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.

Covert Action and Pirates

After Shigeru Miyamoto – the creator of Mario, Donkey Kong, and Zelda – Sid Meier was only the second person to be inducted into the Academy of Interactive Arts and Sciences Hall of Fame. A quick look at Sid’s credits reveals why, with its dozens of award-winning games, ranging from flight simulators, spy games, golfing games, and of course, strategy games, spanning a 25 year long career.

Looking back on the list, I’m surprised that Civilization actually came after several high-profile successes; I didn’t play any of the combat sims like F-15 Strike Eagle or Silent Service, but I did play Covert Action (1990) and Railroad Tycoon (also 1990 – how does he find the time?!). I found Railroad Tycoon a little difficult to play and preferred Transport Tycoon, but Covert Action was a genuine classic.


In Covert Action, you become Max Remington, a CIA agent out to defeat criminals and terrorists – to do so, you crack codes, hack circuitboards, tail cars, and break into enemy offices. Each activity is represented by a distinct minigame, most of which are actually quite entertaining. Like most Sid Meier games, Covert Action didn’t have a written story, as such – missions were procedurally generated and kept you guessing about what was happening next. Together with its pseudo-real time nature (if you didn’t solve a crime quickly enough, they got away), it offered a completely original type of gameplay.

Covert Action_1

I played Covert Action again recently, and found it rather harder than I’d remembered – breaking into offices was really challenging – although the circuitboard hacking and code-cracking minigames stood the test of time. It’s a shame that Sid felt disappointed with the final product:

The mistake I think I made in Covert Action is actually having two games in there kind of competing with each other. There was kind of an action game where you break into a building and do all sorts of picking up clues and things like that, and then there was the story which involved a plot where you had to figure out who the mastermind was and the different roles and what cities they were in, and it was a kind of an involved mystery-type plot.

I think, individually, those each could have been good games. Together, they fought with each other. You would have this mystery that you were trying to solve, then you would be facing this action sequence, and you’d do this cool action thing, and you’d get on the building, and you’d say, “What was the mystery I was trying to solve?” Covert Action integrated a story and action poorly, because the action was actually too intense. In Pirates!, you would do a sword fight or a ship battle, and a minute or two later, you were kind of back on your way. In Covert Action, you’d spend ten minutes or so of real time in a mission, and by the time you got out of [the mission], you had no idea of what was going on in the world.

So I call it the “Covert Action Rule”. Don’t try to do too many games in one package. And that’s actually done me a lot of good. You can look at the games I’ve done since Civilization, and there’s always opportunities to throw in more stuff. When two units get together in Civilization and have a battle, why don’t we drop out to a war game and spend ten minutes or so in duking out this battle? Well, the Covert Action Rule. Focus on what the game is.

What was interesting about Covert Action was its sense of style – you really felt like you were tracking down criminals. Perhaps the action sections were too much, but the overall idea was very solid. Still, from my own experience, I try to avoid designing games with too many (or any) minigames, for this very reason; Smokescreen had quite a number of minigames in it, but the most popular missions ended up being those without any at all.


I didn’t play the original Pirates! game (yes, the exclamation point is part of the title) but I did play the sequel/update, Sid Meier’s Pirates. Like Covert Action, Pirates contained a number of minigames but was generally more coherent – you spent much of your time simply sailing around the Caribbean, on a top-down map, going from port to port or chasing enemy ships. Occasionally you’d enter short sword-fights or battle games, and you’d regularly enter port to trade goods or check up on the latest news; there was a loose story about finding your kidnapped family, but other than that, you were free to pursue your own goals, whether that was taking over every single port in the game-world, finding all of the hidden treasure, or rising to the highest ranks.

I have two real treasured memories of Pirates, and the first is the ballroom dancing game.

Sid Meier's Pirates! wallpaper 1024x768

Once in a while, to gain the favour of various ladies whom you might want to marry, you’d need to do some ballroom dancing, which took the form of a more complicated Dance Dance Revolution game. Basically, you’d have to read the movements of your partner and move appropriately; in the earlier levels, these would be clearly telegraphed, but as you progressed, dances became faster and more intricate. Given my lifelong love of Dance Dance Revolution, I became really quite skilled at this part of the game and never failed to have a choice consort (even if we were mostly broke from my poor military excursions).

