How Ara: History Untold is Evolving the Grand Strategy Genre

Ara: History Untold Key Art


  • We chat with Oxide Games Design Director Michelle Menard about the innovations Ara: History Untold is bringing to the grand strategy gaming space.
  • Oxide Games is made up of many industry veterans who have been crafting strategy games for decades.
  • Ara: History Untold is set to launch in Fall 2024 for Windows and Steam and will be available day one with PC Game Pass.

As you may have seen today during our latest Developer_Direct, there’s no lack of passion for gaming to be found when walking the halls at Oxide Games. The studio is full of game industry veterans who would probably bleed strategy board game pieces if you were to so much as nick them on the arm. This team has been crafting in this space for decades and has no shortage of ideas on what makes a compelling strategy game experience. Now, with Ara, they’re looking to carve out their place at the top table with their own take on one of the most beloved genres in PC gaming.

Ara: History Untold bills itself as a grand strategy game that’s working to evolve the genre of historical grand strategy. But trying to usher in the next chapter of such a well-established space is a daunting task. Where does one even start? That’s easy – look at what bothers you, and go from there.

“One of the first things we did when we started [Ara] was to identify key aspects of the [grand strategy] genre space that have always annoyed us, like areas we could improve upon — one of those is optimal strategy,” explains Oxide Games Design Director Michelle Menard. “Something that plagues the genre space is that once you’ve kind of figured out how to win or how the game works, you’ve mastered it. You stop playing because you solved the problem; it was a binary problem because one of the key drivers of something like a tech tree is a static, solvable problem.”

Ara: History Untold Screenshot

If you’ve ever played a grand strategy game before, you should have a good idea of what Menard is referring to. We, as players, tend to dive in to find the simplest path to success, the optimal route down a technology or science tree for example. Once you’ve settled into the playstyle you want, and know exactly how to make it work for you, you’ve essentially – to a point – mastered the game. What Ara is trying to do is bring more unpredictability to the established order, encouraging players to test their adaptability and really consider the moves that lay out ahead of them.

“[When prototyping] we wanted to do something that would force you to reevaluate, force you to think every single time you play and really look at what’s ahead — cards felt like a natural fit for that,” explains Menard. “Even in the early prototypes — we made a physical prototype of the game — you can deal them out, you can shuffle them, you can take them in and out. It was an easy metaphor to give the player, something to play with every single time and rethink and reevaluate their situation.”

Coming out of this prototype phase was Ara’s unique technology system that includes some elements of randomness by factoring in a player’s current circumstances. It’s not as black and white as picking one card over the other, but I did find this to be an intuitive feature during my hands-on time. For example, it was always clear to me that if I were to decide to pick the Astronomy technology for the time being, I’d be abandoning Cosmetics or Chariots temporarily to my Tech Discard pile.

Where player choice really comes to play is when choosing to advance to the next era (e.g. a bronze age). When that occurs, you’ll be given the choice to advance, gaining access to new and powerful tech, or continue in the current era building up your foundational knowledge. The weight of your choice matters because once you advance, you’ll abandon access to any “last gen” tech from the previous era which could limit future research opportunities.

I appreciated that this feature allowed me to “push my luck,” so to speak, and consider the wider implication on how that advancement and choice can interface with my overall late-game strategy. It gave an added weight to my decision, knowing that I must determine which tech to pick from – and, crucially, which to abandon. It’s another one of those innovative “outside the box” ideas that Ara is bringing to the table that has us eager to watch this team cook.

Many of the members of Oxide Games had worked together previously on Civilization games and other titles. But when developing within an existing IP, you can only push the boundaries of what is expected — which is also what makes Ara: History Untold such a unique opportunity for players to experience (and developers to create), by being able to break free of that box.

Ara: History Untold Screenshot

“I immediately just started writing page after page,” Menard enthuses about starting to work on the game, “‘If we could do this and this and this…’ and put together a prototype pretty much by week one on paper. I had manila cards and index cards just left and right flying everywhere. The engineers on staff were a little less thrilled because, you know, they were like, ‘Could we do this?’ The box was gone and so there was a lot of early discussions about, ‘How far is too far?’”

Speaking of boxes, as Menard mentions, the team developed a fully functional boardgame version of Ara: History Untold during the first years of development to help iterate ideas much faster during the prototyping phase, which took about two years while the game engine and art were starting to spin up. Fun fact: you can see the team playing the actual boardgame in the Developer_Direct video.

