This is my review for the Brave New World expansion of Civ5, and more generally for the final patched version of Civ5 overall. If you aren't familiar with the typical gameplay in a high difficulty game of Civ5, I encourage you to take a look at the Brave New World Sample Game writeup ahead of time. I will be referring back to my sample game for examples throughout this review. Readers are also welcome to check out my lengthy review of the original version of Civ5, written about two months after the game's release, for a comparison of how things have changed over time. With that in mind, let's get started.
What Civ5 Gets Right
It's best to start out with the positive side of the ledger. Civ5 does a number of things very well, making improvements to the long-running Civilization franchise. First and foremost is the presentation. Civ5 is a visual treat for the eyes, especially in the early turns before the map fills up with cities and units. There's a bright color palette in use for most of the graphics, which makes them easy to see and sets a positive tone. The game uses a consistent Art Deco style for its interface and icons, which is an excellent fit for the series as a whole. The replacement of black fog with white clouds for unrevealed tiles creates a lighter and more optimistic tone for the game when setting out. The whole thing suggests progress, technology marching forward, civilization advancing over time. Unfortunately this system isn't always easy to use - in fact, the interface can be extremely clunky at times for gameplay purposes - but it certainly LOOKS good, and makes a great first impression on players.
The background music used in Civ5 is even better, and does a wonderful job of accompanying the visuals. The early turns feature reassuring, pastoral instrumental music that fits perfectly with the bright graphics. There's a mixture in this game of original compositions and famous classical music compositions; I'm a particular fan of the theme from "Our Town", linked here on YouTube for the curious. The music for this game always seems to put me in a good mood, it's so soothing and reassuring, suggesting the slow buildup and development of your nation. Civ5's music is as good or better than the music in Civ4, which is the highest compliment I can pay. The production values in this game are outstanding.
When you're first starting out a new game of Civ5, it's a genuine joy to play. There are so many competing priorities in the early turns: trying to explore the map, get the first worker out, connect the first luxury resource to sell it to another leader, expand to additional cities while also working on the National College, trying to decide how many archers and composite bows you need to be safe from AI aggresion, and so on. All the while, the beautiful map and the oustanding music will be there to help reinforce that "One More Turn" feeling. The fun in the Civ5 gameplay comes from trying to juggle four or five different things at once, and get them all to line up at the same time without running into a bottleneck. It can be addictive, and it's easy for me to see why a lot of players keep experimenting with different opening builds over and over again. This is the strongest part of the Civ5 gameplay.
There are also a number of gameplay changes that I think are steps forward for the series. The ability of cities to defend themselves is a welcome improvement over the old "random barbarian warrior walks into empty city" gameplay from past versions. Some kind of minimum ability of cities to protect themselves feels like a good change. Culture is more valuable than ever before, tied into the social policy system and important for unlocking additional tiles near cities. While I dislike the inability to choose what tile will get picked by cultural expansion (which really should have been an option!), the idea of cities expanding their borders organically, one tile at a time, is a clear winner over the old system. Tech trading is completely absent from Civ5's diplomacy, and the game is better off without it. (All prior Civ games that had tech trading inevitably revolved around endless buying and selling of techs, with the result of degrading the actual research element of the gameplay. This is a case of addition by subtraction.) Other changes, such as using a hex grid instead of square tiles, or the addition of city states to the map, are things that introduce new elements to the series. They may not necessarily be good or bad, but at least they're something different.
Civ5 is not a game that lacks for ideas. Almost all of the basic gameplay mechanics of the Civilization series have been shaken up and reorganized in some fashion. There can only be one unit on each tile. Science and gold have been divorced from one another, with the removal of the sliders. Cities can work as many as 37 tiles instead of 21. The economic model works off of global happiness, instead of corruption or city maintenance. There's lots and lots of new and promising ideas in operation.
Unfortunately, the crippling flaw with Civ5 and its expansions is that these new gameplay systems aren't balanced very well, and that tends to undercut what the design is trying to do. Over and over again, the inability to implement one mechanic properly winds up ruining another mechanic, rendering both of them pointless. Civ5 is designed to be a complex game with difficult strategic tradeoffs, but it rarely plays out that way due to its balance issues. This is a game where the whole is less than the sum of its parts. Let me try to address a number of them in turn.
Too Many Freebies
Civ5's early game is dominated by the ability to pick up various free bonuses scattered around the map. These freebies come in many different forms. There are ancient ruins, this game's version of the old goody huts, which contain all sorts of huge benefits if luck is on your side. You can pick up free culture (drastically speeding along your progress to the first couple of social policies), or free population, or gold, and so on. You can even get a faith bonus from huts, which is often enough to found your own pantheon and then snowball into a free religion a bit later, especially with the overpowered Desert Folklore pantheon. Ancient ruins aren't the only source of luck though, as city states are more than happy to provide other free bonuses. Meeting each city state for the first time will provide a gift of either 15 gold or 30 gold, money which can be reinvested via rush purchases into accelerating your civ's development. (In fact, the free gold given out by ancient ruins and city states dwarfs the amount of gold that your capital produces in the early stages of the game.) Natural wonders can be found on the map as well, each one providing a minor happiness bonus at the very least, and some of them producing extremely powerful benefits to happiness or culture or faith. The random luck of finding a natural wonder near your capital can easily lower the difficulty of the game by a full level. There are also opportunities to capture workers, either by whacking a helpless city state or by taking captured workers away from barbarians. I demonstrated all of these things on the first page of my sample game for Brave New World, and the goal of running around picking up things for free is commonplace for Civ5.
Even going beyond the early phases of the game, free stuff seems to be hard coded into the Civ5 gameplay at every stage. City states are one of the best examples, as they offer random quests throughout the game. Many of these quests are extremely easy to fulfill, and wind up rewarding players for things that he or she would have done anyway. Something as trivial as connecting your own resources can result in a full alliance with a city state, which will then supply a steady stream of culture or faith or food (or whatever) depending on the city state type. In other words, it's very possible to get a benefit worth hundreds or even thousands of gold for doing absolutely nothing. Alternately, the city states will also sometimes offer up quests that are nearly impossible to fulfill, asking you to declare war or something similar. It seems to be dumb luck what you'll get. This is an unsatifying gameplay mechanic, as the city state quests are highly random and often provide massive benefits for essentially no action on the part of the player. It's just endless free stuff from the sky.
Freebies are also baked into many of the other gameplay mechanics, such as the social policy trees. Tradition will give your first four cities a cultural building for free (usually monuments) and then aqueducts later. Liberty grants a free worker and a free settler. Other social policies result in free Great People, free Golden Ages, and so on. The easy availability of gold and the presence of cash-rushing as a mechanic from the start of the game also contributes to the instant rush-buying of units and buildings. They just appear out of thin air on demand. Research agreements work in similar fashion, paying a flat sum of gold in exchange for magical beakers after the passage of 30 turns. More and more free stuff, always more free stuff.
