August 28, 2011

On the Virtues of Civilization, Part IV

Pictured: best game ever.
 Or rather: Civilization III is the best game ever

I'm continuing this series, which I began over 2 years ago, from my previous blog. We last saw me in Part III enjoying the Activision spin-off Call to Power prior to the release of the "best game ever made."

I acquired Sid Meier's Civilization III around Christmas of 2001, shortly after its release. Thanks to this newfangled Internet that had made its way into my life, it was the first upcoming game that I had specifically followed pre-release. It was also my first limited edition purchase. Pretty exciting stuff for a 14-year-old budding gamer.

Incidentally I was on vacation in Texas when I bought it (with the help of some Christmas money) from the now-defunct Electronics Boutique at the Rivercenter Mall in San Antonio, and so I wasn't able to play it for a while. When I got back home the CD drive of the family computer had failed and I wasn't able to play it for a while longer. Needless to say, by the time I actually installed the thing I was giddy with excitement. Okay, maybe not giddy. But I was very eager to start playing this latest and greatest Civilization installment. As it turned out, I was not to be disappointed.

Civilization III, like Call to Power before it, brought an isometric map view and animations into the main series. (edit: Civ2 also used an isometric view, but its graphics were static and fairly simple) It also introduced civilization traits and unique units that made selecting your civilization a strategic rather than aesthetic decision. New concepts like tradeable resources, air missions, ranged bombardment, and Great Leaders added strategic depth to the war machine. Small wonders and expanding cultural borders enhanced the peaceful-builder side. While previous installments looked and played more like a board game, the world really started to come to life in Civ3. Its game mechanics were sophisticated but balanced. Empire management was more comprehensive, combat more strategic, and diplomacy more immersive.

Best of all, Civ3 featured a powerful and accessible scenario editor, which was vastly improved with the Conquests expansion- an add-on which was all about custom scenarios. If modding Civ3 was popular before Conquests, it really took off afterwards. The new features unlocked by the improved editor sparked a second "Golden Age" for Civ3 in 2004-2005, well beyond the typical shelf life of a game these days. Many veteran players to this day- I among them- insist that its well-balanced gameplay combined with its robust modding interface makes Conquests the greatest accomplishment of the series, if not all of strategy gaming. I'll talk more about modding in a later post. For now, suffice it to say that Civ3, and especially Conquests, got me into modding and kept me playing for the next decade. In fact it's the last game I played before writing this post, and the limited edition tin box is proudly on display on the bookshelf behind me. It is indeed the best game ever made.

Speaking of a decade, the "Civilization III Creation & Customization" (ie, modding) community at CivFanatics is hosting a modding awards competition in celebration of 10 years of Civ3 and in recognition of all the great contributions fans have made over the years. I'm actually in the running for "User Interface of the Decade" for a set of screen graphics I created for Lord of the Mods, which I'll cover later. If you've ever enjoyed user-made Civ3 content, come on over and join in the fun.

Next up, I'll talk more about CivFanatics and how I got hooked into the player community.

Repost: On the Virtues of Civilization, Part III

Reposted from WildWeazel

In Part II I described my introduction to the Civilization series. At this point, I've been playing Civ1 for a few years and have a serious case of "(Just) One More Turn Syndrome".

Since I didn't start playing Civ until around the time Civilization II was released, I missed the sequel. Instead, my next Civilization game was Civilization: Call to Power, a spin-off by Activision. In 7th grade I received CtP as a reward for making it to the oral rounds of the regional spelling bee. This time I got the whole product, including the large tech tree and statistics poster, and the official strategy guide, both of which were put to good use. CtP immediately became my new favorite game, and although I occasionally went back to Civ for the sake of nostalgia I enjoyed CtP much more.

Call to Power introduced many new concepts, especially to a Civ1 player. Public works improvements, unconventional warfare including slavery and propaganda, undersea and space cities and improvements, and combined arms combat all added depth to the game. A wide variety of civilizations, units, and buildings rounded out the options, ensuring that no two games could ever be the same.

I only vividly remember one game, playing as Germany on a large and populated map. I had built Berlin into the greatest city in the world, probably to the detriment of the rest of my nation. I owned a large portion of a major continent, but was locked into a stalemate with Canada on a peninsula to my southeast. For some reason I never rebuilt a major invasion force after my initial land grab, but resorted to extended stealth-bombing and ground skirmishes. Meanwhile, Brazil owned most or all of another continent in the north, and after establishing itself as a world power had continued to strengthen until none dared oppose it. It seemed content to peacefully enjoy an exponential increase in power, until I finally got frustrated at the near-impossibility of actually winning the game and decided to attack. I built several nukes and launched them adjacent to several Brazilian cities (to avoid being intercepted by the overpowered War Walkers who automatically shot down incoming air units), only to be put into my place a few turns later as hordes of Hovertanks skimmed across the ocean onto my lawn.

