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Errant Signal – Civilization

By Shamus
on Tuesday May 27, 2014
Filed under:
Video Games


Link (YouTube)

See, this is why I love the work that Chris does. 14 minutes of thoughts on what the mechanics of Civilization (the game) says about how the developers view or frame civilization (not the game). I never really thought about things from this angle until now. My complaints with the game never went much deeper than “These spearmen shouldn’t be able to defeat my tank”.

I’ve actually never really cared all that much about the historical leaders. Aside from the comedy of having Mohandas Gandhi dropping nukes on you, I always thought it detracted from the sort of high-level abstractions going on in the rest of the game. Why is Montezuma still prancing around in animal skins when his civ has landed on the moon? How is Lincoln “President” of a nation when we’re in the bronze age and Democracy-type ideas are thousands of years away? And hang on, is he really supposed to be immortal? Are all the leaders? I understand this is the kind of thing you’re not supposed to think about, which makes it all the more confusing that these idiots keep calling me up on their bronze-age civ-phones and making me think about it.

I understand why this is done. The leaders give a face to the game. They make the human element visible, to save the game from being all about grids and charts. But it’s strange, you know?

Comments (100)

  1. Janus says:

    That was really amazing – even by the already high standards of Errant Signal.

    I really want to like Civilization games, I do. But they keep annoying me more and more – especially the more recent games.
    They are fun and excellent timesinks, and their simplistic hollywood-theme park portrayal of human history is kind of a necessity for a game that wants to cover all of it, i guess.

    But in addition to the above points, there is also the general representation of human developement as a straight, teleological progression towards fixed “goals”. The Civs who climb this universal ladder the fastest are winning, those who are too slow get crushed. Combined with the heavy nationalist spin on the idea of human civilization, the games are eerily reminiscent of 19th century concepts of social & cultural evolutionism.
    Creating a virtual world where the point of view on humanity of 19th centurly Europe is the only right one… it’s just really uncomfortably cringe-worthy to me.

    But they are soo much fun :)

    • Neruz says:

      To be fair though; throughout known history those civilizations that progressed towards 19th century European concepts of social and cultural evolution did crush the civilizations that did not. It’s simplistic sure but there is a foundation of truth in that viewpoint.

      Edit: I have to say, I’m not very fond of this Errant Signal, Chris makes a lot of assumptions that seem unfounded or at least unprovable and several of the points he brings up are somewhat non-sequitor like; ex at 10:40ish Chris makes a comment about not doing things for ‘human’ reasons but because doing those things legitimises your civilization in the eyes of other civilizations and implies that this is something that doesn’t happen in reality, but it absolutely does. People can and do achieve things purely so they can crow about how superior their nation|culture|clan|whatever is compared to other nations|cultures|clans|whatevers, this motivation is a real motivation that happens.

      I guess I just disagree with Chris about the intent of Civilization; when Chris says that the Civ games don’t model humans my response is “Uh yes? Duh?” because I never expected the Civilization games to be about humans; I expected them to be about ‘Civilizations’ from an abstract generalist viewpoint. Which is what they are.

      • Janus says:

        “throughout known history” – eh, no? I disagree, sir.
        At best it’s very debatable, especially previous to the european industrialization.
        Even then, the actual historical processes are a far more complex than “crushing”, so much so that it’s not just a mere simplification but factually wrong.
        Just as a counter-example: Previous to the industrialization, large scale pastoral-(semi)nomadism worked out pretty well for a number of empires in Eurasia (and it’s still a thing, since pastoral-nomadism still happens to be the most efficient form of adaption to certain arid enviroments).

        But that’s not even the point, actually.
        There is no linear progression of any civilization towards specific “goals”. It’s not a thing – all societies and cultures change all the time according to a myriad of cultural, social, enviromental/natural, scientific, philosophical, religious variables in a myriad of different “directions” simultaneously. Also, they influence & are influenced by the vast network of different groups around them in various ways.
        The 19th century concepts in question are bascically lies for children.
        They may have a kernel of truth in them, but it’s abstracted, generalized and simplified to the point where it becomes factually wrong – and on its own rather useless as an epistemological paradigm.

        Edit: But that went a tad off topic, I guess.
        In the end they are fun games, as long as you enjoy the ride without overthinking it too much. If you want an accesible, fun, colourful theme park ride through history they work pretty well.

      • N/A says:

        I think the point is more that the series, especially more recently, is incapable of recognizing that some great achievements are made purely for their own sake. Yes, some things are constructed or discovered for the sake of crowing over how great you/your culture/your nation is, but others are not, and the more recent Civilization games don’t recognize that distinction. EVERY achievement is done in the name of national power and legitimacy.

        • Grudgeal says:

          Honestly, I think the Civilization presentation of “Wonders” is counter-intuitive as to how they worked in real life. Most of Civilization’s wonders were giant showcases of “oh look how grand I am”.

          In Civilization, the pyramids are genuine power-boosters and provide concrete and future-oriented bonuses that show up upon completion; thus, they are built for the advancement of the State. In real-life, the pyramids were giant blocks of stone, marble and gold used for burial chambers for dead kings, each of whom cost *lots* of valuable resources and man-power just to show that said dead king (or his successor) could afford to waste all those resources and man-power on a glorified tombstone. The tourism bonuses they provide today probably weren’t on said kings’ minds when they ordered them built.

          • Andrew_C says:

            Hmm, perhaps they should randomise the bonuses from Wonders? Players wont build them unless there is some bonus, but if that bonus is random, perhaps that adds some of the “Look what I built!” and wonder back to the wonders

        • AtomF says:

          In a more “simulationist” version of Civilization, big projects might be something you build just to have the impressive outcome. I mean, consider megaprojects in Dwarf Fortress or impressive constructions in minecraft. Neither game rewards you for creating such things, but both make it possible to do so. So often that creation becomes the goal of the game.

      • Kian says:

        Well, that’s another of the points Chris makes. There aren’t “civilizations” (plural), there are multiple copies of the same civilization. What distinguishes the Greek from the Japanese or the Aztecs? A special troop and a particular bonus? Everything else that makes up a civilization is the same. Which implies that only those people who share these views are civilizations, and a contender for victory.

        Every civilization is a modern country from the beginning, for example. No feudalism, empires, city-states, colonies or any other form of organization. There are game elements with these names, but they don’t really model them.

      • The wonders in Roman times were for the glory of the Emperor first and Rome second–and Rome was one of the most nationalistic, nation-state-ish places of pre-modern times. The wonders in the high medieval were for the glory of God first, the particular city the cathedral was built in second, and the country pretty much not at all. The wonders in Tenochtitlan were mostly to maintain the gods’ ability to keep the sun moving through the sky so the world wouldn’t end. No, really, the Aztec religion was on the paranoid side.
        Yes, some things get done for the glory of nation-states, that is certainly a real thing. Most things don’t, though, so it’s hard to claim it’s a bedrock motivator across all time and space. And some times are bigger into that than others. For instance, in the 60s the US spent massively on the space program for national glory. In the 2010s it’s hard to imagine the US as a nation spending a dime for national glory on anything not designed to kill people. Pretty big shift of attitude in just 50 years, and very likely we’ll see another very different attitude in another 50.

