In several previous articles and podcasts (such as Theme, Future Development part 1, and MoO-itis) I have advocated for 4X developers to branch out into genres other than Space and Fantasy. I feel I made my case fairly well in those entries, but what I didn’t do was give much guidance on what those other genres, or sub-genres really, have to offer and why they are so engaging. I hope to correct that today.
Understanding a sub-genre is important to nailing the atmosphere (some call it immersion) that players enjoy so much. For instance, part of the reason so many people have enjoyed the Civilization games is that you get to feel an alternate history evolve from the stone age through the digital age. That evolution evokes a sense of wonder and appreciation for how far humanity has come over the years. It’s easy to relate to because so many of us have watched part of this history unfold in our own lifetimes, or at the very least learned about it in school. Another compelling aspect to this gene is that we love to armchair quarterback, and we know how to do it better! But what about the other genres? What sorts of feelings do they evoke?
Acknowledging up front that I’m not expert, I’m going to do my best to explain what I see as the major themes from a number of sub-genres I enjoy that I also think would make great settings for 4X games. I’ll be painting with broad brushstrokes here, so I’ll ask the reader to examine this article with an open mind. When debating these types of genres it’s easy to get bogged down in the minutiae of semantics, and a lot of these genres are interrelated. For the purposes of this article alone, I’m pulling them out to examine each one with regards to 4X settings. I’m not making any kind of critique about the genres when it comes to other forms of artistic expression.
In order to perhaps facilitate experimenation in new setting, I’m going write a series of articles, one devoted to each sub-genre. Within each article, I’ll suggest some (of the many) themes that genre often explores. Then, I’ll offer some general suggestions on how those themes could be turned into game mechanics.
I’m also going to provide examples from pop culture and 4X gaming, if possible. When designers start creating worlds for their games, it helps to have some other source materials to measure against. Again, I’m not offering up this article as a critique of the arts. I’m just trying to give an impression of a genre, not analyze it like someone in a literary graduate course might. Additionally, some examples may be able to fit in more than one category, so don’t misunderstand what I’m doing and think “such and such” TV show can only be considered one thing or another. That’s not my intention..
So post-apocalyptic settings are what the world is like after or during some massive catastrophe. There are a lot of interesting potential disasters that can make for engaging settings. Perhaps there’s some angry god who is judging the world. Perhaps an asteroid hit and wiped out much of the life on the planet, throwing it into a new ice age. Right now, a big (and somewhat tired) one is the zombie apocalypse. It’s often the result of a disease or science experiment gone wrong that infects a population and changes it into something primal.
These kinds of settings are really good at pitting mankind against Nature. Food is usually scarce. Commerce, if it exists, is often controlled by strongmen. Human life is both sacred and cheap since much of the population is operating with a tribalistic kill-or-be-killed mentality.
I think some of the most compelling themes examined in post-apoc settings are familial obligations, community, psychology, perseverance, overwhelming odds, desperation, and dystopian societies. I think these could form the basis of some fantastic game mechanics.
Adding new members and expelling deviant members is a key source of conflict in this genre. So, gaining and losing population should both be problems the player has to deal with. For instance, suppression of unrest and crime should come with a cost. Say you could set your “police” or whatever to Hands Off, Soft Enforcement, and Hard Enforcement. Hands off means no suppression. Soft would be suppression that results in decreased population growth (gotta break a few eggs to make an omelette). And Hard would result in population loss until order is restored.
Continuing, whenever a player conquered an enemy town or city, you would have to redistribute that population among your own population centers. This would cause political unrest and raise crime but also give you access to more labor for farms, factories, and military units. The additional population could unlock new units, technologies, or diplomacy options since you’re suddenly increasing your population’s knowledge base. Extermination and expansion would therefore pose interesting strategic problems for players. You want the new stuff and additional labor, but you risk anarchy and sabotage.
Effects on the mind could be taken in a lot of different directions. There’s the more mundane route developers could go where players would influence populations and fight against despair, and there’s the more mystical route involving psychic powers.
For a more mundane of psychological mechanics, a game could have a propaganda and influence mechanic similar to Civilization 5/6 or Endless Space 2. Such systems are not unlike the propaganda efforts or advertising techniques employed by governments or multinational agencies in the real world. One could even take it a step further and include brainwashing mechanics that enforce strict adherence to the government’s will but with a decrease in productivity and a risk of catastrophic backlash should the public breakfree of or discover the practice.
