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I played a lot of different 4X games lately (eXplore, eXpand, eXploit, eXterminate, like the Civilization series, for example), and noticed that most of them suffer from the same problem: As soon as one player got significantly more powerful than the others, that player gets almost unbeatable. The dominant player has access to vastly more resources than the others. Also, that player has a significant advantage in research, which means that the other factions will soon fall back in technology, giving the powerful player even more tools which the weaker factions can not counter, so it makes the game even easier for them.

During this phase it is pretty clear that this player will inevitably win. However, the game usually does not stop here. It continues for hours while the dominant player steamrolls all the weaker players one after another. This poses no challenge to them, because they are so vastly more powerful. So this phase of the game becomes a dull and boring chore for everyone. The dominant player moves their units from one enemy base/city/planet to another knowing that nothing they could encounter there could stop them as long as they avoid some easily avoidable mistakes, while the other players watch helplessly in frustration without any way to prevent their demise.

How could a 4X game be designed to avoid this boring and tedious endgame?

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So, your question boils down to "How do we stop some players from playing too well?" –  Alex M. Jun 17 at 14:01
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@AlexM. Not really. Even when two players are equally good at a 4x game, the game will inevitably tip in ones favor at some point. That player will now have a slight advantage which slowly turns into a large advantage. The game will then continue for hours even though it is obvious who will win. –  Philipp Jun 17 at 14:09
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Once the balance tips, why not make it faster for the player to actually win? –  Thane Brimhall Jun 17 at 19:25
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This would be a great question on boardgames.stackexchange.com too, and you might get insights from a very different direction. –  Joe Jun 17 at 21:15
    
@Philipp I have no idea what you mean by "the game inevitably tips in one's favor at some point". All I'm seeing in 4x strategy games is better players killing all worse players quickly. Please don't try to change that. It's annoying when I'm one of the worse players, but it's damn fun when I'm steamrolling. –  Alex M. Jun 18 at 16:45

8 Answers 8

This is a difficult question to answer objectively, but I will try to construct a solution to your problem without guessing:

You describe the problem at hand as an end of competition to one player because that player became too powerful. Note one thing, though: The player became powerful by terms of the balancing incorporated in the game, so either you change this balancing completely, or you change the "rules" for this state of the game only.

The first option may not be what you want, because the early game was not part of your critique and seems to offer a fun and exciting gameplay. Additionally its hard to construct a change of the whole game balancing targeting only this aspect.

So lets see how we can set rules for only this state of the game. We need to find something that "punishes" overpowerful player(s) by making their life harder or by supporting other players. I have a few examples for you, that can fit this description:

  1. Cheat. A lot of games use "random" events to bring life and alternation to the world. Some of those are beneficial and some of those aren't. Example: Sim City Catastrophes or Mongol Invasion in Total War. A lot of games have catastrophes that can bring additional challenge to players. You may be able to "randomly" challenge the leading player with a lot more of those catastrophes. But be careful, in Sim City a whirlwind destroying your beautiful city may have been the only challenge for a perfect player, but it can be equally frustrating.

  2. Something similar but more predictable may be better to maintain fun at last. You could add not only benefits from having a lot of cities under control and being far the most developt nation, but insert new problems that occur. Large cities are more likely to develop spreading diseases, a big nation is harder to control, more revolutions occur, costs for a lot of armies could skyrocket. These problems are especially able to punish players that expanded or explored to fast, without proper preparation.

  3. No other player is a challenge for your leading tyrant. A scary situation, especially for the other players. From my own experience I can say that humans can be pretty careful to avoid this type of snowballing incontestable player. Every time I play something like Risk it is not only my task to become the most powerful player, but instead to seem like I'm doing bad. Because if you are clearly the candidate to win a game, others will start working together and bring you down. Which can still be a threat for you, even though you are leading the board. Total War: Shogun 2 used this technique and totally overdid it. In that game, if you have a big number of territories under control every single clan starts beating you, if you aren't prepared to win fast after that happens you often loose for good. Diplomacy stops working for you. This could be something realistic to use, even though I would advise to balance it properly.

