I Have Replaced My Social Life With Civilization V; No Regrets

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I can’t tell you how many times I’ve sat down in my new super-deluxe computer chair with every intention of writing something — some character backstory, a compendium on how to properly brew tea, anything at all — and ended up taking over the world.

During Steam’s Summer Sale (henceforth referred to as “that goddamned sale”) last year I dropped a pretty hefty load of cash on games since, you know, I actually had a “real” job and could afford to do so.  Among my many purchases was the Civilization pack, which contained Civ III – IV and all the DLC, and what I believe was a separate pack specifically for Civ V.  I had played Civilization Revolution for 360 and thoroughly enjoyed it, so I figured it was a pretty logical purchase.

Except then World of Warcraft happened and it sat in my Steam library for like a whole year, untouched, until a week or two ago I got bored with MMOs and decided hey, why not?

I quickly realized how horribly rusty I was when my first game lasted ten hours and resulted in a pretty staggering defeat at the hands of England.  Revolution was probably the worst installment I could have chosen to start with because compared to how much micro-management is required for the PC titles, it’s an utter cakewalk — I was playing on the hardest mode in Revolution, but failing miserably at rank 3 or 4 in Civ V.  I did not have my Warglaives of Azzinoth.  I was not prepared.  I cranked the difficulty down a notch and then the next thing I knew several days had passed and I had conquered the everliving shit out of half the leaders.

Civilization V is a remarkably pretty game.  Zooming in on the map revealed a level of detail on buildings, tile improvements, and troops that I honestly didn’t expect to exist.  Whereas some RTS games out there might cut corners on the aesthetic details in favor of focusing more on gameplay, Civ V proved to be a rather well-rounded experience on all fronts.  The in-game help encyclopedia answers just about every question you could think of.  If you choose to enable tip dialogues from your advisors during the game, you’ll see how dedicated Firaxis was to making sure that the game was accessible to players of all skill levels without being patronizing — the advisors will explain core mechanics as they are introduced during the game, but ultimately any decision-making is left up to you.  They simply offer information; you can choose to use or ignore it.

The biggest issue I found with it was that the AI for workers building roads can often be a bit stupid.  Did another civilization’s Scout move in front of them?  Is there a building in the way?  Instead of being able to work through or even around the “obstruction,” they’ll throw their tiny hands into the air and give up.  The “Route-to cancelled!” message quickly became a source of jaw-clenching for me.  I can understand being unable to go through mountains (although Dynamite has to be discovered before learning Railroads, so technically they could just blast tunnels through it), but if you’ve got an Open Borders pact with another civilization, why not be able to build roads through their cities?  You can do it with city-states; why not other cultures?  As for troops blocking the path, let’s look at applications to the real world — if you consider the map to scale, there’s no way one group of Warriors or Archers is going to take up every square inch of a hexagon of land.  You’d ask anyone standing in your way to kindly step to the left or the right so you could continue building the road.  Previously established trade routes within my own empire would occasionally become broken, as well, but there was no indication of exactly where the break had occurred or what caused it.  Clicking on the message wouldn’t center on the problem, despite functioning for every other message in the game.

It also seems like successful trades and diplomatic discussions with other world leaders bore relatively little weight in deciding whether or not they’d become friendly with your civilization.  The general demeanor of the leaders appears to be randomly generated — some are warmongering from the very start and will hate you no matter how diplomatic you are in your relations with them, others are friendly right off the bat — but for those whose attitudes hover around neutral, it seems like there’s a mechanic missing to improve their opinion of you.  Even choices made outside of the discussion window, such as alliances with city-states and other civilizations, don’t seem to be as important as they should.  In most cases it seems like nothing you do matters, which is either a tongue-in-cheek commentary on real-life politics or an oversight.

Regardless of any perceived flaws, Civilization V is a solid gaming experience.  It takes a special kind of strategy game to be able to keep the interest of a casual RTS player like myself.  Most entries in the genre bore me after one or two games, unless they’re particularly story-driven like my beloved StarCraft and Warcraft III, but even without a plot beyond “take over the world,” I find myself with a frequent craving for more.

And perhaps it is that desire for more, more, more that’s led me to think of a few features I wish Civilization V offered as part of the core game experience, as awesome as it already is — although seeing them in a future update, or even in a Civilization VI, would probably mean I’d never leave my computer again, so maybe it’s better that they exist only in my imagination.

To begin, I’d love to see an in-game map editor.  Upon setting up a new game, you can tweak some basic geographic features, such as the general type of landmasses (everything from Pangaea to a world of tiny archipelagos), sea level, and worldwide temperature, but any finer control over landmass shape or topographical features is not available within the game itself — a quick perusal of available mods shows that there are some players who have made their own highly-customized maps using the SDK, like this amazing Westeros map pack by Supermull, but I’d like to see the map and scenario creation tools contained there merged with the game itself, as well as the ability to upload it straight to the Mods Workshop.

Players can also make their own civilizations using the SDK, but the process to do so is not terribly user-friendly.  That’s the main reason that I prefer to have customization tools built into the games themselves; many of the development toolkits require a level of technological knowledge that the average player just doesn’t have.  Being able to create your own leader by customizing their appearance and essentially building a civilization from the ground up is something that I feel could be appealing to anyone, even those who don’t necessarily have experience with development kits.  Hell, I’ll admit it — I’d make an Overlord Bunny in a heartbeat (although I’d end up using the SDK myself to replace all human troops with squads of attack bunnies, because that’s just how I roll).  The current mod community for Civ V seems small compared to other games, and I wonder how much of it is due to the often prohibitive complexity of its development kit, and the fact that it only appears to allow development for DirectX 9.

