Saturday, September 3, 2011

What Makes a Good Trait?

Every civilization is lead by a leader.  The leader has some number of traits, which change the base rules for that player.  Traits vary in power. Some civilizations have access to more than one leader, and a civilization's various leaders will have differing traits.  Most commonly, a leader will have 2 traits.

Leader traits in Civilization are so effective because they can completely change how you approach the game.  They help diversify the number of competitive strategies, and add a healthy variance to the game.  Therefore, when I am designing traits, those are the sorts of effects I want to create. However, not all traits are created equal.  The financial trait is causing me no end of headaches in developing Erebus in the Balance.

The financial trait doubles the speed of markets (an early building that gives gold) and moneychangers (a mid-game building which boosts gold production with a modifier).  Additionally, in every tile, if the tile produces 2 or more commerce, it will produce an additional commerce.  2 commerce tiles are fairly common in CIV, so the end result is that Financial produces a 50% increase in commerce for many tiles.

Ironically though, outside of the balance concerns, financial would otherwise be a model trait.  It clearly distinguishes itself from other traits by providing a type of bonus that no other trait does (a direct tile yield change).  It changes a player's game plan dramatically, and encourages a player to plan around leveraging the trait to maximize its effect.

Organized is a good counterexample to financial.  Organized doubles the speed of courthouses (reduce city maintenance by 50%) and lighthouses (+1 food from water tiles), and reduces civic upkeep by 50%.
It is a solid trait with a reasonable level of power, but isn't very exciting.  Its effects are primarily under the hood.  The player knows that his empire is more efficient, but he's not doing anything much different from his standard gameplan.  In other words, the player does not need to behave differently to leverage his advantage from being organized, beyond simply stepping up the time-frame of all of his plans.

Financial poses the larger problem to me.  It is a good trait, encourages a different style of play, but is so strong that it distorts the leader trait choices in multiplayer.  In general, the games on RBCIV can be loosely classified into two groups: games where financial leaders are banned and games where they are allowed.  In games where they are allowed, financial leaders dominate the picks.  While organized isn't a model trait, at least it doesn't destabilize the leader-pick meta-game.  Considering this, I realize that there was an important point I left off my initial list.

A "good" trait:
  • Creates space for new and competitive strategies
  • Encourages players to play to their trait's strength to unlock its full potential
  • Is not a must-have for every possible competitive strategy

Thursday, August 18, 2011

EitB Dev Journal 3: Where we are and where we're headed

I'm going to publish my 5th build of EitB later today as soon as it finishes uploading to dropbox.

There are always competing pressures on release dates.  I always feel that there's more that I can do, and I want the project to be perfect.  At a certain point however, I need to just publish and let the feedback roll in.  That feedback is critical for further improvements.

Particular rough spots that I feel need to be looked at:

  1. Nox Noctis
  2. Invisibility in General
  3. Council of Esus spells
  4. Religions unit pricing and strength
Then of course, there are the usual rough spots that need to be ironed out as we go along:
  1. Interface quirks
  2. Documentation
  3. How does the AI handle it?
There's another point that I need to address in the near future.  How do I describe all the changes that have been made to the mod concisely and in such a way that players are not lost at sea in an ocean of changes?  I think that will be the hardest thing for me.

For now though, I wait with a bit of nervousness to see what people think of it.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

EitB Dev Journal 2: Eras

Fall From Heaven was originally split into three eras: Ancient, Classical, and Medieval.  Eras are used to set the starting techs for non-ancient starts and also delineate the technology tree into distinct sections. These eras, however, are too broad.  

EitB then, will have 5 eras, tentatively named:
  1. Thaw (Worker Techs including Bronze Working and Archery)
  2. Discovery (All techs that enable T2 units and Smelting)
  3. Expansion (All between T2 and T3)
  4. Innovation (All techs that enable T3 units and Arcane Lore)
  5. Mastery (Everything else)
Start Era Options; System Use Eras are used for state religions.
I plan to use these new eras to modify the coloring on the tech tree to make a visible distinction between the technology tiers, building on the Heat Map mod I did last year (that colored techs in the tree based on their cost to research).

