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Jon Shafer, Blogger

February 22, 2013

20 Min Read

You can read more of Jon's thoughts on design and project management at his website. You can also find him on Twitter.

Me, hard at work coming up with awesome new ideas for At the Gates! Okay, not really. I was actually trying to figure out how to put together a half-decent video. Maybe I should just stick to game design.

Me, hard at work coming up with awesome new ideas for At the Gates! Okay, not really. I was actually trying to figure out how to put together a half-decent video. Maybe I should just stick to game design...


If you haven’t done so already, I ask that you check out the At the Gates Kickstarter page. Our goal is to innovate and take strategy gaming to the next level, but this campaign will be our sole source of funding for development. And hint, hint: the more successful ATG is the more articles you’ll have to read in the future!

To those of you who have already contributed and helped us reach our funding goal, I offer my most sincere thanks!


A few folks have asked me about what my design docs look like, some out of curiosity and others because they’ve either done so already, or are considering contributing to the $125 tier for our Kickstarter campaign for At the Gates (where you gain full access to the design docs for ATG). I figured it would be both helpful and interesting to post a section of one of my brainstorming docs, and provide a taste of how I develop ideas.

The document from which this excerpt is taken is dedicated to gameplay pacing and progression. As I always like to say, everything is liable to change, so don’t regard anything I say in this article to be set in stone. Hell, I’m sure some of it is already way out-of-date, even though I last updated it in late November!

This doc was extremely helpful though, as it helped crystallize some of my ideas for how the mid and late-game of ATG should play out. It also helped inspire the exchanging gifts “minigame” that occurs when you first meet another leader.

This article is a bit “tighter” than a lot of my brainstorming, since I’m outlining how I want things to work and stepping back to see if there might be opportunities or flaws I’d been missing with earlier brainstorming.

Most of the docs brainstorming are actually me simply throwing ideas against the wall and toying with concepts in case something interesting falls out. (I actually just came up with a really good one yesterday, but I can’t talk about it yet, sorry!) These docs would be fun to share too, but I figured that a more structured section would be more immediately relevant to the game. And, of course, if you want to see more there’s always our $125 tier to consider!

What follows is, word for word, literally what I wrote for my own purposes many months ago, long before I had any idea I would be sharing this publicly. It comprises approximately one third of the “Pacing & Progression” doc.

I hope you all enjoy this glimpse into the brain of a strategy game designer!




Pacing & Progression: Game Outline

Last Updated: 2012 November 20


What are players doing and thinking about as they progress through the game?

Hmmm, the first turn... what do we have here?

Hmmm, the first turn... what do we have here?

Turn 1


The game starts in March or April so that players have some time to get their feet under them before winter sets in and makes life difficult.



Players begin with only the area immediately around them revealed. Given the absolute necessity of exploring, we should start every player with at least one Scout.

Initially-visible items include roughly 3 of either resources, neutral Improvements or Goodies. These (plus Faction traits) help shape the player’s early-game strategy.


At the very beginning of a game players have ~2 Settlements with ~3 Pop each. There’s really no need to have too many since they won’t be able to do much this early anyways.

The first order of business is to make sure one’s people get fed, as players only start with ~1 Farm and ~12 turns of Food in reserve. They might build another Scout on turn 1, or they could train 1 or 2 of Basic Infantry in preparation for knocking some heads together. Sitting pat with the starting situation so that more info can be gathered is also viable.


Players might get some Basic Infantry ready so that they can capture nearby Improvements, but that’s pretty much it.

Strategic Opportunities

If players have resources nearby it pushes them towards economic development, whereas other neutral tribes suggest a military buildup – the number of which that are visible determining how many should be trained.

Turns 2 to 6


The “okay, I see what’s going on here” phase. Players start to address problems and lay plans for the early-game.



Players will have grabbed a handful of Goodies and identified a few good targets, almost certainly a Farm among them. Both Hostile Tribes and Merc Camps will probably have been spotted as well. It’s likely the Romans and at least one other player will have been met. Players now have a good idea of what’s in the surrounding area.


Players likely capture a Farm, which stabilizes the Food situation – for now. However, now their supply of Wood starts to diminish, and it’s time to find some Logging Camps. Players have the option to build one or even two of them themselves, but such a move should very rarely be necessary.


All players will have trained at least 1 or 2 Infantry in order to start picking off neutral Improvements, and have done this already or will shortly.


