With Gods & Kings, the new expansion to Civilization V ,released a couple months ago, the Civilization series has sort of come full circle. I first came into the series with Civilization II (and the AWESOME human advisors in that game), but it was the fourth installment that really hooked me on the series. Though I loved the scope and sense of power and responsibility that rested in my hands in the earlier iterations, Civ IV made that look like child’s play in comparison. It piled on the new features, from religion to civics to altered combat, all while fixing the interface and presenting the game in glorious 3D. But the game was even larger than that, as multiple expansions—as well as the ability to mod the game to produce new content—created a plethora of new ways to interact with the game world. You could focus on establishing a condensed religious state, but you could also play an expansive and aggressive empire. Or you could set up a network of spies, or create your own corporation and try to stretch its impact all over the world. The game burgeoned perhaps a bit too large, with the sheer mass of options being overwhelming at times, but I nonetheless spent countless hours playing as every civilization, in every style of play, across every map. The wealth of options, while daunting, allowed me to discover the riches of the game through multiple civilizations, and thus multiple eyes. Like with most civilizations throughout history, the more optimistically and idealistically I tried to run my civilization, the harder and faster it fell.
From this style of play came Civilization V. For one so invested in the scope and depth of the fourth game, Civ V seemed a little lacking. Don’t get me wrong: it was still a great game, and there were plenty of new options to it. Combat was redone to be more tactical, and required advanced planning. Social policies provided unique bonuses that differentiated civilizations, making each feel customized. And City-States added a layer of complexity not only through your interaction with them, but with other civilization’s interactions with them as well. It had depth. But it felt simpler as well. The interface was streamlined, with hexagons replacing the squares of old. Most importantly, however, was the fact that many of the mechanics that allowed Civ IV to become this daunting mass of options were cut from the game. Gone, among many other things, were religion and espionage, two gameplay mechanics that allowed players to interact with the world in specialized ways to produce radically different effects. Lost to the history books was my shadow empire of spies, all curiously named James Bland, and my alliances with other civs based on religion, all of which would end with war being declared on some hapless infidel. It was sad that it always seemed to be de Gaulle who would take the brunt of our holy crusades. Actually, it was always pretty damn satisfying.
I could see where the developers were coming from with the changes they made to Civ V. And in many ways, simplifying and streamlining the Civilization series allowed for the game to focus on what was most important, such as the diplomatic relations between civilizations, and the sense of strategy and preparation needed to wage war. It also made the game easier to learn, and thus widened its appeal. But for me, the plethora of options in Civ IV helped me personalize each game world I was in. Because when I play Civilization, I try to bring the world to life in different ways: explaining my scout’s strange movement patterns, giving skirmishes certain battle names and writing down a history of war between me and George Washington. I could still do much of that that—and you better believe I did—but the lack of components that had become so familiar, and have such influence in our actual history, made the Civ V world seem a bit lacking. It was still a fantastic game, but the heft of its predecessor muscled it out of the spotlight a bit.
Which brings me to Civ V: Gods & Kings, and how the time I’ve spent with it is making me think about the future of the series. Gods & Kings marks the return of those features I had been missing, chief among them being religion and espionage. Futhermore, it does them better than previous iterations, taking advantage of the clean and simplified interface of Civ V to make it easier—as well as more appealing—to engage in the multiple styles of play the game allows. Religions are customizable, allowing players to choose bonuses that make sense with their setup. I like this particularly because it establishes a whole new way to play the game while also taking the effort to make it seamless with the other areas of the game. As for espionage, it has a neat little rpg mechanic that levels up operatives who’ve stolen technology or acted as counteragents. It’s successful because as a mechanic it feels different than other parts of the game, adding more variety to the way in which it is played. So now that the game combines the clean style and streamlined performance of the fifth game with the depth and sophistication of the fourth game, where does Civ go to innovate?
To good old board games, it turns out. I can think of two games, Small World and History of the World, which both have a gameplay mechanic Civ can pilfer and put to use. (And no, it’s not the use of “World” in their title.) Though one game is set in a fantastic world with Stout Halflings and Flying Skeletons, and the other traces the rise and fall of civilizations across time, both have players taking advantage of multiple civilizations en route to conquering the board in front of them. The specific mechanic they use hinges on the idea that each civilization a player chooses will not last the whole game, and as a result, players need to select multiple civilizations to succeed. In Small World, you can put your current civilization in decline, and a turn later choose a new one. Your old civilization makes way for the new one, but still maintains a bare-bones presence on the board. When your new civilization has expended its usefulness, and gotten you the most points it can, simply put it in decline and repeat the process. This mechanic allows a player to control multiple civs while at the same time maintaining an overarching storyline.
