Old World Designer Notes

chef’s kiss

As someone who’s always casting about for narrative reasons behind rules, this made my day. Now if anyone has one for stone and civics, you’ll be endeared to me, which is a solid +40 opinion!


My favorite designer note so far. I’ve always absolutely loathed the citizen mini-game in Civ (as Bart Simpson might say, ‘pretty crappy game!’).

Nice article. The Civ worker paradigm is so strong that, for my first few games, developing city tiles and not rushing to build the corresponding specialist felt transgressive. I like the Old World system.

That one has always made more sense to me. Hammurabi’s laws were inscribed on a stone stela and various stone tablets often served as a writing medium, so stone/marble makes sense as something important for your legal system and governance, which is civics.

My explanation makes a lot more sense than yours imho. Now listen: stone was used for building the pharaos’ tombs (the pyramids, mind you). Now doing this was a very civil gesture, which showed the warm love and utter respect the ancient egyptians cherished within their hearts for their monarchs. Thus civics. Makes sense, no?

All the best civic buildings are made of stone.

Yeah, the stone tablets thing occurred to me, but I didn’t think of steles. So stonecutters have the know-how to write relatively intricate script on stone as a way to express laws, civil codes, memorials, and so forth. I’ll accept it!

FTFY! :)


‘…and [we] added a Maintenance cost to any improvement without a specialist’

The OW Help section says this too, BUT under ‘Maintenance’ it says ‘each citizen and specialist in a city increase maintenance’. Is that correct? Surely the specialist doesn’t eliminate an improvement’s maintenance cost only to incur one himself? (Another fascinating designer note by the way!)

From what I’ve seen every pop has a cost in iron/wood/food, depending on the culture level of the city. The unoccupied improvements on the map have a simple cost in Gold.

I usually just try to avoid the whole mess by building the Apadema and then covering the map in improvements. :D

There’s other costs as well, isn’t there? It’s been a month or two since I last played, but I thought various improvements have wood/metal/stone upkeep costs as well. Lumbermills taking metal, perhaps? Thought I recalled seeing an upkeep cost on Barracks as well.

You’re right, many of the complex buildings require resources for upkeep, e.g. the Barracks costs iron like you said, Odeons require stone, Archery Ranges require wood, Hamlets require food, etc.

The basic resource gathering improvements (farms, mines, quarries, lumbermills) don’t have a resource upkeep, but they do have a gold upkeep cost if they are not occupied by a specialist pop. It’s just that this monetary cost is only shown within their citys’ income and maintenance tooltip.

This is the danger of having a game designed by smarties; it becomes too complex for the rest of us. :D

All Population (Specialists + Citizens) cost Maintenance. Improvements w/o Specialists also cost Maintenance.

Yes, I finally figured out that a specialist was a citizen a moment before he became a specialist, so he is not costing any extra maintenance. And he IS preventing the maintenance on the improvement, so a net reduction of maintenance. Isn’t logical thinking wonderful!

#7: Characters

Veterans of Civ communities will recognize the acronym ICS (Infinite City Sleaze) as it has haunted the series since the beginning. However, there is another acronym that is less recognized but just as big a problem and, frankly, a lot harder to solve - ECS, which stands for Eternal China Syndrome. The term refers to the tendency of nations that have gotten over the hump of early expansion to maintain a level of internal stability that is both ahistorical and, more importantly, not much fun. (Of course, students of Chinese history will know that the term is an exaggeration of the country’s actual internal stability.) Most of the pressure applied to the player in Civ comes from external sources, meaning other nations, and the internal pressures (including unhappiness) are really just different flavors of taxes. Furthermore, although new abilities and powers are unlocked throughout the game (via laws or techs or Wonders), they are accretive, meaning that they are only given to the player, never taken away. Strategy games are built from players adapting to their current situation and making difficult decisions along the way, but in most 4X games, these decisions are front-loaded to the initial exploration and expansion phases. Once stability sets in, the path ahead for the player becomes very predictable, which is an important reason why 4X games become such slogs - the path to the victory (or defeat) gets more and more predictable the longer a game continues.

Characters were not introduced to Old World to alleviate ECS; they were added simply because more and more games ( Crusader Kings being the obvious example) were adding characters in meaningful ways and, in doing so, appealing to larger and larger audiences. Turns out that people like playing games that are about people, and a game that lasts 6,000 years is more about gods than humans. The benefits of adding characters to Old World could be spun out into multiple new articles, but to some extent, the lessons learned are not particularly interesting as the benefits were largely free, a simple result of human empathy and vengeance, of our sympathy and our avarice. Adding flesh-and-blood humans to a game is somewhat akin to adding realistic physics; it adds instant depth, but the depth is going to be the same across all games that do a good job representing the human condition. I’ll do my best to avoid getting carried away here and not end up quoting Anna Karenina and simply move on to how adding real characters improves the core 4X gameplay.

