4Xtra: Jon Shafer Explains At The Gates

RPS chum Joe Robinson talked to Jon “Civ V” Shafer about the formation of his new studio, Conifer Games, and his new game: At The Gates. As you’ll see below, Shafer has renewed his mission to bring vigour and innovation to the 4X world. Read on to find out why At The Gates is the first step in his mighty quest.

The old ways are dying. The great 4X Empire dominated by the likes of Civilization and other variants there-of have become stagnant, decadent, and the vultures have begun to circle. The barbarians are at the gates, waiting for their opportunity to strike and topple the great Empire that has kept them down for so long.

Jon Shafer is the man leading the charge – once a prominent modder in the Civilization community; he rose to fame and glory by being hired by Firaxis themselves, before finally taking the lead role in the development of Civilization V. From there, he moved to Stardock and worked on their ill-fated Elemental franchise, and now he’s preparing to strike out on his own. He sees a problem with 4X games, a problem that’s not really their fault, just an unfortunate by-product of their design, and he’s here to help:

“I’ve played them; games like Warlock, Fallen Enchantress which I helped work on, Endless Space… I have enjoyed them, but I feel that in many ways they are working form the same formula, and that they have the same issues: The fact that the mid-game loses momentum.”

“After you’ve explored the entire world, you’ve filled the map with cities. You’ve gotten really powerful so that no-one can compete with you and you’re like ‘Eh, let’s quit and start another game so we can do the fun part again.’”

Shafer wants to change that experience.

“I think for a lot of 4X games, it’s all about that first half of the game, where you’re exploring and expanding. That’s the fun part for most people… Obviously there’s been a lot of work done on making the late-game interesting. You have to be fairly creative and imaginative, be fairly out of the box. And obviously most of the design focus is about that early game, because that’s where most people spend their time. People don’t even plan that much for the late game, because if the early game isn’t fun nobody is going to get to the late game.”

This is where Jon Shafer and his newly founded studio, Conifer Games, come in. Their debut title, At the Gates, is a turn-based 4X strategy game based during the fall of the Roman Empire(s), where you get to choose one of eight barbarian factions as you strive to become the new dominant power in Europe. Given the type of game this is, and given Shafer’s background, you can expect then that this will have a lot of elements similar to Civilization – the exploration and expansion, building up and managing and empire, and so on. Shafer hopes though that a couple of key changes that he’s made to the formula will prevent the mid-to-late game stagnation he believes afflicts so many other 4x games. He explains:

“We’ve made a couple of important changes to the formula. The first of which is that the environment changes over time. So instead of having random maps, these maps will evolve as you play. We do this via seasons: each turn represents one month, and there are 12 turns in a year which help represent the changing seasons. So in the summer the dry areas will burn up and stop producing food, in the rain the marshes will flood etc… In the winter, the rivers will freeze, making large rivers like the Rheine and the Danube passable. The changing of the landscape is a really important feature of the game, and it really changes up the experience. You have to really plan ahead when launching a military campaign, and even when you’re running your economy. Farms, for example, don’t produce any food in the winter, so you have to make sure you plan for that.”

He also wants a time pressure on players. When resources run low, it’s time to make your move:

“The other big feature is the different pacing compared to other 4X games. Instead of where it peters out about mid-way through … In At the Gates, the more interesting bits are later on in the game. So the first third or so is similar to Civilization, but the resource deposits on the map will deplete over time and run out. So this forces you to get more resources by either capturing them from your neighbours or migrate your tribe to somewhere else on the map. Eventually all the resources run out, which makes things really tough so you basically have to wrap things up and try to ‘win’ the game.”

“Winning” in the context of the game is a bit more focused then you’d see in other 4X games. Whether you’re playing on the historically accurate map of Europe, or playing one of the 100% randomized maps you can generate – the typical layout of At the Gates has both the Eastern and Western Roman Empires starting out in a fairly centralised position, and dominating most of the map. The goal, as one of the eight barbarian factions, is to capture the capital of either empire, so either Rome or Constantinople. Jon has design the game in a way though that means you can’t try and rush this too early:

“The way it works at the moment you have to amass a certain amount of prestige or glory, and you do this by winning battles, completing requests etc… so over time you’ll be focusing on getting glory through whatever way you can, there’s no specific way to do that. Then, once you’ve built a reputation for yourself, you can then go in and capture Rome/Constantinople and you’re basically saying ‘we’re here to stay and we’re replacing Rome’.”