Even though another player has likely been met, there’s not much to do yet – everyone is still getting their feet under them and neither invading nor completing requests are feasible at this point. It’s possible to trade Resources if there’s a fit on both sides, but that’s unlikely this early.

One thing players realistically can do at this stage is exchange gifts of Wealth, which provides a cheap opportunity to boost Relations. This would certainly add a new element to the first meeting that is missing from all other 4X games!

New Challenges

If a Farm hasn’t been captured yet, the Food situation will start to get a little troublesome. If nothing is nearby players might be forced to spend Wood building another Farm. A smaller concern is that if there are several Hostile Tribes nearby, it might necessitate the player invest more heavily in his military.

Strategic Opportunities

Players now know what’s around them, both good and ill. This opens up the game a fair bit:

  • Build up an army and grab neutral Improvements?

  • Train more Scouts to explore?

  • Focus on one particularly abundant resource?

Ahhh, winter... we meet again.

Ahhh, winter... we meet again.

Turns 7 to 12


During this stage players start to seriously hone in on some form of early-game strategy. They also experience the hardship of winter #1.



At this point players should know enough about what’s around them to start moving their Settlements, either in preparation for an attack of some sort or to more easily exploit nearby resources.

Scouts probably need to encamp to avoid taking damage during the winter months. Reckless players can instead ride them to the bone since Scouts don’t really need a lot of HP anyways, but there is a cost to this – with 0 Supply they’ll take damage crossing anything that’s not Fertile. So players will eventually have to stop and catch their breath no matter what.


Farms shut off in the winter, so hopefully everyone has stocked up enough Food to make it until spring. Besides that, players enter the eternal “stealing from Peter to pay Paul” cycle that is the ATG economic system: Metal runs low, time to find some Iron… Wood runs low, time to build some Logging Camps… Food runs low, time to pillage some Farms. And so on. Forever.

At this stage or perhaps in the year which follows players will start constructing their own Improvements instead of simply capturing those belonging to others.


Players continue consolidating their situations, capturing Improvements (4 max) and Hostile Strongholds. Players might recruit from or even capture a Merc Camp for the first time. The tougher nuts will require ~4 Units to take out.

Plans for something bigger like attacking another player or even Rome might be hatched (although it won’t be until at least spring of the following year that launching an invasion makes sense).

The largest number of Units a player can realistically field during this time is 5.


Not much to do with other players during this timeframe. It’s possible a trade goes down, depending on what everyone has access to. If the player is lucky or bold, he might have an opportunity to complete a request for Rome.

New Challenges

Winter poses a new threat, eyeing not only a player’s undersupplied army but also his starving population. If the Food situation hasn’t yet been addressed, this is when it comes back to bite him.

Hostile Tribes will also start wandering around a bit and stirring up trouble. Unwary players might find their Improvements pillaged.

Strategic Opportunities

Players should now have a fairly clear idea of what opportunities lie in front of them.

  • Do I have a lot of Metal and good position, allowing me to go hard on military and beat up on a specific neighbor, or maybe the region generally?

  • Are there abundant resources nearby that allow me to focus on economic growth?

  • Am I hemmed in by neighbors, forcing me to take a more defensive, diplomatic approach?

  • Am I in good position to complete the random requests of either Roman faction?

  • Is there Stone nearby, allowing me to pursue an upgrade strategy?

  • Which Perks would be most beneficial in my situation?

Turns 13 to 24


The second year is for consolidation, as the economic situation begins getting tougher. Players should now have their feet under themselves and a rough idea of their game-wide strategy.



Goodies start to become rare. Players now have a significant swath around them explored – anything they can hope to interact with during the 12 turns which follow is now visible.


By the end of this phase, “free” Improvements are harder to come by and an unsafe bet – from here on out players will either have to build what they need or take it from other major powers.

Either late in this phase or early in the next players will be able to acquire their first Romanization Perk and use that to either patch over a problem or build on a strength.


Particularly aggressive players may use this window as an opportunity to launch an attack on another barbarian kingdom or even the Romans. A Supply Camp or two should be built in order to support this.

Non-aggressive players will continue to consolidate and should probably prepare some defenses in case they are attacked, which is now a risk.


At this stage all players should be capable of completing their first Roman request, if that’s the direction they wish to pursue.

Completing requests for other barbarian kingdoms is also on the table now. Trades are more attractive with resources having grown scarcer.

For the same reason, players might even find themselves embroiled in a small war.

