Developer Diary | National Spirits

PDX Firefly

Nov 1, 2023
Happy 2024, all.

Apologies for the delay on this Developer Diary – there are a lot of irons in the fire as we got back into things after the holidays. Embrace the chaos!

I am Ian Fischer of C Prompt Games and today we are going to talk about National Spirits in Millennia.

Role of National Spirits

The concept of player authorship is central to a lot of our design. In Millennia, the National Spirits system does some heavy lifting to support that goal.

Ages, which change the baseline rules of the world and alter the Units, Technologies, Goods, and Capital Buildings involved in the game, provide a way for the world to change for all of the Nations involved, based on the direction they steer history.

National Spirits are similar in that, like Ages, they provide new and different tools to the player, but these are more focused on how one Nation decides to face the challenges presented by the world all of the Nations are in together. We really like the idea of players getting to decide what their Nation is about and we think it makes sense that Nations can develop differently when history moves in different directions.

As an aside on that…. We know from early playtesting feedback that a lot of players come in expecting pre-made Nations that they need to figure out how to put to the best use. Millennia has a different arrangement -- we treat Nations as cosmetic things. You don’t pick Spain because of the bonuses Spain has, rather you pick Spain because … well, because you like Spain – you want Spanish location names, Spanish symbology, you like the idea of “being Spain.” For Millennia, no Nation (aside from fairly minor starting bonuses and the cosmetic elements) is different from any other at the start of a new game.

But … where you take your Spain as history unfolds and you make decisions about how to approach things – Nations grow to become very different from one another as the game develops.

Basic Structure of National Spirits

National Spirits are grouped into four sets, based on the Ages when they are first available – two, four, six, and eight. As soon as a Nation enters an Age where a National Spirit choice is available, they can make a selection from the corresponding set. (There is no cost.)

Only one National Spirit can be selected in each of the Ages when they are available (so a Nation ends the game with four different National Spirits).

The National Spirits available are not exclusive -- more than one Nation can have the same National Spirit. However, National Spirits that have not been selected gain a bonus when other Spirits are adopted, meaning that less popular options are offset by additional rewards.

All National Spirits are associated with a Domain, with the exception of Government (so: Exploration, Warfare, Engineering, Diplomacy, and Arts). Governments are their own unique system and there are no Government National Spirits.

In addition to the content offered by National Spirits, selecting one also causes a Nation to earn additional Domain XP in the related Domain -- if you take a Warfare Domain National Spirit in Age 2, say Raiders, you will earn additional Warfare XP every turn.

This can change the way you think about National Spirit selection in certain circumstances. Usually, you’re focused on what the National Spirit itself has to offer but, on occasion, the extra Domain XP each turn or the bonus Domain XP for picking a less-popular National Spirit can enable different strategies.

Once selected, each National Spirit presents a set of bonuses called Ideals. There are seven Ideals in a National Spirit, organized into tiers. You must unlock at least one Ideal of a lower tier to gain access to the next tier. Ideals have a cost in the Domain XP of the National Spirit’s Domain. So, Raiders mentioned above, a Warfare Domain National Spirit – it has Ideals with Warfare XP costs.

The final tier of each National Spirit is a special Ideal called a Legacy. Legacies are cheap, they cost only one Domain XP, but they have a requirement related to the National Spirit. For example, Theologians, an Age 4 National Spirit, has a Legacy that unlocks when you achieve 40 population following your state religion. Legacies reward Social Fabric points and are one of the easier ways to get these, so they can be quite valuable.

Anatomy of a National Spirit – Khans

Any easy way to think about National Spirits, at a conceptual level, is as a kind of “reputation” – what is a Nation known for?

Common examples we use to illustrate this are things like Spartan Warriors, Swiss Banking, Silicon Valley, or Egyptian Pyramids.

As those examples suggest, that means National Spirits are substantial. What you select will have a lot of impact on your strategy as Ideals provide major bonuses and unique capabilities. The design here is less “your stuff is a little better than everyone else’s stuff”, more “you’re the only ones that have this at all.”

