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The Game of Everything, Part 1: Making Civilization

If my gravestone says, “Sid Meier, developed Civilization,” I’m happy with that. It’s a game I’m happy to be known for.

— Sid Meier

Sid Meier

During Sid Meier’s astonishingly productive first ten years as a designer and programmer, games poured out of him in such a jumble that even his colleagues at MicroProse Software could have trouble keeping straight what all he was working on at any given time. At the beginning of 1990, for instance, he had no fewer than three ambitious projects on the boil. He and his protege Bruce Shelley were finishing up Railroad Tycoon with justifiable enthusiasm. The same pair was, with considerably less enthusiasm, returning to Covert Action, one of the rare Meier designs that he could just never quite get to work to his satisfaction. And then — because what else should a recently married game designer spend his evenings doing? — Meier had embarked on a third project on his own time, a game he was already calling Civilization.

Like Railroad Tycoon before it, Civilization was born out of Meier’s abiding fascination with SimCity. The programmer and simulation designer inside him recognized Will Wright’s so-called “software toy” to be a stunning achievement, yet the purer game designer within him was always a bit frustrated by the aimlessness of the experience. Thus Railroad Tycoon had attempted to take some of the appeal of SimCity and “gamify” it by adding computerized opponents and a concrete ending date. It had succeeded magnificently on those terms, but Meier wasn’t done building on what Wright had wrought. In fact, his first conception of Civilization cast it as a much more obvious heir to SimCity than even Railroad Tycoon had been. Whereas SimCity had let the player build her own functioning city, Civilization would let her build a whole network of them, forming a country — or, as the game’s name would imply, a civilization.

This, then, was the first of three conceptual layers which would eventually make up the game of Civilization that the world would come to know. Meier abstracted away most of the details of the individual cities, letting the player decide only on which key buildings were built, whilst boiling each city down to a handful of numbers detailing its population, its economy, and its quality of life. This being a country rather than a city simulator, the spaces between the cities were just as important as the urban centers themselves. Meier thus made it possible to irrigate the countryside, to build roads to facilitate commerce, to build mines for digging up the raw materials needed by the centers of industry. At this early stage, Civilization, later to be hailed as the most iconic exemplar of turn-based grand-strategy games, ran in real time, like SimCity and Railroad Tycoon before it.

Around March of 1990, after working on Civilization for some months completely alone, Meier began to include Bruce Shelley in the role of sounding board. Shelley worked a standard eight-to-five day at MicroProse most of the time, while Meier hewed to a typical hacker’s schedule, showing up at noon or shortly before and working late into the evening. Each night, before he went home, he’d leave a disk on Shelley’s chair with the latest version of Civilization. The next morning, when Shelley arrived at work, he’d play it for an hour or so in order to give Meier his feedback. For perhaps as long as a year, Shelley was literally the only person allowed to play the nascent Civilization, under strict instructions to ignore the pleas of his colleagues peering over his shoulder. It was, to say the least, an unorthodox model of game development, but it somehow worked for these two unique personalities. Far from remaining just a glorified play-tester for very long, Shelley got deeper and deeper into the design. As he did so, Civilization started to become something else entirely.

The switch from a real-time to a turn-based approach was made quite early on, possibly even before those disks started appearing on Bruce Shelley’s chair. It would be wonderful to know the details behind the decision, but neither Meier nor Shelley can recall much of the specifics. It’s likely, however, that the change was made when Meier and Shelley — or Meier alone — started mulling over how to prevent Civilization from falling into the SimCity trap of becoming more of a software toy than a game in the traditional sense. The obvious way to gameify the experience was to include competing civilizations, just as Railroad Tycoon had included competing robber barons. But conflicts between civilizations, unlike conflicts between business interests, always have looming over them the prospect of that ultimate diplomatic arbiter: war. So, including competing civilizations seemed to demand that a whole new layer of wargame strategy be mated to the existing game of city and country development.

Meier, who somehow found time to remain an avid player of strategy games when he wasn’t developing them, had for years been playing one called Empire, a design so old that it had been born on a big DEC PDP-10 rather than a microcomputer. Empire has a complicated pre-commercial history, which is complicated further by the fact that at least three mostly or entirely separate games were given the name over the course of the 1970s. But the most relevant version for our purposes was created by Walter Bright, a 20-year-old student at the California Institute of Technology, in 1977. Bright himself later ported it to microcomputers, efforts which culminated in him selling the game to a small publisher called Interstel, who made something of a specialty out of pulling hoary old classics out of the dustbin of 1970s institutional computing, giving them a coat of spit and polish, and introducing them to the home-computer-owning public. (Their first game, 1984’s Star Fleet I: The War Begins!, had done the same thing for the old mainframe Star Trek game.) It was Interstel’s version of Empire, published in 1987 with the subtitle Wargame of the Century, that Sid Meier knew best.

At a time when companies like SSI were publishing bafflingly complicated wargames in the name of faithfulness to history, Empire stood out for its elegant simplicity; it was more Risk than Squad Leader. A world on which to play is chosen or, more commonly, generated randomly for each game. You begin in possession of a single city surrounded by just eight visible squares of the 5684 of them that make up the map; the rest of the world remains a mystery. Each city can be assigned to build one of a handful of armies, aircraft, and ships, each of which demands a set number of turns to bring to completion. Your first objective must be to build a unit in your first city and set out to explore the map as quickly as possible, taking possession of any neutral cities you discover. But eventually you run into the units and cities of your competitors, whereupon you all duke it out, leaving the last person left standing as the winner. Simplicity really is the watchword throughout. The military units, for instance, have their capabilities abstracted into just a handful of numbers: a movement speed, an attack rating, a defense rating, a damage rating describing the number of hits required to destroy it. Combat occurs when one player drives a unit into a square occupied by an enemy unit, whereupon the computer throws a virtual die, runs the result through an equation, and announces the outcome of the battle. A certain kind of player lauds Empire as a pure strategy game, a balanced challenge which rewards purely strategic thinking instead of muddying the issue with the superiority of Nazi optics versus the better armor of Allied tanks and all the rest. (Of course, another kind of player, of a more experiential bent, finds it utterly uninteresting for the same reason.)

Issuing orders to a unit in Empire

…and doing the same thing in Civilization.

There’s really no delicate way to put this: confirming the old adage that good artists borrow while great ones steal, Sid Meier pretty much ripped off Empire wholesale and transported it into his burgeoning Civilization. The unknown map just begging to be revealed, the combat system, even many of the specific commands a player could issue to her units… all arrived virtually unchanged in Civilization, to such an extent that anyone who had played Empire — and Bruce Shelley, for one, certainly had — would immediately know what to do. Where Meier did make changes, it was generally to simplify Empire‘s already hugely abstracted approach to wargaming yet further. For example, he removed the damage rating from his units altogether in favor of a one-hit-and-you’re-done model. (This would lead to one of the more indelible images of Civilization in the cultural memory: that of a Greek phalanx destroying, thanks to a lucky roll of the virtual die, a platoon of modern tanks.)

By this point, Meier and Shelley had a fairly credible game already, a version of Empire grafted to a city-building game of economic development which determined how many and what sorts of military units the player could produce and support. Said units were confined to the ancient era: legions, phalanxes, chariots, cavalry. Shelley remembers the two of them discussing the fact that, should worse come to worst, they could probably just polish up what they had and release it as a beer-and-pretzels strategy game of the Punic Wars or something. Yet neither one was at all inclined to do so; to turn Civilization into a just another conquer-the-world game would be to lose some palpable if unarticulated sense of otherness that had been lurking within the project from the very beginning.

Civilization‘s Advances Chart is one of the most awe-inspiring documents I’ve ever encountered in my life. Colloquially referred to as the “tech tree,” it actually encompasses much more than that name would imply. It’s rather an endlessly fascinating chronicle of human progress, of what begot what, not just in the realm of technology but in those of art, culture, thought… in everything. I love it so much that I very nearly started another blog just to explore its interconnections. Yes, really.

The moment when they discovered their game’s true reason for existing came when they conjured up the “Advances Chart,” a timeline of scientific, technological, and cultural advancements up which the player could guide her civilization. With this idea, the third and most defining layer of the game fell into place. Not only did it change the game, it also changed the nature of the design process. The pair’s afternoons were soon filled by discussions — and occasional arguments — ranging back and forth across the timeline of progress. Others inside MicroProse’s cramped offices found these discussions so fascinating that they couldn’t help listening in, to the detriment of their own productivity. Shelley remembers making one proposal that wouldn’t ultimately make it into the game, for introducing a technology no less plebeian than the stirrup to the Advances Chart. “Why the stirrup?” asked a baffled Meier. Well, explained Shelley, horse-borne warfare didn’t instantly begin when people began riding horses; if you hit someone with a lance while riding without stirrups you’d wind up pushing yourself right off the horse. Knights in shining armor, massed cavalry charges, cowboys and Indians… the humble stirrup, just as much as the domestication of horses, had been the key to all of it. These were the sorts of insights Civilization was now giving its designers, as it soon would its players as well.

Beyond the starting slate of seven possibilities for research, the Advances Chart was based on prerequisites: to research Mysticism required one to already have discovered Ceremonial Burial, to research Chivalry required one to have Horseback Riding and Feudalism. The prerequisites were partially based on gameplay considerations, but at least as often teased out real, sometimes subtle linkages between the great achievements of humanity. Why, for instance, should Democracy require Literacy? Because a functioning democracy requires a literate population able to read for themselves and make responsible decisions from a position of knowledge, that’s why. Why should Labor Unions require Mass Production? Because the awful working conditions in factories provided the impetus for organizing and collectively demanding better conditions from the moneyed interests who owned the factories, that’s why.

