It has been a long time since I last blogged, and there’s a lot to talk about: my entrance into academia as a full-time lecturer at the American University of Central Asia, my marriage, my ongoing PhD, the growing clarity of my philosophical interests — “philosophical” for me being both academic-intellectual and spiritual-psychological, even spiritual-therapeutic — not to mention my interests’ evolving focus and scope. However, my first post in a long time will not be about these things, and it will even constitute a thematic break in the sense that what I want to post about right now is, well, very un-spiritual!
This post is intended to indulge in a hobby, namely, strategy gaming and the possibilities for tinkering (see this old 2010 post, “Checkmate by Checkers”, for example). In this particular case, the game is FreeCiv, the online fan-made version of Sid Meier’s Civilization history simulation franchise. This past summer, I have been playing the role of Saruman with the Orcs, experimenting with the game’s Barbarians. Here is my potentially crazy idea: it is possible to “social engineer” the Barbarian AI without any tinkering to the ruleset using the default settings of the average online easy-mode game. Furthermore, it may even be possible using such social engineering to establish a “Barbarian World”, i.e., a play scenario in which the Barbarian AI has seized control of all of the major civilizations and production centers, relegating the human and AI players to the margins, from which they will need to find a way to fight their way back to power.
This, then, is a love-letter post by one fan to other fans, although it is also part of a growing historical fascination of mine for social engineering, of which post-Soviet Central Asia is arguably (and controversially) a potential prime example in real-world history (and more about which I will hopefully be writing about in this space and elsewhere in the future). So, without further ado, what follows are my “mad scientist notes” about the progress I have thus far made in my experiment. The intention is that this will not be the final post. The experiment will be ongoing, so I will try to provide updates with screen-caps whenever possible. I now have a career, a family and fitness to attend to, so if this post attracts an audience, be forewarned that there may be long gaps in time between reporting. That said, if anyone would like to “carry on my (ig)noble work” (*ahem) please do!
Every Civilization and FreeCiv player knows this tactic: pray that Barbarians seize control of your “friend” or “ally”’s city that has been built so inconveniently close to your territory or on a continent you had yearned to seize entirely for yourself, so that you can sweep in and “liberate” it for your own empire, essentially a stealth conquest. But what if there was a way to be more systematic with Barbarians? Indeed, instead of treating them as either a nuisance or the occasional opportunity, what if there was a way to weaponize them for your own purposes?
I am far from the first person to try manipulating Barbarian AI on either the main Civilization line of games or FreeCiv, experimenting with it, testing it, seeing what is possible (see for example “Playing as Barbarians” in the FreeCiv wikia). However, I do not know if many players have thought about it in terms of social engineering — “the use of centralized planning in an attempt to manage social change and regulate the future development and behavior of a society” (Google dictionary, August 2017) — with the goal of achieving longer-term strategic results beyond answering the questions nearly every Civilization/FreeCiv player has asked, namely, “If I give the Barbarians one of my cities, can I trade with them or engage in diplomacy with them?” In my case, the social engineering has two specific goals: (1) to “weaponize” and (2) “scenario-ize” Barbarians.
By “weaponize” I mean that rather than waiting around, hoping and praying for Barbarians to strike a target city or enemy unit, your the player actively cultivates them as an extension of your own civilization’s strategy — essentially, to transform them into a shadow tactic of war and diplomacy within your game, and moreover, to do this without cheating, i.e., altering the game mechanics, changing the ruleset, or to change the underlying programming. Whether it is to deploy the Barbarians as a means to sew discord in the fictional world for you to exploit, to stealthily seize control of another player’s territory because you dare not risk open conflict, or to distract another player’s focus, the point is to consciously and systematically use the Barbarian AI to your in-game advantage, whatever that may be.
By “scenario-ize” I have in mind something equally ambitious but in a different, more community-friendly way: to create a playable underdog-style scenario for yourself and others, in which the Barbarian AI, rather than being an annoyance, is the main challenge to be overcome to achieve victory. What is potentially wild about this is that such a scenario essentially requires establishing a Barbarian civilization replete with at least a Barbarian landmass if not a complete Barbarian world (two theoretical varieties of the scenario, discussed below, and truth be told, the Barbarian World can probably be created much more easily through traditional scenario programming).
