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Replacing Rome

The Romans aren't playable in AtG, but instead fill a more important role: providing pacing and structure.

Jon Shafer, Blogger

March 5, 2013

9 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.


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 people have asked me why At the Gates doesn’t actually have “Rome” somewhere in the title. Wouldn’t that help inform people of what the game is about? I can see where this question comes from. However, its exclusion is very much not accidental.

The Empire may have defined this era – but their time is over. They still have an important job, but are ultimately a tool to achieve an end. Let’s dig into what that means in terms of gameplay.

What is Rome… For?

When I first started on the design of AtG I wasn’t sure exactly how I wanted Rome to fit in. I knew that they wouldn’t be playable, but that was about it. So I decided to use history as my guide.

A common misconception about the time is that the Romans and barbarians were at each other’s throats until one of them finally collapsed. In reality, this was one of the most diplomatically active eras in history. It was a fairly brutal time, and alliances shifted constantly as everyone was doing whatever they could to get ahead. The very fabric of civilization was unraveling, and customary diplomatic rules were thrown out the window.

I resolved that whatever form the diplomacy mechanics took the game needed to have this fluidity. It should be possible to make friends from enemies on a dime. Holding grudges is liable to cost you big time over the long run. The Romans might be your long-term enemies, but they could also be short-term allies.

Another fact that many people aren’t aware of is that the Roman Empire actually split in half around this time. The western empire “fell,” while the east lived on as what we today call the Byzantine Empire, although they still referred to themselves as the Romans right up until 1453.

I wanted both the eastern and western Roman Empires represented, as having multiple non-playable “superpowers” on the board presents some exciting gameplay possibilities. You might be working with one but fighting the other. You can try buddying up to them both. They could even fight each other. This decision also helped narrow down the year in which AtG should start, as the division didn’t occur until late in the 4th century.

Because of the asymmetry between the Empire and barbarians, I realized the Romans could help set the pace and provide structure to the game. Matching history, they start as incredibly strong but grow weaker over time – the reverse of the player. My goal is for the first third of the game to mainly be about getting your feet under yourself, the second to be the consolidation phase where interaction with Rome is key, and the final section to be a race to be the first to finish them off.

The Romans are obviously your enemies, but it’s incorrect to think about them in only this way. Their goals and behavior are completely different. They don’t found new cities or migrate etc. They’re just trying to hold on. It’s ironic because the Romans liked to think of the barbarians as tools to help their own interests, but the opposite was also the case!



Making Nice

Now that I had some promising themes to work with, I had to actually find ways to hook them into the gameplay. It was fairly easy to translate Rome’s superpower status into interesting mechanics. Since they’re not on a level playing field, as I designer I can basically do whatever I want with them.

The obvious implications are that you really don’t want to get on the Romans’ bad side, as annoying them is an invitation for a large number of legions to show up on your doorstep.

Not attracting the wrath of Rome is good and all, but you need carrots to go along with the stick. No matter how useful an AI ally is, it’s you’d nearly always rather have his armies and resources for yourself, making conquest the more fruitful route to take. There needs to be reasons to want to work with them.

And so Romanization Perks were born. Originally, it was possible to acquire “technologies” in other ways, but I realized interacting with the Romans would be elevated to a whole new level if that was the only way you could develop.

At first I was hesitant to go this route, as it’s a very different approach from the traditional research system in most 4X games. But the fact that you had to be proactive to earn the bonuses was too strong a temptation to resist. I loved the idea of needing to get out there and mix it up, rather than being able to succeed by hanging back and watching the world fly by.

But what would you actually do to earn these Perks?

This is where the diplomatic requests system comes in. There needed to be a way to actively build a strategy around earning Perks, instead of waiting for Rome to knock on your door asking for a favor. It later developed into the core feature for the entire diplomatic system.



