Big, slow, sweeping strategy games expose their rules in a way no other game does. Call of Duty doesn’t have floating numbers above enemy heads, telling you their movement speed, for example. But in most 4X and grand strategy games, there is no attempt to hide exactly how everything works: the stats, their interactions, are all laid out and plain to see. Yet these games are utterly dependent on their ability to evoke a sense of place, scale, and history – they have to be much more than just a fancy chessboard, they have to feel alive, or they’re just not much fun. How can these games survive and thrive under such conflicting pressures? I spoke to three of the world’s top strategy game designers, from Firaxis, Paradox and Amplitude, to find out.
For Romain de Waubert de Genlis, creative director at Amplitude Studios, it’s all about depth and thoroughness of imagination. “When we work on our fantasy games – fantasy universes – we must believe in the place you’re in. That sense of belief we do a lot through the writing and the visuals that we develop around it. So if we look at the visual side of things, it always goes with this whole thing of, ‘how do you create a fantasy world and universe?’ Why are some of them compelling and others not?”
The answer, he told me, is believability. “The fact that it is believable doesn’t mean it’s not fantasy, it’s not crazy. We can make it crazy. But it needs to be logical. It needs to make sense. It needs to refer to things that you know about without even knowing that you know about.”
To create something fantastical, you need to draw inspiration from somewhere: “We try to dig into real-world history a lot. We had in Endless Space 1, and as a minor in Endless Space 2 as well, the Hissho. They’re a warrior faction. OK, fine, what do we think of as players when we think about warriors? Armours, codes, ways of making from ancient Japan, the middle ages – we used that a lot, and we mixed it, to make it very odd and different, with other cultures, especially pre-Columbian South America. And it’s that odd little mix which first made it different yet easy to relate to. Just by looking at the creatures of the Hissho faction, you more or less understand what their motivations are. Although we are talking about, you know, alien chickens in space, basically – strangely enough, it is believable when you look at it.”
Once you have that believable world, the next step for de Waubert is to use it to create characterful twists on the game mechanics. “As game designers, we first set the rules and then find factions that will have just one purpose: to break at least one of these major rules. Normally what we have actually is one faction – most of the time it will be a human faction because we know that‘s what players will tend to play first – and basically with that faction they will define the normal way to play the game. And everything else we’ll design around that is meant to break it.”
Johan Andersson, creative director at Paradox Game Studio, takes a different tack. “I remember playing an old Sid Meier game when I was a kid, called Pirates. The old Commodore 64 version. I saw that cities grow richer and poorer and so I was like, ‘OK, if I attack all the pirates around here, keep it clear, this city should thrive.’ I thought there was this great simulation inside of it.
"And then one day, accidentally, I hit the run stop button, and I was like ‘OK, part of this game is running in Basic, and I can read the actual source code!’ – which you could do on the C64 tape version. And I realised that no, it doesn’t do all these things, it’s just random. And then I lost my suspension of disbelief. It was just a game, it was not this simulation I built up in my fourteen-year-old mind. And I never played the game after that. So for me that’s kind of shaped how I want to make games – I want people to feel that it’s a world there, and I don’t want it to be, when you’re looking behind a curtain, that it’s just a man there with two strings. I want it to be like thousands of strings, at least, so you don’t get fooled.”
This aesthetic of simulation underpins Andersson's whole game design philosophy. “You know the saying ‘you can’t see the forest because of all the trees’? Human minds work kind of like that: when we get so many things happening, there’s things between them that we fill in. We don’t pay attention to the details, but we know that the details are there, and you don’t really need to have all these details for you to assume that there are things in between.” Paradox’s games embody this philosophy in multiple respects. “If you’re looking at Europa Universalis, we have hundreds and hundreds of different countries, and the amount of different actors there creates so much independent behaviour that it creates this suspension of disbelief,” he told me. “But it’s not just these playable entities or playable actors – we have other things in the background like rebels, you have things that we simulate that are not really part of the actor things but are represented by, let’s say, an event.”
This approach is not without its downsides, though. Ed Beach, lead designer on Civilization VI, is acutely aware of its intrinsic tensions. “I do think you have a richer game experience with more agents involved,” he told me, but “it becomes a tricky challenge to present that information to players in a concise and appropriate way, so they can get all those details on what the diplomatic landscape looks like, without it becoming overwhelming, especially if you have too many agents involved.”
