At times I’ve been “accused” of being a theme-first designer. While this is true to some extent, it’s not the whole story. My philosophy is that (most) games need to evoke a strong theme and build on it with mechanics.
With AtG virtually every idea started with “so what actually happened in history…” However, the enjoyment of a game is the result of interesting mechanics, and your theme is meaningless if you can’t translate it into something that’s fun to play. So I always start with and lean on theme, but only when doing so doesn’t get in the way of mechanics.
What this means for AtG is that I’m first and foremost looking for ways to make the experience of playing the game feel like forging a barbarian kingdom. Migration is a very cool, innovative feature, but it’s only included because, well, that’s what barbarians did.
So what does this have to do with victory? This thinking is critical in the decision as to whether your game should incorporate victory points (VPs), where you perform various actions and winning is a matter of having the highest score, or victory conditions (VCs), where there is a single, unified objective (such as “conquer the world”).
As I’ve explained on my podcast and in my writing, I dislike VPs because they really don’t play nice with theme. If you’re counting your score and chasing points you’re not really going to feel much like a barbarian chieftain. A game that utilizes VPs might very well still be fun, but you’re no longer playing a game about whatever the nominal subject matter is. That’s a big loss, and one that shouldn’t be accepted without a fight. Sometimes a design leaves no alternative to VPs, but you should always first make a strong effort to do without them.
VCs have issues as well. They can absolutely take over a game and funnel players down a single path. Oh, the objective is to conquer the world? Okay, I won’t bother with all of that “diplomacy” and “culture” stuff then. Such a result is probably inevitable for any design featuring a single VC, unless it’s incredibly tight, everything feeds into everything else and you can switch gears at any time. Games that pull this off are almost nonexistent, but David Sirlin’s Puzzle Strike is one good example.
A related issue, particularly common in games with VCs, is the tendency for players to pursue the same strategy in every game. People who like fighting will always try to conquer the world, while builders will always hide away in a corner and train just enough of a military to keep neighbors at bay. While the designer’s goal isn’t to stop people from doing what they enjoy, the whole point of playing a strategy game is coming up with clever solutions to difficult problems, and if your experience is identical every time you play things start feeling a little dull.
The purpose of my brainstorming over the past week has been a design which provides an environment that rewards strategy, allows players to change course without too much fuss, and ensures every game doesn’t play out the same way.
What I’ve settled on (for now!) is three VCs. One is still taking down Rome, but there are now also two ways to win diplomatically: either by forming a confederation with other tribes, or winning the favor of Rome and be declared as its successor. I also considered a true builder victory, but I felt this really doesn’t fit into a game about the fall of Rome. Additionally, economic victories are kind of weird in general because they reward simply having powerful tools, rather than leveraging those tools into achievement.
So how am I planning on avoiding the problems of funneling and lack of variety inherent in VCs? Well, my priorities are to 1) allow players to easily jump into and out of strategies, and 2) make their viability heavily dependent on the situation.
There is a balance between allowing players to change their mind whenever they want and asking them to plan ahead and commit. When in doubt though, you should lean towards the former, as flexibility empowers players and keeps them engaged. There need to be consequences, but nobody enjoys playing a game for several hours waiting for an early choice to play out, only to watch it slowly fall of the rails knowing there’s nothing that can be done. Even if things do work out, your later involvement confined to going through the motions, rather than making interesting choices that have a real impact.
This tends to be a big problem with games that feature VCs. “I’m playing a diplomatic strategy!” Well, if your best ally gets wiped out by someone else, then what? Unfortunately, the answer is usually “start over.” Games that make it hard to switch gears really struggle here.
In AtG my aim is to make it fairly easy to change strategies – saving a neighbor from sure destruction might win you a friend for life, and this is an action that can be taken at any point in the game. You’ll still want to cultivate relationships over time for the head start and tangible goodies this offers, but having a shot at winning diplomatically doesn’t require such an approach from turn 1.
Another goal of mine is to discourage players from using the same strategies in every game. People naturally fall into a comfort zone, and unless you provide an incentive to not do that your game will be labelled by many as “boring.” I’m not going to completely close doors off, but circumstances will definitely point players in certain directions. Let’s look at a couple examples.
If a neighbor is up against the wall and you have the chance to save him, and in so doing earn a huge Relations bonus, that suddenly makes a diplomatic approach rather tempting. If you naturally enjoy playing diplomatically you can still utilize that strategy even without these sorts of opportunities, but it’ll be a much harder climb. If you don’t start near the water, a naval strategy will be tough, but if you are so lucky then the reward of hard-to-access resources and free, continuous food are hard to pass up.
While this philosophy addresses the biggest issues with a VCs approach, I can’t claim it’s a silver bullet. At some point in the late game players will have to commit, and eventually it will be too late to switch gears. And at times there will be opportunities that only help specific strategies, where players pursuing a different path won’t be at all tempted to take advantage of them. But I feel this design captures the best of both VPs and VCs, and is absolutely worth trying out. At some point you just have to plant your flag and see what comes of it!