20 Years of Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri

Alpha Centauri

On February 12, 1999, the only video game that truly changed my life was released.

Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri (SMAC for short) was, at its heart, a derivative of the popular turn based strategy game Civilization 2, reskinned in a science fiction setting as the result of intellectual property complications around the Civilization series. But the push to a new setting struck a rich vein of innovation that brought new ideas to the series.

The Civilization series was (and still is) based on Earth’s real history, and to this end it tried to reflect real political, economic, social, and military developments. The map was made of tiles reflecting real terrain; players selected their civilizations from historical options, each represented by a notable historical leader but with no differentiation beyond color on the map; military units corresponded to real historical developments.

SMAC, freed from correspondence to actual history, embraced modular systems. Rather than, for example, Plains and Grasslands being distinct, fixed terrains, the game simulated erosion and rainfall patterns to give tiles a few characteristics (How wet is it? How rocky? How high?), from which resource yields were determined. And instead of doing this once at the start of the game, these values could be dynamically recalculated, allowing players with the appropriate technologies to build massive condensers to increase rainfall on nearby tiles, or raise and lower terrain to change patterns across larger areas. Once planted, forests could spread dynamically, as could the planet’s native fungus, and they player could, intentionally or inadvertently, trigger climate changes with dramatic impacts on sea levels.

The handful of governments in Civilization 2 were replaced by four Social Engineering axes, allowing players to choose their faction’s system of government, economic style, social values, and, eventually, to implement a future society, ranging from a Eudaimonic commitment to realizing individual happiness to a totalitarian system of Thought Control, each providing bonuses and (usually) penalties to a longer list of categories. The factions received their primary mechanical definition at this level, both through inherent bonuses and penalties to different areas and through preferences and aversions to social engineering choices. So the capitalist Morganites will never be able to enact a Planned economy and will, in the hands of the AI, always choose a Free Market; their primary foil, then environmentalist Gaians, prefer a Green economy and abhor the environmental destruction unleashed by the Free Market option.

At a bare mechanical level, this system serves to push games in certain directions-the Gaians are likely to hate the Morganites due to the latter’s embrace of the former’s aversion; the Morganites won’t be quite as quick to dislike the Gaians (after all, while they may not properly embrace the market, at least they aren’t Communists), but a lesser degree of tension will prevail. Other factions are in more direct opposition: the UN Peacekeepers, clinging to a vision of democracy and universal human rights, face off with the Human Hive, dedicated to creating a strictly hierarchical society maintained by as much force as necessary; the amoral scientism of the University of Planet runs directly up against the religious convictions of the Lord’s Believers.

What captured my imagination at 12, though, was above all how these mechanical identities were expressed in the game’s worldbuilding. SMAC’s fundamental tone is quite dark: the introduction compares leaving an Earth ravaged by war and ecological disaster, one which apparently saw civilization collapse and humanity disappear soon after the game’s start, to leaving the Garden of Eden and proceeds to introduce the factions as the splinters of a desperate United Nations mission to colonize Alpha Centauri. Soon after beginning the game, the player encounters native life (mechanically a replacement for the Civilization games’ barbarians) in the form of worms said to disable their human and animal prey with horrifying hallucinations before leaving their larvae to consume the victims. Many of the technologies developed over the course of the game suggest disturbing developments ripped straight from dystopian literature. And as the factions expand and develop their economies, they increasingly risk creating familiar ecological problems.

Yet the game never loses sight of the difference that human choices make, both in the competing voices of the faction leaders presented throughout the game and in the mechanical expression of its themes. Though they might have access to the same tools, one cannot escape the conclusion that the faction leaders would create entirely different societies given the chance. And, with a variety of voices whispering in their ear, players must choose whether to crack down on unrest by force or to address its root causes; whether to make use of powerful but destructive terraforming techniques or to learn to base an economy on less ecologically disruptive techniques; whether to pursue military dominance or peaceful coexistence; and ultimately what to do about Planet’s unusual native lifeforms.

When I play SMAC now, it is in large part for nostalgia-the game’s mechanics have aged poorly, combining a great deal of micromanagement with a primitive AI unable to compete with a competent player even when given massive advantages. Yet every time I boot it up and watch the introductory video, I am once again struck by the sense of possibility the game engenders and by the writing’s ability to make even visions I abhor appear seductive at times. And I remember how, more than any other game I have played, it inspired me to learn about the literature and philosophy from which it drew inspiration. If you haven’t played it before, I encourage you to seek it out (the rise of digital distribution has been a godsend for these old games); if you have, I encourage you to fire it up for just one more turn.


