Well, I did it again. I stayed up way too late playing Civilization: Beyond Earth. I expect that if I didn't have to occasionally take breaks to write this blog, I'd probably be at least 25 hours in by now. If the game had dropped on one of my days off, I probably would have gotten to 20 hours after the first day of playing.
So, that must mean that the game is pretty good, right?
Not really. Though it's a little hard to explain why.
Civilization is like the world's most complicated board game. You have a map that is divided into tiles (the first four games used a square grid, civ5 and BE use a hexagonal grid). Each of these tiles is worth a certain amount of resources. Traditionally, the three resources are food, production, and commerce, though civ5 changed "commerce" to "gold" and the sci-fi games use "energy" which is more or less the same same thing (there is a bit of nuance to this, that I don't want to go into just now).
In order to access these resources, you have to build cities. A city will allow you to work one tile per point of population, out to a certain maximum radius. To claim more territory and get more resources, you have to found more cities. Cities use food to build up their population (each point of population requires 2 food to sustain it, if your tiles produce more than that, your population grows, if they produce less, it shrinks), production to build units and buildings, and gold to pay maintenance costs and (in emergencies, because it's generally inefficient) to buy things instead of building them (the advantage of buying is that it's instant). In all the civ games prior to 5, you used commerce for science as well, but in civ5 and BE, science is tracked separately.
In addition to cities, you also control units. Mostly these are your military - anything from armored knights to fighter jets, but there are a couple of special use units that range from the handy (civ2's caravans) to the absolutely essential (colonists units to found new cities and worker units to improve tiles and increase their yields).
Cities can also build various buildings, which can have a wide variety of effects. Usually, they improve your cities' output, but some building will improve your units, or make your tiles more valuable, or make your cities more resilient in combat. There is a special class of buildings, called "wonders" that can only be built once, anywhere (so if your opponent builds them, you are SOL). Wonders most often have an effect on your whole society, often granting blanked bonuses to all of your cities and/or units, though sometimes they just have a powerful effect in a single city, or provide a useful one-time bonus (like a free technology).
What you can build in Civilization is determined by your technology level. As the game goes on, you research new technologies to unlock buildings and units (and sometimes, learning new technologies will just give you direct bonuses, like increasing the movement of your ships or making your tile improvements more powerful). Learning new technologies is not a straight line, however. Rather, you progress along a "tech tree," where learning technology in one area unlocks the potential to learn more sophisticated versions of that tech later on (so, for example you might progress from bronze working to iron working to steel, but someone else could learn writing then literature then education).
The game is divided into turns, and the whole strategy of it revolves around using those turns well. Units can move only a certain number of tiles per turn. Cities take multiple turns to build things. Every turn you earn a certain amount of science points which will help advance your technology (this is important because earlier technologies in the tree cost less than later ones, so it's often better to go back and branch out and learn different areas than to just always chase the most advanced thing available - so, for example learning bronze working then writing then iron working then literature, etc, instead of specializing in one field).
To win the game, you have to pursue one of several victory conditions. The most obvious is to simply wipe out the other players' civilizations. Obviously, if they have no cities they can't build anything, and thus they can't threaten you. So, once you've taken over all their cities, you win (civ 5 changed this so you only had to take over their original capitols, which is not quite as satisfying, but is considerably faster). But you don't have to be violent if you don't want to. There's always at least one peaceful way to win. Usually this is by launching a spaceship (and thus proving your ultimate mastery of the tech tree), but the later civ games have introduced more elaborate ways to leverage your civilization's diplomatic relationships and cultural achievements into victory.
And that, in a nutshell, is the core of the Civilization experience. Every game in the series has those elements in common. And because the core is so strong (seriously, it is impossible to play this game for any length of time without falling into a hypnotic trance), it's really difficult to make a bad Civilization game.
That said, the games in the series are not all created equal. You can judge them based on the nuances of the execution. How long does it take to process each turn (and how does that vary in the different stages of the game)? How long does it take to build things in the cities and how does that compare to the research times on the tech tree? How powerful are the units compared to one another, and how long do they stay useful? How does a peaceful playthrough compare to a military one? How fun and engaging are the victory conditions?
You have to view a 4X game as a harmonious whole, where the various elements combine to make you feel like you're in control, your choices matter, and your success and failure depend more on your tactical and strategic acumen then they do on simply knowing the ins-and-outs of the system and exploiting oversights in the game design.
So far, Civilization: Beyond Earth feels a little half-baked. Its big innovation is a change in the shape of the tech-tree, so that instead of having to learn a particular series of prerequisites, each new basic tech has two possible root techs, and you only have to learn one or the other to advance. This is an intriguing idea, but I'm finding it makes the game very unbalanced (though, to be fair, I have been playing in on the easiest difficulty just so I could go through the tech tree and see what everything did). I'm also less than impressed with the game's victory conditions (they mostly seem to be of the "build this useless thing and guard it" variety). And I'm finding the differences in the affinities to be less compelling than advertised.
Wonders are too bland and don't have enough of an effect to justify seeking them out.
High level building and units cost so many resources that you only get a limited number of the game's coolest toys (though, perhaps, this is just me whining)
The unit upgrade system locks you into choices that you may wind up regretting, and in any event reduce your military flexibility for no good reason.
Buildings are generally pretty boring and require you to shape your development strategy around chasing many small bonuses.
Yet, I wouldn't be too hard on the game. It's bound to get balance patches as people discover its flaws, and the inevitable expansion will shake things up and add cool new wonders, units, and gameplay mechanics. It's practically a truism of the series at this point. The initial release version is a fun tech demo, but it's not until the second expansion that it becomes a classic. And if that sound a bit cynical and defeatist, well, that's only because it downplays the fact that Beyond the Sword and Brave New World were both really, really good expansions.