The title should tell most of my readers everything they need to know about why I haven’t been writing much lately. I’ve been a fan of the Civilization series for a long time, having played all four of the main titles plus Alpha Centauri (including Alien Crossfire) and a few inferior knockoffs from other development shops. Civ2 will probably always reign as the best game for its time. It fixed some of the major combat-system warts in the original, such as spearmen defeating tanks, and added a whole bunch of other neat stuff. Spies were more fun in Civ2 than in its successors, and there were several other interesting units. I was always fond of paratroopers as instant city garrisons, and wonder why they seem to be absent from Civ4. Civ2 also made diplomacy more interesting, though the “everyone hates you” phenomenon was still gallingly prevalent, and having to manage happiness as well as money presented an interesting challenge. Taking a slight detour, Alpha Centauri’s “design workshop” that let you design your own units based on components absolutely rocked, and is still unique among the group. AC also had a few other conceptual improvements that I’ll get to later, and might be the best game overall. Civ3 had diplomacy that actually kind of worked, enemy AI that wasn’t totally stupid, and the new dimensions of resources and culture. It almost seems like it should have been better than Civ2, but somehow I just never got into it as much. That’s about enough history, though. What about Civ4?

The first thing I noticed about Civ4 is that it’s fantastically slow. My machine’s no speed demon, but it’s no slouch either, but the only game that has ever seemed slower relative to the technology of its day was Master of Magic. I guess all of that 3D-view eye candy and smart AI take their toll, but neither provides any excuse for the five-second lag between clicking on an improvement on the city screen and having it appear in the production box. That’s just ridiculous, and some programmer somewhere should be hanging their head in shame for it.

The next thing I noticed was the changes in the combat system. Instead of having separate attack and defense values and numbers of hit points as in Civ3, units now have a single power value plus special abilities (which may in practice give some units a higher defense value) and the potential for promotion. There are many promotion paths that make units better at attacking or defending cities or in particular terrain, make them heal faster, allow them to use enemy roads (similar to the Civ2 partisan) etc. This allows you to specialize units for certain tasks, except that promotions are mostly based on experience. Some improvements and wonders and so on allow you to build units with a certain level of initial experience that allows you to pick which promotions to apply, but in general you can’t just go out and build a highly specialized unit. This is where Alpha Centauri’s unit-design capability still provides a superior alternative; more specialized units carry a cost in both player time and in-game resources, but they’re often worth it anyway and they can be built right off the bat. Speaking of Alpha Centauri, another thing I think it did right was separating government into multiple pieces, and this has been copied in Civ4. Unlike the several monolithic government types of Civ2 and Civ3, Civ4 allows you to adjust separate aspects separately. You select one each from five different sets of technology-based “civics” which represent your general style of rule (e.g. despotism or hereditary rule), economy (e.g. mercantilism or free market) etc. This provides a greater degree of flexibility than the old system, and I like it much better.

Other “management” changes in Civ4 include terrain improvements, health, and religion. In Civ4 there’s a greater variety of ways to improve the tiles around your cities. For example, you can now build pastures for squares with cows, pigs, or sheep. You can also use “work boats” (a kind of aquatic worker) to build fishing nets for clams, crabs, and fish. You can build lumbermills and plantations and wineries and others. Most interestingly, you can build cottages which grow into hamlets/villages/towns on their own and provide increasing amounts of commerce at each step. This might all seem rather mind-bogglingly complex, but the good news is that workers actually seem smart enough now that you can leave them alone – a very welcome change from previous versions where they were basically insane unless micromanaged. Health is the new replacement for both pollution and global warming. Certain city/terrain improvements (e.g. aqueducts, pastures) are good for health, and others (e.g. forges, mines) are bad. If a city is unhealthy, growth is slowed. After only three games at the lowest three levels I can already see that managing health is going to be an important aspect of play, but I actually enjoy it more compared to its Civ3 equivalents.

I’ve left religion until last because it’s both the most novel and the most complex addition to the game. To keep people happy, you need temples and such. To build those, you need religion, and religion isn’t free. Having a state religion and being the founder of a religion can also provide significant benefits, but here’s the key: religions aren’t free. Each of the game’s seven religions, which are otherwise exactly equal, is founded by the first civilization to discover a certain technology (e.g. polytheism begets Hinduism). Therefore, racing to obtain one of these technologies can be an important part of the game. Religion also affects diplomacy, in the sense that civilizations that share a religion are likely to get along better than those that don’t. Religion can be spread along trade routes, and also by special “missionary” units. I have to admit that I haven’t really figured out everything about religion yet – the documentation isn’t as good as it should be – but it’s yet another interesting aspect of play.

Overall, Civ4 represents perhaps the biggest jump in complexity in the series. All games in this category are to some degree about military conquest, but that’s less true of Civ4 than of the others. To succeed you also need to manage money and happiness and resources and culture and health and religion, requiring a much more careful balance of domestic and foreign policy. It might yet turn out to be the best game.