36 Chambers – The Legendary Journeys: Execution to the max!

June 18, 2007

More reviews you can use! [tm]: Medieval 2 and Civilization IV

Filed under: Reviews you can use [tm]!, Video Games — Tony Demchak @ 2:31 am

I’m trying to create a constant onslaught of postings because Dan almost never posts and Kevin is elsewhere. Also, I’m going to start a third shift job soon (temporarily), so I’m trying to readjust my sleep schedule. These won’t be hugely in depth, especially the latter; I am considering making a Civ IV diary, which would help reinstill interest in the game for me and might convince you to play it or buy it. I might even include screen shots! I should note I’m looking forward to the newest expansion way more than I was Warlords, since it promises to revamp diplomacy (my favorite aspect of the game) and espionage, while making diplomatic victories more workable.

Medieval 2: Total War

For those who haven’t played this particular franchise, the Total War system works very similarly to that of Rise of the Nations, without the “board game” feel of RoN. You begin with a few provinces, depending on the nation you select, and select one of two campaigns: the long (45 regions, including some faction or religion specific regions, like Jerusalem) or the short (15 regions, including two or more faction specific regions). I have only really played as the English for now, but I will add new factions as I play more. The short campaign for English requires you to eliminate France and Scotland; the long requires you to take Jerusalem. Each turn has two components: manipulating armies, navies, and agents for specific tasks, moving them to other regions and initiating actions [battles are triggered immediately], and managing your provinces. Sometimes you won’t do anything during your turns, but these are extremely rare and are generally indicative of either being early in the game or lacking the money to do anything.

Battles are what make Total War a unique franchise; after engaging an enemy army, you have the option to simulate the battle or fight it out on the map. It is more productive (and fun!) to do the latter. You and your opponent place your various armies, then start the battle. There is a time limit, but I’ve never run afoul of it. You move troops during the battle, ordering them to attack various parts of the enemy army. There’s a very sophisticated morale system: things like the presence of a skilled general, the momentum of the battle, how fresh your men are, who the unit is attacking, and the presence of his allies all have sizable effects on morale. Each faction has unique strengths and weaknesses that are largely historic; the English, for example, have powerful archers but suffer from a lack of quality cavalry. There are six broad categories of units, each of which have their own strengths and weaknesses: Missile troops (the benefits of ranged weaponry vs. costs of poor melee combat), Spearmen (strong against cavalry vs. slow on the offense), Light Infantry (cheap but low quality), Heavy Infantry (expensive but high quality), Light cavalry (great at pursuit, not so great at pitched battle), Heavy cavalry (quick and mighty but very expensive and susceptible to spearmen). Artillery is largely reserved for sieges, although you can take them out on the field.

The composition of an army is only half the battle, though: other factors including the ability of the general, terrain, fortifications, and your tactics are all key to victory or defeat. The Total War battle system makes the last a difference maker. Knowing how to use your army, where to attack, and whom to attack, can help the aspiring commander defeat larger armies. Tactics aren’t going to salvage a poorly planned attack or a poorly composed army (let’s face it, an army composed of peasants is going to get ripped apart, no matter how many you have), but they can help you beat superior odds.

There’s a tech tree, like most strategy games, but it’s highly dependent on how developed your cities and castles are. There is a maximum level of development before you have to upgrade, and some units will not be available until later on in the game (most notably gunpowder units). Buildings in a province can do almost anything, from providing fortifications to allowing the training of more and higher quality units to allowing the construction of agents to developing a more robust and diverse economy. If you construct a Blacksmith, for example, all of your units can be upgraded with chain mail, although you will have to retrain any older units. A port, on the other hand, allows the conduct of trade and construction of ships.

Managing those buildings, and by extension the provinces, is one of the most challenging aspects of a king. Every province has either a city or a castle: cities are more diverse in what they can do, are better at generating revenue, and allow for a variable tax rate, at the expense of being more prone to rebellion, less developed on the military tech tree, and less fortified in the event of an attack. Castle are bastions of defense, law and order, and military development but have serious problems with generating a lot of revenue. Each settlement has four variables: revenue, health, law and order, and religion. A number of factors influences each variable and they in turn affect each other; a more religious city is going to be happier. In addition to the city itself, the presence or absence of a garrison and a governor can also affect the development of a city or castle.

Wild cards in your quest for wealth and power are your agents. Assassins, spies, diplomats, Princesses (for Christian factions), priests, and merchants can all drastically change the strategic and tactical picture. Spies can let an army into a city without a siege; assassins can kill skilled generals or family members; diplomats and Princesses sign agreements, make demands, and grant gifts; priests convert regions to your religion; and merchants can harvest far away resources to increase profits.

The last element of your domestic concerns is your family. Your royal lineage is critical to success in the game. If your family is exterminated, you lose. Fortunately, through births and marriages, you can increase the size of your family. Men become valuable administrators and generals; women become chits to be used to cement alliances and lay claim to other empires.

