The mayor steps to the podium, resplendent in silk pantaloons and a turquoise-embellished cuirass, and clears his throat. In the strip of face visible between his fancy Mesopotamian beard and his tricorner hat, the ancient dignitary’s eyes flicker over to a commotion in the East. the Huns are assaulting the city wall. Again. The Huns are always assaulting the city wall, so the mayor ignores the screams, and returns his attention to the mass of humankind gathered in the square before him.
“It is my pleasure to formally open this new Taj Mahal,” he announces, gesturing at the gleaming domes behind him, “which will make everyone in Babylon, our great capital, literally twice as rich as they were just yesterday”. A cheer rises; the mayor grins and waves a wad of thousand-drachma notes. “I know during our Moghul phase we were more about mass-producing elephants. And those of us who were around for the Mayan years will remember just how much Itzamná-damned stone this city quarried. But now, alas, we are British, and it is time to make loads of money. So - the Taj. Remember, people: the Babylonian-Mayan-Teuton-Mughal-British empire didn’t get where it was today, by making economically suboptimal wonders of the world.”
Last week I got to have a 48-hour go with the latest build of Humankind, the much-heralded 4X game on the way from Amplitude. When I last played it, one year ago, I only saw the very beginning of the game. This time, I got to play right through five of Humankind's six technological ages, getting all the way to guns and steam engines.
Overall, I was left feeling that the game had grown into pretty much what I had hoped it would: a solid, big ticket strategy game with the power to casually whittle away at the rest of my life, eight hours at a time. It's beautiful, apart from anything else. The artwork is lavish and atmospheric, while the UI does elegant work in getting your eyes to the numbers they need to see, without ever feeling like business software. As flimsy a thing as it sounds to say, it's a game that's full of heart. It just feels... good. Cared about, perhaps? The fact I can't dissect my reaction any more precisely than that, I hope, speaks to how well Humankind has been put together. But I wouldn't call it an unqualified triumph.
Humankind's most exciting aspect is also its most marketable. At the start of each of its six eras you get to pick a culture, which is grafted over the top of your current culture like a new coat of paint. Each culture has a special perk, as well as a unique unit and a unique building, and the perk sticks around when you trade up. Six choices of ten means there are one million potential civilisation builds in Humankind. Like I say, very exciting. But also very problem. Because a million builds means a million combinations of stacked culture perks, which all have fairly dramatic effects.
Like most 4X games, Humankind is about running a big machine, whose function is to increase its own size. Its components are cities, which themselves are made from districts, sprawling across the hexes of the map. In this 4X, more than in most, the way you win this game of self-embiggenment is by picking up modifiers which allow your cities and districts to produce bigger numbers each turn.
Moreover, it's about finding the synergies between these modifiers. And with one million potential combos, there are plenty to be found. Add to that all the additional modifiers a civ can pick up - from the religion and civic unlock trees, to clever city placement, to efficient arrangement of districts - and you've got an incalculable number of ways to turbo-charge your ant farm. You've also got an awful lot of mathematical space for completely busted combos to hide in, even with the amount of time Amplitude still have to tweak balance.
I had quite a few moments, while perusing potential buffs for my civilisation, or when choosing sites for districts, where I found myself muttering "surely not?" at the size of the benefit I was about to accrue. The big-impact nature of these changes was great in a way, since it ensured I had to go through lots of changes in strategic direction, and kept things from getting stale. I really think it could make for excellent multiplayer, too.
But playing as I was, against a poor old artificial intelligence, it turned the game into a massacre. On the default difficulty setting I found myself outperforming the AI by such a wide margin that I almost felt like I was cheating. And while I've got a decent instinct for 4X games, having spent such a bleak percentage of my life playing them, I'm by no means outstanding. The PC just could not, it seems, spot the potential giga-combos quite as readily as a human mind.
It's not like there was no challenge, though. It just became more of a solitaire experience, is all. Rather than a struggle to compete against other civilisations, the game was reframed as a question of how brutally I could trounce them. Thanks to the "fame score" system I had a clear way of measuring my progress. I was invested in ramping up my civilisation for its own sake, and the crucial "one more turn" compulsion, which sits at the heart of any good 4X, was definitely in play.
