Video Game Thoughts: Sid Meier’s Civilization IV

Sid Meier’s Civilization IV was a 2004 turn-based strategy game by Firaxis Games for the PC. In my teenage years I loved to go to the video game store at the mall and just hang out, playing the free games on the kiosks, reading strategy guides, and making plans for future game purchases. I could spend hours there. Usually, my mom would go do her shopping while I stayed at the game store.

I saw Civilization III prominently displayed many times. It got great reviews online, so I was always looking at the screenshots on the box. I eventually downloaded a demo online, but the game was just a little too slow moving. I really wanted to buy it, but there were other games I knew would be slightly more fun. I didn’t have the extra money to buy a game that I would only play sparingly.

That changed when I got older. As my reaction times became slower, a slower game like Civilization was more fitting to my tastes. I was just getting into buying games on Steam. They regularly had huge sales on all sorts of old PC games. One day a Civilization sale was going on. Both Civilization III and Civilization IV were on sale. Fans of the series said Civilization IV had more depth to it, so that’s what I bought.

When the download finished and I first started it up, I was immediately struck by the music, especially in the intro movie and the title screen. The graphics were fitting but fairly outdated when I was playing. The music, on the other hand, was absolutely superb. Every time I started up the game I would sit through the intro again and say on the title screen just to hear that music again. This happened many times because the game was very hard for me. I had to keep closing the game to look up strategies on how to do things. The tutorial in the game explained how to use the user interface and the possible moves there were in the game. Knowing what the moves were and knowing how they are all interacted was something else. I quickly found CivFanatics, the biggest community of Civilization players. They had many good articles I used to get better at the game.

Over the course of a year, I played several games off and on. The game had so much depth, I was constantly learning something new. Some things did feel too tedious though. One thing I hated was the Commerce slider. Basically, the player could use it to control what percentage of their empire’s money went to different resources that could be produced. I would have preferred a system where I could just enter in a number amount to invest in each resource per turn. It would have been much simpler that way. Outside of that one critique, I liked everything about this game.

I guess another negative was that the complexity required me to invest more time into this game to understand it than others. In other words, it was a game I had to play to the exclusion of other games. I really needed to invest a lot of time to start to understand the nuances of the game mechanics. I never felt like I had the time to give it justice because other games kept coming out that I wanted to play. The next year the sequel, Civilization V, was released. I debated long hours with myself whether to stick with Civilization IV or switch to the sequel. In the end I bought Civilization V, but it had a fairly rocky start. I ended up playing Civilization IV several more times until Civilization V got the patches it needed.

Warlords expansion

The first expansion added the typical expansion things such as more civilizations and leaders to play as, more types of units to train, and more maps to play on, but they also added Unique Buildings and Great Generals. These two features were truly new to the whole Civilization franchise. In the base game, each nation had a unique unit, usually slighter more powerful than the normal unit. This expansion added on to that with a unique building. Now civilizations were unique both on military and civilian side of things.

“Great Generals” was where the Warlords name came from. The base game had several Great People corresponding to each of the resources in the game. They could be expended for an immediate boost to the resource or for a smaller, long term boost. Great Generals had a whole new functionality to be able to combine with one of the player’s existing combat units. They would basically become the Warlord of that army, giving a bunch of experience to the army (better in combat) and adding special leadership bonuses to the army.

These both felt like minor changes. The expansion did what it needed to adding more of everything, but the new features didn’t really change things up much. The version of the game I got came with all of the expansions, so I never played Warlords by itself. I went straight to the second expansion.

Beyond the Sword expansion

Compared to the Warlords expansion, Beyond the Sword added quite a few new features. Of course, it came with the new civilizations, units, buildings, and maps, but it also added several layers of depth for all stages of the game. For the early game, they added a new wonder, the Apostolic Palace, that could give a player the “religious” victory. If the player was successful enough in spreading their nation’s religion around early on, they could get an early win. It was a little too easy to get this victory though. I only did a few times before going with other victories instead.

In the midgame, Espionage was added. Players could train spies and send them into enemy cities. Each turn their empire could generate espionage points, a new resource, that spies could use to cause trouble in enemy cities. Players could also use spies in their own cities to defend against other spies. It was fun to play around with espionage, but it usually couldn’t make a big impact on the outcome of the game. I had a hard time deciding how much to invest into espionage. Spending my resources and buildings on non-espionage things was many times more useful.

For the late game they added Corporations, a new form of religion. That is worshipping the almighty dollar (or gold piece in the game). Like the existing religion system, the player could spread corporations around to their’s and everyone else’s cities to get bonuses for their empire per city. I found them hard to take advantage of because yI had to sacrifice in a lot of areas to be successful at them. In addition, corporations came so late in the game, the player barely had a chance to use them before someone was winning the game. I reserved them for late start games, where corporations were available from the first turn.

The last big addition in Beyond the Sword was a random event system. I really didn’t like this system. I think randomness can be very good in games, but it has to be done right. Random events in this expansion were little pop-ups that forced the player to make a decision. They almost always were a problem to fix for a bonus or to ignore and face a penalty. The penalties were the problem. Civilization was a game of planning. Every decision the player makes takes several turns to see the consequences. It was a big problem when a random event would mess up my plans.

The way to make random events work in a turn-based strategy game is to have no negative consequences. When a random event pops up the player should have the choice between paying some cost for a bonus or ignoring it for no penalty. It should never cause a penalty that causes a strategy to fail. Bad luck is never fun. After a few games, I turned off random events, never to use them again.

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