In Praise Of: Civilization – Call To Power

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A funny thing happened to the Civilization licence in the late 90’s. It started with Sid Meier and Brian Reynolds – designers of Civilizations I and II respectively — upping sticks and leaving a waning Microprose along with several other key staff members to form Firaxis Games in 1996. While Firaxis had the talent, though, what they didn’t take with them were the rights to the Civilization name, which remained firmly in Microprose’s clutches – not that Microprose could do a whole lot with it, seeing as their premier strategy game developers had just left the company. Enter a pre-CoD and WoW Activision, who nevertheless signalled their future bastardry by seeing that there was perhaps some money to be made by capitalising on the Civilization name and acquiring the rights to market PC games called “Civilization” from board game manufacturer Avalon Hill, who had been making a moderately-successful board game with the same name for decades.  Avalon Hill and Activision’s next step was to claim that they had sole rights to the Civilization name and sue Microprose for copyright infringement. Microprose were more than a little annoyed by this since they’d already licensed the Civilization name from Avalon Hill back in 1991 before releasing the first game in the series, and so they countersued. Judging by the results this did not go well for Avalon Hill, who had to settle out-of-court and acknowledge that it was Microprose, not Avalon Hill, who had the right to make computer games called Civilization. It didn’t go so badly for Activision, though, who came out of the whole sorry business with a licence from Microprose to publish their in-development historical 4X title under the name Civilization: Call To Power.

The subsequent journey of the Civilization licence is worth devoting a few lines to: both Avalon Hill and Microprose were acquired by Hasbro Interactive shortly after the court case resolved, thus cutting that particular Gordian knot by unifying both the board and computer game Civilization names under a company that, at the time, was interested in making both.  Hasbro Interactive were in turn acquired by Infogrames in 2001, who made the wise decision not to try and develop a Civilization game in-house and instead hired none other than Firaxis Games to make Civilization III. Finally, Take Two Games bought the Civilization licence from Infrogrames — who had since dusted off another old name and rebranded themselves as Atari —  in 2004. With it went the right to publish the already in-development Civilization IV, also developed by Firaxis, and in 2005 Take Two permanently reunited the Civilization licence with its developers by acquiring Firaxis themselves. Given the tortuous journey the licence has had, it’s actually bloody impressive that the Civilization series has been consistently developed by the same group of people throughout its 25-year history.

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So that explains the existence of Civilization: Call To Power. It’s a bastard child in more ways than one, and it wasn’t helped by being released at almost exactly the same time as Firaxis’s Alpha Centauri. I remember the reviews at the time giving the edge to Call To Power, which is absurd in hindsight; nearly two decades later SMAC is fondly remembered as one of the all-time greatest 4X games and Call To Power has been all but forgotten as an evolutionary dead-end for the series. It did well enough to receive a sequel that dropped the Civilization prefix and was marketed solely as Call To Power 2 – this is presumably why you can buy the second game on GOG but not the first — but Activision was already taking the first few steps down the road to becoming the CoD-powered behemoth it is today and they really didn’t have time for boutique PC 4X games, so the Call To Power offshoot didn’t make it past that second iteration.

I would love to say that its obscurity is undeserved, that it’s some sort of diamond in the rough, but I would be lying. Call To Power was janky at the time and has aged terribly, both in terms of its visual design and its gameplay. Visually, well, people castigated Alpha Centauri for being a game rendered in various interesting shades of brown, but it at least had a coherent visual design, as well as — importantly — an actual Z-axis for its squares that gave its map an interesting sense of verticality that the Civilization series has been missing ever since. By contrast Call To Power arguably looks worse than Civ II, lacking any sense of clean visual design and just generally looking like a vomitous mish-mash of different cultures and art styles.  Meanwhile the gameplay is Civ II on steroids, with a kitchen sink full of extra features bolted on top of the familiar basic mechanics that add precious little to the experience except for a sizeable dollop of confusion.

