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Dev. Blog

FreeHolder: From Prototype to Game

Posted by Chris Crooks on March 3, 2014 at 12:05 AM

Hello, my rogues! Ye may well approach with skepticism the news of significant tweakage to the game, and this may cause you to worry unduly that whatever magic ye had detected in FreeHolder may have ye vanished. But I assure you, this is not so. The vast majority of major changes have occurred to the somewhat underdeveloped town map screen, trying to centralize its function to significantly reduce confusion, speed gameplay, and provide clearer objectives. But let's back up a little and talk about changes to the central part of the game - assigning workers to tiles on the main screen.

1. Hexagonal Land Tiles w/ Randomized Characteristics and Bonuses

Partly for aesthetic and partly for mechanical reasons, we are changing the tile plots to be hexagonal rather than square. The square choice was originally one of convenience and we never really examined the tactical implications since surveying land was a gamble and claiming the land was automatic. Now, every tile borders on six more which will give the player many more choices of lands to survey and furthermore lands are no longer automatically claimed when surveyed, allowing you to spend time picking just the right tile to claim. Claiming itself will be an untyped minor action, meaning it can be done with any minor action type, so it can be a good way to use up that last extra Agricultural or Construction action. You must claim a tile that is adjacent to at least one non-Lake tile that you own, so even though you can scout as far as you like, the lands you claim must be contiguous with your own.

This has also brought the perfect opportunity to significantly upgrade this very basic component of the game with random bonuses, characteristics, or possible squatters. I'd been thinking about this for a long time and a while ago our member 12_Foot_Robot had commented on how significantly this would improve the excitement of one of the core aspects of the game. Now most tiles will be generated with one or more random bonuses - sometimes you get the bonus just for surveying the land, like discovering a patch of wild wheat as you move through a new meadow. Other bonuses only take effect when the land is actually claimed by you, and still others provide powerful ongoing benefits, like farmlands that water themselves with natural springs or a great lake with an extra gather point available each turn. This significantly increases the excitement and reward of surveying. Furthermore, there may be opportunities to interact with tiles that are not claimed by you, like the Ranger's Forage ability, and some tiles may be purchasable or have enemies that must be fought off in order to claim them. Plus hexagonal tiles evoke more of the board game aesthetic that I want to include in the feel of the interface, and we have instant appeal to Civilization players, Settlers of Catan players, and others simply because of the familiarity of presentation.

The town map, or overworld view, I still am not sure what to call it, will also be hexagonal and simplified. I'll save that for a separate section. The villa building screen will still be built out of square rooms - it's simply a convention for tracking and using land - there aren't any issues of spacing or adjacency.

2. Reduction/Simplification of Goods/Currency

Having played a number of resource-oriented board games recently, I had some thoughts about this, I feel like it is inherently simpler for people to work with small amounts of resources and less types of them. To that end, we're going to scrap the modius measurement for bulk goods and the difference of scale between "single" goods and bulk goods. Now everything is simply an abstract unit, i.e. 2 Wheat, 3 Lumber, 4 Leather and it is either "heavy," which mean it requires shipping to move it, or it is not. Heavy resource tokens (for now) are square whereas others are circular. The third type of item, equipment, will have a different token shape or no token. This change brought a number of implications and suggestions to work through.

A. Players will be harvesting fewer crops per field (say 8 tokens as opposed to 60 modii or some such) so those crops must be worth more, both in terms of sell price and nutritional value.

B. Perish rates may have to be adjusted since the effect of perishing is worse with higher NP food.

C. Wheat should probably be completely inedible. This is the objective good so you should be able to eat it only by processing it into bread, and the rate of food return should be pretty good as a result. Right now, mass growing of wheat is a viable strategy although the wastefulness of it does hurt the player in the long run. This will encourage diversification of crops grown, which ultimately will help the player make more money with the new market system. More on that presently. But you will have to invest in a Bakery (or possibly add an Oven to your Kitchen) in order to make use of Wheat as food.

D. I'm axing the arbitrary shipping can only be used one-way rule that really never made any sense. I thought it might make shipping decisions more interesting, but it defies common sense. Now each mule will provide room for 5 outbound and 5 inbound heavy goods, and as many regular goods as you like. However, now the market can only be visited once per month in a single run, so you must make execute everything in one trade order. This is because the market has been centralized, which I'm getting to momentarily.

E. Less coinage follows from this so less money overall will be needed - silver denari are now 10 sens, whereas a gold cent is 100 silver denari. That means you'll be working mostly in silver and bronze and a gold coin represents a truly significant amount of wealth.

Obviously reduction in scale creates other changes that have to be worked through, but I think people will understand everything a bit easier if everything is smaller and simpler, and the needless complication was due to insufficient abstraction of the original idea, I think.

3. Centralization of Town Functions: The Market, Black Market, and Tavern

Once again inspired by outrageously great board games, I wanted to capture the feeling of everything being "in reach" on a board game and simplify the map screen and town interactions.

We've merged towns and roads into a single tile. Tiles can be occupied by enemies and hence access to that tile (and all tiles behind it) will be blocked. You can now not visit towns directly (except to visit the resident) but they have significant effects on the centralized market and you depending on your reputation at the town. Town reputation is now a central part of the early game - you'll be filling market orders (essentially demand quests) for towns in order to build reputation with that town, unlocking extra goods to be sent to the market, getting free goods shipped to you monthly, and ultimately the town resident, the local person of note, will offer their special skills to you if you help their town enough. Town reputation can also be gained by Patrolling the tile, using the Influence Espionage action (Espionage had to be greatly altered to fit the new town map, vastly for the better in my opinion), and assisting the militia in town defense. Town reputation gives a much more focused feel to the early game, as players work to win over the towns they think will benefit them most.

