The scale dilemma in 4x games

How do you make managing one city interesting without making managing a dozen cities overwhelming? This dilemma is not unique to Civilization, the entire 4x genre has struggled with it. In a genre about starting small and growing large the quantity of decisions to make naturally grows. This can easily become overwhelming, but there are techniques designers can use to manage this tension. These techniques must be applied carefully because each has its own limitation and pitfalls.


If a player has too many decisions to make, why not let an AI take over some of them? City Governors and automated Workers have long existed in Civilization. Automation can even be optional so that players who want to make those decisions themselves have that option.

The danger of automation is that it can conceal a mechanic or system that is not working well. If making a decision is truly interesting and engaging than a player should want to make it rather than ignore it. Or if that decision is so uninteresting and unimportant that players don’t care if an AI makes that choice for them then the game would probably be better if that choice wasn’t part of the game in the first place.

Puppet cities are an example from Civilization 5 of using automation to keep a large empire from being too much to manage. The way puppet cities worked was that cities which were captured through military conquest instead of settled would default into a puppet state. Cities in that state could not produce units and players could not choose what buildings they developed. This would reduce the mental burden on the largest empires, as they were the most likely to control multiple conquered cities.


If managing two dozen cities is too much than one way to control that is to incorporate systems that discourage expansion. For example, Civilization 5’s empire-wide Happiness and increasing technology costs both discouraged expansion. Systems that create drawbacks to expansion help make expansion interesting by making it not always the right answer.

But there is a danger in going overboard. In Civilization 5 a common strategy was to have four cities and no more. Four cities was a breakpoint mostly because of Tradition. When following this strategy a player wouldn’t have to pay attention to the map and race for tiles. They could have their military sitting behind fortified and developed cities rather than trying to protect young and vulnerable outposts on the frontier.

One interesting use of anti-expansion mechanics comes from Crusader Kings 2. In Crusader Kings 2 only the first handful (half dozen or so) of regions (analogous to Civilization’s cities) could be directly controlled by the player and provided full revenue. Any regions past that were controlled by subordinates and provided greatly reduced revenue. This created a natural plateau in the value of expansion.

Scale Limits

If managing twenty cities is overwhelming then one way to avoid that situation is to design constraints that prevent that outcome. For example, Endless Legend divided the map into regions (areas of 20 or so hexes) and allowed only one city per region. Maps had a finite number of sections so designer’s could set a strict upper bound on how many cities each player could control at a single time.

Scale limits can also be done on the bottom end. Instead of trying to make managing a single city interesting a game could just start a player with multiple cities. Allowing them to skip a repetitive opening stage.

Engine building euro-games (like Terra Mystica or Agricola) provide good examples of both kinds of scale limits. They have a fixed number of turns, which ensures that the engine players construct over the course of the game does not grow to an unwieldy size. They also start players with an initial set up that gives them different paths to take right out of the gate.

Goldilocks Design

A good 4x game wants to maximize the amount of time a player will be experiencing the sweet spot of its systems. When they are too small they are boring. When they grow too big they become confusing. Automation, anti-expansion and scale limits all provide ways designers can craft their game to give players the Goldilocks experience.


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