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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. Madden NFL games have independent sliders for different aspects of the user's and A.I.'s performance, such as QB Accuracy, WR Catching, Blocking, Tackling, Player Reaction Times, and even Field Goal Kicking Distance. In addition, that game also has additional sliders to configure other elements of the game that could affect its challenge level, such as the frequency of injuries and the frequency of penalties. If you want the CPU-controlled team to play better (or outright cheat), then you can buff all its slider settings to max. If you want to nerf your own performance, you can set your user sliders to the minimum. And if you want a more realistic experience that lets the digital athletes' individual skill levels and the game's physics engine determine the outcome, then you can tweak each slider accordingly.

Sports games such as Madden NFL and NBA 2k allow a wide range of customization options.

There's other ways that the player could use the settings to create additional challenge. We already have options for things like resource distribution and certain characteristics of the game's map. These could be tweaked to provide a much more difficult (or easy) experience. I would also like to see a drop-down for "Player start bias" to allow the user to select which start bias they want (e.g. coastal, forest, river, tundra, desert, etc.). By default it should be set to "civ-specific", which is whatever start bias is defined for the given leader. This setting could maybe also be extended to all the A.I. civs in the game.

The game could also employ "rubber banding" mechanics that make the player or A.I.s better at certain things if they fall behind. Instead of the difficulty setting providing handicaps from turn 1, each civ would start out in parity, and handicaps would be dynamically applied as the game progresses and certain civs get ahead of the pack or fall behind. The game already does this to some extent by scaling the cost of districts based on whether or not a given civ has more or less than the average.

UPDATE, 13 JUNE, 2017:
After having discussed this topic on a recent Polycast podcast, I want to clarify that the ideal way to implement rubber-banding would be through the use of "diffusion mechanics", whereby less-developed civs gain certain perks from interactions with "superior" civs.

Leeching science from civs that are ahead of you in technology is one such mechanic. Another example would be for a civ to gain eurekas / inspirations towards the tech(s) / civic(s) that unlock units or abilities that are used against them. So if I lack the Gunpowder technology, and an enemy marches up and obliterates my defenders with his own army of musketmen, then my civilization might think "hey, this gunpowder thing seems pretty useful. We should probably figure that one out too.", and so you'd get points towards researching Gunpowder.

In this case, instead of having difficulty settings, the player could set the strength of the rubber-banding mechanics.

Dragged into Domination

The problem of false options could possibly be alleviated by having less restrictive victory conditions. The strict nature of the Conquest Victory in Civ V and Civ VI, combined with strict warmonger penalties, means that early-game conquest (even when you're provoked into it by an aggressive A.I.) often forced the player down the path of having to kill every other civ in the game -- including your friends and allies, much to the detriment of the game's diplomatic systems).

This didn't bother me in Civ IV as much as it bothered me in V and VI. This is partly because I was never good enough to play Civ IV at higher difficulties. But it was also because Civ IV's Domination Victory worked differently. Instead of conquering all other player's capitals (which was the Conquest Victory in IV), the Domination Victory is achieved by possessing a certain majority threshold of the world's population and land area.

Civilization IV - Domination Victory
Civ IV's Domination Victory requires controlling a majority of the population and land area - by any means.

Domination in Civ IV didn't explicitly require military conquest, and could be achieved by any means you desire. Alternatives to conquest included settling new cities, bullying or bribing smaller nations into seeking your "protection" as a vassal, or even creating permanent alliances with other civs. By simple virtue of the victory condition being different, I didn't feel like conquering or subjugating one enemy that threatened me would push me down a path of having to conquer everyone. Civ IV's Domination Victory felt like it allowed me to develop my empire more organically, and to actually play at statecraft when appropriate. It was a more "sandbox"-like victory condition, and achieving it did not feel as "game-y" as the other victories.

I've already brainstormed some ideas for different victory mechanics. Perhaps the Civ games could have a "Test of Time" victory that combines the concept of the "Time (Score) victory" with Civ IV's Domination victory. For example, at the end of a turn limit, all civs that have at least 30% of the world's population and land area could rejoice in their shared victory. It might need to be more complicated than that, for balance reasons and to prevent civs from teaming up to win for free.

