Think Like A Game Designer Podcast

At this year’s GDC, I mentored Justin Gary on his Tabletop Summit talk on SolForge Fusion and, afterwards, he invited me onto his excellent game designer podcast Think Like A Game Designer. It’s a bit like my podcast except its 90% tabletop designers (although I will be having more tabletop designers on in the future). As I’m not afraid of going too long, he had to split my recording into two parts, but they serve as a pretty good overview of my career. Take a listen if you’ve got some free time!

Part 1:

Part 2:

Designer Notes 77: Cole Wehrle

In this episode, Soren interviews tabletop designer Cole Wehrle, best known for his work on Root, Oath, Pax Pamir, and John Company. They discuss whether John Company is satire, how the East India Company was like QWOP, and the importance of German postal rates. This episode was recorded on March 22, 2023.

Games discussed: Stratego, Dungeons and Dragons, Battlecry, Diplomacy, Mafia, Oath, Settlers of Catan, Struggle of Empires, High Frontier, Pax Pamir, John Company, Pax Porfiriana, Levy & Campaign series, Root, An Infamous Traffic, Republic of Rome, Greed Incorporated, QWOP, Kremlin, Power Grid, Old World

My Velvet Underground

Just watched the Todd Haynes documentary on The Velvet Underground, and it sure leaves a mark. I’m not sure how much I need to add to the mythology of the VU but, simply put, white popular music can be split into two eras, before the Velvets and everything after. Before them, white popular music was always safe, somehow both too naive and too calculated. The songwriting might be melodic enough, but there was never enough grit. Listen too much and one might get a little sick – Haynes uses “Monday, Monday” by the Mamas & the Papas as a punching bag multiple times to prove this point. (The few exceptions to this rule tended to be white musicians trying their best with black music, such as the Rolling Stones finally putting the Diddley back into “Not Fade Away” after Buddy Holly couldn’t quite get the job done.) After the Velvets, there was an explosion that ripped popular music in a multitude of directions; each of the four core albums created entire genres.

However, because each of the original albums was so unique, not everyone’s Velvet Underground is the same. Todd Haynes makes his own version clear from the start – the first words we read are a Baudelaire quote, the first face we see is John Cale, and the first sound we hear is Cale’s droning viola lifted out of the Lou Reed’s masterpiece, “Heroin.” Cale is a brilliant musician but, with the Velvets, he was also a true modernist at an innovative peak, with all that entails. Thus, Haynes’s Velvets are the Velvets of Andy Warhol and his Factory, of experimental musicians like La Monte Young, Tony Conrad, and their Dream Syndicate, and – perhaps most relevant to the director Haynes himself – of the many avant-garde filmmakers of 1960s New York whose works he uses to place the Velvets in the context of the contemporary art scene. It’s all very well put together, but it’s in service of a version of the band that I admire but don’t love.

The first two Velvet albums have sublime moments – “Heroin,” of course, and the piano vamp of “All Tomorrow’s Parties” which shows how Cale’s fearlessness could pay off. However, they are difficult albums to listen to end-to-end. “European Son” starts off well but then descends into time-filling noise. “The Black Angel’s Death Song” now betrays what it always was, Reed aping and perhaps even satirizing Dylan. Much of White Light/White Heat sounds like the jokey backing track to a long-forgotten experimental art film. Sure, “Sister Ray” still squeezes out the sparks, but it can’t match its sequel “Roadrunner” by Velvets superfan Jonathan Richman (who claims in the film, adoringly and adorably, to have seen them 60-70 times and apparently opened for them as a teenager).

If the Velvets broke up when Reed pushed Cale out of the band, then I doubt I would care about them much more than I care about, say, Frank Zappa or Captain Beefheart – interesting music in the back of my collection that I still usually skip when it comes up on shuffle. In the film, drummer Maureen Tucker makes it clear that Reed got rid of Cale so the band could “be more normal” – which is quite a statement to make about Lou Reed! Incredibly, after Reed replaced Cale with bassist and singer Doug Yule, the Velvets somehow began making music which was both wild, unhinged, AND listenable. John Cage had magically transformed into John Adams. The songs easily outshone everything being made at that time: “I Can’t Stand It,” “Pale Blue Eyes,” “What Goes On,” “After Hours“, “Lisa Says,” “Sweet Jane“, “Who Loves the Sun“, “Head Held High“, “Rock & Roll“, and the compulsive “Foggy Notion” (which, amazingly, was not released until 15 years after the band dissolved because that’s just how it is with the Velvets).

The difference was actually quite simple. Rock and roll is first and foremost dance music. Even if people aren’t actually dancing, the music is meant to move you, to make you feel happy to be alive. Joe Strummer once described rock as the feeling of, after coming across a can on the street, kicking that can because it’s proof that you are alive, and it simply feels good to be alive. Go back and listen to Yule’s amazing bass line in “Foggy Notion” – it’s six minutes and forty-seven seconds of life, that much time without pain. Reed was now writing songs that could be danced to but that still had a perverse edge, a wild buzz, with the mysterious extra tones that Richman describes in the film. The heart of what made the Velvet Underground great was the hopped-up go-go band that still remembered sock-hops. (Consider how Velvet successor Pere Ubu’s best track is essentially a rave.)

Strangely, Haynes seems to be aware of this essential part of the band’s legacy even if it is always treated as subtext in the film. He cuts twice to Bo Diddley, once to “Road Runner” when Cale discusses the first time Tony Conrad added amplification to his musical experimentation and again when he describes the repetitive beats he loves in rock and roll. (Besides the obvious musical connections with the Velvets, Diddley was also one of the few early rock musicians with a key female instrumentalist.) I had to stop the film just to recover when Maureen Tucker described her experience when she first heard The Rolling Stone’s “Not Fade Away” while drive home from school – the sound hit her so hard that “I pulled off the road because it was too exciting to keep driving.” That’s the moment I recognized MY Velvet Underground in the film; I felt the exact same way, the exact same way, that she did when I first heard the avalanche of rhythm in that song. I recognized my Velvet Underground again when Haynes cuts directly to “Foggy Notion” – the band’s greatest song – to introduce Yule joining the group, a pitch-perfect moment.