In order to form such connections, Meier and Shelley spent hours poring over history books, trying to understand what begot what and why. They were undoubtedly punching above their weight in trying to wrestle into place so all-encompassing a document as the Civilization Advances Chart — who wouldn’t be? — but they were helped by the fact that both had been dedicated readers of history for years, amassing substantial personal libraries.1 And when said personal libraries failed them, they could take advantage of the location of MicroProse’s offices in suburban Baltimore by making the short drive to one of the Smithsonian museums or the Library of Congress.

Meier and Shelley didn’t, as would have been all too easy for two old grognards like them, limit their research to the realm of the military, nor for that matter to the military-industrial complex. As some of the examples I’ve already named illustrate, they really did try to encompass everything on their Advances Chart, including philosophy, the arts, even the slow march of human rights toward true equality. They resisted the natural urge to dismiss or belittle those things which fell outside the compass of their usual interests. Here, another Shelley anecdote is telling. Very late in the game’s development, he asked one of MicroProse’s artists, who given the company’s usual product portfolio was accustomed to drawing pictures of soldiers, tanks and airplanes, to draw a picture of Michelangelo’s David statue for the Civilization manual. Why on earth do you want a picture of that, asked the artist. Shelley admitted that he was no great art historian or even art enthusiast. But, he said, people who are those things have told me via their books that this statue is very, very important — even, some of them might say, one of the great achievements of human civilization — and I respect their point of view. That noble broad-mindedness became an essential part of Civilization‘s personality, keeping it from becoming just another min-max-ing exercise in conflict management. I recently praised the Dr. Brain series of educational games from Sierra for their unwillingness to be confined to a single topic, for the implicit argument they make that all fields of human endeavor are equally worthy. Vastly different though it is as a game, Civilization manifests the same spirit.

By the time the Advances Chart extended to roughly the present day, the simple mechanisms Meier and Shelley had built the game around were finally beginning to break down. Meier remembers the introduction of aircraft units, which demanded that some ugly special rules be grafted onto the heretofore beautifully simple Empire-derived military layer, as a particular inflection point, a sign to the two designers that it was about time to wrap things up. He recalls introducing pollution to the game at least partly as a way of sending the same signal to the player.

Still, the spirit of the Advances Chart would clash horribly with a game which could be won only by conquering the world. What could become an alternative endgame for the player who preferred building to conquering? It was Shelley who suggested the perfect builder’s path to victory: advancing all the way to the end of the Advances Chart would allow you to build and launch a spaceship for Alpha Centauri, thus inaugurating the next great phase of humanity’s existence. Granted, it didn’t quite make sense in the context of the rest of the advances chart, which otherwise confined itself to things that had already been discovered or that hopefully would be in the fairly near future. Civilization would offer no explanation of how humanity would go from Robotics, (Apollo-style) Space Flight, and Plastics to bridging the 4.37 light years that separate our solar system from its closest neighbor — a leap that could require a whole other Advances Chart at least as big as the one Meier and Shelley already had to actually bring to fruition in any sort of grounded way. One could argue that a voyage to Mars might have made a better final goal, but Meier and Shelley clearly wanted something audacious, and audacious a trip to Alpha Centauri certainly is.

Now it only remained for the two designers to glue their three layers of gameplay into a coherent whole. On the surface, this seemed far from a simple task. The issues of scaling they faced would have defeated many a designer: military operations took place on a scale of days and weeks, construction projects played out on a scale of months and years, while cultures moved up the Advances Chart only over a time frame of decades and centuries.

My regular readers may recall that this same pair of designers had faced an only slightly less extreme version of this clash of time and scale with Railroad Tycoon. There the question had been how to integrate the operational aspect of the game — also known as the “model-railroading” aspect — with the business of running a real railroad over a period of years and decades. They solved the problem, you may recall, by effectively ignoring it, by running the entire game on the macro time scale of the business layer and just letting the operational layer deal with it. This meant that individual trains could take months between leaving one station and arriving at another, and that major transportation corridors like Boston to New York might be served by just two or three train departures per year. You could rationalize all of this as an abstraction of the hundreds of trains that were really running over these tracks, or you could just not think about it at all. The point was that it led to a fun game that captured the spirit of its subject matter.

Faced with the same problem in Civilization, Meier and Shelley took the exact same approach. The game would run on a time frame appropriate to the theme of human progress on the grand scale. Each turn would represent fully twenty years from 4000 BC to 1000 AD, followed by ten years until 1500, five years until 1750, two years until 1850, and one year thereafter; the shortening spans of time would depict the steadily accelerating pace of progress as the world lurched toward modernity. This had some extremely weird implications for the Empire-derived military game in particular: it meant that battles could conceivably span centuries —  the Trojans and the Greeks had nothing on this lot! — and wars could potentially span millennia. For that matter, it meant that just marching a phalanx from one side of one’s country to the other could require a couple of centuries in itself. You can, once again, choose to rationalize this as an abstraction of reality, or you can just not think about it. Yet again, the point is that it’s fun and that it works for the game.

With the three layers of the design thus welded together, the rest of the game we’ve come to know as Civilization fell into place. Meier and Shelley turned to the history books again to select fifteen current or historical cultures for inclusion, from the Americans to the Zulus, one of which the player could choose to play, the others of which would serve as potential rival civilizations. Fairly rudimentary artificial intelligence came in for this last group, with the behavior of each rival civilization’s leader defined on an axis of three values, from “militaristic” to “civilized,” from “aggressive” to “friendly,” from “expansionist” to “perfectionist.” An extremely rudimentary diplomatic model came in, with geopolitical relations boiled down to make war or make peace, demand tribute or pay tribute.

The final indelible piece of the Civilization experience arrived in the form of “Wonders of the World,” special structures which only one civilization would be allowed to build in one city in the course of an entire game. Each would confer some tangible benefit, but just as important would be the bragging rights of having constructed the Pyramids of Giza or the Great Wall of China. While the idea and the name were obviously inspired by the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, Meier and Shelley wound up using only four of the Seven. The balance of the list was filled out with seventeen other landmark achievements, many of them not actually physical structures at all: Magellan’s circumnavigation of the world, Darwin’s theory of evolution, the United Nations, the Apollo moon landings, even — reaching now into the realm of wishful thinking — a cure for cancer. Just as had happened with the Advances Chart, the list of Wonders became far more wide-ranging than one would have any right to expect. How many other grognards would have taken the time to single out women’s suffrage as one of the Wonders of the World?

Other designers — some of them great ones — had occasionally dreamed about a game of this scale and scope, but none had ever come close to bringing the dream to fruition. At the very same time that Meier and Shelley were working on Civilization, two other hugely admired designers were coincidentally each working on a similarly themed project of their own, only to be forced to scale it back dramatically. Dan Bunten2 wound up with Global Conquest, a competent but less than earth-shaking conquer-the-world strategy game, while Chris Crawford wound up with a game every bit as unfun as its title would imply: The Global Dilemma: Guns or Butter.

Why, we might ask, did Civilization turn out differently? A big piece of the reason must be Sid Meier’s unwavering commitment to fun as the final arbiter in game design, as summed up in his longstanding maxim of “Fun trumps history.” Meier, Bunten, and Crawford actually met on at least one occasion to discuss the games of everything they each had in progress. Crawford’s recollections of that meeting are telling, even if they’re uttered more in a tone of condemnation than approbation: “Sid had a very clear notion: he was going to make it fun. He didn’t give a damn about anything else; it was going to be fun. He said, ‘I have absolutely no reservation about fiddling with realism or anything, so long as I can make it more fun.'”

But another, less obvious piece of the puzzle is inherent to the way that Civilization was developed. Imagine yourself in the shoes of a designer who’s just decided to make a game about everything. How do you even begin? What rules, what mechanics, what interface can you possibly employ? It is, needless to say, a daunting prospect. Game design being an art of the possible, you inevitably begin to pare away at your grand vision, trying to arrive at some core which you can actually hope to implement. In the process, though, you also begin cutting into the soul of the idea, until you arrive at a dispiriting shadow of it like Global Conquest or The Global Dilemma. Sid Meier, by contrast, never really decided to make a game about everything at all; his design just kind of went there on its own. Thus while Bunten and Crawford were cutting back on their ambitions, Meier was expanding on his. Rather than arriving as an immaculate conception, Civilization was allowed to grow into itself, employing rules, mechanics, and interfaces which had already been proven on smaller scales.

A persistent question surrounding Civilization the computer game — and one that has come to have urgent legal relevance — has been the influence of an earlier game with the same name, a board game designed by Francis Tresham and self-published by him in 1980, then re-published under the Avalon Hill imprint the following year. The theme of the board game matches that of the computer game — the advancement of human civilization from its formative stages — and the two share other eyebrow-raising similarities. An Advances Chart not at all far removed from the one in the computer game is implemented in the board game as well via a deck of cards, and even some of the individual advances in the board game lend their names to those in the computer game. On the other hand, the board game ends in approximately 250 BC, while, as already noted, the computer game stretches into the near future.

Seasoned grognards that they were, Meier and Shelley could hardly not have been acquainted with the Avalon Hill game, which enjoyed considerable popularity in its day among the hardcore wargame crowd who were willing to devote the five or six hours that a complete playthrough of it usually required. Yet Meier — who, it should be noted, has always been very transparent about the inspirations for his games — has claimed to have played the board game only once in his life, and not to have had it in mind at all when he started making the computer game. Shelley, who worked at Avalon Hill prior to coming to MicroProse, admits to considerably more familiarity, but likewise dismisses the notion of having borrowed anything more than certain themes and a name, the latter apparently with no regard to what had come before. Sid Meier could be, much to MicroProse head “Wild” Bill Stealey’s chagrin, extremely naive about matters of business and intellectual property, and simply stuck the obvious name on his own game without ever thinking about what conflicts it might create.