Before looking into the palantir, it is worth establishing one thing and repeating another. First, this post is specifically for players of the free online edition of FreeCiv, and it based upon the default settings for easy mode with technology starting at the maximum (100) setting, such that everyone begins with a level of science just shy of the Manhattan Project and the Apollo Program. I am using these settings as a baseline for the experiment. That said, perhaps (hopefully) players of more difficult modes and of the main Civilization franchise will go further and see what is possible in other contexts.
Second, again, I cannot possibly be the first person to attempt either of these feats. However, I have not turned up many resources about these ideas online. A few players have seemed to take more seriously the notion of establishing Barbarian cities, but none seem to have tried to take it as far as I am endeavoring to do so. If anyone knows of previous experiments, successful or failed, please share!
The basic premise is to build super-powered city(-ies) for the Barbarians to take over with a fortress/airbase within striking distance that has a Spy, land military unity, and aircraft or nuclear weapon, both to monitor the internal development of the newly urban Barbarians as well as to check them if they get out of hand.
You need a land military unit because otherwise the Barbarians will sooner or later attack the fortress; they seem disinclined to attack a properly occupied fortress (at least in the easy mode). The Spy is important because in the event that the target of the Barbarian shadow tactic is counterattacking and on the verge of taking the city for him/her/itself, you can incite a revolt and take the city back (as I have needed to do). Also, take note that the Spy should be kept on “sleep” mode and not fortified, so as to take notice of any important changes in the environment.
The cities you build for them must have the following features in order to be reasonably effective:
- A population of at least two, as there will be a -1 effect when the Barbarians conquers the city.
- Fully irrigated, farmed and mined territory around the city.
- A fully developed infrastructure inside the city, with an emphasis on productivity, defense and barracks.
The second feature is necessary for two reasons: first, there is a high chance these will be the only improvements to survive the Barbarian takeover and second, you need to create the conditions for population growth and productivity for them.
The third feature is necessary because Barbarian takeovers appear to have a randomized impact on city improvements, sometimes wiping out all of it, sometimes only some of it. If you are lucky as I have sometimes been, the most important improvements will survive (more about Barbarians and improvements below).
Now, none of this is in-itself unheard of among FreeCiv players, so how to actually “weaponize” the Barbarians? Primarily by using a careful application of fortresses and roads/railways to “channel” their subsequent actions. You can also try to influence them through trade and topography or layout.
In essence, what makes a social engineering approach to FreeCiv’s Barbarians different from other experiments is the intentional framework: it is active management toward a goal that cajoles the structure of the game, rather than intervenes into it through changes to the rules or the game’s underlying programming (compared to historical social engineering, then, it might be considered a “lite” version, as it is certainly far less invasive and violent than what the Soviets are often accused of having done in Central Asia). This leads me to the key tactics.
In my experience, Barbarians appear to be disinclined to attack armed units in fortresses. That may be due to the default easy mode settings and hence not an absolute state of affairs, or perhaps their current programming does not assign a high value to such targets. You can make a small wall of occupied fortresses toward your desired target. It may also be feasible to simply build a string of empty fortresses en route to the target, as well, since the Barbarians may follow these like bread crumbs (as-yet untested in my game). Note that you need not build all the way to your target, just enough to influence the Barbarians’ flow.
A small line of occupied fortresses to channel the Barbarians is how my first major success with weaponization occurred. See these screen-caps of what I now call the “First Battle of Domzale”:
Stage 1: The city “Experiment” is established and strong production facilities bought for it. The Barbarians seized it before I could irrigate the surrounding territory, but it is no problem. At this stage, my original intention was just to try to establish trade (successful) and diplomacy (momentarily successful — see below) with their leader, Stilicho.
Stage 2: In a situation all too common, my ally Slovenia decides to build near the two settlements. By this point, I have already established trade relations with Experiment and I have begun irrigating its territory. Interestingly, the Barbarian units initially bypass my Engineer to instead make their way to the Slovenian colony, Domzale. This does not last, however, as after their failed first assault on Domzale, they turn on my Engineer, slaughtering it.
Stage 3: I construct the line of occupied fortresses, as well as send a new Engineer deeper into Barbarian territory protected by a Rifleman, in order to continue irrigating. Meanwhile, I also establish a spy fortress next to Domzale to observe it. As a result of the fortresses, the Barbarian units now focus solely upon the Slovenian colony. After four waves of attacks, Domzale has become devoid of any military units and been plunged into discord, making it vulnerable.
