Classic Computer Magazine Archive COMPUTE! ISSUE 137 / JANUARY 1992 / PAGE 86

Sid Meier's Civilization. (computer game) (Evaluation)
by Keith Ferrell

It's less than 10,000 years old, this impulse to cultivate the land, to domesticate wildloife to settle in one location. That's not much time. Our earliest primate ancestors appeared on the scene about 18 million years ago, with the first members of the genus Homo arriving 16 million years or so later. Homo sapiens sapiens our subspecies, is barely 100,000 years old. Civilized humanity is, so to speak, a most modern invention.

Yet that handful of civilized millenniums represents a climb from cowering in darkness to reaching for the stars. While civilizations have risen and fallen over the past 8000 years, the impulse to civilize, to develop natural and human resources for the betterment of the population, has remained for the most part constant.

Sid Meier's Civilization gives you the opportunity to create, rule, and manage a civilization. Ruling and managing are, as players quickly discover, quite different things. As the game begins, you control a single band of settlers with little or no technology; to win the game, yours must be the first civilization to colonize a planet in another stellar system. This game has range.

Civilization may, in fact, be the most open-ended and flexible computer game ever developed. Each step along the pathway to a fully functioning, happy and heatlthy, well-managed civilization can lead in several directions. Decisions made early in the game can generate consequences that stretch across centuries. There is no right or wrong way to play the game.

Paradoxicaly, this freedom imposes a greater responsibility on the player than most games would dare. There's more at stake here, or at least there seems to be. Sid Meier has done a wonderful job of creating the illusion of genuine consequence within what is, after all, interactive electronic entertainment.

Don't get me wrong--you can have quite a good time with Civilization by playing quickly, taking a "smash-and-grab" approach. Devote your entire attention and productive ability to cranking out military units, seeking enemies, and making war. Such an approach, though, may be foredoomed. Your opponents are likely to be craftier, more intelligent (in the context of the game, at least), and more organized than you.

Their own attention to economic and cultural development may ultimately provide them with more effective weapons of war than yours. (Bear in mind, too, that even a "quick" game can take several hours to complete--unless your civilization is rapidly overrun by other more vibrant cultures.)

Conquest and warfare certainly play a major part in Civilization. This is a terrific war game, yet more. Culture and government, religion and commerce demand the same degree of attention as production of weapons and military units; they may well prove more valuable to the ultimate destiny of your civilization.

Meier's accomplishment here is, ultimately, the creation of a game whose peaceful developmental aspects can be as fulfilling as its warlike aspects, perhaps even more fulfilling. How many war games can you think of in which you have the choice between producing weapons of mass destruction or building Shakespeare's theater? The presence of that option indicates Meier's growth as a designer; that plowshares can in some ways be as fundamental to success as swords indicates the sophistication of the game.

There is a science fictional--or or perhaps fantastical--aspect to Civilization. The game doesn't promise to duplicate civilization as our history knows it. Rather, players have the tools for civilization and the change to make of them what they will. While all players--you and up to six computer opponents--start at the same level, the evolution of individual civilizations does not follow parallel tracks any more than it has in our own history. Forms of government, ideologies, technologies--all can collide. I have played games wherein I constructed lovely civilizations of a roughly medieval level of technology, only to see them invaded and conquered by opponents in tanks and aircraft.

Likewise, I have found myself in control of modern technologies that provided the means for laying siege to the entire world. Sid Meier's game makes vivid the clash of cultures that dramatizes so much of human history.

Placing chariots and catepults in the path of armored personnel carriers without the confrontation seeming forced or false, in the manner of a ware game construction kit, is a tribute to the game's persuasive abilities. You'll find yourself not only suspending your disbelief but also coming to care for the societies you create.

Through it all, the management aspects of a civilization will demand your attention. Infrastructure is crucial. You will provide your people with housing, food, and care, or they will let you know of their displeasure. the infrastructure requires maintenance and upgrades. Simple roads give way to highways or rail lines. Primitive sailing craft abel only to hug the shore evolve into huge oceangoing transports, battleships, carriers, and subs. You'll find libraries and universities here as well as barracks and depots. Ideas prove as crucial as ordnance to the growth and expansion of your civilization.

Best of all, there's a sense throughout of the interrelationship among ideas. Decisions made early in the game echo throughout its progress, both to your advantage and against it. Each path you choose both opens and closes other opportunities. You quickly learn to choose carefully.

Meier is also aware that civilizations play out their lives on planetary surfaces, often despoiling them in the process. Here, you are charged not only with exploiting the world's natural resources but also with renewing and restoring them.

There's even an interactive encyclopedia of sorts, with entries specific to the game. Design and aesthetic decisions are well supported by information resources, both within the game and in Bruce Shelley's elegantly written documentation.

Will you make the right decisions? There's no clear answer to that question. Sid Meier is as aware of the dilemma of design bias as any designer I know. It's not by accident--nor solely by marketing intent, I think--that MicroProse calls the game Sid Meier's Civilization. Insofar as is possible, though, Meier has minimized his overt presence in the game. You don't have to "think like Sid" in order to prosper. He has created a sort of electronic pocket universe with clearly defined rules and proscriptinos. Within those limits, you're on your own, able to find your way according to your own inclinations and abilities.

While the game is primarily intended as entertainment, it has an educational aspect that' cannot be overlooked. Meier isn't teaching here--nor, except in a couple of environmental areas, is he preaching.

Rather, he provides players with a self-contained continuum to explore and lets the reasonable and realistic rules of that continuum do the teaching. You learn by experience what works and what doesn't. If the lessons learned don't directly apply to the real history of our planet, you might at least allow that they may deepen your appreciation of the intricacies of history and the odds against which ccivilizations have always struggled.

Civilization is a bold stroke from one of the boldest of our interactive game designers. This game challenges the worthiness of your intellect as well as your instincts and provokes interplay of ideas while providing fun. In short, it's a most civilized entertainment.