Simply put, characters add a dynamism to Old World that prevents it from reaching ECS, the usual fate of most 4X games. The most obvious way characters disrupt the game’s stability is via diplomacy. Simply having foreign leaders actually change - from death or abdication or even deposition - over the course of the game makes a huge difference. Perhaps you have a great relationship with Phillip of Greece but not so much with his heir, Alexander, because you offended him at a dinner years before? The latter’s eventual ascension (unless, say, some unfortunate accident might come to pass) will mean that your diplomatic status with Greece could go from good to bad. The amazing thing about this outcome is that it flows completely naturally from having real characters who age and die; players aren’t shocked when relations change and, indeed, expect them to change.

It is hard to articulate how significant a departure this is from a tension that has always bedeviled Civ games - that players expect diplomacy to be predictable, but predictable diplomacy inevitably becomes boring. Players will frequently rant over “unpredictable” or “random” AI leaders who suddenly go from being a friend to an enemy. These shifts are necessary for games to not slowly calcify from their earliest diplomatic states, but there are few ways to make these changes thematically palatable when the leaders never change. Civ games have experimented with all sorts of opinion modifiers that give a reason why a leader might change their opinion of you, but the most natural reason is that there is now simply a new leader who has a new set of relationships, memories, and opinions.

However, the biggest gains for dynamism are not external (like diplomacy) but internal, changing how your own nation works. As mentioned previously, one problem with unlocking powers over the course of a 4X game is that they tend to be accretive, a nation slowly adds new and better abilities over the course of the game. Players don’t like losing their powers, and Civ has only dabbled with this, such as the Civ 4 civics system where a player might give up one power but only to unlock a better one. When powers are accretive, designers have to be careful not to make them too strong, or else they could dominate. Give the player a giant hammer too early, and the rest of the game is a nail.

Instead, what if powers were attached to leaders via their unique archetypes, and these powers disappear when the leader dies? Then, the powers can change how the game works significantly but not permanently - for example, Builder leaders can add new Urban tiles to cities, Orators can hire Tribal troops as Mercenaries with Legitimacy, Heroes can Launch Offensives to allow units to attack twice, and Tactician Leaders can Stun their targets as Generals. Each of these powers fundamentally changes how the game feels, but attaching them to the Leader’s archetype means that each power is mutually exclusive and will be active less than 10% of the time. (There are ten archetypes, and young leaders don’t always even have archetypes.) Further, because these powers are attached to characters, players don’t have complete control over when these powers are turned on and off. If they were attached to Laws, for example, players might abuse the ability to switch between them whenever desired. Instead, players have some, but not total, control over the archetype of their heirs and have to navigate the natural flow of their dynasty. They can still make long-term plans for when their current Builder leader is succeeded by his Hero daughter, but they can’t pick the same pattern, game after game.

Perhaps the best thing about all of these new dynamic elements that flow from characters is that they are simply a natural extension of human nature and regular lifespans, of which all players bring an understanding to the game. For example, if a game spanning 6,000 years tried to implement our archetype system, it would need to tie itself into knots justifying why these powers are constantly changing, why the player doesn’t always have control of them, and why they are all available and viable at both the beginning and the end of the game. A game’s theme has its own gravity which puts limits on where the design can reach, and games about people provide natural affordances for an environment that is constantly changing, always a good thing for a strategy game.

Soren, this is the entry I hoped you’d write. Because it is spot on exactly why I have lost the desire to play the Civ series any more.

This is absolutely something that ruined Civ for me. The Paradox games are a big part of why. In there you have people (Crusader Kings) or a large amount of inputs and events that can change relations over time (Europa Uuniversalis). This does prevent the calcification, and allows strong allies to become enemies. Hey an event or mission just gave long time ally Austria claims on your land? Well so much for 200 years of friendship, a gradual (and visible and understandable) change in the landscape means that you now have a new rival.

Compared to that Civ felt so stilted, and yet arbitrary. Yes it makes sense to prevent permanent diplomatic status, but on the other hand denouncement chains and allies declaring war on you even when at friendly relations simply because RNGesus decided it was time? That sucked. It always sucked, but it stood out more when I had seen better.

So this:

is so true! In terms of high level game play it may not functionally be different. But it makes more. thematic sense, as well as being something the player has some levers over. It takes something that was terrible and annoying, and gives it gameplay and strategy while also giving more dynamism. And it does so in a very logical and in world sensible way.

This was a good call, and I am glad it is something increasingly common in the strategy space.

I’ve noticed that when a foreign leader dies or abdicates or whatever, the relationship sometimes stays the same but more often seems to get worse - pleased to cautious perhaps. I presume it could get better if one of those events has occurred previously where I have to say something which will please or offend either the current leader or the heir and I choose to please the heir. I wouldn’t know about that because I always favour the current leader, not wishing to incur his wrath in the here and now. My question is: is the new leader, all things being equal, programmed to have a lower opinion of me most of the time when he takes over or could he randomly take a higher opinion of me?

