Veteran designer Sid Meier has over the years been behind—or at least lent his name to—some of the greatest games of our age.
Some of these, like Civilization, you’ll no doubt be very familiar with. Others, whether through their age or obscurity, maybe less so.
This piece originally appeared 12/7/15.
Meier’s story is a great one, with his background and path into the business the kind that you’d only ever see in the crazy PC landscape of the 80s. Which might explain why so many of these games date back that far.
Not that this is a bad thing, or a slight on his more recent efforts; one of the key tenets of Meier’s designs are that his games are often built around simple, timeless mechanics that can help games from the 80s and 90s feel as fresh today as they did at release. As you’re about to see.
While Meier has been involved in dozens of games over the decades, from the flight sims and submarine games of the 80s to the mobile games of today, the five below stand as his finest work.
With his name still on on the series’ box (even today), it’s easy to forget that Sid Meier has only played a major role in the development of one game in the main Civilization series: the original. Still, if you’re going to leave your mark, best you leave it in laying down the groundwork for a series so utterly addictive (and neatly designed) that it remains the cornerstone of PC strategy gaming to this day.
Sure, other designers—from Brian Reynolds to Jeff Briggs to Soren Johnson to Jon Shafer—have come in and made their own changes to the formula, but the underlying game that Meier and Bruce Shelley came up with remains remarkably unchanged since 1990, which is as remarkable a testament to game design as you can get in this business.
I honestly don’t think I’ve ever played a video game so ahead of its time. The original Pirates! came out in 1987, and even though it’s been remade twice (like 1993’s Pirates! Gold above), both upgrades have been almost entirely cosmetic. With good reason: the underlying design of the game—a mix of rogue-like adventure, adventure game and naval combat simulator—remains as innovative and rock-solid today as it did almost twenty years ago.
Seen by many as a lesser Civilization game, I instead see Meier and Brian Reynolds’ (Civ II, Alpha Centauri) work here as perhaps the best in the franchise, a case of focus triumphing over scale.
Colonization isn’t just a shining example of how flexible Civilization’s underlying tenets can be, it’s also a triumph of historical video gaming. European settlement of the Americas is a complex political and historical landmine for a video game to try and navigate, but Colonization’s confidence and tone means it’s somehow able to tackle topics like genocide and revolution with the weight they deserve.
One of the great things about strategy games is that they can turn almost anything into a fun experience if the nuts and bolts are right. As an example, here’s the description for Railroad Tycoon:
The objective of the game is to build and manage a railroad company by laying track, building stations, and buying and scheduling trains.
That sounds dreadful. Like the kind of thing only old men who build models of German tanks would be into. And yet, just like they did with Civlization, Meier and Shelley were able to make a historical interest more generally appealing through toy-like visuals and a compelling, almost board game-like design.
The origins of real-time strategy gaming on the PC are a lot more complex than just saying “first there was Dune 2 then Command & Conquer then $$$.” The genre’s family tree is littered with smaller branches, like attempts in the 1990s to simulate conflict more seriously than the blockbuster RTS games had ever attempted.
For every StarCraft there was a Fields of Glory, and for every Red Alert there was a Sid Meier’s Gettysburg! It hasn’t aged particularly well today—where it comes across as a flawed stepping stone to games like Total War—but it was an absolute blast at the time, one of the first games to really marry the excitement of real-time strategy with the complexity of more serious, turn-based military games.