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Retro-Ramble: Sid Meier's Colonization

This one’s about closure. Despite playing it zealously for weeks on end back in 1994, I didn’t ever complete a game of Sid Meier's Colonization, a sequel of sorts to the first Civilization. Powered by Brian Reynolds as much as it was Meier, it's a turn-based strategy tale of establishing colonies in the New World or Americas, and eventually winning independence from their avaricious motherland. My copy silently, immediately and cruelly crashed to a DOS prompt whenever I finally bested my imperial oppressors, denying me the ending sequence and sense of victory I so richly deserved. Disheartened, I duly forgot about the game for a decade and a half, but lately it flitted across my brain by chance, and a curious longing awoke within me. I need to win my colonies their independence at last. I need to know what happens. I don’t care how brief or stupid or hilariously low-tech it is. I need to know.

The unfortunate crash was, I later established, because the ending sequence wasn’t actually there, having somehow been ripped from the game’s files so it’d fit onto a couple of biro-inscribed floppy disks. Up until fairly recently, and truly ubiquitous broadband, piracy has had a fascinatingly utilitarian approach to games – getting the nuts and bolts of a new release into the unpaying hands of as many people as possible was an unblinking priority, so the trappings that feed emotional attachment were sacrificed in the name of filesize. Cinematics, music, sound effects – these were so often removed entirely, or later supplied as add-ons by the mysterious, glory-hungry pseudo-altruists who circulated these game rips.

15 years ago, buying new games was a financial impossibility for me, so I depended on a drip-feed of pirated titles from more affluent... I hesitate to call them ‘schoolfriends’, but ‘school-people-who-also-owned-PCs- when-most-didn’t’ is not a pretty phrase. Oddly, the process was a little like reviewing games for a living is now – I didn’t really have any choice about what I played. I got what I was given. It’s highly unlikely the scifi-obsessed, ADD-cursed oik I was back then would otherwise have played a turn-based strategy game about trade in the New World circa 1500-1800. Frankly, I’d still need word of mouth recommendation to consider it now. Floppy-diskian nurture, not enquiring-minded nature, made me into quite the gaming omnivore back then – I played flight sims, racing games, football games, many of which I sometimes struggle to remain open-minded about today, without apprehension or preconception. Of course, this was as much a natural result of growing up a gamer, during an era when this still newish medium was determinedly exploring places far beyond its arcade roots, as it was my own choiceless straits.

Each and every one of these new delights was borrowed and copied from a friend – I treasured my fat notepad full of scribbled passwords and folded-up photocopies of codewheels. While I don’t wish to condone today’s wide-scale, remote gluttony of bittorrenting games, without a doubt this social piracy was a key factor in making me into the occasionally convincing simulacrum of a games journalism I am today. Each Monday, after a weekend spent with some fresh digital wonder, I was armed with new anecdotes, celebrations and complaints to prop up my otherwise sparse playground chat. Being admonished in front of the entire class for drawing crude Dune 2 ornithopters onto every page of my history exercise book was perhaps the grandest sign of just how hard I had fallen for PC gaming.

God only knows how I managed to figure out how to play Colonization at the time – there’s no tutorial, and replaying it from an old budget version, fired up in DOSBOX, this past week required more referring to the manual (which wasn’t supplied with that pirated floppy copy) than I was entirely comfortable with. And yet, the occasional yearning for tooltips aside, once I did understand it, it all seemed so straightforward. The interface creaks a bit and the AI can be gamed a little too easily, but this remains oddly fresh.

I thought of Civilization 4, acclaimed for restoring some veneer of accessibility and charm to the hitherto increasingly sombre and glacial old-hand of TBS. And it suddenly seemed so clunky, so fussy, so overloaded with minor detail that might well serve to make its veteran players think they’re smart, but in many ways was just layers of fiddly obfuscation between the player and the game. Colonization floats in such a small pool of numbers, is devoted to its key concepts, not sideline frippery, and it’s honestly a better game for it. Feature creep pleases players who feel they’ve seen everything already, who want new angles of approach to the game – Colonization didn’t have to worry about that. Though a sequel to Civ, it was enough its own game to just knuckle down and get on with its job.

As a sequel, it’s a fascinating creature. We’re now accustomed to new Civ iterations every few years, while pretty much any game that’s reached franchise status has as its priority refinement, graphical progress and often continuation of a narrative, not exploring new territory. In 1994 though, there had only been one Civilization game. Civilization II was still two years off. Instead, Colonization was the breathlessly-awaited Civ sequel, and, boldly, its approach was not Civ-but-bigger, but rather Civ-but-smaller – focusing in on and expanding a very specific part of the game. Establishing remote colonies and trading were only minor parts of Civ, mere footnotes to its tale of global conquest and technological progress. Colonization zooms into and fills in this sketchy back-story. It could be said to born of the same quiet-the-mewling-fanbase thinking as the Star Wars prequels, only rather than simply filling in all the gaps on Wookieepedia it genuinely has its own purpose.

