The Two-Fingered Salute.

Oh hey, that was serendipitous. After spending most of yesterday afternoon writing an excellent science article (oh, you are going to like this science article) I found myself at something of a loss for what to put in Wednesday’s slot. Usually I go on a nostalgia-filled ramble through my gaming past, but while I have several candidate ideas for things to write about they need a little bit of time to ferment while I clear the mists of blarney from my head. I was a bit stuck, so I did what I usually do in this situation: I said “Screw it” and went off to play a game instead. I went off to play Civilization V.

Why on earth am I playing Civ V after denouncing it in such vehement terms? I’ve not touched it in over a year. Steam says I have fifty hours invested in it so I obviously didn’t hate it that much when I started, but I just couldn’t shake the feeling that I was playing Baby’s First Civilization – especially since the AI blatantly didn’t know how to play its own game. The great innovations of Civ V, hexes and non-stacking military units, was completely wasted on an AI which would spend turn after turn trying to get into the optimal position to attack your city while you cut it to shreds with entrenched artillery. This was coupled with a change in the empire management mechanic which was misguided to say the least; we were back to the bad old days of penalising the player for expansion with an awkward mechanism that made little sense except this time it was unhappiness rather than corruption. After whacking the difficulty up to the penultimate setting – a setting which, in previous Civ games, would have seen the AI turning all my cities into interesting rockeries before the AD years rolled around – and coasting to yet another easy victory, I deleted the game from my hard drive in disgust.

What induced me to reinstall it was a recommendation from a friend at the weekend (you know who you are, and I’ll be “thanking” you properly later). “Download Civ V,” he said, “we’ve got uncapped internet here and they’ve made lots of improvements!” Since Firaxis do keep working on a game even if it’s broken shit on release there was a slim possibility he might have been right, and so I acquiesced. Civ V is once again squatting in my Steam directory like a malevolent toad all done up in art-deco colours.

To be fair to Firaxis and my friend, there are some improvements present. Well, less improvements, more like a complete gutting and remodelling. Social policies have been entirely revamped, giving the earlier Tradition and Liberty trees some sort of point and toning down the overpowered Piety and Rationalism trees. I have to say the various trees as a whole are actually fairly well balanced now. There’s not so much of an insane focus on specialists either; the early science/money buildings now give flat rate bonuses in addition to specialist slots, so you don’t have to go down that route if you don’t want. The pace of the early game has been increased dramatically; building a worker no longer takes twenty-five turns in your first city and the increased science accumulation rate means that you’ll actually have researched the relevant techs to improve nearby resources once he’s out there. The unhappiness penalty for founding cities is still present and still bollocks, but it’s somewhat less obnoxious than it was before. All in all, the empire management side of things now runs fairly smoothly. Where Civ V still falls down is the two Is: UI and AI.

UI first. Since time immemorial Civ games have been controlled with the numpad keys, with each key corresponding to one of the eight directions. The presence of hexes in Civ V makes this impractical, but the first thing I tried to do when I loaded up the game was move my Warrior unit by pressing G. G. For Go. Usually this would bring up a track indicating the Warrior’s expected path to my cursor. Here it did nothing. It was at this point that I realised, to my horror, that the game expected me to move everything with the right mouse button. This is dumb for a number of reasons, not least of which is that it’s now very, very difficult to figure out exactly what path a unit will take to its destination. Since most units now move between two to four hexes a turn, it’s next to impossible to gauge how long it will take. And with the new combat mechanics it’s really, really goddamn annoying when you try to withdraw a wounded unit from combat only to watch them run happily towards an enemy unit brandishing a whole forest of pointy sticks. There’s also an odd UI bug (a bug? In Civ V? Never!) where it’ll show you as having selected one unit, but will in fact be showing you the predicted combat outcome of another, completely different unit. Then you attack, your unit dies, and you scream at Firaxis for being utterly unable to accomplish basic development goals like coding a functional UI.

Then there’s the biggie, the AI. The good news is that it grasps the rudimentary concepts of combat now. The bad news is that it’s reverted to the psychotic cheater archetype of Civs 1 and 2. Oh, Firaxis have tried to make diplomacy more transparent with a readout of the different factors affecting your relationship with a given AI, but – hilariously – this is worth exactly nothing because the AI will think absolutely nothing of stabbing you in the back at the earliest possible opportunity. One of Civ IV’s greatest achievements was that it made it possible for the first time to pursue a coherent diplomatic strategy which would let you make and keep AI friends. Here, that isn’t possible. Here you always have to keep an eye on them. Here, the diplomatic agreements aren’t worth the paper they’re written on.

