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Permanent decisions and infinite variety. Create a nomadic tribe and guide them across a randomly generated tundra to meet its God.
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Roxlou Games

2,212 backers pledged $78,017 to help bring this project to life.

A Sneak Peek at the Gameplay of Unwritten

A challenge we've found when talking about Unwritten is that it’s difficult to talk about any single element of the game without talking about everything at once. One of the game’s strengths is that the various gameplay mechanics are woven tightly together, and although individual elements are simple, it is their relationship to each other that really creates the magic. 

This is why we've decided to post this rather exhaustive gameplay update. We want to give our current and future backers a chance to really see what makes the game so interesting.

A lot of the depth and many of the details have been omitted to keep from spoiling all sense of mystery, but hopefully this mock game manual also lays enough bare to show why Unwritten has us so excited.

Overview

In Unwritten your goal is to cross the tundra so that at least one member of your nomadic clan can reach “God Mountain”. Each clan starts with the following:

  • At least one “hunter and gatherer” unit 
  • Some quantity of “roxlous” (a llama like animal that acts as currency in the game)
  • Some quantity of “food”
  • At least one “story fragment”, representing the preexisting history of the people

You then progress by playing through a series of zones, laid out on a grid of hexagonal tiles. In each zone the goal is to guide all your units from the starting point to the map exit. At this point you will be presented with a map of your current route, and will be given the choice of which way to go next.

Gameplay is turn based, with all of your units getting to move during your turn.

The game is over if all of your units die, and the game is completed if any of your units manage to talk to the God that lives in the Mountain.

Units

Units represent a small band of people from your clan with a similar job. They may be hunters and gathers, warriors, shamans, or simply refugees. They are the lifeblood of the clan, and it is only by getting them to “God Mountain” that you can finish the game.

In Unwritten units have a few base stats and any number of abilities that may completely change the nature of the game. It is similar to a collectible card game like Magic the Gathering in this sense, in that the simple rules that serve as a framework may be overridden by any particular unit, creating a huge sense of variety.

For example, all units are affected by “hunger”, which must be managed in order to keep a unit alive and happy (see “Managing Units”). However, a unit might have an ability that allows them to spend a point of health in order to pay the hunger costs for all units for 10 turns, thereby completely changing the pace and consequences for a limited time.

In Unwritten unit special abilities and stats are created randomly, so it is highly unlikely to ever see two units that are alike.

Some example unit stats:

  • Hunger
  • Health
  • Strength
  • Movement
  • Vision 

Managing Units

All units have a “hunger” stat, and it must be satisfied to keep order on the tundra. This is done by either paying the unit from the clan’s food store, or by maintaining enough “hunter and gatherer” units, which reduce the hunger costs for the clan and allow a certain number of units to be kept “for free”. Hunter and gatherers are fast, good at exploring, and weak in combat, meaning that it’s essential to find a good balance between them and other units.

If a unit can’t be fed they will defect away from the clan. For weak units this simply means that they will starve to death (although there may be more indirect consequences as well -- see “Story Fragments”). Stronger units will become hostile, and will attack your remaining units before starving a few turns later.

If a unit is going to be a burden they can be dismissed at any time. However, if this is done out in the wild (meaning they aren't on a “safe” tile like a friendly village), this is the same as running out of food. They will starve without your support, and attack you if they can.

In Unwritten you will be getting new units constantly and (because of the dangers of your journey) will just as easily lose them. It is vital to keep a steady stream of units with all their varied powers and abilities coming. However, you must plan carefully lest you end up with a balance of units that becomes a burden and eventually turns on you, ensuring your failure.

This balance is found by managing your “Storm Queue”, and maintaining relationships with other clans out in the wild.

The Storm Queue

At various times in the game you’ll be given the chance to recruit a new unit, usually through diplomacy with other clan leaders (see “Story Bouts”). When this happens you’ll get to review the stats and special abilities of one or more units and decide whether you want them to join you. If you choose to take the unit it won’t be yours to command immediately. It will instead be listed in your “Storm Queue”, and will then leave to prepare for the journey.

On the tundra every so many turns a “Quick Storm” will roll in, obscuring everything in mist and lightning. During this time one of the units that previously pledged fealty to your clan will join you under the cover of the storm. Whether you’re ready or not, you must deploy the top unit from your storm queue, and place them near one of your existing units.

Your storm queue can be rearranged to your liking, but only when at “safe” tiles like villages, and you cannot delay the arrival of a unit. In this way managing your storm queue and anticipating the next storm is a big part of the strategy of Unwritten. For example, since your queue is visible at all times you may see that a big unit with a high hunger cost is coming and that you cannot currently support it. Before the next storm you might take bigger risks with weaker units, getting them killed off before your strong unit drops in. If something goes wrong, you might also make sure to leave one unit near a “safe” tile, in order to drop the strong unit there so that it can be safely dismissed.

For those that play tabletop games or collectible card games, Unwritten has an interesting ebb and flow that may feel familiar. It is a bit like constructing a deck or army and then executing the resulting strategy, except in Unwritten you’re doing both at the same time.