It is this sense of power shifting and changing over time that could push the Civilization series in a fruitful new direction. When a game of Civ starts, each player (Human or AI) starts its civilization by building their first city. The differences begin from even that early in the game, but after each civ has started, there is no going back. Civs may rise or fall based on what their build is, and how they interact with other civs, but no new civilizations arise. They are only discovered or destroyed. While this has proved an addictive formula, and one I absolutely love, the addition of ‘diverging civilizations’ can more accurately reflect the rise and fall of civilizations over time, and provide players with fun new options.
The simplest way this mechanic could be implemented is if/when a civilization gets destroyed. Just as civilizations fall to ashes, others may rise from them. A smaller, resilient civilization could emerge after the death of a pre-existing one. If the game worked like this, it would allow the player to continue playing in the world they started in, while at the same time imparting on them the consequence of their first civilization’s fall. That way, the player maintains an emotional impact with this particular scenario that doesn’t simply dissipate, since they aren’t immediately starting a new game. Or perhaps a new civilization could start up if a group of barbarians have captured enough settlers or workers from existing civilizations. This could raise the stakes between civilizations and barbarians: if a civ leaves a settler captured by barbarians for too long without rescuing it, eventually it would assimilate with the barbarians, changing their razing/hunter-gatherer ways. Options like these are intriguing because they would highlight how one seemingly minor event can have major repercussions hundreds of years later. And recreating this ripple effect of events across time is what the Civilization series is best at.
In line with the idea that minor events/decisions could potentially create new civilizations, the decisions an empire makes could potentially cause nation-forming strife. It could work something like this: Say you’ve been building your civilization towards culture, and have a small, focused empire. Then you build a group of new cities quite a distance away, and decide that you want them to focus on wealth. There could be a chance that, if these differences are maintained, or if the influence of a nearby civilization is overpowering, the area would realize its difference from the rest of the country and push for independence. A mechanic like this would be fascinating for multiple reasons. Firstly, it would make players (and the AI) more cognizant of the challenges that an over-extended empire faces. If one part of the country is neglected while another part is lavished with goods, then there will be discord in the neglected area. Players would then have to consider their nation-building decisions on both a macro and micro level: how will this decision affect my relations with the rest of the world, vs. how will this decision affect the rest of my country?
Secondly, it opens up the possibility of a whole new subset of gameplay: dealing with a discontented region. You could help diffuse the issue by focusing wealth, science, religion, or culture on the region. You could place a large military force in the area to quell any talk of rebellion. Or maybe you could do something radical and gift it to a nearby civ, forcing them to deal with the brewing discontent. That last option would allow for an increased role of espionage and diplomacy: it appears you are doing a favor for your friend, but really you are gifting them an area that will be even unhappier now that it has been given to a new civilization. The ability to consider and implement these creative solutions is what helps maintain Civilization’s free-form gameplay.
Lastly, if a civilization can split into multiple civilizations, why shouldn’t multiple ones be able to merge? There is precedence for this in previous games, whether through absorbing tiles/land from nearby civs, or through conquest, but it could be expanded upon as well. A condition for peace after a long war could be the absorbing of one empire into another, a move that in the short term would result in discord and discontent, but one that could be even more fruitful with regards to culture and wealth in the long term. The world we live in is a cosmopolitan one, where cultures and customs can be easily shared. Yet the differences remain, and help shape identities. The ability to create—and share—these identities with other civilizations, while strengthening them yourself, is the key to both expanding Civilization as a game and opening it up as a creative, socially-positive force for the world.
For while Civilization is an enjoyable series that has provided countless hours of entertainment, it has vast potential to be an educational tool for people everywhere. Students could learn how resources, and the land they come from, influence a civilization’s development, from the type of government it tends towards to how its religions develop. Through playing, they will gauge how nations interact with each other, how threats both real and imagined influence the decisions leaders make, and furthermore, how those decisions affect everyone the world over. By continually expanding the game, and making it more and more nuanced, it can highlight to players that actions have ramifications. Even moreso, it proves that there is always a plethora of ways to go about solving a situation. Whereas many video games boil down conflict to a simple ‘good vs. evil’ dynamic, the Civilization series has the opportunity to show complexity and subtlety in its game world, and subsequently, in our own.
The Civilization series has been wildly successful, selling more than eight million copies, and utilizes addictive gameplay and an intuitive interface to transform players into rulers of civilizations. But now that it has conquered the world, it has nothing to do but to make it better.