Stealey was no grognard, and thus had no idea about the name’s history until MicroProse had already begun advance promotion of their take on Civilization. It was at this point that a very unhappy Eric Dott, the president of Avalon Hill, called him up and said, “Wild Bill, Civilization is my game. You’re stealing it.” Further complicating the situation was the fact that the same two men had had very nearly same conversation barely a year before, when MicroProse had published Railroad Tycoon. Dott had been convinced then that the game in question bore suspicious similarities to the Avalon Hill board game 1830: Railways & Robber Barons, ironically also a Francis Tresham design, and one on which Bruce Shelley had done some work during his time at the company. Stealey had been able to smooth things over then, but now here they were again, and with what seemed a much more clear-cut case of trademark infringement at that. To make matters that much worse, Avalon Hill was about to unveil a set of expanded rules for the original Civilization board game under the name of Advanced Civilization, and was thus particularly unenthused about having a computer game with the same name confusing the issue at this of all junctures.

Wild Bill can best explain what happened next in his own inimitable style:

So, I had lunch with Eric. I bought him lunch because I was buttering him up. I said, “Eric, I apologize. I didn’t know Sid was doing this, but I think it’s going to be a good game. I think we won’t sell near as many as you sell as boxed games.” You know, one of those games you buy in a box and play on a table — tabletop games. “What if I put a card in every one of the games that says, ‘Get $5 off Civilization from Avalon Hill,’ and you do the same for me?'” After two or three glasses of wine, he agreed — one of his bigger mistakes. He would have made a lot more money if he had said, “Okay, give me 10 percent of it.” All he got was a card in the game box. If he had 10 percent of Civilization, Avalon Hill would still be around today, right?

Of course, the presence of those cards in the boxes did nothing to ease the confusion surrounding these two very different games with the same name. To this day, there are many who believe Sid Meier’s Civilization to be merely a computerized version of the board game.

Stealey and Dott’s gentleman’s agreement wouldn’t keep the lawyers at bay forever; the issue would be revisited again, with major consequences for all involved. But that would be only years in the future, and thus must be fodder for a much later article of mine.

By the time Stealey and Dott had their tête-à-tête, the duo of Meier and Shelley had long since begun including their colleagues in the Civilization development and play-testing process. The game had a split reputation inside MicroProse. The technical and creative staff, almost to a person, loved it, was convinced that this was not just another game, not even just another very good Sid Meier game, but a true landmark in the offing for their company and for their industry. And yet the more businesslike side of the company, taking their cue from the man at the top of the food chain, was rather less enthused.

The fact of the matter was that Wild Bill Stealey wasn’t capable of getting truly, personally enthused over any game that wasn’t a military flight simulator. Just as had happened with Pirates! and Railroad Tycoon, Sid Meier’s two earlier masterpieces, he never quite seemed to grasp what his star designer was on about with Civilization, couldn’t seem to understand why he preferred to spend his time on a high-falutin’ project like this one instead of, say, F-15 Strike Eagle III. Yet Meier, whose confidence in himself had grown with every game of his that MicroProse published, was no longer a designer to whom Stealey could dictate directions; the last gasp of that had been his reluctantly finishing up Covert Action at Stealey’s insistence. Faced with that reality, Stealey duly provided Civilization with the artists and other resources Meier and Shelley needed to finish it, announced the game to the press (thus leading to that fateful lunchtime truce with Eric Dott), and even ran some modest pre-release advertisements. But he wasn’t overly generous with the Civilization development team; certainly the finished game is no graphical feast, with a look that verges at times on amateurish. Shelley in particular has described his frustration with feeling perpetually under-appreciated by MicroProse’s management. The final insult came when, after shipping their staggeringly ambitious game in December of 1991, he and Meier saw their bonuses cut because they had done so six weeks late, missing the bulk of the Christmas buying season.

Whatever Stealey personally thought of Civilization, his ambivalence is by no means the only explanation for the relative lack of resources at his star designer’s disposal. Meier, who had co-founded MicroProse with Stealey back in 1982, had seven years later made a conscious decision to step back from the roller-coaster ride that running a company alongside Wild Bill was always doomed to be. In 1989, he had convinced Stealey to buy him out so he could focus strictly on designing games, becoming a “super contractor” for what had once been his own company. Still, nothing could entirely insulate him and Shelley and their latest game from an unstable situation around them. The fact was that MicroProse was in a rather precarious position as Meier and Shelley were finishing their latest masterpiece. The problems reached back to 1988, when Stealey, having seen his company clear $1 million in profit the previous year, embarked on two major new initiatives that pushed them well outside their comfort zone of military simulations for American home computers. Neither of them would have a happy ending.

One of the new initiatives was an aggressive expansion into the European market, including a new branch office in Britain and the purchase of the Firebird and Rainbird labels from British Telecom. In principle, opening a MicroProse subsidiary in Britain was a smart, even visionary move to get in on the second biggest computer-game market in the world, but the move was horribly mismanaged from the start, collapsing into chaos in the summer of 1989, when Stealey flew to Britain to personally accuse a managing director of embezzling £200,000 from the company coffers. The purchase of Firebird and Rainbird, on the other hand, didn’t make much sense even at the time as anything other than expansion for expansion’s sake — their collection of action games and old-school text adventures didn’t sit terribly well beside the MicroProse catalog — and quickly turned out to be a bust, with both labels, which had enjoyed considerable respect at the time of the purchase, disappearing entirely by 1991 under a cloud of yet more transatlantic miscommunication.

Wild Bill Stealey with his ill-fated F-15 Strike Eagle arcade game.

But it was the other big initiative of 1988 that was closest to Wild Bill Stealey’s flyboy heart. Frustrated by the limitations of the personal computers which ran his beloved flight simulators, he concocted a scheme to build his own hardware in order to do them justice. Gene Lipkin, a former executive with the original Atari, took charge of a project to build coin-op versions of MicroProse’s games for arcades, beginning with F-15 Strike Eagle, their most successful game of all. The arcade version of that game, which was unveiled in 1990, could draw 60,000 polygons per second to its huge 27-inch screen at a time when the average PC-based MicroProse simulator was pushing about 1500. But, impressive though the hardware may have been, the whole project was profoundly ill-conceived from a business perspective. Like its microcomputer equivalent, the arcade version of F-15 Strike Eagle was a deep, fairly realistic game that would require some time even to fully understand, much less master. That was fine for home-computer software, but totally at odds with the quick thrills typically offered by arcade quarter-munchers. The extended play time, the complex missions which the player had to earn the right to play… none of it made any sense whatsoever as an arcade game. Even the First Gulf War, which was being televised live every night on CNN and creating a voracious appetite for flight simulators on home computers, couldn’t save it. It flopped.

As all of these misbegotten ventures ran their course, the losses piled up at MicroProse: $1.4 million in 1988, $300,000 in 1989, $600,000 in 1990. In 1991, Stealey decided that the best way to clear all of his failed ventures off the books and start moving forward again was to launch an IPO. On October 3, 1991, just as Meier and Shelley and their helpers were in the midst of the final mad scramble to finish Civilization, MicroProse issued 2 million shares at an initial price of $9 each. It was, to say the least, an unconventional move; companies normally launch IPOs when things are going well, not when they’re going poorly.3 For MicroProse, it would prove only the most short-lived of bandages on a series of financial wounds Stealey would only continue to inflict on his company.


Nevertheless, Civilization did come out that December, in a nice-looking box, with a fat manual (largely written by Shelley) and a pull-out insert for that magnificent Advances Chart. No one, of course — not even the game’s designers or its most zealous devotees among MicroProse’s creative staff — had any idea of what it would ultimately come to mean for its industry or its art form. Certainly no one could have dreamed that Civilization would still be going strong as I write these words more than a quarter of a century later, that it would become the sort of game quite likely to go on for as long as our own civilization exists to sustain it. “We knew it was a fun game,” remembers Meier, “but there had been no historical example of a [computer] game that had that kind of longevity at that point. We didn’t have a sense that this was going to be so different from the other games we had made. We thought it was good and creative and had new ideas in it, but had it flopped we would not have been shocked.”

Following the lead of its designers, gamers at large for the most part regarded Civilization as merely the latest release from the highly respected Sid Meier, albeit perhaps one with an unusually intriguing premise. Most of the initial reviews showed no inkling of the game’s ultimate importance, although they were universally positive. The one reviewer who did seem to grasp the game’s timeless quality was Alan Emrich. Writing in his usual affected style for Computer Gaming World, the journal of record for hardcore strategy gamers, he concluded his review by saying that “a new Olympian in the genre of god games has truly emerged, and Civilization is likely to prove itself the greatest discovery in computer entertainment since the wheel.”

But most importantly, Civilization sold quite well following its release, spending several months among the top ten sellers in the industry, rising once or twice as high as the number-three spot. Whatever he personally thought of Sid Meier’s recent esoteric project choices, Wild Bill Stealey couldn’t complain about the commercial performance of this, his latest effort, which earned back all of the money it had cost to make it in fairly short order.

And then, something else started to happen. After those first several months were over, when sales of any other computer game could normally be expected to fall off a cliff, they did no such thing in the case of Civilization. Month after month, Civilization kept right on selling. It became that rarest of beasts in what was becoming an ever more ephemeral, hits-driven industry: a perennial. Over the course of its first four and a half years on the market, it sold 850,000 copies, while becoming a huge influence on a whole new generation of ambitious turn-based grand-strategy games. Sid Meier and Bruce Shelley had never made a sequel in their careers, and never had any inkling that this latest game of theirs would spawn a franchise, much less a genre — much less, for some players, a veritable lifestyle. But when MicroProse bowed to their customers’ demands and belatedly returned to the well in 1996 with Civilization II, the die was well and truly cast. Publishers, designers, and technology might come and go, but Civilization was forever.

(Sources: the books Civilization, or Rome on 640K A Day by Johnny L. Wilson and Alan Emrich, Game Design: Theory & Practice by Richard Rouse III, and Gamers at Work: Stories Behind the Game People Play by Morgan Ramsay; PC Review of August 1992; A.C.E. of May 1990; Computer Gaming World of January 1988, June 1989, September 1990, December 1990, November 1991, December 1991, and April 1992; Origin Systems’s internal newsletter Point of Origin from October 25 1991, March 27 1992, June 5 1992, and August 14 1992; Soren Johnson’s interviews with Bruce Shelley and Sid Meier. My huge thanks go to Soren for providing me with the raw audio of his Sid Meier interview months before it went up on his site, thus giving me a big leg up on my research.)