So why does this ultimately matter? Why should we care about all these freebies in Civ5? As a short answer, it's because the free stuff undermines the rest of the gameplay and makes it less compelling. It's simply less interesting to have a free settler magically appear than to build a settler yourself. As a longer answer, the endless free stuff in the Civ5 early game places too much emphasis on randomness and undercuts the gameplay. You could emphasize high food tiles to grow your population in the capital... or you could hit an ancient ruin and get a free population point instead. You could build a shrine to get some faith going... or you could meet a Religious city state, and magically get enough faith to found a pantheon while investing nothing in religion. Too many of these benefits are based on complete luck factors, finding city states or natural wonders or ancient ruins and popping the right benefits from them. The free stuff heavily dominates the gameplay for the first 50 turns in Civ5; what you're pulling for free on the map is arguably more important than what you're building in your capital. This is not a good thing for a strategy game.
What's worse, all of the free stuff that can be found completely undermines the tradeoffs that are supposed to be taking place, rendering them pointless. At the start of the game, your civilization is supposed to make some hard choices. Do you want a granary for faster growth, or a monument for culture and faster policies, or a shrine to start progress towards a religion? The gameplay is setup for some nice dilemmas here. Unfortunately, all the freebies can make this a pointless exercise. Ancient ruins toss out culture and population for free. Religious city states and ancient ruins give free faith. Workers can be stolen from city states or barb camps. I demonstrated this in the sample game, where I invested nothing in culture or faith, and yet still picked up three policies and a pantheon in the first 25 turns. All because of freebies on the map. The free stuff is terribly corrosive for the gameplay - Civ5 would be MUCH more interesting if players weren't being given all these things constantly. Civ5 sets up interesting decisions, and then immediately eliminates them because other gameplay elements are out of whack.
Here's another way of thinking about the freebies. In past Civilization games, you built up your own civ and made things happen on the map. In Civ5, you take advantage of free things that are already happening outside of your cities. I believe that the former creates more interesting and deeper gameplay for players.
Lots of Decisions to Make... But Few of them Matter
One of Sid Meier's more famous statements is that a good strategy game (or a good game in general) is made up of a series of interesting decisions. Civ5 tries to embrace this dictum, and there certainly is no shortage of decisions to be made. Over and over again in the gameplay, players are asked to choose what they want from a list of potential benefits. This is how the social policy system works, and the religious system, and the ideology system, and so on. Lots and lots of decisions to be made. At times this setup works well, and contributes some of the stronger aspects of the gameplay. The social policy trees are the best example of this, and I've always felt since the initial release version that the social policies are one of the best parts of the game. Choosing which tree to unlock and which policy to select is a classic example of an interesting decision, and one with long consequences for the rest of the game. It's a bit of a shame that the social policies haven't been balanced particularly well for most of Civ5's history (with Liberty being the best opener in the release version and Tradition the current strongest starting tree in Brave New World), but they are still a good example of gameplay done well. Players will want to unlock more policies to get access to the ones further down the tree, and they'll want to replay the game again to test out different policy trees altogether.
The designers at Firaxis obviously knew that they had a winner here, because they duplicated the social policy system almost exactly with the religious mechanic added in Gods and Kings. Instead of purchasing policies with culture, you add religious beliefs and enhancements with faith. It's... OK, I suppose, although it seems a little silly to have two different gameplay mechanics that basically do the same thing. Religion also tends to turn into a Red Queen's Race in the lategame, with everyone forced to generate more and more faith simply to run in place. As a duplicate of the social policy system, the religious system still works well enough, although it's a weaker system and clearly extraneous to the gameplay. The social policies are more interesting to use and better designed.
Then there's the Ideologies, which function almost identically to the social policies. Everyone in the Industrial era must choose an Ideology of some kind, which allows your civ to pick certain tenets from a list. Once again, you are picking benefits from a list of choices. That's three different systems that function in the same way - three of them! Was that really necessary? Ideologies are clearly a feature tacked on for the second expansion, and contribute almost nothing to the gameplay. There is no reason for this system to exist, the social policies and religious enhancements are more than enough. Sure, AI leaders with different Ideologies tend not to like one another, but how does that improve the gameplay? It seems to be totally random what Ideology they'll happen to pick. Suddenly, the diplomacy from the first 200 turns gets thrown into a blender and completely shaken up. I don't see that as a positive. The tenets from Ideologies are themselves bland and uninteresting, nothing new that hasn't already been done with the social policies. The Ideologies are simply filler material, extra stuff thrown into the expansion for the purpose of adding more stuff.
Ideologies are hardly the only such candidate either. Brave New World, and Civ5 more generally speaking, has a whole bunch of pointless fluff designed to take up the player's time without actually having much impact on the gameplay. I included a picture of one such example above, the inclusion of archaeologist units who will go on "plundering expeditions" to dig up ancient artifacts. This is the worst sort of trite nonsense, time-wasting distractions designed to give the player something to do while hitting next turn. The World Congress is another such example, with its resolutions rarely seeming to have much effect on the game (other than the poorly balanced World's Fair event). It's a place for players to fool around with votes that look and sound important, but without actually being important. Ditto for things like Tourism, and Great Works, and Great Musician Concert Tours, and so on. There is no reason to have these additions in Brave New World; the culture mechanic and Cultural Victory worked perfectly well in the earlier versions. These things exist only to provide more busywork in the later stages of the game.
It actually reminds me of one of the criticisms made by reviewer Tom Chick, the man who was infamous for being pretty much the only official reviewer to give Civ5 a low score. As I'm typing up this sample game report, Chick just posted his review of Civilization: Beyond Earth, a game that looks to be heavily based upon Civ5. One of his paragraphs struck me as being particularly true for Civ5 as well: "All of this stuff is great as you first play Beyond Earth and work your way toward the endgame. There’s a thrilling sense of possibility as you discover yourself and your new planet. But the more you play, the more you discover something else. The more you discover that these decisions pile up and amount to a lot of nothing. There are so many choices to be made, and so many of them are inconsequential for so many different reasons."
To me, that's Civ5 in a nutshell. There's a lot of decisions to be made, but due to various imbalances in the mechanics and at times sloppy design, most of them aren't that interesting. A lot of what you're doing turns out to be pointless busywork, stuff that exists for the point of having stuff to do. As for the genuinely interesting decisions, they are often rendered moot due to poor balancing. The excellent social policy system is gravely weakened by Tradition and Rationalism outperforming the rest by such wide margins. The trade route system, a wonderful idea added in Brave New World, sadly gets wasted because the food caravans are enormously superior to all of the other options. Lack of gameplay balance turns interesting decisions into rote repetition. There's a simple pattern that can be followed to win virtually any game: explore the map, collect freebies, take Tradition into Rationalism policies, connect resources and sell them to the AI leaders, run food caravans between your cities, have sufficient archer class units for defense, and always push for the key science techs (Education, Scientific Method, Plastics). Beyond that, you can optimize as much as you want, but I'm not sure how much it really matters. A lot of what you're doing has little real impact. In fact, the whole second half of the tech tree has almost nothing interesting on it. Civ5's early game is great because you're making all sorts of interesting decisions balancing competing priorities. Everything after the first 100 to 150 turns? It's the Civilization equivalent of flair.
