It’s safe to argue that the ending in strategy games is the hardest component to get correctly because it’s a place full of design inconsistencies. As lead designer of Civilization VI, Ed Beach, points out, “you want to reward players who are making smart decisions during their course of play,” but Civilization (and many other 4X games) suffer from a common complaint. Those smart decisions typically result in the player “snowballing” and becoming so strong that they can defeat almost any AI opponent.
There are also other problems. In some cases, if an AI faction is allowed to grow unchecked, it may become too strong for the player to handle once encountered. However, the ultimate last boss for designers in this genre is more often than not forcing the player into the endgame in a fair and meaningful way due to human inventiveness and the inherently exploitable nature of strategy games.
This issue has been addressed with asymmetric victory conditions in the Civilization series. In Civilization VI, the majority of cats have the option to switch to a different victory type if plan A fails to work. Beach says, “To that end, as you reach the end of our technological and cultural trees, the alternatives accessible in the Future Era are deliberately crafted to drive you towards a specific win.
But to do that, they must complete the game. Many believe Civ VI’s ending needs some TLC even after the significant April balance patch in early 2021. Rich discovered them particularly severe in his most recent hands-on with the game. Humankind, another historically minded 4X, is aware of and prone to the same difficulties.
Lead designer William Dyce claims that the “economic avalanche” issue is prevalent in turn-based strategy games, and it’s something we think about occasionally. Right now, we’re focusing on pacing and balance to stop empires’ economics, whether they’re run by humans or artificial intelligence, from snowballing out of control.
On the other hand, we’re aiming to make the AI more able to keep up and recognize when one empire has gotten too far ahead so that it may gang up on that empire.
Additionally, humanity has its theories about how to approach the issue of various playstyles. Although the areas of focus for your Civilization are similar to those in Civ (production, military might, culture/influence generation, technology, etc.), they are not linked to particular victory conditions. Instead, everyone is vying for a single “Fame” score, with each player having access to the same “era stars” to battle for the points that determine the winner.
This gives you even more freedom to switch between several victory conditions than in Civ, but it also limits the chance that losing factions will commit to a neglected one in an attempt to come up. Even real-time epics from Paradox’s library of grand strategy games aren’t immune to this issue. Stephen Muray, the game designer for Stellaris, says that “the AI frequently can’t keep up with the growth of a high-skill player.” Alexander Ortner, the game director for Crusader Kings III, says, “we’ve previously run into a problem where certain systems lose their meaning due to the player’s immense power.”
The so-called “paint the map” issue has plagued the Total War series virtually from its inception, so the creator Creative Assembly has long been experimenting with various methods of handling the finale. It was known as Realm Divide in Shogun 2, and according to Jack Lusted, director of Three Kingdoms, it was “a tipping point where, essentially, you hit a threshold of progression, and all other factions would turn against you, save for perhaps devoted supporters.”
When someone succeeds in claiming the title of Emperor, Three Kingdoms divides all factions into three, subtly linking the ultimate struggle to the source material’s story of three kingdoms fighting for control of China. Different strategies have been used in the Total Warhammer video games. Similar to the coming of the Huns in Total War: Attila or the Norman/Viking invasions in Thrones of Britannia, the player in Warhammer I faced the problem of defeating an overwhelming endgame invasion. The Vortex campaign in Warhammer II offers a critical victory condition in which the strongest side may still lose if a rival completes it before.
According to Lusted, “this changed the endgame from a direct threat of the size of rival factions to one of time pressure.” The most dominant faction is typically still in the greatest position to accomplish the Vortex quest. Still, they’re never fully safe as long as a rival is earning any amount of ritual currency.
However, like with Humankind, Lusted reminds us that the necessity for smart AI is a requirement in all strategy games. Total War will continue to explore novel endgame difficulties in the upcoming Warhammer III. Though we still deal with the same old problem of rising player power, the AI changing how it plays on different difficulty levels was a significant adjustment for Three Kingdoms and an improvement.
There are other options worth considering, ones unrelated to “winning.” “One significant thing [strategy games] haven’t solved is teaching the player that “it is fine to lose” or that “losing may be exciting,” says Daniel Moregard, the game director of Stellaris.
Even Paradox games occasionally have trouble with the idea, although they are much better suited to this kind of unconventional thinking. In Crusader Kings or Europa Universalis, there are game stats that are equivalent to winning. Still, there are no hard-coded “success conditions”—neither science nor culture—so paradox veterans wouldn’t understand the concept of “winning.” Nothing truly happens even if you manage to control the entire map unless there is a related achievement.
The fundamental tenet of the “losing is enjoyable” approach is that you should play the game as well as you can and take pleasure in it as you see fit. Even if things don’t always go as planned, it’s designed to offer players options for a meaningful experience. During your time as a vassal, you can plan your retaliation if you lose a significant war.
You’re not meant to remain on an upward trajectory the entire time you play Crusader Kings III; rather, you’re meant to experience an arc. The game can last hundreds of years. Total War or Civ, where the emphasis is on facilitating the player’s rise while still attempting to offer them a challenge (or not – I don’t know if you’ve played the latest Warhammer 2 DLC…), make it tougher to realize this concept.
The conversation has revealed a recurring theme: the longer a session goes without a significant game-related intervention, the greater the likelihood of a stale endgame condition in which the player is only counting the days or turns to triumph. As not all victory kinds are created equal, Civilization’s attempts at mitigation through many success paths worsen the already difficult task of balancing these complicated games.
Humankind’s answer won’t be clear until its debut next month, but it’s difficult to imagine how equalising victory pathways might prevent players from building the momentum to conquer them all.
In order to give players one more obstacle before declaring victory, games like Total War and Stellaris expressly strive to introduce some “scenario” framework in the late game. This either fits the theme or enables the game to take notice of the circumstances. But even they aren’t flawless. If you spend any time at all on the Total War subreddit, you’ll notice that there are frequently posted threads about how players utterly crush endgame crises because they are so strong by the time it occurs.
Total War: Warhammer 3’s Kislev and Khorne cavalry charging one another