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

GDC 2023: You Have No Idea How Hard It Is To Run A Sweatshop

I am speaking at this year’s GDC, and the talk will be something of a sequel to GDC 2010’s “Theme Is Not Meaning” (which was the lecture version of two Game Developer columns I wrote earlier that year). I reconstructed the talk from my slides and the recorded audio here:

In 2010, I argued that we need to stop assuming that a game’s theme provides its meaning and, instead, that meaning comes from the mechanics themselves. Since then, I have seen many people point out that we should stop referring to a game’s setting as its “theme” as the word “theme” should have a much broader, and more significant, meaning than whether a game is about “ancient history” or “an alien invasion” or whatever. Ideally, of course, a game’s setting should mesh well with its theme, but we need to stop conflating the two by being careless with our language.

This time around, I am tackling whether our games actually succeed at addressing their true themes and, furthermore, if we have any idea what we are doing as game designers. To be blunt, I’m swinging for the fences with this talk, am probably going to get out over my skis, and [feel free to suggest other sports-related disaster-prone metaphors in the comments]. So, if you want to see me likely crash-and-burn (or maybe pull it off), come to Room 2016, West Hall, on Thursday at 4:00. Hope to see you there!

Official GDC Description:

Can games teach us about our ourselves? Can a game be a statement about the world? Do we design games intentionally or accidentally?

This talk addresses these questions and much more—including Voros McCracken, Ottoman fratricide, fancy hats, Le Corbusier, nuclear holocaust, Mt. Rushmore, and the 1994 Caribbean Cup. Come find out how hard it is to run a sweatstop. Stay for a hopeful and skeptical look at how to make games that say what we want them to say.

Designer Notes 72: Harvey Smith

In this episode, Soren and Leyla interview veteran game designer Harvey Smith, best known for his work on the Deus Ex and Dishonored series. They discuss what TDA stood for at Origin, if Dishonored is just Thief but faster, and why it is sometimes better to be heavy handed. This episode was recorded on March 23, 2022.

Games discussed: Pong, Adventure, Defender, Dungeons and Dragons, Elden Ring, Ultima Underworld, System Shock, Fireteam, Deus Ex series, Dishonored series, Redfall

My Elephant in the Room

I gave a design postmortem at GDC this year on Old World, a game which took me six years to make. In reality, it took me 22 years to make this game as every stop in my career path informed the design, especially lessons learned from my first seven years at Firaxis, working on Civilization III and IV. It’s my elephant in the room, so to speak.

Designer Notes #71: Matthew Davis

In this episode, Soren interviews independent game developer Matthew Davis, co-founder of Subset Games and best known for his work on FTL and Into the Breach. They discuss whether FTL is a roguelike, how they resolve conflict at Subset, and whether Soren can convince them to add unlimited undo to Into the Breach. This episode was recorded on Sept 19, 2022.

Games discussed: Super Mario World, Secret of Mana, Fallout series, Scorched Earth, MLB 2K ???, HeroQuest, Ticket to Ride, Battle Line, FTL, Red November, Tetris, DOTA 2, League of Legends, Spelunky, Civilization series, Slay the Spire, Vampire Survivors, Into the Breach, XCOM series, Final Fantasy Tactics, Fire Emblem series, Tactics Ogre, Advance Wars series, Triangle Strategy, Old World, Offworld Trading Company, Invisible Inc., Civilization: The Card Game

Designer Notes #70: Justin Ma

In this episode, Soren interviews independent game developer Justin Ma, co-founder of Subset Games and best known for his work on FTL and Into the Breach. They discuss how he bombed his first game industry interview, why the AI in FTL can’t behave like a human, and whether Into the Breach should have unlimited undo. This episode was recorded on March 24, 2022.

Games discussed: Pitfall, Manhole, StarTropics, Top Sin, FTL, NetHack, Stone Soup, Spelunky, Into the Breach, XCOM series, Wildermyth, Old World

Designer Notes #69: Chris DeLay – Part 2

In this episode, Soren and Leyla interview independent game developer Chris DeLay, co-founder of Introversion Software and best known for his work on Uplink, Darwinia, Defcon, and Prison Architect. They discuss how to play Prison Architect without a prison, why the game needed cutscenes, and how to design an economy when the world is ending. This episode was recorded on March 24, 2022.

Games discussed: Prison Architect, Scanner Sombre, The Last Starship, Academia: School Simulator, Road to Ruin, Oxygen Not Included, Dwarf Fortress, Old World

Thoughts on Wingspan

Recently, Leyla and I finally got a chance to try out Wingspan. It’s clearly a great game, and I expect to bring it to the table many times over the years ahead. I have a few thoughts on it, especially taking into consideration that the game is a huge hit, having sold well over a million copies.

The Setting Matters and also Doesn’t Matter

Making the game about birds goes a long way to explain the breakout success of the game. It’s not so much that most people don’t want to play games about orcs, aliens, or tanks; it’s more that the people who do want to play a game about orcs, aliens, or tanks have way, way, WAY too many options already. The natural law of supply-and-demand is mostly ignored by game developers and publishers. For players who would find a game about birds appealing, well, how many options do they have for a well-designed game? I’m struggling to think of another one. Further, the setting is lovingly employed; Wingspan is not the sort of Eurogame that got its setting pasted on shortly before printing. Instead, it’s clear that the game was always about birds, and that the designer and artists took their time to research the topic and consider how aspects of the setting could be turned into mechanics (it’s a pleasure see how owls, buzzards, turkeys, and so on are each turned into a single rule). The cards have beautiful and accurate bird illustrations as one might find in a great birding book. Of course, the birdhouse dice tower and little colored wooden eggs help a lot too.

