Sun Ra - Column for 11/5

Review - Civilization III

According to most sources in the PC gaming industry, the most popular game of all time (1) is Sid Meier's Civilization. It's closely followed, nay surrounded, by First Person Shooters (Doom, Quake) and Real Time Strategy games (Command and Conquer, Warcraft), but the good old turn-based top-down country-building game is still on top. Not because of its graphics, but because of its gameplay (2).

A judgement I can only concur with. Civilization is by far the best PC game I have played, especially in its ability to keep one warming the chair in front of the monitor. The player is always trying to attain that next, important thing, be it a key trade route, a new technology, or conquering those scum-sucking Mongols who dared demand tribute! Die, Attila, die!

Sid Meier, who designed this game lo these many years ago (The game was released in 1991 - basically, half as long as the whole industry has existed. See footnote 1), wound up leaving the franchise to design a number of similar and some very different games. Some, such as Colonization and most recently Alpha Centauri, were very similar in feel and gameplay - they added some new concepts and better graphics and sound, but were very Civilization-like. And they were fun, too.

The actual Civilization franchise passed out of his hands, though, and produced two very similar games, Civilization II and Civilization: Call to Power. Again, touched up graphics, some new ideas, but basically the same.

So when Civilization III came along, and it was once more under the direction of Sid Meier, I must confess my hopes rose higher than Cheech Marin accidentally trapped in a police evidence locker. After all, the original game was back in the hands of the master (3a, 3b). So I bought it, and I've been playing. And is it glorious?

No. Frankly, it's annoying as much if not more than it is fun. I don't anticipate playing it for longer than I did Vampire: the Masquerade, and that game kept crashing out on me. I'm not saying it sucks, precisely, although were I wittier I could have used that Vampire comment to imply that, but it's nowhere near as fun as it should be.

And the reason is very simple. The computer opponents. Playing at "warlord" level, which is only the second of six, I find myself almost constantly screaming "Bullshit! What the fuck is that?" as they plunk down colonies miles inside my border (picture China colonizing Wyoming. It's empty, right?), or beat my crack troops with their ladies' senior bowling league, or all ally against me, so that in effect my scientists are competing to make technological discoveries against the combined efforts of all six other civilizations.

I shan't bother to tell you that I am a good player. Either you have the correct mixture of arrogance and stupidity to assume that I'm just feeble, and you could take the game in hand like the proverbial red-headed stepchild, or you don't. I routinely beat the original game at the hardest level, and even thus far I have won all my games. What I am whining about is not that it is hard, but that it isn't any fun.

What this game cries out for is the simplest form of international diplomacy - borders. It doesn't have them. If you don't have people actually living in an area, the computer opponents feel free to set up shop there. Note that this not only provides them a fine spot from which to attack you, but it also gives their new city some of the resources your nearby cities may have been using, and of course prevents you from moving there later.

It's particularly frustrating in that, in Alpha Centauri, Meier's most recent game, there were definite moves towards "borders", areas you may or may not be using, but which were recognized as yours. Well, no dice. If you aren't there, it's up for grabs. And you can't stop AI settlers from getting there, because unarmed units are free to just move around in your country. And if you attack the new city, well, then you are at war! And so much for your economic development, it's tanks and no butter for you!

Further, once again the computer opponents behave unnaturally simply to beat you. They always colonize towards you - if there is a big chunk of unoccupied land behind them, juicy and rich with minerals and gold, they will ignore it just to fill your empire with a patchwork of little city-lets. They don't seem to fight amongst eachother, either, and the instant one of them discovers a new technology, they trade it around so that they all have it. Hence, your science is working against everyone else's, as a group.

Frankly, I am disappointed. Why must game designers rely on computer opponents who behave in fashions designed to make the player scream "unfair! no one would ever do that!", rather than simply having harder levels be harder? Heck, give obvious handicaps, such as starting with fewer units or giving the player a 20% production cut. But in a game which is ostensibly a "simulation", this sort of double-standard behavior is, simply, no fun.

In sum, I can't recommend it, and that hurts, given how much I wanted to. Go try a game where all the players, including the computers, are on an equal footing, and behave rationally. Hell, wait a few years and let me get my game produced. But only buy Civilization III if you are okay with everyone being out to get you, and never each other.

- Sun Ra

1) I love computers. "Of all time" is equivalent to "of the last twenty years". Think about that for a second. As far as this part of life is concerned, nothing happened until the 1980s. Oh, sure, there is prologue going back to ancient Greece, and Turing and ENIAC and Pong are all important, but they are all back story. The world thought of computers the same way it thought of remote control racecars and model trains until Apple, VisiCalc, and then IBM gave people a reason to want them (other than just because they were cool). We have powers our ancestors, and by that I mean grandparents and before, never even dreamed of. Of course, we often use those powers for slack, but that's far enough along that tangent.

2) A good article about Civilization, and what made it king, is over here at GameSpy.

3) (a)Not to give Mr. Meier all the credit. Games are made by a whole team of talented individuals, many of whom do not face the backwards-bending labor curve (4) that already-successful folks like best selling game designers do. I'm sure lots of people worked long hours to come out with this game, and it's as much their baby as anyone's. But their names aren't on the masthead.
(b)Only a Master of Evil.

4) Yes, a footnote for a footnote. It's an economics concept - in layman's terms, the curve here is how much more people work for more pay. If the curve is forward sloping, more pay gets more work (it becomes more expensive to take time off.) If the curve is backward sloping, more pay actually gets less work (I only need so much money, so if I get paid more, I can take more time off.) If the curve is vertical, then being paid more won't result in any change. Note that the curve in real life (as much as economic theory reflects real life) changes its shape - usually increasing low wages gets more work, while increasing high wages gets less work. There, you've learned something today. Well, some of you. The other couple of you are saying "No no no" and/or "I could have explained that much better. Look, here's an example of an arithmetic function defining a curve...".

Columns by Sun Ra