Old World Designer Notes

By popular request, I’m writing some Designer Notes for Old World. Will post them here as they come along - which will be slowly, so be forewarned!

#1: Orders

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.

To quote @ChristienMurawski, nice!

Oh snap! This is awesome.

“Mutinous” is perfect.

Riveting description of how game design choices actually get made.

Fascinating, thank you.

Thanks for these notes, Soren, they’re fascinating!

Sorry if you may have answered this in one of the other threads, but: Did Master of Orion 3’s planned (then scrapped) Imperial Focus Points serve as an inspiration for the Orders system? Or if not an inspiration, then a dire do-not-emulate warning?

My faith in Mohawk’s thinking/development process was well founded. :) Thanks for posting this here.

I’m guessing Soren can answer this diplomatically, but I was wondering the exact same thing, @Djscman. Basically, what a shame that the MOO3 team was so incompetent at realizing a potentially cool idea.

Many boardgames that I play are based on the concept of an “action economy”. It’s about time a videogame design imagined and implemented the same concept so elegantly.


The rest of MOO3’s systems would have had to be a lot more reactive to player actions for that system to be effective there though.

I never touched MOO3 - I remember reading Tom’s review and Bruce’s “rebuttal” and giving it a wide berth. (btw, I’m not sure I played any MOO game until after Civ4). I remember the big debate over how it was re-inventing how players interacted with 4X game, and it didn’t really gel at all, so I’ve been a little bemused to see the MOO3 comparisons!

It would be interesting to see the actual MOO3 design doc at some point, and see what Alan was trying to accomplish.

Really interesting discussion here – thanks!

I see EUM as pretty clearly growing out of a simulationist mindset. That is, each unit that exists during a given timespan has an equal opportunity to do something with that time, so it’s “unrealistic” to force some of them to sit idle without an explicit reason to explain it.

But I’m much more concerned with whether a game is consistently presenting me with interesting decisions to make than whether it’s an accurate simulation of reality, so I’m thrilled to move away from that approach. I agree that “what subset of my units should I use?” is a far more complex and multi-dimensional tactical question than “what order should I move all my units in?”

I remember being really struck by this in Summoner Wars, which limits you to moving two units and attacking with three each turn, and thinking that that led to a much richer possibility space than games where every unit moves. Glad to see the idea spreading more widely!

I remember (but cannot recall the name of) an old Japanese simulation rpg, with a one unit i-go-you-go cycle, where you could pick any one unit multiple times. The game was silly though in not only not limiting the unit you could pick over and over, but regenerating all its actions on every such turn, allowing you to clear any map with a single unit of doom.
All this to ask: I assume the unlimited order was only on the movement aspect, but that the units were still limited to what they could perform, especially militarily?
I confess potential for unlimited moves sound really intriguing and pretty darn insane fun for multiplayer tactical brawls - and it might be also quite historical, if you look at the insane pacing of Cyrus the Great’s conquests.

Valkyria Chronicles (to mention something more modern but still Japanese) allows you to use all your orders to move the same unit (and it’s a clear needed strategy to S rank many missions). They limited it with diminishing returns each move (less and less movement range, but you could still cross half the map) and some ammo mechanics.

It can work and be interesting in its own way.

It can also be “simulationist”: While EUM does indeed come from a simulationist mindset, it’s a pretty shallow one, since there was an economic and political cost to move “armies” in ancient times (basically, there are logistics involved). Moreover, armies could definitely cross most of their “maps” on a single turn if unopposed. There are many one year campaigns that encompassed huge swathes of territory. An order system and unlimited moves could be argued to be as “realistic” (for as little as that word is worth) as EUM, if not more.

I would like to play a less constrained version to see how it feels.

#2: City Sites

One challenge that has haunted all Civilization games since the beginning is Infinite City Sleaze (ICS). In the original version, one player discovered that the optimum strategy was to cover every fourth tile on the board with a city, a mind-numbingly boring strategy that was always the best choice. Most players did not go that far, but they usually realized that more cities was always better, and because the game had very loose rules for city placement, squeezing cities into every possible crack became a typical strategy. Every Civ after the second tried a different strategy to stop ICS – Civ 3 used corruption and waste to make extra cities less valuable, Civ 4 used maintenance to make new cities an economic drain, Civ 5 used global unhappiness to make a large empire harder to manage, and so on. None of these systems were any fun and weren’t intended to be so; they were mechanics put in place to keep the players from ruining the game for themselves by founding too many cities just because it was simply the most effective strategy.

