Alright, so the diary is complete. Any sense of ego about my skills as a Civ player is utterly eradicated after losing to Gandhi in just about every way possible. Gandhi? More like Bad Horse. I name him The Thoroughbred of Sin! Anyway, I promised a wrap-up post on the game with some global Civ thoughts and here it is. After the break, I’ve got this broken down by Patch Changes, Diplomacy AI, the Military AI, and an Other section. The short version is that despite some really wonderful stuff (including some rather daring changes for Civ that I respect the team immensely for having the guts to do), even patched, there’s something very forced and rigid about how the game plays. Let’s discuss…
Patch Effects and Favorite Concepts
I think that crazy volume of balance changes the team has put into the game have had a big benefit. There’s no way to regurgitate them here, the list is much too long, nor do I have a mental catalog of every little food or production bonus change to a city building. That said, it’s obvious the social policy tree has seen some serious re-thinking. There were trees in the release version that were really rather useless in my mind. Honor really can help a military civ now and I like that a lot. I like that there are buildings that will amplify the affects of food resources (wheat, bananas, etc.) as those tiles, as I’ve mentioned before, were utterly useless in the release version.
Likewise, the stuff I’ve always liked about Civ 5 is still there. I think, for example, that road maintenance just makes sense. I know a lot of Civ 4 stalwarts hate that change, but I don’t. I hated the ever-crossing mish-mash road spam of Civ 4. It was aesthetically not pleasing, nor did having them everywhere make a lot of logical sense. I don’t take the notion of a tile with roads literally. I treat roads in Civ like interstates. They are the major arteries connecting your empire, enabling trade and facilitating fast military transit. I assume there are are smaller (invisible) roads elsewhere. How else does that Iron get back to my city? What I want to see on the map are the major lines and those should not be free of charge. Infrastructure for a nation is expensive and you should have to consider the best way to connect your cities beyond the time it takes a worker to complete the road or rail.
I continue to like the one unit per tile concept. The AI needs to be better at it and there are some logistical issues with range versus melee units, protection of embarked naval units, and whatnot, but the stacks of doom from previous games always felt cheap to me. I’m not saying they required no thought, but mostly you just put together a range of different units with different strengths, made sure it was bigger than the other guy’s, and chug forward. Here you have to think about which unit type you’re moving in first, you really have to use the terrain, and you have to pay attention to flanking. I like that a lot and losing it is the hardest aspect of going back to Civ 4, for me.
I like that the AI seems capable of winning the game in multiple ways, with one caveat that I’ll get to. Civ 4 isn’t very good about this (or at least I don’t remember it being so). Here it seems clear the AI is capable of achieving most any victory condition. (Although I really dislike that city-state relationships basically come down to having the money to bribe them into liking you. There should be more to that dynamic than donating money and eliminating their enemies for a friendship boost.)
Now, these points established, I still don’t see Civ 5 as being as good an overall game as Civ 4. That’s a high bar coming form me and I am most certainly biased. I know a lot of people who never took to that game, but for me, it’s the best Civ has ever been (and I started with Civ II). Still, unlike how I felt about it eight months ago, I can see myself continuing with Civ 5 on my hard drive. Maybe alternating games or something between the two. What would help put Civ5 over the top? Let’s dig further.
How utterly frustrating and incomprehensible were the AI leaders in this game? Very. Everybody in the game loves you, until you pass a line in the competitiveness sand and then they hate you. (No, eliminating Babylon didn’t help, but even with that I’d have this complaint.) It really bothers me that I went from being able to trade with every civ I knew to having no trading partners at all, practically overnight. And it lasted the remainder of the game. At various points in the last 100 turns Washington and Napolean softened up, but that was clearly after Gandhi was slapping them both around like a narc at a biker rally (stolen joke). I understand they’re trying to win “the game,” but the game also loses its flavor when you can’t do anything diplomatic because everyone hates you for reasons that are almost solely because of the meta game and not what’s actually happening in the world.
And then there’s Montezuma. Dude would not lose his appetite for war with me. Even though I was his ally, I understood the initial attack. By all appearances the timing could not have been better for him. He had an apparent military tech level advantage (instantly erased by unit upgrades, but I don’t blame him for not knowing that), and I was encroaching on his turf. Here’s the problem, though. He got nowhere waging war with me. No. Where. By the time it got smacked down for me in two consecutive engagements the civ’s AI needs to re-evaluate and say to itself, “You know, maybe I shouldn’t be pissing in this guy’s pool.” Not Montezuma. He’d robotally get a badly needed peace accord, build up a new and obvious invasion force, and then attack again within five turns of the treaty expiring. It was to the point where I declared war pre-emptively to make sure he didn’t get the first move. (I’d love to see variable length peace treaties. Let that be part of the peace negotiation. I don’t see any reason it should be locked in at 10 turns. If Monty would accept 50 turns of peace, I should be able to offer that.) Ultimately, however, the AI needs a situational awareness that it plainly lacks. Without it, its behavior becomes obviously telegraphed, predictable, and very often contrary to its own best interests.