        Even in modern times there’s an ambiguity to this stuff; Civ never questions the value of doing these massive wonders. But take one of the most clear-cut cases of massive expenditure by a nation-state for purposes of impressing and intimidating other nation-states: Versailles and the excesses thereof. Louis XIV, the “Sun King”, probably was happy to have a snazzy palace, but the main point of doing Versailles and all the massive elaborate court machinery was so that when representatives of other countries came to court they would feel like poor, unsophisticated rubes by comparison and assume “If he can afford all this France must be pretty wealthy and awesome and tough”. And it’s been argued that it worked pretty well during his reign. Unfortunately, the longer term effects were that the nobility got used to excess, the peasants got ground into the dirt, and a couple generations later you get the French Revolution. Was Versailles worth it? Not for the monarchy at any rate.

        • Versailles was built to control the nobility. There was a nobles rebellion when Louis XIV was a child, and obviously it scared him. If the nobles were at Versailles and spending all their cash to impress him (and each other), he could keep an eye on them and also they wouldn’t have the funds to rebel.
          Making other countries feel inadequate may have been part of it, but it wasn’t the major reason (though it might have been the major reason Versailles was as lush as it was).

  2. Daemian Lucifer says:

    I dont think the developers of civilizations are pro-nationalism.I view the game as a more complicated chess,with much abstraction.Yes,it makes no sense to have an actual country long before actual countries existed,but are you really going to play just a single city for thousands of years before you establish an empire?And are all of your cities going to be self governed vassals until you discover some more orderly fashion of a rule?

    I mean you could make such a game,but would it be as fun or easy to get into?Some amount of abstraction is always necessary in any game,and Im always for sacrificing realism for fun than the other way around.

    • Thomas says:

      I think there were still plenty of choices open to them to frame that kind of conflict in anyway they chose. The Crusader Kings 2 point was an excellent example of that.

      And it doesn’t mean it was a conscious theme, but that actually makes it even stronger. When they wanted to systematise a chess game with a civilisation backdrop they chose to do it this way, because they didn’t even really think there could be an alternative.

      And even beyond that, you might design a spade to dig dirt, but it still looks spade shaped. Even with their reasons, this is still the effect it has

      • Daemian Lucifer says:

        “The Crusader Kings 2 point was an excellent example of that.”

        No,it wasnt,because 1)Crusader kings 2 takes place in a much narrower time frame and 2)It is much harder to grasp than a civilization game,especially one of the later,streamlined ones.

        “When they wanted to systematise a chess game with a civilisation backdrop they chose to do it this way, because they didn't even really think there could be an alternative.”

        How do you know that?Were you in the meetings with them and know that they didnt discuss any alternative?That they didnt disregard them for simplicity but rather because of (sub)conscious pro-nationalism?Maybe they did want to make something like crusader kings but on a larger time scale,only to realize that it would take way too long to play.

        “And even beyond that, you might design a spade to dig dirt, but it still looks spade shaped.”

        Too simplistic of an analogy.A complex game can have multiple interpretations.

        • Thomas says:

          The time frame is one of those decisions they made. I don’t need to know if they had meetings or not, because it doesn’t matter. I’m not saying they sat down and said ‘okay we need to systemise this in this way so that is has this output’

          I’m saying at some point someone sat down and said ‘Lets make a strategy game about the evolution of civilisations’ and every decision they made as to what that game looks like, tells us something. Even ‘the evolution of civilisations’ is a choice that could have easily been ‘the political machinations of dynasties’.

          And my spade looks like a spade wasn’t meant to be a specific metaphor. I’m saying, regardless of why they made Civilisation, it is what it is and it’s valid to talk about the impressions those mechanics give and the simplications from reality.

          The designers wanted to keep the players on their toes in the early game, to do this they wanted a randomly appearing enemy. They chose to give this enemy the flavour of a nomadic tribe and to not allow the player to interact with them in any way but kill them. It doesn’t matter if they weren’t deliberately designing a message, because those choices still have consequences to the way the player thinks about nomadic tribes in that game.

          • Andrew_C says:

            I’ve sometimes thought there should be an early game diplomat unit, call it a bard perhaps, that could interact with the barbarians and either convince them join you (turn them into a settler perhaps?) or bribe them not to attack, much like agrarian civilizations did with the more aggressive nomadic civilizations.

            • C0Mmander says:

              I could have sworn civ5 introduced the abillity to have a diplomatic relationship with tribes(savage, barbaric, nomadic, whatever you want to call those guys). Take note that I never played civ5.

      • Thomas says:

        Apart from anything else, it’s just kind of a cool point that Civ is completely and totally designed towards PvP even though the majority of games of Civ are probably single-player. And competitive PvP at that, Grey Caps ‘global HDI’ would be a really awesome co-operative goal which could co-exist with the other PvP goals.

    • Zukhramm says:

      I agree, I don’t think that is the view of the developers, but I’d like to point out that nowhere in the video does Chris say it is. It might not be what the view the developers intended for the game, but that doesn’t mean it’s not the view the mechanics do present. What the developers wanted or intended is irrelevant to that.

    • Akri says:

      “are you really going to play just a single city for thousands of years before you establish an empire?And are all of your cities going to be self governed vassals until you discover some more orderly fashion of a rule?”

      Honestly, both of those examples sound like they could be a lot of fun. If a Civ game tried to do either of those I’d be on board with it.

  3. Thearpox says:

    “These spearmen shouldn't be able to defeat my tank.”

    More like “No way my tank should be a match for those spearmen without proper supply lines and reinforcements.” I mean seriously, what is a tank going to do after it run out of fuel? (And ammo.) The spearmen will easily starve it out.

    Not perhaps on the topic of the Errant Signal, but those simplified comparisons of modern vs ancient arms always irritated me. And easily the biggest reason why is because of how OBVIOUS it should be to everyone which side should always be victorious, except for the fact that very often it is not obvious at all, and there are so many dependencies one can call up to prove a point that it even stops being funny.

    PS: Would have loved to see a tank run out of fuel at least once in Civilization. For some reason, it was suspension-of-disbelief breaking when I first discovered that they didn’t.

    • Daemian Lucifer says:

      I find it funny when people think tanks should run out of fuel,but they have no problem for a bunch of clubmen running around for thousands of years.With no food,to add even more of a silliness.

      • Thearpox says:

        Fuel doesn’t grow on trees? Unlike food?

        I mean yeah, both are ridiculous, and it is all up to each one to decide where they draw the line. And I wouldn’t argue that it is silly.

      • BeardedDork says:

        I was an Armored Crewman for a bit, Our tank used about 500 gallons of fuel per day, the four people inside only ate three times per day if we had time. It is possible to forage for food not so much for fuel, especially given that soldiers have weapons and weapons provide food.

        • Daemian Lucifer says:

          Were you guys treking through frozen wastelands for 25 years in nothing but your loincloths?Because thats what eventually happens to my warrior scouts.

          Also,the emphasis of my statement shouldve been more on the thousands of years part,not the food part.But I still find it funny that you two latched on the second part alone.