Psychic powers introduce a bit more risk into a design but also provide a great deal of room for creativity. The risk comes from destroying the atmosphere of the game where the mental, emotional, and physical struggles are obviated by near-magical psi abilities. The lure of post-apocalyptic settings is the gritty, visceral decisions the characters have to make in order to survive. Magic powers can undercut that. However, they can also enhance those kinds of decisions if there is a cost to using them. Using psi abilities could reduce an individual’s or community’s health, require a rare resource to focus the psychic waves, or attract threats (such as monsters, zombies, etc.) that respond to and are hostile to psychic activity. The point is, nothing should come easy in a post-apocalyptic setting, even superpowers that could turn the tide of battle or provide healing to a diseased community. The mechanics should reflect that.
The will to survive is one of the compelling aspects of post-apocalyptic settings. We know it’s impossible, but we hope the characters can do it anyway. We kid ourselves into believing it’s only nearly impossible to survive, and creators reward that hopefulness by enhancing the characters or people who are able to exist in these settings. Therefore, lethality must be high, but the rewards for surviving must be high as well.
By now, most 4X gamers are familiar with the RPG elements that have introduced to the genre starting with the esteemed Master of Magic in 1994. We expect characters and/or units that engage in their activities to improve over time. In a post-apocalyptic 4X, units and characters should have to face enemies much stronger than them at the outset, but the ones that do survive contact with the enemy should get significantly stronger as a result.
That doesn’t mean developers should create a situation where the players are able to accumulate enough high level units and/or heroes to immunize their empires against threats. A highly explosive shell should still be able to take out tank commander, regardless of how many battles he’s won. A high level telepath that’s infiltrated numerous cities and stolen secret after secret should still be susceptible to disease and poison. People will respond to powerful characters and units, but they’ll respond even more to them if those characters and units still have vulnerabilities. In other words, the perseverance mechanics should not eliminate the need for good strategy and careful stewardship of one’s assets.
This thematic element ties into something I’ve seen 4X designers attempt to implement several times over the years: The 5th X. For some, that fifth X is “eXist.” A post-apocalyptic setting is by far the best place for that kind of experimentation. An eXist mechanics can come in the form of rewards for maintaining a positive flow in the resources and currencies of the game. Go 10 turns without any population deaths? The player gets a “Celebrate Our Leader Day” event that boosts productivity and income. Win five battles in a row? Perhaps one of the units gets promoted to Legendary status. Have a single unit live 100 turns? It could turn into a hero character. Whatever. Just something that incentivizes and pressures the player to keep things alive. That’s how good mechanics create the sensation of living in a post-apocalyptic setting.
It goes without saying that winning is the object of play in a 4X game. A win is generally more satisfying if the winner feels he/she earned it through hard work, creative thinking, and a modicum of good fortune. Victory in a post-apocalyptic game must not come easily at any difficulty level.
A game in this space may not even have an “easy” setting – which is a marketing point the developer/publisher could use to its advantage. This will only work, however, if the player’s opponents are up to the task. Pandora: First Contact is a game with a fantastic AI. It took many years (and an outside modder) to get the AI to that level, but it is possible. A strong AI is, IMHO, critical to a post-apoc game’s success. If a studio doesn’t feel it can produce that, perhaps it should look at another genre.
Difficulty doesn’t have to come just from the AI, though. 4X games have had random events from the very beginning, and a crafty developer could use them to increase the hardships the player faces. Doing so would require a delicate touch since players are pretty good at sniffing out a game that is unfairly punishing them. That means there must be helpful random events as well. They can’t all just be catastrophes; you have to play on the player’s hope that it’s possible things could get better.
Random events could also have triggers. If a player gets X amount of food in his/her stores, then a famine happens to knock that back down. X would have to be modified by a +/- random number that is large enough to prevent players from predicting when the famine, disease, blight, earthquake, or whatever was going to hit.
Developers could also use an outside existential threat in the game. Think of the Antarans from Master of Orion 2 (and its many clones and knock-offs). Perhaps there is a roaming zombie horde, killer robots, nanobots, plague, looters (barbarians), hostile psychic manifestations (if appropriate), etc. in the game that sets the player back or wipes him/her out completely. As long as the post-apocalyptic nature of the setting is well communicated to the player, an existential threat will not be seen as an arbitrary or unfair result of gameplay. It’s just another part of the thematic atmosphere.
