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Civilization 5 Game Diary: Ode to Oda Nobunaga: The Wrap-up

No High Scores

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…

Past Entries:
Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4
Part 5

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.

Diplomacy AI
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.

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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.

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Military AI
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.

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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.)

Todd Brakke

Todd was born in Ann Arbor with a Michigan helmet in one hand and a mouse in the other. (Never you mind the logistics of this.) He grew, vertically anyway, and proceeded to spend over 16 years as a development editor for Pearson Education, publishing books, videos, and digital learning products under the Que and Sams Publishing imprints. Because that wasn't enough of a challenge, Todd has also been a 20-year part-time snob about video games, writing reviews, features, and more for multiple outlets. Follow him on Twitter @ubrakto or check it out his website at

25 thoughts to “Civilization 5 Game Diary: Ode to Oda Nobunaga: The Wrap-up”

  1. This was a successful playthrough for you. Not necessarily in an “I win” sense, however. This playthrough let you experience the game in a way you hadn’t before (through the new patches) while simultaneously giving you a feel for how it played versus your favorite (Civ4). In the beginning, it seemed like you were ready to write it off completely and through playing you seemed to gain a better understanding of, and maybe even a little respect for, the game and those who might prefer it… all the while reinforcing *why* you love Civ4 in a more concrete way. Sounds like a successful experience to me.

  2. I think that’s fair to say. There are several components of Civ 5 that I’ve always liked, but in the parlance of The Abner, the fact that it couldn’t, “play its own game,” was devastating. That it appears to be able to reasonably do that now (still not as well I’d like to give it a real pass) helps a ton, no question.

  3. Really enjoyed the series. A big issue for me is the lack of religion, and the inability to capture towns via culture. That doesn’t make much sense to me personally, but whatever. The game is enjoyable, but it’d be nice to see an expansion in the works soon.

  4. It took a little while, but I really warmed up to this series. (I need to go thumb the VGG versions now.) The combination of play summary along with your thoughts about the ‘inner workings’ was a good combination. It certainly helped inspire me to get Civ IV up and going after some problems with it (overpowered my graphics card on an earlier system—which is just wrong in a TBS title—and patching problems on the current machine).

    I figure I’ll be picking up Civ V at some point (I tend to lag behind on such things), and I certainly hope they at least bundle up whatever they’re releasing into some package at some point. If it isn’t available in a store somewhere, I’ll probably never notice it exists.

  5. The game diaries are great. I thoroughly enjoyed both this one and Abner’s Shogun 2 diary. The way you worked a critique of the systems into this one was quite well done and added something more intriguing than just this-is-how-my-game-went to the series of articles.

  6. I’ve really enjoyed this series of diaries. It’s been one of my most anticipated articles on the site and now I’m kind of sad it’s done. Yes, I would love to see more of them in the future. This site has really great content on it that’s fantastic to read, which is much better than tons of little news blurbs constantly. It’s all about quality over quantity and you guys have it in spades!

  7. Really enjoyed reading these posts, which inspired me to re-install Civ 4 (thinking of downloading the expansions as well). I would love to read a game diary for Civ 4 to get a comparison of the two different versions of the game (and also to see how someone who knows what they are doing plays).

  8. “…and also to see how someone who knows what they are doing plays.”

    Okay, I’ll ask Troy Goodfellow what he’s up to. He’s a busy guy, but maybe he can do one.

  9. Ah, I should have specified. “Knows what they are doing,” should be read as “could mop the floor with me.” I cannot emphasize enough how LOW that threshold is.

  10. And if you were wondering about the VGG comment, someone over there started blogging a play-through of Civ5 as the Japanese starting around the same time as you did. I didn’t pay enough attention to realize it wasn’t just you deciding to echo part of this site there. And that explains why I looked at those and didn’t care for it, and then enjoyed this series when I got around to reading it. Sorry about that.

  11. Really enjoyed the diary, great work! My vote is for another Civ V diary focused on tech/culture.

    Some random thoughts:

    They should really call the “diplomatic” victory the economic victory, because it is totally dictated by money.

    The AI is light years better now than it was at release. I had the Chinese attempt a sea invasion against me where they brought: infantry, tanks and artillery, and had them all close enough that they could land at the same time, and had destroyers escorting their forces (of course they still landed right into the teeth of my defense though).

    If you’re going to be conquering a lot one thing I’ve found that helps is to raze smaller cities that don’t have any strategic or luxury resources nearby. You take a big unhappiness hit in the short term but in the long term it helps you keep your happiness higher.

  12. Much better. I have yet to make it through an entire episode of that one. If I ever decide to do anything like this, I’ll have to force myself to sit down with it so I can figure out where it went wrong and avoid those mistakes.

    Though, really, it’s just too detailed to be interesting.

    And I suppose I already have done the same by blogging my Federation & Empire game as it goes on.

  13. It’s a little scary how close our opinions on this game are. Pretty much all your major complaints are the exact same ones I have. Reading about Civ 5 before it came out, I thought that city-states were going to be an awesome idea and really help fuel the diplomacy side of the game; instead, you may as well call it an economic victory condition as there is no diplomacy involved.

