The Pen is Mightier Than the Axe

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

In our last update we talked about how AtG’s combat system works. But the favored seat warfare holds is somewhat misleading, as the game’s most important feature is none other than its foil: diplomacy. No matter how clever a tactician you are, if you’re outgunned 4-to-1 you’re simply not going to win. Well, unless you’re Napoleon, and even then you’re still just living on borrowed time!

Diplomacy has long been a sore spot for 4X games. AI leaders have been boring and crazy. They’ve ganged up on humans because they’re winning or simply because they’re human. Occasionally they can be reasoned with. But they’re never to be relied on. So what’s the problem, anyways? Why hasn’t this been figured out yet?

The issue is that with diplomacy the designer is trying to accomplish opposing goals: acting like a believable human while still playing the game competently. This schizophrenia, coupled with a lack of focus has long plagued our beloved genre’s least-successful feature.

So is there an answer? I’m confident there is, and that AtG will prove it.



Mind Games

The most important fact to keep in mind when designing diplomacy is that it is simply another mechanical gameplay system. It might be more complex than most, but the rules are no different. And this is why it’s very much possible to accomplish those competing objectives we outlined above.

Interesting, difficult decisions are what make or break a strategy game. And players need information to make strategic choices. If you don’t know what the situation is or what the consequences of your actions are, what meaning can there be to your actions?

For this reason I chose to take a very mechanical approach with diplomacy. I started with a fairly traditional “relations” system similar to that found in most other 4X games, where you have a single number that determines whether a player likes you or hates you.

The behavior of the AI is very much dictated by this metric, and your primary goal as a player is to find ways to shape it in your favor. “The game” is finding fun, efficient ways of earning friendship, rather than trying to suss out what your opponent is “thinking.” There is still randomness and personality also very much comes into play, but all of the important elements are clearly laid out.

If a powerful AI doesn’t like you, there’s a very good chance it will come and attack you. But if you are friends, there’s no circumstances under which this will occur. For investing in a relationship to be worthwhile, it must provide reliable benefits. If not, then why bother with diplomacy at all? Suspense is important, but it must take a backseat to strategy. I acknowledge that this will seem too artificial for some, but the truth is that there’s really no adequate alternative that makes the player’s role the key ingredient.

It’s impossible for a game to appeal to everyone equally. As a designer the best you can do is identify your audience and goals and try to hit that target as best you can. With AtG I decided my objective would be a game where every decision is important and difficult – and this is also approach with diplomacy.



In our everyday lives we form very clear opinions of those we regularly interact with. Diplomacy in games is meant to model diplomacy in real life, and a crucial element of that is also modeling the personalities involved. Individuals can be generous, stingy, cautious, treacherous – and players expect AI leaders to be the same.

Another benefit of clear personalities is that they provide information. If you know that Drest of the Picts is completely insane, you also know that steering clear of him is probably a good idea. Or maybe you’re in a bad situation, and working with him is a risk you’re willing to take.

The two alternatives to strong character personalities are leaders that all behave the same, and leaders who simply act randomly. The former is boring and the latter is inappropriate in a strategy game.

The model I’m currently favoring for AI leader personalities in AtG is to have a collection of traits, such as generous, honorable, treacherous, etc. These traits would be clearly displayed, allowing you to roughly gauge the value of befriending or making enemies with a leader.

This approach is a great example of how I like to design: chunky, discrete and labeled “things” which immediately suggest their purpose. An alternative would be to have a ton of small numbers feeding into the system, but there’s no way to clearly represent this to players. Additionally, you as the developer probably don’t even have a full understanding of how all of these small pieces factor in.

I know that figuring things out is part of the fun for some players, so I’ll also be adding setup options to randomize the traits and make them invisible.



A Favor, Please?

AtG includes the traditional diplomatic knobs that you’d expect (giving gifts, asking players to declare war, etc.) but our big innovation with diplomacy are the context-based requests. The example I’ve used frequently is that when another leader is running out of food, he might ask you for some and should you do so you can earn a huge bonus.

In the most basic sense this isn’t unlike an AI leader asking you to declare war or convert to his religion in any other 4X game. So what’s the big deal?

The difference is one of scope. Nearly every leader will have several requests you can complete for them to improve friendship. In other titles your ability to shape the situation is quite limited. You can declare war when they ask, but that’s not going to come up very often. You can switch religions, but you’re probably not going to do this terribly often. But thanks to requests, the diplomatic market in AtG is always open for business.

