CivIV According to Yin
Finally we come to the most subjective part of the review wherein I share with you bits of some games that I found interesting. The first is a large Pangaea map, and I'm playing a Kublai Khan, who is aggressive and creative. I chose him because for this game, I was trying to focus on FEWER cities to see if I could still win, and his creative rating helps push out my borders (though really there are much better options for the “fewer cities strategy” than Kublai Khan, but I like the guy). I also turned off space race and timed victories.
GAME 1: "No Real Focus"
As you can see, I started off with the most vital resource in life: wine (which I also include to mean beer or any other intoxicating drink). No matter what, my people's outlook on my rule will be helped by having them too sloshed to care.
Here we are in 800 b.c. and I only have 2 cities! This is a radical departure from many other games when I would strive to have double this number. But you can see below that I already have some tile improvements and two more workers coming. Of course, I'm being hemmed in by other civs because I didn't push my borders hard enough with more cities. Will this cripple me?
It's 1 A.D. and do you know where *your* religion is? Despite only having four cities at this point, I am in the lead. Also, I haven't chosen a religion yet because I am waiting to see who my neighbors are. One of the reasons I selected this game for a review, in fact, is that I am surrounded by neighbors, and I thought this would lead to some interesting diplomacy.
It's 760 A.D. now and some interesting things to note: I have the two biggest cities in the region, which might mean that quality is winning over quantity? I am, though, running at -12 g.p. per turn despite already lowing my research to 90%...then again, those quality cities are producing some good research numbers. Also, I've chosen to go with Buddhism because Gandhi, my neighbor and #2 on the scoreboard, has gone that direction. It looks like I'll need to beef up security on my western and northern border, though.
It's 1820, and sure enough, Peter on my Western border declared war. Fortunately, Frederick on my Northern border has adopted Buddhism, which takes a lot of pressure off me now. On the flip side, I have let my research investments drop too much, probably in overreaction to wanting enough money to upgrade my army against Peter. You can see I've dropped to 4th place, and I'm not sure that I'll be able to recover easily.
I am showing two screens below, the military “advisor” screen and the main game screen. I've divided Peter's empire into two pieces, and he's on the ropes. Curiously, Frederick (grey) has dropped Buddhism as his state religion. Is this a sign of war to come with him? In any event, this advisor screen is completely useless as far as I can see. I'm considering this a mere placeholder so a patch can actually do something with it.
I got sort of lulled into pressing end turn at this point and didn't consider the obvious attack that would come from Saladin (whose religion differs from mine and with whom I had done little trading, etc.). Note, though, that those two tanks in Saladin's territory are from Gandhi and Frederick. Indeed, they helped their ally! Gandhi required 240 gold, but Frederick just helped me out. This was actually kind of fun to see, as the AI really honored our relationship.
Well, things become very stable at this point. Why not drop in on my treasury to see how it's doing? By the way, look how much inflation is costing me! Is there anything I can do to counter it? I bet mousing over inflation will bring up something helpful…maybe not.
Well, then, let's look at my civics. As you can see, every one of these choices has bonuses for me, and some have penalties for OTHER civs who don't share these. Why wouldn't every AI, as a general rule, simply go for all the items listed at the bottom of the civics choices?
Part of what's happening at this point is we long ran out of tech tree. I'm on Future Tech 4 by this point, and this becomes disappointing. Not only have I closed my tech gap with other civs, but there is now no longer any gap in any tech anywhere – and there never will be in any meaningful sense. We've all maxed out (the relevant players anyway), and Future Tech does nothing important. I would recommend that Future Tech at least provide military upgrades or something so that tech at this point still has some kind of significance beyond health and happiness.
Let's stop in on religion, though, to see what the advisor says. I'm pretty sure this is telling me something important, but I never use this screen.
Here is what the U.N. has done. Basically, we have made the 2nd tier civs, well, exactly like us. They have had to adopt our civs, we've taken away their nukes, and we've upped trade all over the place. We are turning Earth into a forced Garden of Eden! “War! What is it good for!?” Well, at this point, a little war might be kind of fun…and I would start one, but I'm a bit tired. Maybe I'll just vote for Gandhi in the upcoming elections and get this over with.