I choose to play as the Dutch. My tendencies towards anti-patriotism means I tend to shun the English option, while the Spanish emphasis on military might isn’t how I prefer to play Civlikes, lily-livered liberal pacifist that I am. And the French... well, maybe I am suffering from some patriotism after all. Actually, it’s simply that the Dutch focus on profits strike me as the most sensible way to approach a game that’s so trade-centric.

I sail for the new world. My pioneers make landfall at a lovely coastal spot, with ideal conditions for sugar plantations, a nearby mountain rich with ore, and lush forests providing endless timber. Yes, I shall call this place home. Or ‘New Amsterdam’, to be specific.

Things go well. A few return trips to Europe with a cargo of excess sugar and lumber swells my population enough to set up a small rum distilling business. I meet the natives, the amiable Arawak tribe, and we proceed with some gentle trading. Handily, they seem to have a taste for rum. This is the life. Fort Orange is founded in short order – or tobacco town, as I like to think of it. Then Fort Nassau set ups just along the coast, the local deer population making it a fur trapper’s haven. My colonies’ slim population means I’m dependent on the high prices Europe pays for my fancy overseas goods for now – gold is all, but it’s an easy enough life.

Things fall apart; the self-made centre cannot hold. Mere anarchy is loosed upon the New World. The hated Spanish arrive, and quickly seize the cotton-rich corner of land I had my eye on for my next expansion. We eye each other with diplomatic mistrust, but so long as their newly-founded Santo Domingo doesn’t stand on New Amsterdam’s toes, they can stay. Oh look, they’re off to meet the Arawak. I sure hope they’re not selling rum too!

My native chums’ nearest village is wiped out within a couple of turns. Oh. That’s right – Spain are conquistadors. I’m furious – not only were the Arawak a vital source of trade income, but, y’know, they were my neighbours. I’m from the future, after all – I know full-well what European settlers do to indigenous tribes, but I was not gonna be the pseudo-Holland to do it, no siree. Spain! Spaaaiiiiiiin! You’ll pay for this! Except, of course, my peaceful nature means I’m almost entirely devoid of muskets and artillery. And so my economy becomes a war one, but by the time I’ve painstakingly purchased and transported a small army from the motherland, it’s too late. The Arawak are gone. The Spanish are now headed towards the nearby Sioux with murderous intent. Tellingly, they’re also crowding troops around two of my colonies. They’re not attacking, but they are blocking access to my trade wagons. I can offer the Spanish leader a few hundred gold to move ‘em, or... Well, peace treaty, my arse.

The battle is swift, as mercifully Spain had yet to invest in artillery. There’s no rock, paper, scissors to speak of in Colonization’s battles – simply the escalating power of men, guns, horses and cannons. Santo Domingo is a fine town, it transpires, its cotton fields plentiful, and exactly what my newly-arrived Master Weaver needs to create hugely profitable cloth. Isabella too is a welcome addition to the Dutch colonies. Mainland Spain ships over a couple more, ultimately futile expeditionary forces, but eventually offers peace and grumpily sets up shop anew on the other side of the continent. The Sioux are saved. They don’t thank me, but they do trade with me, and that’s enough.

In one of Colonization’s more interesting mechanics, each Spanish soldier I defeated is not killed, but demoted to a mere colonist - the game's key resource, able to perform any unit function in the game, and to be switched to another at will. Sure, a colonist can learn a specific function, so a Master Distiller will produce more rum than simply a colonist working in the distillery, but that doesn't preclude you from sticking a fishing rod or a musket in his hands to cover some production deficit. Human beings are infinitely adaptable creatures, something other strategy games entirely overlook. So, I capture these unarmed Spanish strays, and my own populace swells.

My 20-turn war has not only won me two new colonies, but a steady influx of brainwashed enemies into the existing settlements transforms them into bastions of industry. I’m a little confused. I’d presumed this war would, even if it didn’t prove the end of me, so severely impact my economy that I’d be on a back foot for the next century. Instead, what I’ve inadvertently done is unite two colonial factions, pooling their peoples into something that’s very nearly self-sufficiency. Peace through tyranny.

I ship over a few more malcontents and hired trade specialists from Amsterdam, set up a pair of new colonies, and then, there it is. I’m making everything myself – food, weapons, profitable luxuries, horses... I can and do sell them to Europe for a tidy sum, but crucially, I don’t /need/ to. While Civilization is characterised by sudden technological leaps, Colonization’s resources of war and economy are the same throughout. A musket is a musket, and the only possible way to improve it is to give it to a veteran soldier. The change in the game’s nature is beautifully gradual, an almost invisible escalation from struggling to turn a buck into a self-fuelling engine of industry and, finally, into a proud nation that will fight for its independence.