    As for the embarked troops problem, I think I’d like it if say any embarked unit within one hex of a proper naval unit was sheltered by it and therefore untargetable until the naval unit was destroyed. There might be some problems with that that I can’t see though; it seems obvious the naval game is the weakest part of Civ 5 and they must have put thought into improving it and just not found a good enough solution. I don’t kid myself into thinking I can design the game better than they can (well, not often anyway).

    My other wish for this game would be some kind of casus belli system for the diplomacy; being able to declare war on your millenium-long allies or they on you has always struck me as crazy in all the Civ games. If you’ve been at peace practically forever I think you should have to work at degrading your relationship before DoWing or take a huge happiness hit.

    The one thing I give the game a pass on is the things like Monty constantly re-declaring war; there is no medal for 2nd place in this game and once he’s committed to a military path he just has to stick with it. A lot of the other AI decisions I also put down to this.

    It’s one of the weaknesses of the game that once you get behind, there’s really no coming back; lose one war badly and the game is over, for you or the AI, assuming you’re playing at the proper difficulty level for your abilities. At that point all you can do is try to play spoiler. I think about what would I do if I were in Monty’s shoes in that situation and going back to war is the only possibility: as remote a chance as victory is you can’t really switch to another victory type after you’ve committed. Granted, I’d like to think I’d do a better job at the warring, but then that wouldn’t be setting a very high bar

  14. Hell yes, I love well-written playthroughs (Bill’s Shogun 2 was great too). It acted as a sort of review for me too, convincing me that I should stick with my beloved Civ IV rather than try V.

    I vote Civ IV for the next one, just because I love it so much

  15. I like Civ V, but I agree with this guy’s sentiment. Do a Civ IV diary! You can even compare and contrast different aspects of the game during your write-up. That would be super fun.

  16. You can sort of escort your embarked units, there’s a movement penalty for enemy ships that move within one square of your war ships, so this acts somewhat as a buffer. I usually try to keep 2 frigates/battleships close to the embarked units and have 2-3 caravels/destroyers pushed out farther ahead and to the flanks to try and spot any enemy vessels.

    I agree with you though, there needs to be some sort of escort setting for naval ships. It seems like they could do something similar to the intercept mechanic for fighters.

  17. Really good stuff. Only thing I’d argue with you on there is Monty. It’s not that he was trying to win, so much as it was two things:

    1) It was very robotic. Get set back, get 10 turn peace treaty, build up, attack the same front. It was the same exact behavior every time. If the AI is going to get you stuck in their teeth and not let go, they need to have some variability about how they go about it, I think.

    2) At some point you have to know when you’re beat before it’s just glaringly obvious. After he lost ground through 2-3 separate wars, and with my forces built up on his border, he needs to look for easier meat. Granted, he did go after the city-states, so maybe that was happening a bit, but I still think he would have been better served trying a weaker opponent.

    As for the other AIs, what bugs me there is not that they wanted to be spoilers, but that they never tried to use me as an ally to stop Gandhi. Gandhi was the man in this game; I didn’t come on strong until the end. Bismark, Napoleon, and Washington should have been whispering sweet nothings to anyone who would listen about stopping Gandhi. Instead they spent half the game denouncing each other and denouncing me. I think they deserved the nukes they got.

  18. Forgot about the random denouncing; it’s got to be one of the most opaque AI decisions I’ve seen in any game period why the AI decides to denounce you sometimes. I get it when you’ve been warring, but it’ll sometimes denounce you when all you’ve ever done is fight 2 defensive wars, not fully eliminate anyone, and never pick on a city-state.

    Sometimes it happens very early in the game so it can’t even be just because you look like you’re going to win; I’d be fine with the AI deciding to gang up on you if you seem a danger to run away with the game as long as they ganged up on someone else once they’re the new world-beater. I think I read somewhere it has to do with if you’re going for the same victory condition but that doesn’t make much sense to me; I’d think nations would like other nations similar to themselves that share the same long-term goals and have ideals in common.

  19. It’s a usual theme in human diplomacy: “we have our differences, but unless we put them aside and take down the #1 player, he’s going to walk away with the game. We need to level the playing field.”

    That, both against Ghandi, and in Monty’s case. If Monty couldn’t take you head-on, he should have been negotiating with say Washington to gang up on you. Monty: “Oie, Washingman, let’s both hit on Japan, split his attention, you keep whatever you gain on his continent, and I’ll keep whatever I regain on my continent.” It would have been more successful, and refreshingly more human.

  20. It would be neat to go parallel universe and play again as Japan. Would definitely allow for contrast. The writing of the diaries was fun to read (maybe because there’s a lot of empathy among Civ players, since we know exactly what you’re talking about), and continuing them would be good. Definitely enjoy the italicized out of character asides that added to the context of the thing.

    Actually, I kinda like the whole diary notion, particularly for TBS games that can run much, much longer than the 6-10 hour campaign of many modern shooters and have natural breaks built right in. I read a Solium Infernum diary once (on RPS maybe?) that was fun, and I’d only played that game once at the time, so there was a lot of nuance that zoomed over my head that I caught onto later.

    When HOMMVI (or MMHVI?) comes out, a diary for that might be interesting.

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