Sid Meier's Civilization

Obviously, I love the Sid Meier's Civilization game franchise. I've been playing it since Civ III, and even own the Fantasy Flight board game (which I also really like). This game series has kept me up, one-more-turning, into the wee hours of the morning on many occasions. Despite my love for the games, this series can also really grind my gears sometimes.

One of my persistent frustrations with the Civilization series of games is the way that it handles difficulty levels. Granted, this seems to be a common issue in all strategy games, so Civ is certainly not unique in this frustration. Basically, the higher difficulties don't make the A.I.s play better; rather, it just gives them free stuff at the beginning of the game, and buffs their production, research, and so on. The free stuff includes (depending on the difficulty level selected): extra settlers, extra military units, free workers/builders, free technologies, extra gold, extra population in its starting city, and so forth.

There's three key problems with this design paradigm:

  • It front-loads the challenge in a game that is supposed to have very long play-sessions
  • It limits player options
  • It rushes the pace of the game

The front-loading of frustration

Giving the A.I.s extra stuff at the beginning of the game only makes the game harder by giving the A.I.s a handicap - a head start. It doesn't make the A.I.s better - or the game harder - in the long run. The A.I.s still chose crappy locations for those extra settlers to plant their cities - often putting them in un-productive locations, or (in the case of Civ VI) putting them so close together that they can't fit enough districts in. The A.I. doesn't plan ahead regarding where its districts will be, and it often places those districts in sub-optimal locations. "Sub-optimal" being an understatement.

Civilization VI - A.I. free settlers
The A.I. starting with extra settlers on high difficulties doesn't make the game harder in the long run.

Those free extra units aren't used more effectively either. Even with a few extra warriors, the A.I. still can't plan or execute a city siege, as it's generally inept at handling the one-unit-per-tile, hex-based combat, and they rarely bother to escort their civilian units. The developers can't be completely blamed for this, as A.I. for tactical combat is a very difficult problem to solve. Most games that have A.I.-driven tactical combat either don't have any grand strategy at all (as in Panzer General), or the grand strategy is separated into a completely different layer of gameplay (as in Total War).

Once the human player can get his or her cities up and running, get a sizable military built, and start conquering the A.I., all these free starting units become moot. These extra units can even backfire. A.I. cities can usually easily be captured by the human player. Since the A.I. gets buffs towards population growth, production, and other yields, those cities tend to grow faster than the player's cities anyway. So if they're conquered, then the human player gets better cities than they could have founded on their own, and gets them sooner than if they had spent the time to build their own settlers.

Civilization VI - capturing A.I. cities
It's not hard to capture A.I. cities, which are often larger and more developed
than any city the player could have founded within the same amount of time.

These early hurdles aren't that difficult to overcome, and once the A.I.'s starting advantages have been neutralized, they don't pose much of an increased threat long-term...

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