Old World Designer Notes #7: Characters

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.

Veterans of Civ communities will recognize the acronym ICS (Infinite City Sleaze) as it has haunted the series since the beginning. However, there is another acronym that is less recognized but just as big a problem and, frankly, a lot harder to solve – ECS, which stands for Eternal China Syndrome. The term refers to the tendency of nations that have gotten over the hump of early expansion to maintain a level of internal stability that is both ahistorical and, more importantly, not much fun. (Of course, students of Chinese history will know that the term is an exaggeration of the country’s actual internal stability.) Most of the pressure applied to the player in Civ comes from external sources, meaning other nations, and the internal pressures (including unhappiness) are really just different flavors of taxes. Furthermore, although new abilities and powers are unlocked throughout the game (via laws or techs or Wonders), they are accretive, meaning that they are only given to the player, never taken away. Strategy games are built from players adapting to their current situation and making difficult decisions along the way, but in most 4X games, these decisions are front-loaded to the initial exploration and expansion phases. Once stability sets in, the path ahead for the player becomes very predictable, which is an important reason why 4X games become such slogs – the path to the victory (or defeat) gets more and more predictable the longer a game continues.

Characters were not introduced to Old World to alleviate ECS; they were added simply because more and more games (Crusader Kings being the obvious example) were adding characters in meaningful ways and, in doing so, appealing to larger and larger audiences. Turns out that people like playing games that are about people, and a game that lasts 6,000 years is more about gods than humans. The benefits of adding characters to Old World could be spun out into multiple new articles, but to some extent, the lessons learned are not particularly interesting as the benefits were largely free, a simple result of human empathy and vengeance, of our sympathy and our avarice. Adding flesh-and-blood humans to a game is somewhat akin to adding realistic physics; it adds instant depth, but the depth is going to be the same across all games that do a good job representing the human condition. I’ll do my best to avoid getting carried away here and not end up quoting Anna Karenina and simply move on to how adding real characters improves the core 4X gameplay.

Simply put, characters add a dynamism to Old World that prevents it from reaching ECS, the usual fate of most 4X games. The most obvious way characters disrupt the game’s stability is via diplomacy. Simply having foreign leaders actually change – from death or abdication or even deposition – over the course of the game makes a huge difference. Perhaps you have a great relationship with Phillip of Greece but not so much with his heir, Alexander, because you offended him at a dinner years before? The latter’s eventual ascension (unless, say, some unfortunate accident might come to pass) will mean that your diplomatic status with Greece could go from good to bad. The amazing thing about this outcome is that it flows completely naturally from having real characters who age and die; players aren’t shocked when relations change and, indeed, expect them to change.

It is hard to articulate how significant a departure this is from a tension that has always bedeviled Civ games – that players expect diplomacy to be predictable, but predictable diplomacy inevitably becomes boring. Players will frequently rant over “unpredictable” or “random” AI leaders who suddenly go from being a friend to an enemy. These shifts are necessary for games to not slowly calcify from their earliest diplomatic states, but there are few ways to make these changes thematically palatable when the leaders never change. Civ games have experimented with all sorts of opinion modifiers that give a reason why a leader might change their opinion of you, but the most natural reason is that there is now simply a new leader who has a new set of relationships, memories, and opinions.

However, the biggest gains for dynamism are not external (like diplomacy) but internal, changing how your own nation works. As mentioned previously, one problem with unlocking powers over the course of a 4X game is that they tend to be accretive, a nation slowly adds new and better abilities over the course of the game. Players don’t like losing their powers, and Civ has only dabbled with this, such as the Civ 4 civics system where a player might give up one power but only to unlock a better one. When powers are accretive, designers have to be careful not to make them too strong, or else they could dominate. Give the player a giant hammer too early, and the rest of the game is a nail.

Instead, what if powers were attached to leaders via their unique archetypes, and these powers disappear when the leader dies? Then, the powers can change how the game works significantly but not permanently – for example, Builder leaders can add new Urban tiles to cities, Orators can hire Tribal troops as Mercenaries with Legitimacy, Heroes can Launch Offensives to allow units to attack twice, and Tactician Leaders can Stun their targets as Generals. Each of these powers fundamentally changes how the game feels, but attaching them to the Leader’s archetype means that each power is mutually exclusive and will be active less than 10% of the time. (There are ten archetypes, and young leaders don’t always even have archetypes.) Further, because these powers are attached to characters, players don’t have complete control over when these powers are turned on and off. If they were attached to Laws, for example, players might abuse the ability to switch between them whenever desired. Instead, players have some, but not total, control over the archetype of their heirs and have to navigate the natural flow of their dynasty. They can still make long-term plans for when their current Builder leader is succeeded by his Hero daughter, but they can’t pick the same pattern, game after game.

Perhaps the best thing about all of these new dynamic elements that flow from characters is that they are simply a natural extension of human nature and regular lifespans, of which all players bring an understanding to the game. For example, if a game spanning 6,000 years tried to implement our archetype system, it would need to tie itself into knots justifying why these powers are constantly changing, why the player doesn’t always have control of them, and why they are all available and viable at both the beginning and the end of the game. A game’s theme has its own gravity which puts limits on where the design can reach, and games about people provide natural affordances for an environment that is constantly changing, always a good thing for a strategy game.

2 thoughts on “Old World Designer Notes #7: Characters

  1. Pingback: Old World designer notes #7: Soren Johnson on Characters | CivFanatics

  2. Pingback: Old World Designer Notes #8: Opinion | DESIGNER NOTES

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