The Enemy in the Mirror

If you haven’t done so already, I ask that you check out the At the Gates Kickstarter page. Our goal is to innovate and take strategy gaming to the next level, but this campaign will be our sole source of funding for development. And hint, hint: the more successful ATG is the more articles you’ll have to read in the future!

To those of you who have already contributed and helped us reach our funding goal, I offer my most sincere thanks!

One of the reasons we play games is that they allow us to achieve great things which, quite honestly, we’re probably not capable of in real life. While designing ATG I toyed with several ideas for how to provide that sense of accomplishment and progress. What I settled on is the “Romanization” system.

Romanization is actually a fairly recent addition to the game. For a while there was no progression mechanic at all, but I realized we needed more structure and rewards. One of my original ideas was to have two systems. The first was technology as traditionally represented in 4X games. The other was a system that incentivized working with the Romans, as typically there are plenty of reasons to fight your neighbors, but basically zero which suggest cooperating with them.

I eventually came to the conclusion that combining these two was the right way to go. Barbarians doing research doesn’t really make sense, and why add a second system that has essentially the same function? At first I was hesitant to merge the two (even for designers your natural inclination is more is better and different is bad), but after stepping back and performing a cold, objective analysis it became obvious this was the best approach.

How Does Romanization Work?

Every time you capture a Roman city or complete a Roman request you earn the ability to adopt one new Perk. How did I decide on this?

I wanted to push players towards Rome – not just diplomatically but also militarily. The Roman factions start off as superpowers you really shouldn’t mess with. But I also wanted a tension between staying out of their way and picking a fight when their guard is down. But if there isn’t a powerful reward for fighting them, then nobody ever would! Enter: Romanization Perks. They are designed to be so strong that grabbing a few early on can make a huge difference.

Because the Perks are so useful, I also had to be mindful of exploits. In the current design, only one Perk can be earned from a Roman city – by anyone. Without a restriction like this, I can envision players trying to “game the system” such that Roman cities are easier to snatch than they should be.

For example, clever players might leave Roman cities they’ve captured undefended, allow for them to be grabbed by other barbarians, and then recapture them for another bonus. Loopholes like this take the focus off of the game’s theme and instead turn it into an optimization puzzle. Those can be fun, but that’s not what I’m trying to build here, so sorry folks – first come, first serve!



Switching Gears

Another important feature of the Romanization system is the ability to “refund” Perks and choose new ones. Why did I allow for reallocation?

As I’ve spoken about at length in the past, it’s important to offer players as many “knobs” as possible, empowering them to adapt their strategies to an evolving situation. Everyone will make mistakes and for the experience to be meaningful consequences are necessary, but most players simply don’t enjoy losing everything when they make one wrong turn.

The second reason, which I’ve also touched upon, is that ATG is hard. Overcoming difficult challenges is very rewarding, but this is only possible with proper tools. It wouldn’t be much fun and certainly not fair to play a game of chess where you only had pawns. The ability to shift gears at any time enables players to experiment and continue on when their situation might otherwise have seemed hopeless.

While it may be possible to switch every Perk you’ve chosen and completely reforge your empire in a single turn, there are consequences for doing so. If there weren’t, then ATG would boil down to min-maxing your Perks every turn. I want there to be interesting strategic trade-offs between evolving and sticking with what you’ve got, but too much freedom transforms the game into something completely different.

The mechanic I settled on to deter this behavior was “instability.” Each time you reallocate Perks your “instability counter” is set to 6 turns, and while this is effect your taxation and troop morale are reduced. After the countdown ends all penalties are removed. However, if you reallocate again before it hits 0, the counter is reset back to 6 and the penalties increase. It can eventually reach the point where you’re basically bringing in no money and couldn’t fight off a swarm of flies.

When it comes to effects that are designed to deter certain “bad” behaviors, I’m not a fan of hard caps, ala, “once you reallocate, you simply cannot do so again for 6 turns.” This approach tends to result in collateral damage that hurts all players, instead of just those trying to find exploits (basically the same principle behind software copy protection!). However, escalating penalties prevent exploits without closing off doors. Switching twice in a short period of time may be painful, but if you’re suddenly attacked by the Huns on one side and the Romans on the other you’re probably willing to bite the bullet and switch over to full war mobilization!

