Gods & Kings? Civilization V is all about getting smashed

Thursday, 21st June 2012 08:33 GMT By Brenna Hillier

Keen to get on board the latest on dit, Brenna Hillier ventures into Civilization V, but her empire crumbles when she runs screaming in terror.

Civilization is not the delightful sandbox its cheerful UI would have you believe. It is a hard as nails wargame about smashing everybody around you in one way or another. I deeply respect any gamer with the brains and balls needed to survive Civilization V’s brutal online multiplayer scene.

Not long ago I wrote a burblingly happy account of how I’d learned to play Tropico, despite previously having no skills in simulation or strategy whatsoever. I received several sharp rebukes from more able friends about the relative easiness of managing Kalypso’s banana republic, which was quite humbling as I’m still struggling with the later stages. I may as well confess immediately that I’m also still finding difficulty with Civilization V.

If you’re not a PC gamer, or tend to stay away from strategy and its ilk, you may be unaware of just how big a deal Civilization is. Here’s a clue: it’s really big. It’s the third most active game on Steam at time of writing. It’s the only single-platform game 2K publishes because it’s one of the biggest-selling PC series. The upcoming Gods & Kings expansion isn’t even out yet and hardcore fans are already filling page after page of forum thread with detailed analysis of its content and the most effective uses of it.

I’m completely rubbish at it.

Vertical learning curve

Here’s how I attempted to learn to play Civilization, a process I have initiated with the third, fourth and fifth entries in the series and will no doubt try again with Gods & Kings. I load up the game and choose the tutorial scenario. I carefully follow the prompts the game gives me and studiously memorise the information provided. I establish a small civilisation and am pleased with how it flourishes. Then the tutorial ends.

The tutorial almost always finishes with a happy little message about the open-ended nature of the game, encouraging me to become familiar with the multiple victory conditions and delightedly asking how my civilisation will flourish over the span of history. At this point, Civilization feels like a sandbox. I am filled with anticipation of the fun ahead of me.

This is the last time I will enjoy myself with the game ever again. A few clicks later something awful will happen; barbarians will rage out of the darkness, the AI will encircle and destroy me, or I’ll just come to realise that there is no way I can meet any of the victory conditions with my tiny empire. My civilisation crumbles away to nothing – or at best, I “win” on the lowest difficulty, with the lowest possible ranking, because time ran out while the AI was stuck in a randomly generated map of complete injustice.

Gods & Kings makes things even more

The next time I play, I’ll set out with some specific goals. I’ll pick a rule with bonuses which match my planned strategies, and position my cities carefully for the correct resources. Over a series of devastating losses I’ll experiment with different tactics and approaches, and learn the gameplay mechanics behind all the little charts and how to avoid them. Eventually, I’ll look up a strategy online, which will be something like “play as the Romans and start on an iron resource; spam swordsmen and win before the Renaissance”. I will succeed – to some degree – following the detailed build plans set out in this guide.

It will be as unsatisfying a victory as if I’d been watching the AI battle it out. At the end I will have no better idea of how I achieved anything. The miserable, starved and rebellious citizens of my empire will fill me with no sense of satisfaction, nor will the carefully selected Wonders and technological advances I’ve granted them.

Not a sandbox

At an obligatory social event, my prowess as a gamer (read: individual with the slightest knowledge of games) was touted and a distant relative sought my advice. They’d been playing an arguably similar city-building game and wanted some tips about multiplayer.

“I really enjoy building my town, but when I go online I just get wiped out straight away,” he complained. “People just make armies and smash me while I’m installing farms and upgrading roads. It’s not fair.”

My answer, as I said it aloud, suddenly struck me as equally applicable to my own struggle with Civilization: it’s not really about building the best city, it’s about using the city as a means to an end. And that end is, almost inevitably, destroying your opponents.

This pleases me as little as it did my disgruntled cousin. Civilization is not the delightful sandbox its cheerful UI would have you believe. It is a hard as nails wargame about, yes, smashing everybody around you in one way or another, and in order to succeed, you need to approach it with a rigid end-goal; a detailed knowledge of how the game’s many units and factions fit together; and a grasp of tactics flexible enough to see you through whatever is thrown at you.

I deeply respect any gamer with the brains and balls needed to survive Civilization V’s brutal online multiplayer scene. And I’m going to hide under my desk until they go away.

