Sid Meier's Civilization

In my last post, I ranted a little bit about some of the major frustrations that I have with the way that Civilization games have historically dealt with difficulty levels. In summary, I identified three problems that I feel make it less enjoyable to play the game on higher difficulties, even if the lower difficulties still feel too easy. The three problems are:

In this post, I'd like to provide some more constructive criticism by discussing some of the thoughts and ideas that I've had for possibly resolving these three problems. These ideas include providing a wider range of options for customizing the difficulty level and game experience to suit the individual player's tastes and style, and to provide a wider (and more open-ended) set of game-long challenges.

Alternative solutions to game difficulty

So what could the developers do about these problems?

Well, the problem of game pacing could possibly be solved by inverting the handicap such that instead of speeding up the A.I.s' progress through the game, the player is slowed down. This could be accomplished by slowing down the human player's tech and civic progress, and by negatively handicapping some of the human player's yields. This would allow the A.I.s to progress at a more historically-appropriate rate, and overall game length would remain similar across all difficulties.

Civilization VI - Ship Building to Cartography
Padding out sparse areas of the tech and civics trees could mitigate the ability to beeline to later eras.

Rapid era progression could also be somewhat mitigated by padding out the tech and civics trees a little bit more. Beelining to the Renaissance via the "Cartography" technology is common for civs like England and Norway. There's a few ways to limit this. One simple way would be to simply make "Cartography" require either "Education" or "Military Tactics". Another way would be to have a technology between "Ship Building" and "Cartography" -- such as an "Optics" technology that unlocks an upgrade to the Scout, or a "Lateen Sail" technology that unlocks a medieval naval unit like the Cog, Hulk, Junk, or Galleass (or move the Caravel up to "Lateen Sails" but don't give it ocean-crossing abilities until "Cartography").

Customization, options, and difficulty settings

As for resolving the other issues presented by high difficulty levels, my preference would be for the developers to add more customization and tuning options for players so that we can tailor the gameplay experience and challenges more to our liking.

Civilization VI - advanced settings
Civ VI has limited customization options.

Having independent sliders or settings for things like Player Handicaps, A.I. Handicaps, AI Temperament, Barbarian Spawn Rate, Barbarian Aggressiveness, Barbarian Tech Level, City State Aggressiveness, and so on would all go a long way towards allowing the player to customize the game's challenge according to their own strengths and weaknesses. Handicap settings for players and A.I. can even be further divided into different sub-categories along the lines of: Tech Handicap, Culture Handicap, Production Handicap, Gold Handicap, Growth Handicap, Happiness / Amenity Handicap, etc.. So if you find that you are consistently out-teching your A.I. opponents, but you feel you have parity with the A.I. in other areas of the game, then you could specifically buff the A.I.'s tech handicap, weaken yours, or both.

This would certainly make some of the game's code more complicated, but I don't think that it would be prohibitively difficult. The difficulty settings already make adjustments to these very same parameters, and I believe the game's own .ini files allow modders to customize many (if not all) of these attributes. I don't see any reason why such settings can't just be in the game's settings menu, and the difficulty settings (deity, emperor, king, settler, etc.) could just use some pre-configured arrangements of those values.

Other genres use similar paradigms for their difficulty settings. Sports games are a prime example...

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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...

[More]
Thursday, November 10, 2016 02:08 AM

Civilization VI nags and nitpicks

in Video Gaming by MegaBearsFan

Civilization VI review

I already gave a pretty glowing review of Civilization VI. I did neglect talking about some of the problems and annoynaces that I have with the game. This is because most of these problems feel like relatively minor, nagging issues, rather than game-breakers, and the review was long enough as is without diving into nitpicks. So I decided to dedicate an entire post to these little nagging issues, nitpicks, and annoyances. Remember that I love the game! So the items listed here are not deal-breakers by any stretch. They are just small blemishes on an excellent game, and problems that I would like to see fixed in post-release patches.

Useability issues

While the game's UI is generally very minimal and clean, there are a number of frustrating issues with the user experience design.

Stop jumping around to different units!

