"Me n Andy finished an Emperor last night, with Napoleon."
Hazizi's casual boast hits me like the rancid, week-old smell that escapes from the bin when you open it on rubbish day. I recoil slightly and do a kind of wincing blink. I am too shocked even to correct his grammar.
Hazizi's words were a shock, because in our little triumvirate, I had arrogated to myself the title of Alpha Civ, the granddaddy whose wise counsel should be sought on all matters. Andy hadn't played a Civ before Civ V. Hazizi is a Civ IV zealot who still ums and ahhs about the new culture mechanics in Civ V and other changes, but will admit through clenched jaw that there is no turning back. I, however, am a Civ veteran, stretching all the way back to the original Sid Meier's Civilization. That these other 2 guys won a Civ on Emperor difficulty before I'd even had the cojones to try that difficulty was an indication of a New World Order, a quantum leap where I was now the wide-eyed grandson, listening awestruck to Ol' Pappy's war stories. Oh boy.
When I look back on the ensuing period of frustration, struggle and dozens of lost person-hours that followed, it all stems from this conversation. This is the exchange that prompted me, after a year's hiatus, to dive back into the time vortex that is Civilization V and wrestle with its Emperor difficulty, determined to prove that I was as good as my mates.
This could not stand. I had to win on Emperor.
I approached my task with a kind of impatient insouciance. How hard could it be? I’ve played all previous Civs, barring Civve the Thirde, eventually playing them all at the highest difficulty. Without much thought, I set up my usual game: standard map size (7 other civilizations), Continents or Earth map. I selected a leader, and off I went.
I have a generic Civ strategy, honed over decades through all versions of Civ: Research and invade. Become the Smartest Guy in the Room, unlock the deadliest toys before everybody else, then deploy them on my neighbours. Who wants a fair fight between equally-matched opponents when you can do battle on more favourably lopsided terms? If your enemy comes at you with a banana, you go at him with nukes — that's the Threepaper Way.
Technological superiority breeds arrogance, though: I ignored diplomacy with other leaders, unless I wanted to trade. Open Borders? Stay off my lawn. Defence pact? Yeah right, like the guy with the $5000 tank needs any help from the guy with the $20 chariot archer. Research agreement? Do your own homework! During endgame, if I came up against a similarly tech-savvy opponent whose units proved too tough to steamroll, I could parlay my research advantage into a science victory, build a spaceship and get off this rock.
This is the strategy I took in to Emperor. Nowadays, I look back on it with a rueful grin and a slight shake of the head, the same way Grandma looks back at the time she rode a mule to Wagga by herself in the 1930s. It seems naive to the point of reckless; you couldn't get away with that anymore.
A quick word about difficulty in Civ games. At higher difficulty settings like Emperor, the AI doesn't play the game any better, but it gets major boosts to the rate at which it accumulates the key resources: gold, science, production and happiness. It's not so much that you are fighting the AI with one hand behind your back, more that the AI is fighting with an extra head and arm, Zaphod Beeblebrox style. I was soon to discover that my strategy couldn't deal with the extra head. I would find it hard to get scientific dominance, without which my armies had to rely on plain, old good generalship, and I was to find I was not necessarily the Hannibal I thought I was.
As buddies, Andy and Hazizi are as rare as crabs on a Pangaea map. They're the only two people in real life with whom I can get into the nitty gritty on Civ V, from strategies for different Civilizations to whether the latest patch nerfed trading posts. As Hazizi is wont to observe, Civ V also made noted departures from previous Civ games. One such departure, iterated and reiterated through patches and expansions, is that Civ V is a game about specialisation. You cannot be good at everything. The systems are woven together in a push-me pull-you way, so that the more you excel at one thing, the more you lose out on another. You want lots of cities in order to boost your science output? Fine, but your culture and happiness will suffer. You want fewer but bigger cities to produce culture? OK, but good luck generating enough gold and science to keep pace with your expansionist opponents.
