Too often we compare the addictive qualities of games, probably inappropriately, to hard street drugs like crack. But anyone who’s watched the clock at work in anticipation of going straight home and playing an all-night session of one of the Civilization games will attest to the sensation of going through actual withdrawals at work the next day. It’s a nation-building, turn-based strategy game, with a scope far beyond the typical war-themed endeavor, that sucks you in and has you chanting, "one more turn, one more turn" late into the evening. If you have ever engaged in it, you know how strong the pull is, and you can probably feel it pulling you right now with the imminent release of Sid Meier’s Civilization V.
Getting the chance to play the game for a few hours - like 2K allowed us to do recently - was only like getting a taste of that sweet old drug again, and left us wanting so much more. Set on a random, single continent map and with a random civilization (I got Japanese), I played for approximately four hours, a drop in the bucket in Civ terms. In that time I built my civilization up to 5 well-developed cites, advanced through the end of the middle ages, and completely took out one rival civilization (the Ottomans) while discovering a number of natural wonders and exterminating multiple bands of barbarians. Like Ice Cube said, damn straight it was a good day.
For those who have never played one of the previous four main Civ games on PC or their numerous add-ons and Gold Editions or the console-specific Civilization Revolution, here’s a basic description of what it is. Civilization is a turn-based strategy game set on a map encompassing the whole world, where you must build your civilization from the beginning of human history by researching technology and cultures and building up infrastructure and military units to respectively advance and protect the peoples under your charge. Within that framework are a multitude of strategy gameplay concepts, from managing your economy, to exploring your world to fighting wars against other civilizations. It sounds simple, but it’s not, though the complexity and micro-managing have never seemed to make the game inaccessible. It’s still one of the most popular franchises of all time.
Civilization V brings a few new things to the table for fans of the series. Graphically, it’s obviously a huge improvement, but the more subtle shift from a square grid-based map to a more traditional (at least in terms of strategy board games) hexagonal-based one is actually pretty profound, especially when it comes to military engagements. You can no longer stack armies or other unit groups on the same square - excuse me, hex - making unit positioning a more crucial element of warfare strategy. Before, wars were won by whoever could build the most units. Now, battles are much more tactical in nature.
Not being able to garrison more than one army in any city at a time may give some experienced Civ players the shakes, but the new ability of your cities (and some units, like ships especially) to exact ranged bombardments on enemies more than makes up for it.
Fighting wars is of course only part of what it takes to raise a civilization right, and Civ’s flexibility of gameplay - allowing you to win by a variety of conditions, like culturally or scientifically advancing over your neighbors - has always been a hallmark. Civilization V adds layers to those aspects of the game, giving you finer control over things like public policy, diplomacy and how you put your people to work.
Throwing an interesting wrench into the proceedings is the addition of City-States; AI controlled civilizations that don’t grow beyond a single city and who are influenced by the other civilizations in the game. You may go to war over them, depending on the diplomatic ties that you and the other more powerful civilizations have with them. You can exchange resources and units with them, but you then may be on the hook to protect them when one of their bigger neighbors starts to bully them around.
The City-States are just another new layer of the deeper diplomacy options available to you in Civilization V. The depth to which you can negotiate with rival nations - over borders, defensive pacts, research agreements, trade, etc. - give the game a much more realistic feel, politically. Internally, you’ll have greater guidance over your nation’s development by instituting policies. Policies are made up of categories that then branch out into more specific areas of research. For instance, if you follow the honor line, you can then unlock things like the warrior code or the military caste or the professional army. Each of these then gives some kind of specific bonus. Policy categories include things like tradition, liberty, honor, piety, rationalism and commerce, amongst others.
Developing your country from the inside takes a lot of elbow grease too, and to make your infrastructure strong (and your country more productive) you’ll have to hire workers. They can build roads between your cities and turn the country-side more productive by doing things like building mines on mountainous hexes, lumber mills in forests, fish hatcheries in the ocean and so on. Sure, there’s micromanagement, but that’s one of the things you came for, right?
With this edition of the franchise, we’re seeing the game transform from a compellingly complex board game into something more akin to a full-on simulation of the history of the world. This time though, you are controlling it. The added depth to the cultural and diplomatic aspects of the gameplay should only please long time Civ fans, and the more tactical focus of the combat may even bring new fans to the table. Either way, Civilization V looks to be as momentous as we expect it to be, and as addictive as it ever was, if not more so. Now if you’ll pardon me, I think I need to go call my sponsor.