In 1991, Sid Meier released Civilisation, starting off a habit that didn’t really get kicked at any point after that. It’s kind of hard to underestimate the legacy of Civilisation as a game, as a genre. It isn’t that no game of its ilk happened before, that’s not how history works. We rarely are given hard ‘starts’ for some thing, so instead we have to kind of point to places where specific, defined, observed events. There were probably videogames about running countries before that point, possibly games with even more elaborate structures and systems and different ideological perspectives. The thing is, most of them didn’t succeed to the degree that Civilisation did as a commercial product, and the upshot of that is, we now think of that point as the ‘start’ of these games.
That’s kind of the nature of the game, too. There’s a lot of stuff that just starts in it, around the same time, and even if it’s in the framing of a video game, there’s still this whole concern about framing. There are a number of civilisations in the game, and if you’re not a member of those civilisations, the only way you exist is either as a pool of common cities everyone can make or as ‘barbarian tribes.’ Given this means that this is a game where you can build Jerusalem, Mecca, or Brisbane, but not be any of the cultures that actually founded those cities, it’s an interesting unintentional statement.
Still I’m not here to retread the old conversations about how Civilisation views the question of ‘who gets to be a civilisation’ or even ‘what does it mean to be civilised.’ That’s something other people have done, often better than me, and with a broader context of other Civilisation games. I haven’t really played any of the other ones after the first. I’ve installed them, I’ve played around with them a bit, but they all bore me and I just find myself wanting to come back to this one, with its systems. Part of it is just mental headspace. I don’t think I’ve got it in me to care too much about the specifics of each new game, the way things are almost but not quite the same. It’s just too much and I don’t really feel the absence of those things in the game I like to play.
What is remarkable about Civilisation 1 is how it scales.
When you start playing Civilisation you’ll be introduced to its wide variety of systems without a lot of clear explanation. You start with some starting technology, some starting units, and a starting location that may or may not feature free resources, units or good terrain and you’ve got to make the life out of it. It took me literally years to work out what was what.
One thing I remember from my childhood years was that developing technology seemed the best way to ‘succeed,’ because that’s what gave you military units you could use to fight and protect. I had this weird sort of hypermilitaristic state where all my cities would endlessly produce just defensive units, until most cities had sometimes six or eight military units guarding a population of 2-3. Which you might be wondering ‘what’s the point’ or, more likely, ‘what do you mean?’ because you aren’t familiar with a twenty-five year old videogame’s intricate systems.
Still, I came back to it as an adult, as a sort of idle game I can appreciate in a small window while I’m doing other things, Civilisation turns out to be a startlingly easy game to break. Not even with cheats or exploits – the game gives every single city square a certain ‘base’ advancement, meaning that making a new city will typically yield more results than letting a neighbouring city develop that square themselves. You need some limit on it because you don’t want to go haywire but the general idea is that if you control an area, you can probably get a really good output of all the stuff you want by ensuring that about a quarter of that area is covered in cities, rather than giving those cities the much larger non-competitive territory they can hypothetically control.
The upshot of this is that you can leap up the tech tree at a speed that makes even the most meth’d up monkey wonder why they ever bothered throwing the bone if you’re going to mock the teleology of technological progress like that. I had access to superconductors before we even hit the ADs, at one point, just because the game doesn’t do anything to slow you down. And why should it, it’s just trying to let you play with emergent systems. Anything else would be ridiculous.
There’s no inherent reason any given slick of land should have another civilisation on it, meaning to meet with other cultures and engage in the hypothetically important civilisational struggle, you have to develop both transport boats and the units you want to send, and have a civilisation that appreciates that kind of military adventurism (which hypothetically, democracies don’t like).
Even if you just want to go say hi and discover other nations and see how they’re doing!
And each city can only support so much in the way of units and their presence in the world, meaning that you basically have to dedicate a city or two to supporting the task of ‘finding someone else’ when all you can gain out of it is an opportunity to smush some loser underfoot. Why bother? You can wind up in the later stages of a successful civilisation, with heavily developed technology and nobody to talk to.
Then there’s the way the game’s economic engine is deeply flawed too. You can sell a lot of the buildings you make, so you can dedicate cities’ production efforts to generate money, and you can then use that money to build things in other cities as well – meaning even small cities that aren’t growing much are still generating wealth for your more important, focused cities.
And with this knowledge, and the ability to fly up the tech tree, suddenly you’re left with no real reason to want to build most of anything in a city. People don’t need a coliseum to be happy, they need more people in the city doing the important job of making entertainment. The solution to every problem in a city, more or less, can be developed by just growing more, and that rewards growth more than anything else, and the systems that let you grow the most are the ones that discourage you from doing anything military, but that’s okay because going and finding people to fight is a pain in the bum. But, you can’t just sit back, develop tech, and goof around until the space race kicks in, because the way you build things in this game is to tell your cities to build them, and you do that through a menu. This menu cannot handle a game state where you have access to every piece of technology to build with, or even most of it. It splits into two menus when the menus get too busy, but if there are too many wonders and nobody’s built them… it just stops. You open up the build menu to make something – like one of those wonders – and you get a blank menu of nothing. You have been locked out of all production for the rest of the game, or until someone else develops your technology level, makes some wonders, and shrinks what appears on that menu.
But the game isn’t likely to do this because wonder building is really slow and annoying and a lot of the benefits are transitory, especially if you’re the tech powerhouse of the world learning the hell out of everything. It’s fine to have a Great Wall of Newark but if it’s going to be useful for 2-3 turns at best because you’ve already almost developed the tech that makes it stop working, you can be left wondering why you bother. The game itself knows this and mostly doesn’t make the enemy civilisations try to make them except as a random event, usually tied to their success.
You know, random. Like most of the other things in this game. Because the game doesn’t actually play by its own rules, at least not when you turn up the difficulty. The game largely speaking plays fair on individual moments – unit to unit combat all behaves pretty comparatively – but the enemy civs just behave in really banana ways that replicate the appearance of following the rules, but really don’t. They build faster, earn more, and in some cases teleport to ensure they can oppose you.
That’s the funny thing about this game, to me. All these years later, as I play it, knowing the game now, the priorities of how to play have shifted. I could make it harder by avoiding this strategy, but I like discovering things fast and I like how goofy it makes the tech curve compared to history. I could make myself a limit of only accepting military victories, or something similar, but all of that is just my fixing the problem in the game itself.
Basically, Civilisation wasn’t a game made that ever expected you to be good at it.
Isn’t that interesting? I don’t have some mastery of the game, I don’t have a fixed gameplan for how to beat everything in the game. I just have one simple strategic trick and it finances everything else I want to do, which is usually make some goofy looking tech utopia with funny names and all while trying to balance the strategically interesting problem of making sure I build enough wonders of the world to stop the game from bricking.
And in that, I have found a new game in this old game, a game with very different goals built around very familiar pieces.