There are two aspects of post-apoc settings I really enjoy: destitution and resistance. Scarcity should be a constant problem in this sub-genre. There should never be enough currencies/resources to build everything. A world devastated by some disaster cannot provide its people with a comfortable life. The player needs to feel that. Choices must be driven by expediency. The game has to put pressure the player from outside forces so he/she has to build new structures, units, whatever. The player should not be able to rest and just accumulate more more gold, metal, food, or anything else. Most 4X games, once you get past the early stages, will allow you to spend time improving your empire. A game in the kind of setting I’m describing should not allow the player to rest.
Resistance, for me, is courage in the face of danger or death. In 2016 I wrote an article on 4X design. In it, I described a Desperation mechanic that gives the player (or AI) bonuses as he/she begins to lose. Think of the desperation a soldier or athlete feels when victory is slipping away. Adrenaline starts pumping, focus is narrowed, and performance improves. A post-apocalyptic game is an ideal setting for such a mechanic. As a player loses units and/or cities, the remaining units are strengthened for a limited to time show the resolve and defiance of the survivors. That boost must have a time limit, though, as an adrenaline rush from desperation eventually evolves into despair once the immediacy of the incident fades.
Government, to the extent it exists in a post-apocalyptic setting, is very often autocratic and powerful but at the same time fragile. The player should be made to feel that his/her control of internal politics is tenuous. A good post-apoc game will provide an avenue for a disgruntled population to overthrow the established power structure. This, of course, would be calamitous, but it does provide some design opportunities.
First, it can be an easy way to add a loss condition to a game. Having to manage both internal and external threats makes a strategy game more dynamic and challenging to play, and in the end, that’s what players tend to enjoy most.
Second, revolutions can provide a new challenge for the player to tackle rather than just ending the game. Endless Space 2 has an excellent revolution system where an old government can be replaced by a new one over the course of several turns. The new government comes with a whole new set of laws and abilities for the player to adapt to. A post-apocalyptic game with a similar mechanic would help keep the player engaged, especially in the mid to late game where interest tends to wane.
Examples in Pop Culture & Gaming:
Post-apocalyptic settings have become very popular in the last 60 years or so and particularly in the last 20. Among the literary canon, you can find post-apoc books like The Lord of the Flies, 1984, Brave New World, and A Clockwork Orange. In more contemporary times, books like The Hunger Games, Divergent, and The Road have had a major impact on pop culture.
I’m not sure any of those would make for very good 4X games, so where could designers look for inspiration? Games, movies, and TV shows would be an excellent source. Some of the post-apoc franchises I’ve enjoyed include: Syfy’s Defiance, The Walking Dead, Mad Max, Planet of the Apes, Warhammer 40k, and Fallout. There are plenty of other good examples out there.
Are all of those suited for 4X? Some more than others, but each provides an insight into one of the facets of designer I mentioned above. There have been a couple 4X entries into this genre over the last few years. First is Last Days of Old Earth, which is set on Earth after a nuclear winter has set in. Humans and robots are fighting their way to the equator where it’s still warm enough to survive. Second is Thea: The Awakening. Thea mixes in a healthy dose of Gothic Horror as well, so it’s not a pure post-apocalyptic game. Still, it has many of the same motifs: players start with a single village, resources are scarce, death is frequent, and any addition to the community is cause for celebration. A developer with the intent of producing an original game in the post-apocalyptic genre would to well by becoming familiar with these franchises.
In the end, I believe that this type of setting is ripe for a good game and would be well received by the fanbase. 4X has been dominated by space and fantasy for a long time, and the Civ games are so prevalent that the historical sub-genre is well-covered too. It’s time for fans to get something new, something no one else is really working on. Developers would have the post-apocalyptic subgenre almost entirely to themselves and that’s an enticing situation to be in according to my way of thinking. Since so few 4X games have been launched in the genre over the years, any game that does launch with this sort of setting will really stand out. I’m also interested in what you, dear reader, would want to see from a post-apocalyptic 4X. Post your ideas in the comments! Let’s get some discussion going.