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Ironman/ffa: maps, difficulty, settings – How to adapt

December 23, 2009 5 comments

Continuing the series on Ironman/ffa (see here for “Traits in ffa and Ironman”) this article is going to describe what impact different maps and other options like difficulty have on the game, how you need to adopt your game style to that and what influence that has on how good the different traits and civs are, with a special focus on choice of civ.

Ironman or ffa-diplomacy

First games have to be categorized into two groups: Ironmans and ffa-diplo games. both formats can be played on all kinds of maps, but the game format itself already has a lot of impact on the way the game will be played.

Ironman means that the game is played with always war option checked and no kind of communication about the game being allowed. This makes the game a lot more militaristic, because you cannot keep yourself safe by negotioating non-aggression pacts (nap), but have to keep a constantly updated defensive force at your borders. Especially Ironmans on open maps like Pangaea often become very aggressive. Still there is a lot of unspoken diplomacy in an Ironman, which I will describe at another point.
As an additional note happiness is a far bigger issue in Ironman than in ffa-diplo, because you cannot trade any resources and are stuck with what you get from the map generator.

ffa-diplo games are more communicative then Ironman games, so they are more peaceful in most cases. People can make non aggression pacts, trade resources and have trade routes. This favours peaceful buildup and makes waging war more difficult then in an Ironman. Additionally war weariness is a far bigger issue, because the decrease from always war option doesn´t take effect. Something important you should talk about before starting an diplo game, is weather you are ok with 2v1 and breaking diplomatic agreements. For example in the german ffa community battlefield.com (BF) both was very uncommon, though not strictly forbidden by the rules, (Btw. If someone is talking about BF-style game, he means this format), while in other communities it is more common. One way or the other making sure beforehand that everyone expects the same from the game, will spare everyone a lot of trouble afterwards.

Mapsettings

I cannot describe the possible effects of every map, but fortunately they can be categorized into three major groups:

very defensive maps:
Hub, Islands

semi defensive maps:
Ring, Wheel, Grid

open land maps:
Pangaea, Continents, Hemispheres, Fractal, Archipelago &co (basically all the usual “realistic” maps except Islands)

Very defensive maps

The most important characteristics of those are that land grabbing doesn´t play a role and war is virtually impossible till mid/late-game.
This downrates expansion traits, because one of the major reasons for picking those, is that they will let you grab more land then your opponents and thus enable you to convert your early advantage into a longterm advantage as well. But since the amount of land is basically fixed from the start of the game, this isn´t possible here.
Elizabeth (Philo/Fin) is probably the best choice for those settings, but all other Fin and Philo leaders are possible as well. Not picking any of those two traits ins´t recommendable.
Since these games will often develop into pure buildup contests, also your civchoice should be focused on such in a longterm perspective. Civs with UBs that provide happiness (Maya, Ottomans) are very useful and Netherlands is very useful as well, because the Dike will provide you with a lot of useful extra hammers in lategame.
UUs are unimportant, with the exception of Indian Workers for buildup and Eastindiaman and Berserks for boatings.
In general your strategy should be aiming on a longterm buildup race. Expand carefully and get your tech going fast.

Semi defensive maps

Those are very similar to defensive maps, but another factor is added into the equation: landgrabbing and early wars.
On Ring, Wheel and Grid you can fight land wars from the beginning of the game, so everyone has to take care of military from the very beginning. On the other hand attacking someone early rarely makes any sense (only if the map is very small in comparison to the number of players), so you are still focussing on buildup for the major part of the game.
Different is, that you have direct land connections to your opponents, so there is land to fight for. This makes picking expansion traits important, because otherwise your neighbours will settle faster and also can more easily afford building military in the beginning, so they can pressure you and cut themselves a good chunk of land. So better do so yourself.
This is more important on Ironman games, because with diplomacy you will often agree on a “settling-line” with your neighbours very early.
Depending on the mapsize Medieval wars become very attractive (Though on maps with more then 8-10 cities per player they rarely make sense). Especially conquering a weaker or unsuspecting player with a prepared cata-ele-mace stack and quickly slaved knights to rush into the breach can be a way to go.
Also attacking in lategame becomes more of an option, though mostly in Ironmans. When you are leading by a couple of techs on reaching Assembly line, you can attack with Infantry and Artillery covered by Machine Guns.
Games are still decided by space-race in most cases – basically all in ffa-diplo. In Ironman it happens that the leading player can conquer one player after the other and it is also safer for him to win that way.
Best leaders are those with one expansion trait and one buildup trait, like Pacal (Fin/Exp), Victoria(Fin/Imp), Peter(Phi/Exp), Civchoice is the same as on very defensive maps, though Netherlands isn´t as good, because there is less water, but Rome and Byzantine become a possible pick for midgame wars, though not very good, because announcing what you are going to do is never the smartest thing.

