Travian Under the Microscope

I’ve been meaning to write about a web-based MMO called Travian for a long time. Travian is, to my mind, the very embodiment of the phrase “so close, and yet so far.” It has all the basic components of a perfect low-budget MMO, but a few maddening design flaws make the game basically unplayable (in the long term) for most people. The following is a very long deconstruction of the game. If you’re interested in MMOs, read on. If not, it’s safe to skip this post. ;-)

Travian in a nutshell

In a nutshell, Travian is a pseudo-real-time massive multiplayer strategy game. You build towns and armies, and use your armies to conquer and pillage other towns. I say “pseudo-real-time” because, while the game operates in real-time and you can take action whenever you wish, each action requires a variable but substantial amount of time to complete. (For example, building a granary might take 20 minutes in the real world; upgrading it might take several hours. And while you’re building your granary, you can’t build anything else. Likewise, sending your army on a raid could take as little as 30 minutes or as long as a day.) There is real genius in this — it preserves the feeling of a real-time game while effectively preventing people with tons of spare time from overwhelming competing players. The eleven-year-old who wants to can obsess over the world map and communicate with allies to his heart’s content, while the forty-year-old parent with twenty minutes to spare can quickly take his turns and tune out till the next day.

Escalating demands on your time

Or that would be the case, if Travian didn’t enable you to keep building towns, each of which require a fixed time to manage. By the time you reach four or five towns, the game no longer feels like a small commitment. Worse yet, Travian does not offer any meaningful way for you or your allies to auto-defend your towns, so players feel compelled to log in obsessively (in order to track and respond to incoming attacks.)

If Travian made player advancement more scalable (from a time-management perspective), channeled all excess time/energy of players into actions that don’t unbalance the game (like team communications, in-game personalization, optional micromanagement, etc), and made it easier for players to defend themselves when away from the computer, the beauty of the game’s basic design could have been preserved.

Alliances that live up to the term “massive”

Alliances are another (conceptually) great part of Travian. To be brief: you can’t survive Travian on your own. Players that don’t form alliances are quickly overrun by neighbors with friends. And eventually, single alliances are overrun by groups of alliances. Travian is by no means the first game to offer this sort of group functionality, but it fits very nicely within Travian, and players really don’t seem to miss the opportunity to play as a loner. (I’m one of those guys who always choose the best “loner” class in MMORPGs, so I can testify to this myself.)

In fact, I’ll go so far as to say there’s something amazing about the feeling of being part of a huge online team, and knowing that your participation really makes a significant difference. I always hated 40 man raids in World of Warcraft because I found it impossible to shake the feeling that (in general) my participation was irrelevant. 39 men were more than enough to complete 99% of the raid content. But in Travian, you can’t help but feel you count, even in a 500-man war. When your army hits an enemy town and you get the damage report back, it feels… substantial — in no small part because your army probably took one week or more (real time) to build, and losses on both sides definitely matter. And at the same time, losses are generally manageable with the help of a well-run alliance.

Dysfunctionally massive

Unfortunately, Travian doesn’t actually offer alliances any meaningful way via which to coordinate attacks or defense. Players are left to rely on external message boards and/or chat clients, which means obsessively logging into at least TWO systems (Travian and the comm system) if you want to play the game effectively.

You’d have to play Travian to truly understand what I’m about to write, but: imagine having to coordinate an attack with 50 (or even 250) people, all of whom need to take a precise set of actions at a precise set of times, without having any built-in communication or planning mechanism for this — not even something that helps manage the different time zones that players (from all over the world) are operating in. Suffice to say, in several months, I never managed to participate in a single, well-executed attack. Not one. And while my alliance may not have been the very best, it was by absolutely no means the worst.

With a simple set of tools, Travian could enable alliances to coordinate attacks and auto-execute defensive actions (so players wouldn’t feel compelled to login constantly, as mentioned previously.) Without those tools, participation in an alliance becomes (at best) a very necessary evil.

Conversion incentives for non-paying customers

I was also intrigued by the ways that Travian gets customers to upgrade to “Travian Plus” (the paid service). Travian is completely playable as a free game. Upgrading simply makes playing Travian more convenient; you can execute resource trades more quickly, queue build orders, etc. In other words, upgrading simply saves you time on a daily basis. Guys like me (with more money than free time) can pay for convenience. Personally, I much prefer that to casual MMOs that sell performance-enhancing items to my opponents, which feels inherently unfair and manipulative. But perhaps that’s just me.

