How I Learned That I Suck At Civilization

I had never played Civilization V prior to last week. Not to any meaningful degree, at least. I grew up with Nintendo and, to a lesser extent, Sega (plus Microsoft, come the aughts) providing my gaming goodness. I was a toddler when the original Civilization hit computers in 1991. Going from fast-paced kiddie-crack like Sonic on a 3-inch Game Gear screen to a massive, slow-paced strategy title like Civ would have been like putting Power Rangers and Mad Men back-to-back on Fox Kids. It was so far off my radar I don't think I even knew it existed.

I can keep making excuses if you like, but the fact is the closest I had come to playing a Civ game by the time Sid Meier and co. deigned to bestow Civ V upon the world was starting a game of The Sims once.

But this industry being what it is, I began to feel left out by my own indifference to the strategy genre. Here's a thing that millions of people are going wild over, and I'm just sitting here playing shooters and RPGs. So I purposefully grabbed Civ V on Steam and dove in. Little did I know how engrossing I'd find it. I mean, I had heard from others—but nine hours into my first play session, as the sun began to rise, it occurred to me that I hadn't really known.

Here I leave a record of my first few attempts to play Civ V.

Attempt 1: Tutorials are boring

I was taken aback by the opening cinematic. This was not at all what I was expecting. Sweeping vistas, an intimate view of a life-changing chat between father and son—this is what Civilization is all about? Not just the complex machinations of empires, but the personal stories of those within as well?

Heh. No, not really. That was fine, though. Moving on, I was relieved to see so many tutorials on the main menu, not anxious to delve into a wiki just yet. The learn-as-you-play option caught my eye. There's no better teaching than doing, right?

The tutorial began like I would soon discover most games do: settle a city, set your warriors scurrying about, and good luck with those bandits. I was cast as "wise and puissant" King Ramkhamhaeng of Siam and given a short history lesson. That's nice, I thought. Teach the kids something. I assumed being King Ramkalongamon would have some effect on my game, but so far I had on idea what that would be. The start screen told me at some point my warriors would get to ride elephants. Isn't that nice? Should be fun for them.

How I Learned That I Suck At Civilization

"This is a good place to found a city," a calming female voice said through my speakers. I thanked her, poked around until I located the "found city" button, and watched as my Siamese settlers erected a tightly-packed slum of vaguely Asian-looking huts and towers. My warriors, loitering about still by the start point (because they were lazy, I assumed), towered over them. They towered over the trees, too, for that matter. Presumably that's why they're warriors and not settlers.

The voice told me to direct the warriors to explore, so I did. It sounded like she knew what she was talking about. Off went my giant warriors into the Fog of War (which I knew about from playing Advance Wars) as my city set about producing yet more giant warriors. Can never have enough of those. For research I chose "animal husbandry," because what the hell even is that.

Several explored ruins, decimated bandit camps, and unsuccessful attempts to get the warriors to slaughter herds of cattle later, I encountered my first real opposition in the form of the city-state Ragusa. The voice told me I could go to war with them if I wanted, but something about her tone suggested that might not be the best idea.

Is this game not about conquering everything in sight indiscriminately? I was going to have to adjust my expectations.

Instead of drawing his sword, though, he did his best jilted lover impression and pouted at me.

Or not. Out of the fog strolled Genghis Khan himself—now this was more like it! "Treat us with respect and you may live to see another sunrise," he said from astride his magnificent black warhorse. "Hehe," I replied, clicking "publicly denounce Genghis Khan." The man's a monster, after all.

Instead of drawing his sword, though, he did his best jilted lover impression and pouted at me, "So that's how it is, then." I thought this dude was supposed to be hardcore. What gives? I needed to take things one step further, so I declared war on the Mongol immediately. My unstoppable force of two warrior units pincer-attacked on the outskirts of my capital (and only) city, the majestic but apparently miniature Sukhothai, decimating Khan's pathetic unit seemingly without effort. The city even bombarded them with little matchstick-sized arrows.

At this point I took a mental inventory of my progress. I'd just declared war on one of the most infamous and cruel military commanders in history, I'd researched mining, pottery and animal husbandry (fat lot of good that did—there hadn't been a single equestrian wedding yet as far as I could tell), and my powerful empire had all of one single, tiny city. So far I had learned that Civ V was not exactly what I had expected, and that tutorial difficulty was probably going to be pretty boring.

I quit without saving and resolved to buckle down and do the individual tutorials one-by-one. An hour or so later, now with a much firmer grasp of exactly how to play, I started anew.

How I Learned That I Suck At Civilization

Attempt 2: Kill 'em all

For my first real game, I chose Commander George cherry-tree Washington because 'Murica, and don't-you-forget-it. His bonuses included B17 bombers and minutemen with badass tri-corn hats, plus something called "Manifest Destiny" that I vaguely remembered from history class. I think it means 'Murica gets to do whatever it wants because God says so. "Yep," I thought. This should work.

