Expansion Packs / Features

Expansion Pack: Timeline: Inventions

This feature is a companion to my board game reviews on the Extra Life Community Blog. You can find my review of Timeline: Inventions here.

One of the interesting patterns that arose as I was playing Timeline: Inventions was the way in which people would be wrong. More often than not, when someone guessed at the proper time for an invention they didn’t know, they would end up having guessed that it was more recent than it was. This was not a hard and fast rule. At either extreme end of the timeline things got erratic, especially at the most recent end, where the difference between invention and wide adoption confounds efforts to pin down time periods (examples: computer mice were invented in the early 1960’s but weren’t common until two decades later, while CD’s were invented in 1979 but were still in the process of replacing cassette tapes when I was a child). But in the middle, roughly between the Renaissance and World War II, there was a marked tendency to place inventions later than they had actually come.

Now part of that might be the aforementioned distinction between invention and wide dissemination, but I doubt confusion over the invention of the rubber band (1845) or the telescope (1608) stems from that source. I think the more likely culprit is the cultural tendency to underestimate people in the past. It’s a commonplace that once something is invented, it immediately becomes simple. One would think that would cause people to underestimate the date at which something was invented; instead people get the generalized impression that people in the past were stupid (“It took them until the 17th century to invent the corkscrew?”) and assume that it was only recently that we wised up to how to invent things properly. It doesn’t help that we have cultural myths like Columbus proving the world was round (we’d actually figured that out quite a ways back) muddying the waters further. It’s something that historians–really, anyone who engages with the past–have to watch out for, or else you end up making all sorts of paternalistic assumptions about what people were like back then.

There’s no way we ever could have figured out horseback riding without wheels.

The other thing about playing Timeline: Inventions is that seeing all of the disparate inventions arrayed in a line really creates a sense that the ordering is all a bit random. There’s no immediately evident reason why invention X had to come before invention Y. Trying to guess where to place an unknown invention based on how “advanced” it seems relative to others on the board often fails. In relation to video games, it underlines just how arbitrary and overly simplistic tech trees are. For one, it mimes the somewhat outmoded progressive model of history, which holds that things steadily and inevitably improve over time, when in reality things will sometimes stagnate or even regress to worse conditions (not to mention the times when technological progress just allows us to kill on much larger scales). For another, it imposes a neat chain of causality on a sporadic process. The idea that inventions and the advancement of knowledge build upon each other to make possible new inventions and advancements is, broadly speaking, true, but sometimes that neat chain is shaken up. People can invent things without fully understanding the mechanism underlying their function, causing an apparent leap ahead of where things “should” be. In other cases all the elements were in place, but the breakthrough didn’t happen because no one saw the connection, or because of cultural blinders surrounding the problem itself. Condoms, for example, probably could have been invented much earlier (and may have been in certain cultures), if it weren’t for the generalized notion that preventing pregnancy is the woman’s job.

One of the interesting things about Alpha Centauri was the “Blind Research” option. Using the option hid the game’s (enormous) tech tree from the player and instead limited them to articulating broad research priorities. It kept you in suspense as to what your scientists would come up with next. Of course, carefully planning progression and finding efficient paths up the tech tree is a huge part of strategy games (Civilization especially), so it’s no surprise that this feature hasn’t been more widely replicated. I’m looking forward to seeing what happens with Civilization: Beyond Earth’s “tech web,” though. That sounds like it could have the potential to introduce some new ideas about how tech progression could function mechanically. If nothing else, it might broaden the strategic possibilities a bit.

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