          • Thearpox says:

            Well, let’s pick on the thousands of years part, then. The human history stretches tens of thousands (or millions, depends on what you consider human) years. Somehow, they were just fine. And it’s not like there haven’t been loincloth warriors in recent history, Zulus being the famous example. The thing about spearmen, is that time itself does nothing to them. They exist, and they continue to exist until something more advanced comes and sweeps them away. The Civilization is actually relative realistic in that respect, in that you can meet these ancient warriors in person, they just won’t be very effective.

            That’s the thing with more and more advanced technology. A spearman needs his clothes and 2500 calories per day. A jet needs to be maintained, kept in an airport, consuming oil, with dedicated professional pilots.

            • Daemian Lucifer says:

              So you are willing to accept the abstraction of a loinclothed warrior standing in the arctic waste for 40 years(one turn in ancient times) and somehow pulling food and warmth from nothing,but you cannot accept the abstraction of a tank standing in a field for a year(one turn in modern times) and somehow pulling fuel and maintenance from that same nothingness?

              In fact,by the time you get tanks,the landscape changes so much that therell be villages and railroads everywhere.The infrastructure for the supplies is everywhere on the map.Its not the barren wasteland that your warriors managed to trek back in the prehistory.

              Thats what I find funny,people accepting one icon because….err,it looks ancient.But not accepting another icon because it looks modern.

              • Abnaxis says:

                Neither set of supplies comes out of nothingness. There’s upkeep for every unit in the game of about 1-3 gold, that comes out of your treasury. The abstraction is that the gold buys whatever food/fuel/weathering materials you need to maintain your troops.

                With this, there’s an underlying assumption that when you pay the price you get the infrastructure to deliver the supplies as well. The price used to go up with distance from the unit’s home-city, but that got streamlined down to a fixed cost per unit not stationed in a city in later iterations. More advanced units have always had higher upkeep.

                Considering the fact that a gold can be a non-negligible percentage of a full city’s tax surplus, and equivalent to the operation costs of many city improvements, this doesn’t seem too out of whack, as far as abstractions go.

                Interestingly, planes in the earlier Civ games would crash and burn if they didn’t end their turn in an airport, due to running out of fuel. So the invisible supply lines that fed the tanks didn’t feed the aircraft while they were in the air. That seems justified…

    • Ofermod says:

      In theory, that tank on the screen would be representative of not only a single tank, but the entire tank unit division (or however large it is) and support units.

      • Thearpox says:

        The same exact point can apply to the entire division. As for the support units, they game mentions such a big nothing about them, that I am not even sure if they are also represented by the tank, or supposed to be represented by the infantry units I am making along with the tank.

        There’s just something really satisfying about setting out a huge tank out on the middle of nowhere to sink in the first swamp. Not exactly possible with civilization.

    • If you can handle the basic point that the game overall is operating at a “historical shifts and population movements” level while battles suddenly are tactical yet happen in the same time frame, abstracting away supply lines shouldn’t be a huge thing. It’s just a consequence of that weirdness; happens in the 4X space games like Master of Orion too (there’s been a lot of cross-pollination between those and Civ; note how MOO I planets are quite abstract with generalized production and sliders for how much resources are devoted to building production, ships, defences, ecological cleanup, and research, while MOO II throws away the sliders and does planets as Civilization cities basically, with queues of buildings).

    • hborrgg says:

      The way I always rationalized it was that it wasn’t necessarily “Spearman vs tank”. The advantage of using older units was that they were cheaper and required less infrastructure to produce, so instead of literal “spearmen” the fight would be more akin to a modern, advanced army fighting against poorly armed and trained milita-style troops.

      Of course, that sort of begs the question why they bother calling them spearmen in the first place and why they feel the need to show these epic “Spearman blows up tank” animations.

  4. Grey Cap says:

    Wouldn’t it be cool if Civ 6 (or perhaps Civ This-Totally-Isn’t-Alpha-Centauri-2) had a structure like Sid Meier’s Pirates? I’m imagining that the individual ‘voyages’ that make up Pirates could translate either to governments or political movements. When your current political movement is losing steam, retire it (maybe instead of the money that’s divided up in Pirates, you could have some kind of national prestige awarded depending on how well you’d done?) and start playing as some fresh blood with different bonuses.

    Also, in my dream Civ game there’d be a victory condition based on the world’s HDI (Human Development Index). I think that the later games in the franchise track global lifespan and happiness; it should be easy to make a win condition along the lines of “Build this wonder and have average global life expectancy and happiness above these levels to win.” It would be something fun for a diplomatic player to try (boosting every Civ’s access to happiness bonuses, without making anybody strong enough to conquer the world for themselves).

    • Kyte says:

      The problem that such a victory condition has no competitive element (even cultural & science victories, the most passive win conditions, require you to race your opponent in something (tourism vs culture and tech & production, respectively)) and would unduly favor single-city civs with small military presence. (And that particular niche is typically reserved for cultural victory, anyways)

    • AtomF says:

      One mechanic I think would be neat is a “freedom vs centralized control” slider. Where you put the slider influences the game mechanics. Far on control, your society is less productive but you direct a greater share of the resources. Far on freedom, your nation grows more but you get a smaller cut. The rest of the income, resources, whatever still gets spent, but the AI spends it for you. So far on the freedom end you might have technologies being researched on their own, settlers being sent out on their own, etc.

  5. DaMage says:

    Wow the youtube comments are going nuts over this video….so much hate.

    I think some good points were hit on in the vYou are a Civ that gets certain bonuses and whatnot, but there is now of the inter-faction events that exist within a real nation from history.

    Recently I was playing Empire: Total War and you have a similar role, guiding your nation from a godlike view. However if you let your capital get overrun by a rebellion, your current form of government is ousted. You don’t lose, your monarchy just gets replaced by a republic or something which changes how much control you get.

    This is only a slight feature, but it the tip of an iceberg that a true history game would tell…how much has inter-faction politics changed nations both in history and in modern times. In the Civ games you basically just decide as all-mightly leader what is going to happen….and if you do a bad job the game just ends.

    • Daemian Lucifer says:

      “Wow the youtube comments are going nuts over this video….so much hate.”

      Thats why you shouldnt read youtube comments.Ever.

      “In the Civ games you basically just decide as all-mightly leader what is going to happen….and if you do a bad job the game just ends.”

      Not really.You can continue even if you lose your capital for whatever reason.As for politics,it used to play a much more significant role earlier,and switching to democracy or republic meant you were limiting your total control in order to gain a more prosperous empire.IV had some of that,with various social policies still giving you some restrictions and penalties.V went just the pro bonus route,which is a shame.

  6. Avatar says:

    I’m not sure how this is a failing, per se. It’s an abstraction they’ve added on so that you’re not just playing Red Team, Blue Team in the Team Fortress 2 style; the leaders don’t really have an effect on it, but the game isn’t really trying to simulate leadership. (Who wants to play a 4x game that argues with the orders you give? Anyone remember the absolute train wreck of MoO3?)

