Thoughts on Exploits

One thing that often comes up in competition games of Civ3, or any game for that matter where different players are comparing results, is the notion of exploits. I have been part of much debate in the past over what constitutes an exploit, when are they permissable, or simply what constitutes "fair" play in the game of Civ3. So that I do not have to keep on typing the same arguments over and over again, I am taking the time here to set out my feelings once and for all as to how I feel about exploits in Civ3.

I should probably start first with a definition of what an exploit is. As I personally like to define it, an exploit is something that takes advantages of flaws or loopholes in the programming of the game engine or its artificial intelligence (AI) to gain an unfair advantage for the player. One early example of this was the ability to trade cities with the AI in the original release version of Civ3. You could trade one of your core cities to another civ for tons of money, techs, cities, etc. and then immediately declare war and recapture it back for yourself. Then you could do the exact same thing to a different civ, and keep on doing the same thing over and over again. Any rational person could see that this was an exploit, something that took advantage of the unthinking nature of the AI (which expects you to honor deals) to gain benefits that were clearly not intended. Firaxis wisely removed this exploit from the game with the 1.16f patch, after which the AI would no longer trade for cities except as part of peace treaties. And yet, before this exploit was removed, I well remember others claiming that this was a viable strategy to win, and not exploitative at all!

I have gone on record (if Internet bulletin boards count as going "on record") as one who very much stands against the use of exploits to reap unfair advantages in Civ3. With that in mind, I run through some of the exploits that remain in the current version of Civ3, and what I have to say about them.

Right of Passage Rape: This one has always bothered me the most, I think. It's been a problem in every single version of Civ3 and to be honest I don't think there's a way to fix it. The ROP rape consists of signing a ROP with another civ, then using it to move all of your military units to right outside their cities. Declare war and capture all of their top cities with your forces stationed right outside them. It's a tremendously effective strategy; TOO effective because it steps around one of the basic tenets of the turn-based strategy game, the fact that you can only move on your turn. The units of the AI are forced to stand there paralyzed while the player burns down all of their cities one by one. The thing that irritates me the most is that there are people out there - and not an insignificant amount - who believe that this amounts to good strategy. Players who have grown so used to this exploit that they use it incessantly, taking advantage of the too-trusting nature of an AI that doesn't expect to be betrayed. I remember after struggling and clawing my way to a win in GOTM5 (which really deserves a write-up sometime soon) from an amazingly weak start, reading this comment from someone else in the spoilers thread, "Yeah, Russia was so strong I HAD to use a ROP to take them out! LOL!" I felt so cheated, that someone else had accomplished with treachery and backstabbing what had taken me over over 200 turns of careful planning and building to achieve. The feeling returned in GOTM7, when after an absolutely brutal game on Deity I achieved a diplomatic victory and started hearing about how others had fared. Imagine my surprised to find out that the majority of the other winners of the game had done so by ROP raping their neighbors into the ground! Sirian and I had an extended discussion/argument with several other players in the spoilers thread on this topic; I'm including a short quote from Archer99 (who placed 2nd in the competition) that sums up the philosophy of the opposing viewpoint: "Bribe, lie and steal to get RoP agreements so you can get to the Great Library. All you have to do it capture the library once. You don't have to hold on to it. It applies in every diety level game, not just this one." A good numbers of the "winners" of GOTM7 (and I use the word lightly) had based their entire strategy around ROP raping their neigbors, SPECIFICALLY whoever had the Great Library. As if destroying another civ from within wasn't enough, these players were using the ROP rape to gain dozens of free techs from capturing the Great Library - and basing their ENTIRE game strategy around this! All I can really do is sigh and shake my head. If exploiting blind spots in the AI's programming is your cup of tea, go ahead and do that in your own games. But when this is sanctioned in competition games, as in the GOTM competition... it really ruins any kind of comparison of results. The continued allowance of ROP rape in the GOTM is another reason why I left it for good. If that's the way you have to play to win, maybe you don't deserve to win at all.

