Civilization VI and its Discontents

While waiting for the Kafkaesque bureaucracy of Australian’s immigration system to give me an actual decision on whether I and my family may be permitted to grace their fatal shores, I completed many things, writing books and papers, readings, and playing the computer game Civilization.

My first exposure to a game by the title of Civilization was the Avalon Hill version, a Board Game we played sometimes as undergraduates on our game nights, Friday (or Saturday, but usually Friday) at Georgia Tech, when there wasn’t a quizbowl tournament. The game starts with ancient civilization, trading and earning technologies. It’s good, but it reminds you, as with the game Diplomacy,  all your friends are, in the end, backstabbers. The game involves technology and trade, but not exploration and expansion.

My first exposure to the computer series was  Sid Meier’s Civilization II, which took up many hours of my evenings as a post-doc and first year faculty on my PowerMac G3 with its nice, but huge, 17 inch color monitor.

My favorite strategy to win was to deploy many spies late in the game and simultaneously nuke all of my enemies with suitcase bombs, and then roll in the tanks. The tanks by themselves would be insufficient to conquer the enemy city, but after the devastation wrought by my nuclear attacks, they were. The downside is now all the cities were much less valuable once conquered, and needed to be cleaned up by engineers.

The space race in Civ II was difficult for me to master, even if I launched, another later civilization would launch later and reach earlier, more engines or something. And given it is the end of the game, you have many fewer opportunities to practice than the dynamics at the beginning of the game (as you either lose early or abandon a badly going game). If you did get off the planet, you went to Alpha Centauri. I think Mars would have been a more likely choice.

I completed a campaign in the follow-up game Alpha Centauri, which has the same basic mechanics, but very different chrome than Civ II (and the others).  The chrome of building a civilization on earth is more interesting to me than the much more fictionalized chrome of building one on an alien planet. Not that humans won’t eventually do that, I hope we will, but we really have no idea what it will be like, or whether there will be alien life, and so on. It is likely Mars rather than a planet so far away in Alpha Centauri is the first target as well. So it is much more fictional than Civilization.

I never played Sid Meier’s Civ III. I did try Civilization “Call to Power“, which was in a sense a fork, by Activision. It had some elements of Civ, like the Technology Tree, but just wasn’t that fun.

Civilization Revolutions for the iPhone, was a dumbed down version of the game, and really, the game requires a BIG screen to enjoy. I played a few times, but it isn’t memorable.

I feel that I should have played Civ IV a lot, (following the Star Trek rules that only the even number releases are good), but I can’t remember it, and after reading the article, it doesn’t look particularly familiar, so maybe I never owned it. Oh well. I had young children, and I certainly did not play it while on sabbatical in 2006-07.

Steam revolutionized the acquisition of games. No longer would I be dealing with CDs or DVDs as media, games, like music and eventually videos would be downloaded over the internet. You could transfer them between platforms as well.

I started playing Civ V late, I bought it after it had been deeply discounted on Steam. It sat on my computer for awhile, but I picked it up again in October 2016. It’s a good game, with decent visuals for this type of game. It also has a lot of User Mods, some of which worked on my Mac (now an iMac from 2013). After playing more than a few campaigns, Civ VI became available. After confirming it would run on my hardware, I bought it. At full price. (In fact it ran on a machine it was not specced to run on, with a different graphics card, as well as the one it was, without hiccups).

Civilization: Beyond Earth has a similar theme to Alpha Centauri. My reaction was also similar, and I couldn’t get into it.

I have spent the most time on Civ VI since Civ II. While fun is not the right word, it was absorbing, and one could easily lose a day being involved in the game. This is a classic example of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi‘s Flow. The game’s steps are too slow, why can’t the computer compute instantaneously? Because if it did, they would just make the code more complicated. Like work, models fill the time allotted. I have in the past called this Induced Model Complexity, but we might just think of it as Induced Game Complexity in this context.

In a campaign that I will call the Ultimate Campaign (since I will not play Civ VI again at this point, at least until there is another interesting expansion pack, but probably not until Civ VII), I played well beyond satisfying the victory conditions just to see what would happen. The game allows “Just one more turn”, which is my case was “Just 250 more turns”.

