Jeff Chapman started playing Civilization (MicroProse, 1991) when it came out and never stopped. He’s played the strategy turn-based videogame series for the past decade I’ve known him. Far from letting it consume him, he’s balanced his job as editor of History Magazine with a plethora of other projects, and so I thought he would be an excellent tour guide to introduce readers to the highly regarded videogame series. I went over to his place recently and he fired up the latest version — Sid Meier’s Civilization III: Conquests (Atari, 2003) — and showed me how he’d like to take over the world.
OK, so explain how to start the game.
You set up the geography of the world, what ratio of land to water, if you want deserts or mountains, and that’ll really affect your strategy. If you have a wet map you’ll want a seafaring civilization while with deserts you’ll want a nomadic civilization. You can have it modelled after Earth but I usually play on random because otherwise you’ve got an unfair advantage — you’ll realize, “Oh, I’m in Egypt,” and then very quickly take over the Nile and conquer the Middle East.
So in some respect it’s like an alternate history, with all the familiar players but a different geography.
Exactly. What would have happened if?… On some of the Civ message boards I’ve seen people write up an alternate history based on how their entire game played out.
The community is pretty intense?
Fanatical, I would say. Everyone rushes out to buy these games. I don’t think there’s a lot of piracy. I have pirated games but in Civilization‘s case I would buy them — the manuals are really good, they’re well illustrated and have good strategy tips. [We go back to starting the game.] You have all these different civilizations that you can play, they all have different abilities and build different special units. Egypt is my favourite, because they’re religious and industrious, which means that they won’t revolt very much and work very hard and fast.
How accurate is it historically?
It’s really good, and I’m nitpicky. I haven’t seen mistakes, just a couple of spelling errors. It’s amazing, if you play on an Earth map, and choose “culturally linked starting locations” which means that everyone starts in roughly the right place, it’ll play out like our history.
Do they do that solely based on variables or do you think they fudge that?
I think they gave the right balance of power, the right special abilities. The Arabs have horses as their special abilities so they’re able to build huge land empires. Which is correct, historically. They might have fudged it a little because certain civilizations always like the certain technologies that will allow them to build their special unit.
Because they’re based on real civilizations, do you see it fostering race hatred?
I could see it happening but I don’t see it on the message boards. It’s probably not tolerated. But sure, I expect that there are people who love playing the Germans and racing their Panzers across Europe.
Is this punished? Is there anything in the game where morality is built in?
There’s a little bit. When you take over cities, you can capture them or burn them. If you burn them, it makes that and other civilizations pretty mad at you. If you turn defeated enemies into slaves, that makes them really mad, too. They get really upset if you have pollution, or launch a sneak attack, or deploy nuclear weapons.
How do you win?
If you have two-thirds of the population and the land area then you win, even if your people are miserable. You can also win by having the highest score, which means you had the most happy people for the longest period of time. The best ruler will win. You can also win a cultural victory — basically if you build a lot of neat stuff, temples, colosseums, wonders, then the other cities will start loving you and defect to you. The conquest victories are the most fun but the cultural victories are pretty satisfying too, especially when all the cities start flipping to you. Cultural victories are new for this Civ.
If Civilization were the only game in the series do you think you’d still be playing it?
I might have exhausted its possibilities by now. The sequels have gotten a lot more complex and fun. In Civ I, you could be pretty assured of winning if you just expanded endlessly and then built a lot of tanks and bombers. In Civ II, you could do that or one or two other more-or-less surefire strategies. In Civ III, you still have to balance military stuff and expansion/perfection but if you’re going to win you also have to pay close attention to exploration, culture, trade, luxuries, diplomacy, happiness, etc. You can still win by brute force if you’re really talented and lucky but, on the whole, the game is more civilized, really.