Jon Shafer on designing Civilization 5, joining Paradox and making strategy games better

Jon Shafer was 21 years old when he became lead designer of Civilization V. Now working at Paradox on an unannounced project and on his own historical strategy game At The Gates in his spare time, he says he’s learning from the likes of Spelunky along with the more obvious strategic influences. We spoke about how the second half of every Civ sucks, the part the series played in his life, the perils of boredom in strategy design, how much we love maps, and what the future holds for both Shafer and Paradox.

I began by asking how he ended up sitting at the Paradox Convention, in Stockholm, the city that has now been his home for two weeks: “It’s quite a long story, actually.”

That story begins in Denver, around 2003.

“Back then, I was a big fan of Civilization II and III, but also EU II and Hearts of Iron I. Obviously all of those numbers have gotten a lot bigger since then (laughs). At that point in time, like a lot of people here, I was just excited to play the games and be involved in some way.

“I’d always wanted to make games from when I was very young, so I made a lot of little games on the side, but once I started playing these more sophisticated strategy games I decided I wanted to start making mods for them rather than just building my own things. With Civ III there was a map editor, which was developed during that period, and I think I might have been the first person to make a map using that editor outside of Firaxis.”

This didn’t come about because Shafer had any existing connection with the studio. There was no closed alpha to sign up for back then. Instead, he just dived into the editor as soon as it was released.

“It was released after the game. They didn’t have it ready in time to ship but they released it around six months later and I was so into Civ III and… maps are my thing. It’s funny looking back now because it was always so obvious really.” We’ll come back to this. “So I was waiting for this thing to come out and so excited, which meant I was right there when it released and I pounced on it. No special access, I just grabbed it as soon as possible.

“With Hearts of Iron there was AI scripting that was open for modding as well, and I took it upon myself to dig through it. AI in Hearts of Iron maybe wasn’t as good as people might like, so I figured I’d tinker with it and see if I could make the AI a bit stronger, so I spent some time doing that. That was my introduction to Paradox, and that’s when I first met people like Johann [Andersson, Paradox Development Studio manager] on the forums.”

Fast forward to Firaxis. This involves a slight detour because going from making maps and AI script modding to leading the design of the fifth entry in the most important strategy game series in the world isn’t an obvious path.

“I grew up in the Denver area and I moved out to Baltimore for an internship at Firaxis around 2005. That was a more interesting move than the recent Stockholm one because I didn’t know anyone! I was 19 when I started, didn’t know anyone and didn’t know anything. Obviously things worked out.”

The internship came about when Shafer started commenting on code from afar.

“I’d done beta testing so I knew Soren (lead designer of Civilization IV) through the forums, but the way that I stood out was that during that beta test, as a young ambitious lad I took it upon myself to comment the Python scripting system that existed in the game. No one at Firaxis wanted to do that so I wrote a big long guide about the use of Python in the game, which is probably still online somewhere [it is].

“Soren and the other folks over at Firaxis saw it and thought it was pretty cool so they figured I might be able to do more. I had already been bugging them for a job and they decided to offer me an internship and see what came of it. When I started, I didn’t have any professional design experience and I could program but I wasn’t a very good programmer – I’m still not! I’m not an engineer, put it that way. I’ve written a lot of code that makes real engineers and architects go “OOOHHH NO” because it’s so bad.

“At that point in time the programming lead didn’t really know what to do with me so they had me comment Soren’s code. He doesn’t comment his own code, or at least he didn’t back then so they were just kind of, “Figure out what he’s doing”.”

That wasn’t all Shafer got up to during his internship though. As he describes it, being the lead on a project like Civ, at a company like Firaxis, requires a degree of oversight. The lead is expected to get their hands dirty in all areas, from coding to the broader strokes of the design, and even during his internship Shafer showed he had the curiosity and skills to tackle a project from several angles.

Frustrated with the real world Civ IV maps that were disproportionate, he spent some time figuring out how to make a bitmap converter utility that took an image and imported it into Civ IV as a map. This let players download a map online and import it into the game.

“From there, I got into the design area by making maps and scenarios. At that point, Firaxis were making the Civ IV expansion Warlords and they asked me to make some scenarios for that, realising I might be useful for more than commenting code (laughs).

