Brave New World: The Sample Game (Part One)

Over the past couple of years, one of the most common questions that people have asked me goes like this: "What do you think about the expansions to Civ5?" Or it's often phrased instead as "Civ5 was in really rough shape when it first came out, but with all of the later patches and expansions, it's gotten so much better! You should go back and play it again." These are natural questions to ask. I'm somewhat infamous in the Civilization community for writing some critical reviews of Civ5 in the first few months after release, and dubbing it a bad sequel to Civ4. Although I didn't play the game myself, I kept an eye on the Civ5 community over the years, and I always intended to write about the game's expansions if and when they were created. Now that the patching process for Civ5 has been completed and the second expansion (Brave New World) has been out in a stable form for well over a year, the game is in a position where I can go back and do a final evaluation without having to worry about further changes.

EDIT: Of course, after waiting months and months to do this sample game and review, naturally a new Civ5 patch came out two days after I finished writing. Go figure. The main change was to nerf the Tradition policy tree by making Oligarchy a prerequisite for Legalism. Even though Tradition deserved to be nerfed, I hate the way that this one was implemented. It forces players to take the worst Tradition policy first in order to get to the useful stuff later. Ugh. The most anti-fun way possible of making this happen. (The patch also seems to have broken Civ5 Multiplayer yet again, but that's a completely separate issue.) Anyway, I'm not going back and making changes to the writing at this point, just bear in mind that there was one more minor patch released after I put this together. Thanks.

I bought Brave New World (BNW) for $7.50 when it was on a Steam sale at 75% off the normal price. That would be fairly painless even if I ended up hating the expansion. During the summer months of 2014, I had the chance to experiment a bit with the expansion and test out the gameplay. I didn't get through hundreds of hours, but I did get through several dozen, enough to get a good feel for things, although true Civ5 experts will surely note many mistakes that I made. I felt like I had enough experience to do a fair writeup here on my website. But before I can write a review of Brave New World, I need to outline what a sample game of Civ5 looks like when played at high difficulty by someone who (more or less) knows what they're doing. Civ5's gameplay in this final patched form has changed drastically from the early release versions, and it's important to establish what a normal game will look like before getting into a discussion of the gameplay mechanics. If you've been playing Civ5 at a high level, then most of this will be familiar to you already. Feel free to skip ahead to the review if desired. For the vast majority of people who are not crushing their way regularly through Deity games, I'd encourage you to take a look at this sample game first. The rest of the review will make a whole lot more sense afterwards, and I've written the review with the intention that the reader knows Civ5's mechanics very well. Skip ahead at your own peril.

With that said, let's dive into a sample game of Civ5.

I tried to pick the most basic game settings for this sample. Standard speed, Standard map size, Continents with 8 players and 16 city states, etc. I set the difficulty level to Immortal so that it would be easier to demonstrate some of the different mechanics in Civ5's gameplay. Someone will probably be critical that this game wasn't played on Deity; I think that Immortal will work fine for sample game purposes. As for the civilization, I chose one of the new entrants from the second expansion, the Shoshone.

I picked the Shoshone to illustrate some of the issues with early exploration, something that we'll get to in a minute. They're a fairly stong civ in Brave New World, albeit luck dependent and rather terrible on archipelago maps. Right away, I noticed one of the problems that I've always had with Civ5: not enough tooltip help. Unfortunately this game does not do a great job of explaining what's going on, or phrases things in very general terms without providing specifics. Look at the description for the Shoshone civilization ability here, the Great Expanse. The text says that "founded cities start with additional territory" and "units receive a combat bonus when fighting within their own territory." OK, great. How much territory? What's the combat bonus? Give me some numbers, please! The game never explains. The Civilopedia doesn't contain any numbers either, which is the kind of thing that really should be there. I wasn't surprised that this lack of information was rampant on release (Civ5 was rushed out before it was fully ready), but I did think that the expansions would have a bit more polish. Not the case. I had to go look up the information on an FAQ at Gamefaqs, because CivFanatics has done a poor job of listing this information too. Their Civ5 Info Center has the same non-specific details too, which is pretty shocking for the Internet's most popular Civilization fansite. It seems that hardly anyone knows exactly what the heck the Great Expanse does! (It's actually 8 extra tiles for starting cities, and units gain +15% combat strength when fighting in friendly territory.)

