YouTube Video Playthrough: Blast from the Past

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This is the short summary of a Civ3 game that I played on Livestream right as the calendar year switched over to 2020. It was the first game of Civ3 that I had played in 15 years; believe it or not, I had never played a single game of Civ3 after the pre-release testing DVD for Civ4 arrived in my mailbox during the early spring of 2005. Civ4 made so many improvements to the Civilization series that I never had a desire to go back and spend additional time with its predecessor, a game that I had absolutely played to death over the previous years and burned myself out on. However, with the passage of a decade and a half of time, I realized that there was now an entirely new generation of Civilization fans who had never played Civ3 directly and didn't know very much about it. Since I had already featured Civ4 multiple times on Livestream, this was a perfect opportunity to break out some Civ3 as part of my ongoing "Civ Fridays" series and showcase its gameplay mechanics to a new audience. I was able to purchase Civ3 Complete on Steam for all of five dollars and, once I was able to sort out some of the technical issues with Livestreaming an older game, sat down to experience an old classic once again.

Going into this venture, I had been a bit worried that I would forget how to play Civ3 after not touching it for such a long period of time. Those fears disappeared almost immediately and I fell right back into the groove of Civ3's gameplay without any trouble. It was very much the old adage about riding a bike and all that. This was due in part to the fact that, at its heart, Civ3 is a much simpler game than the more recent Civilization titles with their lengthy sets of needlessly complicated mechanics. You won't find anything as overly complex as Civ5's tourism or Civ6's tile appeal rules here. What Civ3 lacks in complexity, it makes up for in terms of detail and micromanagement, and I don't mean that as a positive thing necessarily. There's no getting around the fact that Civ3 is an extremely micro-intensive game: to play the game at a high level, the player must micro their cities every turn to avoid revolts from unhappiness and to avoid wasted production, they must micro the research slider to avoid wastage, they must check in diplomatically with every AI leader every turn in tedious fashion, and they must move an enormous number of workers and units around the map at all times. In some ways, the grand scale on which Civ3 operates can be exciting in comparison to the shrunken-down scope of Civ5 and Civ6. You won't be operating with four cities and half a dozen units in Civ3, not if you want to be powerful anyway. On the other hand, when the player needs to move 35 workers every single turn, it's less "epic scale" and more "spreadsheet overload" much of the time. I deliberately picked a Small map size for this game to keep the scale toned down to a reasonable level.

I named this game "Blast from the Past" and chose to play as the Mayans for my civ. The Mayans were a good choice in part because they were a new addition from the expansions that I hadn't played into the ground like all of the non-expansion civs, and also because they paired two of the strongest traits in the game with Industrious and Agricultural. The Industrious trait grants +50% faster worker speed in Civ3 Conquests, nerfed down from +100% faster worker speed in non-expansion Civ3 where it was by far the best trait in the game. It remains an excellent choice and allows the player's civ to develop their territory noticeably faster. The Agricultural trait was added in the Conquests expansion and grants +1 food on the city center tile along with +1 food on desert tiles when irrigated. This essentially means that an irrigated desert tile is identical to an irrigated plains tile (2/1 yield) and it makes floodplains tiles even more powerful than normal. I went ahead and accentuated this by playing on an Arid map where the Agricultural trait could be used to good effect, and sure enough it delivered some large swaths of desert that the Mayan farmers were able to make productive. (I also selected a Pangaea map only to have a series of offshore islands appear, including one that was quite large. The Civ3 map generator was pretty terrible which is why Sirian put so much time into making better map scripts for the subsequent Civilization games.)