“Then I was using what programming skill I did have to try and add value to the project and they kept giving me more and more responsibility, and it kept working out. When it came time to do Civ V, Soren was somebody that they tapped to do that project again, I believe.”

One Civ is enough for a lifetime though.

“I don’t know it’s true for everybody, but I think every designer has maybe one Civ in them (laughs). Maybe Ed [Beach, Civ VI designer] will break that and make Civ VII in a few years time.”

From commenting code to driving across the country for an internship, to building scenarios – and then to the offer of a lead designer position on the sequel to the game he’d just interned on. It must have been intimidating?

“I didn’t really think about it at the time! I think about it more now that I’m older, but when I was named lead on Civ V, I was still only 21 and I didn’t really think much about the grander scope of “what does this mean?” “what is this for?” I just wanted to make a cool game. I figured that’s what I did – I made games and I had the opportunity to do something with this one.

“Part of it was just being in the right place at the right time. The company was a lot smaller back then. Now it’s maybe 150 people but then it was closer to 40. There are only so many people who can jump into the role of leading a team, being in charge of the design, being in charge of the AI programming, and being the gatekeeper for a project. Not many people can wear all of those hats.

“Of course, it’s an exceptional amount of work. The way Firaxis is structured, the model is very much like Sid works. From the very beginning, Sid made the game – he wrote the code, he designed it, he made a lot of the art, he did the music – he basically made it almost by himself. That’s changed over time, of course, but at the core you still have the person who is in charge of that game and there aren’t a lot of design documents or meetings. You get in there, you try something out. Does it work? Yes. Well, then make it better. Does it not work? Get rid of it and make something else.

“Sid’s was a very hands-on model and that’s carried forward into present day Firaxis. Each game has its own lead, in the Sid role. The problem is that these games are so big and complex and hard to make that it’s an extremely exhausting process to go through, and it lasts for a period of three or four years. Every company has a different model and many don’t need that gatekeeper role.

“FPS and RPG studios don’t necessarily need that one person with total oversight, but strategy is rule-based and has these emergent elements, which makes it important to have that one person who is a lead designer and director, but also hands-on. Someone who can see all the moving parts and understand how they fit together. Strategy design tends to work through iteration. You get there because you make something, figure out all the ways it sucks, then try to fix those things. Now you’re a little closer and you start the process again, pulling it apart and trying to fix even more things. You can go through three versions of a system in a single day.”

When Shafer talks about his time on Civ V, he seems equally energised and exhausted by the style of working: “It puts a lot of pressure on that one person in the lead role. And I got the role by just happening to be in the right place at the right time. I knew Civ, I was a programmer, I had ideas and… I worked too much. So they’re like, “this guy has the work ethic we need!””

On the actual design of Civ V, there’s one important question I have to ask before we move on to Shafer’s current projects. It seems fairly clear that the single unit per tile mechanic was the core part of Shafer’s design from the very beginning, and he agrees.

“That was the core of the game, and I’d say it’s for better and it’s for worse. If I were to make another Civilization game – which probably isn’t going to happen – I’d go back to stacks of units. As a designer I try to be flexible, I try to adapt… there’s never one correct answer. The question isn’t whether stacking or single unit per tile is a better design, the question is “what does the unit stacking or the lack of it do to the game as a whole?”

“That’s a version of Civ that exists now and a lot of people love it. But it has its pluses and minuses. I’d want to do something completely different now. In fact, I’d like to do a Civ game that focuses much more on supply systems, so that if you stack two units on one pile, you’ll suffer attrition. You don’t react to the stacking as we did in V by removing it, you figure out ways to make it work better than it had previously.

There’s another strategy game pattern that bothers me and though it’s not unique to Civ, the empire that Sid built contains a strong example of it. Rather than breadth or depth, which the loops touch upon, this is about the length of a game and, more specifically, the trend of a player’s role through the beginning, middle and end. From 4,000BC to the end of recorded history, the graph of your story in Civ tends to be on a fairly steady ascent. You move toward the end of history and you’re almost always moving forward. This isn’t necessarily true in games like EU IV and CK II, where the structure can accommodate peaks and troughs.

