Retrospective: Civilization IV

Format: Mac, PC Publisher: 2K Games Developer: Firaxis Games

Nothing hurts quite like a nuke. To see that mushroom cloud rising over the city, to know you’re one step closer to armageddon, to realise you’ll be wasting worker time on scrubbing fallout. Nuclear weapons don’t do as much damage as you’d expect in Civilization IV. But they are the ultimate humiliation. They may not kill effectively, but they hurt. Especially when dropped by a close friend.

You could have looked at the original Civilization and thought it a near perfect game. Carry and guide a primitive people from a pre-wheel migratory existence to absolute domination, and/or landing a spaceship on Alpha Centauri. It was beyond ambitious – mapping the route from sticks and stones to ICBMs across just a few hours of game time. That such a game didn’t flounder under a weight of detail was lucky. That it worked so well, driving players to a state of catatonic madness, spawning the phrase ‘just one more turn’ at the same time, can only be considered a gaming miracle.

Why did it drive so many players to the point of obsession? It’s about more than creator Sid Meier’s “a game is a series of interesting decisions” headline quote. It’s about incredibly clear direction, tied to immense competition. Civ’s timeline is a clearly delineated measure of your progress; one that clearly marks how well you’re doing compared to your opponents. Got catapults? So have the English. Got guns? So have the Aztecs. Got nuclear weapons? So have the French.

It’s about demonstrating clear ownership to players. Civilizations become organisms to pet and coo over. Early towns become characters. Your first city. Your first captured city. Your first recaptured city. Each lovingly named and tweaked. This is Fartsville. It’s home to the pyramids. It has a rapidly growing population, and is a centre for academic research. Your borders: to my west are the English. They are my allies. To my east, the French. They are my enemies. Your empire: these are the Mongols. They are my people.

Although Civ IV bears Sid Meier’s name on its packaging, much credit must go to its lead designer, Soren Johnson.

And it’s about wild historical fantasy. Playing on a world map, rewriting history, is Civ’s basic thrill. Germany invading Poland, and then continuing west until they hit Japan. The Aztecs wading up through Mexico and holding Canada.

Quietly, though, over the years, the game’s influence waned. There were too many sequels: Civilization III and Civilization: Call To Power. There were too many alternatives: the realtime strategy of Age Of Empires made Civ look sombre and slow. And there wasn’t enough love: Firaxis produced Civ III, but its heart was clearly in Alpha Centauri.

And then came number four. And Civilization was reborn.

The Civ games had always avoided religion. Too messy. Too offensive. Choosing a faith was the most demanded feature from fans, but would always be the most controversial. How could Firaxis dare define traits and stereotypes, and convert them into straight bonuses? Could it really be as clumsy as a +3 bonus to peaceful negotiation for Buddhists?

No. Firaxis’s solution was inspired. Religion in Civ IV isn’t about bonuses. It’s about infection. Religions spread from holy cities, carried by missionaries. Sharing a state religion with your neighbours makes the AI players more likely to share resources and tech. Sharing a state religion with any city with a matching temple gives line of sight: your flock are your spies. And state religions that own a sacred building will receive income from far-flung temples. Again: religion isn’t a series of bonuses. It’s a meme.

And then there was that other dream feature. Multiplayer. It had been tried in the previous iteration, but proved unstable and difficult to manage. But it showed the potential of Civilization multiplayer: long-form games that could last hours – the same chasm-deep mechanics, but with the fragile alliances, backstabbing and betrayal of Diplomacy. A small game might take an afternoon; longer games with more players could last months – but fundamentally they work, players passing each turn via email, or meeting up online for an hour each night to pick up a saved game.

Nothing brings out the inner dictator, though, like nuclear diplomacy. Players are free to build nukes if they so desire. Doing so transforms the end-game. Bombing a city starts the Armageddon clock – and begins raising the Earth’s temperature. Previously fertile savannah becomes barren; entire cities begin to starve. But nukes can be voted out of the game – if a peaceful player builds the United Nations. He or she can then call a vote on a non-proliferation treaty; each Civ receiving a share of the total vote proportional to their population. In Civ, nothing quite hurts like a nuke. Nothing, that is, but having those same nukes taken away by the nice man from the UN.