Kotaku’s impressions of Mohawk’s Old World 4X strategy game
Back in April 2020 I took a look at a game called old worldwhich at the time was both exclusive to the Epic Games Store and also in Early Access. At the time, it was a promising albeit still obviously undercooked game. Now, two years later, it’s so much more.
The game actually came out of Early Access in July 2021, but since it was only just released on Steam, I thought it was a great time to revisit and see what’s up. This is how I introduced the game a few years ago:
Civil IV designer Soren Johnson put an end to some long-standing ideas about strategy with Off-world trading companyand his Mohawk Games are always swinging with his next game, old worldwhich you will see over the next few months continually (and inevitably) described as “Civilization meets Crusader Kings.”
It’s a rough comparison, but it’s also the easiest way to understand what old world try to accomplish. In many ways, this is a traditional 4X experience, taking place on a hex-based map as you assume leadership over one of the most important civilizations of the ancient world, then guide them throughout. throughout their formative (or defining) years.
You’ll build farms, establish new towns, explore the map, fight barbarians, research technologies, and engage in diplomacy (and warfare) with rival factions. So far civil. Or old world try something new, that’s all between those great touchstones of the genre.
The “civil X Crusader Kings“Comparisons are essential, because when you start playing, that’s all you see. It’s a traditional 4X experience, with all the building, combat, expansion and exploration that entailsbut instead of just managing your empire’s roads and cities, you also need to keep an eye on its leaders.
In old world you don’t play a faction, you play a person with a name and a family, and just like Crusader Kings you go from there, having children, making friends, building relationships and guiding the destiny of everyone around you. When you die, you start playing as an heir, and so on until the end of the game.
It’s not nearly as complex as crusader king interpersonal system, which is the foundation of this whole game, but it’s not meant to be. The 4X stuff is what we’re here for old worldand the character building present here is just a very well-implemented icing on the cake, as there’s just enough to make it look like you’re leading an imperial house (how this affects diplomacy is excellent), but not so much that you always feel like it takes you away from the main action of moving units or building towns.
In Civilization games, your relationships with the Eternal faction leaders can seem arbitrary. Crusader Kingsmeanwhile, has incredibly complex stats governing every relationship and conversation in the game, but you rarely feel like your interactions with people are yielding genuine, tangible results, as many of the game’s diplomatic actions are locked behind slower, sometimes unremovable systems.
In old world, diplomacy and imperial management are people driven, and when you talk to them you get direct results. Wars, friendships, alliances, marriage proposals, business deals, secret missions, there are much more immediate consequences of your conversations in old world we’d get from a Paradox game, which feels like you’re shaping an entire empire not just through buildings, but through relationships.
Getting away from character driven stuff, from the old world the 4X meat and potato experience is pretty solid. It will look familiar, of course, with its settlers, workers, towns, exploring maps, and building upgrades on the tiles surrounding your settlements. If you played Civilization or endless legend in the past five years, you will already know the drill. That’s good, it ticks all the boxes, although there is an interesting quirk in the way you order your units around to treat orders more like a resource.
Here I am in 2020 (it hasn’t really changed):
More exciting than that, however, and unexpectedly, is a major overhaul of how turns work in old world. It’s a turn-based strategy game, and like all the others (it’s in the name!) you just assume the turns work by moving all your units and then pressing a big button END TURN. But in old world, the number of orders you can issue per turn is limited. It is no longer an expectation, but a resource.
It’s a fascinating exercise in turning a gameplay staple into a commodity. When the game begins and your central authority is limited, you only have a handful of commands you can issue to your units. You might find that you have a small army of workers building roads, scouts discovering new lands, and warriors besieging barbarian camps, all at the same time.
But you don’t have enough commands to move them all. So you have to prioritize. And then prioritize more, because many units allow you to move them more than once per turn, because you’re spending that action from a central pool of orders, not from each individual being able to do something only once. So of course you can move most units once, that’s good and it’s a traditional strategy, but you can also move a lot of units if needed, and that’s cool too.
This was by far the most fun I had with the game, as it asked me questions that I don’t remember asking in a game like this when it came to making decisions about movements and actions of my strength. What’s particularly cool is that it’s not only a new challenge, but also a thematic sense. Of course the old empires would have difficulty communicating with their units at a distance or in volume!
There are a few other small innovations in the 4X space that I’m digging into as well. The way cities have to be built on designated tiles, but can be claimed before actually being built is interesting, and units like scouts that can harvest resources directly from tiles help the first few hours of play feel busier and more interactive.
I’m not as sold on combat, which thanks to the hex-based map and one-unit-per-tile design means battles fall into the same trap they’ve had for the past two civil games, where, depending on the terrain, things can quickly get cramped and awkward and become more of a meat grinder than an exercise in tactics.
I said just calling it “Civilization X Crusader Kingswas unfair not because it’s technically wrong – five minutes with this game will show you that it is – but because it sells the end product short. old world is much more than simply integrating the popular system of a game into another genre and hoping for the best.
old world actually feels quite close to these older, near-perfect people civil fallout like Colonization and Alpha Centauri. Games that took the basic 4X formula and repackaged it into a shorter, more focused setting that replaced the passage of ages with more interesting mechanics. In Colonization this meant turning the tobacco into cigars and sending them back to Europe. In old world it is to manage an ancient empire not only by roads and farms, but also by family ties.
Much of what I wrote here in 2022 was also present in the Early Access version I played in 2020, so I’ve just repeated myself a few times, but in the two years since that I played it for the last time old world honed and polished just about everything he could. It looks better, its splash art is gorgeous, the quests have better writing, there are more military units and the interface is smoother.
We’ve seen a number of great 4X releases in recent years. Civilization VI, endless legend and Humanityjust to name a few of the most important. old world is better than any of them. It’s focused, confident, smart, and leans into the 4X genre in some of the most interesting ways I’ve seen in years.