Story Fragments

A story fragment is the result of a critical decision your clan made. For example, each time your clan participates in a “story event” (a tile that fires off an interactive tableau told out with shadow puppets), the decision you make there converts to a token you take with you, indicating what you decided to do. For example, you may have met an old man alone on the tundra and gave him aid, or maybe you took him as a slave, or maybe you let him die. Your story fragment indicates this choice on a token and with a full text description of what happened.

Story fragments may also be given to you for other actions. Should you let many of your units starve in the wild as part of your strategy, that would become a fragment that you carry with you. Note that all fragments have both positive and negative qualities on the tundra. In this case letting your units starve might be considered strong or intimidating when recounting the tale to some of the other clan leaders (see “Story Bouts”), to others it would be a sign of weak leadership.

Story Bouts

Because the tundra is a place of scarcity, trade and diplomacy with the residents of the wild is vital. Other clans can be found in villages along the way, and it is through their help that you will receive food, roxlous, and above all reinforcements.

Diplomacy is done via a “story bout”, which represents the two clan leaders joining together to share the stories of their respective people. A story bout makes use of the story fragments you’ve collected.

When a bout begins the most “notorious” fragments from your clan’s history are brought into a list. The notoriety of a fragment refers to how important other residents of the tundra might think that story would be. Killing a wolf doesn’t warrant much notice. Stealing another clan’s livestock would be a bigger event.

You must then arrange these fragments into a branching tree, which always starts with your most notorious fragment. As you tell your story to the rival leader you will get a reaction back, indicating whether the leader is intimidated, encouraged, disgusted, etc. You then choose which branch of the story tree to take next, ultimately trying to gain access to the rival clan’s resources through friendship or intimidation.

Because story bouts control the player’s access to new units (an irreplaceable resource), the decisions you make on the tundra directly affect your ability to survive. You may decide to make a wide variety of decisions so that you can later create a balanced story tree, versatile enough to convince a range of leaders, or you may make the same kind of decisions repeatedly, choosing to strongly ally yourself with one kind of leader.

However, there is a catch to only thinking about how you will be thought of by rival clans. Your destination is “God Mountain, a place of judgement”. By what criteria will you be judged once you reach your goal? Will the God of the tundra look favorably on the decisions you made to survive, or will you be measured by a different scale?

And Now We Want to Hear From You

So you read this whole update and didn't find the answer to a burning question? Please ask it in the comments. We’ll either answer it there or follow up with another update. We also love suggestions and hearing about your “sky’s the limit” wishes. A big part of running this Kickstarter is so we can talk with you, so we’re here and we’re listening!

Comments

    1. Creator Christopher Enderle on January 22, 2013

      Is starvation (or tribe members turning on you due to starvation) the only way for your people to die?

      The story fragment system reminds me a bit of the perk system in Alpha Protocol. I loved that the game acknowledged your play style and empowered you to continue in that style.

      I like the idea of runes/signs above a village to represent their disposition. After all, it makes sense that as you approach a village, once it's in sight, you get some idea as to it's people (is it a walled in village? does it have heads on spikes?).

      It seems getting along with villages will be really important, but I'm wondering how well you can actually plan in regards to what villages you'll be coming across. If I play a peaceful tribe, and so go out of my way to avoid a warlike tribe, might I get really unlucky and have the next village I come across also be warlike?
      I kind of wish I had the chance to have more information. Like "pay a roxlous to send out scouts" so then I could make the choice of taking the longer trek to a peaceful village or taking my chances with a warlike village.

      How deep are you planning on making the alignment system? Will it be a spectrum of pacifist/pragmatic/rape and pillage? Or more like D&D?
      Could we, in the editor, create a peaceful village that likes you because you wiped out a nearby aggressive village, yet might shun you if you arrive otherwise with warlike story fragments?

    2. Creator KogX on January 21, 2013

      Perhaps having multiple versions mountain god can add variety while not making in completely randomized. An example would be having one version of the god value warfare and have his look and actions represent that. While another version of the god can value peace and have the base look of the warmongering god but is changed to represent peace.

    3. Creator Roxlou Games on January 21, 2013

      @Don
      That's good feedback. Rewards for exploration (which is added risk after all) is something we're big on, so finding clues about the motivations of the god in the mountain would indeed be a way to reward advanced players and would help reduce the frustration of a god with randomized judgement. We absolutely agree that the god should not have the same values each time, since that would mean that we as developers are deciding what is right and wrong on the tundra and that's not the message we want to get across.

    4. Creator Don Bemont on January 21, 2013

      Just my opinion, but I don't think it would work to have the mountain god value the same thing every new game. Nor do I think it can be totally arbitrary. It seems like finding hints has to be a possibility, whether through exploration, through prophet-like members of the tribe, through observation of the world, through characters you meet???

      Good luck! I can hardly wait to see what you decide.

    5. Creator Roxlou Games on January 21, 2013

      @Don
      Honestly that's something we're still experimenting with. You're right that going one way creates an interesting tension and means that beating the game once is exploratory, while beating it the second time in an attempt to please the god would be the true challenge. However, it could also be overly frustrating.

