Villages or megalopolis?

An issue that has come up repeatedly during Trollskog’s playtests is the question of settling multiple smaller cities versus growing one massive city (a megalopolis). I'd like to talk a bit about the problem, and my solution to it.

I should explain what I mean when I say city, first - In Trollskog, most buildings can only be placed inside a city’s borders, and built using the resources available in the town hall structure. Each city can support a population of inhabitants depending on its food supply and housing infrastructure.

As players explore the world they’ll find resource nodes to claim and defend, and a lot of the mid- and endgame content revolves around managing multiple specialist cities, and the choices the player makes to balance each city’s strength and weaknesses.

When testers discovered a new resource node in the world, however, they would oftentimes begin harvesting this resource in the simplest way: sending workers from their capital city to trek all the way to some distant corner of the world where they might have discovered a new silver mine or rock deposit, have the worker harvest as much as it could carry, then walk all the way back home.

Gold- and silver mines are an example of a resource node that players can find while exploring the world.

Initially, I didn’t think much of this: surely players wouldn’t continue “long-distance mining”[1] resource nodes in this way once they became more comfortable with settling new cities?
After playing around with it myself, though, I was vexed by how this simple move allowed the player to grow their capital city to an enormous size while not having to make any of the interesting choices[2] involved in managing multiple cities, essentially skipping a lot of gameplay content.
Worse, many new players fell into this behavior by default, finding it simpler to just wait for their harvesters to complete their distant journeys rather than settling a new city.

I tried a few different mechanics to mitigate this. Initially, I experimented with giving each city a limited inventory. If each city could store at most 4 different resource types, progressing past a certain point in the tech tree becomes impossible without founding new towns.

The town hall command card in the lower right shows the city’s 4 inventory slots (2 occupied by wheat and wood, the other 2 empty)

This gave me some variables to tweak: the number of slots and how many resources each slot could hold. However, setting these variables in such a way that prevented a megalopolis made this mechanic extremely punishing for new players, who often take a very exploratory approach to resources and tech, while being trivially avoidable by players more familiar with the tech tree. Since I did like the decisions that came from having to manage a city’s limited inventory size, a nicer variant of this remains in the game, but a limited inventory was not a powerful enough tool to prohibit megalopolis formation.

So I looked to other strategy games for inspiration, trying to remember what’s worked well and what hasn’t. Now, most RTS games don’t actually have cities - In games like StarCraft, Age of Empires and Command & Conquer there’s really just different types of buildings - a player can consider a collection of buildings of cities if they want, but the game itself has no such concept. Certain buildings function as resource drop-off points, and this drives the player to expand out into the map.

Of the games I could remember having a well-established city concept, Anno 1404 impressed me the most with its solution. The game allows the player to settle new islands, which function similarly to cities in Trollskog, each having its own collection of resources. Each island having limited fertilities forces the player to settle colonies in order to advance their capital. The game holds the player’s hand through this process the first time around, encouraging the player to settle an oriental island to secure spice production, required to progress to the next tier.

In the end, I decided to utilize both these mechanics to a varying degrees. Resource nodes that are too far away from a drop-off point simply cannot be harvested. The player can decide whether to build a full city near the resource node, or to build a resource outpost and transfer the raw materials to a nearby city for further processing.

The inner border represents the city limits, the outer (dotted) border represents the city's harvesting range. Full cities have both these borders, while resource outposts only emit a harvesting range.
The inner border can be expanded by purchasing more tiles with gold, the outer border remains more or less static. The tradeoff: Resources will not replenish inside the inner border - harvesting a tree there means it stays harvested.

With these mechanics in place, I hope the issue is resolved. Players should still be able to build large cities, but doing so shouldn’t be something players blindly stumble into, it should be an interesting challenge that requires tradeoffs and support infrastructure in the form of smaller villages surrounding the capital.

I’m testing these changes internally first, and unleashing it on my alpha testers sometime next week.

[1] “Long-distance mining” being the Starcraft (and perhaps general RTS) term for harvesting resources far away from your cities.
[2] Thank you Sid Meier for not patenting this phrase

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More posts from the development blog of Trollskog...