An example. In my most recent game, as Harun al-Rashid, I’d just finished a war with Napoleon that ended in a white peace. A few turns went by. Napoleon’s status changed to “Friendly”, we signed a deal for an exchange of luxury goods, and Napoleon even proposed a long-term Research Agreement. Things were looking up. Then Napoleon came by with a proposition: he wanted me to join in a war against Suleiman up north. I said sure, since while the French armies were beating on Suleiman they weren’t beating on me and also mutual military struggle brings nations closer together, right? Anyhoo, I set up the bulk of my forces on Suleiman’s border (his empire consists of three cities, mine consists of five cities and five puppets) and wait for the war date to roll around. When it does Napoleon and I both declare, and I’m surprised by how many units Suleiman has lurking in his territory underneath the fog of war. I’m doubly surprised by the way he seems to be able to easily dispatch tanks with riflemen. But nonetheless I’m gradually grinding forward and after a few turns I manage to get artillery within range of Istanbul.

It’s at this point that I get a message from Napoleon. I’m paraphrasing here, but it basically goes “Ha ha, I never liked you anyway. You were a fool to trust me. Prepare for war!” And then a huge French army comes surging towards the (garrisoned) forts on my border.

Fine. Fine. I took Napoleon once, I can take him again. I’ve just researched Bombers. I can just bomb the shit out of him before he gets to me while my main army finishes up with Suleiman. Then two things happen.

1)      Napoleon’s Cannon and Musketeers start to shoot down my bombers. What. The. Fuck.

2)      Suleiman starts to massively, massively abuse the option to have a levelling up unit immediately heal to full health.

I don’t even know what’s going on with the first one. I know German Luftwaffe pilots got really annoyed when they were flying over the Eastern Front in WW2 because entire Soviet rifle regiments used to lie on their backs and take potshots at the enemy fighters as they passed overhead, but I somehow doubt that’s what’s happening here. Researching Flight first has always been Kind Of A Big Deal in Civ games since it provides you with a long range bombardment capability. After all, when Artillery bombards an enemy unit it doesn’t take return fire. Why should a bomber? Civ V doesn’t think airplanes are that big a deal, though. Civ V thinks they’re just rather weak combat units. And by taking that point of view, Civ V has reintroduced the age-old problem of spearmen versus tanks.

The second one is the one that did for me, though. Both Suleiman and Napoleon were at it. I’d make spoiling attacks with my tanks, I’d bomb them with artillery and aeroplanes, I’d finish a turn looking at an enemy battle line made of half-dead units, and then at the start of my next turn they’d all be healed to full again. It’s a little hard to fight under these conditions, you know? It’s like turning every single AI into the Japanese, only worse. I was still killing their units by the dozen – the AI still hasn’t grasped that it’s a bad idea to embark land units onto an ocean patrolled by a pair of predatory destroyers – but somehow it wasn’t enough. They just kept coming; the AI was obviously getting massive production bonuses or cheating them into existence or something because I checked Suleiman’s treasury and he had no money left, yet a unit appeared outside Istanbul every two turns like clockwork. The final kick in the teeth was when I finally tried to make peace with Suleiman so that I could turn everything towards facing the French threat, only to have the game tell me:

“You cannot make peace with this civilization because of an agreement with another player.”

To which my response was a muttered expletive and a ragequit. The AI doesn’t have to keep to the agreements it signs, so why should I?

This, now, is Civ V’s big problem. It’s similar to the one Shogun 2 had when it was first released; the computer players aren’t players in the true sense of the word. Unlike Shogun 2 the AI is trying to win, but the unfair methods it uses to do so make things seriously unfun. The diplomacy aspect of Civ V honestly might as well not exist for all the use it is; the game has actually regressed from the peak of Civ IV all the way back to the ground level of Civ I, only because it’s plummeting in the opposite direction this time it hasn’t stopped and is now tunnelling down to the Earth’s core. In the next game they should just drop the pretence and throw you in a pit with eight barbarian civilizations; that way the player won’t waste any time trying to make nice with them. The empire management improvements mean Civ V is a bit better than it used to be, but the schizophrenic AI ensures that it remains a fundamentally broken game.

Oh, and whoever bound the “Load quicksave” button to the same key Steam uses to take screenshots needs to be taken out back and shot.

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10 thoughts on “The Two-Fingered Salute.

  1. Josher says:

    Sadly I have to go to work now, but later I will accost you in Steam to take issue with a number of points here. Including (but not limited to!): there are easier ways to move units, you just haven’t found them; you mention a couple of bugs that I have never encountered ever; I think you’re wrong about the diplomatic AI, in as much as it is reliable and consistent, just not always honest, and if that doesn’t suit you then fine but your response to it here is a tad hyperbolic; and I still think you’re wrong about this game’s approach to the expansion issue, which is actually elegant once you get used to how it works.