New Challenges

As the game starts to broaden out, so too do the type of challenges players face. From this point on there is the ever-present risk of A) finding oneself at one end or another of a war, and B) enduring economic shortfalls of some kind.

Beyond that, the transition from an economy based on “grab the low-hanging fruit” over to “scratch out a living, probably stealing from your neighbors in the process” could be a rough one, especially for players less-inclined towards violence. The situation isn’t desperate yet, but the rate of progress has noticeably slowed down.

Strategic Opportunities

The opportunities from the previous phase are still relevant here. After this phase players will have a better grasp of the pecking order and more information to work off of.

Players want to start acquiring Romanization Perks fairly early in the game.

Players want to start acquiring Romanization Perks fairly early in the game.

Turn 25 to Midgame


The early-game is over, and we’re now transitioning to the midgame. The stakes are real. Now dawning is an era of serious problems, risky gambits and the destruction of unlucky kingdoms.



This phase of the game starts to wind down with the last remaining Goodies snatched up and most of the map coming into view. Players might meet another tribe or two after this phase, but past this point there’s basically only mop-up duty.

The only frontier which remains is the sea. During this phase players may choose to start investing in this new opportunity.


Players must now seek out new resources to replace those which are now becoming exhausted. The occasional random Resource Location will appear and players will usually want to jump on these. Rewards for completing Roman requests are another way to replenish depleted stockpiles. Even so, there are likely to be shortfalls, particularly with Metal, forcing players to consider at least limited wars with their neighbors in order to acquire more.

If they haven’t already, nearly all players will now dive head-first into the Perks system. Roughly 75% of them will do so by completing Roman requests, but the remainder will try their luck by picking a fight with big brother.

Through Perks, players will start having the option to use Stone to upgrade their Improvements. These increase the output of a resource-producer by 1, and give players the ability to smooth over some of their weaknesses. Stone is hard to come by though, so the choice of what to use it for should usually be a very difficult one. Another option is to ignore Stone completely, and trade it to other players who are more invested in that path.

Players should now be in serious migration mode, searching for fertile lands inside the Roman borders. The appearance of new resources might take a player far from his starting area.


During this phase players will fight wars – maybe voluntarily, maybe not. With resources dwindling everyone starts getting desperate. Large battles with 8+ Units on each side will take place, and one or two kingdoms will either be completely marginalized or utterly annihilated.

The tougher Roman cities will be mostly out-of-reach because of their strong defensive walls – without access to Catapults players won’t be able to do much against them. A few siege weapons will see use during this phase, but their time to shine is in the mid-to-late game.

Ships will also start to see some play, but like Catapults their time to shine is later.


Nearly every player becomes wrapped up with Rome somehow. Most will complete requests for Rome, but some will invade in order to acquire resources and Perks. This option becomes much more attractive when the event system really gets going, and burps up something interesting like a Roman civil war or a bad emperor.

Diplomacy also heats up between barbarian kingdoms. Trading should be fairly common, and we start seeing agreements and alliances.

New Challenges

The previous phase offered some economic hardship, but this is when the true crunch happens. Resources running out and needing to be replaced lights a new fire under players to either expand, conquer their neighbors or both.

As such, larger wars will create the very real risk of total destruction. In this era players must walk the tightrope and balance risk-taking with caution. An unprotected flank or supply hiccup could mean the end.

Strategic Opportunities

  • The Romans start taking center stage during this phase – do players spend resources trying to earn their favor, or look for a good chance to rip off a chunk of the empire while it’s weak?

  • Stone – invest in it or trade it away? The choice partially depends on how much Stone is nearby, plus the player’s priorities regarding Perks.

  • Warfare – aggression or opportunism? Everyone’s going to have to fight, the question is when do you dive into the fray.

  • Perks – which ones do you pick, and what are you aiming for long-term?

  • Diplomacy – how hard do you try to make friends, or avoid making enemies

  • Migration – where do you shift your tribe? How spread out can you afford it to be?

The midgame is when diplomacy really starts to play an important role.

The midgame is when diplomacy really starts to play an important role.



A further escalation of what was happening in the previous phase. Players start laying plans for how they’re going to win the game.



Everything from the previous stage is ramped up a notch.

Stone is now an important part of every player’s economy, either for direct use in upgrading or trading it to those who are.

Migration is now in full-swing, as players drift to whatever area has something they can feed their starving economic engine.


