Civilization V: History in First Person

Civilization V may have a birds-eye-view camera that puts you far above the action, but that doesn’t stop it from making you feel like you’re right there in the thick of things, creating history and stepping into the shoes of some of its most influential leaders.

Granted, Civilization doesn’t exactly seek to recreate history. You can place Attila the Hun as the leader of a nation of peace and scientific progress, of make Gandhi the commander of the world’s greatest naval fleet. However, if you look past the sometimes absurd trappings and into the core mechanics of the game, much of it lines up surprisingly well with Earth’s actual history.

In Civilization V, you have to research certain technologies to unlock new ones. For example, you must research mining before you can learn how to work with bronze. It seems simple enough, but many of the connections are more subtle than you’d expect. The prerequisites for military technology are especially revealing.

The fact that you must first research radio to unlock radar is obvious. After all, radar is just an acronym for Radio Detection and Ranging. However, another technology you must research is flight. What do airplanes have to do with inventing radar? The key is motivation. Although radar was already being experimented with in the late 19th century, it didn’t come to prominence until World War II. The technology was then developed primarily as a way to detect enemy aircraft. The British were the first to deploy it on the battlefield, and it was crucial in helping the country overcome the German Luftwaffe in the Battle of Britain.

Civilization V can also help you understand the motivations of some of history’s most infamous conquerors. When playing the game, I initially started off in one corner of a small continent. I explored and expanded, building about five or six cities before my borders began rubbing up against those of the neighboring factions. Up until this point, I had been keeping good relations with the other civilizations on the continent, making my country a center of trade and commerce.

However, I did not yet have the technology to navigate across the ocean, and with no more room to expand, I was left with two choices: Halt the expansion of my civilization until I could develop exploratory ships, or begin fighting for territory with my neighbors.

Terrified by the prospect of stagnation, I spent some time building up my military before attacking each adjacent faction in turn. With the wealth and technology I had acquired through trade, it was no war. It was a massacre. I was sending riflemen and cannons to fight natives wielding primitive spears. In no time at all I had absorbed the other cities into my empire, and the entire continent was under my control.

This brings to mind the two largest empires from our own history. Genghis Khan and his descendants spread the Mongol Empire across nearly all of Asia, from modern-day Korea in the East all the way to Turkey in the West. The speed and range of the Mongol archers on horseback overwhelmed every army that stood in their way. It was the greatest empire the world had ever seen, until another stole the spotlight in the early 20th century.

The largest empire in history was motivated by a situation similar to my playthrough of Civilization V. Trapped on a small island, the United Kingdom of Great Britain had a growing population with no room for expansion. In the UK’s case, however, the nearby nations of France and Spain were powerful, and expansion in that area would be prohibitively costly and dangerous.

Through a combination of colonization and military might, Britain established dominance over Australia, India, a large portion of Africa, Canada, and of course the original thirteen colonies that would later become the United States. At one time the British Empire was in control of one-fifth of the world’s entire population.

Although world dominance is one method of victory in Civilization V, there are a number of ways to win the game. Completing the Apollo Program will win the game, as will becoming the leader of the United Nations. You can also achieve victory by making your nation a center of artistic and cultural development. In the end, you must decide what kind of leader you want to be, and let history be the judge.