Stage 4: The Barbarians launch another attack against Domzale, assisted in part by a railroad I have been building from Experiment toward the Slovenian colony (the Engineers protected by Riflemen and Armor) — and they conquer it! Unfortunately, their victory becomes their undoing, as the conquest unleashes Slovenian partisans, who eventually succeed in both re-taking Domzale and destroying Experiment. Nonetheless, it is an impressive feat: I have succeeded in channeling the Barbarians toward my desired target, using them to conquer it.
The Domzale partisans were able to destroy Experiment in part by using the very railroad that I had been building for the Barbarians. This leads me to discuss a riskier tactic: you may also try building connections in the directions you wish the Barbarians to travel, but these are a two-edged sword. They will certainly help channel the flow of the Barbarians’ attack toward the target, but they also facilitate an immediate counterattack. Given the production bonuses of AI players plus Barbarians’ programmed impatience to build up their own forces, this is dangerous equation for a counterattack spilling over into a counter-conquest.
I have discovered that it may be important to use Caravans or Freights to establish trading routes with the Barbarian cities, specifically after they have been taken over. Yes, to those skeptics who are reading this: I have established such routes (although whether they persist or disappear seems also to be subject to randomization, as I have sometimes needed to re-establish them).
As briefly alluded to above, one of the intriguing experiences in my game has been that once such routes are established, the Barbarians appear to be disinclined to attack my units and cities if alternatives are available. Of course, if there is no one else around or if I am in the way, I will be attacked; the point is that their preference appears to turn elsewhere. I have not yet been able to establish whether this is a city-specific phenomenon, such that Barbarians from other cities will not exhibit this preference.
Herding feral cats
Whether you want to build multiple Barbarian cities, and if so, whether you want them to be able to link up into a contiguous territory akin to a civilization or ring a perimeter, depends upon (a) what you are hoping to achieve and (b) how much clean-up work you are willing to do. Also keep in mind this detail: once you have built the cities, you need to wait for the Barbarians to conquer them. Depending on the settings you use, that can take an annoyingly long time; it can also be patchy, with the Barbarians taking some but not all of the cities, or taking them out of sequence.
As of this writing, I have established a small Barbarian civilization composed of four cities: Experiment 2, Experiment 3, Experiment 4, deeper in the interior of the continent (North Africa), and New Experiment, established near the site of the original Experiment. They seized Experiment 2 quite early one. However, it took them an extremely long time before they seized the other cities. All of these settlements have been connected to each other by a large road system (which, unfortunately, has been partially destroyed by their ongoing war with the Slovenians).
In light of my experience, a word of warning to those who might be interesting in replicating my efforts: you should prepare for the fact that trying to weaponize Barbarians can often be an awful lot like herding feral cats.
Yet, when the weaponization is successful, it can be a spectacle to watch. In the First Battle of Domzale, every turn was a massive clash of shadow-black against the Slovenian tricolor. When the Barbarian horde finally took their target, I felt a sense of evil accomplishment, even an odd pride for these mindless, self-destructive underdogs of the Civilization/FreeCiv franchise.
I am now in the middle of a Second Battle of Domzale, and it also becoming a sight to behold. The Barbarians have difficulties defeating the Slovenians on the open field of battle — a single Domzale Partisan has been able to slaughter five Barbarian Cannons! — but I am beginning to see wave attacks. The Slovenians have established a second colony called Kamnik, and the shadow-black horde has reached it already once.
The social engineering must remain active
The Second Battle of Domzale has seen the Slovenians more “prepared” for the Barbarian attacks, resulting in a somewhat different experience. As just mentioned, the Slovenians have sent an expedition of a single Partisan unit into the interior, I think in response to the seizure of New Experiment — the Slovenian AI, being my ally, probably “believes” it is trying to help me (interestingly, this unit has not yet attempted to attack the Barbarian cities, preferring to instead attack their units out in the open).
Meanwhile, the situation at New Experiment has been fragile. The Barbarians took it and then immediately launched an attack on Domzale. Unfortunately, they left their new base unoccupied. The Slovenians have filled Domzale with naval units, which have proven better at combating the Barbarians (many of whom have come from cities with a Barracks III) than land units. Domzale tried to counterattack with an Armor sent to New Experiment. So, I quickly used my Spy to incite a revolt and retake the city; it has remained in my control until I figure out what to do next (it would be great if I could somehow weaponize Pirates, but as I will explain further below this does not seem possible, and anyway Pirates in the current game settings do not seem to create naval units more advanced than Galleons).