    I play Warhammer in my spare time, right? On one level, you could play the game without the models, with nothing but coins and markers moving according to certain rules, rolling the same dice against the same tables. But would it be as fun as having the orkish horde charge the intrepid Marines? Probably it would be pretty dull.

    I kind of get what you’re saying, in that having leaders at all just points out how silly it is that all these civs are being managed by immortal nation-builders without a hint of discontent that can’t be traced back directly to a happiness formula. But the alternatives would be weird – either to have a succession of leadership changes that has no game effect and doesn’t matter in any way, or to just have all the civilizations run by faceless bureaucracies? I don’t know that either of those would really be an improvement.

    I will say that Europa Universalis and, especially, Crusader Kings 2, are just in a different category on those issues. For those games, your leadership is part of the simulation, even if it’s still pretty abstracted; “who’s the king” is actually quite important and success in the game requires managing your bloodline (or, at least, doing so can impact your success…) But for Civ, which spans a much larger time frame, there’s just no way to hang a lampshade on the various kinds of governments involved.

  7. drkeiscool says:

    I’m sorry, but the remark about the title of Civilization completely threw me out of the video. Chris is confusing two connotations of the word civilization:

    1) A civilization, as in a group of people with common values and identity, and large enough to build systems and institutions to support itself

    2) civilized, as in the ideas of what makes one group of people inherently superior, and one group inherently inferior

    The first is not insulting or degrading to anyone or anything, and has been used to categorize or organize societies in terms of history, sociology, and politics.

    The second, however, is insulting and degrading, and has been used to justify conquest and slavery, and other atrocities.

    I don’t think the developers of Civilization intended the latter.

    • Janus says:

      These two terms are very much interrelated though.
      In Civ games they might have intended to go for the first variation – but the entire gameplay is structured along the question how “your” Civ compares to others. Every single thing you do in the game gets compared via an arbitrary point-system, so you can immediately get an impression how “superior” or “inferior” your Civ is compared to all others in one specific aspect or/and in general.

      Also, even the first term got and gets used in a exclusive, degrading fashion – as soon as you deny that some groups who’d fulfill your definition are “Civilizations” at all. Like Civ games do with the barbarians.

    • Nytzschy says:

      Chris isn’t confusing them: he’s pointing out the relation between these connotations. To be “civilized” is to have the qualities of “civilization,” after all. Hell, here’s the first definition my computer gives me for “civilization”:

      the stage of human social development and organization that is considered most advanced : they equated the railroad with progress and civilization.

      We can’t pretend there’s no bleed-over between these, regardless of what Civ developers innocently intend. That’s why Chris doesn’t just stick with the word “civilization” and goes on to talk about how the barbarian mechanic relates to the concept of what constitutes a civilization.

    • Zukhramm says:

      The thing about barbarians in at least Civ 5 is that in that world, some people are born to be barbarians and will always remain barbarians while some are born as civilizations and will always remain civilizations.

    • Andrew_C says:

      Whether or not the developers intended it, the mechanics reinforce the rather obnoxious and degrading concept that only agrarian and industrial civilizations are civilized. At least they avoid the equally obnoxious concept of the noble savage.

  8. kdansky says:

    I think the big issue with Civ is that it plays like an abstract strategy game, and looks like a realistic sandbox. If you look at Civ 1 or 2, the dissonance between game mechanics and thematic elements is much smaller, because the games did not spend so much effort on looking realistic.

    My biggest gripes with the series are of a completely different kind: The actual game mechanics are both complex and shallow. There are thousands of upgrades and units and buildings, and all of them do pretty much the same thing. Without a ton of (boring) analysis, it’s impossible to tell whether a granary or a garden will be the superior choice, and you have to make decisions nearly blind of what their consequences will be. Then twenty turns later you suddenly have a resource problem, because you built the wrong building earlier. Or you don’t, because it really does not matter that much which thing you make first.

  9. Grudgeal says:

    Watching this episode made me think of how the “Civilization” series draws parallels with Hobbes’ “Leviathan”. It essentially depicts an alternate universe in which the ideal social structure of “Leviathan” is the law: The State of Nature for man in “Civilization” is not the anarchism of all against all, presented by “Leviathan” as the moral evil to be overcome, but rather that of a commonwealth society ruled by an immortal and impersonal Sovereign (the player).

    All the essential participants of the world follow Hobbes’ commonwealth template: The Sovereign, which holds the unilateral consent of the governed (your citizens may grow “unhappy”, but you never really lose the omnipotent power you are granted because of it), can change the nature of the commonwealth at will and is unconcerned with anything but the advancement of the society with the individual citizen having no value at all. The barbarians, representing the anarchic State of Nature of Man in real life, are always in the minority, and all the commonwealths are unchanging, monolithic entities with a few labels swapped around but their essential nature remaining the same.

    I’d say the abstractions of “Civilization” takes it way beyond the level of the nation-state and into the realm of Platonic (or rather Hobbesian) ideal for the nature of the “state” itself, because as you point out, any notion of “nation” and “culture” are just labels for gameplay mechanics. There are no constitutions, no true cultural distinctions beyond gameplay bonuses, no succession or disagreement in the leadership, no ideological foundations or ego in anything in the gameworld, beyond simply having the commonwealth work towards the optimal “win-state”. Ultimately I don’t even think the “great man” theory is applicable because the bonuses of “Great People” are negligible to the output of an entire civilization in the long run, and the leader you pick is just a mask with a set of bonuses for the Sovereign.

  10. Blov says:

    I kind of think Chris is (/you are if you’re reading and you are Chris; internet etiquette is weird) criticising Civilisation for being a game rather than a sim.

    Surely the reduction of Athens and Sparta to bits of ‘Greece’ is a matter of scale in terms of both time and geography, rather than the model itself being inappropriate as a way of representing Athens and Sparta (whose archai in many ways were federal entities rather than nation states but still conceivable in terms of civilisation factions).

    Similarly, a lot of the simplicity of the early game in terms of representing things as already-states is a matter of keeping the early game easy and introductory before adding more complicated and specific mechanics later in the game (which I think is a great design principle). Loading the early game with a ton of additional mechanics to represent the coherence of different groups of peoples into nation states would hurt the gameplay side.

    I think the Civ AI borrows from old-school RTS expressive AI (as in Lords of the Realm 2 or Stronghold or even AOE 3’s mini-revival), which I really like.

    I’m not saying that this invalidates your interpretation of the game’s mechanics, just that you seem to be judging it by the standards of a sim rather than by the standards of a game. In my mind if the game has a comment to make it’s more about the nature of competition than about the nature of nation states (since the mechanics are about a group of players competing while the nation state thing is kind of just dressing for that).

    The competitive nature of the game drives players to progress, focus, making use of the unique skills of their civ and specialisation while simultaneously making the players paranoid, dishonest, wasteful, cynical and obsessed with ultimately kind of silly targets. And also that competition undermines the way you want to do things (hence, someone else gets a couple of the wonders you need as a culture civ, you suddenly become a lot more willing to compromise on the principle of non-violence you came into that game with).

    • Steve C says:

      I don’t believe Chris criticizing Civilization for being a game rather than a sim. Chris is criticizing the feedback loops of the game that create a certain ideology. This is evident when he talks about older Civ games that had slightly different mechanics. In older games you could pick the style of your buildings, or the form of government. Those were not sim choices, but game choices.

