While At the Gates is an empire builder at heart, there's no denying that late antiquity was a time when you were far more likely to die by the sword than resting peacefully in your bed. Appropriately, combat has a large role to play, and getting it right has been a major design focus for me.
The analogy I like to use to describe warfare in AtG is a well-developed game of chess, where each side is waiting for the other to provide an opening, and once this occurs the match is resolved fairly quickly.
So how is this accomplished in our game? Supply.
You can have the largest, most advanced army the world has ever seen, but it means nothing if they're starving and their morale has broken. Supply is something I've touched on it a bit in previous articles, but today we'll go into the nuts and bolts of how it works.
The first question is obvious: why did I even bother with supply at all?
One of the main reasons was that I really want play up the evolving map in any way possible. AtG's very first feature was the seasons, and I knew I needed to find a way to tie combat into it somehow. Attack and defense bonuses are nice, but their overall strategic impact is limited.
Another factor that pointed me towards supply was history. The weather had a huge impact on the way wars were actually fought during this era. When your goal is a fun game mechanics always have to win out over realism, but an important secondary objective is to deliver a particular feeling. The closer you can get to hitting player expectations the more satisfying their experience. You might be able to create a fun strategy title about the fall of Rome where you're running around in tanks, but it's probably not what most folks are looking for!
Another bonus supply provides is an easy way to deter "uberstacks." If all you have to do to be successful in battle is amass the biggest pile of units, then there's not much strategy to consider.
As more units are stationed on a tile, the amount of supply available to all of them drops. This represents the limited resources available on a plot of land, coupled with the logistical challenges of keeping a massive number of soldiers fed. A larger army is still be better in many cases, but managing it will require a bit more planning than is the case in most 4X games.
So how does the system actually work?
Every unit needs at least 3 supply in order to remain at full strength. This can come either directly from the tile or from nearby supply "nodes." Settlements provide 2 extra supply to all nearby tiles. Supply camps do the same when within range of a settlement, or when chained to one through other supply camps.
The base amount of supply provided by tiles varies based on their terrain. Fertile tiles produce quite a bit, while snow, unsurprisingly, produces zero. Terrain obviously changes with the seasons, so planning ahead is critical - attacking in the middle of winter is very difficult unless you have a strong supply network. On the flip side, depending on where you're fighting it might be possible to campaign in the summer without any external assistance.
The Effects of Supply
In my first design, when units lacked enough they would start taking damage. This was no small penalty since damage can only be healed in a settlement, and once weakened you can often find yourself entering downward spiral.
After some initial playtesting I found this to be too brutal, particularly when it came to map exploration. You were walking on eggshells from turn 1 because a single wrong step by your scout could very easily lead to his death. I was too excited by the strategic implications of being unable to heal while out in the field, so rather than neuter this effect I knew I had to find another solution.
The answer I came up with was "provisions," which basically act as a supply buffer. Any supply deficiency first comes out of a unit's provisions stockpile, and once that hits zero you then start to take damage. This provides a bit of leeway in order to make a gambit, or simply to continue exploring during the winter.
A unit's provisions are restocked when it has access to more supply than it needs, or after pillaging a settlement or farm. This opens up some interesting possibilities, as players can pillage a farm they really want (or even own!) in order to keep their army in the field. These are the sorts of trade-offs that make strategy games great!
The addition of provisions helped soften the harshness of the system dramatically, but the huge difference between the amount of supply available in the summer and winter was still hard to balance. An easy solution would be to make the difference smaller, but this is a fine line to walk, as if they were too close then the system loses its teeth, and thus its entire purpose.
The answer I came up with was giving units the ability to "encamp," which gives them a small supply boost. The drawback of doing this is that exiting the state costs a full turn, making it extremely risky when battle is likely. Once again, the goal is to reward planning, and encamping offers a new "knob" that clever players can take advantage of - without watering down the desired harshness of supply.
Another supply-related mechanic I added was the ability to besiege cities. This allows a prepared attacker to slowly reduce the amount of supply available in a city tile. However, if the city is on the coast a siege is only possible if you have a ship next to it. I wanted to simulate the ability for cities to be supplied by sea, which is one of the main reasons why Constantinople avoided capture for so many centuries.
Alright, that's a lot of talk about supply - how do the battles themselves actually play out?
In my first design, combat resolution used to be fairly straightforward. Defenders would get a small bonus from the terrain, there would be a random factor and each side would do a bit of damage to the other. I wasn't really happy with this though, as it was too simple and lacked interesting decisions. Do you have the advantage? If yes: attack. If no: delay until you do. Hmmm - I think we can do better!
I wanted there to be something important to consider when choosing whether or not to give battle. I brainstormed new possibilities, drawing on history and other games. And what did I come up with? Morale.
Each unit has a morale meter in addition to a health meter. As with health, the lower a unit's morale the less effective it is in battle. Unlike health, morale regenerates automatically. This gives players the option of pushing their luck and trying to continue fighting with low morale, or withdrawing temporarily and building it back up for a turn or two.
That's a lot of fun, but where morale really shines is with the resolution of combat.
In a battle, attackers loses a small amount of morale but a large amount of health, with the reverse being the case for defenders. If a unit's morale hits 0, it is routed and retreats to a nearby tile, taking a large amount of damage in the process.
This gives attackers a strong incentive to roll the dice, go all-in and try to punch through when they think they can. If successful, the defenders will be decimated and knocked out of position - but should this gambit fail, the attacker's much greater loss of health will often prove crippling. AtG is very much not a game of stalemates and slow, methodical advances!
That's a pretty good summary of how the supply and combat systems work, but I haven't yet touched on the units themselves yet. Let's remedy that!
A question I've received a few times is how many unit types AtG will feature, and how the list compares with other 4X games.
Given how early we are in development I can't provide a detailed list yet, but what I can say is that our focus with the units is to make each one distinct and interesting. Upgrading your spearman into a pikeman in Civ is satisfying, but doesn't really provide a lot of bang for your gameplay buck - after all, they're basically the same unit with slightly different stats.
In AtG, every unit has its own role. Infantry are the basic line soldier, light cavalry are best at cutting off and protecting supply, heavy cavalry are an expensive rapid response to major threats, scouts do... exactly what you would expect.
Some players will miss the gradual upgrades, and following individual units over the course of a game, but as with the rest of AtG our focus is on high-level strategy over low-level tactics. If AtG is successful there's always the possibility we flesh out this corner of the game down the road, but we have to first make sure the big questions are answered!
Combat is one of the best examples of how we're really trying to bring something new to the table. I'm sure there will be some bumps along the way, but I'm confident the end result will be a strong and fresh new take on on this venerable stalwart!
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!
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