Old World Designer Notes #2: City Sites

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.

One challenge that has haunted all Civilization games since the beginning is Infinite City Sleaze (ICS). In the original version, one player discovered that the optimum strategy was to cover every fourth tile on the board with a city, a mind-numbingly boring strategy that was always the best choice. Most players did not go that far, but they usually realized that more cities was always better, and because the game had very loose rules for city placement, squeezing cities into every possible crack became a typical strategy. Every Civ after the second tried a different strategy to stop ICS – Civ 3 used corruption and waste to make extra cities less valuable, Civ 4 used maintenance to make new cities an economic drain, Civ 5 used global unhappiness to make a large empire harder to manage, and so on. None of these systems were any fun and weren’t intended to be so; they were mechanics put in place to keep the players from ruining the game for themselves by founding too many cities just because it was simply the most effective strategy.

The issue is not that the player shouldn’t have a large empire, meaning one that covers a large portion of the map. Instead, the issue is that the player benefits from packing more cities into the same number of tiles and so bends their strategy to squeeze in as many cities as possible. In an empire-building game, more territory should be good, but more cities just for the sake of more cities simply adds busywork and frustration. Ultimately, there is no actual solution to this dilemma as all of the attempted fixes just slow the player down in unpleasant ways but the same truth remains – more cities are still always better. Indeed, it becomes a little perverse to try to reverse this dynamic; why make a game about building an empire where the player is punished for building an empire?

The answer, frankly, has been around for almost as long as the 4X genre. Master of Orion, the first sci-fi successor to Civ, does not have an ICS problem because the player is strictly limited to the number of planets on the map. The gameplay is simply better without putting artificial brakes on the player for fear of them ruining the game for themselves. Limiting city counts has many gameplay benefits, such as more predictable victory point thresholds based on cities, better balanced per-city bonuses, more consistent city value weights for the AI, and a generous minimum distance between cities to allow breathing room for one-unit-per-tile combat. Endless Legend adopted the same system in a tile-based game by slicing the world up into a series of territories, with only one city possible in each one. I actually tried a similar system while prototyping Civilization 3 but didn’t feel comfortable that we were predetermining what the borders of a city would be before actually founding the city. I wanted city borders to still grow organically based on player choice, even at the risk of still enabling ICS.

For Old World, we finally found a happy medium between a limited city count and dynamic border growth. City sites are placed on the map at game start, but the actual territory of each city is based on decisions the player makes. Namely, building an urban improvement and producing a specialist on any tile extend the city borders in all six directions. Further, a few buildings (Hamlets, Shrines, and Monasteries) are notable because they are urban improvements which can be built anywhere, giving the player a number of ways to extend a city’s border in a specific direction.

Thus, city borders always extend out from the initial city site but only based on decisions made by the player. The range-based culture growth of Civs 34 and the random tiles of Civs 56 got the job done but generally were disconnected from the player’s actions. The core hook of a 4X is long-term planning, and putting border growth in the player’s hands is a perfect fit. We had gone with the Civ 56 random tile system for a long time, but players were generally unhappy with it until we gave them full control. The algorithm could never consistently find the tile they actually wanted for their city, which was perhaps a good thing because it wouldn’t be a strategy game if it was always clear what next tile would be best. (The old border growth algorithm is still inside the code as it gets used for events and with the Borders Boost tech card.)

It is also worth noting that although a city’s territory is built dynamically, unlike being predetermined as in Endless Legend, each tile is still associated with a specific city, opening up new gameplay options not available in games without territories. For example, a Governor can have a trait like Delver which affects all Mines and Quarries in the city’s borders. Further, tying tiles to cities is an important tool for the family system – the Artisans, for example, only care about pillaged tiles in their own territory, highlighting their sometimes myopic perspective.  Finally, because tribal settlements also block most city sites, taking them for expansion becomes a dramatic moment in the game, part of a multi-turn plan instead of simply plopping down a new city every time a Settler is built.

I was well aware that the city sites of Old World would be a controversial feature. City placement is one of the great puzzles that players love to debate and analyze – the Civ community has a tradition of posting “dot maps” to compare different potential city arrangements for each random map, but sometimes in game development, it’s necessary to abandon a positive feature that players enjoy for the overall good of the design. Old World has a much sturdier core – and far fewer annoying anti-expansion mechanics – because of city sites.

2 thoughts on “Old World Designer Notes #2: City Sites

  1. I appreciate this post regarding city sites. It was really jarring initially. However, it’s grown on me. The fight for city sites and taking one away from another nation is fun! Also, the logic on border expansion pilled the various points together for me. Old World had been great during the smoke and heat! I look forward to further updates.

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