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Writing to Reach You: Two Months With Travian

Those Romans are crazy.

As I previously mentioned, I’ve been playing web-based strategy MMO/wargame/thing Travian. What’s surprised me was I played it so long. It even astounded Comrade Rossignol, who couldn’t quite believe that his perpetual gaming-mayfly housemate was still having a quick prod at that web browser game when he wandered into the room. In fact, since I was playing on the x3 speed server, my condensed experience would have equalled six months in the standard, even more sedate game.

But as I said in the original post, I always knew why why I would eventually stop playing and that moment hit on Friday night. I haven’t been on since. No regrets, of course. I had my fun, but unlike when I’ve been drinking, I also know when I’ve had enough and it’s time to leave.

So here’s what it was like living in a world of Goths, Romans and Teutons for a rainy English autumn.

Travian‘s a web-based MMO where you govern a small chain of villages in abstract-Roman times. On my server there’s over 20,000 players, of which a couple of thousand are currently online. However, rather than requiring perpetual attention, you’re only able to do limited orders at any time. You can give them, wander off and do something else (i.e. Work), and then return to give another one. For example, you tell your village to increase the level of their warehouse from 7 to 8. That’ll take half an hour or so, and it’ll be all your villagers can do for the period – so even if you have the resources, you couldn’t upgrade the Barracks too. As the levels climb, it becomes more expensive – both in terms of resources and actual time – to add another level. When you approach the level 20 on some, you’re looking at five or six hours – and that, remember, is on a x3 speed server. You reach a point where you’ll probably be better off expanding, and build a second village. Or a third. Or a twentieth.

Now, there’s 20,000 people all trying to do that in the same area. There’s an ingame communication system, including forum-alliances and similar. Politics is the name of the game, as while there’s room for intelligence to make a difference in combat, in the end, if someone has enough troops (and the resources required to build them) they can crush anyone. So friends are important, or at least fellow wolves. I ended up heading – I wasn’t in control, but I was the largest party, so ended up doing a load of diplomatic stuff – a small alliance, which lead to some amusing times trying to stop wars and persistent raids against smaller parties. That armies take as much time to cross the map as buildings do to construct (you could be looking at over a day for a larger force to return), co-ordination is key.

Now, raids are a core of the game. You don’t mainly fight for terrain. The abilities to actually capture settlements only appear well up the tech-tree, and you can’t ever take of an opponent’s capital anyway. What’s important is raiding – armies attacking settlements and as much of their stuff as they can carry. Now, there isn’t much a smaller settlement can do against a larger one. They won’t be able to build an army big enough to make a difference quick enough against a persistent raider (Smarter players will send their troops on long marches to distant places to keep them away from anywhere they may be attacked). Allies can send troops to reinforce, but in a smaller alliance, the amount of forces anyone could send wouldn’t be enough to stop them (Having enough troops to make the losses be less than what they’d gain is about the best you can hope for. And – y’know – some people don’t do the maths on losses very well). A player can also throw money into building crannies, where a certain amount of your junk is impossible to take. Also, just spending stuff constantly so there’s nothing they can steal too (The ability to destroy buildings comes with Catapults, but it’s pointless to do so except in a war situation). If that all fails, it leaves diplomacy – either talking someone into they’d be better off attacking someone else, or talking someone else bigger to threaten them or what. The member of my alliance who tried to dissuade people from attacking him by messaging them that they were cunts was, perhaps, taking a somewhat unprofitable route.

(This process, taking from other MMOs, isn’t known as “Raiding”, by the way. It’s known as “Farming”. This will become important later in this post)

Diplomacy, as always, is fun. It was the mixture of the slow growth of the Empire – knowing what I wanted to build and why – tempered by thinking what other people were thinking which kept it going. That it could be played with such a relatively low level of attention, of course, helped too. I waste time on the net between writing paragraphs when being a writer. Recently, I just did it with Travian instead.

Those Romans are crazy.

And it had its moments which I’ll specifically remember. Here’s my three favourite, in no particular order.

