Civilization V – Late Impressions

Civilization is a game well-known for it’s addictiveness. It’s pretty much the game that coined the phrase “Just one more turn”. I don’t know how I came about to playing Civilization V recently, but 50 hours in, I’m hopelessly trapped. Every time I start a new game, I usually end up playing all through the night.

Interestingly, Civ V is somewhat of a iconoclast of the series. It many ways, it’s a radical departure from many of the established Civ formulas. Personally, I feel like it’s for the best in most cases. Here are some observations.

  • Global Happiness – It’s easy to get distracted by gimmicks as the new hex grind. But the thing I found most difficult to get a hold on is the new happiness is handled. In previous Civs, happiness was a property of individual cities. When a city got too unhappy, you could just hire entertainers to plug that leak, at least until you got some happiness-producing buildings. In the new Civ V, happiness is a global resource. If you dip into negative happiness, ALL of your cities will grow less and produce less. It’s something I learned the hard way by losing my very first game because of it. I was using the same strategy as always – by expanding as rapidly as possible. I realized too late that in Civ V, global happiness is there to control the size of your empire. The many cities I had produced too much unhappiness for me to handle and stunted my growth. I soon ended up in a spearmen vs. tanks situation. That was a bummer. But it also got my attention. It’s a much simpler system and it does a good job at plugging that previous degenerative strategy. I had to come up win a new approach.

  • Resources – Because of global happiness, there is one new system that is way more important now: the resources. Some of the tiles have special resources, which can be harvested by building city next to them and building a certain tile improvement on them. This was present in previous Civs. But they are much more prominent and important in Civ V. There are strategic resources like Horses, Iron or Plutonium. They define how many of a certain unit you can build. There are some economic resources like sheep, cows or bananas. They just boost your production and allow you to build some exclusive building in nearby cities. Most importantly, there are the luxury resources. They increase happiness. Especially in the beginning, the resources add a lot of variety to the city placement and tile improvement game. They make the map much more varied, alive and tangible. After my first loss, I started paying attention to the luxury ones. In an expanding empire, they become a crucial factor in territorial dispute and a core subject of diplomatic trade agreements.

  • Diplomacy – speaking of which, the Diplomacy system received some rather puzzling cutbacks. You can no longer trade technology. You can no longer trade maps. Not really sure what the idea behind the changes is. Perhaps trading them allowed weak players catch up too quickly? Or perhaps it made a one-sided military approach too easy? In any case, it does make the diplomacy system feel even more stunted than it already was. Diplomacy in Civ never felt like talking to human beings. All the effort put into animated leaders end up being a massive a waste of time.

  • City State – One of the cool new things are city-states. They are miniature civs consisting of just one city. They never expand. They don’t attack on their own. But they sometimes help the big civs. The deal with the city-states is that the big civs compete for their respect. You can pay them money. You can also solve some quests they give out occasionally. If you get their respect high enough, they will ally with you. Depending on the type of the city-state, they will give you culture, food or military units. Even more importantly, in the diplomatic ending, where the UN votes for a leader of the world, they end up participating in the vote. Needless to say, they are actually super-important. I initially underestimated how important they are. The only problem I have with them is that the quests they give up are often nigh impossible – like to exterminate another city-state. So more often than not, diplomacy with them just boils down to paying them off. Otherwise, the are a welcome influx of moving pieces in the diplomacy system.

  • City Sieges – The way one attacks cities feels totally different now. In the old civs, you just sent an huge amount of random units mindlessly to a foreign city and blindly attacked a city. Eventually they killed the defenders and marched into the city. The reason why this doesn’t work so well anymore is partly due to the fact that units no longer stack. So you can have only one unit on a tile at a time and you just can’t physically have too many units at one place. Also, you can attack a given city just so many times each turn because units, who already attacked will block the way for others. So your armies are smaller and the units need to be moved and picked much more carefully. But also, cities aren’t really defended by garrisoned units anymore. They just have a huge health bar that regenerates very fast. Plus, they can attack nearby units. So moving into cities hinges on dealing a lot of damage quickly. You really need to set up a siege situation with a combination of artillery to get down the city’s health as quickly as possible and some close-range units to tank the damage and move in eventually. It is very different and it feels very much like one expects the siege of a city to play out.

  • Cultural Trees – Culture finally has a meaning! Civ games have been tip-toeing around the portrayal of culture for quite some time. It was never as tangible and as in Civ V. Now, it’s basically experience points for your civ. When you level up, you can pick a skill from a number of tiny skill trees. Skill trees represent different values like Honor or Freedom. Engaging in one skill tree can lock out others. Filling out all the skills in one skill tree gets you additional bonuses. Filling out 6 skill trees enables you to go for the cultural victory. A very simple and elegant system. Some of the skills can really turn the tables – like your universities can begin producing happiness in addition to science for example. My only gripe is that the tiny skill trees are a bit fumbly and don’t really seem to have a purpose. I think just having a linear list of skills for each of the values would have been enough.

  • Lack of Visibility – One thing I really dislike is how visually under-played a lot of the events in the game are. Wonders are still most prominent with full-screen still images, even though they are rather uncharacteristically rough compared to the overall polish of the rest of the game. Technological improvements just gets a lousy dialog box. At least each gets a witty quote. City improvements get nothing. I remember back in the days how you could look at how your city looks like. That option doesn’t exist anymore. Instead, city improvements appear as buildings on the actual overview map. But they are so tiny and inconspicuous that you can barely make them out. Growing the actual city is visually much more rewarding. Perhaps it’s for the best. But the thing that really let me down was the space ship. The original Civ had a seperate space ship window where you could see which parts of the space ship are already in place. All of this is gone. The space ship doesn’t even get the wonder or dialogue box treatment. It’s treated like a regular building. There is a tiny launch tower near the city where you build the Apollo Project. The space ship parts appear on that. You need to zoom in A LOT to see anything. It’s incredibly disappointing. Especially considering that it’s the finale of the game. This seems like the development team had more planned and ran out of time. Perhaps they should have invested less time in the silly animated portraits?

I have some more nit-picks. The AI is behaving very stupid in certain cases. There really should be an undo-function for cases when you click on the wrong thing. The order in which you need to deal with stuff is often uncomfortably rigid. But the game does look great and the interface is quite polished most of the time. Overall, it really seems they did a massive overhaul to the way the game works, without actually sacrificing what made it great in the first place. So at the moment the only function I’m REALLY missing is a real-life clock. Those all-nighters are taking a toll.

Krystian Majewski

Krystian Majewski was born in Warsaw and studied design at Köln International School of Design. Before, he was working on a mid-size console project for NEON Studios in Frankfurt. He helped establish a Master course in Game Design and Research at the Cologne Game Lab. Today he teaches Game Design at various institutions and develops independent games.

One response to “Civilization V – Late Impressions”

  1. daniel

    i bought the special collectors edition of civ 5 right at release. played it like 1 hour and thought: FUCK THIS. i found it totally not what i expected and thought: this must be bad. its a bad game. and stopped playing and never looked back.

    and now you tell me its great new features? thats a real problem for me! because in 90% of the time you are right about those things and now i really have to play the game. because i know now that the chance is very high that once i overcome whatever made me stop playing it last time, i will enjoy it this time.

    and whats even worse: i have now 9 weeks of fulltime at home – which of course i wanted to use for productivity and not for civ.

    *oh … the temptation … overcome it … i must … argh! *


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