I am a great believer in technology’s capacity to build our native skills, and so lately I have been augmenting my talents for world domination through playing Sid Meier’s Civilization IV. (For some reason, Sid Meier thinks it’s important that Sid Meier’s Civilization IV be known as “Sid Meier’s Civilization IV,” but I’m not typing that whole thing anymore, and shall henceforth refer to it as “SidCiv.”) SidCiv is an automated version of the war board games I watched my brother play when I was a kid. You have to build cities, and a wide range of classes of people (settlers, workers, soldiers of various types, religious leaders, scientists, etc.), institutions and buildings for city infrastructure, and great cultural monuments. You can win in four ways: (a) be the first to establish a space program, (b) win a diplomatic victory by establishing the United Nations and pass a resolution proclaiming your victory, (c) at the end of the year 2050, be the richest, most advanced, and strongest civilization, or (d) take over the entire world. You may choose to lead different empires (British, Greek, Russian, etc.); you may choose the geography of the globe, as well as the sea level; you may choose the difficulty of your computer-managed opponents. At the end, your world-governing abilities are ranked from Augustus Caesar at the top to Dan Quayle at the very bottom. (Poor Dan Quayle; so far, this is the only association my children have for him. More on this below.)
The game is a totally mind-absorbing challenge, forcing you to multi-task while building an empire along economic, military, and cultural fronts. While the game draws upon actual and historical figures and buildings and technologies, SidCiv freely departs from our world’s actual arrangement. So you’re playing along and are suddenly informed that Euclid has been born in Tokyo and the Taj Mahal has been built in London. You might find Archimedes in one of your cities, and consuming him yields the innovation of Chemistry. If you’re Japan you have access to samurais; if you’re Russia you get cossacks. In conflicts there are cavalry pitted against catapults, and tanks against archers. Cities without aqueducts soon become filthy, vermin-infested plague holes, so you’d best take care of your populace, and eventually they’ll celebrate “We love the monarch!” day. Every achievement along the way comes with a pithy quote read by Leonard Nimoy. His impersonation of Sputnik is hilarious.
I’ve played multiple times, and thus have learned some tricks. For example, when I am invading other countries, I like to use marines. They show up later in SidCiv, as you need first to acquire combustion and industrialism and assemby line production, but boy are they worth it: your best friend or worst enemy, as the slogan goes. Then once I take over a city (selecting the benevolent “Install a new governor,” rather than the dismal invitation to “Burn, baby burn!”), I quickly establish some institution that will turn the population toward my favor and start to spread my culture to the surrounding countryside. So I build a theater, as they are fast and cheap and effective. Before long, my newly-conquered citizenry is setting aside days to celebrate me.
I play at low settings, and have won everytime, twice with diplomatic victories, and the rest with time victories. So you might think I would rock as a world leader. Alas, you would be wrong. I have been awarded “Dan Quayle” status with such steady frequency that I’m worried Sid Meier will soon put my name below Dan’s in the ranking. I used to care, and maybe someday I’ll invest more thought into smarter ways to play. Until then, I am whiling away hours as Dan Quayle presiding over an army of theater-crazed marines.