My second memory of Pirates isn’t any part of the gameplay in particular, but just the feel of the game as you were out sailing the seas. If your crew were in a good mood, they’d be cheerfully singing songs as you flew along on a fair wind; if they were hungry and unpaid, and it was raining, you’d be sure to know it. Travelling from port to port, you’d encounter all sorts of ships that you could chase, run away from, or engage at will – sometimes you’d be homing in on fat gold ships you’d been led to by rumours from pubs, sometimes you’d be desperately running away from a bunch of British frigates; whatever happened, you were totally immersed in this beautifully drawn and wonderfully fun world.

Sid doesn’t seem to make many of these medley games any more, which is a shame but understandable, given the increasing specialisation of PC games. Still, I wonder whether he’ll return to them for online or mobile games, which seem to do well when operating outside of traditional game genres.

I’ll leave you with a short oral history, by Sid Meier himself, about his game design process and his 25 years in the gaming world – all set within a 48 hour game design competition. It’s well worth a watch (you can skip the ad at the start):

Alpha Centauri

Sid Meier has spoken about how a player’s imagination can generate a better story than any designer can. Judging from the popularity of Civilization and his many other storyless or historical games (Pirates, Colonization, Railroads, Covert Action, etc.) it’s clear he really lives by this belief, as well.

But he’s made at least one game that’s very different: Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri.


On the face of it, Alpha Centauri – which was released between Civilization 2 and 3 – is basically Civilization on an alien planet. You have the same familiar routines of setting up bases, researching technologies, producing units, and negotiating with other factions; sure, there are some new names (Frictionless Surfaces, Monopole Magnets) but anyone who’d played Civilization before would have no problem learning Alpha Centauri’s quirks.

The story, though – that’s another matter. At the beginning of the game, you learn that the United Nations has sent a colonization ship to Chiron, a planet orbiting Alpha Centauri; when it arrives, an accident severs communication with Earth, the captain is assassinated, and various factions form to take control of the escape pods. Each of the seven factions has a distinct ideology and goal, and they each land on Chiron with single colony pod to restart civilization – but from a much higher tech level.

Arguably, all of this is just the setting for the game, and you could choose to ignore it, in the same way that you could be completely ignorant of world history and still enjoy playing Civilization. However, the personalities of the faction leaders and the way in which they influence the game feels much stronger than in Civilization – for example, not only is Deirdre Skye, the leader of the Gaians, an avowed environmentalist, but she also has access to units that exploit the environment of Chiron – she’s not just a normal Civilization with -2 pollution.


Beyond that, the player has dreams during the game about the alien life on Chiron, their collective intelligence, how they must avoid disaster, etc. etc.; and beyond that, Firaxis released a novel-length series of stories detailing events leading up to the game, along with a trilogy of novels. For a company that relies on players’ imaginations, Firaxis was very keen to show off their own.

I’m glad they did, because Alpha Centauri’s story added a lot to the game and generated vast quantities of fan fiction (including my own horribly derivative space opera, Unavoidable Casualities). The strong personalities and science-fiction setting made it feel like you were embarking on a more exciting and unknown adventure than simply playing through 6000 years of history that’ve already happened, even if you had no idea what any of the technologies actually meant (what does Cyberethics do? Or Photon/Wave Mechanics? Or Matter Compression?).

As a science fiction reader, it was especially pleasing that Brian Reynolds, the lead designer, took inspiration from some real classics of the genre, rather than the typical sub-Star Wars stuff you see today. In the manual, he credits A Fire Upon the Deep by Vernor Vinge, Red Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson, Anvil of Stars by Greg Bear, among others, and while the game doesn’t exactly break new ground in its subject, it mixes hard science concepts with ideas like the technological singularity and politics quite well.

Given the game’s success and the continual clamour of fans for a sequel, one would’ve thought they’d have made ‘Alpha Centauri 2’ in the time they’ve made another three Civilization games. Unfortunately, the rights to the Alpha Centauri belong to Electronic Arts, and Firaxis is now owned by rival publisher Take2, which makes things rather difficult. However, Sid Meier seems optimistic that something could happen, and he remains on good terms with Electronic Arts…

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.