I didn't care what the game wanted me to do. Diplomacy? Science, culture? If it didn't want to be about pillaging, I was going to make it about pillaging. Besides, I was still playing on the tutorial difficulty. Sue me. I set about building as many cities as possible to fuel my future war machine, which I envisioned swarming over the hexagonal landscape in a tide of devastation for any and all who stood in my way.

If it didn't want to be about pillaging, I was going to make it about pillaging.

City-states were swallowed up like greasy hot dogs on the Fourth of July. Hanoi, Brussels, Budapest, Tyre—all fell under the might of my formidable 'Murican forces. When it came time to topple empires, Songhai came first, because it was closest. Bad luck, Emperor Askia. I tried to get Catherine of Russia and her needlessly revealing dress to declare war against him with me, but despite my gifts of gold, she refused. So naturally Russia was next.

I let King Ramadamadingdong keep his Siamese empire intact a bit longer out of loyalty from my days spent wearing his flip-flops in the last game. Also, I couldn't figure out how to cross the ocean. Some Wiki-ing and astronomy lessons later, Siam too fell to the strange mix of guns and swords (not all my units had quite made it to the industrial era) wielded by Lady Liberty.

After a lengthy but surprisingly easy campaign against Genghis Khan's Mongolian forces (tutorial difficulty, I reminded myself), I conquered India as quickly as possible. Taking up arms against Gandhi was dirty business—even for me. But after 300-something turns, it was over. The world was mine. I had conquered every capital city on the map and achieved a military victory.

How I Learned That I Suck At Civilization

Wait, "military victory?" Does that mean there are other kinds? Okay, I thought. Maybe playing on the easiest possible setting did not really give me a representative experience here.

Attempt 3: Don't kill 'em all?

For my third playthrough I crawled back to King RaspberryMuffin of Siam. Luckily he had no recollection of what I had done to him in my last playthrough, and accepted my leadership readily. I assumed the extra food and culture he received from friendly city-states would help in my attempt at a normal-difficulty, non-psychopathic game.

My settlers settled, my warriors roamed, and my workers did whatever workers do. Bandits posed a much greater threat on the higher setting, but I quickly compensated and drove back their pathetic hordes.

I quickly set about to exploring and attempting to befriend the assortment of city-states and empires scattered across my continent. I found Sydney to the north; it was plagued by bandits, whom I took care of. I had their everlasting gratitude. Super.

Suddenly it struck me that I had absolutely no idea how to win if not by the sword. I checked the wiki. So I have to build a space shuttle, adopt the most social policies, become head of the U.N., or simply have the most points when time runs out. Well that last one is boring, but I might as well shoot for one of the other three.

The thing is, though, Persia—my biggest neighbor—really started to get my goat after a while. Between them and Bucharest, I couldn't expand eastward at all. And Persia, being Persia, rejected my every attempt at friendship. The god-king Xerxes isn't in charge in Civ V, but he might as well be for all the progress I made with them. Gifts, treaties, declarations of friendship—my every advance was rebutted. Maybe it's a sign—a sign that I should conquer Persia, raze its cities and make its leader, Darius I, kneel before my golden throne.

Yeah, I'm going with that. But that was all I was going to do. I'd just conquer this entire continent (Sydney has to go as well, obviously, but that's what they get for siding with Persia, right?). Then I'd totally be friends with everyone else I met and get elected head of the U.N. It was the perfect plan.

What I didn't account for was that while I had been failing at making friends, Persia had been creating a hell of an army.

How I Learned That I Suck At Civilization

I captured two of Persia's cities, but my new subjects weren't exactly stoked to have me, and morale was at an all-time low. Those Persian forces came down hard, and it was all I could do to pump out enough units to defend my own borders, much less build circuses and theaters to make my own citizens happy. It was war time! What did they expect? Yet my fighters' spirits were down, and the war is not going well. Darius would only accept my surrender if I give him back the cities I took, and that wasn't not about to happen.

Then out of the mists strode my savior: it's Gandhi! Sorry I just destroyed your empire in my last game. No hard feelings, right? "It is hard to find worthy friends in this world," he uttered sagely. Too true, buddy. Now how's about we declare joint war on Persia, since we're such good friends and all?

"I must decline," he said. Well how about if I give you 500 gold? Then will you declare war on Persia? "The answer is still no." Well shit. That was all the persuasion I had left, and I was toast after that. The Persian war machine was too powerful, and apparently their propaganda department was working over time, because several other forces joined the good fight against little old me as well. Oh, I hung on for quite a while after that, but no matter how many forces I built up, morale remained low and I was always outgunned.

Rather than face defeat, though, I did what any gamer with a job would: packed it in and quit. What did I learn from these experiences? That I suck at Civilization. Also, that you can never have enough musketmen. Now it's time for some light reading before I try again.