There’s also the fact that at the start of the game, the Romans are pretty powerful – the game is basically set up so that it’d be idiotic to try and go toe-to-toe with them early on, especially by yourself. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and it didn’t fall in a day either (apart from that one time where Rome was sacked, but we don’t talk about that). As a people on the outside, you get to watch as the Roman Empire(s) slowly fall into ruin: they’ll either fight each other, fight other empires, and then there’s also a dynamic random event system which will negatively impact them over time. Jon cited an example of the Emperor dying and being replaced by a child-Emperor.

Obviously, a game themed about the fall of the Roman Empire has a fairly martial slant to it: the combat is based around manoeuvrability, positioning and using the terrain to your advantage, but there’s also the changing seasons, for example, especially in terms of supply:

“With the combat system we really wanted to bring out some of the other features that we had in the game, like the seasons and the weather system. The way that works is that supply becomes a major part of warfare, so each tile has a certain amount of supply available on it, which comes partially form the terrain – a green lush, fertile tile gives more supply than a snow tile, which produces none, and it also comes from your settlements or supply camps. So if you’re within range of a supply node, you get a big boost there as well. You can basically chain that supply by using supply camps, so if you have a settlement, then six tiles away you can have a supply camp, another six tiles away you can have another supply camp. So you can extend your radius that way, but that makes you vulnerable as someone could just come in and destroy your camps, which means you’ll be out of supply. An alternative is try and live off the land and get whatever you can from the surrounding tiles, but it’s really hard/impossible to do during winter so you can choose whether to obey the elements or try and set up your own supply chains.”

It’s not all about fighting though. Being a true 4X game, there are paths to victory other than martial, and diplomacy especially will weigh heavy on a leader’s mind as they lead their tribe to glory:

“There’s also a pretty heavy diplomatic aspects. The way diplomacy work is that you have a relations value, and several things feed into that. One of those is Religion, so each leader has a religion they’ve adopted, and leaders with similar religions get bonuses, different religions get penalties. Obviously if you switch out of a religion you get even bigger penalties with the members of the religion you just switched on – they feel insulted by you turning your back on them. That system is pretty simple – there are no missionaries or conversion or anything, we wanted to keep things pretty high-level, and keep it focused on the diplomatic side of the game.”

Shafer also wants diplomacy to have a more robust logic to it, as he explained:

“The real ‘meat’ of the diplomatic system though is the requests system. Requests are something that AI leaders have on their diplomacy screen that you can do to get relations with them. These will be things that make sense based on what’s going on with their empires. So, for example, in real life if you were just walking down the street and you meet someone for the first time and give them a cheeseburger, they’d probably look at you funny. If however you’re walking down the street and you see someone who’s obviously starving and give them a cheeseburger, they’ll probably be very grateful to you. That’s the way we wanted this system to work – if you just give them a gift they’ll be like “err… ok, thanks”, but if you pay attention to their specific situation, help them out in their time of need, then that’s really how you make friends. You’ll want to keep an eye on the situation and take advantage of things. The diplomatic side of things is pretty heavy.”

Technological progression is a key element of any 4X – keeping your army competitive with everyone else, researching new techs that allow you to exploit more resources… it’s the easiest way to measure ‘progression’ in a sense that’s meaningful to the player (outside of combat). Given the time-frame of At the Gates though, things have to work a little differently:

“It’s not specifically technology or research, as the barbarians obviously weren’t reading Plato or doing analytical geometry, but over time they become “Romanised”, and in the process they acquired new techs. So in At the Gates there is a system where, if you complete a quest for a Roman faction or take over one of their cities, you’ll be able to choose a ‘Romanisation’ perk. These cover a variety of things from being able to build Galleys, to creating big siege weapons, to the ability to use stone etc…”

Romanisation is not optional, it seems, so you have to engage in this system in order to say competitive. It does require a big investment though, either to capture a city or to complete tasks, so you’re allowed some flexibility in the rate in which you interact with thisarea. You’re also allowed to refund any perks you purchase in order to pick new ones, just in case a particular strategy isn’t working out for you.

“If you get backed into a corner the game can get a little mean at times, so we don’t want people to have no-way out, so we want people to be able to switch perks and switch away from siege weapons to naval warfare, or whatever. We want to hit home though that this is a fully featured 4X game, it’s not just about combat, and there’s a number of different paths you can choose to win.”

