4X

The Core Mechanism of 4X Part 2: An eXposition

In Part 1, we defined the core mechanic for 4X and illustrated how it could be seen in exploration, research, and diplomacy. In part 2, we continue examining how the core mechanism manifests itself in other aspects of play.

Unlocking Tools for Victory in eXtermination

Combat is a major system that might seem like it doesn’t unlock anything for the player. But when you stop to think about it, combat is where much of the unlocking comes into focus. Without combat, there would no point in researching new techs or enabling the construction of new units by working your way up a building tree. Building an Armory might unlock the swordsman unit, but it isn’t until combat that you can see what that means. These military tools are intangible until brought to bear on the battlefield.

Also, in a more obvious way, combat is where you unlock the tactical secrets of a game, assuming the game allows it. This is why I think 4X games are best when there’s a tactical screen like in Master of Orion 2 or Age of Wonders 3. However, I do recognize that there are still tactics involved in games like Civilization VI where combat happens at the strategic level. Anyway, tactics are tools for victory just like units or buildings. Uncovering them through combat is an exercise of the core mechanism of 4X.

CM 01 ES2 Combat

Small bonuses aside, these cards are mostly about positioning your ships.

Endless Space 2 took sort of a step in the right direction by having the tech tree, quests, and anomalies unlock new “combat cards.” These cards are primarily positioning mechanics for your spaceships in battle. The mechanic is interesting but the implementation is dull. What would be much better, would be if engaging in combat earned you new and/or improved combat cards. Thus combat would be used kinda like it is in Stellaris where researching the debris from battles can unlock new, hidden tools for victory (such as new techs) and be a lot more satisfying.

CM 02 ES2 Combat Part B

I’ll take the high road, you take the low road…

The important thing to remember about combat and its relationship to the core mechanic is that the solutions to winning a battle should not be obvious in good 4X design. The player should have to do some discovering in order to unlock the best strategies. Each unit should provide meaningful options for the player. Capital ships should provide different strategic opportunities than corvettes. Magicians should play differently than spearmen. Artillery should be able to do something tanks can’t. When games fail to have novel tactics unlocked by diverse units, the combat feels bland and rote.

Unlocking Tools for Victory in eXpansion

When a player’s empire expands, there are few consequences in most 4X games other than the most obvious (capturing new territory, expanding the economy, etc.). There might be some kind of anti-city-spam or colony-spam punishing mechanics that unexpectedly kick in, but otherwise, what “new things” does the player get out of it? Perhaps some trade route opportunities or maybe a wonder? Meh.

The fact that expansion, in and of itself, doesn’t unlock new content is a design hole and one that should be examined and rectified by future titles. Let me give you an example of what I’m talking about. In my second or third playthrough of Civilization IV, I remember very clearly when I accidently discovered that I could build an Ironworks in a city that had access to coal and iron. I was blown away. I wondered if there were other combinations that would yield a unique building, so I started settling my cities according to a whole new strategy. Alas, there weren’t, but I think that’s one template (among many) that other games could follow.

The Core Mechanic and Winning

I’ve been hinting about endgame states throughout this article. The endgame in 4X is, in general, a design failure. Rob wrote a great article called “The Endgame and its Follies” back when the site was still fairly new. Despite coming up on being almost three years old, it’s still relevant. 4X endgames, for the most part, suck.

I suggest that the reason the endgame is so awful in 4X is that when players reach that point, the game totally loses its grip on its core mechanism. Once we can’t unlock any new inaccessible content, the game gets boring. I also think that’s why players enjoy the early game so much – there’s all kinds of novel content to chase after. Remember, the core mechanism is what a game is all about and what the players will find most rewarding. Without it, gameplay breaks down entirely.

If designers can find a way to continue to reinforce the core mechanism of 4X (as I’ve identified it) from beginning to end, I firmly believe they’ll solve the late game tedium of the genre. There have been some good attempts like Antarans in Master of Orion 2, External Threats in Polaris Sector, or Fallen Empires in Stellaris, but those games are only touching the surface of what needs to be done.  

Well then, one might wonder if combat is the core mechanic in 4X games since all your tech and spells and units go toward winning in that fashion. Well, no, that’s not the case. From the very beginning with Civ, MoO, and MoM, there were ways to win other than combat. That idea has only been expanded on since.

CM 03 AoW Skeletons

AoW3: Great combat, but light on everything else. Still enough to be a 4X, though.

I would suggest that all victory conditions in all well designed 4X games ought to require you to unlock new content. If there is a game out there calling itself 4X but gears everything the player does toward combat including winning through combat, we might not have a 4X game on our hands. It’s probably some type of war game. Its core mechanic would not be unlocking inaccessible tools but instead would be whatever the game used to adjudicate winners on the battlefield.

Now, I’m not saying a game can’t be a 4X unless it has multiple victory conditions. I’m saying that 4X games have multiple victory conditions because they reward players for unlocking content. That’s a small distinction that makes a big difference. A war game with a peacemaking victory condition is still a war game – it’s core mechanic is troop interactions on the battlefield and it rewards the player for mastering those interactions. 4X games are different. You don’t (or at least shouldn’t) be required to master battle as the only way to win.

Core Mechanism vs. Supporting Mechanism

I’m going to dive back into definitions again for just a moment. A core mechanism is the game element the player uses over and over in order to succeed in the game. A supporting mechanism is an element that leads the player back to the core mechanism by enhancing it.

As mentioned earlier, many game types have tools or features that are revealed to the player over time. Does that make them a 4X game? No, of course not. But why they aren’t is a more important question.

Even though RPGs, shooters, fighting games, etc. might all have content that must be discovered through play, that process of discovery is just a byproduct of play, not the point of play. I believe that each of those game genres have different core mechanisms that are not unlocking new content. I’ll go over a few examples in a bit.

Remember I stated that the Core Mechanism is related to rewards. 4X games go to great lengths to immediately reward the players for unlocking blocked content. Any time you spend a required amount of research points, you’ll get a new thing to play with like a spell, a unit, or a technology. Any time you construct a new building, you’ll immediately get a bonus, new unit, new crafting recipes, or access to a previously cordoned off piece of the game like a black market.

CM 04 StreetFighter5

In fighting games, you’re not rewarded for discovering combos but for making combos hit.

Hidden content is going to be part of all games. If all content was apparent to the player right up front, you’d have something more like a puzzle (where you try to just solve the problem in front of you) or a contest (where you try to hone a particular skill until you succeed). The difference is what the game does in response to the player discovering the hidden content. If the game rewards you for doing that right away, then that’s the core mechanic. If you have to take that hidden content and then apply it to some other mechanic that the player does in order to succeed (like discovering the dragon punch in Street Fighter), then the unlocking of inaccessible content is just a supporting mechanism.

The Core Mechanism and Variable Pathways to Victory

I think one thing that successful games do well, is that in any given game your decisions lead to only some of the full range of tools for victory being unlocked and made available. Games become more replayable when you can unlock a different set of tools in the next session and craft a different strategy as a result.  

The Endless Legend example about Heroes leveling up is a perfect case in point. Heroes have three skill trees but in a given game you’ll never be able unlock every skill in each tree, and so you are forced to make some decisions in what “tools” you have available. This simultaneously makes that individual playthrough more unique and the game as a whole more replayable as you get to try out different sets of tools. Also, if the types of heroes you get varies from game to game, it keeps the mechanic fresh. This idea can be applied universally throughout a 4X game’s various systems.

The Core Mechanic in 4X is Different from Other Genres

It might seem problematic at first to use “unlocking hidden tools” as a standard by which we determine whether a game is or isn’t 4X since so many games from MOBAs to Roguelikes can be said to have hidden content that is unlocked through play. I would reply, well of course they do! But those aren’t the core mechanism for those games. Unlocking content simply supports the core mechanisms for those genres. I’m going to go through several examples of core mechanics in other genres to show how they are different from 4X.

CM 05 SuperMeatBoy

In platformers like Super Meat Boy, you’re rewarded for precise timing of your jumps.

 

Platformers are about the Jump ability. FPS games are about relative positioning. Hardcore RTS games are about actions per minute. These games might have some kind of XP system that unlocks new weapons, or super jumps, or whatever. But that XP system is not what those games are about. It isn’t a core mechanism. Fighting games like Mortal Kombat have all kinds of hidden combos, but the core mechanic of the game isn’t finding them; it’s striking your opponent. That’s what leads you to winning. That’s what the game rewards.

While a CRPG may have lots of content that is locked, the game isn’t so much rewarding the action of unlocking that content but instead rewards whatever it is you have to do to earn that content such as killing monsters, fulfilling quests, etc. The core mechanic of an RPG is typically the advancement system. I’m not saying there can’t be emergent gameplay like in Skyrim or The Witcher 3 where players focus more on just exploring the world and discovering its mysteries instead of advancing their characters, but that emergent gameplay is not the core mechanism, which is what I’m laser focussed on in this article.

Action RPGs like Diablo are about killing monsters. You aren’t rewarded just for hurting the monster. You’re not rewarded for discovering new monsters. You’re only rewarded for killing. The new skills and weapons you unlock through various advancement systems and quests are mainly there to make you a more efficient killer. You’re not going to beat Diablo 3 by maxing out your skill tree, but you are going to beat Endless Space 1 by researching the Pan-Galactic Society.

Disproving this Core Mechanism Theory for 4X

One way to disprove my core mechanism theory is to find other game genres that share the same core mechanism, thus showing that what I believe to be the 4X core mechanism is endemic to many other video game genres. But as I showed in the previous section, that just isn’t the case.

Conversely, we could find a game that is universally recognized as 4X that doesn’t do this at all.  At the moment, I’m strapped to find examples. If you can, please post them in the comments below.

CM 06 Gears

All games share certain mechanics, but what do they really reward you for doing?

Another way to disprove my theory would be to find an alternate core mechanism that does a better job of describing what 4X games are all about. The reason I went through so many 4X subsystems in the first few sections of this article was an attempt to show how consistently we can see that unlocking hidden tools for victory is at the heart of (or should be at the heart) good 4X gameplay.  

So, for 4X games, opening up unique game aspects that were previously unavailable is what players do almost all the time until it isn’t, which is where 4X games start to suck.  At that point, the game stops giving you its core mechanism, and you’re left to figure it out on your own. Imagine if you couldn’t hit your opponent in the last 10 seconds of a Street Fighter match. You just had to wait for time to run out and the player with the lowest life total lost. How boring would that be? That’s what would happen if a fighting game lost its core mechanic, and that’s often how 4X games feel at the end when there’s nothing new left to discover.

If you feel there is an alternative core mechanism, please post it in the comments below. I’m very keen to hear opposing points of view.

With This in Mind, What’s a 4X?

As I mentioned in the introduction, the idea for this article was sparked during a (very friendly and respectful) debate I had with Oliver over the nature of the 4X genre. The debate itself, though, was partially the result of a conversation we were having about a couple other games. Dallin was writing about Total War: Warhammer while I was struggling with Last Days of Old Earth. When I went to write my review/eXcursion, I wasn’t sure which type of article to use. LDoOE clearly had all four X’s present, but both Rob (who was still with us at the time) and I agreed that it certainly wasn’t a 4X game. But why?

CM 07 Last Days of Earth Combat

Last Days of Old Earth has the veneer of 4X but didn’t quite live up to that moniker.

It wasn’t until I realized that the core mechanism of that game is the strategic expenditure of limited resources, not unlocking inaccessible content that I had a justification for not doing our typical 5X review for it. For me, it was an epiphany.

What’s also interesting is that, in response to my article, Haldur (who is one of our terrific community members) pointed out the historical application of the “4X” label. He correctly notes that it was used to describe the original Master of Orion and not Civilization 1. He also notes that games that are older than MoO or Civ are also considered by some as “4X” forerunners or proto-4X games. Hence, it can be very problematic to label a game as 4X or not-4X without taking the entire historical context of the term and the genre into account.

To which I reply, yep that’s true! Which is why I (and others) feel that “4X” is a horrible way to describe 4X games. Labeling a game based solely on the existence of eXploration, eXpansion, eXploitation, and eXtermination is far too broad to be really useful. Any time you bring up 4X, you have to ask how the other person wants to define it. “Should we include games like EU4 and Thea or are we limiting this to Civ-like games?”

By focussing on the core mechanism rather than the four X’s, we can get a better handle on what is or isn’t the type of game that spawned eXplorminate and why some are more fun than others.

So let’s look at some examples of games we at eXplorminate have treated as 4X that probably aren’t. First, let’s examine Apollo4X. The core mechanism of that game can’t be “unlocking hidden tools for victory” since nearly everything is revealed to the player upfront. I would suggest instead that the core mechanism is resource trading since that is both what leads to victory and what the player focuses most of his/her decision making on.

CM 08 EU4

An excellent Grand Strategy Game, but not a 4X.

Next, what about Europa Universalis IV and Crusader Kings 2? I think most people would probably go ahead and label them as Grand Strategy instead of 4X, but what makes them not 4X? I would suggest that since these games make no real attempt to keep information out of the hands of the player, the core mechanism is not “unlocking inaccessible content.” If I had to hazard a guess at their core mechanic, I would suggest that it might be managing relationships. Same goes for Stellar Monarch. These are as much political games as they are war games. War is just a tool to enforce or destroy a relationship, so I have a sense that might be right. For the purposes of this article, though, it doesn’t matter if I correctly identify what their core mechanism is but rather, what it isn’t.

I think Total War: Rome II basically fits into the Grand Strategy category as well, though it’s definitely not a political game like EU4 and CK2. It shares many of the same traits and like the aforementioned titles and certainly is not all about opening up hidden game elements.

CM 09 Thea

At first glance this doesn’t look like a 4X but a deeper gaze into the mechanics shows it is.

Okay that seems simple enough, but what about so called “hybrid” games like Arcane Sorcery, Thea: The Awakening, and Sorcerer King? These are somewhat more problematic. For Arcane Sorcery, I would suggest it is an incoherent design, i.e. it doesn’t know what its core mechanism is. There is some content unlocking going on with its un-randomized spell research, specialized units that are unlocked through a rather convoluted and absolutely concealed building tree, and emergent though rudimentary tactics on the battle screen. Yet at the same time, there’s no mystery about the maps (they’re not even procedurally generated), and you know what your opponent’s forces are and where they are at all times. I’m honestly not sure I could really identify what Arcane Sorcery is about.

For Thea, it’s much easier. Its core mechanic is unquestionably unlocking inaccessible content. In fact, of any game I’ve played, I think Thea does the best job from beginning to end of reinforcing its core mechanic. The research trees keep all kinds of things hidden from the player. The quest system unlocks new stories and new allies at all stages of the game: beginning, middle, and end. The quests even lead to a satisfying victory, which is a rare example of the endgame in a 4X not being boring.

The crafting system in Thea is also a fantastic example of unlocking content as the myriad of recipe combinations always yields a surprising result AND those results can be further influenced by the quality of the item produced. The player can’t know for sure how an item will turn out until it’s finished, and each type has different bonuses and stats. Also, crafting with gemstones bestows random abilities on weapons and armor, so the whole crafting system turns into a wonderful roulette system that keeps the player engaged throughout play.

I would suggest that Sorcerer King, much like Thea, is a 4X game with the core mechanism I’ve described – at least on the first playthrough. Quests, crafting recipies, hero abilities, spell research, building trees, are all hidden tools that must be discovered in order to win. Even the great Sorcerer King himself provides novel content that is revealed as a result of player actions over time, and revealing that content is the point of play which leads to victory.

