5 Business Lessons from Civilization
The Civilization video game franchise is one of the most successful in history. First released in 1991, the computer game allows players to build a civilization from a single settler into a global empire. With more than 40 million copies sold, countless hours have been spent playing the game. Many would argue that computer games are a waste of time or merely another form of entertainment. But there is more to some games than at first meets the eye. Civilization is a great way to learn business lessons and economic concepts that are applicable to modern businesses.
Growth requires balance
I have spent an embarrassing number of hours playing Civilization games, going back to Civilization 2 on the old PC in my buddy’s basement in elementary school. A consistent lesson along the way is that growing too fast leaves you vulnerable and growing too slowly puts you behind your competitors. Success requires finding the right balance.
Rapid growth in the Civilization game leads to poorly defended cities. Just like in the famed book The Art of War by Sun Tzu, competing civilizations can spot a weak point, break in, and destroy your little empire in a matter of a few turns. In the business world, it looks a little different. Maybe you grew into a new territory and can’t beat a strong, local business. Perhaps being too conservative spending on marketing could allow a competitor to pass your business in sales and name recognition. Whatever you do, don’t sit too idle or blow your capital reserves growing too quickly. Find the right pace for your business needs.
Competitors may behave irrationally
In video games and in life, it can be hard to predict how competitors will behave in certain situations. In some cases, a high-pressure technique will lead to a competitor withering away. In other cases, a competitor under pressure will act like a threatened rattlesnake and strike back, whether or not that will leave them more exposed if it doesn’t work.
In the game Civilization VI, a foreign power may attack for silly reasons. Whether you have too close borders, tower over the other’s culture, or did a trade deal with a friend, they may turn around and condemn you or attack. Business competitors can do the same thing, but there is no reset button or difficulty level setting you can use to prevent this type of behavior. The best thing you can do is build an ethical, stable, and sustainable business with a focus on long-term success. When competitors do pop up, hopefully, you can easily weather the storm.
Alliances can pay off
Over the course of the game, players meet and form relationships with other civilizations. Sometimes that means befriending a weaker or stronger civilization with hopes of a good long-term payoff. Those alliances can lead to trade deals, views into maps from other parts of the world, and other benefits along the way. In a rough situation, allies may also be willing to declare joint war against a common foe or declare war against an aggressor who attacked your civilization.
The parallels to business here are uncanny. Businesses regularly forge relationships with other businesses as suppliers, vendors, and partners. Long-term relationships often lead to better business results for everyone involved. If you invest in relationships and treat other businesses in the industry well, you may have a great friend when the need arises.
Specialization leads to victory
There are several options for victory in the Civilization series. You can win through science, culture, or domination, for example. Forgetting any of these areas will lead to an early failure, as you need science to develop culture and your military. But being too general also leads to failure, as those who specialize in one area over another tend to reach the finish line first.
In business, most companies can’t emulate the success of major conglomerates like Berkshire Hathaway. Some long-time conglomerates like General Electric are on the downfall. The companies growing fastest today focus on one or two things and doing them incredibly well. Even if they do reach across multiple product lines, they tend to have an industry, component, or target customer in common. Even if you think you have what it takes to be the next Warren Buffett, you may be better off reining things in and focusing on one specific area of business.
Even a close ally can declare war
Sometimes you are in the midst of a great game, and suddenly an ally declares war. For the next ten turns, you are going to be locked in this conflict, if not longer. But sometimes conflict is just how things pan out. Even if you offer trade deals, gifts, and other perks, you might still get drawn into battle.
In business, people cross each other and declare war all of the time. This concept is what makes many business-focused movies so compelling. Would Wall Street have been as much fun to watch without conflict between Gordon Gecko and Bud Fox? Would The Wolf of Wall Street have been as exciting had Steve Madden not suddenly started selling shares? But in real business, you shouldn’t treat it like a roll of the dice. Be careful with your relationships, and always have a plan in case your business comes under attack.
Business lessons live in unexpected places
It is impossible to work all the time, but it is possible to find business inspiration from unlikely and unexpected places. If you can find business lessons in sports, video games, movies, TV, and other entertainment, you might be able to turn those idle hours into something even more useful. Thanks to Civilization, my business acumen is up at least a few points. And I have a feeling I have more lessons waiting the next time I boot it up.