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Gods & Kings? Civilization V is all about getting smashed

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.

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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.

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