The first starting position that I rolled was a dry start and that felt like too much of a challenge so I immediately rolled another one. This time the Mayans appeared in a fertile river valley with several floodplains tiles and it was a keeper for sure. The starting position was very high on food and a bit low on production since it lacked much in the way of hill tiles; in a rarity, some of the forest tiles in the area were an important source of shields. I ran a typical opening for a Civ3 game, using a barracks placeholder prebuild while researching Pottery and then swapping over to a granary, followed by mass produced settlers thereafter. I think that I built one settler pre-granary and that was it until they started coming out en masse. Fortunately I didn't have any neighbors immediately on top of me, always a good thing in a Civilization game. Eventually I found the Incas to the southeast, the Americans to the north, and the Germans to the northeast. There ended up being no one to the southwest and that became my backlines area, with settlers racing off to the north and east to secure as much territory as possible before it was snapped up. That's one thing that Civ3 did correctly and some of the later Civ games have failed at: tight competition for land. Everything in the immediate area around your capital is precious and needs to be contested. The struggle for land is the defining element in Civ3's gameplay, much like it has historically been in the real world.

I was able to push out to a nice core of about five cities before I began running up against the borders of the other civs. There was a narrow isthmus to the southeast along the border with the Incas, and I ran a "dastardly" neutral blockage (to use the old Realms Beyond terminology) with a bunch of warriors to keep them out of my immediate neighborhood. This worked for the Incas but failed to stop the Germans from poaching a site about two city-lengths away to the east shortly before I was due to settle it. That was a major irritant and became a driver of conflict with Bismarck later on. Off to the north, I secured an even split of land with the Americans and we never had any disputes over the border in that direction. Fortunately I was also able to lock down the whole backlines area to the southwest, aside from a single Incan city landed by galley which eventually culture flipped to me. I ended up with roughly a dozen cities in total by the end of the landgrab phase, a number that would be a massive empire in Civ5/Civ6 terms but which was a bit on the small size for Civ3. These cities would spend the rest of the Ancient and early Medieval eras working on their basic infrastructure: granary, marketplace, courthouse, and (if not on fresh water) aqueducts. In this regard, Civ3's city building and tile improvements are both rather simplistic and don't require a lot of thinking. At its best, Civ3 therefore frees up the player to focus more on strategic as opposed to tactical aspects of the gameplay. On the other hand, your workers and your cities end up spending a lot of time doing the same things over and over and over again in every game.

The rule in the early eras of Civ3's gameplay is to purchase techs and broker them around rather than conduct research yourself. Tech trading dominates the gameplay to an enormous extent, something that is not good for the health of the overall game. If anyone ever wonders why I always turn off tech trading in Civ4, well, this is why. I've been there and done that innumerable times and it's just not very interesting. The Civilization games play better and are more interesting when each civ has to come up with their own science as opposed to trading for everything in endless dealing. The tech pace in this game felt very slow to me, perhaps because this was only Emperor difficulty and perhaps because some of the patch changes in the expansions slowed the insanely fast tech speed of release Civ3. Back in the Epic Four "Rome Versus The Barbarians" scenario, players were hitting the Modern era as early as 500 AD and launching spaceships a few centuries later. Nothing like that happened here, and I had no trouble buying and selling techs to stay caught up with the pack of AI leaders. A 50 turn min science gambit on Polytheism gained me a lucrative monopoly tech and it was easy to maintain tech parity status from there. Once I was in a Republic government (and survived a nasty 7 turn Anarchy period - talk about an outdated gameplay mechanic) the Mayans had more than enough commerce to run 2-for-1 and 3-for-1 deals throughout the rest of the Medieval period. I stayed peaceful all through the early turns and let my core cities get their infrastructure in place before committing to anything dangerous.

There was only one major problem: I was completely lacking in resources! I had done a good job of claiming a large amount of territory only to find that there were no iron resources, no horse resources, and only a single luxury resource within Mayan borders. This meant that I was paying out the wazoo in terms of keeping my people happy via the luxury tax while also being unable to build any worthwhile units. I could build the resourceless Mayan unique unit, the Javelin Thrower, and that was basically it. Civ3 was the first game to introduce the concept of strategic resources and the designers made it punishing to lack out on them. All of the key units in the first two eras of the game require iron, or horses, or both. An iron-less civ in particular was widely viewed by the Civ3 community as a crippled civ, to the point that unscrupulous players used to park units on top of AI iron resources to keep their workers from connecting them, making it easy to attack and invade them later. This would end up being the most interesting challenge for this particular game: strong civ, friendly neighbors, good expansion coming out of the landgrab phase, but an appalling lack of resources under Mayan control.

