review revised June 22, 2003
This is an old game redone for today's times. It's so new that it includes the Iraq War insult of the French-- "cheese-eating surrender monkeys"-- when a player pays tribute to a computer opponent rather than face war. (See Iraq war-related jokes here.)
All the basic ideas are found in previous games including the one of the same name. Players start at earth, colonize other planets, make war, build their economies, dedicate resources to advancing technology, trade and spy. We played this game against computer-generated opponents, not people.
The best part of the art is the computer generated aliens. When one meets the leaders of the various aliens, the leaders appear in life-like, moving three-dimensional graphics. A devil-like character appears with appropriately scary classical music in the background.
Since the most popular games selling today are "shoot-em-up" games, it is appropriate to mention that the depiction of shooting and blowing up ships is not the best. The original "Master of Orion" was much better. On the other hand, people are not likely to play this game long for the graphics. In our book, it's questionable that fighting should be prettified with colorful lasers in any case. It's bad enough as it is.
We will only mention further that the graphic interface is pretty tight. There needs to be a find-star function, because the way it is now, it's easy to forget where a star is.
The recent generation of computer games including "Civilization" and "Superpower" have programming making it possible to play a single game days or even weeks without much of a hitch. Although this game hangs briefly especially for autosaves and other in-between turns events even on a very powerful Pentium 4 processor, it never crashed once in testing.
Even better, Galactic Civ has a number of numeric errors, but fortunately they occur where they appear to have no noticeable impact on the game. For example, a report suddenly lists tribute paid to other players in the budget as a ridiculous sum, something like twelve digits. However, this does not cause the player's treasury to decline by an immense sum beyond the capability of all the players in the game. For all practical purposes it is only a reporting error. The only real error is that sometimes--and this is something that happens in all games involving "tribute" that the reviewer is aware of--the programmer confuses whether tribute is a payment or a gift. Hence, when one pays another player for technology over a period of turns, one may have the pleasant surprise of finding that one's payment ends up in one's own budget, not the budget of the one who sold the technology.
We also found that the graphs, statistics chart and narrator reports contradict each other and tell three different stories. In one table, a player may be first in technology and a distant fourth in the graphs.
The most important mission in the game is to program it so that one player does not easily obtain a permanent advantage over the others and win the game quickly. In this, the programmers succeeded. The game does not "tip" as badly or as often as some of the original computer games that did not foreseeably take weeks of playing. One may even question whether a game should be stalemated for so many hours, but we still see this sort of problem as an advance in programming. The artificial intelligence in the computer-generated players is nothing less than astonishing: it caused the reviewer to have some various and strange dreams while asleep.
Political ideology and political systems are choices in this game. One thing that the programming of long games like "Superpower" and "Galactic Civ" does is it allows people to play for brief periods of time with varying goals to "win." Programmers of imperialist games are beginning to diversify to meet the challenge of role-playing games and adventure-search games like "Myst" in which exploration is the goal in its own right.
In this game, the player chooses both political ideology and system. "Pacifist" is a choice for ideology as is "war party." The manual says: "Do not equate 'goodness' with pacifism. History is replete with examples of evil that was not externally aggressive."
The system starts in a kind of monarchy called "imperium." As time goes on, one can advance to "Republic" and then "democracy" and then a new political system. Public opinion plays a crucial role, because without firing a shot contending species can take over star systems when the citizens rebel to quit one species to join another culture. Public opinion is also important, because at least in our scenario there was a "supply-side" scenario in which raising tax rates too high results in a reduction of taxes taken in just as placing the tax rates too low can.
The good part is that the model of influence implies that species of different biology choose not based on biology alone but on politics. One of the indicators in the game is overall cultural influence--obviously a derivative of Hollywood and popular Amerikkkan consumer products. When a player builds media, propaganda organs, shopping malls etc., s/he gains galactic influence. Once a culture obtains 88% of the influence in the universe, the program says that other cultures lose their military power simply because no one thinks independently of the dominant culture anymore and it is impossible to make a war on the dominant culture. One other place we heard this before was from the fascists who said that a successful war to put others in their place could end all wars by setting up a permanent system of dominance. We find this aspect of the game unrealistic, because the other aspects of the game do not lead one to believe such a peace would ever come about. We would say permanent peace is only possible under communism.
