Things I Like: Civilization

I have a favorite board game.  You play it on a computer.  It’s called Civilization V.

What’s that you say?  Not technically a board game?  I beg to differ.  The hallmarks are all there: map, pieces, rules, stats, upgrades, advancements … I don’t think it’s fair to discriminate against a board game just because it exists in virtual rather than real space.  You could, in theory, create a playable, physical copy of Civ V, but it would be enormous, be nearly impossible to manage and take forever to play.  The virtualization is an enhancement, not a replacement, for what essentially a massive, multiplayer, turn-based, 4X strategy board game.

Humble, cardboard origins

It’s colorful and uses some clever mechanics. But it lacks depth.

The computerized Civilization game has its origins in the real world: a tabletop board game designed by Francis Tresham, published in the United States by Avalon Hill in 1980.  This version of the game was humble by current comparisons; its scope was simply the Classical era in the region of the Mediterranean Sea, with empires such as Carthage, Egypt, Babylon and Crete squaring off for control of the known world.  Simple chipboard counters served as both units and money, resources were randomly distributed from a deck of cards, the technology tree was tiny, and there were no dice involved.  Still, the game somehow took 8 hours to play.  (I own a copy, so I know.)

After an expansion added a map section, new techs and expanded rules to the original board game, it remained an unchanged, well regarded (if rarely played) classic of the tabletop until 1991, when software company Microprose released Sid Meier’s revolutionary computer game Civilization.  Meier took the idea of simulating the evolution of human society in a new direction, expanding players’ ability to build and expand their empires—not just through one age, but through the entire course of human history.  Factions were based on historical civilizations from all regions and time periods—from ancient Egypt to China to France, India, Russia and the United States—each with its own unique advantages and personality.

Civilizarion 1: still colorful, still simple.

In the 25 years since, the Civilization computer game has gone through four additional iterations, each more polished than the last.  Where the economic models and military tactics of the early games were necessarily uncomplicated (to enable the computers at the time to compute moves for AI players), the sophistication of the game’s base engine, and the variety and complexity of additional content, increased with each new version.  The end result of a quarter century of refinement is a game that does a remarkably good job of simulating 5000 years of human civilization without boring the player.  Indeed, it could be said that the variety and complexity of the game is what’s made it so endlessly replayable.  With so many factions to choose from, dozens of map options, configurable game parameters, and as many as five ways to win, it becomes nearly impossible to master the game completely.

The success of the model was recently illustrated by the announcement that the Civilization series has sold 31 million units altogether.

Like an animated tabletop on your screen

It’s so peaceful from up here …

Even though the graphics of Civilization V are, at five years old, dated by video game standards, the charm of playing-piece-sized units trotting around a living hex map dotted with trees, birds, fish and other creatures remains undiminished.  Remember the holographic chess set in Star Wars?  What nerd hasn’t wanted animated game pieces after seeing that?  Civ V brings its board alive with soldiers who march (and fight and die), workers who wipe their brows, ships that sail and steam, and planes that soar.

Cities, the focal points of your tiny empire’s activity, build up slowly, growing from a tiny cluster of huts at the start to looming metropolises in the Modern era.  The tiles surrounding cities blossom first into farms and mines, and later into trading posts, manufactories, academies and other specialized facilities.  There’s a certain satisfaction scrolling around the map and gazing upon the tiny, busy world you’ve worked many long hours to build.

Take that, Askia.  You pushy jerk.

And speaking of satisfaction, in Civ V, destruction can be as thrilling as construction.  Armies raze cities and burn crops, sending plumes of smoke into the air.  Arrows sail down on invaders (later, cannon shells and rockets).  Melee fighters charge each other with a battlecry; soldiers line up and shoot.  Naval vessels sink with a satisfying gurgle.  And—though generally an act of desperation or spite—dropping a nuclear weapon on an enemy city results in the proper mix of shock and awe as its population disappears in a flash, followed by the sickly cloud and twinkle of residual fallout.

History meets strategy meets addiction

So many options. So many ways to win.

