And so we reach the arguable zenith of the Civilization series, the peak from which there is only a slow decline into senescence and eventual barbarism. Civilization 4 is actually the game that triggered this whole chain of posts, as I was looking for something relatively meaty to play over Christmas that would run on the Macbook I had with me while I was visiting family. It was meant to give me something to do in the evenings in between coding, reading and writing. Instead it ended up sucking me for two games in a row, like it was just released yesterday instead of almost fourteen years ago, and it’s the only one of the series where I barely notice the seams. Civilization 4 may well be ageless — Civilization 5 has aged far worse than 4 has, for god’s sake — and that’s entirely down to Firaxis’s drive to imbue the game with some of the character it had lost in Civilization 3’s relatively sterile treatment of the world, and an absolutely stellar piece of design work on the part of the game designers, especially lead designer Soren Johnson.
Yes, there were others involved in the development of Civilization 4 who probably deserve a lot of credit, but one of the things that’s stuck with me through the almost decade and a half since the game released is the designer notes in the back of the manual, written by Soren Johnson. These notes had been a tradition for Microprose and Firaxis games up until Civilization 4 (I think it was the last game to include them) and they were always a valuable read since they functioned both as a decent insight into why the game had been put together the way it was and as a brief chronology of the development process. However, the Civilization 4 designer notes made a lot of really insightful observations that have stuck with me ever since, and shaped how I think about just about every other 4X released since, because whenever I run into something too micromanagey, too counterintuitive, too unfun, I think back to Civ 4’s designer notes and the guidelines you can find there for avoiding pointless design cruft in strategy games. There’s a ready-made blueprint for doing it right, so I have a lower tolerance for games that do it wrong.
The key design ethos of Civilization 4 is positivity. There’s a good anecdote in the designer notes — actually about the in-development Civilization 3 — where Johnson talks about the Dark Ages that civilizations could experience that would apply penalties to growth and income. The idea was to represent the periods of decline that any civilization goes through over a time, but as far as the game was concerned it felt terrible to be hit with a bunch of arbitrary debuffs through no fault of your own. So they flipped it round: Dark Ages became Golden Ages where you’d experience boosts to your output instead of penalties, and this was a much more pleasant experience for the player1. For an actual example of the principle being applied to Civilization 4, look no further than corruption. Firaxis had known for years that the entirely negative corruption mechanic was widely hated, but it was seen as a necessary counterbalance to unfettered player growth — until the development of Civilization 4, where they decided to just remove it from the prototype to see how it felt. Unsurprisingly with the corruption gone it was a much smoother experience; more importantly, it opened up design space for the alternate braking force of city maintenance, where founding successive cities incurred geometrically increasing financial upkeep costs. A newly-founded city can eventually pay for itself once it’s been fully developed, but it’s going to require support from the rest of the empire while it gets up and running and spamming too many Settlers will put your empire into the red and cripple you. This remains the most elegant (not to mention logical) method I’ve seen of limiting Infinite City Sprawl, which is why it’s so curious that the series immediately ditched it in favour of the bizarre empire-wide happiness mechanic in Civilization 5.
As a general rule, Civilization 4 tries to couch everything in positive terms. Building a wonder gives you a big advantage that is eventually obsoleted by a technological advance, as in other Civilization games, but the difference in 4 is that the technology that obsoletes the wonder you’ve built is usually one that unlocks a similar bonus to the wonder effect. For example, the Great Lighthouse gives you +2 trade routes in all coastal cities, and will be obsoleted by researching The Corporation, which gives +1 trade route in every city; unless you have an awful lot of coastal cities the Corporation bonus works out as being a bit better than the one granted by the Lighthouse, and so you don’t feel bad about having it be obsoleted. More to the point, you don’t feel bad about being beaten to a wonder either because you know you’ll get that power boost eventually; all the wonders really do is allow you to unlock them earlier than you would from technological research2. Speaking of wonders, Civilization 4 is a game that understands there’s a big difference between saying “Construction speed doubled with marble” and “Construction speed halved without marble”. They’re exactly the same effect, but receiving a bonus feels good to the player and experiencing a penalty is not, so Civ 4 tries to communicate all of its gameplay mechanics in the language of the former rather than the latter.