While Haynes does recognize Yule’s contributions, it is also unclear if he tried to interview him for the film. Indeed, Doug Yule has always occupied an odd place in the Velvet’s orbit. He is typically viewed as the most lightweight member of the band – a journeyman drafted to replace the irreplaceable Cale – but I can’t help feeling that, without his arrival at just the right time, the Velvets would have never hit their peak, never become the band that I love. Cale makes a stunning admission in the film – that he has never met Doug Yule. Although original guitarist Sterling Morrison lobbied for his inclusion, Reed and Cale did not include Yule in their 1992 reunion, underlining that he was somehow not a part of the “real” Velvets. Well, Doug, if you ever somehow read this, you are absolutely part of my Velvet Underground.

I first heard of the Velvets as a teenager when thumbing through the sublime third edition of the Rolling Stone Album Guide, which described them as “the most influential rock & roll band of the last 20 years – no contest.” That was an intriguing statement, but how would I even hear their music? The few music stores of my hometown of Centralia, WA, certainly didn’t stock them, and even trips to nearby Olympia didn’t produce anything. They certainly weren’t played on our local radio stations, which was ironically in the full throes of early 90s alternative music at the time, a direct descendant of the Velvets. MP3s shared over the Internet were still a few years away and not something I could even imagine at the time.

Strangely, the first time I heard the band was on the soundtrack to Oliver Stone’s The Doors, which I had borrowed so I could dub Carmina Burana onto one of the camcorder movies my friends and I produced during high school. (We used Carmina Burana as a musical punchline because, even then, it was a cliché for overwrought direction.) The track immediately before that one was “Heroin” which to a sheltered teenager growing up in rural Washington state sounded like it might as well have come from the moon. I barely knew who the Talking Heads or the Clash were, and I certainly had no idea who Television or Gang of Four were. I had never heard anything so audacious, something so propulsive and unnerving at the same time. How could something this disturbing also sound so good?

Still, it took years and years for me to hear more Velvets. I caught up quickly on music before them, falling hard for Little Richard and Bo Diddley, while also finally getting ahold of their progeny such as Horses, London Calling, Marquee Moon, and More Songs about Buildings and Food. I noticed that one of my Columbia House catalogs finally had one – ONE! – Velvet Underground album, the compilation The Best of the Velvet Underground, which was a revelation when it finally arrived in the mail. For the first time, I heard “Sweet Jane” and “I Can’t Stand It” – songs which, again, sounded like nothing else I had ever heard.

Of course, I needed to get my hands on their actual albums, and if you grew up in the age of either iTunes or Spotify, it will be hard to describe to you just how difficult that was back then. Loaded, for example, was actually out-of-print in the US and only available via import. In other words, Americans had to pay foreigners to manufacture albums from one of the greatest American bands and then ship them on boats to us because, apparently, we had bad taste in music or something. I finally found my own copy of Loaded in a London CD shop in the spring of 1997 while spending a quarter at Oxford, costing me 20 pounds of my food stipend. Thus, I finally heard “Who Loves the Sun” while sharing a room with Christopher Tin on the portable CD player and mini-speaker I had packed with me from home. It was all worth it.

Years later, one of the perks of leading the design of Civilization IV was that I got to select the music for the game’s soundtrack, from the medieval Giovanni Palestrina through the modern John Adams. When it came time to pick music for the video of the Rock & Roll Wonder, a new addition for the series, I knew exactly which band I wanted. I asked Take-Two, a little sheepishly, if we could get ahold of The Velvet Underground or, at least, their label. I really had no idea what to expect, whether they would even consider it or how much it might cost. To Take-Two’s credit, they humored me and contacted Universal to find out. Turns out, we could get “Rock & Roll” for $5K, which sounded like a bargain to me.

The song choice itself was perhaps a little too on-the-nose; I probably thought having the song share its name with the Wonder would help distract my superiors from noticing that I was licensing a song from the people who had brought us the very family-friendly “Heroin.” Next time, I’ll just ask for “Foggy Notion” instead because it would be the best way to introduce a teenager living in rural Washington to the Velvet Underground.

Designer Notes 76: Tanya Short

In this episode, Soren interviews veteran game designer Tanya Short, co-founder of Kitfox Games and best known for her work on Moon Hunters and Boyfriend Dungeon. They discuss why her parents had to get a second phone like, how she accidentally made a roguelike, and whether Moon Hunters should have combat. This episode was recorded on March 23, 2023.

Games discussed: Bubble Bobble, Various MUDs, Boyfriend Dungeon, A Tale In the Desert, Morrowind, World of WarCraft, Ultima Online, Age of Conan, The Secret World, Fashion Week Live, For Honor, Dungeons of Fate, Moon Hunters, Puzzle Pirates, Oasis, Dragon Age Legends, Shattered Planet, Civilization, King of Dragon Pass, Spore, 80 Days, Seven Cities of Gold, Worlds of Ultima: The Savage Empire, Hatoful Boyfriend, Dream Daddy, Pentiment, Immortality

Designer Notes 75: Moonbreaker

In this episode, Soren and Leyla interview veteran game designer Charlie Cleveland, founder of Unknown Worlds and best known for his work on Natural Selection and Subnautica. They discuss why Moonbreaker is the first digital miniatures game, if players would notice if critical hits were removed, and whether the game should have an undo. This episode was recorded on March 19, 2023.

Games discussed: Moonbreaker, Warhammer series, Hardspace: Shipbreaker, Magic: The Gathering, Civilization 4, Duelyst, Marvel Snap, Air Land & Sea, Old World, KeyForge, Subnautica, CPU Bach

Designer Notes 74: Charlie Cleveland

In this episode, Soren and Leyla interview veteran game designer Charlie Cleveland, founder of Unknown Worlds and best known for his work on Natural Selection and Subnautica. They discuss why Charlie Cleveland moved to Cleveland, how he did Kickstarter before Kickstarter, and whether Subnautica was intended to be a survival game. This episode was recorded on March 20, 2022.

