The following is an excerpt from the Designer Notes for Old World. The game, a historical 4X set in classical antiquity, released on July 1, 2021, and is available for purchase here.
The first Civilization game was like a game design thunderbolt, sent from the heavens and marking everything it touched. Although the game does have antecedents, it is not unreasonable to split a history of digital strategy games into those made before Civ and those made afterwards. Working to extend the franchise across multiple games was an intimidating task because the original cast such a large shadow. “Whatever I do,” thought many a Civ designer, including myself, “I better not screw this thing up!” It took many iterations of the game before designers realized that there wasn’t a single magic number or formula inside the game without which the whole thing would unravel. Indeed, the basic thematic gameplay of Civ has been remarkably resilient across six major iterations with countless interesting detours, cul-de-sacs, and dead ends. Almost every aspect of the original has been taken apart and put back together again, and the franchise keeps on ticking, easily the longest-thriving strategy franchise of all time.
With that preamble done and due praise given, it is all the more remarkable that one bad game mechanic has been preserved from version to version, tweaked perhaps, adjusted at times, but still as clumsy, fiddly, and unnecessary in 2021 as it was in 1991 – the system of placing citizens on tiles. In Civilization, each tile inside a city’s territory is completely useless without placing a citizen on that tile. This is not a particularly interesting or engaging choice – it is usually obvious which tiles are optimal, and the player can at best get maybe a little extra growth or production or money if they spend some time micromanaging the tiles. Indeed, “micromanaging” is perhaps too generous a term – tweaking or fiddling or even futzing with them is more accurate. There is no in-game cost to moving each citizen in each of your cities every turn to eek out a tiny 1% efficiency gain; the only cost is the player’s time and patience. Within the overall design, citizen management is completely unrivaled for the least amount of benefit for the most amount of time spent (which is a simple shorthand for being the least amount of fun).
One can tell that Civ’s designers have never been enthralled with the system. Even in the original, the citizen system is buried deep away within the opaque and intimidating city screen. (A fellow Civ developer once quipped to me that the best feature of the original city screen is that it disappeared almost anywhere you clicked on it.) One could finish (and win) an entire game of Civ without ever engaging with or even understanding it. In later versions, the designers encouraged the player to use the city governors to set “priorities” that determined how the AI would place the citizens for you – a telltale sign of poor game design is the inevitable addition of an AI to play the game for you.
Furthermore, if the system was bad for casual players, it was actually worse for the hardcore. By Civ 3, veterans had mastered the art of rearranging citizens each turn to avoid wasting a drop of growth or production. If a Warrior cost 10 hammers, and a city produced 7 hammers a turn, then 4 hammers would get wasted every turn the city produced a Warrior (because 7 + 7 = 14, and the 4 extra hammers were thrown away). Thus, the optimal player would remember to visit their city every turn to switch the citizens around to alternate between 7 hammers and 3 hammers with more growth or money. Civ 4’s citizen management code minimized this type of micromanagement; instead of throwing away the extra hammers, the game applied them to the next item being produced. Of course, new forms of micromanagement sprung up in different places, all in the service of a system which had never delivered much enjoyment in the first place.
I was already not a fan of citizens by the time of Civ 4, and the earliest members of the Frankenstein testing group may remember an odd version of the game where there was no citizen placement. Instead, cities got yields from all tiles within their borders and higher yields still if the tiles had improvements like Mines and Farms. The change removed the awkwardness of citizen placement, but it couldn’t work without other major changes to the game. The rest of Civ’s basic plumbing (how cities grow, how units are produced, where money comes from, etc.) was built to work with the citizen system, and so it could not just be removed without causing the rest of the game to break. At a minimum, Civ 4 would need a resource stockpile system so that, for example, cities full of mines would send all the excess output to an iron stockpile instead of spitting out a new unit each turn.
However, designing Old World meant that I definitely would get a chance to build the system from scratch – this time without putting citizens on tiles! Because rural improvements like farms and mines always contributed to the national stockpile, I didn’t need to worry about a city that was overloaded with a specific type of improvement. I just needed to make sure the improvements couldn’t be built so quickly that the math became exponential. The Orders system helped out here in multiple ways. First, although players could perhaps build a ton of Workers to mass produce improvements, they might not have the Orders necessary to keep them all working, especially if wars flare up, either with tribes or other nations. Further, because the number of moves in an average turn of Old World is more consistent than in Civ (with more Orders than units early and less Orders than units later), the game has less early “dead” turns with little activity. Thus, the total number of turns in a game of Old World is much fewer than in a game of Civ, making exponential math much less dangerous. Finally, although we experimented with having cities produce improvements directly on the map, we found that tying them to Workers, which build them by spending one Order a turn over multiple turns, both made guns-or-butter work and also delayed improvement construction enough to prevent a runaway economy.
On the other hand, one original piece of logic behind citizen tile placement was that it required cities to maintain a balance between improvements and growth – building more improvements than citizens had no value because no one was there to work the new Mines and Farms. This part of the system had merit to it; balancing multiple vectors that limit each other is solid game design. I felt we could recreate this dynamic without the fussiness of citizen management by allowing cities to upgrade citizens into permanent specialists for an improvement that exists on a specific tile. We would maintain the basic idea behind citizen tile placement (put an unused citizen onto a specific tile) but as a permanent decision with a one-time cost. In other words, the player makes an intentional choice to boost a tile’s output with a citizen, but because the choice is not reversible, the micromanagement is now gone.
The tricky part was determining how MUCH a specialist should boost an improvement. Initially, I thought that we should largely duplicate the basic economy of Civ, so that an empty improvement would barely produce anything, but it was hard to get the game to scale well that way. The player would start with so little production early on that we had to lower the costs of everything, which became a big problem later on when players turned the corner and started producing far more than they could spend. The system would only work with inflating prices, which would add a heavy dose of black box complexity.
Instead, we increased base improvement production and reduced the boost from specialists to either 50% or 100%. This change got the math right for empty improvements but now specialists were no longer worth the investment (when compared with just adding new improvements). We added some Science output to each specialist (which is a good thematic match), but it still wasn’t quite enough to make specialists worth producing.
I used this opportunity to fix a couple other problems with the design. Players had complained that cities were too similar to each other, which was certainly a problem with yields coming less from the terrain itself, as with Civ. Thus, we attached four important city yields to each of the four core rural specialists – Farmers would produce Growth, Miners produce Training, Stonecutters produce Civics, and Woodcutters produce Science. (Cutting down trees produces Science because of, um, paper? Not all at because I had an extra yield in search of an extra specialist.) Now, cities would be differentiated by their specialists which were a result of their improvements which would largely be determined by their terrain, getting us back to how terrain leads to city specialization in Civ. It took some time to isolate the positive features of citizen placement and then port them back into Old World, but it’s nice to know that maybe citizens did serve a purpose back in 1991 after all.