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Feature Series: Maps and Game Design

February 7th, 2009 by Troy Goodfellow · 20 Comments · Feature:Map

I love maps. I always have. Something about how they impose order on nature. Borders are in bold lines, marking out what belongs to whom. Growing up, we had an old set of American People’s Encyclopedia that had resource maps for every country, so gold and iron and wheat would be indicated with icons. I think my older brother has those now. Historical atlases are always fun, and the end of the Cold War was a great time for map lovers because, all of a sudden, there were new borders and new divisions and new lenses through which to understand human conflict.

Love of maps is one of the things that binds strategy gamers together. It’s not simply about representation of history, but representation of space. Though maps are the canvas for pretty much every genre, in strategy games maps represent potential more than they do constraint. Good maps guide how the player should interact with their surroundings, but present alternatives if one route to success is cut off.

Beyond that, of course, there is little guidance for how to make a good map. Some map designs work for some game purposes, but not others. And, even as technology has improved, it’s not clear that map design has. Maybe it’s because we have reached the point where game designers know how to efficiently portray space and time. Maybe it’s because the technological arms race has made other design considerations more important.

So, as I did with my last feature series, I will use the flimsy premise of an imminent release date as the motivator here. The Total War games have always done interesting things with maps, and Empire: Total War looks to up the ante even more. Once again, I’ll try to contact the game designers whenever I can, but if you see a game you recognize here and know someone willing to contribute, give me a shout. Once again, I will use ten as my magic number for no other reason than that it is magic. I like magic.

And, like last time, the updates to this series will be irregular. So keep an eye on this page or on your RSS feed.

1. Seven Cities of Gold (1984)
2. Railroad Tycoon (1990)
3. Populous (1989)
4. Merchant Prince/Machiavelli (1993)
5. Imperialism series (1997)
6. Sid Meier’s Gettysburg (1997)
7. Combat Mission series (2000)
8. Europa Universalis series (2000)
9. The Sims (2000)
10. Rise of Nations (2003)

Episode 14 of Three Moves Ahead was inspired by this series.

And we begin with the best game from one the industry’s best mind – Seven Cities of Gold.

EDIT: I got the chronology screwed up and did Railroad Tycoon before Populous. Apologies to the historians out there.

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