The Kinship Hybercube and the meaning of progress in Civilization games

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Civilization games have always been great with offering lots of variety between civilizations in the early to mid-game but late game rarely has any meaningful variety. At least when i last played it years ago.


At some point you are choosing whether to develop the wheel or mathematics. That’s a meaningful choice. But there is then a point much further on that you can’t possibly arrive at until you’ve developed both the wheel and mathematics, so the further you go the more your choices are erased.


We seem to be stuck in reverse these days.


The problem with the game as it gets close to today and beyond, is that we have no idea of the things that we’ve missed along the way, or the things that in retrospect were extremely important. (“You have completed the civilization advance ROCK MUSIC, and may now build the Woodstock Wonder.”)


Friends who play tell me the put in rock bands in some expansion and they are completely overpowered.


This got me thinking again about “AirSpace” and the spread of transnational brands tend to make things both more peaceful (at least for citizens-in-full of superpowers, including Sid Meier) but also more boring in the real world.

But realistic though. I dare you to resist Bohemian Rhapsody.

5 The Warlpiri found my hypercube a “good game” (Glowczewski 1989, 1991): Aboriginal kinship systems – which fascinated generations of anthropologists and mathematicians – are not fixed systems of classification but dynamic in their interaction with existential territories and social flows.

(Honestly, I was looking for a redrafting of the hypercube diagram).

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I just bought Civilization 6 for the Switch, but haven’t started playing it yet.

I’m now intrigued by a Civ game that starts normal but has the option later to bring forth Cthulhu, or delve into the dark mystic stuff. Or trigger a zombie apocalypse. Something to make the later game more riveting.

I really liked Alpha Centauri back in the day.


A bunch of 4X games have been set in the far future-- Alpha Centauri, MOO, Reach for the Stars, Spaceward Ho!, Ascendancy-- and a number of games in the Civilization series have a future tech tree. If the endgame of classic civization is unplayable because it is so familiar, shouldn’t the endgame of a far future 4X game be much more fascinating than it really is?


your Airspace link is broken

I played waaay too much Master of Orion as a kid


I haven’t played any Civ type games since the very early days precisely because of the absurdly ignorant cultural framework they were built around. The whole model of progression, the whole premise for the games, based on obscenely blinkered culturally chauvinistic ideas of “progress” are just offensive. Not just because of the colonial politics embedded in them, but from a purely simulation point of view - they’re just… dumb.

Even from that point of view of cultural-tunnel-vision, they were dumb. I recollect - I don’t know how they’ve done it in subsequent games, that certain (Western) cultural landmarks were progress markers completely devoid of any of the context in which they were built. As if building pyramids, a cathedral and the Eiffel tower (or whatever the fuck they actually were) were inevitable parts of cultural trajectories (and existed in the same culture).

Occasionally I see someone talking about using Civ (type) games in education and I get physically ill - the idea of people being deliberately mis-educated by these kinds of games is quite alarming.

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One thing is that the game is usually effectively decided before you get to the modern day. One civ is running away with the game and even a combined effort from the rest of the world couldn’t stop them, and the AI sucks at collective action so even that isn’t a threat.

There are no Atomic/Information/Future era Unique Units either. Even the game designers know that it’s too late by that point. The only Modern era UU I can think of is the US B17, which is comes around right at the tail end of where the game is still up in the air.

For me the big turning point tends to be Artillery. If you can get that before air power becomes a thing then you can steamroll the second (or first!) most powerful Civ and win the game. If you’re so far behind that they develop Bombers before you get Artillery then you’re in rough shape.


Thanks. Fixed.

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I recommend Europa Universalis IV. It is night and day better than the civilization games in terms of realism and subtlety.

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The original game was based upon a boardgame that was designed by an ancient history teacher in order to help teach the history of Mediterranean antiquity.

OTOH, the boardgame is considerably different from the computer game. And it was never intended to apply to anything beyond the early iron age Mediterranean.


I wouldn’t say that it’s entirely successful (whether for want of imagination/cultural distance as described here; or just because the further you go down this road the nastier retaining control of game balance and not dissolving into an offputting mass of confusing and discordant system clutter is); but Stellaris at least takes a stab in this direction.

Specifically for the late/end game, they have the ‘crisis’ entities; which (while not truly ‘outside context problem’ level; because they still adhere to things like the game’s combat mechanics which keeps them from being truly other); can sometimes give those elements of the galactic community who take a Fukuyama-influenced view of ‘the end of history’ a nasty reminder that ‘utter extirpation of you and everyone in your frame of reference by something strange and pitiless’ also counts as a valid end of history.

Aside from just offering a mechanical challenge that’s different than the competing factions you’ve been jostling with up until then; they help with the ‘endgame gets samey’ issue by actually having the ‘endgame’ be something other than the midgame but with bigger numbers and more of the tech tree filled out. The late-midgame can head in that direction; but then somebody just has to go and learn the hard way that, while playing at regulatory arbitrage with nature does allow the best FTL drives, you don’t always get a say in what happens when you tear a hole in the fabric of reality and this time something from the other side passes through.

There are also some attempts to add playable factions that are genuinely different from one another, not just flavor skins(though, arguably, Endless Space and Endless Legends are more stylish about going down the ‘sides are actually quite different’ path): they all end up dipping from the same tech tree; but because research is divided into 3 genres, each potentially generated at different rates, it’s very possible for your trajectory through it to be markedly different than others unless everyone survives to the point where they are out of techs.

Sword of the Stars was a bit more aggressive at shaking up the tech tree: each civ’s tree was partially randomized each time; so while everyone ultimately pulled from the same finite pool of techs, you couldn’t predict which ones you would get access to and which ones might simply never become available, no matter how many beakers you churn out, which made it much harder to metagame based on teching up with an eye on specific useful parts of the inevitable march of progress.


The later games have expanded the cast of wonders fairly substantially(both in terms of ‘did you know that people who weren’t Greeks or Romans did some stuff?’ and in terms of adding some more abstract cultural phenomena to the list of very large masonry); but I don’t think you’d say that they’ve really managed to do anything about them being somewhat oddly disconnected from their contexts(also, it’s always awkward because ‘Machu Picchu’ is both a city name if you play as the appropriate civ and a wonder you can build in your city…)

In some ways they’ve arguably gotten even weirder. I forget if it was Civ3 or 4 where the ‘barbarians’ started being able to spawn cities in hidden areas of the map, not just attack yours; and totally abandoned any pretense of being either an understandable anti-expansion mechanic for the early game, or a flawed representation of historical tensions between sedentary and nomadic populations; and straight up became a rule that some cities get to have historical trajectories, and leaders; and diplomacy and stuff; but others just don’t because reasons.

Adding ‘city states’ was just insult to injury, since those were cities that, while incapable of standard empire building/mass expansion, were explicitly given tons of historical plot armor against conquest/assimilation/irrelevance that, the game just forced you to treat them as inevitable outsized players in history, even if their economic and military status in no way justified it.

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Very very different, I’d imagine.

Yeah, it just makes that worse. It’s absurd enough that these things get divorced from their function in the culture, but when it’s not even the right culture (where it has any meaning at all)…

I find the absurd results of trying to gamify historic events is almost acceptable - even if humorous - compared to the perversity of the fundamental premise for the games as a whole. But I suppose those kinds of gamified absurdities build up with each new version as they add new features and try to balance out previous issues…