Happy Fourth of July, America. That means it’s time once again to talk about Sid Meier’s Colonization, the quintessential game about American independence.
First released in 1994, Colonization remains something of a cult favourite amongst PC gamers, never managing to reach the heights of popularity or critical acclaim its predecessor Civilization or its science fiction sibling Alpha Centauri managed.
Still, it’s my favourite game of the three.
Few games that are set in a historical time period are genuinely, practically historical. They may include muskets or swords, gladiators or samurai, but those are usually there as window-dressing for an action game, swappable textures and objects on a quest that could just as easily have been set in a fantasy realm. They rarely explore the themes of the time, the politics, the things that drove men and women to do what they did and which helped shape the world we live in today.
Sid Meier’s Colonization did do this, and it did it in spades.
Landing off the coast of America in 1492, the player could choose to represent either Britain, Spain, France or The Netherlands, exploring the New World, establishing colonies, managing trade routes and forming relationships with the Native American nations you encounter throughout the game. Eventually, affairs would build towards an endgame where you would fight a war of independence against your chosen European power.
So far, so Civilization (well, except for the revolution part), but where Firaxis’ flagship series paints history in only the broadest of brushstrokes, Colonization has a laser-sharp focus that lets it explore the history of a very specific point in time.
It does this by stripping away the broader systems it doesn’t need, and narrowing down on others to better represent the time period represented. Then it does away with the idea of a central narrative. Colonization never makes the player see the European powers as a comically tyrannical force, and doesn’t paint the Americans as a hardy band of freedom-loving heroes either. It doesn’t try and say that one side were the bad guys, the other, the good guys.
Just as importantly, the fate of the Native Americans you encounter throughout the game isn’t written in stone either. While players are given the option to repeat history and drive them from their ancestral lands to make way for more wooden forts and trade posts, they’re also given plenty of chances to work with them, trading goods, sharing knowledge of the local land and even sending settlers to live among them to learn valuable new skills.
All of which is key to Colonization’s success, because it knows history is rarely as simple as books, movies and national foundation myths would have us believe.
Instead, it places you at the centre of a number of forces pulling at your colonies, and asks you to do your best at making sense of them. Your homeland’s monarch may be a fat slob who raises taxes in accordance with the level of rebel sentiment in your settlements, but he’s also representative of your home, the source of your past and culture along with all your money and settlers throughout the bulk of the game. Because of this, you develop a strange sense of affinity towards your European homeland, despite their leader’s frequent (and quite literal) requests to kiss the ring.
Colonization is also able to let you manage your cities right down to assigning which individual person will be a lumberjack and who will be a teacher, who you can retrain to man a stockade with a musket and who is going to catch all the fish. By focusing solely on a select time and place in history, it also lets things like trade, exploration and settlement become richer, more detailed affairs. You quickly develop a love of your people on an individual level, which makes their hardship at the hands of a European monarch and an unforgiving new world tough to bear.
Thus when, almost inevitably (though it’s never forced upon the player), war comes and your colonies attempt to rebel and establish the United States of America, things aren’t as black and white as you’d expect. Cut off from money and men, your colonies are suddenly exposed, weak and short of military might. And rather than unanimously rising up to meet the redcoats (or Bluecoats or Orangecoats if you’re not playing as the British) at Bunker Hill, you find that many amongst your people remain loyal to the Crown, and even take up arms against you.
It’s a mess. A chaotic swirl of mixed emotions, conflicting agendas, propaganda and subversion. And it rarely goes smoothly. Just like the actual American war of independence!
As I’ve argued before, this is exactly what a good historical game should do. Rather than try and recreate events as a story, told from a single perspective, Colonization gives you all the themes, tools and the diplomatic climate of the time and drops you into it so you can experience them all for yourself. Make your own judgements on what was good and bad, right and wrong. Then rewrite it again and again as you see fit.
If you’ve got the day off and are looking to get in touch with the origins of the modern American state, the original PC version is available for spare change over on Good Old Games and Steam. Firaxis released a a remake of the game a few years back, built over the top of Civilization IV, but it’s a cold and sterile affair; you’re far better off getting the first game (which is the one pictured throughout this post), especially since its art style holds up so well even today.
This story was originally published on July 4, 2016. It has been updated.