This screen is mildly helpful, especially if you want to know your relative military power at an given point (I generally was a disappointing 5th or 6th here, which suggests the AI could have given me a hard time, if they had wanted to). Yet, if you toggle the various civs to get the rainbow index to tell you anything, good luck…it's pretty bland.
I end this game by voting for Gandhi to stop the tedium. Nothing was going on at this point, and the idea of starting a war to win the game was not appealing as already turns were very laggy, there were no new techs to be had, and the world had settled into something of a monochromatic love fest. Still, a lot of interesting choices in the early to mid games kept me playing. Even the late game had a few turning points when diplomatic loyalties were tested, but I just can't help but feel that with all the dead time in the late game we should have spend more time with our units and our techs in the earlier eras. Where had all the other eras gone? The pacing, it seems, is off.
Maybe the light-speed jumps through the tech tree make for a faster game that can be played in an evening, but just as likely it results in the top civs all becoming carbon copies of each other with little willingness to engage each other in anything more than U.N. resolutions to keep the city streets free of litter. Thus, while the process along the way is quite fun at points, the end game can default to something like this. Perhaps I should leave on timed victories or the space race next time? I guess that forces the time issue on the player, but those just aren't victories that mean much to me.
GAME 2: "Infinite Attack Sleaze"
For this game, I kept Kublai Khan, went to a standard Highlands map, and added 3 extra AIs for a total of 10 players. My goal here was to have enough AIs so that we would form blocs that might effectively join forces against each other. This is still Noble level, so I pretty much expect to win, but I'm hoping for something fun.
I've made mention of an “engaging early game,” and the screen below tells some of the story. Part of what makes the early game the best part of CivIV is that seemingly small decisions have a huge impact (should I build a worker now or a warrior?), and by virtue of having so few cities to think about, you tend to zoom in more and enjoy the lush landscapes and sounds. By the mid to end game, all this gets lost as you zoom way out over a sprawling empire that becomes as much about wrestling the interface as it does about crushing your foes.
Anyway, I've jumped ahead in my start to illustrate some interesting decisions: I built my second and third cities on a river because the river counts as a road, which gives me a little added commerce for free and, importantly, no need to actually build a road between them (a wonderful small decision that can be made). I had iron available to me early, so I decided to focus on iron working to build swordsmen to attack cities (the relationship between your natural resources and your build/research decisions is also very good early on); copper is also nearby, which will also help my early attack options. And stone is really powerful for building wonders. A good start, resource wise. Finally, you'll see that I built 7 workers by 300B.C. I found that this way I can actually control my growth while setting up these three cities for some tremendous productivity. Here, too, the decision to go for more workers vs. more early population or more cities is quite fun and engaging.
It's 200 b.c., and the attack force is gathering. Thus begins Step 1 of Infinite Attack Sleaze. NOTE: One thing that makes attacking enemy cities at this level so darned easy is you can simply mouse over the city and see what units are guarding it! This should be cut from CivIV post-haste! Make this type of information require a spy, which would also then give that unit more meaning in CivIV. Of course, the spy unit would need to be available much earlier, but that would be a welcome change, I think.
I've taken two enemy cities (which is much, much more economical than founding two more of my own, especially considering the gold I get for conquering each one and *not* using up core city time to build settlers). My horde of workers were on standby and are hard at work. My biggest sacrifice is I'm at 60% research to keep the gold positive. If I stop my attacks now, of course, this could bite me long term because I would leave the enemy AI enough resources and tech lead to strike back. My goal is to amass enough cities now so that I begin to go back in a positive gold flow at 90-100% research despite city maintenance costs.
With one AI crippled in the North, I head South because Bismark is making annoying threats. I suppose a tenet of Infinite Attack Sleaze is to finish off one AI before hitting the next, but I couldn't help taking on AI #2. Those two catapults, by the way, will prove powerful…perhaps too powerful? With them, I'll take down the city defense and weaken the city defenders so much that taking the city will be quite easy.
