Total War: ELYSIUM – Then & Now
ELYSIUM has come a long way since the closed beta began, but just how far has it come since its inception? We asked one of ELYSIUM’s designers James Green to give us some insight into how the game went from an idea in our designers’ heads to a fully fledged – and fun – CCG! Here’s what he came up with…
The ELYSIUM team has always been small and experimental. Initially it was just a handful of people, and even at its largest was less than 20 (this is very unusual for a team at Creative Assembly).
The photo above shows some of the team playing one of the earliest paper prototypes. You can see the battle lines gameplay already in place, as well as the Generals being on the field. These were the first two USPs we tried – and they ended up sticking.
At this point the prototype in Unity is coming online, but for the time being it’s quicker to test out new cards, mechanics, Generals, and deck ideas on paper. This is a spotlight on a Harald Hardrada deck (this character would shortly become Guthrum to better tie in with THRONES OF BRITANNIA, which at this point is still in production).
Hit and Run – which would eventually become Guthrum’s Signature Card – is here and works very similarly. You can also see the earliest versions of unique General abilities. Last Gasp wasn’t a named mechanic yet, but a version of it was already in the game. At this stage, Generals all had unique Last Gasp abilities. We eventually dropped this because it was too difficult to make unique abilities that were always positive. Many of them either didn’t make enough of a difference when they triggered, could easily be played around, or could actually be used against you by an opponent.
Numerous other cards which are very similar to their final versions are also visible. We were playing a lot with the paper prototype at this time, and were already finding balance issues and making gameplay improvements. This version of Berserkers had to be changed several times!
The early digital prototype is up and running and playable!
There aren’t any real mechanics at this point, but you can start trading damage with a local opponent. Following this first breakthrough, we rapidly start implementing cards and keyword mechanics.
At this point, the game – while basic – is starting to feel like a game.
All the early mechanics are in (though many of them would go on to change), early card art is being put in, and there are enough cards to have deckbuilding choices. We started by implementing the best cards from the paper prototype.
Networking is also up and running, so the team could start holding regular playtests most afternoons.
The ELYSIUM team is still small, but rapidly adding features to the game. Here’s the first prototype of box opening (yes, the placeholder card at the time was a 99/99 Julius Caesar!).
After just under a year, ELYSIUM is starting to feel like a real game and looking more polished (though there’s still a long way to go).
It’s polished enough for our video creators to produce a let’s play to show off internally to the rest of Creative Assembly and SEGA and also to external partners.
Shown here, of course, is the classic Cao Cao versus Napoleon match up. If you look carefully at the players’ hands, you’ll notice a lot of deckbuilding decisions that wouldn’t be possible today. For example, War Elephant, Volley of Arrows and Army of the Great Banner are all Timeless cards! Back then Timeless was enormous, and the Faction and Era pools were smaller.
Since then we’ve greatly tightened up which cards each Era gets, which makes the decision of which General to play (and hence which cards you get access to) much more consequential, and much easier to play around cards your opponent could have.
Sudden Barrage is, of course, exactly as it is now.
Back to… paper prototypes? Surprisingly, yes.
ELYSIUM is creating more interest within Creative Assembly and SEGA, and with some external partners. This has meant more time and a larger team for ELYSIUN, thus creating new opportunities.
With more time and resources, the team starts thinking about the game’s place in the market. CCG is a crowded, high-pressure genre, and it’s felt that the game’s current USPs – battle lines and Generals – are working well but aren’t sufficient. The team starts to think about how to further differentiate ELYSIUM from its competitors.
This is an early prototype for the Daybreak/Reserves system. At this stage it was quickest and easiest to sanity check and rapidly prototype such a radical idea in paper. The core of the mechanic was always the Reserves concept: the player has a larger pool of cards to draw upon at semi-regular intervals. Thematically it was about a General bringing troops from their Reserves into the battle, and that theme has remained. Mechanically, CCG players will feel the Reserves system is analogous to sideboarding in many other CCGs, which happens between rounds in tournament play. ELYSIUM’s innovation was to make this happen during a battle rather than between battles.
We tried a number of methods of deciding when players would be allowed to pick from their Reserves, with nothing quite working. Eventually, inspiration was taken from the mainline Total War games, and the different times of day battles could occur. The battle stretching over multiple days, with the new recruits arriving at dawn, was a good thematic wrapper for the Reserves system, was highly visual, and made sense as a regular cadence (like a round-based system). The Daybreak keyword itself quickly followed, so that there was additional significance to the passing of each day, with many units getting weaker or stronger as time passed.
The picture above is from one of the first paper prototype playtests of the new Days counter. You can see that the number of turns per day (seven) has ultimately remained unchanged. In this version, players didn’t choose Reserves at the start of the game, only on subsequent days. Choosing at the start of the game was only added when the mechanics were implemented digitally. This was initially controversial: most players didn’t see the point of doing it right at the start of the game and felt like it was wasting their time. It took a lot of gameplay changes to eventually reach the point where there was an adequate number of strong, situational cards that were valuable on day one.
In January 2019, ELYSIUM began an extended closed alpha period with a few hundred hand-picked players. This alpha would go on for many months (ending in summer 2019) and the team would learn a great deal from this time. The alpha test was tightly NDAed, so the game was entirely secret except to the developers and players invited into the test.
By the time of this screenshot – April 2019 – the core of the game remains similar, though visually it’s gained a great deal more colour, and production values have gone up. Many cards and mechanics are reworked during the closed alpha, and the gameplay improves a lot in this time.
Several months into the closed alpha and a major update goes out to the players.
Daybreak (which has spent several months being prototyped in paper and then in digital form) is added to the game, completely replacing the game’s existing (and familiar) deckbuilding and drawing mechanics, removing the traditional CCG mulligan, and making all existing decks invalid. Many cards are altered to use the Daybreak keyword, changing how they work completely.
This is a huge change to the alpha testers, who now – after many months – see many of the game’s core mechanics upended. Additionally, this version of the Reserves system is clearly a prototype, lacking the polish the testers have come to expect. This is a big moment for ELYSIUM: the players could hate Daybreak, or find enormous gameplay problems that make it untenable. If so, ELYSIUM has lost a major chance to differentiate itself from its competitors.
Luckily, players like the new mechanics and see their potential. Seasoned CCG players immediately understand the depth that’s possible, and less experienced ones enjoy that it feels different, and that they’re more in control of what they draw.
Daybreak remains in the game for another couple of months, until the alpha test comes to end. This solidifies its place in the game.
With the closed alpha ending, the team starts concentrating on the next major milestone: closed beta, which is several months away. This is a big step for ELYSIUM: many more players will get a chance to play the game than ever before as the beta slowly opens up. Additionally, for the first time players will be able to stream and talk about the game publicly.
One change in this time is the setting: the game shifts away from the concept of a board to a battlefield. The visual polish to support Daybreak (a Reserves box visible in play as well as the lighting changing throughout the day) are also worked on.
The closed beta begins!
So that’s the story of ELYSIUM up until now! We’ve come a long way and there’s still lots more to go, so look forward to that in the future.