Losing the world, and some sleep, but enjoying it



Civ VBrave New World – not the novel of a dystopian future by Aldous Huxley – is the name of the latest add-on for Civilization V, following after Gods & Kings, released in 2012. BNW was released last Tuesday, and I was at the local EB Games store to get one on launch day. Over the weekend, I took a look at it, playing for several hours in learning mode.

Civilization, if you don’t already know, is a turn-based 4X (explore, expand, exploit, and exterminate) computer game/simulation created by Sid Meier, originally in 1991. It has gone through numerous releases (Civ II in 1996, Civ III in 2001, Civ IV in 2005 and the latest, Civ V in 2010). V is built on a hexagonal grid like the old paper wargames, where earlier versions used a square grid. The map can be randomly generated each game from a template (many islands, large continents, one land mas, dessert, jungle,etc.) so every game is different.

It’s always been one of my top five or so favourite computer games, and I’ve played it (and many other Sid Meier games) since the first release.

The basic goal of the game is to build a civilization from the Stone Age to the space age, along the way discovering technologies, building cities, exploring the world, fighting barbarians and then other players (limited to computer opponents until Civ IV, now with online opponents). Your workers need to cultivate the land, too: mine it, build quarries and plantations, chop forests, bridge rivers and link cities with roads and, later, railroads. Growing cities grows your territory, expanding your borders outward, providing more land to till and mine. It’s a busy game.

PC Gamer's Civ VYou have to build the content of your cities, choosing which structures your population should build – wonders (like the pyramids, Great Wall of China, Pentagon or the Oracle of Delphi), a granary, harbour, forge, water mill, shrine, school, barracks, etc. Each building grants some advantage or necessary advancement, but can take many turns to erect. Choose carefully.

Wonders provide all sorts of benefits and bonuses – money, cultural points, “great people” points, military advantages, technology and so on. They’re slow to build, become available only at certain stages of growth, and done at the expense of other buildings. But they’re important and can tip victory to your side.

My only quibble is that cities can only build one thing at a time – an armoury or a harbour or a stable or a Wonder – but not all at once, which is highly unrealistic. Cities should be allowed to build many things simultaneously depending on their population and resources.

Civ V gridAlong the way up the progression from primitive to advanced, you choose the technological path to follow: do you research pottery or animal husbandry? Theology or economics? Gunpowder or philosophy? Will the printing press be more important in five or seven turns than steel? Eventually you’ll have most if not all of them, but since you’re competing against other civs, you need to decide which tech direction offers an immediate benefit.

And there’s trade too, bartering with other civs for luxury or strategic resources. Luxury goods make your people happy. Strategic resources help you grow and build armies. Trade also soothes the savage breast of AI opponents, often defusing a potential conflict. Trade also brings in money, which you need to grow.

You take on the persona of a somewhat caricaturized historical character – Bismark, Elizabeth I, Genghis Khan, Napoleon, Shaka Zulu and many others. Each leader’s benefits and tech paths are unique to that leader’s nation (Elizabeth’s people, for example, get extra naval movement for their ships, and a longbowman upgrade later in the game).

Civ VThe world isn’t visible until you physically explore it, sending ships, armies and scouts into the unknown. Will you find mountains, barren desert or rich forests and plains? Meetings with city states and other civs is never predictable. Will they trade, be aggressive, or demand tribute?

Back at home, you need to work the land. Should your workers build on any hex a farm for food, a mine for resources or a lumbermill for growth?

You have many ways to win: military, cultural, diplomatic and technological (by building the space ship to take humanity to Alpha Centauri). In almost every game I’ve ever played, the computer opponents (AI) have been aggressive, invading, or at least threatening, requiring a military response at some point. I’ve usually won by overrunning their cities and conquering the world by brute force, but never by being a nice, trade-oriented, peaceful diplomat. Maybe in BNW I will.

It’s an addictive game. Many hours I spent playing into the wee hours of the morning. The just-another-turn syndrome, wanting to plant settlers on a contested island to build a city, a foothold for a future war, or just to exploit the resources there. Then wanting to watch them grow. Or just until I finish that wonder. Research that tech. Until the peace treaties wears out.*

A typical solo game can take between 10 and 20 hours, depending on map size, number of opponents, resource availability, level of difficulty, etc. And let me add: the graphics are superb. Zoom levels let you get up close to units, or see the land from the stratosphere.

Civ IV was one of those games that captured the modding community’s passion. It gave the ability to create maps, scenarios, nations, leaders, buildings, technologies – pretty much the whole game was a sandbox for aficionado developers and lay historians. The fan base was huge, loyal and fanatic. Thousands of mods emerged.

But Civ IV was big, sprawling, complex and unfocused. It had features like religion that, although entertaining (you could mix and match beliefs in odd ways), didn’t make much sense in terms of gameplay. It tried to simulate too much. The kitchen-sink approach made it overly complicated, while stripping away (or at least burying) some of the fun elements. And, by 2010, it looked old and tired.

Civ VCiv V remade the game, upgrading graphics, dropping several features (like religion), and restricting armies to one-per-hex (no unit stacking like in previous versions.) This made it more chess-like, requiring some strategic thinking when launching an invasion (those ginormous stacks of units from Civ IV simply don’t exist in Civ V).

Not everyone like that. Or the other changes. But it grew on people. The multiplayer capacity has proven very popular. That, unfortunately means you have to run it through Steam, an online service I don’t much care for.

The Gods and Kings add-on gave us back religion, which finally made some sense in terms of benefits and bonuses, although it’s difficult to really assess whether it makes any real difference to gameplay or is just chrome. G&K also made diplomacy more effective and re-added espionage – again of rather limited use. The most important addition came in the new buildings, Wonders, leaders and scenarios.

