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Actions where the intent is to kill or otherwise overcome opponents.

Symbolizing the actions between game elements in games as Combat is one of the oldest and most common ways to give games themes. By doing so, the theme of the game contains a link with the real-world competition between players as well as alludes to the tension, uncertainty, and importance of the real-world equivalent. Combat in games give players clear goals and opponents and gives clear indication of what players have succeeded and what players have failed.


Already many of the earliest games known to man, e.g. Chess, Go, Hnefatafl and Pachisi have Combat as a central part of gameplay. This has been carried on in Miniature Games (e.g. Warhammer 40K) and Wargames (e.g. Kriegsspiel and Advanced Squad Leader). The level of granularity in which Combat can take place can vary significantly: Tabletop Roleplaying Games such as Dungeons & Dragons and GURPS pit individual combatants against each other with game rounds of 5 or 1 seconds (the Board Game Car Wars uses segments of 0.1 or 0.2 seconds depending on which edition is played) while the Axis & Allies and the Hearts of Iron series model the entire World War 2.

Computer-based games offer up the possibility to have computer-controlled opponents and have Combat take place in real-time. Fighting Games such as the Dead or Alive, Mortal Kombat and Tekken series make use of both these features to provide gameplay focus purely on Combat, having tournaments and unlocking new characters or new costumes as goals besides winning the current fight. First-Person Shooters such as the Doom, Quake, and Unreal Tournament series do the same and the Battlefield and Team Fortress series show how these can be designed as team-based games where players take on specific classes. Gauntlet and Torchlight show how the idea of Roleplaying Games can be given a much more Combat and exploration-oriented structure in computer-based games, while Massively Multiplayer Online Games such as Ultima Online, World of Warcraft, and Eve Online make it a common but elective activity. Other games also have Combat as optional components. Players of Empires & Allies can be safe from other players' attacks by declaring neutrality and those playing Race for the Galaxy can avoid Combat by not playing some types of cards. Although Combat is most often a big part of the gameplay in the Fallout series there is often peaceful ways of resolving quests.

Using the pattern

Combat is the means to achieving Capture, Overcome, or Eliminate goals against Enemies so these need to be present in order for Combat to occur in games. While these goals may be reason enough for Combat, wanting Area Control or Loot is often an underlying cause. Given as a means to ruin others Guard goals, Combat and together with Guard make Rescue goals possible. A number of patterns can then be applied to the Combat to modify this, including Achilles' Heels, Always Vulnerable, Armor, Attributes, Combos, Damage, Friendly Fire, Health, Invulnerabilities, Privileged Abilities, Safe Havens, Skills, Tools, Vulnerabilities, Weapons, and Zone of Control. Randomness is very common and often used to allow Critical Hits to cause more or special types of Damage or Critical Misses than may cause various Penalties. The design of Game Worlds or Levels can heavily influence how Combat unfolds or where players seek to have Combat: Arenas, Choke Points, Environmental Effects, Flanking Routes, Galleries, and Sniper Locations are all examples of possibilities here, and these can lead to activities such as sniping or Camping. Imperfect Information may relate to the various patterns mentioned here through using Fog of War to limit knowledge about combat environments.

One thing Combat requires is at least two different sides fighting each other. This can be entirely Avatars or Units controlled by players, Non-Player Characters with Preventing Goals, or Enemies controlled by Dedicated Game Facilitators; the use of Algorithmic Agents can allow Single-Player Games to have Combat. Bases are not necessarily able to engage others in Combat but may be on the target of aggression. Players' fortunes in Combat can change from being only depending on their gameplay skills to being the result of Player/Character Skill Composites and Player/System Action Composites if Attributes or Skills are used to affect evaluation functions related to Combat. Combat is common in Massively Multiplayer Online Games, either as PvP or PvE, while in games on social media platforms, e.g. Empires & Allies, let players have Safe Havens through providing them with Private Game Spaces unless they let their Neighbors attack them.

Having as much information as possible if often advantageous in games with Combat. This since any Combat where Surprise Attacks can occur require skill sets regarding perception and misdirection besides those directly related to fighting. Games that wish to have Surprise Attacks can most easily do so by providing Fog of War to the combatants.

Beyond these specifics of all these design options, a highly influencing factor on how Combat can be designed in games is whether they are Real-Time Games or Turn-Based Games. Line of Sight is quite frequently used both but for different reasons: in Turn-Based Games they are used to simulate the paths of projectiles while they are often present "for free" in Real-Time Games due to the use of Aim & Shoot actions to perform Combat.

In Turn-Based Games, Combat are usually based on complex evaluation functions or a large number of simpler evaluation functions, and gameplay concerns trying to make game states have as many favorable modifiers as possible. In these types of games, Budgeted Action Points can allow several actions in individual Combat turns and thereby create Trade-Offs between different possible actions (see Space Hulk and the Fallout series for examples of this). Imperfect Information exists mainly due to not knowing the opponents strengths, weaknesses, and configurations, while Randomness is usually instantiated through Dice or the equivalent.

