If you’re like most American Heritage readers, you harbor a desire to have witnessed certain events in history—an important discovery, maybe, or a decisive battle. Until time-machine technology comes along, Firaxis Games will do you one better, and for only $39.99. With Civilization III, an update of a popular computer game introduced in 1990, you don’t just relive history, you make your own. A far cry from the frenzied shoot-’em-up bloodbaths that populate most game shelves, Civilization is an involved contest of economic and political strategy that develops over hours or days, like chess as imagined by Adam Smith. You act as the founder of a civilization—half-leader, half-god, similar to an emperor of Rome but with more power. Even Augustus didn’t get to decide what percentage of his planet’s terrain would be covered with water.
You begin the game by choosing a geographical configuration from an array of Pangaea-like worlds and then picking a civilization to emulate (if you choose the United States over Rome, China, the Aztecs, or the other selections, the computer refers to you as “Lincoln” for the duration). Your society dawns in 4000 B.C. with a few squares of terrain and the natural resources that come with them. As you allocate time and funds to research, exploration, culture, and other facets of civilization, your empire grows, its technological abilities evolve from masonry through to rocketry, and you progress from your first efforts to fend off barbarians to planning naval blockades and nuclear attacks on rival nations.
Advisers, who look like characters from the movie Shrek dressed in historical garb, pop up to offer suggestions, perhaps hinting that you should institute a trade embargo or start researching steam power. You can win through old-fashioned military might or widespread cultural dominance, by being elected secretary-general of the United Nations, or by being the first to launch a spaceship bound for Alpha Centauri.
The game offers a satisfying timelapse view of the advance of civilization, but it fast-forwards the drawbacks as well: After a few hours of play, you’ll have to deal with the effects of pollution, deforestation, and nuclear waste. Also, as addictive as playing God can be, power brings a tough responsibility, and game’s end might find you thinking, “If only I had researched metalworking back in 1500 B.C. , I wouldn’t have been conquered just now!”