  1. Soren Johnson, who many years later worked as co-designer of Civilization III and lead designer of Civilization IV, remembers Meier loaning him some reference books near the beginning of his involvement with the franchise, telling him that they might be good resources to use in refining or expanding the Advances Charts of the earlier games. Flipping through the books, he noticed underlined phrases like “ceremonial burial.” With a start, he realized that he had in his hands a history book that had itself become a piece of history: one of Sid Meier’s original sources for the original Civilization

  2. Dan Bunten began living as the woman Danielle Bunten Berry shortly after the publication of Global Conquest. As per my usual editorial policy on these matters, I refer to her as “he” and by her original name only to avoid historical anachronisms and to stay true to the context of the times. 

  3. MicroProse had become a distributor of “affiliated labels,” smaller publishers who paid for access to their distribution network, in the late 1980s. In the run-up to the IPO, trying to make their bottom line look better, they abruptly stopped paying such labels for the games they sold. Among the publishers that were nearly undone by this move was Legend Entertainment. In light of episodes like this, it’s perhaps not a big surprise that, while Sid Meier was universally liked and respected, Bill Stealey’s reputation within his industry was, at best, mixed. 


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What’s the Matter with Covert Action?

Covert Action‘s cover is representative of the thankfully brief era when game publishers thought featuring real models on their boxes would drive sales. The results almost always ended up looking like bad romance-novel covers; this is actually one of the least embarrassing examples. (For some truly cringeworthy examples of artfully tousled machismo, see the Pirates! reissue or Space Rogue.)

In the lore of gaming there’s a subset of spectacular failures that have become more famous than the vast majority of successful games. From E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial to Daikatana to Godus, this little rogue’s gallery inhabits its own curious corner of gaming history. The stories behind these games, carrying with them the strong scent of excess and scandal, can’t help but draw us in.

But there are also other, less scandalous cases of notable failure to which some of us continually return for reasons other than schadenfreude. One such case is that of Covert Action, Sid Meier and Bruce Shelley’s 1990 game of espionage. Covert Action, while not a great or even a terribly good game, wasn’t an awful game either. And, while it wasn’t a big hit, nor was it a major commercial disaster. By all rights it should have passed into history unremarked, like thousands of similarly middling titles before and after it. The fact that it has remained a staple of discussion among game designers for some twenty years now in the context of how not to make a game is due largely to Sid Meier himself, a very un-middling designer who has never quite been able to get Covert Action, one his few disappointing games, out of his craw. Indeed, he dwells on it to such an extent that the game and its real or perceived problems still tends to rear its head every time he delivers a lecture on the art of game design. The question of just what’s the matter with Covert Action — the question of why it’s not more fun — continues to be asked and answered over and over, in the form of Meier’s own design lectures, extrapolations on Meier’s thesis by others, and even the occasional contrarian apology telling us that, no, actually, nothing‘s wrong with Covert Action.

What with piling onto the topic having become such a tradition in design circles, I couldn’t bear to let Covert Action‘s historical moment go by without adding the weight of this article to the pile. But first, the basics for those of you who wouldn’t know Covert Action if it walked up and invited you to dinner.

As I began to detail in my previous article, Covert Action‘s development at MicroProse, the company at which Sid Meier and Bruce Shelley worked during the period in question, was long by the standards of its time, troubled by the standards of any time, and more than a little confusing to track in our own time. Begun in early 1988 as a Commodore 64 game by Lawrence Schick, another MicroProse designer, it was conceived from the beginning as essentially an espionage version of Sid Meier’s earlier hit Pirates! — as a set of mini-games the player engaged in to affect the course of an overarching strategic game. But Schick found that he just couldn’t get the game to work, and moved on to something else. And that would have been that — except that Sid Meier had become intrigued by the idea, and picked it up for his own next project, moving it in the process from the Commodore 64 to MS-DOS, where it would have a lot more breathing room.

In time, though, the enthusiasm of Meier and his assistant designer Bruce Shelley also began to evaporate; they started spending more and more time dwelling on an alternative design. By August of 1989, they were steaming ahead with Railroad Tycoon, and all work on Covert Action for the nonce had ceased.

After Railroad Tycoon was completed and released in April of 1990, Meier and Shelley returned to Covert Action only under some duress from MicroProse’s head Bill Stealey. With the idea that would become Civilization already taking shape in Meier’s head, his enthusiasm for Covert Action was lower than ever, but needs must. As Shelley tells the story, Meier’s priorities were clear in light of the idea he had waiting in the wings. “We’re just getting this game done,” Meier said of Covert Action when Shelley tried to suggest ways of improving the still somehow unsatisfying design. “I’ve got to get this game finished.” It’s hard to avoid the impression that in the end Meier simply gave up on Covert Action. Yet, given the frequency with which he references it to this day, it’s seems equally clear that that capitulation has never sat well with him.

Covert Action casts you as the master spy Max Remington — or, in a nice nod to gender equality that was still unusual in a game of this era, as Maxine Remington. Max is the guy the CIA calls when they need someone to crack the really tough cases. The game presents you with a series of said tough cases, each involving a plot by some combination of criminal and/or terrorist groups to do something very bad somewhere in the world. Your objective is to figure out what group or groups are involved, figure out precisely what they’re up to, and foil their plot before they bring it to fruition. As usual for a Sid Meier game, you can play on any of four difficulty levels to ensure that everyone, from the rank beginner to the most experienced super-sleuth, can be challenged without being overwhelmed. If you do your job well, you will arrest the person at the top of the plot’s org chart, one of the game’s 26 evil masterminds. Once no more masterminds are left to arrest, Max can walk off into the sunset and enjoy a pleasant retirement, confident that he has made the world a safer place. (If only counter-terrorism was that easy in real life, right?)

The game lets Max/Maxine score with progressively hotter members of the opposite sex as he/she cracks more cases.

The strategic decisions you make in directing the course of your investigation will lead to naught if you don’t succeed at the various mini-games. These include rewiring a junction box to tap a suspect’s phone (Covert Action presents us with a weirdly low-tech version of espionage, even for its own day); cracking letter-substitution codes to decipher a suspect’s message traffic; tailing or chasing a suspect’s car; and, in the most elaborate of the mini-games, breaking into a group’s hideaway to either collect intelligence or make an arrest.

Covert Action seems to have all the makings of a good game — perhaps even another classic like its inspiration, Pirates!. But, as Sid Meier and most of the people who have played it agree, it doesn’t ever quite come together to become an holistically satisfying experience.

It’s not immediately obvious just why that should be the case; thus all of the discussion the game has prompted over the years. Meier does have his theory, to which he’s returned enough that he’s come to codify it into a universal design dictum he calls the “the Covert Action rule.” For my part… well, I have a very different theory. So, first I’ll tell you about Meier’s theory, and then I’ll tell you about my own.

Meier’s theory hinges on the nature of the mini-games. He doesn’t believe that any of them are outright bad by any means, but does feel that they don’t blend well with the overarching strategic game, resulting in a lumpy stew of an experience that the player has trouble digesting. He’s particularly critical of the breaking-and-entering mini-game — a “mini-game” complicated enough that one could easily imagine it being released as a standalone game for the previous generation of computers (or, for that matter, for Covert Action‘s contemporaneous generation of consoles). Before you begin the breaking-and-entering game, you must choose what Max will carry with him: depending on your goals for this mission, you can give him some combination of a pistol, a sub-machine gun, a camera, several types of grenades, bugs, a Kevlar vest, a gas mask, a safe-cracking kit, and a motion detector. The underground hideaways and safe houses you then proceed to explore are often quite large, and full of guards, traps, and alarms to avoid or foil as you snoop for evidence or try to spirit away a suspect. You can charge in with guns blazing if you like, but, especially at the higher difficulty levels, that’s not generally a recipe for success. This is rather a game of stealth, of lurking in the shadows as you identify the guards’ patrol patterns, the better to avoid or quietly neutralize them. A perfectly executed mission in many circumstances will see you get in and out of the building without having to fire a single shot.

The aspect of this mini-game which Meier pinpoints as its problem is, somewhat ironically, the very ambition and complexity which makes it so impressive when considered alone. A spot of breaking and entering can easily absorb a very tense and intense half an hour of your time. By the time you make it out of the building, Meier theorizes, you’ve lost track of why you went in in the first place — lost track, in other words, of what was going on in the strategic game. Meier codified his theory in what has for almost twenty years been known in design circles as “the Covert Action rule.” In a nutshell, the rule states that “one good game is better than two great ones” in the context of a single game design. Meier believes that the mini-games of Covert Action, and the breaking-and-entering game in particular, can become so engaging and such a drain on the player’s time and energies that they clash with the strategic game; we end up with two “great games” that never make a cohesive whole. This dissonance never allows the player to settle into that elusive sense of total immersion which some call “flow.” Meier believes that Pirates! works where Covert Action doesn’t because the former’s mini-games are much shorter and much less complicated — getting the player back to the big picture, as it were, quickly enough that she doesn’t lose the plot of what the current situation is and what she’s trying to accomplish.

