I’m a long-time fan of the Civilization games, old enough to remember playing a cracked copy of the original Civ games on the university computers while in high school. (Yes, I pay for all my games now, thanks for asking.) When a new iteration of Civilization comes out, it’s a joyous event: not quite Christmas, but bigger than Halloween, y’know? So when I got my sweaty palms on Civ V, it was with a great deal of anticipation.
Developing a game doesn’t leave you with much time to play other games – one of those ironies they don’t tell you about. But I’ve managed to sneak in enough time with Civ V to end up… a little disappointed. Not such that I won’t play, or enjoy myself while doing so, but I’m not enthralled, not yet. Civ 2 and Civ 4, I each played for five years, all the way through until the next version came out. Civ 3, I played for maybe six months. There’s a danger Civ 5 will be another Civ 3 for me.
Why? What’s the problem? Did they simplify too many things, or the wrong things? Maybe, but I think it’s something else. I think it’s the vaunted new combat system – or, more precisely, the secondary consequences of that system.
One of the largest changes to Civ V is the elimination of stacked units. Now, each combat unit occupies a space that cannot be shared with any other unit. This, combined with the introduction of hex spaces, pushes the game into the tactical realm inhabited primarily by war games. And it does make the combat more interesting, on a per-engagement basis.
However, to make this work, each civilization needs to end up with an army that is much smaller on a per-unit basis than was common for any prior Civ game. There’s just not room on the map for them otherwise, and presumably they also wanted to limit the amount of time players needed to spend each turn just moving their armies around the board. Instead, you have tougher units, and more attacking and withdrawing and so on.
At least, that’s the theory. And sometimes it works out okay, and you get nice consequences, like more “leveling” of units as they survive and gain experience. But the big problem is that this means they need to make each unit more expensive to field. Creating an up-to-tech unit takes much longer in Civ V than in previous versions, and costs a whole lot of schmuckers to buy outright.
Okay, so what? Well, if we push further down the train of consequences, we get to this ugly one: if you defeat your enemy’s initial forces, they can’t rebuild in time for it to matter (unless the enemy is very large). As a result, it’s all about the early battles. Win those, and you will collapse the enemy’s empire and take it all for yourself. There’s a middle ground, but it is small.
Civ IV, by contrast, had both small and large wars. A number of things worked against large-scale conquering: the slow process of assimilating new cities, the effects of culture on newly-acquired border cities, war unhappiness, the ability to manufacture reinforcements reasonably quickly, and the ability to stack units in cities (which not only protected those cities, but also kept the reinforcements safe until there were enough of them to meet the enemy in the field). Civ V only has unhappiness penalties for new cities (and it doesn’t matter whether you are at war or not, so this is not a disincentive to further warring), and some policy and wonder bonuses available to boost combat prowess within one’s own borders – which won’t matter once you’ve lost your army.
And that’s really too bad, because it eliminates a whole dimension of gameplay, and makes the game swingy: be the first to bash another Civ’s head in, and you have a big leg up on the rest of the game.
Civ V gets a lot of other things right, particularly the addition of city-states, which are a huge and clever innovation that adds both to the mechanical gameplay, and to the realism factor in the game. And I will continue to play it, with some measure of happiness. But the main thing I’ve come away with is a renewed appreciation for the potential for unintended, second- or third- or nth-order consequences in the complex, dynamic system that is a game (especially one with as many variables as a Civ game). Something to watch out for.