It’s a weird thing, but the feature I am most excited about in the upcoming Civilization V: Brave New World is a relatively minor mechanic designed to plug in to the much larger changes.
It’s Archaelogy. Yes, always excited about new civilizations, since I love writing about that sort of thing, and really, the archaeology system seems to be another culture growth tool – it can allow you to find Great Works you can stick in your museums to increase the new Tourism resource.
But the developers have also said that archaeology will be, in some way and some cases, connected to things that had happened previously in the game. Maybe there was a battle there. Maybe it was an ancient ruin that a scout discovered centuries earlier, or the base of a barbarian tribe. In short, archaeology will connect the actions of the early game and late game in a novel way. The history within the game can be recognized.
A lot of us play in historical sandboxes because we are interested in the great events of the past. A good strategy game can give you the feeling that you are replaying or rewriting history. But it’s very rare to find a game that tracks this history and reminds you of it in game. You win a major battle against your enemies and once it is over, there is no record or remembrance of it. A great king rules for half a century and the only thing he leaves behind is a name and accumulated prestige points. Over time, experienced strategy gamers become subconsciously sensitive to this sort of thing and remember the great moments that stand out, but the map and the world are often devoid of any recognition that there is a past.
Like the Civ expansion’s archaeology, one of my favorite things about Rome: Total War is very small – in fact, it’s meaningless from a gameplay perspective: major battle sites are marked on the map. They aren’t prominent, and you could miss them, but if two large armies fight, then crossed swords mark that place for the rest of the game as the location where Scipii beat Carthage in 267 BC. It doesn’t change how you play the game or win the game, but it is a constant reminder that your experience is building a new history.
The mostly average colonization game Conquest of the New World tried to build this sort of historical sensibility by letting your explorers name the major geographical features they discovered. This was a novel feature at the time, and, of course, I tried to give grand and sensible names the first few times before using the default selection or naming waterfalls after my friends. I am sure that if teenagers played this game, there were many Mount Ballz out there, as well. Ultimately it didn’t build a lot of history, but in a game where there was a lot of waiting around, each new discovery by itself led to a “Hurrah, you found it, you can name it” moment that reminded you that your settlement was doing things no one in that world had done before.
And you could always tell which things you named, so there was a proprietary feeling to acquiring them. Why shouldn’t you have dibs on the Ed River? The history of the game could shape how you viewed the division of the map as much as the strategic situation did. We are not rational creatures.
I think about this on the day that I will be traveling to Sweden to assist Paradox with a Europa Universalis IV event – few developers are as immersed in history as Paradox is, and every EU game now concludes with a computer generated account of what each ruler accomplished in their reign over the centuries – I do love these simple summaries. But in game…great generals or advisors come and go at the whim of the player. Great victories only matter for the war, and there are no monuments. Victorian explorers do not become prestige generating celebrities.
Civ always had its Wonders, but I sometimes wish that every time I beat Montezuma or if a caravel discovered another continent the game would give me a chance to mark it. I wish that Dominions III would mark sites of major battles with skulls or something (probably dependent on the race). As we play through strategy games, writing our own histories, it would be nice to see that history we write recognized, even if in only minor cosmetic ways.
So kudos to Firaxis for this archaeology thing. It is an active search for the history of the game (which is usually better than passive) and can remind the player of accomplishments centuries ago, whether your own or your rivals. In a long term strategy game, we do a lot of great things we can hardly ever remember.