Interview with Mark Johnson of Ultima Ratio Regum


Donut: Right, so do you want to tell us who you are and a bit about URR?

Mark Johnson: Certainly. My name’s Mark Johnson. I’m 23 and from the UK. By day I’m working on a doctorate, and by night I’m the one-man team behind a game called ‘Ultima Ratio Regum’, which is Latin for ‘the last argument of Kings’ (roughly), a phrase used to refer to warfare (like Clausewitz’s bit about ‘war is policy by other means’, etc). It’s a kind of… world/history simulator, roguelike-like, somewhere between Dwarf Fortress, Civilization, Tomb Raider, Europa Universalis, and a bunch of other things. It’s the first thing I’ve ever coded (not even a ‘Hello World’ before this project) and, despite the common wisdom to never start on a huge project, it’s been going fine so far for the last 2 years. It also has a big ‘generative art’ component, too, which there will be more of in the next release.

Donut: Heh, inspiring. So what do you think are the big definitive features of URR?

Mark Johnson: I think one aspect is greater breadth of generation than most other games, particularly artistically – it can generate landscapes, planetary systems, entire heraldic emblems (next release), flags, religious icons, and that kind of stuff. I’m really interested in seeing how many “graphical” aspects I can assign to procedural generation, whilst still using (slightly expanded) ASCII/ANSI. Otherwise, a massive world, a lot of history, and (in the future) a lot of political/social aspects, which is where it intersects with my academic world (or when it will intersect, anyway)!

Donut: How deep do you plan on making your politics? Will we be seeing basic standard things such as stabbing a king to mess with the kingdom or will it go deeper, like Crusader Kings 2 or books and shows like A Game of Thrones.

Mark Johnson: That’s a big question. Well… with the history generation, so far, I’m trying to include all the features I want to be in the “real” game later down the road. So kings can be poisoned, stabbed, die in battle, knocked off the throne, drown on in ill-fated voyage; there might be challengers, pretenders to the throne, regents who try to seize power, etc. Civilizations range from monarchies to theocracies and chiefdoms to stratocracies, and vary in other ways – for example, civs have different marriage customs. Some are monogamous, some have polyamory/andry/gyny, and that affects court politics. Anything I think of politically, I’ll add to history gen first, then get it working “in-game”, as it were, afterwards. A bit of history gen I need to work on soon is stuff around rebellions, revolutions, secession, etc etc…

Donut: Interesting. Let’s move on, army building and large battles seems to be something you are interested in. How far do you think you will go to this? How will the game even handle such large battles?

Mark Johnson: In terms of “how far”, I’d like to get battles with several hundred a side, at least. In terms of how the game will handle, that’s the tricky one. Basic AI tests I’ve done have been fine up to a hundred or two, but with complex AI that not just need to fight, but calculate damage, command, and handle things like NPCs moving between map grids, spawning, blah blah blah… I might have to have a system whereby the more soldiers present, the simpler the AI, but I’d rather avoid that route. Although there will be a lot to calculate, I’m *hoping* that won’t slow battles down too much, or if it does, all the gory detail will make up for it!

Donut: Interesting, how will the player be involved in this? I assume they can lead armies, but how will you make managing an entire army pratical and enjoyable?

Mark Johnson: The player can indeed – and that’s the real question! Practical, I don’t intend to allow the player to be omniscient over the battlefield, and I think that’s quite a new idea, and I’m interested to see how it plays out. You’ll only be able to see what you can see, and will have to send out riders, ask for reports, etc etc, to find out about the rest of the battlefield. On the other hand, I think that should really increase the subjective scope (as it were) of the battle, because the player will only witness a part at a time, even when in charge. Horses, I expect, will be pretty important for a commanding player to get around quickly.

Donut: If the player can only command via riders and such, how drawn out will battles be? I assume since you are going down a realistic route that a wound or two will take down most soldiers. How will you prevent battles from ending in a matter of minutes?

Mark Johnson: From the CPU slowdown, naturally!
Or, for a real answer, wounds will be pretty deadly, but armour will offer a lot of protection. A lot of battles I’d have to have play out in different stages, have reinforcements, falling back, etc – I’m hoping that while “everyone run forward and stab things” will result in a quicker outcome, both the player (and AI) should be able to gain a lot more by being more careful/thoughtful with troop deployment, etc. And just the time taken to attack, issue orders, move across terrain, etc etc

Donut: Haha, good to hear. Speaking of realism, you recently just dropped almost all fantasy from the game. How has this changed your plans for the game or made some more difficult? Do you hold regrets?

