The Joy of a brand new undiscovered world

At first glance, it’s a canvas of green or yellow rather than the blue planet it will eventually become in the estimation of generations to come. Eventually, if progress isn’t halted, it’ll become nothing more than a dot.

In between that early vibrant canvas and the final departure, Earth is going to get a whole lot more cluttered though, and a whole lot uglier. I recently returned to Civilization VI [official site] and quickly realised that I had no desire to build or settle. All I wanted was to explore the untouched world.

A note before I begin: Civ VI isn’t the only 4X game that produces randomised worlds for me to sully with agriculture and industry, but as it’s fresh in my mind and because its pristine maps are particularly beautiful, ‘m going to use it as my primary example.

As a new game begins, the desire to leave the world untouched is an aesthetic impulse. That first city, usually planted in the very first turn, might look handsome nestled by a river delta, in the shade of a mountain range, but it’ll become a node in a network of roads and rails. It may not have the fidelity of later games but the age of steel and industry in the first Civ is as grim as any image of Dark Satanic Mills I can bring to mind right now.

railroads

Continents look like they’re riddled with cracks or festooned with cobwebs. The whole infrastructure is scaffolding on a world in the process of being constructed and the process of construction never seems to end. New layers on top of old layers until the green and the yellow and maybe even the blue can no longer be seen..

Don’t get me wrong – I love watching my cities as they grow, seeing the shift from open fires in clearings to checkerboards of electric light on the side of skyscraping glass and metal monstrosities. I love the districts that take up the surrounding land in Civ VI, and I love them for the music and sounds that they create as much as for the way they look. Cities are aesthetically pleasing too.

But once 4X games cease to be about exploration – the first of the Xs in the 4X formula – they rapidly become games about filling the map with stuff. The end result is that the map is obscured and, eventually, all but irrelevant. Technologically advanced transportation options for either tiles or units take away movement penalties, improvements that exploit the land initially require resources but eventually circumnavigate them to some extent, and eventually you reach the plateau of progress where everything is just fine but nothing is particularly unique anymore.

It’s only natural, at that point, to cast your mind back to those initial steps into the unknown. The first time you saw the ocean, impassable but bountiful. That mountain range that your scouts discovered, an obstacle and a shield, and maybe a proof of god (or gods). The mystery of the horizon.

Perhaps I want a 4X game about a nomadic people and perhaps At The Gates will be that game. But I also want the discovery of a new continent or archipelago to feel significant and that’s so rarely the case. By the time I’ve founded a second city and entrenched myself in neighbourly diplomatic disputes, exploration is just a way to find new spaces to fill. New Worlds feel too much like the Old World.

Is there a strategy game that will let me explore and exist without leaving a trace? If so, I don’t think I’ve ever found it, and that’s one reason why I start so many games of Civ without finishing them. I know what the tech tree is going to tell me and I know how my cities will look, but I still don’t know what’s beyond those mountains, or what the horizon might hold.

35 Comments

  1. shinkshank says:

    Yeah, I love exploring in games. It’s one of the reasons I still defend Minecraft – For all it’s faults, it still generates some really beautiful worlds that I can never get tired of. I can’t really think of any strategy games with such nice exploration elements though. Dorf is still there with amazing-looking worlds, but also doesn’t really let you explore them if you’re playing fortress mode.

    Speaking of At The Gates, is that still happening? I just checked the site and the last anything we got on it was the better part of a year ago.

    • Mezelf says:

      You named exactly the 2 games that come to mind when I remember games that nailed exploration.

      When I first played Dwarf Fortress many, many years ago I exclusively played Adventure mode, as I had no interest in building a fortress at the time. It’s not as mindblowingly deep and complex as Fortress mode, so if you can get over the UI and have are willing to use your imagination in place of actual graphics, I do recommend it to anyone that wants to taste some true video game exploration.

      Minecraft is a combination of Dwarf Fortress Fortress Mode + Adventurer Mode, except heavily simplified and with actual graphics.

      Also The Elder Scrolls and Fallout, obviously.

    • Premium User Badge

      Yossi says:

      Regarding At The Gates, the developer is now working for Paradox on another game, and supposedly continuing development in his spare time: link to rockpapershotgun.com

  2. NeutronSoup says:

    Completely identify with this feeling. I imagine I’ve completed about 1% of my Civ playthroughs, and I don’t feel bad about it at all. I get the most enjoyment out of exploring the map and laying out my empire, so why not start over and do more of that?

