Why People Are Making The AI Fight Itself In Civilization

A strange thing happened in the Civilization community r/civ on January 10, 2015. Inspired by similar, smaller-scale offerings by a Twitch.tv livestream and fellow redditor DarkLava (from whom he explicitly sought permission), user Jasper K., aka thenyanmaster, shared the first part of an experiment he was conducting wherein he put 42 computer-controlled civilisations in their real-life locations on a giant model of the Earth and left them to duke it out in a battle to the death, Highlander style (except instead of heads they need capital cities).

Since then, the practice has exploded in popularity. Reddit’s Civilization community has AI-only fever, but what exactly is so compelling about watching the computer play a very slow-paced turn-based strategy game with itself?

The early stages of Jasper K’s game saw most of the world engage in a gentle process of discovery and expansion into unoccupied land, Europe was an immediate clusterfuck. Casimir III’s early aggression put Poland on the wrong side of its neighbours just as a desperate power struggle ensued between around a dozen civilisations vying for control over the continent. It seemed like Poland would fall quickly, hemmed in on all sides and lacking the natural defenses that protected the likes of Carthage and Persia. But the Poles stuck it out, spurred on by a rabid (though bemused) online fanbase they couldn’t hear which chanted in unison some variation on “STRONK POLAND IS STRONK.” As I write this now, at 16 parts, 363 turns, and 4,130 years deep into the epic, still-unravelling storyline, Poland stands among the contenders for victory, with four (soon to be five) capital cities conquered and a red army that dominates Eastern Europe.

Thenyanmaster’s game of “what if?” has won such a following – particularly after a nod on the 4.8-million-subscribers-strong Bestof subreddit – that copycats have sprung up all over the place. There’s an African version, a Civ IV Rhye’s and Fall of Civilization mod version, one with just the British Isles, another with 20 civs on a map meant for just two, and at least 10 more – not counting the AI-only campaigns some people run privately to satiate their own curiosity or to compare with their favourite ongoing narrative. Now there’s even an official community game being organised and run (including a live Twitch stream) by subreddit mod TPangolin, with 42 civs and 42 mods enabled, which has dominated the community discussions since it was announced — there are separate threads for in-jokes, pre-game analyses, and trash talking, amongst other things.

For TPangolin, the secret to these games’ popularity is emergent storytelling. “People love to assign sentimentality and personalities to these AIs,” he explains. They get sad when their favourite loses or celebrate when it wins, with long comment threads and terse proclamations punctuating the major milestones.

“It’s frighteningly similar to watching sports,” TPangolin continues. “We know all the rules and how to play, so now for entertainment we watch multiple third parties battle it out. Perhaps we love these even more because we know that instead of athletes we’re watching historical world leaders battle it out in a fight to death on a global scale.”

AI-only Civilization games are the purest form of the Civilization concept: take the beginnings of recorded human history, tweak some variables, hit start, and marvel at how a series of interesting decisions leads to a radically-different present day.

TPangolin first explored the concept in 2014, a year after he began looking through the Official SDK for Civ V (a set of tools to help modders do their thing). He found that with a feature called FireTuner he could playtest the AI, sans human player, and began to setup games to run overnight – with the end goal of making a large, detailed political map of the world.

“In one such instance,” he describes, “I was playing a scenario called ‘Earth 2014’ – a scenario designed to recreate the political landscape on earth of 2014. I left the game on overnight, and when I woke up [saw that] the world in 2027 looked vastly different,” TPangolin continues. “Mexico had successfully invaded the United States, China’s words were evidently backed with nuclear weapons (having decimated half of Russia), India had forcefully colonised the Horn of Africa and, perhaps most surprisingly, Argentina had recaptured the Falklands.”

A political map someone made during the early stages of the war.

CivFanatics forum goer Kjetil “Kjotleik” Hvattum has a similar approach, though his motivations are different and his playground is not Civilization V but rather its predecessor, Civ IV (with the Beyond the Sword expansion). Towards the middle of 2014 he found Kossin’s AI Tournament: Season Three post, which was the third rendition of an American-style league format devised by DMOC back in 2010. (Gandhi won the first two seasons; the third was never completed.) Inspired by this and Sulla’s Civ4 AI Survivor series, and driven by the desire to learn more about AI strategies in order to move beyond the Noble difficulty level, Hvattum began plotting his own AI-only tournament.

His AI Auto Play threads take a very different tone to those on Reddit. Campaigns are completed in advance, and the community is challenged with picking who will win from just the starting positions of each civilisation. “The participation has been good,” Hvattum tells me, “and the fact that at least one person has picked the correct AI in seven out of eight games thus far is a testimony to the knowledge the CivFanatics [community] has about [Civ IV].”