All this would be complicated enough if not for the fact there was a whole other world out there. Managing relations with other nations is crucial to success; grant trade agreements, sign alliances, or make other nations your vassals to add to your wealth, prestige, power, and territory. Catholic nations get to deal with the Pope, who can excommunicate a king or call Crusades against non-believers. You can eliminate factions altogether, either by taking all of a faction’s territory or by exterminating the family line. The Mongols show up later in game and the New World comes into play near the end of your alloted turns.

If you played the original Medieval: Total War, you’re in luck — lots of changes have been made to improve gameplay. Royal lines are much more robust; no longer will you fail twenty turns in because your king is hideously ugly and no one will marry him. Each of your generals, if not married to a foreign princess, will instead marry a commoner and produce offspring. Occasionally, generals will marry into your family as well, which also allows to become part of the royal line. The game isn’t quite as long, but still plenty long. Diplomacy is a bit more nuanced. The city/castle divide will take time to manage, but is well worth it in the end. Law and order is now broken down instead of just being a color, which makes holding provinces you’ve kept much easier. Missions add flavor to the game, allowing you to get some quick cash, improve relations, and bolster your military in exchange for short term goals.

As a game, Medieval 2 is an excellent selection. It has an enormous amount of replay value, with each faction having unique challenges to deal with. Battles are very engaging, and only become more so as the game gets later. What you do will have real repercussions, which forces you to deal with the international scene. There are a few problems, though. First, the manual is much, much too general and the advisers don’t flesh out the game enough for beginnings. It’s hard for a beginning player to figure out what is successful and what isn’t; the learning curve is rather steep for somebody who hasn’t at least played the tutorial. Second, the removal of a starting period makes it unlikely that any but the most committed gamer will see gunpowder or the new world. Third, the AI is occasionally suicidal and will throw small armies at large ones; I’ve had four unit armies attack London and get vaporized. Finally, alliances only really serve as a deterrent; your allies will often refuse to help you in your battles unless they are in the general area.

All in all, the game is a solid B+; A- if you’ve played it before.

Civilization IV

The Civilization franchise has been out since 1991, making it one of the most robust in gaming history. I personally began experiencing Civilization with Civ II, which I borrowed from a local library and never stopped playing until the sequels came out. I bought Civ III, sight unseen, without even reading a review; I was more cautious about Civ IV.

The Civ franchise is focused around the player literally creating a civilization from scratch, based on some rules and abilities from a given template, and then trying to ensure it survives the test of time. It is possible to “win the game,” whether by simply surviving until time runs out, conquering the world, or building a space shuttle. War is part, but not the only part, of the Civilization experience, which features trade, diplomacy, technology, culture, and (starting with Civ IV) religion. It is perfectly possible (although unlikely) to successfully win a game without fighting a single battle.

Each Civilization consists of one or more cities; cities, in turn, generate revenue, research new technologies, build units and construct buildings. They are the lifeblood of a Civilization. Without constant expansion (or failing that, city improvements), a Civilization will be crushed by its neighbors or simply fade away as it can no longer compete on the global stage. Cities can be built, be conquered, be traded, revolt, change their religion, pollute the environment, or be burned to the ground. Managing cities is the central and most important task in Civilization.

Each city produces three things: Food, which keeps the citizens from starving and promotes growth; Shields, which are used for production; and Trade, which generates revenue, funds research, keeps citizens happy, and produces culture. Cities can build city improvements or units, which make cities more productive, defends cities, or allows you to conquer new cities. They can also build Wonders, which are either national (one per civ) or global (one per game). These can dramatically alter the course of the game.

Technology is absolutely critical to a civilization: technologies can be traded and allow the development of new units, city improvements, unit abilities, religions, and new technologies. The tech tree is far more important than in any other game; it’s about unit quality, not quantity. There are some limited instances in which technologies are free, but for the most part, they require extensive research.

In any game of Civilization, you will inevitably meet your fellow civilizations; skillful diplomacy can enlarge your empire, enlighten it, enrich it, and enable it to compete more effectively. Each civilization (there are typically eight per game) has its own goals relative to yours; some will be happy with co-existence, others will try to crush you. You can ally with other civilizations against a common foe, you can trade commodities, maps, technologies, even cities, and you can demand tribute from your weaker neighbors in exchange for not being wiped out of existence.

Religion is new to the Civilization universe and has dramatic effects on the rest of the world. Founding a religion and building a shrine can provide income. Co-religionists are more likely to support your empire, while enemy religions are more likely to turn against you. Individual cities can rebel depending on their religious proclivities. Religious citizens are happy citizens, and religious structures also provide other benefits.