Games discussed: Pong, Dungeons and Dragons, Magic: The Gathering, Diplomacy, Aquarium Fighter, MindRover, Empire Earth, Natural Selection, Roblox, Natural Selection 2, Subnautica, Don’t Starve

My Elephant in the Room, Part 3

I gave an Old World postmortem at GDC 2022, which is available on YouTube:

However, I fully scripted the talk ahead of time, so I decided it would be worth taking the time to post the slides online, in three parts to have mercy on your browser.

After shipping Civ 3, one thing I heard often from the Civ 2 community was that the modding tools lacked support for something called “events” which I eventually learned meant a system of triggers and effects that modders could use to give games a narrative arc. It could create a series of chapters, for example, which pushed the story forward when the player achieved certain milestones. I tried out a series of mods to see what was possible and was surprised to see how effectively people could push the Civ engine to create something completely new. For example, here is a Civ 2 Fellowship of the Ring mod which lets you retrace Frodo’s journey from the Shire to Moria, encountering all the events of the book along the way.

So, to enable this type of narrative-focused mod, we added triggers and effects to Civ4 using python as the scripting language and, ultimately, just released the game source code itself, which led to some amazing mods, like Fall from Heaven…

…and Dune Wars, both of which completely transformed the game and proved the amazing potential for both story and modding in 4X games. However, although I had given modders all the power they needed, I hadn’t actually done the work myself on how to make narrative work in a 4X game.

I noticed that events were starting to show up in various strategy games, with increasing depth and complexity. They added real texture to the experience and, perhaps more importantly, variety.

The most interesting mixture of strategy and events was the cult classic King of Dragon Pass, a 1999 game that vanished without a trace on release and then somehow snowballed into a hit decades later as word spread of its wild mix of traditional 4X strategy, clan management, and dynamic narrative. The event system was the star, and your choices largely determined the path your game took, often in wildly unpredictable ways. Each event forces you to make difficult tradeoffs between the demands of various factions, both internal and external to your tribe, just as we wanted to do with Old World.

However interesting this was, it’s not a game I could make. First of all, the game has an actual beginning, middle, and end, and I have neither the interest nor the ability to tell a single, cohesive story. More importantly, Dragon Pass doesn’t tell you the effects of your decisions, you are meant to just intuit the results, which works for some games but not for Old World, a game where transparency is one of the most important design aesthetics. The event system might surprise you, but the direct result of each of your decisions needs to be clear. For me, the promise of a strategy game is understanding what’s going to happen each time you click a button while still not being able to predict the future.

So, because transparency was important, I turned to the world of board games for inspiration. Specifically, the dynamic narrative masterpiece Tales of the Arabian Nights, which comes with a gamebook of over 2,000 events, randomly drawn from a deck of cards, and which both react to and can change the player’s current state. The mechanics for choosing events and how they affect the player are transparent and easy to understand, which was necessary because, as with all board games, the players have to do all the work themselves.

So, for example, having the Wit and Charm trait might help you escape a Vengeful Sorceress while an unlucky player without that trait might end up Ensorcelled, which will affect further events down the road. What inspired me about this system was that it was robust – it’s not an intricate event tree where missing a node might cause a story chain to break. Instead, the events are loosely coupled as they are meant to work together regardless of which random set you draw each time you play the game.

One of the benefits of a loosely coupled system is that multiple authors could create events at the same time, without requiring close collaboration or really even any collaboration. Here are some of the authors of the over 3,000 events currently in Old World, led by our CEO and Creative Director Leyla Johnson. Many of these writers worked on the project at completely different times, creating dynamic story arcs by accident. One writer might add an event that results in your Leader becoming a Drunk while another author, years later, creates an event that only triggers if the Leader is a Drunk, and now we have the makings of a little story. Indeed, as we add more events with each bi-weekly update, the story system becomes more and more cohesive as more events are added to cover all the unusual permutations that might happen for each playthrough.

Here are just some of the possible inputs that the event system can look for and most of these can be changed by the system as well. So, the event system is a virtual deck of events where each one has a potential trigger (such as meeting a new nation), a set of requirements (like a childless leader), and possible effects (like a foreign spouse). It’s a broad, deep system that makes one look forward to each new turn to see what will happen next.

What I might be proudest of is that the multiplayer community for Old World plays with events turned ON – we had assumed that players who wanted to play competitively with each other would be put off by the randomness of the system, but they feel like the game is not complete without it. In fact, we put a lot of work into maintaining an alternate version of the game without events or characters or families or all the things that increase randomness, but I’m glad to say that it was probably a waste of time.

One of the best thing about the event system is that it adds content to the game without bloating the design, without adding new rules for the players to learn. We currently have over 3,000 events, but doubling or tripling that number will only add variety to the game without adding any more complexity. Often, with strategy games, less is more, but this is one place where more is actually more. It’s the same reason why card-based wargames like Twilight Struggle and We the People have become popular – it creates a deeper experience while keeping a slimmer ruleset.

Ultimately, the event system ensures that no two games play out the same way as there are endless possible stories as one event leads into another, changing the path of your game while your in-game choices feed back into the event system itself. I accidentally built a interactive fiction engine inside of a 4X game, and I am very excited to see where our writers – and the modding community – can take it.

In Civ 3, we introduced the bargaining table to the 4X genre, pick and choose what you want to give and to receive from all sorts of potential options. It’s become a staple of the genre.

Here it is in Galactic Civilization 3.

In Total War: Three Kingdoms.

In Total War: Warhammer.

In Stellaris.

Unfortunately, it was a big mistake. My first inkling there was a problem was after Civ3 shipped and people started to complain that the AIs all tended to have the same techs. The reason was that the AIs were using the bargaining table the same way humans did – every time they got a new technology, they would contact all of their friends, rivals, and even enemies to see what they could get in return by trading it away – which cost them nothing but could get them a little something in return.

From the human’s perspective, it looks like the AIs were part of a giant tech cartel and were selling techs to each other at bargain prices, but the AI was simply pursuing the optimal strategy. Again, we have a system where players were ruining the games for themselves because there was no cost to contacting every civ every turn and also endlessly tinkering with how to get the best deal possible. No reason not to put just one more gold piece on their side of the table until you’ve hit the AI’s maximum price for what you are trading away.

