2013-07-04

Civilization V is a huge disappointment

I'm a great fan of the Civilization series of games. In fact, after the original UFO Enemy Unknown, I think Civilization IV is the best game of all time. I have played the entire series extensively, including the latest installment, Civilization V. Although it breaks with the mechanics in very significant ways I started out with an open mind and welcomed the changes. Using a hex grid instead of a rectangular one; a single unit per tile instead of stacks of units and the introduction of independent city states are just some of the changes I really liked on paper. However, the game turns out to be deeply and fundamentally flawed.

Civilization games traditionally are complex and long games with an insane amount of strategic depth. The latest installment streamlined the interface and the complexities to the point where very little is left. While the original games were very carefully designed to offer meaningful choices every step of the way the latest game runs mostly on auto pilot after the initial set of decisions have been made. This is all the more frustrating as the bulk of the game is still to be played after that point and just churns on for hours. Especially in multiplayer sessions this has the effect of reducing some or all players to "end turn" clicking robots.

To test this theory I've played a single player game on "King" difficulty. This is the first difficulty level where the AI gets an unfair advantage against the player and used to be quite challenging if you didn't cheat (by reloading on bad outcomes or setting up the map to your advantage). I built just three cities, pre-determined the entire technology research tree, automated all of my workers and the end of turn and let go. Every couple of minutes I had to decide on what building or unit to produce next or answer a diplomacy request by the AI (defaulting to the least offensive option every time). I won the game by a huge margin.

This is ridiculous. My decisions/hour ratio hovered around 6, or one every ten minutes. That's a huge fucking waste of time and also deadly boring.

Some thoughts on the major design mistakes that broke the game for me:

  • A lot of the game mechanics have been changed from qualitative choices to quantitative ones. This leads to a complete and utter lock in and a 100% predictable game. Once you've decided your social policies you can never change them again. Where you used to have a revolution and change to a police state in order to go to war you now have to stick to your Pacifist ideals forever. There are no sliders for controlling how you want to spend your tax money. Where you used to be able to change from a research focused nation into using all your tax dollars for the war effort you are now stuck.
  • Worst consequence of the first point: no technology trading! This is huge. You can only sign "research agreements", giving both parties a boost to their research. However, there's no way you can ever catch up once you've fallen behind or back stab one of your friends in a multiplayer game by giving his enemy the secrets of gun powder.
  • It doesn't really matter whether you're at war or peace. Your citizens don't care at all. Long time civ players know that managing war-weariness used to be a big issue. No more. Also the AI is so stupid as to not pose a threat at all. The new, more tactical combat system, with a single unit per tile, introduces things like choke points, ranged attacks and unit formations. None of which the AI understands. And to add insult to injury cities have the new ability of defending themselves. So no more surprise attacks. You can only start building defenses once the enemy has already crossed your border and don't need to worry about it.
  • Despite this brain dead AI it still takes ages to process every turn. Even on a recent, high powered gaming rig the AI on a moderately sized map will take longer for its turns than I do for mine. This is ridiculous.
  • City states, while a novel and interesting idea, offer an easy way to victory if you want to end a game early. It's so easy it almost feels like cheating. Buy their loyalty, have them vote for you, done. Speaking of which: money is grossly overpowered. This is the only mechanism by which you can attempt sudden strategic pivots, but it's also the most boring one. Need units? Buy them. Need to expand your borders? Buy some culture. Need a wall to fend of an attacker (as if)? Buy it.

I could go on and on, but I think I'm already boring you. You get the idea. The game is a huge tragedy - it had so much potential and some really innovative ideas but tanked horribly.

Contrast this to love letters to Civ IV like this beautiful piece: Civilization: The Good Kind of Addicted. Now Jon Schafer (the designer of Civ V) seems to be a smart guy and understands most of the shortcomings of Civ V. His new project, At the Gates, looks quite promising. And in any case, it seems that few people are still making the kind of deep, complex, turn-based games I love, so I guess I should cheer on and encourage any attempt.