Phony Peace Treaty/Phony Deals: This is another exploit that is very similar to the ROP rape. The idea behind the phony peace treaty is to sign peace with another civ when at war to get techs, cities, (whatever) and then immediately declare war again. This is another instance of taking advantage of the unthinking nature of the AI; it expects you to hold to the deals you sign and not break them immediately. The idea of a peace treaty in which the AI gives you techs or cities for peace is that they have bought 20 turns of peace in exchange for giving up something. If you check the status on ongoing deals with another civ after this, you will clearly see a "20" next to the words "Peace Treaty", indicating this. When a player immediately redeclares war, they are unfairly taking advantage of the game to get "stuff" from the AI and yet still continue the war. Clearly this is not fair to the game's artificial intelligence. The phony deal consists of signing a deal you have no intention of honoring, such as trading away all of your gold per turn for techs and then declaring war before you ever pay a cent. Once again, the game's AI gets blindsided and the player gains an unfair advantage scot-free. This one bothers me almost as much as the ROP rape, because it is very commonly used and considered by many to be "good strategy". And people wonder why the AI civs hate them so much!

Scout Resource Denial: This one is not so obvious as the others. The idea is to use a scout and sit it on any key resources (iron, horses) in the early game to prevent the AI civs from building a road on it and connecting it to their cities. This wouldn't be a problem in open (unclaimed) territory, but it is exploitative when done in the territory of another civ. The AI will ask you to move the scout, but rarely if ever will give the message "Leave or declare war" for the non-military unit. Many high-level players use scout resource denial to kill off the nearby enemy civs on Deity, by denying them iron to build units. The problem is that the AI cannot recognize what the player is doing and thereby force the player's scouts to leave. It would be ludicrous for such a strategy to work against another player, and the fact that the AI civs don't understand what to do makes it another exploit. The real problem is that the game should recognizae this as an act of war, but the unthinking AI can't understand that and so it goes unchallenged. This one is not used so commonly, but that does not make it any less of a problem.

There are other exploits that can be used out there (like creating cities used only for whipping, or using the ship hopping exploit, or using ICS to the point that it becomes exploitative) but these three are the real problems out there right now. Doubtless there are many who feel as I do, but I'm sure that there are others who think that there is nothing wrong with using tactics such as these. "It's my game, right? I can play it however I want to." While it is true that you can do whatever you prefer in your own games (I can hardly stop you), I'd like to try and persuade anyone reading this not to use such cheap tricks. Because, in a sense, that's all that exploits really are: cheap tricks that players use to shore up holes in their own game or mistakes that they have made. It's very possible to win at every difficulty level without using such tactics; I have done so myself. Exploits ultimately cheapen and demean the game, both for the competition in which they are allowed and, more importantly, for the player that uses them. What pride can you take in saying you won a game if you had to stoop to such measures to do so? Using exploits to win video games is like using steroids to gain an edge in athletics; you may reap short-term benefits and enjoy far more success than you did originally, but in the long run you will only end up stunting your own personal growth, which only comes from struggling through and overcoming failures. And that's the real reason why I urge people to avoid these exploits, because they end up hurting the one who uses them the most. They detract from the fun factor and the replayability of the game, and do the same to competitions when some players are using them and others are not. And those of you who think the reputation hit you take from using these exploits is punishment enough need to get a grip on reality. The reputation system is badly flawed in Civ3, giving few benefits to honorable civs while failing to penalize dastardly ones in any kind of meaningful way (but that's a subject for another editorial).

If you take one thing away from this editorial, remember this: you will only be hurting yourself by using such measures. My most favorite and most entertaining games of Civ3 were ones where I fought back from incredible odds to achieve victory - and ones where I played it clean from start to finish. If I had used exploits to win those games, I neither would have enjoyed it so much or improved as a player. And in the end, fun factor is what should drive this game. I think you owe it to yourself to play the game honestly; you don't have to love the AI civs or always stay at peace with them, but you owe it to yourself to deal with them fairly and not abuse the loopholes in their programming to secure advantages for yourself.