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Coming to Grips With Civ5

Okay, I’ve been through a half dozen games of Sid Meier’s Civilization V, and a half dozen more aborted when some overlooked (or poorly documented) element wrecked my empire and couldn’t be recovered—learning experiences all, and enough to be getting on with a first-look review.

Two important caveats before I begin. First, a dozen runs is enough to learn a lot about the system, but there’s every chance that I’ve missed something important, something that transforms what looks like a horrible design mistake into something viable or even brilliant. All us fanboys are still learning. Second, measuring Civ5 against the initial release of earlier titles in the series, and not the patched and expanded versions we now know, is difficult, yet comparing it to patched titles is somewhat unfair. Most notably, the original Civ 4 was very good, but it’s easy to forget it wasn’t fine-tuned with the exquisite skill of the BtS expansion. Civ 5’s lack of polish compares far more favorably with the former than the latter.

That said, Civ5’s innovations nevertheless feel like a lot of one-step-forward-one-step-back. It definitely suffers from “odd number syndrome,” wherein odd numbered games are for innovation and even numbers make those ideas work properly. The developers’ stated goals were to enrich the military aspects of the game while streamlining the more cumbersome elements of city management—translation: to make Civ5 more of a wargame and take a lot of the “building” out of “empire building.” That approach is directly opposed to my tastes, but it isn’t wrong, and a respectable amount of building remains in the game. To implement that strategy, Civ5 often ends up falling back on older, pre-Civ4 ideas that people were happy to see go.

For example: Civ5 has no corruption. Many players, especially players who want to build legions instead of courthouses, found corruption a nuisance, so it’s gone. But brutal corruption rates were the tool Civ4 used to finally, finally allow small, well-developed nations to compete with vast, mismanaged ones. (Think Greece versus Persia, or Germany versus Russia, to understand why this is necessary.) How, then, to make sure bigger isn’t always better? Civ5 does it by making conquest hideously expensive in money, happiness, or reputation. Conquered cities can be treated in one of three ways: raze a non-capital to get it out of your hair but become an international pariah (losing alliances with several city-states in order to get control of one), set up a puppet state that will hurt morale and build useless and expensive buildings, or annex it and take an enormous morale hit along with direct control. Yes, building costs are back, despite being unlamented casualties of Civ4, because that’s what Civ5 could think of to replace corruption.

This good-bad-ugly triumvirate operates in many parts of the new design. The good: no corruption. The bad: building costs. The ugly: conquest is counterproductive even for militant nations. It seems every good idea is undercut by a bad adjustment or an unintended consequence or poor implementation, sometimes of the “What were they thinking?!” variety.

The good: the diplomatic AI seems to be much more sophisticated, thinking on a strategic level and rattling sabers when there is something to be gained, rather than hating the human player simply because he is the human player. Real personality may be involved, too. Bismarck, at least, is a cunning and treacherous bastard, and I look forward to vengeance.
The bad: the effects of diplomatic decisions are hidden. Tokugawa might resent your favored status with Hong Kong and Catherine might hold your army in contempt, but how much? Is this an irritation or an instant casus belli? Without such data, it’s hard to distinguish between a clever AI and a crazy one that got lucky.
The ugly: several new diplomatic options, such as the Pact of Secrecy, are not documented, neither in the Civilopedia nor in the manual. You’ll have to guess what the treaty you’ve just signed means. Good luck!

The good: transport ships are gone. Land units with access to the Optics tech simply build their own pontoons and sail. We never really needed transports as distinct units. Not really. We just need a navy to clear the path for units vulnerable in transit. In theory, this allows the AI, which always had trouble with transports, to invade foreign shores more intelligently.
The bad: seas choked with low-tech units no longer good for anything but scouting.
The ugly: the AI handles transport-less travel even more stupidly than it did transports! Land units mill about aimlessly, allowing themselves to be wiped out by any ship that happens by, rather than find a coastline and land.