In general, National Spirits provide Ideals that have value in different spans – things that are only good in the era when you first get the National Spirit, things that can be valuable for a bit longer, and things that have utility for the remainder of the game. However, there is some shifting there, with certain National Spirts that are strong “now” (and only “now”) and others that have less immediate but more consistent, ongoing value.

The one we’ll look at in more detail here, Khans, is more of a “now” National Spirit.

Khans is an Age 4 Warfare Domain National Spirit. Thematically, this National Spirit allows you to pursue a direction inspired by the Mongol Empire – you want to unleash your own Genghis Khan on the world.

As soon as Khans is selected, it spawns a special Unit – the Khan. Your Khan is powerful, with a high Tactics score (and free, instant), but only around for 50 turns, so make the time count.

In the first tier of Khan Ideals are Khan, which causes Barbarian neutrality, and Horseback Archery, which spawns Horse Archers.

So, pretty quickly, a Nation with Khans is doing some different things – the only ones with a Khan leader, the only ones with Horse Archers, the only ones not being attacked by Barbarians.

The next tier of Ideals builds on this with Incite Conflict, which gives you a new Domain Power that allows you to, essentially, put the Barbarians to work for you. You can leave it at that – just allowing the Barbarians to pester your enemy, or you could get Uniter of Tribes and give your Khan the ability to treat any Barbarian Camp (ones there on their own or created by you) as a way to add more Horse Archers to your growing Army.

Since you only get the one Khan, Keshing is also a solid pick, making the Khan harder to kill and also providing a Unit Ability that allows spawning Horse Archers at the Khan’s location (convenient when you’re out fighting and have a limited number of turns to wait for Units to arrive after training back in a home Region).

Since you’ll likely have a lot of Horse Archers, Composite Bows, is useful for making them deadlier.

Finally, Call to War adds a unique Culture Power to the set available to you, allowing you to spawn two more Horse Archers at each Region.

Collectively, the intent is to deliver a “Genghis Khan experience” -- you have a powerful and unique military leader, you have a feel of uniting the tribes, your armies are different from the other armies of the era, you can move quickly and push militarily, you don’t have the most powerful Units of the era but they’re strong and you can get a lot of them.


Khans may seem like it provides a powerful set of bonuses, and it does, but so do the seven other National Spirits available in Age Four. Each of these, like Khans, provides a set of Ideals that deliver a unique experience and strategic options.

As you can probably gather, the depth of the different National Spirit options creates a lot of replayability, both individually and when considering strategies built around using a set of complimentary National Spirits.

The modular approach, which allows us to look at each National Spirit as its own special thing instead of having to consider all of the different options as branches on one (huge) tech tree, is very powerful – Millennia delivers a lot of fun, unique gameplay through this system.

We hope you have enjoyed this overview and look forward to the time (soon!) when you can try it out yourself. (And, as usual, if you like what you’ve seen of Millennia, please wishlist us.)
Okay, that sounds interesting, but how much will really depend on how much interesting variety can be generated.
The additional boni if less civs have selected a spirit are also interesting, balancing weaker ones. I guess that's still in development, as nothing has been said about it.
Again, this game appears to be taking many of the hoary old concepts of 4X gamng and turning them on their little digital heads.

Civ and its competition has (so far) concentrated on finding peculiarities that 'define' a historical faction or civilization and presenting their version of Spain, Scotland, Somalia or Slobbovia for the gamer to play with. The problem has been that any peculiarities related to the original's climate, terrain or geographical location, or to the influence of its neighbors in history, are frequently meaningless because a particular game you are playing doesn't present the climate, terrain, or neighbors.

Here, they are apparently presenting the historical civ or faction as a nearly Blank Slate: you get the name and some of the graphics, and you are left to build the Spain or Songhia appropriate to the game you want to play and the map and neighbors the game gives you.

I suspect the key to making this work among the majority of gamers will be how well the graphics and recognition factors of the Faction/Civ are presented. If you can't recognize anything that looks and feels specific enough to allow you to tell the difference between Spain and Song China, the game is going to Fail. See the example of Humankind, which allows you to 'build' a Civ out of different historical antecedents every Era, and the result has been a sad lack of immersion and player identification with the resulting Stew of Civilization Attributes that results. The difference here is that the attributes are more individualized, but the key point, IMHO, will still be the degree of Identification between the Gamer and what he/she is playing.