Intrigued? Excited? Grabbing your favourite spear? Well, there’s a way you can help the war-effort. At the Gates is, perhaps unsurprisingly, on Kickstarter, and at the time of writing the campaign should have already launched. Shafer’s team – basically three guys in a house, with only Shafer himself actually working full-time – already has a working prototype made up and ready to show off, so their Kickstarter goal is a fairly modest $40,000. I asked him if he was worried if the whole Kickstarter craze was beginning to die down, but he seemed fairly confident he could meet his goal:

“I think we’ll be in pretty good shape. Our funding goal isn’t as big as most other games, we’re only looking for $40,000. I mean if we get more than that that’s awesome, but considering we already have a fully working prototype with all the features in it already, we can get away with having a smaller goal than other teams. But you never know … you have to put faith in the product you’re working on, and hope that people want it.”

But will people leap on this like they have the other “neglected” genres?

“I think they will because… 4X games, there’s a couple that come out each year, but that’s it. There are not a whole lot of companies that make these types of games, and we’re looking to innovate and add new things to the genre as well. Like the changing map, the different arcs of the game experience. It’s not just another Space 4X game, which can certainly be fun, but there hasn’t really been a lot of new ground covered there lately. We’re really hoping that trying to do something different, and doing it in a genre that doesn’t see a whole lot of entries will do us a favour.”

Shafer has plans for if the funding does exceed the goal as well – adding in the Roman’s as a playable faction, adding in mod tools, enhancing the aesthetics of the game (it’s all 2D sprites at the moment)… perhaps even multiplayer, which isn’t in the initial design at the moment. There are also plenty of aspects of the game that still need to be figured you – like the different tribes/factions and the kind of unique differences they will have. There’s a lot of room for improvement:

“These are all things we have definitely thought about, and we could definitely expand the scope of the game without too much trouble. If we raised like $5 million, that could be a little tough, but that’s a problem I’d love to have!”

So, what’s next? Shafer already has several articles written out that will be going up over the course of the Kickstarter campaign, and you can also check onto his website (jonshaferondesign.com) for any further information regarding At the Gates, or Conifer Studios and what they are up to. Alpha testing is expected to start in a couple of months, and one of the Kickstarter rewards is to be included in that testing phase. Other than that, you’re going to have to sit tight on your war chariots until well into 2014 before you see this game release.

Meanwhile, Shafer will be gathering his warbands, waiting until the day he can make that final push. Does he consider himself a barbarian at the gate, coming to show a decadent people how 4X is really done?

“[laughs] Well, maybe. Some of the barbarians were squished pretty quickly though. Others just showed up, broke some things and then disappeared… hopefully that’s not the analogy we’re going to be working with.”


  1. OpT1mUs says:

    Seems promising. I love the graphic style.

    • Danopian says:

      Me too – I love the 2D look, reminds me of Civ II in a warm-‘n-fuzzy way.

      • X_kot says:

        Whenever I close my eyes and think “Civilization,” I picture a wave of dragoons sweeping across vast stretches of plains toward Gandhi’s cities, and I hear bugles calling out as they mow down inferior crusaders.

        That, and Elvis the culture advisor.

    • killias2 says:

      The interview suggests that 4x is a neglected genre. While that may have been true just a few years ago, we’re basically in a 4x renaissance. Just last year, you had Civ 5’s expansion, Fallen Enchantress (which, IMO, is good and has the potential to be great), Endless Space, and Warlock. Also, Heroes of Might and Magic 6.

      In the near future, you have the Fallen Enchantress expandalone, the Endless Space successor, Age of Wonders 3 (which was just announced today I guess), and about 10,000,000 space 4x games all launching from Kickstarter. There’s also Distant Worlds, which is a well loved space real-time 4x game, as well as the more RTS-y Sins of a Solar Empire series. Oh yeah, there’s also that Alpha Centauri-influenced game, Pandora. And there was also both Sword of the Stars 2 recently and Legends of Pegasus, although both of those sucked pretty bad I guess. You also have the Paradox grand strategy games, which are at least cousins to the 4x genre and which are really entering a golden age. You also have Creative Assembly’s stuff, which is also on the fringes of 4x-dom.

      To be fair to Jon, though, his game sounds very unique. It almost sounds more like a war-game or something than 4x. Is there another 4x game that actually has a supply system? This sounds closer to an AGEOD or Longbow-style game almost. I’m very curious to see how this goes, and I might just break down and back it…

    • Skipperoo says:

      Yeah, reminds me of Fantasy General. D’aw.

    • Malcolm says:

      The game graphics are nice – but I hate the faux stone tablet UI elements.

