Civilization: A Game in Three Acts

I’m a big fan of games without a built-in story. For my money, the best thing about games is that they can let players create and experience a story for themselves, rather than smacking them down into a linear narrative someone else has dreamt up. I’m not against linear storytellng at all, mind. I just think that it’s a nice change to interact with a medium that lets me invent and discover a story as I do.

This is one of the things that makes Civilization so appealing, for instance  – its storytelling potential.

It occurred to me, though (again as a result of a post by Adrian) that Civilization actually  follows exactly the classic three-act structure for a play or movie:

Act I – Setup

You spawn in a dark and unexplored world, you found first city, you explore and meet other civilizations. You found a couple of more cities in the wilderness.

Act II – Confrontation

Your Civilization has expanded to meet other civilizations. There are no more frontiers: there are borders. There can be no more expansion without war. This is the era of struggle. (Typically, I wage a couple of wars in the ancient, medieval and renaissance eras to dominate the home continent)

Act III – Resolution

Borders are established by now. This is the era of rapid technological progress and diplomacy. Not much expansion or warfare. (This was always the least interesting section of the game for me.)

The inciting event of Act I will be your first contact with another civilization – your first rival. Act II is the longest because that’s when you’re making a lot of decisions and moving units, whether for warfare or improvement. Time passes more slowly in Civ when you’re fighting or building actively. Otherwise you’re just hitting ‘next turn’ so you can get to that next technology or build that wonder. The second plot point will be when you finally defeat your significant rival. At this stage, the end of the game becomes clear, so Act III is quicker again. You’ve won your wars, you’ve set yourself up, and now you’re just building that spaceship to Alpha Centauri (or mopping up the pathetic remnants of other pretenders to the throne).

More three-act Games?

It’s painfully obvious, now that I’m looking at the game through this paradigm. Could other games can follow the same structure? Turns out that yes, you can look at them that way.


Act I: You have a command centre and a couple of workers. You have to scramble to locate and gather up resources, and build a production base.

Act II: Your base is esteblished and you’re churning out fighting units. You encounter the enemy and fight over advanced resources.

Act III: Having won preliminary skirmishes, you prepare and conduct a final assault on the enemy’s base.

Medieval: Total War

Act I: You have a small kingdom surrounded by neutral states and other kingdoms. You use your first armies to establish a base.

Act II: It’s time to take on the big boys: you mass vast fighting forces and march across Europe against the great kings.

Act III: You are now in the strongest position on the map. With a few small campaigns you cement victory.

These are all strategy games . . . maybe the point is limited to them?

Can anyone think of other games without a pre-scripted story that can fit into a 3-act structure?

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