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I remember the first time I ever played Civilization II.

At that point in my life, I studiously avoided purchasing video games – for several reasons. First, I wasn’t making a whole lot of money and my budget didn’t need a new category of expenditure. Second, I knew it had the potential to become a massive time suck and I didn’t want to go down that route. I already had some bad Minesweeper and Solitaire habits and the adding designer drugs to that mix didn’t seem helpful.

Alas, I had a “pusher” in my life. (Do people even use that word, “pusher,” anymore? It probably wasn’t still around even in the early 90s). I had a friend that was really into PC games and he just knew I would be too. He gave me a few “copies” of his games to try out. One of his first attempts at hooking me was Empire. Technically, this was Empire Deluxe as Empire actually dates back to the late 70s, but this was long before I would understand such distinctions. The game is played on a randomly-generated map with cities that produce units, and then those fight for control of of the cities. It played as both single player and multiplayer and my friend had one or two play-by-email games going on at any given time. I thought it was pretty cool, but it didn’t really grab me.

He then tried to push a new game, that he said was like Empire but more to it. Civilization had much more than just building units. It sounded more enticing than Empire, but I also gave it a pass.

Then he got really excited. Civilization was coming out with a sequel, Civilization II, and it was going to be a massive upgrade. He hyped it for weeks and, when it was released to the stores, he finally had it in hand. Shortly thereafter, he handed me a stack of floppy disks. “Just try it,” he said.

And just like that, I was an addict.

I played many many games of Civilization and have bought most of the sequels (although not yet Civilization VI), but it is that first game that is the most memorable. I played on an easy (if not the easiest) setting and had probably only one AI opponent. I spent the entire game expanding in my local area and slowly, slowly advancing my technology. By the time I was approaching the end-year for the game, I decided to circumnavigate the world (which was pretty cool – not sure if I had played a game with a “cylindrical” map before that). In doing so, I discovered the other civilization, and then time ran out and I got a poor score. But there was just something about moving through all those blacked-out squares, unveiling island after island, that gave me a real feeling of discovery.

Civilization didn’t invent the “Fog of War.” That credit may go to Empire. What Civilization brought for the first time to computer gaming was the “tech tree,” an innovation transferred over from the Civilization board game upon which Sid’s game was based. By the time I played Civilization II, both of these mechanics were “around”. But it was new to me. The combination of the two – first creating the necessary technology and then discovering what lay in that vast unknown – it really did approximate the “Age of Discovery” for this player.

It must have for many others as well, because this became the method for unveiling maps and pretty much the standard mechanic for any game set within this period. At least with every game that I recall playing up until I’ve encountered some recent innovations on the theme.

Oh, but what about the title of this post? Years before the events described above, when I was in probably 4th grade or so, a teacher discussed a favorite mnemonic for the year of Columbus’ first voyage. A friend told me that he had an even better mnemonic (he didn’t use that word, I’m sure) with which he would never fail to get the correct answer on his history test. “In the year 1492, Columbus took a poo.” Foolproof.

I never really got it. Does someone sit there thinking, “I know Columbus’ first voyage was in the early 1490s, but what year exactly?” It’s not the “two” that’s the problem. Nevertheless, I remember his rhyme to this day.

In the Year of Our Lord, 1492…

My first attempt to relive that wonder of decades’ past involved getting out my Civilization V. I played the scenario, supplied with the game, called Conquest of the New World. Actually, I played Conquest of the New World Deluxe (both are supplied with the game, each a separate scenario), because if it says “Deluxe,” it must be better.

The scenario uses a handful of Civilization features to recreate the discovery (and, naturally, conquest) of the New World. These are easily identifiable from past gameplay, but the use gives it a unique period flavor. One examples is that ships at sea now get “scurvy,” taking damage during a long voyage, forcing the player to pause at the various found native colonies, instead of just clearing more “fog” every turn. Another example is that the sight radius of regular ships is reduced while it is increased for Admirals. The “admiral” units are then named for the famous explorers. Thus small expeditions of ships are represented separately from the “fleets” that, one presumes, the standard ship unit implies. Likewise, the “city state” mechanic introduced in Civilization V is used to good effect.

Another twist, and one that I’ve not seen before in games on this subject, is that the real purpose of these westward voyages is remembered. The European players, first, get points for finding the “China” territory on the map and making diplomatic contact. Second, after the suitable technology is researched, more points can be earned by sending merchants to China on trading missions.

An even further twist is that taking a Native American capital produces “treasure” units. Having not read any scenario description, I had to guess that the purpose. I shepherded them back to the Old World, where I received some kind of acknowledgement and, I would hope, some victory points. This particular feature I recall from Sid Meier’s Colonization and also from some of the Age of Empires II campaigns.

