Rob Zacne and Troy Goodfellow over at Three Moves Ahead (which just celebrated its 250th episode!) had a discussion this week about the new game Pandora, from Proxy Studios.  It’s billed as a “spiritual successor” to Alpha Centauri, one of the all-time greats of the strategy genre, and is about the colonization of an alien world by rival ideological factions.

Hearing the discussion of Pandora, and thinking back to my own time with Alpha Centauri, I started thinking about how those games match up with some of the novels I read back in the day about the same topic.  The Legacy of Heorot, by Niven and Pournelle and Barnes, is one example, while Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars Trilogy is another example a bit closer to home.  In these books, the colony is quite small, and it is very clear that everyone’s skills and everyone’s knowledge and everyone’s labor is vitally important to the survival of the colony.  Getting people to such a distant place is really, really hard, and there aren’t any reinforcements on the way.  Every contribution matters, and every loss hurts.

This sort of setting clashes with one of the most basic mechanics of 4X games in the lineage of Civilization – the city.  Cities start small, but grow regularly.  The people in a city are generic population points, who can be assigned to do various different things, but are pretty much interchangable generic units.  Alpha Centauri actually called them drones.  The sort of small-group politicking that creates tension and interest  in the aforementioned novels is flattened entirely, and projected out onto multiple conflicting civilizations.

There’s one game I can think of in which the personalities and conflicts within a small group have been used to create interesting gameplay mechanics, and that is King of Dragon Pass.  The basic model of that game might be adapted to make a smaller-scale game of alien colonization.

Imagine Alpha Centauri, but where all the leaders had to try and live together for the majority of their lives to ensure that the mission survived and succeeded.  Instead of taking place across the entire globe, imagine the game revolving around the initial landing site, and the first tentative steps into the alien wilds beyond.  Imagine that every colonist had a name, skills, and beliefs, but that some are more influential than others.  Crusader Kings might provide a model here – the most skilled and charismatic leaders amongst the first colonists would be the leaders of major ideological factions, and colonists might be tied to them by their profession, their nationality, or by their own beliefs.  As new discoveries are made, and as problems arise with the colony, the player would have to balance these groups and their ideas against each other, all the while ensuring that buildings get built, farms get planted, wildlife gets studied, and nobody gets killed.

This would be a much more story driven game than something like Alpha Centauri, where the story is implicit from the lore but only rarely intrudes onto gameplay.  But it would be interesting and unique.