The AI civs went to war, of course, as they always do in Civ3. I faced several demands for gold and always caved, thus directing AI aggression towards other targets. The Aztecs came under attack first over on the other side of the map, eventually getting carved up and split between the Incans and the Iroquois. (This must have been a culturally linked start game since every civ other than Germany were from the Americas.) The Aztecs would survive for a long time to come as a One City Challenge (OCC) civ on an offshore island, too weak even to serve as a tech trading partner. The Germans were the next ones to be embroiled in warfare, which didn't result in them losing any territory but did slow their development. I coveted their land along my northeastern borders and built up forces to attack in the early Medieval period. My best units were, sadly, 2/2/1 Javelin Throwers with bombard support from trebuchets. This was a pretty pathetic attack force but it was the best that I could do with no horses or iron available. I tossed some modest gold/turn payments to the Americans and Incans to take my side in the war and sent my weak archer-based force off to battle. The first Javelin Thrower victory kicked off my Golden Age and we were in business.

The main reason why this attack could be viable was a lack of iron in German territory. They also couldn't build any units better than spears and archers due to a lack of resources, and this meant that my own Javelin Throwers had a chance to make some headway. The first German city fell almost immediately and wow, I'd forgotten how poorly the AI defends its cities in Civ3. They will train tons and tons of units but, unlike in Civ4, they rarely have more than 2-3 defenders stationed in each city. Even a modest stack of concentrated force from the player can often start taking ground, although of course each individual city is also far less valuable in Civ3 since there are so many of them. It helped as well that the Americans were invading Germany from the west and surely distracting many of their units instead of sending them at me. In fact, the Americans were doing a little bit too well: I took out most of the defenders at the German capital of Berlin, only to have the Americans race in and snipe the city from me! That was incredibly annoying, and then the Americans did it again at the final German city on the mainland, swooping in and taking the spot for themselves. In both cases, they captured these cities a single turn before my own forces would have done so. It was a predictable consequence of the resoureless state of the Mayan forces, stuck using archers and eventually longbows while the Americans were running around with much faster and stronger knights. With just a tiny bit more speed, I would have taken the entirety of the German spoils.

Instead Germany was partitioned, with America taking half of Bismarck's territory and my own Mayans getting the other half. Worse yet, despite claiming another four cities of territory, I still didn't have any horse or iron resources under my control! (The desert lands did turn out to have an ample supply of saltpeter, fortunately.) The Germans hadn't controlled any iron and their one horse resource had been over by the American border, quickly snapped up by Lincoln's forces. With that said though, the war had still been a major success story. I picked up space for several more high-quality cities near my capital as well as gaining control of several luxury resources. They were the biggest prizes from the war, and going up from a single luxury to four luxuries made a huge difference in terms of keeping my cities happy. A marketplace was now worth 6 happy faces due to the compounding effects of how luxuries work in Civ3, enough to dial down the luxury rate on the slider and not waste time constructing cathedrals or colosseums. While I was disappointed not to make further gains, I had eliminated a rival competitor and made my own civ noticeably stronger in the process.

The obvious next target for aggression was the Incans to the southeast. I had a long border with the powerful Americans to the north that I didn't want to clash over, and a single tile chokepoint with the Iroquois off to the east that seemed stable. By way of contrast, the Incans were relatively small in size, held all of the resources that I most needed in their territory, and had also constructed most of the game's best wonders. In fact, they had built Sun Tzu's in the city right on our shared border (Tiwanaku), which also happened to control a desperately-needed iron resource. There was one downside here: the Incans had also built both the Statue of Zeus and Knights Templar, which meant that I'd be dealing with all of their ancient cavs and crusaders if we went to war. Nevertheless, if I was ever going to pursue an early victory condition, this was the step that I had to take. I didn't want to play things all the way to a Diplomatic or Spaceship ending, and I was going to need iron for factories and railroads even if I wanted to stay peaceful. So war it was, with me kicking in another payment to my friends the Americans to join me in the fight. (Another weakness of the Civ3 AIs: they are way too willing to declare war for mere pennies regardless of the diplomatic state of the game. Civ4's AI leaders won't attack their friends under any circumstances, which is a lot more realistic and better from a gameplay standpoint.)

