Civilization III and (failed) attempts to fix the end-game

“Just one chip”.

“A quiet beer”.

“One more turn of Civilization”

Some things are just impossible.

Screenshot (276)

A while back, I had about an hour to kill.  For some unknown reason I had Civ III in Steam,* and I thought “I played a lot of Civ 1 and 2, I’ll try this for just an hour”.  That estimate was precisely 100 hours out. Or 10,100%.

Something rather similar happened with Armada 2525.  It seems I really like 4x games (and if you’re not sure what this is, keep reading.)  But, just like Armada 2525, the best part of Civ III was the beginning and middle.  The end was just tedious.

Civilization, for the few of you who don’t know, is a series of strategy games that are better more specificially called “4x” games – Xplore, Xpand, Xploit, Xterminate.  It’s a turn-based genre that was big in the 80s-90s, but now it’s just Civ and a few lesser known franchises.  The core mechanic is that you play a nation/race/etc (in space, on earth, in history, whatever). You start off with one city in a big unknown place.  You explore around you (Xplore), found new colonies (Xpand), gather resrouces and reserach new technologies (Xploit) and kill everyone else (Xterminate).

Other famous examples of the genre – Master of Orion (Top Left), Reach for the Starts (Top Right) and Heros of Might and Magic (bottom)

But the 4x genre always had a problem – the pace slows down as you get more units and cities.  At the start, each turn may take 2 mins.  By the end it’s taking 5 times that length.  Worse, by the end of the game it’s obvious who’s going to win.  So not only does the pace grind to a halt, the content becomes boring.

In Armada 2525, I took to blowing up my own planets.

Civ III is interesting in that you could see that Firaxis were well aware of this problem, and had a number of strategies to address it.  Unfortunately, they didn’t work.  Let’s look at that in more detail.

But first I will, very briefly, discuss the rest of Civ III’s mechanics.

citymanage_img8

Civ III is a very complex game.  Civ was always a complex game, but Civ III obviously followed the “more is more” philosophy of sequels to add new complexities without taking any of the old ones away.  Worse, the tutorial really didn’t explain a lot of the nuances, and on anything but the easiest difficulty levels, your margin for error is very small.  I had to restart about 4 times before I really got the hang of it.

Firaxis changed quite a bit between Civ II and III, but the biggest addition was a new stat called “culture”.  “Culture”is a numerical number, which is added to each turn by certain city improvements (libraries, theatres, etc).  It determines the area of control you have around your cities, and also how favourably other Civs will treat you (and a few other things).

Once I’d figured out how to play the game again it was quite a neat addition.  Not only did it give libraries and temples etc more reason to exist, but it made the areas of control a lot more organic than they were in Civ II.  In Civ II, I tended to stick units in weird, out of the way places so I could bottle up opponents in tiny parts of the map.

But “culture” was not the only significant change (civilzation resources was another, but I’ll skip that).  Some of those changes were aimed straight at fixing the end game.  Specifically:

  • you could now appoint “city governors”, AI who would govern a cities’ production, making life easier when you have 50-odd cities; and
  • introduction of new victory conditions.  Particularly, one where you won if you controlled 60% of the world population and 60% of the world map, and another where you could win by being the first player to reach a set “culture” value.

At first I was quite excited by this, but then I realised…they didn’t work.  Specifically:

  • the AI governors were just as bright as the enemy AI.Which would’ve been fine, except the enemy AI wasn’t very good.  In fact on all difficulty levels the AI was identical, the only difference is that it starts to get free bonuses (i.e. cheats).  So the only way you CAN beat the AI is through superior micromanagement, which meant not using the AI governors; and
  • the new forms of victory felt so anti-climactic that they just weren’t fun to win.My first victory was a 60% victory.  And it felt so unsatisfying that I re-loaded the game and deliberatly avoided it.  This was no counter telling you that you were getting close, no clock counting down (or up), I had completely forgotten it was a goal at all until I suddenly got a message saying ‘you won – game over”.  It felt less like a victory and more like the computer had thrown a tantrum and rage-quit.

