As the name states, Old World will not have you evolving through the ages until your cities are filled with modern death machines, instead, you’ll focus on the ancient era and discover everything it has to offer. Like most 4x games, Old World will take quite some time to master, but unlike its competitors, it’s fairly simple to pick up and play, even if you don’t yet understand all of the game concepts.
Since these hardcore strategy games are such a niche genre nowadays, I find it wise to make a game that’s slightly more approachable for new players. While I can see myself investing a lot of time in this game, only many more hours of governance will confirm if Old World is a true competitor.
I received a development build of the game which was clearly not finished yet but hopefully, these wrinkles will be ironed out before its full release. The game is available in early-access in the Epic game store.
WHAT IS OLD WORLD?
Let’s address the elephant in the room, Old World is the bastard lovechild of Civilization and Crusader Kings. This makes sense since Soren Johnson, the CEO of Mohawk Games, used to be a designer on Civilization III & IV. As such the game has 2 major gameplay aspects you’ll be dealing with, forging a massive empire and managing your royal family. I’ll dive into both these aspects more in-depth below, and for obvious reasons, I’ll make numerous comparisons to other games but for now, let’s look at some general mechanics.
Starting a new game only provides 7 civilizations to choose from including Babylonia, Persia, Rome, Greece, Egypt, Carthage, Assyria. These are the major civilizations we remember from the ancient world so it makes sense not to have countries like America or Germany in the list as they only rose to prominence much later. Each civilization also features its own leader with a long list of diversities, but don’t get too attached to your chosen leader because they will age as time passes and will eventually pass the reigns on to their heir.
While playing my first game I decided to select a random leader since I didn’t know which traits would better suit me and ended up with Philip of Greece. As this was an exploratory game for me, whenever I was presented with a choice, of which there were many, I tried going in a direction that would lead to military action since that is usually the most exciting path in games like these.
Unlike Civilization, the only path to victory is by achieving your ambitions and earning a set number of ambition points before your rivals. This is not a straight-forward process though as your ambitions will differ widely throughout the game. Early ambitions of mine was to own 4 cities and command 2 Hoplites, but later I had to defeat 15 enemy units and conquer 8 enemy cities. As the game progresses, you are often given the option of which ambition to chase so you can select the one that seems more attainable on your current path.
Every turn will present you with a random event and a selection of responses to it. These may affect you, your family members, your relationship with another family or country, or your civilization as a whole. One such event had an emissary tell me that another king was talking smack about me and left me the option to strengthen my own status at the cost of our relationship or ignore the reports and make myself seem weak. Another event saw a mysterious darkness come over the land which made my soldiers nervous. Labeling it as a natural occurrence would provide science, using the darkness as a strategic advantage provided additional order points (we’ll get to that later), and making an offering to the gods would make my people happy at the cost of food.
Some decisions will require your leader to have a specific trait so selecting which leader to have and which traits to work on will have many effects. There is an incredible number of random events that could occur which keeps you interested by almost making things play out like a story, however, it also makes you feel less in control of what the future holds as you can only react to these events and have little power in initiating them.
Since this was a development build of the game, I did not have access to multiplayer, however, given the length of a single game, I doubt I would have had the time to test this out. An interesting option the game offers is to play a “Featured Game” or “Game of the Week” which could have you relive some of the most epic moments experienced by other players.
The game was surprisingly easy to dive into although there are so many concepts to discover that will keep you scratching your head for quite a while before you feel like you’ve mastered it. The tutorial gives you the basic stepping stones needed and through my experience in this genre I was able to navigate my first game with little effort. You also have an encyclopedia to explain various concepts and principles to you but I found this difficult to navigate, a search function would have helped.
BUILD YOUR EMPIRE
Next, we’ll look at the empire mechanics. I have no problem believing that a designer from an old Civilization game worked on this because at first glance it feels exactly like Civilization IV. One key difference in Old World is the addition of order points. You have a finite number of these for each turn and they are consumed whenever you order a unit to move or perform an action like attacking an enemy or constructing a tile improvement. Order points can also be used as a currency of sorts in that you can purchase more, and any left unused at the end of your turn will be sold. As the game progressed and my army grew, I found myself constantly with insufficient order points to move my entire army which meant I needed to sacrifice another resource for more order points. I was unsure of this mechanic at first but it could make it more difficult for a stronger player to simply bulldoze to victory with a strong military and give other players a chance to catch up.
Once you’ve started exploring you’ll find ruins scattered around the map that provide you some random bonus when you explore them, Civilization has a similar mechanic known by the community as goodie huts. The bonuses are more elaborate than in Civilization though, the first one I found gave me the option to excavate the ruins for gold or declare it a national monument that would grant the nearest city culture. Another contained the ruins of an old city and could be razed for stone or studied for culture. You’ll also find city sites which are the only spots where a city may be founded. When founding a new city you can select which of your allied families will rule that city, which will not only strengthen your relationship with them but also provide you with their unique bonuses.
During my travels, I met the Thracians, a tribe with villages scattered everywhere. Upon our meeting, I was given the option to be passive or aggressive and I selected the latter to start my first war. The second tribe I came across, the Danes, disliked the Thracians and was pleased that I declared war on them, thus starting my first friendship. It’s necessary to conquer some of the tribes since they occupy many of the precious few city sites where you’ll want to found your own cities.