Friday, August 5, 2011

EitB Dev Journal 1: The Council of Esus

The council of Esus presents something of a conundrum to the player and designer in the original Fall from Heaven (FfH).  It function as a religion, but has no temples nor religious heroes.  The council is concepted as the religion of the shadows, of what is hidden.  So how do we represent that in game?

When you follow a state religion, you gain certain benefits from the religion's base attributes, and from your civics.  If you're not following any state religion, you gain all the base attribute bonuses, but none of the civic bonuses.  When you're running the council of Esus in EitB, you'll be able to get the best of both worlds.  All religions will continue to contribute their base bonus, and your civics bonuses will be tied to the Council of Esus.

The Order, like all the other religions, turns off the base bonuses from having CoE in all of your cities.

The Council of Esus, however, can gain the benefits of having the order in your cities!

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Theme in Fall From Heaven 2

As part of the design work for EitB, I found myself asking the question: what is FfH about?

If you had asked me that question originally, before I had started working on the tech tree, I would have told you that Fall From Heaven was about specialization; that there are many different paths to victory, but they each require a commitment from the player to a particular path.  Additionally, I would have told you that the areas in which you could specialize were:
  • Infantry
  • Archers
  • Cavalry
  • Recon Units
  • Wizards
  • Priests and Disciple Units
I was wrong.

I would say that FfH is about Magic and Religion.  A large portion of the technologies on the tech tree are about either Magic or Religion.  The economic and mundane part of the tech tree feels scatterbrained and somewhat unfocused, but the Magic and Religion parts feel well designed and thoughtful.  Each technology in those areas feels like it fits.

This observation has played out again and again in the FfH PBEMs that I've spectated.  Conflicts between players have never been decided by whether or not a player decided to go archers or axemen, but rather by spell choice and usage, priests, and summons.  All but the very best mundane units are ignored, and most units do not ever have a reasonable opportunity to see play in any particular game.

What does this mean for design in EitB?

I was running into a lot of difficulty trying to differentiate the various Mundane specializations from each other.  Now I realize that what will probably be best, is if I redesign the mundane parts of the tree to emphasize the religious and magic lines.  Mundane units in EitB will be the supporting units behind your religious and magic specializations, as they are in FfH, but they won't be tied to a tech tree that pretends that the Mundanes are the main show.

Focus in Strategy Games

Let's talk about the idea of a player's focus, and how I apply it to strategy games and game design.

A player has a limited amount of concentration or focus when they play a game.  If the game takes more focus to play than the player has, they percieve your game as being monolithic or impenetrable. Paradox grand strategy games are known in the community for this: having so many moving parts that beginners have difficulty keeping track of everything.  When I initially began playing Paradox grand strategy games (Europa Universalis, Victoria), I had trouble keeping track of everything.  With practice I was able to manage more things, but in the end the games require more focus of me than I have.  So I end up leaving certain areas of the game completely alone.

Players also define a game based on where they spend most of their focus.  If I spend the majority of my time in a game maneuvering units and managing conquests, I consider the game a wargame, no matter its stated genre.  Civilization 5, for instance, is much more a wargame than an empire-building game to me.  When I play, practically all of my time is spent managing units and warfare.  Conversely, in Civilization 4 I spend more time planning my tech priorities, managing city production, and planning worker actions.  Wars are short and to the point, and even during long wars the main focus is on training new units and bringing them to the front.  Civilization 4 then, to me, is an Empire building game.

The places in your game where a player spends his focus then, will shape what the game is about in that player's mind.  At a certain point, the Magic system in Fall From Heaven grabs more mindshare from the player and focuses it on units.  This isn't necessarily bad, but it's important to recognize what happens as we drive the player's focus towards units and away from empire management.

Formalizing EitB

I've been working off and on again on a mod for Fall From Heaven 2 (FfH), which is itself a mod for Civilization IV: BTS.  How did this happen?

The idea for the mod sprang out of a question that I posed to Realms Beyond one day: given everything that is in FfH, what would you cut? The responses were interesting, and what I took away from that particular discussion was that I was not alone in feeling that the base game could definitely be improved by a method other than adding a ton of new assets.  This particularly appealed to me since it meant that I would not need to create my own art assets, but instead make use of the absolute wealth of art already created for FfH.  I know that my own talents are mostly concerned with code and design, not modeling or drawing.

