Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Of Boils and Barbarian Bears

Civilization 4 is, objectively speaking, overall the best TBS i've ever seen. Still, it has its faults.
One of these is the barbarian system. Most TBS games have some sort of neutral, relatively weak faction which is meant only as an intermediate, temporary obstacle separating the players. It doesn't plan and only attacks randomly here and there or awaits to be attacked, conquered, quested. In Civilization, this is the "barbarian state", and one of Civ 4's faults is that this particular feature is unscalable. There is no way to lower the barbarian population, only increase it or turn it off altogether.

I don't play with standard settings. I don't play on medium-sized worlds. I want the most expansive, out-of-control environment i can get. I always play on a huge world on the 'marathon' speed setting, and 9/10 games end in the same way: barbarians at 1000 b.c.e.

While almost everything else in the game can be scaled somewhat, the barbarian spawn rates seem to be set for a standard map size no matter what you actually choose. On a huge map, even with 18 Civs in play, the initial no-man's-land between factions is proportionally much larger, which means that even without a barbarian uprising event there are plenty of unexplored tiles which have a chance to spawn neutral units. Unless you can manage to grab the Great Wall, you have no choice but to completely cripple your development by continuously churning out combat units to hold back the 2-3 new barbarians charging through your territory every turn.
And that's the other issue: they charge through unlike the blind, brute force they should represent. They avoid combat with strong units placed at the borders and sneak past to destroy whatever improvements they can. This basically amounts to demanding that the player use at least half a dozen or so units to defend each base, which is economically unfeasible during early game on the medium difficulty setting, or cover endless expanses of unclaimed territory with even more units.

On the other hand, there's Alpha Centauri, Civ 4's grand-daddy or great uncle, depending on how one looks at the lineage. Alpha Centauri was not a balanced game. It had quite a few flaws in terms of pure strategy, and its unit/base automation options are severely outdated when compared to Civ4. It was, however, a conceptual masterpiece, and one of its strokes of genius was the neutral faction. Instead of being an early-game obstacle, the mind worms escalate in power and aggressiveness as the game's factions occupy more territory and the years drag on. More importantly, they spawn largely in response to player action, to advancing through the wilderness. They do not punish the player simply for playing defensively.

Better yet, they do not prioritize targets. A mind worm boil will not singlemindedly charge past three archers on hilltops to destroy a mine deep in your territory, and this is how things should be. One of the core properties of the neutral faction in a TBS game is its independence from resources. Something that can spawn endlessly should not also get the same quality AI as factions which share the player's limitations of food, materials and so forth.

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