Old World Designer Notes #1: Orders

The following is an excerpt from the Designer Notes for Old World. The game, a historical 4X set in classical antiquity, released on July 1, 2021, and is available for purchase here.

I’m not sure where the idea that every game piece should be able to move exactly once per turn first originated. I suspect it came from hex-based tabletop wargames before video games even existed, but it became the default state for many games, largely unquestioned. Empire and then Civilization itself both followed this pattern, which then extended to all their 4X descendants. The problem with every-unit-moves (EUM) in 4X games is that it only creates the illusion of tactical and strategic decision making. (I am taking the prerogative to coin an acronym for this to draw attention to the fact that employing EUM is an intentional design choice, just like using one-unit-per-tile is a choice.) Each turn, the player is evaluating the most effective single move for each of their units, which is often a very straightforward and often even boring decision, without any tradeoffs, with no reason to NOT take an action. In Civilization, there is never a reason not to build another mine or not to take another shot with an archer. These decisions quickly become rote as the number of units in the game grows. Players ask to automate their Workers because they no longer want to make these boring decisions but are still aware that they are going to perform worse if they don’t at least do something with their Workers each turn. Much has been made about Civ being a game of guns-or-butter, but that choice only really happens during city production. With EUM, once the units are built, it’s guns-AND-butter.

The Orders system of Old World came from an unlikely place, the so-called “social games” of Facebook circa-2010, which seemed to be taking over gaming for one strange little moment. (Indeed, for a brief period of time, three former Civilization designers – Bruce Shelley, Brian Reynolds, and myself – were all working at Zynga, and Sid Meier himself was building a version of Civ for Facebook.) One specific design mechanic stuck out to me from this era, which I first noticed in Brian’s FrontierVille – the “energy” system that was built to give players a limited number of actions each time they logged in, with of course the option to buy more if they got impatient.

I wasn’t particularly interested in the microtransaction side of the mechanic – as I discovered at EA and Zynga, it takes a very different designer than myself to master the dark arts of mixing business and design required for free-to-play games – but I was interested in how energy systems could multiply the strategic possibilities for older genres with a only a small amount of additional complexity. (Of course, ideas like this always have multiple sources, and perhaps also in the back of my mind was my favorite wargame from my childhood, Eric Lee Smith’s The Civil War, which used an interesting alternating initiative system that did not follow the EUM default.)

I hoped that taking a standard 4X game and overlaying an Orders system on top of it would instantly make the game more interesting, so our first step with Old World was to make the game work in multiplayer to see if this was true. We discovered we were onto something special immediately; not only were we making actual guns-or-butter decisions every turn, but the strategic space was blown open so wide that it felt like a completely fresh experience. Every tactical situation now had hundreds of possible approaches based on which units the players wanted to spend their orders moving. Courageous flanking gambits were now possible as were tactical retreats to better terrain. Is it better to spend all your Orders to get your best units in the right location to maximize their damage, or is it better to spread the Orders out to hit the enemy from more positions? Or, is it better to have the discipline during a war to reserve some Orders to spend on Workers to make sure your economy doesn’t fall behind. We discovered in MP that the victorious teams were often not the ones spending the most Orders on military victories but those who didn’t neglect their economy (and especially those who connected their front line to their core via Roads to reduce Orders from moving troops).

The early prototypes tried a number of crazy ideas – there was a turnless mode where every unit had an individual cooldown timer after attacking, there was a version where Orders could be bought just like Food or Iron (and which can still be seen in the game via Coin Debasement), and there was a mode where stockpiling Orders between turns was an important mechanic. Each of these systems was hotly debated, and other base assumptions from 4X design were modified – for example, units now have an absurdly large visibility radius to ensure that they can actually see their own potential movement range (and also so that enemies moving from far away are less likely to look like magically transporting units).

However, the most contentious question by far was whether units should have unlimited movement – in other words, if the only limitation on whether a unit could continue moving was if there were still Orders left to use. With enough Orders, a single unit could theoretically cross the entire map in one turn. I don’t like to add extra rules to a game unless absolutely necessary as each rule in a game adds an extra burden on the player, and “every move costs one Order” without any other restrictions was a very simple rule to describe to players. Further, I was convinced that allowing any one unit a perhaps ridiculous movement range was not actually a problem for game balance; a player could move one unit perhaps thirty times in one turn but only by suffering the huge opportunity cost of not moving any other units.

