What You Should Think About Civilization IV

October 13, 2007

“When I was a kid, I went to the store and asked the guy, ‘do you have any toy train schedules?‘”

–Steven Wright

Since it took me all of one week to break the “tradition” of being lighthearted on Friday, I will atone with a game review. Yet this is no wild departure from my usual fare. Civilization IV is the current generation in a line of computer games that have been decidedly cerebral from the beginning. In fact, the roots of the franchise are in a tabletop gaming line developed by Avalon Hill. That enterprise blended traditional military wargaming concepts with a sort of creativity many would associate with today’s shareware and open source gaming communities.

However, the original Civilization PC game was a commercial product. It also may earn a place of note even in distant historical reviews of electronic entertainment. Just as 8-bit graphics were becoming the new standard and digital audio cards were symbols of gamer status, Microprose released a turn-based game with simple tiled graphics. Still, it was colorful, and at the time the MIDI musical score seemed impressive.

Much more impressive, even today, was the gameplay. While the precursor board games involved playing various types of cards and moving tokens about to claim territories in a particular region, computerized Civilization was much more ambitious. Starting with a small wandering tribe, a player was charged with raising up a great civilization. “Greatness” could be defined as governing an overwhelming majority of the world’s population, using military might to eliminate or subdue all rivals, or even being the first to launch a viable colony ship toward Alpha Centauri.

Obviously there is complexity in simulating all those sorts of competitions ongoing at the same time. Interrelated models of agriculture, industry, and commerce cover the basics of human endeavor. Once your tribe has settled down to found a city, the population can be assigned to work the land. Excess food eventually produces population growth. Industrial efforts may raise armies, buildings, or local civic institutions. Commercial output can be apportioned between taxes to maintain the fruits of industry, luxuries to keep large populations content, and research to develop new technologies.

Perhaps none of this is all that impressive to people who play computer games in 2007. In 1991 it was the stuff of hardcore academic simulations. To see it all so colorfully presented, in various contexts all strong on the fun factor — it was a marvel to experience. Building on geographical approximations of Earth (or particular regions) or even from a randomly generated habitable planet, all manner of strategies were viable. A creative pacifist might trade generously and focus on science while maintaining a token army of border city garrisons. An aggressive militant might tax heavily and emphasize conquest, staying competitive technologically by seizing spoils from rival nations. The game was pure realpolitik — it only made judgments as to what was effective or ineffective, never what was morally right or wrong.

Of course, it was not perfect. Given the high standards countless excellent products have created in the intervening years, the original Civilization may seem quaint today. Yet its successors would keep apace with the industry and break new ground along the way. Civilization II offered a much increased scope, and it followed the mid-90s trend of incorporating live action video sequences into game play. Civilization III took a step back in terms of breadth in order to reduce the extremes of persistence and coordination required to run sprawling empires in its predecessor. Relatively recently, Civilization IV emerged to offer even keener focus on strategic elements while at last taking the franchise into the realm of 3D graphics.

There are historical simulations with more detail and accuracy than Civilization permits. There are also computerized wargames that offer more adrenaline and spectacle than Civilization. Yet I believe for personal computers there are no truly intellectual games that can rival its fun factor, nor any outright thrilling simulated conquests that can rival its depth. The latest version expands greatly on the development of world religions while also adding significant detail in several other areas. This is to say nothing of the expansion packs* with their innovative features like spreading culture through multinational corporations or their exotic scenarios like Zombie Apocalypse.

I believe Civilization can rightly be described as intellectual because it combines the best of abstract thought experiments with many of the better features of a macroeconomic simulator. Of course it is not a perfect representation of any point in real history. However, it does make possible learning by trial and error — all too often the same process real heads of state use to work toward proficiency in their jobs. Every strategy can be answered with a variety of strong responses. Even in single player games, foreign leaders have distinct personalities, thus posing distinct challenges as rivals or allies.

Among other things, it teaches the staggering interdependence of factors in any society. Few people are surprised to find that slight disruptions can have far-reaching consequences in a modern industrialized nation. Yet even in ancient times, a regional food shortage or an untimely budget crunch could trigger a much bigger crisis. Sometimes a faction simply fails to get traction, or becomes marginalized by crippling defeat. Even so it is not uncommon to see 2-4 superpowers vying for victory. Each rival must be monitored carefully to avoid being blindsided by a sudden Space Race victory . . . or a surprise attack.

Even nuclear weapons have been a part of Civilization from its first computerized incarnation. A major industrial push can produce a great project. In some cases these may be Wonders of the World, like the Colossus of old or the Three Gorges Dam of today. Others will simply imbue a civilization with a new capability. For example, building the Internet accelerates scientific research throughout your entire civilization. Each faction may pursue the Manhattan Project, though it is also possible after someone has constructed the United Nations to take action to prevent nuclear proliferation.

It may sound complex, but the wonder of Civilization rests on a something near to paradox. The above paragraph just glosses over a few details — a molehill of complexity visible on the mountain of it offered up in a standard game. Yet it is not an activity that demands advanced education or exhausting concentration. It surely provokes thoughts, including a deep one from time to time. All the while it still manages to be a game that actively celebrates the joy of gaming.

Perhaps the best way to sum it all up is to describe one significant symptom of becoming a Civilization enthusiast. Known to some as “one-more-turn-itis,” it is the inability to step away from a viable game even when real life beckons an individual not otherwise entangled in gaming addiction. Each turn brings with it new information to assess and new decisions to make about the fate of a hypothetical people placed in your hands.

Be it in the Bronze Age or Space Age, be it about civics or religion, be it about colonization or militarization, be it about making new friends or dispensing with old enemies; Civilization transcends ordinary gaming with an experience that will draw you in and keep you there. Best of all, it does this chiefly through a rich buffet of food for thought. Much like chess, it is a game that is easily learned yet difficult to master. If you want a break from the real world, but you don’t want to take a break from stimulating your mind, it is hard to recommend anything above Civilization IV.

*I haven’t actually installed the expansion packs, as I’ve made a promise to myself to save them as a treat for when I’ve achieved an American win under specific conditions (actually, default everything but for raising the difficulty level.) I have done this leading several other peoples, but for some reason I have yet to orchestrate a proper victory with Industrious and Organized Americans. Only then will I let myself see precisely how cool Civilization: Warlords and Civilization: Beyond the Sword happen to be.