Sunday, April 22, 2012

Seapower in Culture: Civilization IV


The Civilization series of games is in some sense ideal for depicting the influence of seapower on history.  Civilization connects geography, technology, and economic power to military capability, requiring a player to formulate a coherent grand strategy based on factor endowment and international constraints. The system favors (even demands) the construction of empire, often across a series of unconnected landmasses. Every Civ player has his or her favorite edition, and favorite set of stories from that version.  I haven't yet acquired Civilization V, and so this analysis will concentrate on Civilization IV: Beyond the Sword, and will focus mainly on solitary play. Beyond the Sword is in many ways a deeply Mahanian game; building a proxy-governed extra-territorial empire is strongly supported, and in many cases even required for victory. Seapower is often key to acquiring (through conquest or colonization) and maintaining this empire.  The questions relevant to this series are as follows:

1. To what extent are the depictions of seapower accurate in tactical and operational terms?

2. How does seapower fit into broader national grand strategy in social, economic, and military terms?

3. What could we learn about seapower from playing a few dozen 47 hour games of Civ IV on "Epic" timeframe at  "Prince" difficulty?

On the accuracy question...

The game abstracts the bulk of the history of naval technology, with ships progressing along two lines until the modern era.  The troops ships run galleys to galleons to transports, while the warships run trireme to caravel (which does have some rump transport capacity) to frigate (and the mostly useless Ironclad and Ship of the Line units) to destroyer. In the earliest period ships are limited to coastal squares, leaving large portions of the map off limits, or at least difficult to find. Ships (like all other units) require no direct logisitical support. Although all military units produce a drain on national resources, individual units require no specific base of resupply.  This means, in the early and middle game, that a galley or caravel can leave its home port and not return for millenia, at which point it is promptly converted into a frigate or galleon. Early game units are unaffected by weather or sea conditions; there are no trade winds or similar phenomena to drive commerce and naval action into particular maritime "highways."

The naval aspects become more interesting as the game progresses. A good primer on late game naval tactics is available here. As that primer suggests, however, the principles that apply to naval combat in the real world (and to naval industrial policy) don't always apply in Civ.  Concentration, for example, has some value, but it's generally very easy for a fleet to avoid direct conflict with an enemy stack of doom.  Indeed, it might well be correct to suggest that Civ follows Mahan less than Corbett.

However, since Civilization II air and sea combat have not been well integrated with one another.  The most obvious problem is that air units (apart from cruise missiles) cannot destroy sea units at sea, and cannot damage them in port.  This can prove extremely frustrating when a fleet of transports show up near your coast, and can't be destroyed despite heavy air superiority.  Indeed, even having surface naval units available doesn't always help, given the limit on numbers of attacks per turn. These limits are designed to preserve game balance (otherwise air units dominate the game), but they do detract from late game verisimilitude.

In Civ IV naval units have fewer ways of influencing shore events than in some previous editions.  Shore bombardment doesn't destroy improvements, limiting the utility of wandering an enemy coast and laying waste.  Similarly, shore bombardment only destroys "cultural" fortification of cities, leaving the cities themselves (and their defending units) undamaged. Again, there are game balance reasons for this, but the decision limits the impact of naval superiority.

Nevertheless, in the late game stacks of amphibious doom can be truly devastating. Destroyers and battleships destroy the fortifications of coastal cities, cruise missiles and fighters wear down defending units, and marines destroy defending units.  It is extremely difficult to defend coastal cities against such stacks, and even the temporary loss of a major city can have dreadful economic effects.  Moreover, if the attacker doesn't expect to hold but simply prefers to punish, even critical, millenia old cities can be burned to the ground.

And then there are the quibbles.  Missile cruisers could (and should) have far greater air defense capabilities, and indeed air defense should be an allowable promotion.  Something along the lines of an amphibious warship, with limited capabilities for carrying both air and land units, would be quite nice. Damaged vessels could move more slowly (as they did in Civ II), and a variety of other small tweaks could be introduced that would make the naval campaign more interesting without fundamentally unbalancing the game.

And the grand strategy question...

