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Jul. 23, 2012

Science Throughout History in "Civilization 5"

by Sam Flatow

Click to enlarge images
The videogame is a unique medium--unlike other forms of narrative, it can change. When you read a book or watch a movie about history, you'll hear how Egypt built the pyramids, England and France warred for a century, and Tesla invented alternating current (if he gets any credit at all). Interesting? Sure, the first time you hear it. But history is a lot more interesting when you can change it.

In Civilization 5, the player takes on the role of a great leader of ages past. Whether you decide to be Montezuma, Alexander, Darius, Genghis Khan, Elizabeth, Oda Nobunaga, Napoleon, or Washington, your objective is to rewrite history and raise your people above all others on a random planet world through one of 4 victory scenarios: Conquer the world (military victory), be elected leader of the UN (diplomatic victory), create a utopian society (cultural victory), and colonize space (science victory).
 
It might be the only game where science is both a path to victory and one of the most important parts of the game, as represented by the technology-tree, the branching assembly of various technologies you research during play that allow for the growth and development of your civilization. It's broken into progressive milestones, called eras, that mark big changes in the evolution of gameplay.
 
"The tech tree kind of is really the foundation for Civ...All the things like being able to navigate over oceans, additional productivity...all those things are coming out of technology." So says Ed Beach, lead designer for Gods and Kings, the new expansion to Civilization 5. "We assembled it one historical age at a time. We try to focus on each of those ages and give it a feel of the age."  
 
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In the ancient era, you'll find yourself exploring the seemingly endless wilderness while you puzzle over rolling circles and guard against roving barbarians that pillage your land and enslave your people. It's a time of desperation. Before you know it, it's the classical era, and you should have all the most basic knowledges. Your people will thrive culturally (with drama and poetry), intellectually (with philosophy), economically (with currency), or through conquest (with iron working and mathematics).

Then it's the medieval era and the world is getting a little too crowded, creating friction between bordering states. The available technologies provide you with two non exclusive options: good old violence, and the newly available diplomacy. In addition to defending yourself with knights and castles, chivalry allows you to forge defensive pacts with other nations for joint protection, and education lets you make research agreements to help drag yourself into the renaissance era.

A return to the classical era of prosperity, the renaissance has an added twist. Before the renaissance, ships couldn't leave the coast. But, acquiring knowledge of astronomy opens the seas for exploration, where you can find new lands to colonize and new nations with which to interact. Navigation bring shark-like privateers to plunder cities and capture ships, while frigates support the land war with ranged bombardments.

It goes on this way, each era bringing a fundamental shift to the gameplay and feel of the game. The industrial era has population and production booms, while the modern era makes the world seem smaller with its fast ships, railroads, and airplanes that can lead to new wars and new ways to fight them. The stakes are high in the atomic era, with the Apollo Program opening up the space race victory and the age's namesake looming in the background (or radiation ridden fore). The information age is an explosion of technologies, some you may never need, others could decide the fate of the game.

While Civilization 5 incorporates war, diplomacy, culture, and economics--and even more subjects than can be covered in a single blog entry--science drives them all. And Ed Beach knows science. His resume involves 10 years working on NASA satellites including the Gamma Ray Observatory and Hubble Space Telescope, the latter of which was included in Civilization as a unique building (called "Wonders") at his insistence. “I don’t know if you tried it out, but it makes the science victory a lot easier. If it’s overpowered, that’s my fault."
 
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And it's powerful, without a doubt. Building the Hubble will not only speed the production of your space-ship, it grants two 'Great Scientists,' which are special units that can be expended to build academies for long term scientific gain, or give a onetime boost to your research. Combined, these bonuses are incredible leaps towards victory.

If revising the past is interesting to you, there's more information on the Civilization 5 website. It’s available for both PC and Mac, and the new expansion, called Gods and Kings  adds religion and espionage mechanics as well as new leaders and nations. This is not a game that you play once and forget--but every nation you found will create a new story of a leader and his people.

In the next entry, I'll take a look at Kerbal Space Program, a game about little green men and your own hilarious blunders in space exploration.
About Sam Flatow

Sam is an assistant producer at Science Friday where he prepares the tasty SciFri snacks and blogs about smart cephalopods and zombie ants.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Science Friday.

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