Crispy Gamer

Complexity in Civilization

Since Civilization 5 released last year in early October, there has been a torrent of negativity spewed at it from the veteran Civ community. In comparison to previous Civ installments (primarily Civ 4), it has been labeled as “dumbed down”, “restructured for mass appeal”, made into a “casual game”…and the list goes on. The general feeling among Civ vets is that Civ 5 is the Wii of Civilization progression.

And yet, when I hear this, something just does not jive. I played every Civ from launch (okay, I may have been a little late on Civ 1, since I was around ten years old at a time when PC gaming truly was for nerds only), including Civ 4 and Civ 5. For each installment, I played probably around 200-500 hours total – not as much as the uber-vets, but still more than enough to have an adequate frame of reference. All versions were quite easy to understand and control because Firaxis (and before that, Microprose) specifically designed them that way. None of them has been as complex or “realistic” as the Europa Universalis or Hearts of Iron games. In short, a young person could easily pick up the game, learn all the mechanics and manipulate them quite adroitly within a few play sessions. Put simply, there is already a relatively low ceiling on how complex any Civ game can be. But let’s narrow the focus. Is Civ 4 the “adult strategy game” to Civ 5′s “Fisher Price Fun Time”?

To analyze this, we have to break both games down to their differing component features. Let’s take combat first, because it’s the most glaring difference. In Civ 4, you could stack as many units into a tile as you wanted and strategically, it only made sense to. Armies, both on the player side and the AI side were organized into “Stacks of Doom” (SoD). When considering how much strategy is involved in simply steamrolling a SoD across a map, landing it next to city, and pounding away at it, you begin to realize that war in Civ 4 was akin to a giant wooden maul with which you beat on your opponents.

Civ 5, on the other hand, in limiting units to one unit per tile, forces the player to take terrain into account, protect ranged and injured units, and just generally spend way more time planning, or “strategizing”. Where in Civ 4 you would routinely have giant SoD hammering away on each other or a city, in Civ 5, you have combat taking place across a wide swath of ground, often with many hotspots and lots of advances and retreats. Compare armies below:

121 Top: A giant army with dozens of personality-less units. Bottom: A war where every unit needs loving attention to survive.

If not definitely more complex, the player at least spends much more time considering movement and tactics. Next up would have to be diplomacy. Here, I just don’t see much difference between the two games. You can still trade resources (which are made much more important in Civ 5 for happiness reasons), gold and cities, make defensive pacts, join in cooperative wars, and even enter into non-formal “friendships” and denunciations. So what is missing? Civ 4 had religions, which were the main dividing lines between blocks of alliances. If I was Buddhist and you were Hindu, chances are, we weren’t going to be friends, until maybe later in the game. Does this add complexity? No, what it adds is arbitrariness. Instead of the AI disliking or liking you based on what you do (the actions you take regarding settling cities, gathering troops worryingly close, etc), the AI was disliking or liking who you are. In essence, it was almost like racism. It worked okay in Civ 4, but when you really analyze it, it was never the wonderful system that people remember it to be. Finally, you can’t trade maps or technologies in Civ 5. Does that make it less complex? I suppose in some slight way, but it does serve to keep all the different civilizations from instantly catching up to each other in the middle ages, making for a more varied game experience. If anything, diplomacy is a draw, with neither game being definitively more “deep” than the other.

 There’s the big debate between social policies and civics. Essentially, this boils down to what type of domestic policy your civilization is going to employ. In Civ 4, you were given a 5×5 list of choices and made to pick one from each column. Each choice had both bonuses and drawbacks. For the most part—and this has been confirmed multiple times by devs and their play-testing experiences—people had their chosen wartime civics and peacetime civics and would switch back and forth as needed. But even more common was that players would simply pick the least detrimental set of civics and then sit on them all game, never even bothering to check the civics screen again. Clearly, while the system wasn’t awful, it also wasn’t super-engaging.

Along comes Civ 5′s social policies. Here, instead of a random mish-mash of 25 civics, the player has their choice of 50 bonuses (no drawbacks). Now instead of locking yourself into wartime/peacetime alternates or just the “lesser of all evils”, you have a smorgasbord of desirable paths to take. In this way, you can play the same civilization in completely different ways each playthrough, effectively roleplaying differently each time. Greece of last game may have been all about expansion (with an ungodly settler creating ability) but the Greece of this game is all about defending its smaller borders (with the military bonuses to back it up). And because there are no detrimental factors to consider (other than losing out on alternate bonuses), visiting the social policy screen is a joy, not a chore.

But none of that answers the question of complexity. Is one system more complex or “adult” than the other? Only in the minutia. Civics, assuming you are really grappling with the system as all “veterans” claim to, was all about creating constant cost/benefit analyses. You had to factor in which drawbacks were worth suffering and which bonuses you needed, right now. On top of that you had to factor in the “Is this worth going through a few turns of anarchy over (anarchy being the game’s way of punishing you for switching civics)?” Social Policies, on the other hand, is more about budget management. First off, you have a limited amount of choices in one game, usually a bunch at the start and then less and less as the game goes on. You have to think to yourself, “I’m not going to get another policy for another 20 turns at least, I have to make this selection count.” You also have the tough choice between two or three policies that would all help you greatly, and you have to make the tough call (like choosing between which of your children survives). Both have a certain level of “complexity”, such that neither really stands out as deeper than the other, but I sure know which one I enjoy playing with more.

122 Social Policies are also prettier than Civics. But that's another irrelevant factor.

Happiness is really the only remaining difference between the two games, and here I can definitely throw Civ 4 a bone. The happiness and healthiness factors were certainly more complex than the current happiness system in place with Civ 5. From what I can remember, happiness in Civ 4 was all about production and when your city dipped into negative territory, the entire city would start shutting down, one citizen at a time. Health was all about city growth and having a stinky city (literally, there were stink lines), meant no growth or even starvation. The big difference between this system and Civ 5 is that it was city-based – every city had their own individual levels of health and happiness. Conversely, Civ 5′s happiness corresponds to production, growth and even military ability (it’s the all encompassing “how is my empire doing” meter).

This is a clear example, in my mind, of complexity for complexity’s sake.  I’m not sure how dividing up the different meters, not just between production and growth, but also between each city, helped make the game more “deep.” I suppose this type of gameplay appeals to the micro-managers among us, but in order to find this gameplay fun, you have to enjoy micro-management as a concept. In gaming, you can’t rely on a player’s own OCD to generate fun. If you make a gameplay feature all about the minutia, you have to really draw the player in and make the minutia fun in and of itself. I don’t believe Civ 4 did that, and from my point of view, health and happiness were just mild annoyances that I ignored until they went away (which they almost always did). But I digress, this isn’t about which system is more fun, it’s about which is more complex. Civ 4′s system is certainly more complex.

Totaling the score, we have Civ 5 with deeper combat, Civ 4 with deeper happiness, and a draw across the rest of the board. That, essentially, denotes a tie (and if you had to pick between Civ 5′s war and Civ 4′s happiness, I think we all know what everyone will pick).

One small caveat: There is a big difference between design and execution. Many may be thinking “He didn’t even talk about AI!” This is because AI, and how good it is at playing the game against you, is all about execution. Civ 5′s AI is not even close to on-par with where Civ 4′s AI ended up being by the last patch. Civ 5 is still growing, with new patches coming out every two months, so this gap will narrow over time. Still, this current difference does not address design complexity though. It may make the AI a more fun opponent in Civ 4, but “more fun” does not equal “complex”.

This article can also been seen at Brian Mardiney's Objectivist Gamer website. 

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