The XX Show #6 – eXplorminate Reviews.

Join Nate and Troy as they delve into the process and policies behind eXplorminate’s rating system. With Steam changing its review system, and the increasing importance placed on various scores and ratings, XX#6 will provide listeners with insights into why E4X rates games the way it does, why it came to be, and how the system will improve in the future.

eXplorminate Music by MangaDrive

Show notes:

Categories: 4X, Featured, Podcast, XX

7 replies »

  1. I was trying to think of a 4X game that I generally enjoyed the endgame, and while I can think of specific examples from EL, Civ 5 and AoW3 they tend to be uncommon. In the examples that come to mind they were all quite tense right up to the victory screen but most of the time the game is decided win or lose, well before the last 50+ turns.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I think AoWIII generally the end-game is pretty tense and fun with the right victory/settings. I also think Sorcerer King’s endgame is fantastic, albeit, the same thing every game.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Good discussion. I appreciate knowing your thinking behind review policy. And I agree that ‘exemplary’ ought to be reserved for truly exceptional games. I think your system as is, is far better than a numerical system, for a fan-site like Explorminate. A numerical system suits sites like Steam.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. No 4x has a good end game because of structural flaws in the things 4x fans want from their games.

    The problem has been solved in board games though.

    I’m going to apologize in advance for the rambling nature of this post. Its being thrown together without editing since its just a comment.

    So 4x games are, in large part, “engine building” games. The player puts together a productive “engine” that produces resources, and the faster and more efficiently they do so the better. And, this is important, one of the most crucial things the engine produces is improvements on the engine.

    For example, maybe you start with one city that has no upgrades. It produces some resources, which you use to build upgrades that let it produce MORE resources, or that let it build a sister city, etc.

    There are a ton of engine building board games. And they all face the same problem head on. Once players have built a really big engine, they want to see it do stuff. But if you just let them run their engine indefinitely the game stagnates, and if you don’t have a defined end goal and engine building is indefinitely scale-able they’ll just keep building bigger and bigger engines until they can’t figure out why they’re bothering.

    The most common solution is a hard time limit. For example, Agricola permits only 15 turns, after which there is a scoring round and the game ends. This has an instant effect on player decision making. Building a plow that lets you plow lots of fields at once might be amazing on turn 5, but on turn 15 its a waste. Decisions on whether to produce, or upgrade your ability to produce, building materials like wood or stone are immediately contextualized in terms of how much time you have to utilize those resources or upgrades. And there is never a point when your engine is “finished” and you’re just watching it run. The game remains tense until the end.

    By contrast, 4x games like to let you run your engine indefinitely. Players don’t feel like they “finished” until they’ve built literally everything there is to build, upgraded everything to the top, and then had their smash up with their neighbors. Which is either always pointless (because they have a bigger engine and have been running it forever) or a beatdown (because you had the bigger engine, or, because the AI isn’t smart enough to build or use an engine as well as you).

    Importing these concepts to 4x gaming would be doable, but would create a lot of player backlash because a lot of people play 4x games for indefinite, casual empire management, and the fun of just watching upgrades accumulate.

    But it would fix the end game problem.

    Oh, and two more end game problems that deserves mention before I close the comment.

    4x games involve using your engine to do two things. 1) Build more engine, and 2) smash your neighbors engine and take parts of it away from him. The latter is also problematic because its a double impact. First the loser loses stuff, then the winner wins stuff. And since the stuff lost or gained is the materials you need to build more engine, the game steamrolls. Imagine if every time you killed a worker unit in Starcraft, you gained a free worker unit. The game would be incredibly swingy.

    4x games usually try to fix this by penalizing the winner. Maybe the winner has to pacify a conquered city, slowing his access to its resources. Maybe he suffers a happiness penalty for building too “wide.” These are kludges that literally exist to punish the player for doing the thing the game told him to do. And they can’t be avoided with skilled play- you just have to suck it up and expend the time/resources to negate the penalty.

    Additionally, 4x games are usually “kingmaker” games. A kingmaker game exists when expending resources to knock someone down leaves you with less resources to defend yourself, meaning that everyone ends up just staring at each other angrily because any attack will be long term suicide. Imagine if Starcraft had 3 players in each game. Rushing would not exist as a tactic because sacrificing your macro to take out one enemy would just let the remaining enemy walk all over you. This is particularly true in an engine building game, because it doesn’t take smashing very much of someone’s engine to let you steamroll yourself ahead (engines usually scale as quadratics).

    Now all of this could be fixed, probably lots of ways. Here’s one simple example.

    Imagine a hypothetical 4x set in the Greek Islands. The game is built around phases. In the “explore” phase you compete by raiding each other’s scouting units, but you can’t enter enemy controlled territory. In the “expansion” phase you compete in the obvious way- expand to places before your enemies can in order to build the widest empire possible. In the “exploit” phase you compete by trying to build a taller empire than your enemies, AND by sending out trading units and pirates. Trading units establish trade routes, which earn money for both civilizations, AND increase “shared culture,” which will be important later (and which can be counteracted by actively, and publicly, propagandizing against that culture). Pirates penalize, but do not actually kill, trade routes. They can, however, kill other pirates. Meanwhile you can build, but not use, military units in this phase. And finally in the “extermination” phase, total war is possible. However, who you can go to war with is affected by your actions in previous phases. If you have lots of “shared culture” with someone your people won’t support a declaration of war against that enemy, and a declaration of war will create morale penalties and desertions. Hopefully you used the prior phases to negotiate a solid alliance with certain allies and against certain enemies, while ensuring military preparedness versus those foes. Plus, victory isn’t defined by just burning down your enemy’s civilization. Instead you have to make a War Oath. A War Oath is a declaration of how much you think you will accomplish in this war before the turn limit expires. War oaths are made via a bidding process. The strongest player makes his first Oath, then the next, and Oaths continue around the player base until everyone has pledged their goals. More ambitious goals yield a higher score, but failing to achieve your goals nets a major penalty.