SK’s biggest design flaw is its lack of content. It would be a better 4X and reinforce its core mechanism more if there was more content to be unlocked. After the first playthrough, one might be able to argue that the game becomes much more like a puzzle than a game, especially on one of the non-procedurally generated maps. But, as it is, SK qualifies in my estimation.

I understand that this might pose some difficulties with the traditional use of the term 4X, especially for those that really attach that term to its original use. I would propose, however, that Master of Orion was never really about eXploring, eXpanding, eXploiting, and eXterminating. That was just one heuristic an author used to describe a very complex game. Those four things helped reinforce its core mechanism. Instead, I believe the game was about unlocking cool content in unexpected ways and then using that discovered content to win. Everything from the different faction abilities to the different techs to the different planet types and ship designs reinforces this.

Perhaps one might be able to say that the four X’s are the methods by which one engages the core mechanism of a 4X game. That might reconcile my theory with tradition, if tradition is even worth reconciling with. I’ll leave that up to further discussion in the comments and our message boards.

Why Bother Identifying the 4X Core Mechanism?

I think there are several benefits in identifying and discussing what the core mechanism of our genre is and what it could or should be going forward.

CM 10 Research Complete

Seeing a problem in a new light can lead to breakthroughs in innovation.

First, I believe that 4X game design would improve greatly if it focused more on its core mechanism of unlocking content rather than just trying to fit the Wittgenstein Family of 4X traits (as discussed in part one). In my opinion, the Wittgenstein road leads to a hundred MoO clones and general disappointment with nearly every 4X title that comes out. Having all four X’s doesn’t guarantee a good game. There has to be more to it than that.

Second, as the previous section showed, it’s much easier to talk about what is or isn’t a 4X when you look at the foundation of all gameplay rather than just eXplore, eXpand, eXploit, and eXterminate. I don’t think that many people would argue against me saying that there’s a lot more to a 4X game than just those four things. Also, I don’t think listing a big bunch of subsystems most 4X games possess is all that useful either since that straightjackets future design and will ultimately crumble under its own cumbersome weight as new innovations are continuously piled on.

Third, I think that by examining a 4X game’s subsystems through the lens of the core mechanism, we can better evaluate whether a design is good or bad. If a subsystem does not support the core mechanic well, then then I think we could say it’s probably not well designed or maybe not even necessary. Thus identifying a core mechanism provides a much more useful tool for discussing game quality.

Strategy and the Core Mechanism

You might be thinking to yourself, “4X games are first and foremost strategy games. I don’t see how unlocking content is related to strategy at all.” Good point, I haven’t spoken about that much. The reason is that strategy is not a mechanic or even a game system, and this article is focussed on game mechanisms.

Strategy is a series of choices made by the human player facing varying degrees of uncertainty. The strategy in 4X comes as an emergent property of finding newer and more efficient ways to unlock the new tools that lead to winning. You can’t design a strategy. If you try, what you’re designing is a solution. 4X is at its best when it presents you with evolving problems and tools, then forces you to figure out the solutions on your own.

CM 11 ELCombat

Ideally, strategy isn’t a mechanic you design, it’s how players use the tools you provide.

4X games provide rules that stipulate what conditions have to be met in a game in order to make novel content available (spend 100 research points on this technology, build a wizards’ guild to get access to warlocks, etc.). However, games do not prescribe to the player exactly how or when to do that. If they did, they wouldn’t be games anymore they’d be more like a puzzle you’d have to solve. See Oliver’s excellent article about strategy for more description on the difference between puzzles and games.

4X is best when the player is in control of the methods used to engage the core mechanism. The game will provide context and rewards for those methods, but the player is empowered to strategically choose how, when, and why each of the various sub-systems are engaged (which, in a good design, should all reinforce and support the core mechanism). Again, Oliver’s article “This Thing Called Strategy” is a good read if you want to learn more about the importance of strategy and tactics in a 4X game. That article and this one go hand in hand.

When it comes to strategy, I believe designers should mainly be concerned with making sure there are multiple viable ways to achieve one or more victory types through the core mechanism and the subsystems that reinforce and support the core mechanism. The player will then figure out which strategy suits his or her play style the best.

Closing

As far as I can tell, “unlocking hidden tools for victory” is about the best definition for a 4X core mechanism we can attain at the moment. Ideally, the core mechanism of a well-designed 4X game would be “unlocking previously inaccessible and novel content at variable rates,” but we know a lot of games in our genre don’t do all that and designing game that way is incredibly hard.

CM 12 Sophons

Hopefully, this is just the beginning of conversations about 4X design.

I can see plenty of potential pitfalls in discussing this. One might challenge the entire concept of a core mechanism. Is it real? Can such a thing be verified to exist in all games? I think it does, but I’m not sure it’s possible to prove it absolutely, eternally, and objectively. It is a theory, afterall.

Readers might be tempted to use certain 4X games with bad design to disprove this theory. Game quality matters. If the designers and developer team lost focus as they went through the process of producing the game it wouldn’t necessarily disprove anything. It would just mean they did a bad job executing the implementation of the core mechanism throughout their game.

It’s my hope that this article sparks a good debate, and if it turns out that I have correctly identified the 4X core mechanism, then it is also my hope that this article provides designers with some new insight into their craft. I know I would be asking a lot of designers to change the way they approach 4X and at the same time, develop ways to communicate that new approach to the player. However, I have faith in their creativity to do so. I love this genre and want to see it improve. That’s the entire purpose of what I’ve done here. In the end, what matters most to me is improving the state of game design in our genre.

69 replies »

  1. Nice article Troy! Good food for thought and I’ll chime in more as the discussion goes.

    One example of a 4X game that doesn’t have this unlocking aspect to it is UltraCorps (a browser based 4X game from Steve Jackson Games). I wonder, as a result, if this makes it more of a wargame fundamentally.

    I’m also not entirely sure whether the proposed core mechanism is or should be used as the core mechanism for all 4X games. I’ve been thinking that there are potentially very distinct design schools within the 4X genre – and these are still in a state of relative infancy. But simulation and detail driven 4X’s like DW: Universe or Stellaris have a very different design direction than something like Age of Wonders 3, which is more about delivering a tighter strategic challenge and less about grand sweeping narrative and simulation. How might your core mechanism apply differently to 4X games with different gameplay objectives?

    Like

    • Hi Oliver!

      There could be several reasons my core mechanic might not seem to line up with gameplay objectives.

      1) Since a game like Stellaris is a hybrid game, it may have a different core mechanic from a traditional 4X. However, I don’t think that’s the case. Time and time again, I read that the thing people enjoy about that game most is exploring the unexpected things that happen, and the game seems to reward strict attention to uncovering hidden/blocked content. So, I think Stellaris perfect exemplifies what I’m talking about. Ultra Corps might not be a 4X, though. It’s such a barebones game, I’m not sure what I’d call it. Grand Strategy perhaps since it seems to share more with games like Stellar Monarch and EU4 IMHO. It could just be a war game like you say. DW:U is all about uncovering new awesome things, so pretty sure my theory applies there well enough.

      2) A game could have an incoherent design where the developer muddled the mechanics and there is no clear core mechanic. I don’t think any of the games you listed fall into that category, though. Or, perhaps, the designer is trying to incorporate two different reward cycles in the game which would also obfuscate what the game is really about.

      3) A game could have an incomplete design. AoW3 is a great game, but it would have been even better had it focused more on the core mechanic not just making great combat. If there’s been one complaint about AoW3 is that it’s too combat-centric. If an AoW4 comes out, Lennart might be interested in considering the core mechanic I’ve laid out here to incorporate into his design.

      Don’t get hung up on ephemeral things like real-time vs. turn based. That’s a non-issue altogether. So is scope, large or small. That doesn’t affect the reward cycle of the game. Empire-management vs. combat-centric is likewise a red herring. Focus on how the player is rewarded in game currencies and progress toward victory, and I believe that will tell you if a game belongs in one genre or another.

      Like

  2. That point about AoW 3 brings me to the front, because in my opinion this shows that people don’t understand that AoW 3 is as good as it is, because it IS so combat-centric.
    You see, I’ve been thinking a lot of these things lately – thanks to your articles – and “4X” is, in my opinion the wrong term for most games, because it’s the extermination-X, the COMBAT, that is the problem. If you don’t live in the Warhammer universe, but instead in a gameworls incorporating the world Civilization(s) or any equivalent, and if you want a modicum of realism, then battles are mostly against pirates. There is no extermination – or, if it is, it’s because it may bring you victory.
    But 4X games are, in their biggest incarnations, empire-building games. MOO is THE 4X game – but actually you can win it without firing a shot, and most significantly, if you don’t want to, you will win it by VOTE, and you can even lose it by vote.

    The other important thing is EXPLORATION. Exploration is more than “unlocking hidden tools”, and at the same time less, because it’s delivering the specifics of the game you just started. How near is the opponent? Which resources are in the vicinity and which are not? Is there a good place to settle or a beauty of a planet to colonize nearby?. Exploration is the tool that delivers the information that will help you assess and evaluate the tools you know are hidden to unlock so that you can order them and their imporftance. Combat tools most of the time serve as escorts and as deterrent, not for “extermination”.

    In this regard, games like Heroes of M&M, Disciples and the AoW series are more 4X-ish, than, say, Galactic Civilizations, where you build a lot of ships, but use them sparsely.

    I also don’t think it’s no accident, that the 3 brands mentioned are all staged in the fantasy realm. The tools to be unlocked and the wars fought look less like genocide, but more like “honest combat”.

    In the end, all these games are “worker placement” games, where everything depends on resource allocation (including military). Their is a conflict of interest, because resources are best placed into “production means” to increase and improve the tools at your disposal, but you also need to allocate resources into things that actually inhibit this: military, entertainment, consumption. The difference between empire-builders and combat-centered games is – mainly – that you actually NEED the military as a DIRECT means to “unlock hidden tools” (that is, you have combat each turn), whereas in the empire builders you are best-served when they PREVENT combat, except when you are left no choice.

    Like

    • @Christian – fantastic thoughts. Thank you. See my (long) comment below for more feedback along these lines. I’ve long tried to make the case that AoW3 and combat-focused 4X games are closer to the original spirit and design form of “4X” and that games which layer on a lot of additional non-combat things are more about “empire building” – exactly as you say.

      I also think that Troy’s proposed mechanism misses “strategy” and “decision making” as an essential part of 4X games of all types. It’s not about the act of unlocking things, but rather what you can do with the things that are unlocked. You can create very deep and strategically rich games that have very little content to unlock. You can also have games with tons of content that are shallow and little more than optimization puzzles.

      Like

      • That;s an interesting repsonse, Oliver, because I thought Christian’s comment actually supports Troy’s point pretty well. Especially the part about being able to win MOO1 without the 4th X at all if you wanted. I tend to agree that 4X games arent really just about the 4X’s. There’s got to be more to them.

        Like

      • Hello again Oliver!

        You wrote, “I also think that Troy’s proposed mechanism misses “strategy” and “decision making” as an essential part of 4X games of all types. It’s not about the act of unlocking things, but rather what you can do with the things that are unlocked.”

        I addressed strategy specifically in part 2, and I feel I was pretty clear in my piece because Cullster grasped what I was saying perfectly in a comment further below. So let me ask you, what do you do in a 4X game with the things you unlock?

        Like

  3. How about the dominions series? I wouldn’t call them 4x at all due to non-existent diplomacy/economy management but those not an actual qualifiers. Still it feels like a war game like risk, with tactical battles using magic/items.

    Yet the developers keep stylizing it as a 4x game.

    Like

    • I agree at first glance Dominions is not a traditional 4X but it has all the hallmarks of 4X games.

      There is a strong need to Explore but not in the sense of discovering the “map” (the map in a sense is not hidden from the player) but to discover where important features of the map might be. The use of scouts to understand who is where, doing what and using what tactics is a great way to extend the “Explore” aspect of 4X into late game.

      Expansion is a critical aspect of the game both to build your economic base but to extend your map awareness, control the movement of your opponents, etc.

      Exploit is the most economic of the 4X criteria and is where you see a weak connection in Dominions. I would disagree but understand how, on the surface, that would be seem to be lacking. In effect, there are many different resources at play in the game including gold, actual resources, magic gems, blood slaves, and research. There is also a secondary economy in magic items and summoned units. Learning to exploit these “economic-like” options to maximize the effectiveness of a given strategy can be challenging and a great deal of fun and is open to a lot of interesting counter-play. If you want a taste of the economic complexities in Dominions try playing a blood nation against appropriately difficult opponents.

      Exterminate is extremely prominent in the Dominions series and I hope does not need any lengthy discussion here. Personally I think Dominions takes the old adage “might makes right” as its core philosophy and it is definitely exemplified in the combat.

      As for diplomacy, in multiplayer games diplomacy is often a key factor. To date the Dominions series hasn’t spent energy on building a mini-game around diplomacy w/ the AI. I don’t think this is to the games detriment but rather indicates that the designers have a clear vision for the game and aren’t just chasing difficult to do properly often easily exploited sub-systems.

      Like

  4. I think there are TWO issues that Troy is grappling with here.

    Issue #1 is the effectiveness (or not) of the “4X label” in conveying what the genre is all about, with the sense that breaking 4X down to the individual Xs as a way of characterizing the genre misses the mark – i.e. it is maybe not specific enough to capture what 4X games are about.

    Issue #2 is more about the underlying design philosophy and intent of 4X games, and the described core mechanism is proposed as a means of clarifying that core principle and advocating for more design emphasis being placed on that mechanism.

    I have a significant problem with Troy’s approach here, which is that these two issues seem to be conflated as one, and are both trying to be resolved with the same fix (the proposed core mechanism) – which I don’t feel is suitable or effective in responding to EITHER issue.

    The reader comments (towards the end) of Part 1, despite getting a little tense, conveyed my same concerns with this proposed core mechanism idea.

    Let’s back up and think about these two issues.

    Regarding issue #1, I agree that the 4X label isn’t a perfect descriptor and that breaking it down to explore, expand, exploit, exterminate is fraught with challenges. However – the 4X label has stuck – and frankly I think most people “know it when they see it.” If someone can look at a game and get the sense that “you build and empire and compete with other empires to rule the planet/galaxy” it’s probably a 4X game of some flavor.

    This is analogous to FPS games being games where “you run around in first person and shoot at other players.” Platforming games being about “timing when you jump.” Just as Troy explained for those other genres in the article. Is it perfect? No – but 4X has stuck and works well enough to capture the gestalt of the genre.

    What I think IS really important for the genre is to cast a wider net around what we think a 4X game could be – and in doing so encourage a broader, more innovative range of design ideas to enter the circle. I think this is partly what’s driving Troy’s interest in identifying this core mechanism. However, this is where it also runs into big problems in my mind, as it relates to issue #2.

    I feel that Troy’s core mechanism, as an attempt to articulate and advocate for a certain essence of the genre, is redefining (intentionally or not) the 4X genre even more narrowly. It is prescribing an idealized design approach to the 4X genre and using that as a benchmark for evaluating games in the genre – AND THIS IS REALLY DANGEROUS. Instead of encouraging more diversity in the genre, it’s pushing games to be even more similar, especially when their quality is assessed from this one primary angle.

