Automatic battles and undeserved victory: a cautionary tale

Automatic features are a standard part of what makes strategy games manageable in large-scale games. But there's one occurrence where you should never ever be able to use the AI instead of playing yourself, and I discovered it to my utter confusion.

I'm a huge fan of 4X video games. 4X stands for eXplore, eXploit, eXpand and eXterminate, and settings range from fantasy (Heroes of Might and Magic series, Warlock: Master of the Arcane [fr]) to semi-historical (Civilization series [fr]) to space (Master of Orion, Sins of a Solar empire, Sword of the Stars [fr], Endless Space [fr]). Starting from a remote corner of an unknown map, you have to set up an outpost and gradually build up your economy and military until your first encounter with other factions. From then, it's your choice whether to cooperate with or battle against them to secure resources and knowledge in order to reach the multiple game-winning goals.

Fallen Enchanteress: Legendary Heroes (FE) is no exception. Based of a mod for Civilization IV, most of the original game is there with the city and resource management, the diplomacy system and the area of control. However, Fallen Enchantress adds a layer of heroic fantasy role-play gameplay on top of it, resembling Heroes of Might and Magic, including the zoomed-ins battles.

A quest on the map is waiting for a hero

Using the AI to save time

Battles are turn-based and follow simple rules, but even the easiest fights can take a relatively huge amount of play time compared to their difficulty. Fortunately, most 4x games implements a battle-resolving algorithm to speed up battles, either by moving your troops automatically or by skipping directly to the battle's end, which may or may not reflect the outcome you would have had if you played it yourself. Under such impredictable odds, I personally rarely use that feature, or only in the safest conditions possible (e.g. 100 chaos knights vs 1 weak goblin).

The only time I really used it in Fallen Enchantress was by mistake. I had worked my way through the main map quest, whose completion wins the game, and here I am, facing a huge dragon-mounted warlock with spells able to reduce my forces in half. A few turns into the fight, it becomes evident to me that I won't be making much of a dent in the dragon scales, while magical fire rains on my troops. Looking for loading my pre-battle save, I click on the main menu button, only to find that I can't. The only way to skip the battle is the auto-battle button, i.e. let the AI play in my place. The actual outcome of the automated fight didn't matter to me as I was planning to load the game in a previous state anyway. So I clicked.

Uh, okay?

When winning means losing

I won. I killed the End Boss. Well, not really. The End Boss has been killed, and it sure as hell wasn't by me. As I quit the battle result screen, the game ending cutscene played before my puzzled and slightly confused eyes. I was still wondering about that extraordinary anticlimactic moment I just experienced while the game was congratulating me on restoring the peace to the world of Elemental and comparing my performance to fictional great leaders.

At this point I just closed the game and left the computer, closely followed by the ghost of unfinished business. He was whispering in my ear phrases like "You didn't actually win". Of course I didn't win! Well, technically I won, and without cheating, but there's no point in winning if you can't claim you had any part in it! That's why video games don't show the winning screen just after the player starts a new game, it doesn't make sense! Even cheating my way out of this battle (e.g. leaving and loading a previous save) would have felt better than winning for no other reason that the automatic battle resolver was too good (or too bad?).

You didn't win the game by yourself!

How a game made me feel unsatisfied because of a stupid detail

Like most disaster, it was the combination of multiple factors that ended up making me slightly confused, neither happy nor unhappy, but deeply unsatisfied. But there is a simple step that could have prevented my bizarre scenario. If only that damn "Skip to battle result" button was deactivated during the game-winning boss battle! I lost all interest in Fallen Enchantress since this event, but it is a worthwhile lesson for the next game I'll play.

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