Civilization Forever

This is the end, my friends – it’s the tenth and final post of my month-long Civilization series that’s touched on storytelling, addiction, democracy games, education, music, after-action reports, Alpha Centauri, and Sid Meier’s other games.

There’s a reason why I can write ten posts on Civilization – it’s one of the most compelling and complex games of the last twenty years. It’s the chess of the computer age, the tool that lets people live out dreams of grand strategy and world domination, an immaculately-balanced, perfectly absorbing piece of entertainment that is as easy or as difficult as you want it to be.

Civilization is 19 years old. I’m 28 years old, meaning there aren’t many years in which I haven’t played the game. I don’t play it all the time – rather, I go through phases where I’ll fire it up on a rainy afternoon and keep playing for twelve hours straight, and keep mulling it over for days afterwards. If I was stranded on a desert island, it’d be Civilization that’d I’d take along.


Civilization V is coming out in the US today, and in Europe on Thursday; by definition, it’s the most advanced, most refined version of the series yet. Previews indicate that Firaxis has continued the trend of Civilization Revolution in removing needless complexity (e.g. road spam) and tidying up the cluttered interface – and of course, there’s the highly anticipated hex-based tile system that promises to completely transform combat in the game (no more stacks of doom!). Firaxis could have released a more marginal update, counting on the millions of Civ fans to buy whatever they put out, but I’m glad that they appear to have done a good job on Civilization V.

And yet, even with the supposedly transformation changes like hex-based tiles, the game is still clearly the same old Civilization to the core – which means that it preserves the two qualities that I really treasure.

The first quality is the game’s depth and skill. Civilization is a game that can be enjoyed at any level, and that feels like it’s possible to master even if you don’t wish to do so. You can play it to relax and goof around, or you can play it like a pro, micromanaging the details to pump the most out of your economy and military. For me, it’s like chess – but fun.

I’m more interested in the second quality, though. There are other well-balanced simulation games out there (such as Sim City) but very few with the sense of hope and direction that Civilization has. Let me explain: Civilization is not an abstract simulation of a city or a business – it is teleological. It has a purpose, and that purpose is to win. How do you win? By uniting the world by diplomacy or force, or by launching a spaceship to Alpha Centauri. It’s possible to win fairly early on in the game, but only by reaching the end – by creating a world-spanning civilization with beautiful cities and Wonders – can you fully realise the potential of the game.

As such, Civilization contains the rare quality of hope. The very design of game implies that the purpose of humanity is to always progress, and that history itself is a long arc towards a better world. That arc is frequently upset by war and calamity, but the promise of the game is that we will eventually create that world, by building it collectively, even if it takes thousands of years.

If you keep on playing Civilization past the ‘win state’, you’ll eventually hit the Future Technologies. These are unnamed, but they confer health and happiness bonuses on your population. In other words, you realise that utopia doesn’t exist as a destination in Civilization – there’s only the unending road towards making life better for future generations.

You may not agree with Sid Meier’s philosophy, but it’s one that I admire, and ultimately, it’s what keeps me playing Civilization.

3 Replies to “Civilization Forever”

  1. Your series has inspired me to pick up Civ III (for £3! because I’m cheap!). I’ve never really seriously played anything in this genre before (always tended to get flummoxed by the tyranny of choice and not knowing what I was ‘supposed’ to do), but having played a tiny amount so far, I think I’m getting the idea. Thanks!

  2. As a teacher, I’ve actually tried introducing Civ into my classroom. It entirely didn’t work–mostly because it simply takes too long to ramp up a game to get to the interesting parts.

    A couple of my students went on to get into the game themselves, but overall it seems to appeal to the geek more than the historian in all of us. They have since needed to join Civanon and get back in control of their lives.

    Now that you’ve got Chris Mear hooked on Civ, perhaps you could write an article on all the guilt you must be feeling.

    Again, thanks for this great series of articles.

  3. Planet Reath: Glad you enjoyed the articles! (and sorry it took so long for me to approve the comments, for some reason the email notifications went missing).

    Yes, I agree that Civ is not really about historical facts, and not even really about counterfactuals – it’s more about simulation and wargaming.

    Have you considered trying Civ Revolution in class? It’s a little quicker – 2-3 hours rather than 8-12 hours. Still not quick, but perhaps a little better.

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