Unrealistic

Board games aren’t realistic. Monopoly doesn’t look like any metropolis and the geography in Settlers of Catan makes Giant’s Causeway look conventional. The diseases in Pandemic are translucent cubes instead of microscopic blobs.

This all makes sense, of course. Board games are an abstraction of reality, paring down big concepts into statistics. This can be super simple, like chess as a simulation of warfare tactics, or super complex, like H.G. Wells’ Little Wars, an early war game that used dice and probability to recreate battles. Even Little Wars, for all its realism, required a measure of imagination — these weren’t real cavalry and cannons.

Realism’s not the point, though. Games are meant to scratch a specific itch that hovers somewhere between problem solving and diplomacy, depending on the sort of game (Uno has both at high speeds). Many of them make an effort to simulate something found in the real world, and sometimes they succeed — Pandemic Legacy feels remarkably realistic in times of Covid, what with talking about quarantine zones and finding ways to contain the spread as best we can. The goal in designing the game probably wasn’t to create a one-to-one representation of what handling a pandemic would be like, but rather to take the elements that make that course of action unique and translate it into game mechanics. You have to cooperate with one another and balance finding cures with containment while keeping in mind that the same routes that you take to go from city to city are vectors for the virus. Do I think that being halfway decent at Pandemic gives me the skills to take on an actual real-life pandemic? Oh, heck no. But it’s certainly a fun abstraction of the real thing.

I saw someone, somewhere described Civilization VI as the ultimate board game despite it being, well, a computer game. It very much feels like a board game though, with its hexagonal playing field and turn-based gameplay. Where it differs is with its plethora of interlocking systems, ones that make the Game of Thrones board game seem simple. You have to manage various economies (Gold, Faith, Science, Culture, Food, and Production) while making sure to get Strategic Resources (and maybe Bonus and Luxury) ones too, all while competing with however many other players are in the game to win. There isn’t a simple ‘win’ condition either, you can achieve victory through Domination, Tourism, Religion, Diplomacy, Science, or just run out the clock and win with Score. There’s a lot going on.

Though Civilization does a lot to simulate ruling a civilization over 6000-odd years, there’s little attempt to make things look super realistic. The tiles of the game look like a high-definition Settlers of Catan and cities and developments are far, far from scale (that, or most people in this game are the size of buildings). There’s no clear sense of size, either, as a single hex is only big enough for one thing, be it a farm, the Eiffel Tower, a city square, or the Great Pyramids. Hexes don’t translate to kilometers at all, and there’s no expectation for them to match anything. It’s an abstraction (again, not unlike a board game) that’s part of the whole empire management aspect of the game. A more ‘realistic’  version, with civilizations a ‘proper’ distance apart and everything to scale would, arguably, be too complicated to be as accessible as it is.

I don’t think games like Civ or Pandemic are particularly realistic. I also don’t think they need to be realistic. The abstraction is why it’s fun; boiling reality down to mechanics is how the games are interesting. Spreading religion and culture doesn’t work in real life quite the same way, so gamifying it is what makes it work. All this to say, yeah, Civilization isn’t too realistic. But I still really enjoy it. And that’s okay.

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