The manual says that the makers don't "get into the business of trying to make political statements such as whether imperialism is good or evil. . . we have made sure that the line between good and evil is very obvious--the random events in which players can choose which direction they're going." In our opinion that is a cop-out, a failure to evaluate whether systems create propensities for good or evil, in exchange for the more limited task of choosing what to do in very narrow circumstances regardless of their overall impact on larger issues.
The Strategy First people are Liberal imperialists who have that kernel of settler-based fascism who are so common today in the imperialist countries, and they get in their stabs at Stalin this way: "You can always take the path of evil and actually build gulags to send the people to, to learn more about your greatness. That'll improve their approval rating or at least what they answer in polls. And isn't that what really counts?"
In the short-run, one may play a game without going to war. Inevitably someone will threaten, but it is possible through good diplomacy buildup to avoid war in the short-run, and the pacifist party starts the game with a diplomacy advantage, while other parties have their advantages.
The military production has an equal interface and occupies as much space as the whole rest of the economy. In comparision galactic trade is much simpler; although, it is true that a player at war loses the benefit of trade with the ones at war.
Most strategy games proceed lacking a deep theory of war. In this one, opponents include "chaotic" good guys and bad guys. However, even with the systematic devil character one may end up doing good business. It's not predetermined one will always be at war with that character or any other; hence. there is a strong element of Machiavellian geopolitical chess in the game.
The programmers bought into the idea that "if your trade represents a sizable percentage of their income, they are a lot less likely to want to go to war." This idea connecting trade to peace is part of an ancient and now current Amerikan-imposed bourgeois internationalism, that colonies will not lead to exclusive trade blocs anymore, despite examples like Iraq or the Cuba embargo. Supposedly with more integrated business relations countries won't go to war, but in fact, we see since World War II that that is not the case. Trade just changes the alliances involved in war. In the case of Iraq, all through the war, a sticking point was how to handle Iraq's exports. Iraq was willing to export and when it did or whether it did, war was still very much in the cards, perhaps all the more because Iraq has oil to trade.
Trade advantages are to be had between any two people who are not perfectly identical, which no two people are. The fact that we have people going to war instead of trading is a very significant point about social rationality right now, an interesting part of the game.
The game does not have a theory of war, but there is research into diplomacy, funding of destabilization that may result in star system rebellions and above all there is production of propaganda, media and shopping malls that may win over other star systems to one's own empire.
The real politics between-the-lines for this game would be apparent after playing the game 30 or more times for each ideology for a week or more each game! Sorry, MIM did not carry that out for this investigation, but we have doubts that the pacifist party would survive and win over all the other star systems very often despite all the possibilities of influencing other systems. Whether one dominates through culture or the military, there appears to be no alternative in the game. The questions of good and evil are stuck within the limits of bourgeois intellect.
The wars that do occur are a matter of numbers and trumpets. However, in other strategy games, such as "Master of Orion: Battle at Antares," the programmers created armies in proportion to the size of the population. In "Galactic Civ," attacking a planet means killing every single inhabitant (typically billions) and replacing them with new inhabitants. This is an example of "settler" politics. In the typical player's strategy, the game will start with "settling" followed by war with the other players for control of the whole universe.
The settler genocide is a clue to the game. What makes this a fascist game is that corporations exist, loan the government money and play other notable roles throughout the game, but the real center of profit is the government's budget. If the government does not pay for settler ships or to build propaganda centers to convince other star systems to join, nothing will happen. No corporation privately settles citizens on other planets. Instead, the player is one large purchasing agent subject to the wave-like business cycle of its citizens and others in the universe. The game is to see who can be the best exploiting and marauding machine.
Throughout the game, the player has moral choices of how to relate to other species on the planets and even whether to punish corporate scandal-makers. In one scene, credit for scientific discovery goes to "diversity" that allowed a scientist to work who would not have in some less liberal systems. However, this is all fluff on the surface. The bottom line is that the game is about "living space" and has a unity of corporations and employees overseen by the government--fascism. Choosing one's label as "pacifist" etc. has it's advantages and disadvantages, but it does not change the entire system. Pursuit of "Lebensraum" and corporatism only have different faces determined by which faction of fascism one chooses to be as a player in this game.
Some day someone will write a game where changing ideology and political system also changes the basic economic system and other relations--not just by adding 10 or 20 points to someone's parameter but by starting new equations. For the politics in this game, the best we can say is that they are not relativist or post-modernist. There is much more intellect that went into this game than say the newest "Star Wars" episodes. Despite some contrary intentions, "Galactic Civilizations" will contribute to a fascist climate.