City mechanics once again felt familiar with a city able to produce things and workers building improvements on the tiles surrounding the city. Once an improvement is built you can assign one of your city’s citizens to become a specialist in that improvement to increase its output. One key difference to Civilization is that your cities don’t construct buildings within its walls. Rather, buildings like barracks and amphitheaters are constructed on tiles by builders. Civilization VI dabbled this direction with the inclusion of districts but in Old World each building will occupy its own tile which makes city planning much trickier.
War was very typical of a 4X game so I was immediately at home here, although I was surprised by how competent the AI was. One of the main complaints about Civilization, even from long-time fans, is that the AI doesn’t provide a sufficient challenge. However, even on the easiest difficulty, my first war proper in Old World resulted in my near demise. I would eventually recapture my stolen empire but only after my enemies, were distracted by a war with the Persian empire. However, I did find the behavior of AI players to be somewhat erratic, as long-time allies would approach me out of nowhere with an ultimatum that generally involved me cowering or declaring war.
Interaction with other empires didn’t offer that many options which make diplomacy feel watered down. You could contact another leader and offer them some of your spare luxuries to gain favor or ask them to declare war on someone but that’s about it. Every so often, another leader will offer you a trade deal for a specific resource and you can choose what to give them in return but it’s not nearly as elaborate as with other games I’ve played.
The research tree is rather big considering that you never move past the ancient era. As can be expected, research unlocks new units, buildings, and laws, the latter always offering you a choice of 2, only one of which may be active at any time. Enacting Tyranny, for example, would increase your gold output but add unrest to your cities, but choosing Constitution increases your civics rate at no cost. Nearly every decision you make will have positive and negative effects, and in most cases, the negative involves weakening your relationship with another family, tribe, or empire. This makes it incredibly difficult to be universally liked and mostly, you’ll find yourself loved by some and loathed by others, but very little in between.
The game features 4 different religions, each with their unique bonuses but this mechanic took a backseat in my game and didn’t feel particularly influential. One thing I picked up that was very much reminiscent of older Civilization games, is that the mid to late game felt less engaging than the start. Perhaps this was only because I was still finding my feet but the late game found me too often mindlessly clicking through turns.
RULE YOUR BLOODLINE
Finally, we arrive at the family mechanics which received much inspiration from Crusader Kings of which I’m not a huge fan. I tried playing Crusader Kings II but after hours of stumbling around the game and watching gameplay videos to get a better grasp of how things worked, I finally got bored and moved on. However, the family mechanics in Old World were much easier to get to grips with.
Initially, your family will be small but will grow once you marry and have children. You’ll need to choose the education direction of your offspring as they will take over the rule of your empire at some point and you need to ensure they have the skills your empire need. At some point, suitors will approach you with marriage proposals and let you choose the most desirable option. Marriage is a great way to strengthen relationships but you can also choose to end your marriage by divorcing your spouse or having them imprisoned. You can also change who inherits your throne by changing the inheritance laws which could have numerous long-term consequences.
Each game will feature, not only your own family but up to 3 other families who support you. Many of the decisions you make will affect your relationships with them and you’ll need to be careful not to turn them against you. Each member of the court can be assigned various duties like leading your troops in battle, tutoring your children, being ambassadors in a foreign land or governors in your cities, etc. Each person will have their own traits and will add strengths and weaknesses to the positions they’re assigned. This can become quite elaborate and will take some time to know all the various traits along with their effects.
So many of the events that occur affect you, your family members, or other members of your court. One event could strengthen one of your traits, while another will make another family hate you and in turn make their soldiers less effective in battle. I was even given the option to force my daughter to have an abortion when she got pregnant out of wedlock or to commit my son to a mental asylum when he started following a cult different to our national religion. It’s all very medieval and was incredibly fun to see the story unfold.
DESIGN – A RENAISSANCE PAINTING BROUGHT TO LIFE
Old World’s design department has me on the fence. I love the leader portraits and various art pieces accompanying the events, they are beautifully made and feel very era-appropriate. Each family member will have their own portrait that ages through time, moving from a pink-faced newborn to a grey covered senior citizen. I would like more portraits to be added though since having several family members with the same portrait was slightly confusing.
However, the in-game visuals did not win me over. The land tiles are a bit bland with the rivers looking dated, the trees like paper cut-outs, and many of the buildings were missing textures. The mountains look terrific though, as do the animal representations of the various resources but it felt like a lot of hit one, miss one. I have to give praise for the UI though, which is a difficult thing to design for a complex game like this but I found it well laid out and made grasping what was happening just a little easier. Players who are new to 4X games might be a bit overwhelmed with the huge number of buttons and info but I’ve seen much worse UI’s than this.
The soundtracks set the scene quite nicely and work well with the setting but I found some of the pieces a little too dramatic and will probably have me turn the music off in the long run. The game didn’t feature any voice acting, and while this would have been a nice addition, I can’t say it’s something I particularly missed since the info popups were always short and to the point.
Animations are completely broken in the build I received. Units will glide across the map like chess pieces and sometimes a battle animation will play while other times you’ll just hear the screaming of the soldiers without any movement. I often saw AI units marching into the ocean and other units didn’t even seem to move but merely appeared. That said, this seems to have already been resolved as I’ve seen some other gameplay footage online where the animations were much better.
Old World was reviewed on PC. The key was provided by Mohawk Games.