Open land maps

On open land maps there is the biggest difference between ffa-diplo and Ironman games. While with ffa-diplo they can, depending on the players, still be quite peaceful, in an Ironman you will be on the brink of open warfare from the very first to the very last turn. FFA-diplo games will be similar in many cases, at least under the surface.
War is possible at any point of the game, so you have to keep your eyes open and your power high all the time. The best way to prevent war is to be prepared for war.
Furthermore landgrabbing becomes a huge issue, because borders are in no way pre-designed by the mapskript and have to be fought about.
How tight things actually become is dependant on the mapsize. When players are hardly able to plant 6 cities each, several wars will certainly take place early. With about 10 cities each, landgrabbing is still a huge issue and expansion traits most important, but fighting wars isn´t useful early because others will take away the land you could have settled.
In general you should only start a war (except early rushing), when you have planted all the land you can get. Just planting cities is always cheaper then taking them from someone else.
On tight open land maps an expansion trait is basically a must pick, you may even prefer a second or Agg to Fin or Philo. Though when playing something like Hemispheres, where it is more likely to have some space and a continent with two or three player, economy traits become better again.
The choice of civ is changed more dramatically. On the one hand the “natural” mapscripts provide less happiness resource problems on average, while on the other hand picking civs for UUs becomes a lot more interesting.
You can pick for Anti-rushing UUs like Holkan and Skirmisher. You can pick for rushing UUs, like Immortals, Impis and War Chariots and you can pick for midgame UUs like Praets and Catraphacts. On an open land map you will probably be picking UUs over UBs.
Anyway this category has most variety. A Hemispheres map with 5 continents and 7 players, is more like Islands, while Pangaea is the worst aggro map you can get. Check the mapsettings carefully, also taking factors like sealevel into consideration before deciding on your picks. Furthermore you should get some experience how big the individual mapscripts are. For example a standard low sea pangaea with eight players is still very tight, while low sea, eight players on Hemispheres is a huge map with lots of space.

Further notes on mapsize

You will probably be playing 90% of your games on standard size, so this doesn´t matter much. However it should be mentioned that the mapsize in the options is having an impact on the rise of city maintenance costs in relation to the number of planted cities. So if you ever get to play a small map, you should consider it equals to slightly increasing the difficulty, so you should give Organized and early courthouses some more consideration.

Difficulty

Most MP games are played on noble difficulty. However in Ironman and ffa games players sometimes decide to use higher difficulty for a change. This has influence on several things, especially the value of certain traits, the way you have to expand and the use of waging war.
Higher difficulties rate down expansion traits heavily, because expanding fast will let your economy crash hard. Organized becomes a very useful trait, because city maintenance and civic upkeep costs are higher. In general the focus is changed to economy traits, and picking two of those becomes a far better option.
Additionally you have to adopt your game style in general. Focus on working cottages very early and think twice before planting another city. Same goes for war, because another 6 cities will have a bigger impact on your city maintenance in all cities and thus your science rate.
Concerning choice of civ higher difficulties make Holy Rome and Zulu interesting picks, because you can reduce your city maintenance costs by 70%/75% instead of just 50%. (read here about Ikhanda/Rathaus) This can have huge impact. Though Holy Rome has the better and more straightforward boost, Zulu is probably the better choice, because Holy Rome´s starting techs are very bad, while Zulu is having good ones. This also depends on weather you are building barracks anyway, because you are in an aggressive game or not.

Starting techs

When choosing your civ, also check the starting techs of each, besides UB and UU. This is an often underestimated factor that can cause quite some problems with early expansion. In Ironman and ffa you should go worker first in 95% of the games, so that worker needs to be able to do something. When you have starting techs mysticism and fishing they don´t help you at all. Now Imagine you have only an animal food resource and lots of forest. You need to research two techs (Agriculture/Hunting + Animal Husbandry) to be able to connect your food (resource and then another two (Mining + Bronze Working), till your worker can do something else.
Basically they can be rated like this:
1 Agriculture, Mining
2 Wheel
3 Hunting
4 Mysticism
5 Fishing
The first two will let your worker immediately do something useful, while enabling you to research tech Animal Husbandry and Bronze Working immediately as well.
With Wheel your workers at least always have something to do and it’s a pretech for Pottery.
Hunting at least enables you to research Animal Husbandry right away, though not being of much help itself.
Mysticism and Fishing are virtually useless, though the first at least is something you always need at some (early) point.

Picking a civ with only one starting tech of 1 and 2 is ok and leaves you with a very low risk of getting problems. Picking two bad starting techs is something you should avoid.

