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Old World takes a more human look at grand, historical strategy

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Soren Johnson’s new 4X game brings fresh ideas to Civilization-like gaming

I spent my Easter weekend in the glorious company of Old World, a turn-based strategy game for PC by Mohawk Games, best known for the widely admired Offworld Trading Company.

Old World (previously known as 10 Crowns) is due to be released in early access via the Epic Games Store some time this summer (you can pre-order today). The build I’ve been playing is certainly not the finished article, but it’s engrossing and fun, and I love its attempt to bring more story elements to grand strategy.

As you can see from today’s trailer, Old World is a Civilization-like game of map-exploration, resource gathering, city building, and conquest; a format that’s sometimes referred to as a 4X game. But it differs from Civ games in its attempts to create a narrative, role-playing environment in which the player is tasked with making moral, personal, and political decisions.

You may recall that Mohawk was founded by Civilization 4 lead designer Soren Johnson. His wife Leyla Johnson is Mohawk’s president and is working on many of the game’s narrative and design elements.

In a sense, Old World has taken the basic Civilization format of geo-political management, and added some of the personal leadership mechanics from series like Crusader Kings and Total War, as well as other ideas that feel new and experimental.

You play as a dynasty

Philip of Greece, an early leader on Old World
Image: Mohawk Games

Instead of playing as a single world leader, who somehow rules for thousands of years, I play as a dynasty. I rule a nation (Greece, Rome, Assyria, Carthage, etc.) during the ancient period of history, which runs up to about 500 A.D. I play on random maps, or on maps that represent geographic realities of the Mediterranean and Near East in ancient times.

Each turn represents a single year. Rulers tend to sit on their thrones for around 30 or 40 years before expiration.

During that time I do all the usual 4X stuff, like founding cities, dealing with angry barbarians, invading neighbors, and upgrading yield-producing buildings. But I’m also obliged to take care of my succession. This means choosing the most advantageous marriage proposals, seeing to the education of my offspring and protecting them from rivals, and from their own youthful idiosyncrasies.

These problems come in the form of narrative “events” that give me a variety of choices, such as those seen in last year’s fantastic Total War: Three Kingdoms. Shall I marry into a powerful family of my nation’s nobles, and keep them happy? Or do I build an alliance, through marriage, with a powerful neighbor? Should I punish my child for failing to learn their lessons, or should I replace their tutor? Will I assassinate my half-brother for plotting against my children, or maybe send him off on some conveniently distant ambassadorial mission?

One of the problems with this kind of design, is that the events can become repetitive and predictable. Leyla Johnson, who is heading up much of the writing effort, says the current build has around 1,000 events, but that will be increased to 3,000 by the time of the summer launch, with more to follow.

Events are also contextual. If I am in mourning for the loss of a spouse, events will reflect my emotional position, as well as political opportunities. They amount to a series of stories about individual reigns. They also allow me to either imbue historical leaders with my moral outlook, or to take on the ruthless ideas of ancient leaders.

People Matter

Hatshepsut of Egypt, in Old World
Image: Mohawk Games

As the game’s leading characters come and go, I learn the value of understanding personalities. As in real history, some of the people I deal with are untrustworthy, while others are noble and stable. It makes the game feel like a people simulation, and not just a historical strategy game. So far, I’ve found the diplomatic and trade systems to be much more interesting than Civ 6’s limited mechanics, which are based on a small palette of motivations.

Playing as a series of different rulers who each have their own strengths and weaknesses means I can shift strategies accordingly. A ruler who excels in the field of battle may be succeeded by one who is great at building cultural marvels. Both are helping me win the game, in their own ways, because victory consists of a mixture of achievements ranging from the size of my empire, to my skills as a diplomat, to spending time on building wonders.

Rival rulers also come and go, offering opportunities to reset damaged relationships. This also means that friendly international relationships can change, swiftly, when an accommodating leader dies, only to be replaced by a cruel one.

I must also keep competing noble families happy, so that they will accept me as their leader. If I fail to accommodate their ambitions, or if I ignore their transgressions, my reputation will suffer, leading to the end of my dynasty. As many historical kings and queens have learned, noble families can be as much a threat as a foreign rival.

Turns are a flexible currency

A narrative event in Old World
Image: Mohawk Games

The norm in turn-based strategy games is that each unit has a certain number of moves. I can max them out before moving onto the next unit. Old World gives me a fixed number of action points (called “orders”) each turn, a little like XCOM games.

I can spend these how I wish. Units do have an upper limit, but it’s much greater than in most strategy games. I distribute my orders as I see fit.

I can spend all my orders on a single unit, such as my scout, who ranges across the land and harvests resources. Or I can focus on my builders, who clear land tiles and create farms, quarries and mines, all of which are needed to generate resources.

Or, I can focus my orders on a battle situation, in which the actions of every military unit is more urgent than the domestic concerns of resource gathering.

This gives turn-taking an extra strategic element. As my power and experience grows, so too do the number of orders at my disposal.

I asked Soren Johnson why he’d decided to take this route. Surprisingly, he says he got the idea from social games that were once popular on Facebook, in which players had a certain number of actions to play before they could come back the next day.

“That was a monetization idea,” he told me, on a Zoom call. “It was a way for them to get players to pay for more actions. But I wondered what would happen if I took that system and just stuck it into a 4X format. Actions become a resource. To me, it’s really revealed that in a lot of strategy games, you make a lot of decisions because you have to, and not because you want to.”

It feels like history

Italy in Old World
Image: Mohawk Games

Since the earliest days of Sid Meier’s Civilization, designers have tried to compact human history into a set of gameplay mechanics. This is a monumental task that has sometimes yielded great results, while at other times these games can feel reductionist. For example, I love Civilization games, but there’s no doubt that they rely far too heavily on military conquest as an indicator of success.

Old World also relies on the usual manufacture and maintenance of cavalry, infantry, and archery, and all that. But its attempts to fold in narrative, role-playing elements, make it feel like a more rounded leadership simulation. It’s finding new varieties on a theme, much like Sega’s forthcoming Humankind, and Paradox Interactive’s Crusader Kings 3, both of which are also due out in 2020.

It’s also unafraid to take on difficult subjects from history, like slavery and child labor. Both these abominations were common in the ancient societies portrayed in Old World.

“This is a game about things that happened back then,” said Soren Johnson. “Rome was very much a slave empire. It seems like it would not be completely right to ignore that. But it’s a risky strategy. You can find a [slave revolt] Spartacus-type character showing up. And your citizens are going to have different feelings about slavery.”

I haven’t yet played with a slave society, or chosen child labor as a good idea, but it’s clear from the in-game options I’ve seen that taking the evil route offers the sort of short-term economic benefits that allowed slavery to flourish in places like ancient Rome, with societal penalties that compound over time. I’ll report back on this issue at a later date.

Both Johnsons are history buffs and see their mission as trying to allow people to experience the world of ancient leaders, which involved making decisions based as much on personal whim and ego, as logic and reason. “History is full of so many amazing stories,” said Leyla Johnson. “Writing this game doesn’t require me to have an imagination. History is full of crazy political decisions that were made based on things that bothered the ruler, personally.”

You can find out more about Old World at Mohawk’s website. We’ll cover the game in more detail in the weeks ahead.