In my strategy game, Strategic Primer (the current campaign of which still needs more players), all the players start off with a limited set of advances (things their workers know how to build, use, or do). These advances establish a vaguely medieval level of science and technology.
Now, this Starting Package is not perfect (players always seem to want to do things I hadn’t even thought of), but there are two features of Strategic Primer that make the situation not as bad as that statement would make it seem. First, the first turn can be treated as a very lengthy time period for some purposes–primarily building, but also for scientific or technical research. And, second, the major innovation of Strategic Primer over other strategy games I’ve encountered: The player can cause nearly instantaneous discovery of advances by putting them in terms his or her scientists can understand.
To illustrate this, I relate the following anecdote from the first campaign. I mentioned in an earlier post that because I was very lax in enforcing the limitations on that innovative rule, some players got into space in less than a couple of dozen turns. This began, if I recall correctly, with a player inventing an unpowered aircraft on his first turn.
But even if I had been very strict in enforcing the limitations on the rules, that might still have been possible. I think that while flight itself requires some intellectual leaps, a player would not have to intervene to gain all of its prerequisites; most are explicitly or implicitly within the Starting Package already (though anything merely implicit should almost certainly be made explicit instead), and the few that remain would soon be discovered by the player’s scientists on their own.
On the other hand, since discovering an advance no longer gives a free prototype, and a “maintenance” fee in currency that was levied each turn has been replaced with a somewhat detailed and rather worker-intensive logistical model, discovering flight in the first few turns would not be as useful as you might think. It would be rather like the first battery: an interesting curiosity, but not very relevant to the population’s immediate concerns for the foreseeable future. Since each player starts with only ten workers and only enough food to feed all of them for two turns, food production is the most immediate priority. And even when food production becomes efficient enough that the player can start to turn attention to other tasks, he or she most likely simply won’t have enough industrial capacity to make effective use of aircraft (though there is at least one effective use that flight technology could be put even at this early stage).