“It’s past midnight, sweetheart,” Jessica calls from the top of the stairs. She’s using a mom voice, whose subtext is always “you know I love you, but you’re an idiot.”
“Just one more turn and I’ll be right there,” I lie.
It’s Sunday night, and I curse myself for living the walking commercial for a game. I have to be up early in the morning. But the Mighty Hiawatha needs my guidance. Without it, he’ll never teach that Bastard Napoleon who rules the world.
Civilization V isn’t just a good game. It’s a good game at the pointy end of 20 years of innovation in crack peddling.
Firaxis ran a short series of web advertisements before the launch of Sid Meier’s Civilization V, which actually isn’t a Sid game at all, but a game by his extremely young protégé Jon Shafer. In the ads, Civ players attend an AA style meeting where they confess their addiction, ending with a promise: No More Turns.
Now, all those addicts will fall off the wagon. And love every minute of it.
The headline changes are easy to tick off: it’s on a grid, units don’t stack but have range, the entire combat model was scrapped and rebuilt, and everything has hit points. The changes sound like wargame tweaks, and indeed, all of these changes work.
In wargame terms, Civ V isn’t particularly complex. Artillery, air support, ground forces and navys play expected and traditional roles. But without stacking, it’s extremely easy to build your “big” army with no more than half a dozen units - and of those, only a few will be involved in any combat. This makes the selection of those units critical, and their training moreso, whether it be in barracks and armories or out on the field of battle.
The XP system of Civ V won’t be on the box cover, but it’s emblematic of the dozens of subtle ways the combat now makes sense, and feels real. Hills matter. Terrain matters. Flanking matters. Unit matchups matter. And that means your decisions on each of these fronts becomes far more important, and victory incredibly satisfying.
“Whatcha doing daddy?” asks Jen, poking her head into the office. I guiltily Alt-Tab to my web browser.
“Oh nothing. You done reading for a while?”
I’ve been on the road for almost three weeks. I’ve crammed as much kid time in as I can, but when Jen said all she wanted to do this afternoon was curl up on the couch with a book, I did a little happy dance and went back to Civilization V. Cue the Academy Award for “Best Parent.”
“You’re playing a game aren’t you?” She reads through my lie like the pile of books she’s devoured this afternoon. “That’s good! You should play a game. Whatcha playing? Can I play too?”
“Sure!” I say. She grabs a folding chair and sits down next to me. I expect her to be bored in 5 minutes.
3 hours later, we’re co-leaders, making decisions for our fledgling American nation. She’s an endless stream of questions. Why can’t we be pious and rational? What does optics actually do for us? Time and again we consult the Civilopedia for the answers. At each major crossroads in research or wonder development, she insists that we check with our council of advisors.
“OK,” she decides mid-game, fighting a difficult two-front battle against city-states. “I think I’ve grown weary of all this fighting.” She throws her hand across her brow, in a gesture known as “Actorizing” in our house. How else can we win? We poke through the victory conditions.
“Science!” She says. “We can win by science!”
I try and let her down easy. “It may be a bit late. We’ve focused a lot on pure economic growth, keeping people happy, and fighting our neighbors.”
“Let’s try,” she says. “Can’t our mighty nation have a change of heart, and become the peace loving researchers who cure cancer and go to the moon?”
We dig into the cities, micromanaging our population towards two goals – research and the production of research facilities. 20 minutes later we’ve tripled our rate of research, and have great scientists appearing with free technologies on a regular basis.
We don’t finish the game - Dinner time comes too soon. But Jen goes to bed declaring Civilization the best game ever.
For all the changes, the core appeal of Civ V remains what it always has been: a sandbox for playing what if with the toys of an entire planet. Every ounce of that sandbox remains but unlike the radical simplification of Civ Revolution, Civ V is very careful about what it discards. Yes, Religion and Espionage are gone, but even for those who actually liked those mechanics, the loss is more than offset by the much more subtle “policy” tree, and the improved diplomatic model. Is it perfect? Of course not. The strong hand of Soren Johnson, Civ IV lead and as such perhaps the best strategy AI designer out there, is noticeably missing, as computer controlled enemies make the occasional boneheaded move late in the game. On the other hand, I'm not wiping the floor with it on the hardest difficulty just yet either.
But a less-than-incredible AI doesn't stop Civ V from being the most accessible version of the game ever made, not counting of Civ Rev. Thanks to the best user interface design I’ve ever seen in a strategy game (sorry Sins of a Solar Empire) 10-year-old Jen was able to grasp the core principles instantly, even without walking through the tutorials. More impressively, she walked away from that one game of Civilization asking interesting questions about history, science, war, religion, even geography.
I imagine it won’t be long before I walk into the office and find Jen, sitting at the computer, staring bleary eyed at the screen saying “Just one more turn, daddy.”
It will be very, very hard for me to say no.