1) Sending my first proper attack at a distant foe. Someone was persistently attacking a member of my alliance, and simply wouldn’t stop. He was actually smaller than me, so I just went to war and wanted to apply a slap that actually stung. This meant sending catapults, with orders to mess up their infrastructure a little, knocking down things people have built, requiring them to reconstruct them. Problem is, you don’t want to send all your army in one big lump, because any defenders they have will have a chance to lay into your expensive siege weaponry. So what you do is send them in two attack waves. A large first one, which clears out the defenders and one moments later which is just the engines and their bodyguards. Problem is, armies move at the speed of their slowest member, so one with Catapults in moves much slower than a Cavalry strike force. Setting my catapults off at 4pm, I realise that to time the strike properly, I’ll need to send my other army at 11:14 that night. Setting my alarm, and trying to explain to my girlfriend why it was incredibly important that I turn on her computer RIGHT NOW, as she rolled her eyes, was just a cute moment of gaming integrating with life. And probably a reason why, eventually, I’ll be Mr Dumped.

2) Diplomacy in a similar situation. Persistent raider on an alliance member. I send off troops, just as a quick raid. He sends me an outraged mail, threatening me. I casually explain why I’m doing so – that he keeps on attacking a member, and if he’ll give it a rest, I’ll stop and pay back some repairations for whatever I took (I try and keep people sweet in such ways). He doesn’t quite seem to understand, and in broken English he explains that he has to keep on attacking people to keep his attack rating high (Every player in the game is ranked in all manner of categories). And I explain that there’s got to be better targets and… well, it goes on. Eventually, a moment of inspiration strikes. If we have a war, we’re so far apart him giving retaliatory strikes will mean he’ll be doing attacks less often tramping his soldiers half way across the map, so his ranking will suffer. He sees sense, and the attacks stop. Human beings are wonderful things.

3) Now, I’d been doing a little farming raiding myself, attacking smaller people in the vicinity to get extra resources. I wasn’t that vindictive. I was raiding for decent rewards, as hitting people for a few hundred a shot was a waste of my time and theirs. Also, I had worked out a cunning intelligence test. Anyone who mailed me and asked if I could stop attacking, I would. If I remembered, anyway. One poor guy to my north I forgot three times that we’d decided to be friends, prompting FOR GOD’S SAKE! mails from him each time. Also, with people who send a mail, I generally sent a reparations package of stuff. Less than I stole, admittedly, but I figured trying to keep people who were smart enough to send mails on side would be a good idea.

Anyway, there was one person I’d raided quite a few times. I’d just expanded my second village. I woke up one morning to find that he had had the audacity to attack my village. WHAT???!?!?! Yeah, his force had been wiped out by my guards, but the idea of it. So my catapults loaded up with really big rocks and headed off to reduce him to pieces. I take out his granary and warehouse – which, basically, cripple people from doing anything until they’re rebuilt due to immediately hitting the maximum amount you can store – and then started picking off his production centres. It was the gaming equivalent of the playground thing where the tiny kid takes his parents advice and actually stands up to the bullies – and gets totally fucking flattened for it. After a few raids, I get my first mail from the guy. A panicked mail, which paraphrases I WAS ONLY TRYING TO TEST THE COMBAT SYSTEM!!!! Bless. I sent some resources, said I wouldn’t do it again, and carried on. Bad, bad, Kieron.

Ah, good times.
Those Romans are crazy.

But by last week, I could tell it was winding down. The alliance had fell apart – most people were either bored with the game or bored with being farmed or both. The few remainders were considering what to do – joining a larger alliance struck us as the only real idea. Also, I could feel my attention wandering. While running a villages is low attention, running five or six requires literally five or six times more time. I could have expanded to more villages earlier, but I’d put it off for the week since I knew I couldn’t be bothered with all that extra clicking right now.

It was at which point, one of my smaller, relatively defenseless villages had raided. And while it was small and defenseless, it did have a load of good resources. It was by the leader of the largest alliance in the vicinity. I had a think, wondering what to do. Well, really, my fault. It wasn’t defended enough and was without a cranny. Some scouting revealed there wasn’t really a target I could reprise against. Since it was in a week of ennui, I let it slide. I’d worry about it when I got back from the weekend.

