The school year is winding down for yours portly, but before the clock stops and summer begins, there’s a flurry of last-minute activity. This week is exam review week, which means an odd mixture of light and easy classes alongside frantic preparations for exams. For students, it’s studying for the exams that has them stressed; for teachers, it’s putting the exams and their related review guides together.
In college, exam week was the time of the semester I squeezed in the most gaming. Paradoxically, it was when I had the most free time. I’d spend a few hours over the course of the week reviewing notes for history exams, or memorizing the singing exercise for my Jazz Theory final, but would spend the rest of that unstructured time diving into games, notably The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind.
Now I have far more responsibilities, but exam week still offers some unstructured time to get things done (most importantly, grading all of those exams!). Unfortunately, I picked this weekend to dive back into Civilization VI, specifically the vanilla version on my Nintendo Switch Lite.
I wrote awhile ago about Civilization Revolution, the super simplified Nintendo DS version of the game, and how addictive it was to play, even with its rudimentary elements. Civilization VI—even the vanilla version, without all the awesome expansions (which I have and enjoy on the PC)—is like that game, but a hundred times more absorbing.
The Civilization series of games are notorious for their addictive, “just-one-more-turn” style. Any fan of the series can regale you with tales of irresponsibly late-night gaming sessions, ones that risked their jobs, their marriages, maybe even their lives (okay, I don’t know about that last one, but some gamers have died from playing games for too long). A decade ago, I was very bad about starting a game of Civilization (I think it was Civ IV back then) around 9 PM, promising to play for “just an hour or two” before bed, only to find it was suddenly 2 AM and I had to be awake in four hours.
Creeping into middle age has cured me of that folly—mostly. Getting in bed by 9:30 or 10 PM is more important than trying to beat Egypt to building the Pyramids (it also helps that Civilization VI includes a real-world clock in-game, so I always have a visual reminder of my irresponsibility). Nevertheless, I spent a good chunk of Sunday playing a game of Civilization VI on my Switch, time I should have spent blogging and finishing up exams and review guides. Gulp!
So what makes these games so alluring, they destroy all productivity in their wake? The best way to answer that is to play the games, but my job as a writer is to try to illustrate in words what makes the Civilization series so successful. It’s hard to sum up in a single post.
I think the turn-based nature of the game accounts for a great deal of its appeal. It’s a game that can be played very deliberately, so gamers who prefer taking their time, rather than reacting quickly to in-game situations, can slow down. But because it’s turn-based, there’s a constant countdown to some milestone—a Builder unit might be finishing up next term, so you can finally build that winery; your settler is about to land on some far-flung continent after twenty turns at sea, and you might be able to plop down a colony there; you’re nearly done building the Colossus World Wonder; the enemy’s capital is about to fall to your forces.
That means there’s never really a good time to stop a play session. Just like real life, there is always something coming up, or something that needs to be done (“did I remember to buy a Trader now that I have enough gold? Do I need to rush production on a Rifleman to protect my far-flung colony?”). As such, it’s easy to say, “Well, let me play a few more turns to get this city built and to finish up that Library in my capital, then I’ll go to bed,” only to then have a host of new options and possibilities as a result of those milestones.
The game also takes a very long time to play. On a “Huge” map, a game might take twelve or more hours to complete, depending on quickly you’re going after a victory condition. If playing multiplayer, it can take even longer, depending on how deliberate your human opponents are in taking their turns.
But I think another appeal to the series is that, despite being a turn-based exploration/expansion game, it has some fun role-playing elements—but instead of role-playing a single character, you’re role-playing an entire civilization or nation.
To be clear, I would not classify any of the Civilization games as role-playing games, but for me, at least, the opportunity to step into the shoes of an historical figure or nation is a big deal. What if China had colonized North America? What if the Incas landed in Australia? Can Sparta establish a religion that will spread over the globe? These are just some of the fun, counter-historical elements that players can experiment with in Civilization games.
In my current game, I am playing as Gorgo of Sparta, playing on a Huge Real Earth True Start Location map. That means I started in Greece. Because of the huge number of European-based civilizations—Greece, Rome, Spain, France, Germany, England, Norway/Sweden (The Vikings), and Russia, to name a few—the Europe map can get very crowded very quickly. I actually lucked out on this one, with just England, Germany, Rome, and Norway to worry about in Europe, while Egypt and Persia lurk to the east.
That still makes for a pretty cramped map, so I have had to expand out into the Russian Steppes and western Asia. Now that I have developed better seafaring technology, I’ve colonized Spain and North Africa, and should have a settler landing in South Africa soon.
Gorgo is meant to be played aggressively, with all sorts of military perks. But Sparta/Greece as a civilization also gets some significant cultural bonuses, and that tends to be my play style. Indeed, I am—improbably—allied with pretty much everyone in the world at the moment, which is a bit unusual; the computer AI tends to hate you forever once they hate you. I’ve somehow managed to appeal to most of them, though, and other than an early war with Germany and Persia, I haven’t done much warring in this playthrough.
Early in the game I was able to found a religion (Eastern Orthodoxy, which seemed fitting for Greece), but due to some choices in district construction, I lacked a Holy Site district in my capital, and my religion did not spread organically to my other cities (for players, I was able to use my Great Prophet to establish Orthodoxy using the Stonehenge wonder). I had to wait until Sparta grew to a population of ten citizens before I could build the Holy Site, which took some time.
I finally built it, a shrine, and a temple, only to find my religion had dwindled away in my capital! Then, it somehow went back up just enough that Orthodoxy was the majority religion in Sparta, meaning I could build Apostles and Missionaries to spread the Word to my other cities. Sparta itself lapsed into pagan stone worship (my founding pantheon) before I cleansed the city of that scourge (and Viking Protestantism).
This kind of scenario is where the role-playing aspect comes in for me. Sparta had been a largely ecumenical society for most of its history (in my game), adopting the prevailing religion of neighboring nations. Then, around the year 1500, its long-dormant native religion exploded with evangelistic fury, spreading rapidly over the empire and to its neighbors (Rome has converted, and my Apostles won some religious battles with Norway’s Missionaries, briefly flipping some of their border towns to Orthodoxy).
European history is full of these massive revivals. I like to imagine that when those Viking cities flipped, it was like a strange new sect rising up, before the practitioners of the new “heresy” were put down by the Norwegian ruling elites. It’s European history, but vastly altered.
Anyway, I’m still playing through this game as Gorgo, and I’m not sure what my endgame will be. I’m in the mid-to-late game at this point, which is when I usually start beefing up my forces for conquest. That would make sense with my civilization, but I might maintain the peaceful route, and instead continue my Orthodox revival, spreading it like wildfire around the globe.
More likely, the game timer will run out and I’ll just get a mediocre score. But we’ll see!
If you have any Civilization stories of your own—and I know some of you do!—please share them in the comments below.