Speaking of predictable, that goes doubly for how the diplo AI handles trade. If it’s neutral they’ll do a fair trade agreement. If it drops to guarded (which it will as soon as it thinks it’s being beat), it simply will not offer a fair trade deal. And I don’t even mean a one-for-one “fair” deal. I mean to get one lousy luxury resource out of them, you have to give them every luxury and strategic resource you have, plus any gold you may have stashed away, along with a chunk of your future income. That’s just stupid. If I offer Washington a two or even three for one deal, he should look at that, and say, “Sold, sucka!” and not care that I have three other items I could give him too. At the very least, be willing to come back later with a lesser demand after I tell him to stick it on the outrageous one. Negotiations mean being willing to step down from your initial demand. It’s the Settlers of Catan principle. You might not want to trade with the guy who’s winning, but unless he’s just one point away, if he’s going to give you a good deal and you need what you’re getting, you’re cutting off your nose to spite your face by not taking something that favors you. That certainly was not the case with this game, where Gandhi is who they needed to worry about. Really, I was the only one who could have stood against Gandhi. By the time Germany was eliminated and Gandhi was taking over half of France and America, Napoleon and Washington should have been allied with each other and giving me whatever I wanted to come in and save their hide, including their UN votes for the diplo victory. Instead they spent half the game denouncing me for purely arbitrary reasons.
The diplo AI in any Civ game has always been hit or miss. Let’s face facts, it’s hard to do in a game this complex. But this feels like a step back from Civ 4 to me. Also, more transparency here. Showing me numbers for why this guy likes or doesn’t like me may not be immersive, but at least I’ll understand why somebody shifted from my best bud to my worst enemy at the drop of a pin. Context matters and the player needs to see the context behind the AI’s actions.
Okay, look, you have to grade on a curve here. One, I was playing on Prince. Two, it’s just flat easier for a human to put together a sound strategy based on unit types, terrain, alignment, etc. To expect the AI to go toe-to-toe with you in a straight up, balanced battle probably isn’t realistic. The Civ 5 AI also has a tougher job than Civ 4 did because of all the nuance the one unit per tile system enforces. And, you know, it wasn’t always bad. As I said on the podcast, in numerous conflicts with Montezuma I got very little for free. If I made a mistake and left a unit hung out to dry, the AI would absolutely eat it up. If I hadn’t had all my cities garrisoned (and road accessible) during Monty’s initial attack, I would certainly have lost territory. (I should have lost territory despite that, but let’s focus on the positive for a moment.) I also appreciate that I saw the AI building multiple different military units, which is something it didn’t do well in the release version. In the end game Monty was running out paratroopers, infantry, rocket artillery, regular artillery, anti-air (and I had been attacking him from the air), and even a chopper. Considering he had no access to oil (for planes and tanks), that’s decent. Of course, he was also producing aircraft carriers with no aircraft to call his own, which leads to…
The AI still does incomprehensibly stupid things with its units. The most obvious is putting ground units on the water (where they’re helpless) in full view of opposition navy that you’re at war with. (The naval game desperately needs a legit way to protect embarked troops. Even if you have frigates, destroyers, etc. in the vicinity they can’t protect them from ranged attacks.) That is just abysmal AI behavior. You could also look at the decision to take out an infantry unit I had garrisoned inside a citadel. I applaud the AI for focusing on eliminating targeted units instead of letting them off the hook by attacking different units willy-nilly, especially since damaged Japan units can still attack as if full strength. But the AI used something like four unit attacks to take out that lone infantry unit, and it cost them multiple units to do it. I had multiple units not inside a citadel within ranged striking distance and it chose to focus on the hardest one to take out. And you know what happened when my turn came? I move another infantry unit in there from the back lines. Citadel re-garrisoned just like that; meanwhile my artillery and tanks pounded Aztec ranged units to the point where he could no long mount a credible counterattack. That iteration of the war lasted many turns longer, but after two turns it was no longer in any doubt, even though Monty had a unit tech advantage with some rocket artillery in the area. There are other instances to pick on, but it would only illustrate the same sort of behavior.