Taking Down a Giant

Rewarding friendship with the Romans was a major focus of mine, but there will inevitably come a time when you have to take the gloves off and face them head on. But if Rome just sat there all peaceful-like, it would be suicidal to pick a fight. I knew I needed to find ways to open up chinks in their armor and tempt players to jump into the fray.

There were a variety of nasty occurrences that afflicted Rome during this era, from civil wars to bad emperors to plagues. This gave me an idea for a random events system specifically targeting the Empire.

A particularly brutal emperor might annoy one of his generals, who leads an outlying province to revolt. An incompetent emperor might be the target of a palace coup and replacement by an ambitious subordinate. The emperor could die and be replaced with a child, resulting in all sorts of chaos. A major defeat in battle can be followed by a series of events that can nearly tear the empire apart.

The need to adapt one’s strategy doesn’t have to be a direct influence like the weather. The value of this random events system is that it provides surprise opportunities that haven’t been planned for, but might still be worth exploiting.

Roman events and map generation are the only two places where randomness has a major impact in AtG. As many of you know, I love randomness but prefer to only sprinkle it lightly on my projects. A more heavy-handed approach works in these cases because it creates a new environment for players, rather than affecting them directly. A plague hitting humans and killing off their units would be very frustrating – but the AI behind the Romans has no such feelings!

For pacing reasons, there are restrictions on the frequency with which these events occur – they can’t be too common or too rare, as either extreme could derail the experience. However, it’s easy for us to add an option to remove these restrictions for players who really do prefer a truly random game, so if that’s your preference there’s no need to fret.

So what happens when you do actually fight Rome and win? Capturing new resources and territory is always helpful, but I also wanted a special reward for taking on Rome instead of some other random kingdom.

My answer was earning a Romanization Perk every time you capture a Roman city. This is a serious bonus, and intentionally so. I want there to be a strong tension between fighting the Romans, working with them and staying out of their way. Should the Romans become embroiled in a civil war it might be a good chance to sneak in and grab some goodies.

Keeping players on their toes is one of my goals, and the Romans do an excellent job of that. But defeating the Romans can win you more than just bonuses…



A New Era

As with Rome’s role, for a long time I didn’t have a clear idea of what I wanted AtG’s victory condition to be. In fact, there’s a good chance it changes again! To help guide me I once again returned to history.

When I think about this era I think about the inevitable fall of the Romans and the subsequent transition from late antiquity to the medieval Europe of knights, the Crusades and chivalry. This suggested a passing of the torch.

Completely conquering the Romans sounds cool, but anyone who’s played a 4X game before knows how tedious this can actually be. This also conflicted with the downward arc that takes place in the endgame of AtG - if your empire is starting to weaken the last thing you’re going to be able to do is swallow up a huge rival. So I decided to simplify it down to capturing the capital of either the eastern or western Roman Empire.

But this alone was too simple, as it could be easily exploited by players in the early game. My solution was Glory, which is basically a score counter. You can’t win the game until you’ve amassed 1000 Glory through conquest, diplomacy, development and other achievements.

Thematically, the accumulation of Glory represents you planting your flag and proclaiming to all that you’re important – and here to stay. Any newcomer has to earn the trust and respect of the old guard. And in AtGyou are the newcomer. The Huns were clever, powerful and virtually unstoppable. But even they proved to be just a flash in the pan.

Victory is probably the one aspect of the game most likely to change. Building up a score counter doesn’t really scream “fall of Rome!” to me, and I’d prefer a system that has an even stronger tie to the theme.

This is one of the reasons why we’re targeting a mid-2014 release. While the game superficially appears fairly far along and could be released this year, we want to make sure every piece fits perfectly. The only way to really know that is by taking the time to find out. I think it’s better to have a great game in a year and a half than a decent one in six months – and I’m pretty sure most of you would agree!

- Jon

If you’d like to discuss this topic further (or anything else related to AtG!) be sure to stop by the official Conifer Games forum, and become a member of our growing community!

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About the Author(s)

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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