The roadmap to v0.9

Since the early access release, I've had my nose buried in my keyboard, fixing bugs and not posting too much about upcoming updates and features - in part because there's been a major backlog of bugs to work through, and because future features have a tendency to change. Now, with the game rapidly approaching a stable state, and with a clearer view of the updates ahead, it's time to share the future roadmap with you.

Pathfinding fix

I'd say the bulk of my development efforts since the early access release has been iterating on the pathfinding, but at last, it is just around the corner. In the dev branch (and in a few days, on the steam build), units no longer get stuck on terrain or buildings. I’m still dissatisfied with group steering, especially in combat - fighting units tend to trip over each other and struggle to get into melee range. I'm looking to resolve this before releasing the next patch.

Improved AI - Attacking, expanding, trading

This is being worked on. As far as rabbit holes go, this one is deep. I’ll be making incremental improvements rather and releasing them together with other new features. Expect the AI to become a little more competent and engaging with every new patch.

New units

There’s some new combat mechanics waiting in the wings, such as buffs and debuffs, auras, armor and damage types. I’ll be unrolling these together with new units that make use of these mechanics in interesting ways. The new units in the pipe are the Slinger (a tier 1 ranged status caster), as well as the Seider, Skalder and Noaidi (Tier 2 and 3 aura-casters)

Food rework

As I’ve mentioned in a few other places, the food mechanic needs some love. I’ll be adding more food engines (rather than the dummy simple “put grain in bakery”) and adding a survival mechanic.

Tier 3 rework

It’s no secret that the last tier is a bit of a placeholder still. This will be fleshed out with more resources, buildings and units.

Harvesting rework

The current harvesting mechanic - specifically, the dotted line around each city - was not really intended to be in the game for this long. The new design will revolve around building specific structures to collect different resource types, such as granaries and lumber mills. I’m not entirely finished with the design on this one, so the dotted harvest radius line will remain for a while longer.

Main Quest Chain

Not going to spoil the plans for this one, but there will be group of procedurally generated “main quests” that can be completed to achieve sweet victory.

Save rework

Currently, every patch breaks existing save games, and each save file is on the order of several megabytes. This makes autosaves an unappealing concept. To fix this, I’ll be replacing the current serialization layer (Protobuf) with flatpak, and separate the serialized gamestate from the data-model that’s used in-game.

Future roadmap from 0.9 to 1.0

With the above features in place, the game will be in a good spot to be taken from Early Access to released. It's too early to give specific details here, but in all likelihood, when we get past 0.9, I’ll start marketing the game again, focusing on a Mac and Linux build, as well as the holy grail - Multiplayer. The big roadblock for this one (on a technical level) is the “Save rework” bullet point mentioned above. As it looks today, the serialized gamestate is a bit too cumbersome to be transmitted over the wire. Hopefully those pieces will fall into place as the patches roll out.

Want to share your thoughts? There's a discussion thread on the steam forums or you can hit me up via any of the social media links in the page header.

Early access on August 19!

For the first time, Trollskog is swinging open its doors and inviting you to share in the experience. On August 19th, the game will be available world-wide on Steam for Windows PC.
This is an early access release, which means the game is not yet content complete, but it is in a stable and playable state.
If you would like to participate in the community as the game continues to grow, you are welcome to join us!

Unit showcase - The berserker

The berserker is a new addition to the earlygame, capable of quickly engaging ranged enemies and delivering solid damage.
Equip him with a blunt club for an immobilizing stun, or an axe for maximum damage.

Steam store page opens up!

Some time ago, Trollskog was greenlit on steam. Finally, the store page has been published.

There'll be more details to come on this site, but we're open for wishlisting!
Additionally, the next test release will be moving on to the Steam platform, so the alpha accounts on this site will be replaced by steam beta keys.
If you registered an account here previously, you should be expecting an email within a few weeks.
If you didn't register, well, it's not too late...

To the walls

Walls and towers are a staple of real-time-strategy games, and Trollskog wouldn't be complete without them.
Here's a sneak preview of this latest feature:
(Click the image for full-res)

Placing archers on the walls will help keep those frontier settlements well-defended.