I hope I'm not coming across as overly nitpicking here. This was my first impression when I loaded up Civ5 again after so many years, and I feel that it's important to point this out. Tooltip information is extremely important for strategy games, and Civ5 is hardly some tiny indie game with no budget. The game should state clearly what the civilization abilities actually do, and not with vague descriptions lacking any details. Moving on.

This was the starting location that I drew. The land looked pretty good, with two luxuries along with a river, hills, and some mountains. After moving the pathfinder unit, I realized that I could move the settler to the south and found a capital in a spot both on the coast and next to a mountain tile. You want to place cities near mountains in Civ5 whenever possible to be able to build observatories later in the game. That seemed like a plan to me.

Let me give credit to Civ5 here for creating a great first impression: this is a genuinely beautiful game to play, especially in the opening few turns before the map gets cluttered up with units and tile improvements and cities. Using white clouds instead of black emptiness to represent the fog of war makes everything look so much better, and the visuals are almost entirely great across the board. (Except those rivers - Civ5's rivers have always looked ugly to me.) The consistent Art Deco style for the interface was an excellent choice as well, and a good thematic fit for the Civilization series. The problems with the interface in this game have always been with their inability to display information clearly (and those problems still exist in many places), but they do look good. I also love the music in this game: I think the music is as good or better than the music in Civ4, and that's high praise from me. Civ5 has always had good presentation, and that's nowhere true more than first starting out a game. It deservedly gets praise in these areas.

As the first settler planted its flag, I suddenly received this message:

Well hello there, Fountain of Youth! This is a rarely occuring natural wonder that provides a massive bonus if it pops into your cultural control: +10 happiness. That's a huge deal, there are entire wonders in this game that do nothing more than provide +5 happiness. It also allows any unit that walks past the Fountain of Youth tile to heal at double rate for the rest of the game. I'd never seen the thing before, and here it was showing up in my sample game. Perhaps that should have been grounds for a restart, but I decided to play on anyway. This was almost a good thing, as one of my longstanding issues with Civ5 is an excess of map-related luck factors that control much of what goes on in the early game. Random freebies on the map can cause vast swings in the performance of a game, and the Fountain of Youth is a prime example. While some people might not care, or even enjoy the random fluctuations from game to game, I would prefer chance to have less influence in an empire-building strategy game.

Here's the actual capital of Moson Kahni. Note the extra eight tiles controlled by culture thanks to the Shoshone civ ability, and this definitely helps in the early game. You can work more tiles without waiting for culture to expand (or have to purchase tiles), and it also helps claim territory in disputed border zones. I began the game by building a second pathfinder and by researching Pottery tech. Both of these are pretty standard for Civ5, although I'd be building scouts with any other civ instead of the unique unit pathfinder. Pottery is pretty much a go-to tech since it opens up both granaries and shrines. Unfortunately all of the civs start with identical techs in Civ5 (absent one or two unique cases), so there are no divergent research openings as in past Civilization games. That would have added some interesting variety to the opening turns. Most civs tend to open the same way in each game, Pottery tech + scout build.

Now the pathfinder has a unique ability not present on any other units. They are a warrior replacement for the Shoshone, but they function more like scouts in many ways. The pathfinder provides an opportunity to choose what benefit you would like to take when exploring Civ5's ancient ruins (which the Civ community often calls "goody huts"). It looks like this:

There's my pathfinder about to enter one of the ruins that happened to appear next to my starting position. Once the unit moves onto the tile, I received this popup message:

I could take any of the six ancient ruin bonuses on this menu. This is why I chose to play as the Shoshone, since it would allow me to demonstrate the value of early ruin bonuses. Other civs can get the same benefits, but it's a matter of trial and error, reloading or playing out multiple starts until the luck factors line up correctly. In fact, this is pretty much what the fastest finishing results in the Hall of Fame have to do, because there's no way to compete with someone landing massive ruin bonuses if you aren't landing them as well. Watch and see how landing early huts will accelerate my gameplay here, far faster than what I could otherwise achieve.

