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The Independent Culture
CIVILIZATION is a strategy game, a subculture, a power fantasy and a management training exercise. The original game, designed by Sid Meier, appeared in 1991. Since then, the brand has flourished in the style of the game itself, achieving world domination in the form of 2.5 million sales, and expanding into a series of new strongholds. After Civilization II came Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri, then Civilization: Call to Power, and the latest variant, Civilization II: Test of Time (Hasbro, Windows, pounds 35). Alongside these releases, published by different companies on a franchise basis, are scenarios and game elements created by Civ enthusiasts from Russia to Brazil.

The computer games industry operates like a cross between the movie and car industries, making sequels out of anything that sells and relying heavily on peripheral improvements to persuade customers to buy a new model every year. Test of Time offers newly animated icons and a package of game scenarios. You can play science fiction or fantasy themes if you fancy aliens or goblins as a change from legionaries. And whereas the earlier version of Civilization II ended when a player succeeded in launching a spaceship to Alpha Centauri, in the new extended version you get to colonise a planet in the distant solar system.

Essentially, though, the game is the same; and its name is resource management. You have to develop your productive forces, provide enough food for your populace, build up your military, establish mines and industries, found cities, irrigate land, launch fleets, engage in trade, and balance the budget. As the game progresses, it becomes increasingly important to keep your people "happy", or rather stop them from expressing discontent.

"Happiness" can be imposed by martial law, though if you choose a democracy, the leader must govern by the carrot as well as the stick. True happiness can be bestowed on all citizens of the home city by installing "wonders of the world" such as Shakespeare's theatre. According to a strategy treatise posted on a website called SidGames.com, this comes in handy if you are running a democracy and want to fight large wars. Other wonders, women's suffrage and the United Nations, are said to make it as easy to conduct a war in a democracy as in a republic.

Civ bestows merits on a variety of political systems. The only one to avoid is the starting condition, despotism, which is highly inefficient. "Rush to discover monarchy," advises Kunal Shah, the creator of SidGames.com, as befits someone whose name means "king". "I usually leave despotism before 2000 BC." Communism is free from corruption, though limited in its trading capacities. No citizen is ever unhappy under a fundamentalist regime, though scientific progress is hampered.

Some devotees do seem to have a real-world political agenda, though one of the downloadable scenarios on the European Civilization II website invites the player to defeat Franco in the Spanish Civil War, and another re-enacts a crusade to "regain the Holy Land from the dark invaders". A third urges players to help Vlad Dracula fight the Turks.

For most Civ enthusiasts, though, the fascination seems to lie in the painstaking assembly of imaginary worlds. Alex Mor's website presents a tutorial on how to create one's own units, such as ships or castles, for custom Civ scenarios. He notes that each icon takes him two or three hours to complete. As he has made some 350 of these graphics, that represents about six months' full-time work. According to his Web address, Alex is in Russia, building his pixel empires amid the ruins of a real one.

You can visit www.poptel.org.uk/secondsite for links to pages mentioned or contact Marek Kohn on secondsite@poptel.net

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