Hazizi: OK Felix, nice to be back in the Cave. I’m glad you got rid of that smell! How did you manage it?
Felix: I drilled a ventilation shaft through the back of the cave. The shaft runs for 163 metres in a straight line and has a diameter of only 2 cm. The exit hole is somewhere in the study on the ground floor of your Palace of Enlightenment. Drilling such a narrow shaft for such a distance was incredibly difficult, painstaking, and required me to jerry-rig some equipment and develop engineering techniques hitherto unseen by man. I have sold some of my discoveries to mining companies, surveillance groups and espionage agencies. This skinny air shaft may win me a Nobel Prize or land me in Guantanamo.
Anyhoo, that’s why you haven’t heard from me for a few months. It’s also how I knew about your NFL fantasy draft choices….BEFORE YOU DID!!
Rightio. I wondered why my study ponged a bit. I thought it was an egg sandwich I left in a desk drawer.
Now last time I was in here we did a joint review of Civilization V [here it is], which we both quite enjoyed. I’d also like to add that the patches they’ve added since that early edition have done wonders (Wonders!!! BOOM BOOM!!!) for the game – removing glitches, improving the AI and balancing out the power of different buildings, units and social policies. And I think we might in part have Steam to thank for that, as the game designers can now monitor the success rates of different civilizations and strategies and tinker with the game mechanics to rebalance it.
That’s a good point about using game data for designer analysis … but I am still ambivalent about Steam. Although Steam is good at managing patches in the background and keeping the game up to date, it’s suckered people into accepting an always-on DRM regime. I’m not 100% comfortable with Steam being the doorman for my Civ, even if it currently is a very polite doorman who tells me if my friends are in the building. That could all change one day … what if Steam sold out to Facebook or Disney or something? Yeah. Think about it.
Now unlike last time we can’t review this one together because, well, I haven’t actually bought this yet. But I have spent an afternoon on mate’s couch watching him play, and I know you’ve been pumping some hours into it, so I’m thinking we do this one as a bit of a Q&A session, where I play the role of Tony Jones and take everything you say as a comment. I did make some preliminary judgements so I’d be interested to hear if my hunches were correct. So here goes…
Q. Firstly, the big ticket changes and additions, in no particular order, are religion, espionage, new Civs, new units, new resources, new wonders and improved AI. Is there anything I’ve missed there? And can you tell us about your early impressions of the game and thoughts as you started trying out the new stuff?
What you’ve missed in your list are the amendments to the existing Civ systems: combat, diplomacy social policies and science. Not every single change is a winner in my book, and it’s hard to itemise them all here. Here’s some notable biggies though.
Combat has been overhauled, largely for the better. Most notably, units now have 100 health rather than 10. This effectively means they can take more hits before going down. The insta-heal promotion doesn’t fully heal anymore either, it gives 50 points. There are new units and upgrade trees, most notably being the inclusion of First World War units before the more modern units. Crossbowmen upgrade to Gatling Guns, a ranged unit with only 1 tile range. Gatling guns are wicked.
Best of all, naval combat has improved to the point that ships are actually relevant. Ships now have either melee or ranged attacks, and melee ships can take cities. That’s right — beware the ancient era trireme rush!
On top of this, as I will discuss later, the AI is way better at combat.
Diplomacy has been substantially improved, mostly by being made more transparent. The diplomacy screen now tells you the consequences of different positions to take with a Civ. Finally I understand the significance of making a declaration of friendship or being denounced! You can check your diplomatic history with a Civ and see why they hate you so much. You can establish embassies – a great way to find their capital on the map.
Other Civs will change their opinion of you depending on your social policies. It’s funny when you secretly go Autocracy then other Civs pop up out of the woodwork to welcome you to the International Brotherhood of Fascists.
There are more things to do with City States: a larger variety of missions you can do to gain influence, and the option to bully City States for cash or units. Some City States also have unique resources that cannot be found on the map.
The tech tree has been puffed out to accommodate faith and for other reasons I suppose. Great Scientists and Research Agreements don’t give one free tech any more — they give you a number of turns’ worth of your research output. Instead of hoarding scientists for that advanced tech that takes 33 turns to research, there is incentive to hoard them until your science output is at its peak and then cash them in for maximum beakerage:
Overall, these improvements to the pre-existing systems of the Civ V make Gods and Kings a must-have, before you even get to the religion and espionage.