There are ways to mitigate this issue, but this is a Cursed Game Design problem as defined by Alex Jaffe in his fantastic 2019 GDC talk, which I recommend everyone should take the time to watch. There is a conflict here between the power and flexibility of the bargaining table and the give-and-take of real diplomacy where flawed personalities come into play and you can’t nickel-and-dime a rival without offending them.

Ultimately, we come back to this – there is no solution here because we are giving the player all the tools to ruin the game for themselves.

Fortunately, Old World had a system in place that could solve this problem by replacing the bargaining table with something else – the Event System! Here is one example – you married a Babylonian many years ago and now because of that connection you must choose a side in the war between Babylon and Carthage.

This system presents the player with interesting diplomatic events and choices that react to the current game state, serving up possible paths to war at a pace that is healthy for the player. Getting rid of the bargaining table was a risky decision because players expect it by now, but the end result could be so much more dynamic and interesting and free the player of the burden of trying to min-max the table. So, when you ask another nation for a truce or for a trade mission or to start an alliance, the game gathers all the events with those specific triggers, throws out the ones that are not applicable to your current situation (such as the events that require a child ruler), and then randomly picks one to present you. Angry nations are still less likely to want to trade with you, but the actual result of a trade mission will still be unexpected, making it a worthwhile gamble to take.

In this example, you can get out of a war if you captured a hostage during combat – a good example of the loosely coupled events I mentioned earlier.

In this example, based on a story from Livy of a meeting of Hannibal and Scipio Africanus after the end of the second Punic War, you are forced to choose who is the best general, either one of your own or one of theirs. You must choose between damaging your own legitimacy or angering your guests. These incidents stir the pot of diplomacy and make the game dynamic.

Here, Rome is offering you one of its unique units, a Hastatus, as a Mercenary, a good example of something we’d be afraid to put on the bargaining table because it would be abusable, but it works fine as a random event which isn’t guaranteed to appear.

Now, here is the great beast, the biggest design challenge for every 4X out there – how to bring the game to a satisfying conclusion after hundreds of turns and an untold, perhaps embarrassing, number hours in front of the computer. I view Victory Conditions as a necessary evil; for awhile, I had hoped that maybe we could do without them altogether, like the Paradox Grand Strategy games do. No one really cares about winning or losing those games, it’s all about the experience, MAN, so maybe victory conditions had become old-fashioned. Maybe I was old-fashioned! The truth is that games like Crusader Kings and Europa Universalis are really more like simulations than they are like games, and one important fact about 4X games is that they are g-a-m-e-s games. Players expect to win, or give up trying.

One thing I did not want to inherit from the Civ series was themed victories – another thing that I helped get rolling back with Civ3 which added Cultural and Diplomatic victories to the traditional Conquest and Space Race. The problem with themed victories is that, because they require a high bar, the player has to aim for them early on, which warps all the decisions made over the course of the game. Aiming for the religious victory? Make sure to always make the religious choice each time you get it as an option! Thus, I needed something more, well, generic, and I needed it quickly because we were playing Old World as a multiplayer game within the first six months of the project.

So, I went for the most boring solution possible – victory points – and it worked out surprisingly well. The reason it worked is because we tied them to city sites – which were a known quantity because we determined how many sites there were at the beginning of the game. If a 4X game without city sites had a victory condition that simply required X cities to win, then it’s no mystery what would happen – the game would have the worst case of ICS ever as players would be cramming cities everywhere. Instead, because we knew that a specific map had only 30 city sites on it, it became easy to pick some threshold which would trigger victory. 

Of course, while victory points are a perfectly serviceable win condition, they hardly fire the imagination, so we needed something a little more interesting, a little more thematic. I wanted a victory condition that dynamically told the story of your dynasty and hopefully even pushed you to play a little differently. I found my inspiration for this from Jetpack Joyride, which had a mission system that encouraged you to achieve one of three random goals, often ones that forced you to play the game differently. Our initial ambition system worked just like this, three random ambitions which give a bonus upon completion and which get replaced by slightly more difficult ones.

Eventually, we made these part of the character system as the Ambitions would be attached to your leader, similar to how it works in Crusader Kings. Further, the Ambitions that come up would be related to the current game state. In this case, the leader is a Builder, so she gets Ambitions to build Wonders. However, they were not initially part of the victory system.

In fact, the initial reason I tried turing Ambitions into a Victory Condition was actually to save the original name of the game, Ten Crowns. The name initially meant that you had ten lives to play the game, ten rulers before the game would end, but that proved too hard to work out in practice as ten rulers could last 50 turns, or they could last 500. Thus, I tried to retcon the name by renaming “Ambitions” to “Crowns” and then the victory condition would be right in the title! However, the team didn’t buy it, and we of course shipped with a different name.

Speaking of which, when we ran the trademark search for Old World, we got a one-line note from our lawyer that Amazon had reserved the word New World for some upcoming video game. I didn’t give it much thought because how often does Amazon actually ship their games…

…yeah, it was fun trying to spend the end of last year explaining on Twitch that we weren’t some weird prequel to New World.

So, the game would be called Old World, and we now had a simple, thematic victory condition – fulfill ten ambitions picked by the rulers of your dynasty and win the game. However, one issue I have often seen with the themed victories of Civ is that, because they can focus on internal progress that is not visible to other players, when one player achieves a Cultural or Religious or Scientific victory, it can some as quite a surprise, and I don’t believe a player should ever be surprised by a “You Just Lost” popup after a twenty hour game. So, we made the simple decision that the AI could not win via Ambitions, they could only win with victory points, which are much more straightforward (and always visible in the upper-left corner).

This type of asymmetry is unusual in a 4X game where the AIs are ostensibly supposed to be stand-ins for human players, but that’s always been a myth. Players don’t actually want the AIs to behave like humans – as a simple example, real human players would usually all gang up on a player who is coming close to victory, regardless of previous relationships. However, if you have the AI behave that way, players will accuse it of treating the human unfairly, of not letting them win fair and square. There’s nothing inherently better about symmetrical design – indeed, I’d say much of the most interesting work in the tabletop renaissance is with deeply asymmetrical games like Root or the COIN series.

