AtG Economics Brainstorming


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.

– Jon

Economics Brainstorming

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.

5 thoughts on “AtG Economics Brainstorming

  1. Will you be able to stop an improvement from running without pillaging it? For example, can I temporarily stop logging operations to get a net higher metal income?

    1. Yep, there is a way to disable all Improvements. The only restriction here is that a Farm must be disabled for at least a year (12 turns), since its effects are seasonal and I don’t want players disabling them in the winter when they’re not actually producing anything useful!

      – Jon

  2. Jon, what about evaluating this sort of mechanic for pillaging:

    >>A unit that pillages an improvement becomes maintenance free for X turns, perhaps also gains a morale bonus. Alternatively (or additionally) the unit is healed to some degree.

    I would worry that large payouts on pillaging enemy empires will make that a very dominant strategy. You tend to see this in a lot of the F2P Travian style games, where the returns from pillaging vastly outweight the returns from internal development. The right answer is always to arm up and then obliterate your neighbors, which generates a snowball effect (since you can use pillaged returns to build up the military side of your empire and in turn support more aggressive pillaging).

    Historically, pillaging was incredibly important to keep supply lines from getting isolated or easily broken. You would ravage the countryside for food and wealth (which kept the soldiers morale up) and then demand quarter from the local populus. I like the above mechanic since it could create an interesting dynamic between trying to avoid destroying local develop in an area you wish to control as opposed to trying to simply gain control or subdue an opponent.

    Most 4X games implement pillaging as a way to gain returns for the empire, but those returns are invariably always inferior to simply just finishing the conquest. So in most cases, pillaging was ignored unless tactically useful (Civ 4/5, pillage a resource improvement because you want to break supply and can’t hold it). When games just provide resource uptake for pillaging they are always plagued by trying to balance the resource uptake so it has value but doesn’t break progression schemas. They almost always err in favor of not breaking progression so pillaging is just ignored.

    In this case you implement pillaging as a way to preserve unit momentum in conquest, at the expense of destroying resources you want to control. This keeps the mechanic focused on conquest, instead of making it serve as a diversion to conquest.

    1. Thanks for the suggestion and thoughts, JBrawley. You’re absolutely correct that pillaging presents a balance challenge that’s easy to mess up.

      I’m definitely leaning more towards the typical 4X approach of pillaging giving you something, but not really much. You might assume this to be as equally pointless as it has been in every other game, but what makes AtG different is that there are times of acute need when you need wood NOW… or else.

      This forces players to make a choice between what they really WANT to do (keep the improvement for long-term development) and the tough circumstances they’re dealing with at the time. Given the situation, there will be times when pillaging is the right move, other times when not doing so is, and even occasions when you really don’t know which way to go.

      This is by far the most important role pillaging has in the game. There are certainly other approaches I could have taken (e.g. temporary bonuses for units), but they don’t provide the same feel or trade-offs.

      Of course, this comes with the ever-true caveat of “when we actually try it out things might not work at all, and we have to go back to the drawing board.” But that’s why having a clear vision behind your game and every feature is so important. Our first, second and tenth attempts might all miss the mark, but as long as you have a consistent target you’ll always know if you’re at least moving in the right direction.

      – Jon

  3. The question I’m curious about is; how often does the player need metal now… or else? These situations did arise in Civ 3/4/5 but they were fairly rare, though generally presented an interesting need to adapt. My initial impression though, is that if the metal now situation is common, then pillaging becomes a no-brainer rather than a choice. It’s another “challenge, not a choice” situation in which recognizing the necessity of the course of action is the only true gameplay presented. When choosing between short-term necessity or long-term gain, my experience is that the player always selects short-term necessity because long-term gain can be replanned and short-term need cannot. If I turn my cheek on the short-term need, my long-term plan probably falls apart anyway.

    Part of the balance challenge pillage creates is that there may not be a perfect equilibrium between too much return and not enough. In fact, I suspect this is more often than case than that the developer couldn’t find that equilibrium. In AtG’s case, a given resource point can contain a variable quantity of resources and ergo yield a variable quantity of return and I suspect that will make balancing it significantly harder to do. In this case, less exploited resource pools are more valuable targets of pillage, and feels like the right answer might always be to stockpile via pillaging, as pillage carries a much higher rate of return than invested improvements.

    The resource loops are going to need be tough to manage, without being so constraining as to make the game inaccessible to non-hardcore thinkers. In fact, you could look to this point to establish difficulty settings (maybe mines, forests, etc. have more resources before depletion at higher difficulties). Depletable resource points by nature will motivate the player to move across the map, but I do have the devil’s advocate question:

    What about Rome? What happens when their resource points get exhausted? How do the Roman cities deal with this problem? Will they end up having to migrate to survive, or is Rome intrinsically richer with resource pools or stockpiles? There could easily be a culmination point at which Rome implodes because of resource depletion. Maybe that’s what you want, as it was a stated goal that they grow weaker over time.

    The resource loop described above is basically:

    Log wood -> Use wood to mine metal -> Use metal to log more wood

    With an offshoot that logging wood allows farming more food, and more food allows fielding larger armies.

    Wood being in the highest demand, the player/AI can shut the entire resource loop by knocking out the logging camps. This shuts down everything and could cause an opponent to run out of everything rapidly — if I target only logging camps, the mines and farms burn the wood supply much faster than if I target other resources. Pillaging only wood also bolsters the weakest link in my own system with a stockpiled reserve. Also, what happens when a player runs out of food — do the soldiers desert? Or can I still use them to pillage albeit at reduced military strength / morale? The player probably can’t run deficits, since that makes no sense with hard resources. It’s possibly a perfect time for AI to try and exploit the player through diplomacy, provided the AI aren’t constantly running the razor’s edge on resources themselves.

    So the devil here is obviously in the details of the exact balance. One possibility is that you set up metal mines so that they start rich and diminish over time, whereas a logging camp provides consistent uptake until it is entirely depleted. If a player starts to lose logging camps, he can shut down less performant mines to mitigate the damage and rely on richer ones that still consume the same upkeep.

    Another risk of managing improvements is similar to the problem settlers/workers created in Civ3. The larger your empire gets the larger a pain in the neck it is to manage it every turn. In Civ3, you could automate the workers, but it both still slowed the game’s per turn performance, and they frequently made idiotic decisions. You’ll need an accoutant’s interface to manage resource productions, one that lets you make quick, sweeping changes in your empire’s resource balance. Like a line graph that projects your resource uptake and use across 12 – 24 turns or longer. You could look at the summary and know that you are gradually running out of wood on your current vector.

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