Late last year I brainstormed in detail how the economics system for At the Gates ought to work. It would have been easy enough to just say, “Okay, there’s metal and wood and population and this unit costs 50 and that building is 75… BAM! Done.”
But a starting point like that is not what you want when building a complex strategy title. Even those decisions which seem unimportant can trigger a chain reaction that dramatically alters your game. Identifying exactly how every piece is supposed to fit together is crucial.
Is a unit intended to be powerful, but expensive? What implications does that have? In what way is wood different from metal, and what strategies can players build (or not) around each? What are the broad goals for pacing and feel?
After switching the economic focus from a social classes to depleting resources, I already knew the rough form the economic system would take. But these were the sorts of in-depth questions I still needed answers for. What follows is the brainstorming I used to find them.
Updated: 2012 November 16
How often to players have to put out fires? How long can they keep taping over problems before a real crisis occurs?
In the first 24 turns or so players will be able to address all of their needs by capturing Improvements owned by the Independents and Hostile Tribes. After that, things start to get dicey.
What Happens after the Freebies are Gone?
There probably needs to be a way to build up a big surplus of something that can help alleviate the pressure for a while. Maybe this is where pillaging becomes vital? If you just capture everything then your maintenance will eventually catch up with you. The only way to get ahead of this curve is with big payouts, and the only way to get that is through pillaging.
When and How are NEW Resource Locations Harvested?
Do players need to earn Romanization Traits before they can construct Improvements for themselves? This seems overly harsh and possibly unfun.
Maybe there’s a bit of a race for the best ResLocs, which are one of the few economic items which aren’t a long-term net loss.
If Everything is a Net Loss, Then…
That means there constantly needs to be new input into the system, otherwise it will crash almost immediately. This is true even In the early-game when players are acquiring “free” Improvements, because they still cost maintenance. And if building new Improvements also has an up-front cost it’ll be basically impossible to survive.
Which means there needs to constantly be new input.
So Where Does the New Input Come From?
In the current design there are only two places: Goodies and pillaging. The first is a trivial and quickly-exhausted supply. The second is good, but can it carry the entire game on its shoulders? Probably not.
Maybe Resource-based Improvements aren’t a net loss, but they do become exhausted and need to be replaced. However, non-Resource ones still are. Let’s do a quick example.
- Farm: +2 Food, -1 Wood
- Log Camp: +2 Wood, -1 Metal
- Iron Mine: +3 Metal, -1 Wood
The above ecosystem is stable, producing 2 Food and 2 Metal. Another Logging Camp would reduce Metal to 1 but add 2 Wood. As soon as the Iron Mine runs out though things crash. The Logging Camps will shut off once the Metal surplus is burned through, followed by the Farms once the Wood is depleted. As soon as new Metal is available, everything else comes back online.
However, doesn’t this just reduce the game down to “get the Metal”? Not if Logging Camps deplete as well! Maybe all Improvements require Wood, even Logging Camps themselves. The trick is then:
- Get as much Metal as you can, because it’s vital to both economics and military.
- When your Logging Camps are about to deplete, build new ones. If you don’t have enough because of other pressing matters, then you need to find something to pillage.
These two things combined with Wood for Supply Camps, Ships, etc. should really be pretty interesting.
What about Wealth?
Units require a LOT of Wealth in Maintenance (as well as a fair bit of Food). But Population produces Wealth – in fact, with few enough units (let’s say ⅓ or less of a player’s Pop is in Units) then the player will make money.
Is Keeping Track of Depleting Improvements Overwhelming?
It could be, but the goal is for individual turns to matter more than in a traditional 4X – no hitting end turn five or ten times in a row in this game and then realizing you skipped past something. There’s basically zero “City Management” in AtG, and this “Improvement Management” fills that void in a way. In other words: maybe it is a lot to manage, but that’s what the game IS.
Is Population a Net Economic Drain?
If it is, players will find ways to kill off their people, which is probably not what we want. Maybe they eat less Food than Units, so Food can be stable as long as one’s standing army is tiny? Seems good. Pop points can each eat 1 Food, and Units 2.
The Wealth produced by Pop is also valuable, and needed to pay for Units. I like the 1-to-1 relationship, so let’s say just like Food each Pop point produces 1 Wealth per turn, and Units require 2. This means to be break-even, players need 2 Pop in Cities for each Unit out in the field.
Units in Cities could use less… should they be completely free, or still cost 1? Free is “cleaner,” but it kind of lets people off the hook who build a ton of units. So I think they should still cost 1 per turn.
What Should the Rate of City Growth Be?
Right now it’s 0.1 per turn just because that’s a nice, round number. It’s hard to say what this should be without more data, but we can at least lay down some goals.
Let’s say the player starts with two size 3 Cities, producing a total of 6 Wealth / turn. After 10 turns they’d be up to 4, producing a total of 8 Wealth. If they each train one Unit income drops to 4, which is completely eaten up by the two Units. If they’re stationed inside a City their maintenance drops to 2, meaning the player will start collecting 2 Wealth again. After that 10 turns the player will have another 2 income, allowing him to support 1 more Unit (or 2 stationed in a City). A new supportable Unit every 10 turns feels pretty good to me!
Scouts are nice because they only cost 1 Maintenance instead of the usual 2 (although there’s no discount for putting them in a City).
Do Larger Deposits Produce More Per Turn, or Last Longer?
Because of how fragile the entire economic system is lasting longer would be much, much easier to get the pacing right for, so that’s the direction I’d like to go.
Where does Pillaging Fit In?
Should pillaging an Improvement give you a bunch of what it produces, or a bunch of something else? Still not sure about this one. The same type is definitely simpler. This would make sense if either A) you needed a bunch of that Resource NOW, or B) you can’t afford the maintenance (usually in Wood) of owning it. I can see both situations arising – the former for obvious reasons (to train a Unit, to pay for your armies, etc.), and the latter because your Wood supplies are already low and you’re going to need to it to replenish your stock of Logging Camps.
How much of a resource should pillaging provide? It can’t be too much, as owning the Improvement already requires you to also spend maintenance. In general, players should want to own rather than pillage. So the equivalent of 5 turns of ownership seems right.
Pillaging should also provide the player with a small bit of Wealth. This helps pay for the troops out in the field, and it also makes logical sense. The amount received should be roughly half of the resource amount pillaged, with a bit of variation depending on the type of Improvement (more valuable ones net more Wealth).
What happens if the Improvement being pillaged is close to running out anyways? Does it give the full amount, or a smaller “pro-rated” one? Probably should be the latter, but pillaging a half-depleted Iron Mine for only 7 Metal isn’t much to write home about. Maybe the most you can get is half of what remains – so an Iron Mine that still has 40 Metal left inside would provide the full 15 for pillaging, but once its down to 20 it would only give 10.
Can players pillage their own Improvements? Pillaging Farms for Supply will probably be a fun, painful strategy so we definitely want to allow that. I think we do have to permit it and allow it to provide the full amount, otherwise players will try to do things like let the enemy capture Improvements just so they can pillage them for the resources.