Research still at 60%, but my cash flow is rising, now at 33 g.p./turn. Not great, but moving up. Also, despite my warmongering, I'm only second in the rankings behind Louis (though happily ahead of #3). I wonder if Louis, too, is taking over his neighbors?:
Well, Louis didn't like me, I guess, so he attacked. In return, I took one of his cities away, which seems to have the effect in CivIV of putting total fear in the A.I. for several turns. At this point, I've taken cities from 3 different A.I.s. I wouldn't say that I've been very efficient about it or anything. I'm still learning the game, but it's clear that going on the offense keeps the AIs in check…and I'm back on top of the rankings now after taking Louis' city.
Jumping way ahead, it's now 2100 a.d., and by virtue of constantly attacking, I have 20 or so cities, am over 700 points in the lead, have since discovered every tech available and so have 70% culture spending. All the while, the AIs never made any concerted effort to stop the onslaught. There were a few attempts, again by Louis and then a few times by the Chinese, but each time I would take away a city or rout their armies, and they would beg for peace. Meanwhile, I'll leisurely eat away at the AI cities to my West.
After all, the maps don't even wrap around (which baffles me), so I load up my Eastern border in case somebody happens to attack. At this point, the tedium is acute. Painful, really. I suppose I should have kept the timed or space race victories since this is gonna be a slog, but I'd really prefer a conquest victory that keeps me engaged.
It's nearly 2200, I have nearly 40 cities, and I'm just bored to death. I'm about to discover Future Tech 9, which does nothing for me at this point anyway, and whatever chance the AI had of putting up a good game was lost long ago when I was vulnerable with my lower tech research, overstretched army, etc. I.C.S. is dead in the early game, that's for sure, but I still end up with cities coming out my ears. Of course, I chose the conquest victory, so what should I expect? Well, perhaps more of a challenge from the AI would turn this city tedium into something fun? I don't have it in me to slog through to the end on this one.
By the way, I never adopted a religion or agreed to open borders (unless the civ was already dead to me). I found that this, too, helped to keep the A.I.s in check because they had less of a reason to hate me (differing religion is a -4 on relations), and it seems that by not having open borders with me, they were less inclined to mount attacks (does the A.I. scout your territory when you have open borders or something?). Maybe I lost some commerce here and some chance at better diplomacy, but the game played out nicely for me by ignoring those elements completely.
GAME 3: "So You Think You Can Play CivIV?"
Spurred on by forum friend, 'Hexagonian', and my own sense of fairness, I decided that I couldn't let the Noble difficultly setting do all the talking. I tried several flavors. For kicks, I first tried this outlandish setup (Emperor, raging barbs and aggressive A.I.):
First, take a look at these map elements scaled to my preference! Cool, huh? See /dir/index.php?id=4979&t=reviews&toprate=5.0000&tophits=5594&cat=350 if you are curious.
O.K. Here's a tip: Don't turtle on a Raging Barbs setup!
Push your guard units out to the perimeter, on hills, and let the promotions stack up! Oh, and actually enjoy the chance of keeping an improvement or two before a barb pillages it.
It helps when you get a shared border with an A.I., right? Because barbs can't come in that way, right?
Actually, that's not really true if that AI decides to attack and defeat you, I guess. The lesson here was that while it's possible to fend off the raging barbarians, a neighboring AI can come in a kill you easily.
Here's Emperor with aggressive A.I., regular barbs.
Emp. Reg. Barbs
O.K. I just saw something Biblical happen in Civ and had to give this new religious element a moment of appreciation.
Lion and Lamb
Here is the Infinite Attack Sleaze Victim:
The gang's all here, and the sheep are leaping in fright.
All is going to according to plan:
Catherine cries for peace too easily. You often get some free tech this way, too.
I went on to take Moscow and pretty much eliminate Catherine. However, a horrible feeling came over me as I realize that the higher city and unit costs were killing me financially. Also, citizens were far harder to keep happy, and my cities wouldn't grow past 5. Furthermore, the happiness-conferring buildings were on a different part of the tech tree from my warmonger plans, which left my cities only able to build MORE units that I couldn't afford (is there no way for a city to produce NOTHING?!). The whole economy collapsed. Game over. I can't say this would be very fun for a warmonger to sort out, but it's certainly a challenge I might return to.