    Take Troy’s comments about AoW3 as an example. By this core mechanism approach, AoW3 would be a stronger 4X game if it had deeper empire management. But we can’t say this is the case. For each person complaining in a forum about the “lite” empire management, how many people NOT posting on forums love the game specifically because empire management IS streamlined and the game emphasizes combat? Consider this: would MoO1 be better and more like a proper 4X if the colony management was more complex instead of using the simple slider system? Or if there were more goals and tools for achieving those goals? I don’t think anyone can say for sure.

    Even more audaciously, Thea is held up as exemplar 4X title per Troy’s core mechanism – when Thea doesn’t even really pass the “I know it when I see it” test of a 4X game. If we’re being technical, it is far more along the lines of a city builder or clan management survival sim (Rimworld, Banished, etc.) than a 4X. You only ever have one city and there are no peer empires you are competing against at all. How is Thea even a 4X? Really.

    At times, I have been EXTREMELY frustrated by this conversation. The narrowing of the genre definition is bad for the genre. (FWIW, I think Thea should be in the 4X bucket, but so should a lot of other games for other reasons).

    One manifestation of this has to do with being a critic in this genre. At a practical level, it has to do with what games get the “proper review” treatment here at eXplorminate. Why does Thea get a 4X review (with an eXemplary rating) whereas Halcyon 6 is not deemed 4X-enough? Why does Polytopia get a review, but Antihero does not? Why does TW: Warhammer NOT get a review, but we give Crusader Kings 2 and Sovereignty: Crown of Kings one? Why the heck do we keep harping on AoW3 as being a “4X-lite” (as if that’s a bad thing) instead of just acknowledging that there is NOT ONE IDEAL DESIGN PHILOSOPHY FOR 4X GAMES – BUT INSTEAD THERE ARE MANY!!!

    To conclude on a constructive note – I feel that we need to cast a MUCH wider net of what we put in the 4X bucket, and thus encourage a broader range of design approaches. Troy’s core mechanism is just ONE of the many design tools or best practices to encourage – but is far from a universal band-aid to the genre’s shortcomings.

    4X games, despite the renaissance we’re going through, are absolutely stuck in a design rut. And until we become more proactive in talking about and thinking about a broader spectrum of games overlapping the 4X circle – and more importantly recognize that there MANY different core priorities afoot within the genre – we’re going to continue to be stuck in that rut.

    Like

    • You might be on to something here. I’ve never considered 4X-lites as a bad thing. In fact I actually really love them for the much needed diversity they bring. So perhaps our own narrow expectations of 4X are exactly what is holding the genre back?

      Like

    • Hi Oliver!

      Sorry for my late response, I’ve not been at home.

      First, I’m not seeing a difference between “what the genre is all about” (Issue 1) and the “underlying design philosophy” (Issue 2) for 4X. Those seem one in the same to me. Can you explain the difference?

      When you say, “I agree that the 4X label isn’t a perfect descriptor and that breaking it down to explore, expand, exploit, exterminate is fraught with challenges. However – the 4X label has stuck” That suggests to me you are opposing change because we’ve always just done it this way. I can’t think of any field of study that doesn’t accept change as a part that field’s growth. Keeping a description for something because it’s old doesn’t make sense to me. Just because it’s old doesn’t make it right. I feel descriptions ought to be as accurate as possible. Is that a bad thing?

      Also, let’s look at how you finish that paragraph: “it’s probably a 4X game of some flavor.” Look at the level of vagary in that statement. If any field of study accepted that level of imprecision, would innovation of any type ever happen? “Probably” and “of some flavor” just aren’t acceptable to me in a technical field like video games. Poetry, maybe, but not programming.

      As for the “I know it when I see it” philosophy, we don’t live in that kind of world anymore. One of my favorite movies is Moneyball which is a docudrama about how that notion was put to rest in baseball. Other sports are following suit, notably the NBA. You can read about it here if you like: https://www.washingtonpost.com/sports/wizards/nba-embraces-advanced-analytics-as-moneyball-movement-sweeps-pro-basketball/2013/10/25/1bd40e24-3d7a-11e3-b0e7-716179a2c2c7_story.html If these entertainment industries can abandon the eyeball test, why not video games? Why can’t we think deeper than just “well, it kinda looks like a 4X so I guess it kinda is…”?

      You state that the important thing for a genre is to cast a wider net around what a 4X game could be. That seems a total anathema to what genres are for. People don’t use genre as an inclusionary heuristic for understanding games (or novels or movies or whatever), they use it to exclude as much as possible so those discussing the genre of [fill in the blank entertainment] have a clear understanding of what each other is talking about. The wider the genre, the less precise it is and therefore the more difficult it becomes to examine it and talk about it.

      So then, if you feel my core mechanism is an attempt to more narrowly define the 4X genre, you understood perfectly. That is my intent, for the reasons I’ve already mentioned: it makes it very tough to analyze and discuss a genre when we say Master of Magic, Europa Universalis, Sovereignty, and Thea: The Awakening are all essentially the same thing. They’re clearly not, and if the only thing uniting them is a list of four things you’ve already agreed is inaccurate, how is that helpful to people who want to study, understand, and improve the genre?

      Narrowing the list of games makes it easier to analyze them and learn from them. Finding a more accurate way of showing commonality among a section of these titles would, I think, help designers improve their designs. Instead, you seem to want to muddy the waters further by including even more games that are even more loosely related. What if biologists took that stance when naming species? Or breeders when marketing breeds of dogs or horses or whatever? If pharmacists or chemists had that kind of attitude towards medicines, where would we be? If other technical fields have very strict guidelines for classification, why shouldn’t video games?

      Let’s move on to your comments about AoW3 for a minute. You ask, “For each person complaining in a forum about the “lite” empire management, how many people NOT posting on forums love the game specifically because empire management IS streamlined and the game emphasizes combat?” Is it possible to answer such a question? Could the opposite be just as true? How many people aren’t posting their distaste for the game’s lack of empire management? Asking a question like this is fallacious as it cannot be answered.

      You also ask, “…would MoO1 be better and more like a proper 4X if the colony management was more complex instead of using the simple slider system?” Complexity is a red herring. The core mechanic is unaffected by how simple or complex a game is. They are entirely two separate issues. If you can point to a place in my articles where I advocate increasing the complexity of games, please do so. It needs to be deleted. I don’t believe I did that, so you’re kind of engaging in a straw man argument. I’m focussed on how 4X games reward the players, not on how simple or complicated a game might be. I don’t even care about that, and my theory isn’t intended to address complexity at all.

      Moving on to Thea, you wrote: “Thea doesn’t even really pass the “I know it when I see it” test of a 4X game.” This is an opinion stated as fact and fails to account for how “when I see it” will vary from person to person. Thus, you simply illustrate the perils of using that as a metric for whether some game does or does not belong in a given genre. You further undercut your argument when you later state, “FWIW, I think Thea should be in the 4X bucket, but so should a lot of other games for other reasons.” So I’m left wondering how is this possible? How can a game not pass the “I know it when I see it” test, which is what you use to label something as 4X, and still be a 4X game? It seems you’re being very contradictory.

      I feel that having a standard metric which can be agreed to by a group is preferable to leaving it up to each individual to decide for him or herself when it comes to the specific activities of analyzing, theorizing, and improving games in a genre.

      You go on to say, “If we’re being technical, it is far more along the lines of a city builder or clan management survival sim (Rimworld, Banished, etc.) than a 4X. You only ever have one city and there are no peer empires you are competing against at all. How is Thea even a 4X? Really.” I would counter by asking if one is playing the one city challenge in Civ or the Cultists in Endless Legend is he/she not playing a 4X? And also, why are peer empires necessary for 4X? Eador: Imperium is clearly a 4X game by all classical definitions, but you can play it without any peer empires if you like. It seems as if you are arguing that both multiple cities and peer empires are all you need to make a 4X game. Is that so? I believe those are just ephemera that a game can have or not have depending on the locations, themes, systems, or atmospheres the designer wants to display.

      Also you assert, “At times, I have been EXTREMELY frustrated by this conversation. The narrowing of the genre definition is bad for the genre.” This is again an opinion stated as fact with no real reasons to back it up. Why do you believe that? What illumination comes from putting CK2, GalCiv3, TW:W, and Apollo4X all in the same category?

      The only thing you offer for justification for your stance is this, “At a practical level, it has to do with what games get the “proper review” treatment here at eXplorminate. Why does Thea get a 4X review (with an eXemplary rating) whereas Halcyon 6 is not deemed 4X-enough? Why does Polytopia get a review, but Antihero does not?” We’re getting behind the scenes of e4X internal discussions at this point, but you and I have both argued in the past that certain games should not get an official review because we didn’t think they were 4X. Sometimes we won (Last Days of Old Earth) sometimes we didn’t (Sovereignty). But this has everything to do with eXplorminate’s internal decision making process and absolutely nothing to do with game design, therefore it is not germain in the least to my articles. It is, in fact, a total red herring. And just to clarify, Thea never received an eXemplary rating from our site.

      You then ask, “Why the heck do we keep harping on AoW3 as being a “4X-lite” (as if that’s a bad thing)…” I never said it’s a bad thing. Did I? Ever? I might have said it’s not for me, but never that 4X-lite is a bad thing and no game should ever be that. Are you able to point to a place in my articles where I did? If this is not addressed to me, why include in in your response to me? That’s a red herring. You’re just muddying the conversation with irrelevant opinions.

      I’m going to go back for a sec and address this: “AND THIS IS REALLY DANGEROUS. Instead of encouraging more diversity in the genre, it’s pushing games to be even more similar, especially when their quality is assessed from this one primary angle.” Dangerous to whom? The only people put in danger by new ideas are those who have a vested interest in the status quo. Those who aren’t invested in the status quo may find my ideas interesting, irrelevant, boring, whatever, but not dangerous.

      More importantly, I do not believe I am discouraging diversity in game design at all. In fact, I’m hoping to improve it by liberating designers from the constraints of trying to be 4X when they really might not want to be. Say a designer wants to make a game about empires and combat. If 4X includes a range from CK2 to Stars in Shadow, a designer is likely going to feel that his/her game must be a 4X game then. Doing a little research shows that 4X games have diplomacy, research, unit advancement, blah blah blah, so it is very possible this hypothetical designer will feel constrained to include those things even if the vision for the game doesn’t call for them.

      Why not separate Grand Strategy from 4X from Wargames from RTS from TBS from Empire Builders and so on? Imagine if MOBAs and Tower Defense games hadn’t separated themselves from the RTS genre. Would those genres have thrived as they have if they still tried to include all the tropes of RTS? I think not. Their separation improved game diversity, not squelched it. In the case of 4X, some types of games will move on to something else, which just fine and not a scary thing at all. Unless I’m mistaken, you’ve even advocated for something similar on your blog with a post entitled “A Shattered Dream” which I read carefully before writing this.

      “NOT ONE IDEAL DESIGN PHILOSOPHY FOR 4X GAMES – BUT INSTEAD THERE ARE MANY!!!” I see. Like what?

      Finally, you conclude with this: “4X games, despite the renaissance we’re going through, are absolutely stuck in a design rut.” Yes! I agree! But you seem to be advocating the maintenance of old concepts and old definitions, and in fact appear to be advocating even MORE games be shoved into a genre that is clearly stagnating. Why? How does that help? Set those other games free to explore what design space is out there and find their own evolutionary paths. Don’t force them into 4X. And let 4X have some introspection where it really asks itself what its all about and then endeavors to enhance that.

      The most disappointing part of your response (for me) was that you didn’t even address the central claims of my articles:

      1. Games are a system of rules that guide behavior.

      2. Games elicit compliance with the rules chiefly through a core mechanic which is a rewards system or reward cycle.

      3. The core mechanic (or reward cycle if you prefer) is the defining feature for games of a certain type (in our specific case, 4X games).

      4. By tying a game’s sub-systems to the core mechanic/rewards cycle, you can enhance a player’s experience by giving them more of what they want. In the specific case of 4X, that core mechanic is unlocking hidden content.

      5. Finally, games that fail to do #4 feel, are at least partially unsatisfying to players. In the case of 4X, if designers made hidden content available all the way up to victory instead of stopping mid way, players would have a happier experience.

      Of those, which do you find objectionable and why?

      Like

  5. I’m not deeply into genre definitions.

    But I see several mechanics so constantly used in 4x that I would consider them “core” to at least a large number of 4x games.

    One is “push your luck.” You are typically given short and long term priorities. The less you invest in short, the better you are over long. But the more risk you accept. Easy example: build an archer or a worker. With the worker you can increase production, and a hundred turns from now you’ll be better off relative to if you guilt the archer. But the archer reduces the short term risk of being attacked and losing more than you can afford. The dominant strategy is to figure out how to most efficiently satisfy the bare minimum short term needs in order to dedicate as much as possible to long.

    Another is “engine building.” You start with few options you can perform on a turn by turn basis. You explore and expand to create infrastructure that will allow you, on future turns, to take a wider variety of more powerful options. This can be as simple as “I want archers but I’m broke, so I’ll scout out a city location near profit generating resources and expand there, then I’ll be able to afford archers later.” In some games it can be downright complex- see Sid Meiers Colonization. Or see AoW3, in which you start with few military options and eventually have the resources to wage complex continent spanning military campaigns, all based on the resources you’ve explored and the infrastructure you’ve expanded.

    Third, crush the leader. Cooperation helps you progress but only one person can win. So you want to cooperate with people who aren’t in the lead, and gang up on whoever is ahead. This is intrinsic to most traditional 4x games but the AI mostly fails at it.

    I see the unlocking aspect as the least important, unless it relates to engine building. This is why I’m more down on Endless Legend than so many other people.

    I personally think that the engine building aspect is MASSIVELY neglected in most 4x games. I think it’s one of the most rewarding aspects of the genre, and arguably the most healthy FOR the genre. But it’s usually an after thought that gets included by default rather than via consideration.

    Like

  6. I’m going for a short comment at this point, because I’m a bit pressed for time now – the longer comment will come. But what I want to say is, that I’ve playing AND MODDING AoW3 now for a couple of years, and it is absolutely possible, just by modding to make the game more of an empire-builder. It’s actually fairly simple:
    Step 1: reduce the resource rewards you get for exploration of sites and the amount of Gold you get for selling rewards (so that you cannot have a pillaging economy);
    Step 2: I’ve modified the building “Harbor” into giving 1 gold and 1 population for each water hex in the town area. You can do the same with other hexes: have sawmills, that give gold and production for each dense vegetation hex. Let builders create mines in mountain hexes; add stuff like “University” that gives additional research, and so on. PERFECTLY doable.
    Step 3: Add a population requirement for building units (which is very easy)
    Step 4: Decrease population growth and add stuff like Granary and so on.
    Step 5: Tinker with Happiness; get buildiings like Theaters, that will give happiness, but also use up population (and maybe even decrease combat strength of units).

    Add a couple of technologies.

    It’s no problem at all to do that. It would need some rebalancing, sure, but you could do it.
    But WHY? Why would you? It would just reduce the importance of combat and of leveling up your units.

    And that’s the thing: what are all that great ship designing tools worth when you don’t use them? Because not only do you try to minimize your military in empire builders, if we HAVE military, it becomes OBSOLETE (fast).
    That’s the problem – or one of the problems.

    @ Oliver
    I’m going to read your post a bit more thoroughly tomorrow, when I’m less exhausted, and hopefully have something meaningful to say. :)

    Like

  7. Very interesting and thought provoking analysis and theory so I thank you for that. But as you yourself conclude this theory would make 4X-lite games like AoW and Thea to be more 4X than most games that are considered proper 4X. While I really love these games I doubt anyone really feels that they are or ever should be classified as full fledged 4X.