Instead, Beach aims for quality over quantity. “We try to make sure that your opponents in the world feel like they’re distinct personalities, and that they have a lot of personality and character, and that those are wrapped up in who they were historically. So we want people to have an immediate reaction if they meet Alexander the Great or they meet Teddy Roosevelt, like ‘OK, now I know some things about this particular opponent, I’m going to have to watch out for them, either militarily, or through espionage, or maybe they’re an economic powerhouse, or whatever.’” In Civ VI, he said, “what we tried to play up was, we have an agenda system – so that the different leaders work different ways, and that they each have something in the diplomatic landscape that they care about deeply.”
Above and beyond the leaders themselves, Beach sees the opportunity for drama in timing. “I think there are moments in any good game – and definitely in a Civilization game – that are the moments that you want to immediately share with your friends. Something that surprises you, something where there were only a few turns left before something was going to happen, you had to rush in there and do it quickly. Those are the kind of moments that you want to make sure happen not just once – a Civ game is a long game – you want to make sure that’s happening four or five different times.
"One of the things that we did [in Civilization VI] is we added a new status for cities where a city is either under siege or not, and that all has to do with whether or not the six hexes around the city have an enemy unit in now, or at least an enemy zone of control in them. It becomes very, very dramatic because if your city’s under siege it does not heal at all, and that probably halves the amount of time it can hold out. If it’s not healing its hitpoints from the damage it's taking at the end of the turn, you’re going to lose that city very, very quickly. So we’ve had a lot of dramatic fights around cities, and sometimes it’s just about poking that hole in the enemy besieging lines so you can get the supplies in and your city can heal – that often makes the difference.”
This emphasis on the importance of time extends to the large scale, as well as the small. “You almost have to reimagine and recreate the setting 5 or 6 different times throughout the game, because you Renaissance happens, then you get to the modern world, then you get to the very, very modern world with nuclear weapons and the information age.” This change of setting is not merely cosmetic, but fundamentally changes the gameplay. “We introduce brand new mechanics and systems midway through the game – so, for instance, espionage is not around in the beginning of the game at all. The other thing that we do is we take existing mechanics – like, maybe, combat – and scale them up or twist the way they work.”
This temporal sensitivity is a point of commonality between Beach and de Waubert, along with their focus on differentiated factions. “Our very signature is to try to, of course, surprise the players with stuff [they] don’t believe is possible or could happen,” de Waubert told me. “Stuff that can change the rhythm of the game in some way. In Endless Legend you had the winter coming in – there was a picture that first gave a strong sense of urgency to the game – it’s like, ‘oh God!’, you know, ‘I thought it was, like, everything was beautiful, but it’s dying!’”
The key element in all this, though, is the map, as all three designers agree. “It has to make you dream and find beautiful what you find. You need to be able to read it, understand it, and yet it needs to make you dream,” said de Waubert. “It was pretty clear early in the design [of Civ VI] when we hit upon the unstacking cities concept that all of a sudden there was going to become a lot more gameplay information that was out there on the map,” Beach told me. “But we also felt like if we came up with a consistent style, if we made everything in the game world animate and move and be lit and have a different state whether there was a citizen working that tile or not working that tile, all of a sudden the graphics were going to bring to life exactly what was happening in our game world, and that was going to be a powerful tool to draw our players in and engage them.”
For Andersson, whose games mostly use historical maps, this effect is even more pronounced. “If you play Europa Universalis you get a lot of these things for free if you know a little bit about geography,” he said. “To be brutally honest, I so much prefer having a historical map at the mid- and end-game, because when I’m playing like a Civilization or a Stellaris game, they are all the same or – that’s a bit brutal there – but when you reach like 30-40% towards victory, there’s not much difference afterwards. It’s more like ‘well, where am I, where do I happen?’ But in a real-world map, you’re more like, ‘Yeah, I’m in France. I’m going to conquer the world. OK. That means I have to deal with these things first.’ And I know like, yeah, there was going to be a big huge Ottoman Empire that will control the Middle East most likely, and when I reach Asia, yeah, there might be the Chinese Empire.”
The common theme, though, is that the sense of a world behind the mechanics is as important to long-form strategy games as it is to RPGs. “If [Civilization] was all about mechanics and you weren’t immersed in the world that you were playing in, and you weren’t getting a sense that there was a real, living entity, that has its own unique characteristics and time periods and so forth, then it would get kind of dry,” said Beach. Andersson and de Waubert were more emphatic. “The most important thing for me when playing a game is that I don’t want it to feel that I’m playing a game. I want it to be that I’m playing an experience, that I am actually in that experience,” said Andersson. “The end result is, you deliver a dream,” said de Waubert. “You just want your player to travel far away from their seat. 4X is extremely good at that, in the sense that you will own the story that you are creating. It’s your story. It’s not someone else’s.”