Historical Game Spotlight: Civilization

by northernbeholder

Sid Meier’s Civilization is one of the longest-running series in gaming.  The first entry was released in 1991, and it has enjoyed numerous expansions, sequels and spin-offs, the most recent of which was Civilization V in 2010.  All of the games follow the same general formula, the specifics of which are tweaked, streamlined and overhauled sequel-by-sequel:  Massive randomly-generated maps in which historical civilizations and cultures explore their surroundings, expand their knowledge and territory, exploit the resources they can reach, and more often than not attempt to exterminate each other over territorial ambition, scarce resources, religious differences and diplomatic slights.

I’ve personally played Civs III, IV and V, and it’s more fair to say the games are historically inspired than they are historically accurate.  The various civilizations each can choose from one of (usually at least) two historical rulers to lead them, who comes with his (or her) own bonuses based on their historical record, as well as one or two unique, slightly-stronger variants of normal unit (for instance, the Romans can be led by Augustus, whose “imperialist” trait causes increased appearance of strong generals, and instead of the basic swordsman have the stronger Legionnaire).  The technology tree through which they progress is sectioned roughly into important advances made throughout history, from the wheel to masonry to replacable parts to the advent of refrigeration, and the varieties of buildings and soldiers that can be created are similarly inspired by structures and weapons used throughout history.

Now, while the game itself draws upon history to create most of its content, it’s not in and of itself terribly historically accurate, what with the historical cultures being uprooted and transplanted to a randomly-generated world and a single leader being their eternal dictator from the day they found their first city to the time they launch a colony ship into the stars.  Where the games really shine, though, are in the Civilopedia.

The Civilopedia is an in-game encyclopedia.  Every resource, every building, every unit, every technology, tile improvement, civilization and leader have their own entry in it.  While the gameplay does little to transmit historical knowledge, the Civilopedia does much, with entries capable of reaching several pages in length and providing a brief but generally accurate historical overview of whichever item you’re choosing to review. The historical overview is in addition to a brief blurb about their gameplay statistics, so even if a player doesn’t want to access the Civilopedia for educational purposes, they’ll still open it up to double-check how effective a certain unit might be – and in doing so, possibly get absorbed in the detailed descriptions and read more than they originally intended.

Through the Civilopedia, the Civilization games internalize the very mechanics of learning and self-education I spoke of some time ago.  Putting the information within the game itself, in an optionally-accessible location, removes one more obstacle between the player seeing something intriguing and going to the trouble of actually looking up more about it.  No longer do they have to minimize or exit the game, open their web browser, and then find the information; now it’s right there on the menu, on the in-game UI, and as such is far, far more accessible.

Also the Civilization games are an absolute blast to play. That needs to be mentioned too.  I might write more at a later date about the big changes made from Civ IV to Civ V; I still find them both enjoyable.  The older Civs are available for mega-cheap; I highly recommend picking up Civ IV if you can find it.  The pinnacle of classic Civ, that game; the new one seems to be pushing into a new era.

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