  2. pakoito says:

    He just produced this nice piece of bullshit not just two days ago link to jonshaferondesign.com

    • OpT1mUs says:

      What’s bullshit exactly?

    • Gap Gen says:

      I think one of my biggest beefs with 4X/Civ-style games is that the diplomacy AI is usually terrible. Many games have no concept of balance of power, analysing threats or determining their key security goals, and will attack you just for the sake of it, or hold long grudges just because. As Lord Palmerson said, “It is a narrow policy to suppose that this country or that is to be marked out as the eternal ally or the perpetual enemy of England. We have no eternal allies, and we have no perpetual enemies. Our interests are eternal and perpetual, and those interests it is our duty to follow.”

    • wodin says:

      I agree with him about the puzzle aspect..I hate wargames that are more like puzzles or follow the Rock paper Scissors mechanic.

      However if then starts going on about fluff where really he is talking about a difference between scales..so he certainly doesn’t understand that aspect. Obviously a game like Unity of Command doesn’t need to go on about different types of tank round..where as a tactical level game that sort of thing is important.

      • Premium User Badge

        FhnuZoag says:

        I agree with most of what Schafer has to say.

        Re: fluff, it’s not about scale. It’s about design choices, and the absolute necessity that inclusion of such details needs to be guided strictly by what the gameplay design demands. It can be legitimate for a game on the scale of one single tank to ignore the distinction between AP rounds and HE rounds. It can be similarly legitimate for a grand strategy game on the scale of entire armies to be *all about* getting the right types of ammo to the right armies.

        What is necessary is that what is included and presented to the player be exactly those elements necessary for the gameplay. If you want to implement ammo types, then you’d better design the game around situations where the ammo can potentially run out, or having to switch between them, and it had better be a decision that is significant, interesting, and not overly burdensome to keep track of. Else you are just wasting your time, and the player’s patience.

        • wodin says:

          true. Well said.

        • Bhazor says:

          The problem with limiting is that you can end up right back to puzzle game play. Each unit has a single counter, each city builds the same 2 or 3 buildings, every game plays very similarly. This can work in a skirmish game like Unity of Command but with something as long as a 4x game?

    • cptgone says:

      i like the end game of Civ.
      4X games aren’t just about overcoming challenges. it’s fun to build an empire, research new toys (e.g. carriers), grow more powerful, interact with other empires and city states. and with multiple victory conditions, t’s often hard to predict who’s gonna win.

      apart from that, i’ve always wanted my Civ to have seasons, and the conquer Rome mechanism sounds like fun. it fits Shafer’s views wonderfully: in most other settings, the finite resources thing would sound like a bad idea to me. Romanisation sounds like fun too.

    • Lacero says:

      He’s made a good blog post there I think. I always get bored of pressing next turn after the half way point in civ, and the fact it gets so slow after that doesn’t help.

      The corp game in Civ4 was a nice idea to open up the original Xs in the end game, where you’re using the map as made in the first phase as a terrain for populating with your cities. But I think perhaps it needs more still.

      Also AlphaCantauri of course did a good job in having the worse base locations become good enough by the end that you could build a base there. Not excellent, but good.

  3. therondertaker says:


    • EnragedPixel says:

      Haha! Awesome, I was thinking the same thing!

    • Vegard Pompey says:

      And here I was thinking to myself when I saw the article’s title; Please let the first quote be from TRitSiO, not SotS…

  4. RedViv says:

    Hmm. I don’t know about that… Elemental was very much a failed product (where Fallen Enchantress, while not perfect, is absolutely a good game), and most don’t seem to like what the initial Civ V provided. While I do like what became of the latter throughout massive patching and the expansion (so without his input, I gather), that’s a different beast.

    And then there are those weird opinions he can go on about, on strategy games being based too much on common groundwork and “fluff” than pure accessible strategy.

    • megazver says:

      He had nothing to do with the original Elemental and was a mild influence of Fallen Enchantress.

      • RedViv says:

        Ah, okay then. The one thing I did not read up on. My bad. Rest of that still stands.

  5. mckertis says:

    “The barbarians are at the gates…Jon Shafer is the man leading the charge”

    A very apt description. A man who put it as his life’s goal to take fun out of as many strategy games as he can.

    “And then there are those weird opinions he can go on about”

    Most of his opinions i, personally, agree with, very much so. The problem is he can talk the talk, but his ideals dont show in his work.

    • Strangerator says:

      Look at the bright side, this article would seem to indicate he’s not going to be involved with the next Civ!

