Brief thoughts on war after playing Civilization (Avalon Hill, 1982)

After playing a few rounds of Francis Tresham’s Civilization (Avalon Hill, 1982) with my co-workers, I’ve noticed two types of warfare in the game, one within the rules of the game and one between the players.

At the beginning of the game, war is what happens when people can’t eat. As I guide my civilization over the map of Mediterranean Europe, my people expand beyond my ability to keep them fed. I can either let them die of starvation, or I can send them beyond my borders into my neighbor’s lands. If there is enough food available, my people and theirs’ live in harmony. This harmony is short lived, as both civilization’s peoples keep expanding. Within the space of the game, this expansion/starvation/war cycle becomes a long war between the player’s civilizations. If I just follow the rules unemotionally, my people’s starvation does not hurt me. It’s an inefficient use of my population, but I do not need to attempt to support them. For some reason, possibly because I’m playing the game with a critical eye, I feel I need to do right by my people and make sure that no one dies. It’s also a poor strategy that creates unnecessary population. Part of the purpose of population expansion is to guide my people towards territory in which it would be beneficial to create a city (either a spot that allows a city to be built cheaply, or a spot that would serve as protection from my neighbor’s expansion if a city were there).

I’m not yet sure if the game was explicitly designed to create the second type of warfare I experienced in playing the game, as it was the result of the combination of particular game players (me and two of my co-workers) and an extended two-day play session. There are random events, ‘calamities’, that occur during the trading phases during turns. When the players have few cities, what calamities they might take will happen immediately. Once players have more cities (6 or more), calamities will occur that only happen when traded to another player. The complexity of the calamities (requiring special rules for eliminating units from the board) and the ability to ‘screw your neighbor’ during a trade by passing a calamity to the other person as a bluff card starts to create real conflict between the players. At this point, and especially during my last play session, war becomes World War – someone gets slighted, takes it out on another player’s civilization, another player gets caught in the crossfire, and all progress stops while conflict after conflict plays out on the board.

The first type of warfare seemed like today’s modern wars over resources. In this case, the resources were food and human beings. I have too little of resource A (food) and too much of resource B (people). Is this war just? Within the simulation of the game, my civilization acted like a nation-state, even though historically, the actors would likely have been more local. What’s the difference between a dictator sending soldiers to take land, and local tribes moving into neighboring ground in search of food and shelter? Are either of these actions acts of war or is it just crime? The second type of warfare, acts of aggression because of perceived differences, resembled the romanticized reasons for warfare that I’ve read about in the Illiad, or the jingoist, patriotic reasons for the Korean and Vietnam Wars (and yes, the second Iraq War as well). Was there strategic reason for causing this conflict? Could it have been avoided? The calamity trade was inevitable as the rules required it, but was war a correct (or useful) response?

The territory of Pannonia supports 4 tokens. At peace, Italy and Illyria each have 2 tokens. After a population boom, the potential for war is increased as each civilization now has 4 tokens in place. If the tokens are not moved to other territories, battle will happen until the total population of the tile is 4 or fewer tokens.

In order to win the game, a player must move their civilization across the ‘Archaelogical Succession Table’ (AST) which represents the civilizations technological and cultural progress (modeled by purchasing technologies with accumulated trade and maneuvering enough population onto regions to form cities). The winner of the game is the person who reaches the end of the AST. Wars and conquests are not figured into this equation. So at first glance, Civilization might not be considered a wargame. The constant population increases and the map, however, make the game entirely about war – or at least about the hardships and conflicts that occur when resources (arable land and good locations for city formation, in this case) are scarce. If playing to win, war often doesn’t occur because one player is trying to beat another player into submission for its own sake, but because the players in conflict each need a certain area of the board in order to increase their ability to create trade.

So what is war? I’m going to try and ask myself this question after I play a wargame. Civilization leads me to think of war as organized, justified criminal activity between political actors, often as the result of unchecked expansionism. In particular, I think this is supported by how a population boom at each turn creates the potential for conflict at a civilization’s borders. The player can either let the extra tokens perish or use them as efficiently as they can to raid neighboring territory and maneuver the pieces to locations for city building. By directly linking population with military strength (all population tokens serve as both citizen and soldier), war is a natural result of expansion, growth and technological/cultural progress. It will be interesting to see how this changes with other Civilization-inspired board games.