    So I’m afraid it is more complicated to describe what a 4X actually is. As valiant as your quest to sum it all up with a single core mechanic is I’m not certain is even possible. Although I think that we can all agree that the 4X-s themselves are indeed not nearly adequate to describe what the essence of the 4X game is but are simply catchphrases universally understood by the community to refer to the certain type of games we all love here.

    Now if only the developers themselves would be more willing to experiment with the definition of 4X instead of clinging to the classic concepts without really being able to understand what makes a good 4X.

    Like

    • Hiya! Thanks for your response. Sorry I didn’t get to you sooner, I’m not at home much this week. :)

      You wrote: “While I really love these games I doubt anyone really feels that they [Thea and AoW3] are or ever should be classified as full fledged 4X.” For the record, I always felt they were, and in the case of AoW3, I’m surprised to learn that people think it’s not. AoW3 is not perfect, but no game is. I feel it’s a fine game and a great (though again imperfect) example of 4X.

      “So I’m afraid it is more complicated to describe what a 4X actually is. As valiant as your quest to sum it all up with a single core mechanic is I’m not certain is even possible.” I can’t accept that. If humanity backed away from things that are complicated, how would we ever grow and improve as a species? I’m not afraid of complicated things.

      “Although I think that we can all agree that the 4X-s themselves are indeed not nearly adequate to describe what the essence of the 4X game is but are simply catchphrases universally understood by the community to refer to the certain type of games we all love here.” Well I, for one, agree with you :)

      “Now if only the developers themselves would be more willing to experiment with the definition of 4X instead of clinging to the classic concepts without really being able to understand what makes a good 4X.” That is my ultimate goal here, so if you got that from the article, awesome! It means my message comes through :)

      Like

  8. I read Oliver’s long post, and I think I agree with him. Indeed, 4X isn’t much of a description for a genre, that’s why it’s difficult to come up with a core mechanism driving those. Instead, it’s probably more correct that we are dealing with strategy games involving the 4X elements in one way or another. For computer games the term has been phrased for MoO, initially. However, if you ever played Stellar Conquest, the boardgame, an outright 4X first published in 1975, it’s not a label exclusively for computer games.

    In my opinion, the first and probably the most important part of games of the 4x type is the EXploration part, which simply means, that the layout of each game is different. “Layout” is a bit of a broader coin than “map”, because not only the “lay of the land” is different, but also, say, the number of available “resources”, the number of opponents, and so on. Plus, this “layout” changes in play. That is, your strategy in the game is more or less dependant on your findings (and may change with findings).
    The other 3 Xs are what I would call a “simulation”.

    To put this in an easy example: when you play Civilization with the Earth map, every Civilization starts at their original location, it’s a simulation game. If you play it with a random map and individual settings it’s a 4X. (This is the only reason why, for example, Europa Universalis isn’t a 4x).

    Now, when you look at an exemplary 4X game of old, Spaceward Ho!, a game that has been reducing things as far as possible and still delivers, it’s clear that the 3Xs other than Exploration, while there in a very stripped form, don’t combine to SIMULATE something. Which is the reason, why games like that are called “4X-lite” – there is no SIMULATION aspect. You don’t feel like building an empire, a galactic civilization, a fantasy kingdom, a legendary domain.

    There is one thing, that’s bothering me here, and that’s probably at least ONE of the reasons why the genre seems always to be missing something when the next big 4X comes out: you know, in Civilization it’*s perfectly plausible, that at one point in time – 4000 BC – humanity awakes and a couple of tribes settle down.
    However, in SPACE? The idea, that you have a vast part of the galaxy with a couple hundred solar systems where half a dozen different spezies are starting to reach to the stars at the same time and then compete with each other, is somewhat silly, to be plain. Some games, like SiS incorporate at least indigenous population) – but actually, there is no reason why a space 4X shouldn’t have elements of Sorcerer King, that is, one or even more ALREADY DEVELOPED civilizations with sizable empires and superior technology, something like what ancient Rome was, when the Barbarian tribes of the North made contact. There is of course nothing wrong with having a couple of peers in the game as well, on the contrary – but of course this would change the game drastically, because in the beginning, while you HAD to explore, you’d also had to avoid to be “noticed”. If your homeworld would be discovered by the “reigning powers” it might spell a fast defeat, so exploration would have to be covert. STEALING technology might be something worth to explore (seizing a superior ship).

    And if I got you fantasizing now – that’s what I mean: “proper” 4X is one part Exploration and one part SIMULATION – but the snag is, that the 4X-lite games work better, when it comes to VICTORY CONDITIONS (kill ’em all, take X), while in a complex Exploration-Simulation game each VC tends to be an artificial thing to prohibit an endless game (for explanation: there was a point in history when Rome would have certainly fulfilled a Victory Condition; and there was a time in history when my above described superior civilization in space would have fulfilled a Victory Condition).

    As a bonus, imagine the above described space 4x that, after a win would simulate (invisible for you), say, 1000 years of time and then let you start with your victorious Civ as the Sorcerer King, while you were either a newly evolving race or a defeated party trying again, after some catastrophic cosmic event.

    Like

  9. Interesting discussion. Here’s my 2 cents. Sorry, it came a bit longer than I expected. For the meat you can jump to (*).

    Many times I had trouble myself when needing to define a certain game as 4X or not when discussing and reviewing games, and I struggle today still. “Is it a 4X?”, “a 4X-lite, perhaps?”; “Why aren’t Paradox games (at the time) 4X?”.

    One of such tough games to define, at the time, was Sins of a Solar Empire. Was it a 4X game? I struggled for a time but, and after several expansions have been released for that game, I ended up thinking it is, but it was understandable that many didn’t think the same way. Some abide for 4X-RTS, others for 4X while others only as RTS. The confusion is understandable.

    With time I came to believe that there are many aspects to what makes a 4X game, and that they come in several degrees of importance for different people, so we always need to proceed cautiously when wanting to find a set of rules, or rule, for define this complex genre as a whole.

    I think Troy makes a good point when he says that one central aspect and certainly some of the fun of playing 4X games comes from unlocking new things, new toys to use, in your colonies (buildings) or in battle (new hulls/units/weapons), etc. That’s where the tech tree comes in as a fundamental aspect in a 4X game. On way or another, there are these techs, these unlocks that are there for you to pick and choose and that drive the game forward. So, when the tech tree is mostly done, usually it means the game is also nearing its end, or it should.

    When I remember of MoO1 and MoO2, one of the first things that comes to mind was the sound of the new tech breakthrough. I can play those tunes completely in my mind, and it always brings me joy to do so. It’s the unlock aspect, and the anticipation and joy (from dopamine release I guess) you get, and the projection, from what you’ll be able to use next. The “Oh, they’ll see now!” or “Oh, this new building will be so sweet in my core world!”, type of feelings.

    Unlocks in the tech tree, unlocks in the social engineering/social policies/other culture system, unlocks of new ships to build because you have a starbase. Reading Troy’s thoughts on the matter made me realize at the conscious level how that really is a central aspect to 4X games. That said, there’s much more to it, in my opinion.

    (*) When in doubt, in those cases where games seem like they have all the X’s, my rule of thumb to what makes or breaks a game as being considered proper 4X, are three things: diplomacy, possibility to win without war and the nature of the “map” aspects.

    1: Diplomacy. Does the game have a deep-enough diplomacy system rather than simply allowing for war and peace? I think this is one fundamental aspect that distinguishes 4X games from 4X-lite, non-4X games or Wargames (e.g. Command & Conquer, Dune 2, Starcraft, Heroes of Might & Magic, etc). At first, Sins of a Solar Empire was very thin on diplomacy, so it struggled if not failed on this aspect. However, after the Diplomacy expansion I made my mind and decided to accept it as a 4X game on its own right.

    2: Can the game be won peacefully, or for the most part? Or, in other words, be won playing at defense or through the diplomatic or economic game without needing to be a complete warmonger?

    3: And thirdly, the humble beginnings and map random generation aspects. In my view, a proper 4X always starts from a single settlement because a big part of the fun and point is to start from scratch and to build an empire that stands the test of time. That’s why many people had trouble when SotS2 forced you to start with a minimum of 3 settlements. That’s the empire-building aspect. Then, maps should also be randomly generated. So, as Christian Jentzsch said above, playing on a fixed map every time, even if some aspects in it may be random, is not so much at the core of a 4X experience, but more of a simulation aspect to it. And that’s why many (myself included) don’t consider Europa Universalis games to be 4X games.

    I realize that this is somewhat the “tradition” of what makes a 4X game, at least in my view, and that these cannot be seen as be-all rules, but just guidelines. And, I’ll be more than happy to read and discuss new ideas of how the genre could be defined better (because it’s a hard genre to define) and how it could evolve and improve besides the natural graphics improvements. So, I agree with Oliver here, that we should “encourage a broader, more innovative range of design ideas to enter the circle”. Then, it’s up to the developers to interpret what the audiences want from 4X games going forward and offer them that, always recognizing that what one considers good or better, or even constitutes a 4X game or not, may not coincide with the 4X lover next to you, and that is ok in my book.

    Explorminate, and its community, have a great deal of responsibility on how that plays out, so it’s great to see these kind of articles being written, that spark debate, keep the genre alive and well and where new ideas may come from. As a 4X game developer, and former 4X reviewer, I know this kind of discussions help tremendously, and I’m happy that there’s a place where they can take place.

    There cannot be too many 4X games! :)

    Thanks for reading.

    Adam

    Like

    • @Adam

      Thanks for the great response (and to the many others before it).

      To rephrase a bit what you are saying, I think we ought to be talking about “4X-likes” as a genre, much as we talk about Roguelikes as a genre. We can look at MoO1 and say “that’s the purest 4X-like” since that was the game the label first applied to. I think your points about what constitutes a “traditional” 4X like this is on the money. And Troys core mechanism does relate rather nicely to the tech and progression systems that define the arc of growing an empire – not just mechanically but also in terms of theme.

      If we take 4X-like as the genre, we can discuss how other styles depart from that in interesting ways but are still part of the family. Grand Strategy games ditch the randomized map and usually start with a complete Empires for example – but otherwise share many similarities. 4X wargames focus more on strategic position and maneuver with simpler management systems, and so on. I feel like this is a more productive way to advance the conversation.

      Below is a post from a few years ago on my blog tackling this similar set of issues. I also proposed some sub-genre categories – although my thinking has advanced a bit further on this and an update is in order.

      http://www.big-game-theory.com/2015/04/a-shattered-dream-critiquing-4x-genre.html?m=1

      Like

      • Hey Oliver – This is from Adam Solo –

        “I remember having read this series of articles of yours before. A great read and good summary about 4X games as a whole that I think is totally up to date, a couple of years after you wrote it!

        Interesting subgenre naming possibilities: 4X-lite / 4X-Wargame. Personally, I think Empire Builders can be seen as basically an alias for a traditional 4X game, or vice versa. If you look at the examples of games you give for each category (e.g. Empire Builders, 4X-lite, Grand Strategy) one can see that the more traditional 4X games happen to be in the Empire Builder category, for a reason, I believe.

        What if instead of the need to create 4X subgenres, or different names, we could just make an effort to categorize games better? I mean, as you say, to avoid people having different expectations when they see the 4X tag on a game? Or simply why use the term 4X at all in some games?

        For instance, if we think a game is a 4X but also a wargame in nature, then why not tag it as a 4X and Wargame, instead of 4X-Wargame? Sins of a Solar Empire would be 4X and RTS (why the need for 4X-RTS?). If Heroes of Might & Magic is about turn-based strategy and fantasy, why do we even should consider it 4X or 4X-like? It would be just turn-based strategy and fantasy. Age of Wonders 3 could be turn-based strategy, 4X, and also RPG with no need to call it 4X-lite, or even 4X at all, although I can see how that may work for many.

        Regarding Grand Strategy, some games can be Grand Strategy only (Europa Universalis), others only 4X (Civilization) while others can be both (Stellaris). Then you’d add RPG, turn-based strategy, real-time strategy, survival, RTS, etc, as seen fit. Adding the “RPG” or “RTS” tags to a 4X game, for example, already make it an hybrid of sorts because usually a pure 4X game has neither of those tags.

        And/or if a game is not a pure 4X / Empire Builder, we can simply say the game has “4X-elements” and usually we specificy which, such as having a diplomacy mechanic, a tech tree, empire-building aspects, etc.

        Of course, I can see that abbreviating things to 4X-lite or 4X-RTS can also have value, especially for the hardcore 4X gamers that understand what their meaning is.”

        -Adam Solo

        Like

      • My only gripe there, Adam, is that you’re still tagging all those genres with 4X. That means something to some people. If one really wants those genres to grow and reach their potential on their own, I would suggest they move away from 4X as much as possible in the same way MOBA’s and Tower Defense games moved away from RTS labeling.

        In the end, I don’t think genre names are really important. Just posting this suggestion for the sake of clarity.

        Like

  10. I was not entirely clear on what “unlocking hidden tools” for victory means. Does “hidden” mean that the player can’t access them or that they are unaware of their existence? How does this fit in with documented aspects of the game and undocumented synergies that can be “discovered”? How does this fit into the “Exploration” aspect of the 4X genera (if you take Exploration to a meta-level)?

    This seemed relevant to the Thea discussion given that it is praised because you have to “discover” the undocumented aspects of the game. I agree it can be much fun to discover neat things about a new game though personally that is the biggest flaw with Thea, once you figure these things out the game becomes very rout (so in my mind its more of a role playing game w/ 4X aspects).

    Depending on the definition, many games that are not 4X involve unlocking hidden content. Most MOBA’s do this during the course of the game (not sure if World of Tanks has this same mechanic but maybe) allowing players access to new and/or better abilities throughout the course of the game.

    Like

    • Hi Cullster!

      Currently, I think “hidden” is at its best when it is both unseen and inaccessible to players. Obviously, after you play the game a couple times, you’ll know pretty much what’s in the game, but still, I believe the odds of having novel interactions in the game are increased if much of the game’s content is kept from view until uncovered. I think designers could perhaps take that too far by hiding bonuses from tech or effects from spells, as an example. So, my thinking right now says to tilt the scales toward keeping as much as possible hidden with the caveat that we live in a world where players really want to have all the values, variables, and bonuses clearly spelled out for them.

      You write: “I agree it can be much fun to discover neat things about a new game though personally that is the biggest flaw with Thea, once you figure these things out the game becomes very rout…” Are there many video games out there for which this is not true? Fighting games, platformers, roleplaying games, etc. all become rote at some point. Perhaps Roguelikes. Maybe MMORPGs don’t suffer from this as much since they frequently add new expansions and new gameplay mechanics, but as a veteran of those, I can say that at some point you figure out what the optimal play is and just do that over and over until you get what you want. I don’t think video games are intended to give a novel experience to the player indefinitely. Would you disagree?

      Regarding World of Tanks and World of Tanks Blitz (I prefer the latter) you’re rewarded with XP and Credits (and spare parts in Blitz) for the most part. There are other ways to get rewards like opening loot boxes, but I think it’s safe to say those games aren’t about opening loot boxes.

