Mssv gets Civilized

Over the next couple of weeks, I’m dedicating Mssv to the strategy game series Civilization, in anticipation of Civilization V’s coming out in September. Civilization’s sheer depth and replayability has made it one of the most beloved strategy games in the world, and its longevity means that I’ve literally grown up with it.

Each game of Civilization 1 began in the same way – with you in control of a single Settler in 4000BC. Over the next 6000 years (which equates to hundreds of turns), you build cities, temples, marketplaces, barracks, roads, ships and armies, all the while researching technologies such as Bronzeworking, Mathematics, Physics, Gunpowder, Electricity and Fusion. In other words, you build a civilization – your civilization – and you can win a number of ways, by conquering the world, sending a spaceship to Alpha Centauri, controlling the United Nations, becoming incredibly rich, etc. Even now, the scope and ambition of Civilization is impressive, but at the time, it was breathtaking – a true strategy game that had no equal.

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We first bought a copy of Civilization when I was 9. As such, I’m pretty sure that my brother and I were not among the target audience, and we did all sorts of ridiculous things like building bunches of cities right on top of each other. Despite these fatal flaws in our strategy, Civilization was a real favourite of ours – I think it was the freedom of the game that was attractive, even though we’d inevitably get massacred by technologically superior Romans after a couple of thousands years. Most of the time we’d play it at home with horrible EGA graphics, but occasionally we’d get the treat of going into our dad’s computer lab at university and playing it on glorious 256 colour VGA graphics – sometimes on a massive 20″ screen!

Civilization was released back in the days when games publishers were happy to pack huge amounts of bumf into game boxes; you’d expect to see maps, stickers, trinkets and weighty manuals in any half-decent game. Civilization had a particularly dense manual full of detail and historical information which I loved reading, even though I didn’t entirely understand it. The manual, along with a tech-tree poster, was also used for copy protection: the game would ask you various historical and technological questions. We answered so many times that we memorised most of the answers, so I suppose it was somewhat educational (but more on that later).

The other oddity of Civilization 1 was the fact that you could rewrite the text in the intro movie. The intro movie (more accurately, an animation) described the formation of planet Earth from dust and rubble, the gradual cooling of the surface, the appearance of a stable biosphere, the rise of plants and animals, and the eventual evolution of humans. It was daunting stuff and really quite cool the first couple of times you saw it, but after a while you started memorising the words and irritably hammering the keyboard in order to skip the movie when the game engine had finally finished generating your random world. But by changing the text, you could have planet Earth turning into a molten ice cream, or something. Oh, the hilarious times we had!

Each release of Civilization has pinned itself into my memory, along with every surrounding detail of the time. Civilization 2 was released when I was 14, both OMC and OMD were on constant repeat on the radio, I properly discovered the internet, and I spent a large chunk of the summer solidly playing my favourite game. Good times.

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I was in my second year of university when Civilization 3 came out, and so had absolutely nothing stopping me from regularly playing until dawn, other than the fact that it basically killed my computer. Civ 4 followed in 2005, back when I was deep into making Perplex City at Mind Candy, and I didn’t have quite as much time to play it as the others, although on rainy afternoons I’ll be known to fire up a game at 3pm and finish it twelve hours later. The graphics might have improved, the game engine refined, the brilliance of Civ 2 and the frustrations of Civ 3 both moderated, but the addictive and joyful formula still remains.

And so Civilization 5 is here, almost twenty years after I first played the game, and I now have a computer setup that my 9 year old self would have boggled at. The only thing that might disappoint my younger self is the fact that it’s still pretty difficult to do multiplayer – maybe they’ll sort that out this time.

Anyway, in this series about Civilization, I’m going to be looking at addictiveness, ‘Democracy Games’, education, music, Alpha Centauri, and more. I might even fit in a quick (hah) game of Civ 4 and write up an after-action report. But first, I’m going to start with Civilization and Storytelling.