After having played this game for about 1.5 weeks, I’m generally positively surprised how coherent and well-integrated the current game systems are. But the weakest area, in my opinion, is combat. Mostly, it has to do with the control scheme. I’m here today to express why I feel that is the case.
My typical experience with the combat system usually goes like this:
I have knights, footmen, clerics and archers. They are all by default in group 1. I click to bring up the military submenu, click the group 2 flag, click the button to manage group assignments, and then click the add button on every archer. (7 clicks, 0 keystrokes, ca. 6-7 seconds with for example four archers to group my units.)
While managing my town, I spot an enemy raiding party heading my way. I click to open the military submenu, click on group 1, click on move, click the ground in the path of the enemy. Then I click on group 2, click on move, click the ground in the path of the enemy. Then I click on group 1 again, click move, and monitor the approaching enemies so I can finetune the orders if necessary. Note: I do not move group 2 first because I want my tanks to arrive first, not my squishies. (9 clicks, 0 keystrokes. ca. 7-8 seconds to move two groups into combat.)
Once I am satisfied with the way my knights intercept the enemy, I click group 2 again, click attack move, and klick an enemy to mark them for focus fire while my melee guys do their own stuff. As the battle develops, I will repeatedly have to click the move order to reposition my archers before switching back to attack mode; also, I will have to click on group 1, click move, and reposition melee as well. (Can’t really measure clicks and time spent here.)
You notice that there’s a lot of mouseclicking going on. That’s because as a relatively new player, I must admit that I don’t really know the keybinds, if they exist. The wiki suggests there aren’t any useful keybinds for combat, but then again, that might be outdated? A more relevant point, though: I generally keep my hand on WASD during combat anyway, in order to control the camera. In order to pan using the mouse, I have to middleclick and drag. That really gets in the way of the mouse-driven combat orders, so I use the keyboard instead. This, of course, gets in the way of key controls which are positioned elsewhere on the keyboard.
Two UI design issues I have with the mouse-driven controls are worth mentioning, IMHO. First, to trigger a click on the UI, it feels like (by my best guess) that the cursor needs to be solidly on the button on both downpress and release of the mouse button. This regularly causes me to miss clicks while moving the mouse around quickly. It happens both in and out of combat, but the pressure to move quickly is higher in combat. Second - and this compounds the first issue - the size of some buttons is in no proper relation to the distance of mouse movement required to click it. Generally, the further the mouse must be moved, the larger the click target should be. Unfortunately, the combat order buttons are miniscule, while the distance required to reach them - both from the group button in the military submenu, and from the play area during the act of clicking terrain and enemy units - is quite large. I find that trying to hit them properly actually requires conscious aiming, and slows me down noticably. I mean hey, maybe I’m doing it wrong, but I get the feeling that stopping to look down at the keyboard to reposition my hand in order to correctly hit potentially existing order hotkeys away from the WASD hand position would not be that much faster…
Stonehearth advertises itself as “equal parts city builder, RPG, and RTS”. But now, let’s look at how a real RTS game would handle its combat controls, and compare it to the above.
I have knights, footmen, clerics and archers. They are ungrouped by default. I click-drag the mouse to select all of them at once, then hit alt+1 to assign them to group 1. I click-drag again, selecting only my melee, and hit alt+2. I repeat this with my archers and alt+3. (3 clicks, 3 keystrokes, ca. 3-4 seconds to group my units.)
I spot an enemy raiding party approaching. I hit 1 and right-click on the ground in their path to move all my units at once. I then hit 2, click again to adjust the tanks a bit further towards the enemy, then monitor their progress for potential further adjustments. (2 clicks, 2 keystrokes, ca. 2 seconds to move two groups into combat.)
As my tanks engage, I hit 3 to select my archers, and right-click enemies to focus fire, or right-click the ground to reposition. I can hold shift while clicking to queue multiple movement waypoints. I can press A to turn my next right-click on the ground into an attack-move command, or D to order move-and-hold/defend. I do not need WASD to move the camera, because I can move it by flicking the mouse cursor towards the edge of the screen in between my targeting clicks, so those keys are freed up for the combat controls. I don’t need to move my hand elsewhere on the keyboard either, because the group controls on 1-3 and the combat orders on A and D are available from the same hand position. Even the alt key for grouping and the shift key for manual multi-selection or waypoint queueing are right there. If I need to reposition my melee, 2-rightclick-3 will take care of it and put me right back in control of my archers in under a second.
As you can see, it’s a totally different user experience.
Now I understand that Stonehearth uses the number keys to toggle game speed and WASD to control the camera, and other potential reasons why it doesn’t use this classical RTS control setup. But my point is: right now, combat in Stonehearth is a tedious chore to control, because neither the UI nor the overall control scheme is properly suited for it. They work well enough for indirectly managing your settlement through menus without any time pressure. But direct unit control - the acts of switching groups, issuing orders and implementing actual battle tactics via manual positioning and targeting - does not flow smoothly at all.
In my opinion, the game could gain a lot from revising the combat controls to be more smooth and natural. The classic RTS control scheme is a classic because it has proven to be the ideal solution in hundreds of games over the years, but you can try something else too if you want. Just… please, something more comfortable than the current solution?
And, thanks for reading my wall of text