Diplomacy: Clearing a Low Bar
Let's state the good news about Brave New World right up front: the diplomacy in the expansion is VASTLY improved over the release version of Civ5. The original unpatched version had a laughably poor diplomatic system, one where there was no information at all about what the AI leaders were doing or how they felt. While the game was under development, the creators had stated that they wanted diplomacy to be "mysterious", and not something that human players would be able to min/max for their benefit. The result was a broken system: AI leaders acted in seemingly random fashion, their actions completely inscrutable and unpredictable. As far as I could tell, the AI leaders rabidly declared war on everyone, over and over again, with no rhyme or reason to their actions. In our Deity succession game with the Ottomans, we were attacked by six different AI leaders during the BC years! Perhaps there was some logic behind what was going on, but the gameplay provided no explanation whatsoever, and the only way to find out would have been through digging into the actual game code. All of the AI leaders appeared to be completely insane. I mean, I guess this was indeed "mysterious", but hardly in a good way!
Post-release, the designers almost immediately began backpeddling from their original vision of diplomacy. They added tooltip indicators for why the AI felt the way that it did, and smoothed out a lot of the craziness taking place in the earlier versions. The logic behind denunciations became (somewhat) easier to understand, and the "pacts of secrecy" (which were never explained in-game, and I still to this day have no idea what they did) were replaced with declarations of friendship. Over time, the later patches and expansions also toned down some of the trading exploits that had been possible earlier. Selling resources for flat gold was replaced by trades for gold per turn. (Prior to this, it was possible to sell a resource for 300 gold, then immediately declare war to break the deal, while retaining the gold.) Research agreements were nerfed so that they only became possible to sign if both parties had a declaration of friendship. The AI became less likely to declare war overall, and indeed things can be quite peaceful with most of the leaders in Brave New World, a sharp contrast to the crazed warmongers from the release version.
It's a credit to the people at Firaxis that they were willing to see where they had goofed in their initial design, and that they were willing to make necessary changes to improve things. Jon Shafer, Civ5's lead designer, even posted a lengthy article on the Kickstarter page for his current gaming project where he went into detail about some of his regrets about Civ5. Diplomacy and the One Unit Per Tile system were the two biggest topics of discussion. Here's a small snippet from the Diplomacy section: "My original goal was for the AI leaders to act human. But humans are ambiguous, moody and sometimes just plain crazy. This can be interesting when you're dealing with actual, real humans, but I learned the important lesson that when you're simulating one with a computer there's no way to make this fun. Any attempt to do so just turns into random, unproductive noise. I came to realize that while diplomacy is a unique challenge, it's ultimately still just a gameplay system just like any other. Regardless of whether your enjoyment is derived from roleplaying or simply a game's core mechanics, if your opponents' goals and behavior aren't clear then you'll have absolutely no idea what’s going on or what to do.
In Civ 5, you might have been lifelong allies with a leader, but once you enter the late-game he has no qualms backstabbing you in order to win. With this being the case, what's the point of investing in relationships at all? By no means should AI leaders be completely predictable. However, they do need a clear rhyme and reason behind their actions. The computer opponents in Civ 5 were completely enslaved to their gameplay situation, and as a result they appeared random and very little of their personalities shone through. They were all crazy, and in the exact same way. In the months after the game was released I modified their behavior to be more predictable, but it was too late to completely change course. The biggest takeaway from this is that the only thing which matters in a game is the experience inside the player's head. It doesn't matter what your intentions are or what's going on under the hood if the end result just isn't fun." Bingo. Major kudos to Shafer and the other designers for changing course and being willing to admit mistakes.
So what do we have then in the current diplomatic system in Brave New World? Well, diplomacy is certainly a lot better, but I'd hardly say that this is a good system. It can and has been done much better in other strategy games. The biggest problem is that there still isn't really that much to do through diplomacy in Brave New World. Civ5's design stripped away the ability to trade technologies, the biggest diplomatic interaction from past games. (Note that as I wrote earlier, I believe this was a good move overall, although it might have been nice to have tech trading as a selectable option.) Unfortunately there's not much inserted into the diplomacy to take its place. Mostly the diplomatic system revolves around selling resources for gold, which is still far too easy to do and provides far too many benefits. I demonstrated in my sample game how selling my first two luxury resources QUADRUPLED my gold per turn income. This warps the in-game economy, making the construction of tile improvements like trading posts pointless. Why bother when I can sell resources and get so much more income that way?
Outside of selling resources, the main other diplomatic actions seem to involve signing research agreements and convincing the AI to declare wars. Research agreements are a questionable addition to the gameplay, uninteresting in their use, unintuitive in their mechanics, and quite frequently overpowered in their execution. It's just not that compelling from a gameplay perspective to pay X amount of money, wait 30 turns, and then magically receive a bunch of free beakers. They should either be scrapped from future games or substantially redesigned. As for war declarations, the AI seemed way too willing to fight wars for mere pennies in my test games with Brave New World. They should ask for much more than they currently do. I suppose that there's some more things that you can do with friendship declarations, denunciations, the World Congress, and so on. But most of this goes back to the last point above: extra filler material designed to look and sound important, without actually being important. Where are the meatier diplomatic interactions from other games? There's nothing like the maneuvering for votes in the Galactic Council in Master of Orion, or the free wheeling diplomatic system from Alpha Centauri. There isn't even anything as robust as the religious-based diplomacy from Civ4 (and no, the lategame Ideologies in Brave New World are not an adequate substite). Honestly, the diplomatic system in Civ5 reminds me of the system from Civ3, which was functional but kind of a mess at the same time. Certainly no one would be praising it as an example of great strategy game design.
That's my conclusion for the final diplomatic system from Brave New World: it's improved to the point of being adequate or passable or "OK". It's not especially great and not especially terrible. Somewhere in between. And fortunately that's a huge step forward from the disaster of the release version.
Combat: An Ode to Traffic Jams
The combat system in Brave New World is largely unchanged from earlier versions of Civ5, still using the One Unit Per Tile system of warfare. The biggest change would be the shift in what type of units are emphasized. In the initial release version, horse units were extremely overpowered, due to the massive -33% strength penalty for defending on flatland types. It was silly how even spearmen, the anti-horse unit, would still lose to horsemen when they were attacked on grassland tiles - much less every other unit type, which simply got annihilated. And with four movement points, and the ability to dance around the AI's tactical incompetence, human players rarely had to worry about their own units getting attacked. We used to joke about the "Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse", the belief that you could build four horse units and conquer the entire world with nothing else - which was often true! This was nerfed in patches: horses had their strength lowered and received a penalty when attacking cities, while the flatland defense penalty was removed. These were good changes, generally speaking, although they came at the cost of making horse units almost completely worthless. The next unit type to be emphasized was strong melee units, the swords and longswords that required iron as a resource to be constructed. With the effective removal of horses, these units became overpowered, resulting in a situation where anyone without iron was completely screwed, and that wasn't exactly a good thing either. They would later be nerfed as well.