The Music of Civilization

We all know what music I’m referring to here – the marvellous and uplifting Baba Yetu choral music that greets you in Civilization 4. I don’t know how much it cost Firaxis to commission and record that music, but it gave Civ 4 a priceless sense of grandeur.

Civilization has always had an odd soundtrack. 4000BC starts with generic ‘tribal’ music that, after a few thousand years, changes into more martial ‘Roman’ music, then perhaps some ‘Gothic’ music. When you finally reach the Renaissance, you get some decent melodies from classical composers, but the era is sadly too brief and you end up with weird modern classical music until 2100AD.

They’re supposedly improving things for Civilization 5, but frankly I don’t think that the soundtrack is at the top of their priority list, and I have a bad feeling that they won’t be calling upon Christopher Tin (Baba Yetu’s composer) again. It was lucky they called him at all – it seems the collaboration is partly down to the fact that Soren Johnson, Civ 4’s lead designer, once roomed with Christopher Tin at Stanford.

Anyway, I’m a big fan of Christopher Tin’s music, so I’ll keep this post brief and leave you with some of his finer pieces (not just Baba Yetu, which I’ve written about before):

Civilization 4 Intro Movie, with a piece called ‘Coronation’.

The Dubai Fountains, set to the music of Baba Yetu.

Kia Hora Te Marino, a companion piece of Baba Yetu from Tin’s new album, Calling All Dawns.

A Civilized Education

I’ll say it: I don’t think Civilization is all that educational. It’s more educational than most videogames, certainly, but that’s not saying a lot.

There are four arguments made by the pro-educational camp:

Firstly, that Civilization teaches people about technologies, cultures, buildings, leaders, and of course, civilizations, from all over the world and across the sweep of history. I’m fairly sympathetic to this view, and I admire the game’s expansive worldview – it makes a real effort to include civilizations other than those already familiar to the West.

However, I question exactly how much any player takes away from the game – it’s not as if you need to read the in-game encyclopaedia (the ‘Civilopedia’) to perform well, and the entire point of the game is that you get to play around with history – it’s not as if you’re learning about ancient Chinese or Persian battles. I’ll grant that a motivated student of history might read up on all the game’s historical articles – but once you find that student, the job’s mostly-done already.

Secondly, that by playing the game, Civilization helps people understand concepts like the scarcity of natural resources, the importance of geography, and the impact that small decisions can have across centuries (basically, it’s ‘Guns, Germs and Steel’ in game form). Again, I’m not sure if people actually take away these concepts from the game unless they’re specifically pointed out to them. In some ways I think that Civilization presents a very deterministic and mercantilist view of history, one with constant advancement being the norm; the role of chance and of total disaster is papered over, in the (very understandable) service of gameplay. Maybe this chimes with a particular Western (or perhaps American) view of history, but it’s not something I recognise from reality.

Thirdly, that Civilization is a powerful tool for teachers to provide context to history lessons. This is actually a pretty good idea – not one that I’ve seen in practice or know much about myself, admittedly. I can see how a good teacher could use Civilization to think about counterfactuals like “Why is my country the size/power it is now, instead of what it is in my game?” and to illustrate some of the ‘Guns, Germs and Steel’ concepts. I don’t know if a single teacher could do this for a class of 30 students, but if you lowered the number, or perhaps played a few democracy games, it could work very well. One can imagine a game of Civilization providing the spine for an entire term’s worth of activities, from art and language to science and politics; I’d sign up, for sure!

Lastly, that mods to Civilization (community-created modifications or expansions to the game) can give players very good lessons in specific subjects. In 2007, Telefilm Canada funded the imaginatively-named The History Game Canada, a million-dollar expansion of Civilization 3 that lets you play as one of nine civilizations, including the Algonquin, Mohawk, French, and English, to rewrite the country’s history and explore various counterfactuals like:

“What if the Huron had displaced the 5 Nations Confederacy rather than the other way around?” or “What if the French had retained Canada, and the English colonies to the East and South had failed to prosper?”

Civilization 3 was the clunkiest and most frustrating game of the series, so I am in no hurry to try this out, but it sounds very enticing, and potentially a real improvement on dry, didactic history lessons (though not cheap, of course).