Guest Author

Andrew P Larson is everything wrong with libertarians on the internet. He is on Twitter at @applarson.

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16 thoughts on “20 Years of Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri

  1. “the game’s mechanics have aged poorly, combining a great deal of micromanagement with a primitive AI unable to compete with a competent player even when given massive advantages.”

    This seems to imply that future iterations have improved on this, but the same description applies in spades to Civilization 5, which was the last game I played in the series (it was a great game, as was Alpha Centauri).

    I often wonder why Deep Mind doesn’t develop a decent AI for Civilization and sell it in collaboration with Firaxis. I would love to play against an AI that actually knew what it was doing.

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    • Have you tried Civ V recently? I think it’s aged very well, especially when compared to the execrable Civ VI.

      Then again I’ve sunk enough hours into Civ V to invent a new field of physics so my viewpoint may be biased.

      As to computer AI, I suspect there’re two elements: first- making a competent AI would be hard as heck but second and most importantly making a competent AI that calculates its turns and moves in a timely fashion increases the aforementioned difficulty by a factor of ten. Yes you need to program an AI that can challenge a human mind but the AI also gets about 30-50 seconds max to take all their turns. The human gets to dawdle on their turn for as long as they like.

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      • Yeah, to be clear, I loved Civ 5 and played it for hundreds of hours. But the AI really is bad, and I’ve never loved the way they change the difficulty by just giving the computer free goodies but leaving it with the same terrible strategic level. It just makes the game “can you survive long enough to win your inevitable science victory in the lategame”.

        I’m sure that it would be a challenge to program a better AI, but given the progress we’ve seen in Starcraft I’d love to see somebody besides Firaxis take a crack at it.

        https://www.theverge.com/2019/1/24/18196135/google-deepmind-ai-starcraft-2-victory

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      • Civ 5 also changed dramatically with patches and expansions. At launch, it strongly encouraged infinite city sprawl and had an AI that couldn’t handle one unit per tile in very elementary ways; in its final iteration, the AI is much better and the strongest strategies involve quite limited numbers of cities.

        Civ 6 is good, though.

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        • I put a whooole lot of hours into Civ 5. Lots of “oh crap how is it four in the morning” moments.

          I have yet to finish a game of Civ 6 and I’ve owned it for a couple of years now. I get bored somewhere around the middle ages or renaissance and don’t pick the game back up. Months later I decide to give Civ 6 another whirl, and by then I don’t remember what the heck was going on in the last game so I start a new one, only to get bored and drop it again after a few sessions.

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        • I think I put too many hours into Civ 5 because the ascetics of Civ 6 alone make my blood boil. Why is the terrain so similarly colored? Why why why must it be so cartoony? Why did they eviscerate the tall city strats so city sprawling is the only viable option? I mean making wonders gobble up tiles so that a city can only build a couple of them? When districts are also snarfing up tiles as well? I mean what the hell!??!

          But yes, agreed, Civ V was not perfected until all the expansions come out. I just can’t force myself to finish a Civ VI game yet.

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          • I like the districts both visually (cities in 2000 AD should be bigger than in 4000 BC!) and mechanically (they make city specialization a basic mechanic in a way that no other installment has).

            In terms of sprawl, I think Civ V ended up too far in the tall direction. Tall strategies can be pretty powerful in Civ VI, but they definitely aren’t quite as tall or nearly as powerful as their Civ V equivalents.

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            • I’m sympathetic to the ascetics argument, one’s mileage will vary on that but as I understand Civ VI’s mechanics you simply, flat out, cannot go tall. You will run out of land for wonder spaces and will simply stagnate and lose. I understand that wanted to get away from megalopolis that could dominate their civilizations and be the center of the cultured world but frankly I really enjoyed that aspect and the mandatory requirement that you have to spam out as many cities as you can get your hands on leaves me ice cold.

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                • Running out of wonder space is definitely a problem only in the sense that your winning cities might not be as blinged as you might like. If you’re building that many, the game is effectively over, you’re just waiting for whatever victory condition to complete.

                  I don’t think North has heard entirely wrong about tall strategies. From what I recall, “tall” in Civ 5 meant no more than (and preferably no fewer than) four cities. In Civ 6, Deity players seem to consider 8 about the smallest viable empire-that number likely requires very rapid early expansion and either a lucky start that gives you an unusual amount of space to expand into or an early rush to grab a couple cities and some territory from a neighbor. Pacifist games, in particular, are quite a bit harder in these conditions, and a “tall” game will look pretty wide in comparison to a tall game in Civ 5.