    • Cybron says:

      As is a running theme in his videos, Campster addresses the game’s mechanical abstractions as if they were literal commentary on what they approximate. He did a similar thing in his Assassin Creed’s videos, which are certainly not sims.

  11. Psy says:

    Crusader Kings 2 is not the best comparison to Civilization, that would be Victoria 2. In Victoria 2 you can have colonies, puppet states and have nations in your spear of influence. Also technology plays a small role in Crusader Kings 2 where in Victoria 2 it once again plans a major role and in Victoria 2 you can decide what kinda of society your nation is for example you can make Texas a communist nation (if you can prevent Texas from being gobbled up).

    • Daemian Lucifer says:

      Not one of the grand strategy games is a good comparison to civilization,because they all encompass a much smaller time period(and therefore much smaller changes in the society as a whole).The only one that can be compared is the rts empire earth,and that one is even more abstracted than civilization.

      • Psy says:

        There are mods that extend the period of Victoria into modern times.

        For example Victoria 2- Victoria Ultimate Mod:

      • 4th Dimension says:

        If you really want to play as one civ through epochs you can still do that in Paradox games, you only need multiple games. So you start your campaign as two bit nobody duke, and when you finish the CK timeframe, there are converters that convert your CK2 save to EU4 save. Than when you finish your EU game you can convert EU to Victoria game. And finally convert Vicky to HOI

        Now admittedly these converters aren’t perfect and might overlook many important things from previous game mechanics simply because the mechanics are different, but still they’ll allow you to continue with your world.

  12. kingmob says:

    I don’t understand his criticism. I don’t get the impression Civ wants to be anything else but a board game. It’s very much focussed on the game and simply enjoys its theme. I don’t think it makes a lot of sense to criticise it for something it doesn’t aspire to be.

    Since no argument is complete without an analogy: It’s like criticising abstract art because it is not realistic. It is certainly true and it is entirely possible that that’s why you don’t like it, but you can’t blame the art nor the artist for that.

  13. Darren says:

    Ooh, one of my favorite video game ideas! I love thinking about the differences between particular iterations of Civ, specifically IV (CIV) and V (CiV).

    CIV strikes me as being both optimistic about the fate of humanity and heavily biased. I don’t mean this to sound judgmental, but the game has more of a secular, liberal bent to it than CiV. There are no actual differences between religions and they serve little purpose beyond diplomatic modifiers and sources of income for the various civs. Corporations are merely modified religions dedicated to nothing but money and using resources. The game strongly encourages you to accept Free Religion, Environmentalism, and Democracy.

    CiV is considerably more neutral. While environmental concerns are excised entirely–a statement in and of itself, perhaps–religion can be much more prominent, with beliefs that encourage fanatical spread, holy wars, and more. Or it might not be. Really, the game is much more about what history can be than what the designers imagine it should be. Fascists can win culturally or diplomatically as easily as anyone else. Whether this is an improvement or not depends on your perspective, but it’s certainly a grimmer, less idealistic approach to the depiction of human progress.

    • AtomF says:

      Wait, how is a less constrained view of history _grimmer_ than one locked into the developer’s view of how things should go?

      • Darren says:

        I meant “grimmer” in that there’s no sense of some inevitable march of progress. If you don’t care for CIV’s view of things, it’s a grim depiction itself.

        But I find something rather horrific–and true, to lay my cards out on the table–about the idea that the only thing that’s certain is that whoever exerts the most pressure will win the game (of history).

  14. SlothfulCobra says:

    Alpha Centauri was probably the truest expression of what the Civilization series was all about. A bunch of imperfect people blown up into horrible titans that slam the populations of the world against each other in an epic struggle, no matter the cost.

  15. Sabrdance (MatthewH) says:

    3 points:

    1.) As a review, this gets perilously close -possibly even crosses the line -to reviewing the game he wishes they’d made rather than the game they did make. I understand the sentiment -I’ve griped that my Shogun 2 game that I “lost” because I didn’t conquer Kyoto missed entirely the fact that my Daimyo’s grandson was the Heir to the Empire, and his cousins were the Daimyos of the three great powers, and why conquer what they can inherit -but Shogun 2 isn’t that game. Nor is Civilization the game being reviewed here. Ultimately, there’s nothing stopping you from playing by a “different set of rules.” I’ve played several Alpha Centauri games where my goal was not “victory” by the rules of the game, but a stable multi-polar world that -combined -would hold off the Planet Flowering, and there’s the famous case of the 10 year Civ 2 game. In the same way that it is wrong to excessively praise the series because of these variations, it is also wrong to excessively condemn the series because they are not hard coded. At heart the game is Risk with an Edutainment veneer. Review accordingly.

    2.) As criticism -in the broader meaning -it is interesting. Well, potentially interesting -I confess I mostly settled on point 1. This is over-thinking and making mountains of mole-hills. The rules are what they are because that is the game. Everything else is flavor text. This level of scrutiny is running against Aristotle’s admonition not to try to study something more than it can bear. In other words, I think the causation is backwards. The game isn’t the way it is because of a particular view of civilization -the view of civilization is dictated by the rules of the game. But if we divorce the discussion entirely from the game and just ask some of the underlying questions: how do states see the world? What’s the difference between nations and states? How are they related? How do states -which aren’t people -systematize their orders for, well, people? What is the meaning of “Greatness?” Can we apply that concept to civilizations or states? These are interesting questions, and the attempt to answer them in Civilization can be interesting as well -but the discussion ultimately tells us more about the discussants than the game.

    3.) Finally, perhaps it is just because this is my bailiwick, but I am annoyed by the eliding of those questions in the review. If you don’t like Samuel Huntington, Hegemonic Theory, or Succession Theory and wish to align yourself instead with some form of globalism or civilizational dialogue -just say so. But in saying so recognize that you are taking a position on the debate no less than Sid Meier. And this returns to point 1 -if, for the sake of argument, Civilization were taking a Huntington “Clash of Civilizations” view, criticizing it for not incorporating your preferred theory of International Relations is questionable on the the same grounds that criticizing a truck for not being a sports car is. The discussion of the differences can be interesting (see point 2), but ultimately it is not a criticism of a truck to say that it is a lousy drag racer.

    • Zukhramm says:

      If a game exists we can and should look at what its mechanics might say. That is not overthinking it, criticizing it or claiming the designers had some particular view, it’s just examining the game as what it actually is.

      • MichaelGC says:

        That’s fine, but I’d say that if that’s the approach one is taking, it probably needs to be emphasised several times. Otherwise, people – even extraordinarily intelligent people! – are going to assume that you are making claims about the developer’s views and/or framing assumptions – cf. Shamus’ second sentence above.

        Once this additional context has been allowed to slip in (even if in error), then someone who disagrees (i.e. unlike Shamus) is going to start wanting to talk about things such as: what was technologically possible at the time of the original games; how more recent games bear some responsibility to continue on in a similar vein*; etc. etc.