Mark Johnson: All high fantasy/low fantasy is gone, though there will be remain a few “anomalies”, to use my current phrase! Anyway, good question. It’s changed my plans towards something much less like DF than it first was, for starters – in hindsight, I did begin very DF-esque, but I’ve noticed nobody has said URR was really DF-like in months, since I dropped the fantasy elements, focused on the generative art and politics elements, and pushed for a clear historical period (i.e. dawn of gunpowder). As for regrets… no, I don’t think so. I like a good fantasy roguelike as much as the next person (who likes fantasy roguelikes), but I feel the direction I’m now taking is so new, the interest/excitement of pursuing that route more than makes up for it.

Donut: Of course, I think most people can’t honestly say they didn’t think of Dorf Fort when they first saw the game. You mentioned dawn of gunpowder, does this mean you are setting the game in a renaissance period?

Mark Johnson: Oh yeah, I mean DF is certainly a big inspiration, even if I’m now careening madly away towards uncharted lands. I have a blog entry mostly written, actually, about my inspirations – some would surprise, I think! Anyway, yes, it’s set roughly between 1600 and 1700, but with some alternate history elements, so a few historical events are “earlier” and some “later” than they happened in the real world, but I’m trying to make URR very un-determinstic, and stress the trillions of different ways the world could have turned out.

Donut: Mhmm, so I take it gunpowder won’t be making a show than?

Mark Johnson: Gunpowder will, but rarely – the game is set so that once it finished history generation, it will stop when only a few civilizations have figured out gunpowder technologies. I intend to balance gunpowder weapons, however, so that it’s not a big “improvement” in warfare, but more a shift towards a very different kind.

Donut: I think many people will be surprised that the game isn’t as early as it initially seemed. Now, you are currently working on religion. How will religion effect the player outside of politics? Will we see the RPG standard of gods simply giving the player goodies? Do gods even exist in the URR world?

Mark Johnson: Gods do not exist, but that doesn’t mean people don’t believe they do. If you do what a god “wants”, then those who follow that god may reward you. Whilst in the real world the religion/cult distinction is a subjective one, for gameplay reasons, I’ve made the two very separate. Religions are mostly on the international relations/grand strategy level, and deal with diplomacy, crusades, etc, whilst “cults” are mostly on the micro level, and deal with worships of specifics gods from a pantheon, or similar. If you find a cult, say, that worships a god that is generally depicted as wielding a sword (generated deity images are another future plan), and you do something to honour that god, the cult may give you particularly rare swords, artifacts  etc. I like the god mechanics of Dungeon Crawl: Stone Soup, and I wanted to have something similar, but where the gods weren’t actually present!

Donut: Will we see evil gods? Cults based around doing evil things and such?

Mark Johnson: Oh yes – you can absolutely count on it.

Donut: While we are on the subject of evil. How black and white will things get? To use Dorf Fort as an example, goblins live around torturing people and being greedy while other races are much more benevolent.

Mark Johnson: Mostly grey, I hope. Civilizations will always offer justifications for their actions. One future mechanic I’m interested in is that the “legitimacy” (this is a big theme in my academic work) of states will be dependent upon the kinds of explanations/discourses they give out for their actions – if they can justify what they do, their citizens will be happier going to war. “We need to defend our homeland” is, crudely, rather more compelling than “I, the King, desire a new holiday resort – you, plebs, must give your lives to secure it”. Obviously a daft example, but I’m sure you get what I mean!

Donut: Very interesting. How will peoples personalities effect things? Will we see kings who are just greedy for land or tend to have sadistic streaks effecting foreign policy?

Mark Johnson: Yes, absolutely – currently when historical figures are generated, they are given preferences for war, art, music, diplomacy, defense  attack, etc etc. These values are modulated by general civilizational preferences – a bloodthirsty tyrant is more likely in a militaristic civ – but there’s still a lot of variation. Again, though, a warmonger in a pacifist civ will have a tough time convincing his/her people…

Donut: I love it. How will player kingdoms work if they are there at all? Will it be like Mount and Blade where you have to take over a city and then announce yourself as a king?

Mark Johnson: If you mean kingdoms players set up, they can’t, though I intend to allow players to take control of an existing kingdom (or queendom, caliphate, khanate, hagiocracy, empire, dominion, whatever). I’m not yet sure about that, as raising a full “army” without state support will probably be very, very difficult. There will be city-states, though, and maybe I’ll implement something similar with them. Large-scale military activity will be generally as part of a war, not action in itself. That’s a good way to put it.

