God only knows how many otherwise productive hours of people's lives the Civilization series has stolen over its 20-year history. That turn-based structure is a work of time-sapping genius. Civilization V is out at the end of the month, and VG247 spent an afternoon with the game and its ambitious, ideas-filled new lead designer, Jon Shafer, to see how subtle changes to a classic formula are steering the series gently in a new direction.
Shafer started out in the fan community – he didn't become a developer until five-and-a-half years ago – and those years of experience playing Civilization have galvanized him with plenty of ideas about what to change.
“As a fan of anything, there are always things that you think you would do a little differently – or a lot differently. It wasn't hard for me going into Civ V because I already had these ideas about what I wanted to do,” he says.
“Soren Johnson [lead designer on Civilizations III and IV] used to play a lot of Civ when he was younger, and he had his own ideas for what he wanted to try in Civ IV too. It's a cycle of bringing in new people to try out new things and keep the series fresh.”
So what's new? It only takes a few seconds to see one major change; Civilization's maps have always been constructed from square tiles, but Civilization V has made the move to hexes, giving the world a more organic feel. Mountain ranges curve, peninsulas extend in less jagged formations, bow-shaped bays and sweeping beaches now show the limits of the world rather than straight lines separating land from sea.
“If you see things like 90 degree angles on the coastline, it reminds you that this is a game board, not a real world,” says Shafer, explaining the aesthetic reasons for moving to a hex-based system. “But looking at something like this, it's much easier to think 'I'm playing in a world,' rather than a computer game where I'm looking at a bunch of tiles. The thing about Civ is not just that it's a great strategy game; it's fun and addictive, but that it's got that idea of being in history. Some people only play for that. They don't even care about the strategy.”
There's a practical application, too; it's easier to tell how things are laid out spatially. There are no longer any diagonally-opposite mountain tiles that can't be travelled between. The UI is also clearer, hiding rarely-used unit options like Delete in a small submenu whilst making other options more prominent, and peppering the right of the screen with little notifications to help players keep track of what's happened and what's about to happen.
The Advisors from Civilization Revolution make a reappearance, popping up with a friendly reminder to end your turn if you've been staring expectantly at a newly-built city for the better part of five minutes without clicking the button.
Hexes also create a suitable playing field for Civilization V's new combat system, which, as Jon explains, has veered towards a more traditional RTS approach, with a wider and more tactically differentiated range of units.
“The change to the combat is probably the biggest change that has been made to the Civilization series as a whole,” Shafer reckons. “It was the first thing that we changed when we started. In previous games you'd just build as many units as you could, put 'em all in one big stack on a single square and send that out towards the other players' stacks, and generally, whoever had more won. So there wasn't a whole lot to it.”
In Civilization V, only one unit can occupy a hex, and positioning defenses tactically around a city is crucial to its safety. As an illustration, Jon makes a declaration of war against a neighbouring empire that appears to be taking up the production of uranium. Using naval units to clear the coast, he lands infantry to steal the uranium whilst bombarding the tanks and helicopters protecting it with distant artillery units and anti-air guns – and then, somewhat ironically, he nukes the capital city, a move that doesn't earn him any brownie points with any of the other world leaders.
Diplomacy has also been developed. Politicking now occurs not just between empire leaders, but between empires and neutral city states, another new feature for Civilization V. City states start popping up after the Medieval era, and though you can't conquer them, you can persuade them to ally with you, granting you tech bonuses, new units or cultural advantages.
Culture city states will tend to want you to impress them with a monument, where maritime city states might want a road to expand their trade system. Militaristic city states might just want a lot of money, or ask you to attack another city state for them. Competing for the allegiance of these non-player characters, as it were, adds texture and diplomatic depth to the multiplayer game.
“I wanted to bring a sense of what was going on in 19th Century politics into the game,” explains Jon, who specialised in the period in his history degree. “It's the idea of there being smaller powers that aren't trying to 'win'; they're there to grease the wheels of diplomacy between major powers, or have them fight over them.”
There's a lot new for Civilization V – the hex maps and changes to the combat system in particular change things substantially for long-term fans. But it's still good old life-stealing, just-one-more-turn Civ at its core. It still covers the same timespan of 4000BC to 2050AD, and it still revolves around exploring the tech tree, inching your civilisation slowly towards cultural and technological breakthroughs, turn by turn.
“It's the kind of game where you can change things quite a bit without necessarily changing the game,” says Jon. “You can keep iterating and doing new things without the series ever getting stale. It gets harder each time, of course – the graphics get better, and the UI gets better, but there are always different things you can do with the gameplay.”
While Soren Johnson and Shafer both believe that there can be as many Civilization games as there are designers, as long as it's got turns, tiles and six millennia of history to play with, Civ will always be Civ. “It's the idea of looking down on your empire from a birds-eye view, where you're not a king or a god, but an embodiment of the spirit of the nation... Civ isn't a game about history, but it's a game that uses history as a framework.”
Civilization's enduring and flexible nature have always made it suitable for adaptation – but is it still selling to the same people, that same core of mildly obsessive-compulsive PC gamers that lost their teenage evenings to the series?
“It's definitely expanding still,” says Shafer of the series's audience. “I feel that the basic premise of Civilization – to build a civilisation that will stand the test of time – is a theme that works really well, and that can be shaped in different ways, whether it's the PC line or Civilization Revolution on consoles or Civilization Network on Facebook, even. It can be moulded into those different forms and bring in a lot of new people.”
Civilization V is out September 24 in the UK and September 21 in the States.