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We’ve been blessed with a lot of fantasy 4X games in the past few years.

Besides the Elemental games we’ve gotten Warlock, Age of Wonders 3, Eador, and soon Endless Legends. If you like fantasy games, I highly recommend checking them all out (except War of Magic which is inferior to all of them).

Unfortunately, as game designers, we have an unusual challenge: Magic.

Magic isn’t fair

It is really really hard to write good AI in a game that literally allows players to conjure up all kinds of game changing stuff.  The granddaddy of this genre, Master of Magic, didn’t really have an AI.  In theory it did but the AI doesn’t really provide a challenge. The game’s amazing game design makes a strong case that it’s the journey that matters, not the destination.  That is, in MOM, winning is a foregone conclusion. Of course you’re going to win. The question is how?

Revisiting Elemental: War of Magic

At the risk of being boastful, as problematic as War of Magic was at launch, it was highly innovative.  The cloth map mode it introduced is kind of expected now.

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Elemental: War of Magic introduced the cloth map zoom out concept, now obvious in hindsight

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The city building features were pretty amazing

The problems of Elemental: War of Magic could be summed up as follows:  It was a series of interesting game concepts that were not tied together versus computer opponents who weren’t sure what they are supposed to be doing.

If I had to do it over again Elemental: War of Magic would have been bulleted like this:

  • You are a powerful Sorcerer (or sorceress) who must build a kingdom from the ground up
  • Your goal is to be the first to cast the spell of making to take control of the world (not that conquering enemies is NOT a requirement here)
  • To do that you will need to capture the 4 types of Elemental shards: Earth, Air, Fire, Water and construct the Forge of the Overlord
  • You can build alliances with other players who control one or more o those elemental shards who are willing to tie their destiny to yours
  • Those alliances are built through arranged marriages through your dynasty
  • Go on quests to find one of the very few Champions of the world to help lead your armies to secure the land you need to build your cities along with the loot necessary to make your units, champions, and cities more powerful.
  • Your cities provide the units necessary to learn the spell of mastery, construct the forge of the overlord and armies to secure resources that required to do both.

This design takes into account the basic problem in magic games: You can’t make a Civilization style 4X game and have powerful magic at the same time. If the object of the game is to conquer another empire, then you have to deal with balance and magic eliminates that balance.  Conquering other cities should not be the goal in these games. It’s boring and tedious.  It should be optional but not central to whether you win or lose. 

By making magic both the tool AND the goal, you can eliminate mundane balance issues.  Want to protect your capital by surrounding yourself with mountains or ocean? No problem. Go for it.  But you can’t do that if the AI is required to actually conquer your cities in order win. 

If city conquest is the goal, then magic has to be gimped and at that point why have it?


Comments (Page 1)
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on Apr 26, 2014

I'm not one for multiplayer in these games, but in reading your post it seems the Fantasy 4x genre might be best served by a MP only game. Or MP focused at the least. With human vs human you remove many of your obstacles and could really dig into some cool things. I'm sure I wouldn't be the target audience, but it seems there are a lot of loud voices both here and on the Steam community boards for LH that would really love Stardock take on a project like that.

 

Any thoughts on that?

on Apr 26, 2014

what differentiates "powerful magic" from the type of magic in all the civilization+magic games

because people make those with adversarial multiplayer, so there must be some hope for balance

 

usually creativity + ingenuity (hard AI problems) are only required to create strategies, not to execute them.

eg. an AI doesn't need to understand how to create a strong custom sovereign in order to play as one

eg. an AI can follow build orders without inventing them

eg. an AI can pilot a deck without knowing the best combination of 50 cards to pick

on Apr 26, 2014

I find a large problem with magic based civilization games are the units themselves in the mix of things. Inevitably people want to see mundane units on the battlefield as well as magic. But magic will just destroy these units without a blink of an eye. It is the equivalent of 20th century army facing a stone age army. Seriously, they could beat the tank for 2 - 3 months and not cause any structural damage. This is the equivalent of magic to army, why have an army in the first place.

The model of making a magic game could be taken directly from Magic the card game. A wizards duel. It sounds very much that is the approach being tried here. I really like the idea of asymmetrical goals for a magic game. Doesn't have to be a contest of who creates the ultimate forge first. A goal could easily be to get the Black Cauldron and resurrect all the warriors past. Hence, you have will domination, or sheer I control all death on the map. Make nature bend to your will by collecting the seeds of control. These goals in essence are precisely what wizards fighting would try to do. If I were a wizard controlling a civilization is such a mundane thing, I would leave it to someone else as I have better pursuits.

