20 Years of Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri


Andrew Larson

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

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16 Responses

  1. Avatar Dan Miller says:

    “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.Report

    • Avatar North says:

      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.Report

      • Avatar Dan Miller says:

        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.


      • Avatar Andrew Larson says:

        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.Report

        • Avatar dragonfrog says:

          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.Report

        • Avatar North says:

          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.Report

          • Avatar Andrew Larson says:

            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.Report

            • Avatar North says:

              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.Report

              • Avatar James K says:

                in practice, I don’t find this a problem. True, you generally don’t have too many wonders per city, but you’d have to play very tall for it to be an issue – the AI is pretty aggressive about building wonders.Report

              • Avatar Andrew Larson says:

                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.Report

              • Avatar North says:

                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.Report

    • Avatar Pinky says:

      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.Report

  2. Avatar Pinky says:

    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.Report

    • Avatar North says:

      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.Report

    • Avatar Andrew Larson says:

      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).Report

  3. Avatar North says:

    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.Report