    And when the turn limit expires, the game ends. Immediately.

    Obviously that’s fairly rough. But it solves the end game effect. Unfortunately it would also bother a lot of people, because they’d feel restricted in their choices compared to more traditional free form “do whatever you want whenever you want to” 4x design. Players would complain that the game was telling them that there was only one way to win (war oaths create variety, but its still military at the end, even if the mid game is more open). Plus the game takes away your engine instead of letting you grow it indefinitely- which may be especially galling to some if the tech and production trees are designed so that it is extremely hard to get more than one or two top tier buildings, units, or technologies per game (thereby forcing hard choices and making the time limit all the more pressing).

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    • @Cadfan

      Great post. As an avid boardgamer myself – I totally agree with this. I also agree with you that limiting the scope of the game wouldn’t go over well with most 4X players – even if it would ultimately make for more tense and consequential strategy games.

      The big thing in my mind, which your post gets at, is the importance of having more discrete choices, which forces you to make strategic tradeoffs. In a boardgame, if it only lasts 15 turns (like Agricola) or 9 turns (like Eclipse) – you are short on “time” and have to make trade-offs about which options and engine-building activities you pursue. There isn’t time to do everything. You can’t be the super explorer, the super researcher, AND the super economist all at once. I think 4X video games need to be more clever in finding ways to restrict choices over the course of the game so that players are faced with meaningful, lasting decisions and can’t simply “do it all eventually anyway.”

      I also think 4X games need to get much more creative with how the game ends.

      I’ve seen MANY developers of 4X games basically say “yeah, we haven’t put much thought into the end-game victory conditions” or they say “yeah, we’ll add more victory conditions in a future update.”

      If you were making a boardgame, the above sentiment would be UNTHINKABLE. In fact, usually you START the design process with the end game goals and objectives clearly identified. Then the entire game design strives to make the journey to that goal as interesting, varied, deep, and interactive as possible. I often think video game designers have it all backwards.

      This said, I’m really tired of the usual conquest, research, econ, culture victory thing. There are some 4X games (Armada 2526) that are time-limited (e.g. 300 turns) and score-based – which feels a bit more like a boardgame in that regard. In Armada 2526, what scores you points is specific to your race. Some races get points for winning battles, others for just having lots of happy people. And so you naturally get different playstyles emerging.

      However, the time-limit is really arbitrary feeling to me – and I’d love to have a more thematic win trigger or end trigger. In boardgames, I tend to prefer games with fixed win conditions rather than continuous scoring. So Chess (capture the king!) instead of getting points for every little thing along the way. I’d like to see the Armads 2526 approach turned into unique faction based narrative quests for example – like what Endless Legend does. Balancing it all can be a challenge – but it merges a narrative conclusion that makes sense to a clearer end-game goal that serves to orient your decisions.


      • My general view is that games should be built from the ground up with a specific thing in mind, and should focus entirely on that thing, with everything else acting as support. The “thing” can be a game mechanic, a tone, a story, whatever, but that there needs to be one specific thing your game is good at in the abstract, and then you try to be good at everything else in context of that specific thing.

        Very few 4x games do this. Age of Wonders 3 does, and that’s literally the reason its good. AoW3’s thing is turn based tactical combat. That’s what it does, that’s what its for, if you’re not doing it you’re missing out on a lot of the game, and everything else is subsidiary to doing that well. It has diplomacy, yes, but the diplomacy system is simplified in order to facilitate turn based tactical combat. It has city building, but the cities are simplified and the buildings relate directly to the turn based tactical combat. It has a thing, it does the thing well, and it defines “well done” for all other features in terms of how they relate to its core reason for being.

        By contrast most other 4x games just try to “be a 4x,” and to include all the things that 4x gamers expect. Unfortunately, 4x gamers are a broad bunch who want different things from their games. The result is that 4x games make everyone about 65% satisfied.

        Time limits can feel arbitrary. They’re not the only solution. But even when they’re used, whether they feel arbitrary is a story issue. There are loads of soft time limits out there already implemented in 4x games, unfortunately usually as an afterthought victory condition, and most of them don’t feel arbitrary. For example, if I were designing a Warhammer 40k 4x game, I’d make an incoming warp storm the time limit. Your goal would be to establish the greatest possible regional empire with the greatest internal stability before an upcoming warp storm cut off all interstellar communication and travel for a thousand years, splintering your empire into isolated worlds, each either remaining true to the Emperor if you built well, or falling slowly into heresy if you did not. And I’d make it possible for you to use the results as your starting map for your next game. That would just be a time limit, but it wouldn’t feel arbitrary.

        But… yes. What you describe above about players doing everything at once and therefore not making real choices is 100% correct.

        On top of that… I don’t think 4x game designers understand the game mechanics they’re using. A lot of the time 4x games are just “push your luck” games. Board gamers would recognize that immediately, but I’m not sure 4x designers do. If you can 1) expend resources producing and maintaining a defensive unit, or 2) expend resources increasing the amount of resources you produce per round, then you’re in a push your luck setup where the ideal play is to build the minimal defenses you require for your needs, and the maximal production increases. But if that’s going to be a core gameplay element that comes up literally every time you make a decision on what to build, the game should acknowledge that and give you the tools to interact with it in an interesting way. Starcraft is built around the same push your luck mechanism, and gives you a complex interplay of scouting, counterscouting, and raiding. 4x… you usually just kind of learn the AI’s benchmarks for when it will attack with what.



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