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Civilization needs the sea

I live near the Pacific Ocean. I’d love to tell you about its wonder, its majesty, its inspiration. But I’d be feeding you bullshit. My reaction to the ocean, Pacific or not, is always that of a slack-jawed yokel.

Yes, I’ve read about how its will has led to the rise and fall of empires. I’ve heard all about the diverse ecosystems that lurk beneath its waves. And I’ve seen plenty on how the ocean’s expansion could endanger life as we know it.
None of it sticks. The ocean is vast and terrifying. I don’t understand it.

At least I’m not alone. Civilization, indisputably the most popular strategy game franchise of all time, seems no wiser. From its inception, up to its latest incarnation, Civilization has suffered a troubled relationship with the world’s oceans. It flaws, if they can be considered such, are deep in the game’s bones, and their existence speaks to how we deal with the unknown.

Big and blue

The ocean immediately presents one massive and obvious problem to any game like Civilization. It’s empty or, at least, appears to be. Staring at the horizon from any shore makes this plain. Mundanity is the enemy of interesting level design, which is why we’ve yet to see Far Cry: North Dakota. And the ocean’s surface is the flattest terrain on earth.

Aesthetically, this is less of a bother for a game like Civilization, with its isometric camera — though it’s not a challenge that’s ignored. Look at any map from any of the franchise’s many iterations, and you’ll surely notice there’s a lot more land than you’d expect. Many maps have more land than water, a trait that instantly disqualifies them as an even semi-realistic depiction of our planet’s whole.

Yet this doesn’t cause complaint among the game’s audience. And why should it? A map that’s half ocean and half land might not be realistic, but it’s more likely to be visually interesting, providing ample space for beautiful mountains, endless grasslands, and sprawling deserts.

Don’t take my word for it. Just download one of the many “Earth” maps made for Civilization games over the years. All of them take liberty with geography. The Pacific Ocean alone is larger than all of Earth’s landmasses combined, yet most maps reduce it to the width of North America. I could not find a single realistic map on the Civilization V Steam Workshop; several maps bill themselves as realistic, but these all focus on the representation of landmasses, rather than faithful reproduction overall. Fans are eager to churn out replicas of Westros, and there’s over a dozen interpretations of Middle Earth ready to download. Yet Earth itself, and its oceans specifically, earns little attention.

It’s still possible to play a game of Civilization where the ocean takes its proper role as the globe’s dominate terrain. Seeding a random map with a proper land-to-water ratio is often possible with in-game tools. Yet this, too, appears to be unpopular. There’s no accurate metric for this, but a quick tour through Twitch streams of Civilization VI makes it clear most prefer Pangea or Continental map types, both of which feature extremely small oceans.

Without a word, without most players even knowing, the Civilization community has agreed the world’s oceans are rather dull. Dry land is where the action’s at.

With nothing to do

And who can blame them? Civilization’s oceans are not just a bore to look at. They are, with rare exceptions, boring to splash around in.

The story of the sea is about uniformity. Ocean tiles in the game’s randomly generated worlds look and behave the same, no matter where they’re located. A resource may occasionally break up the monotony, but the bonuses offered by these unique tiles are rarely outstanding. In most of the game’s incarnations, a salt water tile offers just one unit of food – less than grasslands, even before a farm is built on them. Technology can improve the yield, but the same is true of land.

As a franchise, Civilization’s opinion of the ocean’s wealth has wobbled. It was often useful in Civilization II thanks to a base bonus of two gold, making it the most consistently profitable tile in the game. Over time, that inherit advantage has waned. By the arrival of Civilization IV, it had been chipped away enough for most players to recommend minimizing the number of coastal tiles in a city’s workable zone, even if the city was in fact settled on a coast (meaning a bay was always preferable to a peninsula).

Civilization VI, the latest title, takes the least charitable view yet. The ocean lacks resources, producing just one food by default, and no gold. Worse, it’s no longer necessary to even settle on a coast to produce ships or coastal improvements. Instead, a city just needs access to an ocean tile within its workable area, which allows the production of a harbor district. Because of this, the optimal strategy is usually to ignore the ocean as much as possible, settling cities so they have access to only as many ocean tiles as needed to build the harbor.

Even trade mostly takes place over dry land. While trade routes technically can use the ocean after an early technology called Celestial Navigation is researched, and the maximum range of trade routes over the sea is double that of land, this doesn’t create the result you’d expect. Most the game’s random maps favor big, chunky hunks of land, so it’s rare to find cities arranged in just the way needed to make the range bonus pay off. Also, traders are responsible for building roads in Civilization VI, a first for the franchise. Opting for trade over water can cut your cities off from each other.

Strangely, the only games in the Civilization franchise to pay serious attention to the sea are those spin-offs that don’t take place on earth; the famous Alpha Centauri, and the less beloved Beyond Earth. The expansions of both have one faction oriented towards life on under the sea, and add ocean colonies. Admittedly, I never played Beyond Earth, so I can’t comment on it. But in Alpha Centauri, ocean cities could be tooled for huge populations and energy production, making them key to strategies that called for a large citizen count.

