An old strategy world, a new direction for 4X

Old World first came out a year ago, exactly a year ago if you’re reading this on the date of publication (July 1). I’d heard of it when it was in development, but pretty quickly forgot about it, as did I think a lot of people (at least amongst the YouTubers I follow), since I didn’t see much of it after that. However, after a while only being on the Epic Games store, it was released on Steam, and I re-learned of it through Unstable Voltage, a YouTuber who plays mostly strategy games, especially Civilization (you can watch his “learning playthrough” here). And man, am I sorry I took so long to start it.

Old World, like Civilizaton, is a turn-based 4X game. In fact, it was designed by Soren Johnson, who was the lead developer on Civ IV. And, of course, that makes it hard not to compare to Civ, which has spent three decades establishing its position at the 4X game. 4X, for those who don’t know, is a type of strategy game that revolves around building an empire from the ground up, through exploration, expansion, exploitation, and extermination. 4E just doesn’t sound as fun. I’m not going to do a full review of the game, but instead give some of the things I like and dislike about it. I’ll try to stay away from comparisons to Civilization, but again, that’s pretty hard with 4X.

Like: the speed

In Old World, your units can move really, really far. It’s not just the standard 2-4 tiles that 4X players are probably used to. This comes at a cost, though. You can only make a certain number of movements (called “orders”) per turn, for every single unit in your empire. Players of XCOM will have some idea of how this works, but instead of a small number of movement points for each unit, you get a large pool for everyone. Units still have a max movement range, but it’s long, and you can get them where they need to be really quickly. And if you really need to, you can go over the maximum movement (or actions), but it will cost you more orders. Units. Are. Fast.

Even with its movement slowed down by trees, this spearman can move six tiles. On flat land, units can go very far.

Dislike: the speed

Old World only has 200 turns in it. You can turn this off, which will remove the time victory, but it’s a lot less than Civilization‘s base speed of 500 turns. Now, you’re only playing a couple of centuries (literally, one turn equals one year) as opposed to Civ‘s seven millennia, but it’s still over really quick. Even with the time victory turned off, a game will be close to won by the time you get to 200 turns. This may be good for some people, not everyone likes to have a game dragged on, but I’m personally not a fan.

Like: the risk

There are two big things that add risk to Old World, and I’ve already mentioned them: the speed and the orders. First, let’s go over the orders. Not only does every unit draws from the same pool, things like diplomatic actions do, too. This means that doing one thing means you can’t do something else later. Build a farm? That’s one less attack you can do. Attack an enemy? One of your units won’t be able to heal. If you pay attention, you won’t be getting to zero orders, but there are a lot of times when I’ve run out of orders when I needed them. As for speed, it’s a double-edged sword. You can move your units fast, but so can your enemy. You can’t just blitzkrieg cities with massive armies; even with limited orders stopping massive armies from moving in the first place, enemies can really easily zip around you and get into your territory. You have to leave some extra protection in your cities, or they’re going down.

In Old World you play as a real person, like Phillip of Greece

Dislike: the people

Another series that Old World draws from is Crusader Kings. There are people in your empire, and other empires, that you have to deal with. But…I just don’t care. I think this is due to a couple reasons. First off, you don’t really play as the leader of your empire, you play as the empire that just happens to have that person as a leader. It’s a lot harder to get into working with characters, it just feels like you’re clicking the “make happy” button. Second, and this goes back to the speed part I dislike, people die pretty fast. Remember, one turn is one year, so people are gone a lot faster than in a game like Crusader Kings, and you don’t have a lot of time to develop relationships with them. The characters also aren’t generated, but are pre-drawn images. I’ve had a diplomat be the same person who was my queen a few generations earlier, which adds to the not caring about people, they’re all the same. Finally…man some of the characters like to get into the uncanny valley, especially the babies. You’d think the artists would ditch all the horrible looking people they created, but nope.

Like: city placement

I was originally going to put this as a dislike, until I played the game a bit more. Unlike Civilization, you can’t just plop down a city wherever you want. Instead, there are “city cites”, sometimes empty, but usually protected by barbarians or tribes (kind of like city-states in Civilization, more on that later). At first I didn’t like this, because what if I want to build a city here and not there? But as I played more, I started to realize it didn’t really matter. First off, tiles don’t really have base yields or limitations. You can build anything pretty much anywhere (you are limited somewhat by resources), but some stuff goes better on certain tiles. You can put a mine on flat land if you want to, but it will do a lot better on hills. And, since you manually increase your borders with improvements instead of them slowly growing with time, you can move your borders where you want them to go. Even if you can’t start next to something you want, you can get there.

In Old World you draw from a pile of “tech cards”, and anything you don’t choose is discarded. This adds some nice randomness, but especially early game, can keep you from getting stuff you need.

(Dis)like?: research

While Old World does have a tech tree, you can’t manually research anything you want. Instead, all available techs are placed into a draw pile, and when one is chosen, the rest are discarded until the draw pile is empty. It’s a bit like Stellaris, except that in Stellaris, you can do pretty much whatever you want right from the beginning, at least any basic stuff. It’s a bit different in Old World, where a lot of basic stuff it kept from you due to luck of the draw. If you skip a card, it’s discarded and then redrawn when the drawn pile is empty. You can also redraw (if you have enough undrawn cards), but might end up with a worse selection than before. You can steer technology in a certain direction by taking a certain route down the tech tree, but that doesn’t mean you’ll get some pretty basic stuff that you might want–looking at you, lumber mills. I do like the randomness this adds, history didn’t know what it was going to discover before it was discovered, of course. But when you’re playing a video game and know what you’ll be discovering, it’s a bit annoying. I really can’t decide whether this is something I like or not.

