Revisiting the Design of Civ 5

Upon first telling people about At the Gates I’m often asked, “How does it compare to Civ 5, the last game you designed?” Well, in this article I’ll be providing an in-depth response to that very question!

The short answer, though, is that there’s no guarantee if you loved Civ 5 that you’ll also love ATG, nor that if you hated one that you’ll also hate the other. My goal is to lay out the similarities and differences with complete clarity so that both existing and potential contributors know what they’re signing up for.

However, before really getting into the details (this is a long essay folks!) I’d like to step back and wax philosophical for a moment.

Civ 5 was a great success both critically and financially, and I’m especially proud of what the team accomplished. But there’s no ignoring the fact that Civ 5’s gameplay didn’t live up to everyone’s expectations.

I have no problem admitting that my design wasn’t perfect – we improve through constructive criticism and self-reflection, and that is another reason why I’m writing this. It wasn’t always easy, but I’ve answered many of the questions that at one time perplexed me. If my past work has given you reason to doubt my talents, I hope that this article might then help replace that with a new confidence.

Below, I’ll be sharing the design lessons I learned during and after Civ 5’s development, along with explaining how I’m actually applying said lessons in ATG.

Alright then, it’s about time we got this show on the road!


Building an Empire Builder


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!

Empire builders (aka “4X turn-based strategy games“) are a beloved genre. Unfortunately, they’re also somewhat of a rare breed, particularly when compared with the deep yearly lineup of first-person shooters and RPGs.

The problem with 4X titles is that they’re not easy to build. Challenges hide behind every corner – not just on the design side but also with the tech and art.

Today, we’ll delve into the obstacles developers of these games must face, along with why the end result is worth all of that hard work. And maybe if we’re lucky, this article might help motivate someone out there to go and create one of their own!


TGDRT #14 – Civ with Soren Johnson

Episode #14 is now up!

This week Jon and Dirk are joined by Soren Johnson, best known as the designer of Civilization IV. The gang discusses the 4X genre with a particular focus on the Civilization series. They dig into what makes this category of games special, what problems they have yet to solve and what opportunities exist with multiplayer and on mobile platforms.

I’d been looking forward to recording this episode for a while, and it ended up even better than I had hoped! Soren and I really dig into what makes Civ tick along with some of the problems afflicting both it and the 4X genre generally.

Soren even shares what he would do if he were in charge of Civ 6 – so now you have to listen!

– Jon

Why ‘At the Gates’?


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!

So some of you might be wondering about the story behind At the Gates’ creation. Let’s turn back the clock a bit and take look at the origins of the project.


Why the Fall of Rome?

As for the theme itself, I was talking with one of my designer friends who was working on a scenario about the fall of Rome and he described a couple of cool features he was working on, one of which was taking a core system that’s normally helps players and flipped it around to instead hurt them. This got the gears in my brain turning.


Announcing: At the Gates

Landscape - With Logo - 1440x900

I have some big news that I’m very excited to share with you all!

A few months ago I founded Conifer Games, a small development studio dedicated to building ‘meaty’ games like strategy and hardcore RPGs. Our first project is At the Gates, a 4X turn-based strategy game which takes place during the fall of the Roman Empire. Players take the reigns of a fledgling barbarian tribe trying to forge a place for itself within the new order.

Our team has been working on At the Gates for a while now, and we feel it’s finally time to start showing it off. We already have a fully-playable prototype completed, but the game still has a long way to go.

The development of At the Gates is being entirely funded through Kickstarter, so please consider contributing if this is a project you’d be interested in. The game is jam-packed with what I believe are very, very cool ideas, and I truly believe it will open up a new chapter on the 4X genre.

There’s already a ton of info about the game over on our Kickstarter page and our official website, but we’ll be adding even more to that in the coming weeks. Folks, you might want to change your homepage, as I’ll be posting a new article describing a major aspect of the game or its development every couple days for the next month!

It’s going to be a wild ride, guys. I hope you join me and see where it goes!

– Jon

Features in At the Gates

Evolving Landscape

Random maps are one of the features which have made empire builders so great. They provide a unique and fresh challenge in every playthrough, a quality lacking in more linear experiences. Not only does At the Gates include a historical map of Europe along with fully randomized maps, but we’ve also taken the concept of a dynamic landscape a step further: our maps change dynamically during a game!

This is managed by a powerful system which simulates climate and seasonal variation. Each turn in At the Gates represents one month of real time, and over the course of a year the landscape undergoes a complete cycle of transformation.

Hot areas become scorched in the summer, burning up farms and destroying the food which could have been foraged by soldiers. During rainy months, rivers can burst their banks and flood surrounding lowlands. The coldest regions of the map are always unpleasant, but during the winter they become virtually uninhabitable. Rivers freeze, making it possible for armies to cross them, while northern coastal seas turn into solid sheets of ice.

