I have played Civilization [official site] games as long as there have been Civilization games. I have always enjoyed them. I have always hated winning them.
Be it Civilization I, VI or anything in between, this is the arc of any campaign I play:
1) I feel so small and the world feels so big. I can’t wait to see what’s out there
2) Literally all I care about right now is building a Settler so I can found a second city, but it’s going to take like 20 turns and that is forever
3) Oh, no it’s not. The world shall be mine!
4) War is scary and, most of all, expensive. No way I want to get involved with that. I’m going to be peaceful. I love a Granary, me.
5) I can’t expand because some dickhead neighbour is occupying all the tiles and boats are boring and expensive so I don’t want to sail to another continent
6) I’M GOING TO DESTROY HIM, TAKE EVERYTHING HE OWNS AND BECOME ALL-POWERFUL.
7) War is really hard work and expensive, so let’s make peace.
8) Oh my God I wish I hadn’t made so many cities, I’m constantly being pestered to build things I don’t really need.
9) I’m going to win I’m going to win I’m going to win
10) I have won. I feel a profound sense of loss.
Victory is always a let-down, because it’s the point in any Civilization game where there is no more development to be had. I have seen every tank and most Wonders by that point, I have stamped my mark across the majority of the map, and there is, quite simply, nowhere left to go. My dozens of hours invested in this campaign can only be paid off with a short pre-rendered animation and sombre voiceover.
For hours, I have dreamed of colonising another world, or seeing all of this one fly my flag, or being hailed its hero for uniting all of humanity. But Civilization, in any iteration, is not able to meaningfully depict any of those outcomes.
This is the terrible truth of that ‘One More Turn…’ option offered in the modern sequels: you get to see what the world looks like in the wake of your victory, and it is absolutely unchanged. The promised transformation does not happen.
I can watch the short animation. A rocket ship. A joining of hands. A world subjugated. Big whoop.
Civ is about the journey, not the destination. It is a long and colourful journey, one which never goes as expected and yet is somehow always the same, and that’s how I like it. The trouble is that the journey has to end, and over the course of several decades Civilization has not devised a satisfying manner of achieving that.
I dream of an impossible future where a space race victory in a Civilization leads to a brand new campaign on another planet, or links seamlessly to some Alpha Centauri or Beyond Earth sequel: the same people, the same Civ, facing a genuine brave new world. God, I’d love that.
Or a shift to the grand political problems of maintaining a world-wide union, or the lawless horror of a world subjugated under one immortal tyrant. A bravura demonstration that yes, the world and humanity itself has profoundly changed because of what you did to it.
It’s too tall an order, of course it is. To ask that an enormously complex game that already occupies an order of magnitude more time than almost anything else suddenly morphs into something entirely differently once victory conditions are met is purely, rawly unfair.
I yearn for a new solution to this ancient problem though. In my first completed Civ VI campaign, I reached the point where I realised I was but six turns from a Science victory and I felt sudden despair.
I knew exactly what was going to happen. All that time I’d put in, all that motivation to win was about to pay off, and of course all I’d get was a short CGI sequence showing a ship launching into space while Sean Bean narrated something pseudo-profound.
Everything I’d cared about right up until the moment I realised that I was definitely going to win was on the verge of becoming academic.
That seaport in Cumea, that Wonder in Boston: their eventual construction was pointless now. It was no longer important that Spain might declare a snap war and give me the excuse I’d long needed to wipe the whingeing bastards off the face of the Earth. It didn’t matter that Sumeria had nearly spread Islam to every city on the planet. I had no reason to left to care about whether I could snatch that Uranium tile from England.
The victory cinematic was almost exactly what I expected it to be. Hell, if the game had declared that, actually, all my Mars colonists got squashed by an asteroid en route I’d have gotten more out of it. Some twist, some shock, some interference with the crushing inevitability.
It’s not Civilization’s fault. A campaign has to end. There has to be a reason to finish, a reason to start a new campaign and a new challenge. Money can not realistically be spent on some dramatic second stage that disrupts what Civ is and steals development resources from making the real game as good as can be. But. But I wish there was some way to make an impossible ending that felt like something real had been achieved after 20 hours.
It’s not Civilization’s fault. It’s human aspiration’s fault.
When I was 17, I was an enormous fan of the band Suede. I had been too young and without any disposable income during the imperial phase that was their first two albums, and so had missed all the singles and the precious b-sides which, back then, could only even be heard by physically obtaining every CD or 7″. Part-time jobs and then a first-year student grant meant I gained a little bit to spend, and, in an all too stereotypically male fashion, I became determined that I absolutely had to collect every Suede single. This was the age when singles were often released in two-parts, the Britpop boom powering an enormous thirst to get hold of everything an artist could possibly put out.
Most were easy to come by, and postal orders sent to far-off record stores filled most of the more difficult gaps. But there was one I just couldn’t seem to find: The Wild Ones, part two.
It didn’t even contain any new songs. Just live versions of known ones. But it was The Last Single. I had, quite literally, everything else. I had to complete the set. I hunted far and wide without success, bar a couple listed at then-impossible prices: £60, £100. If I’d had that kind of money I would have have bought it: that’s how much it seemed to matter.
I found The Wild Ones part two in a CD shop at some music festival, entirely unexpectedly, flicking through the racks on muscle memory alone, already convinced that it would not be there, as always. But there it was, unbelievably.
It was shock I can still feel. Just to see it at all after some 18 months spent hunting, and also that it had a perfectly reasonable price instead of the traumatic ones I’d seen on mail-order lists. I paid my money – £4, I think? – and I had it, in my hands. The Last Single.
Ten minutes later, my heart broke.
It was finished. Over.
I had no purpose anymore. Sure, a new one would arrive in due course, but the crushing reality of the completion I’d desired for so long was awful.
Two years later, all those Suede singles went to a charity shop. Part shame at teenage obsession, but mostly the sick, bleak feeling of pointlessness now that the crusade was won.
I almost uninstalled Civ VI last night, when I completed my campaign. No reason to return. The awful nothingness that followed a victorious game.
It’s not Civ’s fault. It’s mine. It’s humanity’s.