I look forward to Brad / Derek / Stardock's ideas on Elemental 2. I look forward to the asymmetrical but equivalent goals of pursuits of power.

on Apr 27, 2014

FrogBoy
 You can’t make a Civilization style 4X game and have powerful magic at the same time. If the object of the game is to conquer another empire, then you have to deal with balance and magic eliminates that balance.

Multiplayer.

Balancing asymmetrical gameplay is extremely hard, but can be done. Best example I can give is Starcraft. Part of what makes this game a masterpiece is how well the 3 races are balanced despite being very different.

I think it takes multiplayer, Human vs human, to tweak a game this much. Many strategies are discovered with PvP that the devs did not foresee, wicked things.

Making an asymmetrical yet balanced fantasy 4X with strong magic and war style gameplay would be a big challenge but I do not think it is impossible. It would need to be designed as a multiplayer game first. Just think of Starcraft 4x version. The magic makes it asymmetrical but as long as there is a decent counter to anything, it can be made ( more or less ) balanced.

Making the AI good enough to manage all the different counters to every strategies is a different story, but hey that is hardly a shock for 4X games. We are used to  AIs responding with brute force, and to some extend that works. I wish AIs were more sophisticated but oh well. I know it must be hard to program those.

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In the absence of such advanced AIs, is there still a point in making a Civ style fantasy 4x as you described?

For a RL example lets take a look at AoW III, which kind of wants to be just what you described, A civ style 4X with powerful magic where you conquer your neighbors.

I am currently playing AoW III in the highest difficulty (Emperor ), currently winning but at this point it is an attrition war. AI factions outproduce me by a good margin thanks to the bonuses they have from difficulty level, they just spawn stacks upon stacks of units and throw them at me. I have to counter by using clever strategies and obviously, exploits. By using every dirty trick I can find I manage to beat them.

Thanks to magic I have found a super cheesy trick with my Earth magic sorcerer, with it I can really cheese the enemy hard. The exploit I am using would be hard and annoying to counter even for a human, So I would tend to say the game is not well balanced. Yet,  Finding it and using it against the AI was fun. Now I can win and lulz. 

Obviously the problem is that it makes replaying as an earth mage again pretty much moot. Because I will do the same thing. But Now I can try a Fire mage and try to find a new exploits. So the game still manages to keep me up for some fun as long as I have a decent challenge and new avenues to explore. So the forumula still works to some extend.

 

On aside not I can't wait to see how popular GalCiv III will be in multiplayer. It is not as asymmetrical as your typical Fantasy 4X, but it still is thanks to the unique tech trees.

on Apr 27, 2014

The Cloth Map, like many other ideas in Elemental, was a really good idea. The funny thing is that I hardly ever use it, I really enjoy looking at the actual forests and terrain. Yet strangely enough, I really like that it is "there", inside the game, and on occasion, when the empires get big enough, I zoom out and take a peek. It just "adds".

Taking cities IS tedious. Sieges are tedious. Storming walls is tedious and frustrating buisness. Even in a game that has been specializing in this kind of thing its tedious... I've played Total War a lot, starting at Medieval II, then Shogun II and now Rome II, and even in a game where the action is the central point it is very, very tedious. The first five cieties are fun. The next five cities are ok. By then you've seen most of the citiy types and realized that despite the different layouts the tactics usually remain the same - if its a big city with lots of armies you starve em, if its going to be easily overwhelmed you assault along a broad front and at the same time barge through the gates, and if it has no walls you trample over it. Rinse, repeat ad nauseum... the unrest mechanic only forces you to slow down by means of cultural conversion and troop placement in provinces so you cannot simply steamroll over the entire continent in a large wave once you have three or four good assault armies, also known as Stacks of Doom. That is, unless you want to destroy a few large empires and leave a scattered and rebellious husk behind ( a valid tactic if you lack the resources to actually occupy). I really enjoy the combination of civilization and magic. Yes, it comes at a price... mostly this will be balance. Whereas in pure civilization mechanics are "easy" when it comes to combat, magic and a turn based combat system makes the game incredibly hard to balance. Cast a DoT effect? Cast a Graveseal on the strongest unit and keep recasting untill it sticks, all the while killing off the rest? Chant "lightning bolt lighting bolt lightning bolt"  and electrocute the lot? The problem is that even if the AI is very, very strong in the Civ department, if it manages to mess up the combat it will get owned all over the place. And then you get to gimp the magic because it is too strong. Yeah, the AI in MoM was, in so far as there was an actual AI, 'orrible. Yet I played it over and over again, because I could make my own stories, armies and troops. Add a few good sandbox elements in and you are golden... but people these days expect those games to be like movies or books, and expect to be able to do anything... reshape the world and the AI should be able to cope with it right, because how hard can that be? Right? Right? They are forgetting that if a real life opponent prepares a plan, and you are caught unaware you're probably doomed as well.

