Obviously, this needs a new title.

I got the idea for this game listening to the Three Moves Ahead podcast from last year about Warlock – Master of the Arcane.   A couple topics of conversation caught my ear, and reminded me of some ways in which the classic 4X model simply does not fit the Fantasy Theme all that well.

However, I think I should start by describing some things that I think are important to creating a proper “Fantasy Theme.”  These are obviously entirely objective and universally agreed upon by anyone of sound mind, as I am an all-knowing oracle of wisdom and aesthetic judgement whose statements are in fact proclamations of eternal law.  Ahem.

  • There’s almost always the sense of an impending evil which must be opposed.  This isn’t just “oh, the neighboring bad kindgom is bad!”, but something a bit more – Sauron’s army of Orcs is the prototypical example.  Obviously not all fantasy features this, but it’s safe to say that it is a genre staple.
  • Heroes have to do the really important things.  Mobs of ordinary folk aren’t enough.  Need an ancient spell unearthed, monsters slain, legendary artifact found/forged/re-forged/quenched?  You need some heroes, not a bunch of dudes with spears from the villages.  Unless they’re heroic dudes with spears.
  • Kings and Lords are usually not all that interested in fighting the great and ancient evil, and usually are doing a pretty damn crappy job of governing in general.  After all, if big government was dealing with goblins in the forests and trolls under the bridges, peasant orphan boys wouldn’t need to reach for that spark of heroism deep within themselves, and would instead be dependent on government handouts.  Or something.
  • Magic simply can’t be as common, predictable, and reliable as science, and it’s can’t be a substitute for technology.  Otherwise, you get Harry Potter, where every modern convenience is re-skinned with magic.  It needs to be its own thing, rare and powerful and only slightly controllable.
  • There need to be dangerous places in the world, beyond the realms of man, where cool stuff awaits those brave enough to find it.

That said, what problems does the 4X genre have with fantasy?

  • “Producing Units” makes no sense in anything other than the modern context.  The only game I’ve ever played that gets this right is Crusader Kings 2, and the warfare in that game is correspondingly authentic-feeling and awesome.    No, you can produce a group of guys with spears . . . and not the heroic sort.  And guys you could “produce” shouldn’t be all that useful.
  • “Producing Units” sounds and feels especially odd when we’re in a fantasy context.  Your city “Produces” Minotaurs, or a Dragon?  Yeah, right.  Gamey Gamey Gamey. Even worse – can you “produce” a hero?  I think not!
  • “Wars of Attrition,” something that is apparently a particular problem in Warlock, are a modern problem, and don’t really fit the theme all that well.
  • The Dark Age/Golden Age problem.  So many high fantasy stories and settings are based on the idea of the scattered, weakened, and demoralized forces of good having to come together at the last moment to defeat the newly resurgent forces of evil.  This is a cool and thematic setting that will NEVER show up in a 4X game.  Players always start at the same level, and no good player will ever leave his realm scattered and weak and demoralized, because that would never happen with a single intentional immortal ruler calling the shots.  That happens when greedy petty individuals screw things up and forget the lessons of their ancestors.  The Golden Ages never really show up in gaming as well – they’re kinda boring.  Civ 4 and 5 give you bonuses and stuff, but it’s not terribly thematic.
  • Research doesn’t make all that much sense.  The War of the Ring was not won when Gandalf discovered Improved Fireball Three.  “Research” as a concept doesn’t really fit anything but the modern era anyway, and as it’s usually represented in 4X games it doesn’t even describe modern technological advancement all that well.
  • Building new cities would be, at best, something that happens during those Golden Ages of yore, not during the ramp-up to a war against Ultimate Evil.  I’m not a big fan of the whole idea of founding cities, as it buys into the particularly American “Empty World” idea, the notion that there has ever been new land for civilized people to go out and settle.  Anyways, how long was the War of the Ring, really?  A couple years, maybe?  In that time, you’re barely going to get a wooden hamlet started, let alone anything meaningful built.  Construction of anything doesn’t have much place in a Fantasy game, in my opinion – at least not like you see it in the traditional 4X game.

So, here’s my idea.

In this game, you play a dynasty of Kings/Queens/Whatevers in a fantasy land.  Each round of the game, you play out the life and rule of one member of your dynasty, game out the heroic deeds done in your name, defeat evil, and then make some decisions about how your Kingdom will take advantage of the Golden Age that follows the Great War Against Evil.  Then the game resets – time passes, your Great King and his Okay Son and his Tolerable Grandson pass, and your Igornate Great-Grand-Nephew and his annoying relatives screw things up.  Start round two.

The game has two main phases – the War phase, and the Peace phase.  The meat of the game takes place in the war phase.  Each War phase is predicated on a particular nasty challenge – Sauron in the East, or the Goblin King rising in the mountains, or whatever.  You are the Great King, but your predecessors kinda let things go to crap during the long times of peace behind you.  As King, you have to pull things together and make your stand against the Dark.  Find heroes across the land, send them to get the things that need to be got, gather enough armies of normal dudes to fill up the ranks, pull your squabbling lords and allies into line, etc.  This takes place during a span of two or three years – no construction, and very few raising of units is involved.  Instead, you have to figure out how to motivate the various Lords and Allies and Neutral powers around the land to throw in their forces, and to do it with gusto.  This process would be part Crusader Kings-style dynastic wrangling, part hero-allocation, and (maybe) part tactical battle game.  At the same time, you have to figure out how to deploy your meagre and insufficient armies so as to protect as much as possible from the Hordes of Evil, and hold out until you have what you need to put down the evil, whether it be an ancient artifact, lost magic, or a great big army.

Okay, you win, Evil is Defeated, etc.  Depending on how well you did during the War phase, you’ll get a number of “political capital” points.  These allow you to build things and reform problems during the Golden Age that follows.  Send farmers to cultivate new lands, build new mines in the Mountains of Madness, open trade routes to Distant Hyperbolia, reform your succession laws so that your scheming in-laws are less likely to take power during a bad regency, and whatnot.

The damage you took during the War phase, and the improvements you made during the Golden Age, are then plugged into the system to create a new start point for the next Great King of your lineage.  Every choice you made will have consequences – did you assasinate the leader of the Western Lords to bring them into line?  It may have paid off in the short term, but their descendents will be a lot more wary of you in the future.  Did you send settlers to farm the valley of the Old Floody?  Now you have to protect those people from the Spiders of the Woods.  Those villages you abandoned to the Horde so you could concentrate your strength for a last stand?  Now the angry ghosts of those people are after you.

This would be complicated in all kinds of ways to develop, because nothing even vaguely like it has ever been attempted.  However, I think it would be really awesome.