Civilization is the game that originated “One More Turn” Syndrome: the inability to stop playing until you glance at the clock and realize it’s three in the morning.  Beyond the first few turns when you’re alone in an unexplored world, waiting for your initial units and buildings to be finished, there’s always something to do.  And it’s so easy to click Next Turn and say, “alright, just one more.”

Part of what makes Civilization so addictive is its progressive nature.  That is to say, as you play, you always feel as though you’re building something, progressing toward some goal.  This applies to both the over-arching strategies for victory and in the short-term goals of building wonders, founding cities, improving the map, fighting wars, researching technologies, or achieving cultural landmarks.

For example, while you might be pursuing a Culture Victory, generating Great Artists with your cultural buildings and collecting Great Works to fill your museums, at the same time you’re rushing to build the Uffizi before anyone else completes it.  You’re also in a border skirmish with a neighboring civilization over newly discovered iron deposits, which requires training knights and crossbowmen for the cause since your diplomatic efforts failed to prevent open conflict.  You’re also building banks in your cities and sending caravans to nearby city-states to increase cash flow and pay for those military units.  You’ve also got ships crossing the nearby ocean in search of new lands to settle and new luxury goods (because your happiness is falling as your empire grows).  In the meantime, your workers are extending your network of roads to connect your newest cities to your trade network and digging mines to exploit a deposit of copper you recently found.

Great Artists make great art.

Every era, century, decade, or turn requires you to make hard decisions and set goals for what is best for your empire.  And, because only one civilization can ultimately win, you must remain aware of what your opponents are trying to achieve as well.  The limited nature of land, resources, labor and time make these decisions increasingly important (and difficult) as the game progresses toward the inevitable clash at the end: when warmongers try to capture the capitals they need for victory, technological leaders begin constructing the space vessel that will trigger their win, cultural empires beam their media around the globe, and diplomatic paragons wheel and deal in attempts to be elected leader of the world.  Throw the threat of nuclear war into the mix and it’s a heady and potent concoction from start to finish.

Factions with real flavor

What’s just as amazing as how well the game plays is how well is simulates the ebb and flow of history.  The conflicts and progress of each age feels different; not enough to fragment the game, but enough to give the player the impression of human civilization’s evolution—a gradual shift in focus from survival to subsistence to faith, authority, discovery, expression and finally maturation.  In the Ancient Era, factions fight to survive the onslaught of vicious barbarians, grow stable populations, and establish religions; in the Classical Era, science and culture begin to take hold; economies slowly establish in the Middle Ages (along with powerful militaries); the Renaissance brings a flourishing of arts, science, trade and exploration.  By the time the Industrial, Modern and Information Eras arrive, every civilization is enmeshed in global diplomatic, economic and technological interrelations that make conflicts very difficult and very costly.

Spanish conquistadors, ready to conquist

A second nod to historical accuracy is the faction design, which is exemplary in Civilization V.  Even though each civilization has only three unique qualities—a special ability and two units, buildings or map improvements—they feel quite different.  Historical military units or structures become available at the appropriate time, giving each civ advantages for limited periods.  Certain factions are better suited for specific victory types, while others are more adaptable; economic advantages, for instance, can be used to benefit any strategy.  (Because money always helps, right?)

For example:

  • The Greeks excel at influencing city-states and have strong Ancient Era military units (Hoplites and Companion Cavalry).
  • The Romans take advantage of their excellent organizational skills (with cheaper costs replicating any building already in their capital) as well as the Legion, a powerful fighting unit that can also build roads and forts.
  • The Spanish excel at exploration, gaining extra gold and culture for finding Natural Wonders and founding cities with their Conquistador units.
  • The Japanese possess military prowess that gives damaged units full strength (Bushido) as well as the noble Samurai and deadly Zero fighter.
  • The Egyptians are excellent monument builders with a powerful early unit (War Chariots) and burial tombs that produce happiness early and culture/tourism late in the game.
  • The Dutch are traders-par-excellence, which gives them extra luxury goods and powerful sailing vessels (Sea Beggars).  Their lowland farms (Polders) generate extra food, production and money.
  • The Americans are good at buying up land (Manifest Destiny) and field strong units in two eras: Minutemen and B-17 Bombers.
  • The Celts gain faith from undeveloped forest tiles and can field mighty Pictish Warriors.  Their Ceilidh Halls provide happiness and an early place to feature musical works.
  • The Maya gain extra Great People from their calendar and build early pyramids that produce both faith and science.
  • The industrious Germans excel at beating back (or recruiting) barbarian tribes, as well as building efficient military units such as the dreaded Panzer tank.
  • The Polynesians can cross vast oceans from the start of the game and build moai, which offer a military bonus and generate culture and tourism.
  • The Venetians expand by buying up city-states, rather than founding new cities, with the Merchant of Venice unit.
  • The dreaded Mongols are a military powerhouse, with a bonus for attack cities, mighty Khan generals, and speedy horse warriors (Keshiks).

