Sid Meier’s Civilization

sid meier

Sid Meier’s Civilization is a turn-based strategy video game created by Sid Meier and Bruce Shelley for MicroProse in 1991. It is a standard-bearer for the 4X genre: eXplore (reveal surrounding territories), eXpand (create new settlements), eXploit (gather resources), and eXterminate (eliminate rivals). The game’s objective is to ‘Build an empire to stand the test of time.’ It begins in 4000 BCE and the players attempt to expand and develop their empires through the ages from the ancient era until modern and near-future times. The game requires a fair amount of micromanagement (although less than a simulation game such as SimCity).

Along with the larger tasks of exploration, warfare, and diplomacy, the player has to make decisions about where to build new cities, which improvements or units to build in each city, which advances in knowledge should be sought (and at what rate), and how to transform the land surrounding the cities for maximum benefit. From time to time the player’s towns may be harassed by barbarians, units with no specific nationality and no named leader. These threats only come from unclaimed land or sea, so that over time there are fewer and fewer places from which barbarians will emanate.

Before the game begins, the player chooses which historical civilization to play. In contrast to later games in the series, this is largely a cosmetic choice, affecting titles, city names, musical heralds, and color. The choice does affect their starting position on the map, and thus different resources in one’s initial cities. The player’s choice of civilization also prevents the computer from being able to play as that civilization or the other civilization of the same color, and since computer-controlled opponents display certain traits of their civilizations this affects gameplay as well. The Aztecs are both fiercely expansionistic and generally extremely wealthy, for example. Other civilizations include the Americans, the Mongols, and the Romans. Each civilization is led by a famous historical figure, such as Mahatma Gandhi for Indians. Settlers can alter terrain, build improvements such as mines and irrigation, build roads to connect cities, and later in the game they can construct railroads which offer unlimited movement.

As time advances, new technologies are developed; these technologies are the primary way in which the game changes and grows. At the start, players choose from advances such as pottery, the wheel, and the alphabet to, near the end of the game, nuclear fission and spaceflight. Players can gain a large advantage if their civilization is the first to learn a particular technology (the secrets of flight, for example) and put it to use in a military or other context. Most advances give access to new units, city improvements, or derivative technologies: for example, the chariot unit becomes available after the wheel is developed, and the granary building becomes available to build after pottery is developed. The whole system of advancements from beginning to end is called the technology tree; this concept has been adopted in many other strategy games. Since only one tech may be ‘researched’ at any given time, the order in which technologies are chosen makes a considerable difference in the outcome of the game and generally reflects the player’s preferred style of gameplay.

Players can also build ‘Wonders of the World’ in each of the epochs of the game, subject only to obtaining the prerequisite knowledge. These wonders are important achievements of society, science, culture, and defense, ranging from the Pyramids and the Great Wall in the Ancient age, to Copernicus’ Observatory and Magellan’s Expedition in the middle period, up to the Apollo program, the United Nations, and the Manhattan Project in the modern era. Each wonder can only be built once in the world, and requires a lot of resources to build, far more than most other city buildings or units. Wonders provide unique benefits to the controlling civilization. For example, Magellan’s Expedition increases the movement rate of naval units. Wonders typically affect either the city in which they are built (for example, the Colossus), every city on the continent (for example, the Hanging Gardens), or the civilization as a whole (for example, Darwin’s Voyage). Some wonders are made obsolete by new technologies.

The game can be won by destroying all other civilizations, reaching the end of the modern era with the highest score, or by winning the space race by reaching the star system of Alpha Centauri. Meier admits to ‘borrowing’ many of the technology tree ideas from a board game also called ‘Civilization,’ published in 1980. The early versions of the game even included a flier of information and ordering materials for the board game. Coming full circle, in 2002 a board game based on ‘Sid Meier’s Civilization’ was released. Meier was the third major designer to plan a computer version of ‘Civilization,’ but the first to actually carry out that plan. Danielle Bunten Berry planned to start work on the game in 1985, after completing ‘The Seven Cities of Gold’ at Electronic Arts. Meier’s designs of ‘Pirates!’ and ‘Colonization’ both contain elements of Bunten’s game. Don Daglow, designer of ‘Utopia,’ the first simulation game, began work programming a version of ‘Civilization’ in 1987. He dropped the project, however, when he was offered an executive position at Brøderbund, and never returned to the game.

When the first version of Civilization was being developed, it was designed to run on an IBM PC computer, which at the time was transitioning from 16 color EGA to VGA, which could use 256 different colors. The decision to limit the number of different civilizations to 16 was made to make the game compatible with both display standards: 16 civilizations for the 16 colors available to EGA. Civilization originally started off as a real-time game, however Meier found it too similar to other real-time computer games such as ‘SimCity,’ and instead opted for a system where each turn takes a predetermined amount of time, and will automatically execute.

Civilization has been one of the most popular strategy games of all time spawning a multitude of sequels and spin offs. This high level of interest has also generated a number of free and open source versions (e.g. ‘Freeciv’ and ‘C-evo)’ and inspired similar games by other commercial developers. In 1994, MicroProse published ‘Master of Magic,’ a similar game to ‘Civilization’ but embedded in a medieval-fantasy setting where instead of technologies the player (a powerful wizard) develops spells, among other things. The game also shared many things with the popular fantasy card-trading game ‘Magic: The Gathering.’ Also that year, Meier produced a similar game called ‘Colonization.’ It has been criticized on several theoretical grounds, particularly because it allows the player to exterminate native tribes and because it ignores slavery and other historically important features in the creation of many nations and empires. The 1999 game ‘Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri’ was created by Meier and is in the same genre, but with a futuristic/space theme. Many of the interface and gameplay innovations in this game eventually made their way into ‘Civilization III’ and ‘IV.’ ‘Alpha Centauri’ is not actually a sequel to ‘Civilization,’ despite beginning with the same event that ends ‘Civilization’ and ‘Civilization II’: a manned spacecraft from Earth arrives in the Alpha Centauri star system.


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