Q. Well, let’s go through the new systems. Firstly, religion. My first thought was that it was great to have religion back again. And while in some ways it is handled similarly to in Civ IV, there do seem to be some major differences. Your thoughts on religion in Gods and Kings?
Religion doesn’t spread along trade routes like in Civ IV. First you send a Great Prophet to a city and found your religion there. This city becomes the Holy City for your religion and it starts emanating religious pressure to other cities within 10 tiles. Cities subject to religious pressure will start to sprout followers of that religion, based on population size. The rate of follower-sprouting will depends on how many cities that follow the religion are nearby. If the city is near cities that follow different religions, it will sprout followers of each religion. Once more than 50% of a city’s population follows a religion, the city is said to follow that religion, and it becomes a node from which religious pressure exudes to other nearby cities. This process can be hurried along by missionaries, who go to other cities and convert people into followers of your religion, or inquisitors, who purge cities of followers of other religions.
Sadly, you cannot take other religions by conquest. If you capture the Holy City of another religion, you deprive them of their founding belief but you do not gain it for yourself in some kind of religious Highlander deal. Also if you capture another religion’s Great Prophet, that unit will remain a prophet of the other religion and cannot be used for yours.
I’ve had games where I’ve been drawn into entertaining minigames around spreading religion. I would compete with my neighbours as we sent missionaries and inquisitors off to vie for the hearts and minds of each others’ cities and the nearby City States, all while maintaining cordial diplomatic relations and pretending to be buddies. Missionaries also burn strength each turn that they are in enemy territory without open borders, so you can block them from reaching cities until they burn out and die, without inciting war by attacking them directly.
The Eurythmics foreshadowed this strategy in 1987:
Apparently religion affects diplomatic relations, such that others of the same religion are nicer to you, but in most games I played each Civ had their own religion. It may affect City States’ regard of you too though. The main incentive to spread religion is for the cumulative benefits derived from the belief bonuses, speaking of which …
Q. The major difference is that this time around they’ve tried to shoehorn it into another ‘bucket’ system, where you accumulate faith points and go up ‘levels’ when you have enough points. In the games I saw, each time you ‘levelled up’ in your religion you were presented with a bewildering array of possible bonuses. I much preferred the tree based system they used for social policies and just wish they had done something similar for religion. Maybe it’s not too bad once you get your head around the system. How are you going with it?
It is another bucket — you amass faith points through buildings or one-off boons and when you get enough to produce a Great Prophet, you can found a religion.
The belief bonuses are unique — once they are chosen by one religion, no one else can have them. Also, each time a Civ founds a religion, the faith cost of a Great Prophet for everyone who hasn’t founded a religion goes up, and there are not enough religions for every Civ to have one.
Whenever you get a choice to add a belief bonus to your religion, the choices can be daunting. Firstly, they are of different types — some bonuses that apply to your Civ as a whole, some only to cities that follow your religion, including other Civs and City States. I liked having to make a difficult choice between something of immediate but limited benefit — say, extra culture from wine and incense when you have only 1 city near those resources — or something that starts small but may be of large benefit later if you spread your religion far enough. The “best” choice may not be apparent, however some of the cumulative bonuses can be slow burners that pay off grandly.
In particular there is a bonus called Tithe that grants 1 gold for every 4 followers, which stacks to great effect for sprawling Civs that spread their religion, especially if City States follow your religion, because those guys just keep growing.
While religion can be an amusing diversion, you can ignore it completely as there are no victory conditions tied to it. That said, I kept getting sucked in to the faith game. I think it’s the scarcity — not wanting to miss out on getting a religion when all the other Civs have one.
Q. Now you’re a big Civ Rev fan, and I always thought that game handled spies in a neat and intuitive way. The new game has espionage too, but now you never actually see your spies, they’re just numbers on a screen. Do you think espionage has added to the game, and how do you think the new system stacks up against the way spies have been handled in previous Civ games?