  4. My last idea is the only one of the type: Support the other players. A lot of 4X games have neutral factions that are to be conquered or to be worked with. While some of them surely like to work with the best-paying/most powerful player on the board, some might resent the idea to be overrun as much as normal players do and might start actually working together with smaller nations in new ways, or even voluntarily become part of them.

A combination of the techniques may help you balance out your game. But be aware, a game needs to have an end, you might prolong the game for good or make it more interesting, but if the result is always the same as before, or you totally destroy the fun of being the most powerful, you might have just created new problems.

Still I think your idea of keeping up the challenge is not bad, maybe you even make it "impossible" to win alone and increase the value of diplomacy.

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In my opinion, the way you fix this is to decouple the victory condition from the production mechanic.

For a great example, check Eclipse, the board game. You can score a lot of points just for researching tech and building monoliths. The monoliths don't give you anything except points, and tech doesn't give you anything directly. You also gain points for the usual conquest and fighting, but a sneaky player can avoid conflict and still score a lot of points.

Of course, this also works in tandem with the game's duration: 9 turns. The game is forced to end before the militarized player can completely destroy all of the non-fighting player's stuff.

So if you're making a 4X computer game, I'd say try use a similar principle. Game's end is not defined by conquering every one else (like the Alpha Centauri victory condition in Civilization or fixed time), and there are ways to approach victory without just conquering and fighting.

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+1 Who hasn't had a hard-fought game of Civ look "in the bag," with just a few small civilizations left to conquer, when one of them suddenly wins on culture, or launches a space ship? This doesn't happen in easy games, but it makes higher difficulties less predictable. –  Jon of All Trades Jun 17 at 19:47
    
+1 I was going to mention Eclipse, which exhibits the best solution to this problem that I've seen. It's available on iOS if the questioner wants an easy way to check it out. –  Matt Thrower Jun 18 at 8:09
    
@JonofAllTrades I haven't. OTOH I also disable those victory conditions because they take away from my enjoyment of the game. –  Dan Neely Jun 18 at 18:54

In terms of balance, competitive games can generally be sorted into one of three types:

  1. Positive reinforcement: When one player gains a small advantage over the other, that advantage gives that player an even larger advantage, which gives the player an even larger advantage, and so on. The advantage of this approach is that games tend to be very even at the start, and then end very quickly once one player takes the lead, thus minimising boring end-games. Games of this sort include arm wrestling and StarCraft.
  2. Neutral reinforcement: When one player gains a small advantage over the other, that advantage does not affect the game mechanics. Games of this sort are usually structured as "first to reach 'n' points", such as in FPS deathmatch games, or else give players "health bars", such as in fighting games. Tug-of-war is another example of this sort of game. Neutral games can be lengthy, with a lot of back-and-forth, or one side hanging on for a very long time in a losing position, without ever quite hitting the losing threshhold.
  3. Negative reinforcement: When one player gains a small advantage over the other, that advantage becomes a penalty to them, making them weaker, and other players stronger. This sort of game tends to last a long time (often infinitely long), and so usually needs some external ending condition; usually a pre-set duration. Mario Kart is the classic example of this, where the players in the back of the pack are given better pickups and drive faster than the players in the front. The advantage of this approach is that you're likely to end up with your players closely grouped when the game ends; if your players are of similar skill level, then no one player should be far in the lead, which makes the ending exciting.

In a 4X game, you're most likely to go with positive reinforcement; you want a player, having gotten ahead, to be at an advantage over the other players. And once that advantage becomes large enough, you want the game to end quickly. (I think it'd be fascinating to design a 4X game around one of the other two reinforcement models, but that's probably not what you had in mind)

If you tend to have a long and tedious end-game phase, that means that you aren't getting enough positive reinforcement to overwhelm your opponent and bring the game to a close.