“We had team playtests weekly on that board game, getting people in for 4v4 [games] just to see how it was working, how it was pacing, what was fun, what wasn’t. So yeah, we’ve been iterating this thing for a long time.”

That quick innovation led to another pillar of Ara’s design, which is a crafting component for its economic system. Crafting is key to training new units and an important component for gaining favor with other nations by creating gifts or establishing trade routes. For example, when I wanted to create another Scout during my gaming session, I needed to craft a Scout Staff (a component needed to create this unit). To speed up the creation of that material, I can do what’s called an Ingredient Buff – increasing the amount of material I’m investing per turn to create the Scout Staff, thus cutting the time (amount of turns) needed to create the Scout. It’s another physical way you can tinker with the world of Ara that we haven’t really seen before in a grand strategy game.

“Resource management is one of my favorite aspects of the 4X and strategy genre space. I really wanted to give players a new way to key into that and  just figure out new ways to play with those resources, and crafting was kind of like a natural jumping off point for this,” says Menard. “It was like: what if we have two things? You can group them together and make a new thing! And what if we just, instead of having resources that are static, you can create a bunch of new things based on what you can find [on the map] or trade with your neighbors?”

Another area that Ara is innovating on is in how it treats a player’s time. Grand strategy games, by their nature, can be very, very long and sometimes it can be hard to jump back into them after stepping away for a day or two. This is where Ara’s Act system comes into play, giving players a natural stopping point to return to and an earlier indicator that their current strategy is not working.

Ara: History Untold Screenshot

These Acts are broken into three phases (I, II, and III) and only the players who have achieved enough Prestige (completing quests, advancing their technology, creating cultural masterpieces, etc.) by a set determined turn, will be allowed to advance to the next Act. The remaining players will be cast off the board – and that includes you. It could seem cruel, but it’s a great early check to see if your strategy is going to pay off by saving you from a crushing defeat after an epic gaming session.

“It sucks so hard to play a 20-hour game to realize that, by the end of it, you lost at hour two,” says Menard. “So, it’s a kindness to players. Let them build, lose early, and then let them restart anyway. So: fail often, fail early, learn from that, and then play further because you know you need to learn from your failure to play these games. Nothing wrong with that, but let the player know they already lost and let them actually lose.”

Where the Act system really has the chance to shine will be in multiplayer – an area that has, for better or for worse, been underrepresented in the grand strategy sphere. Realistically, it’s hard to get you and your buddies together to play a game at the same time over (sometimes many) weeks. With the Act system, it gives you an easy stopping point. Go through Act I on day one, the next day play Act II, and then day three is Act III. It gives players an easier path to realistically organize (and complete) a multiplayer session with friends. As someone who has a very finite amount of time to dedicate to gaming per week, this is a feature I’m very excited for.

Trying to pull off something as ambitious as Ara: History Untold – and evolving the strategy space – is a significant challenge. From writing a full new engine, to the detailed level of art, to crafting the living world, to recording hours upon hours of live music; Ara: History Untold’s sheer scale could probably not have been achieved without the right backing.

“Microsoft has been a ginormous partner. A lot of times in games – even if you know they’re super fun, they’ve got huge communities – they don’t always have the most resources put towards them. Or you have the biggest budget, but sometimes a very short production schedule. Microsoft has been amazing to work with in that regard. ‘What do you want to do in the genre space and we will help you achieve those things…’ whereas at other companies, we would have never had this kind of leeway or support.”

Ara: History Untold will be released in Fall 2024 for Windows PC and Steam, and will be available day one with PC Game Pass. I asked Menard what she thinks about that — being able to have such a ripe community available to dive in and start playing from the day of launch:

“It’s actually a great, great thing. Oftentimes these kind of grand strategy games can be intimidating to get into. While some newer players express interest, you also must convince them to buy it — and that can be a step too far. To have the opportunity with something like Game Pass, they can keep playing right there on day one. We’ve always wanted to expand the grand strategy market with this title to new players who would never tried it before, and I think that’s truly only possible because it is going to be on Game Pass.”

I also asked Menard what her vision looks like for the game, say five years from now, where she hopes Ara: History Untold sits within the sphere of so many other grand strategy games.

“I certainly hope in five years we’ll still be doing different expansions, more DLC, and start to branch it out in even further crazy directions,” she says. “We have so many ideas for different, even more out there, leaders and other kinds of crazy triumphs — just bring players even more diverse experiences that you just wouldn’t get in the traditional strategy space.”