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Giving History to Historical Settings

May 4th, 2013 by Troy Goodfellow · 8 Comments · Design

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.


8 Comments so far ↓

  • Bruce

    ‘I wish that Dominions III would mark sites of major battles with skulls or something (probably dependent on the race).”

    The problem with that is it would be a giveaway of where you could resurrect undead or cast spells like Raven Feast which all depend on unburied corpses. The game mechanics are designed to reward those players who keep track of where the big battles were.

    But that’s an aside. Great article, Troy. I agree that the idea of making the current game’s history part of the actual game is a brilliant idea.

  • Procyon Lotor


    Every iteration if Civ that comes out with the same dead map from previous interations makes me want to bang my head against the wall. LET ME NAME THE GODDAM RIVER THAT RUNS RIGHT THROUGH THE MIDDLE OF MY CIVILIZATION PLEASE! Or hell, you name it. But give it a name! Instead, it just sits there, just another blue ribbon with no personality. Let me name the hills! The seas! You could do this in Alpha Centauri, and I always did it. (“That’s the Morgan River. It runs through the Plains of Gold and dumps into the Sea of Riches. Stay on your side of it Diedre, you tree-hugging skank.”) It’s one of the reasons that Alpha Centauri had that “it” factor.

    And battle markers . . . how can a game about re-writing history continue to ignore the history of battles? For chrissakes, how much of our sense of history is a list of battles? Thermopylae? Cannae? Agincourt? The Bulge? Like you said, players train themselves to remember the great battles in their games. We do, but it would be so easy for the game itself to give you some recognition. Flavor is cheap! It’s easy! How does it keep getting lost?

  • Hell-Mikey

    I like the idea of archaeology in the new Civ expansion, and especially like the idea that its tied to what happened in the history of the game. But I worry that I’m going to *have* to remember exactly where that spat with the barbarians happened 3000 years and 12 hours ago. We’ll see what they do with it (please get it right), but it feels like a great idea that isn’t going to execute well. Sort of like one unit per tile.

  • Leslie

    I wish the Civ games had the ability to put a sign on the terrain to name it. Sim City 2000 had it, so I don’t see why I can’t place a sign saying “The border where I murdered five Aztec warriors with my Knights” or “Tiny mountain with no significance.”

  • Tom Chick

    Don’t forget the archaeology skill in World of Warcraft. It’s like fishing, but FOR RELICS!!!1!!

    Procyon, Civilization Revolution let you choose from a list of names when you discover certain terrain features. I don’t know why they didn’t use that in Civ V.

  • Procyon Lotor

    I know! That’s what drives me nuts. They know how to do it! THEY’VE DONE IT IN OTHER GAMES IN THE SERIES!

  • Patrick

    I find myself in fundamental agreement. There are just too few games out there that have memory of what has been happening in a quaint, make the world lifelike sort of way. As something as tiny as those little battle markers from Rome, with the general’s name and the date, do so much to bring a dead map alive (a lot more than just having goofy little animations all over the place).

  • JonathanStrange

    I’ve always enjoyed and used the opportunity to name my planets, colonies, weapons, leaders. When Civ allowed us to name rivers, mountains, etc., I made use of them and wished we could do more.

    It seems that many, maybe most, strategy gamers would appreciate being able to identify and label features in their 4X strategy games. Whether it’s a planet, city, river, combat units, it adds freshness and involvement to what might otherwise be yet another galactic empire or planetary conquest game.

    I love any game that makes one feel a history of sorts is being created.