Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri

In 1993, as MicroProse was struggling financially, it was bought by Spectrum/Holobyte, and the UK personnel were mostly let go. And while Civ II came out as a MicroProse game, it was clear that Spectrum/Holobyte had other plans for the company than what the long-term MicroProse people wanted. So after the release of Civ II in 1996, Sid Meier, Jeff Briggs, and Brian Reynolds left to form Firaxis Games. MicroProse tottered along for a few more years, but is no longer relevant to this story.

Jeff Briggs, who had been at Microprose early on, would later lead the development of Civ III. And of course Sid Meier and Brian Reynolds were the lead developers of Civ and Civ II respectively. So there was a lot of Civ experience in the Firaxis team. But they could not do another Civ game yet for two reasons. First, Civ II had only recently been released, and was still selling well, and would continue to do so for some time to come. Second, MicroProse still owned the rights to the name Civilization in the computer game market. This lasted until Hasbro purchased MicroProse in the late 90s. Firaxis had decided to be a design studio, not a publisher, so they could design a game for Hasbro to publish, and could use the Civ name for Civ III. But in the meantime, they worked on Alpha Centauri, which is not technically a part of the Civ series, but is considered to be so by many fans. It has all of the features that have been part of Civ since the beginning, including being turn-based, building units and buildings, building Wonders, researching a tech tree, and so on. Alpha Centauri ended up being published by Electric Arts.

The Story of the Game

The Civ games never needed to have a story behind them because you are going through a version of history to build your empire, and we all have at least a simple notion of what that history is, which is enough to get going on the game. But in moving to an alien world there is no shared history we all know, so they had to give it all a back story to make sense. So they started with the colonization ship from Earth, which of course was the final step to a science victory in Civ and Civ II. But what might have happened with that colony ship? Well, the colonists split up into factions, each faction having a different philosophy, a different set of objectives, and so on. And when they get to this planet Chiron, in the Alpha Centauri system, the planet itself becomes a player that reacts to your decisions. This makes it an additional obstacle that in some ways takes the place of the barbarians in Civ. Only here it is the Mind Worms.

And as for the colonists, nationality is not the dividing principle here. You will see members from different races/nations on Earth, but what defines the factions is Ideology. Each faction has a different focus:

  • Gaia’s Stepdaughters – This group wants to avoid the environmental mistakes made on Earth and live at peace with the planet Chiron.
  • Human Hive – This is a harsh, collectivist, and authoritarian group which prizes loyalty above all else.
  • University of Planet – Dedicated to research and free exchange of information.
  • Morgan Industries – A laissez-faire, free market group organized along corporate lines.
  • Spartan Federation -A militarist and survivalist group, believing in the right and duty to bear arms.
  • The Lord’s Believers – They seek a life of prayer and worship.
  • The Peacekeeping Forces – They support the humanitarian goals of the United Nations, which sponsored the starship flight that brought the colonists.

Each of these factions has different strengths and weaknesses that affect the game play. You can win with any of them, but you will need to adapt your strategy to the specifics of the case. Each faction starts out a different technology. For example, the Daughters of Gaia start out with Centauri Ecology, while Morgan Industries start out with Industrial Base. So the starting technology is one appropriate to the ideology. But that is just a starting position. As the game goes on you need to make choices, and the choices you make will further push your faction in one or another direction. You can go further down the path your faction starts with, such as being Morgan Industries and making a series of decisions that emphasize profit at the expense of the environment, or you could try to push your faction in a different direction by making different choices. As Brian Reynolds put it in an interview at Gamespot.com:

In each case, we’ve gone out of our way to avoid promoting a single “right” answer. As you create your vision of future society, each value choice has positive and negative consequences, and the choice between good and evil will rarely be black and white. You can create literally thousands of different societies in Alpha Centauri – an atheistic, polluting police state with a free market economy, universal education, and all-volunteer military. Or perhaps a devoutly religious democracy with a heavily censored information network, conscript army, and cradle-to-grave health care. One way or the other, we’ll make you think, and therein lies the secret to an addictive game.