Unfortunately, Travian ultimately turns into such a gigantic time-sink that the convenience of Travian Plus barely helps in the long-term. There’s a balance to be struck here, and I’m convinced that a “better” Travian will strike it.

Stickiness, or lack thereof

On one hand, Travian is relatively sticky (by virtue of the bonds you form with your alliance members.) And on the other hand, quitting Travian is relatively easy (as compared to World of Warcraft), because there isn’t much opportunity to personalize your in-game presence. You’re just a name on a set of villages. At the end of the day, if you’re on the losing side of a conflict (or just getting bored), quitting means saying goodbye to your teammates, but not to a carefully-constructed, lovingly-maintained image. Travian players who convince their teammates to try another game with them, in other words, have basically nothing to lose.

And despite all these flaws…

I witnessed some amazing things while playing Travian. Alliances planting spies in other alliances. Breaking into each other’s private forums. Political intrigue at the micro and macro level. Incredibly passionate groups of people, desperate to defend one another and climb the ladder to #1 alliance. Travian has many thousands of dedicated players, most of whom would probably agree that the game is deeply flawed.. but they’re still playing. It’s a testament to the power of a relatively simple game that enables many people to meaningfully join forces.

There’s much more I could write about the design of Travian, but this post is already too long. Suffice to say, I’m glad I played the game, and even more glad that I quit. I think I learned a few valuable lessons about MMOs in the process.

Last word: someday, a better Travian will come along… and when it does, it’s going to make a giant pile of money. You can bet I’ll be one of the customers tossing bills onto that pile.

59 Responses to Travian Under the Microscope

  1. Hi,

    Travian is an untrustworthy game.

    I have been the victim of a partial administrator, who just deleted my brother’s account because he “thought” I was having multiple accounts (forbiden in the game).

    So, he deleted my brother account and the money we invested on it as well. So intolerable.

    A piece of advice, be careful.

    Moreover, the rules stipulate the presence of a super administrator who survey all of this… rubbish, there is no way you can contact him, and the administrator just don’t let you do so.

  2. Hmmm, nice post, i agree that Travian is a great game despite its flaws. Dealing with co-ordinated alliance attacks is an interesting point. You mentioned the level of spying which makes an alliance wide attack prone to counters if your message board is compromised. however, with a well organised group of people the message boards are all that required to co-ordinate attacks, nothing more complicated is needed, many alliances have separate website forums to keep more organised. Plus the game has “server time” running on the screen at all times, which keeps a constant time frame for everyone, therefore the time zone problems you mention dont actually exist for the observant!

  3. You CAN play the game as a single player; Hell, I play single-player-single-village. It DES make the game infinitely more difficult, but it is also more rewarding.

    However, the game is fundementally geared towards alliance play, and it is disappointing that Travian does NOT reward excellent single player play.

  4. Travian is a great game whether you use gold or not, I wasn’t a big gold user on all but the last, when you delete your account or the game ends they do allow you to transfer the gold to another server you are or will be playing on.

    It’s very easy to play and enjoyable however as everyone here has mentioned it does take time to really be successful. And you must either grow fast to survive as an individual or join a competent alliance.

    I’ve done both and also started an alliance, the alliance I started was kept small and tightly coordinated and we were successful up to the end when the larger alliances finally turned their attention on us.

    If you happen to spawn in an area with an aggressive player just delete and start over in another spot, this move alone might give you a more enjoyable experience.

    As for the problem with the multihunter and the admins I have to agree with some other players that there is some corruption going on as well as some arbitrary decisions. I have been banned multiple times on multiple servers and have successfully appealed each and every one without any penalty, the problem with that is you can’t play while you are banned so all your resources overflow and you lose it not to mention your rivals are still building their army so you’re falling behind very quickly.

    It’s a great game overall, however after this last ban and having sitters make mistakes with my villages I’m retiring from Travian and will find other use for my free time. Sitters, it’s very difficult to find competent quality sitters, when you do find 1 or 2 then you can have fun in the game and have a life as well.

    Good Luck.

