Getting civilised

Recently I bought Civ for the iPad, because I remember fondly playing Civ 2 back in high school, an unmentionable time ago. I have now had it for a couple of months, long enough to win the game as each of the available civilisations on Emperor, and about half on Deity, and I thought I’d offer some comments.

The main thing is that this game is just as addictive as I remember the computer game being. They have streamlined the gameplay a lot, limiting some options, smaller tech tree, fixed map size and opponent number, and so on. You can go into a “scenario” mode and tweak these things, but I haven’t bothered just yet, since the basic game has been so compelling. The key thing is that you can finish a game in a single sitting of 2-4 hours now, so while that’s still longer than a game of solitaire, it’s not the day-killer that Civ 2 (and I suppose subsequent PC versions) was. The streamlining of the options also makes the basic game management stuff a lot easier, so you have a bit more time to think about high-level strategies, compared to the exact layout of your city populations.

All that’s very interesting and worthwhile, but what interested me was the subtle political message of the game. I’ve played it enough now, with enough deliberate strategies to spot some trends that I think are probably by-design rather than a reflection of my play-style. The main thing is that while there are nominally 4 ways to win, they are not equally easy ways to win. The four methods are technology, culture, economy and domination. By far the easiest way to win is the Cultural victory, with technology following and economy not far behind. The most difficult way to win by another whole magnitude is the domination victory – I can’t achieve this at all on Emperor or Deity with any of the races.

Also interesting is the computer’s way of increasing difficulty, which is almost always for 2 or 3 of your opponents to engage you in ceaseless warfare while the remainder work toward either a technological or economic victory. It is rare for the computer to try for a cultural victory, even though this is categorically the easiest way for a human to win.

The implications for how the game designers think the world works only need a little teasing out here. Culture is good, war is bad. Mostly, civilisations don’t blend or interact in meaningful ways, they establish a perimeter and then turtle, looking inwards toward whichever route they suit. A really effective strategy is therefore to have an explosive start, setting up as many cities as you can garrison as fast as you can, and then to pick one of the three viable routes and be prepared to defend yourself against the whole world. It then becomes a matter of total population size – the greater your number of effective cities, the more culture/tech/money you can produce, and victory pretty much inevitably flows from that.

Where I lose games, it is usually because I over-reach my expansion in the early phases of the game, creating more cities than I can defend and extending my supply lines too much. For this reason, I find the easiest victories come from the Zulu and Mongol civilizations, which are built to aggressively expand. Romans are probably next, because they can built roads and cultural artefacts for reduced costs. I think there might be some interesting commentary to be made in terms of each race’s construction, but that’s not my purpose here today.

Following my Baudrilliardian tendencies, I am more interested in thinking about how we can use the model provided by the game to make deductions and predictions about the real world. (For newcomers – yes, this does seem backward, but see earlier posts with the “Baudrillard” tag that explain why it’s more like a snake eating it’s own tail) To go anywhere with this, I’ll need to make some really huge generalizations, but hopefully I’m not going to say anything too controversial really.

Starting with the victory conditions, we can see that the USA has effectively met 2 of the 4 conditions. It has built the world bank, and it has formed the United Nations. You could perceive Britain’s failure to found the League of Nations as them losing the game back in the 1930s. Thinking about the USA as having “won” for the current iteration of victory conditions makes a lot of sense – they are the “remaining superpower”, and the kinds of internal problems they have created for themselves don’t really have much bearing on the kinds of things they need to do for global domination.

This also offers a way of thinking about American isolationism before WWII – they were in the internally-focused turtling period of the game. Once they had sufficient infrastructure, they were free to change the mode of their play, knowing that they were building the two cultural wonders that would bring them victory. We can see that Britain lost the game by trying too early to change modes from a turtling nation duking it out with their neighbour (France) into an expansionist phase in the early 1800s. That behaviour in the game, fighting wars a long way from the core of your civilisation, is very difficult. It was far easier for the Romans to hold a large territory that was roughly centred around their core civilisation than for Britain to hold one where significant travel was involved to get anywhere inside the “empire”

Another way of thinking about the civilizations is as cultural blocs, rather than logistical/organizational structures, as we are used to. If we think about the members of a civilisation as being all of the productive entities working toward the victory (of whatever kind) of one block, then we can see that at present, there are fewer civilisations per se than we are used to. For example, in that model, especially in light of things like the TPP, it makes NZ seem more like a part of the American “civilisation” than a true free agent, since we have no real opposition to their goals, and provide them with some level of resource – a greater level than we supply to any of the other potential major civilisations (e.g. China). Our periodic flirtations with increasing Chinese investment are, in game terms, a city requiring additional “culture” against the risk of conversion.

The game also makes one wonder about whether international trade is really useful. In the game, it is one possible component of an economic victory, but diverting your resources into “caravans” is less effective than a focus on your civilisation’s core infrastructure. Do we not see this concept reflected in the economic woes of the USA at present – where its trade focus has been at the expense of manufacturing etc in their own civilisation, helping creating the bizarre situation where a very rich country (the USA) owes a relatively poor country (China) a vast sum of money? I think that if we look back at history, there are more examples of one civilisation being destroyed for the profit of another than the kind of symbiosis discussed by free-marketeers, and the game would support that analysis. However, even then, the destruction of the Mayans and Aztecs by the Portuguese and Spanish (one civilisation in the terms of the game) had a reasonably short term benefit. They didn’t adequately turtle and focus on internal infrastructure production.

I don’t think that the game writers were trying to make a philosophical point, and I obviously don’t believe that the real world works or doesn’t in order to match the rules of the computer game. Yet, it is interesting to climb through that alternate reality and look back at our hyperreality and see what we see.

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