Prototyping Basic Game Rules
Mocking Up Rules and Grids: Ouch
After setting out to get the base mechanics from paper scribbles into a coherent 2D mock-up, a couple of things started coming out.
Firstly, there's a very basic element of 4X design that needed to be uncovered to understand why the first-turn in every 4X game is quite similar - you're given x amount of units and resources to start, with only a few tiles (or even systems) to look around.
I've approached this first initial phase as almost linear design from initial spawn to padding out mechanics as they're needed to make rules have purpose - I'm still far away from culling those rules out, but I'm starting to see some semblance of structure in the opening stage of the game concept.
My guiding inspiration has been Neo Scavenger, Overland and Civilization II - I think this is a good mixture of not reinventing the wheel, but also looking to draw on proven mechanics in each game to cut corners on making assumptions.
So Initially I started with an empty grid and looked to my initial core mechanic - tile ownership. How can we create ownership of a grid space/tile in the game? Ideally, we're looking at the core aspect of how a lot of RPG and Strategy games approach this; which is to delegate a tile's ownership to a player through occupation of a unit or piece.
Drawing on the now twenty-year old proven formula of Civilization, I found that spawning 1 scout and 1 settler unit made sense. Even thematically, this actually fits well as the player is 'emerging' into a new world and the premise of the unit spawn works arguably in favor of the narrative. But aside from that we need to start a player with pieces.
I have 2 units, I have a grid, now I need tiles. I wanted to basically not create anything I didn't immediately have a reason to have on this grid but I still needed to emulate some basic concepts found in other games - terrain variation ties closely with resources, bonuses, penalties and aesthetics. So I started with 3 separate tile types, or prefixes, and assets they may house. I made a mistake here in that I created the suffixes, or tile assets, without really knowing what they're going to do.
So we have grass, wasteland and urban tiles that can house trees, lakes, buildings or be completely flat. There was some merit in this because when I started thinking about how these combinations of assets might work, some neat head-cannon ideas came up; overgrown urban tiles with cities, flooded wasteland etc.
So in defining these tiles, I had to approach the concept of generating rules from the player spawn to their first couple turns of actions. Initially the grid and the rough UI elements were pretty bare - I don't need to track resources if I don't know what resources I need, or why I even need them.
So we spawn two units, and thus we've created a new rule- at the start of a game, the player spawns with two units. A scavenger and a survivor. The Survivor is designed to be a colonizer/settler unit, the scavenger is a scout. The core mechanic requires that we 'own' or occupy tiles, so I added a few rules to help establish the value of occupying tiles and how we can 'hard' own them. This is an interesting concept and one that applies to any tile-based game; hard ownership is when you've established a static piece/border that is static (until the city/static piece is removed) and soft control, which is essentially the occupation of a tile by a mobile unit that may change turn by turn.
With the units in play, I decided to promote the idea of 'unit' upkeep as a more important mechanic to reflect the core theme of 'survival 4x'. Most survival games, or all really, tend to feature resource pressures based on a time tick on the player - every x second, the player is subtracted food, water or health. It made sense to then apply this concept to the units in the game itself. So, in AfterCiv, every unit and population has an impact on your food and water supplies, meaning that you have a constant pressure to balance your resource generation with how many pops, or units, you field in a game session. This hopefully gives way to making way for more emergent choices further on.
So this introduces some new concepts into the game in the way of secondary mechanics. When a 'survivor' is disbanded into a camp, it converts itself into a number of survivor pops. This represents the survivors settling down to camp and converts them into a type of resource you can deploy onto tiles to 'work' them. I wanted to move a bit away from the most traditional mechanics around 'one pop per tile' and instead allow for population stacking - this may represent the ability for players to prioritize urgency of collecting one resource and was inspired mainly by Frostpunk. A feature in that game that I found to be quite interesting was that you could assign more than one citizen into a workable resource and even double, or triple, overlay different work-sites onto a single resource to quickly generate necessities.
I hit a weird wall here where a pitfall emerged - wood. I've decided to separate wood and tools as distinct resources, because I want to promote the players to scavenge for tools and work towards being able to create them through a building chain. Having a critical resource tied to exploration can help reinforce the need to move your scavenger to urban/building tiles.
Wood however I feel is best set aside as a resource that is needed to build things, but does not tick down. Splitting resources to things that are continually ticking down due to upkeep and ones that require a specific amount for progression might be a better choice for balancing, but I'll find that out later.
One of the key challenges here is to keeping the scope focused and not blowing out complexity. I've gained a bit more appreciation for Civilization's abstraction of manufacturing to 'Hammers', but since I'm aiming to make this focused on a much smaller area with a small number of camps/units, splitting the resources may work.
Knowing Opportunity, Not Taking It
From these open-ended rules and resources, I know there are a few interesting secondary mechanics that I can explore further but I'm actually interested in exploring them down the track. For instance, having tiles turn into winter/summer seasons may influence whether wood is burned or not, or including 'scrap' as another resource next to wood. Looking at lakes/water sources that are clean (on grass) or unclean (on wasteland) tiles may open the way for 'medicine' or unhealthy pops as a mechanic - but it's far too early to think about that. The trope of 'needing medicine' for a camp in a post-apocalyptic setting is pretty standard so that's likely going to be a necessity.
This also brings 'Fuel' and 'Ammo' into question, but I'll explore those later - I am assuming that level of complexity will not be that interesting, but I might be wrong.