It’s an explanation that makes a certain sense on its face, yet I must say that it’s not one that really rings true to my own experiences with either games in general or Covert Action in particular. Certainly one can find any number of games which any number of players have hugely enjoyed that seemingly violate the Covert Action rule comprehensively. We could, for instance, look to the many modern CRPGs which include “sub-quests” that can absorb many hours of the player’s time, to no detriment to the player’s experience as a whole, at least if said players’ own reports are to be believed. If that’s roaming too far afield from the type of game which Covert Action is, consider the case of the strategy classic X-Com, one of the most frequently cited of the seeming Covert Action rule violators that paradoxically succeed as fun designs. It merges an overarching strategic game with a game of tactical combat that’s far more time-consuming and complicated than even the breaking-and-entering part of Covert Action. And yet it must place high in any ranking of the most beloved strategy games of all time. As we continue to look at specific counterexamples like X-Com or, for that matter, Pirates!, we can only continue to believe in the Covert Action rule by applying lots of increasingly tortured justifications for why this or that seemingly blatant violator nevertheless works as a game. So, X-Com, Meier tells us, works because the strategic game is relatively less complicated than the tactical game, leaving enough of the focus on the tactical game that the two don’t start to pull against one another. And Pirates!, of course, is just the opposite.

I can only say that when the caveats and exceptions to any given rule start to pile up, one is compelled to look back to the substance of the rule itself. As nice as it might be for the designers of Covert Action to believe the game’s biggest problem is that its individual parts were just each too darn ambitious, too darn good, I don’t think that’s the real reason the game doesn’t work.

So, we come back to the original question: just what is the matter with Covert Action? I don’t believe that Covert Action‘s core malady can be found in the mini-games, nor for that matter in the strategic game per se. I rather believe the problem is with the mission design and with the game’s fiction — which, as in so many games, are largely one and the same in this one. The cases you must crack in Covert Action are procedurally generated by the computer, using a set of templates into which are plugged different combinations of organizations, masterminds, and plots to create what is theoretically a virtually infinite number of potential cases to solve. My thesis is that it’s at this level — the level of the game’s fiction — where Covert Action breaks down; I believe that things have already gone awry as soon as the game generates the case it will ask you to solve, well before you make your first move. The, for lack of a better word, artificiality of the cases is never hard to detect. Even before you start to learn which of the limited number of templates are which, the stories just feel all wrong.

Literary critics have a special word, “mimesis,” which they tend to deploy when a piece of fiction conspicuously passes or fails the smell test of immersive believability. Dating back to classical philosophy, “mimesis” technically means the art of “showing” a story — as opposed to “diegesis,” the art of telling. It’s been adopted by theorists of textual interactive fiction as well as a stand-in for all those qualities of a game’s fiction that help to immerse the player in the story, that help to draw her in. “Crimes against Mimesis” — the name of an influential Usenet post written in 1996 by Roger Giner-Sorolla — are all those things, from problems with the interface to obvious flaws in the story’s logic to things that just don’t ring true somehow, that cast the player jarringly out of the game’s fiction — that reveal, in other words, the mechanical gears grinding underneath the game’s fictional veneer. Covert Action is full of these crimes against mimesis, full of these gears poking above the story’s surface. Groups that should hate each other ally with one another: the Colombian Cartel, the Mafia, the Palestine Freedom Organization (some names have been changed to protect the innocent or not-so-innocent), and the Stassi might all concoct a plot together. Why not? In the game’s eyes, they’re just interchangeable parts with differing labels on the front; they might as well have been called “Group A,” “Group B,” etc. When they send messages to one another, the diction almost always rings horribly, jarringly wrong in the ears of those of us who know what the groups represent. Here’s an example in the form of the Mafia talking like Jihadists.

If Covert Action had believable, mimetic, tantalizing — or at least interesting — plots to foil, I submit that it could have been a tremendously compelling game, without changing anything else about it. Instead, though, it’s got this painfully artificial box of whirling gears. Writing in the context of the problems of procedural generation in general, Kate Compton has called this the “10,000 Bowls of Oatmeal Problem.”

I can easily generate 10,000 bowls of plain oatmeal, with each oat being in a different position and different orientation, and mathematically speaking they will all be completely unique. But the user will likely just see a lot of oatmeal. Perceptual uniqueness is the real metric, and it’s darn tough. It is the difference between an actor being a face in a crowd scene and a character that is memorable.

Assuming that we can agree to agree, at least for now, that we’ve hit upon Covert Action‘s core problem, it’s not hard to divine how to fix it. I’m imagining a version of the game that replaces the infinite number of procedurally-generated cases with 25 or 30 hand-crafted plots, each with its own personality and its own unique flavor of intrigue. Such an approach would fix another complaint that’s occasionally levied against Covert Action: that it never becomes necessary to master or even really engage with all of its disparate parts because it’s very easy to rely just on those mini-games you happen to be best at to ferret out all of the relevant information. In particular, you can discover just about everything you need in the files you uncover during the breaking-and-entering game, without ever having to do much of anything in the realm of wire-tapping suspects, tailing them, or cracking their codes. This too feels like a byproduct of the generic templates used to construct the cases, which tend to err on the safe side to ensure that the cases are actually soluble, preferring — justifiably, in light of the circumstances — too many clues to too few. But this complaint could easily be fixed using hand-crafted cases. Different cases could be consciously designed to emphasize different aspects of the game: one case could be full of action, another more cerebral and puzzle-like, etc. This would do yet more to give each case its own personality and to keep the game feeling fresh throughout its length.

The most obvious argument against hand-crafted cases, other than the one, valid only from the developers’ standpoint, of the extra resources it would take to create them, is that it would exchange a game that is theoretically infinitely replayable for one with a finite span. Yet, given that Covert Action isn’t a hugely compelling game in its historical form, one has to suspect that my proposed finite version of it would likely yield more actual hours of enjoyment for the average player than the infinite version. Is a great game that lasts 30 hours and then is over better than a mediocre one that can potentially be played forever? The answer must depend on individual circumstances as well as individual predilections, but I know where I stand, at least as long as this world continues to be full of more cheap and accessible games than I can possibly play.

But then there is one more practical objection to my proposed variation of Covert Action, or rather one ironclad reason why it could never have seen the light of day: this simply isn’t how Sid Meier designs his games. Meier, you see, stands firmly on the other side of a longstanding divide that has given rise to no small dissension over the years in the fields of game design and academic game studies alike.

In academia, the argument has raged for twenty years between the so-called ludologists, who see games primarily as dynamic systems, and the narratologists, who see them primarily as narratives. Yet at its core the debate is actually far older even than that. In the December 1987 issue of his Journal of Computer Game Design, Chris Crawford fired what we might regard as the first salvo in this never-ending war via an article entitled “Process Intensity.” The titular phrase meant, he explained, “the degree to which a program emphasizes processes instead of data.” While all games must have some amount of data — i.e., fixed content, including fixed story content — a more process-intensive game — one that tips the balance further in favor of dynamic code as opposed to static data — is almost always a better game in Crawford’s view. That all games aren’t extremely process intensive, he baldly states, is largely down to the laziness of their developers.

The most powerful resistance to process intensity, though, is unstated. It is a mental laziness that afflicts all of us. Process intensity is so very hard to implement. Data intensity is easy to put into a program. Just get that artwork into a file and read it onto the screen; store that sound effect on the disk and pump it out to the speaker. There’s instant gratification in these data-intensive approaches. It looks and sounds great immediately. Process intensity requires all those hours mucking around with equations. Because it’s so indirect, you’re never certain how it will behave. The results always look so primitive next to the data-intensive stuff. So we follow the path of least resistance right down to data intensity.

Crawford, in other words, is a ludologist all the way. There’s always been a strongly prescriptive quality to the ludologists’ side of the ludology-versus-narratology debate, an ideology of how games ought to be made. Because processing is, to use Crawford’s words again, “the very essence of what a computer does,” the capability that in turn enables the interactivity that makes computer games unique as a medium, games that heavily emphasize processing are purer than those that rely more heavily on fixed data.

It’s a view that strikes me as short-sighted in a number of ways. It betrays, first of all, a certain programmer and systems designer’s bias against the artists and writers who craft all that fixed data; I would submit that the latter skills are every bit as worthy of admiration and every bit as valuable on most development teams as the former. Although even Crawford acknowledges that “data endows a game with useful color and texture,” he fails to account for the appeal of games where that very color and texture — we might instead say the fictional context — is the most important part of the experience. He and many of his ludologist colleagues are like most ideologues in failing to admit the possibility that different people may simply want different things, in games as in any other realm. Given the role that fixed stories have come to play in even many of the most casual modern games, too much ludologist rhetoric verges on telling players that they’re wrong for liking the games they happen to like. This is not to apologize for railroaded experiences that give the player no real role to play whatsoever and thereby fail to involve her in their fictions. It’s rather to say that drawing the line between process and data can be more complicated than saying “process good, data bad” and proceeding to act accordingly. Different games are at their best with different combinations of pre-crafted and generative content. Covert Action fails as a game because it draws that line in the wrong place. It’s thanks to the same fallacy, I would argue, that Chris Crawford has been failing for the last quarter century to create the truly open-ended interactive-story system he calls Storytron.

Sid Meier is an endlessly gracious gentleman, and thus isn’t so strident in his advocacy as many other ludologists. But despite his graciousness, there’s no doubt on which side of the divide he stands. Meier’s games never, ever include rigid pre-crafted scenarios or fixed storylines of any stripe. In most cases, this has been fine because his designs have been well-suited to the more open-ended, generative styles of play he favors. Covert Action, however, is the glaring exception, revealing one of the few blind spots of this generally brilliant game designer. Ironically, Meier had largely been drawn to Covert Action by what he calls the “intriguing” problem of its dynamic case generator. The idea of being able to use the computer to do the hard work of generating stories, and thereby to be able to churn out infinite numbers of the things at no expense, has always enticed him. He continues to muse today about a Sherlock Holmes game built using computer-generated cases, working backward from the solution of a crime to create a trail of clues for player to follow.

