David Louis Edelman David Louis Edelman

Sid Meier’s “Civilization IV”

I’ve been a longtime fan of the Civilization series of turn-based simulation games — ever since the first iteration back in the very early ’90s. But I held off buying the latest release, Civilization IV, for several months because of its horrendous quality control issues. (For more on those, just take a gander at all the nasty reviews on the Amazon page.)

Civilization IVBut finding myself in need of a major distraction a few weeks ago, I gave in and picked up a copy. Armed with the latest patch from the official website, I crossed my fingers and took the plunge.

Lo and behold — it turns out that Civilization IV fuckin’ rocks.

For those that don’t know the concept of the game, it goes like this: You start out a wandering tribe in the wilderness somewhere around 4000 BC. As the years advance, you build cities, research technologies, train armies, conduct diplomacy, and promote your civilization’s culture. The first one to either build a functioning spaceship or conquer the world wins. (There are other paths to victory, but these are the main ones.)

Simulation is always a tricky business. Complete verisimilitude is an impossibility in gaming, and not to be desired anyway. Do you really want to play a game where you vote on endless riders to appropriations bills in subcommittees? Do you want to play a first-person shooter where you need to press the I key every so often to scratch an itch? Of course you don’t. You want a game that provides a convincing gloss of reality while still remaining a game through and through.
And so you willingly put up with certain acts of shorthand in service of the larger goal. Your city is overcrowded and unhappy? Build a mine in the nearby hills where the precious gems are, and soon the citizens of your city are content once more. It’s long-term planning on the kind of ludicrous scale that never happens in real life — because what government really makes plans for its citizens a hundred, two hundred, a thousand years from now?

Civ IV introduces a number of useful improvements to the series, such as:

  • Religion. You can now discover religions, establish a state faith, and send out proselytizing missionaries. The game tries so hard to avoid offending anyone that it doesn’t even attempt a realistic depiction of the religions themselves. But from a game-playing standpoint, religions are a terrific way of spying on your enemies, cowing an unruly population, culturally dominating your rivals, and earning revenue. (Come to think of it, maybe this is an accurate depiction…)
  • Game play on one screen. In past versions of Civilization, you had to waste a lot of time switching back and forth between various views — the city view, the world view, the advisor view. This version cleverly manages to squeeze in so much information on the main world view that you can play probably 80% of the game there.
  • More realistic combat. Different units in the game now have different specialties that you can mix and match. Pikemen are much more effective against cavalry, for instance, than they are against swordsmen. And when you win battles, you can specialize even further by spending combat experience points for special unit abilities — a bonus when defending cities, for instance, or a bonus when fighting in the woods or against archery units. Most helpful of all, the game shows you a compact summary of your odds of winning every melee before you start the attack.

There are countless other improvements both large and small, too many to list here. Mostly they fall under the category of giving the player easy access to information when and where you need it, instead of making you dig through a dozen screens to find it.

As for the much-ballyhooed stability issues, so far they haven’t made much of an appearance. I had one inexplicable midgame crash that ended up setting me back a couple of turns, but given that the game autosaves pretty frequently, that didn’t turn out to be much of a big deal.

I’ve also had good luck with the playability issues — the game runs pretty smoothly on my Shuttle XPC desktop (specs for the incurably geeky: 3.2 GHz P4 processor, 1 GB of RAM, ATI Radeon 9000 video card). The only times that the game would suffer an unacceptable slowdown was when zooming too far with the mouse wheel. In Civ IV, you have the ability to pan in for a close-up of an individual city or pan out to show the entire globe, just by flicking the mouse wheel. When you try to make that transition too quickly, the display slows to a crawl, which is understandable. (Of course, I may have cheated by turning off “high detail” on the landscape and switching off the “multiple-unit icon” feature.)

The only thing more satisfying than building a stable, self-sufficient civilization is building a civilization of stable, self-sufficient civilizations. But you’ll have to wait for the next edition of Master of Orion for that.

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  1. tobias s buckell on May 1, 2006 at 8:05 pm  Chain link

    Man, I’d never get anything done. I missed two weeks of high school, like nothing done at all ever… lost 2 weeks 2 years ago during the summer when I found freeciv :-)

  2. David Louis Edelman on May 1, 2006 at 8:53 pm  Chain link

    I hear ya. I’ve lost countless hours to these Civ games, not to mention (the original) Master of Orion. And Quake II. And Doom. And Jedi Academy….

    Damn, I’m a loser.

  3. Geoffrey Allan Plauche on February 13, 2008 at 2:46 am  Chain link

    One of the older versions of the game had an interesting bug/glitch (?) that a friend of mine and I discovered by accident and subsequently took advantage of in perverse sci-fi fashion.

    We discovered by accident some features of the game that when put together allowed for an interesting way to win the game and build bigger cities than is normally possible. We discovered that if you settle a city in a far off uninhabited location – Australia was the best – and if you starved the population to the point that it dropped down to one, you could disband the city and have it revert back to a settler unit, except that now it wouldn’t be tied to any other city for its upkeep. (If you do that too close to another of your cities the settlers will be tied to it for upkeep.)

    We also discovered that if you drop enough nukes it will start a global warming process and eventually turn all the land terrain features except for mountains into jungle. Now, of course, this royally screwed every remaining civilization on the map, depriving them of most of their crop land, wrecking their productivity and slowly starving them. We also discovered that we could use our upkeep-free settlers (we quickly learned to make a bunch of them before nuking the planet) to “terraform” all that jungle into prime crop land. Before long our cities were back up and running better than ever, while our enemies were being largely taken care of for us by mother nature. Then we proceeded to conquer and terraform the world at our leisure, and develop insanely high population cities.

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