 

How does the AI prepare against this:

- build a few troop producing fortresses

- grab a few heroes, make a few henchmen

- queue up a load of units, they need not be overpoweredly strong, just enough to support your heroes and henchmen, a combo of range/melee... jus tleave em in the city... keep casting spells and using gold to rush production...

- conquer a single city in the centre of the map whilst your armies build up

- Move all those units, henchmen and heroes outside the cities...

- Cast "Call of the Titans" in the centre of the map...

 

Probably, if I were the AI, by screaming at the CPU that it should have seen this coming, and then executing the memory as rage-quit Because thats what a human would do if confronted by this.

 

 

Limits are great.

on Apr 27, 2014

I want my games to be fun. Balance be damned. MoM was fun despite any possible infra-AI. Lots of toys to play with.

Low magic (some tactical spells and some global enchantments) in a game shouldn't be a problem per se.High magic like creating volcanos to destroy a city (most awesome thing in Elemental for a time), may be more of an issue. Endless Legend doesn't have high magic. Yeah, Broken Lords can drain life, the Haunted (I think) have a chain lighting ability on melee,... and there is a mentioned faction about mad wizards (the XML talk about RageWizard). But as far as I remember, the tech tree has no spells (may change or not, being alpha and such).

The cloth map was/is awesome. One of the best ideas ever. I wish Endless Legend's were to use pewter figures too in it instead of the real troops but whatever.

I have to agree about multplayer and balance. If you really want balance (and develop a good AI that can handle the in game's stuff), you need real people playing the systems, doing weird combos, exploiting the systems to beyond cheeseland. I just have fun with MoM.

on Apr 27, 2014

I don't think that concept would work, because then it would be for the player, get the shards, defend them, win.

That's easier than conquest.

 

I think part of what made FFH2 work so well is that it was low magic.

 

 

on Apr 27, 2014

Why must we be facing other strictly defined factions in a 4X?  Why not just make it so that the player is up against the "world"; something varied and not so easily defined.  Why can't we just have our leader/faction simply struggling to survive against what the world throws at them, with minor factions thrown in that act and operate in their own way ie not like the player with research and so on.  Players like to be bombarded with a myriad of interesting decisions, something that overwhelms AI.  

Why not focus the AI on creating those decisions/scenarios for us?  I completely agree, conquering other factions' cities is soon boring and tedious, so why do they have to be there, lined up for us to take, defended by poor AI?  Can't we drastically rethink what it is that should drive a single player 4X game?  Why are they designed with like-for-like factions on the same map as if they're a multiplayer game, when the AI obviously has trouble controlling them?  It's been this way for so long, I feel as though no developer ever tried to rethink the fundamental gameplay and goals.

Turn the 4X game into an adventure for the player, have the AI focussed on keeping that adventure interesting by coming up with problems and using enemies with relatively simple rules.  I'd love a 4X game that played out like a series of scenarios, with you never knowing what kind of scenarios you'll face in each game.  It always feels like a drag fighting other factions late game, so why not remove them?  Give me a more interesting way to win than "You were the best faction, because all the other factions that follow pretty much the same rules as you were controlled by AI which are not so good at it unless they cheat like crazy".

"This just sounds like a campaign" you say.  Not really.  I don't want something scripted, I want something generated on-the-fly for ME to have fun.  Kind of a rogue-like 4X game.  How about that?

on Apr 27, 2014

Heart Shaped Man

Why must we be facing other strictly defined factions in a 4X?  Why not just make it so that the player is up against the "world"; something varied and not so easily defined.  Why can't we just have our leader/faction simply struggling to survive against what the world throws at them, with minor factions thrown in that act and operate in their own way ie not like the player with research and so on.  Players like to be bombarded with a myriad of interesting decisions, something that overwhelms AI.  