    There are some 4X games that recognize this and try to adapt. Warlock 2, in particular, has an interesting idea where the game is about moving across a series of interconnected small islands, so you keep discovering new territory throughout the game. It didn’t quite hold together for me, though.

    Thea: The Awakening is another interesting one, in that you are restricted to a single settlement, so exploring the map is less about looking to expand, and more about finding resources you can bring back, or new events to experience. It moves a little slowly for me, though, although maybe I’m not playing it correctly.

    • Aetylus says:

      Thea is perhaps the best recent example of a 4X emphasizing the eXplore. Its a bit of a shame that the early Civs were soooo good, they effectively stiffled a genre.

      Colonisation by comparison was more heavily focused on exploration. So was the wonderful Warlords series (before it’s sad decline into RTS). Other games like Imperialism provided a very different take on grand turn-based strategy. At a certain point though Civ became such a dominant genre norm as to stiffle innovation. Even modern ‘innovative’ 4X’s like Endless Legends are Civ clones by comparison to the variation in the 90’s.

      I’d dearly love to see a 4X focused solely on the Age of Exploration where the game effectively ended after everything was explored… the challenge would be identifying a ‘win state’ for such a scenario.

      • banski83 says:

        I loved the little “You have discovered the Pacific Ocean!” achievement you get in the original Colonization; surely that could be developed? I’d love an absolutely huge New World map in Colonization, with that as maybe one of the end goals. Civ maps never feel big enough to me.

  3. Premium User Badge

    Drib says:

    I seem to recall a game set in a kind of ice age that came out some months ago. Sorta-fantasy era, but you ran out little scouting parties and looked around for resources, then brought them back to home. Home was basically a Civ-type of city, but you only really ever got one.

    It had some vague norse influence. I can’t recall the name at all now, and it is annoying me.

    But it gave the impression of a Civ game stuck in the stone age, when you had a few scout units and nothing else.

    Edit: As NeutronSoup said above me, it’s Thea: The Awakening. I found it fun if frustrating, in the usual sorta-roguelike kind of way.

  4. draglikepull says:

    I know it’s not a 4X game (most of the time), but I think one game that handled this really well was Spore. By starting small, and then steadily expanding the scale, they created a game in which you can discover most of what exists around you at the current scale, but constantly have a new round of discovery available as each new scale kicks in. I wonder if a proper 4X game could be made using that kind of idea to enable the player to keep exploring at new levels of scale as they advance technologically.

    • Dogahn says:

      I think you just nailed what it is about spore that was great. Kind of overlooked by the gamers desire for classification (RPG, 4X, RTS, ???). Which ultimately doomed it, that and all the penis aliens.

  5. Premium User Badge

    wsjudd says:

    Whenever I travel and see a swathe of untamed land beneath me, I always get a ridiculous urge to play Civilization. I remember being in a tiny village in Scotland, on a beach looking out at the Atlantic, and thinking “this will do nicely for my first city…”

  6. sagredo1632 says:

    Actually, I think this is why I liked playing Spain in Civ V. The strategic search to find and claim territories near natural wonders was a new way to play. Granted, it was horribly unbalanced, with way too much variance in how the game would unfold, but searching for the Great Barrier Reef (if it existed) was always a lark. Starting your first city next to it was basically cheating.

  7. Zenicetus says:

    It’s not exactly “explore and exist without leaving a trace,” but Endless Legend has a mobile faction based on trade. They can move their cities to different areas, so you’re not stuck in the starting area and just building out from there.

    There is another mobile faction in Endless Space 2, sort of space vampires that live on space arks and drain planet inhabitants instead of settling down. Probably not what you’re looking for either, but I like how Amplitude stretches out with some of these ideas in 4X games.

    • Sin Vega says:

      Roving Clans are the best clan. But their nomadic ways are more of a cool and occasionally pivotal gimmick than an exploratory playstyle.

      Endless Legend is one of the most unspeakably gorgeous games ever made, though. Not just by strategy game standards either. And even the buildings/cities are pretty. I don’t play it often but when I do, I invariably stop every now and then just to sigh at how pretty it is.