The CivFanatics style of AI-only game doesn’t differ as greatly from the in-vogue captioned screenshots method as it seems. Most matches in the tournaments are worked into narrative descriptions quite similar to those written by thenyanmaster and co, with the one exception that the narrator and most readers already know the outcome – making it mere flavour text for the main attraction of predicting long-term, whole-game AI behaviour.

That’s no easy task. In both Civ IV and Civ V the AI has more than its fair share of quirks. Wars are often fought with no real progress for millennia, dragging on to the detriment of both sides or ending suddenly when the stronger force brokers a peace deal just as they’re about to march into a city. Sometimes the quirks have a comic effect. In thenyanmaster’s game the Huns spent hundreds of years raiding and razing rival cities in the Middle East but never themselves expanded into that territory (to their ultimate downfall), content instead to tend to their farms and eek out a quiet existence. He calls this and the related skirmishes in the region “the war where gains are made but in fact no gains are made,” as in addition to a widespread bias towards razing (even when attacking from the sea) that only subsided as the leading technologists – India and The Shoshone – moved into the Information Age, cities have tended to flip back and forth between attacker and defender several times.

Hvattum notes that AIs in Civilization are pragmatic opportunists. “If they find themselves bigger and better than their neighbours, it is usually just a matter of time before a war breaks out and the big AIs swallow up the lands of the smaller ones.”

We see this in thenyanmaster’s game, where technologically-superior India is, in Part 16, in the process of plowing its way west, picking off all the small and mid-sized rivals in its wake, while struggling one-city minnows Morocco and Venice were left in peace for hundreds of years and then steamrollered without warning in just a couple of turns.

Computer-controlled civs are seldom consistent in their actions, however, and thenyanmaster says that his favourite part about the whole endeavour has been the unpredictability of the AI. TPangolin notes that “sometimes they pull off amazing feats that we thought were impossible, such as actually settling the Suez or Panama – allowing a canal city that cuts through a continent. Other times,” he continues, “they settle those crappy snow islands that have a single source of Stone on it.” When it comes to narrating these stories of AI war, the “players” (for lack of a better word) are just as in the dark as you are about why certain decisions are made and what will happen next.

That extends to the broader trend, too. Despite starting the AI-only craze, DarkLava and thenyanmaster are both perplexed that it blew up so big that tens of thousands of people would be tuning into their games and many thousands more into those of the spin-offs.

The general consensus is that it’s more of a passing fad than something with real staying power. But there are murmurings that this could be the next Eternal War. Nathan “TheRedditDinosaur” Dawson, who is approaching the end of his fourth AI-only campaign, believes there will always be people engaging in this world of playing by watching. “It’s opened a whole new perspective to the game, and a very interesting one too,” he says. “Why should it just stop?” Further than that, even, he thinks that the act of watching the AI battle with itself could well spread to other games, effectively becoming a gaming niche all its own. In some senses this has already happened, such as in AI vs. AI fighting game stream Salty Bet.

TPangolin suggests that the key to AI-only games’ longevity is that they remain accessible to a broader audience – with play-by-play commentary accompanying image or video feeds and expert analysis in the comments all written with an eye towards the novice just looking to be entertained rather than the insider who knows all the lingo and the rules inside out.

TPangolin has also put his money where his mouth is by organising the official AI-only 42-civ game in which the community votes for which civs to include. “The voting process is hilarious,” he says. People formed allegiances in the comments before the game had even started, campaigning for “their” civilisation to get voted into proceedings, and things soon took a turn for the predictably ridiculous. In addition to an ensemble of standard civs, the community voted in Nazi Germany, The Buccaneers, World War 2 Britain, Imperial Japan, Stalin’s USSR, Napoleonic France, and The Boers. “What a time to be alive,” TPangolin says, leaving unspoken the exciting possibility that we may finally have an answer to the question of who would win in a fight between Napoleon and Caesar.

This, as with most AI-only games, is set to domination victory only – which means that it doesn’t matter how much culture, science, or technology a civilisation has, or who’s out in front come 2050. I asked Nathan “TheRedditDinosaur” Dawson, who has tried running AI-only games with other victory conditions enabled, why domination dominates the picture. “It is far more interesting watching the civs trying to win through battling rather than turtling up and winning through culture,” he suggested, adding that the games in which he kept other victory conditions turned on – as is the default in Civilization V – ended anticlimactically.

