Monday, June 22, 2015

Sid Meier's Civilization IV - 20/20 hours

One thing I tried to do while playing the basic game again after so long was to try and explore mechanics I had previously overlooked, because who knows when I'll bother playing vanilla civ4 again.

The first one I concentrated on was the diplomatic victory. Usually I go for space, sometimes I'll do cultural, rarely will I pursue a military victory. I can't recall ever actually winning the diplomatic game. And thankfully for the record books, my streak is still unbroken.

I think I just fundamentally don't understand how it works. I did everything in my power to ingratiate myself to the AI, gave away huge amounts of money and resources, distributed advanced technologies left and right, built the UN, and the people of the world voted for my rival. I laid the groundwork for global peace, and the AI reaped the benefit. It would have been better if I hadn't tried, then at least I might have been able to go for the space victory.

I suppose that's a minor complaint though. If the diplomatic victory was easy enough for me to do on my first try, it probably wouldn't feel like much of an accomplishment.

The other mechanic I tried out was Civ4's religion system. Now, I've used religion in the past - if you're in the lead, you have to go out of your way to avoid founding one, and even if you aren't it's pretty inevitable that an AI religion will spread to your lands, - but in all my years playing the game, my religious strategy has been a purely domestic one. I'd spread whatever religions I got to as many of my own cities as possible in order to benefit from the religious buildings and bonus happiness of the Free Religion civic, but I'd never bother with sending missionaries to foreign lands.

This time, I made a special effort to do so, and it turns out that if you're a founder of a religion (and especially if you've founded more than one), it can be incredibly rewarding to get out there and spread your creed. There are special wonders you can build which give you gold based on the number of cities (both foreign and domestic) that follow your faith, and though the individual amount per turn is small, over time it really adds up. Whereas before, with my indifferent secular approach, I'd run deficits when trying to maximize my science, with a strong religion in my corner, I had a budget surplus even at 0% tax.

I'm not sure what this mechanic has to say about religion in the real world. The most cynical read of it is that Civ4 is basically saying "all religions are the same and while they may make the common people happy, their real purpose is to enrich the fat-cats at the top," but I think Firaxis was probably aiming at something along the lines of "no religion is intrinsically better or worse than any other, they all bring comfort to their followers, have an important cultural impact, and enrich their communities through the donation of labor and resources." I'm not going to take sides on this issue. Personally, as a humorless atheist, I wish there were some option for "people don't really need religion, and it's possible to build a society based on materialism and naturalist metaphysics that is just as functional as any of the others," but I suppose every worldview would like it if their ideas were validated in video game form, so while I'm not thrilled at the idea that in Civ4 having no religion is always strictly inferior to having any religion, I can't imagine that there are many religious partisans who are super happy about the idea that all religions are interchangeable and having more is always preferable to having just one.

So it's with that thought that I say good-bye to basic Civilization IV. It was really easy to play for 20 hours, and if I didn't have evening paperwork to do, I'd have probably blown past the deadline without even realizing it, but I can't help remembering that the Beyond the Sword expansion is an unalloyed improvement. The re-balancing of the game, with the addition of new military, diplomatic, espionage, and economic options takes an already great game and makes it even better. If it weren't for the fact that Steam listed it separately, I wouldn't have played it at all. I guess that makes this a happy coincidence then, because I enjoyed myself, and I'm certain that I'll now appreciate the expansions even more.

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