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The city builder genre has been one of my favorites and today's example of being just shy of greatness could have redefined it.

Josh Bycer, Blogger

December 6, 2011

6 Min Read

I've been recently getting into the Anno series which is a complex economic city-builder and it got me thinking about another city-builder that I wished that it would have taken off. Tilted Mill was a company formed from former Impressions Games employees. Impressions Games made a variety of city-builders including Pharaoh and Zeus (which are their more recognizable brands) and at the time were the alternatives to the Sim City series. While Tilted Mill was around, they created several games, but none of them achieved mass success, with the game Hinterland being one of my personal favorites. However, today I want to talk about their first title: Children of the Nile and how it could have redefined the genre.

Children of the Nile take place in ancient Egypt and cast the player as the pharaoh who must build a successful city within various scenarios. CotN did several things differently from other city builders at the time. One common mechanic in the Impressions series was how vital attaching everything to a road was. People would wander through your city using the roads and if they carry products or resources, unless they walk by a building, no one in the building would get access to it. This made early city builders very inorganic and was the first big change in CotN.

Anyone in your city could go anywhere, with or without roads, but roads would speed up their movement. Another common system in most city-builders was how the player only needed to care about the macro level of their economy, meaning as long as the city is making money for the player and people were happy, everything is good. CotN changed that and was one of the few city-builders to attempt to create its own economic system.

CotN's economic system was based off food, as there was no paper currency during the time of ancient Egypt. Harvesting food is based off of the seasons of the land, first farmers will plant their crops after the Nile recedes, then harvest them next season. Afterwards the Nile floods the farm lands to make the land fertile again and the pattern repeats. During the harvest, the food is divvied up to the different classes of people in your city.

The lower class is the farmers who live on land leased by the upper class. They keep some of the food and give the rest in the form of taxes. The middle class is split between shopkeepers and government workers and the difference is how they get food. Shopkeepers sell their wares to everyone and whatever food they earn is used to support them, while government workers receive food from the city storage thanks to their services. Lastly the upper class or nobles give a portion of their food supply to the city which becomes your source of currency, the # of nobles you have determines how many farmers you can have employed.

Throw in children going to school to become educated, allowing them to work at specialized buildings, and the challenge of setting up mining colonies and building monuments, and CotN stands apart from other games. Out of the various city builders released, it is one of the few that tried to create its own ecosystem and getting a city running successfully is a major accomplishment. However, the price of doing something new is that you don't have a frame of reference for any potential problems, which CotN did have.

Because of how each group relies on the other to survive, it's very easy to start a downward spiral of losing people due to missing or unable to fix any issues in the city. With shopkeepers, you won't know how much of their stock they have, only vague clues of: "almost out" "tons in stock" etc. Without exact numbers, it's difficult to determine how they are meeting the needs of your townspeople and this becomes even more complicated when you have to set up colonies to mine.

Any good city-builder is about managing escalating chaos and while CotN definitely has chaos, the game makes it very difficult to manage it. Most city builders escalate needs based on the size of the city; CotN does it by game length. At random points in the game, an alert will pop up signaling some kind of event that will cause your citizens to want something else, for example, a bad harvest may want them to pray to a different god. The problems are twofold, first is that advanced buildings require educated workers and your stock of them are limited. The more prestige your pharaoh has will attract some, while the rest comes from sending children to school.

However what usually happens is that you just assigned your worker to one job, when all of a sudden an event may pop up requiring a hospital, but you don't have any more workers right now, leaving your people unhappy. The second issue is that everything in the game takes time to be built which makes issues last longer. The process is that first the materials must be transported to the site, and then the actual construction begins. All this eats into more time that your people are unhappy, and people remember issues in your city for some time which affects their overall happiness. When a group of people become angry, they may either strike or just move out of your city, which going back to the Eco-system starts a downward spiral that is difficult to climb out of.

The randomness of city events and the lack of hard numbers when it comes to certain resources leave the game in a cluttered state. Contrast to the Anno series, where the player can see exactly how much of each resource they have along with how more challenges are introduce, makes it easier to build and understand. Blind luck is not something you want in your city-builders, especially when you are trying to learn the game.

One of the hallmarks of a player "getting it" in a city-builder is getting their city to the point of being self sufficient, or being able to run itself without any further input from the player. When you play CotN, it is very difficult to reach that point, as while you are trying to build all the necessary structures, the random events will occur to change everything up. Looking at Anno 1404 on the other hand, it is very easy to get your city to the point of being self sufficient, the challenge comes from keeping it self sufficient while balancing out income, growth and trade.

The advantage of reaching the point of being self sufficient early is that it allows the player to see very easily, how their additions and growth affects the city and learn from that. Whereas in CotN the player is required to make choices without being able to see if they will have the intended results if an event happens.

To the game's credit, CotN did go where most city-builders don't venture to with the concept of an eco-system. CotN reminds me of another flawed gem: Evil Genius, in how the game had a lot of great ideas and hindsight along with a sequel could have done a lot to improve the mechanics.

Josh Bycer

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Josh Bycer


For more than seven years, I have been researching and contributing to the field of game design. These contributions range from QA for professional game productions to writing articles for sites like Gamasutra and Quarter To Three. 

With my site Game-Wisdom our goal is to create a centralized source of critical thinking about the game industry for everyone from enthusiasts, game makers and casual fans; to examine the art and science of games. I also do video plays and analysis on my Youtube channel. I have interviewed over 500 members of the game industry around the world, and I'm a two-time author on game design with "20 Essential Games to Study" and "Game Design Deep Dive Platformers."

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