The team, however, felt quite differently, sometimes vehemently. After months of debate, a mutinous internal mod suddenly appeared that put a hard cap of three moves per turn on each unit. I agreed to give it a fair shake, and although I tried to keep an open mind, I absolutely hated it; we had discovered gameplay magic with the Orders system but were afraid to let it loose. However, I had to admit that perhaps I was pushing the game outside of the comfort zone of most players. At the very least, giving units a soft movement cap would help guide players who would be confused why they could just keep moving their Scout over and over and over again; unlimited Orders certainly increased the risk that players would spend their Orders in the wrong place without considering all their other Units.

Thus, we adopted a fatigue system where most units got three moves each turn but could extend their range by spending 100 Training once on a “Force March” and then double Orders per move thereafter. My fear was that we were adding complexity that would be mandatory to understand to play the game, but I trusted the response the team had to completely unlimited Orders. As a bonus, fatigue gave me one more knob to turn for nations and traits and promotions. (Roman units, for example, could get +1 fatigue to represent their military discipline.) Nonetheless, the promise of the Orders system was still intact, and the variety of moves available to players each turn, especially if they unlock unlimited movement with a Force March, is almost impossible to calculate.

Designer Notes #58: Rob Daviau – Part 2

In this episode, Soren interviews board game designer Rob Daviau, best known for his work on Risk: Legacy and Pandemic: Legacy. They discuss the criteria for a good Legacy game, how to put just a little PvP in a game without overdoing it, and why he removed his phone number from his website.

Games discussed: Risk: Legacy, Pandemic: Legacy, XCOM 2, Seafall, Conspiracy, Stop Thief

https://www.idlethumbs.net/designernotes/episodes/rob-daviau-part-2

Designer Notes #57: Rob Daviau – Part 1

In this episode, Soren interviews board game designer Rob Daviau, best known for his work on Risk: Legacy and Pandemic: Legacy. They discuss bluffing his way through his first game job interview, how he designed Betrayal at House on the Hill without either starting or finishing it, and why Risk Legacy bombed in Germany.

Games discussed: Candy Land, Impossible Mission, Dungeons and Dragons, Trivial Pursuit, Scruples, Atlantis: Pathways to the Deep, Mountains of Madness, Pandemic: Legacy, Betrayal at House on the Hill, Risk 2210, Risk: Black Ops, Risk: Legacy

https://www.idlethumbs.net/designernotes/episodes/rob-daviau-part-1

Designer Notes 56: David Dunham

In this episode, Soren interviews independent game designer David Dunham, best known for his work on the narrative strategy games King of Dragon Pass and Six Ages. They are joined by writer and designer Meg Jayanth, best known for her work on 80 Days. The three discuss whether the advisors in Dragon Pass lie to the player, what Six Ages and 80 Days have in common, and whether the anthropomorphic ducks are ducks with human-level intelligence or humans who have been turned into ducks.

Games discussed: King of Dragon Pass, Pendragon, Fallen London, 80 Days, Six Ages, Sunless Sea, Castles, Hearthstone, Battle of the Bulge, Really Bad Chess, Drive on Moscow

https://www.idlethumbs.net/designernotes/episodes/david-dunham

I Shouldn’t Have to Write this Post

I have voted for a Democrat in ever election in my lifetime, and while I express my political view from time to time, it’s important to acknowledge that plenty of Republicans have served their country honorably in government. John McCain and Mitt Romney, for example, would both have been perfectly serviceable presidents. The country will always have a conservative party, and yet progress is still made because, each generation, what used to be an unthinkable progressive idea is now mainstream enough to be simply unchallenged by the GOP.

That context is necessary for the following statement: voting for Donald Trump is an unconscionable act.

I don’t need to list all of the ways he has beclowned our nation. Everyday, one just needs to read the news to see one more example of his cruelty, his ignorance, his incompetence, and his narcissism. Today’s violation is his ALL CAPS approval of his thugs running his opponent’s bus off the highway. Encouraging political violence is an unspeakably careless act for any politician, let alone the president. By itself, it would be enough of a reason to vote out any elected official, and I would vote against a Democrat who did the same. Consider that a president could do something this base, worse than anything Nixon ever did – who was a cartoon villain when I was young – and yet today will be forgotten in the unending waves of Trump’s crimes, failures, and corruptions.

Therefore, as the US is a two-party system, not voting for Joe Biden is also an unconscionable act. A second Trump term would mean that everything he has done was not just permitted or ignored but actually rewarded. I still have faith that America would recover, but every year undoing his damage is a year not feeding the hungry, not healing the sick, and not educating the ignorant.