As background, this was a game a played on a Small Two-Continental planet (Small to speed things up, compared with full-size) at the Prince level, the last level at which the computer doesn’t cheat with extra military units. I won a military victory against my opponents in the usual sort of way, destroying their capital and picking up the remaining pieces of their civilizations, a few early in the game, and the rest much later.

After the game was over, there were still a few potential city sites. One was an island in the middle of the ocean. The island was one hex, it had a few fisheries nearby. But if I located my city (which was to be named Beijing, not quite the last of the Chinese cities) there, there were no Districts that could be built. What would happen? I eventually realized I could still build the Harbor improvements, but there was no way to add land from the ocean (there really should be, although it should be expensive), and the island was too far from the continents. The city nevertheless grew to a surprisingly large population of 16 from just the one city hex and exploiting water resources.

I added a few more cities in the last remaining city sites in the Arctic and Antarctic regions, just to complete the map. They tended to grow quickly at first, but leveled off at a lower level, given the lesser quality environment, though they had fisheries and mines, and industry, and were fully capitalized so that they got all the improvements.


After I conquered other civilizations, there were still 6 city-states remaining. I let them hang around, with my suzereinity over them. The problem was, they had Barbarian problems, and were unable to put down Barbarian uprisings conclusively. There was spillover, so I was forced to step in. Ultimately, I choose to conquer them to impose a single world government, rather than let them continue to host terrorists. It was for their people’s own good, although they probably didn’t see it that way.


The most important lesson is Hayekian. The World, even in the form of a simulator like Civ, is too much for one person to optimally manage. Decentralization is required. Because I could not control the past, nor even all aspects of the present, I cannot optimally decide where to site Districts given even a finite number of potential locations, or what exactly to produce where.

The second lesson is that of life-cycle (S-Curve), and one might say “The Limits to Growth“. There are a finite number of city sites on the globe. Once all those cities have been founded, there is no more room. There is a reason we don’t found new cities any more in the developed world, and the last US city of importance, Las Vegas, is now over a century old. City-founding is a mature technology. Similarly, once all of the land is developed, and in the model all the technologies discovered, cities grow very slowly and eventually stop growing entirely. Hence the need for Alpha Centauri and the like.

The third lesson is of fixed and variable costs. Each city has a high fixed cost, so you want to exploit it by making them as large as possible. One city of 10 is more than 10 times better than 10 cities of 1 in many respects (except territorial coverage).

Game Annoyances:

The trading system is not automated. If you control a lot of trade routes (for instance after you conquer the world) this gets really boring.

Once I have completed the game, technology runs out, which is reasonable, but I can’t turn it off, so I have to keep researching the same “Future Technology” tech over and over again.

Civics run out, but I can’t turn it off. So it’s just “Globalization” and “Social Media.” This is the same problem as the Technology Tree. Once you have earned all the Civics, continuing to produce Civics is pointless. The cheery quotes which were cute the first time you heard them are of little interest the 250th time. I realize the game was over, but it should still be possible to shut this off.

Diplomacy is very strange. In general the other countries will eventually turn on you, especially if you are leading but not by too much and they can ally with someone, or you are disposable, or you are about to win, or they are leading, mostly independent of their personality and how you treated them in the past. But even simple things, like putting an embassy in their capital, is sometimes resisted. Other world leaders will sometimes give you cryptic messages, or words of praise.

National Parks are “national”, but all the hexes must be in the same city. While sometimes hexes can be traded between adjacent cities, sometimes they cannot. There are several sites where I would like to place National Parks, where they are otherwise eligible, but where rules about Parks being in the same city prevent it. The benefit of more parks is it is one of the few amenities you can provide after everything else is built out.

Now it is important to remember the computer cheats in various ways. Sometimes it cheats worse than others. In the most recent version of the game Civ VI, the cheating is standardized, it just can build more military units than you for the same resources at the more advanced level (post-Prince). Prince is the last fair man vs. machine competition in Civ VI. The computer AI should be able to perform more calculations, but the agents are not that bright, nor terribly creative, so the experienced human player still has an advantage I suppose (since I win at the Prince level, I assume this to be the case).

Below are screenshots of my last ultimate campaign illustrating various features of the game.