Fourty-thousand nine hundred and twenty minutes, that’s how you measure my life playing Civ.
Although I have been able to stay off many of the hard drugs in the world of video games (WoW, Everquest, LoL, EVE), one game I have invested a ludicrous number of hours into is Civilization. The sixth instalment in the series was announced three days ago, so I will take a few moments to explain why this is significant to me. I don’t have a tally for Civilization 2, 3, or 4, but I currently have 682 hours and counting in Civ 5 (that is since October 2012). There is a reason for this, and it’s not just too much time on my hands. It’s because the game does such a wonderful job of keeping its boundaries just out of sight while providing new experience each time.
The core rules never change: there are movement rules for each unit, building costs, cultural and economic points to collect, victory conditions, a defined beginning and end to the game, all those characteristics of finite games I talked about last week. Unlike many games, Civ 5 allows a great deal of customization during game setup to tweak those rules, while others are fixed unless you are playing an explicitly modified game (for which there are many, many, options too). There is nothing infinite about it, as the number of permutations and combinations is vast but limited. Throw in a randomly generated world map, and the possibilities seem endless (even though they’re not). There are just too many possibilities for a human to be able to “solve” the game.
That is what distinguishes Civilization from the games where I can clearly see the boundaries. Another game I picked up recently is called Antenna. I was casually browsing Steam’s free-to-play section for something that isn’t a pay-to-win online multiplayer grindfest. Antenna was really good. I have 41 minutes logged in that game, and that is all I will ever have. Even that is a little bit longer than it needed to be, since I had to quit and restart the game in the middle due to a technical glitch (the sound cut out, and if you go play this game, you will find that is a fatal error). I had to start out from the beginning. But hey, I’m not going to complain about a single hiccup when the game was made available to me for the same price as a typical Canadian is willing to pay to watch HBO’s Game of Thrones.
Antenna has very clear boundaries, and one way to win. Each puzzle is solved by matching sounds and pressing the right buttons at the right time. You solve the puzzles, you win the game. I had a fair amount of fun playing it, and loved the feel of the atmosphere, but I won’t be playing it again because there is nothing more I can get from it. It’s perhaps a better example of a finite game than a game like Skyrim, which is every bit as limited, but is big enough that it’s harder to see from inside the game. Civ, on the other hand, always offers a new possibility: even with the same game settings and intended strategy, what kind of world am I going to explore? Am I on a huge continent or an island? Will my neighbors be Mahatma Ghandi and Haile Selassie, or will they be Genghis Khan and Attila the Hun? Will I be able to finish my world wonder before some undiscovered nation on the opposite side of the world builds it first, causing my fine workers to bust the whole thing up for scrap? (No hint of familiar frustration in my voice on that last point.)
So it’s that measured uncertainty that keeps the game fresh and replayable. The rules are limited, but with so many possible ways to play and win the game, the boundaries seem obscured by the same fog that covers unexplored tiles. That is what keeps me coming back to Civ 5 over newer games. As big as Skyrim is, I find it really easy to fall back into doing the same things in the same places on each playthrough, and it starts to feel the same. That just isn’t the case with Civilization, where the game is always just a little bit different. Beyond Earth, the “in space!” offshoot of the franchise missed the mark because despite the beautiful terrain and similar mechanics, it just did not have the same feel. Each game I played seemed to become routine more quickly (explore, run from aliens, develop tech, build improvements, choose affinity, kill aliens, never worry about other players), so I lost interest in it and went back to Civ 5. I just can’t seem to leave that game alone.
While I was writing this post, I had a friend ask me if I wanted to play a multiplayer game. Given that it is often hard to find people to commit to getting very far in a game of Civ 5, I accepted. We started a game. And then it was 4:00 AM. It was then I was reminded that across all of its iterations, Civilization is still the game built to stand the test of time.