Most damagingly, it is harder to be happy on Emperor. I don't know what Civ V is trying to tell us here, but happiness and conquest do not go hand in hand. Conquering new cities reduces happiness: the folks back home aren't cheered up by news of your troops kicking arse in the provinces and conquered civilians are a whiny bunch, too. Large populations also reduce happiness: this is known as the "I'm walkin' here!" effect. If your population is officially unhappy, you build units slower and make less money, making it hard to maintain your armies and roads. If happiness gets really low, your troops suffer a 33% combat penalty, a penalty so crippling as to preclude any further fighting until you cheer your people up. It’s hard to carry out Blitzkrieg when you have to pause every couple of months to find ivory and gems. My military ambitions were foundering on the crabless shoals of unhappiness.
In one of my first attempts, I was Theodora of the Byzantines, and I felt I was doing pretty well. I had defeated the Arabs and Aztecs on my continent, established my religion and was slowly gearing up to embark across the seas and take on the Dutch and Swedish on their respective continents. Then I find that Sweden, who had been ahead on technology the whole game, was building spaceship parts (which go towards a science victory) and completing them disturbingly quickly. I had to bring my invasion plans forward, so in 1928 I cobbled together an invasion force for "Operation Hurdy Gurdy Burt Bork Bork" with the aim of distracting Gustav from going to Alpha Centauri.
So, because of this:
I had to do this:
The invasion went OK for an ad hoc campaign. I took half of Gustav's cities and was heading towards his capital when he built the final spaceship part required to win. It was like if, after losing the battle of Cannae, the Romans just said "Actuatus Propositum B!" and evacuated to the Moon. Losing to a science victory hit my Civ strategy flush in the gonads — I wasn’t the Smartest Guy in the Room anymore.
I started again, same settings, this time with the Celts. I was determined to be more ruthless in the early game, to prevent anyone from getting a jump start like Gustav did. I made a research beeline for my signature unit, the Pictish Warrior, churned them out and loosed them upon the world.
A Pict-ure is worth a thousand words, amirite? High five!
I made a good start, taking some Korean, Babylonian and Siamese cities, but the Pictish Warriors ran out of steam. Once they became obsolete, it was payback time. All the other leaders hated my ravaging ways and teamed up against me. My supply lines were overstretched and I had no roads from my capital to my outposts, workers to build them, nor the gold to maintain them. I faced the combined retribution of Siam, Babylon, the Iroquois and Korea. My veteran armies were eventually broken on the anvil of the city of Si Satchanalai, as wave after wave of elephants, bowmen, Mohawk warriors and hwach'a ground me into dust.
This was as good as it got for the Celts. Note how I am pressed between Siam and Babylon, as well as the lone Mohawk warrior in the north, who will soon come back with 12 or so friends.
Like the Silesian knights against the nimble Mongolian horse archers at Legnica, my timeworn methods were meeting their match. I've always sucked at not being a warmongering dick in Civ V. Problem is, I now also sucked at being a warmongering dick.
Faced with my limitations, I did what many second-rate competitors do: imitate the winners. First I tried to ape Hazizi and Andy, starting up a French Civ with the aim of going for a culture victory. I knew that it hinged on building Stonehenge. I built it as fast as I could, chopping down all available forest to speed its production. I was 2 turns from completion when I hear the most disappointing sound effect in Civ V: the downturned, flanged trumpet note that plays when a Wonder is built in a faraway land before you. It's the opposite of a fanfare: a musical sneer, as if the trumpet player is playing with a cocked eyebrow and flipping you off. I have come to be very familiar with this sound. Germany had beat me to Stonehenge. I am nothing if not vindictive; many turns later, I nuked Germany, dropping 6 bombs in total. Germany took the high road and beat me with a diplomatic victory in the end, but at least I took my pound of flesh.
Oh, the humanity!
Spiteful nukings are fun and all, but I still wasn't winning. Despite trying the French strategy a few more times, I never got it to click. Adrift, I wandered over to CivFanatics, the repository of wisdom on all things Civ. I looked for forum threads where someone would lament that a certain civilization was way overpowered and demanded that a patch should come out RIGHT NOW to nerf their longhouses, companion cavalry or whatnot. I would think, "Great!" and play as that civilization, and then lose. I would report back to the forum users that I had played with the allegedly overpowered civilization and had been flogged, suggesting that no patch was perhaps necessary. Strangely, this was never received well. A common motif among the responses to my posts was to call my parentage into question. I was puzzled. Aside from my ancestry being irrelevant, I would have thought the forumites would be glad to hear that their favourite game is balanced after all.
