Avoid Making the Player Proofread in your Strategy Games

Meet Hector. He’s a powerful jerk in Fire Emblem Heroes and is mostly balanced out by his low movement speed. However, when given the Wings of Mercy ability, Hector can unexpectedly teleport across the screen and ruin your day. This is a serious game design article, but please also enjoy this low-quality meme (source):


A careful player can notice that Hector has this (non-standard) ability and plan accordingly. Some might argue this is good for the game, since it increases its skill cap. I’d argue it’s a negative, because it’s replacing strategical thought with something less satisfying. For the purposes of this article, let’s call it “proofreading”.

Players begin to proofread when the game state isn’t clear. This forces the player to either spend mental energy nitpicking through the game state himself, or suffer an in-game penalty.

To clarify what I mean, here are a few examples:

Fire Emblem: Heroes

Fire Emblem

Fire Emblem mostly has a good, clean interface, but scanning for abilities is an annoying exception. A given character can have different abilities, and these can only be noticed by proofreading the tiny ABC circles in the upper right corner. If you don’t immediately recognize an icon, you need to longpress it to see what it does.

A recent patch allowed players to customize their own characters, which will make the PVP arena much more annoying than it was. Those wanting to maximize their chances there will have to click on each enemy unit and doublecheck that their opponent hasn’t given them something nasty.


This wizard can attack 5 squares in every direction. Yikes!!

Hoplite has a lot of neat things going for it, but proofreading is a major weakness. The entire board is filled with monsters that can attack from varying ranges. For instance, the wizard in the screenshot can attack 5 hexes in any direction! Tracking one or two of these guys is manageable, but as you progress further into the dungeons, the game becomes a proofreading nightmare. When I was playing, I would first find every spot that I could move to without getting hit. Only *then* would I start thinking about the tactical considerations of each safe square.

This “proofread safe squares” -> “find best move” -> “proofread safe squares” loop ended up pretty tedious, and was one reason why I could never get into the game as much as I would have liked.

Hearthstone – I have lethal!

Can you spot lethal?

Hearthstone has an amazing interface, but there’s one issue that hasn’t been solved yet. A lot of losses in the game occur because the player forgets to count up the damage he has on the board, and misses a situation where he can kill his opponent that turn. This makes for some entertaining (and humiliating) moments in streamed tournaments, but is fairly annoying as a player. Remembering to do some basic arithmetic isn’t an exciting skill to test.

Avoiding proofreading

Once a “proofreading” situation has been recognized, implementing a solution is seldom straightforward. Often it requires a massive reworking of the basic game system to fix the issue, which is why these sorts of situations show up so much, even in games with AAA user interfaces like Hearthstone or Fire Emblem: Heroes.

That said, there are a few good guidelines that can help avoid a lot of potential proofreading situations:

  • Try to avoid having long-distance interaction unless it adds a lot to your game. Make pieces more like Go, where stones can only affect adjacent spaces, than Chess, where a Bishop can threaten a square from across the board. If you do want a Bishop-like character, try to have the squares it threatens show up as dangerous in the UI, rather than forcing the player to trace all of its paths himself.
  • Try to make sure all commonly relevant information about an object can be found by glancing at the object itself. If a player is frequently rooting through subpanels to find relevant info, your UI is probably not pulling its weight.
  • If the sum of a bunch of numbers is frequently important, add them up for the player and display it somewhere on the UI rather than making the player calculate it himself.

Above all, remember that games are supposed to be fun places to strategize. The less proofreading that gets in the way, the better.

A guide to Imbroglio boardbuilding

There’s a few guidelines I use when I’m building an Imbroglio board. These aren’t always correct, but they’re good rules to keep in mind. If you break them, you should have a good reason.

Rule 1: Keep the “heat map” in mind

Imagine the Imbroglio board as a “heat map” for your character, where high traffic areas you pass through often are red and low traffic areas are blue. What do you think it should look like?

It would roughly look like this:


The center has 4 possible connections, edges have 3, and corners have just 2. This has two effects:

  • If you pick up a star with a monster nearby, you are much more likely to be trapped in a corner than anywhere else.
  • To gather new stars, you’re constantly moving through the center. After that, the edges, and then the corners, where it requires unusual wall setups to ever have to pass through.

Because of these two differences, these three places have different weapon requirements.

If you put something in the center, it should have these properties:

  • Benefits from leveling up, since you’ll be killing a lot of monsters with it.
  • Becomes strong in combat. In the late game, it should be something you can rely on to kill a lot of monsters.
  • Examples: Echo Harp, Menacing Cleaver

If you put something in the corners it should ideally have these properties:

  • Starts out strong. It won’t be getting many levels, since you’ll be using it rarely.
  • Gives some insurance against getting trapped. There are many possible ways to do this. Dwindling Brazier kills the monster outright. Arcane Hourglass banishes it and lets you take care of it later. Blink Dagger lets you escape.

