Retrospective: Civilization II (or, why democracy is a pain in the ass)

On the brink of my fall exams, all my thoughts have to do with copyright and corporate law. This makes me pine for the days of my youth, when I would spend long days playing Civilization II, the second title in Sid Meier’s long-running turn-based world power strategy game. There are few things less painful than watching a horde of 22nd century Mongols hit every major city on your home continent with nuclear weapons, and this thought gives me some small solace as far as my exams are concerned.

I owned the PC original, not the Playstation port.  But this was the best cover image I could find, and they basically look the same anyway.

I owned the PC original, not the Playstation port. But this was the best cover image I could find, and they basically look the same anyway.

Everyone is all about Civilization V right now (and the upcoming Civilization VI.) V is a great edition to the series, but Civ II will always be my favorite title if only for nostalgia reasons. Unlike the hours I spent at my friend’s house playing Sonic the Hedgehog 2 and fighting over who had to play as Tails, my time with Civ II was not wasted, because the game taught me many valuable lessons. The first lesson I learned was that if you’re the king of an ancient city, you’d better build city walls, otherwise barbarians will plunder and capture it.

The more interesting lessons came later in the game, when you are able to unlock new forms of government through technologies. The world of Civilization II has six forms of government, four of which had various benefits (despotism and monarchy are lousy choices that you have to use early-game and should ditch as soon as possible: they cause your cities to have low production and lots of corruption.) The remaining four forms are the republic, democracy, fundamentalism, and communism.

Being a good American, I thought I’d go for democracy. After all, I love freedom, and nothing says freedom like the power to make a basically meaningless choice between two equally crap candidates from two god-awful political parties. So that’s what I tried out. As it happens, Civ II democracy does have a lot of benefits: you can allocate 100% of your tax revenue to science, which you can’t do with any other form of government, and your citizens’ output is extremely high, meaning more money in the state’s coffers. So why wouldn’t you choose democracy as your form of government?

Because it makes it damn near impossible to wage war. Each of your citizens in a city (represented per every 10,000, then 30,000, then 60,000 people in each city and up accordingly) will become discontent the number of military units you ship away from their home cities, so large-scale deployments are more or less out of the question. And even if they weren’t, the legislature is all too ready to stand in the way of your hawkish initiatives, the bastards.

Well, maybe they're right, because this is usually what your Civ II war will end up looking like: decimated populations, military units disrupting production in enemy cities, and tons of pollution from nuclear weapon use.

Well, maybe they’re right, because this is usually what your Civ II war will end up looking like: decimated populations, military units disrupting production in enemy cities, and tons of pollution from nuclear weapon use.

This was the most interesting aspect of Civ II to me. You can certainly play as a democracy and win the game by dumping 100% of your revenue into science. I never really bothered with this method, though, because to me it was a lot more fun to adopt a communist government instead: you still got pretty good production and high scientific research out of your cities, but without any discontented citizens (if they complain, send them off to Gulag!) or that pesky Senate to get in your way (if any of your Politburo colleagues presents a challenge to you, have him killed and make it look like an assassination, or hold a series of show trials followed by executions.) So you can churn out infantry and armored units and wage war to your heart’s content, or at least as far as your budget allows. You could do more or less the same with a fundamentalist government, though your scientific research took a serious hit.

This is a pretty good way to deal with those damned Mongols who always seem to want to conquer the whole world.

This is a pretty good way to deal with those damned Mongols who always seem to want to conquer the whole world.

To be clear, Civ II doesn’t require you to conquer the world to win the game. An easier, albeit more time-sensitive, victory method is to develop a space program through research dollars and reach Alpha Centauri before any other power. Fulfilling the space race condition does require you to build defenses against nuclear attacks, but you can pretty much put a stop to all aggression against your state short of sneak attacks by beating every other world power to the Great Wall and United Nations wonders, which force your enemies to offer peace terms in negotiations. If you’re going this route, you’re pretty much required to adopt democracy for its massive research and production benefits.

From talking to friends who also played Civ II, though, the communist/fundamentalist brute force method seems like the most common one. Why? The same state practices that I hate in real life and that could and almost have led the real world to disaster and the near-extinction of humanity I happily pursue in my game of Civ, and apparently lots of other normal, non-atrocity-committing people do the same. Is that just because Civ is only a game, or does that mean I’d pursue the same policies if I were a world leader myself?

The Civilization series puts god-like power in your hands as the ruler of a people and eventually of a world power. I think it’s only natural to want to see what it’s like to utterly wreck the planet for humanity and conquer everything by razing and occupying cities and stabbing your friends and allies in the back. But I also think Sid Meier and co. tapped into something dark in the human soul with these games, the part that might find some actual enjoyment in this sort of destruction and misery. After all, guys like Hitler, Stalin, and Mao existed, and many horrible tyrants before them, and they were all humans just like you and me, not devils out of a fairy tale. And such people still exist today in the form of brutal dictators and murderous terrorists. Who knows what any one of us might do when given absolute power?

In case there's any doubt, however, no, these guys are not my role models.

In case there’s any doubt, however, no, these guys are not my role models.

Sorry, this one was depressing. It must be because of the exams on my mind – I can’t get into a good mood right now. I’ll start writing again after I’m done with them, and hopefully about some lighter topics.

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One thought on “Retrospective: Civilization II (or, why democracy is a pain in the ass)

  1. Civ 2 was great. I tried not to mess about too much with government due to the issue you highlighted. The Elvis advisor always made me laugh. I haven’t played any Civ games since Alpha Centauri as they have got too complicated for me.

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