CivFanatics did help me sharpen my game, though, and I found new value in features I had hitherto pooh-poohed. Apparently diplomacy is actually useful. If you're going to invade someone, it's best to denounce them first or it puts the other leaders offside. Sometimes you can just GIVE resources to another leader to keep them from attacking you, and research agreements are useful for staying in the technology race, even if you are ahead. I learnt that the first 100 turns are crucial and if you don't get a great start, you are pretty much stuffed.
Despite getting better, I was still not winning. My campaigns were generally coming undone at a similar point. Often I would win my continent, defeating my immediate neighbours after brutal and protracted wars. I'd expend a mighty effort to conquer the geographic equivalent of Europe, Asia and Africa, only to find that across the ocean was another continent, home to a unified AmeriCanadian civilization that, unsullied by conflict, had simply been growing happily, researching technology and experiencing centuries-long Golden Ages. They had built impressive world Wonders, spawned many Great People and every city had a university, opera house and solar plant. AmeriCanada was the Eagleton to my Pawnee, such that even I felt a bit guilty for invading them and burning their cities down.
If I tried the "live and let live" approach, AmeriCanada would simply out-awesome me and win a science, culture or diplomatic victory. If I invaded, AmeriCanada would have the home ground advantage, while I faced the near-insurmountable logistical difficulty of resupplying an invasion force from across an ocean.
Thus I would suffer agonisingly close defeats, played out over a weekend or numerous late nights, being constantly behind and scrambling to get ahead. During these games, every decision appeared crucial: Research Writing, or Mining? Build a farm, or a trading post? Choose a social policy from the Tradition, or from the Liberty branch? Should I drive my wife to the hospital, or complete this invasion of Arabia? It's one thing to crawl into bed at dawn having won a game of Civ, but to crawl into bed at dawn having lost? That makes you question your priorities, big time.
I despaired, beginning to think that I was destined only ever to be a middle power, say a Belgium or Australia, that could do OK for itself, maybe even punch above its weight for a few millennia, but would ultimately be trampled in the endgame by the superpowers. My Emperor save files were a litany of plucky countries that could get a podium finish at best, but for whom ultimate victory was just out of reach.
My attempt at a one-city Civ. It went ... poorly
To rub my nose in it, all this time while I was battling, Andy and Hazizi were consolidating their strategy and consistently turning out victories with the French. I rationalised that they were specialising in one strategy, with one leader, while I was using different leaders, learning multiple play styles, therefore I was the more well-rounded player. That excuse served me fine until Steam started alerting me that Andy was pumping out wins with other Civs: first as the Romans, then the Americans, then the Germans. I didn't get it. What was I missing? It was like not being able to see the sailboat in a Magic Eye picture.
A few months later, the three of us are at the pub with a bunch of friends. After a while we sequester ourselves to a table where Civ talk can happen without drawing puzzled looks. I come clean, confessing my travails with Emperor, explaining my "win the continent" dilemma.
"So I can deal with the first 4 or 5 Civs OK, but it always leaves the last 2 or 3 as superpowers that are too big to beat by the time I can reach them."
"You mean City States? I ignore them."
"No, other Civs."
"What are you doing playing with 7 other Civs?"
"What do you mean?"
"Don't you play Small maps? I only play on a Small map. Hazizi put me on to that. 8 civs, that's too much.
"Yeah man, they'll get you every time."
"Small. You gotta play Small. 4 civs, max. Otherwise it's too big. You can't do it."
The scales fall from my eyes. Suddenly a schooner comes into focus. The ship’s captain is wearing sunglasses and giving me finger guns.
A few days later, I set up a Small map Emperor with the Romans. I smash out a military victory in under 300 turns, capturing the capital cities of all other leaders, and I am ahead on technology the whole way.
It's good to be the Emperor.