ICS is arguably the biggest unsolved issue in 4X games right now. Every game has to design around the issue and the specifics of the solution has a major impact on how the game plays. I made Nikhil Murthy’s Syphilisation in order to eXplore what a postcolonial 4X game would look like, and in doing so, I stumbled upon a very effective solution to the problem of ICS.
ICS, or Infinite City Sprawl, is the natural outcome of a very basic 4X dynamic. Essentially, a city manages to pay back the investment made on it fairly trivially. Given the amount that a city produces, it is impossible to price a settler such that the question of making one is non-trivial and the price still makes sense to the player. Thus, the game doesn’t ask if you should build a settler, but instead how many settlers should you build and how quickly should you build them. Once you have all of these cities though, the game tasks you with their management and so the player is left making decisions for a lot of low-value cities every turn. This labor drags down the pace of the game and it’s just not fun for the player to have to deal with so many decisions that give so little benefit. It also detracts from the fantasy of ruling an empire by bogging the player down in petty details.
This is made worse as the player conquers the cities of other players. As with settlers, it is so clearly the optimal play to keep the conquered cities, but it sucks the fun out of the game.
The ICS issue is one that a designer cannot afford to ignore. It will completely drown a game if left unchecked. However, all of the current solutions come with costs of their own and are still often insufficient. Through the postcolonial lens of Syphilisation however, I ended up with a very effective solution.
I understand that terms like postcolonialism can feel very loaded, so let me just take a moment to clarify what is going on here. Postcolonialism here refers to building a game that doesn’t reproduce colonial systems but instead implements systems that represent the viewpoint of the people colonized instead of those colonizing.
My hope when building this was that by coming to an established genre from a non-traditional viewpoint, I would be able to unearth new ideas for the genre. This was broadly successful and led to such findings as the ICS solution I detail below.
I also want to note that the postcolonial perspective is not the only option here. I think that a 4X game built from a libertarian viewpoint or from a religious viewpoint would also bring a lot of new ideas to the genre. I personally lean to postcolonialism however and so built Nikhil Murthy’s Syphilisation.
The solution breaks down into two pieces, the second of which is the more important. Both are rooted in postcolonialism though and they work together powerfully.
I wanted to bring some history from below to the genre. 4X games tend to be centered almost entirely around the central figure of the player and so end up implementing history from above, ie; history as shaped by the decisions of specific major figures. I wanted to move the locus a little more to the people of the country instead of just the leaders. To support this, I put in camps that pop up in each of the regions of the game.
The camps are semi-autonomous districts that sprawl over a number of tiles, harvest those tiles themselves and build things themselves. To control a region, you need the support of a majority of the camps of the region and maintaining that support can take a lot of work. They have their desires separate from what the player may want and need to be listened to.
Note that in order to make this work, Syphilisation only allows limited cities in the entire map. This is a fairly common approach in 4X games now, but one of limited efficacy as players still try to take over as many of the city spots as they can.
This is why the cooperative aspect of the game is so important. Syphilisation frames each player as a student doing a group report and so asks them to work together to make the best report they can rather than trying to outdo all of the other players. It tries to present history as more of a cooperative endeavor instead of as a clash of empires.
The game thus encourages the player to feel satiated when they have picked up an extra city or two. When playing, I will often refrain from going after camps in unclaimed regions as I already have an extra city and I want the other player to develop a little more so that they can contribute more to the report. When I lose a city, it is now a decision point as to whether I want to reclaim the city or whether the other player will use it better, especially if I have my hands full with current maintenance.
I built Syphilisation to explore how the 4X genre changes when you come at it from a postcolonial perspective and this novel lens ended up leading me to a solution to one of the genre’s most persistent problems. ICS has long plagued 4X games and, despite the many measures different games have tried to deal with it, has never felt fully solved. Coming to it from this new direction showed it to be a symptom of the underlying assumption that 4X games must be competitive and by addressing that assumption, we find one of the most feared problems of the genre to disappear almost of its own accord.