I’m not convinced.
Brave New World is the latest – and probably last – expansion for Civilization V, following up the excellent Gods and Kings which was released around about this time last year. Gods and Kings introduced new mechanics that papered over many of the flaws in the original’s gameplay, like the slow pace of the early game and the big technology gap separating cannons and riflemen from tanks and infantry, and turned Civ V into a game worth playing. But it still wasn’t perfect. The late-game in particular suffered from the non-science victory conditions (Culture and Diplomatic) being dreadfully boring and simplistic, and since this basically comprised half the game it was clear that Civ V still had ample room for improvement.
Brave New World attempts to make these improvements. It introduces a new diplomatic endgame, tightens up the social policy trees and completely revamps the culture system. Unfortunately in doing so Brave New World also largely undoes the fine work Gods and Kings undertook with regard to the game’s pacing. The result is a late-game that’s now finely-honed and very enjoyable to play, but getting there is an awful slog through a dull and repetitive ancient age that goes out of its way to penalise you for trying to get ahead of the curve.
Now, the weird thing here is that everyone else seems to be enjoying Brave New World very much. I’ve seen it written in several places that the addition of Brave New World turns Civ V into the best Civilization game yet, and that this expansion pack is nothing short of a triumph. Usually when faced with a significant difference in opinion between me and the rest of the world I’d just assume it was the rest of the world that was wrong; however, in this case I haven’t seen a single other person say they had the same problems with it that I had with it and I suspect it might just be a failure on my part to properly adjust my strategy to match up with the new mechanics. I can certainly accept that those new mechanics are very well-designed, and my problem with Brave New World has more to do with what isn’t there than what the expansion pack has actually added. So let’s focus on that new stuff first, and then I’ll try to explain why the early game now feels wrong to me at the end of the review.
Brave New World’s signature improvements are the World Congress, Tourism and Ideologies. The World Congress is an expanded version of the endgame diplomacy already present; once one civilization discovers all the others the World Congress is founded and everyone gets to periodically vote on proposals that affect every civilization in the game. Much of this is prosaic, if effective in gameplay terms; you can vote to embargo a civilization that’s been a particular thorn in your side, or ban a certain luxury so that nobody gets the benefit from it. The more interesting proposals include adjusting great person spawn rates, beefing up bonuses from tile and city improvements and – my favourite – starting a global project such as the World’s Fair. Once that proposal passes everyone gets a chance to contribute city production towards the project, and once the project is complete you get rewards which are commensurate with the size of your contribution. It’s a very nice, wholly positive mechanic that comes at a particularly appropriate point in the game when there’s a bit of a wonder slump and the player is likely to have a high-powered city or two with nothing else worthwhile to build, and the rewards are things like culture boosts and free social policies that are well worth getting involved.
Of course the ultimate point in the World Congress is to get yourself voted in as World Leader in a diplomatic victory, and it’s here that the cracks start to show slightly. The diplomacy game is based, as it always has been, around controlling city states and adding their votes in the Congress to yours to get your measures passed. If you’re not specifically going for a diplomatic victory it can be very fun to vie with other civs for enough votes to successfully push your proposal through the World Congress, and it’s also nice that the other civs actually take note of whether or not you’ve screwed them over on the global stage when determining their attitude towards you. Unfortunately if you are planning on a diplomatic victory the chances are you’ve gone down the Patronage social policy tree, which makes it incredibly easy to gain control of every city state in the game if you have a halfway decent source of income. The AI simply doesn’t contest committed attempts to control the Congress anywhere near as hard as it should in order to prevent you winning. And so while the World Congress is great for global politicking, the actual method of diplomatic victory is just as dull as it ever was: buy up all the city states. It’s an improvement, but it hasn’t fixed the core problem.
Fortunately the same can’t be said of the new culture system, which is a hell of a lot of fun in the late-game. Flat culture bonuses for culture improvements and wonders have been much reduced – often down to just one or two culture per turn — and in their place are Great Work slots. These come with each culture building and most wonders, and can be filled with the appropriate type of Great Work; the Great Library has a slot for a Great Work of literature, for example, while the Opera has a slot for a Great Work of music. The Great Works are generated by expending Great Writers, Great Artists and Great Musicians, all of whom now have a separate spawn system from the other Great People so that going heavy culture doesn’t mean missing out on those lovely Great Engineers. Each Great Work you create generates two culture per turn, as well as an equal amount of something completely new: Tourism.