      • Lacero says:

        The irregular map zones make me mad though, it massively cuts down on good city sites because a lot cross the edges of the zones and you’re not allowed to do that.

  8. cpt_freakout says:

    It would be amazing to have a simulation mode in games like Civ that accelerates time and lets you look at how your world will look like 1,000,000 years (or whatever) after you’ve finished your game. One of the things I liked the most from Torment Numenera was its approach to historical remnants as basically alien objects, from a context so distant or simply just so ravaged it’s incredibly hard to understand or even begin to conceptualize, but nevertheless it’s all integral to its imagined geography. In other words, it’s a history/geography so old it seems like new.

    I guess it’s a matter of inverting the ruling principles behind most 4x games, geared around the ideal (or ideology) of endless progress. What we would need is an anti-positivst, romantic 4x that dwells instead on decadence, on world-building as the construction of the ruins of the future.

  9. elracko says:

    This, in a way, is why I still go back and play Conquest of the New World. The ability to name mountains and rivers that you discovered is the main pull. Civ should certainly adopt that for the next go round.

    • morganjah says:

      I was thinking of that and Seven Cities of Gold.

    • Joriath says:

      I’ve been reading about the period 1450-1650 recently, (Parry’s Age of Reconnaissance, to be specific) and spent a couple of days fruitlessly searching for games to scratch the itch of a well designed exploration game in that period reflecting some of the navigational complexities of the era. Aside from Sid Meier’s Colonization – a game I hold strong affection for and dip in and out of every so often – my search was unsuccesful.

      • Lacero says:

        The original colonisation was my favourite for this, but for some reason the identical remake has never clicked the exploration button for me.

  10. lglethal says:

    This. But for me Stellaris is the game this affects more than any other. I do not know how many games I have started in Strellaris, but I’ve never got past the mid game (actually I’m not even sure I’ve ever even hit the mid game!). I explore and explore, but eventually you get either hemmed in or the pressures of your empire and your neighbours, start meaning the exploration is now only the minority of your time, and I cant help it, at that point, I lose interest.

    If you ever find that perfect exploration game Adam, please let me know! ;)

    • mejobloggs says:

      I’ve been playing Northgard recently. It isn’t a big map so won’t suite your exploring needs but it has some neat ideas.

      It’s a cross between Age of Empires and Settlers of Catan. Plus it has weather and seasons, and half your battle is keeping your people alive during winter, fending off wolves and other such things.

      I really liked the fact that you can choose to play with no enemies.

      Pretty neat. Just you, exploring the map and keeping your people alive.

    • Dogahn says:

      I was thinking of stellaris and how on a sufficiently large map, there is huge potential for exploration. Where you could go for hours exploring galaxies, losing science ships, discovering and resolving anomalies. However, you do get hemmed in by the AI’s expansion or xenophobia.

      Which makes me wonder if a mod could be made that replaces the sector system with a splintering system. When you hit the core world limit you get the option to build a splinter colony. The influence cost would be lower, but you basically start over at the new colony, tech level equivalent to when you left the previous and an ethic linked to a faction previously established. Unlike sectors, you only have diplomatic ties to the previous splinters. Since they’re on automatic, they’ll change over time.

      It’s something like starting with everyone else in advanced starts, but you’re not in a tech-hole.

  11. Joriath says:

    I’m very much the same. I do think that the sixth iteration of Civ is better in this regard than its predecessors, in that there is some consideration for strategic exploitation of the land; you’re still ‘exploring’ the geographical possibilities even after discovering them. Nonetheless, as relatively passive player I do find the enjoyment begins to decline as soon as the borders of your locality become defined by other states or city states. The same goes, to echo Iglethal, for Stellaris; I can’t count the number of games I’ve restarted having found myself hemmed in to a small locality by larger and/or more powerful neighbours.

  12. willow731 says:

    You can explore endlessly and not leave a trace behind in Everything. Not a 4X but more like a 1X. Or a 2X… explore, exchange.