Once we broke the seal of asymmetry, it opened up the design space significantly. The AI, for example, doesn’t get events because we wanted events to have meaningful results. It’s ok for one of YOUR events to end a war because you convinced the AI’s heir to seize the throne – however, it wouldn’t be ok for that to happen to you just because the AI drew that event. Trust me, that may sound interesting theoretically, but it’s not going to go down well with players. Further, without symmetry, we could rethink difficulty levels. Instead of giving the AI bonuses, like faster research or cheaper troops, we simply start the AI with more cities than you.

Thematically, you are a new nation in an Old World, somewhat like Rome was in the fourth century BC, a small kingdom centered on one city and surrounded by larger, more ancient empires like Greece, Egypt, Persia, and Carthage. Thus, the AI in Old World plays without any bonuses or cheats at all, simply with a significant head start depending on the difficulty level. We felt players would enjoy knowing the AI was playing by the same rules as the player while also finding a way to provide a challenge for veterans.

Maybe this is a better animal themed metaphor for where I am now as a designer. I’ve gone deep on 4X games during my career. I probably know more about these types of games, what works and what doesn’t work, than is really healthy for a person. My design journey with Old World was truly about putting that knowledge to good use, to not let it go to waste, so that we could push the genre forward in an intelligent, considered way.

Often the best source of innovation is from new blood coming into the industry with new ideas, but I’d like my work now to show that it’s possible to innovate after 22 years in the industry as long as you’re willing to give an honest assessment of what parts of your games have been making players’ lives better and which parts have been making them worse. Many of the mechanics and systems from Civ that I’ve rejected with Old World are ones that I came up with myself. The bargaining table and themed victories, cultural borders and strategic resources, are ideas that I pushed for when I was 24, just out of college.

Old World is a conversation with myself as a younger designer, and I feel fortunate that I got the opportunity to have that conversation. Opportunities like this don’t come along everyday.

Thank you.

Part 1, Part 2

My Elephant in the Room, Part 2

I gave an Old World postmortem at GDC 2022, which is available on YouTube:

However, I fully scripted the talk ahead of time, so I decided it would be worth taking the time to post the slides online, in three parts to have mercy on your browser.

Now, let’s talk about the tech tree, which has always had a problem with golden paths. For example, at the start of Civ 4, you can just click on Gunpowder, and the game will show you exactly which 11 technologies to research to get there. For a game with average playtimes in the hundreds of hours, this becomes a real problem. Indeed, with the popularity today of games based on random runs, fixed tech trees are going against the grain of contemporary design.

I found a solution from deck-building games like Dominion – what if we treated all the techs like cards instead?

So, all techs currently available are in the deck, and you draw four at a time. The cards you don’t pick go into the discard pile along with any new cards that you unlock. Then, you draw four more for your next choice and don’t reshuffle until you have exhausted the deck. This doesn’t just add variety – it also makes the decisions more interesting because you know that when you don’t pick a tech, it won’t be available again until it comes all the way back through the discard pile through the draw pile and then back to your hand. Passing on Ironworking means that you might not see it again for a long time.

The system is certainly more complicated than a traditional tech tree, but it helps a lot that many players are already familiar with deck-building mechanics because of their popularity.

Turning techs into “cards” also enables the idea of bonus cards, which give an instant boost, like a Free Settler, as you see here, or a Great Scientist or a lump sum of Stone. There is a nice short-term vs. long-term tradeoff here as science points are not easy to come by, so slowing your progress for a short-term boost is a difficult choice, an interesting decision.

If you’ve played my last game, Offworld Trading Company, you know that I love stockpiles and markets and building improvements that spit out resources at different rates, so I wanted to give that a try for Old World.

One of the reasons Civ games haven’t done this is that cities can get stuck because they couldn’t build something – if you have no access to Stone, are you just not able to build buildings? What happens each turn then? We solved that problem by borrowing the dynamic open market from Offworld.

Need some iron to build a Swordsman? Just buy it from the market. If the price of iron is too high, then sell off your excess stone first.

Note that although we were making a game with a free market, it’s not a game ABOUT the free market, so instead of having a single price for all goods, there would be some friction, so we used the original system from Age of Empires where the buy price is double the sell price. Thus, while buying resources from the market is always an option for the player, it’s generally best to produce them yourself.

Civ has always had a generic Production resource, sometimes called Shields, Hammers, or just Production, but it went into building everything – Settlers, Warriors, Temples, the Pyramids, everything. I wanted to split this production into different categories so that cities could actually specialize, one might be good at building military, another at developing specialists, another at creating settlers and workers, so we split Production into three categories: Growth, Training, and Civics.

I didn’t originally know what to do with these yields when the city wasn’t producing that type of item, but the stockpiles for food, iron, wood, and stone were working so well that I decided to try that for Training and Civics. I didn’t know exactly what I would use it for but was confident that I would find a use for it over time. As you can see, we eventually found plenty of uses for the global Training and Civics stockpiles.

I put together this chart of all the non-resource yields and how they connect with the game. You can see how every yield occupies a unique place in the game, and even this is an incomplete list! We could also do it by Shrines, by Theologies, by Council, and so on.

Another benefit is that the code considers all of these yields, including food, iron, wood, and stone, the same type of thing, so it is very easy for the event system to suggest some unusual tradeoffs. Would you like to sacrifice some orders for some extra science? Maybe trade your civics to another nation for food in return?

One of Civ’s most troublesome systems is the tile/citizen model, where your food, production, and commerce is determined by which tiles your citizens work. It’s a complicated system. Here’s the Civ 1 city screen – I remember one Civ developer once quipped that it’s best feature was that if you clicked anywhere, it just went away and you were no longer afraid.

Each citizen in a city is assigned to a specific tile, and these tiles all have different yields, and the player has the freedom to move every citizen around every turn. Over time, the designers have added all sorts of automated systems to encourage players not to mess with their citizens. (And remember with workers how automation is a red flag?)