Seapower is important to many games of Civ. As all players know, one of the most rewarding parts of the game is exploration of the full map.  Different maps produce radically different constellations of military necessity; seapower is critical to some, but not all of these. I find that the most interesting naval contests happen with mediumish continents rather than archipelagos, mostly because archipelago cities rarely achieve the degree of industrial capacity necessary to the construction of massive fleets.

Nevertheless, Civ IV lacks a coherent economic theory of seapower. The role of trade in particular is abstracted, except in the case of a few critical resources.  To be sure, the game does allow a certain degree of economic destruction from the sea; positioning a ship in a city's resource zone prevents the utilization of those and surrounding tiles, and raiders can cause a lot of damage to maritime resource infrastructure. Nevertheless, it's difficult to cause critical damage to an economy through maritime means because there's little underlying theory of how maritime trade undergirds the international economy.

It's also unclear how naval power affect reputation in Civ IV.  In many games, I've never quite figured out how AI empires assess military power, but my best guess is that they aggregate, rather than divide between land, air and seapower.  Similarly, it's not clear that the AI can assess its own vulnerability to different kinds of military power.  This may mean that you can build a world-beating fleet, yet not get taken seriously by the AI (or perhaps get taken too seriously) because of land power deficiencies.  This would operate much differently in a multiplayer game, of course. Still, Civ models the reputational and social effects of naval power poorly, if at all.  We know that a Chinese aircraft carrier (or, in an earlier era, a Brazilian dreadnought) has a social and symbolic import that goes beyond its strict military value; reputation is an important consideration for naval procurement.

Overall, the lack of a strong economic underpinning to the Civ maritime system remains problematic.  A submarine oriented sea denial campaign can surely have some success, but it can only very, very rarely "starve" a nation in the sense of the Battle of the Atlantic or the Royal Navy blockade of Germany in World War I.  Cutting off a critical resource such as iron or oil is sometimes possible, but requires a tremendous, long term effort.  Perhaps most importantly, there is no such thing as an anti-commerce strategy.  All ships, even transports, are state owned military assets; there are no tramp freighters to sink or whaling ships to seize.  This cuts out a crucial component of naval warfare since the Age of Sail, and incidentally makes a "sea denial" or raiding strategy by an overmatched opponent considerably less rewarding.

And the lessons...

What applicable lessons could be learned from Civ IV? Very little in tactical or operational terms, obviously.  That aircraft carriers do better when escorted by destroyers and missile cruisers doesn't tell us very much, although I suppose it might serve as introduction to the concept "carrier battle group" for someone new to seapower theory.  Similarly, the lack of basing or supply requirements completely abstracts most interesting operational concepts.  Civ IV has great difficulty explaining why base proximity could allow Japan to accept a 10:10:6 ratio, or why the Russian Baltic Fleet was so ragged when it finally arrived at Tsushima.

Of strategic lessons I can think of two.  The first is the reality of helplessness when, in fact, your empire faces a Turn Without Seapower.  Ships take a while to build, and when an enemy fleet shows up on your door either to raid or to land, it can cause immense (often decisive) damage before you get a chance to do anything about it. Fortunately wars can last centuries, so if you survive first contact there's often the opportunity to get revenge.  The second, related, is the broader connection between industrial capacity and seapower. Cities have to be built or seized with an eye to how they fit into a broader national strategy, which of necessity includes seapower considerations.  Decisions about improvements in particular coastal cities (whether to build a drydock, or how much to invest in finishing a factory) also work better when informed by a broad consideration of grand strategy.  

What sort of introduction does Civ provide to seapower novices? The lack of a clear connection between maritime commerce and seapower is problematic.  Ships exist primarily to destroy other ships, rather than to play a regulatory role.  The lack of a good theory of logistics also produces misleading conclusions.  While some navies can indeed operate effectively at extreme distance from their industrial bases, this is not true of all organizations.  That said, a complex system of logistics would probably detract from enjoyment of the game.  With regard to ship types, Civ isn't particularly instructive in terms of the roles and capabilities of the real life counterparts of game units.  All that said, the need for naval power on most maps (and the complexity of building and maintaining an advanced fleet) could serve as a foundation for an interest in naval affairs, or at least of an appreciation of the role that navies play in a grand strategic framework.


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