One interesting approach to giving better positive reinforcement is in Chris Crawford's The Global Dilemma: Guns or Butter released in 1990, which set up its economic systems so that doubling the amount of money spent on something quadrupled the amount of output. So for example, if $1000 bought a tank, then $2000 bought four tanks. And $4000 bought sixteen tanks. And $8000 bought sixty-four tanks. (Note that in Guns or Butter, your money had to be completely spent each turn; you couldn't "save up" between turns)

This meant that if you gained more production capacity than another player, you were very quickly able to leverage that economic advantage into a massive military advantage, to bring the game to a speedy and exciting conclusion.

It's also worth noting that in 4X games (and other territory-taking games), the larger the map you're playing on, the more positive reinforcement is required in order to bring the game to a close in a timely manner. If you don't want to put a lot of extra positive reinforcement into your game, you may find that simply reducing the size of your map makes things a lot more satisfying, without making any other changes to the game.

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In fairly chaotic systems, like nature, you often find that when one thing rises to be the dominant force in the system, the system changes and something else will inevitably react to counter this - it might be something getting stronger, but it can also be the creation of something new.

I use the term country but it could be a game about any group entity.

Real World Example

One example I can think of is the company, it's competition and the unions.

In instances where a company becomes the dominant force in a market it is common for another company to rise to the challenge, invest more in research and development and try to become more competitive. These companies will compete in the market as well as over employees - with better wages and bonus packages etc. However, in instances where this doesn't work out and companies don't compete well enough over employees, the chances of a workers union being created can increase.

Now this is a very basic summary of the situation, but I felt it was analogous to this situation...

Application as a Mechanic

In the end game there are no countries left with a good competative edge. In these situations companies do tend to merge. So to make the end game more interesting it might be worth having countries form mergers - whether it's larger unions of countries or pacts or simply that two countries agree to merge.

However, it may also be that there is no way to merge enough countries to make a singular competitive entity, as is the case with companies.

In this situation you can increase the difficulty by providing a threat from within. When people in countries get more settled and comfortable they start to be more concerned with other things, like culture and societal structure.

So if providing unions of countries doesn't give a big enough threat, have the players country diverge in it's ideas and try to have the player balance it's own internal politics while also engaging other countries.

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In multiplayer games, a very effective "automatic" balancing mechanism is that the weaker players can (and have a strong incentive to) join forces against the strongest one.

Some ways to make this work more effectively include:

  • Make sure that your players can cooperate effectively. There should be ways for players to trade and/or simply donate resources, to combine forces for mutual defense (or offense) and perhaps to form mutual trade and scientific cooperation treaties (and, of course, to exclude some players from such cooperation).

  • Consider building in mechanisms to encourage trust between cooperating parties. For example, you could allow binding mutual non-aggression pacts (possibly limited to specific units), so that players can safely invite neighboring players' units to help in their defense without having to worry about the units turning against them. There's something of a tradeoff here between realistic and complex diplomacy on one hand, and improved auto-balancing on the other, so you'll want to decide how much of this you want.

  • If you have NPC factions, make sure their AI also tries to cooperate with weaker players against the strongest one. If one player looks too strong, you can even have NPCs factions offering to unconditionally merge with the weaker player factions.

  • Make the relative strength of each player clearly visible at all times, so that it's easy for other players to tell who's strongest and how close they are to winning. Try to make sure that a player cannot easily enter the "steamroller" stage without the other players noticing and having the opportunity to stop them. (It's OK — and perhaps even desirable — to allow a careful player to quietly gather strength before suddenly making a bid for victory, but this should normally require actual strategic play, not just steadily building resources while others don't notice.)

  • Give the players effective means, other than just plain direct offense, to sabotage others. These can, and probably should, be costly to the sabotaging player too — the important part is that several weaker players should be able to focus their sabotage efforts on the strongest one. Make sure your NPCs can use them strategically, too.

  • Last but not least, don't give any consolation prizes. If there's something to be gained for being second-best, the weaker players will be tempted to compete with each other for the silver medal, instead of ganging up on the strongest player like they should.

You'll also want to ensure that, when one player (whether through guile or just brute strength and persistence) does get to the stage where they're undefeatable, even by all the other players and NPCs together, the game should end quickly.

