ivilization V is coming out. This is a Big Deal in the world of games. Sid Meier’s enduring achievement of civilization-building design has set the standard for strategy gameplay since basically forever, and the addictive, time-obliterating quality of these games is well documented. If you’ve never lost an evening trying to strengthen trade relations with the Germans or research new space technology, then, well, you’ve never lived. Of course, I suspect most readers of this site and most gamers in general have obsessed over some strategy game or another, and I feel like it’s fair to toss in simulation and management games into this mix as well. If you haven’t wasted time in Civilization or Master of Orion or Heroes of Might and Magic, then you’ve probably sunk a lot of time into something like SimCity or the various Tycoon games.
The appeal of these games is inscrutable and sometimes even inexplicable. All of these games are unique in being very game-y games. They take real-world ideas or concepts and abstract them into a relatively small set of quantifiable rules. We don’t talk about these games within the context of narrative design, or art design, or anything, really, besides mechanical design. Games like Tropico or Evil Genius can certainly have a distinct aesthetic that enhances the game’s theme, but we don’t particularly care about that. We care about the elegance of the rules, how accurately those rules simulate certain processes, and whether those rules are deep enough to accommodate different strategies and play styles.
I don’t think I need to point to anything besides the recent Civilization V announcement as an example of how much we care about abstract rules over everything else in these games. Possibly the single most significant detail we’ve learned so far is the decision to switch from a square-based grid to a hex-based grid. Do we care too much about the art style? About the main campaigns? Do we want to see the Civilization team experiment with an innovative new form of storytelling? No. We care whether the map is composed of squares or hexes – and that’s not a bad thing. I’m excited to play Civilization V, even if it’s hard to articulate why it’s exciting that the game is now hex-based.
This aggressive focus on mechanics over art is probably why very few game critics bother to tackle these games, even if critics acknowledge how important these games are. Why don’t critics talk more about these games – these games which are some of the purest examples of “games,” which are some of the most popular and formative games in the lives of gamers? I can find almost no references to games like Civilization, Populous, SimCity, or anything Tycoon in all of the criticism sites I read (and I’m equally guilty of this). Are critics intimidated by these games? As I said above, our stable of critical theories cannot be easily applied to these games. Borrowed terms from literature and film have almost no place in a discussion of Roller Coaster Tycoon. Or are critics silently, implicitly dismissing these games, only paying them lip service at most? I don’t need to search far to find a critic writing about Braid (even a year and a half after release), but I apparently have to scour the internet to find someone talking about Tropico 3.
In the spirit of criticism, I am going to write about Tropico 3, so stay tuned. I also invite you, gentle readers, to respond with some thoughts on your favorite strategy or simulation games. What games have hooked you, and what about those games was so engrossing?