Why free-for-all PvP sucks in Heroes of Might and Magic 3?

Heroes of Might and Magic 3 is a game that is close to hearts of mine and many other people. The community of this game, while relatively small and niche, is still going strong, even having cash prize pvp tournaments! There are also many in-game improvements thanks to various mods.

That being said, there is one thing that has little support in HoMM3, and is a thing that is sometimes being asked about – that being free for all player vs player gameplay. There are few maps and random map templates that properly try to support this type of play – and well... the mechanics of HoMM3 work against the FFA format being fun, due to several pretty major problems that show up specifically in this one format of play.

Problem 1: The downtime

HoMM3 is a game that already struggles with large downtime between turns. While the competitive community has implemented some ways to mitigate this issue via mods, such as the better turn timer, simultaneous turns and improvements to UI allowing better planning during opponent's turn, it is still an issue that can't really be solved. In the late game, it is impossible to use the simultaneous turns feature, and the turns may last for 20 minutes or more at times even despite the timer limitations. Even at the fastest timers you can often expect players to take several minutes to play out their turn fully due to all the battles with the neutral monsters.

The downtime scales linearily with every player added to the game. For example, if you expect a typical turn to take a modest for this game 10 minutes, in a 1v1 you will typically wait 10 minutes before your turn starts. If you add a third player, this time will increase to 20 minutes, fourth player will increase this to 30, and so on – until you get to 70 minutes with the maximum possible amount of 8 players. Needless to say, nobody wants to wait for an entire hour – if not more – to actually play the game.

Problem 2: The time

The problem with downtime instantly shows the issue with the total time needed to play out a single game in this format. The games in HoMM3 take a loong time – depending on the random map template used, as well as the timer settings, the shortest time you can expect is around 2 hours. Even with the most extreme formats meant to make the gameplay as fast as possible, you can't really go under an hour without severely dumbing down the game and removing any sense of progression.

The time necessary to finish the game also scales linearly with the number of players... well, almost. There is a case to be made that higher playercount will also increase the turncount, even taking into account the possibility of surrendering, which in turn further increases the time required – but also the simultaneous turns reduce the scaling factor sonewhat significiantly.

As for why this increase of time matters, the longer the game, the more difficult it is to set it up – especially when you want to play with a higher playercount. It is way easier for two people to make time for a 4 hour game than for four people to make time for an 8 hour game. A longer game is also more prone to break down due to external factors – whether it is the standard human need to sleep or someone having to go due to an unforseen circumstance, the probability of this happening increases massively with both the playercount and the amount of time spent. And even though you can save, it will be hard for everyone involved to synchronize their free time again to maaaaybe finish the game.

Problem 3: Last Man Standing

Heroes of Might and Magic 3 is – under most circumstances – an elimination game. The victory condition is to eliminate all opponents – and while in 1v1 and singleplayer this doesn't change much, in a FFA scenario things get problematic.

As soon as a player gets eliminated, they are unable to participate in the game anymore. While against random people on the internet it may not be such a huge deal, when playing against friends an early elimination means being excluded from a social activity. And it is not just any social activity – it is a social activity that you have likely set aside an afternoon, if not an entire day to take part in. It is also not that uncommon to end up with losing your army or your main hero early on due to mistake or the need to make a risky play, effectively knocking you out from the game despite not technically losing by the game mechanics.

Problem 4: Negative sum interaction

The previous three problems, while serious, are comparatively small compared to what we have here, since you can still argue them to be acceptable and you can arguably work around them a bit. This one though, well... is harsh, to say the least.

They typical flow of a 1v1 PvP game starts with a early buildup of resources, that will lead to expanding the player's influence and control on the map. Ultimately, the players will meet each other, and will try to take away the map control off their opponent. The game then usually culminates in a final battle, where the full army of each player is pitted against each other, which in turn ends with either one player surrendering the match after loss or an escape and preparation for another final battle... though sometimes you will just catch the opponent unprepared and force them to surrender this way.

Now, the issue here comes down to the fact that the battles between players are an inherent loss of resources for both players. Each battle you take is an inherent loss of resources – but while fighting against neutral units leads to you gaining more resources than you've spent, fighting against players has a different goal in mind. That goal is to make your opponent lose more resources than you.

In a 1v1 game this is a healthy play pattern – it provides a very interesting decision space with various trades you can make to gain an advantage over your opponent despite both of you losing resources. It also allows the game to progress towards its natural end. If you add more players though, this play pattern is undesirable and completely screws over the game's flow, making interacting with other players a losing endeavor. When attacking the other player causes both of you to lose resources, you fall behind every other player in the game. You can decisively destroy another player – but you will likely lose far too much in the process, and in turn be an easy target for other players to pick on. The game's mechanics naturally discourage any form of interaction between players in a free for all gameplay. The only exception is when a player is so far ahead compared to their attack target that they will actually get a net gain from the battle – which in many cases is a result of unbalanced gameplay due to random factors, giving effectively zero chance of a victory to the player on the receiving end of the attack.

