Distant lands, national interests, and cold steel: impressions of Civ V’s city-states

This entry is part 1 of 4 in the series Civilization V

I’ve now won two practice games of Civilization V, and while it’s still early days for me, so far the new city-states system (which I blogged about back before the game came out) has already given me some “wow, this is cool” moments. And in the process, the game gave me some food for thought, especially in light of the news stories of 2010.

My first game was a simple two-player affair, myself as the Siamese against AI-controlled Askia, the ruler of Songhai. We started on the same continent, and the mountain range dividing our two holdings was impassable except in two locations. I quickly secured one and packed it with soldiers. The other was held by a city-state, whose loyalty I bought with showers of gold. And while I was at it, I paid off every other city-state in the game. One fine day, Askia thought it would be a good idea to attack my strategically situated ally, and to cap things off, went on to goad me: “I just declared war on your little friend – what are you going to do about it?”

I declared war, of course. There was no way I could let an ally in such a vital location be conquered. And in a touch that impressed me, all my other city-state allies followed me to war in a “coalition of the willing”.

In the second game I won, the city-states initially didn’t play so dramatic a role. For most of the game, my city-state allies kept me well supplied with food and culture: crucial to my nation’s prosperity, yes, but individually not life-and-death stuff. But then the modern day rolled around, and along with it the need for oil and aluminium. Oil in case I needed to build up a war machine; aluminium not just for my military, but also so I could build hydro plants and spaceship factories. I had neither in my territory. But luckily, two of my city-state allies did. And so concerned was I to protect my supply that I placed defensive forces in their territories and invested in a modern, oceangoing navy that could, if needed, sail to their aid. Nobody attacked them in this game, but I know what I would have done if war broke out.

And therein lies the beauty of the city-states concept. With one simple, abstract game mechanic, Firaxis has captured a little bit of the feel of great-power diplomacy and geopolitics. Civilization V made me build and deploy expeditionary forces not for simple territorial aggrandisement – as I would have in the previous games – but so I could protect my national interests overseas. And it made me willing to treat any attack on flyspeck countries halfway around the world as an act of war directed against myself. It’s one thing to intellectually consider why real-life world leaders make the decisions they do; it’s another to understand at a gut level. And for a few hours this month, Civilization V put me into their shoes.

2010 is so 1991: thoughts on Civilization V

This entry is part 2 of 4 in the series Civilization V

I’ve played Civilization V for 32 hours, according to Steam, and I’ve won my first King (hard)-level game. And with that, I think I’m ready to formulate my opinion: I like Civ V, but I don’t love it.

I would be the first to admit that I have not seen everything Civ V has to offer. I’ve only played as a bare handful of civilisations. I haven’t even touched the highest difficulty levels.  I haven’t had a proper dust-up with modern-day units yet. I have yet to achieve a cultural or space race victory. And I haven’t played the conqueror – my one domination victory, in my first practice game, came about as a result of the AI attacking a city-state in my sphere of influence (described here). But I have seen enough to evaluate how well the game caters to my preferred playstyle, as a peaceful builder who guides small, compact empires to prosperity. And from that perspective, Civilization V (2010) reminds me a bit of an updated version of the very first Civilization (1991).

Don’t take this too literally. There are many ways in which Civ V resembles IV more so than I: the effort put into discouraging players from over-expansion (via maintenance in IV, via happiness in V); the presence of culture, and national borders; different civilisations having different special abilities; levelling up military units, etc.  And there are features unique to V, such as the nifty city-states; and the use of Social Policies that are locked in at purchase, versus civics/forms of government that can be changed at any time.

But in several ways, Civ V feels like a throwback to I. One obvious similarity is the absence of a “religion” mechanic from both games: instead, it’s abstracted out to temples/cathedrals in I, and temples and Social Policies in V. Another is the diplomacy system. Civ IV gave me an easy-to-see list of all the other players in the game, together with what they thought of me and why: perhaps “-2: our close borders spark tension”, but on the other hand, “+3: our trade relations have been fair and forthright”. In Civ V? Even after the patch, I only see a bare handful of modifiers, with no numbers that would allow me to quantify their effect. And there are far fewer levers I can pull to influence my fellow leaders. “‘Til death do us part” declarations of friendship and denunciations are no substitute for the tapestry of relationships (trade, open borders, religion, common enemies, vassalisation at gunpoint, outright bribery…) in Civ IV. No, diplomacy is one aspect of Civ V that’s ripe for an expansion pack.