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Every time I play it1, though, I get the feeling that it really didn’t have to be this way. When you look past the micromanagement of rations and wages; the silly War Readiness setting; the billion specialists per city; the ridiculous plethora of non-combat units such as lawyers and evangelists; the fact that you can’t upgrade units and instead have to disband old ones and build newer ones to replace them (I believe the upgrade feature was present in Alpha Centauri, so it has no excuse); the bizarre desire to differentiate itself from mainstream Civilization by having buildings and wonders that are the-same-but-different — so there are no Cinemas in CTP, but there are Movie Palaces; no Great Library, but there is Galileo’s Telescope — when you look past all that, there are, improbably, some rather good ideas in Call To Power. Ideas which, if leveraged properly, could have carved out a distinct niche in which the series could have coexisted relatively happily with Civ without coming across as the also-ran.

First, and most importantly, whoever was responsible for designing Call To Power had clearly just got done reading a lot of Neil Stephenson and was inspired to make a game that not only dealt with the existing scope of human history, but which took it beyond the present-day into the far future. The Modern Age in CTP is actually the third out of five ages of civilization: Ancient, Renaissance, Modern, Genetic and Diamond. The Genetic Age deals with your typical near-future cyberpunk concepts like arcologies and nanotechnology, while the Diamond Age contains the more far-fetched stuff – energy shields for your cities, war walkers, a pointless AI wonder that only exists to revolt and take half your cities with it, and space elevators and space cities. The future ages allowed you to colonise the ocean — indeed, it was probably the first Civilization game ever to treat sea spaces as legit, improvable tiles rather than dead space that merely existed to cut you off from other civs — and, later, Earth orbit via a somewhat janky space layer of the map (this was dropped for the sequel). The implementation of all this stuff is hamhanded at the best of times – in particular there’s no real consideration made as to the pacing, so the Ancient + Renaissance ages aren’t really condensed at all and the Genetic + Diamond ages are essentially extras bolted on to a typical game of Civ. Still, when you see cities you founded back in the Ancient Age grow larger and larger through the application of new buildings and technologies, eventually swelling to a truly preposterous size of 60 or 70, some of the intent behind the idea shines through; like Alpha Centauri, Call To Power is about using technology to smash all constraints on your civilization’s growth, except it’s just that little bit more powerful thanks to being placed within the context of the world we know.

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(The future ages also let them play around with new government styles. There’s nothing as ahead of its time as SMAC’s Social Engineering, but the increased scope does allow CTP to include more fanciful/dystopian flavours of government such as Technocracies and Corporate Republics. The concept of discrete governmental systems has gone the way of the dodo in modern Civilization, but Civ V’s social policies, while well thought-out mechanically, are almost totally flavourless; there’s nothing quite like the feeling of setting loose unfettered free market forces to boost your economy and drive the pollution levels through the roof.)

The really interesting mechanic CTP adds, though, and the one that I’m surprised hasn’t made a single appearance in any of the main Civilization games, is Public Works. You know how a large part of modern Civ is telling your workers to build tile improvements, slowly and painstakingly filling out your borders with built-up tiles? It’s a bit of a faff even now, and back in the Civ II days it was even worse since only Settler units could improve tiles – and those things were a major investment. The constant mindless micro of repeatedly irrigating terrain got really old really fast. CTP’s solution is to toss the concept of a unit that you order to improve tiles straight out of the window, and to instead place a generic tax on your production. Just like the old Science/Taxes split for gold, production in CTP can go either to the usual making of buildings, units, wonders etc., or it can go into an empire-wide Public Works pool. Once you have enough hammers saved up in the Public Works pool you can use them to do something to change a tile – chop down a forest, build a farm, construct a road and so on. You do this by opening the Public Works interface, selecting the relevant improvement, and then placing it directly on to the map with no fiddling around with worker units required.

