Why I love Civilization VI on the Switch – Reader’s Feature
A reader details his most successful game of Civilization ever and how he thinks its mastery of Skinner box psychology is only a good thing.
A Skinner box is a simple psychological experiment whereby a subject is rewarded by identifying and following patterns, such as pushing a lever when it sees a light. It has become a vogue thing to reference in video game media. This is probably because the Skinner box mechanics in games can be easily identified and the idea of being psychologically manipulated is a prescient subject – with loot boxes, microtransactions, and insidious monetisation it’s an easy thing to make a consumer advocacy stump speech about.
I would like to evoke the Skinner box model but to reference it in its original context, it’s simple idea of an action resulting in a reward, which drives compulsive repetition of that action. We have a name for this loop in video games, it’s called one more go.
The game that precipitated this article is Civilization III, which I first played in the early 2000s with a friend on a battered old PC, but the version I’m playing today is Civilization VI on the Switch. It’s the quintessential Skinner box game and to my mind only Football Manager comes close to the sheer compulsion driven gameplay Civilization is capable of, and even today that loop is undiminished.
I picked up right where I left off nearly 20 years ago, initially bewildered by the sheer wall of interlocking systems, the rainforest of onscreen options, and the icy desert of onscreen help; the barrier to entry for the Civilization series is almost terminal for the casual gamer. This is a problem that may not want nor need a fix; reducing intricacy may sound good but once you have mastered your options Civilization games become far more situational and exciting and I think the investment needed to understand it is the reason it has endured for so long.
I won my first game ever last week and I was so damn happy. As I surveyed the recap screen adorned with an array of graphs, there were seven lines charting different metrics, making their mountainous way ever higher up the X-axis. Almost like a metaphor for the main game itself they were initially daunting but with a little reading and comprehension very satisfying. In that mess of multitudinous lines charting the progress of hundreds of moves, one line broke ranks from the rest and climbed quicker to tower above all others, that of the mighty empire of Rome. I’d like to take a minute to savour that game with you all.
I was, as mentioned, Emperor Trajan, one of the greatest emperors to ever don the purple and over 300-odd turns I dragged the Roman civilisation from a struggling bunch of barbarians, scraping a living by a dirty riverbank to the dominant civilisation in the known world. There are several victory conditions in Civilization, but in the end I aimed for and got a science victory which is obtained by being the first civilisation to colonise Mars. It wasn’t an easy journey and there was a lot of setbacks on the way but Civilization has a way of making even losses easy to manage over its long runtime.
I ran into my neighbouring civilisation early on, in the guise of a charming and urbane Saladin. Me and him hit it off immediately and we remained allies throughout the game. After this I ran into a veritable slew of city states (six in total) which can be considered Civilization’s version of non-player characters. They can be influenced by other civilisations and do their bidding, but they cannot win the game no matter how much they develop throughout the game. This bevy of city states were all located on a fat peninsula to my east, with no other civilisations nearby and leaving them all to be influenced by little old me. And that’s how the early game went.
As I placed my cities, I encountered other civilisations, China and Qin, plus Germany’s Frederick Barbosa and a smattering of others. I had mapped the area well with my scouts and figured out that by placing my cities in a staggered line from north to south I could shield my six city state babies from exposure to other civilisations. After a slight barney with Saladin for settling a bit too close to his lands I had built my human shield of six cities. The northernmost city was Marduk, which abutted the Chinese kingdom in a narrow choke point with the ocean to the eastern approach and a massive lake and Saladin’s kingdom to the west; with all my cities frantically pumping out science from their universities the game started to hot up.
Up to this point I had not caused any upset in my neighbours so had kept my military forces light and spread out, so I sent an archer unit on a literal round the world voyage from southernmost city (Velitrae) round the ocean to loop right round until it landed back in Marduk. It was when my plucky archer disembarked from his sodden odyssey that my constant wonder building caused my first of three wars to flare up with my foul-tempered Chinese flatmates.
In hindsight I should have seen it coming, with my borders open the Chinese in plain sight moved siege materials into Marduk before their unprovoked declaration of war. So, here it was, the game hung in the balance. The Chinese licking their lips thought they could roll over the technological peaceniks from the south, but they were wrong; Rome was made of sterner stuff.
Rallying my beleaguered forces, and using my ample treasury to promote units several eras above their Chinese counterparts, my humble archer became a machine-gunner at a crucial point when they were about to be overrun. My smaller force was not only able to push the Chinese out of Marduk in a famous battle but to take the fight to the Chinese on their own turf. The Chinese would take two more shots but never break the iron chain strung from the great northern ocean to the mighty lake of Damieta. From this point on it was a running battle repulsing the dogged Chinese until the final module of my Mars colonisation project finally blasted off into the stratosphere and I heaved a massive sigh of relief.
As an aside, the Switch is literally the perfect platform for a Civilization game, I know this gets said a lot these days but in this case it really, really is. The pick-up and play nature of the Switch lends itself to dipping into a game and coming back when you’ve had a chance to ruminate on your choices. You’ll think about your cities as a chess piece that can rise from pawn to queen over the course of a game and it’s not always clear whether a call made 50 turns ago will have the payoff you hoped it would, though the hope of that payoff is what drives the game ever forward.
In the game recap screen I mentioned earlier there is a button visible in all the screens you scroll through and that button tells you that Firaxis understand the Skinner box nature of their game and fanbase better than anyone. Always in your eyeline tempting and tantalising you, that blue-bordered button has three words on it… One More Go.
By reader Dieflemmy (gamertag/PSN ID/NN ID)
The reader’s feature does not necessary represent the views of GameCentral or Metro.
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