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from the trenches
Games: The Revolution Will Be Civilized Volume 62 Number 1, January/February 2009
by Eric A. Powell


It was a real wake-up call when my armies had been routed for the fourth time by the vastly superior forces of...Gandhi. That's when I knew my culture was not destined for military greatness.

I was playing Sid Meier's famously addictive Civilization, in which a player guides a society, for better or worse, from 4000 B.C. to the space age. Now, the game has made the leap from personal computers to the gaming platforms Xbox, Nintendo DS, and PlayStation 3.

In its essentials Civilization Revolution is the same game that kept a generation of archaeology students up at 2:00 a.m. shirking their term papers on the origins of urbanism. The object of the game is still to out-compete rival civilizations—led by the likes of Julius Caesar and Montezuma—by building cities, maintaining armies, and researching cultural developments that range from agriculture to the Internet. But I was surprised by how much more dramatic the game is when played on a large TV screen.

While the experience is epic, it's also comparatively brief. On the PC, it was possible to spend 200 hours on a single game. The average Civilization Revolution game won't last much longer than three hours; however, the swift pace creates some glaring anachronisms. For instance, it's possible your culture can make it to A.D. 1000 without learning about ceremonial burial, something that shows up in the archaeological record as early as 30,000 B.C. Older versions of the game were more faithful to the pace of history, but one flaw all versions share is that they are rooted in the 19th-century notion that every culture progresses neatly through the same stages of social and technological development. There are no dark ages where cultural developments are lost.

Despite losing to Gandhi, I've enjoyed the new version immensely. Who knew winding up on the ash heap of history could be so fun?