    But hey ho. You don’t like it and that’s a pity! At least Mass Effect 3 is nearly out.

  2. hentzau says:

    Hey, I gave it a chance. I actually *like* what they’ve done with the empire management; unhappiness makes little logical sense but if it wasn’t that it’d be something else, and I even kind of prefer the way Civ V deals with cities over Civ IV’s solution. It’s just that if the AI can declare war on you at the drop of a hat, with no build-up and with a diplomatic opinion that’s read “Friendly” for the last fifty turns, then there is no way to plan for it. If there is no way to plan for it, then the diplomatic side of the game is completely pointless since the sole reason for its existence is to enable players who don’t necessarily want to spend all their time spamming military units to play the game without being immediately dogpiled by neighbouring AIs who perceive them as weak.

    Also the instantly heal in the middle of combat thing is monumentally stupid.

    • Josher says:

      I’m not going to defend instaheal. It is what it is, you either love it or you hate it. I hate it but have learned to plan around it. C’est la vie.

      This, though, is incorrect:

      It’s just that if the AI can declare war on you at the drop of a hat, with no build-up and with a diplomatic opinion that’s read “Friendly” for the last fifty turns, then there is no way to plan for it.

      Because the AI is programmed to lie, sometimes, but it is still AI, so you can tell when it’s lying.

      In the example you cite in the piece, to be quite frank, the problem wasn’t the AI, it’s that you were a putz. If you’d been at war with Napoleon, and he suddenly switched to friendly and asked you to get enmired in a war with a third party, why on earth would you go along with that? That is actually an example of the diplo AI being awesome, because to be honest it saw you coming and took you for a rube.

      The point you would have, if you had made it, is that the information that the attitude markers give is opaque if you don’t know how to read them, and the lack of documentation means that they only yield to trial and error. But the AI does not act at random and the leader attitude markers are not useless. They are information. They are just not trustworthy. They respond to stimulus in a logical manner. If you have been at war with a guy, the war ends, and then he switches to friendly, here’s what you do:

      1. Don’t trust him. You’ve been at war with this guy, unless you’ve bought him off what is he doing being friendly?
      2. Immediately denounce him. That will a) garner you some international sympathy and a boost in relations with your allies, and b) lead to the following two steps.
      3. Observe the relations marker for the next few turns. If he drops to guarded then it worked; he’s probably deterred from attacking you again soon.
      4. If he stays friendly despite the war and despite being denounced then get ready for round two of the war because it is coming.

      The developers tried to create an AI that simulates, to an extent, humans who want to be deceptive. That is a noble aim: Civ IV was deeply annoying for its need to document every +4 modifier and reduce all interpersonal issues to an algorithm. It made balancing relations a tickybox exercise rather than something genuinely responsive. Of course, you can’t create an AI that replicates human mistrust. It’s a fudge, and play it for long enough and that becomes obvious and annoying in its own way. That’s not what the problem you’re describing is, though. The problem you have is that you’re expecting the AI to act like an AI, and expecting your enemies to give you reliable information. You wouldn’t expect it if the other player was human so why should you expect it from the AI?

      • hentzau says:

        Yes but I only understand human social relationships if they’re expressed in hard numbers because beep boop I am a robot.

      • hentzau says:

        Less flippantly: I expect it from the AI for much the same reason that I wouldn’t expect playing the Werewolf game with robots to be much fun. The AI *isn’t* human. If I were playing against you, or Feet, or even a complete stranger, there would be subtle clues I could pick up on as to what your intentions were. Every move a human player makes has to be signed off by the human; if I find a large number of enemy troops massing near my border it’s a sure sign the hammer is going to fall soon. If the AI masses troops near my border, on the other hand, I have no idea if it’s doing that because it’s going to attack me or if it’s doing that because it’s an AI prone to randomly moving its troops around for want of anything else to do with them.

        *That* is why the numbers are necessary, and that is why coding an AI that tries to produce a crude facsimile of a human attempt to lie was a really bad idea — it is fundamentally different from a human being, it’s not capable of nuance or subtlety or any of the other myriad other things that might tip me off that something was up, and so I really need to be told what it thinks of me if I want to be able to plan for the future beyond “Wipe out every AI player because they might not be telling the truth about this peace treaty they want.”

        (Also I think it’s slightly unfair to characterise me as a rube, there. I *didn’t* trust Napoleon precisely because of his sudden chumminess, hence the border forts + citadel garrisoned with a third of my army.)