Why not focus the AI on creating those decisions/scenarios for us?  I completely agree, conquering other factions' cities is soon boring and tedious, so why do they have to be there, lined up for us to take, defended by poor AI?  Can't we drastically rethink what it is that should drive a single player 4X game?  Why are they designed with like-for-like factions on the same map as if they're a multiplayer game, when the AI obviously has trouble controlling them?  It's been this way for so long, I feel as though no developer ever tried to rethink the fundamental gameplay and goals.

Turn the 4X game into an adventure for the player, have the AI focussed on keeping that adventure interesting by coming up with problems and using enemies with relatively simple rules.  I'd love a 4X game that played out like a series of scenarios, with you never knowing what kind of scenarios you'll face in each game.  It always feels like a drag fighting other factions late game, so why not remove them?  Give me a more interesting way to win than "You were the best faction, because all the other factions that follow pretty much the same rules as you were controlled by AI which are not so good at it unless they cheat like crazy".

"This just sounds like a campaign" you say.  Not really.  I don't want something scripted, I want something generated on-the-fly for ME to have fun.  Kind of a rogue-like 4X game.  How about that?

I like your words. I agree.

on Apr 27, 2014

parrottmath

I find a large problem with magic based civilization games are the units themselves in the mix of things. Inevitably people want to see mundane units on the battlefield as well as magic. But magic will just destroy these units without a blink of an eye. It is the equivalent of 20th century army facing a stone age army. Seriously, they could beat the tank for 2 - 3 months and not cause any structural damage. This is the equivalent of magic to army, why have an army in the first place.

I think you could mix magic and mundane troops if there was very strong buff/debuff magic (along with direct damage and healing), that you need to use in order to win battles (we have these in FE/LH but they don't seem as strong sometimes) e.g. Spells to make your knights as strong as a battle tank such that unenchanted troops will always get slaughtered.   So then keeping up mana production is just as important as unit production.    So magic can function like technology does for modern day armies, by extending the capabilities of soldiers.  

on Apr 27, 2014

Heart Shaped Man


"This just sounds like a campaign" you say.  Not really.  I don't want something scripted, I want something generated on-the-fly for ME to have fun.  Kind of a rogue-like 4X game.  How about that?

I like the comparison with the Rogue-Like.

Making something such as this work would be an interesting spin-off of the 4X Genre. Wonder how hard it would be to make it work, a 4x is fundamentally more complicated than a rogue like. 

Also, The randomness could potentially break some instances of the game. Like some mazes in a rogue-like are death traps, or like some Solitaire games can't be won.  Some games are easy some hard, you never know in advance. 

on Apr 27, 2014

As far as 4x games go I want to see a more even balance between magic and technology, where both play a role with being either too strong or too weak. Magicians should NOT be all powerful and Armies and Generalship should not be useless. I do NOT want to see an all powerful wizard, I want to see a leader with both magical and technological resources fighting to rebuild civilization.

One thing that bugs me is why is tech limited to the middle ages? Why not have things like early gunpowder weaponry and other techs? As for magic, put more emphasis on utility spells, buffs and debuffs and less on nuclear spells. Magic and tech should ideally complement each other in a fantasy world.

on Apr 27, 2014

Heart shaped man is seriously on to something. 

The genre needs to move forward and that sounds like an EXCELLENT way to do it.

on Apr 27, 2014

As a counter-example, how about Fall From Heaven 2?

It was a 4X game, had good AI, deeply integrated magic, highly differentiated races/factions with their own unique goals and behaviors...

the AI wasn't as good as a human player, but still made for a challenging/interesting game (esp with the armageddon counter to drive the game along; a player could lose if they didn't take action).

on Apr 27, 2014

GreyCow

As a counter-example, how about Fall From Heaven 2?

It was a 4X game, had good AI, deeply integrated magic, highly differentiated races/factions with their own unique goals and behaviors...

the AI wasn't as good as a human player, but still made for a challenging/interesting game (esp with the armageddon counter to drive the game along; a player could lose if they didn't take action).

 

agree

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