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An indie strategy game from Jon Shafer, designer of Civ 5. You are a dark age lord trying to replace the crumbling Roman Empire. Manage your clans, explore the landscape around you, harvest its resources, and build a mighty economic and military machine.
An indie strategy game from Jon Shafer, designer of Civ 5. You are a dark age lord trying to replace the crumbling Roman Empire. Manage your clans, explore the landscape around you, harvest its resources, and build a mighty economic and military machine.
3,009 backers pledged $106,283 to help bring this project to life.

February 2018 Update

Posted by Jon Shafer (Creator)

Hey all,

In this update we'll be focusing on two things: the basic design thinking behind the diplomacy system, along with showing off some new elements of the game from a recent playtest of mine in screenshot-form.

The post started to get a bit long, so I've decided to save the specific details as to how diplomacy will work (e.g. Relationship Levels, Global Reputation, Leader Personality Traits and Interaction Types) for the next update. We'll start off though with a high-level look as to the challenge of diplomacy in a complex strategy game.


What "is" Diplomacy?

Diplomacy is one of the biggest challenges in the strategy space, in large part because it's trying to simulate something that's hard to wrap your head around even in the real world.

There are some basic tenets that people agree on when it comes to good military strategy: divide and conquer, pay attention to supply, hold the high ground, etc. But what does "good diplomacy" look like? Sometimes negotiating averts a major war, while other times it simply brings "peace in our time". What looks like prudent flexibility to one can be seen by another as an unforgivable betrayal.

So, yeah, a tough thing to model!

Of course there are elements we can try and incorporate such as personality, trading, making promises, punishing liars and traitors, etc. but it's much harder to simulate all of this than a simple resource-based economy (and even those are hard to get right). Is there room to make something really nuanced and revolutionary here? I think so, but probably not as just one feature among many in an already-complex game.

A few weeks ago I asked on Twitter what people thought made for a good diplomacy system, and I received a lot of good answers. There was certainly some common ground, but the biggest lesson I took was that there was no general consensus - I think mainly due to the challenge I spoke of above.

Another challenge is that diplomacy is meant to simulate the nuance of human interaction. We're not necessarily trying to represent systems here, but more, well, feelings. Alas, this isn't really something that game AI is up for at this point in time, in large part because it's AI, and there's nothing you can do as a developer to convince players otherwise. Regardless of individual moves, it simply feels different playing against a computer. That is starting to change with the kind of work Google's DeepMind has done with AlphaGo, but that is the crown jewel of a multi-million dollar research studio on a game whose rules have been fixed in place. So we've got a long way to go before the 4X genre will be revolutionized in this way.


The AtG Diplomacy Design Pillars

So what are we doing in AtG then?

The focus is to come up with an approach that does something interesting and new while most especially making sure to avoid pitfalls of past games, and with that goal we've settled on three fundamental pillars.


Distinct, Predictable Personalities

"Oh wait, I know this guy… Awww man."

The biggest problem with most diplomacy systems is that they're too random. While there are probably always well-intentioned rules under the hood which enables AI players to reevaluate their situation and change their minds when it makes sense to do so, in reality this usually ends up turning into, "AI declares war, then asks for peace 10 turns later, then declares war again 10 turns after that".

We'll specifically be avoiding this pitfall in AtG in a couple ways. First is through a focus on Personality Traits. If Attila with his 'Aggressive' Trait finds you nearby then you can be pretty sure war is coming soon (unless, of course, you bow before him and give into his mostly-symbolic demands that you know will soon be on their way). Sometimes war will be a good idea for Attila. Sometimes it won't be. But most important of all is the fact that he wants it. Not every Leader will be this extreme, of course, but it's important to know what you're getting.


Tough, But Clear Choices

"Ugh, I was trying to be friends with both of these guys…"

A common problem I see with diplomatic systems in other strategy games is a focus on minutiae, particularly on the trade front. Having a really complex trade system seems like a neat idea, but it usually ends up turning into a game of, "always trade X for Y, then try to exploit the AI out of all their money". In AtG trade will not be a focus - in fact, it won't even be present at all. Instead, the focus will be on the relationships between leaders.

