Monday, July 05, 2004

Vince Gair and the Sioux Nation

Yes, it's true, I did see Boynton last wednesday night night and we did exchange a few messages by semaphore and she has been trying to persuade me to get back to blogging and I guess she finally succeeded. I thought I'd start with some long overdue words of explanation for my absence form the blogosphere. There's a piece on a hard disc somewhere called Long OVerdue Words of Explanation but the title doesn't work for me. Every time I see it I get depressed and a little guilt stricken and decide to do something else while the piece writes itself in the back of my head. As if.

The something else is playing FreeCiv, which is installed on my new Linux box. It's not really new - it used to be a Windows box at a Roman Catholic secondary school somewhere. Shortly after Zeppo Bakunin andI moved in together, we decided to replace our dud PCs and paid thirty sevendollars each for a couple of Acer boxes through an on-line auction place. Iturned mine into a Linux box by getting rid of the old hard-drive and whackingin the Quantum Fireball hard-drive from my old PC with the dead motherboard.That was pretty much it, apart from flashing a new BIOS to get rid of thepassword protection on the old BIOS so that I could add a CD and a Floppy discdrive. Two days after Zeppo brough the boxes home, I had a functioning Linux PC.

Complete with FreeCiv 1.12 which I find perversely fascinating; perhaps I enjoy being irritated by obvious absurdity.

Getting a game started is one of those slightly roundabout nerdy Linux tasks; suffice it to say you first start the game server which actually runs the game, then you start the game client which actually allows you to play it. Thisisn't absurd; it's designed to be played as a multi-player game over theinternet, so a client/server setup makes sense. Once the game's started you chooseyour nation from a list of about fifty. I usually take the Australians, ruled by Vince Gair. I tried out a few other names for rulers (in preference to the default Robert Menzies) like Alan Cadman, Rex Connor and Joh-Bjelke Peterson but the game seems to go best with Vince.

The object of the game is to conquer the world, or something like that. You begin by building a couple of cities, explore your local neighbourhood, do the scientific research which will eventually enable you to become a world-dominating superpower. If you're lucky, you'll make it; but what usually happens is that around 50 BC, when the Australians, under Vince's benevolent despotism, have just mastered the wheel so they can build chariots and finally knock off the bloody Welsh (or the Incas, Welsh, Cornish, Mordors or Dunedan depending what nations the server picks for the AI players) the bloody Irish (or the Russians, Arabs, Israelis, Canadians, French or Lithuanians) turn up with steam-powered warships and level Canberra.

The trick, I've found, is to survive long enough to research two key "technologies" - communism and powered flight. It's remarkable how easily you can take over a coastal city with a galleon stuffed with knights in armour, as long as you have air support. Imagine what Henry the Fifth could have done at Agincourt if he'd had a couple of Sopwith Camels on his side; history would have turned out pretty much the same.

The idea of knights conquering cities with the assistance of fighter aircraft, bombers and helicopters doesn't irritate me; it's actually quite amusing. It's the designers' ideas on the nature of government, and the way those ideas are reflected in the game that gets my goat.

There are five forms of governemt available; despotism, monarchy, republicanism, democracy and communism. Here's how they're described in the game's help system:

Under Despotism you are the absolute ruler of your people. Your control over your citizens is mainitained largely by martial law. Despotism suffers the highest level of corruption of all forms of government.

Under Monarchy, a king or queen serves as the hereditary figurehead for your government. Monarchy suffers the same amount of corruption that the Republic does.

Under a Republican government, citizens elect a representative who will govern them. Since elected leaders must remain popular to remain in control, citizens are given a greater degree of freedom. Citizens under a republic become unhappy easily but the self-sufficiency of your citizens allows high levels of trade.

Under Democracy, citizens govern directly by voting on issues. Democracy offers the highest levels of trade, but also offers to most potential for unhappiness. There is no corruption during Democracy, but citizens become very upset during wars.

What all this boils down to when you play the game is very little: the whole thing runs on a soviet-style command economy anyway. It's just that if you choose one of the openly authoritarian or repressive forms of government, the bitizens will indulge in some pointless electronic pilferage which cuts into your ability to raise funds, research your next major scientific advance (such as Literacy) or distribute "luxuries" (the digital equivalent of baby-bonuses) to keep the population docile.

The end result is, that if you have the sentimental idea that freedom is a good thing and you want all your bitizens to enjoy a representative form of government, you're stuffed. The most practicable forms of government are despotism, monarchy and communism; you can keep the populace under control with martial law, you don't pay heavy penalties to maintain your knights, galleons, fighter aircraft and attack helicopters and it's cheaper to maintain the work-crews which build your infrastructure (like roads). On a good day, I can have King Vince of Australia turned into Chairman Vince of the Australian Union of Soviet Republics by around 1650 AD. Then it's time to start creating lots of spies to run around nicking the really advanced technologies (like Gunpowder and steam engines) off everyone else.

I reckon I'll probably give up on it in a couple of days or so; but first I want to find out how the Sioux nation will stand up to a mass invasion of charioteers. After the shock and awe bombardment with cruise missiles it ought to be a walkover.

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