And so on.  There are 43 civilizations in the full game, and I have yet to play them all.  If I had to pick a favorite, I’d probably go with the Dutch.  But I am loathe to pick favorites amongst such an interesting and varied field.

Nice hat, Pacal. Where do you shop?

A description of the diversity of civilizations would be incomplete without mentioning the delightful, animated diplomacy screens.  Despite the fact the leaders themselves can be impulsive and difficult to negotiate with, their appearances are painstakingly designed and always fun to interact with; each leader speaks in his or her native tongue, so Wu Zetian makes her demands in Mandarin, while Haile Selassie speaks Ethiopian and Dido ancient Carthaginian.  Though really only graphical puppets for the game engine, the leaders take on personalities the more you interact with them.  You come to expect threats from Shaka of the Zulu, for instance, as much as haughty diffidence from Elizabeth of England or boredom from Augustus Caesar.

Like most games, it’s better with friends

A vote for Ashurbanipal is a vote for progress!

Civilization V is not without its weaknesses.  The mostly widely noted of these is its AI.  Computer-controlled players can be strangely irrational, difficult to deal with diplomatically, or make head-slappingly bad military decisions.  One-on-one, AI factions are fairly easy to deal with; they only become a challenge when they start to unite against a human player and overwhelm with masses of units.

Luckily, the game has an excellent multiplayer mode.  Players can network locally or via the Internet, and turns are taken simultaneously—thus eliminating most of the biggest frustration tabletop games of its ilk generate, which is downtime.  Once every human player ends his or her turn, the game computes AI moves, calculates battle effects, displays them in real time, and then sends the players into the next turn with a stream of alerts about important developments, such as new conflicts, treaties and agreements, wonders built, changes in city-state relations, and so forth.

Attack them! With the cannon! RIGHT IN THE FACE!

Bargaining between human players is where the real fun comes into the game.  Because, as stated before, only one player can win, limited partnerships become the key to getting ahead.  Going for a Conquest victory, but short on money and population so unhappy you risk revolution if you go to war?  Perhaps you could make a deal with your rich neighbor, pawning off one of your lesser cities in exchange for some luxury goods to appease the masses.  Your partner, on the other hand, gains a new city in which to produce money and further her own, mysterious goals.

… or, perhaps you know a rival needs a strategic resource to extend his military’s reach: so, you sell it to him for a small payment and an open borders agreement which enables you to infect his civilization with your superior culture.

… or, you need votes in support an upcoming World Congress proposal, so you consent to a research agreement that helps a rival with fewer technological advances.

The fun of multiplayer is limited only by how complex your scheming can be.

All games mixed together, but better

Civilization combines the best parts of many tabletop games: the world conquest of Risk, the horse trading and backstabbing of Diplomacy, the economic engine-building popular among many Euros, the advancement and progression of deck builders like Dominion and Seven Wonders, and even collecting and trading like in Catan or Castles of Burgundy.  And yet, Firaxis has managed to combine these elements almost seamlessly into a single, cohesive experience; a sum greater than its parts.

Every time I make it through an entire game of Civilization—from 3000 B.C.E. to 2050 A.D.—I learn something new.  My dream is to gather six or eight humans for an epic battle royale on a huge map.  It would take quite a while to finish, but I think the regular interaction would be fun.  Shifting alliances, deals, warfare, trading, exploration, espionage … what’s not to love?