Again, this is something that Shafer has been thinking about.

“I think if you can have a game that can do those ups and downs, it’s better. In a broad sense. One problem with a game like Civ is that if things go wrong, the temptation to quit is very strong because failing isn’t fun and recovery isn’t always possible.

“That rise and fall is an ideal to strive for. But I think it’d be very difficult to build a Civ like that because the basic structure goes strongly against it. The Paradox games avoid it but they do that as much because they’re concentrating on specific areas and eras rather than covering all of history. You could have a Paradox grand strategy game that spans all of history from 4000 BC to 2100 AD or whatever, and you’d run into a lot of the same problems that Civ has.

“Civ has always had this issue. It’s very easy to get into a formulaic position and that is a a kind of death knell for many games. This actually touches on one of my big criticism of Don’t Starve. As much as I love the game, the first half hour of every playthrough is exactly the same. You’re running around collecting carrots and berries, setting up a base. It’s the same loop over and over at the start of every game.

“By contrast, games like Civilization have the opposite problem. The early game is the interesting bit: what’s the map like, what are my opportunities, what shall I focus on. And then it gets into more of a formulaic place from there.

“It’s interesting that one of the games I just mentioned starts one way and opens up, and the other starts open and becomes narrow. The ideal is to be interesting from the beginning to the end! That’s my goal.”

He laughs. There’s very little in the way of ego evident. Shafer isn’t telling me, or himself, that he can fix any of these problems; he seems happy enough to identify them and at least be aware that steps can be taken to correct them. I barely ever finish games of Civ, often tapping out once I’ve finished discovering the map and started to fill it. Shafer lets me in on the big Civ secret.

“Nobody finishes games of Civ! Nobody does! That’s the biggest challenge that Civ has: trying to make the game work and be fun from turn 1 to turn 500. Turn 1 to turn 200 is great, but turn 200 to 500 hasn’t been all that great in any Civ game.

“The reason it’s such a challenge is that you’re trying to map history onto this game and the fun part of 4X games is in the two first Xs. Exploration and Expansion. In almost every 4X game you’re done with those two things around half-way through. The Exploitation is less interesting because you’re not getting a lot of new things, you’re just adding to the stockpile you already have. So you’re losing the most enjoyable 60% of the game by half-way through. I’m not sure any Civ has figured out what to do with the second half of the game.”

This sounds like a structural problem as much as a specific mechanical problem. If Civ tracks history, the exploration age is going to finish long before the end of the game. If history itself is a structural disadvantage, is Shafer tempted to leave history behind?

“For grand strategy games, I absolutely believe there’s room to grow outside history, yes. Paradox started that with Stellaris and I think there’s probably more room to do that here. We’ll see where we go though.”

The future is in flux. Later, Fred Wester, Paradox’s CEO, told me he wasn’t even sure what Shafer would be working on, or if it had been decided yet. He was very clear that he’d wanted to hire Shafer for a long time though, to add to his “super-group” of strategy designers.

“It’s true. They have been trying to get me here for a long time now,” says Shafer. “Fred has been trying to get me here since at least 2010, 2009 or so. They flew me out here back in October and I started officially a couple of weeks back. It was a long process to figure out what would happen with At The Gates, and how we’d build a team and what the project might be.

“This seemed like the right time because Paradox is in a different place than it was in 2010. A lot of that is on the publishing side, with Skylines and Pillars of Eternity, where success has given them a lot of money and flexibility. That can feed back into the strategy games, where they want to be making interesting things beyond Hearts of Iron, CK and EU. A lot of the reason I accepted the job comes down to people though. There are a lot of companies I wouldn’t work for – I’m not going to name any names – but everyone I’ve met here is great.

“This move was much easier than that move to Firaxis back when I was a kid because I knew so many people at Paradox already. Last week they had the intro day for all the new people and I was in there, and they had a number of people from the management team talking about the Paradox values and how things are structured, the history of the company… and I knew all of the presenters and most of the material. That’s a good feeling!

