On…Sid Meier’s Civilization V

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I want to preface this post by saying that I am not a very good Civ player. I’ve been playing the series since its 3rd incarnation, but much of the games still remain a mystery to me. How then, am I to write a post about a game that, despite putting 100+ hours into, is one that I still don’t fully understand? I guess my only recourse is to explain the things I do understand, and try to explain the game to someone who has never played it. For veterans of the series, you will probably read this review and shake your head at it, but hey, don’t say I didn’t warn you.

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Without further ado, I’ll begin. Civilization is a turn-based strategy game where you start from humble beginnings and build an empire. Starting in Civ V, the grid is hexagonal and each of your cities has a small hexagonal area of influence to begin with. Inside that area, you can set different tiles to work which gives you differing amount of food, production and gold as resources. Your city and civilization uses those resources to build monuments, buildings and wonders which give different effects. The other main resources are culture, science and arguably, happiness. Culture can be spend on social policies which affect your empire; science is spent towards researching new technologies; and happiness is determined by a balance of your resources in the civilization against the number of people you have (and other factors such as war). It’s all a little complicated if you’re new to 4X games, but the Civ games have traditionally been a fairly streamlined and simplified experience for the genre.

The other main thing that cities can produce are units. These include military units but also things like workers and settlers. Settlers are used, of course, to found new cities. Workers create improvements on tiles that you control as well as being able to build roads (and later railways) to link up your various cities. The other thing workers can do is build improvements which capture both luxury and strategic resources. Luxury resources include things like gemstones and furs which are used to make your civilization happier. Strategic ones are used for production, such as horses for chariots.

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When starting the game, your first decision is what civ do you want to play? You could play as Gandhi or Napoleon or Montezuma. Each civ has a different ability, as well as a unique unit and a unique building. The variety in civs allows for a variety in strategies and gameplay styles. For example, pick Queen Elizabeth of England and you’ll want to focus on a naval empire that gains control of the world via the sea and its powerful military units. You’ll find in general that certain civs are more suited to certain types of empires from ones that focus on cultural dominance to ones that favour military conquest.

All this ties into how you plan to win the game. There are a number of victory conditions. You could win by straight up military domination by destroying all the other capital cities in the world. Or you could get a scientific victory by advancing through the technology tree quickly, building a spaceship and assembling it and flying to the moon. Perhaps though you prefer to be a more diplomatic leader who eventually gets voted in to become the leader of the UN, therefore winning the game through more cooperative means. What victory condition you choose to go for, of course, you’ll face stiff competition from the other civilizations.

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Now, I’ve only ever played against the AI. But Civ’s AI is infamous for being not entirely rational. At lower difficulties, the AI won’t blind an eye at you amassing a huge army at their borders. They might speak to you and warn you, but you just promise them that you’re scouting and not planning anything nefarious and they’ll think you’re still their best friend. You know, until you march in and raze all their cities to the ground. At the higher difficulties though, I’ve found that the AI is rather bipolar. They’ll be friends with you for centuries, only to suddenly start demanding ridiculous things and when you don’t give in, they’ll declare war. This unpredictability is really part of the fun of the game.

So what is playing this game like? Firstly, it’s a huge timesink. I would definitely not advise you to start playing if you have anything important to do in the foreseeable future. You will lose hours of your life to this. A whole campaign will take you at least four hours, and that’s if you rush. Because of that time commitment, games feel suitably epic and expansive. You follow your civilization from its first little town in the desert all the way up to a thriving modern metropolis. It’s hard to not get attached.

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Secondly, the game is rich and immersive. Whilst there’s no story to speak of, the game includes so many historical tidbits and cultural references that it really helps you to create your own narrative. Customising the game to your own style is important, and it helps you to get the most out of the game.

I played a game as Ramesses II of Egypt and watched my empire grow from its early days in the meadows to its eventual almost world domination. I fought wars with the Greeks and the Aztecs and came out on top, and subsumed their empires into mine. Soon, my empire was sprawling across the continent, full of people with all kinds of cultural backgrounds. It led to riots. It led to rebellions. My cities fell to unhappiness and ruin. My empire shrank back, and I was forced to cut my losses and focus on my main few cities. After centuries of turmoil, I eventually had it under control after a huge focus on making entertainment buildings. My citizens distracted, I could finally turn my attention to the last empire on the map: India. We had fought with sticks and flints a thousand years ago, but we were on friendly terms now. We were modernised. We had planes. Our land was thriving and I had set up the UN.

Then, Gandhi turned on me. Out of nowhere, I spotted his troops on my horizons. He suddenly demanded that I give him oil. I refused and he declared war. He pillaged my resources. I couldn’t keep up. My units were swarmed. My workers carried off into the horizon. My last resort had to be used.

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Nukes. I nuked the living daylights out of his empire. That gave me time to mop up his troops. The nukes had done their job, but what a price I had to pay. The landscape was devastated. Nuclear radiation seeped from the ground, poisoning vast swathes of land. I saw the loss and ruin before me, and decided to change tactics. I could not win via military dominance. Gandhi would resist and take us both down before he would let me do that.

So I switched production to spaceship parts. My high production cities churned out parts and I sent them all to my capital. There, the spaceship was assembled. It was launch day. The rocket flew up gracefully without a hitch. We made it to the moon, finally, and that was done. Ramesses II, a man who watched the pyramids built in his youth, could finally rest seeing the culmination of all that wonder and beauty. The final frontier was breached.

I started off by saying I didn’t really understand the game. There are tons of mechanics that I haven’t fully explained here because I don’t really understand them. There’s also tons I haven’t covered for want of space and words. But I hope this review gives you a cursory look at what type of game this is. I’ve heard from others that as far as strategy games go, it’s a rather shallow one. But that’s part of what I find appealing; the fact that a complete noob like me can be so immersed into this game is testimony to its user-friendly veneer.

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It’s a technical masterpiece too. The graphics are gorgeous and the animations look fluid and wonderful. I do tend to get some lag issues towards the end game where presumably there’s more stuff to handle, but it’s not unbearable and my rig could be better to compensate. Plus there’s even some nice cinematics and some splendid voice acting which accompanies things like constructing world wonders.

Overall, Civ V is the sort of game you could play over and over and never have the same experience. You learn through playing. Each game you play, you examine your mistakes and work out better strategies. There is so much variety here and customisation that every civ feels different, unique and fleshed out. The next story gets better and more interesting. And damnit, I just want to play one more turn before I go to bed…

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