The issue is not that the player shouldn’t have a large empire, meaning one that covers a large portion of the map. Instead, the issue is that the player benefits from packing more cities into the same number of tiles and so bends their strategy to squeeze in as many cities as possible. In an empire-building game, more territory should be good, but more cities just for the sake of more cities simply adds busywork and frustration. Ultimately, there is no actual solution to this dilemma as all of the attempted fixes just slow the player down in unpleasant ways but the same truth remains – more cities are still always better. Indeed, it becomes a little perverse to try to reverse this dynamic; why make a game about building an empire where the player is punished for building an empire?

The answer, frankly, has been around for almost as long as the 4X genre. Master of Orion , the first sci-fi successor to Civ , does not have an ICS problem because the player is strictly limited to the number of planets on the map. The gameplay is simply better without putting artificial brakes on the player for fear of them ruining the game for themselves. Limiting city counts has many gameplay benefits, such as more predictable victory point thresholds based on cities, better balanced per-city bonuses, more consistent city value weights for the AI, and a generous minimum distance between cities to allow breathing room for one-unit-per-tile combat. Endless Legend adopted the same system in a tile-based game by slicing the world up into a series of territories, with only one city possible in each one. I actually tried a similar system while prototyping Civilization 3 but didn’t feel comfortable that we were predetermining what the borders of a city would be before actually founding the city. I wanted city borders to still grow organically based on player choice, even at the risk of still enabling ICS.

For Old World , we finally found a happy medium between a limited city count and dynamic border growth. City sites are placed on the map at game start, but the actual territory of each city is based on decisions the player makes. Namely, building an urban improvement and producing a specialist on any tile extend the city borders in all six directions. Further, a few buildings (Hamlets, Shrines, and Monasteries) are notable because they are urban improvements which can be built anywhere, giving the player a number of ways to extend a city’s border in a specific direction.

Thus, city borders always extend out from the initial city site but only based on decisions made by the player. The range-based culture growth of Civs 34 and the random tiles of Civs 56 got the job done but generally were disconnected from the player’s actions. The core hook of a 4X is long-term planning, and putting border growth in the player’s hands is a perfect fit. We had gone with the Civ 56 random tile system for a long time, but players were generally unhappy with it until we gave them full control. The algorithm could never consistently find the tile they actually wanted for their city, which was perhaps a good thing because it wouldn’t be a strategy game if it was always clear what next tile would be best. (The old border growth algorithm is still inside the code as it gets used for events and with the Borders Boost tech card.)

It is also worth noting that although a city’s territory is built dynamically, unlike being predetermined as in Endless Legend, each tile is still associated with a specific city, opening up new gameplay options not available in games without territories. For example, a Governor can have a trait like Delver which affects all Mines and Quarries in the city’s borders. Further, tying tiles to cities is an important tool for the family system – the Artisans, for example, only care about pillaged tiles in their own territory, highlighting their sometimes myopic perspective. Finally, because tribal settlements also block most city sites, taking them for expansion becomes a dramatic moment in the game, part of a multi-turn plan instead of simply plopping down a new city every time a Settler is built.

I was well aware that the city sites of Old World would be a controversial feature. City placement is one of the great puzzles that players love to debate and analyze – the Civ community has a tradition of posting “dot maps” to compare different potential city arrangements for each random map, but sometimes in game development, it’s necessary to abandon a positive feature that players enjoy for the overall good of the design. Old World has a much sturdier core – and far fewer annoying anti-expansion mechanics – because of city sites.

These notes are awesome, Soren. Thanks for writing them.

Enjoying these also.

…each tile is still associated with a specific city, opening up new gameplay options not available in games without territories.

This part strikes me in a boardgamey way. It opens a new aspect for assigning modifiers, and the aspect makes sense cognitively. And it’s fun to have more individualized pieces as a result.