More "Player versus the board" challenge

Changes to the game's mechanics and feature sets could also facilitate a wider variety of difficulties and challenges. We have to recognize that the A.I. for Civ VI at launch is pretty bad (and every Civ game that I've played has launched with pretty abysmal A.I.). With that in mind, if the game implements systems that make managing a growing empire more challenging, then we can potentially shift some of the burden of game challenge off of the A.I., and place some of it on the map and game rules.

I've already proposed ideas for modeling climate in a Civ game. Having a dynamic map that changes over the course of the game could add new ways to challenge the players by forcing them to adapt to a changing landscape. This could create more "player versus the board" challenges, and I think such a design philosophy would have worked really well for Beyond Earth, with its emphasis on taming an alien world.

Civilization Beyond Earth - miasma
Beyond Earth had more challenges associated with taming an alien world.

Admittedly, such a design would put a lot of strain on the A.I. programming. Civs would have to anticipate changes in climate and plan ahead for the problems that such changes might cause, and -- let's face it -- Civ A.I. isn't exactly great at the whole "anticipating and planning ahead" thing.

But having a dynamic, changing climate isn't the only way to implement "player versus the board" systems. In the past, I've also talked about emulating certain elements of national politics and governance by forcing the player to have to balance the needs of disparate demographic groups within their empires. Individual cities, or even individual citizens, could have goals or agendas that the player might have to meet. Failure to do so could result in a decline in public support and possibly lead to resistance and rebellion against the state, and success could result in increased happiness and more productive citizens. Here I'm imagining something along the lines of the city state questing system, but applied to your own cities (or to individual "citizens" within your cities).

Civilization V - We Love the King
Cities in Civ V offered "quests" to obtain specific
luxuries, awarding a "We Love the King Day".

This idea isn't entirely foreign to Civ. Civ IV: Beyond the Sword specifically offered quests that rewarded players for exploring certain regions of the map, building certain infrastructure, or accumulating certain yields. Civ V also has the "We love the king day" mechanic whereby individual cities would request access to specific luxury resources. Connecting the given luxury to your empire (via expansion, trade, or conquest) would trigger a "We love the king! day" in the respective city, which would boost productivity for a duration.

These sorts of mechanics could be expanded upon to force the player to have to manage and balance the disparate (and sometimes conflicting) needs and desires of your subjects. I don't want Civ to turn into a management sim like Democracy or Europa Universalis, but I do think that there's probably some comfortable middle ground that would provide some extra political challenge appropriate to the scale of Civ, but without the overwhelming complexity.

Features like global warming, random events, and civil wars have been in the game before, but they've proven to be unpopular with players. I think that the biggest reason for this is that these events were often random. There's very little (if any) strategy associated with coping with random events, since, by their very nature, they are un-predictable. Further, players could often just avoid them by simply reloading the game and hoping for a different random seed, thus rendering such features moot.

Cities: Skylines - traffic
Cities: Skylines' dynamic systems interplay with each other to create challenges in an otherwise sandbox game.

Instead or being random, such events should be system-driven. They should be procedural and gradual (and ideally caused by the player or another agent in the game), such that the player can see them happening with time to do something about it. You can then either attempt to prevent the event, or prepare for the event. Stockpiling food for an anticipated period of famine, shifting to clean energy to reduce pollution, improving your healthcare infrastructure and researching vaccinations to stop the spread of an epidemic, or changing your public policies in order to avert rebellion could all be meaningful challenges if they are system-driven and presented correctly.

Is it too late for Civ VI? There's always Civ VII!

There are probably other solutions to these issues that I'm not thinking of. I'm not sure if it's practical for Firaxis to do such major revisions to Civ VI within its current engine. I hope that they at least consider such ideas for Civ VI expansions. But if they don't work out or aren't technically feasible, then I'm going to hold out hope that Civ VII (or maybe Beyond Earth II?) might experiment with more robust solutions to long-term game difficulty.

As for Civ VI, I feel that the game's biggest current problem is with the lackluster and erratic A.I.. If the A.I. were to be tuned to be more competent at city sieges, if they were better at planning and executing wars (especially joint wars), if they could plan their district-placement and amenity supply better, and if they would start escorting their friggin' civilian units, then I think that the A.I.s could become more competitive at even mid-range difficulties. If the King and Emperor difficulties could be made more fun and competitive, then I might not feel as pressured to move up to Immortal or Diety, which would spare me (and other players, surely) from having to put up with the frustrations that those difficulties entail.

I guess we'll see what Civ VI's expansions have in store for us...

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