What's this: giant space fish? Insectoids? A fully developed diplomacy system? The new Age of Wonders game is looking very different from its high fantasy predecessors, having taken to the stars to explore a brand new sci-fi setting.
Landing on PC, PS4 and Xbox One on 6th August, Age of Wonders: Planetfall is the latest game from Triumph Studios. As per any Age of Wonders, the focus is on tactical turn-based battles and empire-building, with its trademark role-playing elements in the form of characterful races thrown in.
This time, players are required to build their own empire from the ashes of the fallen Star Union - possibly a cautionary tale for what happens if you fail to manage your own resources correctly. The aim, as ever, is to meet a victory condition: either through conquest, diplomacy or doomsday techs.
At a preview event last week, I got a brief glimpse at a beta build, and what I saw was promising. While Planetfall isn't doing anything radically different within the 4X genre - and I did spot the occasional animation bug - it's a solid and pleasant experience. The vibrancy of the sci-fi world makes it engaging even for newcomers (although the systems may be intimidating for some at first). For more experienced strategy players, Planetfall provides depth with secret tech trees, multiple research branches, and modding options for units. Something for all the family.
The limited playthrough time meant I only got a look at the early game, so I was unable to get to grips with big meta systems like the economy, but I did sense that Planetfall's strengths lie in the tactical turn-based battles. These feel fast-paced, readable yet challenging all at once - and I found myself rushing around the outside world just to get back to the combat as quickly as possible.
Speaking to senior designer and programmer Tom Bird and designer Benny Arents, I learnt about some of the design decisions behind the combat, how the new diplomacy system works, and some interesting tidbits concerning the game's multiplayer mode - including how Triumph is integrating play by email and live play.
I guess the first thing to ask is: why choose sci-fi as the new theme for Age of Wonders?
Arents: We love sci-fi, we love fantasy and made fantasy games for about 20 years, 18 years before we started production. Sci-fi is also really in right now, with Star Wars, Star Trek and all these different sci-fi things, and we thought the Age of Wonders formula would work really well, we could do something interesting there.
Bird: You get stuck in your ways, there's only so many times you can do flaming arrows, shooting lightning bolts... going sci-fi brings a whole world of new ideas, new mechanics we can put into the game.
And you've still got some of the fantasy stuff there, like the Amazons who have bows and arrows...
Bird: Yes, not as much as I wanted, but yes, a little bit of it. I wanted them to have glowing tree weapons but it got cut because they have to have 'laser guns'.
To be fair, the laser guns on dinosaurs are pretty brilliant.
So what are the biggest changes from previous Age of Wonders, what improvements did you want to make?
Arents: Age of Wonders has always been a hybrid of two games. You have the tactical combat as well as the strategic layer, and on both of these fronts we have made very big changes. On the strategic layer we improved the diplomacy.
Following a lot of the feedback from the Age of Wonders 3 community, we grabbed the economics system, turned it completely on its head and built something that's way more in-depth yet still accessible, and we feel we have some really neat mechanics there. The economics system in Age of Wonders 3 was relatively basic, the diplomacy system in Age of Wonders 3 was relatively basic, so we really explored these big meta systems.
How exactly have you deepened the diplomacy? In a lot of 4X games it's on a like/dislike spectrum, so how have you managed to break away from that?
Bird: We were acquired by Paradox, and Paradox uses this thing called the casus belli, which is Latin and translates to 'reason for war'. So the casus belli system essentially integrates these ideas that, as you do various things, it's going to make people dislike you, and as that builds up, they're more likely to go to war with you. The more casus belli that someone has against you, the easier it is to declare war on them. If you have no casus belli and you declare war on them, everyone else is going to hate you.
But you can trade casus belli - you can say to someone 'if you give me 200 energy I'll forget about the time you trespassed, or the time you placed a city next to mine'. I believe it's even possible to use a spy to create a fake casus belli and then sell it to the person. You can create the casus belli and then say 'give us some money and we'll forget about this, that you totally did, and I didn't just make up'.
Arents: We have covert operations systems where I can be friends with you at the same time as I'm spying on you and selling that spy information to your enemies. So these kind of things were not even a little possible in Age of Wonders previously. There's a lot of interesting ways for players to create their own story.
Would you say this is accessible for newcomers to 4X and tactical games, or is it more of a hardcore audience you're going for?
Arents: If you compare Planetfall to other 4X games, we have far more complicated systems, and very in-depth systems, but we are presenting them in a more accessible way than a lot of others. If you compare it, for instance, to Europa Universalis 4, then Planetfall is very accessible. Even if you compare it to Civilization, we are at least as accessible as Civilization because all of the systems we have in place are systems they have in place.
Bird: It's a fine line. If you make a game which is too simple (to make it accessible), an awful lot of the hardcore fans will genuinely be offended. But at the same time, if you completely cater to their every whim, and come up with some intergalactic 4D chess game, they'll absolutely love it - but there's just not that many of them.
So we've done our best to navigate that fine line to make it accessible, you do that in lots of ways, you make the idea interesting, you make it so the beginning of the game is much simpler than the end of each game. I'd like to think the game is accessible for new people.
Speaking of the endgame, we've only seen the beginning stages in our playthrough, so how does it develop and change in terms of strategy as the game progresses?
Bird: Typically the game runs through three rough phases - the early phase, what you would have played, is essentially running around murdering everyone and stealing their stuff.
Arents: Or making friends!
