Jan 282009

Since Corvus decided to open the floodgates to second submissions for this month’s Blogs of the Round Table, I thought I’d add another design idea to the pile. As a reminder, the topic of the month was to “pre-imagine” a game for a work of literature, i.e. a game that might have inspired a classic novel, play, etc. For the second submission, Corvus requested that we pre-imagine a vastly different kind of game, for a vastly different kind of work. As my previous proposal was for an expressive browser-based game to inspire the E. E. Cummings poem “l(a”, I will now propose Dark Age, a turn-based strategy game meant to inspire one of my favorite works of science fiction, Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series.

One could probably generate this game as an extensive mod of a Civilization, because really the idea is Civ in reverse. The game has a similar set up: a tiled world map dotted with many cities. Most terrain tiles that are suitable for agriculture have already been irrigated; most tiles that possess mineral resources already have mines. Before the first turn of the game this whole map is clearly revealed, and the civilization is relatively advanced. In the first turn, the “Civilization” collapses, leaving each metropolis as an independent city-state. The player’s city-state is situated at a relatively lush site at the edge of this civilization that is poor in the mineral resources needed to develop a military. The player’s task is to preserve his civilization, its knowledge, and its technology.

In order to successfully achieve this goal, the player must maintain his population, gather resources, preserve recorded knowledge, and defend himself from popular overthrow or military conquest. The knowledge level of the civilization is represented by a simple number. Particular kinds of knowledge and technologies are lost or gained in a set, specific sequence based on the knowledge number. Each turn of the game will also introduce a “fog of war” effect on the world map, slowly shrinking knowledge of the world until it encompasses only those areas directly under the control of the player.

Maintaining the population requires agricultural planning; time in the game is resolved seasonally, and the player must assign sufficient population to the fields in each season to feed everyone. The population can also be assigned to public works, military duty, or staffing buildings. In addition to manpower, the agricultural system responds to the climate. This operates in nested cycles — a seasonal cycle within a larger cycle of wet and dry years within an even larger cycle of warm and cold eras. The wet/dry and warm/cold cycles will start off following a set pattern that is the same in every game. The player’s agricultural success will rely on his ability to stockpile sufficient food during times of plenty (warm/wet) to last him during hard times (cold/dry). The player can also gather timber and stone to construct buildings that allow stockpiling (granary), decrease annual population loss (hospital, nunnery), and increase agricultural production (stable, blacksmith, cathedral). The city starts with a church, and by telling his local prelate to focus on themes of chastity or fruitfulness the player can roughly adjust the birth rate, but there is a lag of several years between sermon and population. Several years of famine or high disease rates (due to overpopulation) will lead to your overthrow, ending the game.

Preserving recorded knowledge requires “free population” (e.g. people who are not assigned to the military, agriculture, or construction) and support buildings. The player begins with a library, which requires a modest staff year-round but slowly loses knowledge. Optional buildings include a monastery, which requires a very low staff but loses knowledge more rapidly, a school which requires a modest staff and a library, but grows knowledge at a rate equal to the library’s loss rate. Other buildings which increase or preserve knowledge may include a grand library, alchemical laboratory, and university. Some of these buildings cannot be constructed without a minimum population in the player’s empire. If the knowledge number drops too far, then the game ends.

Certain technologies will be more easily lost or regained based on resources, most of which will have to be acquired through trade. The lack of metal will be the greatest immediate problem. Surrounding cities will lose technologies very quickly; the player can trade his civilization’s knowledge for their resources. Despite their minimal technology the nearby states will have strong militaries. Trading with only one of them will cause other states to attack, but the states will not ally with each other so trading with several states will cause them to stand off or fight each other instead of you. Assuming you can gather enough mineral resources you can of course conquer these states, but moving population into your military means that you can’t use it to preserve knowledge or grow food. However, each city-state has a “native knowledge” number; if you are trading with that state and their native knowledge falls too far below the player’s knowledge, then they will overthrow their leader and join your empire.

Tactics required for trade negotiation and diplomacy will differ in a predictable way based on the local tyrant’s personality; dialogue cues will reveal what this personality is with a clear 1 to 1 correspondence that is the same in every game. For each personality of tyrant there will be a predictable way to progress from enemy to trading partner to master. Although the precise location of nearby city-states will differ from game to game based on the map, the personality of the rulers of the first-encountered city-states will be the same in every game. As the player’s empire grows larger the hostility of his neighbors will increase. Obviously, angering your neighbors to the point that they conquer you will cause the game to end.

