Over the weekend, I played a game of Civilization 6, from beginning to end, without killing anyone or using violence of any kind. I did not slay a single AI unit. Not one of my own units died.
In all my 20-odd years playing Civ games, this is a first for me. Civilization 6 is designed to make you fight. By playing as a pacifist, I wanted to see if it was possible to survive, abiding by a strict policy of non-violence. It wasn't easy.
The game purports to simulate the rise of a society from ancient times to the near-future. As in real history, all Civ sessions feature intense rivalries between competing nations which often spill into open conflict.
Civ 6's design strongly encourages use of military units as a means to victory. It's possible to win the game through a technological space race, or cultural / religious dominance. But these victory conditions are almost always predicated on a strong military, and perhaps an aggressively imperialist foreign policy.
How do you play as a strict pacifist, and what's the point?
The most overtly militaristic victory condition is Domination, in which the player must capture all rival capital cities. But military might is also useful to win a points victory. Size of empire yields a lot of points, and it's a zero-sum situation. The more land you own, the less for everyone else.
Military might is also useful in late game. If a rival starts homing in on a non-military victory condition, a sudden invasion can spoil all their sneaky peacenik plans.
Civilization 6 is a numbers game. The more cities you own, the more capital you generate, the more religion, culture, science, gold, military units you are able to acquire. It is very difficult to create an advanced, confident civilization with a small number of cities, and it's almost impossible without a strong military.
So how do you play the game as a strict pacifist, and what's the point of it?
I had to make some changes in advanced settings before playing my game. First, I disabled barbarians. These guys are aggressive and will attack viciously from the very start of the game. There's no way to play, so far as I can tell, without killing them. So I switched them off.
Barbarians are a design feature that encourage players to build military units early on, clearing their desired land mass of destructive enemies which yield cash when killed. A player who leaves barbarians to fester faces an endless game of defending trade routes, builders, improvements and settlers. Leaving barbarian encampments alone also means avoiding prime city locations. It's really not practical.
I also disabled the Domination victory condition, so that rival civs might seek more peaceful routes to victory. This also avoids a situation where the number of rivals decreases to just a few militarily aggressive and expansive enemies. Disabling Domination does not disable combat and war. Those things still take place. Early in my game, Rome was invaded and subjugated by Scythia, for example.
I picked the island map, on the basis that islands are often isolated in early game, and so it's possible to avoid early declarations of war from aggressive, nearby neighbors. It may be that this map makes no real difference, but being on an island also provided a natural border that was clearly "mine."
My island was big enough for four cities, and had no city states or rivals. I decided to stick to my island and not to expand onto any other landmass, where I might clash with an acquisitive and hostile AI.
I played on an epic map with the biggest timeline. I just enjoy playing that way. I chose France as my civilization, for no particular reason. I was not aiming to win, only to survive without violence. I did not pick any victory condition as a target. My only hope was to avoid violence and defeat.
Looking back at the game, I think I mainly got lucky. Two civs declared war on me in the ancient era, but never bothered to actually attack. After we made peace, I did not face any declarations of war, even though many of the civs hated my guts (more on that later).
It may be that my settings helped, but there are some games that just turn out to be quieter than others. Certainly, the civs went to war with one another, though perhaps not with the frequency I've seen in other games.
The most important change I made was moving from Emperor level of play, to King. I'd previously tried playing peacefully as Emperor. It was a disaster. I was constantly at war and under attack. The AIs behaved crazily in an attempt to draw me into conflict. I really don't think it's possible to play as a pacifist above a medium level of difficulty.
Perversely, it's incredibly important to build up a strong military in the early game. This will ward off any AIs looking for a weak rival to bump off. For my own comfort, I made sure to stay up to date with military research and to keep my units upgraded, as well as protected with city defenses. I made one land unit per city, as well as supplementary naval units. Thankfully, they were never called into service.
Although I was never viewed by other AIs as militarily strong, they did not try to bother me.
I wanted to play this way as a challenge, just to see how far I could get without taking a life. To a large extent, I was relying on the AIs to play ball. If one of them had decided to invade, I would have been unable to stick to my principles. I'd have been forced to kill attacking units, or at least to maim them sufficiently that they'd run away.
But I also wanted to reveal something about Civilization games, a series that I've enjoyed a great deal over the years. How far is this game really about "civilization" and how much is it about violence?
You could make a reasonable argument that playing Civ 6 as a pacifist isn't playing Civ 6 at all. The game is, essentially, a conquest simulation. It's like trying to play Pac-Man without eating any pellets.
The game is about killing people.
Almost entirely ignoring combat can make for long periods of dull gameplay. There's not much to do except manage construction and research while exploring the map. Once the world's geography has been revealed, there's even less to do. (When her work was done, I did not "delete" my scout. She retired to a seafront property on the outskirts of Bordeaux. I like to think of her enjoying red wine while watching sunsets.)
Without the constant urgency of activity and unit management, Civ 6 can be pretty boring, something that, no doubt, the developers at Firaxis are well aware.
When you take the combat out of the game, it reveals just how much it's really about killing people. I think this exercise demonstrates that, taken together, the game's cleverly interlocking systems for science, religion, culture, trade and diplomacy do not add up to its core activity of throwing military units against one another.
This drives at the Civilization series' central problem. While it stands as an impressive attempt to simulate human history, it never really escapes from its self-imposed restrictions as a fighting game. A massive chunk of the game is about building units, deploying them intelligently and fortifying acquisitions.
As I said in my review last week, Civilization 6 is an excellent game that succeeds at making the player feel powerful. The whole "one-more-turn" thing is a perceptive tagline that recognizes how far the Civilization games excel at brain-worming players into creating tasks and really, really wanting to complete them. At a ludo-psychological level, it works.