  5. The fix to travian is very simple. They need to create a new server that has 3 colors of players. each color wouls have a cease fire for 16 hrs a day, thus allowing members to be awy for 16 hrs a day without the worry of troops starvation and or attacks. The great thing about this option is it still allows players play all 24/hrs, but would not be required to. If you played during a 24 hr segment that you had decided to make a cease fire “block” your villages would turn to the color that showed all they where allowed to attack you. By allowing players to decide on a once per 24/hr period what block of 16 hr window they would like to use as a cease fire time, more ppl would stay on the server. Also, one last fix would be to cut travel time in hald once the server got down to 50% of total origional players. Please consider this Travian staff as i have discussed it with many and all agree. Btw, i spend $400-$500 a server using gold and if you dont do this, you will loose my business as neither i or anyone i know can continue this travian lifestyle. Thank you, DDAY

  6. So I have been playing travian for some time now on s4.travian.com and just the other day I purchased some Gold through PayPal, the next morning I check my email and find an email from PayPal saying I had an unauthorized access to my account and it was locked out so I had to verify my information all over again. I also noticed PayPal had disputed the charge for the Gold. I go to log into travian and notice I am banned and it says to send an email to chargebacks@traviangames.com so I follow the instructions and send an email. I received a reply back:

    Hello,

    thank you for your email.

    Your account has been banned, due to a negative booking operation of paypal. Sadly we have received a charge back.

    As these chargebacks are very expensive and time intensive for us, your account has been banned and remains banned. There is no way to unban the account again.

    Please contact us again, should you have any more questions.

    Kind regards,

    xxxxxxxxxxx
    Chargebacks

    So I call PayPal to see what is going on and the guy explains that it appeared as if my IP was coming from a different state than what I usually log in from, I told the guy I have a cable modem and he said that explained it that they probably moved me to a different hub. So he releases the payment and sends an email to Travian explaining it was not my fault and hopes they would understand and lift the ban. He said it was not really a chargeback and they should not have occured no charges, it was basically a delayed payment due to there security features. I have sent several emails to different people and no response as of yet. All my resources are overflowing and the Travian Plus and 25% Resources Bonus are turned on wasting gold.

  7. Hello…

    I agree with the post. I am playing a total of 5 accounts, across 5 servers, and I have a full time career and a family to look after. And honestly, neither of these aspects have yet seen any reason to complain, due to Travian. Moreover, I am ranked within 200 on all servers that I am playing on. So, how do I do it?
    1. Every morning when I wake up, I spend 30 minutes, time-boxed, and do the necessary actions on all accounts.
    2. Since, I am a big enough player and do my Diplomacy well, I do not get attacked a lot. I play as an anvil and have crazy anvil sizes, so even my enemies are wary about attacking me.
    3. I have two sitters from different time-zones, who log in once a day each and take care of stuff during my work-day and then at late night.
    4. I return home, and spend 30 minutes again on Travian.
    5. After dinner I spend 15-30 minutes on Skype for Strategic Discussions, and then take the necessary actions / communicate the same to my sitters.

    So, what is the take-away? To play Travian effectively, without killing all your time and making it too complicated, you need to:
    1. Excel in Diplomacy
    2. Set-up good sitters / duals preferably across time-zones
    3. Be part of a good alliance and help out your alliance effectively
    4. Be careful about the fights you pick up, and keep Ego out of the game (it is just a game!)
    5. Have a solid defensive strategy

    However, none of the above would hold true if I were playing as a Hammer (Offensive Player), although my biggest Hammer weighs in at over 20000 Swords at L20 (but that is around mostly as a deterrent) and 500+ Catas at L20 again. An offensive game play requires far higher time-commitment than a defensive game play. Lots of people do not understand the importance of defense on Travian, but this is one of the most important items that will get your alliance the WW. It’s much more easy and cost-effective breaking enemy hammers at your gates, rather than attacking them to destroy. When you break-up any hammer, you effectively set that player back by at least 7-10 days. It’s much more potent than attacking unless you are Chiefing someone. By the way, on the first server that I played Travian on, I started about 40 days after the server started and ended the same as part of a winning Meta ranked at 186 on that server.

    So, hope you guys also get to enjoy Travian as much as I do, without allowing it to take over all your life.

    Cheers,
    RS

  8. I think it is a atractive game but you must spend most of your time

  9. danny burton

    one of the things i enjoyed about travian was the relative difficulty of co-ordinating alliance attacks – it meant that smaller but better organised alliances were more powerful fighters than massive unstructured ones. There were no end of inexperienced alliances that grew huge too fast to be able to work together effectively, got over confident due to their seemingly overwhelming superiority of numbers and then imploded as a few players with good communications systematically guillotined the leaders one by one – leaving the masses messed up with the ensuing confusion of infighting and blame and suspicion.

    if you’re looking for ‘new’ travian, it certainly is geared to making money, but it’s lost its skill levels as it’s possible to ‘buy’ power easily with cash. There’s little reward in playing ‘properly’ any more, because anyone willing to spend can match you without having to put in any real effort.

    it’s a shame.

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