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.

Mini Metro Review

Screen Shot of MiniMetro
Screen Shot of MiniMetro

I have spent too much time in the last month playing the highly addictive Mini Metro, by Dino Polo Club.

The game pitches itself as managing the growth of a metro (rail) system, but given the pliability of networks, it is probably better to think of it as a bus network, since lines can easily be moved and reconfigured, as well as extended.

The game has a number of attributes:


Nodes of activity (larger white shapes, outlined in black) appear pseudo-randomly over time. Development occurs randomly with some contiguity, new nodes are likely to appear near existing  existing nodes and lines, allowing a line extension or diversion to serve them. .

Notably, they get demand even without being added to the network (so you better add them). Sometimes they show up on the network, sometimes they appear to be on the network, but are bypassed by the network, which is really annoying, since the queue for this is subtle and not obvious on a busy screen.


Each node both produces and attracts trips. It attracts trips in the shape of the node, and produces demands of every shape but its own (internal trips can presumably satisfied without using the network). These demands are the little black shapes next to the node, which must get delivered to nodes of the same shape.

There are different types of demand (shapes). I like to think of them as squares representing downtown/employment, circles as residences, triangles as retail, and a bunch of one-time special generators (plus – hospital, wedge (intercity train station), star (airport), pentagon (stadium)). Circles are most common.

Demand grows in an inflationary way to ensure you lose in the end. I.e. you cannot respond fast enough to changing markets (there is no pause while I rework my network) button. I can’t figure out the exact formula for this, except it is too fast. It seems it is a function of accessibility or connectivity, though I am not clear how this is measured.


Each Sunday (after a week) you get a new locomotive. Sometimes you can build a new line, and connect more points, sometimes tunnels, sometimes carriages (2 of 3). It appears you get 2 of 3, but I can’t determine how you get one rather than the other. There are a maximum number of locomotives (4 per line), and lines in the system. Locomotives can have additional carriages.


You need to balance node shapes along the route, to minimize transfers. So your route should contain as many different shapes as possible, intermixed as much as possible. A chain of circle nodes is not helpful since circles don’t generate circle demands.

You need to balance the number of lines vs fewer (longer) lines with more locomotives and carriages. Long lines with few locomotives have long headways, and thus more crowding. I am not sure the extent this feedsback and dampens demand. I have lately taken the strategy of maximizing capacity on one line before opening the next.

Locomotives add frequency, carriages add capacity. Locomotives are more valuable, but carriages are a second best.

Tunnels cost money. Since all the game-boards have rivers, some tunnels are necessary, but if you choose the tunnel, you forego either the line or the carriage, so choose wisely.

Long lines with limited locomotives have longer headways between vehicles. In other words, frequency is endogenous.

No obvious architecture of system works best as far as I can tell (Grid, radial, U-shaped lines) though I am favoring circle lines now, with two locomotives going clockwise and two counter-clockwise. The key question seems to be how interconnected you make the lines, how many lines intersect with each other, and how to minimize transfers, especially at crowded platforms.

Extending lines is free by adding links, except that it adds to headways without also adding locomotives. Lines longer than 9 long are trouble, especially without additional locomotives.

Bus bunching occurs, and is endogenous. It appears vehicles can overtake, I am not clear on that.

I try to make lines connect on non-circles and non-triangles, since those are more special places, likely to have their own special demands, and I want to minimize transfers. However, geometry won’t always allow that since demands keep popping up which need to be served.

There seems to be some sort of reasonably intelligent transit passenger routing algorithm, determining which passengers take which trains (transfers vs. direct). They don’t just jump onto the first train.

Design of the network is very much like the Traveling Salesman Problem.


The game ends when one of your stations suffers over-crowding. In short, it’s too busy, we shouldn’t provide any service. Perhaps it should not be the end of the system, just the end of the manager, who gets fired. My high score on the Steam version is 2006: 6666 passengers over 322 days in Sao Paulo.


The game is still in Beta, and being actively developed, so wishes are useful.

  • I wish could easily uncouple trains from carriages and rebalance vehicles within and across lines without deleting whole line. (The newest version (beta) promises this.
  • The game does not work on iOS. I wish it did.
  • I wish in the game I could pause while I reworked my network, Changing the network seems a dangerous time, especially as the network gets crowded.
  • I wish game statistics worked better.



The game is very aesthetically appealing, especially in this new post iOS7/MacOS 10.10 (Yosemite) era, and the beautiful interface fits right in.  It is impressive what they can do with an interactive web-game, though it requires a plug-in.

A version of the game is free on their website, and a somewhat more advanced game is available on the Steam Platform for $6.99.