And that they did not say much about at all . . .
Some things about this blank slate approach is lacking when it comes to immersion. When going totally modular you can play as any civ in any way you like. I do miss some of the set/ready made bonuses. Some examples:
- If playing England it makes sense not to get the naval bonus if you start in the middle of a huge jungle. But instead you can get any random bonus just as easy. Shouldn´t the jungle affect your choices?
- If you get the Raider bonus, is there no downside? You can still choose to play like any other civ, totally ignore the raider bonus, and not be worse off. Surely there are some things which would be less good when being constantly picking fights using your most talented part of the population?
- Since you can compose your civ in any kind of way the immersion suffers greatly for me. The concept of a civ jumping from one extreme way of living to another, forth and back multiple times.
- Like I saw in some random rpg "If you want to gain something, you must sacrifice something". I like penalties combined with the bonuses.
- The ability to combine civics in any way is also strange. Think of the cards in civ 6, they just represent bonuses. But when you think about it "I run triangular trade in a serfdom economy promoting natural sciences and advocating pillaging with the support of my maritime industries". That´s when I can miss the old government civics a bit. And again, if a certain government just gives you bonuses for doing something you can do something totally else and not be any worse off.
- And a bit OT. I don´t like the trade off between science and warfare. The best bet to go for warfare is going science. It would be nice if war techs mostly were a result of actually doing wars, not doing science. And economy was mostly made of trade or exploitation. And culture was made out of buildings and improvements. Come to think of it, why not make war, economy and culture be different science beakers?
While I understand the concept of a "blank slate" and see the rationale behind it, it is also a double-edged sword. Either made very well thanks to systems that build on it and can actually take advantage of it, or falls completely off due to any meaningful immersion, variety and cultural representation. And I'm afraid the latter is easier to be made.

As was previously said, Humankind is a very good example: while on paper it may sound "wow", "amazing", "endless possibilities" and so on, actually, when you play the game, it is bland, empty, shallow, hollow, meaningless. I could write pages why, but one example about one of the problems: I've the Nubians as my neighbours, okay cool I'm going to check what's their unique... wait, who are these guys? The Aztecs? What are they doing here, they were... ooohhh, so they became the Aztecs. Now the bald white guy has a different robe. Cool...

I feel zero attachment and emotions to the others, and, to be honest, to my own "civilization" as well. Ah yeaaah, I used to be the...the...the...the Teutons, that's right. And they have these bonuses that help me now due to my legacy... oh wait, it's totally irrelevant now.
(and I'd rather not even bring up how total immersion breaking is going from the Greeks to the Mongols in an instant...)

What's the point of nations, national flags, colours, city names and such, if it's meaningless, because I can be whatever and whoever I want to be, multiple times back and forth, just when I please. The England - jungle comparison is also a very good one. Any Civilization or history enthusiastic will understand what is meant by that, even without detailed explanation, I think.

Again, I understand the concept and not totally against it, but having predetermined bonuses, abilities is not a bad thing, quite the contrary: it adds a tangible variety and emotional attachment. I like this National Spirit idea and its functionality seems clean, compact, easily usable and understandable, yet powerful and interesting. But at the same time I really do hope that you won't be able to to simply go from a pacifist, art / science focused state, into a fearsome, world-conquering warmachine with just one simple click.

It's obviously very early to draw any conclusion yet, I'm still really curious what will You come up with, the features and mechanics so far got me absolutely interested, and looking for the release with keen interest and sharp eyes! :) I just really hope that the game won't slip on this.

Speaking of, if the next Dev Diary will also be ended with a "soon", then I'll go to my basement to find and to start sharpening my pitchfork! :viking:
(just kidding ofc, take your time, quality comes first! :) )
I have seen you guys posting about this "Immersion" a lot. But personally, I couldn't care less. I want a fun game and if that means that my civ changes every once and a while, all the better. Same for my neighbours. Countries change, if only because their leaders change.

The problem I had with Humankind was not that I was so attached to my neighbours or the look of my civilization, but that they interpreted "meaningful choices" as creating dozens of choices. But in the end, of all the new cultures you could choose one or two were so much better than the rest that all the other cultures were meaningless fluff. I ended up always choosing the same cultures and after a while that became boring.

