One of the many projects I've got on the backburner is a solitaire civ-building kinda-sorta legacy game. It has a neat twist that I'm going to keep to myself for the time being, but when I tell people about the game and about that twist, they get pretty excited and they very much want to know when the game is coming out, and why am I not working on it right now?
And the reason why the thing is still on the backburner is that I have a problem with civ games in general, and that is the tendency of such games to present a civilization as a monocultural entity whose resources and populace are completely under the player's control. I'm far from the first one to note this problem, and as it happens, I recently listened to an interview with Martin Wallace and read a twitter-thing by Cole Wehrle where they made the same point: almost all civ games aren't a model of any reputable theory as to how real civilizations rise and fall, but are models of Sid Meier's Civilization, the popular computer game franchise.
And I'm not necessarily slagging on Civilization. I haven't played them much, but when I have, I've enjoyed them for what they are: fun, crunchy strategy games with some appealing historical window dressing. It arguably gets some things right - the importance of evolving technologies and ideas, if not necessarily the way those innovations actually evolve - but as a political model it's really, really dubious.
There's nothing wrong with that in the context of a specific game or even series of games. All models are wrong and all that: in my own work, I would much rather build a simple model of relatively narrow scope than try to capture everything about a subject or conflict. Where it becomes a problem is that if every game on a subject has that same narrow focus, if they're all telling the same story.
And the story that civ games usually tell is, like I said, monocultural and authoritarian - really, that's two sides of the same coin. Whether it's a city-state, a kingdom, or a vast empire, the populace is presented as having one unified identity that's completely subsumed and obedient to the player's vision - they're little more than extensions of the player's will. But every civilization in the history of the world has been a patchwork thing, made up of different people with different ideas and different competing interests. In so many civ and 4X games, all pressures are external. But these internal pressures, and the myriad identities that create them, are arguably more important, and to my mind certainly more interesting as both a player and a designer.
More than that, a model of history that marginalizes internal pressures feeds into a dangerous sort of nostalgia. In today's world, we're very familiar with these pressures, and there's a tendency (especially among folks who are not particularly historically literate) to see this as a very modern thing, and as an aberration. Today, none of us can set aside our differences to get things done, but way back when, things were different, people were different: our world's gone rotten. But the fact is that way back when, things weren't different, and neither were people: we've always been squabbling, every empire made up of competing cities, every city of competing factions, every faction of competing people.
And obviously any workable game on this subject can't get quite that granular and detailed. But there's a lot of wiggle room between the two extremes of modeling the motives of every citizen and avoiding the subject all together. The trick for my purposes is finding the sweet spot, particularly in a solitaire context.