Tourism can best be thought of as offensive culture. It represents the influence your culture has on the other civilizations in the game; a city with high Tourism is a very desirable place to visit because of all of the cultural artifacts you’ve amassed there. Tourism isn’t a factor in the early to mid-game, but towards the end of the game when Ideologies and Tourism improvements become available it can have a dramatic influence on how things play out. The total amount of Tourism you’ve collected over the course of the game is compared to each civilization’s total of regular culture, and if you have more Tourism than they do culture you’ve basically beaten them in the culture wars. Cultural victory relies on beating every civilization in the game in this way, but even if you’re not going for a culture win Tourism is still important because of the way it interacts with the new ideology system. There are three endgame ideologies: Freedom, Order and Autocracy. If you have a high Tourism output compared to another civ’s culture and that civ is following a different ideology to you, then it will start to experience civil unrest and possibly outright revolt as you saturate their country with your subversive ideas.
This is probably the best and most natural way of dealing with culture that the Civilization series has ever managed. With the offensive side of culture being hived off into its own thing that you actively have to make an effort to spread, Civilization takes the choice of government beyond a simple case of “Communism is good for big empires!” and attempts to simulate a genuine nonviolent clash of ideologies. The ideologies themselves are an expansion of what used to be the last three branches of the social policy trees and fulfil the same function, but now you have the additional problem that if your Tourism and culture is weak and you pick an unpopular ideology you’re probably not going to end up doing very well with it, eating a substantial happiness penalty as that democratic propaganda eats into your approval ratings. There are measures you can take to avoid an undesirable build-up of enemy Tourism – closing the borders, obviously, as well as cancelling trade routes and following a different religion – but these carry their own drawbacks. It turns the lategame into a fine balancing act and makes being culturally competitive a very desirable thing even if you’re not gunning for the culture victory directly, and the game makes spewing out Great Works a lot of fun by showing the appropriate piece of art or snippet of music in a little popup when the work is created. There’s also the new Archaeology system, where you excavate the relics of ancient battles and turn them into cultural relics similar to Great works; however, while it can be kind of fun to send Indiana Jones into somebody else’s empire to steal their cultural heritage on the basis that it belongs in a museum, this didn’t really do enough to separate itself from the regular method of creating Great Works to really endear itself to me.
So the culture system at least is much more well-rounded than it was, and diplomacy is no slouch either. With these key aspects of the game being much-improved, what, then, is my beef with Brave New World? Well, it has to do with the sacrifices in basic culture output that were necessary to make everything work nicely with Tourism and Great Works; even if you stuff a couple of guys into the Writer’s Guild accumulation of culture is much slower than it used to be, and this is a problem for me because I was reliant on culture to speed up that early-game slog. It’s no longer possible to have three social policy trees filled out without really trying before you even reach the Renaissance era, and as a result of these missing bonuses no longer coming up every twenty turns or so — and the fact that it’s harder to get started with a religion now to boot – the early game reverts back to what it was in vanilla Civ V: a horrible mud-pit that it feels very, very difficult to escape from. Things don’t spring up organically through city growth and expansion any more. Instead if you want to improve some aspect of your empire’s output – money, say, or faith – you actually have to spend time building the relevant city improvements, and while this is a perfectly fine design principle in theory the build times in the early game mean that it’s often just a succession of clicks on the End Turn button. There’s not enough to do in the first hundred turns any more, and it just completely sucks.
It doesn’t even stop there, though; if you thought that maybe you could spend the time fighting a nice war or concentrating on settling some prime city sites then you will be appropriately horrified to know that Firaxis have loaded even more penalties for going wide1 into the game. Each city you found now increases technology costs by 5% in addition to the happiness and culture costs that already existed, and for me this is the straw that breaks the camel’s back by inhibiting expansion to the point where it is no longer fun. I mean, I’m grimly amused that they’ve circled all the way back round to the point they were at a decade ago with Civ IV by reintroducing what essentially amounts to an updated maintenance mechanic into the game, but it’s still fucking annoying because I would like to run a continent-spanning empire while also having a respectable tech level, thanks very much. It’s much harder to compensate for than maintenance ever was thanks to how hard science is to generate in the first place, and it completely screws with the established risk/reward inherent in going to war to seize territory or squeezing out a settler early for the potential payoff of extra cities when those extra cities will now drag you down more than they’ll help you. What they’ve done here is consciously sabotage the second X in 4X2 and I don’t think the genre works anywhere near as well without it.
Bah. What Brave New World boils down to, essentially, is that Firaxis want you to play the game their way. Their way happens to be the way a lot of people are already playing it, but it’s not my way, and I don’t like any design philosophy that introduces so many purely artificial checks and balances to how a player behaves, especially when it looks so ugly compared to the elegant new tourism system. So while I do acknowledge that the end game has been changed very much for the better, it’s something that I’ll rarely see thanks to having to batter through an uninteresting and repetitive early game to get there, and I can’t help but think that Civilization V is now a far lesser game because of it. I’ll keep playing it in the hopes that at some point it’ll just click and I’ll start having as much fun as I did with Gods and Kings, but for the moment I remain firmly unconvinced that this Brave New World is an unambiguously better one.