With the expansions, the strength values of all the units were rebalanced and new units were introduced. Melee units in general were made slightly weaker. The huge winner in the new system were the archery units, archers and composite bows and crossbows, who were easy to research on the tech tree, cheap to build, and upgraded smoothly from one generation of unit to the next. With the shift over to the 100 HP system (a replacement for the old 10 HP system), the archery units became even stronger. A handful of composite bows in defensive positions could shoot down virtually any sized horde of AI units, especially given AI inability to fight effectively. This is the system that Brave New World still employs, and aside from the emphasis on archer units, it's fairly similar to the older versions. Siege units are still good against enemy cities, and artillery units / airplanes (and their later upgrades) remain overpowered in the lategame.
If you know anything about my feelings on this subject, then you know that I'm not a big fan of the One Unit Per Tile system. I can see why many people enjoy the rule: it's easy to understand, and outplaying the incredibly dumb AI via tactical movements feels good. But there are myriad problems with this system, and have been from day one. I wrote extensively about this in my review of Civ5's release version, which I'll link here again for the curious, and none of those problems have ever been resolved. To trim it down into a short list, here are the main problems:
1) One Unit Per Tile systems require a great deal of space for units to maneuver. The Civ5 maps are not big enough to make this work properly.
2) When large numbers of units are produced, the units wind up getting stuck in traffic jams, or forming the infamous "Carpet of Doom". This is a common issue on higher difficulties, where the AI units all get choked up on each other.
3) To keep army sizes small, the designers of Civ5 had to lower tile yields and slow down production. This had ripples throughout the entire rest of the game: forcing small empire sizes, more expensive buildings/units, creating a slower-paced game, etc. Civ5's design is entirely based around the One Unit Per Tile mechanic.
4) The AI has absolutely no idea how to use this system, which turns combat into a joke. It's very easy to fight entire wars without losing a single unit. Without the ability to stack units and brute force objectives, the AI becomes a punching bag on anything other than the highest difficulties.
All of these were issues that the player base brought up four years ago. I wrote about them at length within weeks of the game's release, go ahead and check the stuff I wrote back in 2010. But you don't have to take my word for it, here's Civ5 Lead Designer Jon Shafer again discussing some of the problems with the combat system:
"By far the most significant change I made with Civ 5 was to way in which wars were fought. Instead of large stacks of units crashing into one another as had always been the case in the previous Civ games, there was now 1UPT (one unit per tile). This forced players to spread out their armies across the landscape, instead of piling everything into a single tile. This was a model very much inspired by the old wargame Panzer General. On the whole, I would say that the combat mechanics are indeed better in Civ 5 than in any other entry in the series. But as is the theme of this article, there's a downside to consider as well.
One of the biggest challenges unearthed by 1UPT was writing a competent combat AI. I wasn't the one who developed this particular AI subsystem, and the member of the team who was tasked with this did a great job of making lemonade out of the design lemons I'd given him. Needless to say, programming an AI which can effectively maneuver dozens of units around in extremely tactically-confined spaces is incredibly difficult. The reason why this wasn't an issue in Panzer General was that their AI didn't actually need to do anything. It was always on the defensive, and a large part of that game was simply solving the "puzzle" of how to best crack open enemy strongholds. It was plenty sufficient if your opponents simply ordered a single tank to stir up some trouble every so often. What made Panzer General fun was you blitzkrieg-ing through Europe while your enemies quickly and dramatically fell before your might. However, in a Civ game, the AI has to be capable of launching full-scale invasions, sometimes on different landmasses. Needless to say, we're talking about a challenge on completely different scale.
Speaking of scale, another significant issue with 1UPT was that the maps wasn't really suited for it. The joy of Panzer General was pulling off clever maneuvers and secretly encircling your helpless enemies. Unfortunately, in Civ 5 nasty bottlenecks aren't uncommon and this tempers much of the natural value added by 1UPT. Ultimately, there just wasn't enough room to do the fun part. To address this, I could have done something crazy like added sub-tiles to the existing grid. I really don't think this would have been a good idea though, as the whole point in having a tiles is that everything happens on the same playing field, which makes it very easy to tell what's going on. Once you start muddying the waters of what goes where, you lose that clarity and mechanical chunkiness tiles offer. And at that point, you might as well just get rid of them entirely.
Speculation aside, the reality was that the congestion caused by 1UPT also impacted other parts of the game. In every prior Civ title it was no problem to have ten, fifty or even a thousand units under your control. Sure, larger numbers meant more to manage, but hotkeys and UI conveniences could alleviate much of the problem. But in Civ 5, every unit needed its own tile, and that meant the map filled up pretty quickly. To address this, I slowed the rate of production, which in turn led to more waiting around for buckets to fill up. For pacing reasons, in the early game I might have wanted players to be training new units every 4 turns. But this was impossible, because the map would have then become covered in Warriors by the end of the classical era. And once the map fills up too much, even warfare stops being fun.
So is there a way to make 1UPT really work in a Civ game? Perhaps. The key is the map. Is there enough of room to stash units freely and slide them around each other? If so, then yes, you can do it. For this to be possible, I'd think you would have to increase the maximum map size by at least four times. You'd probably also want to alter the map generation logic to make bottlenecks larger and less common. Of course, making the world that much bigger would introduce a whole new set of challenges!"Let me tell you, it was an interesting experience for me to read my own issues with the combat system in Civ5 repeated back to me in an article written by the game's lead designer! Almost surreal in some ways. Anyway, in my opinion the One Unit Per Tile mechanic is a poor fit for the Civilization series. It's a mistake attempting to mashup an empire-building game (STRATEGY) with a tile-based wargaming simulator (TACTICS). These two are not the same thing, and they mix together poorly. Recall above how Shafer mentioned that early game pacing had to be slowed down for One Unit Per Tile reasons. What did the designers do to liven up the early game? Create freebies everywhere! Lots and lots of free stuff from ancient ruins and city states and so on. This is the substitute for the early game in past Civilization titles, where units were cheaper to build and the overall pace of the game was significantly faster. That was simply not possible in Civ5 because the map would fill up too quickly with units, resulting in the substitution of freebies and time-wasting diversions in place of the "meat and potatoes" stuff from previous games. One Unit Per Tile restrictions led directly to the criticisms about endless free stuff and non-impactful decisions that I've written above.