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concepts #3: mapdesign for multiplayer civ

December 16, 2009 Leave a comment

Types of “fair” maps for Multiplayer

The current pool of available maps for multiplayer is not very rich. Keeping in mind that the game and with it multiplayer gaming is four and half years old it can be assumed that a lot that is possible has been tried. The CCCAC (the clan council that organizes the biggest multiplayer tournament, the CCC) is always on the search for new and exciting settings. The condition though is and has to be that a setup provides equal or at least pretty similar chances to all players, be it a team or a solo game. Maps like Pangae, Archipelago or Continents to name just three are all fine to have a fun game, but they are not suited well for a competetive match. Currently the maps suited for multiplayer can be counted on one hand. Inland_Sea, (Green)Wheel, (Green)Ring, probably Team_Battleground, some of the “Equal”-maps (like Equal_Islands) and Grid is basically a complete list and even among those a 100% fair setup is not guaranteed, especially on Inland_Sea and Team_Battleground.

A map for such a setup needs to be balanced enough in all significant aspects to not put one side ahead from turn zero on due to land quality, land mass, civ position or placement of strategic ressources. There are four kinds of potential maps that can provide this.

1. mirrored map

An entirely mirrored map (including mirrored starting positions, also in team games) comparable to what is used in Warcraft3 or Starcraft is one way of providing a fair setup for a game with two parties in it. It´s not automatically an interesting setup, that provides for different progress of a game with room for creative ways of attacking and interacting with an opponent every time, but it can be, in any case, it´s at least fair.

Mirroring a map “just” gives opposing sides exactly same land – not more, not less – that doesn´t say anything about the quality and possibilities of the setup. In what way are strategic, food, luxury or wonder production enhancing ressources distributed? What “ways” are there to reach the opponent – is it just two narrow fronts or an open area? Any map could be mirrored, any land/sea shape could be generated as a mirrored setup.

On a mirrored map everyone still has to handle and micromanage his land just like on any other map. The game basically looks the same as on a non-mirrored map, just isn´t pushed in favour of one side havign a start with a 6-food (grass pig for example) and the other with a 3-food (plains cow for example). Two aspects can be problematic and require consideration during map script creation.  The first being how the “middle” on a flat (not cylindrical or toroidal) map is created. The middle can´t be too “good” in relation to the rest of the map, because otherwise planting the ressources mirrored there (basically “stealing” ressources from the opponent while using the same own ressources) is too strong and pushes every game towards a race who gets the middle first. From this logic it becomes clear that if a map provides in not too far distance from the starting position an overall of 5 or 6 food ressources and 2 of those are in the middle, that´s not good for a fair game. This can be avoided by programming the map script in a way, that prevents a too big accumulation of ressources in the centre. Even more important is that the rest of the map is balanced enough that it cannot happen that a city that got culture bombed gets a significant part of the map´s ressources into its cultural borders.

2. equal map

An equal map is pretty similar to a mirrored map in the way that it provides the same starting position to each player, also in 1v1v1vvX game like a CTON or Ironman. The difference is that only a certain part of the map is the same, surrounding land from a certain distance on different though. Equal_Islands for example is (bugs taken aside) equal for everyone in all aspects since it´s sea beyond a certain point anyway. Equal_Inland_Sea though differs once you go away from the starting position more then a radius of around 5 tiles. Since the initial part of the game (especially in earlier eras) is the one that most is affected by land differenes, an equal map can prevent an unfair setup pretty well.

3. preset map

A preset map would be one where every tile, every ressource and every starting position of a civ is known beforehand – just like in Warcraft3, Starcraft and similar games. This ca be a mirrored map, but doesn´t have to be. Such a map can be planned, constructed and balanced in tests before being released. It would allow for preparations by teams (including what to pick), involving own strategy, but also counter strategy to whatever the opponent might be doing. Quite similar to for example knowing that on a certain Warcarft3 map this or that (getting a certain creep; developing a certain technology etc.) plays a bigger role. Constructing a map that doesn´t lead to one strategy being ultimately the only way to go would be very challenging, but could provide yet another layer of strategy to the game – making very specific pregame preparations possible.

Such a map wouldn´t necessarily have to be mirrored. In a teamer each team might have to play each side once or it could be that one team choses the map, the other choses the side to play on.

A preset map just would have to – like any other map for competetive play – keep up to certain standards of balancing unlike for example current Earth maps, which are preset, but far from balanced.

4. balanced map

A “just” balanced (though not mirrored, not equal, not preset) map would look like maps look today, though being programmed in a way that it doesn´t create a land mass that favours one side heavily.

