‘Bozart’ Cohn’s Age of Tribes

Joseph “Bozart” Cohn’s earliest solo project was Age of Tribes, is an isometric real-time strategy simulator. Its 64-bit graphics are polished, meant to mimic something like the first Warcraft. This style, in Cohn’s words, “obscures the violence of the situation so that it can later dawn on the player in the contrast of the cultures.” Tribes’ basic gameplay revolves around resource management, developing the player’s tribe, and in some way conquering or converting rival tribes. At first glance it is a RTS like any other, except for two innovations that make Tribes so unique.

The first is its AI, for lack of a better term. Rather than the godlike omnipotence of Warcraft, the player commands more of a leader role, rather like the mayor in Simcity. The player first realizes this difference with the changing seasons of the game world, of which there are five. At the beginning of each season, the player gets a report, the contents of which are unique to each culture, and then she has the option to deliver more or less vague orders for the coming season. There is always the option to drop in and order individual tribespeople around as in any RTS, but there are certain advantages to allowing the cultures to develop themselves. Each has their own focus, and the player must learn to lead the tribe according to their culture to succeed.

Cohn build five tribes into the game, although an additional seven are rumored to be coded and waiting in some apocryphal update. The cultures vary so broadly that playing each is like playing a completely different game.

There are the Spartans, a warlike tribe, and the most familiar of the cultures within the game genre. Spartans dwell on a rocky coastal plain, subsisting on grain crops, fish, wild game, and whatever they can raid from neighbors—raiding becomes essential, as the Spartans are weak in resource gathering. Their buildings are utilitarian, little more than tents and palisade walls, and their technology stops at steel. Where they excel is in combat. Left to themselves, Spartans will raise their young as warriors (the player can intervene to train them alternatively as farmers, craftspeople, etc. but these are seldom very effective), leaving adolescents in the wilds or even sending them alone on raids to small villages.

In terms of individual ability scores and effectiveness of AI combat, the Spartans are outmatched. They have an elaborate classification system of warriors that include light and heavy infantry, light and heavy cavalry, missiles, and a particularly fireball-based form of magic, “the blaze of Mars.” The units know how to work together, so even those not under the player’s direct control will adapt to the player’s strategy, often to good effect.

The second tribe, dwelling in the deep forests, are the Servants of Gaia, or Gaians. While they train excellent archers for defense, their real strength comes from their connection to the natural world. Gaians do not harvest resources, but depending on their level of natural balance, beneficial plants and game will appear in abundance. The key mechanic for the Gaians is that balance; if the player learns their ways of treading lightly on the earth, nature will provide for the tribe and even help it fight. If she goes against that balance, resources will become scarce, and sickness or wild animals will attack the tribe. Playing the Servants of Gaia becomes an exercise in watching and learning. As the tribe cultivates the forest, performs complex rituals of thanksgiving, petition, and offerings, and even take drastic measures such as controlled burns, these ways form a sort of language or rhythm, an internal logic. The player begins to operate by this logic, watching the forest as much as she watches her people. If she plays skillfully according to this unwritten law, she can reap benefits far beyond what the tribe would have done for themselves simply on AI. In this way, the game rewards the player’s concern for nature, her willingness to adapt her play style in reverence for the world.

The third tribe, the People of Light, departs furthest from the usual RTS sensibilities. They are a pacifist culture of mystics living in a vast, mountainous desert. The Light have no combat units at all, although they do have defensive abilities of a sort. With very few resources, they rely on either trade or their own fantastic capacity for asceticism to survive. Meditation becomes a vital resource for the Light. Rather, the divinity to which they connect in meditation keeps them going. Like the Gaians, the Light must remain in balance, or good favor with divinity. Any act of harm or violence, however small, will break that balance. Meditation will build it up. The culture develops as these energies of meditation unlock upgrades and abilities—“Guidance of Heaven,” for example, which allows one of the Light to lead the others to an oasis or defensive mesa in a time of need. The more the player keeps to the rule of the Light, and allows her people to focus on divinity, the more powerful these abilities become. It is indeed dramatic to see the ultimate Light ability, “Raise Babylon,” in which a group of chanting People of the Light cause an entire enemy city to lift by its foundations into the air.

The reader may wonder, already, what happens when these cultures come into conflict. As might be expected, many players never venture beyond the Spartans, so skilled are they at raw combat (and how conditioned are players to it.) But Age of Tribes measures more than warlike conquest. Cohn, again: “The limitation of something like Age of Empires, which proposes to be historical, is that it fails to adequately measure the many axes upon which a culture can rise or fall. War and wealth come to us as obviously prime indicators of success and vitality, but that is only because imperialist capitalism—and its particular love of violence-as-problem-solver—have limited our thinking to conquest and money. Mars and Mammon, if you like. With Tribes, I wanted to have multiple ways for a culture to flourish or fail, and not always in obvious ways.” While combat remains one measure of effectiveness, wealth, honor, cultural or technological achievement, happiness of the people, or connection to nature or the divine play as much of a role in deciding the ultimate winner.

For example, while the Spartans do not have the same nature-balancing mechanic as the Servants of Gaia, the player may notice that their sparse landscape will react to their behavior as the forests of the Gaians does. The Spartans themselves seem unaware of this reaction, but a savvy player will see it. Consequently, if Spartans conquer a Gaian settlement, nature will react accordingly, often rejecting the conquerors. In other words, the Spartans have their excellence in combat, but it will not help them cultivate the earth. It may be more beneficial, therefore, to trade with the Gaians than to conquer them in the long run. These sorts of trade-offs appear between each and every one of the tribes, so that measures beyond combat begin to matter more and more.

