Greatest Game of 2006: Civilization IV

“Just one more turn…”

With the possible exception of World of Warcraft and its real time strategy antecedents Warcrafts 1-3, the Sid Myer’s Civilization games have to be one of the greatest time sucks in the history of gaming. To hear tell of Civilization is to hear of marathon gaming sessions stretching well into the night, of wars that are… just… about… over , technologies that will turn the tide, cities to be built, and lands to claim. Civilization is about just that, the life and frequently, the death of a civilization.

Much like SimCity, you’ll be playing the eternal God-King who manages all aspects of a civilization, from type of government and economy to social freedoms and religiosity. The comparison to SimCity is a useful one, but it has its limits. Like SimCity you make all the decisions and handle all the infrastructure, but the scope of a Civilization game is much larger. Rather than one city you control many, rather than zoning you create farms and mines and other useful buildings for harvesting the world’s resources, rather than just see what happens, you have competitors and you go to war.

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It’s hard to say whether Civilization IV is a global simulation game with a real time strategy component and a flawed war mechanic or if it is a real time strategy game with a great simulation component and a flawed war mechanic. For its part, the simulation of building and running a civilization is tremendous fun. The game begins with exploration, land grabs, and conflicts with minor tribes before deepening to address the management of what you have. At a certain point you start to bump up against your neighbors and further expansion could mean war. Now’s the time to chose what kind of people you’ll be. Slaves or serfs? Monarch or tyrant? Pagans or Monotheists? Every choice has its pros and its cons and every choice will influence what you neighbors think of you.

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Speaking of your neighbors, Civ IV is populated with a smattering of civilizations from across the world, from big names in the ancient world like Rome and Egypt, to 20th Century Heavy Hitters like the US and USSR, to the big names of the future like China and India. Each civilization has its specific skill set, you pick yours and compete against some number of the rest, depending on map and scenario choices. Each has their own leaders with various personalities and peccadilloes. If its late in the game and Montezuma isn’t attacking anyone, he’s about to attack you. Gandhi is always up to trade technologies and Tokugawa almost never is. And beware Catherine the Great for she is a fickle friend. Of course the end result of all the diplomacy is often war and that’s where Civ IV runs into some trouble.

Gearing up for war is a relatively simple affair, build some up-to-date units and head off to stomp on a tiny neighbor or a troublesome barbarian kingdom. Your musket men meet their swordsmen and their swordsman dies. If they’ve got a city, you use siege weapons like catapults and cannons to batter down their defenses then seize the city or burn it to the ground depending on you territorial ambitions and desire to defend it. This is all standard stuff that goes back at least as far as board games, the problem for Civilization IV’s warfare comes down to two things, time and time.

The first problem is that this all takes too long. In the real world, you at your computer, it takes you a long time to prosecute a war. The hours flow away and disappear into the night, and suddenly its 3am and those mother #$%^ing French are still hanging on.

The other problem is that this all takes too long. In the simulation of your civilization it can take hundreds upon hundreds of years to fight one war against one other civilization that doesn’t even end in the destruction of either civilization. The issue is how the game time is scaled. In the early going each turn takes up a large number of years and as time moves forward each turn takes up fewer and fewer years. This is done to reflect the accelerated path of technological development and to allow for modern warfare to happen at a realistic pace. But that choice means that combat in the past happens at an unrealistically slow pace, situations arise where it takes a unit 100 years to move a distance that leaves it in sight of where it was the turn before. It’s silly and distracting and it almost kills the game. Almost.

Despite its combat flaw Civilization IV is a great game. The gameplay is wildly compelling, the urge to keep clicking over to the next turn just making one more improvement is tough to resist. And as a history nerd and a civics nerd I can’t help but love playing out all the odd improbable scenarios that pop up when you start a new scenario. Spain, Japan, the Aztecs, and the Indians square off around and inland sea. Or the map is our world and each civilization begins where it actually began, how will history develop differently. Find out which civilization is best suited to mountainous terrain or a world of mostly water. It’s all there for you to try and try again as a different civilization.

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