17th Oct, 2013By Softmints3 minutes

The Great Strategy was one of the first AoS maps to take a hands-off approach to hero design. The premise was that heroes start with a single innate ability, and players can buy and upgrade the rest of their kit by spending a special resource called Ability Points, gained primarily by leveling up, but also by killing enemy players.

Abilities are divided into four types:

  • Innate abilities come with your hero, and have no leveling or interaction with the AP system.
  • Standard abilities cost 2 AP per level (max of 10 levels), and heroes can have at most three.
  • Special abilities cost 5 AP (only one level), and heroes can have only one.
  • Ultimate abilities cost 8 AP (max of 3 levels), and heroes can have only one.

TGS is an asymmetric game, pitting the Alliance and Horde of Warcraft lore against each other. The Alliance have exclusive access to learn and upgrade from a set of 24 standard abilities, 12 special abilities, and 8 ultimate abilities. The Horde have their own set of different abilities following the same format. Both teams also have full access to the Neutral set.

The abilities themselves are simple ones, derived from the standard Warcraft III game.

A hero selects abilities from one of the many colour-coded shops in their base
Picking abilities from one of the many ability shops.

Once an ability has been bought or levelled up, it becomes unavailable to the purchaser's team for a few minutes. This stops teams from focusing on a single mechanic like burst damage or summons, because there are a limited number of those abilities available. It also stops players from maxing out one ability too quickly.

Abilities can be sold for a partial refund of AP, but because of the delay, pivoting late game isn't very practical. 

There are also wandering merchants who travel from lane to lane, offering a few extra Neutral standard abilities. If one of these is bought or leveled up, it becomes unavailable to both teams for a while, making them a contestable resource.

The other half of TGS's gameplay is the ability to upgrade your team's troops. As well as items, gold can be spent on adding more troops to your team's waves, or buying upgrades to improve certain minion types.

The upgrades have a cooldown, so they demand early and constant investment to keep pace with the enemy team. It's also possible to hire your own units and build an army.

The cooldowns, coupled with the fact that it gets more and more expensive to add another of a certain unit type to the waves (so specializing is inefficient), mean that late game the minion strategy usually devolves into a homogenized mess. This could have done with more careful tuning.

Unlike most mobas, TGS places very little emphasis on items, which actually makes a lot of sense given the mechanics. If there was a big emphasis on items, heroes would be under pressure to specialise to get maximum return on their item builds, which would kill the diversity and experimentation which makes the game fun.

A naga hero leads a line of troll berserkers to attack an enemy tower
Attacking the enemy base with upgraded troops.

The team cooldown when buying abilities deserves a little more attention. As mentioned earlier, it acts as a counterweight to teams or players doing too much of one thing, which is a rather neat automatic balance correction mechanism. Unfortunately, there's also the possibility that two players will want the same abilities and be unable to cooperate.

There are some things I dislike about TGS. It's needlessly impractical to switch to or gank other lanes (you have to teleport home and walk all the way back out), and there is nothing to do besides laning. The customisation of abilities allows for a range of strategies (hence the title), but the abilities themselves aren't intrinsically fun to use.

Overall though, the game does a great job of letting you make your own hero, and play it in an environment where trying new things isn't considered bad (contrast: almost every other moba). The ability point system is clean, elegant, easy to pick up, and offers a lot more depth than assigning a single point per level to 4-5 fixed abilities.

With a more interesting and dynamic selection of abilities, the hero selection system could work quite well in a commercial game.