Donut: So we wont be seeing new kingdoms and such pop up? Will players be able to become vassals of existing kingdoms and possibly end up rebelling and taking control through that?

Mark Johnson: I don’t think new kingdoms will appear, no. Hmm… it’s honestly too early to say. “Very possibly” is the best response I can give for now on that one! Actually, yeah, a kingdom “fracturing” sounds more like something I might add.

Donut: Hah of course, sorry my personal dreams of Game of URR is starting to cloud my interview. Let’s move on.

Mark Johnson: Haha – not a problem, and I hope to meet *most* of those dreams, though I can pretty confidently say “new” kingdoms are a no, but kingdoms emerging from existing kingdoms might be valid. Though, actually, now I think about it, I’d have to rework a bit of history gen…

Donut: So we no longer have different humanoid species, but with colonialism being a part, will we see certain races being looked down upon? Sort of like how Europeans saw the American Indians as less human than them, or even animals.

Mark Johnson: Yes – colonizing races/nations/etc will generally not be particularly well-disposed to those being colonized. Again, far future goals, but I’d really like to have some aspects around colonialism, and the colonized/colonizer (is that a word?) dynamics, and perhaps have the game generate various forms of troubled relationships between races, based on history, perceived slights, wars, etc etc. I will either totally omit description of skin colour from NPC descriptions, or have it tailored to climate – not sure yet.

Donut: How will colonialism work? If a player starts out on the primitive continent, will they be able to sit on a mountain and watch the colonists land in boats? Or will it be settled before worldgen?

Mark Johnson: Some areas will have been invaded/colonized, some won’t, in worldgen – my intention currently is that you will not be able to start in a non-modern region of the world, though I fully want you to explore them. It’s that kind of seafaring, exploring, mercantile feeling I want to evoke – of having the technology and the inclination to seek out the rest of the world, but having no clue what’s actually there. It would have been nice to let you start in any civ, but then I would have to reveal all civilizations to the player up-front to let them choose. This way, the “modern” civilizations are revealed, the player chooses, but any other civs (unless already discovered) remain hidden. I’d like the game to start with maybe 2/3rds of the average world map revealed/”discovered”, and the rest is up to the player or NPCs.

Donut: So how will the game handle the boats than? Will you be able to hop on it, and then be whisked away on what is basically a moving building for several months? Naval combat?

Mark Johnson: AH, boats. Boats are a big one. Naval combat is, hopefully, going to be a huge part of the game one day. Boats I’d like to range from canoes to Ships of the Line. I’m still working on how it’ll all be represented, though, but I have some ideas…

Donut: Sounds great, well two more questions when we hit the twenty mark. Right on time too. So let’s get more general, what features do you most want to expand upon you have yet to tell us about?

Mark Johnson: Hmmm. I’ve said a lot about the generative art aspect, naval warfare, exploration… at the moment, anyway, the next release is focusing on history and civilization generation, and some early dungeons (in the broad sense, meaning temples, tombs, ruins, etc). The dungeons, of course, don’t have any monsters, but I’m working on some interesting (and I hope reasonably innovative) ideas to keep dungeons interesting without a combat aspect, which I’ll be gradually revealing over the few months as I work on them.

Donut: Can’t wait, to end it. Where do you see the game going in a year?

Mark Johnson: In a year from now, there will probably have been two more releases. The first will bring civilizations (in the abstract, no cities or whatever yet), flags, religions, families, heraldry, and 1600-1700 years of history per generated world, along with some early dungeons with a few features present – these are partly to get some actual gameplay in, and partly to get feedback on how they work, design, what’s in them, etc. The release after that I expect to heavily continue work on dungeons and the like. This next release might have some more mechanics – food, sleep, etc – or that might be the release afterwards. Hard to say at this point. Either way, all my focus at the moment is between the “flavour” stuff, i.e. history and everything around it (which will in the future have a big gameplay aspect, though doesn’t yet) and the early gameplay around dungeons, particularly at the moment in terms of getting buildings to spawn, getting interiors to match exteriors, generating layouts that are more interesting than your average Nethack level (not to disparage a game I love, but the level generators are far from fascinating). The first glimpse of the first URR building will in fact be in the next devblog entry upload, so I’m not going to say exactly what it is, though the information will be up in a couple of days!

Donut: Great. This has been an awesome first interview, thank you for your time.

Mark Johnson: You’re welcome! I enjoyed it too. Do let me know when you upload it!

Ultima Ratio Regum is an indie rogue like by Mark Johnson that can be found at

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