Swords and Plowshares: Civilization 5 and the Gods & Kings Expansion
"Politics is war without bloodshed
while war is politics with bloodshed." - Mao Tse-Tung
I don't remember much about the dream. By the weight of a turban on my head and a heavy silken thobe swishing around my ankles I knew I was Harun al-Rashid, leader of the pious Arabian people. The feel of the cool, smooth surface of the podium under my hands told me I was standing in front of the General Assembly at my newly constructed United Nations Building. George Washington, Theodora of Byzantium, and Mahatma Ghandi had been having a discussion about a highly sought-after luxury resource, but it degenerated to a shrieking, hair-pulling brawl. Kuala Lumpur and Budapest, seated nearby, were laughing and holding up scorecards showing Ghandi ahead on points due to his lack of hair to pull.
I closed my eyes, shaking my head as I turned to try to call them to order. But when my eyes opened it was to the red and blue blur of my comforter. I fumbled my glasses onto my nose, bringing my room into focus. As I levered myself out of bed, some extra creaks reminded me that I'd fallen asleep at my desk and had spent a good couple hours dozing there before the aches from the slumped position had pierced the exhausted fog and sent me to my room. That's not going to help work go any better.
I readied myself for the day, trying to shift my mood by reminding myself at least this time I had managed to make it to my bed after one-more-turn had turned into one-turn-too-many. My Inbox is hard enough to face on any given morning. I was already kicking myself for staying up like that; I didn't need to add a colossal sense of irritation with humanity's petty bickering.
I setup the coffee maker and listened to it chuckle to itself, thinking back on the night's play, and the game in general. Maybe I should have stepped in with a couple regiments of paratroopers instead of a gavel?
Despite a long history with the franchise, I'd managed to keep from even owning this game until about three months ago. I know myself, and I knew I courted making the title of the catch-all thread (Civilization V - Lose your job Fall 2010) a prophetic pronouncement if I wasn't careful. Once it was on my hard drive I would invest dangerously large swathes of time in it, as I had with all of its predecessors. But the announcement of the upcoming expansion combined, Wonder-Twin-like, with a Steam sale and the importuning of a good friend who needed victims for his weekly multiplayer game, and I gave in.
I'm a peaceful kind of player. I always have been, given the choice. To quote Sun Tzu, "To win one hundred victories in one hundred battles is not the acme of skill. To subdue the enemy without fighting is the acme of skill." I can play the tech-tree like a virtuoso, and so far all my games but two have been won with science. I tried culture once, and had also accomplished a diplomatic victory (no doubt this was the inspiration of that dream). I spent the time from the game's purchase to the expansion's release happily sending ship after ship off to Alpha Centauri, trying to learn all the quirks.
After I installed Gods & Kings, it felt like a new game. Some crucial balance issues were resolved, and new features added or expanded in ways that dramatically altered the course of play. I happily lost myself in a whole new realm of possibilities.
I realized pretty quickly that religion, new resources and all the rest were cool, but not the telling factor. My biggest challenge has been the changes in play-style the expansion requires. Gods & Kings shapes the game on the point of a sword, re-forging it in sharp conflict.
When you first start off, you can't seem to swing a dead cat without hitting a barbarian, even at the lower difficulty levels. In the vanilla game I used to be able to get to the Anno Domini section of the timeline before even having to do more than garrison my cities for extra Happiness and have one lonely scout out mapping the territory. Now I have to waste many of those first precious turns building the default unit of warriors some immediate backup and then squander others to build units to travel around fumigating the whole region.
But even after I have cleared my continent of pelt-wearing jerks, the game doesn't relent. Before long, meeting the AI-controlled players starts a string of internal speculation as to which one out of what seems to be a collection of history's most petulant, backstabbing manipulators is going to be the first to pick a silly casus belli and march across my borders.
That's always been a mistake on their part. As a rule, I do not start fights even with the sternest provocation; it's a horrible waste of resources for little gain. But I will damned skippy defend what is mine. A little forethought in city placement and building choices, coupled with a quick sprint along the bottom of the tech tree to upgrade my units, and any bellicose intruders are sent home whimpering, with their tails between their legs. Then I soak their leader for cash and resources when they finally give up wasting their money and everyone's time throwing good units after bad tactics and sue for peace.
