The camera zooms in on an exhausted looking Napoleon Bonaparte. Instead of his usual subdued suit, he wears the dress uniform of the Grande Armée.
People of France! Like you, I am stunned and heartbroken at the unprovoked attack upon our nation. I know many of you fear that this new darkness will consume first Paris and then the world. Let me remind you of our history.
Viking berserkers once ravaged our shores, hacking the limbs off peaceful priests and nuns as sacrifices to Odin. Yet the Northmen’s rage could not stop Homer and Rumi from celebrating courage, hope and peace in their verse.
When the Mongol Horde thundered across our borders, the great Khan said that the ground bones of our people would make green pastures for his horses. Nevertheless, history remembers how Jane Austen and Voltaire defied him from the stage of the Globe Theater.
Now the Iron Chancellor Bismarck has declared total war on France. Our foes may now ride tanks instead of horses, but we will triumph all the same. These barbarians will be dust a thousand years from now, but our descendants will still walk the halls of the Louvre, marveling at the paintings of Monet, Picasso, and Wang Ximeng.
Our city of light shall never be extinguished!
Only one game series can inspire me to embrace my inner history nerd and write proclamations to my imaginary nation. Civilization is both my obsession and my refuge. It is my gamer comfort food, the mac and cheese of my Steam library. What strategy gamer doesn’t love leading their nation from the Stone Age to the Space Age?
Yet if I’m not careful, it can also hit me like 100-proof vodka. I tell myself I will only play a couple turns, but the next thing I know the wife finds me face-down at my keyboard, mumbling about how much I hate that backstabbing Gandhi.
“It’s just not fair! Back in my day alliances used to mean something!” I’ll mutter as she guides me to bed.
All joking aside, I’ve once again turned to Civilization to regain some sense of hope in humanity. I cannot say why the Paris attacks and recent mass shootings have affected me so much. Perhaps it is because I have close friends living in Europe, or perhaps I am stunned at how badly some politicians have responded to the crisis. It could be because I finally had to sit down with my son and admit that true evil exists. In the wake of so much darkness and death, I decided for once to change how I play my favorite game.
I would step out of my comfort zone and play a completely peaceful French nation.
I normally avoid the peacenik route. As an Army vet and lifelong war nerd, I enjoy big explosions in StarCraft and bloody mass melee in Total War. I have a rather bad record of causing mayhem in my typical Civ game. Nothing gives me quite as much satisfaction than wiping the passive-aggressive smile off Gandhi’s face with a well-timed nuclear strike.
Yet this holiday season, instead of building fortresses and churning out legions of death robots, I build theaters, museums, and opera houses. I strive to win through the cultural victory conditions, which mainly entails convincing my uncouth rivals to give up their warmongering ways and reality TV to embrace la bonne vie. I maintain a small army for self-defense only, and only defend my borders – no counterattacks or WMD reprisals. I keep my borders open, attempt to maintain friendly relations with all other civilizations, and never bully city-states. In my world, Napoleon would be remembered for his dedication to equality under the law, his passion for classic culture, and his love of the metric system. (In real life, those achievements were forgotten by the time he invaded Russia.) My Catholic Church would make Pope Francis proud, with core tenets based on peace and justice instead of holy wars and inquisitions.
After the initial rush of building my first city and the Parthenon as my first wonder, I begin to have two big doubts about my chosen strategy. First, I am afraid that my pacifist playthrough would be about as exciting as a marathon session of FarmVille. My second fear is that my bellicose neighbors will drag me into centuries of bloody conflict, or even wipe me out. Achieving a cultural victory requires total commitment, and I would not have the chance to build a massive army if I fell behind.
I quickly realize that my first fear was unfounded. I have a lot of fun planning my cities, sending out my workers to transform the countryside, and fostering great writers, artists, and musicians. Whenever a new great person is born, I get a tantalizing glimpse of their life’s work. I listened to verses from “The Masnavi” when Rumi was born, and catch a glimpse of Monet’s “The Water Lilies” when he appears. Since I normally go for a military or science victory, this is the first time I fully appreciate how much work Firaxis Games put into gathering masterpieces from across the globe. It's a humbling experience to realize that I do not recognize the names of many of the non-European artists.
The way that cultural victories work is you build up influence with other nations through tourism and swapping great works of art. With enough influence, you can even convert enemy cities or force an opposing civilization to transform from warlike empire to peaceful republic. Watching a rival slowly convert to my side gives me the same smug satisfaction as convincing a reluctant friend to binge watch Game of Thrones over a weekend. Moreover, I cannot forget the absolute pleasure of building a cultural wonder just one turn ahead of the Persians. The mere thought of the Louvre being built in Persepolis rather than Paris – c'est tres terrible!
The second fear proves all too real. The Danes are the first to ravage my shores, but, repulsed, they eventually become a close ally for the rest of the game. The Mongols are my first real test of faith as they sneak attack just after I give them a generous gift. After a century of brutal fighting, I want nothing more than to send my victorious musketeers to ravage their homeland.
I resist the urge and take quiet comfort in later years when their society breaks down amid social unrest.
Which brings me to the great war of 1999. Persia is my cultural rival, but my influence is too far ahead for them to catch up. Only Germany remains a real threat left in the game. While I see their blitzkrieg coming, there wasn’t much I can do but hold on for dear life. The Panzer attack quickly overruns my outlying cities and menaces Paris itself.
Then my efforts all come together. My high cultural rank allows me unlock “Their Finest Hour.” As a game mechanic, the perk provides cities 33-percent higher defense. In my mind’s eye, I can see the people rallying to the cause, fighting the invaders in every field and every street. Denmark honors our long-standing alliance and joins the fight. The Germans are still deadly, but for now their offensive has stalled. Time to deliver the coup de grâce.
I sucker Bismarck into a peace treaty by offering several of my smaller cities. He gladly agrees, not realizing his fate was sealed. I send Debussy and Handel on a music tour across Germany, converting the nation's culture in a single turn. There is something incredibly satisfying in the composer of the "Messiah" bringing about world peace.
After dispatching Duke Ellington to rock the Persian kasbah, the victory screen flashes.
Leaning back in my chair, I discover a new reason as to why this game means so much to me. Other strategy games I played this year may have been more thrilling, but they were also depressing. I always had to engage in backstabbing and bloodshed to survive in Crusader Kings 2. Total War: Attila measured victory in how long you could hold out against the darkness, but there was never any doubt that the barbarians would win. Even Civilization: Beyond Earth begins with a handful of survivors fleeing a broken Earth. Classic Civilization reminds me that while humans created – create holy wars, torture chambers, and atom bombs, we also create symphonies, novels and rockets to reach the stars.
While I still doubt that I will live to see world peace, I have a small hope that perhaps my children or grandchildren will. At the very least, I can feel some comfort in knowing that there is still plenty of light in the human spirit to keep the darkness at bay.