Even worse, for hardcore players, the citizen system is a temptation to lose hours and hours of time with needless micromanagement because there is no cost to moving your citizens around every turn, to eek out some small 1% benefit. These are not fun decisions. There’s a pattern to these systems which suck the player into boring micromanagement – they lack any real tradeoffs, either because they have no costs or because they are temporary. Interesting decisions come from giving something up and from making decisions that you’ll have to live with for the rest of the game. Decisions where you have to think holistically past the information horizon. You aren’t just doing math to figure out what gives you a single extra food this turn; instead, you are making an intuitive decision about what might get you more food farther down the road AND whether food will be more or less valuable to you latter on than it is right now.

Our way out of this problem is to have ALL improvements produce yields on their own, but Citizens could be permanently turned into Specialists on an improvement to boost its output by 50-100% and give multiple other benefits, like extra science. Further, these Specialists would each have a cost, both a food cost and an opportunity cost. Building a Trapper or a Poet doesn’t just cost Food, it also means your city is not building a Chariot or another Settler. More importantly, though, your decisions would be permanent, there is no opportunity to go back to micromanage and rewind your decisions. Permanent decisions are a very important tool for a designer – it gives the player the freedom to move forward and not optimize the fun out of the game.

Finally, let’s talk about Culture, which as I mentioned before, no longer determines borders. Instead, Culture is now measured in four discrete steps that determine the internal advancement of your cities. (Brian Reynolds actually suggested I rename Culture to “Civilization”… but that was too cheeky for me.) Having four separate culture levels per city was a new orthogonal way to measure progress outside of the tech tree. Thus, Wonders are not unlocked by techs but by CULTURE, which also allows us to rotate the ones available each game.

We could also tie your nation’s unique units to a city’s Culture level, and also many urban buildings, so Courthouses would require cities with Developing Culture, Ministries would require Strong cities, and Palaces Legendary ones.

Now that we felt good about the gameplay, we felt it was safe to start exposing publishers to our ideas. This is the first slide of our pitch deck. Note that it used to be called Ten Crowns, and the simple elevator pitch is right there in the first slide: The Fun of Civilization plus the Drama of Crusader Kings. Expect many things to change about your design, including the title, but it’s important to have a core vision that doesn’t change. Indeed, most of the reviews for Old World describe the game exactly this way, as a hybrid of Civilization and Crusader Kings.

The initial impetus for characters originally came from the popularity of Crusader Kings – we could see how much players latch onto real characters who are born, grow, age, decline, and die. It’s not just CK, though, you could see this trend from XCOM through the Total War series up to new games like Wildermyth. People want to care about the characters in their games.

However, the bigger question is WHY would a game like Civ benefit from characters. First off, we should mention that it’s actually impossible to put flesh-and-blood people into Civ because the game covers 6,000 years of history. That’s why we limited our timeframe to just Classical Antiquity, so that the game could plausibly last a few generations. Nonetheless, ignoring the thematic issues, how would characters change the GAMEPLAY of Civ?

To answer that question, let’s talk about another long-standing problem with Civ known as ECS – the Eternal China Syndrome. It means that over time, Civs become more stable, less dynamic, and less interesting to manage. As they add more and more buildings and wonders and laws and technologies, the internal problems get less and less interesting. A bonus that was interesting 30 turns ago now just fades into the background. The only real pressure exerted on the player is from external forces – enemy players.

Character, however, provide a way out of the ECS problem. Buildings and technologies never get old and die, but character sure do. If we attach powers to characters, the game will shift as different leaders take and leave the throne – not to mention new courtiers, heirs, councilors, spouses, and so on. The dynastic landscape is constantly changing. Civ might be a lot more interesting if, say, the map changed every so many turns. Unfortunately, that just doesn’t make any sense thematically even if it would be good for gameplay.

However, characters changing, growing old, and dying, doesn’t just make sense, players EXPECT it to happen. I can’t overstate how significant that is – taking powers away from the player in Civilization is basically a non-starter, yet here is a situation where players would be upset if they DIDN’T lose these powers.

Indeed, we can add powers to characters that would normally be impossible to add to the game if they were accretive in the way Civ usually works – meaning that once you unlock the power, it never goes away. Each character in Old World is one of 10 archetypes, each with special powers if that archetype sits on the throne. Because players only have partial control of archetypes, we can add significant, game-changing abilities here, knowing they will be active roughly 10% of the time. Hero leaders can Launch Offensives (which allows units to attack twice a turn), Orators can hire tribal units as Mercenaries, Tacticians can Stun enemy units, and so on.

Dynamic characters are also a huge boon for diplomacy, an area where sudden changes are always tricky to pull off. In Civ games, if a friendly ally suddenly attacks you, it’s often describe as “random” or “unpredictable” AI, even though it’s crucial for the flow of the game that the AI’s ARE willing to change their opinion of you (or else the Eternal China Syndrome applies to them as well). With characters, however, it’s expected that a nation will change its opinion of you when a new ruler takes the throne. We didn’t design this – it just flows naturally from adding real people into the game. Thus, a problem that has bedeviled Civ for decades was solved in a way that feels natural to the player.

Part 1, Part 3

My Elephant in the Room, Part 1

I gave an Old World postmortem at GDC 2022, which is available on YouTube:

However, I fully scripted the talk ahead of time, so I decided it would be worth taking the time to post the slides online, in three parts to have mercy on your browser.

Welcome to My Elephant in the Room: An Old World Design Postmortem.

Here are the games that I’ve worked on. Spoiler alert: Civilization 3 and 4 are going to come up a lot in the presentation…

I also do a podcast where I interview game designers about why they make games, so check it out if you have time for 4-hour interviews.

Old World is a 4X set in classical antiquity, with a focus on characters. The simplest pitch is imagine a game like Civ but you are actually Alexander the Great, each turn you get a year older, and you will eventually die, and one of your children will take over.

I’ve already mentioned the world Civilization a number of times, so let’s just talk about the elephant in the room. There is not a single preview or review of Old World that does not mention Civ somewhere in the opening paragraph. Every Twitch stream, you’ll always see a “is this the new Civ?” somewhere in the comments.

More personally, here is my own elephant in the room, Civ3 and Civ4. So, why should I go back to make a historical, tile-based 4X game? A Civ-like, so to speak.

Indeed, Civ4 was a best case scenario for a young game designer. It’s the #18 PC game of all-time on Metacritic – and the number one strategy game this century.

