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Science in Strategy Games: The Civilization series

February 22nd, 2012 by Troy Goodfellow · 11 Comments · Feature:Science

What this is about, and a list of the games.

One of my favourite moments as a games writer was when I was contracted by 2K Games to write some of the materials for their Civilization Chronicles collection. It was an easy gig – research and write about the history of the franchise, do some email interviews with major players in the series, and then a face to face interview with Sid Meier and Soren Johnson, both of whom I’d met before but not interviewed.

As we talked about the origins of the idea (Meier agreed that it was almost inevitable someone would have gotten around to it) and some of the core concepts of the game, Meier bolted out of the conference room and came back with one of those big Timeline of History books. You know the sort; dates and thumbnail descriptions, rudimentary attempts at covering everything but a little devoid of context. In this book he had highlighted those entries where something was discovered and what was going on around that discovery.

For Meier, Civilization would be the story of all those highlighted words and how humankind got from agriculture to space.

There may have been upgrades before Civilization, or at least better units you could buy, but there wasn’t really research.

It’s an important distinction, and one that we will be examining throughout this series. Before Sid Meier’s Civilization, the idea of research as a mechanic that a player had to invest in was entirely foreign. New units would be unlocked with time, or accomplishments, or according to scenario exigency. The idea that a player could advance or delay the appearance of a unit was pretty much unheard of.

In this way, Civilization is the first really scientific game, for all the liberties it takes with the scientific method, its understanding of progress, its evolving peculiarities connected to national character and resources, etc. Before Civilization, (strategy gaming’s BC) the gaming of scientific progress was not a real thing. The understanding that progress itself could be a game was unique in the gaming sphere.

But first some other history. Avalon Hill’s boardgame Civilization (and Advanced Civilization) included scientific progress as a major mechanic. It handled the discovery of coinage and agriculture, however, as items you purchased – one of the many ways you could spend your trade cards to give your Civ an edge over its rivals. (This “science” design is emulated by at least one game in this series.) So, despite the similarity in name, Meier and Microprose deserve credit for the innovation of a mechanic that was not really seen anywhere before.

In his Civilization, research was something you continually invested in. It was an infrastructure cost. Money not spent on research would be used to maintain buildings or rush units, so there was a tradeoff. Most of the time you would want to keep the research as maxed out as you could afford, but sometimes you would end up at 70 or 80% efficiency just to keep the empire running. Specialized buildings like libraries and universities would add beakers to the research line.

It’s an obvious idea, of course, and sometime during the 4X explosion of the early 1990s someone would have thought of it. It’s so obvious, in fact, that Civilization V pretty much disposes with the idea of the budget tradeoff and just assumes that your nation is always hard at work on science; you can only improve your science rate by adding people or buildings. If you go bankrupt, you science will take a hit, but otherwise it is going all out. I am assuming that this is Firaxis saying that the choice to research is not really an interesting one, so it was removed.

The larger legacy of Civilization‘s design is the tech tree. There were no tech trees before Civ, by which I mean no branching series of technologies, linked and dependent on each other. You might have had upgrade paths (more about that later in this series), but not a maze of tech and knowledge that are connected in interesting ways.

The first Civ basked in the way it made future techs dependent on things that aren’t necessarily intuitive, or even historically accurate. Microprose was so proud of the tech tree that the copy protection scheme for the game was a quiz on what you needed to know in order to research the next technology. They probably didn’t expect that the game would become so popular and addictive that it didn’t take many sessions to memorize the tech tree completely, or at least remember enough key combinations to get past Science Advisor Sid and His Super Easy Quiz.

The core conceit of the tech tree was the understanding that scientific progress is intimately linked with cultural and societal progress. Technology allows humans to try new things in their society and these changes in turn fuel more scientific progress. It’s sort of a Cliff’s Notes version of Guns, Germs and Steel, with the caveat that in Civilization everyone had a roughly equal chance of ending up on top instead of the globe stacking the deck against humanity in certain regions. So the printing press was connected to religion and to democracy. You couldn’t move forward in weapons unless you had discovered a bunch of other social or political stuff first.