I chose the second option highlighted in the screenshot above, taking the bonus to culture. Now normally your capital will produce +1 culture per turn at the start of the game. This is visible on the status bar at the top of the screen, where I had 3 total culture and Moson Kahni was adding another +1 culture/turn. The ancient ruin provided a one time bonus of 20 culture. Suddenly I was sitting at 23/25 culture, only two turns away from selecting a new social policy. The ancient ruins accelerated my acquisition of that first policy by TWENTY turns! And it's not as though I did anything to earn that bonus, I simply walked into a hut that happened to be sitting there. This kind of stuff was present in previous Civilization games (the infamous popping a settler out of a hut in Civ3 for example), but it's a real shame that it dominates the early gameplay in Civ5 to such an extent. If I want to get social policies more quickly, I should have to construct a cultural building or something like that, right?

Instead I get to have my cake and eat it too. On Turn 6, I'm already opening up my first policy tree:

I take Tradition, of course. Civ5's social policies have never been very well balanced, and despite going through innumerable iterations over the course of the patching process, they still aren't particularly balanced today. Out of the four available trees at the start of the game, Tradition and Liberty are the only truly viable options. Honor and Piety are what we would call variant material, useful for screwing around and not much more. Take them only if you're deliberately handicapping yourself for extra challenge. Liberty can be pretty good in certain situations, particularly larger empires with many cities. It's supposedly a tree that requires much more skill to pull off, particularly in the early turns where happiness will be tight. Or you could just take Tradition, which is pretty much good in all situations and will outperfom Liberty roughly 80-90% of the time anyway. It's hard to go wrong taking Tradition in this game. I'd almost call it the One Right Choice (TM) for starting out in Civ5, although Liberty is just barely viable enough to avoid that tag. It's sad that Civ5 sets up all these different options for the social policy trees, and two of them are so clearly better than the others (Tradition in early game, Rationalism in mid to late game) that they rarely see much use. This is a common issue that I'll come back to in the full review: Civ5 sets up interesting decisions in the gameplay, then undercuts itself by failing to understand how all of the component pieces work together as a whole. It's honestly a shame that the balance isn't better between these different trees.

Anyway, back to the sample game. Opening up Tradition adds +3 culture per turn in the capital city, which both allows the capital to grab tiles faster and speeds up the rate of acquiring the next policy. (It will never "catch up" though; the bonus culture from the Tradition opener never outpaces the rate of skipping the policy if you didn't want to open the tree. Of course, since we did want to open Tradition anyway, it's all gravy in this particular game.) With Moson Kahni adding culture at quadruple the former rate, it wouldn't be long before I unlocked the second social policy of the game.

My pathfinder continued to head south, and soon found himself in the tundra that signified the bottom part of the map. I found a second ruin on Turn 7, and this time selectd the "convince the remaining population to join one of your cities" option. (I couldn't take the culture option again; you have to explore more huts before taking the same option twice, even with pathfinders. You actually cannot get the same result from ruins multiple times in a row while playing normally either, it's removed as an option in the game's coding.) This ruin took the population of the capital from size 2 to size 3; it would have taken seven more turns to grow naturally. That was another major boost to my early growth curve. Then hello, what's this on the very next turn?

Ancient ruin #3 at your service. With the culture and population options missing, I opted to take gold this time ("trade with the lost tribe for gold"). This resulted in a windfall of 65 gold, again for doing nothing more than walking into the tile. But wait, there was a city state visible off to the west as well. That was Kabul, a Cultural city state that gifted 30 more gold for being the first to make contact with them. My capital was making 3 gold per turn at the moment, and those two events that popped back to back netted me 95 total gold, or 32 turns worth of income at this early stage of things. This was another example of random factors serving to accelerate my start far beyond what it could achieve on its own merits. I seem to remember one of the posters at Realms Beyond expressing things this way: "In Civ4, you build up your civilization and make things happen. In Civ5, you react to things that are already happening on the map." Or, as T-Hawk once summarized on his website: "Civ 5 is a game where you take advantage of stuff happening to you rather than deliberately make things happen." It's a useful way of thinking about some of the distinctions between the two games.