Screenshot (278)

This is the only build-up I got to my impending cultural victory.  Let’s just say that after four attempts and 80 hours gameplay it…”lacked weight”.

If I were going to remake Civ III, I’d make a few changes:

  • Streamline gameplay – remove some of the old game systems (e.g. stop demanind players pick production for each square surrounding each city).  I’m not afraid of complexity but Civ III comes with a lot of baggage; it’s groaning under its own weight.
  • Improve the AI.  Fighting a computer that only wins because it’s cheating is quite frustrating.  I imagine that streamlining the gameplay would help with this immensely.
  • Have an on-screen countdown for nearing victory conditions.  Then achieving them won’t feel anti-climactic.
  • Have earlier victory conditions.  My game of Civ III, like all my games of Civ 1 and 2, was really over once I’d defeated my largest rival.  After that it was just mop-up, which isn’t fun.
  • Maybe change the gameplay to a more “macro” level once civilizations/armies reach a certain size.  I had a few battles between stacks of 150+ units.  The game showed me each fight individually.  It ran the same stupid animation 150 times.  Even absorbing them into 15 units of 10 would be an improvement.  Something similar could be done with cities – set the production for cities by continent, or in lots of 5.

By the time I finished Civ III, I was well and truly over it.  Still, my game came both expansion packs, so I thought I’d check it out.  The expansion packs mostly did what you’d expect (add new civilizations, new technologies, etc).  But there was one interesting part – “Conquests”.  I loaded it up and tried one out.

Looks like someone else realised that the full game of Civ III is just too long.

Conquests are a range of scenarios – Rise of Rome, the Punic Wars, building the 7 wonders, etc.  Each scenario is much smaller in every way you can imagine (map size, tech tree, maximum turn length) but it was really fun.  Each has its own victory conditions and special rules, which makes them feel unique, and they run about 8-10 hours gameplay instead of 80.

I played one of the scenarios through twice, and I realised that Civ can be a lot more fun when it’s cut down to a manageable size.  The pacing didn’t grind to a halt because your Civ didn’t get that big, and each scenario required a different tactic.

I’m tempted to say it was more fun than the main game, but that feels like sacrilige.  At the very least, it’s close.

Screenshot (281)

So at the end of the day, do I recommend Civ III?

Yes.

It’s still a fun game and highly addictive.  I can see why the simplicity of Armada 2525 was so appealing now, but the range of options in Civ is still compelling.  If an 80 hour monster doesn’t appeal to you, try out the Conquest scenarios – much more manageable.  I have not played Civ IV –> VI though, so I can’t tell you if they suddenly become much better.

Release date:               2001
Purchase date:            ?  I have a feeling it came free with something in 2017
Complete date:           July 2018
Platform:                     PC (via Steam)
Time spent:                 101 hours
Director:                      Sid Meier
Developer:                  Firaxis
Publisher:                   Inforgrams, Macsoft

* I’m not kidding, I have no idea why I own this game.  I think it grew like fungus.

 

 

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4 thoughts on “Civilization III and (failed) attempts to fix the end-game

  1. Of the Civilization franchise, I’ve only ever played IV, but it is a great game. I suspect it probably streamlined a lot of the issues you had with III. I don’t remember a typical session in Civilization IV taking as long as fifty hours. Either way, I can definitely see the appeal in revisiting the series from its early installments and watching it evolve.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I’ve only really played IV (and the console spinoff Revolution, which is worth a look if you like the idea of “quick Civ”) but from what I understand, a lot of the issues you’re describing here are better addressed in the sequels. Civ IV in particular is held up as a highlight of the series for many, so you may want to check that out if you get the chance! It’s often on deep discount in Steam sales at this point.

    Liked by 1 person

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