Thursday, August 3, 2017

Quantify my dairy colony

So here's me failing to declare my independence in the Civilization 4 modification Colonization.
The throng of ex-cons and workhouse flunkies at the bottom of the screen are waiting in line to get their ejumacayshun at prestigious Nyctimus University. Come see our team, the fighting Poxies, and their mascot Mangey the huggable lycan-trope!

I'd heard of Colonization back in Civ 4's prime, but game mods are an even bigger pain to sift through for quality than games themselves, so this has been one of the many I've passed up over the years. Given that it came bundled into GoG's release however, I recently had a chance to try it out. Decent, if obviously rushed decor, nice music, cheap, half-assed flavor text. As conversions go it's acceptable, definitely lacking the scope, balance and polish of its parent title but nonetheless complex enough that I've repeatedly lost track of my ultimate objective of stickin' it to tha man for getting wrapped up in stitching together my little colonial ant farm.

While converting dem heathen hinjuns into skilled jacks of all toils, pacing your trading so as to make the most of your European commerce before your king taxes you to death and conquistaing some d'oro on the side all add a bit to the game experience, Colonization's basically a resource management game. Maximize your raw goods acquisition and processing through specialized units, pick your cotton to ship it off as cloth, that sort of thing. This economic side all takes place in a space of intelligible, straightforward scalar values with few hidden softcaps or penalties for success, a system made to be gamed. An extra two units of sugar you harvest don't mysteriously morph into 1.73 simply to punish you for doing things right, and can be processed into rum at a known, player-controlled rate.

I can't speak for how well the Civ 4 mod emulates the original Colonization game, having never played it, so for me it's reminiscent rather of another title from around the mid-'90s:
Lords of the Realm was guilty of a lot more obfuscation of its exact formulae, but nonetheless offered the same rational, purposeful resource management. Granted, it's partly remembered for this because its combat side was crap, but the satisfaction of juggling peasant occupations from season to season hinged on grasping the value of those one to three-digit resource production and consumption figures. You were never just mindlessly clicking the "more grain" button but trying to approach a specific amount of grain you needed.

By the mid-2000s, Civ 4: Colonization was already a nostalgic throwback to the days of real numbers on screen - at the same time City of Heroes considered its "real numbers initiative" a risky, daring proposition to show players the exact values behind their characters' stats. Just as mana and ammunition were excised from RPGs and FPS games, strategy game resources have gradually drifted off-screen, out of sight and out of mind. Every building upgrade in Galactic Civilizations 3 or Sins of a Solar Empire gives an extra 20% or 50% to its particular resource while rarely or never bothering the player with the actual figures being multiplied, with the worst offender likely being the likes of Supreme Commander with its mindless piling on of bigger and bigger... stuff. Where resource counters show up at all it's increasingly in the form of pinball scores, ten thousand points a pop. More is just better you see, and the player is rewarded for the repetitive behavior pattern of incremental build-up instead of any understanding of the underlying mechanics, the careful weighing and balancing of options which has always meant true strategy.

Of all concepts to lose from games, isn't this one of the oddest: that games should be game-able systems? That the numbers governing in-game actions should be there for players to manipulate, and not hidden behind the scenery? This shift from the old frugal, interconnected, predictive balancing-act oikonomia of Lords of the Realm to an obsession with surplus wealth expressed apart from its underlying production numbers, is it just a fear of scaring away the idiots with math, or is it more a case of servile adulation of a core fable of capitalism, that "wealth" as a thing apart can just be... created?

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