This question popped into my mind while reading Lincoln Paine’s The Sea and Civilization: A Maritime History of the World earlier this year. Navies are important in history; and for the last few hundred years, the world’s leading power has also been a naval power. This is not reflected in historical strategy games such as Civilization, where navies are often optional unless playing on an island map.
I think the answer lies in these games’ economic and resource models. Consider the Civilization series:
Food, wealth, and industrial production come from working the countryside.
Cities use a generic “production” resource to build everything from cathedrals to tanks.
While more recent games introduced strategic resources which can be traded (such as oil), these resources instantly teleport across the map.
The result is that Civ emphasises control of territory and population, rewarding large land empires. There is no equivalent to Ancient Rome’s reliance on Egyptian grain or WW2 Britain’s Atlantic convoys.
In contrast, seapower becomes critical in games with detailed production chains, such as Imperialism and Anno1800. Their economies run on foods, minerals, and luxuries that are found around the world and shipped home. Navies are necessary to protect transports and cut off enemy trade.
While not every game can be built around a detailed, Anno 1800-style resource model, Empire: Total War offered an elegant solution. Trade was by far the best way to make money in that game; and that relied on sending out a navy to capture and defend trade nodes.
I think the lesson is that seapower matters once players have an incentive to contest the seas. Give sea lanes their historic importance as the arteries of commerce and wealth; and the importance of navies will follow.
While replaying Imperialism II recently, I realised how it illustrates the role of complexity within strategy game design. For every game there is a “right” amount of complexity, and it’s up to the developer how to allocate it.
The key is that simplifying one aspect of the game frees up complexity to be used elsewhere. Imperialism and Imperialism II exemplify this. On one hand, they make city management much simpler than in other 4X games: there is only one to manage, the capital. On the other hand, their resource model is much more detailed. Instead of generic “production”, every unit needs specific resources, such as steel, bronze, and cloth for uniforms. Every one of these has its own inputs, and every input resource (coal, iron, timber, wool, multiple types of food…) is represented on the map. They need to be discovered, exploited, and connected to transport; and then there have to be enough ships to bring the resources back home. Going to war has a real opportunity cost; every ship carrying troops or participating in a blockade is one ship that can’t feed the capital.
This principle can be seen elsewhere. Civilization famously has no tactical battles, because they would interrupt the broader flow of the game. Master of Magic and the Age of Wonders series look very similar at first glance, but playing them back-to-back reveals the extent to which Age of Wonders streamlines city-building in exchange for much more detailed combat.
Even Sid Meier had to watch out for this. As recounted by Soren Johnson, he realised “it’s better to have one good game than two great ones” after falling victim to this when developing Covert Action, a spy game whose management and action layers distracted from one another.
Ultimately, just as the player has to manage finite resources within the game, complexity is a finite resource that the designer must manage outside the game. And as with other types of resource management, the benefits are substantial when done well.