Thoughts on Domination Maps

While Domination is in many ways a superb RISK clone with a superior feature set, I’ve found that there’s a surprising deficit of top-quality maps. Without speculating on why this is the case, I thought I’d provide my insight in to what I feel makes a great map.

I’ve formalized my analysis into grading in two general categories, playability and appearance. Both are equally important. Each category is currently split into four distinct sections. In playability, I currently list them as such: 1) territory count, 2) missions, 3) border (count), and 4) continent design. Appearance consists of 1) names, 2) borders, 3) quality, and 4) legend. There are three possible grades for each: G (Good), or 1 point; P (Pass) or .5 points, and F (Fail). The grades are then added up, then divided by two, and that’s how many stars I allot to a map.

Territory count is simply the idea that no map should have more than a certain number of territories. I feel there’s a certain point where there’s so many territories that playing the game is neither fun nor convenient (as these territories are usually small on-screen, and it’s more difficult to shift troops than they should be). Surprisingly, this seems to be an area with which a large number of authors struggle. I’ve seen more maps than I can count with hundreds of territories; interesting in premise, maybe, but impenetrable in practice. This problem is most often associated with  maps of real countries, states or provinces, where the author apparently decided to turn an existing map of every last district of the country into a Domination map, but I’ve seen this at work in some original works as well. I think a map the size of two “Risks” (that is, 84 territories) would probably be playable, but more than that, and I can’t imagine the game not bogging down. In practice, people should probably not get much larger in scale than Yerkuensis’ (very good) “North America 1500AD”. (It’s worth noting that territory count and territory borders play off of each other. A map that has a lot of territories, but not so many borders between them, can feel more manageable and approachable than a smaller map with many borders.)

Missions seem to be one of the most frequently omitted aspects of maps. I suspect this is because the game doesn’t offer the option to automatically generate a set, and the developer doesn’t feel like doing the work to get it in. That’s a shame because it’s incredibly easy to get some good missions in. 1876 and Texas actually copy the ones from basic RISK outright, just with one region of the map “replacing” a respective continent for mission generation purposes. Anyway, in my grading system, having missions *at all* (no matter how ill-conceived: as an example, I once made a mission that required the player to put 5 armies on 4 territories. I soon saw the error of my ways) is worth a passing grade, since they at least thought about it. The difference between good missions and missions is worth another half a point. Since missions are about shortening game time, I feel they should generally (with the possible exception of “eliminate a player”) represent achieving objectives that would be a turning point in the game anyway. If somebody takes and holds, say, Asia and North America, it doesn’t take a great strategic mind to guess that they’re probably going to win the game.

Territory borders are, in my opinion, as important as territory count. Original RISK is relatively conservative in how many territories each territory borders, and there are frequently “bottlenecks” where a player can take one or two additional territories to make their empire more defensible. Most maps that I’ve seen, however, don’t see this as a problem. It’s not at all infrequent to see each territory having five or even more adjacent territories (one certain map even made a point of having every territory border each other; not sure how that works out in practice, but it doesn’t sound like a good time to me). The trouble with this is that it makes it impossible for the players to feel any security in their development, or, for that matter, to hold continents. The former concept is, perhaps, even more important than the latter. If players feel as though they’re constantly treading water in trying to hold territories that they conquer, I suspect they’re likely to find the map less enjoyable than they might have otherwise.

Continent design is the last aspect of playability. Continent values are the most obvious consideration. This should generally be done based on a balance between the number of territories in the continent, and how many borders must be held to defend the entire continent. There can be slight variations on this theme (as there is in stock RISK, with Australia and North America both being arguably overpowered, and Europe a little too weak), in order to bias players into going a certain direction in their play, but it should overall hold true.

Moving on to appearance… I feel that it’s useful for maps to have names on each of their territories. I’m honestly not completely sure as to why this is so important to me; perhaps it’s because maps with names must generally comply with my standards for territory count. Maybe it’s just because I feel that it makes the setting more fun or real to me. It could be because I like to think that people could actually play this map in real life, and names are essential to managing territory cards. Whatever the cause, I will consider it when I’m evaluating a map. They don’t have to be good names, just as long as they’re clearly legible. Half points are allotted to names that I have to squint to read, or to maps that don’t label their territories, but do display names on mouseover.

The second, and possibly most important aspect of appearance is borders. The boundaries of each territory should be clearly defined, and it should be obvious at all times what other territories they are adjacent to. There are many potentially good maps that completely fell apart in my estimation because there’s no way to tell where one territory ends or begins. Half points to maps do that have borders, but are ambiguous in how they display them in a few cases (like in countries separated by waterways) and still require you to actually occupy the country to see whether you can go to that nearby territory or not. Another relevant consideration here — each territory should be completely clickable. I’ve seen more than a few maps that require you to click the circle to deploy troops or attack there. If the borders shown on the map imply that the territory is larger than that, that isn’t cool.

Third is quality. This is the most visceral aspect. Most people know when a map looks good and when it doesn’t. This isn’t hard to judge. The only additional relevant factors I’d note would be how each territory looks on mouseover (whether somebody just ran the brush willy-nilly, or took care to make sure that the clickable parts of the country resembles the actual place as closely as possible), and whether the map clearly reflects the reality of the game. A world map that doesn’t show what territories are in what continent is pretty useless for game purposes, yet I’ve seen many of these in my brief time scanning the map server.

The fourth and last thing is the legend (that is, the chart displaying the continent values). A surprising number of otherwise very good maps omit this detail completely. However, I think this is essential to the player’s ability to understand the game at a glance. I’ve seen two methods of providing legend functionality: the classic legend, where there’s simply a box with a list of names of continents, what colors they are, and their values, and the “local” legend, where each continent has a large number displayed in a prominent position nearby it. I’m not convinced that either approach is “better”. That said, however you choose to do it, the legend should be organized so that the color and name of the continent is clearly displayed, and so that it isn’t hard to find the value of the continent you’re looking for. North America 1500AD, a map I otherwise admire, falls a little short in this area; the bottom and bottom-left of the screen are filled with different region circles, and with the desaturated colors, it can take a little bit to figure out what corresponds to where.

Finally, I’ll conclude with an example of this grading system in action, being used to evaluate the stock “World War Map”.

World War Map

Playability

  •  Territory Count: G
  • Missions: G
  • Borders: G
  • Continents: G

Appearance

  • Names: G
  • Borders: G
  • Quality: G
  • Legend: F

The reason for these grades isn’t hard to see. Being based on the original RISK, it automatically gets good grades in every aspect of playability. The names are clearly visible (with a few exceptions, but not seriously enough to affect the grade). The borders are very clear, with the single exception of East Africa to Middle East (a situation shared by the original game). The overall quality is good. There is no legend, although the continents’ names are shown on the map, so it gets an automatic failing grade in that respect. The composite score is 7, for a final score of 3 and a half stars.

I hope this is a satisfactory introduction into my thoughts on Domination map design. I may update this later, to condense it, organize it, add some more examples, and include pictures. In the meantime, I hope you’ve enjoyed reading this, and if you ever design a map for a strategy game, that you take these details into consideration!

 

Author: James Gryphon

My passion is and has always been for doing things that interest me that nobody expects me to do. Without any expectations in the mix to sully my affairs, I have a particular interest in writing, computing (vintage Macintoshes in particular), and in all types of play, whether video gaming, tabletop board or card gaming, or sports. I hope to be able to use these interests as the foundation of a lucrative and beneficial career.

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