Civ V had this same problem as well. The one-unit-per-tile rule means that after one unit moves, the game can't just skip to the next unit in the stack. Instead, it has to pick a unit somewhere else on the map. The logic for this doesn't seem to even bother trying to find a nearby unit or a relevant unit, and so the camera is constantly whipping around from one end of the map to the other. When trying to manage a large army during a war, this can get very annoying very fast.

Civilization VI - unit needs orders
There's already a "Unit needs orders" prompt, so there's no need to jump around the map selecting units.

If suitable logic can't be implemented to make this unit-cycling work a bit smarter, then players should be given the option (via the options screen) to disable it entirely. This is especially true for multiplayer. There is already a "Unit needs orders" prompt, so it's easy enough to just use that to jump to another unit. Otherwise, the game should just wait and let the player actively click on the next unit that I want to move. Heck, even if smarter unit-cycling logic is written, the game should probably still provide the option to turn it off.

Allow us to disable tutorial tips that we've already seen

Each tutorial tooltip dialogue should come with an option to "don't show this tip again". Civ games are long, and they often aren't played through to completion. So when learning the game, I end up restarting often. And since the game is still new, I still have the tutorial tooltips turned ON. I do this so that I can be reminded of how the newer features work (particularly the late-game features that I haven't seen as much).

In order to see the late-game tutorials [RIGHT] for mechanics that I don't understand yet,
I have to sit through the tutorial messages for early-game mechanics [LEFT] that I fully understand.

Leaving the tutorials on, however, means that I have to sit through all the early-game pop-ups as well. I already know how a district works and what a city state is; I don't need to see these tutorial messages again! But it is nice to see the messages for late-game stuff like national parks, archaeology, and corps, since I still don't have much experience with those features yet.

As such, I should be able to turn off the tips that I've already seen and know, while leaving on the tips that I haven't seen, or don't yet know...

[More]

Civilization VI review

Firaxis has given me a belated birthday gift by releasing Civilization VI. They've also ensured that I don't get very much productive done during the months of October and November this year, since I've been sinking a whole lot of time into "one more turn"-ing myself late into the night. I've barely scratched the surface of the newly-released Dark Souls III DLC, my Madden franchise has fallen behind, and I haven't even bothered buying recently-released games like the new Master of Orion. My board game collection has been collecting dust, and my Dungeons & Dragons campaigns have been on hiatus. I'll get back to all those things after one more turn.

Oozing with production quality

The first thing that stood out to me upon entering my first game was the artwork. It's a pretty stark contrast from Civilization V's visuals. Civ V favored a semi-photo realistic quality. Many screenshots of the game's map look like satellite photos, and units (though exceedingly large) looked and animated realistically. This created a lot of pretty screenshots (still images), but the game looked kind of static, washed-out, and dull in motion. VI, on the other hand, goes for an exaggerated, vibrant, and more cartoonish look that reminds me a lot more of Civ IV and Civ Revolution.

Civilization VI - informative graphics
The graphics are vibrant and highly informative. Everything that you see on screen genuinely means something.

What I really like is how utilitarian the visuals are. Almost everything on the game map is communicating part of the state of the game to the player. You can see every piece of infrastructure in and around a city, as well as exactly which tiles are being worked, all without having to open a separate screen and without having to clutter the screen with extra UI icons. There's even different graphics to represent the different phases of a building or wonder's construction that tells you exactly what that city is currently constructing, and how close it might be to finishing that wonder. It's attractive, but it's also clean and informative.

The fog of war is also wonderfully functional and neat to look at. This game renders the fog of war with the style of a hand-drawn map on canvas (similar to Total War: Shogun 2, which I loved). Heck, there's even an animated day/night cycle that was seemingly added because ... why not?

Improvements have different graphics for when they're un-worked [LEFT] versus worked [RIGHT].