Leaving aside all of the problems with the AI (which simply cannot handle this system at all), I dislike the mechanic because of the way it forces Civ5 into a small scope. Think about it: everything in Civ5 operates on a tiny scale. Empires with few cities. Armies with a handful of units. Tile yields with outputs vastly reduced from Civ4. Everything is small, small, small. I would take the series in the complete opposite direction, trying to simulate armies with hundreds or even thousands of units by using stacking mechanisms in the Master of Orion style. (In that game, all ships of the same type stack and fight together, and having thousands of ships in a single battle is commonplace.) This would emphasize the strategic nature of the game - who can build a bigger and better army, something the AI also tends to handle well - over the tactical side of the game, where the AI has no clue what to do. I wrote about this in a thought exercise on a potential New Civ game, which provides a few more details on some of my ideas here. Bigger and more abstract combat, rather than smaller and more personalized combat. Maybe it would work, maybe not, but it would certainly be different.
I just don't think One Unit Per Tile is a good fit for the series as a whole. Too many things have to be given up to make it work, and the split between the strategic/empire-building side of the game meshes poorly with the tactical/combat side of the game. I would prefer that this doesn't return in later installments.
Expansion: What Happened to All the Cities?
Next to the One Unit Per Tile restriction, the other great change in Civ5's gameplay is the adoption of the global happiness mechanic. This is supposed to be the limiting factor on expansion, the system that holds empires in check and forces players to manage their economy. Unfortunately, global happiness as a gameplay mechanic has never worked, and by its very nature it's probably impossible to balance properly. This is a system that just does not function properly. Let's dig into a detailed explanation of why that holds true.
Past Civilization games used different methods to try and curb expansion. The first three games used corruption for this mechanic, the idea that cities further away from the capital would lose some of their production and commerce each turn to weaker government control at the fringes of the empire. Corruption had two major flaws as a system, however. First of all, the mechanic didn't really work to stop expansion, because even cities that were hopelessly corrupt and producing only 1 production and 1 commerce each turn were still worth having. You weren't losing anything by having them, and at the very least you were denying territory to AI rivals, setting up forward bases where units could be cash-rushed and that sort of thing. The optimal strategy was always to have as many cities as possible, and indeed massive Infinite City Sprawl (ICS) empires dominated the gameplay of Civ1 / Civ2 / Civ3. Secondly, corruption as a mechanic was difficult to understand as a concept, and horribly unfun for players. You could never know just how much your cities would be losing to corruption, and planting new cities that proved to be worthless was not entertaining or interesting. In other words, corruption was a poor gameplay mechanic, and ripe for removal.
Civ4 eliminated corruption and replaced it with city maintenance. Instead of each city being free to plant and its buildings costing money each turn, Civ4 flipped the formula, making cities cost gold while their buildings were always free. The overall effect was that new cities were net losses when they were first established, and as they slowly gained infrastructure and population over time, they began to turn a profit and make a net gain. Having more cities was pretty much always a good thing, provided that you didn't plant them too quickly, and that they were supported with the right development over time. Adding too many weak cities too quickly would only result in bankruptcy and economic stagnation. This was a really smart system, and it was by far the best implementation of a limiting factor on expansion of any game in the series.
Civ5 replaces city maintenance with global happiness. The game strangely goes back to having buildings cost gold each turn, while cities themselves cost nothing, with your empire limited only by a global happiness counter. In short, each city costs a certain amount of happiness up front to settle, and each population point costs another point of unhappiness. When the global counter ticks below zero, growth begins to slow in all cities, and when it goes below negative ten, all population growth ceases (and your units gain a major combat penalty). The logic was that global happiness would reign in expansion and keep players establishing new cities at a constant pace throughout the game.
Now unfortunately this mechanic was a complete and utter failure at stopping mass expansion in Civ5. Expert players quickly realized that there were easy ways to manage global happiness, in particular by making use of a combination of the Liberty social policies and the Forbidden Palace, and then spamming colosseums. It was simple to make each city happiness-neutral up to about size 6, which meant that you could plant an infinite number of them across the landscape. Why not? Each city provided more gold, more science, and more production. There was no tradeoff between expansion and research as in past Civilization games. Because of the removal of the commerce slider and the new rule whereby population = science, mass spamming of tiny cities actually resulted in ridiculously high beaker output, along with massive supplies of gold and production. Fewer Golden Ages and slower social policies were irrelevant. Covering the land in an endless sea of cities was the optimal way to play the game - the exact OPPOSITE of the intent of the designers!
The designers tried to fix this in the patching process. They nerfed the social policies that provided per-city happiness, and they nerfed the wonders that provided the same thing. They changed the rules of how happiness worked, so that buildings only provided "local happiness" for the population in their own cities, rather than true global happiness. (This was an attept to cut down on colosseum spam.) They changed the minimum distance between cities from two tiles to three tiles, in a brute force attempt to slow down the infinite city sprawl. All of this failed. Endless seas of cities remained a dominant strategy in Gods and Kings:
I'll let T-Hawk explain from his Gods and Kings Infinite City Sprawl report: "So ICS lives, thrives, and excels in Gods & Kings. It's easy to see why. Civ 5 in its vanilla days after patch-stabilizing was balanced on the knife edge between expansion and happiness, where max ICS would require some throttling of city growth to stay out of anger. But Gods & Kings pushes that carefully balanced snowball awry. Religion can account for up to 6 happy per city, which is the difference between constricting growth at a medium size and going unfettered full-blast until the end of the game. (Remember 6 happy is more than 6 citizens thanks to Meritocracy and the Forbidden Palace. 6 / 0.85 = actually 7.06 more citizens per city.) And on top of that, considerably more global happiness is available too: all the new luxuries plus mercantile city-states can account for another 40. I had ample happy headroom all along in this game, never even pushing hard on Pagodas and Theaters which only got to about half the cities.
On one hand, it's liberating to see the happiness constraint lift so. Civilization is back to being the game of expansion that it's always been and should be. No more big empty swaths of land going unused for anger concerns. Daring to go conquering can actually be productive.
But on the other hand, now there is no predatory check on expansion. Every city no matter how crappy is worth building. This is true even if the new city ADDS NO LAND and merely cannibalizes existing tiles! It's always correct to add a new city to take advantage of the more efficient low-end costs for both food and buildings and freebies. Seriously, do you truly understand how brutal the math is for tall? Growing from size 14 to 19 takes over 1000 food, more than from size 1 to 14! And considering that a new city gets new instances of the constant food bonuses (granary, maritimes, Tradition finisher), growing a new city is literally FIVE TIMES more food efficient than growing a tall city. The restraining factor is supposed to be happiness, but that falls apart too when new cities even build happy more efficiently, getting a new 100H / 2 happiness colosseum instead of a ludicrous 500H / 4 happiness stadium.
Civ 4 had the same problem but masked it well, that every crappy city would turn positive. With the midgame trade routes from Corporation tech and Free Market civic, any new city becomes positively productive almost immediately, at worst after it grows onto a few coast tiles and whips a courthouse. But these cities could be neglected in the overall picture. A 6-pop fishing village would produce a tiny fraction of the multiplicative splendor of a core city with mature towns and economic multipliers, so could be skipped with no material difference in the outcome.
