Sunday, October 3, 2010

Civilization V: some thoughts

Sid Meier's Civilization games are all about the enjoyment of making decisions.  Yes, there's a narrative that emerges due to the outcome of your decisions interacting with the "decisions" of various AI entities, and that narrative can be quite fulfilling (especially in retrospect).  But I'd argue that the majority of your minute-to-minute happiness while playing Civ is based upon the interesting decisions that are presented to you.  Should I built the Hanging Gardens now?  Should I settle to the north where there is a flood-plain and an abundance of food, or to the south where there is ivory and incense?  The greatest strengths and weaknesses of the Civ franchise lie within these decisions.  Some are compelling:  they present difficult choices, carry meaningful outcomes, and allow you to "feel" like a world leader.  Others are distracting:  they are embedded within the intricacies of the game system and are only meaningful on that level.  They annoy and frustrate you.

Personally, I've found that most Civilization games (I should note that I have experience with II-V) tend to ware me out after I've played a few full games.  I *want* to love these games.  And part of me does, since I have such a fondness for complex turn-based strategy.  But as the game progresses, the number of fun & interesting decisions becomes heavily outweighed by the number of mundane decisions.  Other Civ players have decried this as "excessive micromanagement," but that somewhat misses the point.  Some micro can be fun - if the decisions are interesting, meaningful, and immersed in role-playing.  Some macro can be distracting - if it feels too "gamey" and like pushing numbers on a spreadsheet around, instead of conquering the world.

One reason why I think the latest Civilization (V) might be the best of them all, is that it has gotten rid of a lot of mundane decision-making.  That, inevitably, has led to a backlash among long-time Civ players that it has been "dumbed-down" to be made more "accessible" to "retarded console players."  I'm not even sure what they're referring to when they say this, but the 2K forums are full of posts like this.  Place me firmly on the side that thinks many of the changes made to Civ V are positive - but, of course, there's great room for improvement which I am optimistic will come.

Back to the point.  Using Civ V as an example, here are some decisions that I would consider interesting and meaningful.  I have attempted to rank these from most interesting to least:

  1. What victory strategy will I pursue?  Military domination, cultural, space-race, diplomatic, or score?
  2. Should I go to war?  And when?  When turns out to be a very interesting decision in Civ.  It is almost always a good idea to time your wars to coincide with the development of your "unique unit" for example.  This is especially powerful early in the game, when the number of military units involved will be relatively small.  In my last game as the Persians, I tried to time my wars to coincide with Golden Ages, since Persian military units receive a +10% bonus during these times.  
  3. Tactical decisions during wartime:  how and where should I attack my opponent?  Civ V has made some great improvements in making tactical combat decisions more interesting.   An aspect of the game which was always compelling is now more so, due to a greater emphasis on unit diversity and use of surrounding terrain.
  4. What social policy should I pursue?  I, for one, like the new social policy system in Civ V - but if you prefer, think of the Civic system of Civ IV.  Interesting decisions that carry weight and meaning in the game, and feed into the role-playing nature of civilization evolution.
  5. Where should I build this city? 
  6. What should I do with this Great Leader?
  7. What technology should I research next?
  8. What kind of city is this one going to be?  Production emphasis, gold income, high population with specialists, etc.
  9. How should I spend my excess gold?  To form a friendship with this city-state?  To purchase a new tile for my city?  In a trade agreement with another civ for a luxury resource I don't have?
  10. What tiles should my citizens be working?  Should some citizens be specialists?
  11. What should I build next in this city?  This decision should support my overarching strategy (#1).
I put city-decisions at the end of the list, because while I do find them to be interesting throughout much of a Civ game, there comes a time when I usually stop caring.  Especially in previous incarnations of Civ.  For example, if you can build every building in every city, then the decision becomes mundane.  Civ V has made this decision more interesting because:
  1. You do not have the time to construct every building.
  2. There are high maintenance costs on buildings, so you shouldn't spam.
  3. There is a greater emphasis on designing your cities to serve particular functions (for production, for population/research, etc.).

Here are a couple Civ decisions that I find less compelling:
  1. Where should I adjust my tax slider?  To tweak out a little extra research, or happiness, or culture?
  2. What should my workers be doing right now?  Building roads?  Cutting down trees to speed along production in one of my cities?  etc.
This is obviously a less than complete list but it is telling that these two issues (along with the last two from above) have typically ruined Civ games for me.  Especially at the end of a game, in previous Civ incarnations it really felt like most of your game-time was spent tweaking the tax slider (every turn, to maximize efficiency), assigning and re-assigning workers, and visiting every city in your empire to decide what to build and how to assign your population.  Ugggg.

If Civilization V has done something right (and I believe that it has), it has reduced the amount of time spent making dull decisions.  Unfortunately, it has not adequately filled that time I now have with other, more interesting decisions - especially if I'm pursuing a non-military victory.  As others have said, you will press "Next Turn" a lot in Civ V without having made a single decision that turn. I don't think that is a good thing.

Here are some changes/additions I would like to see instantiated in Civ V, which I think would enhance the fun-and-interesting decision space:
  1. More intricate diplomacy.  Diplomacy should be like a mini-game, and it should matter.  Achieving a Diplomatic victory should be complex, difficult, and an exercise in juggling different personalities and demands. Every few turns, I should be making a "fun" diplomatic decision (e.g. send ambassador, boycott, increase tariffs, publicly denounce at the U.N., etc.).  The current system, which emphasizes trade relationships and pre-war alliances is fairly mundane and shallow.
  2. Espionage.  I suspect they'll bring Espionage back into Civ V in a future expansion, and I hope they offer compelling decisions that don't bog down the system.
  3. Science and research.  I'd actually like to see additional complexity to science & research.  Perhaps individual cities (or research labs) can focus on particular inventions or "breakthroughs" that are separate from the standard Tech-tree.  Maybe there could be civilization-specific technologies to research.
  4. Enhanced cultural options.  Pursuing a cultural victory still feels quite "gamey" at this point.  There is no real sense of a civilization's "culture" spreading across the world.  In my first complete game, I played as Gandhi and achieved a cultural victory on "Prince" difficulty.  Overall, I enjoyed the experience, especially in the mid-game where I had to step lightly in the diplomatic game to ensure that none of my overly aggressive neighbors attacked me.  However, much of my late-game was spent pressing "Next Turn," waiting to unlock my next social policy. Maybe if the player was given choice of which direction you could focus your culture:  great works of art and music, better consumer products (intersecting with scientific research, perhaps), athletes, movies and television, etc.
  5. Disease.  This could be my personal bias, but I believe that disease has had a major impact on civilizations since the beginning (consider Europe's Black Death).  As such, I'd like to see disease instantiated in the system - with high population density increasing the probability of an outbreak and certain buildings (Hospital) and technologies (Medicine) ameliorating damage.  I didn't much like the "Health" meter of Civ IV since it added more city micromanagement.  Rather, I'd like to see Disease (like Happiness in Civ V) represented on a civilization-wide level.  This would make decision-making simpler and also more impactful.  And just a side-note:  what if you could (purposely even) spread disease into adjacent civilizations?
  6. Natural disasters.  I can only assume these are coming, and I'd certainly like to see them make an appearance.  And, of course, players should be able to turn them on-or-off at the Set Up screen.  Disasters are interesting because they can throw a wrench into your long-term plans.  What if an earthquake hits right when you're in the middle of a war against the Aztecs?  Should you pull out and focus on rebuilding? If a tsunami hits your ally, Japan, will you send them some money to help rebuild their empire?
 Oh, and beef up the A.I.  Because it really really sucks.