“You find yourself screaming at the screen, telling the AI to declare [war] on the civ that’s about to win through culture, but it never happens,” he continues. “You just feel like you only got half a show; you didn’t see all the civs battle it out in a final deadly battle like you expected.”

War is inherently dramatic. It guarantees tension, if not conflict, and that’s essential to a good story. But more importantly, perhaps, it’s that war, like sport, sows division. People barrack for their favourite team and live vicariously through its triumphs and failings. And like every good sport, the AI-only Civ games have brought people closer together while at the same time wedging them apart.


  1. Superpat says:

    I’ve always found observe games in ck2 or eu4 to be massively interesting, though even with player engagement, its still very much an ai led game.

    • raiders5000 says:

      Superpat, I must agree. I’m serving my own kingdom and there are literally hundreds of skirmishes around me taking place throughout the map. and sometimes there’s that great “Oh My” moment that happens when a territory changes color and I say to myself, “I didn’t see that happening!” What’s even better is when I want to take part in those wars…but you know the rules ;)

      • Canadave says:

        The “Oh my” moments are better than the “Oh shit” moments, though, like when a pop-up informs you that France has just formed a personal union with Austria.

      • Viroso says:

        Once I became queen of england, a swollen up england, out of nowhere. I was some Irish noble marrying and forging my way up then one day enough people suddenly died and bang, queen of england.

    • mattlambertson says:

      I haven’t played CK2 or EU4 (yet) but I actually used to do this with FPS games like Jedi Academy and Unreal Tournament 2004. Line up a bunch of bots that interested me in one way or another (after trawling the internet for hours looking for good custom bots) and then watch them do battle and even commentate in my head exactly as if I was watching a spectator sport. I even kept stats. This eventually began to seem like a rather childish pursuit to me, not because I think it is so much as because I was afraid of being judged by anyone who found out. So it’s interesting to see this becoming “a thing”, even if AI Civ wars are rather less extreme than the things I was doing in my teens.

  2. rexx.sabotage says:

    heh, well I guess I’m not the only 4x voyeur out there. The cats and kittens who dig spectating these should get involved with some DF succession games (ala Boatmurdered), that emergent story-telling is a helluva thing.

  3. vlonk says:

    Comparison with sports is an interesting one. Are we seeing the emergence of a new form of sports with Robocups, AI tournaments (like SSCAI), where the “athletes” are so otherworldly, so alien, that we (humans) cannot compare ourselves to them? I already cannot compare myself to some professional athletes who seem out of reach (google quadzilla cyclist) why should I care that the athlete is not a human at all…
    also I feel here is some crossover of interests with the emergent narrative that happened in Twitch plays Pokemon, but I cannot coin it yet.

    • Richard Moss says:

      I was having similar thoughts as I put the story together. The other interesting thing with the Civ AI stuff is that they’re so fallible and imperfect. High-level strategy gamers are so methodical and logical, but the AI’s bizarre decision making often beggars belief. These AI players do stupid things all the time, even as they also make brilliant tactical manoeuvres.

      It’s almost like they’re more human than human, and there’s something fascinating about watching that play out.

      • Smoky_the_Bear says:

        Twitch chat is almost it’s own form of mentally retarded AI anyway, hehe.

      • vlonk says:

        Since all Civ AI come from the same core and only have slight permutations (like ghandi and his atomic bombs, or the mongols with their high aggression) it is a level playing field. That in turn is the key to exciting competition. Also they are bound by the rules of the game so it is a fair playing field. Even so the AI is shrewd, alien and somehow dumbbrilliant, we can learn to comprehend their moves and even admire them – at least for their success in their limited range of abilities at best for their smart decisions (Suez Canal placement!). Sports comparison makes sense. My best comparison would be horse racing – it is not really about the rider…
        Real question: If its a sport will it develop leagues with lasting appeal? Will their be more promoters and facilitators like Saltybet with his MUGEN stream? Adventurous frontiers present themselves here…

  4. jrodman says:

    I have been playing games this way since 1979.

    • Hmm-Hmm. says:

      Yeah, I assume this is hardly anything new. It being a shared thing may be a mostly recent thing, though.

      • jrodman says:

        In the back of my mind, I was sidelong suggesting that game developers enabling this more was very welcome.

  5. darkath says:

    Is there a summary of that massive AI game 16 parts ? i want to read about it but i despise reddit nested thread format where you have to dig for information.

  6. Tachanka says:

    When I read the title I was really hoping this would be about people coding their own AI’s and having them fight one another!

    • Pantalaimon says:

      Yeah, this was my thought, I kept reading waiting for it to happen.

