Strategic Gaming: Civilization V and My Studies

Studying about war and strategy is boring, especially when we cover the dry, theoretical aspects like Clausewitz and game theory. What’s even more problematic is the fact that there are few ways in which I can translate what learned in class into real-life situations. Sure, I understand that strategy is a clash of wills, but how do I observe such a phenomenon without leaving the comfortable ivory tower? Furthermore, observing behaviour takes a long time.

Luckily, there’s Civilization V, which helps the aspiring strategist apply what they learned in a sandbox simulation of real-world politics. Having invested over 300 hours in Civilization V without any end in sight, I can safely say the game provides, within its artificial limits, a place for me to apply theory into practice. Or at least understand the more abstract concepts in strategy.

All aspects strategic

Ever since B.L. Hart coined the term “grand strategy”, almost anything can be incorporated into the realm of strategy. This is especially true as our lives get more complex by the minute. We recognize that “power” is comprised not only of military strength but also economy, culture, science, etc. And depending on the end goal of your strategy and after checking with your finance minister, you can choose to specialize or maintain an all-round approach. Such is the core of Civilization V. There are multiple victory routes in the game: science, domination, culture, and diplomacy. Each route has their own requirement, which usually involves “dominating” other civilizations in one aspect or more. Say that a player wants to pursue a science victory, which requires the player to advance in the science tree so they can build spaceship parts. They would invest more in science and might have a weaker military overall. Or, if a player just wanted to see the world burn, they would opt to maximize their military output at the risk of lagging behind in science.

But if we were to talk about purely militaristic strategies, Civilization V excels also in that field. There are different military units – some civilizations have Unique Units – that fulfill three basic strategic roles: melee, ranged, and siege. Melee units are often strong front-liners that are essential to capturing cities. Ranged units help provide cover, but are weaker when attacked. Siege units deal terrific damage, but lack defense. And then there are nuclear weapons. The strategist ought to consider the composition of their army and concoct an appropriate strike plan.

An untrained army is no good. The game also factors in a unit’s ‘experience’, which is metered by experience points. Every time a unit levels up, they gain an additional perk which increases their effectiveness in combat. A seasoned veteran unit can be hard to take down. A trained army would be exceptionally hard to take down.

The game also factors in terrain when deciding the outcome of combat. Hills, forests, and jungles provide added defence, but consume more “movement” points. Plains don’t hinder movement but  also doesn’t provide additional defense. Marshes are terrible; units exhaust movement points and also incur a penalty in combat abilities. I think this is Clausewitzian ‘friction’ in action. Also, there’s the added ‘fog of war’, which obstructs the player’s view of other players’ cities and units, adding to the ‘realness’ of the game.

So, if Clausewitz were alive, I bet he would recommend this game too.

Strategic culture

The works of Johnston [PDF], Klein [paywall], and Gray [paywall] provide the theoretical basis of how strategic cultures work and are formed. In Civilization V, this process is simplified, but nonetheless, is an adequate reflection of the real theories of strategic culture.

Each civilization has their own unique perk. The Aztecs, for example, get a culture boost whenever they kill an enemy. Zulu military units get additional perks and are cheaper to maintain. Arabian caravans spread religion twice as effective and have twice the range. The Babylons generate science faster than other civilizations. The Egyptians can build Wonders 20% faster. Though this might be taking it too far, these unique perks can be called ‘strategic cultures’, as it more often than not influences the victory route a civilization would take. Babylons, for instance, would be better geared towards a science victory; whereas the Zulus would be more appropriate for world domination through war. Egyptians would be more suited for a cultural victory, while the Arabs can develop a stronger economy.

Further adding to strategic culture are the game’s Social Policies and Ideologies. Social Policies provide the player with a range of options to customize their civilization. There are 7 branches with their respective strengths. A player seeking military power would focus on Honor, as it provides the most benefits for a militaristic nation. For the more peaceful, Patronage provides a bonus for diplomacy while Rationalism provides boosts for science. Ideologies come into play later in the game, during the Industrial Age. A player can further customize their nations to become an Autocratic, Democratic, or Socialist nation. If we were to accept strategic culture as the driving force for strategic decisions, surely unique perks, Social Policies, and Ideologies represent such “culture”.

Revolution in military affairs?

Going back to purely military stuff, the progress of technology in the game is represented by the Tech Tree. When a player researches a certain technology, they can upgrade obsolete units. An Archer can be upgraded into a Crossbowman, increasing its damage output and defensive capabilities. The game provides an incentive to keep abreast with new military technology, but at the same time, also highlights as to how hard in can be to keep up with new weapons.

Upgrading a unit requires Gold. Upgrades are done per unit, meaning that if you have 2 Archers, you would need 2x the amount of Gold. After upgrading, the unit cannot be used. I assume this is because the unit needs to “learn” and familiarize themselves with their newly upgraded weapons. Thus, upgrading units is mostly a strategic trade-off. You can upgrade units, but risk losing Gold (which could be used for other purposes) and delaying an attack plan for one turn… or have many weak units at the risk of compromising your defenses, but maintaining more Gold.

This a problem reflected in real-world politics and defense procurement. Sure, a state should do whatever it can to stay ahead of the competition, but at what costs? Moreover, a state would also need to train the relevant personnel to man the weapons. But technology never stops. And the race continues, over and over again. When will it be enough?


So yeah, those are the aspects in which Civilization V has helped me understand about the concepts of strategy better. Of course, it’s just a simulation, but a pretty good one nonetheless. This is the kind of stuff that needs to be included in a curriculum. I swear, when I teach a class someday, I’m gonna make this obligatory.

Box art of Civilization V, (c) 2K and Firaxis

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