This positive ethos that runs through the core of Civilization 4 guides the rework of some mechanics that, up until now, had been a core part of Civilization. Take building Settlers and Workers, for example. In all previous Civilization games, building a Settler was a) quite expensive in terms of production and b) also cost a unit of population that was subtracted from the city that built it. It feels crap to have a city go backwards in growth to build the most essential units in the game, so Civilization 4 rearranges the process; now, instead of population loss upon Settler completion, the city’s growth is put on pause while the Settler is being constructed and the city’s food harvest is converted into production that boosts the Settler’s build speed. Again, this preserves the idea of some of the city’s population leaving to found a new city while transforming what had previously been a quite unpleasant penalty into something that’s perceived by the player as a bonus, even though the end result is the same; you’re just paying the food/population cost up front now instead of having it deferred until the Settler is built. It also makes building Workers much less painful, as they can now have an appropriately reduced build cost without also applying the sledgehammer blow of a population loss just because you wanted to improve your tiles.
Speaking of tile improvements, guess what? That’s right, tile improvements now provide even more bonuses when combined with the appropriate type of natural resource, which have been greatly expanded for Civilization 4; there are a lot more of them, and all of them bring at least two benefits to your empire. We’d already seen the idea of certain types of unit being dependent on having certain types of strategic resource available in order to build them in Civilization 3, although that first pass on it was incredibly clumsy and narrowed your choices (particularly around the Space Race, which required Aluminium to start at all) instead of expanding them. Civilization 4 switches things around to the model the series has followed ever since3, where strategic resources are required to build powerful variants of attacking units (Axemen, Tanks etc.) but there’s always a less powerful, often defensively-oriented unit on the same tier that can be built with no resource requirements whatever; this means that while resources are still important for aggressive civs to build their units, if they’re aggressive they’ll likely have access to them anyway through conquest, while peaceful civs don’t need to care so much as they can still put up a good fight without them. It’s yet another example of the mechanics being rejigged so that having a resource gives you additional options instead of not having the resource locking you off from that tier of military completely.
Civ 4’s big innovation with the resources, though, is to promote all of them to the same level as the strategic ones. Previously there were a lot of different resources in Civilization that just gave a passive boost to tile yields and had no special function past that. Here, though, all of the non-strategic resources have been split into two additional types: Luxury resources provide a civilization-wide happiness bonus, while Food resources provide a health bonus. Happiness works much as it always has, counteracting unhappiness from city size and recent events, while health is a new concept for Civ 4 that effectively replaces the ultra-negative pollution mechanic. The larger a city grows and the more negative environmental factors there are surrounding it (flood plains, factories, coal plants etc.), the more unhealthy it becomes, and unhealthiness is subtracted from your food harvests. Unhealthiness can substantially slow a city’s growth, and too much of it can even tip the city into starvation, so it’s a good idea to counteract it by giving your citizens access to healthy foods like Bananas and Rice. In practice you’ll rarely encounter starvation in Civ 4 unless some prick of a spy poisons the water supply, which fits with with the idea that penalties should be minimised as much as possible, but sooner or later your city growth will peter out and you really want that to come later instead of sooner by grabbing as many different types of Food resources as possible.