#8: Opinion

One of the defining features of 4X games with an Eternal China Syndrome is that the conflict primarily comes from external sources, from barbarians and rival nations. With certain random maps or diplomatic situations, players can often be in a position where they are largely unchallenged, and without any other pressure, the game slowly slides into auto-pilot. Old World addresses this problem by adding internal pressure from families and religions, each of which have their own opinion of you, just like a foreign power.

Making internal opinions matter requires a pair of mechanics – how the opinion is determined and how it affects the game. Designing the latter was the easier task as family opinions could simply affect cities and units if they each had a specific family type. Thus, each new city would be assigned a family, and units produced by that city would also be attached to that family. Then, each city and unit could get various bonuses and penalties depending on the opinion of the family itself. Cites belonging to a friendly family have reduced Maintenance, units of an angry family have a combat penalty, and so on. Perhaps most importantly for family opinions thematically, an unhappy family has a chance of producing rebel units which are capable of capturing cities if not defeated.

Attaching units to a family was a much debated topic as doing so made it even more difficult to differentiate units of each nation and tribe. There are only so many team colors available, and using a secondary color for families was only partially effective. Thus, we added a distinctive banner shape for each of the ten family classes and also did not show the family of opposing nations to simplify the mix of colors. Communicating family type is still difficult, but without assigning units to families, it would be impossible for family opinion to affect units, which risked dulling the entire system.

The trickier question is what should determine family opinion. Some modifiers were easy to add – families prefer having more cities, like having their cities closer together, like having members in the royal succession, and dislike having cities with high discontent. However, to keep things understandable, we didn’t want to add too many modifiers, so we split them up between the different family classes, which also added to their flavor: Champions prefer having the largest army, Clerics dislike cities without a religion, Patrons like having cities with Wonders, etc. A diversity of family opinion modifiers also makes it more likely that each family will have a different opinion of you, which makes for more interesting gameplay as angry families could become jealous of pleased ones, fertile ground for the game’s dynamic events.

However, although families now had opinions with inputs and outputs, the system felt very abstract; it’s harder to relate to a family than to a specific character. Further, we had a separate problem that although characters had opinions of you, the opinions didn’t seem to matter all that much unless they were in the court. We addressed both problems by creating family heads whose opinions were directly applied to their family’s opinion – if the head had a +100 opinion of you, then his or her family’s opinion would be modified by +100. Now, if a player wanted to change relations with a family, all game systems that involved a character’s opinion could now apply; for example, the player could improve relations with a family by conducting an Influence mission with the family’s head. Conversely, the event system could give an option that might offend the family’s head which would then reduce the family’s opinion.

Another important vector for family opinion would be religion. Characters adopt religions local to their family’s cities, and once enough family members follow the same one, a family officially adopts that religion. After that happens, the religion’s opinion is applied directly to the family’s opinion, so now all missions and events affecting a religion could also potentially affect a family. I added religion to Civ 4 primarily to create a reason why one rival nation would like you and another one wouldn’t. Religion serves a similar purpose in Old World , except that it now applies to tribes and families as well. Religions also have heads that work similarly to the heads of families; the opinion of the head would be applied directly to the opinion of the religion, which would then be applied directly to the opinion of nations, tribes, and families that follow that religion. Thus, religion heads are very important characters that touch multiple levels of the world, a new way that a character’s opinion could matter.

I began to use a river network as a metaphor to describe how opinion flowed throughout the game. More specifically, opinion only ever flows in one direction, a fact I discovered when the game crashed after a character’s opinion boosted their religion’s opinion which then boosted their family’s opinion which then affected the original character and continued in an infinite loop. Thus, character opinion flows into nations, tribes, families, and religions, and religion opinion flows into nations, tribes, and families, but the opinions never flow in the opposite direction. Understanding this flow is key to learning who to favor and who to ignore, which is important for keeping families happy. Further, putting characters at the origin of the river keeps the opinion system inherently fluid and dynamic as fortune’s wheel has its way with the people of Old World .

As much as I love to read the designer talk and as much as I believe Old World to be a great game, the extent of justification for doing things that should have been done from the start of the 4X genre (having a ruler die) is very amusing. Same for ICS and ECS; I guess it’s really hard to get out of that bubble? :-)))

I strongly disagree with that statement. There are advantages (as discussed) to leaders changing, but also serious disadvantages. Static rulers provide a constant human face for a civilization, with the ability to learn their personalities over multiple games. Changing rulers (even in Old World) are immediately less memorable.

Now Old World gains other benefits from the changes, and the scale of the game means they happen pretty infrequently, so overall it’s a good design decision. I can’t see the same being true of a game like Civilization.

Yup. I think it works great in Old World, but if you took the same mechanic and modded it into Civ VI, it would flop terribly. There’s definitely some art to using these options.