Of course, as with all game development, I might wake up tomorrow and decide I hate this design and throw it out in favor of something completely different! I don’t anticipate going this route, but hey, you really can’t ever say. If it does happen I’ll be sure to let you guys know!

A couple people have commented that allowing Perks to be reallocated doesn’t make sense, but I disagree – if you examine how history played out it’s actually fairly realistic. Every tribe became absorbed into the new order we today refer to as medieval Europe. The Franks disappeared, and in their place you ended up with the French – an amalgam of Franks, Burgundians, Romans, Gauls and a dozen other groups.

It took centuries for this identity to take shape, and a variety of influences helped dictate the final form it assumed. A tribe might adopt new customs, abandon them, then return to those same practices a couple generations down the road. Late antiquity was an era of change, and not just for the Romans but also for Europe’s newer inhabitants.




Another question I’ve received is whether or not you have to become Romanized in ATG.

Strictly speaking, you do not, but purposefully avoiding it is probably unwise. Perks basically offer the same benefits as technologies in other 4X games, and you don’t really want to go without those! It does sound like it might be fun though, so why did I not purposefully build a “non-Romanized” strategy into the game?

Well, for one, that’s just not how it went historically! As I touched upon earlier in the article, barbarians that didn’t become Romanized were eventually erased from the map and rolled into the kingdoms which did. I could make things up, but there’s no roadmap for what a successful non-Romanized kingdom would look like. ATG may not be a “historical” game, but it still tries to evoke the theme and mood of the era, and adding completely fictitious elements would undermine this goal.

The other and more important reason why Romanization isn’t optional is because it’s fun. Instead of progressing, acquiring new bonuses and becoming more powerful, you could… not? Sure, we could add a completely new system as an alternative, but this would entail a significant amount of extra work to develop, balance, test, etc. I won’t close the door on that possibility, but it’s certainly not possible with our current scope.

Although strategies that completely omit Romanization aren’t built into the game, I like the idea of including a “Never Become Civilized” mode which makes it impossible to select Perks. Only crazy people would play that way, but hey… I’m not one to judge!

– Jon

If you’d like to discuss this topic further (or anything else related to ATG!) be sure to stop by the official Conifer Games forums, and become a member of our growing community!

2 thoughts on “The Enemy in the Mirror

  1. I really appreciate you bringing a product about this time period into the market. The fluidity of identity and power dynamics at this time make it a very difficult time period to gamify, with Great Invasions having made a (very buggy) stab at it in the near past. I thought you’d appreciate what this text might bring to your understanding of the time period if you haven’t read it; it’s excellent:

  2. Awesome post! I agree with a lot of the underlying philosophy – the idea that if you let players do something without consequences for free, even if it requires high execution (*AHEM* RTSes and micro, moves and comboes in fighting games, aiming-down-sights in shooters*AHEM*), or boring yourself to death (grinding in JRPGs, switching gear mid-fight every single turn in CRPGs) players WILL do it. At the same time, if you don’t let the player do something, they can’t exploit the system, they can’t learn from it, they can’t ‘play’. A good game anticipates exploitation, embraces it and remains an interesting game to play, even more so when you exploit it.

    Here are some suggestions about Romanization and the victory condition:

    Romanization – Imagine the format X/Y. Every city you hold gives you a point to allocate and reallocate – Y. Every point you’ve invested into the tree is ‘X’. Every city you hold gives you a point of Y. Every city you lose, takes away a Y. If your Y>X at any point, the last number of X below Y become ‘locked’ and cannot be reallocated. So if you lose a roman city, you keep the perks, but you’re losing flexibility. Keeps the Roman cities really important. The cooperation given perks could be their own thing, Z that you can reallocate at any point for the standard ‘destabilization’ fare, which makes sense – you’re feeding the enemy by completing their requests and you’re loosing resources, so the reward should be that much greater.

    Victory – holding BOTH Constantinople and Rome at the same time for X amount of seasons (or they give glory, and you win when you have enough glory).

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