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Feature Series: Science and Technology

January 29th, 2012 by Troy Goodfellow · 24 Comments · Design, Feature:Science

I have a degree in political science. This is nothing like real science.

I do, however, have a deep interest in science and technology, especially their history. It may have been a brave man that first ate an oyster, but it was an especially clever man that figured out you could melt certain types of mineral and mold them into useful tools.

Ever since Sid Meier’s Civilization, scientific research and progress have been at the heart of long view strategy games. A game design that has science and technology as core concepts makes certain assumptions about science, but more importantly, tells us what they think about the place of technological improvement and scientific knowledge in a game setting.

This series will look at ten games that have research components, and some of these are games I have written about before; like a great book, a great game can be revisited from a number of angles. The list may change as I discover new things or games that have mechanics I have never written about. But please hold off from filling the comments with suggestions – most of these entries will make reference to other games. I am dealing with them as series, as well, since many of them make changes in the game structure that are worth talking about.

The series is also pretty loaded towards recent games, and I’ll explain why in one of the entries.

1) Civilization series (1991-2010)
2) Master of Orion series (1993-2003)
3) X-Com (1993)
4) Age of Empires series (1997-2011)
5) Imperialism series (1997-1999)
6) Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri (1999)
7) Space Empires IV and V (2000-2006)
8) Hearts of Iron series (2002-2009
9) Empire Total War (2009)
10) Pride of Nations (2011)

First up, the game that started it all. Civilization.


24 Comments so far ↓

  • Paul (@princejvstin)

    Looking forward to it, Troy

  • JeremyH

    This is a really exciting project, Troy, I’m looking forward to it. I work in the sciences and have always had a particular interest in scientific history. Strategy game’s treatment of the topic frequently frustrates me in its abstraction, though I confess I can’t come up with anything better.

    Particularly intriguing among recent strategy games, I think, is SotS 2’s “viability” system, wherein some of the techs on the tree simply aren’t realistically fruitful research projects. You can spend a fortune on these and get absolutely nowhere, which jives in a very real way with far too much of my own research experience!

    Whether that level of realistic detail is beneficial to gameplay is up for debate, of course, but I think it was an interesting thing to try. I’m looking forward to a detailed treatment of how some other games handle the topic.

  • Therlun

    Looking forward to it too.

    I hope you give the technology system in Master of Orion 1 the credit it deserves. Hint: it’s the BEST technology system EVER. :p
    Especially compared to MoO2’s broken tech system.

  • Michael A.

    Excellent – a new series from FoS to start the year with. Looking forward to it.

    And oh yeah – get on and join the QT3/BF BB leagues. You don’t need to join the regular leagues if you don’t have time for one regular game a week, but you should get in on the Open League at least. You won’t find a friendlier BB gaming community anywhere else. I’m not keen on synchronous on-line games in general, but I keep playing this one, and the community is the main reason.

  • Chris Floyd

    I’ll make the popcorn.

  • Rob C

    This sounds like an interesting feature Troy. Should I look forward to your writing.

  • Bruce

    So when does the series start? Tomorrow? In a thousand days?

  • Troy Goodfellow

    I want the first post up this week. Some of these games will need some revisiting. Do not want this thing to drag to summer.

  • Rob C

    I had a mistype in my original post. Should read:

    This sounds like an interesting feature Troy. I look forward to your writing. Sounded like I was being a jerk.

  • JeremyH

    Speaking of “revisiting” these, I managed to miss Imperialism entirely in its day (which is criminal, as I gather it would have been right up my alley). Is there any source for a (legal) copy outside of those $60 boxes on Amazon? Is it still worth that kind of money?

  • Peter S

    Look forward to reading the series!

    I’m particularly interested in hearing your thoughts about Empire: Total War. Other than Age of Empires III and late-game EU3, there aren’t a lot of other video games that deal with the Enlightenment and the lead-up to the Industrial Revolution, a period during which technical advances were obviously crucial. I loved seeing mundane technologies such as Newcomen steam engines, various spinning machines, etc. show up in Empire, and in fact, I probably have that game partly to thank for my interest in the period…

  • Warren

    Booyah! This sounds like a long train of WIN, Troy!