There were other ways to advance, of course. Trading with your rivals was one of the fastest ways you could advance. If you focused on one specific branch and reached a second or third tier tech, you might be able to trade that knowledge with a neighbor in return for a bucket full of first tier techs. Savyy players would game this pretty heavily, but it was an important mechanic for judging the value of certain types of knowledge and getting an idea of how much your opponents liked you. Civ 5 removed this tech trading in favour of research agreements that pooled the talents of two empires to move further faster, but I think this change removes a very important and fun mechanic for something drier and less entertaining.

But you already know all this. So why bother repeating it? Because, as I’ve said before, this was one of the most fertile eras in PC strategy game design and these now commonly accepted ways of showing the movement of science and technology were entirely new. And it was so successful that certain ways of doing things became default settings for a lot of games that follow.

For example, science is teleological, in fact, because you, the player, get to choose how your society will advance in knowledge and what the immediate effect will be.

It’s not that this is never the case in real science; when people were making the atom bomb or the printing press, they had a pretty good idea what they building. “I want to make a giant explosive from the fabric of the universe.” “I want to stick these bits together so that I put ink on paper faster.” But Monotheism isn’t an invention, and its not like people sat around thinking “I can put off discovering currency for now, because I really need to figure out compasses.” Your puny empire can only focus on one discovery at a time and, there is little in the way of serendipity in the Civilization science model, and therefore little serendipity in many of the games that follow.

This really doesn’t matter. It is a useful abstraction, and in some ways it worked conceptually better in the early days of Civ than in the modern Civ games with social policies and Civics, each of which could easily have been something you research in the original model. What makes, Legalism, for example, different from Chivalry, scientifically speaking? The only real difference is that Chivalry more clearly leads to Knights so you have a military unit that comes with the discovery. This is another reminder that the science tree is really tied to the army until the game’s final moments.

It is clearly an open question about whether a more loose scientific progression would even fit the central conceit of Civilization as designed. It is a game about decisions and the clearer those decisions are, the stronger for the basic model. There is serendipitous discovery in Civ, but its all pre-baked into the idea that you would never get Banking without The Republic. Wherever history implies peculiar connections, Civ builds them in. And now every Civilization has a tech tree where your decisions about progress can be planned out centuries in advance. (My current favorite is to time Writing and the completion of the Great Library so I can discover Civil Service with the free technology, catapulting from spearmen to pikemen in many fewer turns than it should take me. Plus the Chichen Itza wonder for longer Golden Ages.)

As the series evolved, new ideas were introduced or borrowed. Simtex’s design innovation – that certain races were predisposed to certain characteristics – led to Civ eventually adopting the idea of scientific nations. The introduction of Great People and Golden Ages let you have amazing breakthroughs as you rushed through the tech tree. Civ 4 changed how citizens were assigned to the “scientist” specialist role.

The core scientific model never really changed though. Your empire would generate Science points, and these science points would determine how quickly you moved through a scientific history jumble that was setup in a very rough chronological order, even though it was very possible to break your brain wondering why you needed the Alphabet even though it hasn’t hurt the Chinese much.

As one of the first games with scientific research, it’s not surprising that it was also one of the first to have a “scientific victory” as the alternate to global domination. Even though the most obvious effect of your imperial research foundation was the development of new and terrible weapons, the scientific victory was about escaping the Earth – colonizing space in what could be a race between empires. You couldn’t get to the rocket stuff without developing some pretty awesome armies along the way, but knowledge as a victory condition is presented as an alternative to war, an alternative to politics, an alternative to cultural hegemony. But its victory also means turning your back on this planet and seeking out a new one to dominate – and that’s the Alpha Centauri story that has to be told.

Though it is arguable whether Civilization remains the strongest strategy franchise ever made, its central ideas so permeate game design over the last twenty years that some of the series that follows will explain why a certain game is not just Civ warmed over, at least not in its implications. We will see that immediately in Civ’s scifi successor, Master of Orion.


11 Comments so far ↓

  • Feature Series: Science and Technology

    […] Civilization series (1991-2010) 2) Master of Orion series (1993-2003) 3) X-Com (1993) 4) Age of Empires series […]

  • Paul (@princejvstin)

    (My current favorite is to time Writing and the completion of the Great Library so I can discover Civil Service with the free technology, catapulting from spearmen to pikemen in many fewer turns than it should take me. Plus the Chichen Itza wonder for longer Golden Ages.)

    Actually, isn’t it the Mausoleum that gives longer Golden Ages?

    A good kickoff to your series, Troy. Will be interested in seeing what you do with the next games.