So I think the big challenge in Millennia is to get the Spirits balanced so that there is no one right choice.
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I'm also in the "curious how it will play out in practice/didn't like Humankind due to the lack of immersion" camp. I don't think it's a bad thing that if the Mongols are my opponent in Civ, I can rely on their being aggressive, and having horse archers around the right historical time. Although, it does mean that I'm also aware of the danger, and if I have a good opportunity to knock them down a peg before they can build their unique unit, I'm likely to do so.

So I can see both sides of the sword. On the plus side, I don't know who might go the KHAAAANNN!! route in Millennia, so I can't pre-empt that earlier in the game to avoid having to deal with it, which makes for a more dynamic game. On the down side, will it harm the immersion for the Aztecs or the Zulu or the Japanese to go the Khan route? There are flavor benefits to the Japanese having Samurai and the Mongols having Keshiks (or their equivalent in other Civ iterations), and mixing and matching those could decrease that.

One obvious area for improved consistency over Humankind is that though they may go the Khan route, Spain will at least always have/build Spanish city names, and I'm hoping that if there are leader representations, those also will be reliably Spanish? As Revolutionist_8 mentioned, it was also disorienting how Humankind leaders could having nothing to do with the civs they were leading, even in the initial era. I faced the Olmecs whose leader archetype was obviously Roman, and while I got lucky and their first shape-shift was to the Aztecs, the next one was to someone from a completely different area of the world. If they had simply started as the Olmecs and had an Olmec leader and stayed that way, perhaps that would have been enough to keep the immersion going even if they chose various bonuses... which seems to be the gambit that Millennia is making. I'd still be curious to hear a bit more about those "minor starting bonuses" though.

And I think immersion does matter to most players. Humankind's playercount on Steam is dismal, barely eclipsing Victoria II (from 2010, and fairly niche), roughly two-thirds of Civ III (from 2001), and currently less than Old World on Steam (an Epic exclusive for its first two years which also draws a significant part of its sales from GOG). It's even farther behind Civ IV, and by V/VI it's orders of magnitude behind. (source: Considering how much buzz there was for it, and its number of reviews on Steam, indicating a high number of sales, a lot of players have abandoned it. Coming around a few years later, part of Millenia's goal should be showing how this dynamic system will be different and thus worth giving a chance even for those who had great hopes for Humankind but have since lost faith in it.
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Collectively, the intent is to deliver a “Genghis Khan experience”

In my eyes the best intent to deliver a "Genghis Khan experience" in a civ game is to deliver Genghis Khan as a leader for the Mongols in a game with all the options that are connected to that leader and to provide a "Napoleonic experience" with a Napoleon leader to France (and so on).

In my eyes one of the two most significant cardinal errors of the complete Civ series is to play a civ game from the sight of an immortal leader of a civ (who mostly was a bloody mass murderer and whose immortallity during thousands of years is absurd) and not from the sight of a civ, that had a lot of different leaders during thousands of years.

Per example Civ 3 had four eras in its game and the Civ 3 Conquests mod CCM 2.5 offers for each civ different leaders for each of the four eras.

Different leaders in the same game.jpg

So in the current version of that mod these different leaders have only a graphical impact to the game, this will change in the next version after the upcoming new version of that mod, as now C3C with the new options of the Flintlock mod has enough power to provide additional bonuses and maluses to a civ connected with the appearance of the new leaders.

As Millenia has 8 eras, in my eyes it would be much better, to give that game for every civ in ech era different leaders (with individual bonuses and maluses for that civ) - and to add another civspecific alternative historic leader of that civ as a choice for that civ in each era.

This setting would avoid to let the "Spaniards appear as Aztecs with Spanish graphics" (what soon becomes boring, too), connects the game play with that civ much better to the history of that civ, softens the absurdity of immortal leaders and reduces additional unfun micromanagement during the game.
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Like many have said before me:

I'm sad that I'm getting Humankind vibes. With so many options opening up to adjust to the game, then choosing any option only flattens the game out so they become the same. The fun of choosing a unique nation in Civilization is that choice influences available options throughout the game. I can't just press the "water people" button when I need to be a better at ships. I either have to put the work into betters ships, or make my non-ship advantages overcome my lack of ship advantages. The permanent attributes of the nation one chooses resists a complete solving of the one best universal strategy.

