Okay, let's see what I can explain here. Yes, the rules are complex.
Yes, such games are often quite lengthy.
Let me take Civilization as an example, as it's one I'm reasonably
familiar with. You play it on a grid which represents a map with
different kinds of terrain: forests, desert, mountains, whatever. When
the game starts you have one settler unit. Settlers basically move
around the map and can build cities and roads, among other things.
So you find a good spot for a city and have your settler build it. You
can tell that city to build more settlers, warriors, or whatever. Roads
if you have settlers to build them make moving around the map a lot
quicker. You play the game in a turn-based style, moving or ordering
units who have nothing else assigned for them at any given time. In
between your moves the AI will move.
Periodically, in Civilization at least you are given the chance to
direct your research. You might decide to go for horseback riding, say,
so you could build cavalry units instead of just foot soldiers.
This is an oversimplification. Different squares on the map depending
on their type are often more productive or useful than others, thus
dictating where a city should go. When the AI gets involved you might
be able to negotiate with them for trade or ally with them militarily,
etc. Dice are definitely used internally, but you don't see them and
the range of possible actions at any given time is usually pretty big.
So that's a broad overview. I hope it wasn't too detailed and helped
explain things a bit for those unfamiliar.
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