Combat cannot be ignored; it is still a huge part of Civilization, even if it is not central. When a unit attacks another unit (or a city), its inherent abilities and ratings are compared against those of the enemy, adjusting for the presence of a warlord, experience, terrain, and city defenses (if applicable), and allowing for some randomness. The losing unit is killed, although even the victor may suffer a beating. The victor may be promoted, allowing for new abilities or ratings adjustments. If all the defending units in a city are killed, the city is captured; the victor can either burn the city to the ground or add it to his or her empire. Each unit can move one “space” per turn (some can move faster), as the entire game is broken into a grid. There are five generic unit categories: Infantry, which do the bulk of the fighting; Cavalry, which are faster but often not as strong on defense; Artillery, which can collaterally damage unit stacks and reduce city defensive bonuses; Navies, which can transport units or attack other navies; and Air Units, which are treated differently from all other units. There are multiple subdivisions of each category, depending on civilization and technology. Workers are special units that can improve terrain with farms, villages, roads, railroads, and deforestation.

Unique to Civilization IV (but borrowed from Alpha Centauri) are Civics. Civics cover five broad categories including labor, religion, government, economics, and bureaucracy. There are a number of options under each category, with costs and benefits; these can cancel each other out, add to one another, or simply co-exist. Earlier editions of Civilization simply relied upon government archetypes; Civics are more robust and customizable to each situation (although some are better than others).

Resources and Great Leaders are the final two key concepts in Civilization. The former have been around since Civ II; the latter were introduced fully in Civ IV (although Civ III did have generals, which allowed units to move as one stack). Resources improve terrain, provide luxuries to citizens, or allow the construction of various units and city improvements. Great Leaders, which are generated by cities, can either construct buildings that provide a very specific benefit, join cities as specialists, discover new technologies in their field, or even start golden ages (although this requires two). Warlords are separate from the other great leaders, as they have value outside of cities. They provide free upgrades for an army and experience bonuses.

Civ IV builds on the great tradition of the other Civ games. Civ II was absorbing, but was a bit simplistic and extremely dependent on Wonders and technologies. Leonardo’s Workshop was the most important wonder in the game, by far, and gave a huge advantage to whoever had it. Units were individually nondescript; they never got better unless they were upgraded by technological improvements.  They were all “stacked” unless on a fortress or a city; if one died, they all died. There was also a bit too much randomness at the fringes of technologies; examples of Phalanxes sinking Battleships were too frequent, which made things a bit ridiculous.

Civ III improved on Civ II in some ways, but also made the game less fun in others. Fundamentalism was removed from the game, both due to September 11th and because it was unbalanced; a later expansion pack added “Theocracy,” which was watered down. Individual units gained experience, even the ability to heal themselves, which was a plus, although such experience improvements were generic. Units had to be destroyed individually, which made battles longer, but not necessarily more fulfilling, as technology made each individual unit less important. Technology was no longer the sole determinant of multipliers, as the attack system was drastically slimmed down in complexity to reduce variability. Strategic resources were absolutely crippling if one didn’t have them; they were way too destabilizing. Missing out on Saltpeter, Rubber, or Coal would make even the most robust civilization crumble from inferiority. Cities required more extensive micromanagement to prevent civil disorder.

Civ IV adds new features while keeping the game stable. Individual units are now more important; they can specialize and customize to be extremely strong at defense, or perhaps attacking in the hills. Resources are no longer crippling; Saltpeter (required for gunpowder) is completely gone now, and there are always base units that aren’t reliant on resources, although the resource based units are often more effective or specialized. Micromanagement has been reduced to easily manageable levels. Civil Disorder no longer cripples an empire. Unhappy citizens simply don’t make anything. Civics fixed the problem of inflexible governments. Another addition from Alpha Centauri was the diplomatic victory. The UN now allows resolutions that can alter the flow of the game, if enough people vote for them. Religion puts a whole new spin on international relations, which makes turtling a little less pervasive.

Civ IV is a game for a specific type of player; it’s very complex, although the learning curve is a bit gentler than Medieval 2, it’s also a much higher curve. A successful game can take weeks to finish. It has tons and TONS of replayability, including scenarios and a scenario editor. The pace bogs down a bit mid game, but every Civ game has suffered from this; there’s an inescapable lull between Gunpowder and Flight. Civ IV cuts down this time period a bit, but makes the early game a bit longer, so that Gunpowder now happens slightly later. Civ IV is basically either an F or an A+. You either like the concept, which means you’ll love Civ IV, or you hate the concept, so you’ll hate Civ IV. Some purists defend the honor of Civ II, but I honestly can’t imagine ever going back after all of the additions and features they’ve made over the years.

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1 Comment »

  1. [...] Military strategy and tactics in Civilization Filed under: Computinating, Video Games, Wacky Theories — The Penguatroll @ 5:33 am I’ve wanted to write this article for a while, and I think even people who haven’t played the game can find something applicable to other video games. I’ve long thought about to build the most efficient armies in Civilization; this is something of a guide to that. I’m also going to show the theoretical development of a quality strategy throughout the games I’ve played in the Civ series; I’ve never played the first one, but I’ve played all the others. In some aspects, this is a review of Civ IV, but only as it applies to the military aspects – I cover Civ IV as a whole here. [...]

    Pingback by Military strategy and tactics in Civilization « 36 Chambers - The Legendary Journeys — February 14, 2008 @ 5:33 am

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