But its claims to simulate history, to allow the player to create their own vision of a civilization, are overblown. Civilization 6 is specifically designed to embroil the player in its militaristic mechanisms in order to create peril, activity and challenge.
Although real history is filled with war and conquest, and with delusional and psychotic leaders, the sort of fantasy society that I want to create is not about those things. I want to create a civilization that is known and admired for its peaceful nature and for its tolerance of others. I accept that this is a fantasy. I don't care. It's my fantasy and I'd like to indulge it. That's the point of playing games.
The fact that Civ's designers aren't even trying to escape their own shackles looks like a game-design failing and a lack of ambition. They seem resigned to tinkering with a template that hasn't altered in a quarter of a century. So far as I can tell, I won no Achievement for playing an entire game without killing anyone, even though Civ 6 has hundreds of Achievements.
The focus on warfare is limiting.
There are lots of Civ fans who love to amass enormous armies, sweeping through the lands of their rivals, laying waste and carnage. I've done it before. It's fun. But there are also players who want to focus on creating highly efficient cities that produce great wonders and a happy, healthy citizenry. They want to play Civilization almost as if it's a SimCity-like strategy game of construction and resource management.
There's something discomforting about the way the Civilization series allies itself with military expansion, almost as a synonym for itself. Its worldview is that great civilizations grow from military power. This may be historically unarguable, but it's conceptually limiting, especially in the context of a fantasy that sells itself as an act of self-expression, even of creativity.
Perversely, the push towards conflict and peril also corrupts Civ 6's AIs, whose desperate attempts to challenge the player become increasingly bizarre. It's interesting that the main complaint players have with Civ 6 is the nonsensical behavior of AIs.
When I played my failed Emperor-level game, the AIs were completely off their heads, praising me one minute, and then declaring war the next. The Vikings managed to capture a city of mine, even though there was plenty of land to settle and no obvious strategic advantage to him. Eventually, he sold my city back to me for a pittance. Pure madness.
I suspect his AI had been motivated by my apparent military weakness. Certainly, in the game I did manage to complete, I had almost no way to influence the way many of the AIs viewed me. Brazil and China hated me for most of the game because I built Wonders and created Great People. That's a thing they don't like, so there's no way of avoiding their displeasure, if you choose to acquire those things.
Egypt also disliked me because I was not behaving like a warmonger. I fell out with the Japanese because he cannot understand why anyone would fail to build an encampment.
These aren't the convincing responses of artificial intelligences. They are merely aggressive responses programmed to respond to the various strategies a player might choose to take, or to not take.
Gameplay mechanics poorly disguised as diplomatic friction.
China and Brazil might have been my friends if I had built massive armies instead of building Wonders and focusing on culture. This makes no real sense, especially given that neither of these civs made much of an effort making the things they didn't like me making.
Cleopatra might have liked me to stamp all over one of her rivals, apparently unaware that she might be next. This is not leadership, it's merely the mechanics of balance and peril, poorly disguised as diplomatic friction.
The AIs also provoke and prod players through proxy conflicts like religion. I decided not to evangelize my religion in other countries and to allow those religions free access to my civilization. But in most games, I'll end up denouncing a country or declaring war, just because of their aggressive proselytization. Thus, religion as well as technology work in the service of the game's drive toward militarism.
It's useful to compare this militaristic construct with other views of the meaning of civilization. Kenneth Clark's 1969 BBC TV series, also called Civilisation, took the view that art, architecture and philosophy were the only things that really matter. It did not concern itself with military glory. It did not recognize such things as the mark of true civilization.
Both views are skewed by their creators. Civilization's maker Sid Meier is an American computer engineer with an intimate understanding of mathematics and of human psychology. Clark was an unapologetic European elitist and aesthete whose lifetime accomplishments included saving London's art trove from the Blitz.
I pointed out in my review of Civ 6 that Meier's Civ games take a post-Columbian view of civilizational growth, as something that spreads out from a single point, clearing wilderness and "barbarians" out of the path of progress. This view seems to me to be heavily influenced by American foundation myths and by Whiggish ideas about the benevolent march of technology.
Unlike Clark, Meier and his team are trying to make a fun video game, rather than merely picking out the artifacts that they admire most and extrapolating meaning from them. Their province is not erudition, but play. The game must provide challenges. A threat of extermination coupled with the glory of conquest is the easiest route to player satisfaction.
For strategy game designers, creating a fun experience that eschews violence is a tough challenge. The word "strategy" derives from the Greek for "generalship." Today's so-called 4x games (Explore, Expand, Exploit, Exterminate) come from a tradition of board games and miniature games dating back centuries, many of which are explicitly about warfare.
And yet, attempts are being made to create strategy games that dodge militarism. Soren Johnson (designer of Civilization 4) made Offworld Trading Company, a well-regarded realtime strategy game that ignores combat for economics and spying.
I'm looking forward to a time when designers create a Civ-like game that allows players to experiment with new ideas about how civilizations might be viewed, as more than military powerhouses that, by the way, also generate art and culture. There are certainly enough Civ players who pursue non-military paths to victory. How about a non-military path to existence?
I managed to get to the end of my game without any acts of violence. I did not win. My status as a small civilization with only four cities hampered any attempts to really dominate the game through culture or technology. My religion died in the middle ages.
But for most of the game I was in the top five on points, and at the end, came close to a technology victory, mainly because I was playing at a fairly easy level and had spent so few of my resources on the military.
It's a credit to Firaxis that this is even possible, even if it entails undermining many of the designers' systems. Perhaps it's also a challenge for future strategy game designers, that war is not the only way for societies to leave their imprint on history.