Civilizations, Barbarians, and City States


Ever played the Civilization series? Maybe Endless Legend? If not, these are both examples of what are often called “4X Games“: they’re turn-based strategy games focused on “exploration, expansion, exploitation, and extermination”. This sort of game can also be called an “empire building” game, and the general premise is that the player is an external guide for a people group of some description that usually fits with the modern idea of a nation. Typical examples of this game will be played on a more-or-less 2D map, feature some sort of development mechanic (usually in the form of one or more research trees designed to model scientific progress), and a unit-based movement mechanic that usually comprises both combat and exploration. Units can generally build cities and destroy cities and other units. Cities build more units, and can improve themselves and (by some mechanic or another) improve (“exploit”) the land around them. In these games, the player seeks victory through one or more forms of dominance: the classic victory condition is total military conquest, but over the years more options have been added, ranging from scientific victories (where the player’s nation is the first to achieve some developmental milestone) to diplomatic victories (where the player is essentially elected “king of the world”) and more.

Perhaps the most recognizable example of this sort of game is the Civilization series. Started by Sid Meier at Microprose back in 1991, the Civilization games have long set a standard of quality in the genre and are commonly emulated, cloned, and adapted. For the purposes of this article, I’m going to focus primarily on the Civilization games with which I am most familiar, and some contrast with Endless Legend, a 4X game that leans heavily on the Civilization formula without duplicating it entirely. The Civilization games name the “nation” concept “civilization” — hence the name, and the player guides a civilization from ancient times to modern times, hoping to best his foes on battlefields ranging from military strife to economic dominance to scientific superiority.

“The Unenlightened”

In this article, we’ll try to explore how these games communicate around the idea of population that fall outside the norm of the modern nation. The Civilization series has always had an example of such people in the form of “Barbarians” — a worldwide mob of generally-disorganized units that antagonize the player and non-player civilizations indiscriminately. More recent games have added a more peaceful variety of uncivilized folk, called “City-States”, which are essentially non-player, single-city nations. City-states build units but do not expand, and are the fickle allies of the highest bidder.

From a game design standpoint, Barbarians serve a simple purpose. World maps in the Civilization games are generally very big, and contact with other civilizations may not occur for many turns after the start of the game. In order to encourage (perhaps even force) the player not to focus exclusively on expansion or exploration, the developers have included barbarians: a nearly omni-present, indiscriminately violent foe that will pop up out of nowhere and without warning to test the military might of a civilization.

Barbarian threats are typically fairly tame. In early games, Barbarian units would sometimes be randomly created in map tiles farther than a certain distance from “civilized” cities. In later games, Barbarian units are produced by Barbarian camps, which themselves are sometimes randomly created in map tiles farther than a certain distance from “civilized” cities. The units produced for Barbarians are generally of middling quality: in most games, Barbarian units are the best land or sea units already developed by all of the major civilizations. If the player’s scientific development is ahead of the curve these units could be easily dispatched by her latest development, but will be manageable even if she’s at the back of the pack.

So, from a gameplay perspective barbarians are essentially a “military tax”. If the player doesn’t build military units early on — and keep his army up to date — barbarians will savage his infrastructure and impede his progress.  This is pretty excusable from a development perspective — they need to incentivize diversity early on if only to help new players learn the game, and also to maintain some of the classical militarist flair for which the Civilization series is well known.

In Endless Legend, the un-nationalized are called “Minor Factions”.  This seems like sort of a “side grade” regarding realism compared to Civilization’s barbarians: they have established bases that the player can’t remove (they can be reduced to ruins, but even the ruins remain forever), and they provide multiple opportunities for storytelling through varied methods of “subduing” them.  On the other hand, they can be satisfied by a successful quest, bribed, or beaten into submission with violence.  Still, though, these factions are marginalized into resources for the major civilizations.  The player gets to pick which minor factions he integrates, and which are left in a state of useless subjugation, where they contribute nothing, and have no recourse for their own improvement — not even violence.

The socio-politcal ramifications of these ideas are pretty significant, but that’s not really what I’m going to dig in to in this article.  If you want more of that, go listen to Errant Signal’s Civilization episode.  Chris covers the Barbarian issue from that angle pretty completely.  The short version is that people groups that fall far enough outside the norm of a modern nation are basically just savages — incapable of anything but violence and destruction.  These people aren’t tribes, nomads, or loose independents, they’re just rabble, seeking only to wreak destruction on the unwary.

Missed Opportunities

While the conceptual problems with what Barbarians represent is definitely worth consideration, in general a significant change to that symbolism would require the game to be presented in such a different way that it would be, in essence, a difference game.  Again, Errant Signal touches on that pretty strongly, but what I’d like to focus on here is what Civilization (and games like it) have missed in their “barbarian” mechanic that could still be fit within the game they’re offering.