        By this stage everyone starts furiously talking past each other, and the chances of an illuminating debate on either of the two effectively separate subjects are greatly diminished.

        *Imagine the interweb meltdown if Civ 6 starts off as some admixture of Crusader Kings II and The Sims! It’d be worse than one of Campster’s YouTube threads…

        • Zukhramm says:

          I’d say one of the most important trait of “extraordinarily intelligent people” is not making assumptions.

          • Cybron says:

            And I would say making assumptions is a hallmark of the human experience.

            I think Shamus is a remarkably intelligent person and, as MichealGC points out, he made the assumption in question. This isn’t a hypothetical situation. Maybe in an ideal world, no one would ever assume anything not explicitly stated (though I don’t think that would mesh very well with actual real world communications). But clearly, it happens.

            • Zukhramm says:

              We might be talking about different assumptions because I don’t really see Shamus making them.

              But here’s an assumption from me: I assume that people who keep watching Errant Signal are by now familiar enough with Chris and his way of looking at and talking about games as not to need everything re-explained in every video. If you’re not, watch “Keep your politics out of my video games”, which this is basically a sequel to.

              • Cybron says:

                I’m talking about the assumptions named in MichealGC’s post which you are directly responding to (which directly references where in Shamus’s post the assumption is stated).

                To point it out clearly: “Otherwise, people ““ even extraordinarily intelligent people! ““ are going to assume that you are making claims about the developer's views and/or framing assumptions ““ cf. Shamus' second sentence above.”

                • Zukhramm says:

                  I don’t even know what this thread is about anymore.

                  People can make all kinds of assumptions and I don’t think its reasonable that a video has to have safeguards and explanations against all of them.

                  If people think this is some kind of hate video on Civlization and how evil the developers are for being nationalists no explanation will help. If people are not going to pay attention to what you’re saying in the first place, there’s no way to argue at all.

    • Darren says:

      I posted this up above, but it becomes more apparent when you compare multiple iterations of Civ rather than dissecting one in isolation.

      For instance, the differences between religion in Civ IV and Civ V are huge, and there’s no real reason why the rules have to be different. I’d argue that the perception of religion has to inform the mechanics rather than the mechanics dictating how religion must be represented because there’s no strict need for religion within the design. In Civ IV it’s a source of income for the founding civilizations and a (rather arbitrary) factor in diplomacy, all but randomizing civs’ attitudes towards one another. Neither are essential to the baseline 4X experience, and indeed were it to be removed it would not significantly alter the experience. The mechanic exists to reflect the real world and can thus be evaluated on that reflection.

      • Jay says:

        I get the impression, over the series, that they’re trying to get away from the idea of history as an endless series of battles for turf.

        Actual history was pretty much an endless series of battles for turf until we invented nukes, and now we’re stuck in limbo until we either figure out a better way to govern ourselves or somebody nuts up and presses the big red button.

    • “At heart the game is Risk with an Edutainment veneer. Review accordingly.”

      He did. He noted the interesting influences, tensions and contradictions between the Risk and the veneer.

      On 3. — Well, I would argue that Huntington’s thesis is not so much about scholarship as about political utility as propaganda. Nobody would have ever heard of Huntington if he wasn’t useful to powerful groups who want there to be a clash of civilizations or at least for people to think there is so that they’ll pipe down and quit complaining about military spending or being spied on or whatever. If I thought it was a mistaken theory that would be one thing, but near as I can make out it isn’t a real theory competing in the sociology or political science arena at all, it’s just a useful distraction.

      However, the problem here is precisely that the makers of Civilization are not espousing a Huntington view, or any view in any acknowledged way. This reminds me of when I see people railing against ideology. The problem is that everyone has an ideology. Every pronouncement on culture or politics or economics or history (and the game Civilization is all four) has an implicit worldview and is, in effect, an argument for it by assuming it to be true. The people writing the game probably never really thought themselves about just what they were assuming, but their assumptions are in there anyway. It is wise when consuming such things to gain an awareness of what their underpinnings are, otherwise you risk just implicitly incorporating them into your own worldview as “common sense” that you “know” without knowing why you know it. This review talks about what those underpinnings are and I don’t see why that’s a bad thing.

    • Abnaxis says:

      I think you’re making an erroneous underlying assumption, which I’ve seen many times over in response to this post, but I see it more in your 3 points above so I’m responding to it here.

      Namely, a lot of people are assuming that there is one, single optimum way to construct game mechanics to make an enjoyable game experience, and that any message the mechanics convey is just an incidental result of conforming to the limitations imposed by Civilization being a game. The central conceit seems to be that there are so many design constraints or (laughably) technical constraints, that there is just no way to create a Civilization game that doesn’t convey the themes it does without ruining the mechanics.

      That is a very narrow view to take. Even within technical limitations–which I would argue aren’t really at issue here, since the Civ games have become MORE nationalistic in the expression of their mechanics as technology has advanced–there is no limit on what design decisions can be made. There is literally an infinite number of ways to implement a Risk-type turn-based strategy computer game, yet the argument seems to be that Civ is implemented the way it is because that’s the One Best Way to make a compelling gaming experience, and there’s no reason to delve deeper into the underlying message. “Studying it more than it can bear,” as it were.

      The thing is, there are countless ways to modify the gameplay formula that don’t detract from the experience–or even enhance it–that have a profound impact on the message of the mechanics.

      For example, the “unified nation of cities from the dawn of history idea” can be easily nullified if you lock settlers and city annexation behind a tech barrier. Make it so that every nation starts off essentially like one of Civ5’s city-states–you can pillage and raze your neighbors, but you can’t support a full-on nation until you reach (say) the Bronze Age. This would make the game MORE accessible (the most complicated decision in the early game is deciding when to build your first settler), and portray an evolution of society as starting with independent tribes that eventually advance social structures capable of supporting nations. All this, out of a minor rearrangement of the tech tree.

      But that’s not what MicroProse or Firaxis did. Rather, their design carries the underlying assumption that the Sovereign State is all that matters; that either nothing existed before or that nothing else held significance outside the formation of the State. That sends a message.

      • Cybron says:

        There’s not one true way to implement anything, but we can still compare ways and make conclusion about how they differently impact play experience. If we compare your proposed model with the existent one, we can see a clear difference in play experience. Yours locks players out of the core civilization game model until they reach a given tech barrier. It’s clearly not the same gameplay experience. Civ is not a Paradox game is not Spore is not a historical RTS. They are all different implementations of the same (or at least a similar) idea, but to say the are interchangeable is laughable.

        If we strip away the ‘flavor’ from these games, reduce them to spreadsheets, identity-less bundles of numbers and decisions interacting in huge complex game structure, we can clearly see that they are different games, with different approaches to creating a user experience. Shifting elements between them would vastly shift the play experience of each. Suggesting that the game’s creators could have taken this or that approach as if it were a change to be freely made with no impact on the final product is misleading at best.

        • Abnaxis says:

          I am not saying that any proposed change will absolutely not have any effect on the overall experience (although the effect could be minimized–see below). I am trying to show how relatively minor changes can make a profound impact on the themes conveyed by the mechanics, without violating the overall design goals or running into technical limitations.