“The people of Paradox are great and I don’t say that just because I’m doing some kind of PR thing right now. I wouldn’t have come here if I didn’t already believe it. Making games is always going to be stressful – you butt heads and disagree sometimes – but the people here care about each other as well as the quality of the games. And they try not to lay people off unless it’s absolutely necessary, by avoiding short-term projects with no follow-up.”

What, then, does he want to make here? The answer is vague because even if any upcoming title weren’t a secret, there’s no title to divulge at the moment. There’s a possible clue in the games that Shafer has been playing those roguelikes and King of Dragon Pass, and his final comment on where strategy games can grow.

“I think one of the big opportunities for strategy games right now is to add more character. Both in the form of characters but also in the form of what I’ve talked about already – the variety in the world, the flavour of encounters. Sometimes things that you find in the world can be great, sometimes they can be disappointing, but they should always be unpredictable.”

From this site


  1. kwyjibo says:

    So what’s going on with At the Gates? What sort of state is it in? Why don’t Paradox just acquire/publish it?

    Interesting how he’d go back to stacks in Civ. I thought the unstacking was the best thing to happen to the game (thanks), but like the interview mentions, there are variations of the stack still to be tried.

    • Zaxwerks says:

      I agree, the Stacks of Doom were my most hated aspect of the earlier games, and whilst not perfectly executed in Civ V the removal of stacks were what got me hooked on Civ again and added an extra strategic element.

    • Flavorfish says:

      If you pair a stack based design with supply considerations or other tradeoffs then in theory you can have interesting stack based gameplay that still empathizes other factors so that it doesn’t devolve into a grind. Pandora does this alright.

      Personally I liked the idea of the army mechanic in civ 3, even if it was a little clumsy the way it was practiced. Having a costly but powerful limited stack that is the focal point of an offensive but comes with cost, movement, and missile defense tradeoffs could be interesting. For instance,building costly generals that can form an ‘army’ out of a 3 unit stack.

      • Someoldguy says:

        I’ve always preferred the Call to Power answer to this problem. Yes, you can have armies but they aren’t stacks of doom and they aren’t kill one, kill the stack. At its largest it was only 10 units or so and that was with core, flank, ranged, recon and siege/arty slots full (after you had all the research complete to open it up that much).

    • Xerophyte says:

      I like the one unit per tile system of 5 and 6 in principle, but it has two big problems in practice:

      First, it broke the AI. The decision space of “where shall I move all my dudes” is larger than “where shall I move my doomstack” to an absurdly ridiculous degree. It’s rendered the AI painfully incapable of making good tactical decisions. 4’s AI wasn’t anywhere human-level either, but it was capable of producing a big stack of tiny men and having them kick you in the Bosporus.

      The second and related problem is that in order to shore up the AI’s tactical weaknesses you have to give them the strategic ability to produce very large armies of high-health troops. More troops are even harder to position, making the AI even more stupid. Fighting through very large swarms of very poorly deployed troops can be a slog.

      One unit per tile works best in very small scale wars and skirmishes, with <4 troops per side. The AI can do a credible job at that scale, you as the player can make interesting use of terrain instead of just forming a stack and it doesn't drag on like a war against the zombie hordes. 5 and 6 are both great if you just don't do any significant wars in the mid to late game.

      Incidentally, neither of the limitations apply to humans which is one of the reasons that 5 was a pretty good competitive game.

      • Tssha says:

        “4’s AI wasn’t anywhere human-level either, but it was capable of producing a big stack of tiny men and having them kick you in the Bosporus.”

        And that right there is the reason I stopped playing Civ IV. Right about when Saladin decided my cities could be improved by a doomstack of camel archers.

        Losing…isn’t fun. If you keep losing at a game of Civ, you either drop a difficulty level or you stop playing it. With Civ IV, I stopped playing anything that wasn’t a really kickass mod.

        So yeah, this is a trade-off I’d make again in a heartbeat. I’d rather slog my way through three dozen stacks of infantry in a late-game I don’t even play than wake up one morning to find a doomstack of horse archers on my doorstep and no way to stop them (and no warning either).

        …no, seriously, there weren’t enough defensive units in my entire civ to repel that many camel archers. Civ IV unmodded can rot in peace!