      • aosher says:

        That’s a very absolute binary you’ve set up, but I honestly think it’s false.

        Consider this: you would recognise the pre-betrayal behaviour of Josh or Feet not because all humans have exactly the same betrayal patterns, but because you know Josh and Feet and know that if Josh is bothering to build an army it’s because he thinks he can use it. Consider also this: that after 400 hours with the game, an experienced player can tell when he’s about to get hit by the AI. Again, I’m keen to accept that it’s almost impossible to gather that understanding without considerable play, and that’s problematic, but will you at least accept that it is possible that there is a whole layer of nuance that you just haven’t got to yet? Because I can assure you, it’s there.

        Numbers are only necessary if it is totally impossible for the player to get feedback through any other route. It isn’t, so they aren’t.

        And I wasn’t being unfair, because even if you did expect Napoleon’s betrayal, too still allowed yourself to get caught up in a war of choice. Motivations can be argued back and forth, but the thing is that his plan worked, and that’s awesome, because it’s exactly what AI is supposed to do.

      • hentzau says:

        I don’t particularly want to have to play the game for 400 hours in order to learn the diplomacy system, though! A deliberately absurd example, perhaps, but let’s leave aside whether this mutual war declaration was a deliberate trick that would have been possible without massive collusion between the Suleiman and Napoleon AIs. Let’s assume that it was on the level. *Even if* it was a cunning ruse, then the problem isn’t that I fell for it. It’d be pointless if it was obvious enough that I didn’t fall for it. The problem is that if I, as an experienced Civ player, ran right into the maw of this revolutionary new AI behaviour, then what the hell is a new player going to think? It’s not just the 400 hour obsessives playing Civ, it’s people like me who will only put in fifty or sixty hours over the game’s lifetime, and we need a little more documentation of the AI behaviour than “You’ll learn it as you go along.” That may be true, but it makes the first few games we play a process of being repeatedly punched in the face just so that we can learn when and where to expect the punches.

        This goes back to the difficulty post I did on Saturday. Difficulty and teaching the player how to play the game are inextricably linked. Civilization V makes no effort to tell the player that the AI lies. It makes no effort to tell them anything about the diplomacy; a year after release and you’re still plonked down and expected to figure out research and trade agreements and what they’re worth to the AI all on your lonesome. If it were a human, I could use empathy to try and put myself in the other player’s place. I could try to reason with them, negotiate with them, to try to get them to accept a given deal. There’s no reasoning with an AI, though. Negotiating simply isn’t possible except in so far as the “What will you give me for this” button allows you to get a reasonably fair exhange for your goods. Since the numbers are all locked away behind the scenes it’s impossible to even begin to understand how the AI is thinking without the oodles of experience you mention — and it’s thinking in a way fundamentally different from that of a human, so empathy is no help there.

        Finally, I don’t think you’ve addressed one of the key points of my last comment, which is: how do you distinguish between a “smart” AI which plans in the way described above, and a “dumb” AI making random moves that appear the same as the smart AI? One is about to attack you, the other is the standard Civ troop movement AI behaviour. This isn’t a problem so much with human players since there’s always a person at the controls. With the AI, there’s just an algorithm.

        PS This is getting rather thin. Start a new comment thread if you reply!

  3. Josher says:

    Wiiiiiiide comment is wiiiiiiiide

    Okay, I mean, I think I’ve been really clear and explicit throughout that having this system being undocumented is problematic, so I don’t think you’ll be surprised to note that your point is not exactly risky, for all that it’s a world away from the point you made in the actual post.

    That said, you’re still pushing your position further than it supports. Yes, I am a 400-hour fanatic, but that doesn’t mean that it takes anywhere near 400 hours to grock the system (I didn’t, for example, only start intuiting invasion threats ten hours ago – if I had then Civ V wouldn’t have made it this far on my hard drive either). And, at the other extreme, we have an example of a counterfactual: Kenti with Solium Infernum, whose professed desire is to not have to learn systems by failure, repetition and learning, and whose position you broadly disagree with. Given those two extremes, my question is this: if you are content to learn SI by failure and repetition, but not Civ, then where’s the sweet spot? Where’s the middle ground? How much on-the-job learning is enough, and how much is too much? (Frankly, given that you can play a game of Civ V at Prince with no greater understanding of its diplomacy structure than a babe in arms, and still win handily, Civ’s diplomacy seems easier to grasp, to me, than SI’s mechanics – but that’s just me, and as suggesting that you may possibly have come to Civ V, on this occasion, looking for flaws rather than possessing the charity of an open mind would be unreasonably hostile I will have to put that down to the vagaries of personal taste.)

