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Nov 2 / Great Apes

Why Civilization IV Is One Of The Best Games Ever

A little over a week ago, Beyond Earth, the latest instalment in the Civilization series of video games, was released.  It’s built on the engine of Civ V, and I’ve seen many people complain that it doesn’t stand up to the excellence of Civ V.  I always find these kinds of comments interesting because, while Civ V is a good enough game, for me it pales in comparison to its predeccesor, Civ IV, which I consider to be among the top few games ever released.

Why is Civ IV a better game?  Because it offers more strategic complexity.  Sid Meier, the creator of the original Civilization game, is known for saying that a game is “a series of interesting decisions.”  Civilization IV is constantly providing the player with interesting decisions, while Civ V  isn’t.  [Note that this post probably won’t make much sense unless you’ve played at least one of these games, and ideally both of them.  Additional note: I’m going to be comparing the original Civilization IV (prior to any of its expansions) and Civ V after both of its expansions, which most players agree improves the experience.]


To illustrate this point, let’s look at how cities work in the two games:

In Civ V, there are two conditions that you want to find when selecting a spot for a city:

  1. It should be near multiple useful resources, ideally at least one of which is a luxury that provides happiness.
  2. It should be near a good mix of production, commerce, and food.

That’s really it.

Once built, the primary thing that cities do in Civ is produce things, either city-enhancing buildings or military units.  In Civ V there is rarely a time crunch.  You essentially have time to produce every building in every city, once that city has passed its initial growth phase.  In fact, the “national wonders” in Civ V actually require you to build a copy of certain buildings in every city in your nation.  The only city in Civ V that becomes at all specialised is what I call “the trade route city”, because the East India Company national wonder makes it advantageous to have all of your trade routes emanating from one city.

Now let’s contrast that with Civ IV.  One of the most important things for a player of Civ IV to realise is the concept of city specialisation.  Cities in Civ IV are not intended to construct every single building available to the player, and because of how long they take to build, it usually isn’t possible to anyway.  The player should select some specific thing for each city to be good at.  One city might be tasked with generating as much money as possible.  Another might do almost nothing other than build military units.  Yet another may focus on building world wonders.

How the player decides which cities to focus on which forms of production will likely depend on the terrain surrounding a city.  A coastal city can easily thrive with very little productive capacity, because the coastal tiles all provide income, and the player can construct buildings to increase financial output.  Another city can be built in a mountainous region with virtually no economic output, because the productive capacity allows the player to build world wonders quickly.

There are other strategic decisions that depend on city placement.  For example, a city that’s on the borders of your civilization will very likely want to build defensive structure, especially if the nearest neighbour is antagonistic.  But for cities that are further into the civ, walls will likely be unneccessary.  Similarly, border towns need to build culture-producing buildings as early as possible, to prevent the encroaching of your neighbour’s cultural borders.  A new city safely constructed within your cultural borders, however, can forego generating its own culture at first, focussing instead on increasing its population.

Civics vs Policies

Another area where Civ IV’s strategic depth over Civ V is apparent is in the comparison between the Civics of Civ IV and the Social Policies of Civ V.  [Aside: A good podcast about this topic with the lead designers of both games can be found here.]

In Civ V, the Social Policies work like an RPG upgrade tree.  Each successive “upgrade” unlocks others further down the tree.  The upgrades all provide passive bonuses that the player has no real control over once they’re in place.  They can not be reversed, so you have to make decisions early on and then stick with them for the duration of the game.  To me, a strategy game is as much about reacting and adapting as it is about planning, so I find Civ V‘s approach off-putting.

By way of contrast, Civ IV’s Civics can be changed at (almost) any time.  To some degree the player unlocks “better” Civics through the tech tree as the game goes on, but most of the Civics remain viable throughout the game, depending on the player’s goals.  As an example, let’s compare just two Civics from Civ IV‘s Religion Civic options.

  1. Organized Religion provides a 25% bonus to the speed of building construction in any city that has the civilization’s official religion.
  2. Free Religion provides +1 happiness for each religion that’s present in a city, as well as a 10% boost to science

In choosing which of these to go with, the player is asked about which of a number of trade-offs they’d like to make (technically there are three other Religion Civics, but I’m simplifying).  If you take your civ out of Organized Religion you’re giving up a pretty hefty bonus to building construction.  Building construction in Civ IV is slow, and the bonus to build speed is especially useful in financial cities with little productive capacity.  On the other hand, happiness can be hard to come by, especially as populations rise, so that +1 🙂 is very valuable.  And of course, the extra science is very nice as well, especially later in the game if you’re attempting to win the Space Race victory (as an aside, this is why the decision is interesting: because whether it’s useful is very situational).

Beyond the passive bonuses, the Civics will likely affect how you play.  If you have have Organized Religion, you may be trying to block alternate religions from entering your borders.  On the other hand, if you have Free Religion, you may actually try to find ways to spread opposing player religions within your own borders in order to gain the happiness bonus.  So decisions chain into each other in interesting ways.

Other Stuff

There are other things that I prefer about Civ IV that I won’t go into much detail about.  I prefer the leader bonuses in Civ IV, which are relatively standardised and always useful, as opposed to the ones in Civ V, which are only really useful in specific situations, and sometimes not useful at all if your civ doesn’t get the right starting location.

I like the fact that Civ IV always involves a race to build cities, as space and resources are at a premium.  To me that better reflects the way that countries have actually grown throughout history.  In Civ V, the player is almost never limited in terms of space to expand, and the game doesn’t seem to want you to have many cities either.

I like the way the tech tree in Civ IV mixes military and non-military technologies, so that you’re always learning both at once.  In Civ V the tech tree is essentially split in two, with social technologies along one branch and military techs along another, which results in weird technological conditions.  The way that Civ IV does it makes for better gameplay, and it also makes more sense historically, as military technologies have often come from civilian technological advances (or vice versa, as with the Internet).

Are there things I like better about Civ V?  A couple.  I like the greater variety of map types, which helps to keep the game fresh when you’ve played it a lot.  I like the way they brought back manual trade routes from the original Civilization, which makes the economic aspect of the game more involving (though I dislike how a country’s entire economy is now trade-route based).  I like the little icons that appear in the bottom-right corner of the screen to indicate all of the actions a player should take each turn (which cities need new construction orders, etc.).  But I also feel like the UI in general has become far too cluttered (on my laptop there are literally too many icons along the top of the screen for my monitor to display, so the game just doesn’t show some of them).

This may give the impression that I don’t like Civilization V, which is untrue.  I think it’s a good game, built on a solid foundation.  But it’s a big step back from Civilization IV, which has additional strategic depth that makes it one of my favourite games to play.

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