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Designer Diary: The Golden Ages, or How I Learned To Stop Worrying About Civilization Games

Luigi Ferrini
Castagneto Carducci
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When I started thinking about the game now called The Golden Ages, it was February 2010. For a long time, I was mumbling about civilization games, a kind of game that I have loved since the first Sid Meier's Civilization for PC. I was thinking about how the board games created from this kind of videogame were never without flaws, like the game's length or the high downtime. I felt like they were missing a game that would reproduce the main aspects of the civilization game, with a short play time and with game mechanisms that would make it easier to compete with players suffering from "paralysis by analysis". I hadn't found this game around, so I tried to make it myself!

The first consideration that I felt, and that is perhaps obvious, is that in a civilization board game you cannot have the same complexity of a computer version. At the same time it is necessary that the interaction with other players is tighter because otherwise the game becomes a multi-player solitaire for at least half of the match. Thus, something of the original experience must somehow be sacrificed. Many games typically sacrifice the map; others sacrifice urban development; still others sacrifice the variety of the strategies, which are almost always heavily influenced by the military choices of some of the players; others sacrifice the historical extension to a single historical age. Some games, finally, focus on just one aspect of the matter, such as the tech tree, and leave out all the rest.

I realized that need to leave out something only after the first two or three versions of the initial prototype. At first, there were five different kinds of resources and a more complex technology tree, and the game was still too long and too chaotic — but the basic structure was there and it worked pretty well. From there, the development process went for stepwise refinement — for the curious that meant sixteen major versions of the prototype, plus a few minor releases — some of which have proved to be much more difficult than others. I think it's worth exposing at least some of these steps because each of them has taught me something and maybe they can be useful to other game designers.

In developing the game, I tried to avoid the "headache" at the end of the turn. Typically, the end of the turn in a game of civilization is when you do all the upkeep math: You count how many and which resources you control, you move counters on some tables, etc.

I realized — and I needed seven different versions of the prototype to understand it! — that this part is tiring and boring; for this reason I have removed from the game almost all counting, shifting the phase of economic rent to the time when a resource is acquired. In this way also the attacks become less frustrating for those who suffer them because while losing a resource can decrease the points you'll score, you don't ever lose money, which might have meant stopping the strategy you're pursuing.

In addition, in the development, I have endeavored to reduce downtime. The moves are therefore very basic and take place in a hurry; the turn comes around to you again almost immediately and you don't have time to get bored. Also, and I believe this is the newest mechanism of the game, when you have finished all your moves and pass your turn, you will not wait patiently for other players, but you continue to accumulate money. The fact that you're earning gold that you will use in the next turn puts pressure on the opponents who have not yet entered in the Golden Age. They must then decide whether to continue developing (thereby helping you, too!) or not. I find that this solution is much more fun than waiting patiently for other players to have finished!

Another effort has been to balance the different strategies. The lines of development of the technologies are very different, and you can win in many ways. Making balanced strategies has been quite difficult because some technologies were more useful than others with the same cost. For example, before I finally give up the idea that there would be a technology providing additional colonists, I had to bang my head on it several times! Actually, an additional colonist became so useful that it was also indispensable, and then this strategy was mandatory; the whole game was depleted.

The most fun thing in the whole development has perhaps been the search of game effects that were not purely abstract but related to historical reality. This is clearly visible in buildings and wonders, but especially in the civilization cards; each of them has a special power that is closely linked to its "personality" in history. For example, the Phoenicians were the inventors of the alphabet, so they start with the knowledge of Writing; the Portuguese receive additional gold if their colonists circumnavigate the world, the (modern) Japanese have an advantage in technological development, and so on.

I really care about these small "setting" details because I think that they make the game more fun and less abstract.

A similar choice was made with the continent tiles. With them it is possible to reconstruct our "real" world, which is therefore one of the thousands of possible spatial configurations available. If you try, you will find that the continents are not to scale. It is a deliberate choice which simulates how, throughout history, the world has become progressively "smaller" as the ability of humanity's exploration grew up. I hope you enjoy this strange map because I don't recall any other game where you can build a map using modular continents of the "real" world.

The game's aspect that has been more difficult to balance was the attack system. I have tried at least ten different ways to make war, and I discarded all of them. Obviously, the game had to have a military aspect, but I wanted that to be a strategy among the others, not a mandatory path to win the game. In civilization computer games, I have always noticed that there is a kind of schizophrenia in the way you use the troops; the turns cover several years, but the army deployments are purely tactical. From the point of view of the simulation this way to make war appears completely out of place.

The path that I have chosen is therefore one of abstraction; any military action in TGA is similar to a technological development, and "attacking" means investing resources into armaments and military technologies, gaining a military advantage that implies the disadvantage of someone else, who will lose some kind of resource. Getting a military supremacy is increasingly difficult and expensive; the first attack is cheaper and often allows you to make "easy money", while the fourth attack is very expensive and generally you should perform it only if there is a valid reason. This rule also follows the historical fact that modern civilizations think a lot more before starting a war because the social cost (in resources, but alas, even in human lives) is much higher than that of the battles of antiquity. Also, the one who is attacked, as I said before, receives contained damage and rarely is his strategy totally ruined.

A few notes about the game's name: I had several ideas, but I discarded all for several reasons: one name seemed to summon boredom and sadness; another sounded bad in some languages, etc. The thing that amused me is that someone else had the same ideas, and they have all been used for other titles released or soon to be released! What eventually prevailed was the idea to remember in the title the mechanism that characterizes it most, the "Golden Age" one.

In conclusion, I tried to create first of all a game that I would play: a full civilization game lasting less than one-and-a-half hours, a game that you can play also twice in a single evening. I seem to have succeeded, although of course I cannot say so myself! If you'd like to try it, maybe you will say it to me!

One word about the Cults & Culture expansion. I decided to spend time developing that expansion because I thought that the game may want something more; too many things had been left behind along the road, sacrificed on the altar of "easiness" of play, like religion, government, arts, wonders, etc.

I searched for how to integrate all of that stuff in the game in a way that doesn't appear as a superstructure upon a linear game. I think I've found that way, with a single rule that integrates all the new things...and now that the expansion is for real you may say to me whether my solution is good enough or not! And you may also try the game with a fifth player, if you want...

(...and for further consideration, you may look at this BGG blog where I continue this analysis...with more words and badder English...)
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Thu Oct 8, 2015 6:50 am
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