However, it’s important to note that the setting doesn’t matter all that much for making the game actually work. It’s not exactly clear what role the player is in while playing the game. Are we birders who are trying to identify birds? That wouldn’t make sense as players spend food to hatch new birds. Are we trying to build the best army (fleet? armada?) of birds better than the other players? What would that even mean? Why do we place eggs on one species of birds and then use those eggs to hatch a different species of bird? Most importantly, though, none of this really matters because the game just works. It’s really a game about (surprise) managing three different resources – food, eggs, and cards – with the monkey wrench that the cards have unusual, often orthogonal, powers to keep each game fresh. A game’s setting is useful to give players a schema to understand the rules, but designers should not overthink things and worry about the parts of their games that don’t make sense. Games have their own internal logic that makes sense on its own, and Wingspan smartly knows which parts of its setting to care about and which parts to ignore.

Affordances Everywhere

I’m not sure if designer Elizabeth Hargrove is familiar with Donald Norman’s classic book The Design of Everyday Things and its emphasis on affordances – how simple choices that designers make determine how easy it will be for people to use their products correctly. (The classic example is using a flat metal panel to suggest – or rather, to give the affordance – that a door should be pushed to open and NOT to use a handle, which instead suggests that a door should be pulled open.) A game with good affordances is difficult to play incorrectly. Wingspan’s design is full of these types of affordances.

Consider the eight action cubes with which each player starts the game. At the end of each of the four rounds, one of these cubes goes onto the goal track, recording which player got first, second, third, etc. Then, each round the players have one less action to take, which is easy to remember because the extra action cubes are now sitting on the goal track, so players are never at risk of accidentally playing too many actions in a round. It’s a perfect way for players to understand that they get less actions per round as the game progresses. What I’m curious about is which came first, the exact pattern of 8-7-6-5 actions or the graphic design of leaving the cubes on the track? It seems unlikely that these numbers were picked independently, or that they just happen to be the perfect set of numbers for the game itself. I’d like to think that the designer decided it was more important to have the game rules match the physical design with the best affordance. (What if the game plays slightly better with four or six actions in the final round? It’s not worth breaking the affordance of one action cube being removed each round.)

Furthermore, consider the player mat, which provides a visual guide to the four player actions, the escalating powers and costs for each of the actions, a shorthand history of moves per round, and a path for processing each action (moving the action cube from right-to-left, from bird-to-bird). The game is much easier to teach and follow because this mat is designed to guide the player through each action and round. They could have shipped the game without the mat itself; I’ve played plenty of games of similar or greater complexity that leave all of the rules covered by the mat on small player info cards or just in the rulebook itself. One could play Wingspan without the player mat, but I believe it never would have achieved the success it has had – even with the exact same rules and components – without this tool to keep the player grounded.

Is it too Heavy?

Finally, it’s hard to talk about Wingspan without discussing how surprising it is that a game of this complexity has had this much success. If I had played it before release, I would have felt the same way designer Eric Lang did:

It is surprising and delightful that a complex engine-building Eurogame has had this level of success, but it’s useful to look at just where the complexity lies in the game. The rulebook itself is fairly slim as each of the possible actions is not that complicated. There are a couple tricky rules – when it is ok to re-roll the dice and when to draw new bird cards – but Wingspan is definitely less complicated than, say, Catan or Pandemic (although more complicated than Carcassonne or Ticket to Ride, to cover the few other modern board games that have sold at that level). The strength of the setting and the enticing components help get new players over the still fairly short time it takes to teach the game.

However, Wingspan is not a simple game because it takes a trick from the design of card-based wargames, which have become increasingly popular over the last few decades. Starting with Mark Herman’s We the People, and reaching the most popularity with Twilight Struggle, wargame designers have simplified their core ruleset by putting the extra complexity on the cards themselves. These games tend to have fairly slim rulebooks (at least relative to other wargames) because the real rules are written on the cards themselves, which players can digest each time they draw a new one. Players don’t have to learn the whole game upfront; they learn it simply card-by-card. Indeed, not all cards get drawn every game, so players don’t even have to learn the entire possible game space. Wingspan works the exact same way – a modest number of core rules and a bountiful quantity of extra rules that are written on the bird cards, most of which will not even be drawn every game.

Thus, new players are brought into the game slowly, one card at a time. If they follow the well-designed mat and take the time to understand the three visible bird cards, they know all they need to know to make their next decision. Having said that, there is one set of birds which I believe does hurt this otherwise elegant experience – the birds which give bonuses on other players’ turns. For example, the Belted Kingfisher gives the owning player a free fish each time another player places a bird on the wetland habitat. These birds break the flow of the game so that players have to stay at full attention during other players’ turns or risk losing a valuable boost. This demand for attention is a small but very real tax on players that slows the game down and can lead to bad feelings if one player missed their bonus (or just thinks they missed their bonus). Also, this type of card has a very different value for the player depending on if it is a two-player game or a five-player one. Furthermore, it’s a very small part of the game – only 11 of 170 birds work this way – so the game would function almost the same without them. Obviously, this one small part of the game didn’t impact the sales, and the cards are easy to remove if players prefer, but they probably should have been introduced in one of the expansions, which are naturally aimed at more dedicated players.

At any rate, Wingspan is well worth playing and a watershed game in many ways, for showing the value of non-traditional themes, modeling how graphic design affordances can make games easier to learn, and bringing the innovations of card-driven rulesets to a new audience.

(I made a point to use the term “setting” instead of “theme” in this article. Game design discussion has heavily misused the term “theme” – I am guilty myself – as the word should be reserved for the MEANING of a game, not a description of the location, time period, visual style, and so on. I would encourage other designers and critics to use the word “setting” the same way everyone else in the world uses it to describe books, movies, plays, and other works of art. Misusing “theme” makes it more difficult to talk about what games actually mean, which subconsciously puts our work in a lower cultural category.)