How is submarine combat like building a city?

Found this on my computer, apparently written in 2010. I guess I never posted it before because I didn’t decide on an answer to the question it poses: what is it that simulation games of very different subject matters have in common? I still am not sure what I think about that, but I think the question is well-posed so I’m posting it here.


A few months ago, I revisited an early Sid Meier game, Silent Service 2 (you can too). It’s a submarine combat simulation set in the South Pacific during WWII. Your boat takes off from an American port and then spends weeks in the field, hunting Japanese shipping and battle groups. You have to decide how far out from port you can wander, how to ration out your limited supplies, and what sorts of targets you can afford to engage over time. You also have to control your boat’s movement and weapons as you engage each target.

My thoughts while playing SS2: why is this a Sid Meier game? Where does it fit in the oeuvre that most prominently includes the Civilization series? One answer is that it doesn’t — Sid Meier made some combat flight sims, too, and they don’t have anything to do with Civilization (perhaps). But it feels like the planning and strategy of SS2 are related to the planning and strategy of Civilization and its successors, even if you in Civ you never pilot any vehicle or really fight.

I had occasion to think about this again recently when I started playing (the original, 1992 version of) X-Com, a tactical combat game with a wide-scope strategy overlay. In the game, you are managing the defense of earth against an alien invasion — you manage limited funds from the nations of earth and build facilities, hire soldiers, buy equipment, and choose engagements. Then you actually fight those engagements, in a simple but extremely tense tactical view. The game is brilliant and addictive, which of course doesn’t prove anything. On a hunch, I bought a copy for a lawyer friend who was not much of a gamer, but was a big fan of Sid Meier’s Colonization (a Civ-like from 1994), and Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri (another Civ-like game, from 1998). Pretty soon I was getting emails during the workday explaining theories about the best place to establish your base, the structure of X-Com’s international funding, and so on. Bingo. (Like Civ and SS2, the game was published by Microprose. According to Wikipedia, the game originally included only the tactical gameplay. Microprose — which was founded by Sid Meier — insisted on the inclusion of the larger-scale strategy elements when it decided to pick up the game.)

I guess what I’m trying to figure out is, what do strategy games have in common? It’s not about the subject matter. What do generalizations like “planning” and “resource management” actually describe, and why are they so addictive?

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