There is no personal value in customizing my Spain. I'm not going to have any emotional attachment to my Spain after I finish the game. I'm not going to look back on my Spain and feel pride about shaping Spain in my image. I'm not going to take selfies with my Spain. I'm going to play as Spain, win or lose, and then start as Germany in the next game. And in that next game as Germany, I'm going to use the exact same strategy as I did with Spain because that is what the ruleset promotes.

This blank slate approach that everyone seems to be taking to 4x games is a bad trend.
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Like many have said before me:

I'm sad that I'm getting Humankind vibes. With so many options opening up to adjust to the game, then choosing any option only flattens the game out so they become the same. The fun of choosing a unique nation in Civilization is that choice influences available options throughout the game. I can't just press the "water people" button when I need to be a better at ships. I either have to put the work into betters ships, or make my non-ship advantages overcome my lack of ship advantages. The permanent attributes of the nation one chooses resists a complete solving of the one best universal strategy.

There is no personal value in customizing my Spain. I'm not going to have any emotional attachment to my Spain after I finish the game. I'm not going to look back on my Spain and feel pride about shaping Spain in my image. I'm not going to take selfies with my Spain. I'm going to play as Spain, win or lose, and then start as Germany in the next game. And in that next game as Germany, I'm going to use the exact same strategy as I did with Spain because that is what the ruleset promotes.

This blank slate approach that everyone seems to be taking to 4x games is a bad trend.

The idea of letting a gamer 'build' the Civilization/Faction of his choice/desire is in itself an attractive one, but without restrictions of some kind, every competitive gamer will wind up building Civilizations with very similar attributes, regardless of what graphic dressing you give them.

The way around this, and to still give the gamer his 'agency' is, I think, to go back to Basics. Historically, what defined and differentiated Civilizations?

Well, first, there ain't no such thing as a Blank Slate and never were.
ALL Civilizations were and are shaped by their geography, terrain, climate, resources available, and neighbors and their
ALL Civilizations have 'quirks' that come out of their Prehistoric or Very Early origins - Cultural Traits, if you will, some lasting, some not so much, but all contributing to the reasons that China did not develop the same way Greece, or Rome, Nubia, the Cree or Celtic Gaul did.
ALL Civilizations have changed the longer they are around. Some of those changes were ordained or encouraged by the government (the gamer, in this instance) and some Not So Much. In fact, the majority came from Outside Influences or Unforeseen Consequences and Combinations of other things - like Technology, Religion, and those pesky Neighbors.

So, to start with, every potential Civ/Faction in the game has to be defined:
What traits, tendencies, peculiarities Define this group?
Which of those traits can be given an in-game origin - some way to 'acquire' them that may or may not be utterly unique but can at least be given a singular path to obtain while playing?
And, most important, which traits are so peculiar, or just plain Random or composed of so many original components that they cannot be easily attributed to any in-game process, and must be treated as Inherent?

In other words, what has made the Spanish peculiarly Spanish and not another group for as long as there have been Spanish?

Rigorously defining each and every playable group this way would immediately eliminate any terrain/climate-based attributes and require careful consideration of any attributes coming from outside the group: no game can assume you will always start or develop in exactly the same terrain climate combination as they did historically, or have exactly the same set of neighboring groups - and if you did, you would simply produce a game with no replay value because so much of the play would be determined from the start every time.

At this point in these discussions I'm very, very glad I'm not trying to make a living as a Game Designer, because so far I cannot see a way through this design thicket.

The Civilization method is much too defined, with each Civ locked into a few Uniques and a single (or a few) Leaders with Unique Attributes all of which disregard any in-game events

Humankind tried to give the gamer options every Era to change the Civ completely, which simply made the Civs increasingly difficult to keep track of and artificial and offered no thread of emotional attachment between gamer and gamed.

Millennia right now looks like it is trying to split the difference, breaking down the redefining at every Era into individual traits instead of brand new Factions but (so far, least least) not showing any better attempt at providing Identification of the gamer with the gamed Faction
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