Which isn’t something I can just do on a whim. There’s a metaphysical resource in Colonization in addition to all that ore and lumber collection: liberty bells, a sense of nation and of discontent with the escalating taxes Europe demands for tradegoods. Each colony generates a few of these, but dedicated statesmen increase it exponentially. Building printing presses and newspaper offices squeak out a few more. Liberty bells erode the Tory sympathy in colony – once that’s less than 50% averaged across the entire new world population, I can set my people free.

This is where Colonization’s resource management system really shines; a politician may well rouse the populace, but sitting in an office shouting about liberty hardly gets the fields ploughed, does it? On top of that, he’s another mouth to feed – each city can only generate so much crops and fish, so a large population can be untenable. To support a couple of statesmen in a given colony, alongside the harvesters and specialists, elaborate trade networks are required - wagons and ships conveying a constant rotation of one colony’s excess to feed another’s deficit. It’s hard work. I’m never going to get enough bells to declare independence by 1800 at this rate.

I’m saved by Thomas Jefferson. Throughout the game, I’ve been choosing Founding Fathers to form my continental congress at irregular intervals (again dependent on how many Liberty Bells I was generating), each of whom bestows a meaty bonus. My ships sail further thanks to Ferdinand Magellan, I can trade with foreign powers thanks to Jan De Witt, and Francis Drake has been a big help in my secret high seas piracy operation.

Now, old Tom increases my liberty bell production by 50%. This is enough to lure over Simon Bolivar in no short order, who increases my population’s desire for independence by 20%. The time is now. I’m almost trembling with pride as I click the magic button. Independence! Unalienable rights! Life, liberty, and the pursuit of reasonably-priced rum!

The king’s forces are upon me within moments. My privateers and frigates are no match for his Men O’War, which plough through them until they reach land, onto which they spew a horde of veteran soldiers and cannons. Fort Nassau, Isabella, Vlissingen and New Holland barely last a turn. There is no way I can win this. No way whatsoever. I sigh, and reach for the Load/Save menu.

Before I can do so, everything changes.

No. Fucking. Way. My liberty bells have hit critical mass, and it’s enough to convince a foreign power that the Dutch king should not claim the colonies as his own. Well, Spain wasn’t going to help, after that messy Santo Domingo business, while France rumbled that I was the guy behind the privateers who’d been robbing their galleons blind. England I hadn’t troubled. England, my England, with the Man O’War full of veteran fighters it’s just gifted to me. One-by-one, I reclaim my colonies. I'm on something like my 16th hour of the game at this point (spread over a weekend), and I've had my 10834-song MP3 collection on random all that time. As I gear up for the final push, the moment I've waited fourteen years for, iTunes pulls up Rag Doll, by Kevin Rowland (the second track at that link).

You'll know Kevin as the lead singer of Dexys Midnight Runners, a band most folk sadly judge by Come On Eileen and the theme from Brush Strokes. I adore Dexys dearly, but Rowland's solo stuff has never made it past curio status for me. 1999's My Beauty was intended as a comeback after years in the drug-addled wilderness; legend has it the album sold just 500 copies, which can be at least partially attributed to its front cover:

Good work, Kevin. On top of that, the album was a consciously irony-free, super-glossy collection of covers of heart-on-sleeve songs Rowland claimed helped him through difficult times - including Whitney Houston's The Greatest Love of All and The Beatles' Long & Winding Road. It's a fascinating work, but I'd hesitate to say it was a great one. It certainly wasn't a smart one. Of course, Rowland didn't know that at the time, so for him the songs constituted something like self-celebration, having been persuaded by Creation Records' Alan McGee that the world was breathlessly awaiting his comeback. I'm now in the state I (arrogantly) presume Rowland was in when he recorded the album - I've been denied glory for so long, and now, at last, I'm about to get what I deserve. I'm about to catch my Moby Dick. I'm going to beat Colonization. Rag Doll, ridiculously melodramatic and in so many other circumstances more than a little embarrassing, is here laughably inappropriate and ecstatically appropriate all at once. "Shiiiiiiiine!" trills an angelic backing choir as my Dragoons seize back Isabella."Shiiiiii-eee-iii-eee-iiine!"

There are tears in my eyes. Real tears. Then Rowland leans into the mic and intones one of the spoken-word sections he's so prone to. "That beautiful choir. They're all singing for you. They're singing for you." For me? "That's yours. It belongs to you." Yes! This is my moment. "It's over. The bad stuff's over." No more imperial tyranny - my independence awaits! "Here we go." My last cannon closes in on Vlissingen, just as Isabella declares a Tory uprising and half its populace take up arms anew for the enemy. No. I’ve waited fourteen years for this moment. If that cannon is defeated...

It’s been a long time since a game made me quite this overjoyed. My reward is coming. Closure. Triumph. Rapture. I'm ready for it. I've been ready for years. Just... don’tcrashdon’tcrashpleasedon’trcrash. Shiiiiiiiiiiine.

Yankee-Doodle plays. Fireworks explode. Tri-corner hats are hurled skywards in celebration.

It’s everything I ever wanted it to be.

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