There and Back Again: A Civilization 4 Story

By Charles Ellis 13 Feb 2019 1

I’ve been playing the same game for the past two months. The settings never change: Tectonics: 70% Water (Earthlike), Normal Climate, Civilization: Random. Yet every time, right at turn one, I find myself playing a different game. The session I completed just now began with me being parked on an island the size of Australia with the whole place to myself. The session before that? My Egyptians were squashed cheek-by-jowl between Tsar Peter’s Russia and Mansa Musa’s Mali. It didn’t go well – and it wasn’t the game’s fault. Yet, for some reason, time and again I return.

I’m not alone. For a game pushing fifteen years of age next year, Civilisation IV still appears to have something of a following. One would think that for a game that old, with two new iterations in its series and plentiful expansions to boot, that Civ 4’s time would long since have passed. Yet I return to it and so, it seems, do many others. For one thing, I know it is not the graphics, the game’s leader portraits have definitely not aged well. It is almost like the concept of the “uncanny valley” was invented with Civ 4 in mind. It definitely is not the warfare. Fighting consisting of great stacks of troops throwing expendable catapults at one another does not make one feel like a Hannibal. War being declared on me has become the moment where I know that my civilisation is doomed to low score bottom tier purgatory. Yet once I have calmed down and gone for a walk, I find myself unable to break free of taking another hack at it once more.

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By contrast, I recently booted up Civilization VI. It has a lot going for it. The music is superb, the new features are excellent, the districts in particular are a pleasing development. Yet despite not having played the game in perhaps a year, I beat the standard AI squarely. So squarely, in fact, that I had reached the end of the cultural tech tree by 1800. I’ll admit to a certain curiosity regarding what kind of social media activism my people would be involved in without having the benefit of computers. But the challenge was gone. The slowness of the game on my system when playing with the only reasonable number of players (the maximum) was the final nail in Civ 6’s coffin.

So back to Civilisation IV I went. And all the time I wondered why. It’s hardly very welcoming. Unlike its successors, Civ 4 is not a friendly game. Its AI is vicious. In 4X games where I am playing against computers and have nothing to prove, I am content to relax and take it easy. Roleplay, doing what 'feels' right rather than what is necessarily the most optimal move is generally the direction I lean toward. My cities, or at least my capital, usually end up sprouting more wonders than they would know what to do with. Building wonders is fun. There’s a neat video for each one, some nice bonus, and it’s almost like a collectable card game. As a result, certain areas, such as my military, tend to be left rather out in the cold. Building military units by contrast feels like flushing money down the toilet.

My friendly local AI neighbours; whose borders are being encroached upon by my out-of-control cultural influence (a player’s borders are directly tied to their culture output – so a strong cultural civilisation can quickly begin shaving off a neighbour’s borders – and stealing valuable resources); tend to become much less friendly rather quickly. With little or no warning, at least to a guy who’s wrapped up in his own little world of researching the next technology or building the next wonder, I suddenly find myself under attack by a doom blob heading toward a valuable city. With next to nothing to defend myself, the result is inevitable – I rage quit.

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After staying away for a little while to lick my wounds and go through the five stages of grief over what in this day and age a ten-dollar bargain bin computer game – I have a new plan. It is completely idiot-proof. Naturally, it is at this point, with everything completely randomised, that my plan runs into a snag. Curiously enough, it turns out that randomising everything results in a certain amount of randomness. So, having been run over by a neighbour in a previous game, I pick Genghis Khan’s Mongols in order to get a little bit of my own back. It’s too bad therefore when Genghis Khan spawns on his own private island, cut off from the rest of the world by endless ocean, or, even better, spawns in an area without access to horses. This, as one might imagine, can tend to put a bit of crimp upon one’s dreams of hordes and horse archers.

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It is at that point, of course, when one has to begin to adapt. The path of adaptation is paved with errors. Remember how I mentioned my adventures as Egypt? Where my civilization, the most powerful kid on the block for a time, was ganged up on by my two backward neighbours? The thing was that my two neighbours had gone to war before. It had been somewhat difficult for them to get a result – given that only one of them, the weaker Russians, had military access through my borders. This did not endear me to the Mali, who didn’t have access and therefore couldn’t do anything but wait for the enemy to arrive. My mistake was not getting involved. I had failed Machiavelli’s dicta that one must always pick a side. The reasoning goes that if you do not pick a side then both sides in turn will despise you for not coming their aid. This is precisely what happened. Mali, the stronger state, attacked first – Russia next. My army might’ve taken on one; but hadn’t a chance against two. Only in Civilisation IV have I encountered an AI so willing to go for my (proverbial) throat.

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All this isn’t to say that Civ IV’s AI is clever. Far from it – its list of blunders are endless – from declaring wars it cannot actually fight, to using galleons against nuclear attack submarines, to its often delusional negotiation strategies. It does, however, have the ability, perhaps unique in the world of strategy games, to make the best of its own position and civilisation enough to give this filthy casual a serious run for his money. This is coupled with a positively psychopathic ability to spot and exploit weakness. It does not matter where or what you are – if it smells your people’s forces being even slightly less than their own, it will not hesitate to go after you with all the might at its command. Myself as the sole human player is hardly the only target of the AI’s hatred. Far from it, if anything they go easy on me. In one game, Gandhi (in an astounding break with tradition) was the target of a nuclear first strike from Hannibal – the resulting carnage left their entire border region an irradiated hellscape straight from Mad Max and my screen covered in nuclear release alerts like it was the end of Dr Strangelove.

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And that is the thing with Civilisation IV. Dump enough players and randomness and “stuff” into the blender and you end up with a surprisingly busy world. True, this is Civilisation, there is always something happening, yet Civilisation IV seems to do it best. Many of its mechanics unique to the series. Take the Apostolic Palace: a United Nations before the United Nations, where followers of a particular religion vote on current events. Corporations add their own complications. If I’m spreading the subtle pleasures of corporate Sushi, I suddenly, and organically (rather than a generic relations decrease) care very deeply about whether my neighbours are communist or not (for some reason they tend not to go in for that whole corporation business). Climate change and weather events, stars of a future Civ expansion, are modelled as part of the game’s random events – another feature sadly missing from the other games - that give a little colour to each game. All these events and features that could arguably be filed under “feature bloat” do so much to add to the scale of Civ IV.

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And there, I think, we reach the heart of the matter. Civilisation IV, on aging hardware and a single CPU core, manages to build a world. Every Civilisation game creates a story, that is one the series’ greatest strengths. Yet Civilisation IV might well be the best at it. Its’ quite psychotic AI, coldly analysing the world around it with an abacus, is at its centre. It is upon this core challenge, that everything else is built up. The sheer number of mechanics; packed into the game like it was designed by the Beverly Hillbillies means that at every turn stuff happens. Religions are founded, votes taken, Liberalism is discovered, the world is circumnavigated and Hammurabi is asking me to become a hereditary monarchy in 2000 AD. Some games create rich worlds, some games have vicious AI. Civilisation IV, for all its flaws, just manages to edge into the arena with both.

 And with that, I think it’s time for my mandatory daily listen to Baba Yetu.

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