The good: invulnerable killer stacks are gone. Only one (military and one non-military) unit can occupy a single space, so you can really exhibit some generalship instead of flinging kamikaze siege engines just to soften up a stack of counter-units. And you can cover a lot more territory with a smaller army, so there’s no grinding out and micromanaging a couple dozen units as an invasion force. Four units is enough to take a city and six enough to conquer a small empire.
The bad: military upkeep is very, very expensive, and can easily get out of hand. The difference between enough to deter an aggressor and too much to afford can be as little as two units. Skeleton forces are mandatory until you advertize your invasion by building excess units. Players who like building large armies are doomed.
The ugly: the AI is pretty stupid on land, too, though not as bad as the transport situation. I’ve lost more warriors to barbarians than all other units to all other opponents combined.

The design just generally lacks polish. The presentation is polished just fine: the graphics are fine, the music that adjusts itself to game events is nifty, the interface takes getting used to but works adequately. But the mechanics don’t feel completely finished. I can’t speak from my own experience, but several players are already complaining about the kind of exploits that we haven’t seen since Civ2. For example, one can apparently do quite well by expanding without concern for unhappiness; let the slider drop all the way to -100 and collect all those cities’ culture points; when you’ve got enough, raze them all, buy up lots of social advances at the discounted low-population rate, and claim a cultural victory. Many players report that wooing a couple “maritime” city-states can produce all the food they need to support a vast, farmless empire. And, of course, an incomplete and often misleading manual is inexcusable.

Personally, I miss the in-game editor of Civ4 and Civ2. I used it primarily in Civ4, however, to peek at the map and make sure I wasn’t going to play for two or three hours only to learn that I was doomed from the start by bad geography, so your mileage may vary on that one. I have not yet sampled the scenario designer included in Civ5. I’m not sure I want my efforts to belong, instantly and completely, to Firaxis; thanks to Valve and permanent internet connection, there’s no keeping a work in progress on your computer until it’s tested. Your mileage may vary on that one, too.

All these complaints notwithstanding, the game is not “broken,” and we can reasonably hope that patches designed in reaction to the stress-testing of a zillion players will smooth out the roughest edges, if not fundamental structure. The Civ team listens to its players. Keeping the basic structure intact while adding significant new elements to explore is a difficult task, and Civ5 manages it. The two big elements to explore are the city-states and social engineering.

City-states, mentioned above, control vital resources. You can seize these by force, or you can bribe the minor nations to give you their resources, along with some very substantial benefits of their own. All minor nations accept gold, but that can get expensive; city-states can also be courted by satisfying their requests—to build a particular wonder, to generate the right kind of great leader, or to wage successful war on the right nation, empire or city-state.

Culture points gradually expand a city’s borders (and I prefer the new, space-by-space organic growth) but no longer absorb enemy territory—supplementing cultural growth with selective cash purchases of territory is vital, and a great entertainer’s cultural bomb can be wonderful. Instead, culture points accumulate to activate social policies, grouped into eight small “trees,” some of which are mutually incompatible, and each policy has an effect roughly comparable to that of a wonder. Invest in the Tradition tree for a 33% bonus to wonder construction, or pursue the Freedom tree to speed worker production and add production, happiness, and culture to your cities. Fill out five trees, and you can build the Utopia Project wonder and win the game…although so far, I’ve found building the spaceship to Alpha Centauri faster, and conquering my rivals easier.

The relationships between trade, food, and production have been juggled once again, so there’s plenty to explore there, too. Science and happiness no longer derive from trade; science is a function of population alone, and happiness is an empire-wide pool that grows with access to luxuries (and to a lesser extent from wonders and social engineering) and shrinks with population, taking a nose-dive when you conquer foreign cities. These changes aren’t better or worse than earlier titles; they’re just different, but the fun of learning how to manage them all over again is intact. And, ultimately, isn’t that what Civ is about?

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