Meier is hardly alone in the annals of computer science and game design in finding the problem of automated story-making intriguing. Like his Sherlock Holmes idea, many experiments with procedurally-generated narratives have worked with mystery stories, that most overtly game-like of all literary genres; Covert Action‘s cases as well can be considered variations on the mystery theme.  As early as 1971, Sheldon Klein, a professor at the University of Wisconsin, created something he called an “automatic novel writer” for auto-generating “2100-word murder-mystery stories.” In 1983, Electronic Arts released Jon Freeman and Paul Reiche III’s Murder on the Zinderneuf as one of their first titles; it allowed the player to solve an infinite number of randomly generated mysteries occurring aboard its titular Zeppelin airship. That game’s flaws feel oddly similar to those of Covert Action. As in Covert Action, in Murder on the Zinderneuf the randomized cases never have the resonance of a good hand-crafted mystery story. That, combined with their occasional incongruities and the patterns that start to surface as soon as you’ve played a few times, means that you can never forget their procedural origins. These tales of intrigue never manage to truly intrigue.

Suffice to say that generating believable fictions, whether in the sharply delimited realm of a murder mystery taking place aboard a Zeppelin or the slightly less delimited realm of a contemporary spy thriller, is a tough nut to crack. Even one of the most earnest and concentrated of the academic attempts at tackling the problem, a system called Tale-Spin created by James Meehan at Yale University, continued to generate more unmimetic than mimetic stories after many years of work — and this system was meant only to generate standalone static stories, not interactive mysteries to be solved. And as for Chris Crawford’s Storytron… well, as of this writing it is, as its website says, in a “medically induced coma” for the latest of many massive re-toolings.

In choosing to pick up Covert Action primarily because of the intriguing problem of its case generator and then failing to consider whether said case generator really served the game, Sid Meier may have run afoul of another of his rules for game design, one that I find much more universally applicable than what Meier calls the Covert Action rule. A designer should always ask, Meier tells us, who is really having the fun in a game — the designer/programmer/computer or the player? The procedurally generated cases may have been an intriguing problem for Sid Meier the designer, but they don’t serve the player anywhere near as well as hand-crafted cases might have done.

The model that comes to mind when I think of my ideal version of Covert Action is Killed Until Dead, an unjustly obscure gem from Accolade which, like Murder on the Zinderneuf, I wrote about in an earlier article. Killed Until Dead is very similar to Murder on the Zinderneuf in that it presents the player with a series of mysteries to solve, all of which employ the same cast of characters, the same props, and the same setting. Unlike Murder on the Zinderneuf, however, the mysteries in Killed Until Dead have all been lovingly hand-crafted. They not only hang together better as a result, but they’re full of wit and warmth and the right sort of intrigue — they intrigue the player. If you ask me, a version of Covert Action built along similar lines, full of exciting plotlines with-a-ripped-from-the-headlines feel, could have been fantastic — assuming, of course, that MicroProse could have found writers and scenario designers with the chops to bring the spycraft to life.

It’s of course possible that my reaction to Covert Action is hopelessly subjective, inextricably tied to what I personally value in games. As my longtime readers are doubtless aware by now, I’m an experential player to the core, more interested in lived experiences than twiddling the knobs of a complicated system just exactly perfectly. In addition to guaranteeing that I’ll never win any e-sports competitions — well, that and my aging reflexes that were never all that great to begin with — this fact colors the way I see a game like Covert Action. The jarring qualities of Covert Action‘s fiction may not bother some of you one bit. And thus the debate about what really is wrong with Covert Action, that strange note of discordance sandwiched between the monumental Sid Meier masterpieces Railroad Tycoon and Civilization, can never be definitely settled. Ditto the more abstract and even more longstanding negotiation between ludology and narratology. Ah, well… if nothing else, it ensures that readers and writers of blogs like this one will always have something to talk about. So, let the debate rage on.

(Sources: the books Expressive Processing by Noah Wardrip-Fruin and On Interactive Storytelling by Chris Crawford; Game Developer of February 2013. Links to online sources are scattered through the article.

If you’d like to enter the Covert Action debate for yourself, you can buy it from


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Railroad Tycoon

It says much about Sid Meier, a born game designer if ever there was one, that he tended to get some of his best work done when he was allegedly on vacation. A few years after his significant other had lost all track of him on what she thought was a romantic getaway to the Caribbean but he came to see as the ideal chance to research his game Pirates!, another opportunity for couple time went awry in August of 1989, when he spent the entirety of a beach holiday coding a game about railroads on the computer he’d lugged with him. The experience may not have done his relationship any favors, but he did come home with the core of his second masterpiece of a game — a game that would usher in what many old-timers still regard as the golden age of computerized grand strategy.

That Meier felt empowered to spend so much time on a game that featured no war or killing says much about the changing times inside MicroProse, the erstwhile specialist in military simulations and war games he had co-founded with the flamboyant former active-duty Air Force pilot “Wild” Bill Stealey. The first great deviation from the norm for MicroProse had been Meier’s first masterpiece, the aforementioned Pirates! of 1987, which Stealey had somewhat begrudgingly allowed him to make as a palate cleanser between the company’s military games. After that, it had been back to business as usual for a while, with Meier designing a submarine simulator based on a Tom Clancy thriller (the audience synergy of that project was almost too perfect to be believed) and then a flight simulator based on the rampant speculation among aviation buffs about the Air Force’s cutting-edge new stealth fighter (the speculation would almost all prove to be incorrect when the actual stealth fighter was unveiled, leaving MicroProse with a “simulation” of an airplane that had never existed).

Yet by the time the latter game was nearing completion in late 1988, a couple of things were getting hard to ignore. First was the warm reception that had been accorded to Pirates!, the way that entirely new demographics of players who would never have dreamed of buying any of MicroProse’s other games were buying and enjoying this one. And second was the fact that the market for MicroProse’s traditional military simulations, while it had served them well — in fact, served them to the tune of nearly 1 million copies sold of their most successful simulation of all, Sid Meier’s F-15 Strike Eagle — was starting to show signs of having reached its natural limit. If, in other words, MicroProse hoped to continue to increase their sales each year — something the aggressive and ambitious Stealey liked doing even more than he liked making and flying flight simulators — they were going to have to push outside of Stealey’s comfort zone. Accordingly, MicroProse dramatically expanded the scope of their business in the last two years of the 1980s, buying the Firebird and Rainbird software labels from British Telecom and setting up an affiliated-label program for distributing the work of smaller publishers;  Stealey hoped the latter might come in time to rival the similar programs of Electronic Arts and Activision/Mediagenic. In terms of in-house development, meanwhile, MicroProse went from all military games all the time — apart from, that is, the aberration that had been Pirates! — to a half-and-half mixture of games in the old style and games that roamed further afield, in some cases right into the sweet spot that had yielded the big hit Pirates!.

Sid Meier, right, at MicroProse circa early 1990 with tester Russ Cooney.

Thus the first project which Sid Meier took up after finishing F-19 Stealth Fighter was a spy game called Covert Action. Made up like Pirates! of a collection of mini-games, Covert Action was very much in the spirit of that earlier game, but had been abandoned by its original designer Lawrence Schick as unworkable. Perhaps because of its similarities to his own earlier game, Meier thought he could make something out of it, especially if he moved it from the Commodore 64 to MS-DOS, which had become his new development platform with F-19 Stealth Fighter. But Covert Action proved to be one of those frustrating games that just refused to come together, even in the hands of a designer as brilliant as Meier. He therefore started spending more and more of the time he should have been spending on Covert Action tinkering with ideas and prototypes for other games. In the spring of 1989, he coded up a little simulation of a model railroad.

The first person to whom Meier showed his railroad game was Bruce Shelley, his “assistant” at MicroProse and, one senses, something of his protege, to whatever extent a man as quiet and self-effacing as Meier was can be pictured to have cultivated someone for such a role. Prior to coming to MicroProse, Shelley had spent his first six years or so out of university at Avalon Hill, the faded king of the previous decade’s halcyon years of American tabletop war-gaming. MicroProse had for some time been in the habit of hiring refugees from the troubled tabletop world, among them Arnold Hendrick and the aforementioned Lawrence Schick, but Shelley was hardly one of the more illustrious names among this bunch. Working as an administrator and producer at Avalon Hill, he’d had the opportunity to streamline plenty of the games the company had published during his tenure, but had been credited with only one original design of his own, a solitaire game called Patton’s Best. When he arrived at MicroProse in early 1988 — he says his application for employment there was motivated largely by the experience of playing Pirates! — Shelley was assigned to fairly menial tasks, like creating the maps for F-19 Stealth Fighter. Yet something about him clearly impressed Sid Meier. Shortly after F-19 Stealth Fighter was completed, Meier came to Shelley to ask if he’d like to become his assistant. Shelley certainly didn’t need to be asked twice. “Anybody in that office would have died for that position,” he remembers.

Much of Shelley’s role as his Meier’s assistant, especially in the early days, entailed being a constantly available sounding board, playing with the steady stream of game prototypes Meier gave to him — Meier always seemed to have at least half a dozen such potential projects sitting on his hard drive alongside whatever project he was officially working on — and offering feedback. It was in this capacity that Shelley first saw the model-railroad simulation, whereupon it was immediately clear to him that this particular prototype was something special, that Meier was really on to something this time. Such was Shelley’s excitement, enthusiasm, and insightfullness that it wouldn’t take long for him to move from the role of Meier’s sounding board to that of his full-fledged co-designer on the railroad game, even as it always remained clear who would get to make the final decision on any question of design and whose name would ultimately grace the box.

It appears to have been Shelley who first discovered Will Wright’s landmark city simulation SimCity. Among the many possibilities it offered was the opportunity to add a light-rail system to your city and watch the little trains driving around; this struck Shelley as almost uncannily similar to Meier’s model railroad. He soon introduced Meier to SimCity, whereupon it became a major influence on the project. The commercial success of SimCity had proved that there was a place in the market for software toys without much of a competitive element, a description which applied perfectly to Meier’s model-railroad simulation at the time. “Yes, there is an audience out there for games that have a creative aspect to them,” Meier remembers thinking. “Building a railroad is something that can really emphasize that creative aspect in a game.”

