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Wot I Think: Civ V – Gods And Kings

No room for Ryan

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Civilization V makes people angry. I’ve seen it first hand; perusing the shelves of a local boardgame emporium I was moved to express an opinion about hexes and how much I enjoyed their use in the game. Upwards of twenty furious men immediately formed a stack of doom and pummelled me into submission. “But perhaps the Gods and Kings expansion will make the game more like Civ IV?” one of them asided to his neighbour even as they afflicted my face with blows. “It won’t!” cried future-me from another dimension, at which point my assailants redoubled their efforts to maim me. Thanks future-me. Here’s wot he thinks.

I’ve never actually been physically assaulted for enjoying Civ V but the internet has told me how stupid, ignorant and irresponsible I am on many occasions. Yes, irresponsible, because liking this iteration of the series apparently encourages dumbing down. I’m rewarding their failures, it seems, like bestowing a meaty treat on a dog that has just dumped a pile of compost on grandma’s favourite rug. That thing really tied the parlour together.

The thing is, despite a host of problems, I’ve spent a great deal of time with Civ V, the majority of which I’ve greatly enjoyed. It’s not Civ IV, which is fine because Civ IV still exists, but nor is it Civ IV + 1, which the V does suggest if that’s the way you choose to read it. Beyond the Sword, the spiffiest expansion pack of all, was Civ IV + 1 though. Rather than that, Civ V is a new take on the model of map-conquering, settler-spawning, race-to-the-finish strategy that the series has been since its inception.

I’ll move on to the expansion in a moment, but here’s a quick summary of what I do and don’t like about the base game. It’s important to know this because whether or not Gods and Kings is for you will depend largely on whether Civ V was for you or not. Despite all the missionaries in the world being added, there’s nothing here that’s going to win over non-believers.

Here we are then. I like, no love, the hexes and the removal of unit stacking. It makes it hard to go back to any of the previous games because it was always the thing that broke me in the end, the pressure to keep a pile of armies ready for any contingency, an entire nation’s inability to mobilise a force of sufficient size to defend itself without an enormous window of time. Civ V makes moving armies more tactical, increasing the importance of terrain and positioning, and allows the construction and demeanour of a military to be much more flexible.

So that was good.

Then it did a lot of things not quite so well, most notably, from my point of view at least, diplomacy, AI and a tech tree that funnels into linear progression too soon in every era. There has been hope that the re-emergence of religion and espionage will change the game significantly, bringing back some of Civ IV’s complexity, but that isn’t the case. Gods and Kings is more Civ V with additions and tweaks along the lines already drawn rather than bold new directions.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing, although if you were waiting for the game to be salvaged this will do nothing to change your mind and is more likely to make you think it’s unsalvageable. Religion is similar to the culture mechanic, although this time around the policies are global, so once a belief has been selected by one player it’s gone for good. While that means civs that want to build their strength through faith have to specialise more, it’s problematic because my time with the expansion suggests the advantages of a strong religion are nowhere near as effective as focusing on science, culture or the amassing of gigantic armies.

There are only a handful of buffs available, selected from a large pool, for even the most pious of peoples and they are often geographically appropriate rather than mood-changing. What that means is you’ll end up worshipping stone circles if you have plenty of quarries in the vicinity of your capital because it provides an advantage, rather than opting for human sacrifice because it fits with the character of your God-Emperor or allows you to radically alter your strategy. Religion makes you better at what you already are rather than allowing you to become something else entirely.

There is a restrained return to the glorious cultural takeover with religion, although it’s a little undercooked. Every city has a number of followers, at first of a civ’s chosen pantheon and later of the religion they found (of which a limited number in each game, so late developers must go without). The city only gains the advantages of a religion’s belief system, which expand as faith grows, if a majority of the population are believers and those believers exert pressure on nearby cities, pushing their faith on them.