It somehow even won a Grammy award, for Baby Yetu, by my college roommate Christopher Tin, which was definitely not even on the radar when we developed the game. At any rate, Civ 4 was the first game I was the lead designer of. Frankly, it’s all downhill from here.

(Editor’s Note: Later in 2022, Old World actually was nominated for a Grammy!)

So, before I explain why I made Old World, let’s talk a little about what the game is and how it was developed.

Here is the very first pitch screen for Old World. It was a lot simpler at the start – in this image, it was conceived of as a tablet game, with the orders system and a resource market but without characters.

Here are some screen’s from the game’s prototyping phase. The earliest playable version, in the upper-right, was multiplayer only, just as I had done with Civ 4, and you can see that by 2018, we had started to add characters to the game.

Here are shots leading up to release. There’s a lot to digest here, but I just wanted to give a sense of how the look and feel of the game changed, year-by-year.

So, now let’s talk about why I made Old World. Why go back to revisit games that stand well on their own and, moreover, are part of a franchise that is continuing to succeed and grow.

One good reason is to know your inheritance, to reexamine it, to look for ideas which were baked into the very earliest version of the game and see if changing them could transform the experience. A good example is what I’ll call “Every Unit Moves” which is how Civ has always worked. Every unit gets to move once per turn.

Civ inherited this mechanic directly from Empire, a game from the 80s which had much of the same tile-based, turn-based combat as Civ but without the scope of all human history.

And Empire got Every Unit Moves from wargames, which you can see here in the form of a monster version of the Eastern front. The conventional way to play a hex-based wargame was for every counter to move once every turn.

The problem with Every Unit Moves is that you are not actually making any tradeoffs, not deciding between your military and your infrastructure. It’s Guns AND Butter. There is no reason NOT to take an action. This is one of the main sources of the late-game slog in Civ games – if you’ve built 100 units, then that means you have 100 decisions to make each turn, and frequent decisions are rarely interesting ones. Indeed, worker automation has become a standard, expected feature in latter Civ games because players know that these constant, low-stake decisions become boring quickly. Because creating more mines and farms has no cost to the player, there is no reason NOT to do so. Of course, players don’t want to have to do the busywork themselves – and it’s busywork because these decisions have no cost, no tradeoffs. Generally speaking, anytime you have to add automation to a game, it’s a red flag, a good time to evaluate whether the thing you are automating is well designed.

This is a slide from our original pitch deck explaining how Orders would work. On the left you can see Every Unit Moves and on the right you can see how it works with Old World. It’s up to the player to decide how to spend their Orders.

Orders didn’t come out of the blue. Instead, it came from a number of sources, including some odd ones like Facebook games. Here is Frontierville, by Brian Reynolds, the designer of Civ2, which took Farmville and added an Energy mechanic that limited the player’s actions.

This was an odd little moment in time, by the way. Three former Civ designers, myself, Bruce Shelley, and Brian, were all working for Zynga, and even Sid was making Civ for Facebook.

Note that the point of the Energy system in Frontierville was to ration out progress (so you don’t burn out on the game) which creates friction and, thus, a potential microtransaction. I didn’t have any interest in that – indeed, I’d say I had anti-interest in it – but I did like how it made you think about what to do with your actions. Suddenly, interesting decisions emerged!

Here’s another example from that time period – Hero Academy from Robot Entertainment. This game gave the player five actions each turn which could be used for moves or attacks however the player wanted. In fact, this game went even further than Old World as units could attack multiple times per turn.

Not all wargames used Every Unit Moves. Eric Lee Smith’s Civil War game used an initiative mechanic where you alternated moves with the other side, which could allow you to move one army many, many hexes in one season while other troops were left in place. Coincidentally, this was the first wargame I discovered as a child, so I do feel like its ruleset has always been in the back of my mind.

Worker placement games are also an influence as they are all about giving the player a lot of options but a limited number of actions. Choosing to do X means you can’t do Y.

The thing all these systems have in common is forcing the player to choose one thing and NOT to choose another. In other words, Guns or Butter.

The Orders system was always part of the design, and it gave me a reason to return to making a Civ-like game as this one simple change would radically transform the game. There were many other new things I wanted to try, but this one change was the reason to get started.

Of course, like all design, just because you have an idea, doesn’t mean you know how to implement it. There are probably 100 ways to make an Orders system work. I know because I tried 99 of them. Here, in the very earliest, multiplayer-only, version of the game, you could actually buy and sell orders freely, just like the other resources. It was super interesting strategically but was perhaps TOO interesting as it warped the whole game towards who could buy the most orders. 

Here are some of the different versions of the orders system we tried – one on a real-time clock, one where you could stockpile unused orders between turns, one with a hard cap, and so on. We eventually settled on a fatigue system where most units could move three times a turn but could move farther via a Forced March which had a steep cost.

However, most of these other ideas didn’t get tossed away. Instead, we hid them away behind late-game laws – Coin Debasement unlocks buying Orders, for example, and Elites unlock Stockpiling Orders. That’s a useful trick if you ever try something which is interesting but just too powerful. Don’t cut it right away – instead, shuffle it away to the late game where it can stay interesting but rare.

I was worried about the ramifications of Orders for the AI but, in the end, it worked out for the best because it enables the AI to actually attack on their own initiative, instead of coming at the player slowly, turn-by-turn, allowing itself to get picked off. Multiplayer sessions, on the other hand, were fascinating – victorious teams were usually the ones who saved Orders for their economy as roads became hugely important in order to make units more Orders efficient.

The strength of the Orders system was the huge possibility space it created each turn because there were so many different ways to spend your Orders. This vast, sometimes intimidating, space led to the Undo feature which kept players from feeling overwhelmed – players could try out multiple ways to launch an attack and then just change their mind and do something else.

It was initially intended just to help with misclicks but became a pillar of the game (and was awesome for debugging too).

Indeed, undo turned out to be one of our most popular features – it was often one of the 3 or 4 bullet points listed in the pro column for reviews. It’s an unexplored area – a number of games like Invisible Inc and Into the Breach have experimented with limited undos but we didn’t find that necessary. Players appreciate being able to play the game however they want to play it. (It helps, of course, that we have deterministic combat. Games with a lot of output randomness would not be a good match for an undo button.)

