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?

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