Saturday, September 22, 2007

Sixteen Years of Civilization (Part 1 of 4)

In my opinion, the best turn-based strategy computer games, and possibly the best computer games period, belong to the Civilization series.

There have been four installments, though they aren't sequels. Each subsequent Civilization game is pretty much the same as the one before it, but with added concepts and improved gameplay.

The object is to, well, make a civilization. In every game you start in 4000 BC with one settler, who can found your first city. From there, you expand, build more cities, conquer enemy cities, keep your population happy and research scientific advances to the modern age.

Appropriately, my first post will be about the first game.

You start by selecting your difficulty level (chieftain, warlord, prince, king, emperor), and your nation (ranging from Aztecs to Germans to Babylonians to Zulus).

You start the game with one or two settlers (one is more probable). Settlers can found new cities, and they can build roads, farms, mines and other terrain improvements.

The game is a balancing act of military might, economic might, and population happiness. If you aren't strong enough militarily, a neighbouring civilization will conquer you. If you aren't strong enough economically, you will stagnate technologically and be unable to buy useful things. If you don't keep your population happy, they will revolt.

You can gain special abilities from building wonders of the world. For example you can see every city in the world by building SETI. Building Darwin's Voyage (don't ask me how that's built) gives you two free technologies. The Great Library will give you any technology known by two other civilizations. Hoover Dam will give you a free hydro-electric dam in every city on the same continent. Some other wonders that are in the game, but I don't remember what they do are: The Pyramids, The Hanging Gardens, The Great Lighthouse, The Colossus, and the Great Wall.

There are only two ways to win Civ I. Either you conquer every other civilizations (in which case you get a cinematic showing every one you killed), or you build a spaceship to go to Alpha Centauri (in which case you get a cinematic showing your its colonization). You also win if you have the highest score (determined by population, technology, how many civilizations you conquered, how much money you have, etc.) at 2100 AD, but I don't think that really counts as winning.

As you might expect, the first was, from an objective standpoint, the worst of the series. The worst flaw Civ I is the AI. It's a very primitive AI and in order to keep up with you, it cheats. A lot. The AI doesn't build things and make things. It just magically gets them. For higher difficulty levels, it just cheats more.

The next worst thing is the combat system. Every unit has one attack value and one defense value. There are no hit points so a unit that just got attacked ten times in one turn and survived is just as strong as one who didn't get attacked at all. Also, there is only a single "dice roll" to determine the winner. Which means about once every twenty times, an ancient age phalanx will beat a tank.

But, hey, it's the first one. It was revolutionary for its time, and it's good for a nostalgia trip. And its downsides don't prevent it from being fun.

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