This version includes Multiple cities: London, NYC, Sao Paulo, Saint Petersburg, Paris,  and Hong Kong (as of yesterday) with more coming.

It has Leaderboards, so you can compare your pathetic score with others. The Leader has over an amazing 8000 points.

Importantly there is both the Commuter mode (with crowding) and a Scenic mode,  (with Free play, and without a crowding penalty.)

This is one of the most abstractly realistic, playable transportation games out there. There are more complex games to be sure, but none which seem to capture so much of the fundamental essence.

As a fan of games and simulations for education, I am making playing this game a lab for my Intro to Transportation Engineering class.

To Game or Not to Game: Teaching Transportation Planning with Board Games

Recently published:

Traditional “chalk and talk” teaching in civil engineering is gradually being replaced with active learning that focuses on encouraging students to discover knowledge with innovative pedagogical methods and tools. One interesting such tool is the board game. This research examines the efficacy of adopting transportation board games as a tool in graduate-level transportation planning and transportation economics classes at the University of Minnesota from 2008 to 2011. The Department of Civil Engineering offered these courses with transportation board games on weekday nights. Students were asked to evaluate the effects of the games on their learning and to write self-reflective essays about their findings. The postgame survey revealed that the students’ understanding of the planning process, network deployment, and practical issues, and their ability to form opinions about transportation planning had improved. Student essays on the game economy and its implications on planning further validated that the learning outcomes derived from this game process met the pedagogical goals. This analysis shows that students who are oriented toward learning more on the basis of the visual, sensing, active, or sequential learning styles, with all else being equal, tend to learn more effectively through this approach than those who do not share these learning styles. Overall, this research suggests that properly incorporating board games into the curriculum can enhance students’ learning in transportation planning.

Multi-agent Route Choice Game for Transportation Engineering (working paper)

Xuan Di, Henry Liu, and David Levinson. (2012) Multi-agent Route Choice Game for Transportation Engineering. (Working paper)

In undergraduate transportation engineering courses, traffic assignment is a difficult concept for both instructors to teach and for students to learn, because it involves many mathematical derivations and computations. We have designed a multiplayer game to engage students in the process of learning route choice, so that students can visualize how the traffic gradually reach user equilibrium (UE). For one scenario, we employ a Braess’ Paradox, and explore the phenomenon during the game-play. We have done the case-control and before-after comparisons. The statistical results show that, students who played the game improve their understanding of the Braess’ Paradox more than those who did not play. Among game players, younger students benefit more in their learning; while those who are not comfortable with exploring a phenomenon on their own think this game not as effective as those who prefer hands-on learning experiences.

Linklist: April 26, 2012

Via AO: Rock, Paper, Shotgun: And Now The Game: A SimCity Preview :

“It extends to traffic as well, which also initially sounds more boring than a visit to the plywood factory with the lead singer of Keane, but has all manner of fascinating repercussions. When a new citizen moves into your city, they actually move in – removal van, arduous unloading of cardboard boxes, the lot. If your roads are narrow or busy, that big van parking up on the street might cause traffic to slow down or even gridlock in that area. Which isn’t necessarily a problem – this is modern living, right? But what if there’s a fire engine stuck in that traffic queue? And what if one of your buildings has just suffered an arson attack from one of the ‘personality’ NPCs who’s recently pitched up in town looking to cause trouble?”

Spatial Analysis: Sensing the City: Mapping London’s Population Flows [Lots of cool visualizations, some linked here before, some new].

Stephen Levy @ Wired: Can an Algorithm Write a Better News Story Than a Human Reporter? [Yes]

Linklist: March 7, 2012

YouTube has Videos mentioned by The all conveniently in one place (of course, not all of them, just YouTube ones).

PCWorld says Robotic Cheetah Sets a New Robot Land Speed Record, Leaves Humans in its Dust:

“The new Cheetah Robot is the latest animatronic creation to come out of DARPA’s Maximum Mobility and Manipulation program. It is the fastest four-legged robot in the world, and it can reach speeds of 18 miles-per-hour; the previous land-speed record for a four-legged robot was 13.1mph set by MIT in 1989.”

Ars Technica: Maxis announces new SimCity for 2013:

“During a Game Developers Conference presentation to gathered press, Bradshaw noted its been roughly ten years since Maxis last released a core SimCity title, and that the phones in many people’s pockets now have the same power as the machines that ran SimCity 4 back then. The new SimCity will take advantage of advances in computer power to be the first truly 3D entry in the series. “This is like an entirely new playground for us, and we’re going to take advantage of it,” she said.”