As much as I like a lot of what Civ 5 has to offer, there are two things about Civ 5 gameplay that I utterly despise and I cannot seem to get over it: The lack of a religion system and the global happiness number.
Now, the former, is obviously a me thing. A lot of people hated the religion system in Civ 4. But to me, if you’re trying to distill the essence of all of human history into a strategy game, religion needs to be modeled in some capacity. (No, the Piety tree does not count.) And I’m not even a religious person. I have never gotten over the lack of it in this game. It’s always missed. (And I reject the notion religion was only about foreign policy difficulty in Civ 4. There were very real bonuses for the city founding a religion. Not saying it couldn’t be done better, but I think it was done very, very well when you consider the number of ways it could have been mishandled.)
As to global happiness. To me, it takes away the identity of individual cities. This is an extreme example, but you can’t tell me the general mood level in New Orleans after Katrina was the same as it was in Chicago. Nor could it have produced to its normal levels as Chicago could at that same time. Now you can argue global happiness still models that, it just distills it down to a single number that you manage on an empire level. But I don’t want to do that; especially not in the early game where there remains far too little to do. (I’ll grant you, in the later game you do need to do something to make empire management reasonable for expansive civs. Civ 4 can really get bogged own.) The point is, if my capitol is loaded with happy shiny people, why on earth should its growth or production be stalled because too many conquered cities a continent away have issues? It shouldn’t. End of story.
Speaking of which, the lack of a war weariness model is a wasted opportunity. I think that should be there and have effect based on the social policy nature of the particular civ. If you’re a civ with militaristic social policies you should have an easier time waging war than if you’re a freedom-loving fun and flowers society. This could also create better foreign policy relations. A freedom-loving city at war with a fascist society that attacked them or an ally would generate less war weariness -“we’re doing good deeds!”- than if it were two peace-lovers going at it or some other war of choice -“War! Huh! What is it good for? Ab-so-lutely noth’n! Say it again!”
Put in the context of my game. Gandhi was able to do it all. He expanded. He conquered. He racked up enough social policies to initiate the game-winning Utopia Project. He put half the city-states in his pocket with buyouts that allowed him to win via United Nations diplo victory. There’s something not right about that. If Gandhi pursued social policies that were expansionist or diplomatic in nature, as opposed to militarisitc, his obvious uses of nuclear bombs and conquering half of America and France should have created unrest back at home, yet his happy was always a huge surplus. On the other hand, if he did pursue militaristic policies, he should have had a much harder time swaying at least non-militaristic city-states to his cause and it should have been harder to grow his culture to the point where Utopia was achievable. The game mechanics allowed the man to do everything -on Prince, no less- which in my mind, points to a flaw in the system.
This is where I fear that moving into a DLC system does a disservice to the franchise, as it probably kills the notion of doing separate expansions. (Maybe I’m wrong. I hope I’m wrong.) Firaxis is putting out new civs and scenarios (and patching), but they’re not doing anything (that we know about) that introduces new game mechanics or fundamentally revises existing ones in ways that could advance gameplay and solve core game mechanic problems, which is what Warlords and Beyond the Sword did for Civ 4, largely to its benefit. (To be fair, you can argue against the espionage and corporation systems.)
So, where does that leave Civ 5? I don’t know. I’m genuinely conflicted about it. I can get past a lot of the AI miss-steps purely by knowing that it’s still capable of winning a game in a variety of ways. That counts for a lot in my book. Likewise, I respect the effort in Civ 5 to do something new with the series. This is not a game produced by focus group – cough, Bioware, cough. I think the team played with some very cool ideas and put their own stamp on the series, which is admirable. The counter to that is you risk a lot, and the stuff that frustrates about Civ 5? Good god does it frustrate the hell out of me.
Still, despite what I said at the end of the last diary, I can see myself keeping Civ 5 on the old hard drive. I do not typically play Civ for the military conquest aspect, which, by virtue of getting Japan in this game (remember, I selected my civ at random), I felt obligated to do. I’d like to see what kind of results I get by playing a Civ that focuses on tech/cultural advancement. Will that mean a second diary series? Maybe, though I’m inclined to do a Civ 4 diary. Either depends on you guys. Say something in the comments if you enjoyed this enough to want to see another one. (Some of you did this already in the Part 5 entry, which I truly appreciate.) If I do go for round 2, it’ll probably be after the fall slate of games has come and gone. I need a break. These are monstrosities to keep going! (Fun, though.)