Win over enough believers in a City State or enemy civ’s city and you’ll inflict your selected follower belief on them, which detracts from their productivity or protection in some way. There are missionaries to drop faith-bombs for immediate influence and inquisitors to defend against the blighters, but only time will tell if this is game changing or not. My feeling is that unless you opt for one of the new faith-focused civilisations, like the rather splendid Celts who gain faith from every nearby forest tile, it’ll be hard to benefit greatly from liturgical larceny of this sort.

The other much-touted addition is espionage, which aims to complicate diplomacy and allows for the stealing of tech. Unfortunately, again, it’s not as massive an addition as I’d hoped. Reach the Renaissance and you receive a spy and accrue a few more as time progresses. They’re not actual units, existing only in menus, and when they’re attached to a city they gather information about the civilization it belongs to. Eventually they’ll tell you whether there’s any advanced knowledge worth stealing and if so you can set the to do that. If not they can either move on to a new job or stick around and try to steal state secrets, which means they work out a nation’s intent – say, England is planning to invade Greece – and that knowledge can then be used to turn leaders against one another.

That would be fun except I still struggle to work out the intent of the AI, if indeed it has any beyond “let’s repeatedly and inexplicably tell everyone that Adam is a bastard”. To be fair I’ve just won a great victory, helped by the whole world falling in line and singing my praises, but I’m not quite sure why they did. I was powerful, intimidating and had brutally conquered every City State on my starting continent, but this time around no one seemed to care. They thought I was great.

City States, one of my favourite additions to the Civ formula, have been fleshed out a fair bit. They can be intimidated now, simply by being massively more advanced and well-armed than them or by surrounding them with men holding large swords and whistling nonchalantly. Once they fear you, why not demand some tribute? It’ll make them hate you but it’s tribute, for crying out loud, it’s exactly what you deserve! If another civ has pledged to protect them things become problematic and you can also defend your favourite states by letting the world know they’ll have to go through you to pick on them. There are new types too: mercantile states make folk happy by providing luxury goods and religious fellows boost faith.

But if the expansion doesn’t dramatically increase complexity then what is it for? It’s for improved AI, although it’d take weeks to see just how much improved. In terms of handling the hexes it seems better than my memories of the base game, although diplomacy is still problematic. The expansion is also for new stuff, of which there’s a fairly large smattering, including buildings, wonders, units, resources and civs. Some of it isn’t directly related to religion or espionage either, so as well as police stations that help to sniff out spies there are bomb shelters to protect against nuclear attack.

There’s something else though. I think Gods and Kings zeroes in on one of the fundamental changes that Civ V made, which is that rather than being a game of development that leaned toward aspects of a simulated world, as exemplified in the ten-year game, Civ V is more board-like, focused on specialisation and domination. The existence of religion pushes each civilisation more rapidly toward a concentrated regime, with faith acting as both a currency for purchasing religious buildings and a tally of points toward over-arching improvement.

More than ever, with Gods and Kings I felt like I was reliant on the seed of a map, my location and the unique qualities of my people combining to set my path for the next six thousand years or so. The former assertion put me in mind of Guns, Germs and Steel, providing a sort of theoretical backbone to the game, but also made me fret that my choices and actions, if I wanted to succeed, were more predetermined than previously. The way that religious expansion is more viable in the early game, becoming more expensive as enlightenment creeps across the globe, is just one example of the way that methods and goals shift with the passing of eras, dissecting the structure into a more recognisable series of phases: the phase of expansion, the phase of conflict (religious and military), the phase of espionage and diplomacy, the phase of consolidation.

Gods and Kings has required me to spend a great deal of time playing Civ V in the past few days. It’s also made me remember how much I enjoy the game, although not without also drawing my mind more to its differences from previous entries and its flaws. As an expansion it delivers lots of content but doesn’t have the killer addition that elevates the game beyond its base. It also suggests that Firaxis are well aware that their game is not and never will be equivalent to Civ IV because they’ve made it a moderately better version of what it already was rather than what so many people hoped it could become.

Gods and Kings is out tomorrow in the US but must await the advent of navigation to cross oceans and reach international shores on the 22nd.

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Adam Smith

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