Just One More Turn...
Civilization is a turn-based strategy game with a lineage as distinguished as some royal families - at least in computer game terms. Unlike the Intersite Democracy Game (ISDG), it's well known to gamers around the world. In Civilization, players take control of a band of settlers in 4000BC and raise them into an advanced civilization while dealing with all the challenges history has to offer - wars, disasters, revolutions - the usual. Yet Civilization isn't just a war game; while you can win by conquering the world, you can also win by a cultural or diplomatic victory, among other ways. In this respect, Civilization 3, the latest version, is as far beyond other strategy games such as Age of Empires as they are from action games like Quake.
The attraction of Civilization for its millions of players lies in how every new game is unique, yet still poses the same challenges of striking a fine balance between expansion and consolidation, research and defence, and conquest or peaceful diplomacy. `Just one more turn' is the mantra of Civilization addicts, whose ranks include the author Iain Banks and economist Prof. Brad DeLong. Banks has based at least one of his books around Civilization and has spoken ruefully about physically destroying the game CD to end his addiction. One player has commented, "I can honestly say playing Civ has been the one single activity which I have done most in my life after sleeping."
In 1991, Civilization 1 was developed by Sid Meier at Microprose and received universal praise. Since then, the game remained under the supervision of Meier, who followed on with an even more successful sequel in 1996. Five years later, Civilization 3 was released in 2001 by Meier, now at Firaxis, following a legal tussle concerning the use of the lucrative `Civilization' name in other games. Each sequel has added refinements on to the original, such as the territory borders, culture, unit hit points and experience, but the core theme of the game has been left untouched.
Controversially, multiplayer capabilities have never been built into any Civilization game. This was reasonable enough twelve years ago, but its continued absence in Civilization 3 angered many players. Firaxis claimed this was because Civilization has always been intended as a single player experience, but a more cynical explanation may lie in the fact that multiplayer capabilities have always been made available after each games' release - for a price.
Despite this annoyance, there's a thriving online community of Civilization fans numbering almost one hundred thousand. These fans aren't your normal game players who might shrug when they encounter a rule that doesn't seem to make sense. Instead, Civilization fans would (and have) run exhaustive simulations within the game to determine the exact equation governing the rule, and then argue at length about its worth. However, the very complexity of Civilization and the unpredictability of the game's formidable AI mean that it's simply not possible to reverse engineer it and play the perfect game; there's always an element of intuition and luck, which suits the players just fine.
With over three million posts among the fan sites, it almost seems like the players prefer talking about Civilization to actually playing it, and it's not without truth, either. While the game's play by email feature makes it easy for players to take part in not just one but several games concurrently, there's still a maximum of eight players per game, which isn't any more than what you might find in a typical board game. Handily, the Civilization Fanatics Center, one of the largest fan sites on the Internet, came up with a solution that satisfies fans' dual urges of playing the game and talking about it at the same time: They invented the democracy game.
A democracy game is just like a normal single player game of Civilization, except with over a hundred people sitting beside you arguing about what to do. Surprisingly enough, democracy games don't descend into a free for all; instead, detailed constitutions and an elected government have ensured that the games proceed smoothly and every player can contribute their opinion. Since 2002, democracy games have been successfully exported to other websites and strategy games, such as Alpha Centauri, a Civilization spin-off game.
A progression of the original idea is the intrasite democracy game (also known as the Play the World democracy game, after the name of the multiplayer expansion pack), the first of which began last year at Apolyton. In intrasite games, instead of players assuming the role of just one civilization, eight teams of players control eight different civilizations, each with their own government. Apolyton's intrasite game has already become legendary owing to the incredibly heated and personal arguments that have risen between teams.
The Great Game, Online
The Intersite Democracy Game takes the concept one step further by involving eight website teams scattered across the globe. Over three hundred players are spread among the teams, many of whom have played Civilization for over ten years and possess an enormous and sometimes deeply worrying amount of knowledge about the game. Each team represents one civilization within the game - Apolyton, for example, has chosen Carthage. Since the game was only designed to be played by a maximum of eight individuals, only designated members in each team are allowed play the savegames (`turns') that are passed from team to team.
