Trade Week: Why I Learned to Hate Civilization

When I first played the strategy game Civilization — on an Amiga computer in the early 1990s — I was instantly hooked. I was a wargamer, and Civilization (or Civ as it quickly became known) was the ultimate computer wargame, taking you through the ages of warfare from spears to nuclear bombs, all in the interest of building an “empire to stand the test of time,” as the advertising tag line went. Like many other Civ addicts, I would decide to play just one more turn before going to bed and then turn around to see the sun rising. In winter. In Britain.

So of course, I graduated from Civ to Civ II when it came out, then to Civ III and finally, long after it had come out (having a family really puts the brakes on playing addictive computer games), Civ IV. That’s where I stopped, because, as the game had developed, I came to dislike it as much as a politician who “grows in office.” As it became less a wargame and more a political simulation, it started imposing an authoritarian view of the world. The worst example of this was trade.

Trade is, as Matt Ridley shows in The Rational Optimist, probably the most important advance in the history of mankind – the essential catalyst for, well, civilization. The voluntary exchange of resources is vital to the division of labor and the progress of humanity. Yet Civ IV has a distinctly mercantilist view of the world. From the beginning, you are jealously searching for and guarding vital resources — from fish to  uranium, from copper to coal — to make sure no-one else gets them. You can rebuff an enemy and keep them in the Dark Ages by refusing to trade your spare iron to them, for example, while building your legions to plunder his territory.

This isn’t how it worked — or works, for that matter.  People who discover this sort of resource instantly start to trade it, sharing the benefits with everyone, to mutual advantage. They get the benefit of new inventions that other make with the resource. In Civ game terms, if you get a resource, everyone you trade with should get the resource too, and everyone’s research points should increase accordingly. Similarly, societies that shut themselves off from trade should suffer. Yet the civic government form of “mercantilism” is one of the best in the game, giving you valuable specialists in every city that outweigh the lost benefits of trade routes. Similarly, “state property” is better than “free market,” magically increasing the amount of money your empire has at its disposal by somehow reducing corruption (which anyone who was alive under real state property regimes would laugh at).

This would not matter if Civ had remained a wargame, but it ceased to be that several editions ago and is now a simulation — and a bad one at that (I won’t mention the massive army stacks that have become the only way to stage invasions — something Napoleon would advise against). It rewards “strong” government, when all the evidence is that strong, centralized governments have reduced innovation and happiness throughout history (again, see Ridley, passim). A realistic Civ would have centralized governments have extra specialist population figures in the form of Chiefs, Priests and Thieves, all of whom sap the vitality of a civilization and reduce its innovation to next-to-nothing. That would itself make for an interesting game – how to balance the requirements of a strong defense with a happy, innovative people (indeed, the dilemma that has plagued humanity throughout civilization).

I haven’t played Civ V. If it addresses these problems, I’d be interested to hear so. Otherwise, the greatest strategy game in computing history has finally lost a long-time fan.

And don’t even get me started on the civic of Environmentalism…