    But your comment about difficultly levels is apt, and got me to thinking while walking home. Two points arise from it. Firstly, Civ V’s difficulty level is whack, on much the same grounds as Civ IV’s was. There is graduated AI capability – Chieftain AI is noticeably stupid – but it peaks at around Prince or King, and further difficulty levels are managed purely though hidden advantages. As a result, I’ve never even attempted to win at Deity level. It’s just no fun. And that’s genuine bullshit – as is the fact that the game needs to give its AIs a few advantages to be even moderately playable (Prince, the so-called default, is laughably easy).

    The other is that, of course, your whole argument misses the point hugely, in that new players are going to start at Chieftain, not King, and are going to develop and understanding of how to play the AI organically as they work up. This is purely a Civ IV purist problem, I’m afraid. If you come in at King then you will get turned over.

    (Aside: On Saturday, while watching over my shoulder, I had occasion to use the Denounce button on Washington, and you chortled and said something to the effect that it was just spite. I kind of mentioned it at the time, but when you say “There’s no reasoning with an AI, though. Negotiating simply isn’t possible except in so far as the “What will you give me for this” button allows you to get a reasonably fair exhange for your goods” it suggests that you haven’t explored this part of the system yet. Because denunciations and declarations of friendship are actually very precise tools in Civ V’s internal diplomacy. A Declaration of Friendship is more than flavour; if an AI feigns friendship, signs a DoF and then attacks then that is a meaningful betrayal that some of them will baulk at doing. Denouncing an AI will mean that their friends like them less and your friends like you more. Either of these measurably affect the probability that war will occur, and, again, it’s something that you would learn organically while trying to master the game at Warlord. There are negotiating tools; there are ways of dissuading an attack, and encouraging one. They aren’t documented and that’s a shame, but they are there, and they work as input methods.)

    Finally, I don’t think you’ve addressed one of the key points of my last comment, which is: how do you distinguish between a “smart” AI which plans in the way described above, and a “dumb” AI making random moves that appear the same as the smart AI?

    I mean, yeah, you’re courting the foul here, and that’s fair enough, but I’ll take the hit. The obvious answer is still the answer: “play for 400 hours and you’ll just know.” Your Napoleon / Suleiman gambit is one that I have seen a hundred times, and fallen for more than once. I could write a comment about Civ V AI War Prep Indicators but it would be boring and long-winded. But you can’t play a game for 400 hours and not come away with an idea of what the AI is doing. If it was random I would know.

    • hentzau says:

      Long comment is loooooong.

      You know, I think you’re largely right. While not exactly sour grapes, this did come about because I was trying to play Civ V the way I did Civ IV. But then I think I’ve mentioned before how Civ IV’s game design was an iterative process building on what did and didn’t work in previous games, and I was kind of expecting Civ V to continue that trend rather than throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

      (The baby is a documented diplomacy system.)

      Also your SI point: it might surprise you to learn that that RPS game *was* my Solium Infernum learning experience. The reason it was so awesome was because literally every other person playing it was in exactly the same boat and we were all making it up as we went along. If I’d been playing with five seasoned veterans who skipped straight to using the puzzle box to teleport legions to Pandemonium I wouldn’t have anywhere near as high an opinion of SI as I do, and also it would have made for a really boring write-up.

      Also also, up until about 8pm last night I was telling people in Teamspeak that Civ V was a game that could sit comfortably alongside Civ IV as something separate and worthwhile. I didn’t go into it with a hostile mindset at all.

      • Josher says:

        Sorry, that comment in my last post looked snide: I genuinely didn’t think you approached it with a negative mindset, if only because I know you well enough to know that that’s not how you play games. If you thought you weren’t going to have fun you wouldn’t have played it. I think you may be right about expectations, though: the other thing that occurred to me without making it into an earlier comment was that being annoyed at bombers being nerfed seems like an odd sacred cow, especially as the counterargument (“One unit that can effectively turn the game around like bad game design, not good”) is relatively straightforward. But it’s what you’re used to, and that’s legit.

        I was chuntering over this again this afternoon, and realised that it’s a cyclical thing: I felt divorced from Civ 4 because I bonded strongly with 3, and doubtless fell for 5 because I lacked that relationship. I wonder if that means that I will hate 6 while everyone else goes gaga over it?

        I think the reason why I’m fighting this one so hard is because a) I’m a Civ V nerd, granted but also b) all of my favourite moments from the 400 odd hours are related to the AI. Like, the three or four games where I have had a reliable ally who has backed me to the hilt, from beginning to end, so that I felt genuine affection for them at the end.

        Oh, and finally: you can press M for move mode, and hold down the click button to see the path and move time estimates. Fnar.

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