Shortly thereafter, I found Darius of the Persians to the southeast of my starting position. I immediately sold him a diplomatic embassy for 1 gold per turn, the first of many trades to be carried out in this game. I was actually handicapping myself a bit by selecting a Continents map; for the fastest finishes, it's better to be on some kind of Pangaea setup to have more total AI trading partners. The more AIs you have to play around with, the more you can bilk them into providing free stuff. Anyway, props here to Darius for covering his worker with a warrior escort. That was a good move on his part, as otherwise I would have been seriously tempted to declare war for the purposes of grabbing that unit. Of course, there's a much easier target for worker steals in this game, as we'll see later.

By the next turn, I've already accumulated enough culture to take a second policy. Legalism is the clear winner here, adding a free cultural building (in this case a Monument) to each of the first four cities. This is one more reason why Tradition grades out so strongly, both accelerating you towards more early game policies at a faster rate (when they will have the biggest impact) and also providing important infrastructure for free. It's hard to beat the impact of getting Monuments for free in all of your early cities. No need to waste precious early game production, they simply appear out of the air, and the extra culture then snowballs towards even more policies down the road. With the nerfs to Liberty in the expansions, there's not much in the way of competition. Opening anything other than Tradition -> Legalism is nearly always suboptimal. Again, it's truly a shame that there are all these potential social policies to choose between, and one route outperforms the rest by such a large margin.

On Turn 15, my pathfinder discovered another ancient ruin, the fourth of the game so far. Since I'd explored two ruins since the first one, the culture option appeared again, and I took that for another +20 culture bonus. This also revealed yet another ancient ruin, which I could move into the following turn:

This time, I was able to take the population option again, instantly bumping up Moson Kahni to size 5. Note that this would normally take 15 turns! The goody hut bonus had accelerated my civilization's development yet again. It was almost comical how many bonuses my civ was picking up along the way, but that's very much in line with a typical Civ5 early game. It's all about maximizing the free things that you can find to snowball your growth curve. There's a lot of buildings appearing out of thin air, magical population increases, and culture falling down from heaven. There's strategy here, obviously, and it takes skill to know how to find the opportunities for freebies and make the best use of them. I just personally liked the Civ4 gameplay more, where you were building up your own civ, not maximizing the appearance of free stuff. Your mileage may vary.

I found the Zulus to my north with my other pathfinder a few turns later. This would turn out to be all of the AI opponents on my continent, just the Persians and Zulus. Shaka would serve as a constant source of headaches later, as he typically does. That guy cannot stay on good terms with his neighbors. More on this later.

Yet another ancient ruin appeared on Turn 20, the sixth one that I had found so far, and now a new option appeared on the list of goodies:

I had the option to gain 20 faith, similar to the 20 culture option available from the start of the game. Apparently you can't get the faith option for the first score of turns, but afterwards it's fair game. Now up to this point I had done absolutely nothing with religion. I did not play as a civilization that gets faith bonuses, and I didn't build an early shrine. Nothing at all. That didn't stop me from having enough faith to found my own pantheon the next turn though:

I would take Fertility Rites here, which tends to be modestly good in all situations. I didn't have the right terrain to make use of Desert Folklore, which is responsible for some of the most broken religious gameplay in Civ5. If I'd started in a floodplains region, I could have taken that and continued to amass faith for doing nothing more than working the tiles at my capital. Instead, I would have to settle for a pretty nice bonus of +10% growth in all cities with the panethon present, and that was still very nice. Once again, I gained another freebie while investing absolutely nothing into the religious side of the gameplay.

