Revolution: A More Primitive Civilization?

Jordan Deam | 5 Jun 2008 17:00
Op-Ed - RSS 2.0

A brief confession: I'm not really much of a gamer. Sure, I play my share of videogames, but I'm not a gamer in the holistic sense of the word. I've never built a Magic: The Gathering deck, I've never roleplayed a character in Dungeons & Dragons and I've certainly never pored over a Warhammer figurine with a magnifying glass and a paintbrush. My lack of tabletop experience would go unnoticed anywhere else, but here at The Escapist, it's downright weird. Antisocial, even. Like admitting you went to prom stag.

Our illustrious publisher, Alex Macris, however, stands at the opposite end of the spectrum. He's got closets full of wargames recognizable only to tabletop connoisseurs: Fortress America, Attack!, Napoleon in Europe, and so forth. Not only that, he often modifies the rules to tweak the balance, pacing and overall player experience. When he plays Axis & Allies, he's not content to limit himself to one theater; instead, he cobbles together multiple versions of the game into a full-scale global conflict. Yeah, it takes a pretty big table.

So when I played my first wargame at Alex's place, I was something of a neophyte. What the hell are these "victory conditions" that everyone keeps talking about? I came from the Risk (vanilla, not 2210 A.D.) school of thinking where nothing short of total domination was acceptable. And resource management? This isn't an RTS. Do I really have to worry about my oil production in the Gulf of Mexico just to reinforce my supply lines in Quebec? Aren't children our most precious resource, anyway?

And then it hit me: I had played this kind of game before. It was my junior year of high school, it was Civilization II and for a few months, it was all all-consuming.

It isn't played on an actual tabletop, but for all intents and purposes, Civilization is a tabletop game liberated from the burdens of physical existence. Sure, you could print it onto sheets of cardboard chips, decks of cards, and thousands of tiny plastic figurines - not to mention a textbook-sized volume of rules - and, indeed, a board game version, produced by Eagle Games, does exist, albeit in a simplified form. But why make unnecessary demands of the players when a computer can take care of all the dirty work?

Of course, there's a byproduct to liberating players from having to referee themselves. What I'm about to say is probably gamer heresy, but I'll say it anyway: Maybe, just maybe, there are too many rules. I'll pause for a second while you build an effigy of me and set it on fire. Got it out of your system? Good.

I'm just as much a fan of complex, reflective, rule-intensive games as the next guy (and by "next guy" I mean "NASCAR fan"), but the Civilization series may have gone a bit overboard. Rules are made to create situations where players have to make meaningful decisions. This is definitely true in Civilization IV; for an aggressive pacifist like myself, beating the piss out of someone with culture is as satisfying as videogames get. It's like settling a bar fight by comparing music collections.

But when my Panzer gets taken out by a Bronze Age Phalanx, or Berlin is ravaged by a 40-year famine from an errant mouse click, I'm always left scratching my head. There's no doubt a perfectly logical reason for everything in Civilization, but if I have to read about it on a fan site just to figure it out, is it really improving the experience?

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