A Million Good Ideas, Just Waiting to be Stolen

The oddball designs and clever innovations that only you seem to remember.

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Apr 2 2018, 2:58pm

Northgard screenshot courtesy of Shiro

Northgard isn’t easy to pigeonhole as an RTS, mainly because the ways we tend to define “RTS” games are way too narrow and owe way too much to the ways the genre was defined by Westwood’s Command & Conquer games, and by Blizzard’s Warcraft series. Northgard doesn’t play like any of those: Instead, it’s a game of slow, meticulous expansion and resource management where your worst enemies are greed and impatience. You don’t build massive armies, backed by cityscapes jammed with barracks and factories. Instead, you mostly try to keep your little Viking expeditions from starving or freezing to death, and use what little surplus you have to fuel your next expansion or support a single additional warrior for your clan.

It feels a lot like the board games that I’ve seen sweep through my social circle from time to time: Pandemic, or Agricola, or Scythe, games that have you chasing victory while also trying to fend off disaster from poor planning and bad luck. I’m in love with it.

The RTS genre's history is full of these tantalizing convention-defying designs. The go-to example is Rise of Nations and its fantasy offshoot, Rise of Legends, both of which introduced some really interesting wrinkles from wargaming and grand strategy games to the RTS format. Armies could run into supply problems outside their home territory, and a shift in technological era could completely overturn power dynamics as a Gunpower Age superpower found itself starved of oil in the Industrial Age.

'Kohan: Ahriman's Gift' screenshot courtesy of TimeGate Studios

But my favorite “might have been” direction for the RTS remains Kohan. This was an RTS that basically cast aside most of the genre’s most beloved conventions and invented fascinating new ones. Base-building? Out the window, replaced by a settlement management interface similar to the Civ games. Unit micro? Replaced by the radical idea of not controlling units at all.

Kohan invented a way that both reduced the managerial workload on its players while also forcing some difficult choices on them. You could create hero-led armies that had units attached to them, but there were only so many slots for units, so composition mattered a great deal. Likewise, armies moved in formations that roughly corresponded to a “speed vs. safety” tradeoff. You could rush reinforcements across the map to an imperiled fort in a column formation… but if that column got ambushed, they’d fight at a massive combat penalty for the duration of the battle. Armies could not really change their stance once the fighting began.

But most of these ideas never really found traction in the wider gaming world, which always bothers me a bit. I always have this suspicion that these near-forgotten ideas from long-ago cult hits could be repurposed and adapted to new games, maybe even new genres. But instead they remain locked in the past, the subject of countless “Do you remember that one game…?” conversations between old-timers.

What’s your favorite evolutionary dead-end in games? What’s an idea from a game that you’ve hardly ever seen anywhere else that you think deserves to be resurrected, and what problems do you think it would solve?

Let me know in today’s open thread!