Community heroes: we talk to the man behind Civilization II's Eternal War

Chris Thursten at

James ‘Lycerius’ Moore played a single game of Civilization II off and on for ten years, extending far into a dystopian future that he described as “a hellish nightmare of suffering and devastation”. The story caught fire, spreading from reddit to the specialist games press and national media before returning to reddit as /r/theeternalwar, where fans trade fiction, music, and art.

Last week, I spoke to James about his experience of the game, the rationale behind playing the same campaign for a decade, and what it’s like to have your cool gaming anecdote capture the imaginations of so many people. You can check out our previous coverage of The Eternal War here.

You said in your initial reddit post that the campaign is about ten years old?

Yeah.

Do you know exactly...?

It’s about nine and a half, something like that.

Presumably there must have come a point when you decided that you were just going to keep on going. How did that come about?

Well, I’d played the game far into the future, and there were some issues and I was just curious to see how long I could keep going. There’s this misconception that I’ve played the game non-stop for ten years, that’s not the case - I play it often, but over the years it’s [been] every other day or so.

I play lots of games, do lots of other things, but this game - it just kinda kept going and going. I noticed that, over time, nations were swallowing up other nations and there were these environmental factors and it was just really fascinating to muse on where it was all going. I just wanted to see what the eventual endgame would be. It was for my own edification, I never imagined that so many people would take interest in it.

Was there something specific about the way this campaign went that allowed you to get into the kind of situation you got into?

I imagine that you could start up any Civ II game and do this. The thing is, Civ II was a little bit more balanced than the other games, and you’re able to prolong and enjoy the world around you a little bit more, and in a little bit more detail - for example later games don’t really have global warming. Well, they do, but it’s maybe a single tile that’ll turn to desert instead of four.

In Civ II, things like that had enormous consequences. All of the coasts would flood and farming would be useless, and it happened over and over again - it happened two or three times before I started questioning, well, what would it be like if this kept going on? Eventually all the world’s land - the mountains and tundra - became flooded swampland. It was really neat.


Image: m00nnsplit's 'Celtania Archives' newspaper.

You found yourself in a fascinating situation at the end.

It was just morbid curiosity, you know, and I think that’s why it was so popular with all these other organisations. I think people in general have this morbid curiosity about the world and where it’s going, and I think they saw this and just kind of latched on. You know, it’s by no means an accurate simulation of world affairs or anything like that, it’s just a game roughly based on such things, but I think it really captured a lot of people’s imaginations.

You ended up in a situation with the three superstates, and people immediately said “oh, it's 1984” - this Eternal War thing. How much of that basically came from the mechanics of Civ II?

Oh, almost all of it. As time goes on, in most Civ games - well, Civ II and Civ V, now, that I’ve noticed - over time, throughout history, larger countries will envelop smaller countries until there are a few remaining superpowers. That seems to be a pattern in Civ II and Civ V in my experience, so the longer you play the more likely that outcome is going to be. Whether or not that’s part of the game design - whether they had that in mind, I cannot say - but it’d be pretty neat if that was their intention.

You said that it only maps onto real politics to a very limited extent - but it really has captured people’s imaginations because they see, for example, the story you told about having to shut down democracy. That’s interesting in and of itself. Am I right in saying that the AI factions are both theocracies?

Yeah, I believe so - a fundamentalist type of government.

Would that have been a more practical decision for you as well, that you didn’t take for other reasons?

Some people had argued that that might be the best way to go, but the person that was able to complete it in 58 years was able to do so with the communist government. In fact, the communist government worked out very well for them.

What was the key in the end, to beating it?

A mixture of units - for example, the Howitzer unit. I was primarily throwing tanks at the situation, and people who had a bit more tactical depth as far as the game is concerned were able to amass armies that my economy... well, I was concerned about saving but they just spent the entire treasury on one big push and rebuilt from there.

It’s not a particularly optimistic message, is it?

Yeah, precisely. It really wasn’t my intention to conquer the world, necessarily, but it appeared that this was the only way that peace was going to be a realistic option. There was a glitch I believe when playing on newer operating systems that the AI became much more aggressive and I believe that was what was causing my issue with the Vikings. Because of that it seemed like the only possible solution was total conquest. Were I able to vent that then I would.


Image: GildedDuke's Civ V Eternal War scenario.

The reaction to it has clearly been way and beyond what you were expecting.

No kidding!

What was that like?

It blew my mind. It was only on reddit for two or three hours before I was getting all these calls, seeing it online - it was incredible, absolutely incredible.

People have really taken to it, creatively. Solving the puzzle is one thing - thinking “how do we fix this” - but the fiction and the art, what’s that been like?

It’s a very strange sort of vindication. I’ve been playing this game for ten years. This game was very important to me personally - it had this nostalgic, sentimental value because I’d been playing it for so long. I’d been playing this one game of Civ II since I was in high school and it just grew on me. I had this narrative in my mind about how this world went and I was really content for the longest time just seeing where [it] went. Then to have this happen, to have so many people show interest in something I had so much value and so much time invested in - it just felt really good. It was a really good experience.

Have you played any of the Civ V scenarios people are putting together?

I have not yet. I’ve seen two so far, and I do plan to play them. That in its own right is also great, that someone will do something like that.