The rest of the game shows similarly high production quality. There's actual cinematics for the win screens instead of dialogue boxes with a static image. Finishing a wonder results in an in-game cutscene of that wonder's construction. It isn't quite as pretty as Civ IV's pre-rendered wonder movies, but makes up for it by providing a sense of context that makes me feel like I'm seeing "my Oracle" instead of just the Oracle. There's more historic quotes, all of which are narrated wonderfully by Sean Bean. Firaxis even brought back composer Christopher Tin for some of the music. The new theme music, "Sogno Di Volare" ["The Dream of Flight"] isn't as immediately catchy as "Baba Yetu", but it's still an uplifting, memorable track that stands out more than the menu themes of Civ V. Put simply, this game just looks and sounds terrific...

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Civilization: Beyond Earth

I started writing this post months ago (back in 2015, I think) - long before I had any inkling of the impending release of Civilization VI. This post may be entirely moot now that Civ VI has been announced, and it seems unlikely to me that Beyond Earth will see further expansions. However, I still want to present these ideas, so I've re-written this post to be less speculative and more retrospective. Even if these ideas aren't fated to be implemented for Beyond Earth, it's still an opportunity to look at a way in which the game could have differentiated itself from Civ V, and they could serve as a template for future Civ titles (maybe even Beyond Earth 2) or for modders. Maybe I'll even mod it in myself if I get time and motivation.

Civilization: Beyond Earth really struggled to separate itself from Civ V. The expansion, Rising Tide takes steps to address this with some of its new gameplay mechanics and revised diplomatic engine. Sadly, these efforts don't really address one of the underlying, fundamental, disconnects that the game has with me:

"One of the things that bothered me about Beyond Earth was the way that the victory conditions create an unnecessary competition between the different civs. Aren't we all just colonists from the same earth who are supposed to be trying not to repeat the mistakes of the past? Aren't we trying to preserve the human race? Without the various civs starting the game with any sort of pre-established ideology or agendas, there's no reason for them to be competing with one another. Without a genuine shared victory, there's also no systems in place to share your colonial success with your fellow colonies. The net effect is that once you've defeated the challenge of taming the planet and [one way or another] eliminating the aliens as a threat to your expansion, then the rest of the game is a competition between civs to be the first to reach any of the [mechanically satisfying and varied, yet intellectually vapid] victory conditions."
   - from my Rising Tide review
Civilization Beyond Earth: Rising Tide - attacking cities
Heck, why are we competing to begin with?

Despite being mechanically different from Civ V's victory conditions, Beyond Earth still fell into the trap of being fundamentally, unnecessarily tribalistic and competitive. I don't know if this is supposed to be some kind of sad, fatalist message that Firaxis is writing into Beyond Earth: that we are doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past. This isn't Fallout. I hope that Firaxis' designers aren't that cynical, and that it was an unintentional emergent consequence of design.

This may seem like a small, trivial, superficial issue, but it's not. Regular Civilization is easy to buy into because it's based [loosely] on established history and uses real-world characters and states that most people are already familiar with. Buying into the theme of Beyond Earth is just so much harder because there's so much of the game that just doesn't make sense, or which doesn't really follow from the opening cinematic or the game's flavor text. This is why Alpha Centauri went to such great pains to personlize the leaders, and to turn them into charicatures of established real-world ideologies and standard sci-fi tropes. These are factions with established goals and agendas that we can understand, and we can buy into their conflicts. Beyond Earth doesn't have that, and so not only do its leaders fall flat as characters unto their own, but the entire basis upon which the game's core conflicts and victory conditions are based start to fall apart as well.

In any case, I think that one of the best ways that Beyond Earth could have truly separated itself from Civ V (mechanically and thematically) would have been to change the competitive nature of the victories and introduce truly cooperative victories, or maybe even a "players versus map" victory type. And I want to emphasize from the start that I haven't put nearly as much time into Beyond Earth as I have into Civ V. I'm by no means an "expert" in the game. So feel free to take the following suggestions with a grain of salt. I admit that these ideas simply might not work, but I still think that it's worthwhile to explore the possibility space that this game could have offered...

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Welcome to Mega Bears Fan's blog, and thanks for visiting! This blog is mostly dedicated to game reviews, strategies, and analysis of my favorite games. I also talk about my other interests, like football, science and technology, movies, and so on. Feel free to read more about the blog.

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