But this new level of AI aggression has changed my complacent ways. It's annoying, but I think it’s going to turn out to be a good thing. Necessity is the mother of invention. Even if I'm playing peacefully, the heightened need for defense has spurred me to find a different way to speed the science victory. Bolting towards military technologies adjusts the pace you move through the game in a way I don't think I would have found using my usual, more systematic approach. It doesn't come without cost -- you sacrifice a great deal of gold earning potential -- but with judicious planning and a good map, I have made it into the Renaissance by the 11th century.
Then I have guns. Lots of guns. My computer-generated neighbors and their squabbles with pointed sticks really don't concern me much from then on. I tend to giggle when someone tries to start something with a unit of spearmen after 1500 AD or so.
The first time I decided to start sumptin' myself, I'd been playing as Oda Nobunaga. The game had spawned me on a fairly large landmass, but I quickly found out I'd been crowded in here with George Washington, Askia of the Songhai, and Ghengis Khan. This expansionist rogue's gallery did not make for easy living.
I won with science. That was never in doubt. But it took much longer than usual. By the end I was very angry with Ghengis and all the time and energy I'd had to waste dealing with him over the centuries. He spent the final several hundred years of the game dancing back and forth across my southern border every 10 turns like he was doing a well-armed Hokey-Pokey. I sat on the victory screen, mouse hovering over the “One… more… turn…” button, weighing options.
I decided not to go to bed on my anger. I had built three Giant Death Robots just to see what they looked like. They have ridiculous amounts of hit points, and with the Bushido ability, they don't lose effectiveness if they continue to fight while damaged. I gave the order, and the robots stomped across his border, followed in close formation by all the rest of the military buildup he'd forced me to invest in. It took a bit of doing, but I took him out.
When it was over I felt a little sick. I learned what it felt like being on the receiving end of a fusillade from a city's defenses, and I learned how to work through it to win. That was important. The robots were awesome. But the crunch of the missile impact and the screams of the citizens didn't make me feel victorious. Even the vague, tiny representation of the lives and property lost to my fit of pique rankled.
The next night I decided to try again, but in a situation without so much of the emotional component. I played another game as George Washington, and when I got to the end I tried to calmly choose a target. I decided I'd had enough of Suleiman skulking around and he was really badly placed on a broad, flat plain. I took his five cities with five robots (a unit of armored cavalry with each one for backup) in four turns. Then I chose to make them puppet cities. It's expensive in Unhappiness, but I walked over the border with 151 Happiness, so I could more than balance it out. Once I got settled in, I figured could take Catherine the Great in a nice forking action.
But plans never do last past the first engagement with the enemy. The pin-headed dolt had handled his empire so badly all those cities were starving, and there wasn't anything I could do about it for the 11 turns it took them to get it together after I took over. I was bewildered. When I took the Mongols by the short hairs those cities were underdeveloped, but pretty much on their feet as soon as that little red fist symbol disappeared. Here, it took me another ten turns and a good chunk of change to build enough infrastructure to feed them while I took stock of the situation. He'd just sucked cash out of them rather than improve things in any real way. By the end of that I was so sick of the whole mess I just shut it off without saving, with an even lower opinion of him as a leader than I'd gotten from history class.
The next night, I swallowed my gorge and took what I consider to be the most difficult action. I used nuclear weapons. You earn them as a matter of course on your way to Future Tech. But I'd never even built one, much less launched one. I wanted to see what it would do and if nothing else it added a little "historical accuracy" to the launch of the Alpha Centauri ship.
So I loaded up that Nobunaga game again, and this time I pointed my gaze Askia's way. He'd snaked a city right up against my border in the early game and he'd used it to base several wars against me. So I got my troops into position and dropped the Bomb on it. As the swirling radioactive clouds flowed out, I realized this was not only awful, but pointless. It peeled the bark off the city, all right, but it only damaged the units around it, and it despoiled a rich region. Disgusted, I sent in the rest of my units to take it the old fashioned way. Then I held it just long enough to clean up and rebuild the city in a guilt-tinged, existential Marshall Plan before shutting off the game.
I've beaten my swords back into plowshares for now, though I know I will have to study war again at some point. There's that achievement you get by playing as Alexander the Great and wiping everyone else you know off the map by 350 BC. And I will be playing the game with each of the leaders in turn. Something tells me I'm going to have a hard slog trying to win a science victory with Ghengis Khan or Montezuma. Maybe I'll go for a culture victory? It would have the charm of irony, if nothing else.