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

Negative Space


Both developers and players spend a serious amount of time and energy focusing on how we might get more out of games. More features. More content. More tough decisions. It’s easy to forget that sometimes… less is more.

Most titles where a single session lasts longer than a few minutes are best served by providing players at least a small measure of downtime. This “negative space” of game design is an important ingredient in proper pacing.


Good Pacing… Bad Design?

Games often incorporate features that might be considered a bit “boring” with the express purpose of giving players  a breather. If a game is 20 hours long and every last second of it from naming your character to the final credits is over-the-top intense, most people would be too stressed out to get anywhere close to the end!



Asymmetry between players is one of the designer’s best – and most challenging – tools. Not only does it spice up the experience of playing the game, when implemented well it also greatly enhances replayability. Let’s look in detail at the impact it can have, along with why it’s sometimes so hard to incorporate.


What Does Asymmetry Add?

The more new experiences a game can provide players the more replayable it is. One of the best ways to expand that variety is with asymmetric factions. In the original Civilization all of the civs were identical, so outside of one’s imagination there was no reason to ever play anyone but the default. In Civilization 5 this is no longer the case, and the goal of the design team was to have factions that were unique enough to all be worth playing, but not so much so that these differences stole the show from the core mechanics.


Abstraction & Civilization

Abstraction is utilized by every game ever made. Not only is perfectly mimicking reality impossible – it shouldn’t even be the goal. Interactive entertainment sets itself apart by offering players interesting decisions, testing their skills or immersing them in a unique world. Games fail to achieve these goals when they prioritize realism above all else.

What does abstraction do for a game? How can it be used for both good and ill? What does a designer need to consider? We’ll examine these topics and more!

Along the way we’ll also look at some features of the Civilization series, as it presents an excellent case study for how abstraction not only improves a game but can also frustrate a subset of players.