The ISDG revolves around savegames. It's when a savegame arrives that teams can get down to the serious business of actually moving units around and issuing orders instead of just talking about it. Teams wait for savegames in the same way that children wait for Christmas - with a great deal of anticipation and impatience. Any delay in their arrival, usually caused by email problems, or (as is suspected occasionally) nefarious behind the scenes diplomacy, is a source of immense distress and rampant speculation for players.
However, teams have plenty to do when they're not playing a savegame, which in any case only takes a few hours. In particular, diplomats continually engage in resource and technology trades with other civilizations and hammer out border and non-aggression treaties filled with enough stipulations and loopholes to make Microsoft's lawyers blanch. This healthy level of suspicion between teams results in a rather fluid style of online diplomacy that progresses from informal chats up to official IRC meetings, and then finally an exchange of signed documents until all the parties are satisfied.
Teams spend a lot of time in the run up to a savegame discussing exactly how to play it. A seemingly simple question, such as where the next city should be founded, can be subjected to a staggering amount of debate. In Apolyton, the regulars in the team's chat room will kick off with informal speculation and after a while will post a more detailed thread about it on the forums. Other members can then reply with their own thoughts and suggestions, and some might conduct a more in-depth analysis using simulations and fiendishly complicated spreadsheets, all of which will be posted to the thread along with maps and graphs. Based on the facts and opinions in the forums and polls, Apolyton's consul triumvirate will settle on a final decision and add it to the long list of things to do when the next savegame arrives.
When this finally happens, the consuls will post updated maps in the forums showing any changes from the last turn, along with the new game demographics which show the team's position in the game in population, land area, literacy and so on. Barring any serious surprises, the turn is played according to the task list made earlier; otherwise the team will go into overdrive trying to adapt to the new situation. With the turn played, the savegame is passed on to the next team and the wait begins again - typically an agonizing two or three days.
What a Tangled Web
You could be forgiven for thinking that Civilization fans are a happy family, united in their love of the game. The reality turns out to be depressingly familiar; if you drew a family tree of Civilization fan sites, you'd soon end up with a tangled web of relations that has ended up with some sites despising each other. On the positive side, all of this rivalry makes for a colourful game.
The two largest teams are the Apolyton Civilization Site and the Civilization Fanatics Center (CFC). Apolyton boasts an impressive total of 39,000 users and two million posts, and has the distinction of being the oldest Civilization website on the Internet. CFC is only slightly behind with 34,500 users and one million posts. With such sizeable communities, it's surprising that Apolyton's ISDG team only has 93 players and CFC's team has 72.
As the two most well known fan sites with past experience in democracy games, they have the dubious distinction of being seen by several sites as the teams to beat. As if that wasn't enough, they have a healthy, but not acrimonious, rivalry between themselves. Which site is better? Most agree that CFC has a superior grasp of Civilization 3 while Apolyton has a broader range of strategy expertise spread across a number of games. The only way to know for certain, though, is to pit the two websites against each other in a real game, so when the ISDG was first thought up, many envisaged a straight `CFC vs. Apolyton' match.
Both sites have spawned offshoots. The Civilization Gaming Network (800 users and 24 ISDG players) was founded by a group of Apolyton members who `moved on'. Jon Shafer, Apolyton's Minister of War, explains, "Many of the more outsiderly Apolytonians who didn't want to join our team joined theirs, because in a way CGN represents `Apolyton sucks,'" - but in a light-hearted way, he added. CGN today consists of a mixed community, most of which have never had anything to do with Apolyton.
CFC's relative, the Creative Design Group, has a darker history. Many of the members of CDG were `modders' at CFC - they created custom graphics, animations and units to be used in Civilization. When they made a `Third Reich Team' that designed German units and gave themselves titles such as `Hauptman' and `Feldmarschall', other CFC members complained and the modders were told to change their ways. Godwin's law inexorably swung into effect, people said things they shouldn't have, and the modders left on an exodus to CDG. Kenton, CDG's team leader explains, "The two sites have serious long term issues, but in the ISDG we couldn't have been closer. It's because many of us at CDG are very good friends with many of the CFC people."
