Saturday, June 16, 2012

A meditation on Civilization V

In the opening to his book Colossus: The Rise and Fall of the American Empire (2004), historian Niall Ferguson recounts his son playing Age of Empires.  “For several months my own ten-year-old son was all but addicted to it.  It’s organizing principle is that the history of the world is the history of imperial conflict.”  More recently, Ferguson described  the shifting world order and the evolving relationship between the United States and China as “two great tectonic plates ... on the move” and in his book The Ascent of Money (2008) described the easy  marriage and alignment/merger of the geopolitical tectonic plates of China and America as a strange geopolitical continent called Chimerica.  A spendthrift West Chimerica spending the money saved in East Chimerica, west and east interdependent just as a national economy relies on the population centers to consume the products of its industrial base.

Ferguson’s concept of nations as empires and history as that of Imperial history is thus in sync with the Civilization games.  The Civilization franchise have operated on similar concepts in its unabashed view of history through the prism of empire and the sweep of history as the rise and fall of empires.

While the last three Civilization games have improved the franchise and introduced concepts such as cultural borders, scarcity of resources, religion, complex trade deals and factions in the games were all called 'Empires', Civilization V (Civ5) is the first in the franchise to begin to attempt to capture the essence of empires as tectonic plates moving apart, past, against and directly toward each other, complete with fault lines building stressors that lead to earthquakes which inevitably reshape entire world orders.

In viewing empires as geopolitical tectonic plates, with a mass and direction of movement, Civ5 attempts to integrate the concept of national interest in terms the game can understand.  Whereas previous entries created a standard playbook followed by all AI civilizations where all the civilizations essentially played similarly and  valued expansion above all else for no other reason than size, with a vague goal towards getting as large as possible, Civ5 steers AI civilizations into various distinct flavours consistent with each civilization’s strengths and the historical actions of their leaders.  Some, like Hiawatha, or Ramses II might be peaceable and friendly if their territory and right to exist is respected. These are builders who more often than not will sit peacefully in their starting location for millennia happily building up major monuments and infrastructure in and around their capital cities.  Others like Alexander the Great and Montezuma are bloodthirsty conquerors eager for war and expansion at the earliest possible date.

Each leader thus have a set of interests and priorities that have to be put into consideration when forming alliances.  A faraway warmonger like Alexander or Bismarck might be useful ally as they are unlikely to immediately covet your lands. Similarly, it is also viable for like minded civilizations to form coalitions denouncing the aggressive expansion of a warmonger, with each common denunciation reinforcing the common bonds of friendship and the recognition that each state in the grouping shares a common national interest in their dislike or fear of ‘the enemy’ civilization(s).  Finally, each Civilization will develop and interact with city states they meet.  These leaders may forge alliances and pledges of protection with these city states and trying to attack, conquer or wrest control of these city states from them through alliances of your own could impact your diplomatic relations with the AI leaders.

As such, the tectonic plates of empires are formed.  Each leader brings to the table a grand strategy on how they want to optimally play the game.   Where empires meet and become rivals due to a common strategy, the empires inevitably clash. Wars in Civ5 thus have the narrative underpinning of clashing national interests.  Whereas wars in previous games often came down to an AI being bribed by someone else, or an AI rolling a dice on who to attack next, the narrative in Civ5 is much more grounded in terms of geopolitical conflicts with a basis that is consistent and related to the realities of the game being played.

There are other changes of as well.  In the previous iteration of the game, skilfully maximizing the production of science, hammers and gold were an implied premise. Players can achieve pareto efficiency, through fiddling with citizens working tiles and the tax slider and extract extra hammers, gold or science that would have otherwise been lost in the void of the game maths through rounding or culling of surplus values.  Civ5 omits the tax slider in favour of cities performing at peak efficiency given a specific focus (food,wealth,production) with the maximization shifted towards the management of international relations by maximizing diplomacy and a player's 'influence' in the word to exercise soft-power.

The last significant change is the 1 Unit Per Tile (1UPT) system where in previous games players can simply put all their units into a single stack and move them around.  Though controversial, 1UPT  is widely popular in the community as adding depth and freshness to the game.  There is now a reason in placing rifles infront of cannons. Strategic placement of troops and use of terrain matter in Civ5. Gameplay elements aside, there’s also a point for vanity as one reviews their grand armee before an invasion.

Civilization V is not without its detractors.  The initial release was rushed and buggy with an incomplete AI and diplomatic systems, to the point where none of the things I’ve described today was possible at release.  But after a year of patching and with the upcoming Gods & Kings expansion, the stage is set for Civ5 to live up to its potential.

In Civ5, the games designers, Ed Beach et al, have shifted the complexity of the game from managing small details like stacks, sliders and tiles being worked to the grand strategy of positioning a civilization in the cut throat geopolitical world.  

“The nuanced approach to history and complicated demands appealed to Beach's sensibilities,”  noted a profile on Civ5 AI programmer and Gods & Kings lead designer Ed Beach.  “A self-professed strategy game enthusiast from the age of 10, Beach likes games where the action is not always straight forward combat, and the players are free to form secret alliances and negotiate their way to victory. Where the sides are uneven, and a player's ability to rise above the challenges can lead him to victory.”

Whereas surviving against a diplomatically delicate world was the preserve of elite challenge-players playing in the highest difficulty levels in past iterations of Civilization, and often it only meant finding ways to fight multiple wars at the same time,  Civ5 brings the challenge of managing a delicate diplomatic game, both war and peace and all of the intrigue in-between, to players of a broader range of skill levels.  Any player playing a difficulty level matched to their ability should be able to experience the feel of steering one’s own tectonic empire in the messy and sometimes hostile geopoloticial world where balance of power and realpolitik rules.

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