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      Syt says:

      Civilization: Call to Power showed how you can shake stacks up.

      Stacked armies would fight together in phases: one phase for ranged combat, one for flanking units, one for close range units. Ideally, you would have a mix of units in an army to send to battle. Unfortunately, the balancing was off, and tanks would become OP because they counted as flankers and close range units.

    • Bugeater says:

      Disagree for sure. I stopped playing after CIV4. Hated not being able to end a turn with more than one unit per tile. Ruined the game.

  2. kwyjibo says:

    Instead of that boring Firaxis logo picture, you should put another picture of the sexy 2013 Jon Shafer from this article – link to

  3. Premium User Badge

    Captain Narol says:

    Holy Finnegan, Paradox is slowly becoming the Dream Team of Strategy Devs…

    Or, maybe more appropriately, the Godfather ?

  4. Premium User Badge

    Drib says:

    Grumble grumble, he was team lead at 21 for a major game studio, I’m 34 and working prod support in a cubicle.


    • syndrome says:

      I concur with your sentiment. /salt

      What do you do though? I’m a very good game architect/engineer/developer/designer myself (although everyone’s a designer nowadays, so yeah). The world needs new Paradoxes (in every sense of the word), maybe we, grumblers, could hook up.

      • herpderpetly says:

        Hey Syndrome, do you have items on the steam workshop? Worked on any games in the past? Would love to see what you’ve done mang. I just met these two guys who are modding an indie game I love (Game Dev Tycoon) into a movie making game instead of a “game making game”. I’m super excited about it. Sound interesting to you?

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    ErraticGamer says:

    I like listening to Jon Shafer a lot, don’t get me wrong, and I think he has a lot of good ideas, but it’s a little weird to see a full RPS article on him that only mentions At The Gates as something he’s “working on in his spare time”, like a hobby or something, when in fact it was a Kickstarter he raised over a hundred thousand dollars for 4 years ago and shows no signs of materializing anytime soon.

    I don’t regret the money I donated, and I’m hopeful that we’ll still see a game, but in 2013 the lead designer of Civ V was promising to “take strategy gaming to the next level”, and now it’s 2017 and Civ VI has come out and there’s still no At the Gates. This website was already saying that At The Gates felt “a lifetime ago” in 2014; the last time you reported on it, as far as I can find through the search bar and tags. Whether a person is mad about it or not, it’s certainly tough to believe it’s going to make the kind of waves he was promising if it’s just his back burner project now.

    I’m not saying he’s a Molyneux, but it’s a curious glossing over and lack of questioning about a hugely late, once-highly-anticipated crowdfunded game.

    • phanatic62 says:

      I agree with this comment.

      There was a LONG stretch of radio silence on the Kickstarter page, and only recently have their been a couple posts even acknowledging that AtG is still a thing. I think it said that the goal is now 2018, but this is at least the third or fourth date that has been given on that same forum, so I won’t hold my breath.

      The sad thing is that the Let’s Plays of AtG looked good and I would very much like to play it one day. I hope that day will come eventually!

      • phanatic62 says:

        This is from Kickstarter updates, so there may have been more information on other outlets. Here are the previously stated completion dates for At The Gates:

        Mar 8, 2013 – Kickstarter Funded – June 2014 estimate
        Dec 1, 2013 – Moved to 2015
        Nov 24, 2015 – Moved to Q1 2017
        May 7, 2017 – Moved to Jan 31, 2018

        And I get it – life happens and many a video game have taken a long time to get produced. I would just expect a bit more from RPS given the complete lack of information in this article for a game that once received a solid amount of press.

        • CaptainKoloth says:

          I’ve got to agree here, I was an early supporter of AtG and I feel like it’s just being swept under the rug with a big “screw you” to all the backers as various media outlets wax poetic about all the great stuff that will happen at Paradox… what the heck happened to AtG? There’s game delays and then there’s the game just flat out… not happening. Saying it’s on the back burner when it’s already 3 years late (on a schedule that was originally 1 year long in total) does not inspire great confidence. It’s just an issue of honesty at the root of it.

    • McGuit says:

      “I’m not saying he’s a Molyneux, but it’s a curious glossing over and lack of questioning about a hugely late, once-highly-anticipated crowdfunded game.”