  6. DickSocrates says:

    What’s with all the Scaf(a)ers in the gaming development world?

  7. Joshua Northey says:

    The game description/concept art looks intriguing. I am a little disappointed he seems to have so little grasp of the core elements he is trying to work with:

    “that they have the same issues: The fact that the mid-game loses momentum.” Actually none of those games have that issue. What they have is an issue of the AI falling apart mid game. The mid game does not magically “lose momentum”. In most of these games the mid game is fine and of a piece with the rest of the game. It is the opponents of the player which collapse at this point and suck the fun out of the game. In multiplayer games this section is just as exciting as the beginning, if not more so. But in single player the AI is very bad at playing the game, so once you get a modicum of freedom of aciton as the player anything is possible and it is steamroll city. That is why the game “loses momentum”, because it is already won. If the AI were better at this section of 4x games no one would talk about “mid game momentum”. Granted AI development is not easy, and papering over the gameplay in that area and giving the AI asymmetric crutches to pose a threat during it, but talk about that. Don’t talk like there is some mystical pacing problem you can solve, because you cannot.

    Anyway the game looks interesting, but I would have appreciated some more frank discussion of the real issues with these games.

    • X_kot says:

      I think your analysis here is spot on, although it seems that Shafer’s response is to recast a 4X in the mold of a wargame. Make players go after objectives in a timeframe and they won’t get complacent. I would suggest that he sees player turtling as a detrimental force because it relies on the AI to set the pace, which leads to all sorts of exploits.

      Coincidentally, I just played the Fall of the Roman Empire scenario in Civ V, and I wonder if the seeds for At the Gates started there. It will be interesting to see how radically he can move away from that design beyond removing the “Civ” mechanics. Making supply a factor sounds good; I wonder if he’ll market this more heavily as a 4X-wargame hybrid?

      • killias2 says:

        Yeah, I definitely get a hybrid wargame-4x vibe here. I can’t think of a single other 4x game with a supply system, but it still definitely sounds broadly like a 4x game. In any case, I’m very curious.

    • jpvg says:

      You’re putting a bit much into his wording, he is not referring to the pace of the game or the AI or anything else but to fill out the void that is the midgame you’re talking about with the AI collapsing etc. The reason why he refers to it as pace is seen from developers viewpoint that it’s a slow experience, filling it up with objectives midgame -> e.g. those romans cities to get perks which will help pace the experience of the midgame. I don’t see him preaching anything mythical at all merely using industry talk.

      Creating “better” AI is not an option to this hole in 4X not for a very long time atleast.

    • Mario Figueiredo says:

      The fact he completely ignored the AI almost entire responsibility on this mid-game crisis is particularly troubling and doesn’t say anything good about At The Gates. I do hope he gets a lot of input from players and is a good listener.

      He seems to be an intelligent young man. But needs a bit more experience to stand on the chair of a game designer and claim that strategy games are broken.

  8. Bhazor says:

    (apart from that one time where Rome was sacked, but we don’t talk about that)

    Which one? That happened all the time and usually it was another Roman conquering it.

    • Azradesh says:

      Sacked =/= Conquered or Occupied.

      sacked past participle, past tense of sack (Verb)

      Dismiss from employment.
      (chiefly in historical contexts) Plunder and destroy.

      • Tuhalu says:

        Rome was still sacked many times. More times than I would have thought possible. The Sacks in 410, 455 and 546 all look like contenders for taking place during the “fall” of the Roman Empire.

        • Brun says:

          My guess is that it’s referring to Odoacer’s invasion in 476, as that’s generally accepted as the end of the Western Roman Empire.

          • Bhazor says:

            If Sulla’s proscriptions don’t count as a sacking I don’t know what does.

          • killias2 says:

            You’re right that Odoacer’s rise is typically considered the end of the empire, but I feel like “the” sack usually refers to the 410 sack by the Visigoths. I don’t even think there was a “sack” involved in Odoacer’s takeover, at least nothing commonly discussed as a sack. The historical records suggest he had the backing of the Roman Senate and, for a period, even acted legally within the framework of the Roman Empire(s).

            The Vandal sack was big too (the root of the term “vandalism”), but I get the sense that it wasn’t anywhere near the shock that the Gothic sack was.

          • Lowbrow says:

            I think you’re all about a 1000 years off. I think he was referencing the raid in 487?BC that got the Romans thinking about walls. “Woe to the conquered!”

            EDIT: 387, Brennus’ raid.

