The eternal Civ game — how can there be 1700 years of stability? and a quandary for Civ design

So some guy told Reddit that he has been playing the same Civilization II game for ten real-time years; the game calendar has reached 3991 AD. (Games of Civ can continue after they “officially” end; the game over screen came in 2020 but this guy decided to keep playing, and playing.) The in-game geopolitics has settled into a tri-polar great power war. The war has been going on, flashing hot and cold, for 1700 years. 1700 years. Nuclear weapons line the borders, deployed whenever one of the leaders thinks he’s lucky. The citizens of every country live in poverty in radioactive swamps. All governments are authoritarian (“I was forced to do away with democracy roughly a thousand years ago because it was endangering my empire”). All economic production is directed toward the continuing war effort. It’s a frightening vision.

It’s also unlike anything I’ve seen in a Civ game. From my (non-encyclopedic) experience, I’m shocked that any kind of balance of powers has lasted for 1700 years. In my experience someone always chokes everyone else out — builds up an advantage and marginalizes or eliminates the other players. Here, the human player was able to stand up to the two AI super-powers, but wasn’t able to subdue either of them. How did that happen?

The human player gives us a clue: “The military stalemate is air tight. The post-late game in civ II is perfectly balanced because all remaining nations already have all the technologies so there is no advantage.”

What has happened is that players have exhausted all the “low-hanging fruit” that would allow them to exploit advantages over other players. For example, if you have a technological advantage in a Civ game, you can leverage this by building a high-tech military to take resources from your opponents. Because higher technology gives you knock-on gameplay advantage, you have an opportunity to “win more,” converting the technology lead into an overall lead. But this stops working once all players have explored the whole tech tree. If I have tanks and my opponents have arrows, I can use that to consolidate my advantage and claim a bigger share of resources. If I have Future Tech 16 and my opponents only have Future Tech 14, well, there’s not much I can do with that. A similar dynamic is at work in Civ’s “Wonder” system, where unique structures like the Colossus of Rhodes confer an advantage on whoever wins the race to build them.

Technological slack and other low-hanging fruit is an implicit resource in the Civ games. When there’s still some left, players can leapfrog each other, upsetting any stable order. When it’s used up, a grim equilibrium may be stable. The ability to “win more” when you’re ahead then is a major source of the dynamism of Civ games, perhaps the most important source. Could this be a problem with the Civ design? The obvious issue is that this dynamic strongly favors nations that are already ahead — change is likely to feature powerful nations getting more powerful. But take away the “win more” systems and you get stagnation and gridlock.

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