Except, a few hours later, another member of the alliance join in. This gets me thinking in a different way. Fuck it, basically. You’re looking for an excuse to stop playing the game. Yeah, you won’t win a war here, but you could throw away all your troops on a strike against the right target and fuck up their economy in that town for a few days. I’d become sick of the primary tactic of the game to be simple predating of smaller players, with no way out other than waiting it out or joining their alliance. And then they give it the innocuous name “Farming”, which just reduces other human players to the status of a a respawning creature in WoW with phat 100t or whatever. Just being able to leave a passing sting would kind of be worth it. Better to die on your feet than live on your knees and all that.

I start scouting around his places, trying to work out if and where I can strike (I figure that the leader at least had the balls to start a war, and wasn’t just following afterwards when the brave thing had been done). Not really many places, and my scouts getting caught by his capitals defenders a couple of time alerts him to my intent. He drops a cheery mail “If you want to know what’s in the town that desperately, you could just ask”. I laugh, and mail back telling him my intent – that I’m just shopping around for a good place to commit suicide. He mails back, telling me not to be hasty and we end up chatting a little about the game’s appeal and how it’s wove into our lives. He’s a smart guy. I decide to sleep on it.

Those Romans are crazy.

Wake up the next day, and there’s some sporadic raiding from the leader on the smaller settlement, and a third member of the alliance had joined in, targeting any of the small ones. He grates at me a little – third man in, and all, but I keep on plodding away at sorting out my new town. I kind of realise that the only way is in an alliance. Later that night, I get a mail from the leader. Simple as I get. Do I want to join?

And I sit and think and play it. It’s the only way forward in the game. I either, in the vernacular, shit or get off the pot. I mail back, telling him I was off having adventures for the weekend, but mind if I waited until I get back? He said sure, and I settled back into late night musings.

It would be an interesting move. I’d go from being the biggest fish in a useless alliance into being one of the smaller players in a large one – my surroundings were basically a sea of their fishes, of all size. While my economy was fine, I’d hopelessly under-estimated the amount of troops I should have had by this stage, and this would allow me to quietly build up some more before the inevitable larger alliance. Hell, I could even be some use in an alliance, by throwing around the diplomat bullshittery. Possibilities stretched out in my imagination…

Those Romans are crazy.

At which point the third attacker struck my second largest town, slaughtering its relatively expensive defenders (as I said, nowhere near enough, but it’d take several days to build enough to replace them) and taking a load of stuff.

And I thought – you know, really, I’d rather die than be in an alliance which works like this.

Of course, all alliances in Travian work like this. It’s what the game mechanics lead to, inevitably.

So, basically, I decided I’d rather die than play Travian any more.

I scouted out the attack destinations, choose a mark, and send off my army.

Within seconds, I know I’ve fucked up. In my post-2am haste, I didn’t give my catapults targets, meaning they’ll strike random pieces of architecture rather than the ooh-you-bastard! Granary/Warehouse strike. I’d have had to stay up another hour or so to get a second strike, assuming that troops returned, and there was no way I was going to do that.

It didn’t really matter. I noticed a strike incoming on my capital, meaning that he was still awake, had noticed my strike, and decided a counter. He actually was going to hit before my armies arrived, as he was striking from a nearer city. As his armies approach, I send my stay-at-home forces on a march elsewhere to make sure they didn’t survive – resources would come back quicker than those troops, after all. I also knew that it had doomed my troops on the march.

You see, since he was awake, he could easily send more troops from any other town to the one under attack, meaning my strike force would just strike an unrelenting wall of steel.

They hadn’t a chance. I stayed up anyway, to watch the counter tick down, sipping tea and smiling and sighing occasionally.

Main Army collides. Results arrive. As expected, no-one survives.

A minute or so later the catapults turn up. Predictably, they’re wiped out too.

I salute the screen, log off Travian and get to bed. I haven’t been on since.

I’m going to do so now, to delete my account, see if there’s anything worthwhile in the aftermath. Lots of farming is what I expect. Possibly even catapults, depending on how vindictive they feel. Doesn’t matter, of course. What I’m interested in is whether anyone’s sent any mails, either bewildered or bragging.

Let’s go.

Gosh. What a mess.