This means that every resource must now have the appropriate improvement built on them (which must be unlocked by researching the relevant technology, lending yet another dimension to the decision-making as you clamber up the tech tree) and be connected up to your road network, not just the strategic ones. This incidentally gives Workers much more to do than building endless roads and railways — especially since the ludicrous commerce and production bonuses awarded by roads and railways have been removed from the game entirely. Yes, this is a rare case where Civ 4 actually rows back on a bonus, but it’s for a good cause: covering every square inch of your empire with a spaghetti network of railways was always deeply tedious, and so they’ve removed the primary driving force behind having to do that. Instead, for most of the game road networks grow out somewhat organically, connecting together resources as as they are claimed and cities as they are founded, and the road-spam is staved off until the very end of the game when all possible tiles have been improved and you have a lot of idle workers sitting around. Until then there’s always stuff to be doing in a Civilization 4 turn, and not the tedious make-work of the later games where you have to individually move twenty different units to get your war on. No, the orders you give in Civilization 4 are never less than engrossing because, thanks to that ethos of positivity that wraps almost everything in it, you know that each one is going to result in an incremental boost to your civilization’s power. It never feels like you’re wasting your time in Civ 4, and that’s something I haven’t felt in a Civilization game in almost a decade.
Positivity isn’t the only driving force behind Civilization 4, mind. There’s a secondary strand of thought to its design: that everything should be much more transparent and legible to the player. Combat has been greatly overhauled, with the old attack/defence values being thrown out of the window in favour of a single numerical strength value on each unit that can be modified by a whole host of external factors such as terrain type and fortifications, as well as special attributes of the unit itself — for example, spear units get bonuses against cavalry and archer units get one or two free hits at the start of each combat to reflect their ranged capability. This could all be quite fearsomely complex, except all of these factors are broken down, listed and precalculated by the game and then presented to you as an overall percentage chance of that unit winning a given combat before you commit to it. This makes combat much more understandable — and interesting, as you can start to manipulate it in ways that simply weren’t possible before this information was made available to the player. The same goes for diplomatic interactions with the AI, as all of the positive and negative factors that make up its opinion of you are listed for you with the push of a button; as a result, Civilization 4’s diplomatic AI is still the gold standard for the series as it was predictable. I don’t mean that in a bad way because it’s still a very tough opponent on the higher difficulty settings, but rather that it’s never a surprise when Montuzema declares war on you because you can see exactly why he’s upset (spoiler: it’s because he’s Montuzema.) and will hopefully have made the appropriate preparations beforehand.
Before I get too effusive with my praise, it should also be remembered that Civilization 4 wasn’t quite a perfect game on release. It introduced religion but, aside from it being an additional driver of diplomatic opinion, failed to do anything really interesting with it. It brought back the Social Engineering government interface from Alpha Centauri, but forgot to make half of the options viable and so you end up taking the same route through it every time: beeline to Slavery for the production, and then tech up to a facsimile of Democracy or Communism according to taste. I was also never convinced by the built-in counter to the infamous Stack Of Doom tactic, where you’d suicide siege units into a stack so that they could damage multiple units at once; it’s an unusually clumsy piece of design in a game that otherwise feels extremely logical and intuitive. The expansions failed to do much to rectify these issues, instead choosing to lather on more and more half-baked mechanics such as colonies, corporations and espionage, and if it wasn’t for the additional units that bulk out gaps in the tech tree (AT Infantry in particular is a core unit that makes sure you’re never caught short by not having Oil resources) I’d almost prefer to play without them. With the exception of espionage, though, all of these subpar elements are almost totally ignorable, which is a far cry from Civ VI’s attitude that you’ll fucking shut up and send hordes of missionaries to die in the Religion Wars every few turns, or else risk the AI winning a Religious Victory out of nowhere
The last thing I want to mention is Civilization 4’s sense of your civilization being thrust into a living world, and its obvious reverence for humanity’s accomplishments to date4. It is the first game in the series to go full 3D, and (staggeringly) it was built on top of the same 3D engine that drove the godawful strategic battles in Pirates! Given that, it has absolutely no right to look as good as it does, even fourteen years on. Everything on the map has a charming little animation. Trees sway in the wind. Elephants trumpet as they march around their tile. Minecarts rumble in and out of mines. Look at a Civilization 4 map, even in the early game, and you’ll see a lot of movement, a lot of things going on. It was also the first game in the series to start reflecting city improvements on the world map — build an aqueduct and it’ll pop up on the map connecting that city to the nearest water source, and certain wonders such as the Great Wall have a very tangible presence there too. The look of tile improvements updates as you advance your civilization through successive eras, too, with Cottages upgrading from medieval towns to modern suburbs. The Beyond The Sword expansion added culture-specific models for various units, so a Modern Armor unit built by the USA would look like an Abrams while one built by Russia or China would look like a T-80, which is a really nice, flavourful touch that I’ve missed in subsequent games5.