Large wars are now commonplace as the hungry tribes fight viciously for survival against both one another and the Romans. This is the stage of the game where the peacenik builders start to get very uncomfortable.

It is now feasible to raid distant lands by sea. This requires investing a few Perks and significant resources in a fleet, but doing so could provide access to ripe, unspoiled lands.

Sieges with specialized assault troops and Catapults also assume a larger role. Players must now find ways to take on defensive fortifications head-on, as by this point most of the low-hanging fruit has already been plucked.


This is diplomacy’s time to shine. Wheeling and dealing shifts alliances and finding yourself without friends is a very dangerous situation.

Rome is starting to weaken, and the events which afflict it become more unpleasant and destabilizing. Most players will turn on Rome about now, but some will maintain a relationship with one of the two halves of the empire so they can continue earning new Perks.

New Challenges

This is an era of war, and any sign of softness will attract the wolves. Fighting off invaders and scaring off wannabes is very important.

Diplomacy is another element of the game that cannot be ignored. Players that do so will find themselves isolated and constantly fighting off multiple foes.

Players need to begin thinking about how to accumulate enough Glory to win the game.

Strategic Opportunities

  • When do you start targeting Rome? Events may transform one or both of the halves of the empire into ripe targets.

  • Diplomacy – securing loyal allies is very important in this phase. Players have to identify would-be friends along with ways to improve Relations with them.

  • Migration – which started in the last phase – now gets rolling in earnest. The lands players started in are now mostly picked clean, and staying put is no longer an option. The question is: where to? The answer is probably somewhere inside the Roman Empire as the territory outside has already been combed over by the tribes.

  • How do we earn Glory? Conquering other tribes? Capturing Roman provincial capitals? Holding onto Monuments?

In the lategame, your entire focus becomes how to take down Rome - before your empire runs out of steam.

In the lategame, your entire focus becomes how to take down Rome - before your empire runs out of steam.



Resources are now more scarce than ever. Kingdoms are against the clock to try and pull out a win. This is it!



Players are now barely holding on. New resources are appearing less frequently and there aren’t as many tribes left to target for pillaging either. Players may actually be forced to downsize and evolve during this phase, as economies have finally run out of fuel to continue growing.


Like their economics, the scope of players’ militaries will probably contract. Rather than fielding an army of 15 Infantry, a player might instead have 5 Cavalry and 5 Catapults.

While the size of armies may have decreased, the stakes have only increased and the wars fought are more brutal than ever. Players are forced to take risks and fling their entire force into the fray in an attempt to vanquish an enemy kingdom or crack a particular tough Roman city. Many kingdoms will meet their end on the battlefield in this era.


The role of diplomacy wanes a bit as players prioritize their immediate crises over maintaining friendships.

All of the tribes are now after at least one of the Roman factions, as they are one of the few sources of new economic material. Plus you need to capture either Rome or Constantinople in order to win the game!

New Challenges

Players must now face the ultimate challenge – downsizing efficiently, and in a way that doesn’t jeopardize their ability to win the game.

They are also now up against the clock in their attempt to meet the victory conditions. Balancing these two will be tricky, and require some very difficult decisions.

Strategic Opportunities

  • Obtaining enough Glory – same as in the previous phase, but ramped up to 11. A couple lucky players may have found a way to amass enough fairly early, either through the defeat of other kingdoms or holding onto a Monument or two for much of the game. Everyone else has to hunt for any opportunity they can – and most of them won’t be much fun.

  • Mapping out a way to capture one of the Roman capitals – these are the hardest cities to capture on the map, and it’s likely the player will also have to defeat a Roman army or two along the way.

  • Seizing the opportunity to boost one’s economy when possible. It won’t happen very often, so there will be times when players are seriously tempted to swerve (say, when a new resource location appears).


If you’d like to discuss this topic further (or anything else related to ATG!) be sure to stop by the official Conifer Games forums, and become a member of our growing community! Plus, if you actually read this all the way from start to finish, you’ll fit right in with the rest of us crazies!

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Jon Shafer


Jon Shafer is a lead designer at Stardock Entertainment, currently directing an unannounced project. Prior to working at Stardock, He was the lead designer and principal gameplay programmer for Civilization 5 while at Firaxis Games. Jon lives in Michigan and (when he's not fighting-the-good-fight on behalf of PC games) spends his free time cooking, listening to podcasts and playing strategy games/RPGs.

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