The other is the “one unit per hex” rule, and this I actually like. “Peter,” I can hear you point out, “‘one unit per hex’ is new to Civ V! What are you talking about?” Well, yes, it is – as a formal limit. But in practical terms, the effect is to abolish the stack of doom – and the stack of doom itself never existed in the early Civ games. Remember what happened in Civs I and II, if you stacked more than one unit in a tile (other than a city or a fortress) and they were attacked? If one defender died, they all died. So at most, you might stack artillery with something that could defend it. But that was it. You would not march around with invincible stacks of doom. So in this regard, Civ V is actually returning to the roots of the series. And it’s a welcome change: combined with the general overhaul of combat mechanics,  it allows tactics to move beyond “grab a bunch of troops and fling them at the enemy.”

Then there are other things. Cash – or, rather, gold – is king in Civ V. I can use it in diplomacy. I can use it to bribe city-states. And in particular, I can use it to rush-buy buildings and military units from day one. This is another welcome throwback to Civ I. In contrast, Civ IV only let you use gold to hurry production in the late game, and then only if you used a certain civic. The net effect was to marginalise the importance of gold in Civ IV  – sure, you didn’t want to be broke, but it was more of a “negative” constraint than a “positive” tool. Now, in Civ V, I constantly have hard choices about what to do with my gold stash. Do I use it to buy this building over here, which will allow me to speed up research/production/expansion? Or do I use it for my foreign policy, which could bring in food and culture from allied city-states? This is an interesting decision, the crux of a good strategy game. It’s another blast from the past that I’m happy to see.

But in the end, the magic of “just one more turn” is losing its hold on me, and my backlog beckons ever more invitingly. Perhaps it’s Civilization V’s fault. Perhaps it’s my fault: am I growing jaded to the series? For all the things that V did right – production values, city-states, gold, one-unit-per-hex combat, naval warfare – I still miss IV’s diplomacy and religion. At the end of the day, I get the impression that Civ V represents an experimental “bridge” beyond IV, and that it’ll take a future Civ VI to build on the concepts and changes introduced by V. I’m sure I’ll keep playing V over the coming days and weeks and months, and that any expansion packs will rekindle my interest in the game. Civ V gave me my fair share of “that’s cool” moments, and I do feel that I got my money’s worth from it. But for now, I think I can pronounce it good rather than great.

And on that note, I’d like to thank you all, the readers of Matchsticks for my Eyes, for your support! I hope you all enjoy a Merry Christmas, a fantastic holiday and a Happy New Year.

Civilization V: One year on

This entry is part 3 of 4 in the series Civilization V
The eve of my invasion of the Aztecs


Last night, I sat down to play Civilization V for the first time in most of a year. There have been a lot of patches in that time, and I’d grown pretty rusty. How well does it stand the test of time?


What happened during the game


I played as Siam on a Tiny map (four players, eight city-states), Continents, on King level. As it turned out, the other three players all ended up sharing the main continent while I had a large island/small continent to myself (big enough for three of my cities plus one city-state, and I could have shoehorned another city or two in there if I really wanted to).  Throughout the game, I followed my classic Civ play style by building a small but rich and technologically advanced nation, and eventually won a diplomatic victory.


However, my game wasn’t wholly peaceful. Montezuma, just across the sea from me, spent the game slowly gobbling up the other civs and city-states on the main continent. He knocked out Japan and one of my allied city-states, as well as grabbing some territory from Russia. So in the modern era, I decided to do something about it. I somehow made my way to Electronics (which allows mechanised infantry) when all the other AI players were around a generation or two behind militarily, so after training a small force of mechanised infantry and constructing a few battleships, I invaded the Aztecs*.


And I pulled it off. Between my technological superiority, the Aztec army being at the wrong end of the continent fighting the Russians, and my city-state allies gnawing at the Aztecs’ flanks, I went through Montezuma’s heartland like a hot knife through butter. Mounting unhappiness from my conquests, and the need to rest the troops,  made me settle for a peace treaty in which I took all of Montezuma’s cities except for the ex-Japanese Kyoto; that spiked my unhappiness even further, so I donated several of the Aztec border cities to my ally Russia. With the exception of a second, brief war later on that saw Russia gobble up the Aztec remnant, after that it was pretty much just a countdown to the diplomatic victory.