Pachacuti's Incan units immediately began trickling into my territory in a series of big clumped stacks. I had to be careful in terms of how I fought these battles, as my force was heavily longbow-based and their 4/1/1 stats made them almost completely helpeless on defense. I could cover them with some 2/4/1 muskets but I still needed to position everything cautiously. I was reminded of the absurdity of Civ3's mounted units as a whole bunch of ancient cavs retreated away from my longbows at the start of the war, exiting a battle that they were about to lose at 1 HP. I had actually forgotten that mounted units can retreat from battles when defending as well as attacking - it's crazy how they can move to another tile entirely when it's not even their turn! Half a dozen of them wound up in an unexpected spot when redlined down to a single point of health. While this was another aggravating moment to be sure, I manage to take out the mobile part of the Incan forces immediately and that made the rest of the fighting much easier. I had about ten trebuchets and they were doing fantastic work bombarding down the incoming units each turn, greatly reducing my casualties from Civ3's infamously streaky random number generator. The Americans helped out as well, with their knights racing down to the border and then engaging in pointless slaughter against incoming Incan units. I would later seal off the whole border region with a bunch of fortified workers to keep their main force from capturing any cities. It took about half a dozen turns to kill off all of the Incan field units, after which they were reduced to the trickle status that longtime Civ3 players know very well. This meant that they were gassed and I could begin the invasion.

The conquest of the Incans was a slow process as I still lacked any mounted units due to a dearth of horses. Taking the initial Incan border city was a major help since it brought iron and Sun Tzu's under my control. Now I could finally train some medieval infantry (4/2/1) instead of those crummy longbows. Once again resources played a major role in the conflict: the Incans had no saltpeter, and although they had built some muskets due to an earlier tech trade where I'd shared some of my own saltpeter, they were unable to train any more of these units. Typically I would struggle to kill the top defending musket in each city, and then it would be nothing but pikes after that who were easy prey for longbows backed by trebuchet support. The pace of conquest for my armies was slow but methodical. At one point the Incan city deep in my backlines that had culture flipped to me earlier flipped back to the Incans, a good example of the utter insanity of how that mechanic operated in Civ3. There were no Incan cities or Incan units within 30 tiles of that spot and suddenly it was part of another empire? Ridiculous. I quickly captured it back. The Livestream viewers subsequently got to see how to defend against culture flipping in Civ3, through mass starvation of the population in captured cities. I genuinely hate the way that the game forces you to be a mass murderer to reduce the odds of a flip happening. Unfortunately there aren't a lot of other options though. I was also able to demonstrate the extreme abusiveness of combat settlers, with their ability to gain control of enemy cultural tiles with their initial 9 tile city radius. Later Civilization games would correctly stamp out the abuses possible with settlers that could flip borders like that in combat zones.

With the Mayans and Americans at war with them, the Incans slowly but surely collapsed. The Iroquois of course piled in from the other side as well, with the AIs smelling weakness and devouring one another in a feeding frenzy. The Civ3 AI was very good at doing this, and one thing that I did love about Civ3 was the way that empire borders changed over time. If you play Civ5 or Civ6 these days, the national borders essentially remain static the whole game because the AIs can't attack one other effectively. Not so in Civ3, where leaders routined get carved to pieces and runaway AI empires are always a threat. Anyway, the Incans fell apart against this coalition and gradually lost one city after another. The Iroquois surprisingly made peace when the Incans were down to their last few cities, then began telegraphing an obvious sneak attack against my civ. I made sure to cover the at-risk cities with defenders and waited until they kicked off the invasion themselves. This led to a dangerous period at the front lines, where I was simultaneously trying to finish off the remaining Incan cities while also hold off the core of the Iroquois forces as they charged over the borders. It was touch-and-go for a couple of turns at the city of "Alamoo", the original Aztec capital which had ended up on the front lines of the Incan/Iroquois eastern border. There was one turn where I held the captured city with a single redlined defender left. It was exciting stuff even if the overall outcome of the game wasn't in doubt.

