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  • Solving Infinite City Sprawl In 4X Games

    - Nikhil Murthy
  • 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.


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