Arms Race

I recall my impression from the time of the games that dabbled in this area. At least the ones that I played; Civilization, Europa Universalis, and Age of Empires. Despite being very different in terms of mechanics and even genre, they seemed to me to feed off each other with each new version.

I recall noticing this particularly in the iteration of Civilization where they introduced cultural expansion. Before, territorial ownership was defined simply by where the residents of a Civilization happen to be working. Leave a square unworked, and a competing civilization might just plop a city down right there. The inclusion of cultural borders not only made for more sensible gameplay, but caused Civilization to look a little more EU like.

Meanwhile, the Age of Empires franchise leapt in some new directions with the Rise of Nations series. That game dispensed with the construction of cities building-by-building, as the tradition AoE games had one do. The building of cities (more like Civ) and their zones-of-control (a bit like EU’s provinces) all hinted at an exchange of technique between these “big three.” For the betterment of all of them.

Another example was in the trade and diplomacy mechanics, and how computer civilizations would hold or forgive grudges when dealing with the player. If I’m not mistaken, the “bad boy rating” was an EU innovation before permutations on the concept spread.

As for Europa Universalis, the next release after this bit of advancement was EU III, which just did not appeal to me. While I eventually tried both the Hearts of Iron and Victoria sequels based on that engine iteration, I could never bring myself to go EU III. All is redeemed, however, with Europa Universalis IV. The EU franchise was always the pushing their work towards the “realism” end of the spectrum, and EU IV is a huge stride forward in both gameplay and in creating real immersion into the historical period.

But before I get too far down that road, let me go back to Civilization and some scenarios.


The design is that the “Old Country” for each of the European players is a single, fully-developed city. From these cities, the units; whether for exploration, settlements, or conquest; are dispatched to the New World. The New World is randomly generated, a combination of island and larger land mass features. It also randomly locates those features, so there is initially something of a race to locate good colonization spots. China, too, randomly located, rewarding the persistent explorer.


Not quite four decades after the discovery of the New Word and the French and English already have Caribbean colonies.

While not exactly on topic, I felt I’d be a little remiss if I didn’t at least mention Sid Meier’s Colonization and the “total conversion” of Civilization IV to recreate that game. Obviously, it shares many features with the previous game, including the exploration phase “discovering” a randomly-generated “New World.” However, much like Columbus’ expedition itself, the real goal is transporting resources back to Europe and earning wealth.


While primarily being about the colonization (well, duh), Colonization has some of the same exploration feel as the Civilization V New World scenario.

In the above screenshot, I was discovering what appears to be the main “continent” of Western Hemisphere. As I began to uncover more of the coastline, I noticed a remarkable resemblance to the first ever map of “America” (the first one labeled as such, that is), which is the picture I use for this entry in the timeline.

Enough on Civilization, however. I’ll return to the colony building in a later article, but first…

Like Being There

Europa Universalis has, on occasion, done such a good job of tracking history that it comes to me as a rude shock when I realize how certain things are unrealistically simulated. Because no matter how immersive it gets, under the hood, it is a numbers game, not a reality simulator. I love getting carried away in the “role playing” aspect of these games and hate getting disappointed when I realize how much of it is only in my head and not supported by the game itself. Yes, I understand its not a simulator, but I’d rather I didn’t.

That aside, there are a couple of models that really, really bother me with the way they get it wrong. The biggest of them is the handling of ships of the period.

To digress a bit, movement (both land and sea) is done by assigning a travel time for any unit to move between regions. Those units are either in a region, which they can then interact with, or they are in transit between two regions. That transit time can vary per the speed of the unit and the terrain/distance to be traveled.

Compare and contrast to the grid or hex movement, where each space is uniformly sized, or to the RTS games, where movement is smooth over a very fine grid. In a number of ways, it simplifies the exploration part of the game. By limiting the options from a large number of possible paths to transit through a much smaller number of regions, it limits micromanagement. Micromanagement is also reduced in that putting a unit in “transit” eliminates the need to manage it in the interim.

In both Civilization and Age of Empires, revealing of the map through exploration could become a chore, particularly as the game progressed. While it is exciting to find your nearest neighbor, or the closest ocean, the tedium of clearing the entire map of “fog” in the later game was not pleasant. This was so much the case that games have added the “auto-explore” option, designating a unit to move around discovering terrain without any user input in perpetuity, or at least until they were eaten by lions.

Which brings up another problem with “exploration” and most games. The exploring unit simply wanders the wilderness exploring, unconnected to the player’s civilization. While in a more abstract game like Civilization, the issue is merely one of balance, this really doesn’t make sense as you try to approximate realism.

