Matt Reviews Civilization: Be Fruitful and Multiply!

Matt Barton's picture

Hi, guys, welcome to Matt Chat #11. This week, we look at one of the best strategy games ever made, a game that launched a series that is still selling well today: Sid Meier's Civilization!

Civilization was released in 1991 for the MS-DOS platform. While it may look primitive compared to its sequels and spin-offs, it still offers some of the most addictive and fulfilling gameplay of any game, period. The goal is simple: guide humanity from its humblest beginnings to modern times.

You can play as a peace-loving civilization that just wants to get along, or a warlike race hellbent on world domination. Since the game is different each time you play, you can try out many different strategies and ideas--this is a game you can play over and over again and still have a great time.

Sid Meier, the creator of Civilization, got his start making flight simulators and military games. He decided to make a radical break from these genres in 1990 with Railroad Tycoon.

Railroad Tycoon is a business simulator, inspired perhaps by Will Wright's classic SimCity. It's a real-time game based on building up a successful railroad industry. The game was very well received and gave Sid the credibility he needed to try something really new.

It seems hard to believe today, but Sid had a hard time getting his company interested in his ideas for Civilization. Would a turn-based strategy game about the history of mankind attract a mainstream audience? Although it seems like a no-brainer today, it wasn't at all clear at the time that Civ would become a major best-seller.

Civilization is one of the most ambitious games ever made. It puts you in charge of a civilization that begins in pre-historic times and slowly evolves into the space-age. You begin with a tiny group of primitive people and progress by exploiting natural resources and rival civilizations. Along the way, you get to make all kinds of decisions, such as what to build in your cities, how to build an infrastructure, establish trade, and keep your citizens happy and productive. A big part of the game is building and maintaining a powerful army that can protect your cities from barbarians and attacks from your enemies.

Unlike SimCity, Dune II, and later games like Warcraft and Starcraft, Civilization is a turn-based strategy game. This means it works like a board game, with gameplay broken up into discrete rounds or "turns." During each turn, each civilization gets to move its units and choose paths for its cities. However, you can take as long as you like in each turn, which allows you to "micromanage," or make hundreds if not thousands of strategic decisions. Although it seems simple perhaps on the outset, Civ is definitely a thinking person's game that rewards patience and long-term planning.

What makes the game so addictive is the "one more turn" aspect of the gameplay. What happens is that there is always something new waiting around the corner. Each turn, your civilization makes progress towards a certain technology or insight, such as the alphabet or bronzeworking. When a civilization achieves one of these advances, new possibilities open up. For instance, if you master mapmaking, which requires knowing the alphabet and writing, you can make ships and explore other continents and islands. Each of the technologies unlocks more advanced technologies, so you can carefully tailor your gameplay.

For instance, if you're fairly well isolated from rival civilizations, you might want to focus more on building up your population and culture, whereas if you're in danger, you'll probably focus on building up a powerful military and defenses. The game provides plenty of advice for helping novices make intelligent decisions, but later on you'll want to experiment on your own. I should mention that the game comes with a huge manual--over 150 pages that are well worth reading! It's also used for copy protection. Although the game itself was easy to copy and give to your friends, they wouldn't get very far without the manual--which is a lot harder to copy than a floppy disk!

Meier himself credits the board game Risk for inspiring a lot of Civilization, which might explain why armies and combat are so important in the game. Even if you want to focus on peaceful activities, you'll still need armies to ward off attacks.

Still, Civilization seems more educational than Risk. Although Meier claims that there's nothing in Civilization that you couldn't learn in the children's section of a library, it's still fascinating to learn about how modern civilization evolved and the critical steps along the way.

It's also fascinating to think about how the development of a key technology like pottery or electricity had such huge impacts on our way of life. I also like how ideas like the alphabet, writing, and literacy are included as well; sometimes developing something like philosophy or democracy can prove far more powerful than a new weapon or industrial process. What Civ does best is help you explore those relationships by simulating civilization itself.

Civilization was an epic best-seller and established Sid Meier as a household name among computer game fans. It has become one of the most important franchises in PC gaming history. While the franchise has focused mostly on computer platforms, Civilization: Revolution is now available for the DS, PS3, and Xbox 360. All in all, it's a great series, and it's easy to see why its appeal has been so long lasting.

P.S. For more info about Civ, read Benj Edwards' fantastic History of Civilization at Gamasutra. It's packed with facts and features an interview with Sid.

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Matt Barton
Matt Barton's picture
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Thanks for the tips, Bill. I

Thanks for the tips, Bill. I really have nothing to lose at this point, so anything is worth trying. I didn't think the Civ video was that bad, but maybe I have settled too comfortably into a formula that is getting stale.

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Bill Loguidice
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Experiments, but fun ones
Matt Barton wrote:

Thanks for the tips, Bill. I really have nothing to lose at this point, so anything is worth trying. I didn't think the Civ video was that bad, but maybe I have settled too comfortably into a formula that is getting stale.

Not at all and that's not what I'm implying. What I really meant was that it would just be nice to shock both yourself and your in-place audience, while at the same time bringing new viewers in. Bringing new viewers in, say, for example, from the Atari console side who are interested in your take on some action games (or whatever), might in turn next time be themselves shocked by your "standard" coverage of older computer games. In other words, if you want to expand your audience, the best experiment is not only to try and find a different computer game, but both a different platform and game style. You mix things up enough and you'll bring in all types of viewers rather than just those who would typically be only interested in "Amiga computer games" for instance.

And even if it doesn't work particularly well for whatever reason (from an added viewers standpoint), at the very least it will increase your personal videogame knowledge and perspective, which is always a plus and will pay dividends later.

Vintage Games book!
Xbox 360: billlog | Wii: 1345 2773 2048 1586 | PS3: ArmchairArcade
Bill Loguidice, Managing Director | Armchair Arcade, Inc.

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Bill Loguidice
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Joined: 12/31/1969
Decade-long Civ II game mired in 1700 years of nuclear war

For anyone still wondering how cool the Civilization series is: http://arstechnica.com/gaming/2012/06/decade-long-civ-ii-game-mired-in-1...

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