I go back and forth about which early decade real time strategy game is better – 2002′s Age of Mythology or Rise of Nations. Released eight months apart, there was certainly time to love both, and I do. They are even superficially similar – resource hoarding, base building, age advancing pseudo-historical RTSes. But both do such wonderfully unique things to a genre that probably felt staler six years ago than it does now that they stand in my mind as two of the best RTSes ever made. Only Company of Heroes has really measured up since.
Rise of Nations was the first game from Big Huge Games, the studio built by Brian Reynolds after he left Firaxis. A cursory glance at screenshots reveals little of interest and it’s only once you play the game that you understand how special it was and still is.
RoN’s appeal for me was almost entirely rooted in how it understood space. The history was nice, the great variety in the races was astonishing and the interface was almost perfect once you found the expandable tabs. But the borders, the terrain and the map scripts lifted the random map generator in RoN from run of the mill to astounding.
The borders were the big thing. Your civilization would have cultural boundaries you can expand as you found more cities and research specific technologies. Unless supported by supply units, enemies in your territory will suffer attrition damage, meaning that the real world tactical problem of managing/destroying a supply line is beautifully abstracted.
So it’s a little surprising that the specifics of the border system may have been an afterthought. Paul Stephanouk, a producer on Rise of Nations explains:
Obviously they are very Civilization-ish but, honestly, borders are such a common concept in so many wargames that when the topic came up I don’t recally anybody ever illustrating it by comparing it to another game. In my memory it was just like “hey, let’s have national borders so we can do *something*” and we proceeded from there, but that doesn’t mean that Brian didn’t have a specific reference in mind.
The idea of borders as a conceptual frame is quite obvious. Borders establish what belongs to you and what belongs to the other guy. So if there are special resources in your territory, you can access them and your opponent can not. The more of the map you control, the more attrition you can inflict on enemy forces, making them work harder to get to your important core cities.
But in Rise of Nations, the borders also controlled some pretty basic stuff like resource collection. If a national border ran through a forest or a mountain, the side with the greatest percentage of that terrain feature would be able to get more out of it. You could have a nine worker forestry center cut back to three because someone built a fort or temple nearby. Just like in Populous, the map itself became a weapon only you would use it to starve an enemy of oil or metal and not just kill invaders.
Borders changed dynamically and boldly. One simple research level could be enough to push your territorial claim past a tower or barrack. Where most RTS minimaps show the positions of units and structures, the minimap in RoN was a clear guide to who was expanding the fastest. You could, if you were careful, punch a hole in an over-extended rival’s united empire.
Though “epic” is a terrible word, Rise of Nations was designed with a conscious epic-ness. Stephanouk explains:
We used infinite resources because we wanted to make a game about nations on an epic scale. Worrying about individuals successfully carting loads of goods back and forth didn’t really seem to fit with that. We wanted to free up that mental bandwidth for the player to deal with other things like economy and technology.
So though permanent forests are not historically appropriate, they are epic. They don’t force you to do a lot of peon management – in fact idle villagers will just assume the nearest open task. The resource collection is essential to winning the game, but all that min-maxing of the path from resource to storage area is a royal pain.
What is even more epic is the terrain as a buffer. You can’t walk through forests or chop through them. (Well, the Iroquois nation can walk through forests, but they were introduced in the Thrones and Patriots expansion and are unique.) This ends up meaning more choke points. Other RTSes use walls to direct enemy assaults; RoN uses geographic features. The map, in effect, builds the walls for you.
All of this makes the strategic decision of city placement all the more important. If you can predict the angle of attack, you can set up a proper defense.
Of course, none of this would have mattered much if the map scripts weren’t so compelling. Age of Mythology had great map scripts, too, but the variety in Rise of Nations is astonishing. Because the game didn’t bother with nuisance units like transport ships (land units could cross water but not attack or defend while sailing), sea maps required an entirely different set of skills. No one controlled the water, you see, so an amphibious attack could be very difficult to defend against. Where you could sort of neglect your navy a little in Age of Mythology ocean maps, the decision to make every land unit a water crosser opened up new avenues of play.
Not that naval stuff is easy.
Having naval combat on your maps stresses the hell out of the already problematic fun-house sense of scale that most RTS maps need to use. The ships never look right near units or, if they do, take up so much screen space that they are very awkward to use. Most good water maps are the ones about using water as a form of variable blocking terrain and not as an arena for combat.
Then you have the little features on each of the scripted maps. The ones that only had oil in the ocean, or the ones with thick and impassable forests. There could be no easy way to get where you wanted to go, but that was entirely the point. There was such a range of scripts and map types that they took on entirely different personalities depending on the number of nations in play and who those nations were.
There are so many different parts of Rise of Nations that work so seamlessly that it raises the question of whether or not Big Huge Games really had much of an idea going in how everything would fit. Money is mostly raised by trade caravans and taxation and both are dependent on how many cities you have. Which means you need more land to accumulate this essential resource. (Knowledge is also tied to how many universities you have and only one per city.) This is where the comparison to Civilization holds up best – expansion is the only road to success. Sure you can do a “one city challenge” but that in many ways goes against the game’s core design.
Things changed in Rise of Legends. The maps has a little more character, but more fixed strategies largely because the cities were fixed in particular spots on the map.
We discussed fixed vs. free build a lot early in the development as it impacts many aspects of the game design, however I recall the driving factor for fixed city locations mostly coming about from technical constraints on we handled RoL’s modular cities as well as a need to make sure that spacing of the cities didn’t end up causing maps to become unplayable. Once we knew we wanted fixed cities we then spent time making sure that other aspects of the game worked well with that condition.
And, to be honest, a big part of me likes what fixed cities does to the map. But Rise of Nations probably had more tight connections between how the conception of space forces you to plan far ahead. That early scouting was crucial (how far am I from the sea, anyway?). Within the opening minutes I would already know where my second and third cities would go.
(Thanks to Paul Stephanouk for his insight.)