Like: the tutorial

The Old World tutorial is really good. It is missing stuff, but a lot of the missing stuff you figure out through playing. The game also has lockable, layered tooltips like CK3. Now, I do realize that maybe the tutorial isn’t as good as I think, that I just play a lot of strategy games and already know what I’m doing. But it feels like you can get enough information from the tutorial to at least experiment to figure out the rest of the stuff. There is however, one learning issue…

Dislike: the encyclopedia

Old World has an in-game encyclopedia, and it’s trash. When you’re in an tooltip, it will tell you “press F1 to open the encyclopedia”. But when you do open the encyclopedia, it offers little extra information and is often just a copy-and-paste of the tooltip. Most of what I learned that didn’t come from the tutorial or knowing how to play 4X games was from fumbling about until I figured out what was going on or watching let’s plays. More than once I’ve made the wrong decision because I had no way of knowing what the right one was.

Old World will give names of real places, but you can also choose your own

Now, there’s a lot more that I could say about what I like and dislike, but I don’t want this to get too long. So I’m just going to throw out some quick shots about things I like and dislike:

Quick likes:

  • Tribes are great. They’re kind of like city-states, but have more than one city, so you can’t just plow through them (they still don’t offer much threat, though)
  • I love the undo button. Maybe some people will use it to cheese, but if I had a dollar for every time I misclicked in a game, I’d be funding Old World 2.
  • As horrifyingly uncanny valley some of the characters can be, the portraits can also be amazing. Most don’t actually look too bad, the creepy ones are few and far between.
  • I actually like getting dragged into wars, even when you’re trying to be peaceful. Sometimes you’ll get an event where a leader says “it’s them or me”, and you have to decide who you want to fight. It’s a history game after all, that happened in history. A lot.
  • The AI is pretty smart at fighting and moving (this goes back to the slowness from it making decisions), if you’re not careful you’ll have lots of units in the ground. It also chooses good times to declare war, like if you declare on someone else and move units to another border.
  • I like naming stuff I discover; oceans, mountains, etc.
  • Attacks are really quick without being too fast to see what’s happening.

Quick dislikes:

  • The UI is super clunky. Hover over something and it will give you a list of all the hot keys you can use…thanks, but I’ll check the options if I want to know that. You’re just taking up space. Unlocking tooltips is also more effort than it needs to be.
  • Can we have the ability to put the map full screen? It’s pretty small, and since you’re restricted to where you can settle, there can be gaps between cities of both you and others. It can be hard to see sometimes.
  • If I have zero orders, why do I have to go through every single literally useless unit? If there are no events I can press 6 to end the turn, but if there are, and there are most turns once you start to get into the game, that won’t work. Units can sleep, but you don’t always want them to.
  • Can we take out some of the easy achievements? I’m okay with some easy ones, but Old World has them coming out the wazoo. Finishing the first tutorial, which takes about five minutes, isn’t beating the game.
  • The game is slow. Even though there aren’t many turns, and it’s fast in that way, the time between turns takes forever. Now, that is in part to my less than amazing computer, but I’ve noticed it in let’s plays too, so it’s not entirely hardware. This is probably from the AI thinking a lot about what do do with its orders, but it’s still annoying.
  • Are there seriously only eight countries? I get it, it’s set during two centuries in one area, you can’t have a Civ level of selection. But you’d think they could have thrown in a couple more than that, maybe turned the tribes into playable countries and then had the tribes be something made-up.
I got four win achievements just for finishing the first tutorial, which is only a few minutes long. A tutorial is hardly “winning”, and the game is filled with dozens of easy, useless achievements.

Old World is a fun game, and it’s certainly one I’ll continue playing. Will it rise above Civilization for me? No, or at least, not now. I’ll have to play some more to see, but for now, it’s a really good game that’s not going to become the king of 4X. And honestly, a lot of the stuff that I’m disliking now might go away as I understand it better, which is why I didn’t do a full review. That’s actually what happened with Civ, if I can tangent. I first tried it…well, a random Linux 4X knock-off…in elementary school, and hated it, because I didn’t know what I was doing. I didn’t play anything like it again until university, when the full version of Civilization V came out. I was killing time between classes, saw it on display at an EB Games close to campus. I thought, “hey, I’ve heard of that”, picked it up, and then got disappointed to realize it was what I had played and not liked in elementary school. But after I figured out what I was doing…well, you probably know how much I like Civ.

To put an end to my ramblings, I have a feeling that’s going to happen with Old World as well. Again, I’ll probably not like it as much as I like Civilization, but once I figure out what the heck is going on, I think my enjoyment of it will go way up. It’s happened with other games in the past, and I’m sure it will happen with Old World, just based on how I’m feeling now. To put it very simply, it feels like an okay first game of a future good series. It’s good, but it has its faults; faults that the developers didn’t know would exist because it’s a game that’s never existed before. And faults, should it ever get a sequel, that will probably be taken away. I’m definitely giving it a thumbs up for this review, and since it’s not a AAA game at AAA price ($50 vs $80, at least in Canadian), it’s 100% checking out it you’re a fan of strategy games.

So what do you think about Old World? Do you agree with what’s good and what’s bad? Do you have other stuff that’s good and bad? Make sure to tell us in the comment section below, or on Facebook or Twitter!

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