Beta 4 focuses on cities. But that really means it focuses on the games pace. Production, economy and research come from your cities. When we change them we change the game. First let's talk about a few of the design issues we have been wrestling with:
1. Lack of city specialization. Materials and Food are okay, but in general you want to build the same things in every city, or at least the player's preference outweighs the strategic benefit (so it feels like you just want to do the same thing everywhere).
2. We need more improvements. We want to double the amount a given city may have. We want more choices, we want there to be a bigger difference between a city that focuses on infrastructure and one that produces troops. I want a player focusing on infrastructure to never be able to run out of things to build. And I want to do it without:
a. Making improvements take forever to build.
b. Making cities even larger than they already are (in fact I want to shrink cities).
3. Basing the economy, research and production directly on population is painful/impossible when cities can grow from 1 from 600 population. Whatever bonus we give for those resources on a 10 population city become 60 times as high on a 600 population city. Lesson 1: To control game pace, control your ranges.
4. City enchantments are a tightrope walk. To good and you have to place them on every city, it becomes busywork. Not good enough and you never use them.
I wish fixing it was a simple thing, but we needed a few pieces to make it all work.
Step 1: Starbases?
Outposts can be upgraded to give bonuses to anything in their Zone of Control. They can boost allied units attack, reduce the attack of enemies, modify movement costs, scare away monsters, provide bonuses to the attached city, etc. They are not destroyed when an enemy moves onto them, instead they are flipped to that enemies control and represent your control over the land itself (monsters still destroy outposts, I highly recommend you upgrade them with Wardens to keep the monsters at bay).
Outposts have a limited distance they can be built (or summoned) from each other, so you can't pepper the field with them. But their ZoC's can intersect (with the right upgrades) and their bonuses are cumulative, allowing you to build strong defenses if you desire.
Step 2: Much like a bad Star Trek episode, it's all about the Queue
The production queue is a precious resource. Everything in Beta4 builds faster, but there is a lot more to build. As with Beta3 City Improvements and Units train in the queue, but Wild Improvements and Outpost upgrades go into the queue as well. You can drag items around in your queue if you want to reorder them (and it remembers how much production you had on items you may move back in line).
The biggest change in Beta4 is that even though production is much faster, there are always things you want to build. You can play as Pariden and drop outposts early on, but you will be making a hard choice to start claiming those resources vs making units or improvements in your cities.
Multiple cities are always good. If you can defend them and you have the land to claim it's always a good option just because it gives you more queues. The minimum distance between cities has been reduced in Beta4 to support more cities, closer together.
Step 3: Improvement Upgrades
In Beta4 improvements can upgrade. Your Cleric upgrades to a Shrine which upgrades to a Sacrificial Altar (for Empire players). Since the old improvement is replaced by the new one, we get a few benefits:
1. City size stays relatively contained. We added 40 new improvements and cities are about half the side they are in Beta 3.
2. Cities look more advanced as they upgrade to higher tier buildings. A cleric is a modest building, the Shrine is more pronounced, the artists can go all out on what the Sacrificial Altar looks like. Upgraded buildings don't get lost in the jumble of the same buildings the rest of your cities have, they look more unique and specific to their purpose.
3. You can't get to the higher tier buildings of particular types unless you have built the earlier versions. You can't build the Treasury Vault unless you have gone through the economy boosting improvements on the way. So you have to decide, do you want to build a Study, then School, then College and University? If you do you won't be getting access to the best economy improvements without spending the time to go through the base one and their upgrades. You are rewarded for specializing your cities and your cities build lists become very unique from each other. Build lists also don’t become huge since you only see the highest tier you have access to (you only see the Pier, not the Dock and Harbor it upgrades to).
4. Faction achievements and World Achievements are at the end of upgrade chains. You can't build the Ironworks just because you unlocked the tech for it, and you can't build it in every city. It will only show in a city that has specialized in what it does.
5. Resource improvements upgrade too. The first shard shrine only produces 1 mana per turn. With the correct techs you can upgrade to ones that produce more mana. The same goes for Crystal and Iron mines. If you have enough iron mines to train your units maybe you don’t need to tech up the side of the tree to unlock these improvements. But if you do want to have your iron come in faster, the research options are there for it. This fixes a big issue for us by allowing us to control the pace of mana and resources as the game goes on, we can trickle it in in the beginning, then ramp it up as the player gets access to more expensive units and more costly spells.
Step 4: City Specialization
All cities start as villages. When the city gets to city level 2 you pick a specialization for that city. It can be either be a Fort, a Conclave or a Town.
Fort- Units trained in forts start at a level higher. Forts are the only cities that can build walls as well as having access to improvements that improve defenders and improve trained units.
Conclave- Conclaves generate more research than other city types and have access to special magic and research improvements. They gain additional bonuses from Essence (more about that later).