https://www.gamespot.com/articles/an-interview-with-brian-reynolds/1100-2564268/

So Alpha Centauri built on Civ II, but pushed the 4X genre ahead in several ways. First is the distinct personality if each faction, with their special proclivities and units. You can see this develop in subsequent CIV games, up to the current (at the time I write this), Civ VI. The second big advance was the AI, which was better than anything that came before it. As Brian Reynolds put it:

So what gives a game the coveted replayability that turns a single-player game into a classic? Well, a lot of things, of course, but one of the most important is good AI – smart computer opponents. One of the most common reasons gamers give for preferring multiplayer games is that human opponents “are smarter and make more intelligent, unexpected moves” or conversely that in single-player games, “the AI is crappy.” Knowing this, some developers are ready to throw in the towel on single-player AI and go all multiplayer. As a designer, though, I take it as a challenge to try to create the kind of algorithms that keep players coming back for more.

https://www.gamespot.com/articles/an-interview-with-brian-reynolds/1100-2564268/

The final big advance has to do with terrain. Terrain matters in Alpha Centauri in a way it hadn’t before. Notable is the idea of elevation, a new development. You could actually raise a chain of mountains, and it would result in rainfall on one side and drought on the other, just as it does in real life. And if the side with rain is where your bases are, and the drought side is where your opponent’s bases are…well, I don’t need to draw you a diagram, do I? Or maybe you sink the land connection between you and your opponent, providing added defense.

Alien Crossfire

Of course, like with most games there was an expansion to Alpha Centauri, called Alien Crossfire. It did of course bring in new techs and new buildings, but it also brought in new factions. 5 of the new factions are human, and the most interesting of these is a water-only faction called the Pirates. They have bases on the ocean, and can potentially control all of the ocean, which adds some interesting game play. The other 2 factions are Alien factions, and the twist here is that they are not the least bit interested in the Human factions. They are trying to eliminate each other, and the humans are just caught in the crossfire, hence the name of the expansion. Along with this we get some new Secret Projects (these are the analogs of the Wonders in Civ), and a couple of new Victory conditions. Personally, I prefer to stick with the original, but it is nice to have options.

Game Play

This is really a Civ-type game, so most of the mechanics are the same as Civ II. You build your first base when you land on the Planet, then you need to decide what to do next. Do you build another Colony pod to expand right away, or build units to defend? What do you want to research? This is different from Civ II because instead of having the same techs available to everyone, you have to choose the direction your research will take. In Civ II it really didn’t matter which Civ you decided to be, they all played pretty much the same and had all of the same technologies available. In Alpha Centauri there may be techs you never research, though you might be able to trade for them with another faction. In Alpha Centauri it very much matters which faction you are, since you need to adopt a strategy that fits with the faction. This will become important in future Civ games as well.

Where to Buy

Alpha Centauri and Alien Crossfire are available for purchase. I like to buy my games whenever possible for the same reason I like to support open source projects I use. For older games the price is usually minimal, and if the developers see that they can keep getting sales it encourages them to make more games. Good Old Games is a site I have purchased games from, and you can purchase the Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri™ Planetary Pack, which contains both Alpha Centauri and Alien Crossfire from them for $5.99. Like I said, pretty minimal. Unfortunately, it is not available on Steam. MyAbandonware.com has Alpha Centauri, but not the Alien Crossfire expansion, as far as I can tell. And Playclassic.games does not have either of them. So I would recommend find $5.99 in your wallet and buying the Planetary Pack at Good Old Games.

Other Information

Sid Meier at the End of History: the Philosophy and Politics of Alpha Centauri

An Interview with Brian Reynolds

Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri – Gaia’s Stepdaughters – Part 1

Alpha Centauri Wiki

Gaming History: Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri “The greatest story ever played”

Sid Meiers’ Alpha Centauri Manual

Sid Meiers’ Alpha Centauri Review

ALPHA CENTAURI Shouldn’t Be Played Like This (Mindworms Edition)

Nostalgia Trip – Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri Alien Crossfire #1

Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri Intro – The Best Civilization Game Of All Time

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