After going through Too Late Reviews of six separate Civilization games, spanning the early 90s through the mid 00s, we finally make it to "present day". There is only so many different ways to organize a tech tree, to set up a balanced set of units, and put forward an AI to manipulate all of the rules... but Civilization V still managed to switch up the gameplay in very interesting ways and methods.
I want to give a few short words to the design first. Civ I was top-down, and reminded me almost of a chessboard. Your units... your pieces, in actuality, were squares with a printed picture on top. Colonization introduced units that actually looked like units, even if the graphics had to take a shortcut -- fish and corn managed to be the same shape, amazingly enough. When Civ II came out, they redesigned the board itself to give you a more isometric view... they're still squares, but you're seeing them from the side. As the series went on, from Alpha Centauri through Civ III and Civ IV, there were no real fundamental changes but each successive game brought better and better graphics. Civ V is no exception; when there's more pixels, more videocard and more RAM to work with, you've got to update the game. They did a terrific job of animating the battles and rendering a pretty realistic world, from the mountains to the oceans and all the special tiles in the middle. (My favorites -- the oasis, which seems to reflect and looks pretty awesome, and the seagulls that hover over the fishery squares). Civ V's biggest change is the hexagonal grid, however. Cities in this game also expand out to three hexagons distant, supporting far larger cities than in previous games.
That pales though to the other rule change that I feel does an amazing job of making the series more strategic. Firstly, the designers streamlined the units present in the game. Instead of the odd mix present in the previous game, you now have a more coherent set of units. There are siege units, slow moving and extremely susceptible to cavalry yet able to take down a city. Siege units can fire two or even three squares distant, giving front-line troops a headache as they advance. You have front-line fighters, not really weak to anything but not strong enough to take out a city unless massed (and sacrificed). You have the aforementioned mounted units, which are very good at hit-and-run tactics against both the front-line fighters and the siege equipment. And now there are also, for lack of a better term, horse-killers. These units such as spearmen, pikemen, lancers, and anti-tank guns, receive bonuses to strength against mounted units (horsemen, knights, cavalry, tanks), and having them in your army will neutralize the threat that horsemen pose, though they're not quite as strong as the front-line fighters.
Second and more important, there is no more stacking of units. No more can you attack someone with five artillery and three riflemen defense, and in the next square over are five more artillery with three additional riflemen. If you have a ton of units, you have to figure out the best path to attack a city and also figure out if you're going to sacrifice or if you're going to try to evacuate injured units. In Civ V, each unit has ten hit points and can even regenerate hit points via level-up, via fortification, and can even gain a "medic" promotion to help other units heal. You can evacuate these units all the way to one hit point, and figuring out when (or whether) to evacuate or to stand your ground is important. Terrain makes a major difference... foot units have two moves and horses typically four, which allows mounted troops to attack over hills that the soldiers may not have climbed yet. Hills will help a siege unit shoot their maximum two squares, but if you're stuck behind a hill most units can't shoot over. And units are FAR more expensive than in previous games, reflecting how precious and difficult it is to raise a standing army.
In this game, there are great merchants, scientists, engineers, artists, and generals. The first four can be spent all at once -- merchants for a lump sum of gold, scientists discover a tech, engineers complete a project, and artists can "culture bomb", add more territory to your country immediately. Conversely, they can be used to build their "special building", which provides bonuses beyond a typical square or even a resource square, which bonuses extend throughout the game and can be stacked with the city's buildings to become greater (a merchant's custom house can generate extra coins that can be enhanced by a market, bank, etc.) A single great person can initiate a golden age as well, during which increased gold and production last for a few turns. The generals are slightly different... if they travel with your army, they give a strength bonus, and they can be turned into a "super fort" that will damage the enemy just by the enemy stopping next to it.
There are also now "city-states" in the game. These city-states are in essence single-city civilizations that can be either negotiated with and partnered with for possible bonuses, or taken over for more territory. They can enter wars either for or against you, and can even conquer additional cities. They are unable to build new cities and they are ineligible from "winning" the game, however, unlike the other civilizations in the game. These small civilizations are the key to winning diplomatically, as if you get a supermajority of these city-states to vote for you in the United Nations, you can complete the game... this also doubles as the economic win, as buying off this many city-states takes quite a bit of gold. City-states will also give you quests to complete to earn more favor, rather than just having to spend out cash.
Each civilization has one special skill to start the game as well as a total of two replacements for either buildings or units that provides an advantage to that civilization compared to other civilizations. For instance, the English longbowman has the ability to shoot three squares distant, compared to all other nations' crossbowmen, who only shoot two squares distant.
Resources still exist in this game, making battles for iron, horses, or coal possible (and sometimes unavoidable). However, with the inclusion of the city-states, it's possible to take these resources without having to build up your military to insane levels.
Culture can now be earned and advantages are given for more culture in the form of small bonuses. The bonus screen also doubles as the "government" screen, and while not all the bonuses can be earned in one game, they last for the duration of the game. Culture also expands borders, though there is no longer city flips due to culture.
As you can see, there are quite a few changes from Civ IV to Civ V. I love what Civ V became, as it feels more streamlined, it feels more strategic, and I honestly think that I am challenged more when I play it. I'm not just fighting the other civs, but really studying the terrain, figuring out the best way to defend. I'm trying to figure out what my end game is while still in BC times, seeing what the land and the other civilizations will offer me for a way forward. I honestly feel that all the complexity that Civ IV introduced was swept away by Civ V, giving me a cleaner interface and a more thoughtful game overall.
With all that said, I notice that the AI for this game is not exactly the best. On other Civ games, I was playing regularly chieftain/prince level, with prince level being the level where all Civs are equal (no bonuses given to either player or computer). I have been playing Civ V at King level, which means that the other Civs get bonuses in order to equalize the playing field enough to keep it a challenge to me. There are more than a few curious decisions that the AI makes, including not pressing very clear advantages when they have them. I have not run into too many "screw the human" scenarios similar to the one described in the Civ IV writeup, but I also have lost games by two or three turns when I had clear advantages too.
If you enjoy turn-base games, this one is definitely worth giving a try. I installed all of my old Civ games in order to complete the Civilization Retrospective, and I can definitely say that I enjoy Civ V well beyond the old games, and right now I don't have any inclinations of replaying the older games because I quite like the strategy and rules of Civ V that much more. This game gets a 3.5 out of 4 for me, and stay tuned for the writeup of the first expansion pack "Gods and Kings" shortly.
Note: I learned, while writing this blog post, that Civ V came out with a second expansion pack, "Brave New World". No clue when I plan to get it, though I am now interested in it and will write a review for that as well if I do get it.