In the last article, I looked at the six base games of my favourite strategy series of all time: Civilization. But since we like the weird and the wacky here, I thought it would be fun to delve into the myriad of spin-off games associated with the series; variable in quality, but always entertaining. Onward!
1. Sid Meier’s Colonization (1994, MicroProse)
Yeah, it’s a little weird to play a game called Colonization, I’ll be the first to admit that. There’s a lot to unpack about the unchecked imperialist attitudes in video games, especially strategy and war games, but I am not an expert in that field and couldn't possibly delve into the imperialist attitudes of gaming in the first part of a retrospective article. Read some Edward Said, think about your choices, etc. etc.
Okay, let’s get into the game. Colonization was initially considered a straight sequel to Civilization; the idea was that the ensuing sequels would have a focus that went beyond just building a civilization from the ground up. That idea didn’t take root with the main series, but it did allow for the myriad of spin-off titles we are looking at today,
Colonization is a really well-designed game. It looks great for 1994, it plays beautifully, and it’s a classic example of an early 90s strategy sim. I don’t love everything about it: I find the UI sort of hard to understand and the AI is frankly terrible at times, but its positives outnumber the flaws. The game was remade as an expansion pack for Civilization IV, and it’s worth playing there as well.
2. Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri (1999, Firaxis)
This is the only game among the spin-offs that will compete at all with the base games. 1999’s landmark sci-fi colonization game may look like Civilization in space, but it’s so much more at the same time. The unique, well-drawn factions and distinct rulers recall characters from a William Gibson novel or something like Shadowrun, the game’s art style is striking and alien, and it plays with a certain grim hopelessness -- you came to Alpha Centauri because you wanted a better world than Earth, but you know in your heart that this world is going to fall apart too. And you’re part of the reason why.
It’s a feeling you don’t really get playing any of the Civilization games. Even as I’m happily crushing Paris with tanks I don’t feel connected to the real world and the demons of the past at all. This is just a goofy alternate reality; the Polish Empire may be the most powerful empire in the world in a game thanks to their close alliance with the Polynesians. It all feels scattered and a little silly, less like history and more a particularly well-made game of Risk.
But you do have a connection to Alpha Centauri, something that goes beyond space exploration and colonization. There are more story elements in the game, which help, but it’s the mechanics and style of play and overall atmosphere that contribute to this feeling. You proceed carefully when you play, turning to war almost as a last option, considering your moves as if humanity's survival really does depend on it.
It’s a fantastic space strategy game, topping resource management spreadsheets like Space Empires III and Millennium 2.2. A beautiful, immersive game that still plays like the best of Civilization.
3. Civilization: Call to Power (1999, Activision)
I genuinely don’t understand why this and its sequel (which I won’t bother looking at because Activision lost the Civilization license), were made. It’s basically a Civilization game, but it’s not. And it can’t be. It has to dodge everything Civilization does and do something similar instead (inventing the wheel in Civilization becomes inventing stirrups in Call to Power). So this is essentially a licensed knock-off of the game. It’s maddening, but hey: it’s Activision. Activision acquired the license, wanted to make some money, and whatever the game ended up being didn’t really matter. That’s the way they’ve almost always operated.
Here’s another weird thing about it: It’s not a bad game! It’s a not a great game, or even a good one, but it’s a serviceable late 90s turn-based strategy game. That being said, don’t bother buying this. It’s really just an inferior Civ clone that somehow got the branding.
4. CivCity: Rome (2006, Firaxis and Firefly Games)
Forget The Avengers, this is the most ambitious crossover event of all time -- the worlds of Firaxis’ Civilization meet the world of Firefly Games’ city-building games! For a very certain subset of nerds, though, that's not too far from the truth. I thought about doing a run-down of the Firefly Games canon as well (maybe soon) as they are good games to be discussed, historical city management sims that are addictive and well-designed. I recall my dad being a particularly huge fan of Caesar II when I was growing up, so I’ve always had a fondness for the games.
Back to the crossover: do these two tastes go together well, like nuts and gum? Sort of. Well, not really.