While we are mentioning quality of life features like Undo, I also have to mention our help system as our tooltips have tooltips. As is often the case with strategy games, the tooltips refer to something that you need more information on, which usually means taking a trip to the manual or the wiki or the in-game encyclopedia. In Old World, you can either middle-click or shift-click to…

…just open up a new tooltip off of the previous one. Now, we might want to know what Rancher means, so we just…

…open up another tooltip. Hmm, I wonder what Civics are…

…and you can go as far as you want. We have Infinite tooltips!

I definitely want to mention that the designer who pioneered infinite tooltips is Jon Shafer, who worked with me on Civ 4 and was the lead designer of Civ 5. Old World was the second game to implement them, and I expect them to become a standard convention for turn-based games in coming years.

I wrote this line in a column entitled Water Finds a Crack back in 2011, and it is now permanently the most popular post on my blog. It’s sort of taken on a life of its own, showing up in random videos and other GDC talks, and it is also super applicable to ICS. What is ICS, you might ask?

ICS means Infinite City Sprawl, the bane of Civ designers. Basically, players learned early on that the most optimal way to play was to squeeze as many cities onto the map as possible. Each iteration of the game tried a different method to fix the issue: Civ 3 had Corruption, Civ 4  had Maintenance, Civ 5 had Global Unhappiness, but they all are unfun bandaids.

Interestingly, this is a solved problem for space 4X games – Master of Orion, traditionally considered the first space 4X, didn’t have this issue because “cities” are equivalent to planets, so one city per planet. Thus, a fixed number of cities each game.

Endless Legend and Humankind do something similar with regions, cutting the board up into territories at the start of the game and then allowing only one city per territory. We tried something like this with Civ 3, but I was unsatisfied with it because I felt that your choices should determine the borders between cities, not the designer’s hand before the game begins. 

I found a middle ground between limited sites and dynamic growth by putting preset city sites on the map but then all the border growth after that would be determined by the player’s actions. New borders would come from tile specialists and urban improvement. Thus, we rejected one more piece of our inheritance as borders have always come, at least since Civ 3, from a city’s culture.

Finally, city sites also gave us a natural place for tribal camps, which helps drive conflict and ensures that the player needs to balance expansion with military and not just spam settlers.

Civ 5 introduced one unit per tile, a big change for the series. Definitely another elephant in the room, although in this case not my elephant. At any rate, the popularity of Civ 5 and 6 meant that a lot of players would expect one unit per tile. 

Debates rage over Civ4’s stacks-of-doom vs Civ5’s carpets-of-doom. However, making a big change to combat was needed for Civ 5 as each iteration needs to shake things up. Just as Old World needs to justify its existence, each version of Civ does too.

We started with one unit per tile simply because it was the easiest thing to code, but I thought I had a clever solution for a better stacking system – simply put, the player could stack units, but if that tile was ever attacked, each unit on that tile would be hit equally. Therefor, because Old World has no counter-attacks, stacking a bunch of units on the same tile would be very dangerous. So, we were naturally encouraging players not to stack their units, but they could be tempted to if stacking an extra unit on a tile got them a kill.

However, before finalizing anything, we decided to try classic one unit per tile combat just to see how it felt, and surprisingly, it felt great. It works because Old World doesn’t have counter-attacks like all of the other Civ games. Combat is essentially split across multiple turns, with units trading blows until one dies or retreat. Each separate attack is without risk – only the target is damaged. The Orders system made this necessary because allowing defenders to damage attackers is akin to giving them a free Order-less attack, and defenders almost always have an advantage in these types of games anyway.

Ultimately, however, I wanted to reward attacking because attacking is more fun. Pictured here is a very rare version of Risk – only 1000 copies were ever made. It’s the one Rob Daviau worked on before designing Risk Legacy, and it made one huge, crucial change to the game.

It added objectives, which are crucially important because you win the game not by conquering the world but by simply being the first player to achieve 3 objectives. They were so important to achieve that they changed how people would play the game. Instead of playing defensively and turtling up in Australia, players would want to go on offensives each turn to grab these objectives, which go to the first player to achieve them. You would overextend yourself to try to actually control Asia just because you wanted that objective even though you knew you would lose Asia the next turn. It made for a more dynamic game because attacking is fun.

Generally speaking, taking actions in games is more fun than making it harder for other players to take actions. Conservative counterplay is less fun for you, and it’s definitely less fun for your opponent.

Civ players are used to beating the AI by allowing it to kill itself against your heavily fortified units, so taking away counter-damage is a big change, but again, I wanted to reward attacking because attacking is more fun.

However, allowing players to overload a combat front via stacking to get a kill took away the opportunity for the defender to counterattack, so one unit per tile was actually a very important piece of the puzzle to making our combat system work.

Really, you have to look at it holistically, as the three systems support each other. The biggest problem with one unit per tile in Civ is that it leads to traffic jams where units clog up the tiles between cities.

City Sites alleviate this problem because we can enforce a very high minimum distance between cities, much higher than in a Civ game. The Orders system, on the other hand, ensures that units don’t block each other while moving through tight passages because every unit can make multiple moves per turn if necessary. And, as I mentioned, one unit per tile balances some of the extremities of the Orders system by making it impossible to form stacks to kill a unit in a single turn, which removes the ability to counter-attack. So, the three systems fit together nicely, buttressing one another.

Part 2, Part 3

Designer Notes 73: Liz England

In this episode, Soren interviews veteran game designer Liz England, best known for her work on Scribblenauts, Sunset Overdrive, and Watch Dogs: Legion. They discuss how she organized her mom’s RPG inventories, what is the boiling point of a lion, and whether system complexity matters if the player can’t see it. This episode was recorded on September 17, 2022.

Games discussed: Alice in Wonderland, Time Zone, The Outer Wilds, Might and Magic: World of Xeen, Heroes of Might and Magic, Unreal, Drawn to Life, Scribblenauts series, Resistance 3, Sunset Overdrive, Sea of Thieves, Watch Dogs: Legion, Old World, Crusader Kings series, The Sims series