Okay, let’s put aside the fact that war doesn’t really make much sense in real life. We’re talking about games, here. This is a gaming blog.
I’m not a historian by any means, but I don’t think I need to be one to tell that something’s a bit off when one of the CPU-controlled players, with whom I’ve had very little contact, declares war on me even though I’m not controlling an important resource, blocking some strategic position, or otherwise being much of a threat. Potentially, I could turn this into a long rant on why AI in 4X games can be so lacking, but I don’t think that’s the actual problem, here.
Let’s consider something for a minute. What are some real-world, historical causes for war? Most 4X games position every player as a tyrant whose only purpose is to take over the entire gameworld. And while uppity tyrants certainly are a cause for wars in the real world, there are other, more interesting reasons for conflicts to break out. Let’s consider some of them.
1. You have one country. This country is made up of two different societies that see themselves as having irreconcilable differences.
a. One society is a clear oppressor class and the other is the oppressed, and so the oppressed class is trying to break away in order to seek freedom from religious, political, or other forms of persecution. Or, the oppressor class is seeking to remove the oppressed from their percieved homeland.
b. Both groups are on fairly equal footing, and are both trying to lay claim to being the true successor to their shared homeland.
c. There are actually multiple societies, and instead of the typical conquering pattern you generally see in 4X games, a Balkanization pattern occurs instead.
e. Variant on the oppressor class idea: Both societies were living in harmony until the more dominant society attempted to enforce their culture on the weaker societies. This might include language or religion, both of which are historically important causes for war.
2. You have two countries.
a. They are fighting over a resource they both need.
b. They are fighting because of irreconcilable cultural differences.
c. You have a country with two societies. One is oppressed. Another country gets involved to help liberate the oppressed.
d. Both countries team up to fend off some third, tyrannical country.
e. One country attempts to punish another country in a military manner for some other crime committed.
f. Sort of the reverse of 1.b, two different countries both feel they have a legitimate claim as the true successor of their associated culture, religion, or whatever else.
g. The Pope tells one of the countries to go to war against the other.
This is just a small list I came up with off the top of my head. There are dozens more historically accurate and logical reasons why two countries would go to war that could be used in a 4X strategy game.
I think the bigger problem here, though, is that it’s impossible for most of the more interesting scenarios to come up just because of what I feel are relatively arbitrary limits placed on the genre. Let’s take Civilization 4 as an example. Civ 4 does factor in religion as something that can create friction or unity between two countries, and given that resources now how much more visible and important effects, controlling these resources can also lead to interesting scenarios to develop. To an extent, it even models culture’s role, mostly in terms of how the allegiance of any given city is affected by who conquered them and how close they are to other cultures. However, even with the max number of players in a game, there are still only 18 different nations. In the grand scheme of thing, that’s not a lot, and most 4X games only let you have half that number. I mean, to date, Yugoslavia has broken up into something like seven countries, counting Kosovo. Maybe this is just part of my misguided desire for 4X strategy games to edge more into geopolitical simulator territory, but with such a small number of different countries present in the game, it’s hard to get any interesting interplay going on between the two of them.
And that takes me to the biggest problem I have with war in 4X games. True to the genre’s name, it is primarily carried out for the purpose of exterminating your enemies, and everyone is, ultimately, your enemy. Combat’s very much a zero-sum game–you’re either going to take your opponent over, or you’re going to lose and they’ll probably take you over in this weakened state. Fighting in 4X games could be used to achieve other ends than just winning the game (and at that, I do think an emphasis on world domination as the victory condition really could be given a rest), but it rarely is, and more importantly, playing peaceful is also rarely a viable option.
Actually, I really am positive that demanding more logical reasons and applications for war in a 4X strategy game really is a bit misguided. It’d be interesting, at least.