EU added some depth to exploration to address these additional problems. First, exploring a hidden region was more costly than transiting a clear region, providing a cost to exploration. Secondly, entering unexplored terrain required a special unit function; “Explorers” for the sea and “Conquistadors” for the land. This required the recruitment and maintenance of dedicated leaders, which in line with the historical theme, corresponded to the explorers of the time. Third, the units suffered “attrition” from traveling the open ocean. (Borrowed for the “scurvy” mechanic discussed above). Damage, pretty much the same as that received in combat, is done to ships on a random basis as they travel. This limits the amount of “exploring” they can do before returning to a home port to “heal.”

This last feature could be a bit sticky. While sailing off into the sunset in 1492 was a bit of a crap shoot (see title), it doesn’t make for fun gameplay when your Christopher Columbus and then your Christopher Columbus Jr. are both sunk by random storms, which then delays the whole “New World” discovery part of your game to the mid-1500s. Even if that were a real possibility facing the real Columbus. The mechanic evolved to make the “attrition” slow enough so that the player can manage it. It also eliminated the sea attrition in home waters and added an “auto return” function in sea units to prevent the loss of fleets merely because the player forgot where they were. It certainly made for a better game of exploration than, say, Civilization, but retained some flaws.

As I said, one of my great complaints about Europa Universalis is the ship modeling. The exploration/attrition interaction is one. Discovering new sea lanes becomes a process of gradually pushing units further out into the unexplored sea until the fleet damage starts to become high. Then you return to port, heal, and repeat. This becomes particularly ahistorical when it comes to circumnavigating the world. I usually end up doing this from both ends, gradually chipping away at the darkness to create a thin line of explored territory through the South Pacific. The circle is finished when explorer 2 meets explorer 1’s path. Silly as it is, apparently Bartholomew Diaz’s discovery of the Horn of Africa looked much like this.

Diaz was headed for India. He sailed south of Africa, actually not knowing he’d done it, and was headed for India when his crew objected and demanded to turn back. It was on the return trip that he mapped the southern limits of the African continent and earned his fame. I imagine this whole journey in the mechanics of EU.

The bigger complaint is with the knowledge that the player (as EU has described, some gray eminence having the ear of the Roi du Jour) regarding ships at sea. Every discovery is known to the player as it is made. Thus if I find a new native nation in the New World, I could instantly dispatch a fleet of warships and soldiers from Europe to visit them. Or if I spot an enemy fleet, I can instantaneously reroute my own fleets from anywhere in the world to catch them. In reality, the only way to convey information from ship to shore was to actually sail that ship back to the port and deliver the map/message.

Another major complaint is the poor modeling of weather and, more particularly, trade winds. I’ll probably write some more later, but let’s just say there was a physical reason why huge Muslim fleets weren’t terrorizing the shores of Ireland, as sometimes happens in these game.

For now, let us stick with the exploration issue, and the latest version of EU,


There go the Nina, the Pin… no wait. It’s the Castor, the San Cristobal (Diaz’s ship?), and the Santa Justa, departing Spain for the New World, right on schedule.

because the latest version has made some fascinating progress in fixing discovery and exploration. Europa Universalis continually expands with new features and content in the form of add-ons. The add-on El Dorado focused specifically on this period and the discovery of the New World.

The key feature in this release is that explorers, rather being controlled by the player as they cross the map region-by-region across, are now given exploration missions. The area for their exploration is broadly defined, and then the explorer is sent off. While exploring, the explorer cannot be controlled or re-routed. Once they return to the mainland, the map is updated with discoveries and they come once again under control.


A little more than a year late, Columbus finally locates land in South America.

This finally resolves one of my great EU issues. You feel much more like a 15th century ruler funding missions of discovery, and less like a modern commander in radio contact with his fleets. Note that the exploration mission substitutes for simply sailing into unknown territory. That is, you can’t micromanage even if you want to. On land, there are similar missions for Conquistadors, but the old method of simply moving them around still works as well.

In my game, in the screenshots above, despite efforts to follow the historical script, I quickly veered off the track (which, I might add is what the game is supposed to do). Columbus initially discovered land in Brazil rather than in the Caribbean and the mechanics of colonization meant that that’s where I had to make my initial Spanish colony. I probably failed to trigger some feature that would allow Spain a colony in the historic location. Then again, if Columbus would have landed in South America, he probably would have built a colony in South America. Also, in my 1508, Isabella I lives on. It means Juana is not queen, and Aragon remains separate. I also managed to accidentally marry her to a prince of Naples, killing off Charles V before he was ever born and preempting the Habsburg’s rule over most of Europe. You can see in the screenshot, development in the Americas (my colonies are yellowish) is picking up, but it isn’t netting me any coin. Castile remains deeply in debt. I’ve sent an explorer off in search of the Seven Cities of Gold, in hopes that it will turn my fortunes.


Spain and Portugal (green colonies in Hispaniola) are flipping their historical positions in the Americas. I should’ve married a Habsburg.

Wish me luck.