And yet Meier and Shelley weren’t really happy with the idea of just making another software toy, however neat it was to lay down track and flip signals and watch the little trains drive around. Although both men had initially been wowed by SimCity, they both came to find it a little unsatisfying in the end, a little sterile in its complete lack of an historical context to latch onto or goals to achieve beyond those the player set for herself. At times the program evinced too much fascination with its own opaque inner workings, as opposed to what the player was doing in front of the screen. As part of his design process, Meier likes to ask whether the player is having the fun or whether the computer — or, perhaps better said, the game’s designer — is having the fun. With SimCity, it too often felt like the latter.

In his role as assistant, Shelley wrote what he remembers as a five- or six-page document that outlined a game that he and Meier were calling at that time The Golden Age of Railroads; before release the name would be shortened to the pithier, punchier Railroad Tycoon. Shelley expressed in the document their firm belief that they could and should incorporate elements of a software toy or “god game” into their creation, but that they wanted to make more of a real game out of it than SimCity had been, wanted to provide an economic and competitive motivation for building an efficient railroad. Thus already by this early stage the lines separating a simulation of real trains from one of toy trains were becoming blurred.

Then in August came that fateful beach holiday which Meier devoted to Railroad Tycoon. Over the course of three weeks of supposed fun in the sun, he added to his model-railroad simulation a landscape on which one built the tracks and stations. The landscape came complete with resources that needed to be hauled from place to place, often to be converted into other resources and hauled still further: trains might haul coal from a coal mine to a steel mill, carry the steel that resulted to a factory to be converted into manufactured goods, then carry the manufactured goods on to consumers in a city. When Meier returned from holiday and showed it to him, Shelley found the new prototype, incorporating some ideas from his own recent design document and some new ones of Meier’s making, to be just about the coolest thing he’d ever seen on a computer screen. Shelley:

We went to lunch together, and he said, “We have to make a decision about whether we’re going to do this railroad game or whether we’re going to do the spy game.”

I said, “If you’re asking me, there’s no contest. We’re doing the railroad game. It’s really cool. It’s so much fun. I have zero weight in this company. I don’t have a vote in any meeting. It’s up to you, but I’m ready to go.”

Shelley was so excited by the game that at one point he offered to work on it for free after hours if that was the only way to get it done. Thankfully, it never came to that.

Dropping Covert Action, which had already eaten up a lot of time and resources, generated considerable tension with Stealey, but when it came down to it it was difficult for him to say no his co-founder and star designer, the only person at the company who got his name in big letters on the fronts of the boxes. (Stealey, who had invented the tactic of prefixing “Sid Meier’s” to Meier’s games as a way of selling the mold-busting Pirates!, was perhaps by this point wondering what it was he had wrought.) The polite fiction which would be invented for public consumption had it that Meier shifted to Railroad Tycoon while the art department created the graphics for Covert Action. In reality, though, he just wanted to escape a game that refused to come together in favor of one that seemed to have all the potential in the world.

Meier and Shelley threw themselves into Railroad Tycoon. When not planning, coding — this was strictly left to Meier, as Shelley was a non-programmer — or playing the game, they were immersing themselves in the lore and legends of railroading: reading books, visiting museums, taking rides on historic steam trains. The Baltimore area, where MicroProse’s offices were located, is a hotbed of railroad history, being the home of the legendary Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, the oldest common-carrier rail network in the country. Thus there was plenty in the area for a couple of railroad buffs to see and do. Meier and Shelley lived and breathed trains for a concentrated six months, during which they, in tandem with a few artists and other support personnel, took Railroad Tycoon from that August prototype to the finished, boxed game that shipped to stores in April of 1990, complete with a beefy 180-page manual written by Shelley. Leaving aside all of Railroad Tycoon‘s other merits, it was a rather breathtaking achievement just to have created a game of such ambition and complexity in such a short length of time.

But even in ways apart from its compressed development time Railroad Tycoon is far more successful than it has any right to be. It’s marked by a persistent, never entirely resolved tension — one might even say an identity crisis — between two very different visions of what a railroad game should be. To say that one vision was primarily that of Meier and the other that of Shelley is undoubtedly a vast oversimplification, but is nevertheless perhaps a good starting point for discussion.

One vision of Railroad Tycoon is what we might call the operational game, the building game, or the SimCity-like game, consisting of laying down stations, tracks, and switches, scheduling your trains, and watching over them as they run in real time. A certain kind of player can spend hours tinkering here, trying always to set up the most efficient possible routes, overriding switches on the fly to push priority cargoes through to their destinations for lucrative but intensely time-sensitive rewards. None of this is without risk: if you don’t do things correctly, trains can hurtle into one another, tumble off of washed-out bridges, or just wind up costing you more money than they earn. It’s therein, of course, where the challenge lies. This is Meier’s vision of Railroad Tycoon, still rooted in the model-railroad simulation he first showed Shelley back in early 1989.

The other vision of Railroad Tycoon is the game of high-level economic strategy, which first began to assert itself in that design document Bruce Shelley wrote up in mid-1989. In addition to needing to set up profitable routes and keep an eye on your expenses, you also need to judge when to sell bonds to fund expansion and when to buy them back to save the interest payments, when to buy and sell your own stock and that of other railroads to maximize your cash reserves. Most of all, you need to keep a close eye on the competition, who, if you’ve turn the “cutthroat competition” setting on, will try to buy your railroad out from under you by making runs on your stock — that is, when they aren’t building track into your stations, setting up winner-take-all “rate wars.”

This vision of Railroad Tycoon owes much to a board game called 1830: Railways and Robber Barons which Shelley had shepherded through production during his time at Avalon Hill. Although that game was officially designed by Francis Tresham, Shelley had done much to help turn it into the classic many board-game connoisseurs still regard it as today. After Shelley had arrived at MicroProse with his copy of 1830 in tow, it had become a great favorite during the company’s occasional board-game nights. While 1830 traded on the iconography of the Age of Steam, it was really a game of stock-market manipulation; the railroads in the game could have been swapped out for just about any moneymaking industry.

Put very crudely, then, Railroad Tycoon can be seen as 1830 with a SimCity-like railroad simulation grafted on in place of the board game’s pure abstractions. Bill Stealey claims that Eric Dott, the president of Avalon Hill, actually called him after Railroad Tycoon‘s release to complain that “you’re doing my board game as a computer game.” Stealey managed to smooth the issue over; “well, don’t let it happen again” were Dott’s parting words. (This would become a problem when Meier and Shelley promptly did do it again, creating a computer game called Civilization that shared a name as well as other marked similarities with the Avalon Hill board game Civilization.)

Immense though its influence was, some of the elements of 1830 came to Railroad Tycoon shockingly late. Meier insists, for instance, that the three computerized robber barons you compete against were coded up in a mad frenzy over the last two weeks before the game had to ship. Again, it’s remarkable that Railroad Tycoon works at all, much less works as well as it does.

The problem of reconciling the two halves of Railroad Tycoon might have seemed intractable to many a design team. Consider the question of time. The operational game would seemingly need to run on a scale of days and hours, as trains chug around the tracks picking up and delivering constant streams of cargo. Yet the high-level economic game needs to run on a scale of months and years. A full game of Railroad Tycoon lasts a full century, over the course of which Big Changes happen on a scale about a million miles removed from the progress of individual trains down the tracks: the economy booms and crashes and booms again; coal and oil deposits are discovered and exploited and exhausted; cities grow; new industries develop; the Age of Steam gives ways to the Age of Diesel; competitors rise and fall and rise again. “You can’t have a game that lasts a hundred years and be running individual trains,” thought Meier and Shelley initially. If they tried to run the whole thing at the natural scale of the operational game, they’d wind up with a game that took a year or two of real-world time to play and left the player so lost in the weeds of day-to-day railroad operations that the bigger economic picture would get lost entirely.

Meier’s audacious solution was to do the opposite, to run the game as a whole at the macro scale of the economic game. This means that, at the beginning of the game when locomotives are weak and slow, it might take six months for a train to go from Baltimore to Washington, D.C. What ought to be one day of train traffic takes two years in the game’s reckoning of time. As a simulation, it’s ridiculous, but if we’re willing to see each train driving on the map as an abstraction representing many individual trains — or, for that matter, if we’re willing to not think about it at all too closely — it works perfectly well. Meier understood that a game doesn’t need to be a literal simulation of its subject to evoke the spirit of its subject — that experiential gaming encompasses more than simulations. Railroad Tycoon is, to use the words of game designer Michael Bate, an “aesthetic simulation” of railroad history.

Different players inevitably favor different sides of Railroad Tycoon‘s personality. When I played the game again for the first time in a very long time a year or so ago, I did so with my wife Dorte. Wanting to take things easy our first time out, we played without cutthroat competition turned on, in which mode the other railroads just do their own thing without actively trying to screw with your own efforts. Dorte loved designing track layouts and setting up chains of cargo deliveries for maximum efficiency; the process struck her, an inveterate puzzler, as the most delightful of puzzles. After we finished that game and I suggested we play again with cutthroat competition turned on, explaining how it would lead to a much more, well, cutthroat economic war, she said that the idea had no appeal whatsoever for her. Thus was I forced to continue my explorations of Railroad Tycoon on my own. The game designer Soren Johnson, by contrast, has told in his podcast Designer Notes how uninterested he was in the operational game, preferring to just spend some extra money to double-track everything and as much as possible forget it existed. It was rather the grand strategic picture that interested him. As for me, wishy-washy character that I am, I’m somewhere in the middle of these two extremes.

