Civ IV v. Civ V, III

by northernbeholder

We’ve covered most of the major issues, but there’s still much to talk about. The Civilization games have always been ones with multiple layers of mechanics, and we’ve barely scratched the surface – so let’s talk about Culture.  Culture, in the Civ games, is a measure of your civilization’s influence, and directly impacts the extent of your borders.  Given that you can only improve and work resources and terrain within your borders, this quickly becomes extremely important.

Culture is generated per city, and each city must reach a certain threshold to make its borders grow. In Civ IV, and Civ III before it, the borders grow in a predictable surge – starting from a 3×3 square, the would then add 12 tiles to form a cross, and then a further 28 tiles to make the distinctive ‘fat cross’ shape that so many veteran players are used to visualizing when they determine where to settle a new town.  By contrast, in Civ V, borders grow by one hex at a time, typically snaking towards important resources and then backfilling empty areas afterwards.  To make up for the lack of booming growth, border expansions require less accumulated culture than in Civ IV, and instant land-grabs can be accomplished by spending gold to ‘buy’ any hex within a city’s range.  City borders can also expand much further, though the settlements can only work an area up to three hexes distant from the city centre.

At first glance, the change in border growth appears to result in more naturalistic-looking national borders, snaking against each other, surging forwards here or there in a grab for important resources or to secure a natural chokepoint, rather than straight lines and right angles for mile after virtual mile.  However, when moving from Civ IV to V, a very, very important mechanic was dropped from culture growth: The ability to overwhelm other civilizations with your own.

When borders came into conflict in Civ IV (and Civ III before it), the nearby cities would begin engaging in a silent culture war.  Borders were not immutable; if one side was producing more culture than the other, they would begin stealing tiles from the rival civ, their culture overpowering the local one and pushing their borders forwards.  It was even possible to produce so much culture that you overwhelmed an enemy city entirely, surrounding it within your own borders, a situation that would lead shortly afterwards to said city voluntarily changing sides.  This could make offensive pushes against culture-heavy civilizations a risky business; when you captured a city, its cultural output was lost, so it would spend some time surrounded by the borders from the other state, risking every turn that it might revolt and return to your enemy.

In Civ V, the idea of culture shifting borders and influence back and forth is gone.  Once you claim a tile, an enemy city cannot take it away from you.  Your cities cannot be overwhelmed by enemy culture, and if you capture a town in a military offensive, you immediately gain the benefit of whatever cultural borders it produced.   This is not to say that borders are entirely immutable; Great Artists (part of the Great Persons unit set, which cannot be produced, but slowly generate over many turns depending on what structures you have built) can convert a small clutch of land to your side, and Great Generals can, if used to construct a Citadel, steal a few hexes along the border.  The days of culture wars, however, are well and truly gone – unless they add them back in an expansion.

Speaking of expansions, my reflections on Civ V are coming wholly from the experience of playing with the Gods & Kings expansion installed.  Recently, I played a game with a friend who did not have G&K, and coming back to the base Civ V game was an unpleasant shock.  Unlike Civ IV, which started as a solid game in its own right and merely improved upon that firm foundation with the addition of expansions, Civ V feels incomplete if played without G&K.  The ranged unit tree just sort of tapers off when you get into the Renaissance, the city-state interactions are atrocious without the UI and other improvements, many technologies feel empty to reach, and naval combat is a poor shadow of itself.

The naval combat is worth mentioning, actually.  Navies in Civ IV weren’t of too much use; patrolling your shoreline and escorting transports was about the extent of their possibilities. Aircraft carriers, if properly protected, could launch aircraft to bombard enemy tile improvements, units and cities, softening up a coastline for a landing, but that was about it.  In Civ V, the new ranged combat mechanic was put to use on ships; now, in addition to duelling at sea, navies could actively bombard coastal cities and units, allowing them to play a crucial role in a coastline offensive – or a defense of the same.  With the Gods & Kings expansion, they got better still, adding new ships and altering existing ones so that navies, similar to armies on land, had both ‘ranged’ and ‘melee’ units.  Not only did this improve the dynamic of naval battles, but ‘melee’ tagged ships could actually attack and capture coastal cities, instantly making navies far more crucial to military operations, whether as part of a multi-pronged offensive, or when defending against the same.

In the end, I could list the differences between the two games for ages.  They’re both approaching from different angles, with different goals – Civ V is not a continuation of the series’ traditions, but an attempt at striking out in a new direction.  Its changes have led, in my opinion, to some loss in verisimilitude; the mechanics, in subtle ways, have become too gamey, too obvious, compared to how they fit together in its predecessors.  However, for that reason, I generally find it more fun to play.  Ultimately, I revere Civ IV as the pinnacle of the attempt to create a civilization simulator – but I bow to Civ V as a superior game.

Only if you’ve got Gods & Kings, though. Otherwise – eugh.