Old World Designer Notes #1: Orders

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.

I’m not sure where the idea that every game piece should be able to move exactly once per turn first originated. I suspect it came from hex-based tabletop wargames before video games even existed, but it became the default state for many games, largely unquestioned. Empire and then Civilization itself both followed this pattern, which then extended to all their 4X descendants. The problem with every-unit-moves (EUM) in 4X games is that it only creates the illusion of tactical and strategic decision making. (I am taking the prerogative to coin an acronym for this to draw attention to the fact that employing EUM is an intentional design choice, just like using one-unit-per-tile is a choice.) Each turn, the player is evaluating the most effective single move for each of their units, which is often a very straightforward and often even boring decision, without any tradeoffs, with no reason to NOT take an action. In Civilization, there is never a reason not to build another mine or not to take another shot with an archer. These decisions quickly become rote as the number of units in the game grows. Players ask to automate their Workers because they no longer want to make these boring decisions but are still aware that they are going to perform worse if they don’t at least do something with their Workers each turn. Much has been made about Civ being a game of guns-or-butter, but that choice only really happens during city production. With EUM, once the units are built, it’s guns-AND-butter.

The Orders system of Old World came from an unlikely place, the so-called “social games” of Facebook circa-2010, which seemed to be taking over gaming for one strange little moment. (Indeed, for a brief period of time, three former Civilization designers – Bruce Shelley, Brian Reynolds, and myself – were all working at Zynga, and Sid Meier himself was building a version of Civ for Facebook.) One specific design mechanic stuck out to me from this era, which I first noticed in Brian’s FrontierVille – the “energy” system that was built to give players a limited number of actions each time they logged in, with of course the option to buy more if they got impatient.

I wasn’t particularly interested in the microtransaction side of the mechanic – as I discovered at EA and Zynga, it takes a very different designer than myself to master the dark arts of mixing business and design required for free-to-play games – but I was interested in how energy systems could multiply the strategic possibilities for older genres with a only a small amount of additional complexity. (Of course, ideas like this always have multiple sources, and perhaps also in the back of my mind was my favorite wargame from my childhood, Eric Lee Smith’s The Civil War, which used an interesting alternating initiative system that did not follow the EUM default.)

I hoped that taking a standard 4X game and overlaying an Orders system on top of it would instantly make the game more interesting, so our first step with Old World was to make the game work in multiplayer to see if this was true. We discovered we were onto something special immediately; not only were we making actual guns-or-butter decisions every turn, but the strategic space was blown open so wide that it felt like a completely fresh experience. Every tactical situation now had hundreds of possible approaches based on which units the players wanted to spend their orders moving. Courageous flanking gambits were now possible as were tactical retreats to better terrain. Is it better to spend all your Orders to get your best units in the right location to maximize their damage, or is it better to spread the Orders out to hit the enemy from more positions? Or, is it better to have the discipline during a war to reserve some Orders to spend on Workers to make sure your economy doesn’t fall behind. We discovered in MP that the victorious teams were often not the ones spending the most Orders on military victories but those who didn’t neglect their economy (and especially those who connected their front line to their core via Roads to reduce Orders from moving troops).

The early prototypes tried a number of crazy ideas – there was a turnless mode where every unit had an individual cooldown timer after attacking, there was a version where Orders could be bought just like Food or Iron (and which can still be seen in the game via Coin Debasement), and there was a mode where stockpiling Orders between turns was an important mechanic. Each of these systems was hotly debated, and other base assumptions from 4X design were modified – for example, units now have an absurdly large visibility radius to ensure that they can actually see their own potential movement range (and also so that enemies moving from far away are less likely to look like magically transporting units).

However, the most contentious question by far was whether units should have unlimited movement – in other words, if the only limitation on whether a unit could continue moving was if there were still Orders left to use. With enough Orders, a single unit could theoretically cross the entire map in one turn. I don’t like to add extra rules to a game unless absolutely necessary as each rule in a game adds an extra burden on the player, and “every move costs one Order” without any other restrictions was a very simple rule to describe to players. Further, I was convinced that allowing any one unit a perhaps ridiculous movement range was not actually a problem for game balance; a player could move one unit perhaps thirty times in one turn but only by suffering the huge opportunity cost of not moving any other units.

The team, however, felt quite differently, sometimes vehemently. After months of debate, a mutinous internal mod suddenly appeared that put a hard cap of three moves per turn on each unit. I agreed to give it a fair shake, and although I tried to keep an open mind, I absolutely hated it; we had discovered gameplay magic with the Orders system but were afraid to let it loose. However, I had to admit that perhaps I was pushing the game outside of the comfort zone of most players. At the very least, giving units a soft movement cap would help guide players who would be confused why they could just keep moving their Scout over and over and over again; unlimited Orders certainly increased the risk that players would spend their Orders in the wrong place without considering all their other Units.

Thus, we adopted a fatigue system where most units got three moves each turn but could extend their range by spending 100 Training once on a “Force March” and then double Orders per move thereafter. My fear was that we were adding complexity that would be mandatory to understand to play the game, but I trusted the response the team had to completely unlimited Orders. As a bonus, fatigue gave me one more knob to turn for nations and traits and promotions. (Roman units, for example, could get +1 fatigue to represent their military discipline.) Nonetheless, the promise of the Orders system was still intact, and the variety of moves available to players each turn, especially if they unlock unlimited movement with a Force March, is almost impossible to calculate.

5 thoughts on “Old World Designer Notes #1: Orders

  1. Reminds me a lot of the order system in Valkyria chronicles. Where you can spend orders to make units move/attack/perform an action, but each subsequent order gives diminishment returns for movement.

    Did you consider orders that gave bonuses to units, perhaps with varying “order costs” like in VC?

  2. We did try increasing the Order costs with each step, and it was too hard to do the math in one’s head. Double cost was easy enough to still do the math, and progressive costs also meant super long moves were functionally impossible, which was a loss.

  3. This just goes to show that there’s something to the cliche “what’s old eventually becomes new again.” This orders & fatigue concept may have been inspired by facebook games, but they didn’t originate there. It (and many other combat details in your game, such as leadership, rout, panic, etc) are also part of what is still literally the best-selling board war game of all time, “Squad Leader” — published in the 1970s.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Squad_Leader

  4. Pingback: Old World #3: One Unit per Tile | DESIGNER NOTES

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