Conspiracy! Card-a-Day #140

Evidence Card 0107: Prostitute

Evidence Card 0107: Prostitute

Spence pulled his tailored pants back up over his silvery, butt-hugging briefs.  The tattoos across his sculpted and shaven chest undulated hypnotically as he moved.  His nipple rings reflected the overhead lights as he pulled on his $300 shirt and began buttoning up.

“I hope this time was as good as last time, Mrs. President,” he said with a sly wink.

The Oval Office was in disarray: clothing tossed over one couch, shoes and socks strewn about, books knocked to the floor and and a wastebasket overturned.  In the center, sprawled across her desk, was the chief executive herself, laying half-naked in the afterglow of the previous hour’s activity.  As she lay there scandalously exposed, she seemed amused at the idea of the United State’s highest public servant sneaking a quickie with a high-priced gigolo in the same place she met with world leaders and addressed the nation.  She knew she was hardly the first occupant of the office to have taken the liberty.

Spence was hunched down, searching for a lost sock.  The president rolled onto her stomach, shoving aside binders containing classified security briefings, and regarded the young man’s well-tuned rump.  Why, she wondered, did he have to have such a perfect ass?

“Did you vote for me?” she asked coyly.

“Did I … vote for you?”  He stood upright.  “I’d prefer not to say.”

Her eyes narrowed.  “So you didn’t, then.”

“It’s not that …” he trailed off.

“Go on.”

“I prefer to keep some distance between my work and my private life.”

“Oh, p’shaw,” she said.  “It’s fine.  I don’t care.  And I know you don’t choose sides.  I have it on very good authority you’re seeing Madge as well.”

Senate Majority Leader Margaret Krendall was a powerful Congressional enemy.  She was also a well-known philanderer who didn’t have a team of well trained and loyal Secret Service members to cover for her.

Spence looked at her cautiously as he replaced his cufflinks.  “I don’t talk about my clients, Mrs. President.  Rest assured I wasn’t the one who—”

“Oh, of course I know my secret is safe.  I have the best spies in the world working for me, remember?  Madge is an old friend … though we’re facing an uphill fight with her side on the energy bill.  If as many as three of my people cross party lines, we’re done for.  It sure would be nice to know her mind on the subject.”

He stopped for a moment, stone-faced.  She broke into the same smile she used at campaign events.


She climbed gingerly down from the desk and ran her fingers through her tangled hair.  “Just reassure me you won’t raise your fee again.  I have to justify my budget to a congressional committee.”

He helped her back into her blouse.  “The same as last time.  A wire transfer is fine.”

“It’ll be in your account when you wake up tomorrow.”  She smiled and handed him his jacket.

“Same time next week?” he asked.

“I’m in Brussels next week.”

“The week after that?”


He shrugged.  “Well, you have my number.”

He lifted her hand and kissed it.  “Until next time.”

She watched him leave through the side door, admiring the swing of his hips and shoulders as he strode.  There was an unmarked car waiting just outside the Rose Garden to take him away.  It was after 11 PM and no one would notice.

After she heard the outside door close, she picked up the phone on her desk.  “I need Westin at Langley.”

She looked for the car’s headlights out the window.  There was a series of click and tones as she was transferred.  Then, a gruff male voice.  “Westin.”

“He’s in the car,” she said, “and on his way to you.”

The headlights began to move away, beyond the fence and into traffic.

“Do it somewhere quiet.  I need the names of any defectors.  Then … no trace.”

The voice was robotic.  “Understood.”  Then he hung up.

She put down the phone and sighed.  Perks are fine, she mused, but maintaining them required discipline.  Still … it was a waste of a perfect ass.

Conspiracy! Card-a-Day #139

Evidence Card 0106: Royalty

Evidence Card 0106: Royalty

“Majordomo! Admit the next groveler!”

“Your Majesty, I—”

“Kneel before your king, swine!”

“Oh, certainly.”

“Doff your cap!”

“Yes.  Many apologies.”

“Avert your eyes!  Gaze not upon the royal personage!”

“Uh … sorry.”

“Now, do you have a question for his Excellency?”

“I do.”

“Well … spit it out, then!

“Could I … um, have his … signature?”

“Our … signature?”