I wanted to like this game, truly, but it’s not good. It runs at a snail’s pace, the graphics are subpar, and every game plays the exact same. You simply follow the pattern to build the city, boom, that's it. It's not atrocious: there are fun moments, some cute little flourishes that will remind you of either series, and it’s easy to pick up quite quickly.
This is very much a budget title, not a lot here aside from the branding. The two companies never worked together again, and that's probably for the best.
5. Sid Meier’s Civilization Revolution (2008, Firaxis)
For years, companies have tried to bring Civilization to consoles. It’s not easy -- they just work better on a computer. For so much of the game you need a mouse, clicking around through windows to check on cities and various graphs and tech progress and the like. So in 2008, 2K Games and Firaxis embarked on making a Civilization game optimized for consoles, and Civilization Revolution is the result.
Interestingly enough, they didn’t really change the formula all that much -- it’s still turn-based, empire-building Civilization. They didn’t make it an RTS, they didn’t screw around with the concept, they didn’t dumb it down to a maddening degree. It’s Civilization -- just for consoles.
The adjustments they made were smart ones, overhauling the UI and some aspects of play so you’re not clicking around constantly with a mouse you don’t have. It runs pretty well for a management sim on a console, the graphics are slick and bright, and it turns out this is not a bad way to bring Civilization onto consoles. It's clear that a lot of love and care from 2K Games and Firaxis went into making this. I’d obviously play one of the base games over this, but if you’ve only got a PS3 or XBox 360 this is your best bet for Civilization action.
There is also a 2014 sequel that I have not played. Sorry!
6. Civilization World (2011, Firaxis)
Remember when everyone made a flash-based game based on Farmville’s success? Remember what a good time for gaming that was? In this bold new frontier of shovelware, 2K Games and Firaxis hopped on the trail and made Civilization World, which I deigned to try back in the day because I am a superfan of the series. Maybe they'd get the formula down, bring a little legitimacy to the pack.
Oh no. Oh no, this is not good. It’s a weak genre to begin with, but this isn’t even as good as something like Farmville. Hideous design, terrible UI, buggy and laggy as hell: a mess.
Are you ready for me to launch into a rant about microtransactions? Here’s the thing: there were none. It was entirely free to play. So while I respect 2K and Firaxis for not becoming greedy shills, maybe if they were making any money off of it there would have been an incentive to make it actually enjoyable in some way. Who can say? Anyway, this one lives in the dustbin of history where it belongs.
7. Beyond Earth (2014, Firaxis)
We’re back in space! Earth has gotten all screwed up by humans so we’re off to colonize space and Firaxis gets to make good use of the Civilization V engine in the process! It’s a win-win!
If my verbose, gushing praise for Alpha Centauri didn’t tip you off: I love that game. I still play that game a lot. Therefore, I was massively excited for Beyond Earth. My sister bought it for me for Christmas at full price on Steam, something both of us do extremely rarely. Unfortunately, it was a major let-down.
The game itself is just fine. It’s the Civilization V engine, and it looks terrific! There are cool units and the AI is pretty good too. It plays for a fine game session, you’re not going to be bored or anything. Not for the first bit, at least.
What's missing is the wonder and mystery and horror of Alpha Centauri, as this is a just a generic space colonization game. I negatively referred to Millennium 2.2 earlier, but that game’s story and atmosphere do make you feel like you’re fighting for humanity’s survival. Beyond Earth makes me feel nothing beyond “pew pew pew” when I fire my big robots at other big robots. And there’s something to be said for that, it’s a good feeling, but I can also do that in Civilization V.
Am I being hard on Beyond Earth, expecting another Alpha Centauri when really that was never even promised? Maybe. But if Firaxis and 2K Games want to reskin their Civilization games, put them in space, and charge full price for them than I'm going to lose interest pretty quickly.
I have not played Sid Meier’s Starships, which is a 2015 spin-off of Beyond Earth (like a circle in a spiral, like a wheel within a wheel), but I’ve heard pretty bad things about it overall and probably won’t bother.
Phew! Hope you enjoyed that rundown of the assorted spin-offs to Civilization. It goes to show the legacy Civilization has left, not even considering and counting all the clones and rip-off games from other studios! Now, time to play some Civilization V for the next, oh I don't know, sixty hours?