  • ShadowTiger

    This will be interesting. I hope you will touch on the concept of representations of time.

  • Jon Shafer


    Pretty sure there’s no legal way to download it. It is definitely worth $60 though.

    – Jon

  • Matt


    I’ll have to disagree somewhat with Jon; it’s a great game (which I missed when it came out too) but I would say it’s not worth $60 anymore. Like many great old games, the UI has dated and is slightly infuriating to use.

    I also don’t know of any legal way to get it. It’s relegated to abandonware sites unfortunately.

  • laler

    I feel its very disingenuous to start with Civ, since it didnt have any real “research component” in it.

    -“Enemies besiege us, sage ! Think of some way to save the nation, and be quick about it !”
    -“Yes, sire. We can invent the wheel to make mighty trampling chariots, or bronze to pierce the scum with spears”

    Say what you will about abstraction and approximation, but the fact of the matter is “let’s research us a wheel” kind of dialogue is more at place in an insane asylum, than in, say, a chieftain’s court.
    -“Oh yes, we will invent you a wheel, sire, but it will take 150 years. 120 years if you order to build for us another library”.
    Seriously now. Even the fact that you know exactly how long it will take to complete…

    X-Com should be the first game featuring some semblance of actual science. You bring “i dont know what it is” thingie home, hire some guys to poke it with sticks and the like, they have no idea how long it will take to know all there is to know about it, and in the end it might be impossible to reproduce, or even of no use to anyone ! Whew, that was a long sentence there.

  • Troy Goodfellow


    If my series only dealt with “most realistic” aspects of games then each series would be two posts long. The National Character series would not have been written at all, since there is no such thing.

    This series, like all of them, is about science is translated into a game, the implications it has for the player, some historical commentary (which is impossible for science fiction) and any meta-theoretical commentary about the place of research/knowledge in strategy games.

    To not include Civilization, the first game that actually had scientific research as something the player had to invest in, simply because the tech tree is transparent (which is one of the points of the essay, of course) would be ridiculous. Just as Civ or Age of Empires or EU or what-have-you affect how history and nations have been portrayed in games since, the Civ tech tree and its implications for both design and historical understanding are essential for commentary.

  • Rob C

    laler, I wouldn’t say it is disingenuous. It is a discussion about how games handle research. Perhaps the discussion will state the research in Civilization isn’t at all realistic, but works within the context of a pseudo-serious strategy game. Civ is a game about shaping your empire and its research component provides the player a way to do that.

    In the ancient world where one starts using the wheel, I would expect discoveries to be based more on observing the world, luck and relating different events (i.e. rock rolling down a hill to using something round to help something roll). In the modern world research is more deliberate (I want a chemical compound that slows the growth of cancer cells. What chemical would have these properties?).

  • Alan Au

    With a formal background in research, I’m looking forward to this series. I’m particularly fascinated by the way that games characterize the research process, using hidden knowledge and uncertainty while still trying to give players a sense of control over technological development.

    Of course, the really interesting part is how research has become a central strategic consideration, and how RTS players carefully decide when to “tech up” in preparation for a mid-game push. Ah, if only real-world research were as easy as allocating scientists and hitting a button.

  • Christopher

    Cool series idea.

    A bit off-topic: I remember telling my father I wanted to be in political science, because it was a ‘science’, and then he corrected me and told me that it wasn’t.

  • Andy Wren

    Looking forwards to this one. Master of Orion’s research model is still one of my favourites – multiple tracks running simultaneously, random completion, random tech availability.

  • Bruce

    Looking for a link to the first installment but not seeing one … lemme check Google.

  • Jonathon H

    Loved the first entry and am SUPER excited to see #2 and #3 when they go up.

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