The game will keep track of how well the player is doing and what methods he is using to expand his empire. In the early part of the game, the player will receive copious hints and tips about what is coming. The game will, for instance, give him hints about the larger climate cycles and the correct steps to take for a given personality of a rival ruler. At a certain point, based on time or an assessment of progress, the game throws a crisis at the player, which varies based on the player’s style. For instance, if the player has primarily used a diplomatic/trade approach to winning the game, several nearby cities will unite into a military empire and declare war on the player, rapidly moving to conquer his territories. If the player has been using military force to expand, a debilitating plague will sweep through his cities over a period of years, decimating the population. There should be a wide suite of possibilities, including civil war, protracted famine, the burning of key intellectual facilities, simultaneous exhaustion of multiple resources, etc.

At this point all of the cycles and predictability that governed the first half of the game will be expunged and replaced. The climate will shift to a new cycle, responses to social engineering will change, libraries will become less effective, external city-states will become more resistant to the player, the cues for particular personality types will change, and the pattern of progression to conquer a city-state under a given personality will also shift. These will all still follow predictable patterns and cycles, but the rules will differ significantly from the earlier play segment. All the new behaviors will be chosen randomly, from highly degenerate sets when possible. The game will no longer give hints or tips of any kind, except a single warning that the behavior of “some” systems “may” have changed.

Winning the game involves keeping the civilization’s knowledge at or above the game-start level for a set period of time after the crisis, conquering the entire map, or pushing the knowledge level to the maximum.

The Foundation series begins with a society meant to preserve knowledge in the face of a decline and eventual collapse of a galaxy-wide empire. Threatened by their neighbors, who are already sinking into barbarism, the Foundation survives by playing them off each other using a faux-religious trade in knowledge, then conquers them through their dependence on that knowledge. The reason for their success is careful planning by a man named Hari Seldon who is able to scientifically predict the future in general terms. In later novels, the Seldon plan is thrown off by an unpredictable crisis created by a psychic mutant, and then rescued by a secret “Second Foundation” of psychics. Then a great deal of work goes into steering the Foundation back onto the course laid out by Seldon initially.

I wanted to capture the secure feeling of knowing the future via easily predictable patterns reinforced by copious hints in the early stages, as well as the defensive footing of the early Foundation. The shock and confusion of the seemingly unpredictable crisis upends this feeling of security and inevitability. A new trepidation about the future is then reinforced by the altered patterns of the second half of the game and the absence of tips from the program itself. The goal is also a sort of poke in the eye at FAQs, the point being to make the generation of new behaviors so complex that it is more work to read an FAQ than it would be to figure it out yourself. The player’s success at figuring out the systems on his own builds a new sense of confidence and control, one which is more honest than in the first half of the game where he is relentlessly guided. This matches the feeling of the Foundation in later books when they have bounced back from the Mule and their obsession with the Second Foundation.

Finally, I also wanted to put forward the idea of knowledge as a precious resource that can be traded and used to exert influence. This is something that has been used to some extent in the existing Civilization games, but not in quite the same way as it has in history. The Civ games believe in a straight-up transference of knowledge. What often happens instead is a kind of scientific and engineering colonialism, in which developed nations give the products of their ideas to the Third World without giving them the expertise itself. That’s the fundamental underpinning of the Foundation’s dominance in Asimov’s books, and something for the player to think about in our world also.

  3 Responses to “Dark Age”

  1. Oh my, I do believe I'm drooling.

    I've wanted to see Civilization explore some more if its gameplay possibilities for some time now. This is a great example of what I'm thinking about. It sounds like incredible fun, to me

    Interestingly enough, it correlates to CrashT's post at GtE, talking about not knowing what you've lost without seeing what it was like, beforehand.

    Also, I really want to read that series now.

  2. HA! Great idea. The way players gain knowledge of a game by frequently re-playing and understanding the underlying mechanics faithfully mirrors Hari Seldon's powers.

    However, the second part would be difficult if impossible to achieve. The mental power of the combined efforts of teh internets is simply overwhelming. If it is understandable, they will figure it out and break it down into handy walktroughs and tutorials. If it is not predictable, they will generate strategies around how to minimize risk.

    For example – the fact that the game analyzes the player's behavior and works accordingly is the first things hardcore players would exploit to their advantage – setting up a trap for the AI.

    I'm struggling to come up with an appropriate solution.

    But I love the idea of reverse-civ. Brilliant!

  3. I think it would still be possible to blunt the edge of the walkthrough, particularly if you make the crises mutually exclusive. For instance, in a militaristic empire the dangers of a civil war might be mitigated by having large city garrisons, but large military forces in cities could be an exacerbating factor in a plague. So I think you could prevent the player from really readying himself by careful design.

    In the second half of the game you could probably use degenerate code to your advantage in mitigating the helpfulness of pattern-matching recipes in walkthroughs. However, if the player is forced to adopt a risk-aversion strategy and experiment and learn the new rule-state for himself, even if it is with reference to a walkthrough, then I think the point is made.

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