But in Civ 5 G&K you must build these cities, where every village gets showered in cheap efficient goodies and rapidly maritime-mushrooms to 12 population with a 75-hammer library and represents a significant fraction of a mature city foolishly trying to pay 200 food for another growth and 300 hammers for another science multiplier. And naturally, all these identical filler cities really kill the fun factor with the micromanagement. Civ 4 was about playing the terrain, Civ 5 about ignoring the terrain and exploiting everything else."
Needless to say, this was again not what the designers had intended. When there's this huge, incredibly sprawling empire that still has +40 happiness on the counter, you know that the intended gameplay system isn't working as intended. Global happiness was a total failure at preventing endless expansion and city spamming in the pre-Brave New World version of Civ5. For the second expansion, therefore, the designers made a radical change to the series: EVERY ADDITIONAL CITY ADDS FIVE PERCENT TO THE COST OF ALL FUTURE TECHS. That includes cities settled, captured, puppet states, anything. I can't overstate how brutal this new mechanic is. Building or capturing additional cities now carries a heavy penalty to science. It's far more efficient to grow additional population in existing cities rather than build new ones. In fact, after roughly 150 turns, there's virtually no reason EVER to build another city, since the game will be over before the new city will grow large enough to overcome the science penalty from founding it. The natural result of this mechanic is the four city empire. Why four cities? Because Tradition provides free monuments and free aqueducts in your first four cities. There also seems to be just enough happiness to support four cities in the first 100 to 150 turns of the game, as I experienced in my sample game. The result is a game dominated by "Tall" empires, civilizations comprised of 3-5 cities in game after game after game. (Don't believe me? I went and pulled some of the best results from recent Game of the Month competitions at CivFanatics. Here's a Culture victory from Turn 232: three cities. Diplomatic victory from Turn 262: three cities. Spaceship victory from Turn 222: four cities. No matter what victory condition was the goal, the same pattern of 3-5 cities appeared in game after game.)
This has all manner of terrible effects on gameplay. The games in the Civilization series are empire-building games. It even said that right on the box for the first game: "Build an Empire to stand the test of time." All of the tension and life in the gameplay are based around building those empires. You need to compete with your rivals for scarce land and resources, and if you can't get your fair share of both, then you're in serious trouble. As I've stated many times, the basic rule of the Civilization series is thus: Expand or Die. But Brave New World completely upsets this mechanic. Since three or four cities are enough to win the game by going "Tall" with Tradition, there's little need to compete with other empires for land. The driving force that creates excitement and risk in the gameplay has been completely removed. Just make sure you get a couple of cities, then you'll be fine. No reason to care about the rest of the land. Furthermore, there is almost no point in expanding or going to war after the early stages of the game. Any additional cities you settle or capture will only end up hurting your science. So... what's the point of trying at all? Why bother? Just turtle on your four cities, sell resources, run food caravans, and you'll eventually win the game. Vast expanses of land go unclaimed by anyone in Civ5 now, unused and unwanted. (See above for an example.) This is not what the gameplay should look like!
Brave New World is an empire-building game where there is literally no reason to build an empire, and you are actively penalized for doing so.
The problem with global happiness is that it's not balanceable as a mechanic for limiting expansion. If the restrictions are too loose, then the gameplay quickly turns into the situation in the release version, where endless expansion is the best strategy. The happiness mechanic just isn't strong enough to prevent the nonstop city sprawl. If the screws are on too tight, however, then we wind up with the current situation in Brave New World. We get a game where expansion serves little purpose, competition over land is almost nonexistant, and turtling on a small handful of cities proves to be the best strategy. Vast expanses of the map wind up going completely unclaimed in game after game. It's bizarre to see fertile grassland regions untouched by anyone in 1950 AD! There isn't even a reason to go to war, since any captured cities will often LOWER your science output. In a game where competition over scarce land and resources is supposed to be the driving force behind the gameplay, this is a solution where the cure is worse than the disease. Brave New World's approach to global happiness is no better than the one in the release version of Civ5. I don't see any way that this can ever be balanced properly. The gameplay will always tilt towards infinite city sprawl or a tiny handful of cities, depending on where the designers set the numbers. Neither one works.
Civ5 suffers here from a mistaken attempt to balance "Tall" empires against "Wide" empires. This is something that the designers mentioned frequently in the buildup to the game's release, and the Civ5 community discusses this all the time as well. It's a baffling concept that makes absolutely no sense when discussing gameplay in the empire-building genre of games. Why in the world would you want to create a game where a "Tall" empire of four cities would be as strong as a "Wide" empire of twenty cities? If that's the case, then what's the point of expanding at all? It's much easier to sit on a handful of cities, after all. An empire-building game where small nations are just as good as large nations is an empire-building game where expansion becomes pointless. This is exactly what Brave New World has done: it has undercut the entire purpose of the genre! Let me make use of an analogy here: arguing that "Wide" and "Tall" empires should be balanced is like arguing that small armies in Starcraft should be able to compete on even terms with large armies. I mean, that sounds incredibly stupid, right? The purpose of Starcraft is to build an army to kill your opponent. Sure, there are units designed to counter mass spam of cheap units, but the basic principle remains that bigger armies are better. If you could defeat a 200 supply army with a 50 supply army, then what would be the point of building units at all? Such a mechanic would destroy the entire raison d'etre behind Starcraft. Brave New World does the same thing with respect to expansion. A handful of cities performs as well as a large empire, making expansion and warfare pointless. This mistaken attempt to balance "Wide" and "Tall" strikes a blow at the very heart of why people play the Civilization games in the first place.
Here's the correct way to approach this situation: A BIGGER EMPIRE IS BETTER, BUT IT IS HARD TO GET BIG. Master of Orion does this better than any other strategy game that I've played. The designers of Civ5 would have done well to take some more lessons from that game, or at the very least go back to the far superior city maintenance system used in Civ4. The global happiness thing is a major failure.
Passivity and Reactive Gameplay
This is another crucial difference between Civ5 and previous games in the series. Civ5 is much more of a passive game, one where the player largely reacts to events that are already taking place on the map instead of creating gameplay for him or herself. City states are a great example of this, offering up random quests and dispensing the free benefits that have been discussed to death already. Instead of whipping out buildings as in Civ4, the player takes advantage of free culture or free faith that a city state grants for killing a barbarian camp, one that the player almost certainly would have destroyed anyway. Research and culture function in a similar fashion. In previous Civilization games, these were controlled by slider settings, and players had the option to increase spending on science or gold or espionage or whatever they wanted to emphasize at the moment. Sure, most of the time this meant spending max income on research, but the gameplay was malleable and could be directed as chosen. Research and culture accumulation are much more of a hands-off process in Civ5. Beakers and culture pile up in the background each turn, and there's not that much that you can do to adjust the numbers on any one individual turn. The system is far less flexible. Golden Ages work the same way, a happiness counter builds up at the top of the screen, and eventually it fills and produces a Golden Age. I seem to get these all the time in Civ5 without even being aware of what was going on. It's like the gold stars given out to small children in school: "Congratulations, you're awesome! Here's a Golden Age for you!" Quite a contrast from burning a Great Person to trigger a Golden Age at a time of the player's choosing. Civ5 tends to promote a passive style of gameplay, sitting back and waiting for the next policy or tech or Golden Age, rather than actively pushing for them through deficit spending via the sliders or manipulation of Great Person points.
