Old World Designer Notes #11: The End

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 hardest part of a 4X to design is the ending. Truthfully, no one has ever done this well, and during development I often reminded myself of the old joke about how you don’t need to be fast to avoid getting eaten by a bear – you just need to be faster than the person next to you. I don’t think it’s possible for a 4X game to consistently provide a satisfying, climactic ending; the genre’s strengths come from the vast possibility space, the lack of guardrails, and a commitment to reward smart play fairly. All of these factors make a good ending harder to achieve consistently. Once the turn count reaches well into the hundreds, it’s almost impossible to predict what the game state will be, so where to draw the finish line is, at best, a guess.

Indeed, I generally view victory conditions as a necessary evil. Without them, a 4X game suddenly becomes an aimless simulation where the players set their own goals. Simulations can be great games, but they tend not to be a good format for turn-based games with transparent game mechanics. They work better in real-time with their systems hidden inside black boxes; the lack of control is key to keeping the player on the edge. (Thus, Paradox grand strategy games follow this model.) Old World is a game, not a simulation, so it needs victory conditions; however, I have grown disenchanted with the increasing specialization of victory conditions in 4X games, which provide a path to victory by just focusing on one aspect of the game, such as culture, religion, or diplomacy. The problem with these victory conditions is that they are so specialized that the player needs to aim for them from the beginning of the game, which turns their play into an exercise in predetermination. Want the religious victory? Then make sure to always choose the religious option!

Hence, themed victory conditions were out for Old World, but we needed something in place, especially since we were playing MP within a few months of early prototyping. The simplest solution was just good old-fashioned victory points, which have the advantage of supporting multiple play styles while also providing a faster victory for a dominant player. We attached points to cities and to wonders (and later to culture levels and techs at the end of the tree), so that the game would instantly end when a player passed the threshold determined at the start of the game. It worked extremely well from a mechanical perspective, which is all we needed for early MP testing before the game even had characters, families, and events. We were surprised that victory points had never been tried in a Civ game but realized that the city site system enabled it to work. Because we knew the exact number of sites on the map at the beginning of the game, coming up with a point threshold for victory was a fairly straightforward calculation; in a game with unlimited cities, victory points would just be one more mechanic pushing players to squeeze in as many cities as possible.

Of course, while victory points were a perfectly functional victory condition and might work fine in multiplayer, they are not particularly interesting, especially for a game where the player is purportedly creating the story of their dynasty. I wanted a victory condition that would dynamically adapt to the path the player’s game actually took; the player would need to achieve many tasks to win, but these tasks could be chosen on the fly, and the player could change directions, turning away from a militaristic victory to a more peaceful one. The direct inspiration came from Jetpack Joyride, which showed the benefits of giving the player a random selection from a large and diverse set of missions. In this infinite runner mobile game, players are always given three “missions” which encourage them to play the game in an unusual way (“Have a near miss with a missile” or “Rub your head against the roof for 500 meters”), which is a surprisingly effective way to change the feel of a game that one might play over and over again hundreds of times. By redefining the player’s goal from just surviving as long as possible to something fresh and unusual, the game itself was constantly mutating for the player, making it much more replayable. A set of varied goals is now standard practice in mobile gaming, and if it can work for a game played with a thumb, it can also work for a 4X game. In Old World, missions could push the player to try out new paths and strategies – if a mission requires me to build eight shrines, for example, maybe I’ll try out pagan religion for the first time?

The first implementation of ambitions functioned similarly to the missions of Jetpack Joyride – the player drew three random missions at a time which rewarded the player with Legitimacy, a value representing the achievements of your dynasty. The other sources of Legitimacy are the cognomens of your current and former leaders, with diminishing values each time there is a new succession, and from event choices, giving the writers an interesting lever for short-term decisions that damage your standing. (At their best, these events can highlight the cultural gulf between Classical Antiquity and today – that your people should always look to you for their answers, not to some foreign discovery or faith.) Legitimacy provides two effects that are key to making the game work – each point of Legitimacy gives a tenth of an Order per turn and +1 opinion to all of your families. The former was important as a simple way to slowly increase the Orders pool as the number of units grew, although certainly at less than a linear rate. The latter was important as a consistent way to counterbalance negative family opinion from city Discontent, suggesting a simple equation where the player needs to accomplish greater and greater tasks to make up for the natural tendency of each family to want more and more cities and favors and gifts.