“Yes, your Exaltedness.”

“Why on Earth would I do such a thing?”

“Because … you ordered something from … ‘Plush Monkey Emporium’?”

“Why, yes!  It’s Mister Bingles!!!”

“Great.  Just mark it right here, at the bottom.”

“Bingles, wingles, dingles, fingles … oh, how I’ve longed for your arrival, my squishy little friend!  We simply must retire to the royal bath chamber!”

“This way, querent.  Let us leave the king in peace.”

“Is he … always like this?”

“Well, this is a mental institution.  Sorry for the yelling before.  It’s better not to shatter the illusion.”


My words and thoughts have been for myself, of late.  And also for those close to me, both in space and mind.  But they have not been transmitted via this interface.

I’m feeling more wordly lately.  I am hoping to re-commence contributing to this eclectic assemblage of prose.  Soon.  Perhaps, beginning only with sentence fragments.

In the meantime, here’s a picture of a cat.


Conspiracy! Card-a-Day #138

Evidence Card 0105: Reporters

Evidence Card 0105: Reporters

Fenton Baumgardner was nodding off in front of his office computer when the phone rang.  He snapped awake and accidentally typed “jfwoi” at the end of his sentence.

It was 3 a.m.  The offices of the Dripping Springs News-Dispatch were closed, so the switchboard should have sent a call to voicemail.  He grimaced and grabbed the receiver, annoyed at the interruption.


“I have a secret I need to tell,” whispered the voice on the phone, barely audible.

Fenton’s journalistic training took control.  “Go ahead,” he said, grabbing a pencil.

There was a pause before the voice continued.  It sounded like an older woman, but it was so faint, it was hard to tell.

“A man is missing.”

“A missing person?”

“A prominent local figure.  His loved ones have not heard from him in weeks.”

“Who is this man?”

“He was the loving son of two proud parents who miss him very much.”

Fenton paused.

“Mom?  Is that you?”

Her voice suddenly rose, booming out of the phone.  “Would it kill you to call once and a while?  Honestly, Fen.  It’s like we don’t exist to you.”

Conspiracy! Card-a-Day #137

Evidence Card 0104: White Collar Workers

Evidence Card 0104: White Collar Workers

Herman had sensed trouble when he walked into the conference room, but, by the time the urge to retreat had grabbed hold of his viscera, the door swung shut with an ominous click.

The conference table and chairs had all been cleared out of the room, the floor of which was now covered with plastic sheeting.  Most of the fluorescent lights were off, and those that were still glowing flickered intermittently.  There was newsprint taped to the windows.  A stale smell of copper and sweat hung in the air.

He stood next to Philip from asset management, a man he’d hired a year before.  His junior PM bore the same bewildered, slightly fearful expression—a kind of wide-eyed, slack-mouthed timidity, the kind of a guilty dog awaiting the toe of it’s master’s boot.

The company’s vice president of finance, Jeffrey Dilmore, a man-shaped ball of underutilized flesh stuffed into an expensive shirt and tie, stood with Ms. Graham-Newton from HR.  She peered over her glasses and jotted on a clipboard as Benton read from a packet of papers clenched in his stubby fingers.

“Ah,” he started, with a throat-clearing sound.  “Gentlemen … as you may recall from last week’s interoffice memo, we’ve decided to dispense with the usual annual review format and, how should I put it?  Mix things up a little?”

Herman glanced warily at Philip, who seemed to be trying to located enough saliva under his tongue to swallow.

“The sad truth, gentlemen,” continued Dilmore, “is with the current state of the discount retrofit air conditioner parts market, we’re facing a situation of shrinking revenues.  Consequently, there are, unfortunately, redundancies we need to eliminate.”

He paced to the center of the room, his tasseled wingtips scrunching the plastic with each step.  “I think you know where I’m going with this.”

Herman felt the invisible hand gripping his guts tighten and begin to twist.

“In short, we have one project manager position left and the two of you.  I suppose we could simply go with the senior PM,” he said, waving a hand at Herman.  “But I thought it would be interesting to offer a more … competitive method of filling the position.”