Back at home, I had used some of the time between wars to construct libraries and banks in addition to the basic city infrastructure, even getting a few universities in my strongest producers. The overall tech pace had been slow, and with so many of the other AI civs crippled by warring there hadn't been as much tech trading as normal. This opened up an opportunity for me to do some of my own research at the tail end of the medieval period. I researched Metallurgy first and was able to pick it up as a monopoly tech, trading it for one of the last remaining medieval techs, either Physics or Theory of Gravity. Then I went after Military Tradition and deliberately did not trade it to anyone else, keeping access to cavalry off limits to the rest of the field. The 6/3/3 cavs have always been one of the most overpowered units in Civ3 (they really should have been 6/3/2 instead), with the strongest attack value of any unit until the end of the next era and an absurd amount of mobility due to their three movement points. I had finally secured a source of horses at the tail end of the Incan campaign and started producing cavs in every city that could manage 5 shields/turn, which was a lot of them by this point. They arrived in the nick of time to push back the Iroquois forces and begin their own counteroffensive. This was literally a case of the cavalry riding to the rescue!

From there the rout was on. Longtime Civ3 players know that cavs against anything pre-Industrial is a total romp, in exactly the same way that Civ4's cavs slice apart anything from the Medieval era regardless of whatever defensive bonuses might be in play. I built swarms of cavs and they galloped all over the Iroquois cities, GG, The End. To provide a little bit more detail, my one worry was that the Iroquois would get into the Industrial era and research Nationalism, thereby garrisoning their cities with rifles instead of muskets. The Americans were already in the Industrial era and had picked up Nationalism as their free Scientific tech. As it turned out, while the Iroquois did make it into the Industial age themselves, they were completely broke due to the Mayan cavalry carving up their core cities. They couldn't come up with enough gold to purchase the ultra-expensive Nationalism tech from Lincoln, and apparently they lacked enough scientific output to research the tech themselves. They didn't get much time either, as my cavs charged through their cities on the main continent and then ferried over to the large offshore island in the east to finish the job. It took less than two dozen turns to remove Hiawatha and his civ from the game.

With the laughably backwards Aztec OCC empire also eliminated in the same general campaign, the world was reduced to just the Mayans and the Americans. Lincoln had been a wonderful ally throughout this game, staying at Gracious status as we fought repeated conflicts together. Although I was glad that he made it to the finish with me, I also wanted to wrap up this clearly finished game in speedy fashion. Therefore I declared war almost as soon as the Iroquois were finished and used the railroad link that I'd built across the entire continent to ferry my giant cav stack wherever it needed to be. I sniped off four different American cities in random parts of the world on the first turn of the conflict, then used the remaining cavs to capture Berlin in the American heartland. Revenge for losing that city many centuries earlier! That was enough to trigger the Domination land threshhold along with several Iroquois cities popping their borders. Domination victory condition, achieved at an early date of 1090 AD. I didn't get to see the final Hall of Fame score because the victory video used an ancient file format that crashed the game, heh.

This ended up being a highly entertaining game to play. It was a true flashback to a fun gaming period for me two decades earlier, when the CivFanatics Civ3 Succession Game forum was buzzing with activity and there was always someone trying something new and crazy in terms of variants. Civ3 is not a game that's aged especially well, and many of the mechanics are badly outdated for a modern audience. There isn't much that's fun about corruption and pollution and city revolts and no research/production overflow and 7 turn anarchies for changing governments, not to mention the insane degree of micromanagement needed to play the game at a high level. I do not expect to be returning to Civ3 and spending much more time with it. However, for a rare change of pace, it was fun to stroll down memory lane and return to a game that I spent hundreds of hours with back in my undergraduate days. I hope that you got a kick out of this Blast from the Past in video or written form. Thanks.