Weather is the key factor in determining how much supply is available to soldiers stationed in an area. Losing your supply camps or ships to the enemy as winter creeps in can result in your armies starving down to the last man. Always make sure you carefully consider the time of year when planning military campaigns far from home.


Seasons Comparison (Small)


Running an Empire is a Tough Job

You need to be constantly on the hunt for more food and wealth to keep your army in the field. One tool at your disposal is the ability to move your settlements around the map. Instead of remaining fixed to one part of the map forever, your kingdom and its identity will evolve over time! The best option available will often be to leave your current home behind for greener pastures.

Even if you remain on the move there will be times where you’ll be asked to make difficult choices about how to spend your limited resources. Constructing new improvements is expensive, so the primary means of boosting your economy is stealing from your neighbors. Hard fought success grants you the luxury of watching your rivals wither as your own empire remains happy and well-fed!

Settlements and improvements can either be captured for long-term benefits or pillaged and destroyed for short-term payouts. The latter is usually your best option only when you absolutely need the loot to pay off an approaching Vandal horde. However, improvements burned in this manner can be destroyed forever, so before you actually torch that iron mine make certain that you won’t need it later!

There will be times when juicy, undefended targets belonging to the distracted Romans are almost too much to ignore – but doing so risks awakening a sleeping giant. In this era the Roman Empire is down, but she’s certainly not yet out. A better strategy might be to lie in wait, slowly building up your strength until the time is right. It all depends on the particular situation you find yourself in.




Making Friends

At the Gates features a diplomacy system built from the foundation of what you’d normally see in other empire builders – but incorporates one major twist. The key to good relations is completing specific, context-based requests. Giving out free gold is nice and certainly won’t make you any enemies, but if you really want to make friends, then you’ll have to provide a hand in their time of need.

Because of the importance of a balanced economy, in At the Gates you’ll regularly face shortages of one kind or another. As leaders become ever-more desperate, the favor gained by lending them a hand increases. Paying attention to your neighbors’ situation can pay handsome dividends.

And keeping an eye on things isn’t optional if you truly want to play the diplomatic game. Other leaders won’t pop up and “nag” you when they need something. Instead, a list of requests will be displayed on his diplomacy screen, which you can browse at your leisure.




Dismantling Enemies

Warfare in At the Gates is very much about putting yourself in the right place at the right time. The size of your army is less important than in other empire builders because of the emphasis on morale and supply.

A unit’s combat effectiveness is based on three factors: its intrinsic strength, health and morale. You’re in trouble should any one of these be too low. Morale takes a hit after losing a battle, but recovers quickly – assuming your troops are adequately supplied. However, lost troops can only be replaced in settlements, so you’ll often be faced with the decision of whether to press on or return home for reinforcements.

The supply available on a tile is based on its terrain type, plus the effects of nearby settlements or supply camps. In good weather, a small army’s supply needs might be completely satisfied by the land, but in harsh climates and during the winter bringing provisions along is not optional!

Protecting your supply camps while capturing the enemy’s is a crucial element of a successful campaign. When not supplied from home, an army’s morale and strength quickly evaporate, turning a once-mighty army into easy pickings for a much smaller, better prepared opponent.




And More!

The topics described above are just the biggest bullet points for what At the Gates brings to the table. Here’s a sneak peak at some of its other cool features:

Even though you’re taking the reigns of a barbarian tribe, a game about the fall of Rome wouldn’t be the same without Romans! Both the Eastern and Western halves of the empire are major players in At the Gates. Early in the game they’re both still fairly powerful and picking a fight with either emperor is extremely dangerous. However, as the game progresses, the Empire will be weakened by foreign wars, internal strife and a variety of nasty random events. Should your kingdom prosper, you’ll eventually amass enough strength to be able to fearlessly take on the Romans on a level playing field!

However, your relationship with Rome doesn’t have to be completely antagonistic. Becoming Romanized and accumulating the associated bonuses for doing so is an important way of strengthening your kingdom. The “Romanization Traits” system is similar to the tech trees present in other empire builders, although the ways you can acquire traits are very different. Namely, they can be obtained either diplomatically by completing requests for one of the Roman factions, or militarily by capturing Roman cities. The investment required by either route is non-trivial, but the rewards you can earn are significant. Learning how to build catapults will definitely come in handy when trying to besiege the most heavily-fortified Roman strongholds.

You can play as one of eight unique barbarian factions in At the Gates. Included in this roster are famous stalwarts like the Goths, Vandals and Huns, but also lesser-known tribes like the Alemanni. Our goal is to provide a large degree of replayability, and each faction offers a very unique set of strengths to exploit and challenges to overcome.

– Jon


As mentioned in my last article on Quarriors, pacing is one of the most important factors in whether or not a game is fun. It’s an ethereal property that’s extremely hard to pin down. But players can recognize immediately when a game comes up short in this regard.


What is Pacing?

Pacing is the rate at which players make choices, experience something new or are rewarded.