Unfortunately I haven’t been able to find many other overtly educational mods for Civilization, which isn’t surprising, since good mods can require surprising amounts of graphical assets, text, code, rules, and design (I speak from bitter experience after having attempted a couple of total conversions in my youth). It takes a remarkably motivated and skilled teacher to make the effort of designing a custom map, arranging all the cities and units just so, and tweaking the rules to fit the context – but it does happen, as demonstrated by Shawn Graham, who made a mod called The Year of the Four Emperors, aimed at teaching his undergrad students about the events after Nero’s assassination in 68AD, and how someone other than Vespasian might have won out.

Given that Civilization 5’s lead designer, Jon Shafer (who you might remember as the Minister of War in Apolyton’s ISDG team), cut his teeth in the modding community before he joined Firaxis, I think there are good days ahead for modders of all kinds – but it’s never going to be easy to create an educational scenario with accuracy and depth.

Summing up, it’s a bit of a mixed bag – I don’t think Civilization imbues players with any real historical knowledge or understanding, but I do think that it’s an incredibly powerful tool in the hands of smart educators and modders who have specific lessons they want to convey.

When you consider that, in their own words:

…It cannot be overstated that Firaxis has never set out to make an “educational” game

the fact that Civilization is lightyears ahead of most games (including many ‘educational’ games) is an impressive feat of game design.

Democracy Games

Here’s an article I wrote in late 2003 an epic ‘Democracy Game’ in Civilization 3 I was part of. If you’re already familiar with Civilization, you can skip most of the Just One More Turn… section – the good stuff begins again at All Talk.

A Clash in Civilization

It’s a busy time in this nation’s government. At the same time as chairing talks on the placement of new settlements along the disputed eastern border, the Minister of the Interior is trying to defend his share of this year’s budget against the hawks in the Ministry of War. Diplomats from the Foreign Office are generating headaches throughout the government with their disturbing news of conflict in the south. While the political parties bicker over an official response, worried civil servants are hastily drawing up contingency plans for the nation’s defence and negotiators dash from meeting to meeting in a Sisyphean effort to mediate peace between the foreign countries.

This could be a timeless description of politics anywhere in the world, except these politicians have never met face to face before and the worst harm that could come from war is bruised egos.

The year is 610BC, and it’s just another turn for the nation of Apolyton to play in the first ever Intersite Democracy Game of Civilization 3, possibly the most cerebral, complex – and unknown – game on the Internet.

Just One More Turn…

Civilization is a turn-based strategy game with a lineage as distinguished as some royal families – at least in computer game terms. Unlike the Intersite Democracy Game (ISDG), it’s well known to gamers around the world. In Civilization, players take control of a band of settlers in 4000BC and raise them into an advanced civilization while dealing with all the challenges history has to offer – wars, disasters, revolutions – the usual. Yet Civilization isn’t just a war game; while you can win by conquering the world, you can also win by a cultural or diplomatic victory, among other ways. In this respect, Civilization 3, the latest version, is as far beyond other strategy games such as Age of Empires as they are from action games like Quake.

The attraction of Civilization for its millions of players lies in how every new game is unique, yet still poses the same challenges of striking a fine balance between expansion and consolidation, research and defence, and conquest or peaceful diplomacy. `Just one more turn’ is the mantra of Civilization addicts, whose ranks include the author Iain Banks and economist Prof. Brad DeLong. Banks has based at least one of his books around Civilization and has spoken ruefully about physically destroying the game CD to end his addiction. One player has commented, “I can honestly say playing Civ has been the one single activity which I have done most in my life after sleeping.”

In 1991, Civilization 1 was developed by Sid Meier at Microprose and received universal praise. Since then, the game remained under the supervision of Meier, who followed on with an even more successful sequel in 1996. Five years later, Civilization 3 was released in 2001 by Meier, now at Firaxis, following a legal tussle concerning the use of the lucrative ‘Civilization’ name in other games. Each sequel has added refinements on to the original, such as the territory borders, culture, unit hit points and experience, but the core theme of the game has been left untouched.

Controversially, multiplayer capabilities have never been built into any Civilization game. This was reasonable enough twelve years ago, but its continued absence in Civilization 3 angered many players. Firaxis claimed this was because Civilization has always been intended as a single player experience, but a more cynical explanation may lie in the fact that multiplayer capabilities have always been made available after each games’ release – for a price.

