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Civilization meets Cities Skylines, but with more player freedom

As Oxide Games gets ready to launch Ara: History Untold, we spoke to the design director in an exclusive interview about what sets it apart from Civilization.

Ara History Untold Civilization meets Cities Skylines: three global leaders all colored differently, one yellow, one pink, and one green

Ara: History Untold is gearing up to be one of the biggest strategy games to date, as it features everything we love about games like Civilization and Cities Skylines without some of the other games’ less desirable qualities. In an exclusive Gamescom interview with Oxide Games’ design director, Michelle Menard, who worked on Civilization previously, we heard about the upcoming turn-based game and what sets Ara: History Untold apart from other familiar strategy experiences like Civilization.

When asked how Ara differs from games like Civilization, Menard responded by saying that Oxide Games doesn’t want to stray too far from “what fans already know and love.” Instead, the developers want to “modernize it.” The first difference noted by the director was the tech tree. Unlike Civ, you won’t follow a linear path in Ara on one branch of a skill tree. Instead, the game uses a “deck system.”

“Every time you play, you’re forced to reconsider your current situation and then choose from there,” Menard said when explaining the system. You’ll pick from three randomly drawn cards and then research that one technology, but you’ll move on to something completely new with the next deck as it’s entirely fresh.

The idea is to create something more flexible where you won’t need to decide precisely what kind of victory you’re aiming for and then work towards it. Menard brought Ara’s map up as another good example of this freedom, stating that it’s not “static” with “equally spaced tiles” that are “all the same size.” Instead, the director said, “We have irregularly shaped regions.”

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Another area that Ara has improved upon is the game’s UI. Menard said “There’s been a lot of care put into the UI to try to drive you towards what you should be looking at” rather than throwing you into a “super complicated UI that has 50 different buttons.” Oxide Games wants people who usually struggle with anything from the grand strategy genre to feel more welcomed and eased in.

When asked about Ara and how it’s drawing from games like Cities Skylines, Menard mentioned how you can “zoom in” and “see all these different people and all these buildings that they constructed.” This makes Ara feel more like a simulation of sorts, where players get to see their choices come to fruition rather than looking at it as a “flat board game where it’s very iconographic, and you’re like flat-land building.”

Menard stressed the importance of Ara being player-driven, saying the question she always has in mind is, “How do you want to express yourself in this given playthrough?” In terms of the game’s setting, it begins in 5000 BC but goes deep into the future. Just like in Civ, there are real historical figures as leaders. This time, though, it’s all about your creativity and what you do with the bits and bobs of real history.

While you wait to see how Ara: History Untold improves upon other spiritual predecessors in 2024, you can check out a few of our other favorite turn-based strategy games. Alternatively, browse through some of these exciting turn-based RPGs if you’re searching for an experience that leans more on role-playing elements.

Gamescom 2023 reporting provided by Ed Smith.