This was back in February of this year, about 6 months ago.

I've had a general direction to my work this past half year and good characters on the forum to keep me ontask and bring various areas of the mod to my attention.  Hopefully they've been enjoying the experience as much as I have.  I do want to continue working on the mod, but I think now would be a good time to formally establish the scope of the mod.

EitB in a Paragraph:

Erebus in the Balance (EitB) is a modmod for FfH2 which focuses primarily on balancing the game for a multiplayer audience while trying to maintain FfH2's crazy feeling of imbalance at the same time.  Along with the balancing act, the mod applies more polish to the UI and in-game documentation; so that new players find it easier to pick up the Mod and just play without needing to search out tutorials or more information from external sources.  It is built off of the hard work of all who have come before it, and also includes the work of Tholal and his Better Naval AI mod.

Primary Objectives:
  1. Balance, so that no one strategy or approach to the game is completely dominant.
  2. Polish, so that players can get all the information they need to play well from the basic interface.
Secondary Objectives:
  1. Redesign the technology tree to focus on FfH2's main features, Magic and Religions.
  2. Redesign the Spell system and it's underlying architecture so that all spell spheres are useful, situational spells and new-player traps are avoided, and choices and their consequences are clear.
  3. Revisit each Civilization's unique mechanics and tweak and balance as necessary so that there are no "dud" civilizations.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

An Autoplace & Route Tool for Civilization Style Tech Trees

A particular statement in this piece by Derek "Kael" Paxton about technology in Stardock's Elemental: War of Magic stood out:
5. Autolayout- The tech tree draws itself and its lines automatically.  This was needed because the tech tree will be different every time, so it must be able to lay itself out programmatically.  The good news for modders is that they can add techs to their hearts content and they will be automatically added to the tree right where they belong.
I thought that was really cool, and decided to look into how to do such things.

After some literature research, I found this paper out of AT&T Bell Labs By Emden R. Gansner, Eleftherios Koutsofios, Stephen C. North, and Kiem-Phong Vo.

The algorithm looked fairly straightforward so I decided to see if I could implement it first in Excel 2007 (VBA) and then in Civilization IV (Python or C++ depending upon which level I ran the algorithm).

Here is how the tool works:

  1. Reads in the Technology Data from a spreadsheet
  2. Processes the Technology Data to add missing Parent-Children links (Data originally contains only Children-Parent links)
  3. Does a DFS search from every root node and calculates an affinity between each root based on how many nodes they share.
  4. Orders the Root nodes based on their affinities, so that roots which share many nodes are placed together
  5. Runs most of the Vertex Ordering part of Gansner's Algorithm (Heuristic Based)
  6. Determines X and Y coordinates for each technology based on its rank and vertex order.
  • I have not yet finished generalizing the code.  I think that if you try it right now on a tree that is deeper than 9 ranks, you'll get an out of bounds error.
  • It's not as fast as it could be, there are some inefficiencies I already have in my mind to target.  For now it takes about 2 seconds to generate and draw the placement.
  • It requires Excel 2007 and Macros enabled, you trust me right?
The Final Result

Download AutoPlace and Route Tool

A Cvilization IV Combat Calculator

Update (8/10/12): There was a bug in the calculator when calculating battles not at 100% health for both sides.  I've fixed it now.

Download Combat Calculator

In one of my PBEM Civilization games I needed to destroy one particular unit, but none of my units had good odds on it.  Since I outnumbered it 7:1, I decided to go ahead and attempt to mob it to death.  I had no idea what my odds were, but before combat began any one of my units did not get (in game calculator's) odds over 0.01%.  I ended up winning after 4 battles.

I was curious then, what my actual, group, odds were.

Looking online, there were no good current CIV IV combat calculators available, so I decided to build my own.  Working with some of the other fellows at Realms Beyond to understand how the combat system actually worked, I ended up with a decent calculator.

This calculator can be used to find the precise odds for 1:1 unit combats, or X:1 combats with many attackers and a single defender.  It is built on Excel 2007 and requires macros to be enabled.  You trust me don't you?


