I very nearly didn’t get Civilization V. It was the last day of 2013’s Steam sale, the first one I’d ever been able to partake in, having finally bought a PC that could run games more intensive than Rollercoaster Tycoon. Eager to dive into this brave new world of playing games on the same thing that I did the Twitters and the Twinfinites on, I’d gone a bit mad in the hedonistic paradise the Steam sale offers, buying everything from Skyrim to Tomb Raider III. Civilization V had been something I’d been meaning to give a go, but not quite enough to sway my hand considering the looming PayPal billing of all my purchases; a risk I didn’t want to throw myself into debt for. I’m fortunate, however, that I have generous friends, and a few minutes after mentioning in conversation that I’d ‘have to give it a miss’, a Steam notification popped up telling me I’d been gifted it. Time would tell whether that was really a healthy thing he just did for me.
Three days later, I awoke at my desk. The world was a blur, my familiar surroundings no longer seemed to fit together, and everything seemed to happen much too fast. Concepts such as ‘the real world isn’t made up of hexagons’ and ‘the flow of time is not turn-based’ were completely foreign now to my Civilization-addled brain, and I was very confused that asking people for small favours didn’t require me to give them 5 gold per turn for 30 turns.
Okay, I’ll admit that I made that stuff up just now. Civilization V didn’t completely take a sledgehammer to my sanity, but I can be honest in saying I really don’t remember a great deal of those first three days. I’d come home from my tiring, physical labour-intensive job, slump in front of my continuing quest for Swedish world domination and enter a trance. Snapping out of it at 2am, I’d collapse into bed, go to work the next morning while thinking about Civilization all day, and repeat.
I can’t blame my generous friend for this, he didn’t have a clue this would happen – in fact, neither did I. I’ve never really had an affinity for strategy games bar the first Age of Empires and Battle for Middle Earth, and even that I only loved because of my fealty to Tolkien. Nor have I had a history of addictive behaviour for video games, at least since my first playthrough of Fallout 3. Civilization V seemed innocent at first, a mature and slow-paced experience that often felt more like a history lesson than a video game, hardly something that could tug on my psychological sleeve like an RPG could, right?
I was soon to discover one of the most central truths about Civilization V: There is no good time to stop playing Civilization. Never. With the constant advancement of your civ’s culture, military, scientific research, population, infrastructure and landmass, you are always on the verge of something big happening. Each step, sometimes even just a new building being completed, can mean a whole new way your story develops, an exciting new realm of possibilities and strategies unveiled. I might have tried to tell myself I’d stop as soon as I finally got those slow-moving siege weapons up to the enemy’s capital so I could start the next session with a bang, but by the time they’d made it there – sweet! I’ve finally finished researching gunpowder. Like hell am I going to leave it to next time to see what these new riflemen can do.
Also, when I call it ‘your story’, I really mean that. Perhaps I’ve been indoctrinated through my many hours of play since the game does insist on calling a match your civilization’s ‘story’, but it’s certainly what it feels like. A full, standard-settings game I played from the Ancient Era to the Modern Era lasted just under 40 hours, in which I saw myself go from a jungle-inhabiting tribe to a global fascist police state that covered the entire world. It was a grim future (though the happiness statistic was very high, I was a kind tyrant apparently), but I felt that I had worked for every last bit of it. You don’t want to stop playing, because you’ve a whole world’s worth of people depending on your divine instruction. When I came back every afternoon, I felt like they’d been waiting.
Despite all this, nothing totally grabbed me as much as the sense of discovery. I don’t mean in the game world – though considering how vital each type of resource is, exploring the whole map is hugely useful – but as a meta-narrative of discovering how the game itself works. Civilization V certainly tells you how to play, and is apparently the most accessible of the series, but learning isn’t a quick process. Its method of teaching you is this: you’ve discovered a thing! Here’s a very vague description of it. If you’d like a learn more, here’s a gigantic essay about it you won’t be able to absorb since it’s all gibberish to you. Good luck!
The advice I was given by a friend when they saw this tweet was ‘just play, and work stuff out’, which seemed pretty scary at the time. Blindly continue into an uncertain future, with no assurance I’d properly grasp what I was doing? When so much is at stake and every action is so important, that seems like hellish advice, but it works. You make mistakes, some irreversible, and some things take forever to get the hang of, but that only makes it all the more fascinating. I learnt to build upon my errors and how to avoid them in the future, I learnt to experiment, and I felt that sweet, sweet feeling of overcoming the odds. God damn, it’s been a while.