The situation with New Experiment is an important lesson that the social engineering must remain active; you cannot take a laissez faire approach with the weaponized Barbarians, as the situation can quickly deteriorate and even backfire against you. This is the concrete importance for having a fortress/airbase with a Spy established close to the Barbarian city — it is your “insurance package” (although of course, if you are playing against a human player, such a setup may appear very suspicious to him or her).
Odd findings that need broader confirmation
Now, another note: I am a total end-user, not entirely cognizant of the programming that goes into the Barbarians, so some of my observations of their behavior under “controlled” settings may be utterly non-revelatory for those of you who know the mechanics behind the scenes.
Though Barbarians wreak havoc upon city improvements, so far I have not seen them pillage infrastructure that is within their broader territory if their conquest has been swift. What I have seen them do, quite interestingly, is pillage infrastructure along their border. In my game, this has included the railroad between New Experiment and Domzale, which a Barbarian Knight reduced to a road — still a connection, but a slower one, as if to impede their opponent but not completely lose the resource for themselves.
Although Barbarian conquests randomly destroy city improvements, sometimes they leave in place the key infrastructure you have built for them.
Other times, the Barbarian AI appears to be programmed in some respect to redress the loss. I have noticed that after the first turn following a takeover, the Barbarian AI usually gives priority to armed units but does add to the bottom of its production list many of the improvements which were lost. Barbarians can also temporarily give priority to producing coinage over units or improvements, and very often they have a Palace somewhere in their production list.
As you probably already know your own experience, Barbarians will not only steal gold from you when conquering a city but also science. I like to think this is suggestive of an underlying research tree, though it is probably an undeveloped aspect of their programming (the FreeCiv forum, players have complained about the odd and inconsistent relationship Barbarians and technology as the game has developed over the years).
Pray that you encounter the following glitch: in one instance, I was momentarily successful in establishing an embassy at Experiment. It disappeared the next turn before I could do anything (and stupidly I did not screen-cap it, so there goes my proof!). Trying to establish an embassy is arguably worth the effort in the off chance that the glitch sticks. It would be great to see whether it is possible to foster something resembling a normal diplomatic relationship.
As a rule of thumb, I try to pump my Barbarian cities full with defenses; I even leave empty fortresses on key access-points for them to occupy. Unfortunately, against the sheer onslaught of an AI, these defenses appear to break down (it is probable Barbarians have even been designed with a defense disadvantage, as they have been designed to really only be an annoyance and the embodiment of chance, not a serious power). As for the “gifted” fortresses, Barbarians do not hold them for very long.
A small caveat about my experiment
Note that the paradox in my game is the fact that I have allies, and moreover that these allies are on the same landmass as my weaponized Barbarians. If I was waging a Barbarian-fueled campaign against an enemy without allies nearby, I might not need to monitor the situation so closely, nor rely so heavily upon my Spies as a failsafe.
One potentially fruitful way of fostering Barbarians may be to ring them with occupied fortresses. Essentially, this would be t let them stew for a few centuries, then open the gates when you feel they are ready. Of course, the Barbarians may just expend themselves against the fortresses, so this is an idea that I still need to test.
However, the problem in my specific situation is that according to the game rules, zones of control with allies are suspended. Hence, their armed units can stream right through my cities and fortresses as though it were their own territory. That means when the AI detects a Barbarian outbreak, it will simply bypass my protective ring to destroy the Barbarian city I have established.
That said, the situation has been provoking me to be more creative, including trying to establish a Barbarian Island and Barbarian Landmass (discussed below).
Can Pirates be weaponized?
In brief: I doubt it. The two main reasons are as follows. On the one hand, as a seabound nemesis, Pirates are not bound by the same limits as Barbarians; there are no sea-fortresses or sea-ways that can be used to entice and channel them in a certain direction. On the other hand, coastal cities are much more vulnerable to an overzealous AI than inland cities.
There may be a way to manipulate the behavior patterns of Pirates as there are with Barbarians (can they be lured by the promise of a laden Transport? hmmm). However, because AIs have enormous production advantages while Pirates do not build up their defenses — even with all the production gifts you could ever give them — it is highly likely an AI fleet will swoop in and conquer the Pirate city within a few turns.