I just have to put this in showing how I can mouse over the city and tell exactly what's guarding it. In this case, just two archers. This knowledge allows me to bring a carefully calculated attack force. This makes siege too easy!
O.K. Now Monarch with Aggressive A.I.s should be a realistic test. Let's see what happens.
Way in to the Infinite Attack Sleaze plan, I find that I *can* balance my economy, but I have to absolutely streamline myself. Unhappiness in cities coincides in a more balanced way (for a warmonger), though it's still a welcome shock to have to think more carefully about following the religious techs to get some happiness-conferring buildings. Things like terrain, while not entirely ignored when I play on Noble difficulty, suddenly become crucial. Here I am determined not to lose even a single unit if I can help it by sneaking to the rear of the city so I don't have to attack over a river and take a penalty. I think this is what Firaxis intended.
Catherine is basically dead. I'm in my building phase. On Noble level (non aggressive AI), this is the part of the game where nobody would attack me.
Well, somebody attacks! China, who seemingly had a huge start, leverages its power and attacks. I'm thrilled – and find it funny that cultural borders + bad luck on geography trapped some of my rescuing units in a nearby city.
It's brilliant that these Chinese units are pillaging like crazy waiting for a larger attack force to arrive. THIS is the AI behavior I was hoping for!
Here, at the gates of my capitol, the Chinese have a reasonably mixed siege army ready to go. I have been pillaged like crazy, and two of my outlying cities have been sacked. I lose this game and had a great, great time being defeated like this. Also, I didn't live long enough to reach the tedious end game!
GAME STYLE CONCLUSIONS
I hope these very different approaches to playing style and difficulty level illustrate something about CivIV: On Noble level, if you are passive (but still have a strong home defense), you'll likely get a peaceful builder game in which not much happens, especially if you try diplomacy at all and use shared religion and trade to your favor. At the other extreme, if you go on the attack early and never let up, a conquest game, too, can end in a game in which not much interesting happens. This leads me to believe that timed or space race victories probably offer your best hope for excitement on Noble, though those victories seem artificial to me and don't really test the game's mechanics to their fullest. As most people are probably looking for Noble to provide the fairest look at the game, however, I am a bit worried that the general impression of CivIV's potential will be skewed toward thinking that "nothing happens" or that the game is too simple.
On Monarch level, I think the vision Firaxis has for CivIV finally comes to focus: There is now significant financial pressure in supporting your cities and units. Your citizens are much harder to please, which not only slows growth but demands that you research other parts of the tech tree that a warmonger might conveniently wait on at lower difficulty levels. In my quick survey, I found Monarch to offer a good balance of these elements while still offering me a chance to attack somebody. All elements of the game became important – everything from terrain to choosing promotions very carefully. Best of all, when I overstretched myself, a powerful neighbor capitalized in an intelligent way and killed me. It was very satisfying. Finally, my brief look at even higher difficulty levels and raging barbarians convinced me that I could tweak the challenge I wanted to suit my whim or improving skills.
Ultimately, I think Firaxis spent a good, long time figuring out how to rework the early game to kill I.C.S., to make for more interesting early decisions, and to liven up the game world. In that, they succeeded. For me, the early game is quite fun. But as the game progresses, various design weaknesses begin to show themselves, and ultimately the flawed interface coupled with an increasingly zoomed out view leaves the player feeling remote and focused on repetitive/awkward interface decisions instead of making interesting game decisions. Higher difficulty delays but doesn't fix those problems, though the rescaled graphics did help me feel a closer part of the action even when zoomed out to see more of the map.
If you reach the end game as a warmonger, however, gone are the subtle choices to be made about where to place a city (Do I keep this 40th city or not? Does it matter? Bleh.), about what resource to target (Oh, look, my 4th source of oil. Ho hum.), about what tech to shoot for (Hey, mom! Future Tech 12. No hands!), about what A.I. to cozy up to (O.K., Purple A.I.. You want some Stack of Death, too? Bug me one more time about open borders and I'll crush you just to shut you up), and, finally, what – if any – strategy to carry you to the end (O.K. Here's my strategy: Take these 5 cities, eat some dinner, take those next 5 cities, write a bit of my review, take another 5 cities, enjoy some tea and David Letterman.) To be fair, I haven't reached the end game on anything above Noble yet so cannot comment on the end game at higher levels except to say that even if the A.I. is putting up a better fight, you'll still run out of tech tree, out of new unit types, and, possibly, out of patience with the magnitude of micromanagement.