  13. Premium User Badge

    Nauallis says:

    Civ 2 and 5 have so far had the best map generation for exploration purposes – Civ 2 because there was essentially a secondary exploration phase that would happen after you unlock the engineer, and the transform terrain ability. Suddenly it was possible to effectively colonize those really crappy parts of the map. And if you changed enough, you also had to deal with climate change, and the sea level rising. That was an incredible game mechanic in the mid-90’s. Turned too many areas to grasslands? Welp, suddenly about 25% of the map is swamp/marsh (you get plenty of warning though). Too much uncleaned fallout? Ice caps melt. I think Civ 5 was better for map generation variety (30+ vs ~12), but Civ 6 produces more interesting maps overall for the game you actually play. I really miss the “Highlands” map type from Civ 5. I’ll play Civ 6 any day hands down, except for map generation and the highlands map specifically.

    I think the crucial element in exploration is in the story you can tell about the places you’ve been, whether it’s virgin land and ready to be exploited, or in the case of games like Stellaris and No Man’s Sky, discovering the ruins/leftovers of predecessors. I feel like neither Stellaris nor NMS really satisfy the “what’s over the horizon” urge in a meaningful way, because much of the cool tech and meaty lore in Stellaris is locked behind a lot of research or never seems to spawn near a player’s start location… or you need a huge fleet to defeat the guardians of the tech that you do find. Either way, it’s a huge time investment, and it involves doing (boring) things that are NOT exploration in order to get there. For No Man’s Sky, it’s the fact that the lore has zero crossover with the world generation. This cool story tidbit about the gek? Doesn’t matter what the ruin looks like, or if it even appears to be a castle or something. In fact, that’s the single worst part about the gameplay experience, that there really is an intriguing story but by all accounts it has nothing whatsoever to do with the experience the player is having. It’s just not sexy, it’s boring.

    Huge shoutout to that top comment about Minecraft, because it really does scratch that itch, if pure exploration is your thing. If it’s not, we get into that argument about “what’s the point of this game.”

    • CalvinCoolidge says:

      Yes! Highlands! Most of the time I’ve spent playing Civ 5 has been navigating the terrain of the Highland map. I haven’t picked up 6 yet…sad to hear the Highlands map is absent.

    • Lacero says:

      I am so sad climate change was removed from civ.

      The (as was) settler pollution cleanup whack a note game was stupid, but at core it was a great way to keep the map relevant. Alpha centauri did it better with the height map and the fungal problem.

  14. Beanbee says:

    A terrible admission!

    I love a fresh map, scouting out, the feeling oh ‘Oh Come On!’ when you missed a perfect spot by just a couple tiles of WAR-FOG.

    However, I love reloading the seed, and crushing the world as some kind of omniscient being even more >:D

  15. Lacero says:

    I love this kind of gameplay, the little game I’m failing to make in my free time is exactly about this. The first hundred turns of civ crossed with the grow flash games.

    So I thought I’d namedrop some interesting takes on this. Civ 4 mod Fall From Heaven 2 had an map generator that very often generated separated valleys, so exploration was bounded by mountains with little passes through them. This gave lots of choke points and helped direct your exploration a bit. The demon faction, if summoned, would corrupt the ground itself, similar to creep in starcraft, changing the map and making it harder to move around.

    Also in civ 4 the boreal map was an endless forested tundra. In normal civ4 this was a little disappointing and annoying, but in ffh2 it made the hawk scout units essential for avoiding barbarians in the thick forest, and gave a very distinct air of deadly ancient magical forest to the game.

    Another similar game is the elemental series, ignoring the mess of the first game, fallen enchantress had premade quest locations seeded into the word map. This was always a little predictable in the end but was so good the first time!
    Also this was the first recent game of this type that had multi tile cities, leading to endless legend and civ 6.

    Endless legend has been mentioned, similar to alpha centauri I think the height map is the most interesting thing here. AC did more with it, affecting rainfall and energy, but the cliffs and hills of endless legend make exploration more of a maze than most other games and that was a nice change.

    I think I’m done. Feel free to write more on this Rps :)

  16. noodlecake says:

    There was that game with a similar name to Renowned Explorers that was pretty fun. I hated Renowned Explorers but I can’t remember the name of the game I’m thinking of. The map felt similar to a civ map, but you arrived on an island and wandered around visiting temples and villages and could recruitne characters along the way. It’s going to bug me that I can’t remember the name of it now. >.<

    It came out the same year as Renowned Explorers too! And had a similar name.

    I think pushing the concept of that game I can't remember the name of would be great, and totally emphasise what this article talks about.

Comment on this story

XHTML: Allowed code: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>