No Kicking While Down

Back in May, I wrote

By the way, the @help/@hurt idea is not implemented at the moment. I’m not sure if it will be, but the flexible tagging system makes it easy to add at any time.

This was indeed easy to add, and it was in fact handled mostly with script tags.

furrows inundatedThe basic idea behind these tags is that we want to avoid death spirals. If you lose a lot of cattle due to disease, the game won’t feel as fun if you then have a large herd mysteriously disappear. You’ll end up in a hole you won’t be able to dig out of. The occasional flood is fine, but if it happens when you are short of food, it’s just kicking you when you’re down.

Of course, mysterious disappearances and floods need to occur, so they can happen more often when you are able to recover. (This may still set back your plans for cattle trading or gifting, of course.)

One issue with implementing this adaptive difficulty is figuring out what constitutes a bad or good situation. The game takes a number of factors into account (herds, wealth, military, and even issues like curses or magical bounties). And scenes have to be tagged. Some were designed to be helpful or harmful, but many are more of a grey area.

It’s worth noting that we don’t actually force or prevent anything, just alter the odds for picking scenes randomly. You can think of this process loosely as “pick a card, any card” each season, where cards are returned to the deck after several years pass. If times are bad, we essentially put multiple copies of the favorable scenes into the deck, and replace and reshuffle if a disaster is pulled.

As in King of Dragon Pass, we also do something similar for the yearly omens. Maybe an ancient economy experiences crop failure about once very seven harvests, but two in a row seems like a bit much to hit the player with. The goal is to give them challenges, not an accurate simulation of widespread famine.

I added this feature only recently. It required going through all the scenes and determining which would be reasonable to use to help the player, or to make less common in bad times, and adding the right tag. The determination of good and bad times was already used to give advice, and needed only a little tweaking for the new use.

Since this is only just in the game, it hasn’t been tuned. So I’m also tracking the values in the metrics we capture.

Hopefully all this will keep the game challenging but not too frustrating.

Author: David

Creator of Six Ages and King of Dragon Pass

12 thoughts on “No Kicking While Down”

  1. Don’t overdo this please! I’m playing Rimworld recently, and it does a very good job of this, sending worse events if you have too many colonists, and sending you free colonists if yours have mostly died out.

    It may sound good, but it doesn’t feel super good.I don’t know how much of this is just my own problem, but personally I feel constrained by a game that obviously keeps steering me towards a certain level of success.

    First, it punishes success if you have more random bad events if you’re a good player (some increased attacks if you’re wealthier make sense, but not a game that so clearly wants to squash you, that the winning strategy is to lose stuff on purpose).

    and vice-versa it encourages wasting time giving CPR to a dying playthrough, because it’s not going bad enough that you feel you can give up and restart. (This second factor might be less bad in a game witch a forced ending: This War of Mine does the same, but war automatically ends after a certain time, which gives a conclusion to the story even if it’s a sad one and everyone’s barely alive, and traumatized).

    TL:DR, tuning is good, please don’t railroad.

      1. Not explicitly, I don’t think. It’s been a couple years since I last played. I did realize you can’t just expand widely forever, I think at some point some villagers decided to split and found their own place, which I liked, it’s a way to cull your pop but rewarding you, as now you have one more friendly tribe.

        Thinking about it more, the storytelling makes the difference, if it’s not random bad events, but makes sense (like illness from overcrowdedness, raids from such a large herd you can’t keep an eye on it all). Hmm, it would also be more predictable, and you could learn to devote extra resources to healing shrines, or extra guards, if you really want to keep them alive.

  2. I guess I can see both sides of the argument – it’s no fun to get put in an unrecoverable situation purely out of random chance, while on the other hand players wouln’t like to feel “railroaded” as SSR said (e.g., if stockpiling some food in case of famine is part of good planning, it would be a bit strange/ironic to have a failure to save food be “rewarded” by avoiding famine events, while you might be “punished” for saving food by triggering a famine event).

    A good compromise could be to focus your @help vs @hurt event balancing more on the events themselves rather than the player’s current state: i.e. if a @hurt event makes future @help somewhat more likely, this could avoid unbalancing runs of good or bad luck without making the player feel punished for good planning. This could also be a good fit with the mythic setting in creating some sense of karmic fate or balance; and chances of good or bad luck could of course be modified by such things as magic, items, omens, etc.

    I do understand you though about not wanting to put the player into unwinnable situations too often, particularly due to random events. One thing I really liked in KoDP was the non-random events that triggered during certain “death spiral” type situations to give you a way out – for instance losing too many men in battle eventually caused an event where the women complain about lack of potential husbands, letting you choose between ignoring the issue or trying several options to remediate it such as sponsoring a marriage contest. Similarly, when you become critically short of cattle another clan could see this and gift you with some of their herd, while warning you that you now owe them a favor in the future. The great thing about those kind of events is they can offer you options to get out of “death spiral” situations in the short term, while still having some longer-term cost so that players can’t abuse the system in expecting to be repeatedly “bailed out” for bad planning.