One leader might demand that you choose between him and another leader. In line with the first design pillar though this should always be somewhat predictable - if you try and be friends with a leader with the 'Jealous' Trait you know that also trying to be friends with someone else will trigger him to challenge your loyalty.

Most of the time it's going to be impossible to make everyone happy and keep all of your stuff and your pride - but that's part of the fun of figuring out how to best adapt to and "solve" diplomacy.


A Few Basic, But Powerful Player Knobs

"I'm going to tell this guy to pound sand!"

The final pillar is based around the concept of player agency, and ties somewhat into pillar #2. Players should still be able to steer things diplomatically, even if a lot of the game will be responding and adapting to the other tribal leaders.

Sometimes you just want to vent frustration at someone, and in AtG a lot of the time you'll be able to get your way. A leader with the 'Meek' Trait might always give in to the first Demand For Tribute, making the strategy here more about optimizing what to ask for and when. Demanding something from 'Proud' Attila might be guaranteed to fail every time, and draw his wrath - but in return your Global Reputation might receive a large boost, allowing you to build a friendship with another leader.


In the next update I'll go into more specifics as to how diplomacy will work in AtG (the 7 Relationship Levels, how Global Reputation works, the list of possible Interaction Types, etc.), but for now we'll wrap things up here. But before we go we'll go over some new screenshots and show off some of the new recent additions to the game.



The first couple images here show off the new tutorial system.

It's mostly made up of basic popups triggered by particular events (e.g. if you're running out of food), but the cool part of the system is that most of it is optional. This supplements the fancy tooltips-in-tooltips system we started working on early in the project, and together should provide a much smoother on-ramp into the 4X experience than any previous title.

Optional tutorial follow-up explanations.
Optional tutorial follow-up explanations.

The system is also cool in that the tutorial messages themselves can be nested multiple levels deep.

Tutorial messages can now be embedded and link to one another like tooltips.
Tutorial messages can now be embedded and link to one another like tooltips.

We've also made sure everything is accessible in one place, just in case you want to go back to something later, or maybe turn off the tutorial system entirely and explore the in-game help at your own pace.

The game help screen.
The game help screen.

You can access this screen either by pressing the '?' button in the upper-left or by pressing the ? key. Not particularly fancy, but it gets the job done!

Speaking of ways to make the game easier to play, I may I've touched on the 'Notes' system in the past, but I can't help but show it off here now, as it was a really helpful feature in my latest playtest.

Right-clicking on any Clan Card brings up a screen which allows you to attach a colored note to the bottom.


Adding a note to a Clan Card.
Adding a note to a Clan Card.


Clan Card notes in action!
Clan Card notes in action!

This feature is rather handy, as it makes it easy to keep track of who you want to do what, something that's pretty important in a game in large part about managing Clans! It's especially useful when you have to stop playing for the night and would otherwise have no clue what you were up to the next time you pick things back up.

It's also possible to write notes on the map itself in order to keep track of spatial information, e.g. where to construct that Logging Camp or cut a path through the forest in order to make it easier to get around.

Tile notes revealing my grand plans for the forest.
Tile notes revealing my grand plans for the forest.

The last screenshot I'll include shows off the new 'Declare Kingdom' button you might have noticed in one of the previous screenshots. It doesn't show much in and of itself, but I promise the button does work! Just need a bit more Parchment...

Declaring a Kingdom! Well... eventually.
Declaring a Kingdom! Well... eventually.

These screenshots are actually from a pretty interesting playtest that I've been writing up notes for. I'll probably compile them into a future update post giving a more in-depth look at how the game plays out.

This was a pretty tough and interesting game where I found myself in the far north without many Resource Deposits but plenty of Forests to harvest Timber from. It also brought up some interesting design questions (How accessible should Resources be? How much variance between starting locations should there be?), so it would be a fun game to explore in more depth.


That's it for now. Thanks again for reading, and we'll be back with another update soon!

- Jon

David Sullivan, Graham Rollins, and 25 more people like this update.


