Turn-based strategy games are essentially what used to be board games, usually board wargames, but converted so that they can be played on a computer. The computer takes care of all the tiresome bookkeeping that is usually associated with board games, such as enforcing the rules, checking your money or other resources, knowing whose turn it is, and so on. You, other players, and the computer, take turns moving your units or pieces about. If you think that that makes them sound a bit boring, think again! With the computer doing the donkey-work, the human players are free to concentrate on their strategy for conquering the world, or building a set of hotels, or whatever the game is about. One of these games, Civilization, is so good that I’ve given it its own special page; there is a link to it in the review below.
Civilization, the original, was a great game, probably based on Avalon Hill’s game of the same name, but taking it further forward in time. If you have an old PC, i.e., an 8086/88 or a 286 or a 386 (or even one of those rare Tandy 186 machines) then the original Civilization runs great in DOS. It runs fine on modern PC’s as well, since, being turn-based, it doesn’t really matter how quickly the computer moves as you get the chance to inspect the map when it is your turn anyway. The basic idea is that you start with one villager and the discovery of agriculture, in about 4000BC. When you discover a suitable location, you found your first city. By growing your population, researching technology, and bashing rival civilizations, your aim is to get your civilization to survive from ancient times right through to the modern era, and launch a rocket to land your first colony on another world. Alternatively, you can simply conquer all your opponents. There is no multiplayer option in the original version of this game, but the computer can handle up to 7 computerized opponents for you. I have seen a hacked multiplayer version which worked OK except that the computer messed with your diplomatic settings when it wasn’t your turn (e.g., declaring war on your behalf and other minor irritations…). An official multiplayer version, “CivNet” is available, and I am assured it doesn’t do this, but I haven’t tried it. Anyway, the graphics are primitive, in that you see a flat, top-down view, and your units look like square counters on a board, which is essentially what they are mimicking anyway. However, the appearance is good enough for what is in fact a superb game. 10/10 but now out of date, of course. It is still available in the shops, in cheap re-packaged format as one of a series of old or so-called ‘classic’ games, usually under the title ‘Sid Meier’s Civilization,’ with a picture on the box of a pharaoh’s tomb under a modern city. It has a high educational value as you can learn about the progress of technology through the ages, you can learn how civilizations have to manage their resources to meet conflicting goals, a bit about different forms of government, taxation and you learn a lot of strategic thinking. The replay value is also high as you can start each new game with a randomly generated map, on a planet whose general geographical features you can control (e.g., a warm, wet world, a young, mountainous planet, and so on) Also there are a lot of possible strategies for you to try: you can win without conquest if you’re good. Anyway, this game is surpassed only by its successor, Civilization II. 10/Ed8/Rp10
Civilization II: probably the greatest game the turn-based strategy genre has to offer at the moment. The same as Civ I but with better graphics, including a pseudo-3D perspective view and pretty colours on the map, and a few tweaks to the rules and units, but essentially the same game, although it gets through the ancient era a bit more quickly (unfortunately: I would prefer it if it took a little longer before getting to modern times). These days, make sure you buy the multiplayer version: there is no point in not getting it, as it works in single-player mode too. There is also a “Fantastic Worlds” expansion CD with various interesting scenarios available. Some people have criticized the rather basic multimedia add-ons that come with the game (e.g., you have ‘advisors’ that appear in little movies from time-to-time), but as none of these features affect the gameplay at all, they have not altered my scoring of the game. 10/Ed8/Rp10
Call To Power: This is a good game, though perhaps not quite as compelling as Civ 2. The graphics are nice although I prefer the look of Civ 2, and the user interface is a bit awkward as there is a lot of clicking to do. Long games can get a bit tiring. What it does have in its favour is a lot of very good future technology: this goes way beyond Civ 2, which effectively stops at the stealth bomber. In C2P, you get transformer-style robots to stomp about with, fusion tanks, undersea and space cities, and lots of other goodies, and an interesting extension of non-violent warfare: lawyers, evangelists, nanotech ninjas and more can harass your neighbouring civilizations without you declaring war on them. Very good ideas. On the other hand, I feel it gets through the ancient eras much too quickly: you barely have time to found a couple of cities before knights in shining armour are charging about the place and Magellan is circumnavigating the globe. Anyway, 8/10, compared with Civ 2’s 10/10. Probably worth trying just to see the different treatment of the same game. 8/Ed7/Rp8
Civ 2 The Test of Time. Well, I’ve read the reviews, and decided not to bother: by all accounts it is the same as Civ 2 with minor modifications. I’ll wait for Civ 3 (see below).
