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Hey There, Little Buddy: The Sphere of Influence

October 23rd, 2011 by Troy Goodfellow · 6 Comments · Design

Spheres of Influence are one of those diplomatic conceits that strategy games try to recognize but have trouble really bringing to life, and there’s a good reason for this. A sphere of influence isn’t “real” in the sense that an alliance or a vassal status is, though it supersedes both of those. A sphere of influence is a nebulous umbrella term for “these are the parts of the continent/globe/universe that I reserve the right to muck about in” – there is not always a formal status, connections can be economic or cultural or ideological as well as strategic and where there is no formal status you have to allow for competition in a game. A sphere of influence cannot be permanent in a grand strategy game and the putative allegiance of minor states or colonies needs to be worth competing for.

Well sort of. It depends on the timeline and scale. Chris Crawford’s Balance of Power was all about spheres of influence, though it never used the term, but not really about competition. You could try to compete with the Soviets for influence over minor Arab states or some parts of Sub-Saharan Africa, but if you tried to wrest Finland or Romania more firmly to the side of NATO then you were touching too close to a core sphere. Winning Balance of Power generally came down to deciding what the AI cared about and what it didn’t, using your knowledge of geopolitics and a slowly shifting map.

The competition is important, in my opinion. Sphere of influence should be a prize worth fighting for and therefore confer real benefits at the end. Gaining a new planet in your orbit can be a result of carrot or stick. And, ideally, the object of the sphere can face a comfortable or (most likely) uncomfortable choice.

Attempts to include ideas like sphere of influence in 19th century games like Imperialism, Victoria II and Pride of Nations have gone about it in a variety of ways, and I think that the less formalized structure like Imperialism works best precisely because it allows you to invest whatever meaning on minor nations that you choose. Because once you start trying to say what a sphere of influence is and imposing defined mechanics on it, it can’t help but be a little disappointing.

Take Victoria 2, a game with no deficit in mechanics. You invest diplomatic points in various nations and once you get that score to 100, they can be added to your sphere of influence and then an alliance. All the while, other nations are trying to compete to get these nations into their sphere by undermining your efforts, which also costs diplomatic points. The big prize for having a sphere? These nations have to deal with your goods and sell to you first.

But so much of the economy and trade is under the hood that you never really are exposed to this benefit. Competition for Egypt and Panama and Siam is great, but it all happens with slowly accruing numbers on a diplomatic menu. You set priority for nations you want to influence, it all happens automatically and then an altert lets you know when the cake is done baking. As a game mechanic, it has all the engagement of waiting for your potatoes to grow in Farmville. You plant the action, you harvest the action, but you never really tend to it beyond occasionally giving France’s efforts a kick in the head. So the earning of the sphere is uninteresting and the payoff is undramatic.

And this is one of the reasons you want to be a Great Power in the game – to control a sphere. I don’t doubt their gameplay importance at all; just how the idea is translated into something compelling or worthwhile.

Pride of Nations puts ‘sphere of influence’ strictly in the colonial realm and at least here the competition for influence demands more interaction than setting a priority level. Multiple nations can take actions in colonial areas and eventually push things to the point where the minor state has to take sides. This can provoke a crisis or a Congress (a neat little minigame about betting and bluffing that can go completely wrong) so there is a recognition that spheres of influence may end up looking tidy but they never start that way. The game itself takes so long with its turns and there is so much going on at so many levels that the engagement requires great and deep patience. And it still assumes that sphere of influence is a thing – a status that can be pointed to more than a mutual understanding.

I love writing about Imperialism because the more I think about it, the more I consider it one of the most cleanly and beautifully designed strategy games ever made. In the Bernstein-Speith classic, just like in Victoria 2, your sphere of influence was about economic power, though the term ‘sphere of influence’ was never used. You and your rivals would invest great sums of money developing minor nations for their raw resources so that your homeland would be strong. Your investments would largely be determined by your resource needs, your strategic situation and who you could screw over by stealing their little buddy away. Wars would break out because someone had lost a reliable supply of iron and needed it back immediately.

And, like many games that have large powers trying to claim dominance over small powers, the central idea of ‘sphere of influence’ is missing; where is the influence? In Civilization V, I can make demands of all of my major rivals, asking for goods, cash, cities, declarations of war and the like but minor powers in my friend zone just sit around and give me minor tokens unless I bump us up to Alliance status. The only recognitions that a sphere even exists are when Ramses or Elizabeth tell me off for paying off one of their city state friends and when the time comes to vote in the UN for diplomatic victory; and that is a vote that comes entirely down to whomever has the most money in the bank. There is no diplomatic game at all with the city states, and therefore none of any worth regarding spheres of influence.

In almost all of these games, of course, it comes down to the fact that only the major powers have any real agency. Yes, in Victoria 2 and Pride of Nations the minor powers have AI that let them do things, but there is never much sense that the objects of the sphere have expectations of their protectors, fear their overlords or are collaborators in global plans. If it is a small world with a small scope (like Balance of Power or Imperialsm), you can get away with that. You could argue that Civ‘s city-states make demands, but they honestly do not matter if you can afford the friendship fee. Why waste my time getting a useless Great Merchant for Venice when 500 gold has the same effect and doesn’t break my stride?