      Anyway, the most efficient way to earn rewards is to hit your enemy without being hit back as much as possible. That’s relative positioning, much like a FPS. Therefore, I would suggest that relative positioning is the core mechanic for WoT/WoT: Blitz. A guy who goes by Bushka has a great channel on WoT: Blitz and almost all he talks about is relative positioning. If you’re interested in that game, you might check his channel out. I love it. https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCXR8UhZCwzLfclPohwNCPBg/videos

      Peace,

      -Troy

      Like

      • Thanks Troy – many interesting points. I have serious reservations with games obfuscating the rules and units as this generally makes games less newbie friendly especially if a game is meant to be played competitively. I think that could be a whole sub-genera on its own where half the enjoyment of the game comes from discovering the rules/units/special features of the game. Depending on the quality of the game play, the value of the game may be greatly diminished/spoiled by watching a play-through, reading reviews, or strategy guides.

        I think this is one of the biggest problems with recent 4x games, namely the inability of these games to provide long term engagement for their players (in a general sense not for a few hardcore super fans but for the bulk of players). Just look at the weekly exchange… when you and Nate discuss the games you are playing how many 4X games are you playing week after week that are not currently under review or where you aren’t part of the development/feedback process? I hear a lot about World of Tanks Blitz and X-Com2. That’s not a ding against those games at all but what I long to hear about is a 4X game where the majority of 4X fans are playing it and having fun not just once or twice but week after week after week.

        The last 4X game that did that for me was Dominions 4 but as much as I like it I doubt that it will ever become mainstream. However, from a developers perspective, I wonder if games like it could. What I feel is lacking from modern 4X games is balanced but asymmetric game play as well as options for good counter-play. In the absence of this games quickly becomes route. So rather than WoT Blitz I play Heroes of the Storm which provides a quick option if I need to blow off steam. It has remained fresh for years I think because there are many options for good counter-play, the number of team composition permutations is huge, and the game is regularly being tweaked, added to, and updated. It seems that 4X games are missing something that other categories of games have figured out. I don’t think the core mechanic is the issue here (if that even applies to games of the complexity we have these days) and there are counter examples in 4X to your “unlocking hidden content” idea for example the “rush strategy” where your don’t ever even try to unlock hidden content but just try to unbalance and overwhelm your opponents. Further, I don’t see how changing how content is uncovered will make a 4X game great. Examples of how you would take a meh to wow would be useful. Maybe cataloging all the ways that “hidden” content is uncovered would help but that would mean defining content and hidden in a lot more detail.

        You said “I don’t think video games are intended to give a novel experience to the player indefinitely. Would you disagree?” So is novelty really what is needed? People play chess, poker, bridge, baseball, soccer (just to throw out some game like activities) throughout their lives. Why not a particular video game? Maybe much of the fun of these games derives from the social aspects of play and perhaps that is what is lacking from 4X games now. Dominions 4 held my attention and still draws me back even though I long ago understood the mechanics of the game. There is just SOOO much depth that there are always avenues to explore. Regardless, I am not sure but I would love to get better answers.

        Some side thoughts, I did a quick check, apparently WoT Blitz allows you to spend credits on upgrades so there is more than a purely cosmetic incentive to keep playing. HotS similarly allows you to get new heroes on your roster. Not sure that “positioning” is a mechanic, that seems more like a skill.

        Like

      • Hi Cullster,

        I’m on my phone because I’m not at home much this week, so I can’t give a full replying now but I will when I can. One thing I just want to discuss quickly is your comments on games like baseball and soccer.

        The thing people get interested about in those games is not the rules it is the interactions with other players. I don’t know many people who plays soccer or football by themselves. Practicing and drilling maybe but definitely not playing. This is why I think some people get so excited about multiplayer in 4X games because they know that the single-player experience has an expiration date.

        If you are talking about things like soccer video games or basketball video games then I definitely think they are not intended to provide in indefinite novel experience to the players. Companies come out with new ones every year so they are definitely disposable games.

        Like

      • Not sure why I can’t “reply” to your most recent reply but just to clarify I meant games like soccer, poker, etc in the physical not virtual world.

        And if the thing that makes those physical world games fun (so that people will play them over the entire lifetime) is the social interaction with other people (which I think is at least part of it) then maybe that is telling us something about the anti-social 4X game experience as it exists today.

        Three games have been social for me and sucked up years of my game time. The first was Myth The Fallen Lords because you could cooperatively play team versus team games in a tactical war game. Then there was World of Warcraft (enough said). Then Dominions 4 because I was able to bring friends in to play cooperatively against other teams.

        Like

    • My only gripe with some of that, Adam, is you’re tagging every genre with “4X” and that means something to some people. If one is really interested in those genres developing on their own, then they should move away from 4X labeling as much as possible in the same way that MOBAs and Tower Defense games moved away from RTS labeling.

      In the end, I don’t think genre names really matter all that much. I’m just suggesting this a means to clarify.

      Like

  11. I was also confused by these statements: You can’t design a strategy. If you try, what you’re designing is a solution.

    Is this statement directed to the developers? Players? Based on surrounding verbage, I assume its the former though one might argue that developers can develop games that allow/disallow particular strategies. Also lets be clear, strategies are not solutions, they are in fact a recipe including steps to follow with the intention of achieving a particular goal. If my assumption is correct, I don’t think many players would disagree with this sentiment.

    Like

    • Hi again! :)

      “I was also confused by these statements: You can’t design a strategy. If you try, what you’re designing is a solution.

      Is this statement directed to the developers? Players?“

      It is directed at developers. In fact, designers/developers are the target audience for everything in both articles, not players. For the most part, Fans don’t give a care about core mechanics or reward cycles or any of that garbage. They just want a game that’s fun. That’s all they care about, and really, that’s all they have to care about. Theory, code, mechanics, that’s for programmers, wonks, and others who want to look at games more critically.

      “I assume its the former though one might argue that developers can develop games that allow/disallow particular strategies.” Yeah, and this happens all the time. Often strategies that get disallowed are called ‘exploits’ by some. Especially in the current age, where a game’s development goes way beyond its launch date, viable strategies are constantly popping in and out of existence with every patch. Army Pea’s videos for Stellaris on our YouTube channel are an excellent example of that in action.

      “Also lets be clear, strategies are not solutions, they are in fact a recipe including steps to follow with the intention of achieving a particular goal. If my assumption is correct, I don’t think many players would disagree with this sentiment.” I didn’t think it was that controversial of a statement either. :)

      Like

  12. Ok, what about the game Etherlords? I wouldn’t call it 4X – there is no RMG, and while there is exploration on any given map, once played there are no surprises anymore (although there is a decent replay value). There is exploiting – but expansion? No building in any way takes place, and your home castle is basically a weak point (if it is destroyed you lose), although newly summoned heroes appear there. There is definitely extermination.
    The game could be called the mother of “unlocking hidden tools for victory”, because that game is what Hearthstone and Duel of Champions have been cloning, a deck-builder. Not only do you have to unlock more powerful cards for your deck (by beating guards to get access and by collecting the necessary resources to buy and use them), you also have to unlock the combinations of cards that work best in your deck.

    Like

    • Christian,

      I won’t set myself up as an expert on every kind of strategy game, especially one that is 16 years old like Etherlords. Instead, I’ll tell you how you can decide what it’s core mechanic is. First, ask yourself what kind of rewards does the game give you? It’s usually some type of currency or advancement toward a victory state. Second, ask yourself how do you get those rewards? That’s the core mechanic.

      I’ve been told Etherlords is like Magic: The Gathering, and the core mechanic for that game is resource management. Resource meaning in this case: mana, life totals, cards in deck, cards in graveyard, cards in play, cards in exile, etc. etc. etc. So, it might be that Etherlords’s mechanic is the same, but to repeat: I’m not an expert at that game and will not state one way or the other definitively.

      Like

      • “Resource” Management” – or “Resource Allocation” is the – or ONE of many – core mechanic in most every game, including shooter games where have to decide which ammo to spend on whom, and it’s most certainly a core mechanic in every 4X game, because that’s what you do in order to “unlock hidden tools for victory”.
        “Unlocking hidden tools that bring you nearer to victory” is a very abstract description, but I do not think it’s a core mechanic, because it’s no MECHANIC. Instead, there is a plethora of “hidden tools” the bigger the game, and it’s a question of “unlocking the RIGHT tools for your SPECIFIC purposes”. For example, unlocking a technology allowing you to build more effective research facilities is certainly a hidden tool for victory, but not only must you be able ande inclined to build them, you must use the resulting higher research also to unlock THE RIGHT (additional) tools FASTER. If you unlock hidden tools you cannot (fully) use, because the timing is wrong.

        Then, most importantly, there is something of an area of conflict, so-to-speak, between UNLOCKING tools and USING them (or NOT using them). In every 4X game (or maybe in most of them), there will come a point where you have to switch resource allocation from unlocking to using; you cannot unlock, unlock, unlock – you also have to USE the tools, and the area of conflict is between allocating resources into unlocking and allocating them into the tools (that is, building ships, fortifications and so on), and again, it’s about the RIGHT tools you want to build.

        Simply said, you can unlock as many tools as you want – if you use the wrong tools or the right tools the wrong way there will be no victory.

        So my point is, the unlocking of hidden tools (hidden – in my understanding – being another word for “not obvious”) is something you do, and do in a lot of games, but it’s not a sufficient description to characterize 4X games.

        Like

      • ““Resource” Management” – or “Resource Allocation” is the – or ONE of many – core mechanic in most every game, including shooter games where have to decide which ammo to spend on whom…”

        You are continually missing what I am getting at. Look at what the game rewards you with (currency and/or advancement toward victory) and then what players have to do to get those rewards. In a FPS, you are rewarded for killing without being killed. Unlocking new guns, cammo, gear, whatever helps you do that. The act of unlocking a new gun doesn’t give you more “gun-unlocking points.” It gives you a more efficient way to earn experience points (or whatever) so you can kill without being killed better.

        All games have hidden content of some kind, and I’m pretty sure I said that in my article. But having hidden/blocked content doesn’t mean the game is about that. Those hidden things are usually just ephemera that keep the game novel and interesting to the player.

        “In every 4X game (or maybe in most of them), there will come a point where you have to switch resource allocation from unlocking to using; you cannot unlock, unlock, unlock”

        And I’m saying that’s a design flaw and the very reason why the endgames in 4X titles are universally panned as dull and boring. You can’t use bad design to disprove this theory about what good design should be. It’s not the core mechanic’s fault designers are lazy innovators or run out of ideas.

        Like

  13. @ Troy
    Look, Troy, you say that “unlocking hidden tools” is the core mechanic of 4X games.. If you play a game where you “collect XP” and “level-up” fighters, you unlock hidden tools as well – by leveling up. Whether you collect research points to unlock a tech or whether you colect XP to unlock an ability – doesn’t matter.
    When you play an FPS and you get a reward, that reward allows you to “kill better”. When you play a 4X and unlock a new research facility that allows you to “research better”. You NEED to researhc better, because techs become continually more expensive (that’s why you need more “unlock points”). When you unlock a better weapon – whether in an FPS or a 4X – you can kill “stronger opponents”, You NEED to kill better, because opponents are becoming continually stronger.
    Keep in mind, you are talking about TOOLS. Killing – and avoiding to be killed – is part of a 4X just as well as an FPS – the difference is that in an FPS you need reflexes and some skill with the interface, but that’s because it’s RT stuff where things are happening continually.

    “And I’m saying that’s a design flaw and the very reason why the endgames in 4X titles are universally panned as dull and boring. You can’t use bad design to disprove this theory about what good design should be. It’s not the core mechanic’s fault designers are lazy innovators or run out of ideas.”

    If you consider this, you’ll see that unlocking stuff is fun – but’s no purpose in itself. When you play a game it’s not UNLOCKING tools that is fun, but unlocking the RIGHT tools that is fun. You can see that when gauging your reaction to unlocking something that is necessary, but doesn’t gain anything except being necessary for continuing the unlocking.
    Moreover, unlocking upgrades of an existing facility isn’t fun. If you unlock a “Research Lab”, giving you X points of research after building, that is fine. If you research a tech that unlocks a “Research Center”, allowing you to upgrade the Lab to 2X RPs, well, you are already repeating something. By unlocking the 5th upgrade you’ll be bored.

    So, in essence, the design flaw isn’t that the unlocking of tools at sometime stops – the design flaw is that too many “filler tools” – have to be unlocked and the game is stretched too long.

    That’s why I say that unlocking tools isn’t a purpose in itself. If you look at a typical space 4x, lots of weapons there won’t see much use, simply because they appear at a time when you cannot afford to build crafts that use them. There is a plethora of guns, beams, rockets, torpedos, bombs and whatnot, but most are just stepping stones.

    That’s what is the problem: there is too much stuff to unlock that’s meaningless, and not enough that is meaningful.

    And THAT is, because things become repetitive. More towns/planets/systems are not “better”. They are essentially more of the same (to manage) – there is basically something like the optimal amount of “equal things” to manage which depends on the complexity of what you manage. This becomes obvious when you think about games like SimCity: having TWO cities to tend to doesn’t really gain.

    So. THAT is why things bog down in the end. By the time you have reached the point where you outclass everyone – you are tired. Tired from doing the same things over and over again, tired of optimizing production chains, tired of building logistic chains, tired of upgrading the same stuff over and over again.

    In YOUR terms, this would mean, the design flaw is not that the games at some point have no hidden tools to unlock anymore, the flaw is that you have too many meaningless tools and too many tools that are essentially the same. The games become overblown and simply COLLAPSES at some point, when you notice that you have won – but not fulfilled any VC nor having that satisfactory moment of really “winning” with some last battle or action or achievement.

    So I repeat, just unlocking stuff doesn’t make a game. The interesting thing is WHAT to unlock (when). Of identifying the tools you will need for victory and to go for them. The decisions of how to allocate resources and which tools to unlock. Unlocking tools is just a vehicle.

    Like

    • @Christian

      I agree with you as well. As an example, consider a boardgame like Race for the Galaxy (a card based game of colonizing + development).

      In Race, “drawing and playing cards to your tableau” (the play area in front of you) – is closely analogous to “unlocking hidden content for victory.” You expend actions to sift through cards (drawing) and spend resources to play (unlock) ones that compliment your strategy. Played cards provide game lasting benefits, new functionalities, ways of generating and using resources, etc.

      As a “mechanic” the core of the game is hand management and tableau building. 95% of your active time is spent literally drawing and playing cards. However, hand management and card drawing is the not the “core mechanism” of the game per Troy’s idea of the term (which relates to victory). Instead, the specific genre of the game (core mechanism) is engine building (sometimes called efficiency engine).

      Here’s the genre descriptor for Efficiency Engine: Continually upgrade your personal mat/deck/play area to make it progressively easier to generate VPs, or generate VPs every turn. Often involves spending one or several types of “money” resources in myriad ways to gain VPs. Gain resources early, VPs late, and decide when to switch focus.

      Anyway, this is all a round-a-bout way of saying that I view the notion of “unlocking hidden tools/content” to be s very basic mechanic and idea shared by many many different games (just like hand management or card drawing). AS game’s genre and core mechanic needs to operate a higher level – hence many comments here to the effect that it isn’t the “unlocking of content” that’s the important bit, but how you use that content and what the decisions are based around. “How & why”, not “what” is the important question to ask as it relates to achieving victory.

      Pulling from the board game classification (linked below), I’ll reiterate that 4X games are engine building merged with area control (war) genres – wrapped up in risk management. Consider these definitions:

      ++++ ENGINE BUILDING +++
      Continually upgrade your personal mat/deck/play area (empire) to make it progressively easier to generate VPs, or generate VPs every turn. Often involves spending one or several types of “money” resources in myriad ways to gain VPs. Gain resources early, VPs late, and decide when to switch focus.

