The Other Civilization

Here’s another monotreme. Not Sid Meier’s Civilization or its boardgame adaptation, but Francis Tresham’s much earlier boardgame, now sadly extinct.

This is, superficially, an odd choice to nominate as an overlooked game. Tresham’s design is famous as the first instance of a ‘tech tree’ in a strategy game, and was clearly an influence on many later games. Like many influential creations, however, the most interesting parts of Tresham’s game are not the ones that are famous.

For a start, it doesn’t have a technology tree so much as a technology hedge. Whereas the conception of advancement in many of Civilization‘s imitators tends toward the teleological, Tresham’s game emphasises adaptation and differentiation alongside linear progress. Most techs have no prerequisite, the paths to the ones that do are somewhat fluid, and the benefits they provide tend to be situational.

Partly, this is because of the way technology interacts with the game’s wonderful (and terrifying) ‘calamity’ system. Calamities, when they strike, can be truly catastrophic, leveling cities or cutting your civilisation in half. In many cases, a particular technology is all that stands between you and ruin. Add geography, and things can get really interesting. If you live on a floodplain, you’re going to want the to get engineering for flood control post haste. If you live in the trackless forests of temperate Europe, you won’t be able to build many cities, so there’s no need for techs that protect them.

This interaction between civilisations and geography is actually one of the most interesting aspects of the game, I think. Unlike the digital game series, in which the Egyptians are liable to have a bonus to living near a river if they can find one, the Egyptians in Tresham’s creation will often end up with floodplain-related technology out of necessity. In the manual for the Avalon Hill edition I played, there was a great designer’s statement (they don’t make manuals like they used to) in which Tresham mentioned that the original design had had no named civilisations, just colour-coded factions. In the AH edition, they gained names for a bit more flavour, but these were somewhat vague and geographical: Italics vied with Illyrians and Thracians. In both cases, the reasoning was that actual play should decide a civilisation’s identity. This is not only a rereshingly materialist philosophy, but a nice bit of game design. Your civilisation is always distinctly ‘yours’, and always able to adapt.

One last thing. Rather than depicting cities exclusively, the game started with only units of population. Your little tribes would spread and multiply, and possibly conflict, though warfare was perfunctory and usually resulted in a stalemate. Cities, interestingly, could only be built on certain sites, with the Aegean, the Nile, Mesopotamia and parts of Italy and Anatolia having the lion’s share. At the same time, they were essential to trade and progress. This meant that if you started as, say, the Thracians and found yourself locked out of the good Aegean city sites by other players, you might end up squatting on the Danube with a chip on your shoulder, no use for city-related technologies, and a hunger for those vital trade-rich lands to your south. In other words: you became the barbarians. This is interesting both because of the asymmetry of the situation (one player as the warlike outsider, needing to break in before they can compete, but not out of the game) and because the game actually simulates (and lets people play) cultures beyond the pale of its central focus. Tresham’s Civilization is an intimation of profound possibilities the genre has rarely explored.