My observations


The naval AI really is broken: No invasions, no colonisation, minimal fleets. This meant once I had wiped the barbarians off my continent, I could safely neglect my military until it was time to invade the Aztecs. When that occasion came, I encountered absolutely no naval resistance…


… but I wouldn’t be so quick to rag on the land AI: My ground war didn’t last long , and mostly consisted of me besieging cities defended by entrenched artillery rather than fighting Montezuma’s armies in the field, so I can’t comment on how good the AI’s unit deployment is. However, judging by the large, artillery-supported armies I saw the Aztecs and later Russia pushing around, their sheer weight of numbers would have given me a much harder time if I’d spawned on the main continent.


Improved build times: Even on Quick speed, IIRC it took ages to build anything in the earlier versions of Civ V. In contrast, build times feel very reasonable now.


At first glance, I like the use of empire-wide happiness as a check on conquest: … although this really is only a first glance, since it only arose for me towards the end of this game and I don’t remember it being much of an issue when I originally played.


Diplomacy still feels rudimentary, but it has its moments: Russia and I were best buddies for most of the game, but once the fall of the Aztecs left the two of us sharing a land border as the last civs standing, Catherine’s attitude cooled very quickly. Shades of the Cold War…


My overall conclusions haven’t changed. Civ V was decent to start with, and it’s better than it was a year ago, mostly due to the faster build times. But while I had fun, I still don’t consider it a great game. Even without the dysfunctional naval AI, the patches have done nothing to address my fundamental gripes with the game. In particular, diplomacy and the lack of religion make it feel more soulless than Civ IV or even Alpha Centauri (note, for example, this podcast discussion on the importance of faction personalities in that game). Back onto my Steam shelf it’ll go for now, I think…


* Appropriately enough, the  great general who spawned after my first couple of victories was named “Hernan Cortes”.

Civilization V: Gods and Kings – The Verdict

This entry is part 4 of 4 in the series Civilization V
From these humble beginnings, can you build an empire to stand the test of time?


For years, new Civilization games (much like a certain other franchise) have followed a process of “two steps forward, one step back”. The original Civilization was a great and seminal game, but Civilization II surpassed it in every way. The third game was a low point in the series, but introduced a number of concepts followed up in the excellent IV. And while I liked V, my ultimate conclusion was that it “it’ll take a future Civ VI to build on the concepts and changes introduced by V.” How does the recent release of Gods and Kings, the expansion pack to V, change this?


To answer this question, I think it helps to split up what G&K offers into two categories. In one bucket, we can place the headline-grabbing features wholly new to V: new scenarios, espionage, and religion. Simply put, these are nice, but they’re not worth US$30 (let alone US$50, if you happen to suffer from regional pricing). In the other bucket, we can place the tweaks G&K makes to the core game: AI, diplomacy, units and technologies, and so on. These are the real draw.


Starting with espionage and religion, these two features are similar in that they both offer a handy set of bonuses, without reaching so far as to be game-defining. Espionage begins in the mid-game. When a civilisation begins a new technological era, starting with the Renaissance, it receives one spy who can be sent to a rival player’s city, sent to a city-state, or left at home for counterintelligence. Sent to another player’s city, a spy will provide line of sight and early warning about planned attacks, and every X turns, steal a technology (unless he/she is killed by a counterintelligence agent!). Sent to a city-state, the spy will gradually increase relations over time, and can be used to attempt a coup (a roll of the dice that will leave you with either a new city-state ally, or a dead spy). Simple, hands-off (none of the “fiddly agent” problem common to strategy games), elegant, but not decisive.


A la carte: religious bonuses in G&K


Religion, meanwhile, works off “faith points” which are primarily generated from buildings such as shrines/temples. The more faith points you accumulate, the more missionaries (spread your religion), inquisitors (quash other religions), and Great Prophets (do all the above, and also needed to found the religion!) you can deploy. Founding a religion allows you to pick and choose from a set of bonuses, some of which will apply only to you, some of which will apply to cities of any nationality that follow that particular faith. As only one civilisation per game can choose any given bonus, prioritising faith – and hence, that first Great Prophet – will allow the early bird to catch the worm. I think the importance of religion will depend on play style: I never found it that central, but I can see someone reaping dividends by taking a religion-centric civilisation (such as the Celts, who earn faith from forest tiles), then picking bonuses that allow, say, the purchase of pre-industrial units with faith.