Despite the comparatively primitive textures the overall art direction for Civilization 4 is outstanding, producing a world for you to make your mark on that already feels vibrant and alive, and that’s a feeling that’s amplified a hundred-fold by the audio. The soundtrack has yet to be bettered, in my opinion; the original music in Civ 5 and Civ 6 is no slouch whatsoever but it can’t hold a candle to the classical, baroque and modern music used in 4. Each era is given a distinctive feeling simply by matching it to its appropriate music, and nothing has captured the relentless pace of modern technological development for me quite as much as The People Are The Heroes Now. And then you’ve got the signature feature of Civilization 4 that is probably the first thing anyone who played it will think of when they hear its name mentioned: the tech quotes, and Leonard Nimoy’s narration of them. The quotes themselves are extremely well-selected in how they sum up the thing that you’ve just researched, and. Nimoy was an inspired choice of narrator, as he’s got more than enough gravitas for the job while also being able to inject a hint of wry humour for the more comedic quotes without going full nudge-nudge wink-wink as Civilization 6 does. Basically, the people who made Civilization 4 were smart. They’d read books. They’d done their research. They understood what they were talking about, and they understood how to talk about it, and they generally know a lot about, and have a deep appreciation for, the history of civilization, and so the tech quotes end up having a hell of an effect on the game as they’re an opportunity to take a quick moment to reflect on what you’ve just accomplished instead of it just being another ticked box on your way to world domination.
If it wasn’t already obvious, I think Civilization 4 is a masterpiece of player-positive design. It does as much as it possibly can to eliminate all of the annoyances that had plagued the series up until that point, and in most cases it does it in a startlingly elegant fashion that judo-flips what had previously been a weakness into a big strength. Where it can’t get rid of the micromanagement it at least tries to make it feel worthwhile, and it wraps all of this up in an audiovisual package that’s yet to be bettered; when I replayed it at Christmas I was really struck by the fact that the UI was the only thing that looked a little long in the tooth, and even though it’s comparatively ugly I’d still take the Civ 4 UI in a heartbeat over the disasterpieces in Civ 5 and Civ 6 since it actually tells me useful things without having to dig through a billion misleading sub-menus. And as far as how it felt to play, well, Civilization 4 hasn’t aged a day. I think that’s partly down to the two sequels dropping the ball in a quite astonishing fashion, but I’ve also played other 4Xes that have been more successful in how they innovate (mostly made by Amplitude) and Civilization 4 compares very favourably to those as well; it might have its own idiosyncrasies and flaws but it also hangs together far better as a coherent, unified design than any Civilization game has before or since. Given how the subsequent Civilization games turned out, I think that’s a doubly impressive accomplishment; I strongly suspect we’ll not see Civilization 4’s like again.
- This, incidentally, is why I’m fucking baffled that Rise And Fall introduced Dark Ages into Civilization 6. You’re deliberately ignoring the lessons your company already learned in the past, for crying out loud!. ↩
- And yes, I noticed on my various playthroughs that Civ 2 and Civ 3 were also doing something along these lines, but Civ 4 really crystallises the approach as part of a design ethos. ↩
- At least up until the Gathering Storm expansion for Civilization 6. ↩
- Even if it’s a rather tone-deaf Western view of humanity. ↩
- I understand why this feature hasn’t reappeared in subsequent Civilizations as art is expensive and having different models for the same unit confuses people who aren’t quite as interested in having their history contextualised the way the culture-specific units did. But dammit, I loved it. ↩