Speaking of War Walkers and Hovertanks, CtP had some crazy mixed in with its ingenuity. I was all for the extended future eras and expanded gameplay, but units like Eco Rangers and Televangelists were a bit on the eccentric side, and the deep-future technologies felt tack-ed on just for the cool value. Overall though, it was a well-designed and attractive product. It easily kept me entertained and addicted for the next year and a half, until the best game ever made was released.

Continued in Part IV

Repost: On the Virtues of Civilization, Part II

Reposted from WildWeazel

In Part I I explained the reason for this topic and briefly described the Civilization franchise. Let's continue.

I started playing computer games not long after my family got our first computer, when I was about 6 or 7. First it was the simple Windows 3.1 games like Mosaic and Minesweeper, then commercial games. SimTower was the first game I (and by "I", I mean "my parents, on my behalf") bought, and I quickly became a fan of Will Wright's games.

When I bought SimCity a few years later, which by then had already been around for a while, it came packaged with another game, just a CD case laminated on the front of the box, which I had never heard of. I set this one aside, eager to play the venerable SimCity. To my dismay, I could not get the game to run despite my best efforts at playing around with different system and game settings (my hacking started early), so I reluctantly turned to this free copy of "Civilization" (Civ1 DOS, for those interested) to ease my frustration.

It worked, and I spent much of the following months forgetting that I ever wanted to play Sim City. I don't remember the details of my first game, but I have plenty of memories of learning how to play- deciding that I should build additional cities before being surrounded by rivals; experimenting with diplomacy, which was then done via Diplomat units; discovering that a Trireme is a boat, and that I could now explore other landmasses; my first victory as Russia on the Earth map in which I city-spammed my way to dominance and then conquered the world; and saving all of my progress on a growing stack of floppy disks. To this day, the (now extremely rare) sound of a floppy disk writing makes me think of Civilization.

And so it came to pass that I developed a serious case of what we civvers affectionately call "One More Turn Syndrome" at such a young age. The arrival of Civilization: Call to Power did little to ease my affliction.

Continued in Part III

Repost: On the Virtues of Civilization, Part I

Reposted from WildWeazel

Yeah, it sounds like a lofty essay compilation on world history and anthropology. Don't worry, it's about the games.

I know I've casually mentioned "Civ" quite a few times, and even posted a few previews of stuff I'd been working on for mods. I even have a tag for the subject. But the whole obsession preoccupation with the game(s) has never been directly addressed. I shall fill this void in installments.

For the, ahem... uncivilized, I should at this point explain what exactly it is that I speak of. Civilization is a series of "4X" (explore, expand, exploit, exterminate) turn-based strategy games that follow the course of recorded human history, from the stone age to the space age. The player assumes high-level control of a civilization and develops it through building cities, improving terrain, raising a military, researching technologies, and interacting with other civilizations. The original Civilization ("Civ1") was designed by the legendary Sid Meier and published in 1991 for MS-DOS. Sid's company Firaxis Games has since created 3 additional incarnations, expansions of each, and a number of spin-off titles. The franchise has sold over 8 million copies and is now one of the most popular names in strategy gaming.

My first encounter with Civ was an accident.

Continued in Part 2

August 13, 2011

Rick Perry Isn't The Only One Running Today

I got to check off a 43 Things goal today: Run a 10K.

The Blue Crab Bolt was a tough 6.6-mile trail run through a very hilly park in nearby Clarksburg. The course was longer and much more difficult than I expected, but I nonetheless managed to keep a decent pace and finish strong. The weather helped, with overcast skies and a brief rain shower in the final mile.

It was my first race longer than 5 miles, and a milestone in my preparation for this year's Army 10 Miler in October. My company is sending 3 teams to compete among 30,000 runners. I've been working up to it for a few months now after not running for most of the past year.

I'm obviously not a very disciplined runner, or a particularly good one at long distances, but I do enjoy pushing myself sometimes. I'd like to try a half marathon next year, which is only another 3 miles or so. I don't have any particular long-distance plans beyond that.

