The Unicorn Overlord Tactics System

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Unicorn Overlord’s Tactics (unit AI) system is a masterstroke of systems design.

It elevates the game far beyond just being the spiritual successor to Ogre Battle that it seemed at first, and catapults every element to greater heights.


At a fundamental level, what does it mean to have good systems design?

One answer: Games have many elements–every verb, art asset, sound, input, output, every atom–that all intermix together to form an experience that takes place in the player’s head.

Ideally, every element reinforces every other element.

A good game is a hundred, a thousand times better than the sum of it’s parts, because the impact and value of each part compounds, making the experience exponentially stronger. Lose any one, and the rest are diminished.


Ok, so back to Unicorn Overlord. Let’s look at some of the big pieces of this puzzle.

You are a heroic general, leading a rebel army in pursuit of justice in a bombastic ren-fair fantasy world.

There are sacred oaths, exiled royals, evil wizards, fallen empires, betrayals, werewolves and elves and gryphons. The pope is there. The whole shebang!


One way to help a big team work together to create a strong whole is to define clear creative pillars, or themes.

I don’t know what themes and player fantasies they defined for UO’s development, but I’d bet my last tweet was close to one of them, hahah.


On the battlefield you command units: sets of 1-5 characters acting together.

When your units touch a foe, an auto-combat ensues: each character uses their limited number of actions and reactions with no input from you, the player.

The outcome is determined by an intricate dance of rock-paper-scissors matchups, formation, move order, what skills are used when and on whom, combos, and raw stats.

Before battle you’re shown how it’ll go. You can change formation+gear or use items to claw victory from defeat.


This layering of many elements can be daunting, and autobattles you don’t control could be a recipe for feeling helpless, right?

But one of UO’s greatest strengths is its ability to frame, atomize, and teach complex systems in ways that feel effortless and easy to learn.

At the beginning of the game, you:

  • Can only have two units
  • Can only have two characters per unit

Your characters:

  • Only have 1 action + 1 reaction
  • Only know 1 action and 1 reaction
  • Can only equip 3 items

The chains of cause-and-effect are short and easy to follow.


And then they very carefully dole out progression.

You buy increased unit sizes or more unit slots. You fight or recruit characters of new classes, adding new matchups. You find items with special skills. Your characters learn skills and can take more actions per combat.

You get more of these elements after nearly every mission, for the first ~30hrs. I reorganize my units around this stuff after every mission!

I’ve seen criticism that this feels slow, but it HAS to be! Every new element or step in the chain of cause+effect multiplies the complexity.


By the end you’ll probably have 8-10 units, each with 5 characters. Characters have a BUNCH of abilities, 4 gear slots that grant special effects, advanced classes, 4 actions and 4 reactions.

Autobattles now involve 10 characters, ~40 actions, and ~40 reactions.OK, so if very slowly turning the complexity dial up is how the game ensures that the player can UNDERSTAND what’s happening, how can the player meaningfully AFFECT these fights?

They’re autobattles with more going on than most player-controlled JRPG battles, after all!


Enter the Tactics system. You can see most of UO’s lineage—Ogre Battle units, Fire Emblem bonds, Odin Sphere animations—but this is the major innovation.

Tactics allows you to set conditions for skills: when they should be used, and what kind of targets they should have.


Simple example: This character will use “Lean edge” when they have an action. It has the “lowest hp” condition, so the character will prioritize lower-health targets.

The two reaction skills trigger when an ally or the character is attacked, respectively. They have no conditions


This example has two actions.

The character will always use the first action in the list whose conditions are met. In this case, if there is an ally with less than 50% HP, they’ll heal that ally, otherwise they’ll use “slice” on an enemy.


There are a LOT of conditions.

You can target highest or lowest stats, front vs back row, turn orders.

But they were careful to NOT give certain conditions that would make it too simple, to preserve a “puzzle” feeling. You have to mix&match, make compromises, and learn tricks.


I love this system, and the way it elegantly pushes ALL of the other systems in the game to much greater heights.

It STRONGLY fits the fantasy. You’re a general! You can train your units and give them orders, but you must trust them to fight.

If you ignore this system, they’ll make adequate choices, but if you really dig over time you can hone your units into well-oiled machines.

And when you match character together and watch the unit over time, you’ll find ways to optimize their tactics together.


The game has absolutely drop-dead gorgeous combat animations.

Because of this system, you have a gameplay reason to watch instead of skipping it: When I see a character make a bad choice, I go in and tweak their tactics for next time. I make many tweaks every mission!


Historically, autobattles were a solution to the monotony of making the same exact choices over and over again in games where you control a lot of units.

But historically, you had to sacrifice per-unit complexity and nuance to do it.

Tactics allow the best of both worlds.

Ogre Battle, a (great!) game with a similar battle system, has exponentially fewer rock-paper-scissors match-ups, far simpler strategies, and battles that are typically brute-forced by stats or class power.



The tactics system is what allows room for all the nuance in UO.
And that nuance is what allows the game to have such a deep and long-lasting progression, a competitive multiplayer mode, over 60 meaningfully distinct classes, and 70+ hours of interesting choices to make and rewards to earn.


I’ll leave with a final thought:

The act of thinking through and testing these tactics is inherently fun as a mode of play. It’s a puzzle, a minigame. Watching a complicated set of tactics you set up come together to straight-up murder powerful foes?

Exquisite.


Whew, ok, the end.

Unicorn Overlord: Best and boldest tactical RPG in 20 years. Likely my game of 2024. Some of the best system design I’ve ever seen. Truly masterful work from Vanillaware.