Civilization needs the sea

That Civilization has a troubled relationship with the sea is not hard to notice, once a moment is taken to stop and look. And this observation leads to a new question. Does it matter?

There’s reason to think it might not. Though often saddled with a complex UI and unclear rules, the Civilization franchise has strived to be relatively approachable. It’s a series about shuffling units around a board, improving tiles (or hexes), and founding cities. Instead of evolving into a simulation, Civilization remains the ultimate board game. Its pieces are too numerous to ever manage by hand, but the way they fit together is simple and direct. A straight line can be drawn between each technology, each building, each unit.

Expanding the ocean’s size, and role, would fundamentally change Civilization’s board. It’s hard to know how players might react. The switch from square tiles to hexes in Civilization V was widely praised in reviews, but the years have revealed the decision’s impact less impressive than first thought, and some long-time fans wish for a return to tiles.

Still, there’s reason to think a change in attitude could help. For evidence, I submit one history’s most interesting powers; Venice.
A hub of commerce and trade from the end of the Roman era until the Renaissance, Venice became an important power thanks to its unique location, control of trade, and strong navy. Though small, it wielded immense influence, playing a role in the fall of the Byzantine Empire, and checking the Ottomans’ attempts to expand across the Mediterranean. The city-state is often the first cited when players talk about the appeal of playing a “small” civilization, and for good reason. The lure of Venice comes from the disconnect of its size and power. It seems the underdog, yet it was a force for the largest empires to reckon with.

The appeal is so strong, in fact, that players willingly submitted themselves to it even absent any game mechanics to encourage it. I don’t know when this “one city challenge,” as it’s often called, began – but it was sometime in the era of Civilization II. Civilization V gave the idea an official nod by adding Venice as a playable choice in the Brave New World expansion. Choosing the Venetians barred players from building settlers, or from annexing conquered cities – but also doubled trade routes, and let players build in conquered cities they’d converted to puppets.

I loaded up Venice the moment Brave New World was released, envisioning myself the leader of a trade empire with a powerful navy, playing larger civilizations for fools. And the civilization is indeed capable of that, especially if a diplomatic or culture victory is desired. Still, I never finished a game as the Venetians. While their unique additions change how Civilization V is played, it has the feel of a player mod. The game simply lacks the mechanics to make Venice interesting, so playing it requires patience through turn after uneventful turn.

Even Civilization V, which encourages the smallest nations of all the franchise’s many entries, lacks the mechanics to make a maritime power interesting. Venice is just the most extreme example. A similar complaint could be made about the play of civilizations such as the British or the Japanese. Each forged a strong empire from modest beginnings with naval power. But Civilization, lacking the mechanics to allow that, often focuses on land power instead. When an attempt is made to focus on the sea, as is true of the English in Civilization VI, the result is underwhelming.

The delicate balance of power

Making the ocean prominent and mechanically interesting would make civilizations that lived by the fortune of the sea enjoyable, but there’s more to it than rebalancing the ratio of water to land. Reconsidering the sea could bring the Civilization franchise desperately needs; elegance.

Though reviews always look kindly on the franchise, long-time fans and strategy game critics have become jaded towards it. Civilization II, the game that solidified what would become the franchise formula, was released twenty years ago. Despite the passage of two decades, and numerous entries, the easiest way to win remains the same. Build a strong military early, conquer neighbors with the best resources, then go all-in on whichever victory condition seems most obtainable – which, since you already have a strong military, is likely conquest. Underneath its friendly exterior, Civilization is bloodthirsty. As with Skyrim’s awful combat, or ARK: Survival Evolved’s haphazard and buggy design, players continue to enjoy Civilization despite this obvious flaw. But the game would be better without it.

The franchises’ many designs know that, and have struggled with it in their own ways. Alpha Centauri countered it with a man-against-nature story of survival. Civilization VI brought cultural influence into prominence. Civilization V used a heavy-handed “happiness” mechanic to force small nations. These efforts have partially worked at times, particularly in Alpha Centauri and Civilization V. Yet every solution has fallen short.

I’m not suggesting the sea would bring peace. It’s served an important role in war, even up to the modern era. But I do believe reconsidering the role of the ocean could bring new dynamics to a game that’s become stagnant. It might open greater opportunity for small, powerful trade nations, or could offer protection to smaller states against their aggressors. Making the ocean useful would also force players to consider their relationship with it. Do they embrace it, relying on trade, and a strong navy for defense? Or should it be spurred for the natural defenses, and the isolation only swaths of dry land can provide?

Civilization might be a massive board game, rather than a simulation, but the rules still matter. They still change, dramatically, how the game is played. The franchise, as I see it, has always strived to provide a balanced environment, a sort of turn-based sandbox where players can grow a civilization as they desire. If that’s the goal, then perhaps the designers should look to the ocean’s vast, terrifying mass. It has always brought drama to the world, and it could do the same for the game.

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