planning Your Attack: The Strategic Elements
With a limited number of units at the player's disposal, victory is in the hands of the player who outthinks rather than outnumbers his opponent - in the end, the player that uses his units the most effectively will.

Rock, Paper and Scissors - The Keys to Balance
While any peasant can become its clan's "ultimate" unit, such as the Samurai, the Samurai is not necessarily the best unit for all occasions. Battle Realms employs a six-way rock/paper/scissors damage system, or in this case, a cutting/piercing/blunt/explosive/fire/magic system. Each unit deals a particular type of damage, in addition to being strong against some types of damage and weak against others.

⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ ⠀ ⠀ Source: Battle Realms - Complete Info Chart[battlerealms.github.io]

Let's go back to the Samurai - the Samurai deals massive cutting damage, but won't be very effective against the Musketeer, who is strong against blades. To make his situation worse, the Musketeer deals Explosive damage, one of the Samurai's two weaknesses. The interplay of these statistics not only builds a basic "what unit is good against what unit" balance system, but also gives players alternatives if they understand the damage system and a unit's strengths and weaknesses.

BattleGear are special upgrades that, unlike traditional RTS upgrades, are for individual units. Each clan acquires its BattleGear by different means: buildings are a common means, but some soldiers get them from other units or bizarre necromantic rites. Instead of just boosting a unit's stats, BattleGear upgrades were designed to give units versatility they wouldn't otherwise have.

For example, the Dragon Archer has two BattleGear at his disposal. From the Fireworks Factory he gains the ability to launch fire arrows - normal arrows are ineffective against buildings, but fire arrows set them ablaze with ease. However, fire arrows are less effective against most units. Once the BattleGear has been acquired, it can be toggled with the press of a button.


The Dragon Archer's other BattleGear, obtained by meditating in the Shrine, is the Zen Arrow. Zen Arrows have excellent range, and temporarily reveal the terrain around wherever they land. The choice is between a building-killer or a reconnaissance unit. Different BattleGear have different uses - some require stamina to use, others are limited count and others have unlimited use.

Additionally, many of the game's BattleGear are designed to work in conjunction with the BattleGear of other units. By meditating at the shrine, the Powder Keg Cannoneer gains the Indirect Fire ability, allowing him to "hunker down" and fire great distances with the aid of a spotter. Naturally, players are incentivized to paint an enemy target with a Zen Arrow and use the abilities of the two units to better assault opponents from afar.

Yin and Yang
A common problem in the traditional real-time strategy game is the tendency to "turtle up" in one's base until one has a sizable enough force to roll over all opposing forces in one great battle. By awarding Yin and Yang points based on performance in battle, Battle Realms incentivizes players to actually get out there and fight ¿ the more damage you deal to your opponent, the more of your "good" point you'll receive. The Dragon and Wolf Clan use the white Yang points, while the Lotus and Serpent use the Black Yin points.


Yin and Yang have a number of uses, the most notable of which is the purchase of Techniques. Each training building has three techniques that can be purchased with the Yin or Yang points that the player has accumulated in battle. Techniques are global stat-based upgrades similar to those found in other real-time strategy games, such as damage and health boosts for particular unit classes.

Mounting and the use of Horses
The final of Battle Realms' many upgrades is the horse. While many games simply plop units on horseback for visual purposes, horses are real and distinct units in Battle Realms.

Peasants capture horses, which are taken to the stables and domesticated. Any unit can use a horse once it has been domesticated. Horses provide a unit with a variety of bonuses: speed, stamina, health and damage. While most units mount the horse, some use the horse in other ways. The peasant, for example, uses the horse as a packhorse to streamline his harvesting operations.


Not all clans use horses the same way. The Wolf Clan don't ride horses, but instead chop them up to feed the Packmaster's lupine escort. The Lotus Clan's first tier units can all mount, while stronger units can devour a horse to fuel some of their more devastating magic.

Zen Masters, the Heroes of Battle Realms
Each clan has its share of heroic figures known as Zen Masters. Zen Masters are incredibly powerful units that can be purchased from each Clan's keep and deployed. In addition to their impressive stats, Zen Masters start with their own unique BattleGear abilities. These powers vary as widely as the heroes they stem from, ranging from impressive healing abilities to group teleports.

Zen Masters are masters of their particular alignment, and benefit from the presence of Yin and Yang. As the player stores more Yin or Yang, the damage Zen Masters do in battle will gradually increase. Additionally, each Zen Master has a second, upgraded ability that replaces the first once the player has stockpiled a certain amount of Yin or Yang.