  9. BurningPet says:

    I must say i LOVE the graphic style. granted, it needs polish and improvement, but as a style, i like it a lot more than say, Elemental and to some extent even more than that of civilization 5 which is a beautiful game.

    If they could push the entire graphic stlye more to the illustration style, that would be even better.

    As for mechanics and innovation. i am not entirely sure i like the idea of every resource getting depleted, as i am one of those that likes when i got some safety in knowing i have a steady stream of at least some of the supplies. i am also not sure the forced pace is something i like. at the end, there will be a game pace i will have to conform to and it will be something in the middle, so if i run a little late on something, doesn’t that mean i basically lost the game without still knowing?

    Pace is a strategy in itself in those type of games, so doesnt that limit the players?

    The terrain changing is a nice touch. i am not sure 1 turn = 1 month is a reasonable rate though, aside the silly notion of probably having some units that it will take them a whole month to cross a river, i think it makes less important. i mean, farms stopping for 3 turns is really not that significant,. but well, thats probably dependant on the game pace itself.

    The Theme itself would make for an excellent game similiar to Solium Infernum and for a second there i thought/hoped it will be more liken to it than to civilization.

  10. StevoIRL says:

    It looks life less. Like it’s art style gives off the impression of those crazy 4X scam games website. Pass.

    • BurningPet says:

      I strongly disagree. there are things there that may suggest that because they lack polish, like the mountains all having the same sprite rather than having a connection map of sprites to illustrate one big mountain, but the overall tone, use of colors, level of detail in the more polished parts (not too much, not too little) are all very good in my opinion.

  11. Drinking with Skeletons says:

    While I’ve enjoyed his output, I have to say I’m a little baffled as to why Jon Shafer gets as much press as he does. He was the project leader for the divisive Civ V (which didn’t become a great game until the expansion, which he had nothing to do with), left Firaxis to work on Fallen Enchantress (and did he do anything on that other than the functional but unexciting campaign?), and has apparently now struck out on his own. Maybe he hasn’t found an environment he’s completely happy with, or perhaps he’s a worker who isn’t as good as he seemed during the interview and gets pressured to leave, but regardless I’m not sure why someone who flits from project to project without ever having made something definitively excellent deserves this kind of publicity.

    He’s cute, though, I’ll grant him that.

    • LintMan says:

      Well, the owner of Stardock (Brad Wardell) is quite a “colorful character” (ie: see here.) with pretty strong and vocal opinions about how he runs his company, and also politics. I would imagine that people in strong disagreement on any of those would find Stardock a straining place to work.

    • mckertis says:

      “Jon Shafer gets as much press as he does.”

      Gaming journalist friends.

  12. dsch says:

    The early game is fun because there are opportunities for great failure and great success. The problem with the midgame is that you can’t really have very frequent massive failures because losing all your work isn’t fun. A solution would be to have a game where success is not based on what you have but on the rise to power (something like a ‘fame’ mechanic), so to progress, you actually have to lose what you built if there’s no further scope for expansion. Optionally, dramatic falls from power could be positive too.

    Also, there’s an extra apostrophe in “Roman’s”.

  13. archcorenth says:

    I think with the Armageddon expansion, Warlock does have a really exciting mid-game. All of a sudden all these super powerful demons who are immune to all your magic plunge down into the middle of your empire from space and start building their own forts and conquering your cities. You’re always totally unprepared for it, and it’s very difficult.

  14. Duke of Chutney says:

    im not sure he’s really nailed the key issue with 4x games. The issue isn’t that the bits after expansion and exploration are boring, the issue is they tend to be out of balance. What i mean by this is, if you do a really good job of the first 2x’s you tend to blow your opponent away and if you didn’t do quite so well at them you tend to get crushed like a bug. Maintaining the fine balance of the struggle so its entertaining though the latter part of the game is a challenge because the player being capable at the early game is a necessity.

  15. biz says:

    4X games suck because the difficulty comes from complicated rules while opponents stay dumb as rocks
    civ 5’s AI was worthless
    this new game of his has no dev resources for AI

    this guy is probably a noob making games for noobs, and that’s perfectly fine, but that’s the extent of it
    civ doesn’t last because it’s hard to be good at it. it lasts because the players completely suck at it

    it’s so hard to care about any single player game unless they put AI as the #1 priority. anything else means the developer just doesn’t get it. end of story.

  16. meelawsh says:

    So much negativity here. I pledged cause I want to believe there’s gonna be a good TBS out there.