Despite this annoyance, there’s a thriving online community of Civilization fans numbering almost one hundred thousand. These fans aren’t your normal game players who might shrug when they encounter a rule that doesn’t seem to make sense. Instead, Civilization fans would (and have) run exhaustive simulations within the game to determine the exact equation governing the rule, and then argue at length about its worth. However, the very complexity of Civilization and the unpredictability of the game’s formidable AI mean that it’s simply not possible to reverse engineer it and play the perfect game; there’s always an element of intuition and luck, which suits the players just fine.

All Talk

With over three million posts among the fan sites, it almost seems like the players prefer talking about Civilization to actually playing it, and it’s not without truth, either. While the game’s play by email feature makes it easy for players to take part in not just one but several games concurrently, there’s still a maximum of eight players per game, which isn’t any more than what you might find in a typical board game. Handily, the Civilization Fanatics Center, one of the largest fan sites on the Internet, came up with a solution that satisfies fans’ dual urges of playing the game and talking about it at the same time: They invented the democracy game.

A democracy game is just like a normal single player game of Civilization, except with over a hundred people sitting beside you arguing about what to do. Surprisingly enough, democracy games don’t descend into a free for all; instead, detailed constitutions and an elected government have ensured that the games proceed smoothly and every player can contribute their opinion. Since 2002, democracy games have been successfully exported to other websites and strategy games, such as Alpha Centauri, a Civilization spin-off game.

A progression of the original idea is the intrasite democracy game (also known as the Play the World democracy game, after the name of the multiplayer expansion pack), the first of which began last year at Apolyton. In intrasite games, instead of players assuming the role of just one civilization, eight teams of players control eight different civilizations, each with their own government. Apolyton’s intrasite game has already become legendary owing to the incredibly heated and personal arguments that have risen between teams. Continue reading “Democracy Games”

One More Turn

It’s the mantra of any Civilization player – just one more turn. Whether you’re exploring uncharted territory, or researching a new technology, or anticipating a Wonder of the World that’s about to complete, there’s always a reason to play one more turn. And once you’ve played that turn, there’ll be another, and another, and before you know it, you’ve blown way past dinner time, bed time, seriously-it’s-bed time, and you’re looking at your watch thinking, “I know it’s 4am, but I’ve come this far so I might as play for the x more turns it’ll take me to finish building my spaceship/invasion fleet/United Nations.”

I’ve spent too much time on Puzzle Quest, I played Diner Dash until I felt like I could re-order entire restaurants using the power of my mind, I’ve stayed up far too late messing about in Team Fortress 2 – but Civilization trumps them all. I have never played a game quite as compelling as Civilization.

There’s a term for how games achieve this kind of fixated behaviour: the ‘compulsion loop’. It’s very simple:

  1. You play the game
  2. You achieve some goals
  3. You get awarded with new content
  4. GOTO 1

You might claim that this is facile – that by this loose definition, all games contain compulsion loops – but the fact is that most games aren’t engineered around compulsion loops. Story-based adventure games like Uncharted 2 or Halo 3 may well have short-term goals and new levels and environments being awarded to the player, but they typically don’t come on a fixed schedule. Instead, they can be frustrating and time-consuming to achieve, and are easily deflated by poor pacing and writing. Not that this makes them worse – I don’t think the job of a game is to simply be compulsive – but they don’t keep me up until 4am.

Now, if you want to see pure compulsion loops in action, just check out any of Zynga’s games on Facebook. Farmville is basically a compulsion loop dressed up in plants, with goals being doled out on a player-controlled schedule and new content (crops, buildings, decorations) always tantalisingly within range. Mafia Wars is even better (or perhaps worse), because it drops the pretence entirely and is just a compulsion loop written out in numbers and text. You don’t need any skill to play these games, you just need to be able to click your mouse enough times to fill up a bar.

Viewed through this prism, it’s clear why Civilization is so compelling; every single turn of the game is a mini-compulsion loop. In every single turn, like clockwork, you move units, you achieve tangible goals, and you get new content. The game keeps you playing until you’ve have seen everything and done everything that the world has to offer.