Meanwhile, the two scenarios I tried (out of three* that shipped with the expansion) were a mixed bag. Steampunk scenario “Empires of the Smoky Skies”, despite its name, is a breath of fresh air. It’s quick to play: I finished in a single evening. Its mechanics are distinct; in particular, zippy research and construction, plus unique victory conditions, make it a builder’s paradise. And it has a sense of place, of steampunkish whimsy: it’s impossible not to grin when bartering anti-gravity ore with a goggled, top-hatted man named “Ignace Curnow”. In contrast, the “Fall of Rome” scenario was a disappointment. A purely military scenario with no diplomacy, no research, and no religion, it runs headlong into the “Civilization is not a wargame” problem that has dogged scenarios since Civ II.


We hope the skies are as friendly as they are smoky


Those are G&K’s most visible features. However, iceberg-like, its real significance is what lies below. Here are a few examples:


1) The computer player is cleverer (at least on land maps). Time after time, I’ve had to fight for my life – usually against early-game rushes, once against a late-game attempt to snatch up a diplomatic victory. In general, the AI hits the sweet spot where it can offer a thrilling game without actually making me lose. It did drop the ball in one game in which (a) the computer players all ignored the New World (this was a Terra map), and (b) the #1 player declared war on my horribly unprepared self… only to not lift a finger, not even posting a single soldier to our border! (The resulting war ended up one-sided, all right, but not the way I’d feared.) However, this match was very much the exception to a usually positive rule.


Heeeeeere they come! Babylonian forces (in teal) attempt an early-game rush.


2) Diplomacy, though still not up to the heights the series reached in Civ IV, has improved to the point where the computer feels rational now. That’s more than most strategy games can say!  The computer will ask for a cease-fire when it’s weary and throw in the towel (but without the ridiculously abject capitulations of pre-G&K) when it’s beaten. Even more importantly, it generally will not go to war without a sensible reason, such as border tension, and it can be deterred by a suitable show of force – in one game, the computer massed troops on our border while I was busy fighting another war, only to back down once I rushed an army home! Not only is this good strategy on the computer’s part, it does a lot to aid my suspension of disbelief and hence, my enjoyment.


3) The tech tree, the available units, and their upgrades are better designed. Remember the abortive archer upgrade path, or the ease of beelining for mechanised infantry (which made tanks redundant)? Gone. Games ending before I got a chance to play with aircraft and other late-game units? Well, now that G&K has added Great War-era aircraft, I have story after story to tell about how airpower transformed my campaigns. The effect was almost as steampunkish, and certainly as cool, as anything in Empires of the Smoky Skies! It’s not perfect – the devastating Gatling guns unlock a little too early – but it’s much better than what we had before.


The Iroquois mass along my northern border while my main army fights Greece in the southwest.


I could list more incremental improvements. Refinements to one of Civ V’s best new features, city-state diplomacy.  Notably faster performance on my computer. But the gist, I think, would be the same. The best reason to buy G&K isn’t to see spies, or prophets, or steampunk airships. The best reason to buy G&K is to see how it enables Civ V to realise its potential, and I think it’s telling that the more I played G&K, the more I liked it.


At the end of the day, my recommendation is straightforward. If you hated the base game, Gods and Kings will do nothing to change your mind. If you liked the base game, however, Gods and Kings is worth your cash. It offers subtle but real enhancements, and irons out several of the flaws that previously marred Civ V. Its more visible additions – espionage, religion, scenarios – are merely icing on the cake. A good expansion.


* Despite its historical setting, the third scenario, “Into the Renaissance” starts players with just one city and a settler!  This didn’t quite appeal to me, though I may revisit the scenario in the future.


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Buy Civilization V: Gods and Kings from Amazon.com

The four-city Tradition start, for use on Emperor and up. I’ll have to try this sometime!


The basis of my review


Time spent with the game: I estimate 30-40 hours.


What I played: One game on King as Austria (aborted). One game on Prince as Austria (won via the science victory). One game on Prince as Carthage (won, science). Two games on King as Korea (a pre-G&K civilisation) (won, science). One attempt at the Fall of Rome scenario (aborted). One attempt at the Empires of the Smoky Skies scenario on Emperor (lost). These were mostly on land-heavy maps: Continents, Terra, and Europe.


What I didn’t play: The “Into the Renaissance” scenario. The remaining difficulty settings and civilisations. Archipelago and similar maps.