Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Sid Meier's Civilization IV: Warlords - 10/20 hours

I've now played all the scenarios, for at least a half-hour each, and I have to say, there is just so . . . much. . . war. I don't know what I was expecting in an expansion called Warlords, but I can't help feeling irrationally disappointed. I like building, and cooperation, and discovery, and it always comes as something of a shock to me when others don't find those things as interesting as conflict.

I think that's also why I'm so bad at the diplomatic game. Civilization 4's diplomacy seems to center around a hierarchy of power. You don't make friends by being a generally good neighbor, contributing to mutual prosperity through trade, and providing assistance to those in need. Yes, those things will get you positive diplomatic modifiers, but for every one of those you get, you'll get a penalty for not acceding to imperious demands, refusing to get involved in pointless and unprofitable wars, refusing to ostracize civs that have done you no harm, or simply having the wrong religion. What Civ4's diplomatic system does is force you to choose sides, to divide the world into competing power blocs, and recapitulate the basic civ vs civ conflict on a multinational scale. It's actually depressingly realistic.

No, that's just me being cynical. I do believe that in the real world, it is possible for nations to work together for the common good of their citizens and the general advancement of humanity, and that in the long run, those sorts of alliances are going to be more attractive than the military pacts of old. I just wish late game civ did more to acknowledge this. It would be nice if the diplomatic victory, instead of being some sort of opaque one-off popularity contest was actually a matter of solving the world's social ills, like eliminating hunger and poverty and ensuring equal access to modern technology and human rights to all the civilizations of the world. And if that sounds needlessly political, well I just have to point out that "nations are competitive atomic units who scramble with each other for imperialistic dominance" is not exactly a politically neutral thesis either.

Although this is a sidetrack. It's not like I can get very far disagreeing with the very premise of the game. The Civilization series is not a world-simulator, it is a history-themed board game, and its political assumptions are going to be those which simplify history in ways that make it more board-game-like. I'm mostly okay with that, even if, for the majority of the scenarios, the particular board game is one I'm not especially interested in winning.

The scenarios are:

Chinese Unification: This one's probably my favorite. It does allow you to pursue multiple approaches and pick your battles, though its diplomatic victory tends to heighten the things that are wrong with the diplomacy system. Its most notable feature is that you can spread the influence of your noble house using a modified version of the religion system, but I couldn't figure out how to do that in a way that didn't make the rest of the houses hate me (it's the basic diplomatic problem of the base game, but there's one religious bloc per civilization). I almost wound up winning, thanks to being able, for once, to use my usual strategy of maximizing my infrastructure to outbuild enemy armies, but I ran out of time. Still, I enjoyed it.

Genghis Khan: Another pure military scenario, I like this one more than the others because it has some unique mechanics - you learn more technologies by conquering enemies and you have "camp units" that will spawn more armies. I also generally prefer the way the Mongols make war - their horse archer units hit hard and have a great deal of mobility, mostly making siegecraft redundant. The main problem with this scenario is the comparisons it draws to the superior Civilization V version. Ironically, I made the exact same strategic mistake I made in Civ5. Instead of razing everything in my path and keeping up my initiative, I futilely tried to hold on to my conquests and wound up having to divert time and material to defending unproductive cities.

Peloponnesian War: This is a perma-war scenario where the goal is to take the opposing civilization's capital. It's not really my sort of thing, though it does have the advantage of having a 100 turn time-limit, so at least i forestalls some of the endless back-and-forth that can sometimes plague Civ4's warfare.

The Rise of Rome: This one I barely played. I was suckered in by the description which led me to believe (thanks to prominently mentioning "trade routes" and "peace") that it would have mercantile or diplomatic elements, but it turned out that in order to win, you have to control certain "victory points" which requires aggressive expansion and conquest. It's not that big a deal, but I was feeling a certain war weariness by then, so I quit before I could get into it. I'll probably try it again later in order to give it a fair shot.

Age of the Vikings: Like most of the other scenarios, it's combat-heavy, but it has an interesting twist - your strategic aim is not territory, but wealth. You win the scenario by accumulating gold, which comes from a combination of normal wealth acquisition, capturing cities, ransoming them back to their owners for substantial lump sums, and hunting down treasure. It's definitely a change of pace, but didn't really catch my attention.

Omens - Ugh. The basic skeleton of this scenario is pretty good. It's set in pre-revolution America, during a conflict between France and England. Caught in the middle are the natives, whom each side is attempting to peacefully influence and win as an ally. It's a situation rife with possibility that has a different dynamic than base Civilization and an interesting historical context. Unfortunately, they also add a bizarre religious angle (maybe I'm remembering my history wrong, but I never thought of either the French or English colonials, in particular George Washington, as especially zealous missionaries), and a repeated supernatural invasion by an impossibly powerful "divine" faction. To be humming along nicely and then suddenly have an angel drop in from nowhere to slam one of your cities into oblivion is not a fun way to play the game.

Barbarians - This is a pretty cool scenario. You play as the barbarians, spawning units from your camp unit by buying them with gold you earn by razing cities, killing units, and plundering tile improvements. It's a great deal of fun to turn the civ formula around and play the antagonists, though making actual progress is kind of a pain. I wound up wiping out one civilization only to find myself on an island with ten units and one galley. Just as I'd ferried about half my units, a new settler landed, and I was like "no way in hell am I going to sit around playing whack-a-mole with these damned cities" maybe on a smaller map.

Having played all the scenarios, I'm thinking that, going into the last half of my 20 hours that I'm going to focus on winning the Genghis Khan scenario, then maybe give the Rome scenario another chance, and, if there's time, I'll try and win the Unification of China.

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