Dilmore dropped two metal bars in the middle of the floor, then walked back to the corner of the room where Ms. Graham-Newton was still scribbling intently.  She stopped, clicked her ballpoint pen twice, and gazed intently at the two men.

“Shirts and shoes off,” she barked.  “In the middle.  You have five minutes.”

Good thing I decided to skip breakfast, Herman mused as he undid his tie.


Conspiracy! Card-a-Day #136

Evidence Card 0103: Fluoridation

Evidence Card 0103: Fluoridation

General Jack D. Ripper: I can no longer sit back and allow Communist infiltration, Communist indoctrination, Communist subversion and the international Communist conspiracy to sap and impurify all of our precious bodily fluids.   Fluoridation is the most monstrously conceived and dangerous communist plot we have ever had to face.  Mandrake, have you ever seen a Commie drink a glass of water?

Group Capt. Lionel Mandrake: Well, no, I can’t say I have.

General Jack D. Ripper: Fluoridation is the most monstrously conceived and dangerous communist plot we have ever had to face.  Mandrake, do you realize that in addition to fluoridating water, why, there are studies underway to fluoridate salt, flour, fruit juices, soup, sugar, milk… ice cream. Ice cream, Mandrake, children’s ice cream.

Group Capt. Lionel Mandrake: [very nervous] Lord, Jack.

General Jack D. Ripper: You know when fluoridation first began?

Group Capt. Lionel Mandrake: I… no, no. I don’t, Jack.

General Jack D. Ripper: Nineteen hundred and forty-six. 1946, Mandrake. How does that coincide with your post-war Commie conspiracy, huh? It’s incredibly obvious, isn’t it? A foreign substance is introduced into our precious bodily fluids without the knowledge of the individual. Certainly without any choice. That’s the way your hard-core Commie works.

Group Capt. Lionel Mandrake: Uh, Jack, Jack, listen… tell me, tell me, Jack. When did you first… become… well, develop this theory?

General Jack D. Ripper: [somewhat embarrassed] Well, I, uh… I… I… first became aware of it, Mandrake, during the physical act of love.

Group Capt. Lionel Mandrake: Hmm.

General Jack D. Ripper: Yes, a uh, a profound sense of fatigue… a feeling of emptiness followed. Luckily I… I was able to interpret these feelings correctly. Loss of essence.

Group Capt. Lionel Mandrake: Hmm.

General Jack D. Ripper: I can assure you it has not recurred, Mandrake. Women uh… women sense my power and they seek the life essence. I, uh… I do not avoid women, Mandrake.

Group Capt. Lionel Mandrake: No.

General Jack D. Ripper: But I… I do deny them my essence.


—Dr. Strangelove, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964)

Conspiracy! Card-a-Day #135

Evidence Card 0102: Crusader

Evidence Card 0102: Crusader

A lone knight stood on the battlements of the white castle and surveyed the battlefield.  The newly darkened skies had brought a preternatural calm to a surrounding landscape that had, only an hour before, been a hellscape of noise and human activity.

He adjusted his helm and leaned hard on his spear, searching the shadows below for signs of hostility.  The once hungry crowds that had threatened to overwhelm their defenses before sunset had retreated, leaving little trace of the carnage that had ensued.  Many of the knight’s brave fellows-in-arms were gone now; only he stood atop the parapet now, a solitary figure, stalwart and true to the faith.

A surge of emotion brought him to his feet and he thrust his spear toward the starry heavens in defiance.

“Oh, cruel fate!  Why do you task us to such a wicked work as this?  Battered we are, by wave upon wave of enemies, but still we stand!  Never shall these white walls fall to the soiled hands of the infidel!”

Warm tears stained his cheeks and his voice broke.  “Who will stand this watch with me?”

That moment, something stirred in the darkness below.  The knight crouched and peered downward, suspicious.

It was Buck Fenton, the assistant manager.  The White Castle logo was prominently embroidered on his stained polo shirt.  He walked to the middle of the parking lot, turned, and gazed up.

“Dammit, Jeb,” he shouted.  “Not this crap again!”

The knight stood, paralyzed in fear.

“Get that bucket off your head, stop waving that mop around, and get down here and finish cleaning the toilet!”