I was 19 when Sid Meier's Civilization came out and it quickly became an obsession for me. I drew my maps, made spreadsheets of units, charted different tech paths, and sat through many a college lecture thinking about my "next turn" when I should have been taking notes on Boyle's Law or the customs of the Yanomamo people. Eventually I thought, "If I'm going to be spending so much time thinking about chariots and the Sistine Chapel and Abraham Lincoln, maybe I should at least be doing it in classes that are actually about those subjects." One quick trip the registrar later and I was officially a history major.


For the next few years I learned about the Council of Nicaea, the Defenestrations of Prague, and the Berlin Airlift. I found myself drawing parallels between Civilization and the people and events I was studying. I discovered, for instance, that triremes had to stay in coastal squares not because of the whims of a designer, but because triremes weren't designed for long voyages and needed to put ashore every night. But more important than the particular details, I began to get a sense that the big course changes in the river of history were made by people who had motivations I could relate to.

As the god-like ruler of an entire nation from the invention of the wheel to the colonization of other planets, I was calling the shots. I was Mohandas Gandhi leading an army of tanks in my conquest of the peaceful Greeks. I was Genghis Khan building a massive railroad network to increase the yield of my farms. I was Queen Elizabeth mobilizing my entire economy in a desperate race to beat the Aztecs into space.

Even though the specific scenarios that came up were entirely fictional (what proper historians call "counter-factual"), the idea that small events can alter the course of the entire future is very much a part of history and an essential part of Civilization. What if the Spanish Armada had survived to land troops in England? What if Hannibal had marched on Rome? What if Germany had the atomic bomb during the final days of World War 2? Some historians find this type of conjecture tedious (though not all do) but gamers love it. Civilization taught me these "what if?" exercises are not only fun but also very illuminating.

When you become the ruler of a country, you have to meet a variety of conflicting priorities with a very limited set of resources. Some rulers might turn their economy and population towards military power, trusting in mighty armies to keep the people in line when their social welfare is threatened. Others will forego military might to focus on economic infrastructure, hoping to buy off the enemies who are sure to call once they see full coffers and defenseless borders. The interaction and tension between these forces puts players squarely on the throne of history's greatest rulers, giving them a chance to decide among these priorities.

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