Yeah, it sucks that you don’t get spy units to move around. It’s too impersonal. Nor do you control when you get a spy — the game gives them to you at the start of Eras. Spies’ functions are too limited to be useful. They can steal tech from other Civs, get some info about a Civ or its city (which is often useless) or be used to tinker with your influence rating with City States. What about sabotaging buildings, stealing gold, or converting other Civs’ cities?
It’s fun to steal tech, but after a while the Civs that have the tech you want wise up and put in protective measures that make it impractical. Using spies to shore up City State influence is handy, but also happens slowly over a number of turns and is too easily overridden by a Civ with deep pockets simply buying influence. Most times I just used my spies to protect against other spies. Perving on other cities is a little fun, I admit, but it’s hard to put that information to use.
This spreadsheet approach may be saying something about bureaucracy and espionage but it feels half-hearted. Considering how versatile spies were in Civ Rev and other Civ games, it’s disappointing. Those who hated spies in Civ IV and thought they were too powerful will be relieved that they’re not gamebreakers, and people like me who liked the extra layer of options they provided will be disenchanted.
Q. The first thing you notice when you start a game is, of course, that there a whole new bunch of Civs to try out. I had a look at the Austrians and the Dutch. Austria was great – you could just save up your cash and use it to buy city states outright. Have you had a crack with them? And which other new Civs have you tried and liked?
I’ve tried Austria, Byzantium, the Huns and the Celts, playing on Emperor. I haven’t won with any of them but had some enjoyable losses.
As you point out with Austria, cash is king. One thing to consider is that allied City States often give food, happiness and culture bonuses that you lose if you annex them, so buying out City States isn’t always a good idea. You can at least buy enough City States to deny a UN victory to other cashed-up Civs.
The Celts can be very powerful in the early game due to their Pictish warriors — pre-iron sword units who get a bonus outside friendly lands and earn faith with each kill. The Celts can drop off once the Picts become obsolete though and you need to plan for the inevitable backlash that other Civs will orchestrate against you after licking their wounds for a few centuries.
The Huns are also geared for early game aggression with their battering rams (which replace spearmen, subbing out a defensive unit for a city-taking unit) but it can end in tears if you’re not fully prepared for some protracted Classical Era war. I wasn’t, and it did.
I’ve also tried the original Civs playing against these foes and they can be tough to beat. As fun as it is being Austria, it sucks being against it. Watching Austria buy an empire of City States, nullifying centuries of hard work pumping up your patronage and currying favour can be crushing.
Q. And the new AI plays a much better game, I’m sure you’d agree. Have you noticed much of a difference?
I have, partly because the AI is a lot better at combat and partly because I’ve started playing on Emperor.
The AI pulls far fewer boneheaded moves in combat, which makes me realise I wasn’t as good a general as I thought I was. The newfound relevance of ships and the smart way the AI uses them makes coastal cities more vulnerable. You can also dock a ship in town and it will stack with any land unit garrisoned there, doubling up on defence. This alone broke a number of my sieges.
The AI is better at combining different forces too. For example, in one game I initiated a desperate modern era invasion of Sweden to distract it from building rocket parts. Sweden basically had a continent to itself at this point. I used boats, planes and land troops to take a couple of cities and establish a foothold, but the troubles started when I had to defend my new turf from the Swedish counter-attack. I was begrudgingly impressed when Sweden started using its anti-aircraft guns offensively — rather than let them sit and wait for my planes, Sweden turned them on my tanks and artillery, softening them up to be finished off by helicopters. Clever sods. Needless to say, “Operation Hurdy Gurdy Burt Bork Bork” ended in failure.
For a military aggressor like me, it seems that the defensive game is easier. Taking cities is harder and it’s easier to take cities back on the counterattack. I guess this brings other strategies to the fore, but when you play at difficulties higher than Prince, where the AI gets advantages over you in nearly every area of the game, it can be hard to come back if you lose the lead early.
Frequently I would “win my continent” and be the dominant Civ on my landmass, but then discover my true rival is the superpower on another continent — that other Civ that has also been expanding and outstripping me in tech, culture or gold (or all three). If I try to buddy up and be friends, the Civ will just go on to get a science or UN victory, and if I try to invade, it takes me ages to amass an invasion force and then I face problems of resupply while the other Civ is fighting on home turf with cities and roads to resupply lost units. Maybe Civ V is trying to teach me not to be such an invading jerkwad.