That said, I have of course already tried experimenting with establishing a Pirate city with a Coastal Defense improvement, in addition to a Wall. The results so far have been exactly the same as with Barbarian cities, namely, the AI naval forces quickly overwhelm the Pirates’ defenses and seize control of the city. This leads me to the Barbarian World idea.
Toward a Barbarian World
Let me first set the stage of my specific game. As mentioned above, I am playing the current edition of online FreeCiv at the easy setting, with Barbarians at their normal setting and all civilizations having started with maximum technology. It is a European scenario and most of the experimentation at the moment is occurring in North Africa. My own civilization is enormous and rich, since this Barbarian experiment is expensive not only in terms of real time, but in-game improvements, units and gold.
Through diplomacy, I have engineered an Allies-esque scenario, primarily to keep the AI from constantly attacking me as can happen in max-tech situations. However, in order to prevent an Allied victory, which would prematurely abort the game before my experiment is done, I have also conducted temporary ceasefires with the “enemy”, gifting them cities I have constructed in distant corners of the world beyond the reach of my allies.
Of course, as a safety measure, I am stockpiling nuclear weapons to use against my own allies if a victory becomes imminent, in order to up-end the Allied scenario entirely. Alongside this, I have not built the Apollo Program wonder, so as to not provoke the Space Race, nor to cast the big spotlight on the world that I think tends to diminish spontaneous Barbarian generation.
What launched me into this escapade was precisely the above-mentioned commonplace scenario: an ally muscling into my territory, because hey, there is some unclaimed space right where you are, friend! Except that he muscled his way into my territory right in the middle of an experiment about trading with Barbarians and trying to observe their production list behaviors.
Besides the four Barbarian cities and Slovenia’s Domzale, there has been the wantonly inappropriately named “Dark Continent”, my foothold on North Africa (in my very meager defense, I named the city when the continent was still unexplored and covered in shadow!). It has been armed to the teeth: surrounded by armed fortresses, filled with soldiers and a nuke, and the main provider of Spies and Settlers. However, elsewhere in the game there is “Island Experiment” (real-life Corsica) and “Hidden Experiment” (real-life Scandinavia).
The goal of Island Experiment is to create an impregnable Barbarian Island. However, this will not be a Pirate Island: the city is built inland, not on the coast, thus necessitating a land invasion by the AIs, which I reckon is unlikely (if an invasion does happen and the city falls, I may locate a “New Island Experiment” to real-life England, which is unexplored and uninhabited). It will therefore be interesting to see what Barbarians do after “long-term isolation”. This may be a chance to see what Barbarian production lists look like after a while (do they build that Palace?).
The goal of Hidden Experiment is to establish an entire Barbarian Landmass, this in turn being part of the larger goal of a Barbarian World. The way I intend this “Barbarian Landmass” to work is as follows:
First, establish and foster a core of productive Barbarian cities in the interior, try to let these grow and hope that my allies do not invade. Meanwhile, establish a ring of port cities under my control, with internal rail-links back to the core. Once the core is “ready” — producing units at a regular pace, and with the landmass swarming with Barbarians — permit these to be taken over. Hopefully these Pirate ports will be able to produce Galleons swiftly, thereby enabling the export of the Barbarians.
This, however, is not yet the establishment of the “Barbarian World” to which I have been alluding. A Barbarian Landmass is still vulnerable to external invasion, and it unknown whether the Barbarian proto-civilization can grow strong enough to repel such an attack. Anyway, the real vision I have is a world genuinely overrun by Barbarians, in which the majority of cities are controlled by them and the “actual” civilizations have been relegated to the islands and margins, forced to fight their way back to the interior. It is the ultimate tipping the scales, making the underdogs the top dogs.
How do I intend to achieve this Barbarian World? Well, since I am not a programmer/game designer, I cannot build the scenario from scratch. So, while I am building up this Barbarian Landmass, I am also readying my own forces for world conquest. I am mass-producing nuclear weapons and armed units.
The “end-game” looks like this: once Hidden Experiment and its related network of cities have become an engine of Barbarianism, I will nuke and systematically conquer all of my enemies’ and allies’ cities in the main continent, taking care to always leave one or two behind so as to prevent the game from ending. Then, once the Barbarians are sufficiently numerous in the main areas of the game, I will begin the Great Retreat of my own civilization.
First the conquests, then my outer perimeter, then my own core, up to my capital and a few island bases I have already established — permitting everything to be conquered and turned shadow-black. And that’s when the real fun hopefully will begin.