Civilization V: an example of breaking the learning curve

by Maarten Swemmer Leave a reply »
Civilization V

Gimme Five!

I’m a huge fan of Civilization, the computer game series created by Sid Meier. And I have spent many hundreds of hours in the last two decades playing CIV I, II, III and IV. So buying the most recent part in the increasingly less accurate trilogy of five was a logical step, and based on the professional reviews, I expected a lot: better graphics, better battles, better development system, etc. Everything better. So my expectations were high. Well, after playing it, I’m a bit disappointed. Here is why.

It started with installing the game. I had to accept an almost infinite number of license agreements and terms of use, one after the other warning me to return the game to the shop if I did not agree with them stealing my privacy information. After clicking a lot of “Yes I Accept” and then waiting a long time without a clear progress bar, I finally got started, at least I thought.

I first needed to create a ‘Steam’ account (yeah I read about that somewhere in one of the terms of use). I understand that this systems serves to prevent piracy (while stealing your privacy), and I support preventing piracy, but it would be nice to do it in a more user friendly way (and yes, that is possible).

Now I was ready to start Civilization, I could hardly wait. But I had to wait. Because Civilization V, for some unexplained reason, takes so long to start (on my 2.5GHz Core2Duo, 4GB with Intel SSD drive), you have to watch the first 30 seconds of the introductory movie (yes the movie you only want to watch once, and then never again) every time you start the game. And after that you have to accept some copyright notice or disclaimer, every time. Ok, even that I can bare. Let’s get playing!

Indeed, at first the graphics look quite OK, and ‘one unit per tile’ principle makes battles more strategic, but the Social Policies system, a replacement of the proven ‘Civics’ system, is just a step back. And there’s more.

The graphical interface contains a lot of glitches. For example, buildings in coastal cities appear in the sea. It also sometimes takes up to 10 seconds (on my above spec PC) before the UI recognizes that a unit cannot move anymore (and thus before you can move to the next turn). If a tile provides 3 food, the city screen will show 5 green apples (why apples, and not just grain, the majority food in real life, I have no clue, and especially, why 5?). Next to that, the new screen doesn’t show enough information and much is hidden in specific screens or in the Civilopedia (Civilization Help).

The ‘one unit per tile’ principle seems fun, but it is exceptionally poorly executed. Apart from the fact that it is just not more realistic than the ‘infinite number of units per tile principle’ (why would a harbor of a city only be able to house one ship?), it also causes unnecessary annoyances. If a unit is housed in a city, you cannot buy a unit in that city. And if you happen to want to automatically move a few units to the other side of the map, make sure you all direct them to separate tiles. If you do not, your unit’s journey will stop as soon as the tile is (even temporarily) taken by another unit. Again, in battles the ‘one unit per tile’ principle has potential. However, there is actually a reason I prefer playing Civilization over Chess and the developers do not seem to have taken that into account. By the way, in real time strategy games, you don’t have these problems, as other units could automatically move away.

There are other annoyances, that were fixed in Civilization IV, but seem to have returned from earlier versions of CIV and other nice elements in Civilization IV seem to have just disappeared in CIV V:

  • You can either buy or build a unit. A half built unit cannot be finished with gold.
  • You cannot end a turn without assigning new orders to a unit. Very annoying if you’re just waiting for a research to finish.
  • Mouse over a worker will not show you what the worker is doing. You now need to click it’s flag first. It seems impossible to queue worker’s actions.
  • Mouse over an enemy unit will not show you it’s strength. Selecting an enemy’s unit is not possible.
  • It’s very hard to open the Civilopedia for your own unit. It’s impossible for your enemy’s unit.
  • Double click on a city will not open the city screen. You need to click the label of the city.
  • You cannot see where a unit that you sent somewhere is headed. While in CIV IV clicking it would show the path and destination, in CIV V you’re lost.
  • Buildings cost money to maintain. Removing this was one of the huge improvements in III or IV.
  • Less important, but part of the experience: AI diplomacy screens are not animated anymore. Cities, units and tile developments do not seem to change with the maturity of your empire (but I might not have played far enough). Zooming in to cities to street level is not possible. Music does not change from era to era.
  • More important: Cultural influence can now be bought and is static. Obtained tiles will remain yours, while in CIV IV you would lose them if your opponent’s culture was stronger. Something in the middle of both extremes would have been nicer.
  • And last but not least: the clock and alarm function! They conveniently left that out in the new release.

That’s all I can come up with now. I’ve read some professional reviews and the reviewers for some reason seem very enthusiastic. However, many ‘personal’ reviewers, like me are not as convinced.

So how is this possible? How can a new release of one of the most successful games ever, be so disappointing? For one, I understood that Sid Meier only played a consulting role for this release while for previous versions he was the one in charge. Next they seem to have made a classic error in developing new software that is intended to succeed old software: they seem to have learned from what was not so good, but they forgot to learn from what was already good! I’ve seen many IT projects (partially) fail because the good things were replaced or left out, because all the focus was on (successfully) resolving the negative aspects of previous versions, thereby basically breaking the learning curve that should have been followed. And Civilization V might be the best example until now.

I feel there is a need to end with some more positive notes. Maybe we should give Civilization V the benefit of the doubt. The initiatives for improvement are mostly good, although not always as well executed. The fact that Civilization V might not yet be the best Civilization ever, does not mean it cannot become just that. Bug fixes will remove UI glitches. Larger updates will be able to resolve mouse over and Civilopedia access issues. A Mod (a custom rule set that you can load separately), maybe even a free one, might resolve most of the remaining issues. And then there was Civilization IV: Beyond the Sword, an even better version of Civilization IV. Something similar might be released for Civilization V.

Update 30-11-2010: In the meantime I found that actually a lot of issues, excluding the real graphical bugs, have been solved by community created mods. The best one in my opinion is the Economy Mod, which also adds the clock and more detail for unit and tile properties. If you want to get rid of the 1 unit per tile rule, use Legions. For a list of 10 interesting mods for Civilization V, see this blogpost on

You can buy the game at Amazon (UK): Sid Meier’s Civilization V. However, if you’re not yet familiar with the Civilization games, you might want to buy the much cheaper Civilization IV: Sid Meier’s Civilization IV: Complete (PC DVD).