  3. Great idea, if success isn’t met with more frequent challenges it gets a little dull. Personally I don’t mind death spirals, in king of dragon pass I’ve had food shortages lead into drought and more famine and Id lose soon after, but things happen, it makes me enjoy my successes more. Glad theres still a chance that can happen.

    It’d be cool if trickster chiefs could affect tragedy or random events other than just make everyone upset.

  4. I think player frustration emerges if one experiences losing as beyond one’s control. I don’t mind losing to random events, if there are or were things I could have done to prevent it. Two failed harvests in a row should lead to catastrophic, game-crushing famine only under certain conditions that players have a reasonable chance of preventing. For example, if they failed to stock up food reserves in the good years before, and didn’t bother building trading relations or alliances that they can call upon for support, because they were too busy raiding and questing. However, if I can look back and say “okay, I guess I was taking a risk by pursuing strategy x that left me vulnerable”, then I don’t mind random events being capable of causing me to lose the game.

    The opposite is perhaps even more annoying, to the extent that you may want to avoid it altogether. There are few things more demoralising as a player than to have found a clever strategy, that is leading your clan to success, only to have the world gradually and inexplicably become full of random disasters. It feels like the game trying to put you in your place, and punishing you for playing well.

    Another commenter mentioned RimWorld, and I think another thing that RimWorld does well is to allow you to choose the way and the extent to which the world responds to player behaviour and success/failure, in that you select your storyteller. This is different from game difficulty, which can be tweaked for each of the storytellers. Perhaps Six Ages could do something along these lines, even if only by having a scaled setting for “game responsiveness” next to the difficulty setting?

  5. I’m inclined to agree with orlanth. Part of planning is accounting for potential disasters. If the game is playing off those decisions to guide future events (the food stocking vs. ravenous rats event for example), in the player’s mind they could be getting punished for making what they believe are sound strategic decisions, if they start to notice the association between x and y. “Why do I seem to get more food spoilage events when I’m doing really well and have a healthy stockpile.” “Why is it when I’m up on weaponthanes I always seem to get the disease and sickness events that lay half of them low and require big sacrifices to deal with?”

    I don’t really like the sense in games that I have to find the optimal balance the game internally knows but I don’t, before it decides to start putting the boots to me as an attempt at balancing. I know that’s not what’s being described here per se, but if it’s being done with a mind both toward preventing death spirals and challenging players who have gotten very strong….I dunno. It starts to creep up on “punishing you for winning”, depending on what happens. Instant “bam 1/3rd your food is gone” or “bam 1/5 of your cattle are gone” events are ones that rankle because you don’t feel like you could have prevented it, except by being less successful.

    On the other hand, since it’s random and the chances for things to happen can be tweaked, it can probably be kept to realm of believable chance.

    But also don’t discount the gameplay and narrative value of bad things happening in succession. If players get to the point where they know they only have to face one truly bad thing per season or year, they can start to plan around that eventuality and the game gets a little less mysterious.

  6. This kind of thing can be interesting, but I believe should be done with extreme care. Maybe I’m not in the majority, but for me KoDP have always been much more about the journey, and not the end.
    Please, don’t forget that losing can be just as fun as winning.

    When the game kicks you when you already down, while you might get a bit of short frustration, it makes for a very memorable experience. “Damn, that time when I was in a really good run, but my cattle mysteriously disappeared, and just after I was greeted by a damn flood!”. When that happens, I, personally, after being mad for a bit, shake the dust off and start again, even more determined. And while after, I won’t be mad at what happened anymore, it’ll be quite a fun memory.

    Anyway, just remember that losing can be fun. It’s can be just about the journey, and I feel that it increases the reputability. Just recently i launched FTL again, and it was great. Maybe make it optional?

  7. I’m in agreement with Joao. A lot of the fun of KoDP is the learning curve, difficulty, and feeling of immersion. Perhaps have it as a selectable option or as a component of lower difficulties? That being said, you’re the design genius and I’m the naive consumer, I trust your judgement.

    Excited to see what you come up with (and praying you decide to go forward with iOS iPhone/iPad release).

  8. So within the last few weeks the apple App Store has added an indie games category with several subcategories: innovation, gameplay, unforgettable stories, so forth. Is there anything we, as your community fan-base, can do to get KoDP acknowledged and reach new audiences or is this something the developer has to pay/petition for from apple? Just bums me out because I have to imagine it was a successful campaign for other indie developers (and assuredly apple as well). I picked up a pair of titles I’d never heard of just to tinker around with when I don’t want something too deep.

    1. Wish I knew! I’m sure it’s not for pay though, Apple doesn’t work like that. You could email Apple at or (we haven’t done so yet).

      If you haven’t done it for the latest update, a rating and review always helps in general. (Remember that the App Store only shows these for the latest version.)

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