Moreoever, all we have to do is vote. Our country has sometimes asked far too much from its citizens just for the right to vote, usually because of color or gender. Voter suppression may be the last refuge of minority rule, but Trump can still be easily beaten if every American just does his or her duty. All we have to do is vote.

The hard part is learning how to control Trump’s breed of American fascism because, no matter how many bad things one can say about Trump, the one thing that cannot be said about him is that he is not American. That fight, however, begins the day after Tuesday.

Designer Notes 55: Meg Jayanth

In this episode, Soren interviews independent game developer Meg Jayanth, the writer on 80 Days. They discuss how fan fiction is similar to modding, if 80 Days is a criticism of the Bioware companion system, and why it’s important to do your work.

Games discussed: SimTower, Grand Theft Auto, Savoir-Faire, All Roads, Choice Of Games, Samsara, 80 Days, Sunless Seas, Sunless Skies, Horizon Zero Dawn

https://www.idlethumbs.net/designernotes/episodes/meg-jayanth

Designer Notes 54: Jon Ingold – Part 2

In this episode, Soren interviews veteran game developer Jon Ingold, who co-founded inkle and is best known for his work in interactive fiction, including All Roads, 80 Days, and the Sorcery! series. They discuss how to get the player to trust the designer, why pursuing fairness can take away what is special about a game, and whether packing should be done in real-time.

Games discussed: Creature of Havoc, The Sorcery! series, XCOM: Enemy Unknown, 80 Days, Heaven’s Vault, The Last Express

https://www.idlethumbs.net/designernotes/episodes/jon-ingold-part-2

Designer Notes 53: Jon Ingold – Part 1

In this episode, Soren interviews veteran game developer Jon Ingold, who co-founded inkle and is best known for his work in interactive fiction, including All Roads, 80 Days, and the Sorcery! series. They discuss why Plundered Hearts is his favorite Infocom game, how being a maths teacher is like being a level designer, and when he realized that parsers were a commercial dead-end.

Games discussed: Psi-5 Trading Company, Rogue, Out There, Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Deadline, The Witness, Plundered Hearts, Starcross, Blade Runner, Curses!, The Mulldoon Legacy, All Roads, Make It Good, Heavy Rain, Frankenstein, the Sorcery! series

https://www.idlethumbs.net/designernotes/episodes/jon-ingold-part-1

Designer Notes 52: Roger Keating

In this episode, Bruce Geryk interviews veteran game developer Roger Keating, co-founder of Strategic Studies Group (SSG). Roger is best known for his work on the Warlord series as well as many digital wargames. They discuss what it was like to do pathfinding before A*, how SSG worked from home before it was cool, and how to determine who is a game designer.

Games discussed: Conflict, Operation Apocalypse, Reach for the Stars, Carriers at War, Europe Ablaze, Gold of the Americas, the Warlords series, Ardennes Offensive

https://www.idlethumbs.net/designernotes/episodes/roger-keating

This Old World

My next game, Old World, releases on Early Access tomorrow (May 5th) on the Epic Games Store. This might come as a bit of a surprise to some as we have not been discussing the game very often, but that is changing quickly! Old World is a 4X strategy game set in the Mediterranean during Classical Antiquity. Each turn is a year, and your leader is mortal and will eventually die – passing on the crown to the next in line.

I discuss the major new features here on the Mohawk blog: https://www.mohawkgames.com/2020/04/14/old-world-first-post/

For example, here is a description of the Orders system:

Orders are a resource used to issue commands across your nation. Instead of moving every unit every turn, as is traditional in 4X games, each unit can be moved as many times as desired, until the player runs out of Orders. There are many other ways to spend this resource: Combat, Construction, Events, Diplomacy, and so on. 

You can find more information on the game in these interviews:

  • Rock, Paper, Shotgun: In the end, after a few more hours of “one more turn” (it’s taken that much from Civ, at least), I could only conclude that Old World is entirely its own thing. And I like it very much.
  • PolygonThe build I’ve been playing is certainly not the finished article, but it’s engrossing and fun, and I love its attempt to bring more story elements to grand strategy.
  • PC GamerBut once I started amassing soldiers I would run out of orders without moving half my units, and realized how much more tactical I was going to have to be.
  • I also discussed the game with Dirk Knemeyer and David Heron on the latest Game Design Round Table podcast

Check out our game webpage, mohawkgames.com/oldworld, for more info and important links, including our press kit and Discord server.

We will be streaming Old World from the official Mohawk Games Twitch channel on release day starting at 10AM ET. Hope to see you there!