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                  • Yeah that’s the gap I suspect. 4 is considered an ideal number of cities for a tall strat in V. I haven’t played enough of 6 to get a good feel for it. I was badly turned off by the early release and its graphical requirements couple with my enormous irritation with its graphics and user interface coupled to drive me to quit in disgust after only a modest amount of play.
                    Perhaps they’ve sanded some of the misery out of it in subsequent expansions. I’ll have to force myself to try it again one day when I have a better machine to run it on. I bought the gold edition so I guess I get all the expansions automatically.

                    Also my early impression of 6 was that the leap from 5-6 is a lot bigger mentally than the leap from 4-5. I mean sure they brought in 1 unit per tile, but outside that it was a very similar game.

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    • I had a rough time with Civ IV’s AI. It’s pretty easy to beat in Vanilla, but in Beyond The Sword it got a lot tougher. I never really adjusted my game successfully. (Actually, I just started a game recently where I’m trying to use the “cottage economy”. It’s my first game in a while. We’ll see how it goes.)

      I don’t know if the expansion’s AI is significantly better, or just can handle a couple of situations better that I used to exploit. Like, it builds a lot more mobile units, and hurries them into cities that you’re about to attack. It also doesn’t accept peace offers when it’s got you on the ropes anymore. Those probably don’t constitute big innovations, but they make the AI less likely to make small mistakes.

      Maybe the biggest difference between the Vanilla and BTS is Ragnar. Sometimes in the original, when I’d play with the “random personalities” option and lots of civs, there would be one guy who was super-aggressive in expansion and in war. It’d blow me away. In BTS, that’s Ragnar every game. Montezuma is always aggressive, but he doesn’t build a balanced civilization. Ragnar is just as aggressive, and he backs it up with a full map of good cities.

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  2. I’ve played a lot of Civ IV. It ostensibly has these types of options, but they’re not too effective. There are five categories of civics (government, legal, labor, economy, and religion), and five choices in each category, but really only one or two of them each are worth using.

    For a system like SMAC’s to work, the decisions have to be both meaningful and balanced. Those are tough to manage together. You can have unimportant choices that are balanced (typically this is the uniform colors kind of thing), but when you get into decisions that can affect the outcome, there’s usually a single path that proves to be superior. Civ IV’s economic systems are Decentralization (the initial), Mercantilism (garbage), Environmentalism (garbage), Free Market (the best), and State Property, which has one bonus that makes it perfect for island maps. Do I personally like communism? Nope. But I use it when a map has a bunch of islands, because it eliminates the distance penalty from the capital – because real-world communism has proven itself free of corruption.

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    • I think Civ V did a better job differentiating the ideologies with their social policy trees and eventual ideology trees. Order (socialism) is a production powerhouse which lends itself well to the war or science(production) victories but is much weaker when pursuing social and diplomatic victory conditions. Autocracy (fascism and command) is a war making powerhouse with significant bonuses for not only rolling out the pain but also managing the conquest and occupation of hostile cities which naturally lends it to the domination victory but makes it much weaker in all others. Freedom (Liberalism) is specialist focused which allows for a versatile supple playstyle that allows it to account for itself very well when pursuing most victory conditions but it obviously excels at the specialist focused cultural victory.

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    • One of the major differences in SMAC is that the categories tend to unlock all the options at similar points on the tech tree. Civ IV, from what I remember, generally tried to push you to use the shiny new thing-so later options were meant to be more powerful (though as always the stage of the game was important to what “powerful” meant; the main thing I remember about Civ IV’s system was the ridiculous power of Slavery in the early game, when it let you convert plentiful food into scarce production and to control health and unhappiness at the same time).

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  3. I came to the Civ world too late to get into Alpha Centauri but even my limited experience with it showed me how interesting and potent the story behind it was and a lot of that attention to detail carried over to its spiritual successor Civilization Beyond Earth.
    While I was luke warm to Beyond Earth due to game play issues the story behind it was pretty snazzy and they did an incredible job charting out what I think is both a sympathetic and also plausible future path for social conservativism in that setting. The Purity faction in that game is intent on developing the new world as a Promised Land to save all the humans left behind on earth while also dedicating themselves to preserving the essential core of human nature. No transhuman evolution into thinking machines or eco-wonder merging with the consciousness of the living planet for them! It’s actually quite a sympathetic and plausible portrayal.

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