The ambitions themselves automatically become harder and harder as the player fulfills old ones and draws new ones. Each ambition has a tier range so that they are not part of the ambition deck until you have, for example, completed more than two ambitions but less than five. Thus, the ambitions keep pace with the player’s progress in a very natural manner, assuming the tier ranges are correct. Drawing inspiration from the ambition system in Crusader Kings, we eventually attached the ambitions not to the nation but to the leader, each ambition would be a major goal that they try to accomplish in their lifetime (which then led to legacies, which are ambitions successors can finish for a limited time after the leader’s death).

We now had a dynamic and robust ambition system which fed the leader increasingly difficult goals to achieve. The last step was to tie it to a victory condition, and the answer turned out to be right in front of our faces. The original pitch for the game was that one game session lasted literally ten lives, the first ten rulers of a dynasty. Hence, the working title of the game was 10 Crowns as a metaphor for ten lives (and using numerical digits because I had maniacal plans to make sure the game was listed first in any alphabetical game library). However, I never revealed publicly why the game was called 10 Crowns (although Allen Cook guessed correctly on the Gamers with Jobs podcast shortly after the announcement). I kept it a secret because I wasn’t sure playing ten rulers would actually work, and it turned out I was right. Good old-fashioned randomness meant that ten rulers could last 50 turns, or they could last 500 turns. There’s just no way to balance a game with that much variability, and I was afraid to put my thumb on the scale and start covertly killing off rulers who had overstayed their time on the throne. However, I now had a simple solution to make the name 10 Crowns work – the “Crowns” would now be the ten ambitions you needed for victory, not the ten rulers of your dynasty! Problem solved –  I took the rest of the day off!

Unfortunately, the team didn’t buy it and staged another mutiny where they expressed their very reasonable concerns that ambitions were not “Crowns” and vice-versa. I suggested renaming ambitions to crowns, but it was too late. We needed a new name, and we needed it soon as we were shipping as an Early Access title in a couple months. I considered calling it The Great, but there was apparently some Hulu show about Catherine the Great in production (which turned out to be amazing, by the way). Someone threw out the name Old World, which was stupidly close to Offworld and yet also the perfect name for a game from this era – simple, accurate, and evocative. I did the research and was surprised that no one had ever made a game called Old World although there was apparently some MMO being made by Amazon called New World? That seemed hardly worth considering because Amazon always conveniently cancels their project before shipping (or, just to mix it up, sometimes after shipping), so I shrugged that one off!

So, we had our new name, Old World, but in the process we had accidentally hit upon a victory condition that was varied, dynamic, and thematic – simply complete ten ambitions and achieve victory. We weren’t quite done yet, however, because there wasn’t actually a way to lose the game. Obviously, the AI could still wipe the player out, but the real problem would be if the player falls behind and gets stuck in purgatory where the AI is dominant and the higher-tier ambitions are too difficult to achieve. I spent a lot of time waving my hands and talking about how the Paradox games didn’t even have victory conditions! We were being so old-fashioned! Gamers today set their own goals! Kids, go outside and make your own fun!

Of course, one might ask, wouldn’t the player lose if the AI fulfills their ten ambitions first? Well, they would if the AI actually got ambitions, but I knew that would be a mistake. One of the other problems with specialized victory conditions is that because they either measure internal progress (cultural or scientific victory) or something orthogonal to most of the game (religious or even diplomatic victory), an AI victory can come as a sudden surprise. I was sure of one thing above all – a surprise ending to a 20-hour 4X game is not a good ending. Without ambition victories, the AI would clearly be playing a different game from the human, which meant that Old World would be an asymmetrical game. In reality, it just meant that we were admitting that the game was asymmetrical because there is no such thing as a symmetrical 4X game. The genre likes to pretend that it’s symmetrical, like chess or most board games, but a single-player 4X always orbits the human.

