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Adventure One: Declaration of Independence

And now what folks were asking to see, some commentary from me on the mechanics of Civilization V. (Raise your Wall Of Text shields now!)

First I want to start with the food and city growth mechanics. I actually have some related experience, since growth and costs in Jon Shafer's Final Frontier mod for Civ 4 worked similarly. In short, "too much food" is the reason Civ 5's growth mechanics give the feel of not fitting together quite right, and Final Frontier was the same way.

Thanks to the bigger city radius and dense distribution of bonus resources, it's very easy for most Civ 5 cities to have three or four food resources, compared to one being typical in Civ 4. And the granary and watermill and maritime city-states add more on top of that. And 4-food farms on regular tiles are available much earlier in Civ 5. It's virtually always correct to add these food sources to a new city right away, because the first few population points are cheap to grow and pay back very quickly.

This all breaks the growth curve as compared to every other version of Civilization games. Beyond your initial boost of food resources, city growth stabilized and then leveled off as cities would start working plains tiles and specialists. This doesn't happen right in Civ 5 because the food supply is too huge. As I saw here, cities can move into the industrial age still bearing food surplus of 15 or more without really trying. Where Civ 3 and 4 limited that food production with hard size caps or health penalties, Civ 5 keeps right on roaring by adding even more food with Fertilizer and hospitals and escalating the maritime CS bonus.

So then to keep city sizes reasonable on the high end, Civ 5 needs the exponentially increasing food requirement for growth. (Final Frontier behaved similarly with a linear but very high cost.) But even that doesn't level off cities where they should be, just makes them take longer, long enough that the game will end first. Civ 5 and FF literally rely on the game ending before city sizes max out. Push the payoff past the event horizon of the end of history.

Yet I understand the reasoning and thrust behind all this, perhaps in a way that Civ 5's detractors don't, and twofold.

First, it is realistic. With the advent of mechanized farming in the twentieth century, food supply is no constraint at all for modern cities in the developed world. What would happen if the flow of food into New York doubled? Pretty much nothing, it would just go unused. Civ 5 actually reflects this.

Second, Civ 5's big food supply makes for much more newbie-friendly game play. Browse the Civ 4 strategy forum at Civfanatics and you'll see endless reports from new players with cities languishing around size 8 in the industrial era, with the player wondering why he can't get more money and can't keep up with Noble level AIs. We Civ 4 veterans know to fight for every food stalk against the temptations of working a mine or specialist. That is not at all obvious to your average mainstream player (or, importantly, game reviewer.) It's very very easy to leave a Civ 4 city at just +2 food, while Civ 5 seriously compresses the gap between bad and good city management. And growth is always to the good in Civ 5: added citizens don't penalize you with maintenance, but rather are automatically productive with a beaker and a gold from the trade route.

So Civ 5 makes the whole growth curve much more realistic, automatic, easily accessible, and harder to screw up. I won't slam Civ 5 for that. It is what it intended to be. No law of the universe says that food and population growth must be the linchpin of a 4X game or even a Civilization game.

Yet why does this sit so badly with us veteran players? Lack of interesting decisions. The cities are all the same because they all grow on autopilot. No variance. The small differences of building eligibility like the stable or watermill or observatory aren't enough to differentiate. Civ 5 has no interesting niche cities like a fishing village or small heavy whipper or religious shrine or dedicated specialist Great Person farm or military powerhouse with a Heroic Epic and many settled great generals.

Besides the free-flowing food, it is also Civ 5's lack of highly leverageable productivity multipliers that creates this condition. We all know about bending entire Civ 4 game plans around Oxford University or Globe Theater drafting or religious shrine income. Even if food doesn't differentiate cities, good national wonders could. But Civ 5's aren't strong enough (aside from the Hanging Gardens). If you want to add 8 hammers, you don't need an Ironworks, just grow two population and work mines.

But there's also a defensible reason for that. One unit per tile. 1UPT means that army sizes cannot grow larger as the game proceeds. No matter what, there will only ever be six hexes adjacent to a target unit or city and only about six units can usefully participate in an attack. Build more units and they end up uselessly loitering stuck behind your own front lines. 1UPT means that city hammer productivity must be sternly restrained in the later game, no massive inflation like Civ 4 quadrupling hammers with levees and factories and railroads. And for what hammer development is allowed, the cost of units must escalate to match.

