Bringing new eyes to Old World

, | Game diaries

Mohawk Games’ Old World is finally out of early access today. And if you’re like me and you’ve been waiting for the full release, I should warn you that it might be a bumpy ride. Brace yourself. Is that godawful clattering sound everything falling apart, or is it the rollercoaster being pulled to the top of an impending thrill ride?

It should be no surprise that the designer of Civilization IV and the team who made Offworld Trading Company love systems. They adore rules, interactions, stats, economies, spreadsheets, increments, modifiers, formulas, narratives expressed with numbers and their relationships. I know this, because so do I. But perhaps more importantly, and more risky, they love questioning assumptions. They love taking the games we know, tearing them down, scrutinizing the pieces, and then building them back better. And that’s obviously the approach they’ve taken to Old World, which looks at first like an awkwardly arranged marriage between Civilization and Crusader Kings, standing uncertainly at an altar, as if they each wonder why they’re here and whether it’s worth it. This won’t last, you might think. A war rages 1UPTly on your border but you have to decide what your granddaughter will learn at kindergarten, whether it’s worth spending 200 money to get the Assyrians to like you 40 points better, and whether to burn your wife at the stake because people think she’s a witch.

It’s obvious there are a ton of meaty systems simultaneously in service of the grand strategy 4X and the emergent narrative generator. And it’s obvious a lot of grueling work went into combining them into the same game. The problem is that grueling work doesn’t seem to extend to explaining the game to new players. It’s easy enough to just surf over everything and let a game unfurl, Crusader Kings style. It’s even easier when you wrap your head around some of the tools you’re given, which aren’t very well explained to new players. The 1-6 keys, for instance. Absolutely brilliant. But, completely (?) undocumented, unlike the absolutely brilliant tooltips, which get their own tutorial screen early on, which then vanishes and is nowhere to be found, so I hope you paid attention and remember what you read about middle clicking and, uh, how do I make the stickied tooltips back up one step? I forget, and I have no idea where I’m supposed to look that up, so I’m just hammering the escape key and starting all over if I need to back up a few layers. I would normally check the manual. There is no manual.

The lack of information is especially damning with a lot of the higher concepts, which is how Old World balances Civilization and Crusader Kings. It took me many hours of faffing about before I understood just what Old World is doing and how it’s doing it. And that’s because I took the time to pore over the tooltips, read through the civilopedia entries (many of which are terrible), and study the stats, taking notes all the while. Until then, and even during some of that learning curve, my initial reaction was one of disappointment. So this is just another Civilization clone? A polished enough but poorly documented one? Aww, man, I was hoping for, well…more.

Which I’m pretty sure I’m finally discovering, more than ten hours later. I’m kind of smitten with it now, but it took a while to get here, and that’s only partly due to the strength of the design. It’s also due to me sticking with it despite my initial disappointment, because I was sure I had to be missing something. I was, but I shouldn’t have had to look so hard for it. The stuff I’m missing should have been put in front of me sooner. Old World needs a better introduction, a better new user experience. I’m pretty sure it deserves it.

But a new player just jumping in, expecting to have his hand held like in other strategy games, expecting to be shown what he’s got before him? I don’t think it’s going to make a very good first impression on people who want to know the rules of a game as they play. Not to mention those of us who prefer to know the rules of a game before we play (too many strategy games operate under the premise that your first several playthroughs are for learning the game instead of actually playing the game; as a boardgamer, I find this intolerable). I’m disappointed there’s no manual, especially given the amazing “almanac” you get with Offworld Trading Company (it’s a thing of beauty, recalling the halcyon days of Microprose). Not just because a manual would be helpful if I want to look up something, but because then someone working on Old World would have had to arrange the higher concepts, systems, and rules in a way designed to teach people who don’t know them. Right now, it largely comes down to fleeting tutorial pop-ups, often presented at an inconvenient time, either because your attention is focused elsewhere or because the bits of information lack necessary context.

Old World feels like a game that’s come through a long early access, but along the way, no one made it presentable to people who weren’t part of the early access. So here it is, made by and for people who understand it already. When you work on a game, and especially when you design a game, you lose sight of what it’s like to not know how to play. This falls under the rubric of the “curse of knowledge”, and here’s an excellent podcast in which British journalist Tim Harford ties it to the Charge of the Light Brigade. Admittedly, those are higher stakes than learning how to play a game, but the same principle applies. Because that’s exactly the mindset you need to embrace when you present your game: what would it be like to have no concept of how this thing works? That’s precisely the perspective you need to write a manual, create a tutorial, arrange tooltips, and engineer for your game a new user experience. And it’s missing from Old World.

For instance, I’ve struggled with concepts as basic as “How do I build a goddamn road?”, “Where the holy hell am I supposed to get any rock, because I’ve had zero since the game started, yet somehow I have hundreds of iron?”, “Wait, food and growth are completely different…?”, “What are the Roman numerals next to everyone’s frickin’ name?”, and this oldie but goodie: “Why aren’t the numbers in the fucking tooltips adding up, because it’s driving me crazy that I can’t figure out how this city is somehow magically producing this much money?” Time spent figuring these things out is time spent not actually playing Old World, but being frustrated by Old World.

Most of the answers are in here, but they’re not collected anywhere central and they’re certainly not surfaced very well for new players. They’re scattered among the tooltips, the law screen, the tech tree (I’d estimate 60% of my questions were answered by studying the tech tree, one icon at a time), the lists, or sometimes nowhere at all, so I just have to figure them out or accept ignorance. For instance, the very first resource at the top of the screen is money. Its prominent placement in the interface can’t be an accident. Money is obviously a big deal. Duh. So I want to know all about money. How do I get it, why do I need it, what do I do with it, how does it work? What is its role in the game beyond what the tooltip tells me here:

Okay, let’s go to the civilopedia and learn stuff!

Not cool, civilopedia. Not cool. Especially since money is a central concept in Old World for how it’s used to make up resource shortages, which are a constant issue in the early game. Money also evolves significantly as the game goes on, as you’ll discover in the later law decisions. Money is used for events and to curry favor at multiple different levels. It’s apparently part of some upkeep system I don’t quite understand, which is tied to how populations are divided between citizens and specialists, which I only recently started to understand, which is also tied to urban squares somehow, which is an important facet of how you grow your city, which is a fundamental building block in the overall economy, above and beyond money. And here’s the sum total of Old World’s documentation:

Used to purchase other resources. Increase money by building Hamlets and Markets.

My first ten hours with Old World consisted largely of me staving off the twin demons of confusion and disappointment. And maybe that’s just because of the way I play strategy games. I want to understand them. I want to know the rules and systems. When I find a black box, I will put everything on hold until I can pry the lid off and see what’s inside. If I can’t get in, I’m liable to leave, especially if I’m playing a game about making decisions based on information. I wish Mohawk had put more effort into presenting its game to people like me. Because if this hadn’t been a game by the folks who made Offworld Trading Company and Civilization IV, I don’t think I would have stuck with it long enough to appreciate what they’re doing. But now that I can get down to the actual business of playing Old World instead of figuring out Old World, the clattering sound has stopped and I can see a whole exciting rollercoaster stretched out before me. Hands in the air, everyone!

Up next: all in the family