  17. fn8rd says:

    ok, the negativity here seriously hits a nerve (or two) of mine – grrrr >:( !

    some song of praise for Civ 5 before i go on to heap praise on what shafer is going for here:

    Civ V was the first Civ since (maybe) III or (maybe) I where the map actually got _prettier_ with improving your realm and it even was possible to make it uglier again with over-improving/industrialisation – just like it is a) in the real world and b) nice for fans of “builder”-type games (see, even pacifists love Civ! even if diplomacy was crap in every single one of them).

    the whole panzer general/unity of command style of combat might have failed (or worked badly – i still found it an improvement vis-a-vis any of the earlier Civs) not only because of the weak AI, but also because the number of units / the spawn frequency of units in a Civ is not suited to this style of strategy gaming. definitely something shafer as designer could have done something about. not that i know _what_ would have been the proper solution.
    panzer-generaling the combat definitely gets a thumbs up at least from my immodest self!

    about leaving stardock: ever read up about this company / brad wardell? the only interesting question is: why leave firaxis in the first place (and i’m sure there is a perfectly reasonable but non-publishable reason)?

    and about his new game: kudos, sir, kudos!
    about every design decision he talks about sounds reasonable (at the very least!).
    and i am the only person in the thread so far who doesn’t like the art style (as much as anybody else, of course i do like me my 2D).

    definitely gets my money!

    [edited for readability]

    • killias2 says:

      I’m with you on the general optimism, but I’m not with the Civ V combat system discussion or the hostility towards Stardock.

    • Gaytard Fondue says:

      It always pains me when I read that people prefer sod’s to one unit per tile, because it’s “better”.

      • MaXimillion says:

        Considering the size of maps in Civ, and player expectations for build times, a SoD system is arguably a better fit for the series than 1UPT , even if it is far less tactical.

        It’s also easier to balance for poor AI, which most of the games in the genre are still sadly riddled with. Civ V being a prime example of that, and one where modders don’t have the access to change it either, unlike in Civ IV.

        • fn8rd says:

          you, sir, just explained to me why SoD’s are not game design’s equivalent of mecha-hitler (after, whenwasciv2again?, years of being convinced of the opposite). thank you!

          hmmm… how about including some in our next design … ;)

          [edited for full disclosure / shameless plug -> link to shadowrun.com – no, don’t worry, no excuse for SoDs anywhere near here :D]

    • dmastri says:

      Civ 5 was crap all around. Tom Chick’s review remains spot on. J Shafer seems like a nice guy and his heart is in the right place but I have no faith in him as a lead in anything at this point. I just don’t think he’s got the experience.

      And as was said here already there’s no drought of 4x games, but there is a problem of 4x innovation. I don’t see how he plans on addressing this by releasing another attempt at his civ/panzer general hybrid. I feel like he’s trapped by his past… he never outgrew his roots as a civ4 modder and it shows.

      Or maybe I’m just bitter because he was the great destroyer of the civ franchise.

  18. Rikard Peterson says:

    Hooray for Wikipedia!

    (I was confused by the term “4x”. Particularly as the article starts out by talking about a “4x world” and a “4x empire”, and I had no idea what was referenced. Later, the term “4x games” is introduced, and searching for that found me a Wikipedia article that explained what’s going on.)

    • killias2 says:

      I’m surprised a RPS reader would be unfamiliar with the terminology. It’s certainly not intuitive (there’s nothing about 4x that screams Abstracted Turn-Based Empire Builder), but it’s been around for.. well… you’ve read the Wiki, haha.

      • Mario Figueiredo says:

        Well, next problem Rikard will face is why then are some people in here calling Fallen Enchantress, Heroes of Might and Magic and Warlock, 4x games?

        He will then quietly sigh and choose one of:

        1. Fall in, go with the crowd and become another otiose language relativist.
        2. Desert and become a wise but sad and pathetic lonely angry man.

  19. LintMan says:

    Is Fallen Enchantress any good? I don’t recall having seen any reviews or press on it when it came out.

    I actually have the game at home sitting on my hard drive, behind a queue of other uplayed games I haven’t had time to get to yet. My experience with Elemental left a sour taste in my mouth, so I haven’t had a lot of motivation to bump up the priority of playing FE.

