Paradox Interactive publishes quite a lot of games, but no matter what variety of stuff it puts out, I’ll always think of it as the champion of what some of my friends have always called the ‘big map game’. That is to say, nerdy strategy, the sorts of titles that invite hundreds of hours staring at, well, a big map.
But strategy games do come in all shapes and sizes, and in a wildly different number of configurations and profiles. In fact, I’d argue that strategy games are probably the genre second-most beset with various sub-genres and complications (behind the ubiquitous RPG). And while Paradox might be the kind in many corners of the strategy world, there is one where another developer remains unassailed: the 4X game.
4X stands for eXplore, eXpand, eXploit, and eXterminate, but you probably know it by a better name: it’s the type of game most associated with Sid Meier’s Civilization. That franchise is the Coca Cola of the 4X world – and while many have offered alternatives, none of ever really topped Civ.
Enter Millenia, a new IP from Paradox Interactive, developed by independent developer C Prompt Games. You won’t know C Prompt – they’re new – but core members of their team have worked on titles like Age of Mythology, Age of Empires, Starcraft, Warcraft, and Diablo. The strategy pedigree is there.
I got to see and play an hour’s worth of Millenia a month ago, and left the hands-on impressed by what C Prompt and Paradox is cooking up. While at a glance you’ll look at a single screen of this video game and go, “yep, that’s a Civ-alike”, there’s actually quite a lot about this game that’s designed to set it apart.
You’ll still be guiding a faction from the Stone Age to a ‘possible near future’, but the concept here is that the time between those tentpoles is relatively malleable. The passage of time in Millenia’s systems is split into ‘Ages’, and these have a dynamic nature. The Middle Ages might not necessarily follow The Classical era, for instance – it’ll all depend on your actions. There’s a historical baseline behind the scenes, but things can diverge from history quickly and significantly depending on the actions of you and your rival factions.
To give a specific example from the demo, imagine in an earlier age, without modern medicine, you also have an extreme hygiene problem in some of your population centers. The worse this problem becomes, the more likely it is that as you move towards the next ‘age’ you might be forced into an age that reflects that; such as the ‘Age of Plague’. That’s a Crisis Age, and this doesn’t just impact you – if you’re in an Age of Plague, the threat of that Plague expands to the whole world, just as it would in real life.
It’s an interesting wrinkle in this genre’s established formula, and is matched by other choices that seem like they’ll offer a pleasingly granular and differentiated experience. It seems like you can take a much more hands-on approach to economies now, for instance. Cutting down trees is not just a source of production; wood can be pulped and turned into paper, which has a different sort of value. Paper could be spat into printing presses, which might have a cultural effect as well as a value as a commercial product – and so on and so forth.
An hour isn’t really enough time to truly get to grips with a game of this kind, though, and so I come back to the one big system – the alternate histories of ages. Because the age system is reflected worldwide, there’s actually potentially an advantage to picking a negative age, for instance – it could harm your rivals more than you. Or, you might end up in a favorable position, keen to roll up enemies quickly as your empire sits in the grip of a prosperous period.
If you manage that, Millenia has another trick up its sleeve to separate it from its peers. It’s the opposite of long in the tooth. The victory system in the game is based around ages, but if you’re dominating and unassailable, there’ll even be pathways to achieve victory early, rather than spending an extra hundred turns or so playing out a world whose fate is already determined in order to reach the victory screen.
That’s demonstrative of the sort of approach Millenia’s developers appear to have – adding depth in places, and working to streamline in others. It looks like a compelling entry into the 4K pantheon – and I can’t wait to see more of it. Right now, the game is slated for release some time next year.