There is a real difference between Farmville and Civilization, though. After playing Farmville for a couple of months, a friend told me, in a tone of undisguised self-disgust, that he felt like he’d wasted part of his life. I know how he feels – I played Farmville for a month and I feel like the experience was completely worthless, even though at some points I was scheduling my life around when crops were due to ripen.

Contrast that with Civilization, where well-played games will remain fresh in the mind for years – and yet even the meanest, most boring game of Civilization will contain something memorable. It might be the desperate last defence of a doomed city, or a particularly sneaky piece of diplomacy, but there’s always something you feel pleased about achieving. Civilization has a depth and complexity and meaning that Zynga’s toys can’t touch. The fact that it contains mini-compulsion loops feels more like an enabler of that richness, a way to manage that complexity, rather than a cynical trick to keep players hooked.

Of course, there’s one more big reason why Civilization, even with in its most Farmville-beating, sleep-depriving, anti-social nature, is not so bad: it always has an end.

Civilization and Storytelling

I’ve only ever written fan fiction twice in my life, and both times it’s been for Sid Meier games.

Nurturing a civilization from a band of illiterate settlers to an empire that’s trading goods and blows across the world tends to make you feel rather attached to your people, and it’s hard not to be personally offended when the sanctimonious Americans team up with the Zulus and backstab by landing an army of knights and cavalry on your home shores. From there, it’s only a small step for you to start imagining the newspaper headlines flying out across your nation and the whispers of rebellion in your threatened, remote outposts.

The freedom that Civilization affords players is not unusual when compared to other sandbox games, most notably Will Wright’s SimCity and The Sims, and there’s no shortage of fanfic for those. But I think there’s something special about the structure and complexity of Civilization makes writing fanfic irresistible.

Civilization has quite a bit of structure – it has a fixed beginning and end, with a set of basically linear paths that players must proceed down in order to win (or at least have an interesting game) such as researching technologies, founding new cities, etc., and these paths map pretty well onto what people are taught about history and politics in school. The game’s broad span of time – from 4000BC to 2050AD – also gives it a far greater scope than strategy games like Europa Universalis or Anno 1404, which concentrate on much narrower historical periods. There’s nothing wrong with that, but chances are that you’ll find something in those 6000 years that will spark your imagination, whereas if you’re not into WW2 or Renaissance sea trading, it’s that much harder to conjure up stories, let alone write any fanfic.

It was precisely the fact that games of Civilization go on for thousands of years that I wrote my first bit of fanfic, called ‘Ad Astra Per Aspera: Three Generations of the English Union’, based on an epic game of Civilization 2 that I’d been immersed in. I can’t read it now without wincing at the heavy-handed data-dumping, but what still surprises me is the effort I went in to making the story sync up with the actual gameplay. For example, here’s an excerpt from the first chapter:

Andrew laughed out loud, shaking his head. England had been negotiating with France for as long as he could remember about the ever-shifting border agreements. As England’s western borders extended inexorably outwards, eating up the territory once held by the French cities of New Salamanca and Tlacopan, French troop incursions had increased constantly. It wasn’t too surprising; France had pretty much neglected the cities they’d taken back in 1715 during the Second Aztec War, allowing to remain as backwater provinces.

England, on the other hand, had promoted the expansion and improvement of the city infrastructures of Tenochtitlan, Texcoco and Xochicalco, known as the ‘New Territories.’ These were three of the new cities on England’s western border that had been liberated during the two Aztec wars. Today, they were thriving metropolises with over a million citizens apiece and intensively irrigated and mined land. France’s nearby cities could only offer less than a fifth of that population, and far less satifisying cultural attractions.

Yet still France complained at the result of each of the border discussion conferences, even though they grudgingly accepted the outcomes. Lately though, in a show of defiance, they had begun to conduct military exercises close to, and sometimes within, England’s borders on the hills and mountains that straddled them. Despite the overwhelming superiority of the English armed forces, if not numerically then technologically, the English were quite worried. And it appeared that, as Andrew listened to the show with interest, the President had decided to do something about it.

Gripping stuff, no? But this excerpt demonstrates a couple of interesting things. Firstly, I’d clearly checked over the dates and places quite carefully to make sure I had my story straight, which was quite a bit of effort. Second, it shows the rather odd way in which I’d been playing this particular game. Continue reading “Civilization and Storytelling”