      I’m sure this is amusing from a casual perspective but the AI in Civ games has always been terrible, the recent games are no exception. They’re just not particularly smart, and doing stupid things doesn’t really give them personality (since they all do stupid things very often).

      There was a brief Dota-bot tournament last year featuring live commentary that was entertaining for the same reasons but short-lived since the AI code is not modifiable.

      If a dev really wants to take initative they could open up their AI to user modification. The Starcraft bot tournaments are a good example of this, though it’s hard to get excited about such an old game nowadays.

      • Smoky_the_Bear says:

        Yeah the amount of times the AI attacks you in Civ just because it has a bigger army than you, even though it has no hope of getting anywhere against city defenses + some garrisoned archers. Leaves me scratching my head every time, it doesn’t seem to know it’s limitations or how to do anything other than wander around in your territory like headless chickens getting all it’s units destroyed.
        I wish they would focus on improving it rather than the artificial difficulty levels which do nothing more than “Now the AI has more resources”.

  7. FunnyB says:

    I didn’t see it in the article, so I would like to ask, how do you set up an all AI match? Do you need some kind of mod?

    • April March says:

      Not sure if this is the answer to your question, but:

      “TPangolin first explored the concept in 2014, a year after he began looking through the Official SDK for Civ V (a set of tools to help modders do their thing). He found that with a feature called FireTuner he could playtest the AI, sans human player, and began to setup games to run overnight – with the end goal of making a large, detailed political map of the world.”

      So you need a tool for modders, not a mod per se. I think.

      • Richard Moss says:

        Right, so you have two options, from what I can gather: you can mess around with the SDK or you can install a bunch of mods. Here are the mods being used in the official r/civ game. Among those, the in-game editor is crucial for putting the human player somewhere safe so they can observe without affecting anything. The ones that modify AI behaviour and that allow for longer or larger games are probably worth considering too.

  8. varangian says:

    This is exactly what Stephen Hawking has been warning about. You may think it’s harmless fun getting AIs to fight for world domination but they’re sneaky little buggers. They’ll be learning the geography and improving their skills and I predict that soon they’ll be breaking out into the real world and conquering it one hex at a time. Stop this madness now!

    • gunny1993 says:

      On the plus side, before the total world domination there might be a period where the enemy in Total War don’t charge their light Cav into my pike-men

      • Ysellian says:

        Ugh yeah. It’s the frontal charge that gets me every time. There is nothing dumber than charging a phalanx formation from the front with horses, you’d think devs would simply make a line to just “not do that”.

      • Underwhelmed says:

        You see, Pike-men have a preset kill limit. Knowing their weakness, I sent wave after wave of my light cavalry at them until they reached their limit and shut down.

    • Dances to Podcasts says:

      That’s why we’ve constructed roundabouts.

  9. Robert Post's Child says:

    Interesting comparing something like this with, say, Neptune’s Pride, where the vicarious fun is in the metagame, so all-AI couldn’t hold the same interest. Or on the opposite end, the Horse e-books tweets: the fun was in seeing something supposedly acting autonomously. Knowing it’s just some guy dicking around doesn’t have the same appeal.

  10. cptgone says:

    Perhaps one day we’ll have a John Walker sim that interviews itself to tears.

  11. AyeBraine says:

    I am a superlousy Let’s Play spectator, I basically don’t know anything about twitch and so on, but the NyanMaster play-by-play narration in Imgur has something in common with my beloved BeagleRush letsplays: the humor.

    The dry, graceful humor and insightful observations of a commentator who is an expert in the field is the reason I love watching good sports broadcasts, and root passionately for players even though I didn’t know the rules five minutes ago.

    • melancholicthug says:

      Agreed. I love Beagle’s videos. Not much of a stream watcher, but i follow his youtube campaign. He’s great.

  12. Gap Gen says:

    Civ has never been great at actually modelling history (which granted, isn’t the point) – I mean it’s not like the USA started out in the Stone Age with an immortal Lincoln facing off against a deathless Caesar. There’s also a limited extent to which cultural drifts and internal politics are modelled. It’s an interesting exercise in seeing how the AI acts, though.

    • jrodman says:

      SIr I am offended at your commentary. The USA remains proudly in the stone age. I am a representative of this situation.

  13. teije says:

    This is actually my favourite thing about playing EUIV. Playing a nation somewhere over in India, let’s say, then discovering Europe and seeing the crazy shape it’s in with a disintegrated France or uber-strong Pomerania. All done by the AI since I’ve not involved in that area whatsoever.

