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The Also Rans of National Character

August 12th, 2011 by Troy Goodfellow · 9 Comments · Feature:Nations, History

What this is about, including full list.

Lists suck because they are open to the easy criticism that something was left out or that the list maker didn’t consider X. Even when I stated openly my reasons for the list I chose (using the original nations in Civilization because it was easy and final), I was immediately asked why I wasn’t adding Arabs or Japanese or Spanish or Vikings or Koreans or Canadians.

Thing is, there is a good case for looking at a few of these, if only to examine why they were left out of the original Civilization (though there were no real national characters there) and why a couple have become canonical Civ nations, and even crucial for other games.

Take the Arabs, for example. They were in neither Civilization 1 or 2, though there was an Arab text file in Civ 2 that you could use to substitute in for one of the default nations. There is no doubt that the Arabs are a major world culture, one that has altered history, science, politics and religion every bit as dramatically as the Romans. Islam became a unifying force driving conquest in the Middle Ages, and Arab translations of classical works fueled a medieval Renaissance of a sort from Cordoba to Baghdad. Like Christendom, the political rivalries and religious schisms kept Arabia from being a monolithic imperial power, and this allowed Crusader kingdoms to pop up and, eventually, the Turks and Mongols to walk through. But the Arabs are too important to be left out – certainly more important than the Babylonians, or even the Germans.

Civilization didn’t get a “real” Arabia until the Play the World expansion for Civ 3. Led by Mohammed’s father-in-law Abu Bakr, they are geared for early cultural power (religious) and scouting (expansionist). Civ 4 added Arabs at the start, changed the leader to Saladin, and joined the religious power to defensive might. Civ 5 makes Harun al-Rashid an economic giant with caravans and a bazaar. I think that now, the Arabs are here to stay in the Civ series.

So are the Japanese, also excluded from the first Civ. But once the Civ design let them stick in samurai, Japan had its iconic unit, if not characteristics. The Japans that most strategy games celebrate are the civil wars of the samurai era, with competition for the Shogunate, and Japan’s disastrous spasm of conquest in the first half of the 20th century. Japan’s economic might of the 1970s and 1980s is somehow less interesting as a national personality, even though a lot of our current Western ideas about Japan are based on that business culture more than real bushido.

And finally, the Spanish, who I’ve written about before in the context of games about exploration. Because even though the Spanish weren’t in the original Civ, and were expansion afterthoughts in Civ 3 and Civ 5, they are the big warriors and dominant power in any game that focuses on 15th to 17th century America. The conquistadors are the weapon of choice in Civ, and Spain can usually bring a little more military muscle to bear in any period focused 4x game.

The Arabs and Spanish can each claim to be one of the most globally significant cultures in human history, but both have been treated kind of like an afterthought by the Civ series. The Arabs have it worse since they don’t even make an appearance in Rise of Nations at all, get tagged as the “Saracens” in Age of Kings and usually only pop up in games where knights need to take a castle or the Israeli Defense Force has to do another one of those quality v quantity battles. At least the Spanish will always have Colonization and Conquest of the New World and Pirates!. Though their historical influence is dwarfed by China, Japan is a major East Asian power and if you want a second one then this is who you turn to. They always have samurai in games, and the aesthetic of the Shogun Era means that you can get some truly breathtaking art and music to go with your battles (Shogun: Total War and Sengoku both excel in this regard.)

So Japan ends up regularly making the cut for Civilization and other games, I would argue for geographic reasons as much as any other. We can make do with one African civ, but not one East Asian civ, especially since Japan was a great American enemy less than a century ago. There are already lots of European civs, so Spain can wait for the expansion (as it did in Age of Kings) or be a bland default (like in Age of Empires 3). And another Middle Eastern nation? Egypt is Arab now, so we can just wrap that all in (which is what Rise of Nations did – Egypt gets unique camel cavalry a la Arab armies). So Japan moved confidently and assuredly from not significant to crucial.

Of course, Western fascination with Japan helps, too. Japanese culture is mainstream in some gaming circles and ninjas are a nerd meme that should have died years ago. The 20th century could have been a Japanese century if it had not turned its rapid modernization towards costly wars for resources. The modernity of Japan joined to the romantic samurai era of Clavell novels makes it an irresistibly potent choice.

All of this is part of the alchemy that goes into why some nations are chosen and some are not. Spain is an obvious choice for a game about exploration, but how many people really clamor for Spain if it’s not included in a general history game? There is geographic balance, game balance, cultural baggage, immediate relevance…all of these fit into why some get picked and some do not for historically themed strategy games.

As I said, lists suck.

Coming soon, the conclusion – an epilogue on what I have learned, what I haven’t and why this matters.


9 Comments so far ↓

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  • Fumarole

    These entries have been a great read, thanks for writing and sharing.


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  • Soren Johnson

    Ouch, the Persians didn’t even make the also-ran list. We actually tended to get the most hate mail involving Persia (usually if we ever implied that they were Arabs or Arab-like), so look out!

  • Ginger Yellow

    At least the Persians can take comfort that the Venetians and the Dutch didn’t make it either.

  • Fast Eddie

    “The 20th century could have been a Japanese century if it had not turned its rapid modernization towards costly wars for resources”

    One follows the other. Or rather, they both reinforce each other. Continued economic expansion required the acquisition of resources, the acquisition of resources fuelled continued economic expansion. Hence the division of the world between the Great Powers in the 19th C

    But fully agreed on the need for that particular “nerd meme” to quickly vanish. And pretty much everything else in the piece

  • someguy

    “Ouch, the Persians didn’t even make the also-ran list. We actually tended to get the most hate mail involving Persia (usually if we ever implied that they were Arabs or Arab-like), so look out!”

    Iiiiinteresting, yeah Persians get extremely huffy about being confused for Arabs (i.e. ALL OF THEIR CULTURE COMES FROM US THOSE BACKWARD ILLITERATE CAMELRIDERS) so hilarious hate mail should be expected. Any other funny examples/stories you could share?

    Persians got a bit of a shout out in the Babylonians entry but yeah, would have loved a more complete dissection.

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  • das

    I remember when I was very little and my cousin was playing Civilization (the original one… I think). He insisted on making a Muslim civilisation (i.e. just calling a civilisation “the Muslims” and naming cities accordingly, for the most part). Which really confused me back then because six-years-old-me associated Muslims exclusively with scary badwrong Chechen terrorists, hardly on the same scale as Greeks.