A Civilization to Stand the Waste of Time

Semi-random unorganized observations about Civilization 5

I’ve started two games of Civilization 5 and finished one. There are plenty of reviews already, and Giant Bomb’s review has a walk-through video of the first 45 minutes. There’s nothing much I could add to those. But I can make the hell out of a list.

One More Turn
I can tell I’m getting older, because games like this are getting less charming. There’s no getting around it: if you start a game of any version of Civilization, you’re all but guaranteed to find yourself suddenly realizing it’s three AM and you’ve just lost the better part of a day. Sometime over the last few years, that went from being an acceptable risk to being a genuine liability. And the Civilization Addicts ads seem less funny and more harrowing when you’re finding yourself no longer able to be a productive adult.

Every version of Civ has been like that, but I think the accessibility-plus-depth combo of Civ 5 makes it the most dangerous yet. The streamlined UI means you’re always presented with a clear list of stuff to do, but the fact that the guts of the full game (not a streamlined version like in Revolutions) means that that list will keep driving you to one more turn.

They Should’ve Sent a Poet
This isn’t just the most beautiful release in the Civilization series; it’s one of the best-looking games I’ve seen. What’s most important is that they’ve just nailed the art direction: it hits just the right spot between painterly and realistic. Going too realistic with a Civ game just feels off, since there’s so much weird abstraction going on. But the past couple of versions (and Revolution) have strayed too far in the opposite direction: either too cartoony to suit the epic tone of the game, or else an uncomfortable mash-up of realism and cartoon.

I’m continually amazed by how far game rendering tech has come. Visuals like this have always required 2D or lots of trickery, and it’s still kind of alarming to me to be able to zoom in and out of a painting, and see 3D models walking around on its 3D-modeled surface. And aside from some high-profile exceptions, it’s great to see developers not assuming that the natural end result of better tech is photo-realism. What it really does is give art teams the power for genuine artistic interpretation. Playing Civ 5 (on medium settings, the most my three-year-old quad-core Mac Pro can handle) makes me even more anxious for a new version of SimCity: a city building game with this level of detail would be amazing.

Difficulty Curve
The running thread through most of the reviews seems to be that this is a cross between Civilization Revolution and a deeper Civ game. I can see that, to an extent: Civ 4 had a little too much going on, with religion and espionage sub-systems bolted on top of everything instead of feeling like genuinely integrated systems. The franchise needed some streamlining.

Still, even though the UI is unquestionably improved, and the advisors and tutorials are actually helpful again (unlike Civ 4), I can’t imagine how I’d handle Civ 5 if it were my first exposure to the series. The apples-and-shields relationship that was so clear in Civ 2 and Civ 3 is now buried under layers of automation. You can still micromanage everything if you want, and it’s definitely better for experienced players that you don’t have to micromanage. But in a game that demands as much learn-as-you-go as Civilization, it’s a little unsettling being so far removed from the number-crunching that’s going on underneath.

I will say that the difficulty levels are scaled differently than earlier Civ games. The third difficulty level has traditionally been the sweet spot for me: I could win about 50% of the games. But in Civ 5 I won my first game at that level, and it was absolutely no contest. Sure, it’s a good idea to minimize player frustration, but that was always inherent to Civilization for me: so many times I’d be absolutely trounced by the AI by the time the Renaissance hit, so that the few times I was able to win were a lot more rewarding.

The culture subsystem was my favorite addition to Civ 3, since it made a peaceful victory genuinely feasible. Its effect on your city was understandable and visible; you could see your cities’ borders expand and understand exactly what the benefit was — especially when you had a city putting out so much culture that it automatically absorbed cities nearby. In Civ 5, though, it’s been abstracted to the point of being less clear as a simulation, but somewhat better for the gameplay. Culture still expands your borders, but not into another civ’s territory. And when you can just buy a tile, the border-expansion game feels a lot more mechanical and less like something growing organically out of the simulation.

Having culture output go towards civic policies makes sure that culture is still useful, but it’s also less intuitive. Unless all your culture is going to production of Les Miserables, it’s not clear how building a theater helps you enact a libertarian government. The policies themselves are welcome; it adds a process of leveling-up your Civ that’s familiar to anybody who’s played an RPG. But the cultural victory no longer has anything to do with border expansion, and is now just a matter of acquiring enough civic policies. It’s a little like playing an RPG and winning the game not when you beat the boss, but when you just gain a level.

City States
The City States are one of those things that seem like a fantastic concept that kind of fell apart during implementation. The reasoning behind them makes so much sense, it’s ingenious: they get you involved in diplomacy earlier in the game, instead of wandering around slugging barbarians for thousands of years. They give you objectives for more directed play, something the Civ series has never had. And it acknowledges how important city-states were to world history: the Civilization series is still one of the only series of games that have genuine educational merit to them. Plus, it’s just nice to see a bunch of allies suddenly turn on an enemy once you declare war.

It’s also bizarre that the city states don’t progress the same way as civilizations, but instead on par with the most advanced player. You end up with a city suddenly able to churn out tanks and infantry units while everyone around them is still making spearmen.

But your interaction with them is so limited, it ends up being more frustrating than satisfying. It would help if there were more genuine diplomatic options than just giving the money or running errands for them. I’m hoping that one of the inevitable expansions puts more content into the city-state relations.

Technology Trading
Tech trading is gone with Civ 5, and it’s conspicuously absent since it’s always seemed like an inherent part of the franchise. I can’t say I miss it, though, since it never seemed to work like it was intended. It always ended up with the AI civs forming a consortium among themselves and screwing me out of all the good tech. The downside is that you have to stay generalist: you no longer have the strategy option of specializing in one branch of the tech tree and then getting the rest through trading.

Most of the changes to Civ 5 are examples of compromise. The change to the combat system is the only thing that’s unquestionably better. I’ve always treated combat in Civ games like a necessary evil, but this is the first version where I’ve actually enjoyed it. Properties of units used to be just a simulation-driven rock-paper-scissors relationship, but now there’s a genuine tactical advantage to having ranged units versus melee ones. Combined with the cities’ new ability to defend themselves, it really puts the emphasis back on units instead of stacks. And the UI shows you the outcome of each battle in advance, so you’re making genuine tactical decisions instead of just throwing units at each other to see what happens. I feel like this is the version of combat the previous games were trying to make but could never quite get it right.

All of the changes to Civ 5 (except combat) have their downside, but overall I think this is a big net gain. This is definitely my favorite version of the game. I’ve played a ton of Civilization over the years, but I wouldn’t call myself an expert by any stretch, so I can’t speak to the depth of the strategy game. But this is the most fun I’ve had with the series, even more than with Civilization Revolution. And if it’s this enjoyable out of the box, it’s going to be exciting to see what changes and improvements come with the expansions. For now, though, I’m wasting time that could be better spent playing it.

1 thought on “A Civilization to Stand the Waste of Time”

  1. I think I’m a lot like you when it comes to Civ. I’m not at all an expert, but I do enjoy mucking about with these games, and I also tend to prefer cultural victories over combat. The simplified interface sounds like good news to me, since ultimately the only reason why I play these games is to feel powerful. 😉

    The best news about Civilization V though, is that my PC can’t run it, so that means I can’t possibly get addicted to it either! Of course, if I do get a PC that will run it some day, the temptation to get this game will probably be too great to resist. So all I need to do is not upgrade my PC from now on, and to also not touch Civilization IV at all any more.

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