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RPS Exclusive: Hinterland Designer Diary

Tilted Mill are one of those developers who are quintessentially PC. Risen from the ashes of Impressions Games, the hugely respected studio behind the Caesar, Pharaoh and Lords of the Realm series, they coolly made their own name with their first title, Children of the Nile. Things didn't go so well when they picked up the reigns of Caesar its fourth instalment or Sim City for the recent Societies, but the extensive, redemptive patching of the latter proved this was definitely a company that cared. The real proof of this was the announcement they were going to go it alone, self-publishing their own titles - starting with an enhanced version of Children of the Nile and, just last week, followed up with by fascinating RPG/city-builder hybrid Hinterland: a game most of RPS (excluding Crazy John Walker) were desperate to play.

Below the cut, the game's producer and co-designer Mat Williams writes exclusively for RPS about the thinking behind Hinterland - and why it has much in common with that most ubiquitous of man-fads, poker.

Hinterland and Poker
In poker you have little or no control over the hands you’re dealt. You might start strong, or you might start weak. You might draw great cards or you might draw poor ones. Furthermore, you have little or no information about what your opponent holds. Once you’ve placed a bet you can’t go back, you have to live with your decision. But there’s always an opportunity for another bet, you don’t have to wait long before trying to adjust your strategy. In poker you make strategic decisions based on highly random conditions and there’s always something at stake. If you lose, you lose, and there is no going back. These are some of the interesting dynamics I wanted to explore in Hinterland.

Most computer games contain save/load mechanisms, easy re-tries, or are so forgiving that it’s effectively impossible to lose. This means your actions and decisions are basically consequence-free. Imagine a game of poker with no stakes… not quite the same. I play a lot of non-computer games whether they’re board games, card games (more on that later), or sports. In all of them there’s a winner and a loser. In some cooperative board games like Arkham Horror, there’s a distinct possibility of a loss for everyone playing.

In most traditional games the opponent with the higher skill will win out. One of the ways to mitigate this is through randomization. In a completely un-randomized game like chess the opponent with the higher skill will always win. In a game like Scrabble, where there is some element of luck, even with a great divergence in skill the weaker player can sometimes win, but will usually lose. At the far end of the spectrum you have games like craps, which are completely random, and have no skill factor.

In poker the highly skilled player will usually win over time, but the high random factor means that in any given hand anyone can win. Unlike poker, where all opponents are playing the same game, in Hinterland the opponent is the world itself, and the world doesn’t play the same way as the player! The only skill level that counts is the skill of the player trying to establish his town. But just like poker, in Hinterland the hand that you’re dealt can vary widely, and forces you to make tough strategic decisions, that vary from game to game and within the course of the game, without having perfect knowledge of the current conditions, or the upcoming conditions.

A single hand of poker can go very quickly - you might just look at your cards and fold immediately. But an evening of play is made up of a lot of hands, and as you play you can learn more about the opponents you’re playing against, and adjust your strategies. A game of Hinterland follows this same pattern. There’s randomness, but that randomness repeats in a consistent manner, allowing you to learn and make strategic decisions over time. The more games you play, the more you learn about the probabilities and glean the patterns that do exist, allowing you to get better over time. Because the games are relatively short, you have a lot of room for experimentation. You can try different strategies, you can roll the dice several times.

In poker, some people play for pennies and other people for thousands of dollars. Some people want to play with wildcards and some don’t. But they’re still basically playing the same game. In Hinterland when we first started play testing many areas of the game, particularly combat, were much more randomized than they ended up being in the final version. You ultimately had little or no real control on your likelihood of success. It was too much like rolling dice! But approaching it this way allowed us to know just where to draw the line with respect to randomness – not just in terms of ‘how much’ randomness, but specifically which elements needed to remain highly random and which needed to be a little more directed, in order to bring out the strategy game. We used a similar approach with respect to the custom game options, gradually adding more options to allow you more varied starting conditions, to create the experience you want to have. Similarly, the difficulty levels allow you to choose the stakes you’re comfortable playing at.

I like where we’ve ended up. Like poker, in Hinterland even the best player can be faced with challenges and decisions they haven’t seen before. Winning at the higher levels is a genuine accomplishment, made all the more sweet by the possibility of loss. You can win big, you can win small, you can lose, and you’ll probably have fun doing any of them.

Mat Williams

Hinterland is available on Steam now.

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Alec Meer avatar

Alec Meer


Ancient co-founder of RPS. Long gone. Now mostly writes for rather than about video games.