I picked up Gods and Kings, the first expansion pack to Civ 5, in the Steam Summer Sale. Recently I won a game on Immortal difficulty which is much higher difficulty than I ever reliably won in previous Civs. Part of it is that the game is probably a bit easier and part that it is a bit different. I only bring it up because some reviews of the expansion packs seem written by thoroughly amateur players. This is fine; I like reviews written from different perspectives. However, when you claim that happiness is onerous except when trivialized by city states I find it hard to take your criticism of game mechanisms seriously (Disclaimer: This was in a review for second xpack, something like this criticism might have applied way back in release Civ 5). With that victory under my belt I thought I would share my thoughts.
So what changed? I myself am not sure. My memories of vanilla Civ 5 are hazy, but it was slow, the combat was awful and managing city improvements was tedious at best. Also I recall that many of the buildings were flat out not worth building due to excessive maintenance costs (gold was very tight at release). It never really clicked for me. In contrast, I booted up G&K and it immediately felt familiar and engaging. Maybe that’s a sign that I am getting old and resistant to change, but the fact that it played more like old Civs was a bonus to me. Obvious changes were that everything was sped up, combat was completely rebalanced with more HP, nerfed horsemen and artillery and better combat AI, happiness didn’t seem quite the atrocity it did at release and the diplomatic AI isn’t quite as manic. Yet, for the most part the improvements mostly come from bringing back a flow to the game that was missing at release rather than any particular feature. It just flat out plays better.
Before I continue I want to address the primary critique of Civ 5 and its expansion; that is, that it is all about filling buckets. You can see this criticism leveled here, but it is ubiquitous in discussions about the game (see any post on Rock Paper Shotgun about Civ 5). On one hand I understand the criticism, optimizing how fast a number goes up is not really the zenith of game design. On the other hand, every Civ game is about filling up buckets, as is the entire genre. The three basic gameplay mechanics of all Civ games are all examples of bucket filling: food fills up a bar to increase population, hammers fill up to produce a building and science fills to discover a technology. To say you don’t like Civ 5 because all you do is fill up buckets is to say you don’t like 4x games. So either your tastes have moved on or you are mislabeling why you don’t like Civ 5.
To pick at a particular example used by the bucket crowd: they complain that the social policy system is just another tech tree rather than the interesting ability to switch on the fly ala Civ 4. Again, these people are nostalgic about a system that didn’t exist. In Civ 4, you chose the best system for whichever victory you were pursuing. Occasionally you might switch to a warmongering policy if you were planning a protracted engagement, but overall no more decisions were made than in Civ 5’s system. In fact Civ 5 has some obvious bonuses. For one, it gives culture victories a bit of an advantage to make up for deficiencies in other areas and provides more incentive for dabbling in culture buildings for other victory types. Most importantly, it adds another way to put a check on large empires versus small empires. Thus, it seems to me that it provides more gameplay than the research tech choose social policy of the previous game.
A goodly portion of these bucket people wax nostalgic for the sliders of Civ 4 (as a side note, many have the same feelings towards the removal of sliders in Europa Univeralis 4). How is this at all engaging? I choose my civilization’s specialization by merely setting a slider and voila I am done? If my choices really are filling buckets or moving sliders then I think gaming is dead. Thankfully, Civ 5 and its predecessors actually promoted choices and specialization everywhere else in the game based on what you decide to build and research and not solely by moving a tab on a bar up and down.
Which brings me to the major novel addition of Gods and Kings, religion. Despite what I just wrote I have to agree with the bucket people, religion seems a bit too much like filling a bucket and not enough like a living religion. You have new buildings that generate faith and you can use faith to buy missionaries, prophets and later other great people depending on your policy choices. The first problem is that is it is ignorable, which is why the culture social policy revamp described above was a good idea; now everyone has to be involved with culture at some level. In contrast it’s actually very hard to get your own religion on higher difficulties without serious focus and once you have established it, spending time and resources spreading it is usually not worth it, even for a culture victory. Despite the use of real world religions, they are just names and you get to choose from a list of potential abilities when founding them. These abilities vary wildly in power, with most being extremely trivial bonuses. I would have pruned this list to a handful of good ones and that way AIs are more likely to take the ones you want.
However, I would go further and propose a completely different religion system. It needs to be taken mostly out of the players control, just like real religions. I would give them fixed modifiers and maybe attach them to specific civilizations. It would spread via proximity, trade (something that needs to be in the game more heavily), diplomacy and stochastically (probably with added random events). It would figure heavily in diplomacy. Because of fixed modifiers you might want to woo a particular religion. It needs to be the force of strife or unity it is in real life rather than another resource to spend.
The other system added in the expansion is espionage which is a gigantic leap over Civ 4. First off, everyone gets automatic access to it via technology, so it’s not siphoning off resources from other things which is a surefire way to get a system ignored (like espionage in civ 4). You then either send them to prevent spying in your cities or go steal intelligence or tech in other civs. The technology espionage works just fine but the really interesting stuff is how intelligence can be shared with other civs. This feeds into the diplomacy system where you get bonuses for sharing information or forgiving espionage attempts. When you only have one spy sending him globetrotting allows you to pick up lots of diplomacy modifiers from sharing intelligence. It’s a simple, but neat addition to the core game.
For the most part Civ 5 plays like previous Civs now, except better. That said a few things still rankle. Foremost is happiness. Global happiness that is based on population and number of cities makes no sense from a simulation perspective. It is also an extremely clunky way to limit so called wide empires with many cities compared to tall empires with fewer larger cities. In fact I would say the game is mostly dominated by tall strategies at this point because of happiness limitation. It’s much better to have more organic systems in place to maintain the balance; stuff like the increased social policy cost for larger empires. I would also do things like decouple science from population, maybe make it based on percentage of gdp allocated to research so richer empires have to pay more to stay competitive. As it is, taking cities is often less a boon than a burden after you get done killing most of the population and destroying all the buildings, which defeats a lot of the thrill of expanding your civilization. I do think happiness has a role here in the balancing act, just not a global happiness based only on population and city number.
The other problem with Civ 5 is how transparent an optimization game it is, which probably explains why I am better at it than Civ 4. This is fine except that it is a bit one note in its strategy. Namely, science is king for all victories. For science victories it is obvious, but culture needs certain wonders before other people snag them and you need to at least stay on par in unit tech for domination victories. Even diplomacy victories want to build the United Nations before someone else and at the earliest possible time and it is at the very end of the tech tree. Yet getting science up basically boils down to having more people and so accruing as much food as possible is always the best strategy. You can always switch to hammers with a large population when needed, so its not like you are giving up a large production advantage. As such all my games play a bit too similarly. I don’t really have any ideas on how to combat this except that I think technology should diffuse so that you are too far behind or ahead on technology. Also I think city specialization needs to make a come back, though maybe in a less extreme form than in Civ 4.
Other minor things that bother me is a that the AI civs are a bit too static. I have yet to see one AI wipe out another or even do major damage to another despite wide disparities in scores. I also think the end of the tech tree is pretty boring and that modern warfare is time consuming and dull. Lastly, I will never get over archers having longer range than modern firearms.
If I had to elect one area that needs to be added it would be trade. While Brave New World addresses this, I feel like it should be much more front and center. It ties into the economy, social policies, diplomacy, technology and is probably one of the major areas that governments actually controlled in pre-modern times.
So yeah, now I can definitively uninstall Civ 4.