Perhaps the most important of these additional measures is morale, or the willpower of the people. Depending on the state of their settlement, or the degree to which the player plays according to the society of a particular tribe, the morale of her people will fluctuate. At high morale, the player has more control over the people; they will follow all her orders. As morale decreases, the people will hesitate in fulfilling orders, or begin to ignore them, following their own sensibilities.

Since there is a conversion dynamic between all the societies, individuals can defect from a poorly-performing tribe to another, more successful one. There are more nuanced versions of this as well. For example, if the player’s settlement becomes envious of a trading partner, morale will decrease. The system is opaque but logical, and adds an elegance to play far beyond simply concern with combat and resources.

The fourth tribe, the Burghers, are almost solely traders. They have been described as the capitalistic tribe, and Cohn has more or less said so in interviews. Playing the Burghers is an exercise in economy management. In the early stages of the game, Burgher tents and caravans uproot and move more freely than any of the other settlements, trading resources as soon as they can. The Burghers are not particularly skilled at obtaining the resources to begin with, however. They begin with a small stock, but eventually the player must conscript or outright buy slaves to work timber, mines, farms, etc. These slaves become a commodity themselves, although no other settlement actually produces them. The Gaians and the Light will not use them, although the other tribes may. Rather than training military units, the Burghers also hire mercenaries, sometimes from the Spartans (a non-combat Spartan such as a farmer or fisherman is particularly vulnerable to this type of conversion.)

The main development of the Burghers is an ever-increasing scale and diversity of their economy. As they gain more and more power, upgrades make their dealings ever more shrewd. Their tent bazaars grow into marble-columned trading houses. At higher levels, Burgher units can disguise themselves and so keep up trade even if they are at war with another tribe.

The final tribe is the Silcova, the technocrats of the game world. Their technology surpasses any other in the game, ending up with floating outposts, airships, artillery, and a sort of Internet. Not that their inventions are so invested in their military—the Silcova build technology for technology’s sake. They automate resource gathering as soon as possible, and then create synthetic resources. Their upgrade tree is vast, growing through bronze and steel, to electricity, to quantum teleportation, into a dozen arcane directions each so complex that they only make sense after five or so playthroughs. Although these innovations include some of the best military units in the game and some of the fastest-moving craft, the Silcova seem not so interested in actual usefulness as novelty. They make for an entertaining but frustrating game.

These five tribes inhabit a gameworld of biomes, one each for the tribes plus a randomly-selected frontier in the center. Although the object of the game is generally to gain control of three biomes, players have won and lost under all manner of circumstances. The exact workings of victory seem inscrutable (Cohn: “Min-maxing, over-gamifying, level grinding—these are disgusting ways to play games. One doesn’t hear a symphony just to pick apart the brass and woodwind parts, but to experience the thing as a whole, on its own terms. It’s a point of honor, of artistic integrity I think, for a game to utterly resist the cockroach horde of over-analyzers and deconstructers. I’m still in awe of P.T. for doing that.”) Morale plays a large part, as does connection to nature and the divine—several players reported a sudden fiery apocalypse after they annihilated the People of Light and Servants of Gaia—but so does combat and economy, in the usual ways. Nothing in the menus or official literature of the game sheds light on the mechanics of actually winning Age of Tribes.

I asked Cohn about this mechanic. He was silent for a long time, longer than usual. “These games, they claim to be about history, yes? In Age of Empires, I know that if I beat the hell out of my opponents, or grow my economy larger than theirs, or build a wonder and keep it for however-many years, that I will win. That surety is a revision to history. It assumes that the important things in history were military and economic prowess, which is a horribly impoverished, if common, view. But beyond that, surety itself is revisionist history, as though we could boil things down to winners and losers, or as though it’s ever, ever done. I won’t—maybe I cannot—say what I wanted Tribes to actually measure and reward, but if it’s about anything, it’s a cry for humility. We’re in a time when people threaten others with being ‘on the wrong side of history.’ Whichever side you’re on, that’s asinine. There is no right side of history. Only us, doing the best we can. If we’re lucky, we won’t destroy the world.”

A single player, Wovo98, claims to have achieved the actual ending of Age of Tribes. It came one hundred and twenty hours into a People of Light playthrough, after their tribe had brokered peace with the Gaians and the Silcova, and the Spartans and Burghers had been defeated. Wovo98 played through decades of apparent stalemate, all the tribes full on resources, equitable in their conquests, and maxed out in their upgrade trees. Wovo98 kept going because the People of the Light kept on meditating. Eventually a new option in the upgrade tree became available, its title in Sanskrit. Wovo98 clicked it. A small group of monks breathed and uttered their familiar “Om,” but this time it silenced the world. The in-game music ceased. All over the map, units stopped what they were doing. They gathered together in their villages. A drumbeat began, one beat, another. The sprites moved with a new animation—Wovo98 realized the people were dancing. Words, more in Sanskrit, appeared on the screen. They have since been translated as Marijo Moore’s poem, “Solidarity in the Night:”

“This was the night

all the people sang together.

This was the night

all the people dreamed together.

This was the night

all the people danced together.

This was the night

all the people prayed together.

This was the night

all the people began to heal.”

The game world faded, leaving the poem and the drumbeats, which continued on, as long as the player cared to listen.