  • Does not properly calculate retreat Chances
  • Does not calculate defensive strikes (A Mechanic from FfH)
Multiple Attacker, Single Defender Tab

Single Attacker, Single Defender Tab

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Technology and Inventions Overview

Let's talk about technology systems in 4x games and how particular design decisions impact the overall game experience.  I'll be presenting examples from Civilization IV, Victoria II, and Master of Orion II.

The Examples:

Most 4x strategy games have some sort of system to represent technological progress during the game's play period.  These systems are made up of component parts, which are often referred to as technologies.  Each technology has inventions. These names can vary based on the game's setting.

The relationship between technologies and inventions is not fixed between game systems.

For example, in Civilization IV, if a player possesses a particular technology, they have access to every possible invention unlocked by that technology.  Below is a screenshot of the Machinery technology page. A player who owns Machinery will have access to all the units, abilities, and buildings unlocked by that technology from the moment they acquire it.

A technology page from Civilization IV
Under a Civilization model of technologies and inventions, technologies are the player's primary focus. Players plan around which technologies they will acquire and when.  Since inventions can skew the battlefield in the player's favor, their associated technologies become more valuable.  Beating your competitors to a particular technology by a handful of turns matters a great deal.

The designers of Victoria II took a different approach.  Instead of a technology granting all of its inventions upon discovery, the technology gives some immediate boost and a chance over time to unlock a series of other inventions.

Below, you can see that Advanced Metallurgy gives an immediate boost to Sulphur production, and a chance over time at Steel Alloys and Electric Rolling Techniques.  The list of possible inventions shows inventions that the player (me in this case) has not yet discovered and the percentage chance to discover each month.

Technology Screen from Victoria II
The Victoria model is very similar to the Civilization model.  A technology will eventually grant all of the inventions associated with it, given sufficient time.  Players can still plan around the immediate benefits of a technology, but they now need to include lead time in their plans when accounting for inventions.

I found in my own gameplay that this model encouraged a beeline to a particular technology (to start rolling for its inventions as soon as possible) and then back-filling other technologies which gave important benefits, but had no inventions associated with them.

Under the Victoria model then, beating your opponents to a key technology whose benefits are tied to inventions is less important than for a Civilization style model.  The player's primary focus, however, is still on the technologies themselves, rather than their associated inventions.

In Master of Orion II, each technology level has several inventions associated with it, but most races in the game will only be able to choose one invention to develop from each level.  Missing inventions could be traded for, or stolen from, other races.

MoO II Technology Screen
In the MoO II system a player plans to gain particular inventions, rather than technologies.  This style of system adds another layer to a player's technology decisions.  Instead of choosing between which technologies to prioritize, the player must also choose between the inventions.  They might be able to back-fill inventions later with diplomacy and espionage, but there's no guarantee that they'll ever be able to acquire an invention that they pass over.

Bringing it All Together

Technologies and invention play an important role in all three of these games, though how much of the player's focus they take up varies.

The Civilization model is best for games which want to encourage precise player planning.  Players can easily grasp the direct relationships between the technologies they acquire and the units and buildings they can make use of in the rest of the game.

The Master of Orion model has similar strengths to the Civilization model, but puts an additional emphasis on the choices a player makes when they acquire technologies.  It encourages the player to put more focus on their inventions, what they have and what they're missing, and leaves additional design space for espionage and diplomacy systems.

A Victoria style model encourages players to budget in slack time into their plans, to allow for the acquisition of inventions over time.  I think that it de-emphasizes precision technology planning and encourages the player to spend less focus on the technology portion of the game and more focus in other fields.  Additionally, when balancing technologies in a Victoria system, a technology with no inventions associated with it becomes a prime candidate for back-fill or back-burner status.

Back up and Running

It's been a year since I "launched" the blog. It sure hasn't gone very far has it?

I've jumped into a number of games over at Realms Beyond, and have updated the blog to reflect that.  I've also begun looking into a number of side projects which deserve their own space somewhere, rather than buried in some obscure thread on a forum.

My own education in multiplayer strategy games continues, and I'd like to think I've learned something over the past year.  I'm theoretically working on a thesis project for my MS this year.  That may take up more of my time, but the goal is to do a blogpost every other day or so.