I did sign up for one other related event though. Run For Your Lives is a 5k obstacle course race with zombies. Yes, that kind of zombie. You have to keep away from the undead horde in order to finish the course. It seems like a fun way to round out the season. If anyone in the MD/PA/DE region or beyond is interested in joining me, let me know.

August 4, 2011

An Ill-Fated Voyage

The US Government is like the sinking Titanic. Republicans are compulsively rearranging deck chairs while Democrats want to take another pass at that iceberg. Ron Paul and a few friends are standing off to the side with some life boats trying to get people's attention, but nobody is listening because they're all threatening to kill each other over whether the captain should have hit the iceberg head-on.

I posted that little quip to Google+ yesterday and got several approvals, so I broke my recent taboo and posted it to Facebook and got several more. Those who liked it varied across the political spectrum. I think that shows that it's a fitting analogy, and that people are aware of just how bad the situation is.

To anyone who is paying attention, it should be mostly self-explanatory. The iceberg is the massive economic disaster that we've been flirting with for several years now. The proverbial deck chairs represent the few billion dollars here and there that the populist Republicans have fought so hard for while the Democrats want to dump more money into the hole. Only an ideological few, mostly libertarian leaning leaders are willing to call out the political games for what they are and demand fundamental changes to our way of doing things.

That last part about fighting over past decisions seems like a silly hyperbole, but it's actually the part of the analogy that I find most true. You see, Titanic was built with a compartmental design to withstand a collision with an iceberg. But when the captain saw the ice at the last moment, either out of panic and lack of trust in the ship's cunning design, or for confidence in his own skill and wanting to minimize the impact, he chose to divert, resulting in more damage. It is likely that this maneuver actually doomed the ship.

Likewise, when facing a mounting economic disaster likely spurred on by decades of political maneuvering, our government chose to take drastic and short-sighted action rather than let the free market take its course, meet the crisis head on, and come out leaner and healthier on the other side. By pushing our already enormous national debt to completely unsustainable levels (now outweighing our GPD and putting us into the same category as the heavily indebted European nations that are now facing economic collapse) they have likely doomed our economy in the long run.

Unfortunately, what's done is done. Whether it was tax cuts, multiple wars, bailouts, stimulus funding, massive healthcare overhaul, or a fundamentally broken system, the money was spent and now it is owed. They have borrowed over $14.5 trillion from both American and foreign creditors, while piling spending on top of irresponsible spending. But much of the political rhetoric being tossed around is about how bad those decisions were, how it should have been done differently, how things might have ended up if only, how many puppies Obamacare has kicked. The fact is, those things did happen, we do have a national debt greater than our GDP, we are borrowing and spending at unsustainable rates, and the US Dollar is in decline. Nothing we say now, and little that we try to undo, is going to change that.

That's where the lifeboats come in. A few prescient leaders have been warning us about the reality of the situation for a while now, but most of us have been too caught up in mudslinging to take notice. The "spending cut" that supposedly solved the debt crisis merely says that the government will spend a few trillion less than it had otherwise planned to over the next ten years, much of which will be borrowed. This ~$2.4 trillion, a number unfathomable to most people, is still only pocket change to the $15 trillion debt that is still rising- and, per the same legislation, authorized to rise- bounded only by the continued wrangling of Congress. This massive number is in turn dwarfed by the $114.5 trillion unfunded liabilities, the money which the government is already planning to spend but can't afford. Yes, that is one hundred trillion dollars greater than what we already owe.

Ron Paul, who has been warning of this for years, and his son Rand are two who have been pushing hard for a balanced budget amendment that would ban deficit spending altogether. A requirement for a vote on such an amendment made its way into the law, which may prove to be its greatest victory. Ron has also long been a vocal advocate of returning to the gold standard, which would effectively prevent the government from monetizing debt by simply printing more fiat currency and devaluing the money supply. At this point even such revolutionary actions may not be enough. We may be in for an economic collapse, and abandoning a doomed ship may be our only recourse. We're already past the oft-quoted 200 year average lifespan of great civilizations, and it looks like the "American Century" may be cut short.

It's time for a paradigm shift. The federal government got us into this mess, but left to its own devices it's not going to get us out. Our lifeboats are state and local governments committed to financial responsibility and personal freedom; election of leaders who will take courageous and unpopular action to bring our debt and spending under control and reign in the unconstitutional expansion of the federal government; and a firm reliance on God, not the State, as our provider and protector. Are you going to climb in, or will you listen to the band play until the ship goes down?