You'll note that in addition to the ring of starting towns, there is a market, black market and tavern tile. These each represent a centralized area for legal trade, illegal trade, and information gathering/recruitment. These tiles can be occupied by hostiles (except for the Black Market, which operates differently) and, except for the tavern, can only be visited once per month; essentially, you have to take a discrete Market action (although it does not cost actions, similar to attacking). I could write a separate article about each of these "new" systems but they are mostly a much-needed abstraction and centralization of game concepts that were a bit unwieldy and confusing in their past incarnation. I will summarize as briefly as possible.

The Market

The Market is essentially a storehouse for goods that the player can buy. Each season, all open towns will send a certain amount of different goods to the market based on their town type and size. The player can freely buy these as they become available, and the market will store goods up to a maximum number based on the town sizes of all non-blocked towns in the market. These goods will also be subject to a perish rate, as other interested parties snatch up the goods. Market events are represented by goods suddenly becoming depleted, or abundant, and the price changing. During a wood crash, the market might suddenly have a stack of 10 cheap wood to buy, or during a stone spike all stone might suddenly disappear from the storehouse. Market events will be fairly common, and predictable in a number of different ways.

The market demand mechanics have been replaced with market orders. Rather than simply receiving a boost on sale prices from demands, each town will put an order for a specific number of needed goods directly to the player. The player can choose to fill any, all, or none of these, and when filling the order receives extra money for each good shipped (same as greater demand). If the player completes the market order before the end of the year, they receive a completion bonus, usually a chunk of money and a small reputation boost at the town. This system combines an economic model with quests to focus the player towards building town reputation and producing certain goods. Really it's a hundred times more elegant than the clunkfest I had originally cobbled together.

Last but not least on this note is that the player can only sell up to 4 of any one type of good each month, and receives less money for each successive same good sold. That means the player only gets full money for the first type of the good sold each month, then about 3/4, then half, and then 1/4. This immediately encourages diversity, and letting goods trickle out slowly, since you will make more than 3 times as much money letting 1 wool go to the market each month for 4 months then selling them all at once - but if it's the end of the year, or you can't spare the shipping, or you have way too much anyway, you have the option. This makes shipping much more precious because you want to be able to ship a little of everything as much as possible. This elegantly mimics reducing demand in a predictable way that player can strategize for. So much better than messing around with market saturation calculations and price decay rates. :P

Black Market

The Black Market is a specialized market that can only be successfully reached if it is both active and the character traveling succeeds on a smuggling roll. Let me tell you immediately that gone is the two-separate-rolls overly complicated smuggling thing from before. Now you simply make a single roll ahead of time, and either fail and reap the consequences, or succeed and can take your time to ship as much as you like without fear. Assuming you succeed, you now have access to a smaller market that offers Black Market Contracts - smaller quests that are like market orders but change rapidly and have greater rewards. Some Black Market contracts may also require an Espionage roll to complete. In addition, the Black Market sells a small selection of discounted rare goods. These contracts and goods can be cycled by the player with the Influence action, and skilled Agents may even be able to choose the next from two or three possibilities. The Black Market has no interest in buying goods generally, so you may only sell goods directly by Black Market Contracts, and buy what is on offer.

The Black Market starts the game active, and is occasionally raided by Roman authorities, temporarily inactivating it. Under ordinary circumstances, the Black Market is unavailable while inactive, and randomly reactivates a certain amount of time after a crackdown - this can be influenced by both Agent abilities and special events. It can never be occupied, except perhaps under very unusual conditions...


The Tavern is a centralized place to gather information, receive quests and hire workers and mercenaries. You can also interact with visitors by buying them a drink, or buy a round for the workers or mercenaries in the hopes of increasing your guild reputation or getting a hiring discount. You may also buy a drink and have a private chat with the Tavern Keeper, an information broker who can help his friends find the right people in the right places. The Tavern can be visited any number of times per month. Visitors and mercenaries are constantly changing and cycling through. The Tavern is a place of activity every player will want to keep an eye on for opportunities. It is also rumored that the Thieves' Guild works through the tavern and those with enough clout with the Guild can even hire thieves and assassins here.

That sums up my intentions on this town map redesign fairly well. Some stuff probably looks brand spanking new but honestly most of these ideas were in the game design in some way but didn't make it into the prototype explicitly.

We're also taking another crack at the combat system, simplifying and en-safening it for main characters, with the addition of robust mercenaries and town militias taking some of the absurd risk out of early combat.. We definitely want it to be decisive, and have a rogue-like feel, but we're removing a lot of the complications and automation in favor a command driven interface with some hidden depth. We've got so many facets, you don't even know what facets are. :) And that's not even talking about the faction towns, which you can see on the graphic there but I won't get into here, not least because they were a non-factor in the prototype and hence are unknown to the vast majority of you. We've come up with much more of the endgame than ever before (which is good, considering we're a week away from starting this build!) so stay tuned for more dev blogs, podcasts, and other fun stuff as we live the dream of creating impossible worlds. Thanks everyone for your support!

Categories: Game Design, News

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