March 5, 2014

15 Years and Worlds Apart - Autumn Dynasty: Warlords & The King of Dragon Pass


I've been playing two games on my iPad recently, Autumn Dynasty Warlords (Touch Dimensions) and King of Dragon Pass (developer A Sharp for iOS on ITunes or PC @ While the two games are quite different in their intent and are separated by a mere 15-years of time - I can't help but draw comparisons between the two. In many respects, the merits and failings of each game may underscore a shift in game design over the years, or perhaps a shift in my own expectations and gaming desires in relation to the wider gaming audience.

In short, I feel that King of Dragon Pass does so many things right and creates a deep and captivating experience. And it really showcases and embodies the fleetingly lost art of game design. AD: Warlords on the other hand, like so many games in the Civ/4X genre today, seems more interested in having players "just do stuff" because once upon a time some older game had "players do that stuff" and established expectations. Yet in reality the stuff you do is trivial and dull, despite it hiding behind an otherwise intoxicating level of production polish.

Beware, harsh criticisms ahead ...

Autumn Dynasty: Warlords
AD: Warlords is the follow-up game to the original Autumn Dynasty (which I've also played through). "AD The First" was a real-time strategy (RTS) game featuring a linear campaign and also AI and multiplayer skirmish modes. The game uses an excellent "painting" feature to draw organic movement for your units to follow. The campaign missions where challenging and often quite tense as you frantically tried to build up resources and stay ahead of and outmaneuver the opposition. I honestly can't imagine a better RTS experience on a mobile platform - it's a tight, focused, and exceptionally well developed game.

AD: Warlords builds on this RTS engine by wrapping an Civ/4X-style strategic game around the real-time battles, Total War style, in lieu of the single player campaign. The game is focused around provinces, with players developing the principal town in each province through various building projects, raising troops, assigning heroes to carry out special missions (diplomacy or espionage), etc. As far as the "expected feature list for Civ/4X games go" - this one is surprisingly complete. It's really quite remarkable that all the elements are packed in to a cohesive package.

When players invade other provinces, they send their troops on a sequence of missions from scouting and establishing forward bases to the final siege of the provincial capital. It's a brilliant idea and one I've been longing for a game to implement, a sort of strategic middle road between the global troop positioning and the tactical level combat. And the tactical level combat uses the same basic RTS engine/experience established so well in the original Autumn Dynasty game. Yes, it seems to have it all.

But then things start to go wrong.
Pixel Perfect Gaming

The game world is comprised of 40 or so provinces. After I had expanded my reign to about 8 or 9 provinces in size, the gameplay wasn't becoming deeper or more interesting - it was becoming shallower and more and more routine. Cue up new army units, move army units to the front lines in preparation for an overwhelming assault on the enemy stronghold, use heroes to maintain the peace diplomatically with other empires until in position to attack them. Rinse and repeat.

The game has awesome ideas and all the parts are right there. But they don't hang together as a deep or engaging strategic experience - there just aren't many hard choices or tough tradeoffs to be found. I've been on autopilot for hours, going through the motions of building my empire but not making any decisions of greater consequence that whole time. Meanwhile, the overhead burden of micromanaging a growing number of provinces continually increases - the death knell of so many well-intentioned 4x games. Can't someone crack that nut?

I've touched on this before, but I think the overall failing of aspiring 4X games is that they don't provide, at an overall strategic level, enough hard compromise decisions over the course of the game. You can have it all, eventually. All the techs, all the units. There's no pressure. When coupled with a single-victory condition (i.e. conquest) the game boils down to trivially optimizing your military development so you can just steamroll the opposition. It's the same every freaking time in every freaking game. I recently played Alpha Centauri again, and for all its merits it has a dreadfully dull endgame. I'm obviously going to win, and I can spend the next hundred turns monstrously taking over the world with military, stockpiling cash, or rushing through the final sequence of technology. Gah!

I'm desperately craving a civ/4x game that offers really compelling and interesting victory triggers - even going beyond the "economic win" or the "political win" or the "technology win." Those can be a part of the equation certainly, but there is rarely the sense that I'm in contention for the win. More so, I'd love something that linked victory with an emerging narrative structure - where the choice to just steamroll your neighbors isn't always a good option, or where you had to manage your empire in a constant state of tension in regards to those around you. I like the idea of Civ/4X games, but am increasingly turned off by how they actually play out as a game - with the "design" for the endgame being so routinely overlooked.

Enter stage left: The King of Dragon Pass

King of Dragon Pass
The King of Dragon Pass is a game I was quite hesitant to pick up. It looks strange and on paper (or screen) was a game I couldn't possibly enjoy, right? KoDP was originally released as a PC game in 1999 - and I was totally unaware of it at the time (and probably wouldn't have had the patience for it anyway). It was released on iOS a while ago, and I've been playing it on my iPad. I contend that KoDP "IS" a civilization game (or a town/clan management game) yet it is executed through a narrative perspective. Instead of having a "gods eye view" over your dominion, as so ubiquitously seen in other Civ/4X games, in KoDP you are basically sitting at stable with your trusted village advisors deciding what to do over the coming year.