Real-Time Games may have as advanced evaluation functions as Turn-Based Games, but players usually do not have the possibilities of considering all of these. Here, a main difference may be if players control Avatars or Units since the latter requires Attention Swapping. Aim & Shoot is common in Real-Time Games - nearly always together with Crosshairs - and may be modulated by Variable Accuracy and Auto-Aim support (both which can make Player/System Action Composites - or Player/Character Skill Composites if Skills affect them - present in the game). For these types of Combat, Imperfect Information is often due to bad players having Game State Overview. To avoid Repeated Domination due to this, Killcams can be used to reveal the location of killers.

If Combat is the only activity in the game, as is the case in fighting games, it is often structured in Tournaments to allow Perceivable Margins and Higher-Level Closures as Gameplay Progresses by having more difficult opponents appear later in the Tournament. Fighting Games also often combine Combat losses with Player Elimination. Games where players engage in activities other than Combat usually make use of Lives and penalize loss of Lives by Ability Losses and Spawning at earlier locations. Real-Time Games with Teams and Friendly Fire often have special Penalties for team killing. Some games allow Combat early on but are structured so it comes into focus heavily in the Endgame through the presence of an Extermination phase. Regardless, games in which Combat is possible tend to have it as a central part of gameplay and have interconnected it with aspects such as Improved Abilities and Strategic Knowledge.

While Boss Monsters may in some games be defeated by the same type of Combat that can defeat other Enemies, some games make regular Combat impossible against them to either require other types of solutions or to keep the Boss Monsters alive to a later stage in the gameplay.


Combat provides Abilities for players to deal with Conflicts in games, but since the players' Enemies may cause problems through the Combat it may also require Attention Demanding Gameplay and cause Tension. Since Combat postulates a presence of an opposing force, games with Combat are more likely to have Challenging Gameplay than those without it. Combat typically can lead to the loss of Units or removal of Destructible Objects, and in the case of games with Avatars to Player Killing. Player Elimination can in turn be a consequence of any of these.

When the participating in Combat is optional, or when who to attack is optional, players have a Freedom of Choice and need to consider the Risk/Reward and Trade-Offs that exist between participating in the Combat and performing other activities. Choosing to attack other players will most likely reveal that these Actions Have Diegetically Social Consequences, especially in games that have Player Killing or Player Elimination. Players can also have Freedom of Choice in Combat when they can attack in several different ways, and this is also typically offers Risk/Reward choices and Trade-Offs.

Combat that is combined with Real-Time Games can make Timing or the execution of Dexterity-Based Actions important in games. How well this or other types of Combat is performed can be the basis for Character Development, e.g. by giving Experience Points (as for example Dungeons & Dragons or Return to Castle Wolfenstein: Enemy Territory does). When the success or failure of an attack depends on player skill but the Damage depends on game statistics of Weapons or Powers, this is an example of Player/Character Skill Composites.


Can Instantiate

Abilities, Actions Have Diegetically Social Consequences, Attention Demanding Gameplay, Challenging Gameplay, Destructible Objects, Extermination, Freedom of Choice, Player Elimination, Player Killing, PvE, PvP, Risk/Reward, Tension, Trade-Offs

with Damage

Player/Character Skill Composites

with Fog of War

Surprise Attacks

with Guard


with Real-Time Games

Dexterity-Based Actions, Timing

Can Modulate

Area Control, Bases, Character Development, Conflicts, Experience Points, Massively Multiplayer Online Games, Units

Can Be Instantiated By

Aim & Shoot, Avatars, Capture, Eliminate, Enemies, Overcome, Tournaments, Units

Algorithmic Agents together with Single-Player Games

Non-Player Characters together with Preventing Goals

Can Be Modulated By

Achilles' Heels, Aim & Shoot, Always Vulnerable, Arenas, Armor, Attributes, Budgeted Action Points, Camping, Choke Points, Combos, Critical Hits, Critical Misses, Crosshairs, Damage, Dedicated Game Facilitators, Environmental Effects, Flanking Routes, Fog of War, Friendly Fire, Galleries, Health, Imperfect Information, Improved Abilities, Invulnerabilities, Killcams, Line of Sight, Lives, Loot, Neighbors, Player/Character Skill Composites, Player/System Action Composites, Privileged Abilities, Randomness, Real-Time Games, Safe Havens, Skills, Sniper Locations, Surprise Attacks, Strategic Knowledge, Tools, Turn-Based Games, Variable Accuracy, Vulnerabilities, Weapons, Zone of Control

Possible Closure Effects


Potentially Conflicting With

Boss Monsters, Private Game Spaces


An updated version of the pattern Combat that was part of the original collection in the book Patterns in Game Design[1].


  1. Björk, S. & Holopainen, J. (2004) Patterns in Game Design. Charles River Media. ISBN1-58450-354-8.