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    1. Missing avatar

      clayffo on

      i also want to say that, as someone who has played over 2,000 hours of civ 5 and still do today, I have little to no interest in diplomacy. this is a game about winning, not making friends. Improve the caravan system to create a live marketplace for trade. the AI players will always be stupid, so just dump a standard civ 5 style profile in for them and leave it be. I kill them anyways.

      clean up the game, make some improvements to the existing infrastructure and release it. Add some MOD support so we can further improve the game for you.

      put some effort into customer relations so you can make some money and start on ATG 2.

    2. Missing avatar

      clayffo on

      Jon, I think it's established over the last 4 years that I'm not a fan of yours. However, since you released the alpha, I have made a genuine effort to provide constructive criticism, rather than destructive criticism in order to get this game completed. The industry standard, whether you look at big shops like Paradox, Firaxis, and Bethesda, or you look at small shops like one of my favorites, whiskeybarrel studios, is to produce content every year or two. We, the customers, want content and will accept a reasonable level of paid DLC and patches in order for that content to flow. When you don't produce that content, we move and spend out money elsewhere. When you continuously break promises, we spend our money elsewhere.

      if you think you'll show everybody and make the best 4x game ever made, given enough time, unfortunately you're going to find out the hard way that it doesn't match up to the hype. you will have no one to support you as the media and kickstarter supporters have moved on. you will have a finished product that no one wants.

      This game could be the series that puts Firaxis/Civilization on their heels and forces them to start producing good games again. My disappointment that you're so stubborn and unwilling to compromise exceeds my anger in supporting this kickstarter. If you don't want to listen, then so be it.

    3. Jon Shafer Creator on

      In the past I very much acted as more of a designer than a producer, but having learned a lot over the past few years I can now say those two roles have flipped. Will including diplomacy mean it takes longer to finish the game? Absolutely. But AtG needs to offer a full experience, and not just a fun concept or early game. The mechanical changes made to the midgame (e.g. declaring a kingdom) help a fair bit but these additions aren't quite enough on their own.

      The finalized diplo system is straightforward and modular, so it will be easy to start from something simple and expand on it later as time allows - the March update will outline exactly what this looks like. "A system for pressuring other tribes to join you, such as culture, military dominance, and alliances" as you describe it is exactly what I'm aiming for here, so we're on the same page. Your feedback is very much welcome and appreciated. There are some big flaws still to fix, and feedback is how we figure out what needs attention.

      Diplomacy, the AI, and general polish are the final three priorities for the project. I don't know exactly how long they'll take to wrap up but the scope for what remains in order to ship is now 100% set in stone. There are no big questions marks remaining. It's simply a matter of finishing the design and the game we have.

      - Jon

    4. Missing avatar

      clayffo on

      jon, I really, seriously appreciate your desire to be a leader in the industry. However, you have to step back and see the big picture. you're 4 years past due on this project and just about everyone is pissed off at you. you have no bank roll and very limited resources at this point. Chasing another rabbit down the hole is not the answer here. There can always be an ATG 2 to do that once you have a professional team to back you up

      Here is my suggestion based upon playing the game for 30 hours:
      Phase 1 - clean up the game play (see my posts on your forum) and improve the quality of life issues
      phase 2 - establish a kingdom. Add to and improve building options. Create some automation for general building and maintenance tasks. create a system for pressuring other tribes to join you, such as culture, military dominance, and alliances. Begin battling with Roman units on the frontiers
      phase 3 - have a system to build and manage armies for the siege of Roman held towns for final end game conquests.

    5. Jon Shafer Creator on

      Man, I really wish the text formatting options Kickstarter provided were better... everything just always runs together (and it's not much better when writing a post, trust me). Ah well!

      - Jon

    6. Jon Shafer Creator on

      Everyone who has requested access to the game via PM has received one (and as a reminder, anyone who has contributed at least $25 is eligible to receive a key and play the game, although I'll warn everyone that it's not done yet and will be much more fun to play later!).