  • Troy Goodfellow

    Nope, Mausoleum gives you money for every Great Person you use in a certain way. Chichen Itza extends Golden Ages by 50%. When I play as Persia, it’s a game breaking wonder.

  • Bruce


  • ShadowTiger

    Technology is a very interesting part of 4x games, giving choices to the player, creating a sense of progression, and helping to define the early/mid/end game sections.

    Considering how there are 3 MoM remakes, 2 X-Com remakes, and a Civ 5 expansion, there could be some exciting innovations. Since I am also designing my own MoM remake, I am taking notes and trying to decide how I want the user to interact with technology.

    My current plan is to allow the player to choose things to research, but each high-level city can build an expensive building that allows an additional item to be researched concurrently. However, since these are lackeys doing the work you don’t get to choose which technology is discovered, you only get to choose which type of technology you want them to focus on (warfare, economics, etc).

    Also, I think most 4x games restrict you to science, diplomacy, and espionage for capturing technology. Perhaps when you capture an enemy city you get to choose to pillage it for money or pillage it for technology, which would give you a boost to a random technology you don’t know. This in turn would encourage you to acquire technology out of your planned order, which will give min/max players an incentive to try new things.

  • Rob C

    Civ is my favorite series, and I think the technology aspect of it is the reason why. Some people may remember where they were when President Kennedy was assassinated, but I remember when I first lay eyes on the Civilization box (sorry for the comparison, I know it is in poor taste). I was browsing in Electronics Boutique, “Build an empire to stand the test of time”. Make scientific discoveries, build The Pyramids, wow. I have bought and played every Civ game and expansion (except for Civ Revolutions). I have even played Civ V, my least favorite in the series, for over 500 hours. I can’t begin to think how many thousands of hours I sunk into the franchise.

    It will be interesting to see how the other technology systems are described by our guide, Troy. I’m surprised Sword of the Stars isn’t on the list since that handled research in a different way. I have trouble getting into space games (specially ones with 3D map – I just can’t navigate them), so SOTS never interested me too much. The idea of a changing tech tree was interesting though.

    Like Troy mentioned, Civs connections between technologies are a bit contrived sometimes and that does take a little away from the game. I would love a Civ mod that really expands the tech tree in a logical way and doesn’t break the game.

    Are there any good Civ-like games out there? I like games where the player starts small and builds their empire. Interesting research is a must.

  • Devereaux

    Try out the CivNights mod for an expanded tech tree and Civ experience that blows vanilla Civ v out of the water. Its what the game should’ve been when it came out.

  • Rob C

    Thanks, I’ll look that one up.

  • Peter S (Mind Elemental)

    Civ was one of the first deep strategy games I was old enough to play, so I was fascinated to read about the context described here. Very cool to learn that it was _the_ first to introduce a tech tree, and all the other things we take for granted these days.

  • Greg S

    I remember the first time I heard about Civ… back in 1993, when I was 8, my best friends older brother told me this elaborate story about how he almost took over the world but he used too many nuclear weapons and the fallout lead to the end through global warming and I had to see what he was talking about. I watched him play a game over several hours and he gave me a copy on 2x 3.5″ floppy’s (which I could not play until Dec. 1995 when my parents bought our first PC). I played the same setup over several times, earth map, america, 3 civs, chieftan. Then build up some huge cities around the mississippi, switch to Republic and b-line to fission and automobile, then convert to Communism invade Russia or the Zulu (whichever won centuries ago) and steamroll the spear-men with tanks. As you mentioned, I had memorized “Science Adviser Sid’s Super Easy Quiz” (and can still pass to this day despite new tech trees) and played the same setup for the game over and over with a couple trips to Alpha Centauri thrown in. My friends and I immediately fantasized about a continuation of the game set on Alpha Centauri and would discuss what this game would be like and I fell in love with an issue of PC Gamer that foretold the upcoming Alpha Centauri release several years later. I think I got into these games at too young an age and they have influenced me deeply.

  • Rindis

    Actually, research, as described near the beginning, pre-dates Civilization. The first place I know of it is the SSG game Reach For the Stars (1983).

    It just had four levels of ship technology, but you were sinking your budget into better ships instead of more ships and transports. The Advanced Game in 3rd Edition (1989) introduced industrial and navigational technology to research as well.

    Civilization did invent the tech tree so far as I know however.