Factors for balancing a map

ressources

  • food ressources
  • luxury ressources
  • wonder production enhancing ressources
  • strategic ressources (metal, horse, ivory, oil, aluminium, (uranium))

land quality and quantity

  • relation of grassland vs. plains vs. hill vs. flood plains vs. desert vs. peak vs. forest tiles
  • rivered tiles (commerce and fresh water) and other fresh water ressources
  • overall land mass

positioning

  • starting positions
  • distances between team mates, between opponents and distance of starting position in relation to the “back”/”front”

Ways of balancing those factors

ressources

Each food ressource gets a value depending on how “good” it is, taking into account that the value has to be different depending on the era. For example Grass pig (6-food) gets the best possile value for an ancient or classical game since you cannot have any tile make more then that. Unirrigated Rice (4-food) gets a low value in an ancient start, but a higher one in Renaissance for example since you can irrigate it there (5-food) from the start. There are games like Ironman where you go from ancient to modern and beyond, but the start is ancient – the fact that you get more food later on, 6 with Biology and having irrigated the rice for example is nothing that would unbalance the concept though could be taken into consideration. Main point being, each food (food is everything that produces 4 food at least after being improved, flood plains being treated separately) gets a value. The overall value should be equal for each player – not team to avoid having all food accumulating at one player. What that value is can either be preset in the mapscript or maybe even be an option while hosting the game.

Strategic ressources are already dealth with pretty well nowadays with the “balanced ressources” option that many maps have. This option only balances those ressources, nothing else. It puts all of them into a certain radius of each players starting position, that usually being up to 5 tiles. Each map script should have this option, best the possibility to have the host set a a radius in staging.

There could be a set number of Luxury Ressources for each player/team. In team games some ressources can appear more often then once, it´s only important that those are ressources that can be used. An ancient teamer that will never see Calender researched can´t have one side with dye, silk and sugar and the other side with gold, ivory and dear. Same is true for wonder production enhancing ressources – here though it´s especially crucial that some ressources are either available to all or none, especially marble.

All categories of ressources can overlap – ivory can count twice, once as a luxury and once as a strategical ressource, same for copper, gold (lux+wonder) etc.

land quality and quantity

As for the rest of the land, you should have a pretty equal amount of plains, grassland etc. tiles. It´s not fair for an ironman game if one has 50% rivered grass tiles, while the other has 50% plains tiles.  Each map can be split into as many equally sized parts as there are teams (players in a solo game). Each tile should have an equal amount of each tile – still of course can produce very different quality of land, but never worse then potentially now. Also this way land mass isn´t distributed unequally like right now on Inland_Sea for example, where you can have significantly less land to potentially plant from turn zero on.

positioning

After the map has been theoretically (by the map script) split into equally sized parts, the starting positions of each player should be in a way that the distances to the back, to the front, to team mates etc. are equal or close enough to being so.

Other map options

Some other options that could be interesting when setting up a game in staging room:

  • possibility to set positions of players; for example on flat Inland_Sea or cylindrical Green_Wheel setting which player is in the “back”.
  • Setting that oil is land based and cannot be on the sea.
  • Setting the value for food/luxury/wonder/strategical ressources
  • Setting the number of forests each player gets into “his” part of the map

Land Shape

Last but definitely not least a factor which has less to do with balancing, but a lot with what a game will look like, whether it´ll be one with lots of fighting or rather one with a focus on buildup, the shape distribution of land and sea mass, basically the shape of the map.

How many ways are there to reach the opponent, how far do fronts stretch? For example flat medium sea Inland_Sea has two rather narrow fronts. Each team puts a city on each side and knows that every attack has to go through that city or at least past it. On the other hand flat Green_Wheel has two pretty similar fronts, but a big middle part as well. Units can come from multiple directions and even move through to the back player without having to pass the front cities. Cylindrical Green_Wheel adds the aspects of boating – you can boat from back player to back (or other) player. Creating maps that balance having various and interesting options of attacking (or not havoing those if you want a more builderish game) is a challenge, but one of the most important once if you want to create good multiplayer maps. Making a map too “open” can result in a bloodbath with research playing a small role (that´s fun!). Making a closed map with clear fronts can result in a reseach heavy game, players building up while controlling their one front (that´s fun!).

Whatever the map script generates, it has to be able to “split” up the map into equal parts between players as described above in order to do the balancing (as describe above as well ^^), especially also when the map is played cylindrical or toroidal.

Last thoughts

All the types of maps described above can be used for competetive games – it´s not necessary to chose one, coexistence is very benefitional here. All of them have their setups where they can shine – just like “unbalanced” maps have nowadays for a fun game of civ. Just if you want to wage a clanwar or setup a tournament, you´d probably most of the time want to provide equal chances to the participants.