This article originally appeared in Pyramid #2

Pyramid Pick


Written by Sid Meier
Produced by MicroProse
For Amiga, IBM, Macintosh
Suggested Retail: $49.95

Civilization is a deceptive game. Its interface is so user-friendly that I didn't even look at the manual until after my third game (not even to defeat the common-sense copy protection). It was all point and click, with the added feature of advisor dialog boxes to help me choose the best course of action. Never once did I get that empty feeling that I tend to have with many computer games - that feeling that I'll be reading 200 pages of background before I can figure out how to leave the first encounter. With Civilization, I played three games with no help from the book whatsoever.

Of course, I lost those first three games abysmally.

The really fascinating thing about Civilization is that you don't have to do very well to have a really good time. But the setup is such that you want to do well. After thumbing through the instructions, I played it again. This time I got through the game without being destroyed outright by the computer. "Got through" isn't the same as "win" by a long shot, but I certainly didn't lose.

If you are one of the eight people in the world who have never seen or played Civilization, even in the original boardgame version, perhaps some basic information is in order. You play the leader of a civilization. There are about 10 to choose from, as recognizable as the Americans or as alien as the Aztecs. Of course, you can create and name your own, if you wish.

You begin the game with nothing but a group of nomadic settlers, humorously represented by a covered wagon. The first step is to build a city. Then, as you try to build more cities, each settlement works on creating something. This "something" can be anything from a troop of militia to a granary to an aqueduct.

Unfortunately, you have to have some basic knowledge to build everything, so if you don't have the Civilization Advance of Pottery, you can't build a granary, and if you don't have Masonry, you won't be able to construct City Walls - a useful real-estate improvement if you want to defend against attackers.

To complicate things, certain Advances are prerequisites for others. You must have Pottery to develop the technology of Masonry, and Masonry is required for Construction, which in turn allows you to develop Bridge Building. After all that, you are allowed to build a bridge. Of course, like any good game, you can "cheat" - that is, steal technology from rival societies.

If it sounds complicated, don't worry. It's really not, because the program lets you know exactly what you have, what you need, what you're working on next and about how long it's going to be before you get it. As I said before, the interface is so well-designed that you hardly worry about the complexities of the game.

So what's the point of the game besides building cities, armies, aqueducts and coliseums? You can make a really big civilization and crush your enemies, and that's real fun. But can you win?

There are several ways to end the game, but since this is the real world, there's no real way to "win." Instead, each time you play, you get a score and a Civilization percentage. I suppose if you could ever get your Civilization percentage up to 100%, you could consider that winning, but you'd be hard pressed to do it twice.

The game ends when time runs out. The amount of time you have depends on the level of difficulty you choose, but at the easiest level you have until the year 2100 A.D., starting from 3000 B.C. It can also end when your civilization is destroyed; this can happen quite easily in the early stages of the game, especially if you don't concentrate on military buildup. Alternately, you can destroy everyone else. This is quite satisfying, even though you won't receive as high a score for doing so.

Finally, if one of the societies develops space travel to a highly advanced state, a group of colonists from that land will make their way off the troubled planet to Alpha Centauri, presumably to begin a new civilization. If this is your society, you get lots of points for this.

This is all very interesting, but the real question is, "Why is this game so darn fun?" I think the answer lies in the way the game is set up. It uses a series of turns, each representing a set time interval, which starts out being hundreds of years, but gradually becomes less and less until, at the end, each turn is just one year. In a turn, the player makes decisions, moves his people and resources around, tries to better the overall morale of his subjects, and even does some work on his castle if the mood strikes him and the people are willing.

This ends up creating a powerful psychological need to see what's going to happen on the next turn - like the old Saturday serials, each action is important and each round is a cliffhanger. Every move the player makes has a consequence somewhere down the line. It's nearly impossible to tear yourself away. Sure, you can save the game, but it's not the same. I don't know about anyone else, but I've always played a game straight through. That's almost six hours.

At first it took a big chunk out of my social life; I wasn't expecting to be sucked into that brain-eating mire. But after a while, I could plan for it, selecting blocks of time that I knew I could get a whole game into. Saving the game is fine, but it always seems to take too long to refresh myself on all the subtle machinations. I might have 40 cities, all working on building different things; I'm at war with two civilizations and have peace treaties with three others. It's too much to relearn.

Ultimately, there are games that are a lot flashier than Civilization, with cool graphics and animation, but there aren't many - or any - in my book that have the ability to absorb the player so totally and to provide an interesting, unique outcome each and every time it's played.

-- Jeff Koke

Article publication date: August 1, 1993

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