Alpha Centauri: The best user interface of all the Civ games, but I don’t like the scenery. Your civilization has built its rocket, and lands on Alpha Centauri, which has a nasty-looking reddish coloured landscape. I’m afraid for me a significant part of the enjoyment of Civ 2 is the look and feel of the game: but who wants to look at ugly red scrubland all the time? Anyway, you are stuck with fellow human neighbours who have their own personalities (all extreme and all, it seems to me, equally aggressive and dishonorable) and you have to build a civilization from scratch – although you have advanced technology to start with, you have to develop special versions of it to work on Alpha. You can design your own units to some extent as well. The game plays well, but is rather slow and a long game can get a bit tedious. 7/10 for the very good user interface but only buy it if you are keen on the space scenario. 7/Ed5/Rp6
Civilization III: Introduced in 2001 as an update to the earlier Civilization II, this game improves the graphics by making them look a bit more realistic, removes the wonder-movie ‘rewards’ you get for building wonders of the world (shame), and adds the concept of culture: you can expand your civilization by being more impressive – nearby cities of rivals can change sides. Of course, if your civilization sucks, your cities can defect. The ancient era has been improved in that it now lasts a decent length of time and you have time to build up a good-sized iron/bronze age empire before middle-age and later technology starts to show up. The very modern era is a bit of a waste of time, though: most of the advanced technology seems hardly worth researching as the game is generally over before you get to use it, unless you like to play on past the official end of the game. The modern era represents a serious lost opportunity to filch the great ideas from the Call to Power series; instead there is little change from the options available in Civ 2, and less opportunity to use the technology anyway. In the pre-modern era, where much of the gameplay happens, that is, the game equivalent of the 18th to 20th centuries, play can get a bit bogged down and tedious, especially if your civilization isn’t romping all over the globe conquering all and sundry but is instead hemmed in by dangerous enemies and struggling to keep up. Diplomacy has been improved considerably, although of course the computer is still pretty stupid. You can manage trade via the diplomacy screens (instead of sending camels or lorries as in Civ 2). Also, on anything above Regency level (lower-middle difficulty level) the game cheats, as indeed do most games on higher difficulty levels – and AI philosophers claim that programming intelligence is possible – hah! For me, a cheating level is a level I don’t like to play on: I like a fair fight, not a weighted one – I expect an intelligent opponent, not simply one with tons of resources or a high growth rate or automatically successful diplomacy. Speaking of resources, they appear on the map, in limited quantitites, and can get used up during the game, meaning you have to obtain resources through diplomacy or warfare quite often. Overall, a good game despite the shortcomings. 7/Ed8/Rp8
Birth of the Federation: A Star Trek strategy game. Strategy games are essentially board games on a computer, so they consist in effect of pieces that move about (like Civilization, but more abstract; here you have little more than splotches on a map). In this case, you build facilities on planets, build starships, trade and fight computer players doing the same. There is some diplomacy too, in between the fighting. Nicely atmospheric, but a bit dull after a time, I found. One big problem is that you can’t scroll the starmap! You have to zoom out, click on another sector, then zoom in again. Sigh. I play it in zoomed out mode so I can see the whole area and avoid this problem, but it makes the data on each sector hard to see. Also, if you ask me, the galaxy is too small. Shouldn’t there be 100,000,000,000 stars there to explore, not just a hundred or so? Elite (not reviewed here) managed thousands, after all. 5/10, maybe more if you’re a trekkie who loves strategy games. Reviewed highly elsewhere. 5/Ed7/Rp6