A dark horse in the ISDG, the Gamecatcher Alliance wasn't an original entry into the ISDG. "We sort of slipped into the ISDG when another team withdrew. The `alliance' refers to all the different factions existing in the [Gamecatcher] forum joining together to play as one site," says Oskar Grindemyr, a military advisor for the team. The Gamecatcher Alliance has one of the smallest teams in the game with only 22 players.
Unlike the five sites already mentioned, which are mostly based in America, two sites in the ISDG are essentially national teams. The German Webring Team, playing as Arabia, is a federation of German Civilization fan sites with 3900 registered users. Apolyton can claim part of the responsibility for the formation of the other `national' team, called the Grenouille (`the Frog'), which counts Belgium, Switzerland and France among its member countries.
Sébastien Wautelet, a member of Apolyton and the leader of the Grenouille explains, "I was taking part in the intrasite game on Apolyton, and had the idea to start a French-speaking team for the ISDG... A couple of other French-speaking Apolytoners who were already taking part in other democracy games joined me, and we easily gathered lots of other players on the 'Grenouille' French-speaking Civilization forum."
Being based outside America hasn't been a serious handicap to the Grenouille team. There are some minor inconveniences caused by the difference in time zones that affect diplomacy and the arrival of savegames, but on the whole they don't feel disadvantaged. "On the positive side, communication inside the team is probably easier as everyone speaks his native language; I think there are still quite a lot of non-English speakers in other teams. The fact that everyone is inside the same time zone also makes it easier for everyone to meet at the same time for IRC chats," says Wautelet.
The eighth team in the ISDG is none other than the game's developer itself, Firaxis. Officially, the team only includes three of its employees, making it the smallest team in the game, but one of them is Sören Johnson, creator of Civilization 3's formidable artificial intelligence system. Unfortunately for them, Firaxis stands out as a target in the ISDG; who wouldn't want to beat the developers at their own game? Rodrigo Aguilera, an Apolyton member put it eloquently, "I see no conceivable way why Firaxis would not get gang-banged eventually." When asked about this, Johnson replied with remarkable equanimity (or perhaps naivety), "We have been a target, but I don't think anyone aimed for us because we were the developers."
A Question of Government
In theory, since it is an Intersite Democracy Game, you would expect every team member to have an equal say in game play decisions for their civilization. In practice, things aren't quite so simple. The problem is that a democratic system of team government doesn't always produce the best quality of playing. Some members are more experienced than others, and even if everyone within a team was of equal ability, it just isn't possible to conduct a vote on each individual action within a turn. Not only would this take too long, but many issues cannot be resolved by polls.
"We poll subjects of game play whenever possible. If a clear majority of the [CFC] populace wants something, it is done. However, in a game as detailed as Civilization 3, it's almost impossible to go over every single detail and play the game in a timely manner," explains Jakob Thomeczek, leader of CFC's team. So despite the fact that even the largest team has less than one hundred members, direct democracy in the ideal sense is not workable.
Many teams have instead opted for a representative democracy, in which members elect government ministers, such as the Foreign Minister and the Defence Minister, with executive authority in their respective spheres. These teams will often run polls to judge the feeling of all the members, although they differ widely in their power. The Grenouille team, for example, treats its polls as referendums, whereas polls in Apolyton's governments have absolutely no legal consequence. Apolyton has a few other quirks, as consul Simon Granville describes, "You could say we are in the process of establishing a system of elected, power-sharing Monarchs; an alternating, periodically elected Triumvirate, if you will." The consuls, not the members, elect government ministers for advisors.
The various systems of government used in the ISDG masks a deeper conflict about whether teams are playing just to have fun, or to establish their supremacy of the game. Each team realises that the reputation of their entire website - in some cases, numbering in the tens of thousands - rests on their quality of playing, which requires a certain discipline that precludes any messing about. "In my mind, the ISDG is less about the fun and more about the serious business of proving Apolyton the best in the business," believes Granville. This doesn't mean that playing the game is a chore, asserts Ken Freeman, a consul at Apolyton, who believes that the game is fun precisely because it is intellectually challenging.