Not just that, but many of the simple relations modifiers have been turned into requests. Instead of mousing over another leader’s relations stat and seeing that he’s mad at you because you built cities nearby, you’ll see a request asking you to move away. Not only is it clear why the AI feels the way it does, but it’s also now obvious what you can do to change that.

The goal is to always have the player in the driver’s seat. What’s going on? Why? How can I change that? The answers to these questions should always be obvious – and empowering.


God From the Machine

I was excited by the possibilities of the requests system, but I wasn’t yet satisfied – I wanted even more knobs. And bigger. And so religion was added to the game.

My original thinking was that religion would be a complex system as in the Civ series or a Paradox game. After all, religion was pretty important in this era, and there’s a great deal of interesting gameplay possibilities.

But after ruminating for a spell I came to the conclusion that a complex system wouldn’t be a good fit for this game. When you think of this era do you think of missionaries running around converting people? While that certainly did occur, but it wasn’t a defining element.

No, the main impact of religion during this time was political. Leaders would shift religions in order to forge alliances. And in the end, this was the thinking behind the model chosen to represent religion. There are no missionaries, conversion timers or anything fancy like that. All there is is a state religion for each leader, and leaders who share one like each other more and leaders who don’t naturally dislike each other. And that simplicity is what makes the system so important.

Players have the ability to switch religions at any time, but this is a decision that should not be made lightly. Not only do you receive a relations penalty with every leader who doesn’t share your religion, but if you switch away from one the members of that faith are even more upset, as not only are you wrong, but you’ve publicly turned your back on them.

You nearly always have the ability to completely reshape the diplomatic landscape – but the cost for doing so can be high. Choose wisely!



First Impressions Last a Lifetime

The last diplomatic feature I added to the game was the “first meeting minigame.” It might also be AtG’s most unique.

A problem shared by every 4X game I’ve ever played is that when you make contact there’s almost never anything you can do besides declare war. Economies are rarely developed enough to allow for trade, and forming agreements would be premature – how do you know whether it’s worth allying with someone before you have idea of what their situation is? They might be a turn away from starting a world war!

So the answer I came to was a new type of exchange – that is not optional. Players are forced to make a decision right then and there, and have to be prepared for the possibility.

Each side that has just made contact has the choice of whether to give a gift or not. The gift is a lump sum of wealth that is always a fixed amount, so that it can be planned for. If both players give the gift, there is a large boost in relations and the economic situation is a wash. If the one player gives a gift but the other does not, there is a smaller relations bonus. If neither side does so they simply move on with nothing gained and nothing lost. But if the AI gives a gift and the human does not, this is viewed as a major insult. You have a few extra coins in your pocket, but the long-term consequences might be far more significant.

There are several considerations that must be taken into account when making this choice: how much wealth do I have? What can I afford to give up in case the other leader doesn’t reciprocate? How much do I want this new guy to like me? How likely is it that he gives me a gift based on his personality and situation?

All of this boils down into a single decision of whether to give the gift or not. This might sound simple – and once again, that’s exactly the point. The idea may not work out and we have to try something else, but the goal is to engage players and force them to choose.

Diplomacy in every 4X game involves a great deal of hidden information and a certain amount of randomness. Adding further complexity to that makes the system inscrutable.

The approach we’ve taken with AtG’s diplomacy is to present tough choices laid over a transparent canvas. The experience is driven not by the game’s systems – but the decisions players make for themselves.

– 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 forum, and become a member of our growing community!

2 thoughts on “The Pen is Mightier Than the Axe

  1. “A problem shared by every 4X game I’ve ever played is that when you make contact there’s almost never anything you can do besides declare war”

    Indeed, making contact in the Civ series always boils down to pressing the Enter key to make the screen disappear.

    Apart from that, I have mixed feelings about making all the diplomatic decisions transparent. While it’s clearly a great help to decision-making, one of the core elements that usually differentiate diplomatic relationships from the other game systems is the unpredictability of the results.

    Knowing what causes the AI to feel that way towards you is good in my opinion. But I’d like the results of the requests to be more unpredictable, and possibly based on the AI’s traits. Insane Drest of the Picts could completely ignore the fact that you completed a request for them, a cunning leader currently at odds with you could ask you to give him something and attack you straight away (that’s what I do to AI leaders in Civ, why couldn’t they get their turn at it?), while more loyal leaders would be more likely to honor their promises.

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