The Trouble With Civilization

I refer not to the concept, but the bestselling game series.

The premise of Civilization is simple. You’re the leader of a civilization (a tribe or a nationality). You start out in 4000 BC with only a settler. The settler founds a city. The city then produces more settlers, which found new cities. All these cities produce military units, improve themselves with things such as aqueducts and city walls and factories, and even Wonders of the World. And so it goes until 2020 AD, by which time you will hopefully have researched a lot of technology, have a huge military, and spread your civilization over as much of the world as possible.
Of course, there are other civilizations, being played by the computer (or by other people), which are also intent on world domination. You just have to conquer them, or make sure you establish your empire over virgin territory before they get the chance.

The series is now up to Civilization IV, and this particular sequel has hit a particularly sweet spot. There are enough features to make it fun and interesting, but the micromanagement isn’t so high that it becomes too challenging or tedious. The features include religion, great artists, great merchants, trade, diplomacy and a whole lot besides.

Being able to control all these things- religion, commerce, art and culture- is a lot of fun. But it is also the problem- it’s horribly inaccurate- which the game developers freely admit.

They originally built the game so that religions spread slowly along trade routes, invisible to the game player. This was no fun at all, so they eventually created something that gave the player more control- a missionary that could travel from city to city and spread religion faster than by normal means.

So here is the problem- Civilization is played in such a way that it is fun only when you have control over something. So if you add a feature that mirrors a concept in real life, it is only fun when you can control it yourself. But unfortunately in real life you don’t have that control. National goverments and individual cities and religions and merchants and scientists and artists are very rarely under the control of a single leader. They might be anatagonistic or cooperative or at outright war, but they’re never marching in lockstep to somebody else’s drumbeat. Fun comes at the expense of accuracy.

You could get both fun and accuracy, but the game would no longer be Civilization. But you could have a game where you do have competing civilizations- but at the same time you have competing elements within a civilization- if you could play a Chinese merchant or a Muslim cleric instead of just the Chinese leader. As the Chinese merchant you would interact with the Chinese government, merchants from other civilizations. You could lobby the Chinese government for mercantile policies or for free trade. If you were a very successful merchant, you could commission Wonders of the World in cities where you had influence. You could provide musicians and thespians with patronage. You could have run-ins with Buddhist or Taoist clergy over who got to control the levers of power. You could finance scientists to help discover the next technological breakthrough. You could gain sufficient power to have a say in whether your country went to war or not. You could eventually transcend your civilization, and control power in the American and Arabic and Aztec and Indian civilizations too.

Does something like this already exist, but with the Civilization-like features of immense complexity and turn-based-play? Or will I have to wait for Civ6?

2 Responses to The Trouble With Civilization

  1. Just Me says:

    Um, that doesn’t sound like much fun to me at all.. Playing God Rocks 🙂 !

    To each, his own 🙂

  2. Khunger says:

    Interesting thought…having played approximately 23,634 games of Civilization IV, I’ve actually often thought of something along similar lines…what will it take to bring in some sort of historical realism into the game?

    I personally think the answer is that the more realistic you make the game, the slower the gameplay becomes…which takes away the basic premise of the game – escapism. According to highly reliable studies conducted in my head three minutes ago, most people play Civilization as a means to escape for a few hours. Something goes wrong? That’s cool, start all over again. And this time finish off that pesky neighbour by 1000 AD.

    If you make the game more realistic – take away power from the absolute ruler (i.e. You) and put it in the hands of the real decider (and no, I don’t mean George Bush, but a fairly arbitrary combination of “luck”, “time”, “chance”, “mass stupidity” and “a few smart people”)….the game will be a lot slower, much more complex, and people will tune out. Start to end till 2050 AD right now is about 4 -5 hours – the added realism is going to involve a lot more thought and patience. Not worth it.

    Excuse me, I’ve got to snub Julius Ceasar till he attacks me, at which point I chomp his empire, one city at a time.

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