    As for At the Gates, the time-limited “run out of resources” idea doesn’t really appeal to me very much. Not as a flat out “scorched earth there’s none left anywhere – now scrape out a win” mechanism, anyway. Now, if new resource deposits to replace the depleted one could be discovered within your exisiting territory (via new techs/deeper exploration/etc – sort of an expansion of the Civ undetectable later-game resources) that perhaps required you to rework existing infrastructure to take advatage of, that might be cool…

    • killias2 says:

      Reviews are mixed of FE, but they’re all -much- better than War of Magic. Personally, I count myself among those who really enjoyed FE (like Space Sector: link to spacesector.com), even if I can also admit that it’s flawed. I really think FE has -a lot- of potential, and I’m very excited about the recently announced expandalone. It’s not as tight or polished as Endless Space or Warlock, but it’s more ambitious and substantial. Even if it doesn’t always “come together” perfectly, I enjoyed it more than either of those two games.

  20. dmastri says:

    apologize for civ 5 already

  21. Commander Gun says:

    “After you’ve explored the entire world, you’ve filled the map with cities. You’ve gotten really powerful so that no-one can compete with you and you’re like ‘Eh, let’s quit and start another game so we can do the fun part again.’”

    I recognized this so much! So, my hopes are up for his new game.

  22. Screamer says:

    Hah! That game’s title says Jon Shafers at the gates!
    Quick let him in!

  23. Strangerator says:

    “The diplomatic side of things is pretty heavy.”

    He keeps using this term… was there something wrong with the earth’s gravitational pull in Roman times?!

    Also this

    “You’re also allowed to refund any perks you purchase in order to pick new ones, just in case a particular strategy isn’t working out for you.”

    Things like this are great for Borderlands, but in a 4x type game, not so much. It really shatters immersion to think that suddenly my barbarians forget how to build Roman roads, but then miraculously can build Roman walls. I ask you, if I can swap this type of thing at any time, how will my decisions on which perks to take have any meaning? Won’t people just exploit the hell out of tech-swapping in order to gain maximum advantage? In a strategy game like this, you can afford to make these decisions consequential by making them last the entire game, because obviously you are meant to replay this type of game again and again.

    From his “Strategy is Broken” article (hopefully not a reference to “Reality is Broken,” which was written by an entity more evil than GlaDOS.)

    “Too Much Fluff, Not Enough Strategy
    As we’ve already noted, the essence of a good strategy game is having the information to make difficult, interesting decisions. A trap many games fall into is to include so much stuff that determining what’s important becomes difficult. And that’s not fun. If players can’t wrap their head around the options available to them, how are they to choose one? And even if they do, how can their choice have any meaning?”

    First, I think you have a pretty limited idea of what makes things fun. Having a lot of “stuff” (options) can indeed make determining what is important difficult. To me, this is fun. I don’t like when games continually ask me to choose between A and B, I’d rather be rewarded for evaluating things on my own and forging my own path. Part of the fun is figuring out what things do and how to use them to best advantage, when games tell players this up front it becomes a bit “on rails” where it feels like I’m following a prescribed path instead of organically creating a civilization.

    You’re talking about giving a player fewer decisions with more “weight”, but this I would argue is even more unfriendly to new players. I don’t like games where I pick A, B, or C and then say, “ah, well I guess B was correct in this case.” I’d rather make a multitude of smaller decisions that aggregate to a steadily improving performance. In this way you don’t focus on hard-coded decision points (A instead of B), but rather on improving the way in which you make decisions in the game, which is a higher level of thought. Think of it as the difference between free-response questions and multiple choice. One allows creativity.

    As for the fluff… well I think he and I are fundamentally in disagreement. I can’t put my finger on it, but my personal reason for thinking Civ V was inferior to Civ IV, was it felt like the heart and soul was ripped out of Shafer’s game. When the menu screen for Civ V came up it felt so cold and sterile compared to the “Baba Yetu” opening of Civ IV. This cold and sterile theme held with the rest of Civ V, and to me it felt like someone had made a Civ game who never really “got it” to begin with. He treated it as though it were merely a board game that needed better combat. Hex combat was great in Panzer General, but that was a game about war. To me, Civ was never fully about war. Maybe I was playing it wrong. The graphics of Civ V were obviously superior, but its aesthetics were lacking. All that pretty countryside was usually covered by military units, unlike in previous games where you could actually see the ground. The world was militaristic and utilitarian. He took the “wonder” out of wonders. He took the joy out of discovery.

    Just my opinion of course. Needless to say, At the Gates won’t join my already too long list of Kickstarted projects.

  24. guygodbois00 says:

    This Shafer person has a marvelous ability where he touches some game and it turns to shite.

  25. Mikodzi says:

    Battle for Wesnoth clone?