This rigid style permeates the wider gameplay in Civ5. There simply aren't that many options to bend the gameplay in different directions, and most games of Civ5 tend to play out in similar fashion. Unless specifically playing for a cultural win, social policies accumulate at roughly the same rate in game after game, with most empires getting about 15 of them over the course of the full game. You can choose different ones on each playthrough, but the rate at which they appear tends to remain pretty steady. Religion functions in a similar fashion; almost every civ will get its own faith eventually, and the only difference between early and late religions is the religious enhancements available to pick between. There are very limited choices when it comes to the religious system, and it's actually extremely difficult to reject your own faith if you founded one by accident! Civ5's tech tree is similarly inflexible, with no cross-tree prerequisites present as in past games. It's pretty amazing just how linear the tech tree truly is when you have the chance to look at the whole thing! Most of the time you'll be researching the same stuff in the same general order on every playthrough. Civ5 is a game where the gameplay tends to be hard coded into the mechanics. It will force you back onto the expected track if you try to do something different or unusual. There aren't as many options as it would appear at first glance.
Once again, comparisons to Civ4 are useful for purposes of illustration. There is nothing at all in Civ5 like the triple religious start that does nothing but emphasize the monk part of the tech tree. (Civ5 doesn't even allow leaders to found more than one religion!) Did you know that there are large sections of the tech tree that are completely skippable in Civ4? The entire religious part of the tech tree is optional, for example. Not so in Civ5, where players must research every tech to move forward. I also can't find anything in Civ5 like the different economic possibilities in Civ4. Where are the Cottage Economy versus Specialist Economy debates? What about an Espionage Economy? These are some of the many possibilities in Civ4 that don't have any kind of parallel in its sequel.
There's just a lot more taking place on a turn-by-turn basis in the previous Civilization games. Take Civ3, for example. The early game in Civ3 plays out enormously faster; cities grow faster, units are cheaper, and the map gets filled up by settlers quickly. Here's one of Sirian's successful landgrabs from an old Realms Beyond Epic game:
Eight cities, another settler on the way, three workers, four warriors, and close to a dozen completed tile improvements. All of that in the first 55 turns of the game. You'd be lucky to have more than two cities at that time in Civ5! Say what you will about Civ3's problems (and there were tons of them), but the game was fast to start and there was plenty to do on every turn. Civ4 was another highly active game. After the initial few dozen turns, there's always something going on to occupy the player's attention. There are workers to manage (significantly more workers than in Civ5, plus the tile improvements finish faster), cities that are constantly getting whipped via Slavery civic, city growth to watch and tiles to manage, the commerce slider to adjust science spending, civics resolutions to adopt, much more active diplomacy between religious blocs and tech trading and AI demands... There's always something going on to occupy the player's attention, and these tend to be meaningful strategic choices about developing your civilization. You can bend the gameplay in whatever direction you desire. Want to go crazy and found five religions? Go for it! Want to run your economy off of pure specialists? Build the Pyramids, hop into Representation civic, and start laying down some farms to feed the Scientists. Civ4 lets the player do just about anything they want. It's an open-ended game.
In contrast, Civ5 is so much more inflexible. The gameplay is forced into the same basic structure over and over again. "Passive" is the right word to describe it. Much of the time, the player is sitting there hitting next turn and waiting for something to happen. Civ4 is a game where you make the action happen. Civ5 is a game where you sit back and react to things that are already taking place. The style is completely different, even if the games appear similar on the surface. This leads into my last point.
Why Civ5 Is Popular
For those of us who didn't particularly enjoy the gameplay in Civ5, it's always been hard to understand why the game has been so consistently popular. And make no mistake, Civ5 was a major success both commercially and critically. On the sales front, Civ5 is the top selling game in the history of the series. It had sold 5.84 million copies as of April 2014, and that does not appear to include the sales of the two expansions. This is quite a bit more than Civ4, which appears to have sold somewhere in the 3 to 4 million range from the estimates that we have available. Obviously the digital distribution through Steam helps with those numbers, but maybe there are a whole bunch of people who purchased Civ5 in some massive Steam sale and never bothered to play the game, right? Not so much. Civ5 always seems to pop up in the list of "Most Played Games" on Steam, and an Ars Technica study of Steam data suggests that only a small minority of Civ5 copies were purchased but never used. In fact, according to the Ars Technica data, Civ5 appeared in fifth place on the "Total Hours Played" list, seventh place on the "Median Hours Per User" list, and fifth place on "Mean Hours per User" list. We're approaching the point of one billion total hours played for the game through Steam. Granted, Steam-only games like Civ5 will be over-represented on lists of Steam data compared to titles that are available through other distribution platforms, but these numbers are still extremely impressive. Civ5 has been and continues to be a genuinely popular game.
The critical reception was just as glowing from the official press reviews. Metacritic lists Civ5 with an overall score of 90 out of 100, based on seventy different press reviews. 66 of the 70 were positive, 4 of them were mixed, and 0 were negative. The infamous Tom Chick review that gave the game a "C" grade (and which appears to have vanished off the Internet unfortunately) was a sole unfriendly voice crying out in the wilderness. Every other major gaming publication, without fail, lined up to praise Civ5 as an outstanding addition to the series. For those of who were playing the buggy, unfinished, disastrously unbalanced release version of Civ5, we could hardly believe what was going on. How could such a flawed game receive top marks from the entire gaming press? Some people blamed bribery under the table from 2K Games for padding review scores, but that seems far too conspiratorial. ALL of the reviewers getting paid simultaneously? Come on. No, there was more going on here, something about Civ5 was responsible for all of this positive feedback. It wasn't an elaborate sham from the gaming media. People really, truly like this game. And after long months and years of thinking about the situation, I think I know why.
All of the things that I've been criticizing for long paragraphs here in this review - the freebies handed out constantly, the endless filler stuff that looks important but isn't, the One Unit Per Tile combat that makes anyone look like a tactical genius, the simplified happiness system, the passive and reactive style of gameplay - the exact things that irritate many veterans of the Civilization series are the same things that make many newcomers love Civ5. Think about all of the ways that the gameplay has been reworked to cater to less experienced players. It was very common for newcomers to be confused by how the sliders worked in past Civ games. They're gone, replaced with science/culture/faith/etc. counters that tick up automatically in the background. Less experienced players tend to build few cities and fewer workers. (I've introduced many non-gaming friends to Civ games over the years, and this is the number one thing that always jumps out at me when I see them play.) Civ5 tones down the need for expansion, and flat-out gives the players a free worker and a free settler if they take the Liberty tree. Then there's the endless deluge of free stuff that constantly gets handed down throughout Civ5. This is the Facebook style of gameplay introduced to the Civilization series. Who doesn't like getting free stuff? Keep giving out a constant trickle of rewards just for playing the game, and you'll keep players hooked on
Mafia Wars Civilization 5. Step right up, get your Steam achievements right here!