I don’t have a solution, of course. These are just random thoughts. I like the idea of a sphere of influence, and even the mostly idle minor powers in Imperialism are very fulfilling because they are ensconced in a very solid design where the stakes of not having a sphere are life and death.

Fill comments with clearer ideas than mine.


6 Comments so far ↓

  • PleasingFungus

    Europa Universalis III technically has spheres of influence. (There’s even a “sphere of influence” mapmode!) They’re extremely minor, though; the only use for them is to use them as casus bellis if someone starts tampering. Interesting in theory, not so much in practice… the best use for them tends to be as barter for peace treaties; since the AI values them very highly, you can often make peace by removing (insignificant) nations from your sphere of influence when you wouldn’t be able to any other way.

  • Troy Goodfellow

    Ha. You’re right! I forgot about those entirely since I never found them especially useful. Neat trick with the peace deal thing.

  • Jon Shafer

    Great article Troy.

    I agree that the way Imperialism did it was brilliant. There was a definite sense of “turf” without it being overtly stated. The way the game handled your relationship with the minors was one of my favorite parts, and really has no equal in my opinion.

    The big challenge we had with Civ 5 was to introduce minor powers without bending the entire game around it. Spheres of influence are very much a modern idea, and building a game about all of history with a very era-specific system (ala Imperialism) wouldn’t have been a good fit. Trade and subsidies were the main tools of earning favor with the minors in Imperialism, but in Civ the most important economic bits are internal to your empire, not external. There wasn’t really a way to switch that around and keep the game “Civ-like.” Trade has a role, but it’s almost a “thing to do” rather than a major part of the game. We had “subsidies” serve as the major vehicle for shaping relations, but as you point out it doesn’t feel the same.

    A major challenge that you also note is the fact that spheres of influence are simply known and not stated. The inability to do that in single-player games is what makes diplomacy as a whole so difficult. Does Catherine know this is my turf? If so, does she act accordingly? How do I know if she recognizes it but is just trying to stir the pot? You need both the “diplomatic vocabulary” to express these concepts as well as the AI logic behind the scenes to get it right. Imperialism’s vocabulary worked so well that it was able to gloss over the AI issue, and a lot of it ended up in the player’s head. “Well, they stopped investing in Poland, I guess that means they realize that they’re MINE!” Of course, that would only last until you spotted a developer unit wandering around inside your minors. :)

    I think you could come up with some really interesting stuff in a game where the main focus is diplomacy and politics… I know Troy has “requested” such a thing on more than one occasion during the podcast. :) It’s hard to tell whether there’s a significant enough audience for a game like that though. If nothing else though, it’d be fun to work on… or a complete disaster. One or the other. :)

    On a related note, Troy (et al), do you think that Crawford’s Balance of Power is worth a sequel or some kind of spiritual successor? I have to admit that I’ve never played it, but everything I’ve heard (including from Crawford’s most recent design book) has fascinated me.


  • Dirk

    Nice article.

    I’d like to see some relationship between “culture” (in the Civ manifestation of the term) and “sphere of influence”, where “culture” reflects the hearts and minds (bottom-up) and “sphere of influence” represents explicit and implicit geopolitical claims (top-down). SOI could thus even influence diplomacy with and international relations between countries.

    From a UI perspective, I’m imagining “sphere of influence” being something each nation sets for itself, what it perceives its sphere of influence to be on the map. You can click or drag, use your mouse to specify it. Yours may or may not overlap with that defined by others for themselves. Then, whichever is best aligned with the reality on the ground, gives the commensurate benefits in trade, passage, information, military support, or whatever. And if you over-reach, if you set your sphere of influence unrealistically or aggressively, it is akin to plunking down cities in Civ where the AI doesn’t think they should be: you’re trying to lay claim to what someone else thinks should be theirs. This sort of a scheme would seem to better capture the functional dynamic of the concept than the “spend your points” notion typically used in games, and be more playable at the same time.

    Jon, there’s a market for any well-made game that is fun and nails its theme. Very few of the best-selling board games have themes that would get someone in a lather, yet people love them and pay for them, expansion after tedious expansion…

  • Jason Lefkowitz

    Good post. I would quibble with the statement that the big motivation for expanding a Sphere of Interest in Victoria 2 is economic, though. In my experience it’s much more about weltpolitik than economics. The way you fire a National Unity event is by pulling together the right collection of minors into your sphere, so if you’re, say, Prussia, the way to create the German Empire is by judicious expansion of your sphere; and if you’re, say, France, the way you keep Germany weak and divided is by picking off strategic minors from the greater German sphere into yours.

    There’s probably economic benefits to the Sphere as well, but you’re right about how poorly the interface communicates them — it’s so obtuse on the subject that it literally never even occurred to me to use the Sphere as an economic lever until you mentioned it.

    (That could also mean that I’m an idiot who misses obvious things, of course, but I prefer the other explanation.)

  • Dr . Corday

    @Jon: No! Imperialism 1/2 needs a sequel, not Balance of Power! :)