Q. And what about the new resources and buildings and technologies and stuff? Whaddya reckon? Huh? Huh?
As alluded to before, there’s a lot of tweaks, pokes and fiddles, not all of which I’m sure about. There are a few things I have noted.
Obviously, some of the buildings and Wonders have been adjusted to allow for faith producing buildings. Temples now produce faith as you’d expect and the good ol’ Stonehenge culture rush is off the table as that hunka limestone makes faith now. New Wonders are handy — Petra can make a useless village in the middle of a desert into a flourishing oasis, but if you don’t build it before someone else, you’re stuck with your crappy desert village.
Catapults no longer need iron and longswordsman have a reduced attack strength, so the rush to iron is no longer as effective a military strategy.
Resources give a little less happiness, but there are more of them. You’ll be pleased to see copper and pigs (well, truffles) make a return. It encourages more diplomacy to trade for resources.
The overall effect seems to be one that removes some strategic spikes and instead rewards the long slow grind, where you combine the decisions you make for your research, city building, tile improvement and social policies to augment your predetermined speciality. It’s deeper but somehow feels more restrictive, like a shrunken pair of long johns.
Q. The big question this release raised for me was: what the hell is it really? It seems to have lumped together a bunch of stuff that really should have been in a patch (the AI improvements), with a bunch of stuff that could have been optional DLC (the new Civs), with some other stuff that fundamentally alters the game (religion and espionage). It cost 50 bucks, so I guess you have to review it as a full priced game, but do you think the package justifies that?
Don’t forget the three scenarios! Fall of Rome in particular was interesting: if you play as Rome, you get a degrading social policy tree. Policies are penalties that are inflicted upon you as you lose cities. Having to choose between reduced gold income or deserting soldiers — ouch!
Honestly, I would have been happy with the tweaks to combat, diplomacy and social policies without religion and espionage — at a reduced price of course. Of the two extra systems, religion is the more interesting and I’ve yet to explore its full potential. The cumulative belief bonuses could provide some handy exploits.
For its price tag, it is a comprehensive package of changes, which they could have nickel-and-dimed you on by releasing in bits. Many of the changes to the tech tree and building functions are consequential upon the introduction of faith, such that it would be hard to unscramble the egg. Sure I wish it were cheaper, but it did what a good expansion pack should do — it dragged me back into a game that I had left alone for months. It also brought some of my coworkers into the game. They bought the Deluxe Civ V edition with Gods and Kings and all other DLC for the same price I paid for vanilla Civ V in 2010, so they’re up on the deal by $80 and a couple of hundred hours.
Q. I remember when Civ V came out I came up with a whole bunch of ways that Civ IV was better, yet after a couple of weeks of playing with hexagonal tiles, ranged combat and unstackable units there was no way I could have gone back. I guess that’s the big test for you here Felix. You’ve played this for a while now with all the new bells and whistles. Is there any way you could take yourself back to the pre-religion, pre-espionage days of plain old vanilla Civ V?
I agree, there is no turning back. The improvements to combat and diplomacy combat make it a must-have. Religion, espionage and the extra Civs and scenarios are bells and whistles.
Gods and Kings reinforces Civ V as a game about specialisation and steady accretion. It flattens out potential game changers like instant techs and megapowered Wonders and adds in more cumulative benefits. Pick a victory condition, choose a Civ that is geared to achieve it and grind out your strategy. I used to play Civ games with a “let’s see where this goes” approach, but such generalism hasn’t worked for me in Civ V beyond Prince difficulty.
On one hand, Gods and Kings has smoothed out some of the exploits and strategies on which I used to rely. As a result I have had to use more of the mechanics and systems to eke out an advantage, thus learning how better to play the game. On the other hand, I feel that if I don’t get a perfect start, I am doomed. It can still be fun to play out one’s doom, but it would be nice if there were more ways to dig yourself out of a hole, especially given that higher difficulty levels handicap you in relation to the AI.
Ok, thanks for letting me into the cave again man. See you back here for Civ VI. Wow, now there’s a scary thought.
In the meantime, there’s this other Firaxis game called XCOM … wait, where are you going?