The most obvious place that proves this fact is diplomacy. I’ve already discussed how tech trading needs to be controlled to make sure the AIs don’t play like humans, but the same pattern is true across all diplomatic decisions; humans will not accept AIs which behave like humans. For example, in a free-for-all multiplayer game, no one would find it unusual for the losing players to gang up on the leader (including by former allies) to stop that player from winning. On the other hand, most people hate it when the AIs automatically declare war on the human as the player gets close to winning. (I say most people because there is a small minority of players that prefer AIs to play like humans, which is why we added the Play to Win option.) The only difference between these two scenarios is whether the player is facing other humans or their own machine, so the AIs are coded to play like NPCs in the human’s playground, to follow their personalities and remember their friends/enemies but not to try to win at all cost. This arrangement between humans and AIs is inherently asymmetrical, and there are plenty of other ways humans play that AIs should never replicate, such as leaving their cities empty of defensive units because they know exactly when their enemies might or might not attack (or that a war declaration could be easily undone with a recent auto-save). Furthermore, there is nothing inherently superior about symmetrical games versus asymmetrical ones. In fact, even though board games are usually thought of as symmetrical by default, much of the most interesting design work in the current tabletop renaissance is with deeply assymetrical games.

The trick is knowing where symmetry is important. Combat, for example, needs to maintain perfect symmetry as the human interacts directly with the AI using the same pieces on the same tiles with the same rules – the more the player needs to understand the AI’s potential actions, the more important symmetry becomes. By stepping away from the myth of human-AI symmetry, we could also create a competitive game without giving the AI any per-turn production or research advantages, which is the normal way to strengthen the AI in 4X games. Instead, in Old World, the AI simply starts with more cities than the human does as the difficulty levels increase but otherwise plays by the same rules for city growth, unit production, tech research, and so on. The situation was even thematic for the era as the player is basically in the same situation as Rome at its founding – a single city surrounded by much older and much more established empires. You are leading a new people in an old world.

Although the AI could not have ambition victory, they still need a way to win to make sure Old World is a game and not a simulation. Fortunately, the answer was already available via the original victory point system we implemented for multiplayer. By simply leaving the victory point system on, the game could handle situations where an AI starts to dominate. At competitive difficulty levels, VPs serve as a dynamic game timer that the player is racing against to fulfill their ten ambitions. Victory points also handle the opposite situation, where the player starts to dominate, via double victory, which triggers when the player doubles the score of the next closest AI. Double victory helps Old World avoid the worst of a common problem once victory is certain but the player still needs to push End Turn fifty more times.

Thus, ambition victory centers the game on the achievements of the player’s dynasty. Indeed, we hope to push this further in future updates by using the event system. The player will get opportunities for new ambitions not by picking a random ambition for each family but via handwritten events customized to the current situation. Maybe the Romans kill the unit your queen is leading in the field, and the game gives you a new ambition to get revenge by killing Roman units or capturing their cities. Ambitions and events can be a powerful framework to help the player build their story of victory. When the system works together as a cohesive whole, the game truly comes alive. An unanticipated strategy has emerged in multiplayer that shows the system at its best. Negative cognomens, such as the Unready or the Bloody, are possible if a ruler loses enough units and cities to outweigh their positive accomplishments, and a negative cognomen will reduce the player’s Legitimacy, which can be devastating. Thus, players discovered that the best time to attack is when there is a new ruler on the opponent’s throne who hasn’t achieved anything yet, saddling them with a negative cognomen from the war losses. It’s a cunning strategy, and one reflected in real history where wars were often started to take advantage of a new ruler with a shaky hold on the throne. As a designer, this mirroring is difficult to achieve, and I’ve fallen short of it many times, intentionally or not, but I don’t mind celebrating these moments when they do happen. Opportunities like this don’t come along everyday.

4 thoughts on “Old World Designer Notes #11: The End

  1. Pingback: Old World designer notes #11: Soren Johnson on the game end | CivFanatics

  2. Pingback: Clippings: Old World coming to Steam, and more – Matchsticks for my Eyes

  3. Soren these are amazing, thank you for sparing the time. Hope the lack of replies doesn’t bring you down, I know a lot of people who follow you.

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