Saturday, February 13, 2016

A Space for Civilization

My ultimate board game design fantasy is to create Civilization in Space. In this introductory post, I'm going to explain exactly what I mean by that, and then in future posts, I'll share some of the reasons why Civilization in Space is so important to me, where some of my previous attempts went wrong, and what I'm doing on my latest quest for the Holy Space Grail.

What is a Civilization game?

A 'civilization' style board game, or 'civ' game for short, is a board game that shares some of the key features of Sid Meyer's classic 1991 computer game Civilization. Civilization puts you in the role of an absolute monarch, encouraging you to manage the welfare of your empire's individual cities in order to raise armies, construct public works like roads and aqueducts, and discover new technologies. Civilization deserves praise for many, many different features: it had truly progressive and innovative graphics, music, user interface options, tactics, politics, and immersive depth. In my opinion, though, there are two key features that make Civilization and its heirs better than all other games.

First, Civilization lets players seamlessly transition between minor questions about how to manage the population in an individual city and major questions about how to manage the progress of your empire as a whole. With a few clicks, players could direct a group of 10,000 villagers to stop working a Forest tile and start working a Grassland tile -- or, also with a few clicks, players could direct their million-person empire to throw off the chains of Despotism and declare a Republic. A sane player won't have the time or attention span to constantly micro-manage the placement of every single villager in the empire -- but a competent player won't be able to avoid making at least some decisions about how to distribute her workforce. The beauty of this system is that it challenges the player to identify which decisions are truly important, and which decisions can be left to the computer's sub-optimal default choices.

Second, Civilization allows players to directly challenge, invade, and conquer each others' cities, but there is much, much more to the game than simply winning at military conflict. Many 'wargames' such as Axis & Allies, Game of Thrones, and Eclipse have reasonably complex economic systems, but almost the only outputs of the economies in those games are faster, better, and more numerous machines of destruction. In Axis & Allies, for example, if you have a strong economy, you can build lots of tanks and deploy them close to your enemies, and if you have a weak economy, you're reduced to building a handful of riflemen that will be trapped close to your home cities. That's about it. By contrast, in Civilization your economy is good for a very wide variety of aims -- you can discover civilian technologies that help you support larger and happier cities, you can terraform the landscape to make it more fertile and more productive, you can fill your cities with banks or recycling centers or cathedrals or courthouses, you can link your continents with a network of caravans and railroads, and ultimately you can build a starship and launch it toward Alpha Centauri. Of course, none of that will do you any good unless you also build enough Catapults and Chariots -- and then later enough Cannons and Submarines -- to defend your cities and protect your pioneers from barbarians and invaders while they march around laying rail tracks. The beautiful, simmering tension in Civilization is that you have to build a military in order to protect the rest of your accomplishments, but if all you build is a military, then you miss out on most of what the game has to offer. In short, Civilization hits players right between the eyes with the bread-or-butter dilemma of Vietnam-war era America: you have to choose how much you want to invest in a bright new future, and how much you want to invest in making sure someone else doesn't take what you build and run off with it.

To sum up this section, I'd say a game qualifies as a Civilization game if it offers (1) a challenging mix of micro-management and big decisions, and (2) an interesting mix of options for both military and civilian progress.

What does it mean for a board game to be set 'in space'?

At the simplest level, you can set a game 'in space' by changing some of the cover art and the names of the pieces. Your marines become "Space Marines," your cities become "Space Stations" and your sailboats become "Spaceships." Some Eurogame companies make a habit of 'porting' successful games into every conceivable thematic environment -- pirates, Shakespeare, steampunk, ancient Rome, the desert, a coal mine, a horse race, a dog show, a sushi restaurant, etc. -- with only one or two minor changes to the game's mechanics. There's a lively debate that's been running for at least fifteen years about whether this is good for the gaming community, but it's not a debate that particularly interests me -- for better or worse, I'm firmly on the side of the debate saying that your themes need to match and reinforce your mechanics, so that the thematic content of a game piece (e.g., this tiddlywink represents a pirate ship) helps you remember how the game piece behaves mechanically (e.g., this tiddlywink will move to different port cities and take cargo cubes from the cities and from other tiddlywinks).

So for me, to set a game 'in space' means that the mechanics of the game need to match and reinforce the outer space theme. This is tricky, because we don't have much in the way of real-life examples to inspire the mechanics! We 'know' from Grade-B sci-fi movies what bug-eyed green aliens from Mars do, but what do space station managers do when a shipment of water doesn't arrive on time? What do the captains of long-haul space freighters think about when they plot a course back from Saturn or from Betelguese? What does a general in the Asteroid Belt do when she's plotting a diversionary action to cover a retreat from the Moon? What kinds of hard choices are faced by an 'average' terraforming engineer? By an amazingly talented terraforming engineer? By an under-funded and rushed terraforming engineer? What new options become available once civilization starts spreading beyond the planet Earth, and what new challenges will future leaders be forced to grapple with that present-day leaders are free to ignore?

All this uncertainty means that there are really two parts to the 'space' part of the Civilization in Space challenge: step 1 is to imagine, in loving detail, what a human future in space might look like, and step 2 is to tie the details of that future to specific board game mechanics.

Didn't Sid Meier himself already make expansions that set Civilization in Space?

Yes and no. In 1999, Sid Meier released the smash hit Alpha Centauri, which invited turn-based strategy gamers to rebuild civilization on a strange alien world. IGN called it "deep, rich, rewarding, and thought-provoking in almost every way." PC Gameworld called it the "Holy Grail." I called it awesome, and played it non-stop for months when I finally got a copy. For better or worse, though, the action in Alpha Centauri and its expansions all took place on a single planet. You can build satellites that show up in a special window that's notionally 'in orbit' of the planet and that provide benefits to all of your cities, but you don't travel to other moons or other planets, let alone other solar systems -- once the mothership crashes on Planet in the opening movie sequence, you're stuck on and around that planet for the rest of the game. In my opinion, Alpha Centauri is really just a remake of Civilization that happens to have a pasted-on futuristic theme. There's nothing that happens in the Alpha Centauri game that couldn't also happen on, e.g., a post-apocalyptic Earth.
Last year, Sid rolled out Civilization: Beyond Earth, which, oddly, follows exactly the same format: rebuilding civilization on a single alien world, with orbital satellites providing small bonuses and no forays of any kind beyond low orbit. The 2015 'companion game' Sid Meier's Starships extends the premise a little bit by allowing players who successfully rebuild civilization to go out and explore nearby colonies and try to weave them into a federation, and Starships is definitely set in outer space -- but sadly, Starships isn't a civ game! Instead of building a multistellar civilization, you're commanding one fleet on a series of scripted missions with familiar goals like "escort this diplomat," "find this shiny MacGuffin object," "rescue these innocent victims," and "blow up the dreaded space pirates." The gameplay has more in common with Star Wars: X-Wing Alliance than it does with the original Civilization. Good fun, but it's not thematically or mechanically equivalent to building up a civilization as you see fit.

So -- what would it take to truly put Civilization in space? To not just offer a strange alien landscape, to not just offer some civilization-style features on a star grid, but to reinvent the civ-building genre to incorporate the challenges and opportunities afforded by (a) being able to colonize incredibly different environments, some of which are extremely hostile, (b) having to cross very long distances of uninhabitable vaccum in order to reach your neighbors, and (c) having a technological base that can only be sustained with a minimum population that's larger than the population of the average colony?

I'm working on it. Stay tuned!

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