Links for 2010-12-29

  • Sid Meier’s Civilization Mods by Rhye – Rhye’s and Fall of Civilization
    The most important concept behind the mod is that civilziations don't start all at the beginning of the game, but appear at different times. For instance, picking the Arabs, the game will autoplay until 620 AD, when the player will take control and find a world that may have developed in an unpredictable way.

    (tags: civilization civ4 mod bts simulation )

  • Scoring Quality of Life in Civilization IV
    Instead of scoring the dominion of a governor, a social management videogame can be adapted to score the quality of life of the simulated persons.

    Play on a map of Iraq. The victory condition: improve Iraq's quality of life within 100 years (turns).
    (tags: civilisation civilization victory mod civ4 scoring )

  • Project Diary: Red Land/Black Land | Play The Past
    Introductory post about:

    a serious game project … (currently in development at Michigan State University’s MATRIX: The Center for the Humane Arts, Letters, and Social Sciences Online) intended to explore ancient Egyptian history, archaeology, and culture change over time.

    I am very interested in this project and look forward to following its progress.
    (tags: history teaching civilization egypt civ5 )

  • Experience Points: Critical Eyes on Civilization
    … there is a lot of value in Civilization. For one thing, it can give unique insight into the process by which paradigms and practices shape the reality they seek to describe. Players can even challenge dominant narratives of history. However, all this demands a critical perspective.

    Author Jorge Albor covers Civ 5's shallow model of diplomacy, control, and race/ethnicity, arguing that by modeling real world systems, the designers should be more critical about what they create (fun can be more important but accuracy, but not more important than uncritical inaccuracy).
    (tags: civilization gamestudies critique civ5 )

  • Experience Points: Barbarians at the Gate
    The term "civilized" is never defined. With only the barbarians as a counter-point, we can only conclude that to be "civilized" is to be geographically fixed and committed to perpetual growth and expansion. Barbarism, on the other hand, may arise at any time period, fueled only by hatred towards civilization proper. Players can eradicate barbarism by force and cut off its source through territorial expansion. In fact, as the game progresses, this almost becomes inevitable. Progress is an unstoppable monolithic force.

    (tags: civilization barbarians civ5 )

Links for 2010-12-22

  • Gamer’s Bookshelf: Civilization or Rome on 640K a Day
    Troy Goodfellow describes what I feel is the best strategy guide ever made EVAR. Seriously, I cannot rave more about how much I love this book. Johnny Wilson and Alan Emrich show such a love for the game, the genre, the background material, and the developers.
    (tags: civilization strategy guide )
  • Mindjack – Interview – Sid Meier
    Sid Meier on change:

    our biggest constraint is that everything is inter-related. To add a new element we have to design the interaction of that element with all the other systems. That was a real issue with Civ II – it had more of everything but it didn’t introduce any new systems because of that. I know it was tried but we found that the Civ system was amazingly balanced. We thought “oh we can change this, we can change that” and all of a sudden we realised we had broken the game. In Civ III we started early on we had to be very careful and thus we were able to introduce a new cultural system and new diplomacy. I think that is a stronger constraint than the expectations of what constitutes a Civ game. Most of those expectations are positive ones. We want to have the “one more turn” aspect to it and the “great leaders and great powers” aspect. We have changed some things – some people missed the terraforming and the Vikings but overall people have not complained about the changes.


    (tags: civilization sidmeier )

  • The Ethics of Terraforming@Everything2.com
    From the very beginning of human history, humans have always desired to improve their physical surroundings as they see fit. The manipulation of the environment is certainly not limited to humans, however; we can see in the ways birds create nests and beavers make dams that changing the environment to suit your needs is a instinctive drive of many forms of life here on Earth.

    Which reminds me, Alpha Centuari was explicit in applying value/ethics to terraforming. Civilization gave terraforming an implicit positive value. there is never a negative effect for changing the terrain, in fact it was an 'improvement'.
    (tags: ethics terraforming sciencefiction alphacentauri )