Instant Replay: Civilization

[Editor’s note: ZargonX talks about Civilization for his Instant Replay Monthly Musing blog and reconfirms that I never want play this game for fear of my social life. — CTZ]

Ceaser’s knights stood arrayed along the hillside, shields and swords glistening in the sun. In the valley below, Elizabeth’s longbowmen cowered behind the walls of the city, just as they had been doing for weeks. At first they had been confident, even defiant; but days of sustained bombardment from Ceaser’s trebuchets had wiped those thoughts from their minds. Now they awaited the inevitable, hoping that perhaps aid would come from the north – It would not; the 5th legion had seen to that. Ceaser could feel the thrill of impending victory growing inside him, and he knew the time was nigh. With a simple wave of his hand he unleashed his forces, and dust kicked up by the thundering hooves of the horses rose into the sky, choking out the noonday sun. The first furious volleys of arrows began to rain out from the city walls, but they were hardly enough to halt the wave of steel that washed towards them. In a few hours time, the city of Liverpool would be in Roman hands, and the Empire would hold the jewel of England’s southern kingdom.

And that was exactly how it happened. Well, that time, at least.
There is no game in my mind that sums up the concept of Instant Replay better than Civilization. Or, to be more accurate, no game series. Since the dawn of the series, Civilization games have had me, and many people like me, constantly coming back for more and more. Everyone has probably heard of “One More Turn” syndrome, that devilish drive that keeps us up until the wee hours of the morning, playing ever onward no matter how clouded our minds may have become with fatigue, just waiting to see what happens next. It takes a great game to trigger that kind of behavior in people; it takes an even greater game, however, to make you start another immediately after the last one comes to an end.

You’ve come a long way, baby.

I remember sitting in middle school, many years ago, furiously sketching my amphibious invasion plans of Germany in my spiral notebook. Sure, I had doodled out Super Mario levels before, or drawn out scenes of imaginary Zelda items, but this was the first time a game had me planning out actual strategies in advance. All I could think about was jumping off the bus, running inside, and seeing how well I could execute my plans of world domination. The only thing that got me to stop playing Civilization was the release of Civilization II some years later. That trend has continued to this day with each new release.

Alpine Troopers: They are so badass, they use their skis no matter what terrain they’re on.

So what is it about Civilization games that keep me coming back? One of the first, and most basic, items is the variety of ways in which you can beat the game. The very first Civ game had you either conquer the world, or lead your people into space. Those two victory conditions are still around, but new ones have been added over time to give different players even more options. One of the earlier additions was the Diplomatic victory, enabling a savvy leader to win through strength of words rather than strength of arms. More recently, a Cultural victory option was added, granting victory to the leader who fostered the strongest cultural icons in the world, overshadowing all others. Different methods of victory mean a player can choose a different path every time they play.

Of course, hand in hand with the victory conditions is the idea that each play through also has situational differences. This is something as simple as having a random map each time you play, having different rival civilizations in the world, or even just notching up the number of barbarian tribes roaming the map. Civ presents a huge number of random elements to the player every time they hit “New Game“, and those elements mean that no strategy is guaranteed to work each and every time. Really enjoy playing Rome and rushing your nearest neighbors with swarms of Legions? That may work out well sometimes, but what happens when you don’t have any iron? Or what happens when you are stuck on some isolated island, and you won’t even meet your neighbors until you’ve mastered the high seas? The random elements of each Civ game also makes sure each game is a different experience. Every session of Civ writes its own story, and while some may be similar, no two are identical. And trust me, if you get two Civilization players together, they will have plenty of stories to tell.

A friend of mine recently began playing Civ IV, and his questions about strategy, coupled with the tales he told of diplomacy gone wrong or conquests gone right quickly sucked me right back into playing, pushing aside other gaming endeavors that had been distracting me as of late.

I’ve got a lot of stories about this guy, and most of them start with “That bastard Ghandi…”

Speaking of Civilization players, they too are a vital factor in the replayability of the game. Beyond the game mechanics themselves, the community that has built up around Civ is a vast one, and, more importantly, a very creative one. A cursory search of any Civilization fan site (Apolyton and Civfanatics being the big ones) reveals quite literally hundreds of mods, scenarios, and other various enhancements for the game. And I’m not just talking about the most recent game, Civ IV, either; people are still putting out materials for Civilization II, over ten years later. On top of that, the community has created new ways to play the game that were not even part of the original vision of Civ. Democracy Games. For instance, have players form teams that, in turn, create their own systems and structure for deciding how to run their empires in a multilayer game. These kinds of games can spawn some amazing diplomacy, daring maneuvers, and, most importantly, some fantastic stories to tell.

Many people may talk about games having 10 or 20 or even 40 hours of gameplay, and even some of your more robust JRPGs may even get up into the 80 hour mark. But, when it comes to Civilization, I do not measure the gameplay in hours. I measure it in years. I know of few other games that can boast that, and I can think of no finer return on investment from your gaming dollar than that.

So now it’s back to my notebook to flesh out a few more plans; I’ve got some nuclear subs sitting off the coast of Hannibal’s lands, and I don’t think he’s got any idea what’s coming …