Perhaps the best argument that something more can be made of the Barbarian mechanic is that something more already has been made of it, in the Civilization spinoffs Alpha Centauri and Civilization: Beyond Earth.  These games are set in a post-Earth world, where humanity has fled to the stars in search of a new world.  On these alien worlds, mankind must overcome… well, mostly a lot of the same challenges, but also aliens!  In both games, the alien world on which the player lands is a burgeoning hive mind.  The various plants and animals are connected by some sort of telepathic handwavery, and the native life as a whole is on the verge of becoming a “god like” conciousness.  In these games, native wildlife – in the form of mind worms, wolf beetles, and the kraken – take the place of Civilization’s barbarians.  And in both games, these ”un-civilizations” monsters play a greater role in storytelling than do the Barbarians in any of the modern Civilization games.

Alpha Centauri tells an explicit story.  As players progress through the game and accomplish various milestones, they are rewarded with little snippets of story.  Depending on the player’s style, these snippets may be more or less welcome, but in general someone bothered to write down the arc of a few different stories to be told to players based on various achievements as the game progresses.  The planet (literally named ”Planet”) features strongly in these interludes, and while the mind worms themselves don’t directly contribute, the story being told casts the native life in a whole new context.  Various player actions can change their interaction with the planet: alien plant tiles (“xenofungus”) can be adapted to serve like roads and farms instead of needing constant clearing, and the like.  The presence of some shred of player decision in the impact of their existence gives the planet’s monsters some much-needed context and believability.

Civilization: Beyond Earth doesn’t tell an explicit story, but it does a much better job, I think, of telling an implicit story than do any of the Civilization games.  Where the Civilization games are trying to tell a 6000-year epic, Beyond Earth feels more like it’s trying to tell a story on the scale of a few decades.  It has a quest system and the victory conditions are communicated as “epic quest” series which — at least in the right circumstances — lends the game well to an “emergent storytelling” bent.  Like in Alpha Centauri, alien life plays a strong part in this.

Perhaps the best feature of the aliens in Civ:BE, though, is that their characteristics drive decision making in the early game.  At the beginning of the game, the aliens are neutral toward the player.  They might attack to defend a nest, but otherwise they will generally leave the player alone.  As the player expands outward, they’re faced with choices — clearing alien nests will make more room to settle colonies, but will anger the aliens and turn them aggressive.  The quest system lets players add perks to buildings that might help to avoid aliens on the one hand, or fight them on the other.  The non-linear “technology web” lets the player grow his civilization in directions that might improve his relationship with the aliens, eventually even making their toxic “miasma” function as a healing balm for his units.  One of the first encounters any player will have in any Civ game is with a “barbarian”, but in Beyond Earth — right from the first alien encounter — the player is making decisions that can be based on the vision he has for his colony, and will help to shape the path his colony takes through the game.

Even outside the space-story spinoffs, previous Civilization games have also done a better job of this.  In previous versions, Barbarians were functional (if generally weak) empires that could conquer cities, and then proceed as a civilization in their own right.  While this was probably aggravating to most players, it was generally consistent with threats that could be leveled by other empires, and occured as a natural part of the game.  It also provided opportunities for emergent story-telling — it didn’t say anything out loud on its own, but it would not have been hard to imagine a story inspired by a local uprising getting the better of a city’s defenses.


In recent Civilization games, Barbarians have lost all of their meaning.  They’re no longer a human power capable of growth or advancement.  They’re not a storytelling device or interactive hook.  They’re just a bare mechanic — a way to punish players for neglecting their military development in the early game.  To make things worse, Barbarians weren’t even neglected in Civilization VI: the developers were pleased with making Barbarians “smarter” and giving them “more interesting” gameplay.  In fact, Barbarians are just a slightly bigger nuisance, still lacking any meaning for the setting or the story.

I don’t want Barbarians removed, and fixing Barbarians isn’t a silver bullet for improving the engagement of recent Civilization titles.  But carefully considering every mechanic, and asking “how is this fun?” is a crucial part of game design.  Mechanics are more fun when they provide ways to stimulate the player’s imagination.  In previous Civ games, Barbarians could be seen to symbolize less organized but dangerous indigenous groups, or perhaps highly-organized local malcontents, upset by the player’s regime.  In the space-story spinoffs, Aliens were used as characters in the story and motivators for decision-making, giving them an engaging feel that has been absent from all other Civilization titles.  It’s my hope that in the next title, Barbarians will get more than a mechanical facelift.

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