I'll give a little anecdote about the game ... My first attempt at playing the short game ended rather badly - namely with my villagers basically giving me the middle finger and saying "we are leaving and going to live with someone else who isn't such a F%^&$-UP, bye!"

You see - cows are of the utmost importance to your villagers, and the measure of a clan is often determined by the size of their cattle herd. I had been too liberal in the slaughtering of cows to erect magical shrines that overtime the fertility of my herd slowed down. Then my prize bull, known for his prowess among the cow fields, passed away and my herd fertility dropped even lower. Then we had a particularly bad harvest season and I hadn't stockpiled enough food, forcing me to slaughter more cows for emergency food rations.

When the winter season was over, my thinning and disgruntled villagers came to me with the bad news. Our minuscule herd of remaining cows (a paltry 15 or so) wasn't enough to maintain the clan - so they were leaving. Game over. It was one of the most satisfying gaming moments in recent memory, and I was grinning from ear to ear even in my defeat. That's how you make a good game.

Image: App Annie

I really can't do all the intertwined mechanics of the game justice in this post - you need to try it for yourself. But to step back a little, the basic structure of the game hinges on a yearly cycle of 5 seasons. In each season, you can make two primary actions (see the list below). The seasons all have a very distinct impact on your clan's operations. For instance you need all hands on deck in harvest time to collect food, summer is best for raiding, during sacred time raiding other clans is frowned on, etc. The yearly cycle and limited number of actions you can take each season adds a distinct time aspect and rhythm to the gameplay that is lacking in many 4X games.

Add to this seasonal structure the constant worry that each time you take an action it may trigger one or more random special events, to which you will also need to respond. These events are narrative-driven, almost choose your own adventure style scenarios, in which you need to plot an appropriate course of action by consulting with your clan ring (often with their own conflicting ideologies and agendas you need to wade through). The uncertainty of these events popping up, and leaving enough on the table to react to them effectively, adds another level of tension and depth to the game.

The abbreviated list of "stuff you do" is this:

- Selecting and managing a balanced pool of leaders to serve as your advisors on the clan ring (of upmost importance)
- Clan mood management, both for your farmers and your warriors - taking actions (feasts, etc.) to increase the mood.
- Allocation of crop land vs. grazing land vs. hunting grounds.
- Recruitment and maintenance of weaponthanes (e.g. warriors)
- Building defenses
- Conducting full raids, cattle raids, and aggressions on other clans
- Sending exploration parties to nearby or distant places to search for treasures or other discoveries
- Erecting shrines to the 20 or so different gods, conducting sacrifices to learn new magic (essentially the games technology tree), etc.
- Trade system for trading goods/cows/food or establishing on-going trade relationships.
- Diplomacy system for creating alliances, tribes, paying tributes, giving gifts, exchanging knowledge/lore, etc.
- Preparing leaders and sending them on "Hero Quests" to trigger special events or gain an unique/powerful advantage.

What makes KoDP so great, if I had to pinpoint one quality that unifies the above, is that the player is always put into a gray area with no black and white answers about what to do. Case in point, when sacrificing cows as part of a mystery ritual (to learn new magic / technologies) you can sacrifice 0 to 50 cows. How many cows do you sacrifice? Your advisors might all tell you something different - and experience suggest about 14 cows is a good number. But it isn't a guarantee. The question is about how much risk you can take and how much you can afford when taking a bigger picture look at your herd size over the coming years. So choosing how to respond within these varying shades of gray has a real outcome on the success of your clan. Couple these tensions and uncertainties with the inexorable advance of time through the world's 5 seasons and the result is a fascinatingly complex web of gameplay.

Image: App Annie

These tensions are best exemplified in the dealings with other clans in the area. Unlike other 4X games, it is exceedingly difficult to totally wipe out other clans - and you wouldn't necessarily want to anyway, even for your staunchest enemies. Your clan has a standing with other clans, from friendly allies down to hated enemies, and managing your relationships is critical. Raiding other clans for cattle or loot is a big part of the game and part of the cultural fabric of the clans themselves. You often want to maintain somewhat hostile relationships with a few close neighbors solely for the purpose of raiding. But if you raid them too hard and often, they might appeal to your generosity to spare them, and pay you a tribute instead. Politically, you might be forced to accept the tribute but your capacity for raiding (for relatively more cows) is thus diminished - so it's a tight-rope you are walking.

On the positive side of inter-clan relationships, continually sending gifts and emissaries to maintain relationships is critical, so that when times are tough you can call on nearby friends to help you out. Yet the resources expended (cows, goods, time, etc.) on maintaining these relationships detracts from your ability to use those same resources in furthering your internal development and growth (exploring, building shrines and magic, recruiting warriors, building defenses, etc). How you balance these expenditures while at the same time maintaining the status quo can be quite a challenge. In my first game, I was far too liberal with consuming cows, with the end result that I was living well beyond my means. I should've been doing more cattle raiding to help maintain my herd size, but instead I was trying to be nice to all my neighbors. In the end, my people decided my neighbors would offer them a better quality of life, so they took off.