Civ V BNWBNW adds yet more civs (leaders), Wonders and scenarios, as well as handful of new features that complicate matters: new cultural rules, tourism, trade routes, enhanced diplomacy, a World Congress (which can vote on binding resolutions that affect trade, diplomacy, tourism, religion, etc.), changes to religion, ideologies (replacing some of the older policy options), cultural victory options and archaeology. At last, you can win through culture and trade, rather than just might. Assuming, of course, your AI opponents aren’t still the militaristic jocks of the past (setting higher difficulty standards seems to encourage more. militaristic behavior, along with more barbarians).

Another feature (annoyance?) is that your civ needs a certain level of happiness (or at least mild unhappiness) to expand. Unhappy people won’t build Wonders, either.

Expansion causes unhappiness, so it’s a tough treadmill: you expand, make people unhappy, then scramble to raise the happiness level enough so you can expand again. Serious unhappiness raises rebels, who pillage tile improvements and sometimes capture workers and other units. My first game I was stuck with a static empire, a permanently unhappy lot of people, and no way to appease them so I could grow. By the early 20th century, my civ was doomed while the AIs built Wonder upon Wonder.

The World Congress shows up historically too early for such an international assembly. It’s an odd thing to throw into the mix that soon. You can’t craft a resolution, just select from a list. Many seemed to me to be pointless or simply clutter. The AI can sometimes confound your plans through resolutions, too, but why they do it may not be clear. This WC evolves into the UN, which can lead to a diplomatic victory.

None of the new features are difficult to play, mind you. The mechanics are simple enough. Just more of them. Whether these additions make the game more complicated and less playable depends on how you see the Civ franchise.

Civ is a simulation game. Or a game-simulation. Which aspect you prefer will colour how you see these changes and additions. The game and each subsequent add-on have generated many glowing reviews, but I can’t help but think of the last-straw-on-the-camel analogy. At what point does adding more “stuff” make a game less enjoyable and more work? When do you go from playing to slogging?

Playability vs realism is an old argument in simulation design. It was active in the 1970s when I was playing paper wargames and it was a thread in many board and computer game reviews I wrote in the 1980s and 90s. There’s a tipping point, unique to each game, where a game becomes an exercise in data management, and detail management, and ceases to be fun.**

Realism fans may be wondering why Civ V ignores the technology of telegraph, radio, TV and film – all of which had significant cultural, political and social impacts on our planet. Where is the genetic crop modification tech? Or why there are dozens of military units but no option for cyberwarfare? Or why nuclear weapons can’t be carried in briefcases, just missiles or planes? And where are the bioweapons like smallpox or anthrax? Playability fans may be glad these are not in the game (yet).

I think Civ V is on the fulcrum. In fact, I’d suggest the next add-on be a package to allow players to turn off certain features for any game, to see if it’s more fun to play without the extra baggage. Maybe include  a tournament package with limited features and limited civs to select, for a ladder-style contest online.

Another problem game designers face is an overabundance of choice. Having to choose from among six or eight civilizations to play is difficult enough. Having two dozen can be mind-numbing. When you have a large civilization, trying to keep track of all the workers, construction, spies, missionaries, trade caravans, ships, trade deals, scouts, resources, roads, ruins, barbarians, opposing units, city states, votes, spies, missionaries, policies and culture can be as much fun as analyzing a spreadsheet.

Every play the Borderlands FPS franchise? Great fun, but having a bazillion different weapon choices didn’t make the game better, just meant you’d spend more time not killing bad guys while trying to sort out whether weapon A was better than weapons B, C or D, because you can only equip so many from your inventory. I hated it when online players stopped the game to fool with their inventory. The fun was in the shooting, not the sorting of loot.

For me, BNW pushes Civ V just over the edge into a management sim: a little too much for it to still be fun, not quite enough to be boring. Sure, I’ll still play it, but I think I liked it more when it was less complicated and my biggest concern was building up a big enough army to march across the continent and wipe out some snooty AI opponent. It just seemed more fulfilling to see their abject surrender screen when my armoured units marched into their last city.

I guess the big question is: is BNW worth the $30? The original Civ V was $60, less if you bought it some months after the release. That’s a hefty investment in a game. G&K was $30.

Admittedly, Civ V offers many, many hours of gameplay, but still….$120 will buy a starter ukulele. Or get a box of books from Amazon, Bookcloseouts, Abebooks or Indigo. It will buy a nice meal with a bottle of wine. in town, for two. It would buy you a fair chess or go set, and a few good opening encyclopedias. It’s grooming for two dogs.***

Late at night, when you’re too restless to go to sleep, and have an urge to do something more creative than watching TV, but a little more interactive than reading a book, Civ V is a good choice. BNW might keep you up later than you intended, just sorting through all those new options.;

Oh yeah: I didn’t win my first game. Beaten by an AI civ that built oodles of wonders while I struggled to expand. But I’ll try again. And again. And again…

* According to Steam, I’ve played it 363 hours total since Civ V was first released. Ouch. That’s part of my life I’ll never get back. But on an hourly rate, it’s only about $0.33 per hour. Luckily, you can save a solo game anytime in play, and come back to complete a turn or a campaign later. or just quit when you know you’re losing and start all over.

** I remember, the heyday of wargaming, reading rulebooks with dozens of pages of dense type, and playing board games in which every turn meant numerous checks against tables, graphs and dice rolls. I also recall many arguments over the interpretation of some subtle point in a rulebook, a point which seemed innocuous until it became the deciding factor in a crucial battle. The basic belief was, that if you spent more time in the rulebook than on the board, it wasn’t fun.

*** Of course, if you’re new to the series, you can start with Civ V Gold Edition for $30 (it includes G&K in the box), play it a bit, then add BNW once you’ve had a few victories.

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