      ++++ Area Influence (War) +++
      Control individual areas/regions (often by leaving 1 unit or placing a control token), and gain advantages by doing so. There is a resource-management system of raising more armies using resources collected based on area influence.

      ++++ Risk Valuation: +++
      The main form of non-incidental player interaction is taking on more/less risk if you are behind/ahead, and the winner is usually the one who took the most risk without getting burnt. The risk arises from valuing how much other players want something you also want, and pressing your luck on whether they will take it from you.

      The above 3 in combination describe the core dynamics / gameplay of 4X-like games really well IMHO.

      https://boardgamegeek.com/thread/581158/alternative-classification-board-games-long

      Like

    • Christian I addressed every single one of your points in the article above. Begin with the section marked “Core Mechanism vs. Supporting Mechanism” and work your way down. I have nothing else to add, because there’s my argument. You are conflating everything from mechanic to system to reward to ephemera in your post, so there is no possible way for me to unpack that enough. I laid out my case in the article. If you don’t agree, that’s cool.

      The one thing I will address is this: “The interesting thing is WHAT to unlock (when). Of identifying the tools you will need for victory and to go for them. The decisions of how to allocate resources and which tools to unlock. Unlocking tools is just a vehicle.”

      Everything you describe here is on the player. I am not talking about the game from a player’s point of view. I am talking about it from a design point of view. “Decisions” are outside the scope of what I’m presenting. What you’re describing is strategy, and as I stated in the article strategy and the core mechanism are unrelated. You do not design strategy. If you do, you’re designing a solution. Some games that call themselves 4X games do this. That’s bad design, and it’s why Oliver often labels them optimization engines not strategy games. And he’s right about that.

      Like

  14. I find myself nodding to this. :)
    (And I have and play Race for the Galaxy (I LOVE card games)).

    Being constructive, I think the main problem with 4x-likes is this: The engine-building part is something you play more or less solitair (a lot of boardgames that do this have not much player interaction). Area and Risk Valuation suffer from everyone being peers.
    Imo, what these games need is a part AI Wars/Sorcerer King – you don’t need PEERS.

    The CURRENT solution is that “factions” are developed into being more individual and having their own style of play. But thats marginal. Because whatever you play, the general situation is the same.

    Ideally, you’d have – say – six quite different factions and – say – six different power positions (SiS has one exceptional starter), and you could combine thiose.
    I also think, that there should be a dynamic that slows down development, once happiness reaches a certain level: if you ARE in a position of power there will be some slack.

    THAT is the problem, imo, with 4X games.

    Like

    • It’s interesting thinking about 4X boardgames. The overall arc and pacing of 4X boardgames feels so much more satisfying. Most games are in the 3-5 hour playtime (some less, some more) but the constrained playtime means that players really can’t “do everything” and end triggers are designed to happen well before you hit the equivalent of the “boring phase” in most 4X video games.

      4X fans often site the enormous scope of the games being something that draws them to the games in the first place. But ironically that enormous scope poses most of the problems for gameplay (too much tedium late game, too long to finish, steamroller / runaway leader problems) etc.

      Like

  15. @ Troy
    What I don’t understand is why you are trying to reduce things to ONE core mechanic (and “reduce” others to supporting roles). By their nature, 4X games are games dealing with conflicts. Without conflict, “unlocking hidden tools” is indeed a game of optimization. Conflict doesn’t necessarily mean battles, it may just mean being too well armed to be a pushover and therefore too hard a target for the opponent’s evaluation processes.
    Or, to phrase it different, while unlocking the tools for victory you need to find a way to avoid defeat, and that – in my opinion – is not something you do via your core mechanism

    @ Oliver
    I agree, and I think the reason is that most of those games are “Civilization in Space”.

    Like

    • “What I don’t understand is why you are trying to reduce things to ONE core mechanic (and “reduce” others to supporting roles). ”

      Check out the video in the link below. It does a good job of summarizing the work of other video game design theorists upon which I’m basing my assertions:

      PS: let me know if the link doesn’t work for you.

      Like

      • Couple of things… this video infers that having a single core mechanic is good. While I intuitively want to agree with that, it does not mean that games with multiple core mechanics aren’t good or can’t be elegantly designed. Nor does in mean that games with a clear core mechanic will be good either.

        Also, its quite possible that most (if not all) 4X’s aren’t designed with a core mechanic in mind and therefore a search for a core mechanic may be ill-conceived. But it is still a fun idea to play around with and may help developers focus attention.

        Like

      • Oh, I absolutely think that most if not all 4X were NOT designed with a core mechanic in mind. The developers had a sense of it, but no one really articulated it to them. And I agree with you, hopefully, these articles will have an effect on that. :)

        Like

  16. Ok, assuming I ago with that line of arguing – what is the GOAL?
    In the video, the example core mechanism is ATTACKING and the goal is TO KNOCK OPPONENT BACK. Everything else is SUPPORTING those 2.

    If the core mechanism is “unlocking hidden tools” – then what is the goal of doing that?

    Like

    • One thing I’ve long felt is that 4X games today are, in their purest sense, really a hybrid genre already. They are a hybrid of area control multiplayer wargames (coming out of their boardgame roots) and civilization style empire builders (coming out of civilization series).

      I think something interesting happened between MoO1 and MoO2. MoO leans more towards wargame but MoO2 shows a much greater emphasis on the empire building, as you have to micromanage worker assignments, there are more complex planet development/building chains, etc. 4X games with the “typical victory conditions” tend to emphasize development and empire building more as a means to an end for these victory conditions. I.e., double down on research to get through the tech tree and to the game winning techs for the tech victory.

      Following, I think the proposed core mechanism of unlocking tools (i.e. Means) for victory relates most directly to the empire building (internally focused) side of the game. This may explain why Troy regards Thea as a great example of unlocking hidden content. Thea has ditched the competitive wargame side of the 4X equation entirely (there are no peer/rival Empires at all) and focuses entirely on unlocking via a crafting, exploration, and research system as a way to reach the end of the game. As another commenter said – one reason 4X games fail is that the fundamental empire building mechanics often are pretty dull optimization exercises despite that being the core activity in the game. Thea made this challenging and interesting by weaving in a survival against the environment aspect.

      To Christian’s point about “what is the goal” I would say simply that most 4X games are a race to be the first to hit one of the victory thresholds first. You do all the tool unlocking, deciding which victory lane to push down (tech, Econ, etc) as the primary decision making as you work towards one these win conditions.

      The problem I have with a lot of 4X games is that it seems more and more effort gets placed on internal development / empire building mechanics and the other half of the 4X equation – warfare and interactive systems – gets less emphasis. Interactive systems are what you need to counterbalance and add uncertainty to the optimization. If there aren’t effective ways to hinder the leader, 4X games succumb (as they often do) to snowball issues where victory becomes inevitable after a certain point.

      Stepping back further, pushing unlocking hidden tools to victory as a core mechanism may be, if 4X games are truly hybrids, only be advocating for one side of the equation – and personally that is the less interesting side. I’m all for encouraging more design innovation there (like Thea perhaps) but I think the interactive elements are even more lacking in most 4X games today.

      Look at the critiques about Stellaris. So much focus in on all the empire building and the interactive elements are pretty much limited to warfare – which most agree is pretty lackluster (doomstacks, optimal fleets, warscore mechanic, etc). And where are the non-combative interactive elements? Trade? Espionage? Culture wars?

      At the end of the day, empire building games ask the player to decide at any moment between investing in the engine or investing in securing victory – which in a multiplayer (as in multiple Empires) game can mean trying to gain competitive advantage over your opponent. So often at the end of a bunch of cool unlocking of new tools actions, the player is faced with a pretty dull set of systems for using these tools in an interactive manner. If the gameplay provided richer strategic warfare (for example) that could help fill in the end game and provide more challenge too. Or if politics and diplomacy wasn’t just lip service but was deep instead, intertwined with culture ways and espionage, it could be a great way to handle the end game. But all too often those systems are really shallow and uninspired.

      Like

    • Christian wrote, “Ok, assuming I ago with that line of arguing – what is the GOAL?”

      The goal is, “to trigger one of the victory conditions.”

      So putting it all together, 4X games are all about “unlocking hidden content in order to trigger one of the victory conditions.”

      Like

      • Troy – just checking that what you’re saying is the same as what I was saying above, correct?

        Like

      • I cannot accept that – winning isn’t a goal, not as described in the video, that’s trivial. In every game the goal is to win, that doesn’t need mentioning.. In the video the goal isn’t fulfilling a VC, but to push opponent bacl. Pushing opponent back isn*t winning. You need to push opponent back OFTEN to win (and must avoid to be pushed back in response).

        So that isn’t the goal, sorry. You need to come up with something better.

        Like

      • It’s not winning. It’s “triggering a victory condition.” There’s a big difference. The video uses Smash Bros. as an example where the goal is knocking someone off the platform. What happens in Smash Bros. when you do that? The goal in Street Fighter is to get an opponent’s life bar to zero. What happens when you do that? In Super Mario Bros., the goal is to get to the end of the board. What happens when you do that?

        The goal in 4X is to get a victory condition to trigger. Triggering a victory condition is what causes you to win in 4X.

        The reason Keith says “winning can’t be the goal” is because that’s a total cop out for designers. Of course winning is the goal. The deeper question is HOW do you win? And even more importantly, WHY would a player want to win that way?

        In 4X, players keep unlocking hidden content until they get a victory condition to trigger. It’s the end state of all their actions and the ultimate expression of the Core Mechanic. In good games, the victory condition rewards you win some final content that offers some sort of catharsis for all the trouble you had to go through: usually a cinematic or narrative of some kind. Amplitude games do this really well. In games with really unsatisfying victory conditions, you just get “YOU WIN” flashed up on the screen which many people feel is super lame. And the reason they feel it’s super lame is because winning wasn’t the goal. The goal was to get the victory condition to trigger.

        Make sense?

        Perhaps you’re struggling with how 4X games have from the very beginning had multiple victory conditions unlike most other video game genres that have just one. Because 4X games can have 8 to 10 to 12 versions of the goal for the player, you can’t say it’s this one discrete thing like “life bar to zero” or “get to the end of the platform.” You have to be a bit more generic when describing it, and that is one of the advantages 4X has over other genres. You aren’t stuck going for the same goal each play-through.

        Like

      • I tend to agree w/ Christian that “triggering a victory condition” is barely removed from the idea of “winning”. Since you would never trigger the victory condition intentionally unless you were going to win they are effectively synonymous.

        Further, many 4X games can be won without unlocking anything. Some victory conditions are already “unlocked”. For example, just eliminate all the opponents. While this may be seen as a trivial win condition it can be done in many games (especially if you play 1 v 1).

        Why isn’t the goal to build a virtuous cycle (via the economy, research, diplomacy, war-engine) to win the game (as in many board games)? This allows you to out pace or crush your opponents to reach one or more end-game triggers.

        Like

      • “I tend to agree w/ Christian that “triggering a victory condition” is barely removed from the idea of “winning”. Since you would never trigger the victory condition intentionally unless you were going to win they are effectively synonymous.”

        Winning is the result of all the goals in the video. The example given is “the opposing player flies off the end of the stage.” What happens when you do that to a character in Super Smash Brothers? You win. The reason you can’t use “winning” as the goal is because that doesn’t mean anything by itself. A designer has to be able to show how you win. Think about achieving a victory condition in a 4X game (like Endless Legend for example) as you watch the goal part of the video. It works perfectly.

        “Further, many 4X games can be won without unlocking anything. Some victory conditions are already “unlocked”. For example, just eliminate all the opponents. While this may be seen as a trivial win condition it can be done in many games (especially if you play 1 v 1).”

        I can’t think of any game I’d consider 4X where you could win without ever building a building, researching a tech/spell/whatever, or upgrading your units. If there is such a game where you can with with whatever you start with, I can’t imagine it was very well balanced or very well designed.

        “Why isn’t the goal to build a virtuous cycle (via the economy, research, diplomacy, war-engine) to win the game (as in many board games)?”

        A virtuous cycle of what? Content that unlocks more content, perhaps? ;-D

        Like

  17. Oliver wrote: “One thing I’ve long felt is that 4X games today are, in their purest sense, really a hybrid genre already. They are a hybrid of area control multiplayer wargames (coming out of their boardgame roots) and civilization style empire builders (coming out of civilization series).”

    Yep. That’s my assessment as well.

    “I think something interesting happened between MoO1 and MoO2. MoO leans more towards wargame but MoO2 shows a much greater emphasis on the empire building,”

    Maybe. I regard Civ1, MoO1, and MoM as the founding fathers of our genre in the modern computer erea (which I date to MSDOS). Civ1 and MoM had a lot more empire management (IMHO) than MoO1 did, so I think empire building was there from the beginning. It was just stressed differently among those three games with MoO1 having the least, MoM being in the middle, and Civ1 having the most IIRC. That might just be a result of the differences between terrestrial and space games, though. Unsure at this point.

    “Following, I think the proposed core mechanism of unlocking tools (i.e. Means) for victory relates most directly to the empire building (internally focused) side of the game. This may explain why Troy regards Thea as a great example of unlocking hidden content. Thea has ditched the competitive wargame side of the 4X equation entirely (there are no peer/rival Empires at all) and focuses entirely on unlocking via a crafting, exploration, and research system as a way to reach the end of the game. ”

    I agree. I think Thea and Endless Legend have done it best, but they both made some pretty serious sacrifices to get there. I don’t think those sacrifices are necessary, though.

    “Interactive systems are what you need to counterbalance and add uncertainty to the optimization. If there aren’t effective ways to hinder the leader, 4X games succumb (as they often do) to snowball issues where victory becomes inevitable after a certain point.”

    Very well said.

    “Stepping back further, pushing unlocking hidden tools to victory as a core mechanism may be, if 4X games are truly hybrids, only be advocating for one side of the equation – and personally that is the less interesting side.”

    Two things. 1) that only happens if the designers engage in bad design. If they do not include interaction with the other empires in the systems of their games, then they’re doing it wrong. That’s the one knock against Endless Legend (IMHO). The systems that lead to victory must require the player to interact with whatever adversaries are present in the game. If they don’t, I believe they’re poorly designed. 2) I’ve often wondered, Oliver, as I’ve read your writings if 4X games weren’t really your thing and there’s some other genre of games that are similar to 4X in some ways that you’d enjoy better. War Games, perhaps? Just wondering. Not intended as an attack or insult in any way, shape, or form.

    “Look at the critiques about Stellaris. So much focus in on all the empire building and the interactive elements are pretty much limited to warfare – which most agree is pretty lackluster (doomstacks, optimal fleets, warscore mechanic, etc). And where are the non-combative interactive elements? Trade? Espionage? Culture wars?”

    YES! YES! Exactly! What’s being unlocked in this systems? Very little. If Paradox put as much effort into developing their diplomacy and/or espionage systems as they did in their exploration and endgame systems, Stellaris would be sooooooooo amazing. (Although, I do have to say I think it’s a pretty darn good game as is)

    “So often at the end of a bunch of cool unlocking of new tools actions, the player is faced with a pretty dull set of systems for using these tools in an interactive manner.”

    Yeah, pretty much. As you approach the endgame, 4X games stop being what they were and turn into some other game entirely and that’s precisely when people get bored with them. I think we’re in agreement here.