Additionally, the interaction between players is often an all-or-nothing thing – to defeat a player, you need to enter that decisive final battle, which is a massive commitment. Without a huge advantage you will incur substantial losses of army – which is a resource that you can't exactly easily regain. To even initiate the conbat, you will also spend the valuable movement points of your main heroes, which in turn slows down your expansion, setting you back compared to the others. All you may or may not get as a reward are experience points and artifacts – that while powerful, may very much not offset the loss, and if the opponent runs away – no artifacts for you. Immediately after the battle your hero will also be vulnerable, with most of their mana being spent.

Problem 5: Toxic play patterns

With more players, certain game mechanics can get abused to create what is commonly understood as undesirable play patterns.

The first of these play patterns is excessive kingmaking. There is nothing preventing a player to send their resources to the other player, giving them a substantial early game boost – there is also nothing preventing them from intentionally crashing their hero with artifacts into a chosen opponent, effectively giving out artifacts for free.

Another problematic play pattern is spiteful play – the player may be reduced to the point that winning the game is impossible, but they can still harass and force other player to respond if not eliminated completely – and complete elimination is not exactly something you have time for in a free for all scenario. In the 1v1 play, the expectation is that someone who is way behind to the point of a guaranteed loss simply surrenders – but in a FFA game this may simply not be the case. The practically defeated but not yet eliminated by game mechanics opponent can still send out weak heroes, forcing a response of someone who has to deal with full powered player – this in turn has a ripple effect further punishing interaction and making the game need even more time to finish.

Now, before someone asks, the potential for diplomatic approaches – setting alliances, painting someone as main threat to gang upon, etc. is 100% fine. Small amount of kingmaking is also fine, but if it can give a very clear advantage over other players, things get very, very iffy.

Can these problems be solved?

I'll be honest – I am not sure these problems can be solved. You can design your map or template around some of these problems, but in practice things will be clunky and will require some artificial rules – that is rules that are not implemented in the game, forcing the players to remember them – to be added.

The first two problems can be handled by designing for short turn timers and structuring the map or template in a way that forces early interaction – similar to Jebus Cross with its iconic desert zone in the middle. The third problem is unsolvable without setting a different victory condition that is more viable than the standard victory condition of elimination – either via an artificial rule, or via setting in the map editor. This could also somewhat work around the fourth problem – but it can easily end up in removing player interaction whatsoever, turning the gameplay into essentially a race. And as for the fifth problem, well, I guess you can add an artificial rule to disallow sending resources to opponents.

You can definitely deal with some of the issues, as evidenced by the MKC's Jebus Outcast, which has a version supporting the free for all format. It is meant for very quick turn timers, reducing the downtime to absolute minimum. Via an artificial rule, it provides an alternative win condition of controlling the center, forcing interaction and ensuring that the game will end in a timely manner – and it does force at least some interaction to happen. It deals away with the spiteful play pattern by limiting each player to a single hero that they are not allowed to rebuy after losing a battle to the player. It has an additional artificial rule disallowing retreating from a battle, ensuring that the winner of the battle will at least recoup losses by getting some artifacts from the opponent. The rest of the interaction between players is also closer towards zero-sum, with stealing army dwellings being an option.

That being said, it still does not deal with the last man standing problem, and at lower levels of play you can easily see early game fuckups ending with the loss of all army that are effectively impossible to recover from in a meaningful manner – or sometimes losing you the game on the spot due to you permanently losing your only hero. Kingmaking, at least in theory, is more significiant here than on more standard templates – gold management is extremely important there to be able to buy out all the necessary units, and crashing your hero to give someone your artifacts is far more impactful – since it also kicks you out from the game, completely shifting the balance of power. And of course, there is still the problem that the limit of having just a single hero isn't something that everyone likes.

To make a more traditional gameplay work, the best way I can think of is the good old fixed map, with a victory condition being capturing the town in the center. To prevent devolving the game into a simple race, one would have to also include intermediate map goals that require going into the enemy territory – for example keymaster tents. Of course, the main issue of this approach is the fact that it is a fixed map, which stiffles the replay value of it compared to a random map template – but in practice, how often will you even get to play a FFA game?

Conclusion

If someone asks me what template I would recommend to play in a 3 player FFA format... I will probably say Kerberos (technically it is made for 3p) or the one hero templates (JO/Duel). I will then follow up on this by recommending some alternatives, like, for example, co-op against AI opponents or playing a different game altogether. For 4 players though, I can also recommend the 2v2 format, which, while it isn't without problems, it does actually work fine. The thing is, with how many problems FFA in H3 has, I do not want to subject unknowing players – especially ones with a little bit of pvp experience – into what is a very unoptimal experience, to say the least. After all, to make FFA in Heroes 3 work well, you have to go against the nature of the game – and when you do so, why not play something else then?