One way to achieve this (and also the goal of clearly signaling when someone is close to winning) is to have some specific single goal whose achievement decides the game. For example, your game world could have a single heavily defended (but otherwise neutral) location whose capture wins the game. That way, it's pretty obvious when someone sets out to try and capture this location, and if they do succeed, they win immediately.

(Of course, to make this work, other players must be able to help defend the target location, or otherwise sabotage attempts to capture it. You could also, say, make players lose immediately if their capital site is captured; that way, if someone makes a premature play for victory and commits too much of their forces to it, others can attack their now poorly defended capital, and take it out before the over-eager player can win.)

By the way, to see this balancing mechanism in action, I'd very much recommend trying the card game Munchkin. It's nothing like a 4X game, but it does have a very strong emphasis on (sometimes literal) backstabbing and rapidly shifting inter-player alliances. The main victory condition is very simple (reach level 10 through combat) and, combined with the plentiful single-use resources that can be used to aid or (more commonly) harm any other player in battle, pretty much guarantees that the game ends in an epic one-against-all fight.

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Many games suffer from linear progression. Things seem to difficult at the start, but later on it is too easy and becomes boring.

In the context of a 4X game this could be prevented by making spying easier when a civilisation is larger. It makes sense that if their borders are larger and their machines more numerous, then it should be easier to steal those ideas. This would mean that the leading civilisation will slowly help the others to advance.

Another issue facing civilisations is outside interference. Imagine a space 4X where if one civilisation got too far ahead and were mercilessly crushing others, perhaps an even older, even more powerful computer controlled civilisation could turn up and try to redress the balance of power. They could still win, but now there is a bigger threat for them to face and may have to rethink their strategy of steamrollering.

Perhaps something more "humane" could be added too. What if you were so advanced that the other civilisations were no match, and you decided to crush them. Not everyone you despotically rule over will like this. perhaps they will start to form dissident groups, then a resistance force and finally revolt and kill you! There you are forging ahead with your evil plans and you overlook your own people and are assassinated or deposed.

Anyway, those are a few that come to mind, but there are plenty of ways that an advanced civ might not automatically have so much of an advantage that they can roll over the others.

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+1 for concrete plot ideas. –  topright Jun 27 at 12:13

If a dominant power is in control, then give the other players non-dominant options to handle it. Star Wars: Forces of Corruption did something like this, by means of "Corruption", basically a criminal influence in other people's territory.

Some examples could be:

  • Sabotage
  • Crime
  • Rebellion
  • Assassination
  • Bribery
  • Theft
  • Guerrilla Tactics

Another suggestion could be as a player advances, their progress is along a track, and based on this track, they have benefits and weaknesses. If the player is very advanced technologically, they might underestimate a weaker enemy, which can give the other player a bonus when using guerrilla tactics.

Hope this helps!

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+1 Because I like the idea of "non-deadly"-force even though I think it may be difficult to add these mechanics in a way that does not favor the dominant player again. (And even though I did not like FoC.) –  Kronos Jun 18 at 20:39

Add other goals to win the game.

Most X4 games concentrate on conquer victory. So you could add goals that can be reached by less powerful players by a good strategy.

Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri for example has multiple goals to win the game. Classic conquer victory, economic victory, tech victory and supremacy victory. These goals seems to be a bad idea, but in Alpha Centauri, research speed, tax collection and many other factors depend heavily on the society settings of your faction. So if you concentrate on research, you will be vulnerable for other types of war. And if you drive your war machine, research will decay and make you also vulnerable because of bad equipment. A good strategy balancing is needed. All in all, even the strongest player will have an vulnerability. These vulnerabilities are enforced by the alternative victory goals. The strongest player can fail because someone else collected enough money or reached a special tech or built a special project.

In your described bad case, the game can be ended quickly by supremacy victory, simply persuade 3/4 of all others players to accept you as supreme leader. There are also planet busters (nonconventional bombs) that can break even the strongest players but for the high cost of ingame reputation and sanctions.

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Please add some examples and explain how each of these example would affect how players play the game. –  Philipp Jun 18 at 19:30
    
Sorry. I was already writing on an example. –  Vektorweg Jun 18 at 20:09

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