The gameplay in Civ5 has been deliberately set up to appeal to this sort of less experienced player. When I watch my non-gaming friends play one of the Civilization games, most of the time they're just sitting around hitting next turn. "Do something!" I think in my head. Build more cities and units, come up with a plan, something, anything. But no, they're just having fun experiencing the ambiance of the game, they don't have any particular goals or strategy in mind. Civ5's passive style of gameplay is a perfect fit for this sort of player. You can sit back and keep hitting next turn without doing much of anything; eventually, the game will keep popping up to give you free rewards, and tell you how awesome you are for playing the game. Remember, Civ5 is a game where stuff largely happens to you, not the other way around. It's the exact opposite of a game like Civ4, where if you don't MAKE things happen, nothing WILL happen. That's boring to newcomers! People who are not bigtime strategy fans are far more likely to enjoy Civ5 than they are Civ4. They don't have to build many cities. They can automate workers and generally do OK (since the tile improvements are a lot simpler in Civ5). They don't have to bother much with diplomacy, with no techs to trade. If they do get attacked, then they can show off how awesome they are by exploiting the horrendous incompetence of the combat AI. Keep in mind that they vast, VAST majority of people playing a Civilization game will not be playing on high difficulty, and they'll only play a couple of games before moving on to something else. We had a rough number when I was working on Civ4 that something like 80% of all players would never try anything other than Chieftain difficulty. The complex breakdown of the gameplay mechanics that I'm mentioning here are completely irrelevant for the overwhelming majority of the Civ5 playerbase. They could care less about this stuff! Most of them are just enjoying moving units around and building wonders, and Civ5 does a tremendous job of making that a pleasant experience with its beautiful graphics and lovely orchestral music. Civ5 is winning these customers over in a big way.
So we don't need an elaborate conspiracy to explain why the public reception for Civ5 has been so positive. 95% of the audience is playing the game on Prince difficulty or lower, and they're loving what they see. This includes the official gaming media, most of whom have very limited time to play these titles before writing their reviews, and many of whom have little knowledge or understanding of strategy games. If you play one or two games of Civ5 on Chieftain difficulty and never touch it again, then yeah, you'll probably love this game. The presentation is fantastic, the gameplay dispenses positive rewards and reinforcement constantly, and the AI doesn't put up much of a challenge. Unfortunately, it tends to fall apart for expert gamers who can quickly disassemble the mechanics, but does that even matter? Why should Firaxis care about the vocal 1% of their playerbase who can beat Deity and has discovered the holes in their gameplay? It's not worth the time and effort, and frankly most of these people will probably buy their games regardless. Nearly everyone else is enjoying the game, after all. I think that Firaxis genuinely does want to put out a quality product, and their design team has worked very hard to make improvements through post-release patches over the years... but I also think they're not losing too much sleep over some of the flaws in the design. Most people are happy, and in the end, that's good enough. (Note: I know that these criticisms don't apply to everyone, and there are some really good expert players who love Civ5's gameplay. When discussing the entirety of the playerbase, I have to generalize to some extent. Let's be clear, I am not arguing that only brainless n00bs can enjoy this game!)
The Final Word
This is where people probably expect me to go on some kind of rant about how casual gaming is destroying the Civilization series, or something like that. Ummm, no? That's not how I feel at all, and it's not what I'll be writing here. When I've criticized Civ5 over the years, at no time have I ever written that Civ5 is a game that is "dumbed down", or anything silly like that. Civ5 is a game that attempts to create deep and engaging gameplay, and intends to set up meaningful strategic tradeoffs for the player. My criticism of Civ5 is not that the designers sold out or tried to simplify the gameplay. My criticism is that the mechanics as designed simply don't work properly. There are a lot of ideas in Civ5 that are good in theory: the new culture system, the new combat rules, the customizable religions, the trade routes in Brave New World, and so on. The problem has always been the actual implementation of these mechanics, which has typically been horrendously unbalanced. Honestly, I can summarize Civilization 5 in four short words: "Good ideas, bad execution." There you go, review done. I could have saved myself the time of writing 12,000 words on this subject.
I'm not opposed at all to broadening the audience for the Civ series. That's a great thing - I want more people playing these games! The one thing that Firaxis clearly needs right now is more people working on testing and balancing their strategy games at the pre-release stage. Civilization: Beyond Earth has just come out as I type this up, and the game looks like it's in exactly the same state as the release version of Civ5. Lots of cool ideas plagued by god-awful balancing and incomptent AI. (Seriously, did anyone test those Civ:BE trade routes at all?! Come on, guys!) I don't see any reason we can't have the best of both worlds, games that are both fun and engaging for newcomers while also having the balance and polish to appeal to expert players. It's hard to do but not impossible. Fortunately, the analysis needed for this kind of balancing work is exactly the skill that I'm good at doing. (Note to anyone who might read this from Firaxis: I live less than an hour's drive from your building and I am very available to come work for you a second time. Get in touch with me, and we can make something happen. Best money you'll ever spend.)
One of the problems for Civ5 has always been the legacy of Civ4 hanging over it like a dark shadow. There's little point in comparing these games any further; Civ4 is the far superior title, and always will be. But is that truly being fair to Civ5? The list of strategy games that can measure up to Civ4 is miniscule indeed. Civ4 was a once in a generation title, a convergence of the right people being in the right place at the right time. I knew from the moment that I started working on the project that it would be something special, and I'm not sure we'll ever see something quite like it again. In a sense, then, it's completely unfair to compare Civ5 to Civ4, even though it's the direct sequel in the same franchise. There was almost no chance that Civ5 could ever be as good as Civ4, and perhaps it was unfair to expect it to be. I believe that Civ4 was the best turn-based strategy game released in the last decade. Should Civ5 have to clear that impossibly high bar to receive its due praise? Probably not.
If you want my final opinion on Civ5 with Brave New World and all the patches and expansions, it's this: the game is an average strategy title. It's not great, and it's not terrible. It's an average strategy game. You can have a lot of fun with Civ5, and there's plenty of interesting content to explore. It will not be remembered as one of the great strategy games, and it won't be remembered as a disaster either. It's somewhere in between. Average. (I make no apologies for my writeup about the original version though; Civ5 was a poor game on release, and I think even its defenders will agree with that now.) In an Internet environment where everything has to be either "greatest in history" or "worst ever", this is a response that will likely satisfy no one. Regardless, that's how I feel about the subject after many long years with the Civilization series.
Civ5 is an average strategy game. And, maybe, that's all it ever needed to be.
- Sullla, October 2014