For example, the Dragon hero Kazan can breath fire on an enemy for large amounts of damage, but can call forth a blazing phoenix spirit for massive area-of-effect damage if the player has five Yang points. However, Kazan will lose the phoenix ability should the player spend those Yang points on a Technique. Once again, the player has a choice - should I stockpile Yin and Yang to strengthen my Zen Masters, or would I be better served by purchasing a Technique? Each strategy has its time and place, and it's up to the player to weigh these options when spending his Yin and Yang.

Line of Sight
Rather than adopt the traditional shroud / fog of war combo, Liquid Entertainment has created its own line of sight and fog of war system. At the start of the game, the entire map is covered in fog of war. Fog of war is translucent, and thus players can see all features on the map. This allows players to look at the terrain and plan their assault with terrain in mind. Gaining control of the high ground and forests is an important strategy in Battle Realms, as the lack of sight wouldn't allow players to effectively strategize.

As in real battle, using the lay of the land to one's advantage is critical to victory. This is mostly represented by a damage bonus conferred to units that attack from higher ground. Additionally, units that attack from lower ground suffer a small damage penalty. Naturally, this is particularly effective for missile units, although melee units that attack from above will also benefit.


Like height, the forests in Battle Realms can be key components in a winning strategy. Forests are not obstacles, but rather terrain to be used. Troops can enter the forest and will be largely invisible to their opponents, since forests limit a unit's line of sight. As friendly units walk under the forest canopy, the trees fade to let the player see his own army. This allows for a variety of sneak attack options, which can be countered by placing units in or near the forest. Care must be taken when moving through the woods - move too quickly, and birds scatter from the trees, alerting enemy players to movement.


A potentially devastating attack, boulders can be rolled downhill to squish units and deal large amounts of damage to buildings. Like the terrain and forests, boulders are visible through fog of war so players can plan their assaults around these natural wonders - players will definitely want to gain control of a map's boulders to use against his enemy or prevent them from being used agaist himself.

Running and Walking
In Battle Realms, most units can either run or walk. As one would expect, running gets the units to their destination faster. However, running also burns stamina. While many units don't have uses for stamina other than running, many units have abilities or BattleGear that draw on stamina to power them. Additionally, a unit that runs into battle and depletes his stamina won't be able to run out. Running offers players a number of choices - should I slowly sneak through the forest and save my stamina for special attacks, or should run in and try to catch them off guard? Stamina is gradually restored as a unit idles, allowing a unit to run, rest, then run again.


While it seems like a not-so-novel concept, when has retreat actually been beneficial in other real-time strategy games? Since in other games, the number of units you throw at your enemy is limited only by your massive stockpile of resources, retreat is never a worthwhile option.


In Battle Realms, because all units must be trained up from peasants, attempting to save as many of your units as possible is an important strategy. While it is possible to recover from defeat without doing this, the time saved is significant. After a few minutes resting, your units will be almost as good as new, ready to attack again.

Many games use fire as a simple damage indicator, but Battle Realms uses fire…we ll, as fire. A number of units, such as the Serpent Clan Raider, can set buildings on fire. Burning buildings lose health and will eventually collapse. Peasants can be pulled away from other tasks to douse these infernos, allowing them to salvage the building and incentivizing the player to keep a staff of peasants on-hand for such occasions. As part of Battle Realms' "living world" system, rain slows the spread of fires and can naturally quell all but the hottest flames.


The World is Alive: Presentation Elements
One of the primary goals of the Battle Realms team was to create a lush, vibrant world that felt detailed and complete. Reflected in the intuitive versatility of the Living Resource System, this high concept is also represented by hundreds of minute details that bring the world of Battle Realms to life.

Unit Animations
With a smaller number of total units, it became important for players to become attached to their units and their units' personalities. In order to do this, the units had to have more than a small number of monotonous animations. Thus every unit was given many more animations than the standard RTS unit. Instead of repeating a single sword swing, units unleash wild slashing combos upon their foes. Units limp back to their village after being wounded in battle, while the Kabuki Warrior juggles to lighten the spirits of his comrades.


Environmental Effects
In addition to giving the units many animations, we've populated the world with hundreds of minute details to make it feel more complete. Frogs hop through the swamp and fireflies gather around trees at night. As units walk through shallow riverbeds the water ripples, then splashes when the soldiers begin to run. Snippets of freshly cut leaves fall to the ground as peasants harvest rice. Maggots squirm on the ground after leaving the Infested One's rotting belly.


Battle Realms' weather system is dynamic and complex. From a purely visual standpoint, the cloud cover is generated in real time and cloud shadows move across the terrain. Storms come and go with time, bringing rain and lightning with them.

Though at first, the weather system appears to be just a visual effect, the weather can have a major impact on gameplay. Rain slows the advance of all units, extinguishes building fires and helps rice regrow faster. Some of the game's more powerful heroes can alter the weather to suit their clan's strategic needs.

Hopefully, all of this attention to the little things will translate into a deep and satisfying gaming experience.

-- IGN

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