One of the overarching themes of Sid Meier’s history as a game designer is a spirit of generosity, a willingness to let his players play their way. Railroad Tycoon provides a wonderful example in the lengths to which it goes to accommodate the Dortes, the Sorens, and the Jimmys. If you want to concentrate on the operational game, you can turn off cutthroat competition, turn on “dispatcher operations,” set the overall difficulty to its lowest level so that money is relatively plentiful, and have at it. If even that winds up entailing more economics than you’d like to concern yourself with, one of Railroad Tycoon‘s worst-kept secrets is an “embezzlement key” that can provide limitless amounts of cash, allowing you essentially to play it as the model-railroad simulation that it was at its genesis. If, on the other hand, you’re interested in Railroad Tycoon primarily as a game of grand economic strategy, you can turn on cutthroat competition, turn off dispatcher operations, crank the difficulty level up, and have a full-on business war that would warm the cockles of Jack Tramiel’s heart. If you’re a balanced (or wishy-washy) fellow like me, you can turn on cutthroat competition and dispatcher operations and enjoy the full monty. Meier and Shelley added something called priority shipments to the game — one-time, extremely lucrative deliveries from one station to another — to give players like me a reason to engage with the operational game even after their tracks and routes are largely set. Priority deliveries let you earn a nice bonus by manually flipping signals and shepherding a train along — but, again, only if you enjoy that sort of thing; a budding George Soros can earn as much or more by playing the stock market just right.

One story from Railroad Tycoon‘s development says much about Sid Meier’s generous spirit. Through very nearly the entirety of the game’s development, Meier and Shelley had planned to limit the amount of time you could play at the lower difficulty levels as a way of rewarding players who were willing to tackle the challenge of the higher levels. Such a restriction meant not only that players playing at the lower difficulty levels had less time to build their railroad network, but that they lost the chance to play with the most advanced locomotives, which only become available late in the game. Almost literally at the very last possible instant, Meier decided to nix that scheme, to allow all players to play for the full 100 years. Surely fans of the operational game should have access to the cool later trains as well. After all, these were the very people who would be most excited by them. The change came so late that the manual describes the old scheme and the in-game text also is often confused about how long you’re actually going to be allowed to play. It was a small price to pay for a decision that no one ever regretted.

That said, Railroad Tycoon does have lots of rough edges like this confusion over how long you’re allowed to play, an obvious byproduct of its compressed development cycle. Meier and Shelley and their playtesters had nowhere near enough time to make the game air-tight; there are heaps of exploits big enough to drive a Mallet locomotive through (trust me, that’s a big one!). It didn’t take players long to learn that they could wall off competing railroads behind cages of otherwise unused track and run wild in virgin territory on their own; that they could trick their competitors into building in the most unfavorable region of the map by starting to build there themselves, then tearing up their track and starting over competition-free in better territory; that the best way to make a lot of money was to haul nothing but passengers and mail, ignoring all of the intricacies of hauling resources that turned into other resources that turned into still other resources; that they could do surprisingly well barely running any trains at all, just by playing the market, buying and selling their competitors’ stock; that they could play as a real-estate instead of a railroad tycoon, buying up a bunch of land during economic panics by laying down track they never intended to use, then selling it again for a profit during boom times by tearing up the track. Yes, all of these exploits and many more are possible — and yes, the line between exploits and ruthless strategy is a little blurred in many of these cases. But it’s a testament to the core appeal of the game that, after you get over that smug a-ha! moment of figuring out that they’re possible, you don’t really want to use them all that much. The journey is more important than the destination; something about Railroad Tycoon makes you want to play it fair and square. You don’t even mind overmuch that your computerized competitors get to play a completely different and, one senses, a far easier game than the one you’re playing. They’re able to build track in useful configurations that aren’t allowed to you, and they don’t even have to run their own trains; all that business about signals and congestion and locomotives gets abstracted away for them.

Despite it all, I’m tempted to say that in terms of pure design Railroad Tycoon is actually a better game than Civilization, the game Meier and Shelley would make next and the one which will, admittedly for some very good reasons, always remain the heart of Meier’s legacy as a designer. Yet it’s Railroad Tycoon that strikes me as the more intuitive, playable game, free of the tedious micromanagement that tends to dog Civilization in its latter stages. Likewise absent in Railroad Tycoon is the long anticlimax of so many games of Civilization, when you know you’ve won but still have to spend hours mopping up the map before you can get the computer to recognize it. Railroad Tycoon benefits enormously from its strict 100-year time limit, as it does from the restriction of your railroad, born from technical limitations, to 32 trains and 32 stations. “You don’t need more than that to make the game interesting,” said Meier, correctly. And, whereas the turn-based Civilization feels rather like a board game running on the computer, the pausable real time of Railroad Tycoon makes it feel like a true born-digital creation.

175 years of railroad history, from the Planet…

…to the Train à Grande Vitesse.

Of course, mechanics and interface are far from the sum total of most computer games, and it’s in the contextual layer that Civilization thrives as an experiential game, as an awe-inspiring attempt to capture the sum total of human thought and history in 640 K of memory. But, having said that, I must also say that Railroad Tycoon is itself no slouch in this department. It shows almost as beautifully as Civilization how the stuff of history can thoroughly inform a game that isn’t trying to be a strict simulation of said history. From the manual to the game itself, Railroad Tycoon oozes with a love of trains. To their credit, Meier and Shelley don’t restrict themselves to the American Age of Steam, but also offer maps of Britain and continental Europe on which to play, each with its own challenges in terms of terrain and economy. The four available maps each have a different starting date, between them covering railroad history from the distant past of 1825 to the at-the-time-of-the-game’s-development near-future of 2000. As you play, new locomotives become available, providing a great picture of the evolution of railroading, from Robert Stephenson’s original 20-horsepower Planet with its top speed of 20 miles per hour to the 8000-horsepower French Train à Grande Vitesse (“high-speed train”) with a top speed of 160 miles per hour. This is very much a trainspotter’s view of railroad history, making no attempt to address the downsides of the rush to bind nations up in webs of steel tracks, nor asking just why the historical personages found in the game came to be known as the robber barons. (For an introduction to the darker side of railroad history, I recommend Frank Norris’s 1901 novel The Octopus.) But Railroad Tycoon isn’t trying to do social commentary; it just revels in a love of trains, and that’s fine. It’s immensely likeable on those terms — another byproduct of the spirit of generosity with which it’s so shot through. Just hearing the introduction’s music makes me happy.

Upon its release, Railroad Tycoon hit with the force of a freight train. Following the implosion of the 8-bit market at the tail end of the 1980s, North American computer gaming had moved upscale to focus on the bigger, more expensive MS-DOS machines and the somewhat older demographic that could afford them. These changes had created a hunger for more complicated, ambitious strategy and simulation games. SimCity had begun to scratch that itch, but its non-competitive nature and that certain sense of sterility that clung to it left it ultimately feeling a little underwhelming for many players, just it as it had for Meier and Shelley. Railroad Tycoon remedied both of those shortcomings with immense charm and panache. Soren Johnson has mentioned on his podcast how extraordinary the game felt upon its release: “There was just nothing like it at the time.” Computer Gaming World, the journal of record for the new breed of older and more affluent computer gamers, lavished Railroad Tycoon with praise, naming it their “Game of the Year” for 1990. Russell Sipe, the founder and editor-in-chief of the magazine, was himself a dedicated trainspotter, and took to the game with particular enthusiasm, writing an entire book about it which spent almost as much time lingering lovingly over railroad lore as it did telling how to win the thing.

Meier and Shelley were so excited by what they had wrought that they charged full steam ahead into a Railroad Tycoon II. But they were soon stopped in their tracks by Bill Stealey, who demanded that they do something with Covert Action, into which, he insisted, MicroProse had poured too many resources to be able to simply abandon it. By the time that Meier and Shelley had done what they could in that quarter, the idea that would become Civilization had come to the fore. Neither designer would ever return to Railroad Tycoon during their remaining time at MicroProse, although some of the ideas they’d had for the sequel, like scenarios set in South America and Africa, would eventually make their way into a modestly enhanced 1993 version of the game called Railroad Tycoon Deluxe.

Coming as it did just before Civilization, the proverbial Big Moment of Sid Meier’s illustrious career, Railroad Tycoon‘s historical legacy has been somewhat obscured by the immense shadow cast by its younger sibling; even Meier sometimes speaks of Railroad Tycoon today in terms of “paving the way for Civilization.” Yet in my view it’s every bit as fine a game, and when all is said and done its influence on later games has been very nearly as great. “At the beginning of the game you had essentially nothing, or two stations and a little piece of track,” says Meier, “and by the end of the game you could look at this massive spiderweb of trains and say, ‘I did that.'” Plenty of later games would be designed to scratch precisely the same itch. Indeed, Railroad Tycoon spawned a whole sub-genre of economic strategy games, the so-called “Tycoon” sub-genre — more often than not that word seems to be included in the games’ names — that persists to this day. Sure, the sub-genre has yielded its share of paint-by-numbers junk, but it’s also yielded its share of classics to stand alongside the original Railroad Tycoon. Certainly it’s hard to imagine such worthy games as Transport Tycoon or RollerCoaster Tycoon — not to mention the post-MicroProse Railroad Tycoon II and 3 — existing without the example provided by Sid Meier and Bruce Shelley.

But you don’t need to look to gaming history for a reason to play the original Railroad Tycoon. Arguably the finest strategy game yet made for a computer in its own time, it must remain high up in that ranking even today.

(Sources: the books Game Design Theory and Practice by Richard Rouse III, The Official Guide to Sid Meier’s Railroad Tycoon by Russell Sipe, and Gamers at Work: Stories Behind the Games People Play by Morgan Ramsay; ACE of May 1990; Compute!’s Gazette of May 1989; Computer Gaming World of May 1990, July/August 1990, and September 1990; Soren Johnson’s interviews with Bruce Shelley and Sid Meier. My huge thanks go to Soren for providing me with the raw audio of his Sid Meier interview months before it went up on his site, thus giving me a big leg up on my research.

Railroad Tycoon Deluxe has been available for years for free from 2K Games’s website as a promotion for Meier’s more recent train game Railroads!. It makes a fine choice for playing today. But for anyone wishing to experience the game in its original form, I’ve taken the liberty of putting together a download of the original game, complete with what should be a working DOSBox configuration and some quick instructions on how to get it running.)


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