Civilization V is available for Mac and PC. Its first major expansion, Gods & Kings, is out now in the US and arrives elsewhere on June 22.



  1. GrimRita

    To be fair, moving from Tropico to Civ 5 is a big mistake if you’re kind of expecting the same treatment. Civ 5 has extremely poor AI and from being your friends one turn, they can become your enemies, invade your land and you are left helpless until its your turn.

    When I play this, I always expand my borders with care and ensure that I have a supply line of units to keep me protected in case the AI decides to start a war. And because one starts, they ALL seem to bloody start.

    If you want a good sandbox game with a hint of combat, Casear IV is probably the best one out there, if a little old. They tried to reboot the series a few years ago but it had a poor UI and was plain dull.

    #1 3 years ago
  2. OlderGamer

    The new expansion changes a lot of the ai issues, Grim, esp where city-states were concerned. Now I am not saying it is people level, but apears a large step forward from where it was. The expansions reminds me of Civ iv in a lot of ways. But of course with better tactical combat and city states.

    Brenna, playing civ is like jumping into an EA sports game for the first time. There is so much imformation being thrown at the player, it can be hard get a foothold. And the buttons are overwhelming(esp for a nongamer), and the games move at a pace it will lose most people. And that is just a game of soccer or football.

    Something like Civ is a beast.

    It is a game for grown ups(not implaying you aren’t of course) just saying that it takes time to learn and understand. And even more time to get good at it. And if your going to play online, you prolly shouldn’t. Most online gamers have found ways to optimize the systems in a game to a point where it would seem like cheating to anyone that doesn’t know how to do what they are doing.

    if you want to cut your teeth on a game of Civ, go buy civilization revolution for the consoles. A full game start to finish can take two hours or less. It lacks the depth of the PC game, but it is very pick and play friendly. Very console oriented. And you can learn the basics of a game of Civ.

    Civ V esp now with the new expac, will do what every game in the franchise has been doing for me thus far, it will last me years. But that is the kind of game it is. It is deep. Tolearn it, you have to accept that you can play the game not know or understanding chunks of it. But you will learn as you go. There is also very tiny maps where you can play the game vs one PC ai. Also I know in games past you could turn off the ai completly and just play/build your own nation. Not too sure if you can do that in Civ V, I haven’t tried.

    Games like Civ are why I am completly happy on PC(and the indie scene too of course), I need more then twitch gaming and blood splatered screens. If the game looks apealing(but daunting) my advice to turn off the ai and stick with it. Then start playing on lowest settings. You can even turn off the barbarians(found in advanced setup). You really can customize the experience. You will learn as you go. I have 600plus hours on Civ V thus far, i will easily top 1000. By far my fav all time franchise.

    But to be fair no game is for everyone.

    #2 3 years ago
  3. DarkElfa

    Unless this expansion cuts the time between rounds later in the game down to less than 20 minutes, I’m good on Civ 5.

    #3 3 years ago
  4. Sini

    Foolish woman, Europa Universalis III 5.1 is where it’s at.

    #4 3 years ago
  5. DSB

    Wow, you suck Brenna.

    Civilization is really pretty simple, and it’s never been more so than Civ V. Once you realize that the whole thing revolves around happiness, production, culture and research points, it’s really pretty hard to lose.

    If you don’t recognize the value of every tile or how it influences those resources, then you’re probably handicapping yourself from the start. If you do put yourself in a spot where your city can grow while producing at a decent rate, then making enough military units to at least defend yourself against attack, really isn’t that difficult.

    It does have loads of things wrong with it at the moment though. It’s exclusively a wargame. I was hoping G and K would change some of that, but diplomacy is every bit as idiotic as it always was. In my current game, I just destroyed an invading army utterly, and for that the invader is willing to sue for peace, just as long as he gets every luxury resource, every strategic resource, all my money, and free passage throughout my nation.

    That’s not a demand that any halfway sensible politician would ever make, let alone agree to.

    Sadly it’s just extremely crap at letting you play like any kind of responsible leader, and that’s pretty serious for a Civ game. Total War actually does a better job of it, and that’s actually supposed to be a wargame.

    @3 The latest patches have cut the time down dramatically, but they also seem to have added a range of new bugs. Firaxis are on a roll with this one.

    #5 3 years ago

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