      We're going to be trying a number of things and playtesting them closely with hardcore gamers here in Austin, TX. We're committed to not just going with the easy answer, but we also don't want to beat our players up without them feeling like their hard work is paying off.

    6. Creator Don Bemont on January 21, 2013

      This sounds incredibly interesting.

      One aspect I wonder about: You talk of a tension between impressing other tribes along the way and impressing the god of the mountain. What does the player know about the standards of this god? Is this something you learn from re-plays, in which case the tension is greater the first time you play? Or does this change from game to game? Are there hints or clues to discover within the gameplay? Or is this arbitrary? As much as I like the sound of the game, I suspect that in the end, the appeal of the game will depend a lot on how you have this set up.

    7. Creator Roxlou Games on January 21, 2013

      Ah one thing we missed. @Yossi asked about save games.

      We allow you to save and resume your progress, but there are no quick saves or quick loads. Every decision you've made is permanent. Basically you can "save and quit", and then when you resume that save game is deleted right away.

    8. Creator Roxlou Games on January 21, 2013

      @Yossi, @Disposable hero, and others
      We actually feel that you guys are both right. @Yossi is right that total randomness can be a buzz kill in a strategy game, but @Disposable hero is right that a big part of the appeal is that traditional strategy games can become predictable and that randomly generated games should create a sense of unknown and danger.

      In designing the game we're trying to find a balance between both viewpoints. @Yossi, there are indeed some elements we haven't described here that address what you're talking about. For example, the fact that a story bout always begins with your most notoious story fragment means that you will get a strong clue as to the personality of the opposing clan leader, but not one that is impossible to recover from. But it also makes your decisions have some impact since you can't always just make the "right" choice, and that no amount of planning will completely remove all your problems.

      We're also experimenting with putting runes and signs on other villages to give you hints about what the other clans value, we have a "The People Say" button on each choice to tell you what the pluses and minuses of each choice are *before* you make it, and we avoid story events with random outcomes. For example, in FTL you frequently make a decision that at one time leads to a positive reaction and at another time the same choice leads to a negative one randomly. We avoid these because we want your decsions to be intentional and well planned.

      Note that this isn't a slight against FTL, as we're big fans of that game and the others are right to say that it has some influenced Unwritten. It's just a place where our game needs to be different so that the part of the game that's a strategy game still feels "fair".

      That all said, the game is rogue-like in the sense that there are no dominant strategies, you can't plan for everything that may happen because there is always something new that may happen, you will never have a completely perfect playthrough, and because of the difficulty you are going to die a few times before you come out on top. However, we're chasing that elusive balance that makes you feel that each death is fair, and that you're not just grinding through play after play in order to memorize the right strategy.

    9. Creator Disposable hero on January 21, 2013

      a forget to talk about a thing : the graphic in the small event of the old man : i love it
      i know that they are just some raw matérials, but this kind of graphics stick to the game world : a primitive tribe, an hotsile (or not ?) toundra, a journey to meet a god... Reminds me of the painting in the Lascau caves
      I think we saw some of achieved graphism in the video, they are good too, but, in my image of the game, too colorfull or too much détail ( i don't want to throw a stone to the artist, the job is very good ^^)
      that's for it ^^
      (sorry for my bad english and if it was discuss before ^^)

    10. Creator Kittenchops on January 21, 2013

      Really happy with this update and hoping we'll get more frequent ones now that the campaign is properly underway. Like Disposable Hero, I like the 'FTL way' of never quite knowing what's around the next bend of the road, that's one of the things that attract me to this game. Another would be the music, so if we could get to hear more of it in an update, that would be wonderful

    11. Creator Akryum on January 21, 2013

      Very nice update! Kee it going! :)

    12. Creator Disposable hero on January 21, 2013

      I love the things you have in mind, Roxlou games guys
      @yossi
      i think the FTL way is a good one for this kind of game, because it's a game of journey, you never know what happen the next turn
      in civilization games (which for me is very different and also very similar to this game), you can plan your actions very easily because all civ are aggressive when you have more town than them
      In unwritten, it's the way you act in the toundra that decides the diplomacy thing, and the end of the game too
      the ideas are great, and I have some another things in mind, but not clearly, I'll post when I can put words on them ^^
      again : great !

    13. Creator Yossi Tamari on January 21, 2013

      Great update but it does raise some questions:
      Turn based games are all about making decisions, and it's clear that we'll have many such decisions to make in Unwritten, but for the game to be fun (for me at least), these have to be informed decisions, meaning I need to have a pretty good idea what the outcome of the decision will be before I make it. It is not clear from the update to what degree this will be the case when handling a particular story event, or in story bouts we may be deep into the tree before we get a good idea of the personality of the other clan leader, which might mean we are making most decisions before we have any idea what their implications might be.
      This also leads to my second question: to what degree is Unwritten a rogue-like? Is it the game design so that success ratio is about 10%? That you learn what the results for each action is by playing it enough time so eventually you can do an “optimized” playthrough in which you reach God Mountain? (FTL took that approach, and I personally didn’t like it, even though many others did.)
      What is your approach to save-games?