The compulsion in Humankind's case comes from how significant the decisions you have to make are, how frequently they crop up, and the fact that, in the case of things like civic picks, religious tenets and district constructions, their effects tend to kick in after a telegraphed number of turns. They're not easy decisions, either. Which is good, 'cos good strategy games are built from dilemmas. I know from talking to the folks at Amplitude that they want players to feel like there's no set right or wrong way to do things, and therefore no redundant choices. In theory, every decision the game throws at you will have its answer dictated by circumstance.
A great example of this is the decision over when to advance to the next age, once it's unlocked. If there's a culture available in the next age whose bonus will suit you perfectly, you might want to jump up immediately, before it's claimed by someone else. But then, if you're within a few turns of hitting several more fame-earning milestones, you might decide it's more advantageous to hang on for a while and rinse the numbers. You might even take your current culture into the next age unchanged, keeping all your existing perks but losing out on the potential for new unique units and districts.
"The compulsion in Humankind's case comes from how significant the decisions you have to make are."
Each of these routes will be the right pick in some situations, and a bum move in others. The same is true of choosing outpost locations, deciding when to upgrade them into cities, working out whether to prioritise district or unit production, and so on and so forth. By forcing you to assess risk and rewards situationally, and constantly shaking up the context you're working in, Humankind does a great job of avoiding no-brainer choices. There are no obvious beelines, and you're often incentivised to take picks which you haven't tried before, because some new factor in play makes them a better deal.
But I can't help but wonder if I'd keep feeling this way after a few more weeks with Humankind, and the chance to discover some truly broken synergies. Already, I've found one tactic that I can honestly never bring myself to shy away from, since it's never done anything less than turned me into a god: the self-replicating caveman swarm.
At the start of the game, before you found a city and pick a culture, you exist in the neolithic, with only one kind of unit - a bunch of humans, which wanders about eating things and looking at bones. Eat enough things, and your manswarm buds off a copy of itself, which can do exactly the same. I think you're supposed to get two or three of these, and then settle down and become a civilisation. But I don't.
Every single time I play, I stay in the neolithic for twenty to twenty-five turns, spamming brute mitosis until the entire world is awash in a horde of gnawing, fumbling hunter-gatherers. Then I do found a city, advance to the ancient age, and watch this legion of beastmen turn magically into scouts. They're not brilliant military units. But since nobody else has managed to build anything to defend themselves with yet, they can usually take a couple of cities before the madness can be contained, and guzzle further treasures on the map, earning me an enormous head start.
The caveman swarm could easily be made less viable, I'm sure, with a couple of balance tweaks. But it speaks to a problem with Humankind - and possibly to the whole genre of 4X games, to be fair - which can't be addressed so easily.
"Weird decision-making is arguably the most powerful force in history. It's certainly the most interesting."
The swarm is silly. It's unrealistic, and doesn't even feel that satisfying to pull off. But since it's so advantageous, I can't honestly consider not doing it. And even in Humankind's more circumstantial decisions, there are often options whose outcomes just put you too far ahead in the numbers game not to consider. To whit, I rarely chose the culture picks I actually fancied the look of during my playthroughs, since there was almost always one culture offering such a towering synergy that I couldn't turn it down. Equally, mass-producing holy sites on some godforsaken tundra purely for stability bonuses didn't feel convincingly... religious. My civic picks, meanwhile, were decided entirely by what would move me towards the greatest bonus stacks, with nothing to do with what I actually wanted my culture to be like.
This doesn't make Humankind a bad strategy game. But it's a shame, as it completely undermines the "tell the story of your own civilisation" premise which is so wonderfully supported by artistic and narrative direction. You're not really telling any story - you're trying to increase a score by any means necessary, because that's how you get the most happy-brain-feel.
Part of being human is doing counterintuitive things for the sake of belief, passion, or pure impulse. Weird decision-making is arguably the most powerful force in history. It's certainly the most interesting. But with 4X games as they stand, it's just not something which can be simulated. Ironically given its name, I felt like Humankind was leading me to play like a computer.
Maybe it seems unfair that I'm holding Humankind responsible for an issue endemic to a whole genre. I suppose, for me, it's down to the fact this game has already done so much to challenge the traditional 4X formula with its design. After all that, I sort of wish it would go the whole way and add a fifth 'X', which somehow stands for 'Roleplaying'. Still, you can bet I'll be raring to take the self-replicating caveman swarm out for another spin, when the time comes.