How do I feel about the religious system overall in Civ5's expansions? It's... OK, I guess? The system isn't especially good or bad, but it does feel rather bland. While I like the idea of making the religions customizable, the whole thing winds up being yet another tech tree, in a game that had two of them already. There's the normal tech tree (accumulate science to get new techs), then there's the cultural tree (accumulate culture to get new policies) and now we have the religious tree (accumulate faith to get new religious enhancements). Sure, there's some differences between the mechanics of how they work, but it's unquestionable that there's a lot of overlap between the social policies and the religious benefits. You're picking from a list of goodies when the meter fills up in both cases.

Lategame religion also turns into an endless run on a treadmill, as T-Hawk pointed out in his writings on the first Civ5 expansion a while ago. "It's a Red Queen's Race. The civs produce faith and throw it at each other just to stay in the same place. It feels like busywork, shiny and new for the purpose of selling the expansion, but enormously inelegant and clunky to operate in practice." You need to accumulate faith to convert your cities and defend them against rival religions, while they do the same thing to yours. Everyone ends up amassing more and more faith simply to run in place. There's also the issue that Civ5's religious system is very rigid in its mechanics, much more so than Civ4. You can't have multiple religions in the same city (one will always be the dominant one), and you can't really run more than one religion at a time. There's no option for a crazy four or five religion start like in Civ5. Everyone pretty much gets one religion to call their own, without much changing from game to game. The system is... predictable. There's nothing inherently wrong here, but it is a bit bland.

In the screenshot above, I had also accumulated enough culture for the third social policy of the game:

I took Landed Elite, which is the best option available if your civ is in good shape on happiness. (If you need more happiness, then the nextdoor policy of Monarchy is the way to go.) One of the reasons why Legalism is such a strong policy is that it leads directly to Landed Elite, arguably the best policy in the Tradition tree. In a game where building up your capital is the clear early game strategy, Landed Elite provides free food each turn and a flat growth bonus. Thanks to the addition of Fertility Rites, I'd actually be getting +20% surplus food in Moson Kahni. And because I was about to complete a granary the same turn (for another +2 food bonus), the population surge would only be that much stronger. Why could I afford to complete a granary so soon? Well, what else would there be to build? I get a monument for free from Tradition. I can land an early pantheon without needing to build a shrine. Cities defend themselves in Civ5 (see the barb archer being warded off), so I don't need much in the way of units. I can steal a worker from a city state easier than I can build one myself. There's almost no downside at all to making this early game investment in growth.

Here's a picture of the capital:

Let's pause to recap this early game. Moson Kahni has grown to size 5 (despite working high production tiles and finishing pathfinder + granary) because I gained two population from ancient ruins. I've gained three policies already despite making no investment at all in culture. In a "normal" game, it would still take three more turns before landing the first policy! I can't think of a better example of a snowball in action. Similarly, I have my own pantheon even though I've produced no faith and built no faith structures. This is an outstanding position, and I owe most of it to the dumb luck of finding a bunch of ancient ruins sitting around my start.

Of course I've stacked the deck here by playing the Shoshone, no doubt about it. Still, any other civilization can do this too. It's just a matter of rerolling different starts and playing the game until the luck goes your way. I picked the Shoshone so that I could play a single game and demonstrate how silly this can get. Here's the thing. Civ5 is supposed to set up these tough tradeoffs in the early going. You have to pick and choose between different options: do I want to build a granary for growth? A monument to get some culture going? A shrine to claim an early pantheon? That's how it's supposed to work. But instead, with a little bit of luck from ancient ruins, all that goes out the window, and the player can get the best of every world. Completely for free. I was actually unlucky and had very few city states starting near me, I could have pulled dozens or even hundreds of more free gold here just from exploring the map.

To make a long story short, various luck factors from ancient ruins, city states, and exploring the map in general dominate the early game in Civ5. These things undercut the game's design and allow players to avoid having to make the tough decisions that they are supposed to make. There's a good game here somewhere that's getting wasted due to an inability of the various pieces to work together. It's really a shame.