Bird: Or making friends with them and then buying their stuff, but you're going around and it's more about PvE.
In the mid-game other players become much more important, they become the main threat, hopefully there'll be a war with some of the factions - you can't be friends with everyone - and this is when diplomacy kicks in and you try to out-manoeuvre the other factions.
You might want to go for a doomsday weapon, and you will be turning that on. Most of the victory conditions essentially involve you doing something, and they have a timer - say, 10 turns, and then everyone will come for you. You've got to stop them and hold them off, and that's how you win the game. With some of the victory conditions, for example unity, you actually make friends, so hopefully it's you and your friends against everyone else.
A big old battle at the end.
Bird: Yeah, and that's kind of what you want - with a bang, not a fizzle, that's kind of what you want to avoid.
And with the diplomacy route, would you say that's easier or harder than going full military?
Arents: We're trying to balance it so that every victory condition is a viable path to victory - so that if you have six different players they each go for a different victory condition - they should all arrive closely around the same turn on the counter, at the final stages of the victory condition. Of course we have to balance - there's so many factors that can determine how this goes.
Bird: Typically what's happening now, much to our surprise, is people tend to find being nice and diplomatic is easier. I assumed (foolishly) that you put diplomacy in, people will go 'nah I don't want to talk to you, let's just declare war'. The exact opposite is happening, it's like 'I don't want to, I want to be friends with everybody' - fine.
Arents: So now we're building in ways where you can't be friends with everybody, you have to interact - yes engage, and you have to make choices...
I noticed in my playthrough that they started making demands for materials...
Bird: You'd think that would stop people, but people just pay, and they keep going. People love it - I think there's so much cool stuff you can get from diplomacy then it's like 'why would I declare war? There's nothing to gain from war.'
Maybe that's a comment on the real world...
Bird: That's a comment on the world, but if you look at history it's fairly clear that's not how the world used to work - lots of human groups got wiped out because war was more profitable, so we're trying to swing back in that direction right now.
I really like the tactical combat, I was wondering what design decisions you made to keep it smooth and snappy?
Bird: I think the key decision there is that when a unit does something, that's the end of its turn. A lot of games, you do something and then you can choose to do something else. The possibilities there - or the solution space - is massive. By saying 'no, you do this and that's it' - it really restricts what the player can do and makes decisions a lot easier to make.
So that's one thing, but also unit hit point levels are quite low.
Arents: The combat is quite lethal, so you lose a lot and kill a lot, and that generally keeps it going quite well and quite snappy.
Bird: The Persona games have a similar thing where the games are really fun and you're zooming through the fight, and then one thing goes wrong... like 'you used berserk on my entire party, and that guy's got physical reflect, and now everyone's killed themselves and I'm dead'. It only takes one mistake.
Arents: Especially with the operations - operations help you if you make a bad decision, you can turn the tide back against your opponent, but if you're fighting another player they also have operations. So the turn of the tides in the battle is a very interesting dynamic.
How will tactical battles work in multiplayer? A problem with a lot of 4X games is players have to wait a long time for other players to fight wars.
Bird: The way the system works now is that when you play in multiplayer, you will essentially be able to seamlessly transition between play by email and live. So that means you'll be able to play by email, realise everyone's online, and then go 'oh wait a minute we can go to live mode now'. Same game, same session (seamlessly to a degree).
I believe, as far as I'm aware, the play by email extends to combat - it would take a while - but players can take their turns and then send that to the other player via email.
So if a few players are playing live, and one is doing a tactical battle with an NPC, could that end up taking a really long time and be a little annoying?
Bird: We have a limited amount of activities that the player can do. There are turn timers, so you can try and restrict the amount of time someone's in combat. I believe you can mess around with research queues, production queues, things like that.
Unfortunately the nature of the game means that yes - as one person is engaged in combat, other people are very limited in what they can do. We looked into some solutions for this, and have some ideas maybe we can deploy in the future, but a true solution...
Imagine playing a game like Windows desktop, where you're minimising combats and then going back into the world - it would end up like that. You might end up fighting three battles at once, because why not? The number of problems is far greater than you'd imagine and the challenges of fixing them were unfortunately a bit too much for us.
How balanced are the different factions? Are some playable races difficult to master, but when you understand them they're really good?
Arents: Well, we have a bit of a problem here in that we put so much stuff into the game, we don't know what's possible. Players can go completely crazy with all the different combinations of units and mods.
Bird: We will be doing various balancing and tests, but right now it goes up and down. We recently discovered one of the starting units could beat every other starting unit in a fight because it had the life steal attack, while another unit which we put in very early for the Vanguard felt incredibly weak compared to everyone else.
Somebody played a game where they didn't make any of their own units - they made friends with the Psi-Fish and the Growth, and just went charging round the planet with this huge army of killer psionic fish, supported by sentient plants and occasionally an Amazon to shoot arrows. Like, 'we're here - don't worry, just don't mind the fish'. And these Psi-fish were just so powerful, she obliterated everything, it was crazy.
So right now - no. But, that's definitely something that we need to work on. Typically the idea is you make something really cool, and when you've made something cool people will want to use it. And then you find out what's broken and you tone it down.
It's a big mistake people make when they try to make something which is balanced from the beginning. People will look at it and see 'oh this gives you plus five per cent of something, meh who cares'. If you make things big and strong, people will use it and then they'll know whether it's overpowered, and then they'll feed back.