Technology is such a ubiquitous fact of our lives today that how to represent it comes up in a lot of games, from tactical differences to the strategic march of progress. The best-known example of the latter would be the ‘tech-tree’ in Sid Meyer’s Civilization, which has been copied many times since then. The general idea is that there’s a large list of possible advancements out there, but only a few are available at a time, and each one not only provides a benefit, but leads to other advancements, like an episode of Connections. But while that’s possibly the most common way of representing technological advancement (and a staple of most computer strategic SF games), it’s not the only way.

The biggest problem with the usual methods of depicting technology, is that the player is generally given a laundry list of choices, and whatever he chooses is inevitably the next one gotten. To a certain extent this isn’t bad for handling engineering, as improvements in equipment are often goal-driven, but much scientific progress is accidental, and even happens while looking for something completely different. This would imply a more random ‘research’ mechanic, which could easily go wrong, and take interesting choices out of the game. But there’s room for games where technology is less important, and you just manage how much ‘funding from above’ you’re doing.

Civilization (the Francis Tresham board game) may be the earliest attempt to show technological progress in a game. While it has a large list possible advances to obtain (like in the ‘tech-tree’ model), they are not dependent on each other. Instead, each belongs to one or two of five different general fields, and each advance acquired in a field provides a discount to all the others. This is often equated to a tech-tree, but nothing requires having gotten another advance first.

Hearts of Iron III had a very interesting take on the question however. It divides fields into practical and theoretical knowledge, and keeps a score in both that slowly degrades over time. Whenever you get any kind of advancement in a field, your theoretical score goes up, while building units or engaging in combat generates points for the relevant practical score. High scores in either, or both, makes research in that field go faster, representing familiarity with the field, or a knowledge of just what types of things need improving. The game still has you picking what you’re going to get next, but activities outside of the tech window also influence things. It’s an ingenious idea, and I’d like to see some form of it show up elsewhere.

While I can’t really complain about the usual tech-tree approach, especially in a fairly abstract game such as SidCiv, I do think hiding away the theoretical end of science could be a useful approach. A space 4X game could do this, and maybe have a number of alternate sets of discoveries that are set when the game begins. In each game, the player doesn’t know what version of ‘physics’ is true in advance, and only finds out as particular discoveries come in, which he then starts basing practical advances off of. It’d be a lot of extra work on the development end, but it could make for a very rich game.