And if unit production must be limited with small hammer multipliers and escalating costs, then everything else has to follow those same rules. Buildings have to cost a lot, or else you'd build nothing but buildings and ignore the overpriced units. Food growth cost also must escalate drastically, or else you'd ignore cost-ineffective hammers and simply grow linearly with food onto more tiles. And thus we end up with the sentiment of "nothing interesting happens in Civ 5", because everything has to be nerfed in line with the fact that army sizes cannot grow.

So I'm not the first to make this observation, but yes, all the mechanical difficulties of Civ 5 stem from the mechanic of one unit per tile. Everything else gets bent and constrained to fit into that system, where the costs of units and buildings and growth must all escalate drastically. Here's the core of where opinions diverge about Civ 5. One camp says that 1UPT was a horrible idea for a Civilization game, that it can't possibly work and all of Civ 5's development and testing was stupid for trying. The other camp appreciates the attempt and sees that Civ 5 is actually a pretty playable game within the axiomatic constraint of 1UPT combat. I am not yet sure in which camp my allegiance will lie.

Now let's talk about the global happiness cap. You basically get some amount of happiness headroom for free: whatever luxuries you snag plus a number of fixed additions like natural wonders and no-brainer build items like Notre Dame. Beyond that, you have to work hard for any additional happy, by building ever more expensive buildings in each city. Once again, this makes Civ 5 easy to play up to average competence for novices and game reviewers, while compressing the headroom for strategic choices at the higher end.

But then the mechanic works exactly the opposite of how it was intended. In the later game, you cannot add more happiness to existing cities once they've done their buildings. The only way to add more happy is to settle MORE cities to build more colosseums and theaters. That's exactly backwards compared to what the mechanic is supposed to be. The most happiness can be had by ICSing into every tiny gap. Or it would be if not for the same saving grace as the food growth mechanics: the payoff takes so long that it's cut off by the event horizon of game end. Funnily enough, all the backwardsness does kind of work into a reasonable strategic balance between expanding or not, based on payback horizon.

Social policies at least are certainly a bright spot in strategic choices. I found myself always looking ahead and anticipating the next few social policies, and it seems there's quite a bit of decent thinking about different paths to take. There are flaws: the exponential cost is another victim of the 1UPT paradigm; if the costs were lower, it'd be correct to just build culture and grab policies ahead of other development. Many of them are too weak to mean anything (seriously, +5% hammers from the Liberty production policy?) And it doesn't always feel like the policy effects hang together into a coherent whole (what does lowered policy cost have to do with a Golden Age?) But overall it's quite a good mechanism, making culture much more relevant besides the single border pop and occasional cultural victory.

I also wholeheartedly approve of removing the gold/research/luxury slider. In most other games (and real life), research is effected by spending money, but the slider was not an intuitive method of implementing that, and the luxury part of the slider has been outdated for some time in Civ games. I often lamented the fact that gold was pretty useless in Civ 4 where the one right decision was always to channel it into research by deficit, so it's great that Civ 5 got gold out from under that shadow. (And makes sure you know it by handing you tons of free gold from ruins and city-states and such.)

I will chide Civ 5 slightly for the shortcuts through the tech tree, lightbulbing and research agreements. Yeah, they're not very interesting strategically because they're just always right to do; a lightbulb is pretty much always superior to any other Great Person use (aside from artists for culture victory) and an RA is always worth more than its cost from Renaissance onwards. But they're not terrible and don't break the game. And simply choosing your lightbulb target is way better than Civ 4's silly lightbulb mechanism of avoiding learning certain techs.

Finally, there's the war mechanics and AI behavior. Through this one game and part of the succession game, I actually kind of like the way these work out. I don't mind the Civ 5 AIs unpredictably declaring war. Civ 4 was way too peaceful, I played many games never building a single military unit between chariots and riflemen. And realistic nations have minor fights over borders all the time. The frequent wars in Civ 5 give you a reason to research and build and try out each new unit, while the AI's tactical incompetence means you won't get hurt by doing it wrong or unfairly knocked out of a competitive event. Frequent incompetent wars are novice-friendly, and in a way that doesn't hurt or constrain experienced players. I approve of Civ 5 here, at least for the moment after a game and a half. (All that Friendship and Denunciation stuff is pretty silly though.)

All in all, Civ 5 was worth playing so far. I'll get enough out of it to justify the $7.50 buy and probably also the video card. There will be more: I'm itching to play a game for a culture victory now, and also want to play a dedicated conquering game and to win at least once on Deity. No, Civ 5 does not and will not top Civ 4, but it doesn't necessarily try to. I've been able to enjoy Civ 5 for what it is, so thanks to SevenSpirits for getting the ball rolling for it at Realms Beyond.