The Best Video Game Ever: “Civilization IV”
By Don Zeko
Note: This post is part of our League Symposium on the Best Video Games Ever. To see a list of all posts in the Symposium so far, please click here.
Before I sat down to write this, I had a look at my steam account information to see how many hours it had recorded me playing Civilization V.
196 hours played, or over a month of full-time work. Civilization V was released in 2010 and is, if you ask me, a clearly inferior game to its predecessor, Civilization IV. Civ IV, as it’s commonly called, was released in 2005. My time with the game has been spread over multiple computers and platforms, so there’s no way to know definitively how long I’ve spent playing it, but I wouldn’t bat an eye if someone told me the number was in the thousands.
The key to understanding Civ IV’s greatness is understanding why, after thousands of hours playing it, there are still new aspects of the game to enjoy.
First, the basics.
Civ IV is a turn-based grand strategy game. It begins in 4000 BC, with the player in control of a tribe of stone age hunter gatherers as they create their first permanent settlement. From that starting point, the player directs this new civilization’s development: you settle new territory, research new technologies, establish trade and diplomatic relations with other civilizations, levy armies, explore new lands, found religions, and fight wars. All of this happens through a lovely interface that allows the player to delve into the minutia of settlement management or stick to big-picture decisions, with landscapes and units that still look respectable eight years after initial release.
The game brims with personality and attention to detail. Your units will respond to you in the language (and accent!) that corresponds to the culture you are playing as. When you research, say, gunpowder, Leonard Fishing Nemoy will read to you a relevant quotation or literary passage (“You can get more of what you want with a kind word and a gun than you can with just a kind word” -Al Capone”). The game’s title song, Baba Yetu, won a Grammy. Nothing, and I mean nothing, is phoned in or sub par.
Now the basics are good, but they don’t rise above simple effective game design. What makes Civ IV stand out is its sheer open-endedness.
The end goal of all of that development, diplomacy, and warfare I described is up to the player. You can win by conquering the world, by amassing a sufficient level of cultural influence, by scientific mastery, or through diplomacy. And to reach those victory conditions, you can select from dozens of different civilizations and leaders, each with their own particular strengths and personalities. The game supports both single player and multiplayer play, with each rewarding dramatically different strategies and playstyles.
Each time you play, the world map and the other civilizations you compete with are randomly generated. Within the core game, the mechanics are specific enough to include nearly every facet of the history it mimics, from religion to espionage to economics to political institutions, while also being broad enough to support thousands of different permutations. Modern combined arms, invading hordes of horse archers, the industrial revolution, multinational corporate expansion and global warming all fit comfortably together within the same game mechanics.
But while the core game aims to capture the breadth and depth of human history, the developers built the game to easily accommodate mods. In eight years of fanatical effort, fans have taken the core game’s engine and applied it to interstellar space, fantasy realms with dragons and wizards, RPG systems that change the game’s genre entirely, and dozens more that I’m not even aware of.
That’s the genius of it. Civ is a game with a basic game mechanic that is absolutely enthralling, and it gives that mechanism the freedom to apply itself to all of human history and every alternate universe that the fanbase can imagine. It allows for a diversity of experience that gives it simply unparallelled replay value.
This sort of ubiquity is something special, and it’s what sets this game apart from even the most outstanding offerings found in other genres.