Thursday, May 6, 2010

Great Games #1: Civilization II

I intend this to be the first in a series of posts about great computer games I've played, and it only seems right to start with perhaps my favorite game of all time, Sid Meier's Civilization II.

I never played the original Civilization, first released by Microprose in 1991, but it doesn't appear to have been too much different from the 1996 sequel, at least in gameplay. In Civ II, you start in 4000 BCE as the leader of a primitive nomadic tribe (represented in the game as a single settler unit) and your goal, over the next few thousand years of human history, is to found a nation, research technologies up to and including space travel, and dominate your rivals either militarily or by being the first civilization to send a spaceship to Alpha Centauri. Yes, the scope of the game is incredible.

The very first thing you must do is choose the site of your capital city. As in the real world, terrain is important. A mountain might be easy to defend, but it could leave you short of food. Best is on a river or seacoast, surrounded by fertile grassland, with good fishing nearby, maybe some hills or forests. Ideally, you want some special resources in the city radius, too. Unfortunately, most of the world is unknown to you. You'll have to explore to discover anything other than your immediate surroundings.

And you really can't waste time. The game is turn-based, which means that you can think as long as you want before making decisions. But when you click to end the turn, game-years will pass. If you don't want to get left behind by quicker civilizations, you need to pick the best spot immediately available and found your first city. That will use up your initial settler.

(screenshot from TheCrankyHermit)

With a city established, you can start building units - settlers, which build roads and alter terrain when they're not being used to found new cities, and primitive armies to defend your realm. And you can start researching new technologies, beginning with such simple discoveries as pottery, horseback riding, and the alphabet. These discoveries open up new avenues for research, permit the construction of more powerful military units, and let your cities build new improvements.

Cities require food to grow, and they normally generate (and require) taxes and production. Much of the fun in Civ II lies in siting your cities, building roads and railroads, improving terrain (mining, irrigating, clearing jungles, etc.), and ensuring that your cities, and your whole civilization, grow. I usually have hordes of settlers - and later, engineers - working everywhere. Civilization isn't just a wargame. Building is at least as important as warfare, and generally more fun, at least for me.

But it isn't SimCity, either. If your civilization is to survive, you must defend it from barbarians (in the early years) and from other nations. I must admit that, in the later years, when I've got a powerful nation connected by railroads, with tanks and artillery and aircraft, waging war is great fun, too. The early game and the late game are both fun, but pretty much for different reasons. In the early years, it's discovering the rest of the world and claiming the best parts for yourself. In the later years, it's building these huge cities and massive armies, and then taking on the world.

(screenshot from 101 Video Games)

In the early years, barbarians are a real threat. Much later, pollution becomes a problem (and a global one - it's not just what your nation does that matters.) Nuclear weapons are another difficulty, once they've been discovered. And as your population grows, it becomes harder to keep your citizens happy. It's really impressive how the game holds your interest with one thing after another like this. And it's hard to stop playing, as you keep wanting to click that end turn button to see what happens next.

Note that Civ II was one of those classic games with a huge - and fascinating - manual. It was a real education in history to read the thing. And it didn't stop there. Within the game was the Civilopedia, giving detailed information on concepts, units, terrain, and city improvements, all at your fingertips. 

Civilization II stayed on my hard drive for years and years. I've never played another game so much, not even close. The idea and the gameplay were equally superb. Civilization III was released in 2001, but I was disappointed in it. Civ III introduced national borders to the game, but this was implemented so poorly, they were almost useless. When other nations trespassed, you could ask them to leave, and their units would be transferred to just outside your nation's borders. But the next turn, they'd be trespassing again. And if you kept asking them to leave, they'd always declare war.

Civilization IV (2005) is the latest in the series, and it got borders right. It also let you play more realistically as a peaceful nation. With Civ II, peace was always temporary, because when you got ahead, all the other nations would gang up on you. In Civ IV, a lasting peace with another civilization is very possible. That was a great advance.

But I still didn't play the game much. I don't know, maybe I'd just played Civ II too many times. There is a limit to how long I can play what's basically the same game. But Civ IV seems like it moves really, really slowly. I never thought that with the earlier game. If you look at the individual features, Civ IV is a real improvement. But I just don't think it's as much fun to play.

Well, Civ II is no longer installed on my computer these days, either. As I say, there is a limit. But I played it for years and years. It is really a superb game, quite possibly the best strategy game ever made.

Edit: The next in this series looks at X-Com: UFO Defense

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