If you put something on the edge, it is usually either a combat weapon that doesn’t need much XP (Rimeclaws), *or* a “tech” weapon that needs lots of XP but is weak for actual combat (Ixxthl’s Ring). The edge is fairly flexible, though.

Rule 2: Mix your reds and blues

To simplify things, let’s say you only have weapons that do 1 heart (red) or 1 diamond of damage. You arrange them like this:


It should be apparent that this is a poor way of arranging your board. For instance, if you are on B1, and a Cube (4 heart, 1 diamond) monster is on C1, you almost certainly will want to use one of your blue weapons on it. But this requires a *minimum* of two moves (more if there are walls in the way) to be able to use one.

All else being equal, the optimal board is this:


If you are on a red square and need to move to a blue one, no matter what, it will only take you 1 move as long as you are not completely blocked from moving. Imbroglio puts you on a “timer” where monsters come out faster and faster as you take more and more turns, so minimizing the number of “wasted” moves is key to getting a high score in Imbroglio. This checkerboard pattern is the best way to do that as a general rule. Or, at least it would be, if it weren’t for Rule 3.

Rule 3: Pay attention to where monsters come out!

The last general wrinkle to consider in board creation is that every type of monster only ever comes out of one corner. Going back to a “heat map” analogy, the heat map for a Cube monster looks like this:


Cubes spawn at A1. They’re guaranteed to go there every time! By comparison, it takes a minimum of 6 moves to get to D4, so they will almost never show up there.

The practical implications of this are as follows:

  • Both Cubes and Snakes are weak to blue weapons.  As a rule, you should have more blue weapons on the left side. This consideration is especially important for the tiles that border the lefthand corners: A2, B1, C1 and D2. You will find yourself standing on these vs. a freshly spawned Cube/Snake quite often, so it is better if they are blue.
  • Both Wasps and Chimeras are weak to red weapons. As a general rule, put more red weapons on the right side. This consideration is especially important for the tiles that border the righthand corners: A3, B4, C4 and D3. You will find yourself standing on these vs. a freshly spawned Wasp/Chimera quite often, so it is better if they are red.

As a note, these guidelines are contradict Rule 2. Let’s refer again to the “checkerboard” formation:


Notice that the squares bordering D1 are both red, and the squares bordering D4 are both blue. This is the opposite of what you ideally want, since it will make dealing with Snakes and Wasps difficult. In practice, boards are often a compromise between the checkerboard pattern, and clumping relevant weapons around the four corners.

Board Analysis

Let’s analyze a board I recently used to clear the game with Masina:


This board revolves around the synergy between Plague Totem, Reaper’s Scythe and Necromancer’s Mask. When the combo is fully assembled, it’s hard to lose (the tough part is getting that far). Reaper’s Scythes are weak against Cubes and Snakes, so I added Echo Harps (and their eternal love, Whetstones) to help with that.

Plague Totem is a strong corner weapon. If you pick up a star in the corner, you’re normally worried about getting trapped by a monster you can’t kill. For Plague Totems, however, a single monster will be cursed and immediately turn into a ghost. The classic weakness of Plague Totems is that you sometimes can’t afford to take the diamond damage. Being in the corners helps with that (you can often avoid stepping on them if you don’t want to), but I added an Ixxthl’s Ring to help as well.

Every board has a certain “XP load”: the amount of XP you need before your board is functioning as intended. In this case, I want my Whetstones maxed, my Scythes at level 2, at least 1 Necromancer’s Mask fully leveled, and the Ixxthl’s Ring mostly leveled. That’s a high XP load, so the Vampiric Spears are included mostly because they only need 1 level to be pretty good. Masina has issues dying early because she has no “parity” control (ability to pause for a turn to get the first hit in), and the life gain from the Spears helps with that. I also considered using Blight Broadswords, but think they’re overall less useful. Masina’s hero power already lets you boost weapons, so the 2 damage from a broadsword isn’t too relevant here compared to the lifegain.

For placement, the Reaper’s Scythes are my “bread and butter” weapon. They are extremely powerful once operational, especially when boosted by Whetstone and Necromancer’s Mask. That’s why they’re in the center. Ideally I would put the Harps in the center as well, but the recent Whetstone nerf requires them to go there instead.

On the edges, all of my blue tech weapons are on the left so that I’ll be able to level those up quickly. The masks are together because I don’t need both to be maxed – the second mask is more of a luxury than a requirement. This way, I can focus on one, and then level the other one more leisurely. The ring is far away from the masks because I don’t want it competing with the masks for XP; it needs to be leveled up quickly.

Overall, it’s a powerful board, but somewhat inconsistent in the early game due to Masina’s lack of parity control.


Hopefully this guide helps to explain some of the logic behind why I build my boards the way I do. If you’d like me to analyze more boards, let me know either here or on twitter.