Another element of the game that is a brilliant piece of design work is the "magic" system. Magic is a somewhat nebulous and abstract resource (think of it as the good will of the gods) that you assign to various aspects of your clan's operation during the new year rituals. It's a bit like establishing a yearly budget - and the composition of your clan council ring determines to what extent you can assign magic resources and into what buckets. E.G., assigning magic to warfare will make your warriors stronger that year, assigning it to trade makes your trade missions more profitable, assigning it to mysteries makes your sacrifices for knowledge more successful, assigning magic to herds makes your animals more fertile, and so on. These decisions are of vital importance and shape an arc that guides your actions over the coming year. In addition, you can retain a pool of unallocated magic to use in response to events, a sort of magical slush fund, but it isn't as efficient to use magic that way compared to planning ahead appropriately.

Winning King of Dragon Pass is a challenging affair, heck just surviving can be a challenge. In the "short game" you win by forming a tribe (a formal alliance of many clans) and having one of your leaders lead the tribe as its king for at least 10 years. Forming a tribe is no small undertaking, and entails conducting a series of Hero Quests (and learning the background lore necessary to make you successful) and building up the relationships with surrounding clans such that they are willing to just TALK about forming a tribe. Even that is no guarantee - as the tribal talks can break down or even be dead on arrival if you are trying to form a tribe with clans that hate each other. Not to mention, even if you DO form a tribe, once formed the tribe may decide they don't like you enough to elect one of your leaders the king, handing it to someone else instead. If a tribe is established, it opens up a whole new web of internal tribal politics that now need to be navigated, going far beyond the typical offerings of Civ or 4X games. It's nuts. I haven't accomplished that feat yet - and the long game easily doubles or triples what you need to accomplish. Oh my.

It's worth taking a moment to say what King of Dragon Pass is not. It is NOT a game with a heavy spatial or geographic element. There is no movement of forces or units around a world map, no physically identifiable expansion of territory or influence. Yet the game manages to address the implications of all those things through other mechanics. There IS a map which shows the location of other clans and has known and unknown land areas identified - and you can chose where to send exploration parties for example - yet this map isn't a typical Civ style map that is front and center to the play experience. While the game doesn't have this spatial element, it has so much more to offer in terms of challenge and narrative that I don't miss it.

Concluding Thoughts

King of Dragon Pass seems to do many of the same things, at a basic mechanical level, that Autumn Dynasty Warlords does - even down to the need to send actual leaders to other clans (or provinces) to engage in diplomacy (a cool underused idea). Yet KoDP's endearing success (for me anyway) is because everything is mechanically intertwined and uncertain, and no or exceedingly few decisions are ever trivial. In AD: Warlords, it seems that most decisions are trivial. My 10 choices per year in KoDP are precious and need to be made carefully - my 100's of potential moves in AD: Warlords are washed away in a sea of irrelevance. (I should mention that I don't think Warlords is a poor game at all - its exceptionally well produced and a great Civ/4X game by most standards. But for me it's the latest iteration of the overall failings of the genre itself.)

Of course, the two games are very different in intent. Warlords' design is fundamentally oriented towards supporting and giving context to the real-time tactical battles that play out in the land grab strategic game (and it does well in that regard). KoDP is about guiding your people towards the promised land, and is a rich narrative experience as much as a strategic one. However, there is considerable overlap in "what you do" in both games that highlights an opportunity, still hanging out there and tantalizing me, for a game that unites the best of both worlds. Perhaps in time we'll see such a thing.

This whole discussion makes me wonder whether my preferences have changed and evolved over time or whether the gaming majority has changed. Recently I read an article from a video game designer talking about how we reminisce about the challenge and depth of old "classic" games. But really, it was suggested, that we were just "worse" at games back then and that all these genres were new at time. So in combination everything was far more exciting and deep seeming, but fundamentally quite similar to what games are like today.

If that's true, then it might explain why, to me, Autumn Dynasty Warlords feels trivial - it's because I've "done these things" 25 times already in 25 different games and the same basic strategies and principles for winning apply to all of them. Hence, Warlords comes across as easy with relatively obvious best choices to me - but to a player just cracking the spine on a civ/4x game, perhaps it IS a bewildering challenge. I hate to assume this is true though, because A) it seems egotistical, and B) it means the good ole days have come and gone for me.

Yet, here comes King of Dragon Pass - a came about "doing" much of the same stuff seen in other Civ/4X games, yet the underlying game design poses strategic challenges that are unique and specific to that game. I've played it a number of times and still haven't won the short game - let alone the long game. So at least for me, KoDP shows that it's possible that games can pose new and interesting challenges - or perhaps it just exemplifies an approach to design that is seldom seem today; daring to be different and take a risk. I just find it amazing that I had to go back in time to 1999 to find such an experience. And perhaps that, more than anything, says something about the state of game design today.

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