Sid Meier Does Roll Dice
No matter how skilled you are Civilization, luck can still make or break your game. Luck acts in two ways; through the map, and through battles. Unless you use a custom designed map, the computer generates one randomly before each game based on a few user defined parameters such as size of continents and age of the planet. In an instructive demonstration of Jared Diamond's theory of geography determining history, the type of terrain that your civilization finds itself in at the start of a game hugely influences your future success; a civilization that starts in the middle of a sprawling jungle is unlikely to grow as quickly as one lying in fertile grasslands.
None of the teams in the ISDG will have seen the game's randomly generated map before. Needless to say, the types of starting point for the teams are highly diverse and will undoubtedly affect their chances of winning. Still, no team has publicly complained since they know that the starting points were also randomly assigned.
The outcome of battles in Civilization is also random. While a tank is likely to beat a group of cavalry in battle, based on their relative attack and defence strengths, there's still a small probability that the cavalry could emerge victorious, in effect by getting lucky and rolling two sixes. These probability `rolls' are governed by a random number generator (RNG). The RNG is in turn set by a `seed' that - in the ISDG - persists within every savegame as a security measure against cheating. The point behind this is that without a persistent seed, teams could theoretically keep on reloading and replaying their savegames until they had favourable, if highly unlikely, results for all their battles. With a persistent seed, the probabilities are always the same so that battles will always have the same outcome even if the savegame is reloaded.
All of this means that luck can curse a team with not only an awful starting position, but also a disastrous run of bad luck in battles. Sébastien Wautelet of the Grenouille team believes that the importance of luck in the ISDG can't be overstated. "Luck is already an important factor in Civilization, but I think it's even more amplified in the ISDG. As the decisions are made by groups of usually very experienced players, there will be very few errors, especially in micro-management, because everyone knows the rules pretty well and knows which decision is the best. There is no place for random little errors, and those kind of errors often allow a good player who had bad luck to catch up with a poor player who had good luck."
The result is that while no-one really believes that the team who wins the ISDG will actually be the best in the world (apart from perhaps themselves), teams that do manage to succeed despite bad luck will be much admired.
Trust me, I'm a gamer
With so much at stake in the ISDG, the prospect of cheating lurks ominously in each teams' mind. It's trivially easy to cheat in Civilization 3 - it's even possible to cheat accidentally. Persistent RNG seeds prevent one easy way of cheating, but there are several others that are essentially undetectable and can be used by a team to tilt the odds in their favour or reveal the entire map.
Imagine playing poker against someone who kept on getting full houses, hand after hand after hand; you'd be convinced the pack wasn't being dealt fairly, and you'd watch the dealer's hands very carefully from then on. Similarly, if a team defeated you in every single battle, even in the ones where it was hopelessly outmatched, it would result in a highly suspicious run of good luck that utterly defied the odds. Again, you might be certain they were cheating, but this time you can't watch the dealer's hands or cut the deck, because it's all happening on a computer in a room hundreds of miles away. There's no way you could prove that the other team cheated.
Is it possible that teams are already cheating within the ISDG? Tom Ogas, the Apolyton Minister of Foreign Affairs, thinks it may be, "but ultimately, it's a pointless issue. If they do cheat, then what? We start the game over?" The other teams are equally sanguine and prefer to rely on the ISDG Pledge for assurance. The Pledge was signed by all eight teams before the start of the game and guarantees against any kind of cheating or alteration of the savegame; if a team breaks the Pledge, it would ruin their reputations.
It's generally believed that there's no way that an entire team would agree to cheat; someone would eventually let slip, plagued (hopefully) by a guilty conscience. This doesn't exclude the possibility of conspiracies within teams or unscrupulous players cheating without the knowledge of other members, but in the end, speculation is futile. "You either trust that no-one cheats, or you don't play the game," says Ogas.
A New Kind Of Game
`Diplomacy on crack' is one way to describe the ISDG, but otherwise the game is opaque to outsiders who aren't familiar with Civilization or democracy games - in other words, pretty much everyone. The combination of a highly complex strategy game with hundreds of players defies normal categorization into the normal genres of MMORPGs (massively multiplayer online roleplaying games) or simulation games like Everquest or SimCity. Even experienced Civilization players find the concept of the ISDG alien, since the delay between turns adds such a bewildering array of negotiation, debate and power politics that aren't seen in normal games.