    ” If the gameplay provided richer strategic warfare (for example) that could help fill in the end game and provide more challenge too. ”

    I think that would just be enabling more bad design. Not that there can’t be really good strategic warfare in a 4X game, I definitely think there can. AoW3 is a perfect example IMHO. But if the designer relies on that to save the endgame, he/she is not really addressing the problem. That’s just putting a bandaid over it.

    “Or if politics and diplomacy wasn’t just lip service but was deep instead, intertwined with culture ways and espionage, it could be a great way to handle the end game.”

    No we’re talking! Although, I think combat has a big role to play as well. When a players starts losing huge chunks of their empires, new combat options should become available. Call it a “Desperation” system where troops either get more powerful on their home turf or new combat cards or whatever become available. That would help make combat more interesting up to the end. Also, if there was a Conscription system (ES2 sorta has one) that let’s you convert pops to armies in the late game under certain late game conditions, that would be cool too. There’s a lot of design space there.

    Like

  18. @ Troy
    “Make sense?”
    No, sorry. Winning is the reward for good play. The WAY TO VICTORY must be good, otherwise winning is unsatisfactory. You don’t need a special reward after a hard-fought win, because the way to it is reward enough.
    Adding VCs so you have more than one should in theory allow more strategies – not make winning the ultimate goal because it gets so complicated due to a labyrinth of VCs.

    Also. The more I think about it, the more I take offense at the word “hidden”.
    There is nothing “hidden” about the tools in the sense of the word, because if the tools WERE hidden indeed, you could play the lottery. It’s not about randomly hitting the right switch, it’s about making informed decisions about which not-so-hidden tool to unlock. “Unlocking hidden tools” is a completely misleading phrase here, because it actually just says that the game has more layers than the one you start with.
    Now, say you’d play chess, and you could unlock more powerful pieces – wait, you can, can you? If you manage to make it to the opposing baseline with a pawn, you upgrade it for a queen. So even in chess you may unlock hidden tools –
    which is one reason I would say that “upgrading existing tools” (as opposed to unlocking hidden ones) is a support mechanism, not a core mechanism.

    And I would also say that 4X are indeed hybrids which makes it debatable whether there is indeed one core mechanism – I doubt that.

    And I doubt that because I would say this:

    For every significantly different VC you need a different core mechanism, otherwise the VC isn’t in reality different.

    Like

    • Christian, I want you to know that I admire you greatly for sticking with this so long. I’m enjoying myself immensely, and I hope my answers haven’t been off-putting for you. Thank you very much for participating and don’t give up until you’re satisfied (or I get worn out or feel like I’m just repeating myself LOL).

      But we’re totally going off the rails here.

      1. “The WAY TO VICTORY must be good, otherwise winning is unsatisfactory.”

      This has nothing to do with the core mechanic and everything to do with game quality. The way to victory being good or bad, satisfactory or unsatisfactory is almost entirely ruled by the kind of game a developer can create. Design can help, but if the game is not executed well in the code and presentation, it will not produce a good or satisfactory experience for the player. A game could rigidly follow the ideas I’ve prescribed in my article and still turn out a piece of garbage. Likewise, a person could just throw something together without really thinking about it much at all and turn out a game that people just love. Flappy Bird would be a good example.

      2. “You don’t need a special reward after a hard-fought win, because the way to it is reward enough.”

      This is an opinion stated as fact with nothing to back it up. And I’m going to take the blame for that. I should have been more careful in my wording above. What I should have said was, “I believe that in good games, the victory condition rewards you win some final content that offers some sort of catharsis for all the trouble you had to go through” which I then would back up with general examples “usually a cinematic or narrative of some kind” then specific examples “Amplitude games do this really well” and finally anecdotal evidence from conversations we’ve had here on this site: “In games with really unsatisfying victory conditions, you just get “YOU WIN” flashed up on the screen which many people feel is super lame.” I would then offer my further justification by saying, “And the reason they and I feel it’s super lame is because winning wasn’t the goal. The goal was to get the victory condition to trigger.” Sorry about that!

      Your opinion is true for you, but I don’t think it’s true for everyone. I know it’s not true for me. And when one takes the design ethos of 4X as manifested in the core mechanic I’ve identified, I really don’t think it’s true for 4X.

      3. “There is nothing “hidden” about the tools in the sense of the word, because if the tools WERE hidden indeed, you could play the lottery.”

      I don’t understand this analogy. What does the lottery have to do with 4X games? Aside from that, much of the content is hidden in a 4X game when you start. I covered this extensively in my articles, but to summarize: when you start a 4X game, and especially in a 4X I feel is designed well, much of the content is blocked from the player’s access and also from the player’s sight. You normally don’t get to see your faction’s entire building tree, tech tree, units, unit progressions, map, diplomatic options, and so on and so on. Do you disagree that is true for the majority of 4X games?

      4. “It’s not about randomly hitting the right switch, it’s about making informed decisions about which not-so-hidden tool to unlock.”

      I don’t believe I ever asserted it was about randomly hitting the right switch. Can you point to where I have?

      5. “Unlocking hidden tools” is a completely misleading phrase here, because it actually just says that the game has more layers than the one you start with.”

      That might be true. “Hidden” was the word I struggled with the most. I wanted to use “obfuscated” but my editors suggested “hidden” instead. Regardless, all games start in all genres with some content hidden. 4X just makes revealing it the point of play. I’m going to stick with “hidden” for now until something better comes along.

      6. “Now, say you’d play chess…”

      Ugh, chess is such a bad example to use. First, it’s a tabletop game played (in most cases) between two people. There’s a lot more going on there than just interaction with the game’s rules. There’s an entire social dynamic going on, as well as bluffing and other person vs. person strategies just not possible in a single player 4X video game. I really can’t entertain this analogy.

      7. “If you manage to make it to the opposing baseline with a pawn, you upgrade it for a queen. So even in chess you may unlock hidden tools –”

      I don’t see how any of that information is hidden from the players. And it’s just another example of how using a multiplayer tabletop game is such a bad way to examine a single player computer game.

      8. “which is one reason I would say that “upgrading existing tools” (as opposed to unlocking hidden ones) is a support mechanism, not a core mechanism.”

      Um…maybe? I’m not sure I understand everything you mean there. But I will say this, I think upgrading existing tools in a 4X game would be more engaging for the player if those upgrades included abilities and options the player didn’t know existed previously. That’s why I keep coming back to the same core mechanic.

      9. “And I would also say that 4X are indeed hybrids which makes it debatable whether there is indeed one core mechanism – I doubt that.”

      Most video game genres are hybrids of other genres, so if you believe that statement, then I think you must doubt the existence of a “core mechanic” altogether. And if that’s the case, that’s perfectly alright with me. There are plenty in the gaming biz who do doubt its existence. But it does mean that further debate is probably going to be fruitless. I believe the core mechanic does exist for all games and game genres and do not have any inclination to change my mind on that count.

      10. “For every significantly different VC you need a different core mechanism, otherwise the VC isn’t in reality different.”

      Heh. One of the criticisms Endless Legend and Endless Space 2 have gotten concerning their victory conditions is that many of them are just variations of the same thing. So, in one respect you are correct in that many VC’s out there really aren’t all that different. However, some are. And they all come back to A) unlocking content until you win or B) the inevitable end of a bunch of content you’ve unlocked.

      I know that might sound like saying the same thing twice, but it’s not. The difference between “A” and “B” is in design quality. “A” type victories would be building the space ship to go to Alpha Centauri in Civ 1, casting the Spell of Mastery in Master of Magic, finishing your faction quest in Endless Legend, and so on. “B” type is the long stupid grind at the end of most 4X games when you’ve unlocked everything and there’s nothing left to do except slowly kill everybody.

      I think “B” type should be eliminated and turned into more “A” type victories. I think the best way to do that is for designers to pay more careful attention to the core mechanic for 4X and apply in all systems from the beginning of the game until the end of the game. I’ve tried to lay out my case for that as clearly as I can.

      I also dispute you’re assertion that different VC require different core mechanics. They require different “systems” (diplomatic, research, espionage, combat, expansion, etc.) but not a different core mechanic (unlocking hidden content).

      Hope that helps :)

      Like

  19. @ Troy
    “I don’t understand this analogy. What does the lottery have to do with 4X games? Aside from that, much of the content is hidden in a 4X game when you start. I covered this extensively in my articles, but to summarize: when you start a 4X game, and especially in a 4X I feel is designed well, much of the content is blocked from the player’s access and also from the player’s sight. You normally don’t get to see your faction’s entire building tree, tech tree, units, unit progressions, map, diplomatic options, and so on and so on. Do you disagree that is true for the majority of 4X games?”
    Yes, I disagree. I didn’t play GalCiv 3 (I had enough of GalCiv 2), but in GC2 you can of course see the tech tree. You can see it in Civ as well. In fact “bad documentation” is an achievement of the internet – games used to come with 200 page manuals 20 years ago, that would close with stats and tables. Look, for example at the manual of HoMM 3 (1998), and then compare that with the perplexity when people told the devs of HoMM 7 it might be helpful when they’d lay open the percentage probabilities for the Hero Classes to get skills (and especially those that have zero prob), and they were like, “but it’s RANDOM skill picks, what would you need the probs for”, showing they really didn’t understand what they were working on.

    And “fulfilling a VC” is STILL not the kind of goal described in the video. The goal is “Knocking opponent back” – you don’t fulfill a VC when doing that.

    Ok, let’s go back to the unlocking of tools. I have no idea whether you know the game called Street Rod:
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Street_Rod_(video_game)
    In my time I had a lot of fun with it nearly 30 years ago, and actually the whole game is about unlocking tools. You start very small. The “Core mechanism” is basically driving short races (which could be characterized as some kind of specialized combat) – but of course you need to pick targets you can win against. And you must use the cash (and cars) you win to pimp up your ride(s), which in turn will enable you to drive faster and race against more desirable targets, until you can challenge the “King” and fulfill the VC.
    Core mechanism: Short races one on one. Goal; UNLOCKING NEW CONTENT or is it:
    Core mechanism: Unlocking new content; goal: win hitherto unwinnable races.

    You may now say, ah, the stuff to unlock is always there, you just don’t have the money to buy it.

    If that’s your point look at this game:
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grand_Prix_Manager_2

    The thing is, that as a manager of an F1 team in this game you have an R&D department, and you RESEARCH parts. It’s a simulation, sports, and since it’s a manager, economy, but unlocking hidden tools is part of the equation, in this game probably as a supporting tool.
    Since it’s a simulator, you can play for career mode, VC?

    And here we go. The big 4X games have a lot in common with simulation games, but simulation games STRUGGLE with victory conditions – in real life you don’t win exhaustively as an entire civilization or race – it’s a matter of reaching or not reaching goals.

    Let’s look at MoO, the game that coined the 4X genre, and let’s say that “unlocking CONTENT” is what you do, but let’s go and break the game up. You have planets of varying quality, you start with one, and the most striking difference to CIV is that your units are limited in range. The game has 1 resource: population. Your population that has a growth by itself and delivers a PRODUCTION. This can be allocated to:
    Building Ships
    Building Defenses
    Building Production Facilities (thereby increasing production)
    Research (upgrading existing stuff and introducing new stuff)
    Eliminating negative consequences of Production facilities
    Provide Coin; Coin can be used to produce and maintain spies and to support the economy of a planet.

    The core mechanism here isn’t unlocking tools, it’s resource allocation, unlocking tools is just a SUPPORT system. The reason is that unlocking tools is not leading to victory – allocating resources is. You won’t win if all you do is unlocking new tools. Instead, what you permanently do is changing the way you allocate your resources in the game. Keep in mind that you are limited in ship design; only 6 designs can exist at the same time (and you need one for colony ships as long as you are still in the colonizing phase), which means, once you decide to build a certain ship type, you will build them HEAVILY, and when you build ships heavily, you will reduce your resource allocation that goes into unlocking new tools.

    With the core mechanism “resource allocation” you also get a goal: balance resource allocation in a way that bars opponents the opportunity to inhibit you and at the same time allows you to expand (more than them). Shorter: Erect borders to stop your “competitors” and push back your own frontiers, even shorter: expand more than your competitors. And since you cannot expand infinitely – map is limited, and even if it was not, it’s, after all, not a simulation called “empire” that runs eternally – there is just one VC: DOMINATION. Now, this VC can be reached in many ways – there are several ways to dominate.

    Now, recently we have seen an addition: a change of conditions, goal and VC: if starting conditions are unequal, the goal and the VC may change to SURVIVAL. Survival is in fact a negative domination victory: DENY the opponent(s) domination. This can still be 4X, obviously, you just have worse odds.

    Going from here we can see what is wrong. If 4X becomes too much of an “Empire Manager” things become stale fast. If instead destruction looms, things are edgy.

    Provokingly, I’d say, if unlocking content BECOMES the core mechanism, then it gets boring, because it shouldn’t be the unlocking as such that leads to victory, but instead resource allocation. If you unlock, unlock, unlock, then the game must punish you by destruction via conquest.

    Like

    • Responding here in an attempt to thread the needle between Troy and Christian’s posts.

      At the end of the day, I think we’re all agreeing that one of the major elements of a 4X game is this: discovering and deciding which new abilities/tools you leverage as you progress through the game and work towards a victory trigger (i.e. win condition). These tools will help you in various different ways depending on the situation at hand, and the strategy or skill comes from finding effective pathways through unlocking these tools within the context of uncertainty (i.e. what’s out there still, what are potential threats, what are your rivals doing etc.).

      Personally, and I get a similar sense from Christian, I find the specific phrase “unlocking hidden tools for victory” to be a cumbersome way of describing this idea. Maybe we can strengthen it?

      #1 – Troy remarked on his struggle with the word hidden, and I agree. In most 4X games the progression systems (i.e. tech) are not hidden. And even in cases where they are hidden or randomized, the game manual, wikis, or simply playing the game subsequent times reveals all those hidden things. Quite frankly, I think the entire “hidden” notion could just be dropped from the concept entirely. Whether a specific tool is hidden or not is a subordinate design aspect in my mind and doesn’t need to be a core part of the idea.

      #2 – Many of the comments here also reflect that “unlocking” doesn’t get to the heart of the matter, which in my mind is actually more about “choosing” (i.e. making strategic decisions) which tools to pursue. “Unlocking” has a somewhat negative connotation in hardcore gaming circles (i.e. grinding in a game to get currency to “unlock” a new hero) – and moving to something else might be better. I like “leveraging” or “navigating” or “planning” more.

      #3 – The article flips back and forth between referencing “tools” and referencing “content.” The latter shouldn’t be used. I think we’re really wanting to talk about “capabilities”. The idea is that the player is getting access to new abilities or new options that didn’t exist previously, and that the player applies these towards achieving a victory condition.

      #4 – When it comes to “victory” I think this is where I struggle even more. I agree with Troy’s A-type or B-type ending being a design quality issue. One solution is to either (A) adjust the pacing of the game so that you hit victory close to when you’ve unlocked all the new tools or (B) add more tools and ways of using them to keep you engaged for longer until you hit point (B).

      But the bigger issue is that “victory” isn’t very specific. All games have a victory condition – but the nature of victory is what’s important to consider. I think 4X games are partly “race” games – as it really is a contest to see who can cross one of the finish lines first. This dovetails well with the engine building side of the game. Of course, you can also conquer the galaxy, which is less about the race and more about directly fighting and taking land, with victory coming by claiming all the territory.

