Tag Archives: Civilization

A Civilized History

History, owing to the fact that it’s primarily written by white men, tends to be very white and very male. History is, ultimately, a narrative with facts chosen and framed to fit that narrative. Disagree? Look at how the Civil War is taught and remembered in the American South; it was firmly impressed upon me while living there that slavery had nothing to do with it and it was all about state rights. Those writing history have an agenda, and when the writers are white and male, there is an attempt — knowing or not — to maintain a status quo in which history and the narrative are controlled by white men.

So when we (and that we is a general we, including myself, probably you, and the general cultural awareness that exists) think of the Really Big Important People of History, chances are we’re gonna settle on a bunch of white guys. Napoleon, Lincoln, Socrates. Hitler, Edison, Caesar. The big historical stuff, for good or for ill, was mostly done by people who were white and/or male, at least until this whole newfangled thing called ‘diversity’ showed up recently.

Following this logic, if you’re gonna make a game about, say, the rise (and fall) of civilizations over the millennia, you’ll want the iconic leaders that your payers will have some frame of reference for, and the civilizations that gave rise to them too. So: white guys.

Fortunately, the Civilization games do not follow this logic.

A scroll through the list of leaders and civilizations available for play in Civilization VI reveals an eclectic selection of nations that go beyond a collection of Western superpowers, with an effort made to have as varied a selection of leaders as possible. Of course, you’ve got the United States, led by Teddy Roosevelt, Germany as led by Frederick Barbarossa, and the Roman Empire led by Trajan. But France is helmed not by Napoleon, but by Catherine de Medici, who led France as Queen Mother for thirty years. The Greeks are present, but you can choose to have Gorgo, Queen of Sparta, as your leader instead of Pericles. It is Cleopatra who leads the Egyptian Empire.

The Civ games have been doing this for a while. Civ V featured the Zulus amongst mainstays like India and the Aztecs. England’s most always led by Victoria or Elizabeth I. The Chinese, Japanese, and Arabians have been in most of the games too, a staunch reminder that not all culture comes from the West. Civilization II notably had a male and female leader for each civilization, although some of them were apocryphal, the idea that not all world leaders are men has been present for a long time.

What’s notable in VI is the extent to which the development team has gone to find these lesser-known leaders. I had not heard of the Scythians until I played this game, let alone their leader Tomyris. Turns out, they were a nomadic people who lived in the Central Asian steppes, and though not much is known about them, they did briefly have a queen named Tomyris. Firaxis highlighting this in their game, by making Tomyris one of the leaders, is a pleasant reminder that there’s a lot more to history than the common narrative we’re taught (contrary to popular belief, the history of modernity is not a straight line from Greece to the founding of the US) and that there’s always gonna be more to learn.

I do appreciate learning stuff, always have (see: my biggest issue with Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey), and learning about, say, Eleanor of Aquitaine, Mvemba a Nzinga of Kongo, or Kristina of Sweden is a real plus.

Look, my High School history class skipped over the Ottoman and Byzantine Empires chapters of the history book, so I know I have some gaps to learn. Why not do so while engaging in some world domination?

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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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One More Turn

The first time I played Civilization V on my computer I ended up pulling an all-nighter. While in college. When I didn’t have homework. It was not the best of life choices.

But it was a lot of fun.

I dug into Civilization VI last night, not heeding the various other games I’ve been meaning to play, and very nearly stayed up all night again, but, as I have grown as a person, I did not. Game’s a lotta fun though.

Through it all, though, I kept telling myself “just one more turn,” which is the mantra of all who have fallen prey to Civilization’s siren song. Naturally, I found myself asking why.

The central tenet of Civilization is this: You have a civilization (based on real ones in history, like the Kongo, Sumerians, and French), and, starting from the Ancient Era, you slowly build it into a magnificent empire. You can befriend or betray rival factions, build up your cities, and try for one of a few different forms of victory (domination, cultural, science, or religious). Naturally, your plans will have plans if you want to be able to succeed; ensuring a science victory may require some mild warmongering along the way.

All of this takes time. It takes turns to produce builders or soldiers, turns to produce wonders of the world, and turns to improve your cities. More likely than not, you’re gonna have several balls in the air, with ships being built at Uruk while the Colossus is under construction at Bergen; all while you wait for your missionaries to start exerting some influence on the city-state of Valetta. What this means in practice, is that one turn you’ll finish a project, start a new one, and two turns later the next one will come to fruition.

Just gotta hang on for one more turn.

The particular genius of this is that your plan keeps changing, depending on how things work, and you want to keep that Plan going. Interrupting it would be such a shame.

Unlike many other games, there’s not much in the way of natural stopping points. There are no big boss fights or chapter ends, just a long steady slog towards victory, which in this game can easily take hundreds upon hundreds of turns. Stopping the game means interrupting, more so than in The Sims where the lack of goal allows for a more freeform style. In Civ there is a goal to all that you do, and you’re working towards it at all times. You don’t want to lose track of where you are on in your machinations. There’s also the sunk-cost fallacy, where I’ve already spent as long as I have working towards my goal, might as well stick it out to see where it goes.

Ultimately, it doesn’t really matter. Civilization is a great game that’s hard to put down because of how all its mechanics all come together into a unified whole. And I really want to win this game, so, less time blog posting, more time civilizing.

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