      Yep, gave my money and heard little to nothing since then. What the heck? Are you releasing it or not? Get a pair.

    • Frank says:

      Maybe it’s a multi-part interview? Besides At the Gates, Adam throws that “influenced by Spelunky” bit at the top, but it doesn’t actually come up in the interview writeup.

  6. Rulin says:

    Very interesting!

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    Dorga says:

    Very interesting interview! Thanks

  8. Xocrates says:

    “the first half hour of every playthrough is exactly the same. You’re running around collecting carrots and berries, setting up a base. It’s the same loop over and over at the start of every game.

    By contrast, games like Civilization have the opposite problem.”

    Not really. Civ games have the same problem AND the repetitive boring late game. Frankly, the shitty early game is the reason I’ve never really clicked with civ VI even though I really want to.

    Civ is interesting in the period between the map/tech tree having opened up enough that you can actually make meaningful decisions, and the point where every one’s positions have consolidated enough that the game has essentially been decided.

    Frankly, the only civ game that I felt kind of avoids this is, perhaps ironically, Beyond Earth, since it’s the only one to keep options open at all times. Case in point: I finished a game yesterday where I started heading towards a Supremacy Victory, shifted to a Contact one once I realized it would be faster, and ended in a Dominion victory because I ended in a 6 way war because building the victory wonder pissed off the other civs (well, technically it only pissed 2 of them off, but them I allied to the other 3 so they could act as a buffer, however soon after one of them declared war on another which caused the alliance to become a 4 way free for all :-/ )
    Of course, I’ve seen people complain that this is what makes the game boring so… yeah.

  9. dmastri says:

    Ah yes here is the hard hitting games journalism that made me a fan of RPS so many years ago.

    Here’s a dev who lead a failed kickstarter project to the tune of $106,000 down the drain (despite the projected budget of $40,000) being given a complete puff piece about how great he is for the industry. Bullocks. And it’s not even the failed game that angers me the most, it’s the complete lack of communication. The latest update (promising more news soon!) was August 2016. The one before that? July 2015.

    There is nothing wrong with failure, but you have to own it.

    But clearly the more egregious thing here is mentioning it as a “side project in development” and leaving it at that. Was this a PR piece pre-negotiated with Shafer and Paradox? Because it sure reads like it.

  10. DevildogFF says:

    Seriously? WHY IS THE MEDIA GIVING THIS GUY A PASS ON AT THE GATES? He took $100k of OUR money and swore it’d be done in 2015, then 2017, now 2018, all the while going COMPLETELY RADIO SILENT for months, almost a year, with NOT A SINGLE UPDATE until a week before Paradox announced this crap.

    Thanks for being an advocate for us, RPS. /s

  11. Billtvm says:

    It appears He didnt leave from Firaxis and join Paradox directly, he spent a few years at Stardock in the interim. Article doesn’t say anything about Stardock and his time and work there, curiously.

  12. Tarfman says:

    Interesting article but absence of any serious question on AtG is glaring.

  13. Premium User Badge

    Captain Narol says:

    Did the people who kickstarted AtG got any (possibly private) explanation by M.Shafer about the fact that he joined Paradox and its implacation for the game future ?

    That’s the minimum he can do for his backers, at least. People can understand that he needs a job to eat and feed his family, but they deserve some official return.

  14. Lizardo says:

    “The reason it’s such a challenge is that you’re trying to map history onto this game and the fun part of 4X games is in the two first Xs. Exploration and Expansion.”

    The problem is intrinsic to 4x, what is needed is to migrate away from 4x to empire building. Blobbing the world, or galaxy, shouldn’t be the goal but to make your empire the best you can, however you define that.

  15. Bugeater says:

    Amazing article. This guy knows his stuff. “Stacks of death” in CIV may not have been the best but “one unit per tile” absolutely drives me insane. I stopped playing after CIV4 and will never go back to CIV ever again.

    I really agree with him how he says CIV is fun turn #1 through #200. I’ve started so many CIV games and once I explore the world I am done.

    Can’t wait to see what he does with Paradox which is superior to CIV in every way.

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