Civ IV v. Civ V, I

by northernbeholder

Every once in a while, a segment of the gaming community is rent asunder by conflict.  While from without, the disagreement often seems to be the sort of tempest in a teacup that afflicts any subculture from time to time, to those caught up within it, it can be of dire importance.  Civilization V caused just such a conflict, due to its radical shake-up of the venerable series’ internal mechanics, and hard-liners still hold out to this day.

Civilization IV is widely regarded as the pinnacle of classic Civ gameplay, and though it had a rough start – its first few versions were notorious for hogging system resources and suffering from memory leaks – once it had a few expansions under its belt it had cemented its position on the throne.  With a lengthy tech tree, mass of unit types – including multiple specialized units permitting for clever deployment and play – and panoply of civilizations to play as, many ending up with two or more leaders to choose from, all tied into a firm base of the classic mechanics and the most transparent and accessible diplomacy system to date, it was a tremendous capstone to the series.  When Civ V was announced, the big question was how on earth Firaxis were going to top it.

The answer: They weren’t. Civ V wasn’t an attempt to somehow refine the classic mechanics even further, but instead introduced whole new ones, leading to uproar.  So, now that it’s been a year and everyone but the hardest of the hard-line have forgotten about it completely, let’s take a look!

The Map

Strangely, it was the most minor change that caused the biggest outcry.  The Civilization games have previously always taken place on maps divided evenly into square tiles, which were used to measure unit movement, borders, resource placement and so forth. It was a working system, the only real downfall of which was the unattractive nature of the geography it created (since terrain was also, by necessity, tied to the grid), which naturally ended up as rather square.

Civ V, on the other hand, moved to a hex-grid system.  The hexes served the same functions as the squares did before, counting movement, resource placement, borders and so forth. Since unit pathing is automated and you can see exactly how they’ll move before confirming the order, it doesn’t make shuffling units around any more of a hassle than before.  Really, in my experience there are only two changes:  The terrain appears more natural and rounded (thanks to the way the hexes interlock), and unit movement in combat is just a bit more tactical.  Which is important, because …

The Combat

This is actually the single biggest change, but it got less attention than the hexes. Go figure.  In the classic Civ games, including Civ IV, units can be ‘stacked’ into the same tile, resulting in massive armies – ‘doomstacks’, in the terminology of those who played – dancing around each other in a race to pillage cities or dodge the enemy’s even bigger doomstack.  Units fought to the death, so a combat would always end with one guy short a soldier – further reinforcing the need for deep stacks, because trying to spread out your units to create a broad front would merely result in an enemy stack blasting a hole right through your thin lines. It served its purpose, but there wasn’t exactly much depth to it, especially since a defending stack automatically fielded the best counter-unit available to whatever you attacked with.  The closest you got to tactics was smart use of terrain bonuses (units on hills or in forests got a bonus to defense, attacking across a river imposed a penalty, et cetera).

Civ V does away with both unit stacking and to-the-death combat. Unless an enemy is seriously technologically outclassed, it will take multiple attacks to kill any given unit. Battles become broad-front affairs, advancing the lines, looking for openings to exploit and encircle the enemy (in addition to terrain bonuses, you also do more damage if you have friendlies flanking the foe). The lack of stacking also means that counter-units are genuinely important again – you want your pikemen in the right place to stop the enemy knights from breaking through, and so forth. Another new mechanic is giving ranged units actual range – archers and similar types can attack from a hex or more away without fear of retaliation, though they’re weak in close conflict and so need to be protected.  As a result, wars become much bigger in scale, spreading across miles and miles of simulated terrain, and are much more involving to undertake.

That said, there is a downside to the changes.  Two, actually. First, the lack of unit stacking makes actually moving armies around – and storing them between wars – a massive hassle. In prior civ games, you could pile them all up in cities or in a big mountain of men and axes somewhere out-of-the-way and be done with it. In Civ V, every unit needs its own hex, so you have tanks and infantry and knights and siege weapons spread out all over the fields, idling in the farmyards and picking their noses outside the mines.  Units can pass through each other but not end their turn in an occupied hex, so the pathfinding breaks with annoying frequency, unit A needing its orders re-issued because unit B ran out of moves in the hex unit A was going to occupy, even though unit A is still three turns away from reaching it.

The second issue? The AI is terrible at handling the new combat. It’s gotten a little better with the release of the Gods & Kings expansion, but even on higher difficulties it’s still an absolute joke, the only challenge coming from the artificially inflated stats of its units.  The AI seems incapable of coordinating the movements of large armies or reacting to sudden changes in the tactical situation.  Admittedly, it wasn’t exactly brilliant in Civ IV either, but the much simpler, more brute-force approach to armed conflict in that game was far more within the AI’s capabilities, and the to-the-death combat model meant a few bad engagements could land you in serious trouble.

Next time: Civics! Religion! Diplomacy! I’ve been playing Civ recently, can you tell?