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Gamer’s Bookshelf: Civilization or Rome on 640K a Day

September 18th, 2006 by Troy Goodfellow · 4 Comments · Gamer's Bookshelf

A strategy guide is usually little more than a souped up manual. It goes over the basics of a game, often reiterating things you’ll find elsewhere like commands and explanations of iconography. There’ll be tips and tricks, unit breakdowns and maybe a rough approximation of cost/benefit analysis. There are, naturally, cheats. Strategy guides have no pretensions to literature and are rarely even a good read.

Civilization or Rome on 640K a Day (1992) by Computer Gaming World editors Johnny Wilson and Alan Emrich was one of the earliest standalone strategy guides. It wasn’t a hint book put out by the game publishers like Sierra and Infocom would do but was, in fact, one of two guides that claimed to be “official”. (The other was by Keith and Edmund Ferrell.) Wilson and Emrich used the term “authorized”, but Meier and Bruce Shelley co-wrote the foreword so there is no doubt that this is an endorsed product.

Johnny Wilson was editor in chief of Computer Gaming World in what is widely considered its Golden Age. (I’m not certain this is the case, but that’s the conventional wisdom…). He had written the city planning guide for SimCity and later wrote the strategy guide for Civilization: Call to Power. Even in this Golden Age, journalists sold their skills to publishers and developers. Wilson’s now one of the brains behind Manifesto Games.

Alan Emrich was the CGW strategy gaming columnist at the time and was responsible for coining the term 4X to describe the new strategy games that emphasized exploration, expansion, exploitation and extermination. He also bears some responsibility for Master of Orion 3, so it’s not all roses.

An early Prima Guide, Rome on 640K a Day stands out from the pack because the guide does so much more than provide advice on how to play the game. It confronts Civilization head-on, challenging some of the core assumptions of the game and is always careful to explain some of the historic background of the now classic strategy game.

Take religion for example.

The game basically abstracts the role of religion into a corner of the game where its primary role seems to be that into which it was cast by Marx as the “opium of the people”. The role of religion in Sid Meier’s Civilization is basically the cynical role of pacifying the masses rather than serving as an agent for progress.

Throughout the book Wilson and Emrich make allusions to Marx, Braudel, Wells, Durant…This is a book that assumes that any Civilization player is curious about how history can be understood. There are never any claims that Civilization will teach the player anything of value, but suspects that people who play Civ may be interested in the sorts of questions addressed by the great historians and theorists of the past. Wilson and Emrich provide a bibliography, for crying out loud.

This assumption of an educated audience is everywhere in the book. Each section is prefaced with a joke quotation from a famous historical figure, but there are never any explanations for why the jokes are supposed to be funny. Some are obvious. Orville Wright asks, “What fare should we charge to fly 852 feet?” Thomas Edison makes a witticism about power blackouts. Anyone with a basic education gets this sort of thing.

But what to make of Amerigo Vespucci saying, “If the globe isn’t correct, I only a charge a flat fee.”? Boss Tweed exclaims “One man, one vote! It doesn’t say they have to be alive.” Simon Magus wants the “simple things in life” in a section on temples and cathedrals. None of these figures are identified and even if you get the joke (like in the Vespucci example) you may not get why the joke is being attributed to a specific person. The reference to Nathan Detroit probably surprised a few.

None of the jokes are especially funny, but I wonder if you could get away with something like that today. It’s not that today’s gamers are dumber – they aren’t. But there does seem to be an assumption of illiteracy; a resistance to adding cultural or historic allusions beyond the world of the latest hit movies or canonical artifacts. This is probably why writers of strategy guides, game reviews or newsposts keep going back to “Lions and tigers and bears”. Always make sure the audience gets it, and the more overly familiar it is, the better.

The strategy guide stuff is all there, of course. Which wonders are useless (Bach’s Cathedral), which are indispensable (Hoover Dam) and those that are context dependent (The Great Library). The tech tree is laid out in a confusing manner, but each tech is described and analyzed for relative value. The standard exploits are all laid out from being able to count on your rivals forgetting how nasty you are, to spamming cities with caravans to rush structures. It also has a brief intro to hex editing in case you wanted to cheat.

