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Populous (1989)

March 19th, 2009 by Troy Goodfellow · 8 Comments · Feature:Map

What this is about.

Populous is not really what it says it is about. Cast as a battle between two gods, one good and one evil, it is really a game that merges genocide and terraforming. There is no sense of any religious debate or motivation or distinctions between the deities – if Populous were made today, you can be sure that each god would have been given different powers or means of gathering followers. In the pre-Starcraft days, this kind of thinking wasn’t the default position. Populous II would move more in this direction, but it was still largely two nearly identical superbeings duking it out for…something.

There’s a cliche about investing that says real estate is always a good bet since God isn’t making any more. That wasn’t the case here. Making and deforming the land was your most common action. You could raise and lower land almost at will, though you did need a reserve of mana for every action, no matter how small.

Populous was a 3D world, or close enough to 3D to have been novel at the time. There was no real exploring involved in the game; the minimap showed you everything that your enemy was doing and, since you were a god, some level of omniscience was assumed. The maps would vary in color every few screens, but they weren’t what you could call “varied”. Whether verdant plain or desert expanse or lava world (a color scheme quite similar to the DS Age of Mythology game), the basic ideas were the same. Your followers built houses, and when the houses were filled they would spawn new followers to build more houses. Each house tilled a certain amount of land and this produced “mana” that would add up to give you more power. The biggest houses (castles) tilled the most land, but also filled up more slowly. You won a map by destroying all your enemy’s followers and then you moved on to a new map and a newer more powerful opponent.


Your legions of death could only inhabit and till flat land, though. So most of the game was about making your land as flat as possible and your enemy’s as inhospitable to farming as you could. If he had flat lowlands, you could flood them. Or stick a swamp in the middle of his richest plots of land, killing every settler who walked by. I liked volcanoes, since they would erupt in the middle of the land and sometimes stick nasty rocks on the map, rocks that required a lot of digging. And on some of the maps, water was fatal, so it was sometimes fun to isolate the enemy leader on an isthmus and take the land out from under him.

Populous is, I think, one of the only game series that used the map as a weapon. Other games let you use terrain as a trap where an enemy can seduced into attrition or supply penalties. Here the land itself could be turned against you. Since the basic act of deforming was one of your most powerful abilities, you couldn’t raise and lower terrain where you had no residents (plagues and storms were cool). This made the trade off between spending your mana on an earthquake or a land bridge something worth considering. The game moved in real time, so you couldn’t wait too long, and there was always something you would miss. Like the enemy leader coming over to your continent and burning houses while you sussed out the perfect spot for a plague. Populous was an excellent multiplayer game precisely because the map was constantly changing to fit the opposing strategies of the players. The fertile lands you rely on at the beginning of the game will probably not be there by the end. This is not a matter of evolution or change or even transformation; this is a matter of erasure, of entire continents being wiped out and your poor settlers having to fight back from nothing.


I could probably make a strong case that Populous is one of the most original and underexploited game designs in history. Though map editors are (and were) commonplace, the idea of changing the board as you play – and making those changes the play itself – remains as revolutionary now as it was then.

Only, we didn’t really see it as revolutionary then. It’s easy to forget that in the late eighties and early nineties, stuff like this was happening every month. No one told Peter Molyneux that game maps weren’t supposed to be like this because people were still working out what game maps were supposed to be. Populous is more appreciated in retrospect, I think, than it was at the time. It was a hit, of course, and obviously admired. But I don’t think gamers understood how unique the design would remain for so long. I doubt many of us even read the gaming press with any regularity, so if somebody was pointing this out, few of us would have noticed.

The series came to a crashing halt in 1998 with Populous: The Beginning, a game that introduced more traditional RTS game play to a game design that really had no need of it. They downplayed the land sculpting in the early stages, even though this was the central mechanic that made Populous so unique and constantly captivating. A new/old Populous was recently released for the DS, and it adds those religious and disciple distinctions that are inevitable in any remake. I can’t speak to its quality.

Our next game is as different from Populous as you can imagine. It was turn based, it made vice the default strategy and it rewarded exploration. It did suffer an unnecessary update. Next week, QQP’s Merchant Prince/Machiavelli.

(Images from Mobygames.)


8 Comments so far ↓

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  • JonathanStrange

    Loved Populous, merely liked its followups. The first was very amusing but then I was ? eleven-years-old. Would I like it now? I know I have it somewhere!

    There was another game, around the same time, called Ultimate Domains. It was another build a civ game and I think it never really received its due. Justly? I don’t recall enough to say if I’m remembering only the good.

  • Hun

    They didn’t take land manipulation out of Populous 3, they just made it a lot more limited in the early stages of the game. Actually, creating an impenetrable raised island fortress was quite a fun way to finish some of the later levels where you finally had all the relevant spells.

  • Troy

    Thanks for the correction. I somehow remembered it being less present. I’ll edit to reflect that.

  • Thomas Kiley

    You’re right, only Halo Wars has dynamic map changing (Forge) and that is considered new and it isn’t meant to be for serious playing.

  • Neil

    The gods weren’t different from each other in Black & White, were they?

  • Michael A.

    Populous and Populous 2 were unique, timeless designs. I look forward to reading your take on Machiavelli – another design that I’d consider one of the classics.

  • Feature Series: Maps and Game Design

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