The Reason for the Seasons
One of the most exciting features we've incorporated into At the Gates is seasonal map change. But what actually happens? How random are the effects? What design risks do seasons pose? And where did we get the idea for them to begin with? All of these questions - and more - shall soon be answered!
In my last article I talked about how important random maps are in the 4X genre. To summarize: 1) unpredictable environments force players to adapt their strategies, instead of going through the same motions in every game. 2) They add replayability, as there's a sense of discovery each time you play.
However, most strategy games have steered clear of maps that change as you play. In part, this is the result of theme and scope, as a game which covers 6,000 years doesn't really lend itself well to a map that changes from turn to turn. But while understandable, this is still a huge missed opportunity.
This possibility has been rattling around inside my brain for the past two or three years. Coupled with my new design philosophy of finding ways to encourage players to adapt, I found myself seeking out a game idea which could bring map evolution front and center. There are a number of minor features that could fit into pretty much any strategy game, regardless of subject matter (e.g. storms), but I wanted something big.
In mid-2012 I had been on a Roman history kick and a game focusing on that era featuring seasons and a difficulty curve that ramped up over time seemed like the perfect place to start. I also have some other crazy ideas I can't wait to try out, but I'm afraid those will have to wait for my next game - sorry guys!
What Do Seasons Do?
Seasonal effects in ATG have themselves evolved over time. My goal from the very beginning was to make supply a key component of combat, and in the original design the main impact of winter was simply to make warfare more difficult. However, over the past year the seasons successfully wormed their way into pretty much every corner of the game!
Many months ago I shifted the economy over from a social class-based system to one which instead focuses on resource depletion. How much food you had available became a big deal. While doing an early playtest I looked at the map in January and said to myself, "you know, it doesn't really make sense that farms are still producing food in the middle of winter - maybe I could try turning that off?" The change was easy to make and the impact profound - now you really needed to plan ahead to make sure your soldiers and citizens don’t starve. Getting the balance right was tricky, and I'm sure as we continue make changes I'll have to fiddle with the numbers another fifty or sixty times!
Altering the effects of winter got me thinking about possibilities. "We're changing the base terrain of tiles, but why stop there?" After all, most rivers freeze during the winter, shouldn't we be reflecting that somehow? Within a few hours I'd whipped up a system where the properties of a river tile changed when it snowed. "After all, it should be easier to cross a frozen river, right?"
While reading about how the Rhine posed a huge obstacle to invading Germanic armies most of the year, another great idea hit me. "We could have two types of rivers, one of which are actually so large they're impassable... except during the winter!" I was incredibly excited by the possibilities opened up by this.
The ability to do something or not is a huge tool in game design. Having fireballs VS not having them is a much more meaningful difference than having a level 1 fireball VS a level 4 fireball, regardless of what they actually do! In a strategy game, being able to cross into certain parts of the map or not is the functional equivalent.
It wasn't long before I took the natural step of having coastal areas turn into sheets of ice, preventing ships from entering (or leaving) those tiles. I even went one further and added this feature to land tiles as well. Northern and mountainous areas of the map can be hit with “blizzards” that make them impossible to enter or leave. These don't last long, but they can really throw a monkey wrench in your plans, so you have to be cautious when campaigning in particularly harsh regions.
The last set of weather effects I came up with were those not tied to winter. As Kay was working on the art for the rivers, she remarked, "why not have rivers flood as well?" I quickly wrote a system where not only rivers could flood, but marshes as well. While not as significant a change as large rivers become passable, they did help spice up the months which don't see nearly as much seasonal change.
Flooding, in turn, suggested other ways weather could affect the map outside of winter. One obvious candidate remained: areas drying up in the summer. I added a new "hot" climate type which behaved similarly to the existing temperate climate, only with a small chance of tiles becoming "scorched" in July and August. When this occurs, the available supply and ability for resident farms to produce food is lost for that turn.
The Risks of an Evolving Map
All of these cool new features certainly sound promising, but there are a couple big drawbacks that I've also had to be mindful of.
The first is randomness. If a game is too unpredictable, players will have no idea what to expect and won't be able to plan ahead. Should this year's winter be much colder and three months longer than usual it could completely wipe out your food supply and result in everyone starving to death. While certainly realistic, I can't say that this would be much fun for most folks!
As a result, the seasons in ATG lean on the predictable side, with a splash of variation. The way the math is set up (right now, anyways) every type of “climate” has a percent likelihood of being transformed into a seasonal variant in each month of the year. Most tiles will have a 100% chance of being “snow” in January, but it could be 85%, or maybe 15% in the warmer areas. So there's roughly 1 in 7 chance circumstances will be different from what you'd expect.
Maybe that river freezes a month early, giving you the ability to launch your invasion a turn earlier than hoped. Or maybe one of your farm tiles becomes scorched, resulting in a small food shortfall that you’ll have to make up for in other ways. But the impact is never so powerful, so unexpected that you feel completely helpless. Which brings us to the other potential drawback.
As I giggled maniacally while adding flooding to the game, Jonathan remarked, "are you sure this game is going to be... you know, fun to play?" Fair question! I'm sure many of you have wondered the same thing, having repeatedly read about the unforgiving consequences winter can render upon your poor, beleaguered armies!
No doubt, some of the effects are unpleasant, but I purposefully avoided including anything too brutal. For example, units are never instantly killed. In fact, they won't ever die unless they're already on death's door, have completely exhausted their provisions and are still traipsing around in the middle of January.
Additionally, many of these changes are not just obstacles but also opportunities. A river flooding seems like a bad thing, but it might also provide a barrier between you and a hostile neighbor, giving you some time to prepare a defense force. Or maybe a tile stays fertile an extra month or two, allowing your armies some free foraging you didn’t plan on. So the seasons are capable of not just hindering you but also helping you.
However, there's no getting around the fact that most of the effects are not kind. This need not be a bad thing though, as expectations are a major component as to what people do and don't enjoy. If you're playing a game of Civ 5 and suddenly the weather shifts and kills off your army, you're probably justified in being angry! But what about when your sovereign dies in Crusader Kings 2? Certainly, not everyone will like this, but CK2 is a game about characters dying and dynasties being passed on to their heirs. Without that feature CK2 just wouldn't offer the same memorable experience.
The way I see it, taking issue with the negative effects of winter in ATG is akin to being upset that ol' King Stenkil kicked the bucket in CK2. If this is just completely unacceptable, then ATG may not be the game for you. But that's the beauty of "going indie" - not everything we make needs to appeal to everyone. And our goal with ATG is the same as every judiciary: harsh, but fair.
Well... that's the idea anyways! The funny thing about game design is that you don't know what you've actually made until you've put it in front of people! I'm sure we'll hit plenty of bumps along the way, but even so, I'm confident that through iteration ATG will end up where it needs to be. I hope you're as excited as me to see what form it eventually assumes!
If you’d like to discuss this topic further (or anything else related to ATG!) be sure to stop by the official Conifer Games forums, and become a member of our growing community!