essays and pithy thoughts

Statecraft: Wheat and livestock as catalysts

in Statecraft

Time for a few posts on the Civ derivative game I’ve started working on in earnest, calling it ‘Statecraft’ unless I can find something better, or if Blizzard already owns it. I need to break up my esports downer posts a bit.

Kicking off this project has prompted me to dive back into things that I haven’t touched since high school; I need to brush up on historical nation building topics while I build out the scaffolding of the game engine and the API. Having someone with an advanced degree in history for a wife helps considerably.

First stop was Guns, Germs, and Steel. I browsed up the three hour series that National Geographic did with the author through Netflix this morning, and am now diving into the text. The central question posed is one of nature vs nurture: why did some human societies develop into modern superpowers, while others developed much more slowly, or not at all? This book has a strong argument for nurture. The title speaks more to why colonial powers overran ‘new world’ societies in the previous millenium, but the answer goes back further into our collective history and comes down mainly to geography and raw materials, translated into food surpluses. Roughly put, if a society had a surplus of food, their numbers could grow; and if a society was collecting their food in a manner that didn’t consume all of their time and energy, that surplus in manpower kicked off a feedback cycle of technological and social advances that created greater and greater surpluses, not just in food but across all aspects of a society.

The success of early hunter-gatherers-turned-farmers seems to hinge on wheat in particular, as well as on the presence of a good number of animals that could be domesticated. The protein-rich diets of wheat eaters were superior to those subsisting from less potent types of plants, and wheat’s ease of cultivation when compared to other sources of food provided a basis for that time and effort surplus necessary for growth beyond subsistence. The domestication of animals, vegetarian mammals in particular, allowed for more efficient farming as well as being additional sources of food. Advanced societies sprung up from regions that had both of these; if you didn’t, then you had very little chances to create food or manpower surpluses, you were spending too much time simply making sure you could continue subsiding to worry about anything beyond that.

It just so happened to work out on this planet that the potent mix of a crop well suited for organized farming and a good number of native tamable animals was in the Middle East, and the agricultural practices as well as the animals that were domesticated fanned out across the Asian continent as well as into Europe, generally along a single latitude sharing the same weather that was conducive to farming. As people migrated east and west outward from where these factors converged, they took the wheat and animals with them. This is a real basic explanation of why advanced societies appeared generally simultaneously across a specific portion of the globe, while societies established elsewhere were too burdened with survival to get any further off the ground.

Applying it to gameplay

This speaks to a phenomenon that I always found to stretch the balance between ‘game’ and ‘real’ a bit too much towards the game side in the Civilization series: in any given game there’s typically a dearth of non-superpower nations on the board, just a group of 8-10 healthy nations that, when played properly, each have a handful of sizable cities and cover the globe evenly. This might make sense on a pangea-type world, but if land masses are split into continents, it’s more likely that one landmass in particular would serve as a platform for advanced societies, as opposed to multiple landmasses at the same time. Sailing across a sea towards an uncharted continent, only to find four or five fully developed civilizations with technological parity with your home content seems rather…unseemly and broken. That should be more the exception than the rule. It is generally held that most of the world’s inhabitable land masses indeed had a human presence for thousands of years, but the ability to kick-start societies larger than local tribes is something unique to particular area of the world.

To fill the gaps, ‘barbarian’ societies spring up whose only purpose is to damage your stuff, and Civ V introduced the (broken) concept of city-states, which stay pretty static throughout the game and just become targets for conquest anyway. Neither of these systems accurately model the ‘third world’ and it’s interaction with advanced societies. Civilization games spread all ‘major’ players across the map evenly, with generally the same number of players per continent and sets everyone equidistant from each other, filling the gaps with random barbarian pops and the occasional independent city-state. In reality, the ‘major’ players should relatively close and usually on the same continent, with many AI-driven city-states and smaller fledgling nations between them, causing friction throughout the game amongst most if not all the major players, with an occasional mid-tier nation developing on more remote continents with fewer opportunities to trade and become more developed.

So we now have the challenge of modeling this reality properly within the game. First, we don’t want to start human players in situations where they don’t possess the crops and animals to kickstart their civilization; it kinda defeats the purpose of such a game. Players shouldn’t be forced to continually start new games in order to land that one game where they spawn the proper resources in the vicinity of their first city; such a system would also make multiplayer matches wholly impractical. The ‘major’ players should all start with a ‘wheat’ resource which provides benefits over the more generic ‘grain’ that the other AI nations use who are supposed to be minor players. The major players should also begin with a domesticated animal resource, with some others ready nearby.

Second, Civilization’s system of having a smattering of tiles across the world that contain a permanent ‘wheat’ resource or a ‘cow’ or ‘pig’ resource, and then building a mechanic on top of that where you only get the benefits of that resource if you own an origin tile or trade with a nation that does, seems pretty inadequate when applied to crops and domesticated animals, and doesn’t translate well to reality anyway. People settling new lands who originated from agricultural societies took their wheat and animals with them, and different types of crops and livestock spread across the globe through trade; simply because a crop or animal isn’t native to your nation’s lands doesn’t mean it can’t be imported and grown locally. Thus, I feel that agricultural resources should work more like ‘goody huts’, where coming upon one gives a city a one-time boost in their reserves of that resource, which they then can draw upon to plant in their fields, or transfer to other cities or other nations through trade. The mechanic is that you can plant and generate more of a crop as long as you have some in storage, and as long as you own lands of a proper type and temperature to grow it. This way, trading for a crop becomes a one-time trade if you are able to plant it within your borders, but still leaves the possibility for an ongoing relationship for importing other types of food that can’t be grown locally.

This way, we have a more realistic means of modeling trade of crops as well as a more realistic way of modeling the difference between the key global players and other smaller nations from the start of the game, without resorting to artificial nerfs or deliberate AI impairments.