The never-ending quest for the perfect 4X game

Yep, still searching…

So I have a confession. I am a wargamer, through and through, but my favorite games are the city- and realm-building games like Civilization. The challenge, of course, is that while there are a ton of great light boardgames whose themes trend in that direction, there’s not good tabletop game that fits in under two hours that mixes and matches the best of Carcassonne (build the map as you go), Seven Wonders (quick gameplay and development along many lines), Dominion (shared pool of assets to build from), and Eight Minute Empire (amazingly fast gameplay). To top it all off, I want all of that, and a halfway decent combat system that recognizes that terrain, technology, speed, and command actually matter.

Yes, I want it all. And I want it now!

Here’s the thing, each one of these games brings something to the table that I really enjoy, but in the process of trying to find the perfect game, you end up with the never-ending headache of trying to balance granularity in the facets of the game that matter to you, with streamlined gameplay for those who less interested in that level of minutia.

I love how Carcassonne builds the map as the game progresses. There’s a beautiful sort of randomness in the unfolding of a new field of play with every game. I’ve played almost every set of tiles they make (Hunters & Gatherers, Discovery, New World, The Castle, South Seas) and they all fascinate me with their differentiation and challenge. I’ve long thought that Carcassonne would be greatly improved with three small tweaks. First, some tiles trigger events, like immediate scoring or removal of certain pieces. This mechanic could be tied to seasonal changes, or some other mechanism to show the passing of time. Second, I think players should have a hand of 2–3 pieces to increase the choices available to them and allow for better planning of long-term strategy. And finally, I think each player should have a stable of 2–3 unique pieces that no one else has access to, an idea actually pioneered with an expansion to Hunters & Gatherers. This simple steps would bring that game closer to the idea of building a kingdom, and not just fighting over the pieces on a puzzleboard.

The building of the map within Carcassonne ties into changes I would love to see in Dominion and 7 Wonders — a map! Dominion allows you to collect duchies and provinces, but to what end? Shouldn’t ownership of all that real estate grant you some sort of in-game effect? In fact, most of the scoring cards needed to win at Dominion have the opposite effect — they are not only useless during the game, but downright counterproductive! Why not collect them and build them into your kingdom on the tableau in front of you as you play? Dominion’s ability to collect assets and then randomize their appearance in your hand as they game progresses allows you a degree of control of your tools, but only a limited degree, which is not wholly unrealistic as the ruler of a sprawling realm.

Dominion’s hand management does offer a greater degree of control over 7 Wonders, however, where the cards you don’t play are immediately handed to your opponent for them to inflict on you. What’s great about 7 Wonders is the uniqueness of all the cards. There are some duplicates once you get into 6- and 7-player games, but by and large, each card you see (and perhaps pass on) is only coming around one time. If you don’t grab the Scriptorum this turn, you won’t see it again. The other element of 7 Wonders that I enjoy so much is the ability to develop your city along a variety of different lines — commercial, civic, military, and scientific development paths are all available to you. At the end of the game, everyone has very different cities, but uniquely plausible ones, as they’ve developed over the course of the game. This is a big contrast to Dominion, where there are essentially no unique cards for players to build off of.

So how do you reconcile the two? Maybe instead of Dominions supplies of multiple copies of 10 different cards, you create fewer piles of ‘types’ of cards, with more variety in them? How do you work that into a map-building mechanic like Carcassonne? And how do you make go as fast as Eight Minute Empire?

The truth is, it’s pretty damned complicated. There’s a fine balance between “plays quick” and “robust array of assets”. It’s a thin line between managing a multi-faceted culture and overwhelming the player with a muddle of details. And honestly, even a computer game like civilization, that handles all the math behind the scenes for you, can bog down in the mid-game when it’s really all about resource-gathering before your final push to the end.

Will I ever find the one game to rule them all? I have no idea. But if I can’t, maybe I’ll just design it myself instead.

This article originally appeared as a guest post on Mark Walker’s blog. He’s a nice dude and a great designer and you should check out his games.

If you enjoyed this, please give me the clap… no, whataminute — that didn’t sound right. How ‘bout some “applause”, so other folks get a chance to see it, too. And please feel free to share your feedback — it’s great to read your reactions. Thanks!

Dad, husband, game commando, veteran, Army brat, writer, teacher

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