Longtime readers will probably be aware of my search for non-traditional civilization games. That’s why I was so eager to take a look at Jeff Warrender’s The Sands of Time, which flew under my radar a couple years back. Its approach could almost be described as abstract, crowded with cubes and cylinders alongside the more immediately evocative building tokens. Perhaps most notably, it manages to come across as the story of civilization as told over a long period. A millennium, maybe two.
And if nothing else, it definitely manages to be “non-traditional.”
I’m as surprised as you are — it’s the ninth episode of the Space-Biff! Space-Cast! Today I’m joined by Armando Canales, Lyndon Martin, and Brian Willcutt, the designers of this year’s controversial title The Cost. We discuss the game itself, along with broader concepts of moral game design and how to focus a game’s intended story on the elements that matter most.
Message games. There’s a loaded term. It’s a given that games can be more than “fun.” They can also be interesting, educational, enlightening, distressing; any number of things. But to hear some people talk, a game can do only one thing well. Either it will be good in the traditional sense — as a game, a plaything, no more thought running through its head than how to function as a toy — or it can carry a message. At which point it will be dour and lifeless, something to be experienced once and then consigned to a shelf to gather dust.
The Cost, designed by Armando Canales and co-authored by Lyndon Martin and Brian Willcutt, is a fistful of sand flung into the face of that assumption.
The civilization genre has always been about gluttony. Think back on all those times you shepherded a civilization from tiny settlement to grand empire. When was having more not a good thing? The success of a game-based civilization is nearly always measured in size, stockpile, quantity, output. Even digital civgames, which occasionally fret over issues like expansion stress or population pressure, nearly always treat these issues as minor debuffs on the national scale, and offer solutions as something you can build, research, or buy. To solve the inflation caused by your treasure fleets, spend extra money on more treasure fleets.
Of course, historical civilizations have no such advantage. Too much gold infused into your economy and it sheds its value. Too many stockpiled resources invites theft and pestilence. Too many cities and your borders stretch until invasion or fragmentation is all but inevitable. A soaring population is a hotbed of plague and strife. Even happiness is a double-edged sword. When low, your people revolt; when high, they grow plump and expect new amusements. It’s easy to forget that Juvenal wasn’t being shrewd when he wrote about “bread and circuses.” He was decrying the complacency of the population. In game terms, Juvenal’s Rome had a maxed-out happiness score. It just so happened that max happiness also spelled significant dings to military readiness and civic duty.
Now let’s talk about Gentes.