  14. bonuswavepilot says:

    “… eek out a quiet existence” – I think you mean ‘eke’.

    Emergent storytelling is an odd one – I wonder how viable it is to try to design games with it specifically in mind… I reckon DF probably is the king of this arena at the moment, which seems to be due to a combination of a large possibility space, and enough left unsaid that a player can fill in the blanks with interesting stuff. (Also an endearing quirkiness thanks to its unique style and the inevitable strange effect emerging from such a lot of systems interacting.)

  15. Thirdrail says:

    My favorite part of the Rollercoaster Tycoon games was always building go-kart tracks and watching the races. When they ruined that in RCT3, I lost interest in the series immediately and completely, so apparently it was my main reason for playing any of them. And I used to buy NCAA football games just leave them on AI vs. AI, because that’s one of my favorite background sounds for napping, even if I have zero interest in football.

  16. Joriath says:

    ‘A strange game. The only winning move is not to play. How about a nice game of chess?’

    • Richard Moss says:

      That’s exactly the reference I was going for at the beginning. Didn’t want to be too overt about it (although the working title in my pitch was “AI Games: something or other”).

  17. VladVoivode says:

    This really isn’t a new thing at all. Those of us who play historical “base-to-ball” [trying to adopt the foot-to-ball lingo but failing miserably, mea culpa], have played AI vs. AI for many years. One of the games that really was immersive in this respect was Broadcast Blast Baseball for Windows which featured a full game audio broadcast by Hall of Fame announcer Ernie Harwell. The original game will not run on modern systems as the installer is 16 bit. The “new” version has no broadcast and does away with the Encyclopedia Import function that allowed season replays from any year 1871 to 1997 inclusive. Harwell actually recorded the name of every player who ever made it to the Majors up to 1997 – approximately 13,000! Then, sound bytes of actual broadcasts were were mixed in and were triggered contextually. So for instance Harwell might state, “Gehrig steps into the box. He is 1 for 3 today with a single. Gomez comes to the set position. He checks Ruth at second. Gomez fires a fastball high and Ruth laces it into deep left for a double scoring Gehrig and the Yankees are on top here in the seventh 3-2.”

    What was also interesting was that the crowd samples were also contextual and one could set the crown AND the announcer as biased toward the home team or the visitors. APBA was supposed to overhaul the original program with new broadcasts but instead decided to follow the more traditional approaches of Diamond Mind Baseball and other text based sims.

  18. cpt_freakout says:

    That last bit about people not liking non-domination victory conditions is quite interesting, basically because the opposition through which ‘fan-clubs’ or communities of this kind are drawn does not disappear, but is just no longer about two things punching each other. I wonder if there are any similar forms of spectatorships for board game videos, particularly those that rely on competition but not on a bodily fight. Or for coop games, for that matter – I find playing stuff like Pandemic quite exciting in the ways the odds pile up against your team, but I have no idea if watching someone play it would have the same sort of effect if I don’t immediately sympathize with the players. In principle I should feel it, but maybe everything about this does narrow down to the attractiveness of a promise of violence. That it’s done by non-living things makes it safe, I guess, a channel through which we can enjoy said violence without being transgressive about it.

    • P.Funk says:

      I think people would be more prone to liking non-domination games if the AI were capable of protecting itself from losing to a culture victory by attacking to prevent it. This is why human sports are interesting despite having often more varied victory conditions, ie. you can play to waste time in a sport. If someone is holding onto possession to waste the clock the opposing team will turn up the heat to force them to play whereas an AI likely would play that exactly the same regardless of the score in the game.

      • cpt_freakout says:

        Point taken! Yes, much of the appeal of the AI in this kind of thing relies on it being brilliantly stupid. I wonder then if we could have the same kind of spectatorship for games in which the AI is narrowed down and therefore appears to be much smarter? Say, would an all-AI XCOM run be appealing to someone?

  19. Eich says:

    Hey guys, I need a little help. I’m to dumb to find the actual videos of this epic battle. Or aren’t there any videos? If so, then buhhhh!

  20. genequagmire says:

    Poland cannot into winning.

  21. 0positivo says:

    Anyone remember The Last Federation? The premise isn’t actually that different. You’re just a minor force amongst these giant spacefaring empires, controlled by AI, and trying to change their actions through subtle or not so subtle intervention

  22. vahnn says:

    I do this same thing with Distant Worlds: Universe and it’s fucking awesome.

  23. dirtrobot says:

    How did this even work considering the AI can’t even maneuver 6 troops properly with the new hex based system?? I can’t even imagine that many AI trying to get anywhere in civ 5.