So let’s say Firaxis did add a Create-Your-Own-Civilization component to the game itself, one that didn’t necessarily allow in-depth tweaking of the game art (think more along the lines of a slightly simpler and more specialized version of XBox Live avatar creation) but still allowed player to tap into their imaginations and really become a part of the game.  It’s Quick-And-Dirty-Mock-Up Time!

civ5mockup

Obviously, the color palettes used there are just placeholders/approximations.  Any sort of customization like this would require a decent bit of extra work from the art department, so although I think allowing unnatural colors for skin tones would be a pretty sweet thing to have for anyone who’s ever dreamed of playing through an Ancient Astronauts scenario, the final shades would likely be much more traditional (and thus require a lot less work).  The same could also be done to eye and hair color if absolutely necessary, though I would mourn the loss of ability to make slightly more alternative — read: totes Goth — characters.

Features would be preset and specific to each available race.  For example, Caucasian 1 would be structurally different than African 1 or Asian 1.  I tried to make sure that all of the typical feature types were represented, but if I left anyone out, I apologize profusely, because I was just going off the top of my head.  Ideally, I’d love to see very in-depth facial manipulation controls, similar to what’s available in the Elder Scrolls game, but I’m not sure if it’d be possible to fit that neatly into Civilization just due to the difference in genre; some players just looking for a non-RPG experience might find complicated controls a bit daunting.  The option for more advanced control could be offered alongside the presets to make the best of both worlds.

A key note I’d like to make about the Weight control would be that I want it to offer not only muscularly thicker options, but also curvier ones.  It’s nice to see my own body type represented in games and I imagine there’s other chubby gamers out there who feel much the same way.  Civilization does deal with some historical events, after all, and many years ago being of the squishy persuasion generated envy, rather than ridicule, since it meant you could actually afford to eat regularly and properly.  But more importantly, it’s a great opportunity to really make a group of people that often are underrepresented in gaming in a positive light, rather than saving their depictions for cruelty-tinged comic relief or not including them at all.

The Age control would not only open that spirit of inclusion to older gamers — keep in mind that most original D&D players are still gaming despite being well into their 40s and 50s — but give players a chance to represent real historical figures who ruled as children, such as Tutenkhamun.

On the next page of customization controls (which I am far too lazy to mock up in Photoshop because this one took me like two hours to do), players would be able to select from preset themes for their empire, including those already found in the game as well as some specifically added for customization.  National Colors 1 and 2 would be reflected in troop garb as it is in the regular game, and by selecting from these various themes, players could alter the actual clothing style, too.  Who wouldn’t want to pick a Spooky theme and sack Rome with… a bunch of Goths?

I am not sorry for that joke.  Not one bit.

There would also be a list of special passive perks to choose from, maximum 2 per empire, much like the benefits offered depending on which of the preexisting civilizations are chosen.  Players could also choose any combination of 2 special troops or buildings for their civilization by selecting from a preset group of icons, naming them, and picking their role or benefit, respectively.  And of course, there’d be the opportunity to write up a brief history of their glorious civilization and leader, limited only by the number of characters used (because let’s face it, you get someone like me in there and you’ll end up with an entire textbook’s worth of material).

The ultimate dream would be to have these customized civilizations usable for multiplayer matches.  Balance wouldn’t be much of an issue, since any perks or benefits able to be chosen for custom play would be no different from the ones already in the game as far as mechanics are concerned.  If anything, it would add a whole new layer of strategy as players scramble to find the most helpful combination for the victory type that they seek.

Going back to what’s already in the game itself, I think it could be surprisingly fun to have a play mode where you’re the only civilization (city-states could be allowed or disallowed, depending on user preference), but can settle as many cities as you’d like and develop them until 2050 AD.  Challenge objectives could be given, such as to build a city in a particular area or produce x amounts of a particular resource per turn, all of which add to your end score.  I’d also like to see the ability to buy out city-states — you can purchase cities from other civilization leaders if they like you enough, although I’ve noticed that immediately after doing so, they tend to suddenly go from “friendly” to denouncing me — and to gift or trade troops with friendly civilizations to sway their opinion of you, although the latter aspect would have to be developed carefully to avoid giving off any slavery or prostitution vibes.

There’s already a whole slew of leaders to choose from, especially if you’ve purchased all of the DLC for Civ 5, but how about seeing an Inuit civilization?  Allow them bonuses to production from Whales and Oil resources, and give them the ability to manufacture and farm on ice and snow tiles.  The top and bottom of each map is covered in impenetrable ice that can’t really be settled; why not change that?  They could also produce a special caravel unit that can cut through the edges of the ice, making world exploration and navigation easier for them.  Arctic foxes and polar bears could appear on snow and ice tiles for trapping, not only by the Inuit, but also by any other civilizations brave enough to venture that far north (or south), although these other civilizations, except perhaps Siberia, would find it much more challenging for themselves to farm the inhospitable frozen tundra.  Sure, you could probably use the SDK to mod a civilization like this, but it’d be nice to see the often-forgotten Inuit and their rich culture represented.  The same school of thought could apply to the Aborigines of Australia, who would receive bonuses in desert-like climates.

In the meantime, I’ll be tinkering around with the SDK for Civilization V, seeing what I can come up with.  I’d like to make mod packs based on Roger Zelazny’s Chronicles of Amber, Warcraft, Diablo, StarCraft… the sky’s the limit.  It’s just a question of how well I can learn the software, which is proving to be quite a challenge.

But before I get started, I think I’m going to try for that Domination victory.

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