From a social standpoint, the ISDG is a fascinating microcosm of the real world, owing to the freedom the game provides for different strategies. It's possible for a team to win without starting a single battle, by building enough temples, cathedrals, Wonders and universities to convince the world's population that your culture is so magnificent that they all decide to join your civilization and desert their own. Accomplishing this would involve an exquisite grasp of domestic management, defence and diplomacy to ensure that no-one tried to destroy your lovely cathedrals, but for some teams it beats trying to crush the rest of the world militarily.
To win the ISDG, a team will have to perfectly balance conflict and co-operation, not only with other teams but between its own members. At Apolyton, the process of getting members to work together at all was difficult enough. "When the ISDG team first formed, there were already factions and rivalries in place that had formed in the [intrasite game], as well as the traditional democracy game crowd mixing with the strategy forum crowd who'd never played together before, and neither side really had much respect for the other. It took us a few weeks to gel in the beginning, but never really smoothed over until much later, perhaps a month or two into this game. All of our different rivalries and perspectives and competition in the [intrasite game] became a benefit once we learned to trust each other. We learned a great deal from playing against each other initially," recounts Tom Ogas.
It's interesting to step back from the details of the ISDG and observe just how different it is from other online games. There is no narrative in the ISDG other than what the players create themselves, from their own experiences and interactions. The skills players must have aren't a quick trigger finger or good eyesight; they're an aptitude for quick and incisive analysis, a shrewd mind and an ability for communication.
Even more so than single player Civilization, the ISDG has a long learning curve that demands an unusual amount of concentration and commitment from its players, rewarding their persistence with a dynamic and fine-grained world populated by other equally committed players. The game began in February 2003, and after six months about one hundred turns have been played; it's likely the game could take an entire year from start to finish. Participants in the ISDG aren't looking for quick thrills - they're in it for the long haul.
Perhaps this is why the ISDG has only attracted three hundred players, only a fraction of the hundred thousand in the greater Civilization community, and the millions that play games such as Everquest and Ultima Online. Yet the Civilization Intersite Democracy Game is unlikely to be the last of its kind, and the idea will surely be reproduced for similar strategy games. At least part of the reason for the ISDG's small player base is that games companies simply haven't thought of the idea yet, or alternatively haven't figured out how to make money out of it. Still, Sören Johnson believes that the creation of the ISDG was inevitable. "Before I began working on Civilization 3, I had never heard of the concept of a democracy game. Once I understood the idea, I expected that something like the ISDG would occur. Like most of the Net, if you can think of it, it probably exists."
Are democracy games destined to obscurity among the more popular online games that offer quick, visceral thrills or an adventure role playing experience? It's not really a question of whether people would be interested in playing it - given the success of Civilization itself and the diversification of the `gaming generation', they would be. More relevant is whether strategy democracy games can break out of the close-knit Civilization community into the wider world.
Democracy games have evolved an assortment of rules, traditions and accepted practices that won't easily be transplanted to a group of novice players; many fans still disagree about the rules that surround democracy games. "On the one hand, a highly complex ruleset does allow for interesting interactions between players. On the other, in can restrict gameplay," says Thomeczek. But as more games are played and more people are introduced to the concept, it's becoming easier to arrive at solutions that satisfy all the players and teams.
For all of this talk, the players in the ISDG aren't worried about whether strategy democracy games will sweep the globe or how they represent a new game genre. They're more concerned about making their cities as efficient as possible, keeping up with the world in scientific development and defending their nations against aggressors. After all, that's where the fun is.
Adrian Hon is a member of the Apolyton team and has resolutely refused to take an official post in the government in fear that it could consume his life. Thanks go to representatives from the Gamecatcher Alliance, the Grenouille team, Firaxis, the Creative Design Group, the Civilization Fanatics Center and most of all, the members of the Apolyton team.
Since this article was written in late 2003, three teams have been knocked out of the game: the Creative Design Group, the Grenouille team... and Firaxis.