Greatest Game of 1991: Civilization

If there was ever a video game that had a direct result on my studies as a grade school student, it was Sid Meier’s Civilization. I swear I got an A in Social Studies for 5 straight years because of this game. Like the nerd I was, I actually brought the instruction manual to school to show the teacher. Parents: buy your kids this game. It makes them smart.

For everyone who’s ever thought about what it would be like to be an emperor, Civilization lets your vision become (fake) reality. Crush your enemies! See them driven before you! Hear the lamentation of the women! This game totally changed the world of gaming. I went from jumping over holes in Mario or driving a car around a track to COMMANDING NATIONS. Total control for over 4,000 years of development, from the Stone Age to the space age. Does it get better? NO! This game was like a choose your own adventure novel: different every time you play. Being one of the first premier turn-based strategy games, Civilization allowed you to play through endlessly. With each game taking 20 to 60 hours, this was literally the only game you needed for 12 months. It was that good. I probably played through at least 20 times, for a total gameplay of around 1,000 hours. To this day I’ve never spent more time with a game.

The beauty of Civilization was that each playthrough had such variety. The first time through tends to be focused on industry and warmongering, with subsequent plays exploring the nuances of city improvements, Wonders of the World, political negotiation, technological advance, tax rates, and civil unrest. You could choose different nations and leaders, ranging from the illustrious Abraham Lincoln to Shaka Zulu. Each leader had a different personality, so you had to adjust your strategy according to who was randomly spawned near you at the start of the game. Julius Caesar to the East? Start fortifying. Mahatma Gandhi to the West? Trade technology.

The depth of the game was staggering for its time. Each military unit was controlled for coordinated attacks against enemy positions. Each city had to be developed with roads, farms, fishing, and mining. Cities had to be strategically located to maximize resources, which were used in the construction of military units, buildings, and Wonders of the World. It was such a leap from linear side-scrolling games and arcade beat-em-ups that it really felt that you made an impact. Sim City times a thousand.

Civilization was not without its problems. Battles between attacking and defending units were based on dice roll-type probability with adjustment factors. Civilization 2 upgraded to health meters, which prevented the Battleship (the most powerful unit in the game) from being defeated by a Militia (the weakest unit in the game). This was always incredibly annoying. It would take your best city 20 turns to manufacture the Battleship, only to have it get wiped out by a trash unit. ARGH!

The impact of Civilization on the industry was unparalleled. Board games were being converted to PC, but Civilization was a premier game created specifically for the PC. This was a part of the first wave of strategy games that dominated the 90s. I would argue that real time strategy games evolved from games like Civilization. This game proved that very complicated games that required substantial micromanagement could be hugely popular. The game spawned five sequels as well as two offshoots, Colonization (domination of the New World) and Alpha Centauri (domination of a new planet).

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