Ultimately any of the subtleties of the early game are blown away simply by the economies of scale the player ultimately gets away with once you pass the tipping point (a point this is pushed much higher at higher difficulty levels, of course). Your coffers are running so high that city or unit maintenance means nothing. I'm at 80% cultural spending, 0% research (no need), and still pulling in 220+ gold. Coupled with my 11,000 gold in the bank and no worry that even healing my units in battle will cost me something, what more is there to think about? Attack with 20 stealth bombers on the next city instead of 15? Those become the little mini games you have to play to keep the end game entertaining: Can I take an entire city just with a bajillion artillery and a single marine? Dunno, let's try!
Beyond some criticism sprinkled here and there in my review, perhaps my best recommendations for Firaxis and frustrated CivIV players come simply by pointing to the latest build of Stan Karpinski's Ages of Man) which was inspired by Hexagonian's Cradle mod (geocities.com/hexagonia). You'll need a copy of Call to Power II, but the Ages of Man update is free from Stan (he'll send you the files on CD for a deliver charge if you prefer). The graphics won't wow anybody, but some of the gameplay elements just might.
By no means am I suggesting that you play one game and not the other. In fact, I find elements in both games that I appreciate and wish some of them could be combined! Some Ideas from Ages of Man:
- Progression through the eras is greatly slowed. Be prepared to earn your tech advances. Be ready to use those upgraded units for a good long time before needing to upgrade them again.
- Yes, the A.I. has certain cheats, but the human player can work to even the field early by building/defending outposts on resources, and in doing so unlock some tech advances, secure cartels (economic bonuses) etc.
- Government type limits the number of cities you can hold before the maintenance penalties become severe.
- Healing your units costs production points (and you can't do this in enemy territory AT ALL without supply wagons)…no more steamrolling over the enemy and simply healing every other turn for free.
- And on this topic, tile improvements cost you dearly in a clear guns (unit healing) or butter (tile improving) proposition that forces the player to make interesting decisions.
- The A.I. is coded to evaluate every bit of progress or aggression you make. This “frenzy” code means the A.I. is never simply sitting idle on the sideline waiting for you to cruise to a win. This doesn't necessarily mean that all the A.I. will pile on you, but it does mean that when the A.I. asks for an arms reduction (yes, arms reduction!), you might consider it carefully.
- Coordinated A.I. attacks and alliance with the A.I. that let you, for example, decide on a particular city to attack together.
- A.I. civs that will actually surrender when you are clearly more powerful than they are…imagine the time savings and added realism over taking down civs to the last city.
- Stacked combat! A highlight of the CTP series, frankly.
- Public Works! -- No more workers cluttering up the screen, and you just might pay more attention to tile improvements.
- A useful encyclopedia of game ideas.
- An interface that makes finding units / cities, doing upgrades, etc., much easier than it is in CivIV.
Despite all my critical views of CivIV, I think that Soren is listening to fans. He said, when talking about the RPG-like elements of promotions, that he isn't against using great ideas found in other games: With the opportunity for more patches and x-packs, I'd say that's precisely what the team at Firaxis should do. With any luck (and tons of hard work in Hunt Valley), CivIV will be our strategy game of choice for years and years to come.
Finally, for those people out there who wish me ill (I don't always blame you, either!), the question of “Will Yin be eating any cardboard?” is probably of interest to you. I think you have my answer on I.C.S. as well as combat. While I am curious to see how a few others (Vel, Korn, Hex, etc.) think about these things, I would give I.C.S. a +1 and combat a -1. So, does that mean the result is zero, and I won't eat any cardboard? Actually, they were separate issues.
Let's just say I am inviting a friend out for a visit…and he is very good with a digital camera and video editing software on the Mac…