The book isn’t literature, of course. It is most useful to people who are familiar with the game and want to avoid being compared unfavorably to Dan Quayle. But there is a sense throughout the guide that Wilson and Emrich don’t merely love Civilization, but that they respect it. They think this is a game worthy of more than a guide on how to win.

Looking back through the Civ series, it’s amazing how many core rules of the game have changed. War was easier in the original game since the enemy civs had such terrible memories and the chariot rush was near unstoppable. But it was also more difficult in democratic governance because of the home city rule for troops and the tendency of your neighbors to fortify troops right in your cities’ working areas. The cultural aspects of history were almost entirely absent; temples, coliseums and Elvii were only used to pacify the restive masses. Civ IV has even gone so far as to eliminate the idea of luxuries coming from your budget. If a newcomer to Civilization IV tried to pick up any tips from Rome on 640K a Day, he’d be completely confused; as lost as a trireme too far from shore.

Many of the themes that Wilson and Emrich hit in the guide are still very applicable. After all, it’s still a game that starts you with one settler, some basic tech and no clue where you are. The climate and terrain matter. It shows a version of the past celebrating the steady march of progress. Know where you want to go and find the shortest route. Never start a war you aren’t sure you can finish. It ultimately all comes down to production and population.

A lot of the history stuff is a little dubious. Sure, Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel has forever transformed how many think about the development of civilizations and it postdates Civilization by almost a decade. But as popular as Will Durant and H.G. Wells accounts are, they are more celebrated for their writing than their insight; Wells’ Outline of History is teleological in the worst way and repeats many fables already discounted in his own time. Accepting Montesquieu’s concept of northern climates as the “forge of the human race” is especially peculiar, even in the context of explaining that barbarians like to spawn in tundra. I get the sense that Wilson and Emrich just pulled books off their shelves and tried to shoehorn Civ into the purpose they set for themselves. (Kind of like Gamer’s Bookshelf.)

This wasn’t a Grand Era of Strategy Guides. Few games can sustain this sort of analysis. Games based on history or works of literature do well with digressions and sidebars, but a platformer doesn’t. Even RPGs have a hard time standing up to discussion beyond whatever is covered in the manual. Few games in the early 90s needed guides at all, let alone guides like this.

But Civilization or Rome on 640K a Day is evidence that two skilled writers can write a strategy guide that also firmly establishes a game within the context it sets for itself.

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4 Comments so far ↓

  • Scott Lewis

    Excellent piece!

  • Johnny Wilson

    Hey!
    We didn’t just pull the books off our bookshelves. We bought some and borrowed some from the library.

    Seriously, though, the shoehorning was done. We would essentially discover a mechanic, feature, or philosophy in the game and try to find some aspect of history or historical analysis that would complement it.

    Don’t get me wrong. We did serious research. But we also looked for evidence or theory to fit our “case.”

    As for the jokes, they really do have something to do with each of the persons, real or imaginary. I couldn’t resist putting in Dustin Hoffman’s character from The Graduate under Plastics because of that party scene in the movie. Jean-Paul Sartre’s works included Being and Nothingness, so why not say “I don’t think. Therefore, I’m not.” as the faux quote under Philosophy. Having the godfather of bad journalism (I mean Hearst, not Limbaugh here) say “All I know is what’s read to me out of the paper” seemed very funny at the time. And for Magnetism, well, Alan and I are still at opposite poles politically. And to have the inventor of dynamite say, “Gentlemen, I think I blew it!” for Explosives seemed to be a neat thing.

    Thanks for remembering the book. We always saw a serious side to the games, even if we liked to have pun…er….fun.

  • Troy

    Johnny, thanks for stopping by.

    I get all the jokes, so you don’t have to explain them to me. I was commenting on how people today would insist on an explanation. They are a nice little touch to what could have been a really dry exercise. The Alfred Nobel one is one of my favorites.

    I am looking for the Ferrel guide online, so there should be a comparison entry in a few months.

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