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This is a cool shift in the way Civ works for a number of reasons, but the one that interests me is that it’s potentially a great balancing mechanic against expanding too far and too fast, something Civilization has traditionally had a lot of trouble getting right – while I’ve grown to accept the Happiness mechanic in Civ V it still strikes me as a bit of an awkward kludge even after six years of refinement. In order to build a new city and have it be something more than just a collection of huts in the middle of a swamp, you need to have an established industrial engine pumping out Public Works production to back it up. It’s natural. It makes sense. With a bit of tweaking of where precisely you could put improvements I really think it could have changed the series for the better. Unfortunately as with most other things it tried Call To Power’s version of Public Works is half-baked at best and hideously broken at worst; even with just a 10% levy on your production you’ll quickly build up an enormous pool of surplus public works production that’s enough to improve an entire city’s worth of territory and then some. And you can place these improvements anywhere within your borders, which in practice means you place them everywhere within your borders; again, this isn’t inherently a deal-breaker because if it had been done intelligently it could have been leveraged for some of that flavour that later iterations of Civ have had a little trouble recapturing, especially since you can upgrade improvements as your tech level increases (so you have the Farm, and then the Advanced Farm, and then the Hydroponic Farm) and they could have been a really cool visual representation of the advancement of your empire. Instead the improvement spam just makes the already incoherent visuals even more cluttered.

I don’t really fault Call To Power for getting so much of what it tried wrong, though. Yes, it’s very obviously built on top of Civ II’s mechanics, and yes, the good ideas it layers on top are more the result of the designers throwing the kitchen sink at it and hoping at least some of the stuff they added would be a success. They did have a fair few good ones, though, for all that CTP failed to execute on them particularly effectively. In retrospect it’s easier to forgive those failures when Call To Power itself has been mostly forgotten2; going back to play it feels precisely like an archaeologist uncovering the remains of a lost civilization (ha). It’s a snapshot of an alternative approach for the series that would probably have been viable if it had had some good designers refining it over 3-4 games or so, and even now I think Civ proper could learn a thing or two by sending some explorers into the ancient ruins of Call To Power.

  1. And by “it” I mean CTP 2. I do still have my original Call To Power CD but it flat-out refuses to run on modern versions of Windows; the sequel at least is compatible through the good graces of GOG.
  2. That is, unless your name is Robert Zak, in which case you put a post up about CTP on RPS that has a fair chunk of the same content as this one and which goes live less than 24 hours before mine does. Serves me right for dragging my feet, and his does at least explore how baffling CTP could be to actually play in much more detail.
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6 thoughts on “In Praise Of: Civilization – Call To Power

  1. ilitarist says:

    The game you describe reminds me of Civ4 mods. Specifically, Caveman2Cosmos. Go, read about it, check out the tech tree. It has techs like Franchises, Paleontology, 3D Printing, Legalized Gambling and Extreme Sports. It’s a game for people who probably want city/empire-builder sandbox, not a strategy game. Because I can’t imagine all this is even remotely balanced.

    Judging from your screenshots no empire had posed a danger to you. Kitchensink, you said it. But yes, I’m nostalgic about the times when governments were more just different sets of bonuses in Civ.

    • Hentzau says:

      It’s less that they didn’t pose a threat to me, more that I know how much of a pain in the ass fighting a war is in CTP and was doing everything I could to avoid it.

      I’ve not played Civ IV in at least five years. I’m a little afraid to go back; I have very pleasant memories of that game and I’m afraid it might not have aged all that well.

      • ilitarist says:

        What you say about war being a pain is a still very relevant thing today.

        I only learned how to fight a war properly in Civ5 when I was bored and played Diety difficulty. Before that war looked so incredibly tedious I evaded it and was pretty successful at that. Maybe I nuked someone who opposed my cultural superiority but that was it. The war was much more fun in fantasy scenarious like Smoky Skies where it felt not like an overcomplicated sideshow but as the core of the game.

    • Last time I played C2C, I abandoned my game because dealing with all these resources and building was just getting too complex. Civ4 UI, even improved, didn’t help.
      Civ4 : Rise of Mankind : A New Dawn modmod was more up my alley in terms of complexity.

  2. Darren says:

    I don’t know, I think the timing here is a bit of a happy coincidence. Zak’s article spends more time honing in on specific quirks (like the evangelists, who sound like they’d be a fun concept to base an entire game on) whereas you’ve taken more of a zoomed out approach that really examines why the game doesn’t work at the macro level while still having a few neat ideas.

    • Hentzau says:

      Yeah, after I read it I found they complement each other quite nicely; I deliberately avoided getting involved with the agents or the warfare in my playthrough because they’re such a faff so it’s actually nice there’s something out there that describes how that worked in detail. Boy was I annoyed when I found out about it though.

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