      @ saluk :

      I think a lot of it simply stems from the problems I've described in this post: namely, that making a fun diplomatic system is neither straightforward nor easy. So developers often just try stuff, and because we've all been the shadow of Civ for so long a lot of times one project will simply copy what's been done before. We're starting to see more innovation now, but it's been a long road to get away from the basics established way back in the 90s.

      @ Death To Sprues :

      I can understand your frustration, although I wonder if the primary issue is that of how things are framed rather than simply behavior. If you know that Attila is an aggressive, angry fellow who's going to make demands the moment you make eye contact I feel like that's more acceptable than being thrust into a diplomatic exchange with no information and running into "irrational" AI behavior. A lot of times people behave irrationally as well, but we accept it as part of their (oft-flawed) personality. I think the same thing can be done with AI, but as a designer you have to be explicit about what you're doing.

      @ Felix Walcher :

      Thanks for the heads-up. Placeholder art can often get you in trouble…

      @ Arthur Cormode :

      Thank you! I agree, the art is really amazing (I can say that humbly since I had nothing to do with it, other than helping to write the graphical shaders, which ain't really art anyways).

      @ Bruce Poon :

      Agreed. I know not everyone will be happy with the approach we've chosen to take, but such is the nature of making, well, anything. :P I tried the "realistic, human" approach in Civ 5 and have concluded that until AI advances to such a point that you really think there's "someone" in there planning just like we do with other humans it's kind of a futile approach to take.

      @ clayffo :

      Diplomacy is the last major item to be added to the game before we enter the polish phase. You're absolutely right that the current version of the game is buggy, but that should be mitigated with a new build going up next week (we've caught a couple major issues that are probably the cause of most of the problems).

      I absolutely agree with you that there's something great here that just needs to be polished up. The problem with the current bugginess is that it hides the fact that things kind of start to drag in the midgame, which is where diplomacy comes in to ensure that it's a full strategy experience, and not just an interesting early game with some miscellaneous stuff attached. The design we're going with for diplomacy is far more modular than previous approaches, and much more straightforward to implement. It will certainly take some work, and may result in needing a few months more iteration time than planned, but in the end it will absolutely be worth it.

      At this point I'm definitely more of a producer than a designer, and shipping a good game is the priority, even if it's (inevitably) not perfect. There are only a few pieces left to put in place.

      - Jon

    7. Missing avatar

      clayffo on

      I personally think, considering no staff and no money, this is a bridge too far that will delay the game for another year or more.

      Jon, you should work on cleaning up the core game play and doing a full release on steam. This game is better than 99% of the crap out there, but it's so broken no one will buy it. Fix the game and use it to generate working capital and restore your reputation. release diplomacy as DLC down the road

    8. Bruce Poon on

      I like your analysis of where diplomacy needs to go in the game.

      Definitely keep it transparent...even if there is a dialogue, that should be accompanied by a clear numerical explanation if possible (relationship with A-1, with B +2, or whatever). Of course, there can be hidden variables and considerations, like their plans to double cross you and attack, but largely things should be predictable and clear.

    9. Missing avatar

      Sean Boocock on

      Great post, thanks for the continued updates!

    10. Arthur Cormode

      Oh and thank you for keeping your promise with regular monthly updates. +1 reputation score. ;)

    11. Arthur Cormode

      Diplomacy is all about telling a story and feeling immersion. So, that is the challenge. Making the AI feel like distinct personalities. I think cIV did a pretty good job with that.
      BTW, the art looks fantastic. Kudos to the graphic designer.

    12. Missing avatar

      Felix Walcher on

      In the first pictures of the tutorial, the icon of "Adelland" is the Diablo 3 Barbarian Avatar. Don't let you be hammered by Blizzard.

    13. Death To Sprues

      One of the most annoying things in diplomacy in other games were unrealistic demands, and if you refuse them, the AI would become aggressive anyway. So accept a bad deal or make an enemy (even if you're more powerful)?

    14. Missing avatar

      saluk on

      Now that you mention it it is kind of odd that games that are usually about presenting clear strategic choices have diplomacy where you press random levers and hope something you like occurs.