Here’s what my capital looks like.
A domitable village

Seeing the numbers at the top, you’ll notice my maximum wheat is only 800. This is because they took out the Granary. Flour is the resource that’s least needed in raiding, really (it’s primarily for feeding existent armies rather than making new ones). Wiping out the Granary means that even if you got Defenders in the village, somehow (i.e. an ally sends them) you wouldn’t be able to feed them, and they’d end up starving. They’ve also smashed the warehouse little, which surprises me, as it means they can steal less stuff from each raid. Why?

A look across the empire reveals why – they’re leaving the other towns intact and using them for farming. The Capital, being indestructible, is a worse possible threat. Not that I’m a threat any more. I’m a cow, being milked.

Checking the battle reports, constant raiding, going back 10 pages of reports. That goes as far back as Sunday, so there’s presumably another couple of hundred attacks not listed. The main aggressor, in terms of actually using catapults, is a fourth alliance member, but there’s load more joining in, like frenzied sharks.

Unexpectedly, part of me feels quite pleased with this. By being such an obvious target, I’ve presumably reduced attacks to other people in the area. The idea that someone profits other than my attacker amuses me… but, y’know, the people who profit most of all are the attackers, so not THAT good.

I turn to the mail. There’s four messages.

The first is from an ally in the north, and a simple : ) emoticon. Just before the army arrived on my last night, I sent as many resources as my merchants could carry in his direction. He’s doing well and doesn’t need it, but I thought it was worthwhile.

The second attacker is the next mail. He asks me if I’ve committed that suicide I talked about. He’s being asked by his alliance member – the third attacker – to join in attacking me due to my fire catapults hacking him off. Which is an interesting way of putting it, certainly. Sweetly, he said he refuses to help. Nice diplomacy, but he’s in the list of people who’s attacking, so he’s a liar. Though, to be fair, he clearly thinks I’ve stopped playing. Which I have. So no hard feelings there, really.

The third mail is from a member of my alliance, and read simply: WWWWWWWWWWWAAAAAAAAAAAAARRRRRRRRRRRR!!!!!

Bless.

And finally, there’s someone asking me if my alliance wants to disband and join theirs, because they’re large and it’ll be better for us. Which is right, but a bit too late for me, I’m afraid.

I’ll admit, part of me was hoping someone would would snarl an insult, but that’s not really Travian’s style. Travian is about the brutal efficiency of numbers. There really is surprisingly little hard feeling here.

Funnily enough, playing the game has made me realise what I do want to play. This sort of massive economic wargame doesn’t work with 20,000 players. You can get away with it a bit more in Eve, because its a game about individuals. This is about cities and nations, and while you’re governing one, a city is an incredibly small and pathetic thing in Travian’s World. Imagine an earth with 20,000 nations in it. Imagine what that would be like. That’s Travian.

Those Romans are crazy.

When I control a nation, I want to feel like I /am/ controlling a nation, so the scale of the game I’d be looking for would be larger, but not unfathomable. 50-200 players, the sort of scale they used to do in Play-By-Mail games, but slicker. I wouldn’t necessarily need it to be much deeper – just to give a more meaningful setting for actual diplomacy. I find myself thinking of the disastrous PBM game I played back in the early nineties, The Keys of Medokh. Something like that, but finished would be ideal. I suspect it’s already out there and I suspect some of you are going to tell me about it, and I thank you in advance.

Any game which teaches you something isn’t all bad, even if all that is “I don’t want to do this any more”. That’s what Travian did.

Games work for a while, then break – and I try not to let that moment ruin the memories, especially when I always knew it was coming. I never quite trust people who play an MMO for 800 hours, then claim it’s shit. It strikes me as as somewhat akin to people who’d bad-mouth an Ex who they gone out with for years. Remember why you left them, but remember why you were with them so long too. To do otherwise just shows a lack of self-knowledge.

In the case of Travian, I liked how it worked. I liked its pacing. I liked its integrated diplomacy structure. I even liked the cheery Asterix-esque graphics.

But, ultimately, from the first time I saw how the word “Farming” was used, no matter what it may claim when you explore an Oasis, I knew there were no Lions in Travian.

It’s a game for Jackals.

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Kieron Gillen

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Kieron Gillen is robo-crazy.

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