Town- Towns are the heart of your empire and are the source of your food, growth and money. They also have a larger ZoC than other city types. Towns have access to a series of improvements that improve the food production for all cities in your empire and they are cumulative with each other. So Forts and Conclaves will never be able to reach the highest city levels on their own, they will need towns to support them.
The improvements for each city type are generally in that tech tree (Fort=Military, Town=Civilization, Conclave=Magic). So players that are doing alot of teching in one area will find that they can get more advanced improvements for that sort of city. If you have researched 90% of your magic tree and 0% of your Military tree you will have more high tier conclave improvements available than you have Fort improvements (in fact you will only have 1st tier Fort improvements available).
Choosing what sort of city you have opens up lots of new improvements to that city as well as determining what sorts of improvements the city can unlock at city level 3, 4 and 5. The real magic comes in the intersection of the upgradeable improvement chains (which keep players from building everything everywhere) and the city types (which modify the effect of other improvements). Maybe you want a food boosting town or a fort that creates super soldiers. Or maybe you want studies in every city because you like studies (even if they are more productive in Conclave cities).
Note that studies are available everywhere. Our point isn't to lock these city types down. You can get research and money from non-town cities. You can train units in Conclave cities. The point is to open up new ways each type can specialize.
Step 5: The Economy
I love the idea of all the economics inputs coming from the population. At one point I had a design where there were citizen types, unrest controlled how many were rebels, craftsmen produced special things. It was a beautiful, intricate, stupid design. Lesson number 2: If it's fun to design, it probably isn't fun to play.
Instead of getting money, research and production from the population, they now come from the city level. A village (city level 1) produces 1 research a turn, a level 5 city produces 16 research per turn. Of course these are modified by improvements, enchantments, etc. But that is the extent of our range.
Because of that change tech costs drop to more normalized values. A player with a large population isn't researching at 20x the rate of a player with a normal population. He may be going twice as quickly.
Improvement costs can normalize since we know the ranges for a large production based city. And they are close enough that they stay reasonable for a production focused city without being laughable for a moderate city.
Gold (*cough*, I mean Gildar) values were normalized since we control the ranges, meaning item costs in shops can come down. Sell prices stay the same but now that money means more. A gildar per turn means something to small and large empires alike because to don’t through a growth curve from starving for money to drowning in it.
Step 6: Essence
The final step is the addition of a new tile yield, Essence. Essence appears much like Grain and Materials and is more prevelant around mana shards. Only about half of the city locations have any essence nearby, and only about half of those have spots with 2 Essence. 3 Essence tiles are extremely rare.
There are chains of improvements that require essence before they become available. The Cleric/Shrine/Sacrificial Altar chain I mentioned above is only available in cities with Essence. Conclaves have access to Alchemy Labs and other improvements that give bonuses based on the amount of Essence in that city. The Guardian Idol improvement requires Essence and is 1 per faction (it starts as a monument, upgraded to a Guardian Statue and then to a Guardian Idol), it is a powerful city defender that can cast any spell your sovereign can cast.
There are two improvements that can increase the amount of Essence in a city. One is a level up option in Conclave cities. The other is only available to Pariden.
The biggest advantage of Essence is that a cities Essence determines how many enchantments it can have. City enchantments no longer have a maintenance cost and there are more of them and they are more powerful than before. If you found a city on a place with essence the first thing you should do is get some enchantments on it. Inspiration and Enchanted Hammers are good early ones that exist in Beta 3 (though in Beta4 the amount of their bonus depends on the amount of essence in the city). Additional City Enchantments like Set in Stone (+100% production but no research), Blood Sigil (Withers all attackers, Berserks all Defenders) and Sovereign's Call (+1 Growth per Essence) allow you an additional decision on how to specialize your cities. Trust in Glyph of Life to protect your Conclave from attackers, use Pit of Madness to speed the research in your Town.
Essence effectively becomes the most flexible tile yield, doing nothing on its own, but allowing you to reach in and play with the cities configuration. Maybe you want it focused on gold and growth but dispel those enchantments and switch it into battle mode when enemies come near (enchantment maintenance is gone, but these spells still cost mana to cast so "respecting" your city isn't something you should do lightly).
Step 7: Balance
I find myself carefully considering the build options in my cities. That doesn't mean it will be perfect. I'm very curious to hear from all of you on what enchantments you use most and which you don't use at all. Do you focus just on one sort of city type or play with a mix? Do you chase down improvement chains to the end, or do you pick a variety of improvements in your cities?
In a few weeks you will have a chance to play and I'm excited to get your thoughts. Until then we have work to do, mostly in making sure all the information is being displayed in an easy to understand way, and generally polishing the entire game to smooth the edges.