[It would be nice if they opened up the algorithm.]

Jamais Cascio: Open the Future: Record Battery Energy Density in Context:

“A tech company called Envia Systems has announced that it is able to produce rechargeable lithium-ion batteries (Li-ion, i.e., the standard kind of rechargeable batteries that go in everything from phones to electric cars) with a world-record energy density of 400 Watt-hours per kilogram! (Gigaom has lots of info, and useful background material.) Cool, right?”

Reihan Salam on Ed Glaeser on Infrastructure Spending:

“To that end, Glaeser calls for more user fees, congestion pricing, the decentralization of transportation spending, and, perhaps most interestingly, devoting the Highway Trust Fund to maintenance, leaving state governments to fund new projects themselves. (Here Glaeser is drawing on the excellent work of Matthew Kahn and David Levinson.) It’s a very sensible agenda, and it avoids the twin pitfalls of infrastructure alarmism and misplaced China envy. “

Linklist: December 9, 2011

AB tells me that The Gaming Gang reviewsUrban Sprawl : “Having lived most of my life in Chicago, I understand the concept that urban development can be a cut-throat proposition – never for a moment think any great metropolis was built with a lot of hand holding and singing of Kumbayah… Nope, it was a dog fight all the way and Urban Sprawl brings that dog fight to your gaming table.”

PZ tells me “Tolling started on the ICC, and as might be expected, traffic volumes went down, though my wife used it yesterday to get from Leisure World (where a co-worker of hers lives) to I-95. She loved the ICC (first time she’d driven on it). The MDOT/SHA/MdTA CHART site has a slew of cameras online, including several along the ICC.”

Brian Pearce writes to the Economist: Letters: On airlines, space telescopes, American politics, Mexico’s army, the Mekong delta, the Sex Pistols, goatee beards: “SIR – You questioned the level of competition in the airline industry (“Open the skies”, November 12th). Yet airlines struggle to survive in one of the most competitive business environments. Since deregulation began in America 30 years ago the real price of air travel worldwide has halved. During that period the average airline post-tax profit margin has been a paltry 0.03%.” [There used to be a chart on the IATA site which had cumulative profits from the airline sector since the 1920s, but it is no longer there, does anyone have a copy. It basically showed that airlines have been net negative profitable over their cumulative existence]

To game or not to game: teaching transportation planning with board games

Evaluation of Transportation Board Games from To Game or Not To Game by Huang and Levinson
Evaluation of Transportation Board Games from To Game or Not To Game by Huang and Levinson

Recent working paper:

  • Huang, Arthur and Levinson, David (2011) To game or not to game: teaching transportation planning with board games. (working paper)

Traditional “chalk and talk” teaching in civil engineering has gradually been replaced with the idea of active learning focusing on encouraging students’ knowledge discovery with innovative pedagogical methods and tools. One interesting tool is the board game. This research examines the efficacy of adopting transportation board games as a tool in graduate-level transportation planning and transportation economics classes at the Department of Civil Engineering of the University of Minnesota from 2008 to 2010. In these classes, a weekday night was scheduled for playing transportation board games. Students were asked to evaluate the effectiveness of the games on their learning and to
write a self-reflective paper about their findings. The majority of the students reveal that their understanding of the planning process, network deployment, and practical issues, and and their ability to form opinion about transportation planning has been improved. Their summaries on the game economy and its implications on planning validate that their understanding obtained from this game process has met the pedagogical goals. Our analysis further shows that students who are moderately/highly visual, sensing, active, or sequential, all else equal, tend to learn more effectively through this approach than those who are not. Overall, this research suggests that properly incorporating board games into the curriculum can enhance students’ learning process in transportation planning.

Cities in Motion Arriving for Mac Today

Mac|Life says: Cities in Motion Arriving for Mac Today

Paradox Interactive announced today that its mass transportation simulator, Cities in Motion, will be released for Mac today. If you’ve got a burning desire to design mass transit systems to get millions of people to work (or if you’re just frustrated with your own city’s transit system and want to show them how it’s done) this ultra-nerdy simulation may be for you.
Developed by a new Finnish (as in: from Finland) development studio (Colossal Order,) Cities in Motion could probably just as easily been called Traffic Tycoon as its gameplay resembles that of other crowd simulations like Rollercoaster Tycoon. Though Cities in Motion is doubtlessly a cooler name.
The game has been available on PC since late February and has garnered a mixed bag of review scores averaging out to a Metacritic rating of 70 (relatively average for the video game section of Metacritic.) Though a mixed reception is all that can reasonably be expected for a modern day train set.

Anyone with experience on the game? Should I get?