topical media & game development

talk show tell print

pattern(s) / matrix / model(s) / resource(s)

<a novref=true text=@key href=pattern-units.html>Units</a>


Units are groups of game elements under the player's control that let the player perform actions to influence the Game World.

The Units can have different actions and attributes associated with them. As a single player controls several Units, the loss of a single Unit may not determine the final outcome of a game.

Example: Real-time strategy games make heavy use of Units, where the choice and use of the different available types of units is one of the strategic skills of the games.

Example: Pik-Min, a more or less real-time puzzle game, and Lemmings are examples of games that make heavy use of Units, which in these cases are only partly under the player's direct control

Example: All the pieces in Chess except the king are Units.

Example: In the board game Space Hulk, one of the players controls an essentially unlimited amount of Units, called genestealers, which are replenished endlessly. The opposing player has a preset number of Units, called space marines, which are not replenished once lost.

Using the pattern

Several design choices have to be made when using Units. The amount of Units available to the players is one of the most fundamental choices. The number of the Units may be preset so that the players have Limited Resources or it may be determined by Randomness, or depending on the player actions, during the set-up phase. When the players can affect the number of Units they may have during the gameplay, these Units are Renewable Resources and can be rewards for completing subgoals or be produced from Resource Generators or Converters that are under the player's control. The Units themselves may be part of a neutral pool of Resources, which the player can take control over. In most cases, the lifetime of Units is governed by a Producer-Consumer pattern. For example in Civilization, the production of Units is done in cities, and the Units can be consumed in battle. Control of the Producers may allow players to gain New Abilities for their Units, as may Transfer of Control and Ownership of enemy Units.

Beyond how many Units are available to players is the decision of when the players can start to use them. Making all possible Units available at the start makes them a Non-Renewable Resource and typically speeds up the game if they can be eliminated during gameplay. Portioning the available Units over time or giving them out as rewards for goals can be used to maintain the Right Level of Complexity and avoid Analysis Paralysis.

The abilities of the Units can either be identical---in order to stress the use of them as a group---or Asymmetric Abilities offering Orthogonal Unit Differentiation can be used to provide different Privileged Abilities for different Units. In the latter case, this can increase the value of each Unit as it may not be replaced by another and may promote Stimulated Planning on when and where to use uncommon Units. Orthogonal Unit Differentiation between Units under the control of different players may set up Paper-Rock-Scissors power relations. If the players can control the production of Units, the existence of several different types can promote Varied Gameplay and Tradeoffs, as the players have to decide what types of Units they want to acquire.

Naturally, game elements that are Units cannot also be Avatars. However, Units can be used as companions to the Avatars; in this case, they can be given various degrees of autonomy or be directly controlled by the Avatar.

Providing players with sufficient information about the current state of the Units can require the use of a Game State Overview or a Game World that they can view in its entirety. Many games using Units, and especially those where the number of the Units can change over time, make use of a Camera for Third-Person View and a God's Finger to allow the players to navigate the Game World in order to locate and select which Units to use.


Units are a form of Resource in games, and often acquiring them represents a form of Investment. Units allow the players to have multiple Focus Loci where they can affect the Game World without affecting Consistent Reality Logic. However, this may make it difficult to attain the Right Level of Complexity due to Attention Swapping. This is especially likely if the game does not support a Game State Overview, which shows relevant information about each player's Units. Units are often targets of the Damages from Deadly Traps and Combat motivated by other players' Eliminate goals, resulting either in the destruction of the Units or in Decreased Abilities of those Units. The Penalties of losing the Units are often Ability Losses, and the player controlling the Units may have Evade and Survive goals.

Various Units can have different Limited Set of Actions by making use of Orthogonal Unit Differentiation, so using them can require the players to make Tradeoffs between different types of Units. Performing the Attention Swapping between Units is most commonly enabled by another Focus Loci, a God's Finger. Different stages of the gameplay can further require different types of Units, allowing Varied Gameplay. The different abilities of the Units do not have to be inherent; the use of Tools can explain various Privileged Abilities.

Units let the players simulate Team Play so they can set up complex actions as well as Extended Actions by coordinating the individual actions of several Units. This allows Stimulated Planning and allows the players to do Resource Management on a higher level than using Avatars, as the destruction or death of the Units may in some cases even be advantageous and necessary. Thus Units can be seen as a use of Parallel Lives which in contrast to Avatars are more or less dispensable.


Instantiates: Attention Swapping, Stimulated Planning, Resource Management, Varied Gameplay, Orthogonal Unit Differentiation, Enemies, Paper-Rock-Scissors, Third-Person Views, Team Play, Investments, Resources, Focus Loci

Modulates: Combat, Survive, Consistent Reality Logic, Extended Actions, Ability Losses, Evade

Instantiated by:

Modulated by: Damage, Deadly Traps, Producer-Consumer, Penalties, Limited Set of Actions, Cameras, God's Finger, Game State Overview, Non-Renewable Resources, Privileged Abilities, Eliminate, Tools, Parallel Lives, Producers, New Abilities, Transfer of Control, Decreased Abilities, Ownership, Renewable Resources

Potentially conflicting with: Avatars

[] readme course(s) preface I 1 2 II 3 4 III 5 6 7 IV 8 9 10 V 11 12 afterthought(s) appendix reference(s) example(s) resource(s) _

(C) Æliens 04/09/2009

You may not copy or print any of this material without explicit permission of the author or the publisher. In case of other copyright issues, contact the author.