      It gets confusing because I still maintain that 4X games with a set of conquest AND development-based victory conditions has two distinct ways of going about victory – each with some sub-variations. And this ties right in with 4X games being a hybrid of both wargames (area control) and engine builders (resource management + development). Is there a more specific way we can describe this race-like victory threshold here?

      If the core mechanism is as proposed, and applies mostly to engine building aspect of the game – I’d argue it applies equally well to any sort of city builder (Anno, sim city, Skylines) or survival management game (Thea, Rimworld, Halcon 6, Banished etc). Those games work in much the same way, unlock content and hit a win condition.

      Overall – I think this core mechanism, however the language ultimately gets refined, is still only describing half the game – specifically the less-interactive engine-building race-to-victory finish line side of the game. It doesn’t speak to how these capabilities are used in interactive ways competitively or cooperatively with other empires/forces. But I think this last point is an important part of the core idea of a 4X game.

      Like

    • “Yes, I disagree. I didn’t play GalCiv 3 (I had enough of GalCiv 2), but in GC2 you can of course see the tech tree. You can see it in Civ as well.”

      And in Master of Orion 1, Master of Magic, Warlock, Stellaris, Sorcerer King, Planar Conquest, etc. you can’t. All kinds of games do it differently. In fact, I often wonder if part of the reason the tech tree in Sword of the Stars 1 is so popular is because there’s a semi-random element to it and you can’t know for sure what’s coming up. You’re examples do nothing to disprove my theory. I never said that games “don’t” reveal all their information. I’ve stated that I **think** it might be better if they didn’t. Personally, I think MoM and SotS1 did research best, so that’s they type of thing I’d like to see more of in the future.

      “Ok, let’s go back to the unlocking of tools. I have no idea whether you know the game called Street Rod:
      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Street_Rod_(video_game)
      In my time I had a lot of fun with it nearly 30 years ago, and actually the whole game is about unlocking tools. You start very small. The “Core mechanism” is basically driving short races ”

      I loved that game. Played hours and hours of it. I would suggest (because I’m not an expert in every game or every game type) that the game rewards precision driving. You win races, not just short drags but road races too, with excellent shifting and perfect cornering (on the road races). You’re rewarded with cash or pink slips. Those are the rewards.

      One thing the video didn’t talk about, but I sure did, was the role rewards play in the core mechanism. The core mechanism for upgrading your ride with the cash and slips does not reward you with more cash or more slips. You gotta race to get more, and even then, you won’t get more if you don’t drive well. If they game were all about unlocking new content, you’d never leave the garage. Even then, I’m not sure the core mechanic would be unlocking new content. It would probably be “finding the golden mean for spare parts and vehicles” since that’s what would bring in more cash.

      You’re confusing “system” which is a series of linked mechanics for “core mechanic” which is a type of action the designer intends the player to take for a reward once again. This will also be the last time I respond on that point. If my numerous explanations and examples have not convinced you at this point, I don’t think any more will either.

      “The core mechanism here isn’t unlocking tools, it’s resource allocation, unlocking tools is just a SUPPORT system.”

      You’ve got that exactly backwards.

      “And since you cannot expand infinitely – map is limited, and even if it was not, it’s, after all, not a simulation called “empire” that runs eternally – there is just one VC: DOMINATION. Now, this VC can be reached in many ways – there are several ways to dominate.”

      I disagree. There have been several attempts late in 4X design to create more mutualistic and benign victory goals that don’t require you to dominate your rivals. Even going back to CIV1, you could win by building a spaceship and getting to Alpha Centauri. That’s not very dominant sounding to me. I’m not sure I’d be comfortable cutting off 4X design by saying all victory conditions must require domination. I think their could be and already are cooperative and solitary victory conditions available to designers as well.

      “Going from here we can see what is wrong. If 4X becomes too much of an “Empire Manager” things become stale fast.”

      Opinion stated as fact. You’re describing a play preference, and I’m not even sure it’s necessarily related to 4X games in the first place.

      -Troy

      P.S. Oliver, I’ll try to respond to you soon. I’m super strapped for time right now, and I probably didn’t even have time for this reply honestly :(

      Like

      • TROY: “One thing the video didn’t talk about, but I sure did, was the role rewards play in the core mechanism. The core mechanism for upgrading your ride with the cash and slips does not reward you with more cash or more slips. You gotta race to get more, and even then, you won’t get more if you don’t drive well. If they game were all about unlocking new content, you’d never leave the garage. Even then, I’m not sure the core mechanic would be unlocking new content. It would probably be “finding the golden mean for spare parts and vehicles” since that’s what would bring in more cash.”

        I played Street Rod too. FWIW, you could just do drag races and race in a straight line and press no button other “gas pedal” and win races if you picked the right race – and in this manner slowly unlock all the content in the game and beat the final race (some dude in a black corvette stingray IIRC).

        Replace “race well” with “use unlocked tools strategically against your opponent.” The use of these tools you unlock in a competitive environment is as important to core mechanism as merely unlocking them.

        Like

      • Just a quick side note, I didn’t think the King would race you unless you had a certain number of road races under your belt. And you had to get them in before a timed deadline. Isn’t that right?

        Also, IIRC, if you just pressed the button down in a strait line you would drop your transmission or over-rev your engine and lose the race due to car malfunction. Isn’t that right?

        Like

  20. Street Rod isn’t different to, say, Age of Wonders; races are like battles and using the rewards you get for racing/battling to unlock better stuff to do it. In SAR you need racing skills, in AoW you need battling skills. The thing is – we all played SR, and I don’t think that’s happenstance.

    For explanation, DOMINATION isn’t necessarily territorial domination. If you field bombers in Civ against Knights, then you dominate the game in knowledge – you don’t even need to build the bombers, it’s enough that you can. Most alternative VCs require a domination in a certain area. (Having multiple VCs tends to make the game more difficult for the AI, which is when personalities come into play, translating into specific races or people having traits that will make them pursue specific VCs, having a “knack” for them).
    “Benign victories” are simulation influence. As in, “you are leaving the 4X sector”, That’s not bad in itseld, of course. My wife loves her Civ IV with the Rise of Mankind Mod, because she can turn off Barbs and limit the military aspect. But that’s an empire building game, not a 4X game.
    @ Troy specifically
    “The core mechanism here isn’t unlocking tools, it’s resource allocation, unlocking tools is just a SUPPORT system.”

    “You’ve got that exactly backwards.”

    Now, it’s you claiming something – and you claim it wrong. I’m also quite sure, you’d be able to see that, if you were not lost in that theory-defending trap, science so often lands in. For me MoO has been one of the best 5 games ever made, and I know that game:
    “Yes, I disagree. I didn’t play GalCiv 3 (I had enough of GalCiv 2), but in GC2 you can of course see the tech tree. You can see it in Civ as well.”

    “And in Master of Orion 1, Master of Magic, Warlock, Stellaris, Sorcerer King, Planar Conquest, etc. you can’t.”

    In MoO you CAN. The Technology Development Tables start on page 76 of the manual, where all Techs are listed with their respective level. Your current technology level in a research field, as stated by the manual, is always 80% of your highest researched tech plus the number of techs already researched. However, MoO you are not offered ALL techs. Techs are bundled into groups of 5 levels, but there isn’t a tech for each level in each field (highest level is 50, and there are 186 techs, not 300). When you have researched something, the game is checking the Tech level you have reached, and the new tech(s) you are offered to research depend on that, which may mean, you “jump” into the next-higher group of techs, skipping one or more techs. Master of Magic has an 150+ page manual with tables plus a nearly 50 page “spellbook”.
    4X games are also STRATEGY games, and you cannot develop a strategy, if you don’t know what you are doing.

    SPECIFICALLY. In MoO, the one thing that makes the game so good is, that it’s TIGHT. You NEED certain techs to get out of deadlocks, and it’s pretty straight lines that connect the dots. When you start a map, it doesn’t make sense to put eggs into the research basket immediately (!), (which, by the way, supports my “claim” that the unlocking is a support system in MoO) instead you are better off increasing your initial planet’s production (for most races) for the first scouting turns. Initial expansion may be limited by two factors: 1) Range of your ships; that’s 3, and while you CAN have a range extender AND a colony base, you can’t fit them in a big ship initially, and a huge ship to construct is way beyond your production capacity; 2) colonization limits; expansion may be hampered by one or both of the two – either there is a good planet just out of range, or you might solve that problem by unlocking a new colonization technology, thereby colonizing a planet that in turn extends the range.
    That means, you start funding research for all 6 areas, see what you are offered in each, and prioritize what will solve your immediate problems, without neglecting the rest, because the interest rate system is rewarding multi-field research.
    You research fields by NECESSITY. There will come the point fast when you will NEED Improved Robotic Controls, especially with Rich and Ultra Rich planets colonized because you cannot increase production anymore, Improved Robotic Controls III is Level 8, and should you bypass that, Controls IV is Level 18 and may need you to heavily invest into the Computers field.

    For me, MoO has the best research system, I’ve encountered so far, because it perfectly SUPPORTS the synergy of the game as a whole.

    The real deal is this: if MoO worked so well that it coined the 4X category – shouldn’t we then look at THAT game and go from there, comparing what is different to games that are similar, but don’t work too well? Same with other paragon games of sub-genres: why does Panzer (Whatever) General work so well as it does as a war game (considering it’s a rip-off of a Japanese Sega Genesis game)? (I’d answer, because the CORE mechanic of a solid tactical battle engine is supported by a neat and precisely fitting unlocking mechanism, not the other way round.)

    Like

    • @Christian

      Right on. I’m with you on this.

      Ben wrote an article here about strategy where he basically said that good strategy games are about making interesting choices, and these choices are more interesting when they come with hard-trade offs (I’m paraphrasing). Here’s the link:

      https://explorminate.net/2016/12/16/a-question-or-three-of-strategy/

      What Ben is talking about applies not just to strategy games – but to many, many games.

      Similar to Troy’s articles here, Ben used this as a framework for evaluating 4X games and where they did well or came up short as a consequence of the strategic decisions being interesting or not. The general sense is that cases where players have to make “hard choices” (like picking tech A and forgoing B) are more strategic and leads to a more rewarding experience. Moreover, I think there is a more productive design conversation to be had by looking at things through that perspective. You can ALSO look at things from the “unlocking hidden tools” perspective and generate other insights.

      At the same time, neither of these two lines of critique, while very useful, talk about what actually makes 4X unique as a genre. They describe gameplay dynamics or gameplay loops that are endemic to a broad swath of strategy games and are not nearly specific enough to exclusively describe one specific sub-genre of strategy games.

      The definition 4X has as much to do with theme and the subject of the game as it does with the various core mechanisms that drive the design.

      Here’s more or less my current take on all of this:
      http://steamcommunity.com/groups/explorminate/discussions/0/1484358860957979307/#c2381701715716785060

      Like

      • Reading the Strategy article (again) and the exchange on Steam – I don’t think that this discussion is really leading towards something. It would seem that we’d both resent the single core mechanic and unlocking whatever tools as the fundament for a better definition of what “4X” games may actually are. We both seem to agree that the core of (at least) strategy games is the decision making, and I think that you can add that in Turn-based games the decision making has a different (not necessarily better) quality than in RTS (you must decide QUICKLY – or at least, if possible, hit the pause key when an important decision needs some thinking). And, INDEED, a game gets all the better when each decision FOR something is also a decision AGAINST something else. I would add that there are a lot of games in which you just decide about THE ORDER in which you do something, while in other games, its either A or B, but not both. If it’s about the ORDER of things, then the loss/gain, if any, is usually much more difficult to see.

        Good examples for either/or decisions are, when you have a limited number of “slots” and more candidates to pick from than there are slots. The Cards in Civ VI, army slots in HoMM IV (and to msome extent in AoW 3), leader slots, artifact slots and so on. Order decisions often come with building. Do I build first A and then B or vice versa. Usually, the trick is to pick up the “hints” the game is giving you about what you need.

        4X games involve a “wargame” part (the 4th X), and you need Wargame SKILLS to succeed. You must be able to foresee what may come your way and react accordingly. In MoO you must decide on how to fill your available ship design slots – and WHEN, that is, to win (or not lose) the Wargame aspect you have to not only unlocki stuff, but also put that to good use. That is significantly different from just unlocking better stuff (“Your Farms now produce 2 more Food each”); when in MoO you decide to go for a specific design it’s a MASSIVE decision, one against other designs and one against waiting for even shinier stuff to unlock and cramp even more guns into it. After you did that you will massively reduce other activities and build ships EN MASSE. You will have to look at what is coming your way and you will have to allocate (yet again) your (military) resources.
        About Discovery and Exploration – it’s Scouting/Reconnaissance in other games and the questin would be whether that counts as a proper X. :)

        Like

    • “In MoO you CAN. The Technology Development Tables start on page 76 of the manual, where all Techs are listed with their respective level. Your current technology level in a research field, as stated by the manual, is always 80% of your highest researched tech plus the number of techs already researched. However, MoO you are not offered ALL techs. Techs are bundled into groups of 5 levels, but there isn’t a tech for each level in each field (highest level is 50, and there are 186 techs, not 300). When you have researched something, the game is checking the Tech level you have reached, and the new tech(s) you are offered to research depend on that, which may mean, you “jump” into the next-higher group of techs, skipping one or more techs. Master of Magic has an 150+ page manual with tables plus a nearly 50 page “spellbook”.”

      Christian, the technology research in MoO1 and spell research in MoM were random. You weren’t guaranteed to get all the techs or spells every time. What techs in MoO1 you’ll be able to research each game could not be known until they were revealed on screen. In MoM, you had to have 11 spell books in a school to get them all and that either meant giving up spell diversity at the beginning or finding lots of books in the end game. Most play throughs, though, meant what spells you would be able to research would be randomly selected and you probably wouldn’t get them all. And no matter what, there was no way to guess what order you would get them. You could look in the manual if you wanted (not a game mechanic or system btw), but that wouldn’t help you know what was coming up in your research. I’ll post a couple of links to some MoO1 and MoM wikis so you can read up about what research was like in those games:

      http://sirian.warpcore.org/moo1/tutorial/tut-7.html

      https://strategywiki.org/wiki/Master_of_Orion/Technology_tree

      http://masterofmagic.wikia.com/wiki/Spell_Rarity

      Like

  21. Troy, removing some semi-randomly picked techs at game start doesn’t make research in MoO random nor the unlocking hidden. It would be random and hidden, if you’d have a black box where you’d put research into, and then the box would spew a tech out after some time. However, that would also make it irrelevant for strategic planning purposes.
    As it is, however, in MoO you will always need to push for certain technologies. For example, depending on the opponents, you will need to acquite the Black Hole Generator, because otherwise you won’t be able to beat the masses of ships that may come to visit. If you don’t get it, that is, if it was skipped in your tree, you’ll have to trade for it – or try and steal tech.
    The same thing is true for other techs, but most other techs come in more than one version, so if one is skipped, you may still get a later one, and in some cases will put some effort into going for them. The tech tree is randomized for each game in a very controlled way, but that’s it.

    Like

  22. “Troy, removing some semi-randomly picked techs at game start doesn’t make research in MoO random nor the unlocking hidden. ”

    It might not be enough for you, but it is for me! :D

    I think SotS1 did it better, but still, MoO1 and MoM satisfy my expectations for implementing the core mechanic on an additional level in research.

    Like

Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s