          Referring back to the video, you know how Chris talked about the usual structure of a Civ game? You start off in an exploring phase, followed by a rapid-expansion phase, followed by a work-toward-victory phase.

          The game creates this structure by walling off complexity within the tech tree. You can’t build a space-ship for science victory until you unlock space flight in the tree. You can’t earn a diplomatic victory until you unlock the United Nations. On the default map-type, you can’t win a military victory without crossing the ocean. This is to say nothing of all the mechanics the game gradually add that aren’t related to victory–roads, tile improvements, nuclear weapons, planes, etc. etc… All these victory conditions and mechanics add complexity to the game, but you don’t have to worry about them in the beginning, when all you have are clubs. Rather, they are introduced gradually as you progress with science.

          My proposal follows the same pattern, starting the player off limited in how they can expand and adding complexity when they unlock it on the tech tree. In fact, I would go so far as to say that you could implement my idea with virtually no effect on the game-flow itself as it stands without modification. Armies capable of taking cities and settlers are both prohibitively expensive. You are going to get a few science discoveries before you can start production on a settler or start marching an occupying force. If the designers balance the tech barrier low enough that the science can be done before you could normally afford to expand, there’s effectively zero difference in the way the game plays out. And that’s just one example off the top of my head.

          This is all a long way of saying that, in the infinite space that holds all the possible game designs that could ever be made, there exists at least one that conveys a different theme, while not drastically altering the play experience in a significant way. I’m not saying Spore and Paradox games and Civ are all inter-changeable–clearly, they were all built using different design goals and philosophies. However, it is eminently possible to come up with a set of mechanics that stay true to the gameplay design philosophies of Civilization without those same mechanics carrying such a strong undertone of nationalism–and the same could be said of the thematic content inherent in the mechanics in Spore and in Paradox games, so comparing all of them them on the basis of thematic content is apt.

          • Cybron says:

            If there’s zero difference to the way the game plays out, then how are you not just adding needless busywork to the gameplay experience? Would this phase actually be FUN for most players? It sounds to me like the thing you’re suggesting is effectively a phase of the game where you don’t make any decisions. I don’t think I’d personally enjoy a ‘waiting for the actual game to start’ phase of the game.

            I’m not saying it would or wouldn’t be – there’s obviously not even a universal answer, given how subjective the question is. And yes, you theoretically could make the phase matter – there are, has been said, infinite implementations of this idea. My point is you’re still really underselling the impact of such a phase on the final product.

            • Abnaxis says:

              That’s how Civilization works. At no point during any game of Civ are you not “waiting for the game to start.” In the beginning, you send troops around to explore while you wait for a worker to get built. Then you build improvements while you wait for your settler to build. Then you micromanage more improvements while you wait to discover boats. Or maybe you’re already in armed conflict, which means finding ways to busy yourself while your troops walk to wherever you want them to attack. Then there’s more waiting, because it takes forever to actually take a city…

              If you don’t like doing busywork while waiting for areas of the game to open up, Civ is not the right game for you. If all you want to do is fly planes around and engage in culture wars, you’re going to be doing busy work for a lot of turns if you start in ancient times. From this perspective, I think waiting for settlers/annexation fits the already established pattern pretty well. You’re engaging in tribal activities as you wait to be able to settle new cities.

              Not only that, but as a purely theoretical exercise, I’m also saying you could make settlers require research without any effect on the gameplay, because you already have to wait a significant amount of time before you can afford to have another city even in the base games, it just depends on production and food surplus rather than science. If the science to make a settler is possible 40 turns, but it’s utterly impractical to start building one anyway until turn 80 because of cost, there’s effectively no difference whatsoever in how the game plays out if you lock settlers behind such a tech advancement. How much you feel the difference gameplay is proportional to the extra time it takes to spread to a new city with and without the change (which can be zero), but it still has an effect in how “civilization” is portrayed through the mechanics.

              And again, this is just one example.

    • Peter H. Coffin says:

      But overthinking and mountain-building is FUN! That’s reason enough to do nearly anything.

  16. CraigM says:

    I think much of your criticism, Chris, stems from the limits of game design at the origins of Civ, and the limits of something being a game.

    You bring up CKII, but that, as you noted, is focused on an individual. A better point of comparison is Europa Universalis or Victoria, as they are focused on the state. Compare the complexity and depth of something like EU or Vicky to Civ, and there is a lot more to track. By necessity to make something playable that spans history you need to abstract. Abstracting things so that individuals fade in importance is one aspect, imagine trying to track population like you do in Victoria.

    Similarly the notion of how you play as a civilization in the modern sense, what alternative do you propose? How would you design a game capable of modeling Athenian democracy, Spartan militarism, Phonecian traders, Roman republic, Etruscians, Latins, Umbrians, Syracusan, Goths, Gauls, Picts, Alamani, Vandals, Celtiberians, Franks, Saxons, Bretons, and, oh yeah, I haven’t even left the time and region that the Roman Empire existed with. Sure you could make a game forge the various kingdoms of ancient China into one single state, but that’s a game in itself. To make a game covering wide swaths of history it, by default, has to make the civilizations rather arch.

    Not to mention that the win states are a factor of it being a game. Sure you can make a historical strategy where your goals and win states are open, after all that’s what the Paradox grand strategy games do, but they appeal to a very different mindset and audience. They have a narrower focus, broader mechanics, and open options. They also sell a fraction of what Civ does, and that’s because more people want a game, with defined win states. You can argue that those win states are biased towards certain historical cultural viewpoints, and you wouldn’t be wrong, but they broadly cover some of the most prominent aspects of civilizations.

    None of the criticisms you made Chris are wrong, but neither are the design decisions that you criticize. They both belie a perspective on what each of you want a historical game to be. Civilization is nothing more than about showing the broad strokes of historical development. It hits on several of the major factors of human development, horses, irrigation, importance of rivers and seas, gold, iron, cartography, art. Sure the way some things are modeled is rather rough, but having freedom improve science does say something, even if that something does have a particular bias. It just seems that what Civ is meant to be, a broad exploration of human progress, isn’t what you want anymore. Fortunately the Paradox games seem to serve what you are looking for.

  17. Tobias says:

    There is actually one game that was a massive influence on Civilization. That game is Civilization the board game.
    That one also declares exactly what definition of civilization it refers to. And that is the literal meaning, which is the existance of cities.
    Civilisation is about cities. And babarians don’t have cities ( in the older versions of the game ).

    As Chris has noticed the games are progressing to less clearly express ideals, as the game makers put more focus on gameplay instead on message.

    • Oh, yeah, Civilization the board game. That’s a great game by the way.
      Note, though, that Civ the board game has one massive contrast with Civ the computer game: In the board game unless you use variant rules there is no such thing as a military victory. Spread is self-limiting. The winner must spread their civilization adequately, manage their territory well, keep conflict within bounds, be good at trade, and acquire their advances judiciously. But you can’t just out-spread everybody, you have a maximum size.
      The winner has the most civilization cards at the end, thus being the most civilized; many of the advances have no, or very limited, game advantages but you need them because if you don’t have eg “Philosophy” you’re obviously not very civilized.

