What I realized from playing this game is that, like gamers, those real rulers were constantly making plans with no sure knowledge of what their rivals were going to do. In a game of incomplete information, the best gamers and best rulers adopt a rational strategy that will minimize the maximum damage an opponent can do.


Every Civ player will have a lot of personal stories that illustrate these objective strategic choices, but let's take one from actual history, the Battle of the Bismarck Sea. During the Second World War, the Japanese prepared to sail reinforcements around the island of New Britain. The Allies knew they were coming, but not whether they'd be traveling along the northern or southern coasts. The Allies only had enough planes to search one route at a time, but needed to find the Japanese fleet as quickly as possible and begin bombing it. The trick was to determine which route the Japanese would be taking; if the Allies guessed wrong, they'd lose a whole day of bombing.

Either route takes three days for the Japanese, but the northern coast was covered in storms, which would delay the Allied search and bombing efforts for at least a day. So if the Japanese sail south and the Allies search south, the bombing can start right away and the Japanese fleet endures three days of bombing. If the Allies search north instead, they waste a day looking for the fleet and then find it after switching to the southern route on the second day and inflict two days of bombing damage on the fleet. If the Japanese sail north and the Allies search north, they find and bomb the fleet starting on the second day, leading to two full days of bombing. If the Allies search south instead, they get their worst possible result, not finding or attacking the fleet until the final, third day.

The payoffs here are fairly obvious. Knowing that the Allied commanders have the same information, the Japanese sailed north because the worst possible result, no matter what the Allies did, was only two days of bombing. The Allies also had to choose to search north because, no matter what the Japanese did, they would still get at least two days of bombing. Unless the enemy made an obvious mistake, neither side can obtain a better result by changing their strategy. If you're able to reason through things this way, the strategies you find in history and games can begin to make more sense.

But Civilization also taught me, more clearly than any historical example, that nations aren't always ruled by these types of rational considerations; fear and honor play a powerful role as well. Fear will make a nation, faced with a strong but friendly neighbor, seek security in alliances that will, paradoxically, provoke conflict with that neighbor. History is full of these mistakes, from the Peloponnesian War to entangling alliances that led to both World Wars. Honor will encourage a people to pursue strategic aims that cost more than they're worth. King Pyrhhus' victory at Ascalum ruined him, and the Luftwaffe's switch to civilian targets during the Battle of Britain gave the RAF time to rally and drive back the attacks. Any Civilization player who has found himself or herself caught in someone else's war, or desperately wasting armies to conquer a completely worthless enemy city simply to satisfy his or her pride understands the value of these lessons.

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