I sent off a long email to Mark earlier today and he suggested I post it to the forums. Clash of Civ has brought up a lot of the same game theory criticisms I've had (and I've heard from others) for many years. Here's a copy of my email.
I bring this up at all because I think the Civ idea is a good one -- to tell the story of history in an exciting, playable format -- but def. needs to be improved on. Clash of Civ does a lot of good things and I like a lot of what I see and the promise I read on the site. The diversity, complextiy, it's all great stuff. But I'd like to see Civ-style game theory dragged out of the quagmire of 19th century social theory. Clash of Civ takes some good steps but is still getting bogged down by many of the same problems and I see some specific playability problems that could be fixed. Many, many iterations from now.
Anyway, digressing. On to my email ...
I really like the idea of Clash of Civ. I've been devising Civ-models in my head since I played the original back in the early 90s. I was excited when I stumbled onto Clash of Civ after having looked for a game like that for over a year now. I've been so frustrated by my Civ experience that I broke down this past winter and started re-building it beginning with a boardgame (I've been through several demos of the boardgame since then and I'm hoping to have a working, expansive, and fun-to-play one soon that I can start building computer models off of). When I saw the Spore demo (via Google Video) I got so excited that I sent Will Wright a long email -- mostly highlighting problems his game is going to run into (though I'm excited as hell to play it, many aspects of it look very, very exciting).
I've played through several of the Clash of Civ v.8 scenarios and I have some feedback. (PS thank you, thank you, thank you for making these playable on the Mac!)
First off: great job. This is a promising start and I'm very, very happy to see someone doing some "Civ-soul-searching", so to speak. I mean: building in much needed complexity in an attempt to make the game more realistic and more interesting for the player. I like a lot of what you're trying to do particularly rendering social dynamics, economic dynamics, and political dynamics. And having done a ton of research into pre- and early-history, I love the little historical details you've thrown in from the Natufian culture onward.
A major problem I'm seeing in the scenarios is that it's just too complicated -- it makes the game unplayable for a player who has to parse the very particular historical ideas you're categorizing. To put it simply, your models don't have meaning for the player unless they're willing to deeply immerse themselves in the game -- to play the game according to the strict categorizations you have built, instead of how the player interacts with the game.
For example let's take a look at the Natufian scenario since it is the simplest and easiest to break down. I left my Econ window open the whole time, as that seems to be the main control of the production side of the game. I did what the scenario advised and invested heavily in the new military units and domestication once I found the horses. But there were all these other interesting possibilities -- namely build services, food, manufacturing, and military. What do they do? More importantly, what do they mean for the player? How do they help the player to have a meaningful gaming experience? I read some glosses on some of these categories at some point -- and I know they have specific, important meaning for the game dynamics. I'm not suggesting you get rid of them and scrap all that hard work. But I think those elements could be incorporated into the game in more meaningful ways for the player.
Let's step back a second and rethink this. As I mentioned earlier, I've been doing a ton of reading and research into pre- and early-history. What I notice time and again are the rich networks people live and operate in -- from family heirarchies to clan & city heirarchies to local and regional politics. People are constantly (have been, continue to be) immersed in meaningful, dynamic social networks through which they navigate their activities, their aspirations, their feeling & responses.
One of the things I've been striving for in my own game modelling is to simulate this in meaningful ways for the player. To create a world where, for example, the king of a city will write to the Pharoah to say, "Hey, the people across the way are building up their military and threatening YOUR domain. Could I get a squad of archers here to keep them under control and protect YOUR territory?" I like your idea of powerful interest groups who want their policy needs met. I think an interesting next step you could take would be to give large portions of micro-control of the game to these interest groups. For example, a powerful clergy in one province wants things set up in a particular way so that's how that province's levels are set. It took regional heirarchs -- Pharoahs, High Kings, etc -- many many years to be able to have (or even be interested in) any micro-management authority in their vassal states. Usually they ask for tribute and let them be. Why not let the game let this stuff be? It would really help to focus the playability factor for the players. Let them worry about the bigger picture since that's the vantage point where they sit -- way above the world, looking down on a map with pawns scuttling across the surface. Why not let the players deal with bigger issues -- which factions to support, where the people should go (build military might? local industry? patronize the arts?).
This can lead to all sorts of different playing ideas. Who says the player has to be the grand high king? What if the player started much lower -- say as a the head of a particular clan? Or a general in the military? They have to navigate their social network trying to grow their position. If they're a clan head they could be focussed on gaining status for their clan, growing in power and coming to rule a particular city and negotiate/instigate regional politics. If they're a general they could focus on defense, scouting out territory, sizing up possible threats, and defending cities against attacks. I can picture a player begging the (AI?) king for more money and troops, trying to make the case that it is necessary for protection -- and having to deal with whatever the king (or his minions) deign to give him.
This brings to mind multi-player options. What if, instead of different "cultures" or "kingdoms" or "empires," a multi-player game was built around factions within one group? (Or players were assigned factions within different groups/cultures/kingdoms/etc?) Probably a bit too much re-thinking as you guys have already developed a rich game around the Civ-model. But there are a ton of tweaks like the above that I could see incorporated into your gaming model that could significantly improve the playability of your game.
If you're at all interested in discussing this more I'd be delighted and if there's anything I can do to help let me know. Besides, of course, continuing to playtest and sending long-winded emails.