      • Aldowyn says:

        I’ve always thought Civ should have harsher limits on the size of your civilization and number of cities you can have. Just snowballing across entire continents feels weird, even as a model of empire building in the model of Alexander, Rome, or the Mongols.

  18. Another influence on the Civ games–and this influence goes back and forth–has always been the SF space 4X games. They’re just like Civilization.
    Planet = city
    Space/galaxy = world
    Other civilizations = alien races
    Tech starts further ahead but works about the same.

    Now the thing about these games is that since instead of various different tribes of a single species, we’re dealing with completely different critters from different stars, it’s natural that they are very separate. Since we start from high technology and star travel, unified politics at least in the face of alien races is pretty plausible. And since it’s clearly not the real world and is dealing with situations and technological and social situations that have never existed, it’s easier to handwave any worries about realism.
    But Civilization may have been influenced by the space games’ separation/competition between alien races, using that as the model for separation/competition between human “civilizations”. I can see that pushing towards a more absolute nation-state-ish, winner-takes-all, military-confrontation style, without necessarily thinking about alternatives.

  19. Aldowyn says:

    Hmm. I seem to remember discussing a part of this topic with Chris on twitter, months ago. Particularly how Civilization inherently makes value judgements on what makes a Civilization ‘successful’, and how the idea of a civilization ‘standing the test of time’ is… unrealistic.

  20. hborrgg says:

    I don’t really have much of a problem with any nationalistic themes present in the series, just that most of the core mechanics used by the series utterly fail to provide a very accurate representation of history (I wouldn’t even say that the games do a decent job at abstraction).

    What’s more, I think it’s pretty apparent that at the series has gone on it has sort of given up on any attempts towards simulation, especially if you look at Civ V.

  21. Ringwraith says:

    Well, at least I can probably see why no matter who I get in a random roll I usually end up making a small-ish empire which peacefully develops its cities and only really has a military if someone decides to declare war.
    It’s like I’m trying to imitate a budget Switzerland or something.

  22. hborrgg says:

    As for the barbarians I guess I never really looked into them too deeply. I seem to recall this from Civ III:

    “President Lincoln! A group of Alabama Barbarians have been spotted near our boarders!”

  23. Heather says:

    Videos like this are why I unsubscribed from Errant Signal.

  24. Abnaxis says:

    I wish I could do the writing for the modern Civ games. Or rather, I wish I could head up a team of writers for a recent Civ game, because I’m much better at editing than at writing.

    I think the problem with the historical leaders is that they are played too straight. Lincoln is framed as the Lincoln, shepherding his people from caveman times to the space age, which is absurd.

    What I would prefer, is for the game to embrace the absurdity, and instead of treating it like that little collection of cities is really the United, and you’re competing with Lincoln, who is ostensibly a leader elected by the virtual people of the United States, treat the AI like it’s time-traveling Lincoln, who has come to the future to play Civ with you, and he’s going to try to carry on like he would have were it not for that unfortunate bullet in his head. He’s guiding his simulated citizens as they see fit to make up for missed opportunity. Acknowledge the fact that he isn’t really a leader of people, he’s another player in the game like you.

    My aunt has a card-game program she’s played since the 90’s, where each PC player can have a voiced character. I think her usual partner is a tyrannosaurus, and she usually plays against a bear and an alien in Bridge. It’s patently absurd, but the game acknowledges the absurdity and cracks jokes at it, so it isn’t jarring and it gives a human face that enhances the experience.

    I want to see Civ do the same thing. If you break a treaty with Ghandi, don’t make him upset because you are attacking his people, make him upset because “we totally agreed that you’d let me play pacifist!” Change the tone of the NPCs so it’s like sitting around a kitchen-table RPG with people role-playing the historical figures, don’t write it like they actually are historical figures in their own time for eternity.

    • Cybron says:

      I recall a video game version of Risk that did something like that. I mostly remember Benjamin Franklin making bad jokes and saying things like “The enemy of my enemey is also my enemy!”

  25. MadHiro says:

    One of the concepts that was jetisoned from Master of Orion 3 that was keen was intended to address the whole,” Who exactly are these immortal god-kings anyways?” problem that Shamus mentions in his post. The player was a non-personified ‘spirit’, and the civilization their running had a government with a head of state / senate / council / whatever as was appropriate for the technology and social choices the player had made. It split the -government- of the civilization from the the -civilization- itself. Much like how the French Civilization in Civilization should cycle through various dyansties and titles as revolutions happen.

  26. Felblood says:

    I was actually really disappointed with this one.

    Even as a kid, I was really fascinated by what each of the Civ games had to say about what it’s particular dev team’s view on civilization, culture and history.

    However, I always felt the real meat of the conversation was in what each game did differently. i.e. the way trade, religion, diplomacy and technology theft was handled differently every time.

    To fixate on the mechanical commonalities is really missing the interesting part of this exercise. The things that are true of every Civilization game are things that are largely inescapable.

    As uncomfortable as the barbarian mechanics can be, especially with the seriously terrible way the Native Americans were dismissed in Civ 4, you simply cannot take them out of the game. You have to have neutral factions that can’t be negotiated with, of skillful diplomacy would make the game tediously boring, especially at the lower difficulty settings. There were some attempts in the past to make these factions more PC by casting them as bandits and rebels as you advanced through the eras, and I’d love to see more of that, but however you justify it in the narrative, this mechanic is essential.

    The win conditions, in particular say nothing about the opinions of any given developer, because they are fundamentally inescapable. You literally could not get away with selling a Civilization game without competitive win conditions, and God help you if you have the unmitigated gall to cut one of them. You could start your own TBS series with a more sandbox-ish philosophy, but there are certain expectations of a sequel.

    Did anyone notice how Civ 5 let’s you keep using units that were built using imported oil, even if your trade agreements weren’t renewed? That’s a deliberate dodge of making a political statement about depending of foreign oil, for the sake of making a game that is fun to play. These decisions are interesting from a design and marketing standpoint, but they don’t speak to us about the devs, the way that each redesign of the cultural victory system reveals.

    Remember how Civ 1 and 2 gave research, rather than jut gold, for maintaining good trade routes? –Or the way Civ 4 players were encouraged to foster religious diversity and coexistence, over the short-term gains to be made from persecuting other faiths, even if it meant going to war (which was particularly costly and troublesome, in Civ 4, as well) to defend that ideal of freedom and harmony?

    I know it doesn’t fit well in a 15-20 minute video, but that’s what I wanted to hear your ideas about.

  27. Paul Spooner says:

    Hmm, you make a few very interesting points about the ludological philosophy of the series.

    I remember distinctly, standing in line for school photos. My brother and I had purchased Civilization the night before, and were pouring over the manual. So many tech trees to memorize! So many mechanics to study! That year we played like crazy and grew to really enjoy the systems. Then, almost exactly one year later, Civilization II arrived. School photos saw us standing in line again, this time with a brand new manual thicker than ever.

    We played Civ II quite a bit as well, but it wasn’t quite the same. Something was missing, though I’ve never gone back to figure out what. Those screenshots really took me back though. Thanks for the analysis and the insights!

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