AAAR: Attempted After-Action Report

After-Action Reports, or AARs, are part of a long and venerable tradition of some Civ players apparently being more interested in writing about the game than playing it. Okay, that’s a bit unfair, since often AARs are used by pro-gamers to swap new tips and strategies, but when you start seeing the fan-fiction creep in to the report, you know that it’s not all serious.

As part of this series of Civilization, and the fact that I’m acutely aware there’s less than three weeks until Civ 5 comes out, I booted my Mac into Windows and fired up Civ 4: Beyond the Sword. My intention was to write a detailed AAR that documented the history of my Civilization, complete with annotated screenshots. I even had a notion of tweeting about the game live.

I only managed three tweets before being sucked into the addictive gaming vortex that is Civilization. I did, however, write a grand total of five notes during my time as Augustus Caesar:

  • 4000BC: Lots of aimless wandering and hut-popping until I meet the Malinese in 3400BC. Forgot how boring the early game can be.
  • 3320BC: Both Buddhism and Hinduism have been founded, and I’m feeling distinctly behind in the religion race. This reminds me of the games where I tried (unsuccessfully) to found every religion.
  • 3120BC: Bumped into the Khmer empire up north while dodging lions; it seems like there are at least three civilizations (including me) on this continent… for now!
  • 2960BC: There is a hell of a lot of jungle around here…
  • 775BC: Too addictive. Worried about possible Khmer/Korean alliance up north, have blocked it off with another city (in the jungle, again). Seems like there’s plenty of space to the east with the Malinese though.

And that’s it. After 775BC, I entered a ceaseless cycle of building, moving, and trading; I could barely lift my attention away from the game to make a few notes, let alone make any tweets. Interestingly, around 775BC is when the game got really interesting – as I mention in my first update, I’d forgotten exactly how dull the early game of Civilization is. It’s certainly fun to explore the world and uncover the map with your first warrior, but then you have to start the tiresome process of building roads and having your warrior double-back on itself to fill in the other dark bits of the map. Until you get your third city, there’s just not a lot to do.

Civilization really shines in the mid-game though – you’ve uncovered enough of the map to know your enemies and future points of contention, but there’s still enough darkness to preserve the intrigue. Your mind is crowded with devious stratagems and calculations, and any threat or opportunity seems alarmingly possible. This is the most open period of the game, where the placement of a single city could turn your civilization’s entire future, and it continues to flower for a good two millennia as you build up your cities and Wonders, send out your armies, and conquer your opponents.

And then (at least for me) around the discovery of cavalry and then tanks, all of those possibilities collapse and there are just maybe one or two ways for the game to end. Unless you’re very lucky and the game is really in balance, it’s very clear by this point whether you’ve won or not – the only question is how fast can you win, and in what way; and if you’re not a pro-gamer, this is unlikely to be particularly interesting.

Yet since Civilization is so compulsive, you just can’t stop playing – you need to finish. That’s when the game gets deadly boring – you start building railroads on every available square of land, and your military campaigns become a tedious mopping-up exercise as your cruisers and destroyers casually wipe the enemies outdated navies off the map. Then it’s over, with a quick video and a strange sense of shell-shock.

Still… even in this game, where I was lucky enough to pop two Settlers at the beginning, I entertained myself at the end by trying to take over my hopelessly-backwards neighbours by means of massive culture emanations from my border cities, and an army of 30 spies constantly eroding their sense of nationhood. Towards the end, between my waves of missionaries, corporation men, and spies, my neighbours’ city borders shrunk to starvation and beyond, and I began collecting them without a single drop of blood spilled. Nice. Here’s to hoping that Civilization 5 will make these crazy moments sweeter.

5 Replies to “AAAR: Attempted After-Action Report”

  1. It’s true – the end game of Civilization does kind of go downhill. All the important strategic decisions have been made already by that point.

    But I disagree with you about the beginning of the game. My interest certainly doesn’t peak at the mid-game. I’d say that, for me at least, the beginning is the most interesting, through the mid-game as well, with interest decreasing only in the third act.

    Beginnings are very delicate. In the first 100 moves, you can drastically affect the outcome of your entire civilization. Even move zero carries enormous weight – your automatically generated starting location. Sometimes your settler spawns on fertile flood plains next to a long river basin along which you can expand. Sometimes you spawn in rough, hilly ground with no available fresh water.

    Believe it or not, this is one of the peak moments of civilization for me. I wait with my heart in my mouth while the world is generated. It’s like waiting for the roulette ball to drop. Sometimes I start ten or even twenty games before I find one with a starting location that takes my fancy.

    Hmm . . . exploration, warfare, consolidation . . . three acts in the drama of civilization?

  2. I’ve got the same experience. As a result I’ve started probably three times as many games as I’ve ended.

    On occasion I’m totally in the grove with a game in the late industrial age, perhaps preparing the final master stroke against my Cold War enemy, or I’m in the late Modern Era about to launch that space ship, and I get that total let-down when the victory screen pops up and tells me “Congratulations! You’ve Won.”

    Dagnabbit! I don’t want to win until I’ve nuked the Korean-Iroquois alliance!

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