I'm not sure Facebook can handle CivWorld, the brand new version of Civilization that launches on America's favorite social network today.
I'm not sure if Facebook is ready for Civilization, though I hope it is.
What we've got today on Facebook is a free game that's more cluttered and clunky than the likes of the colorful, crowded FarmVille, let alone the the slick, pleasing Empires & Allies, which are both played by 10s of millions of Facebook users.
What we've got in CivWorld is a game that puts math before beauty and expects coordination and strategy, not mere click-swapping and message-trading, between friends.
CivWorld arrives today as the latest hope of gaming snobs who believe most Facebook games are frauds and scams. It's not been made by Zynga but by a company that was making video games prior to Bush v. Gore. It's made by Firaxis, the studio run by the legendary Sid Meier, a man who has shipped beloved PC and console games (and whose proteges have already released hit Facebook games, including for Zynga, but let's not complicate the issue). Firaxis has made many respected games, games you have to think about and play in, games that strategy, more thinking than pecking. The snobs would call Firaxis' prior work "real games," and would expect CivWorld to -gasp- be a "real game" on Facebook.
So with high expectations, CivWorld is ready for you to play. But before you hop away and give it a shot (at this link here), let's get a bead on what this game is, what works, what doesn't and whether it's really the great gaming hope for Facebook that it could be.
In broad strokes, the game is very similar to traditional Civilization games. You play CivWorld in the hopes of being the world's most impressive civilization. You earn this designation through military might, scientific advancement, the creation of world wonders or the amassing of wealth. You reach these grand goals with baby steps, playing through 21 eras of history one thoughtful move at a time.
Your main playing field is a city that sits on protected land at some undefined location within your civilization. On this resource-rich terrain, you places houses for farmers, workers, merchants and scientists, then build them orchards, factories, libraries and more to give them things to do. As they labor, they'll produce the food, money, culture points and other resources necessary to build more homes and buildings and further your progress toward attracting great people to your civ and unlocking new scientific discoveries. (To illustrate this, take a look at my city, pictured here. I'm part of the Roman Empire, playing through the Late Nationalist Era. I've placed eight computer-controlled people in my city, the most productive of whom are my artist and merchant. I've amassed a lot of gold. My civ will advance to the next era if we win five battles against other players, acquire 12 wonders of the world, discover the printing press or accumulate 300,000 gold pieces.)
The management of your city is one big math problem. Your workers are at their most efficient when the loop connecting their home, their place of work and the location where they must drop off their produced goods is in a tight loop. The more efficiently clustered the workers are, the more productive they are. That racks up the food, production, science, gold and culture points faster and necessitates that the CivWorld player focus on where they place buildings, manage the cost of razing and moving them to form a better arrangement and manage their income loops in a way that syncs best with whatever perks may be associated with a specific era or wonder. For example, in the Enlightenment, scientists produce more science. Scientists' productivity is also boosted if you have the Library of Alexandria in your civilization.
Unlike other Civ games, however, you don't have to worry about invading barbarians or bored workers. You'll never be attacked or bump into other civilizations as you expand your territory. You'll never have a worker who has nothing to do (nor can you manually re-assign these workers who always seek out the most productive type of labor available).
At the micro level, then, CivWorld is a city-management game that is set within the invisible context of changing historic eras. Its graphics don't change, sticking your city with a colorful Mediterranean cottage look despite the historical era. A CivWorld player could ignore anything beyond the scope of their city, but they would miss a lot of what gives the game its Civness.
On the macro level, Civilzation remains a game of alliances, diplomacy, warfare and betrayal. It is about steering the massive boat of a grand society, a boat you shouldn't try to steer by yourself. While you can play CivWorld solo, you ideally will join with other players. Together, as I have with nine other players, you can form a civilization. Your interactions with other civilizations are limited. You can invade them or be invaded by them. The combat associated with those invasions is a slow-paced conflict fought by units all represented as cards and associated with specific strengths and weaknesses, modified by stance, perks from commanders and so on.
The more complex interactions you'll have with other real players of the game occur within your own civilization as players can earn ranks within their civilization that give them a range of authority within it. Kings, princes and princesses, for example, can try to initiate a war (the rest of the players then vote about whether to proceed). Lords can achieve duke status and take offices within government—say the minister of the interior or the science minister—and bequeath perks to all other members of their civ as part of the power of their office. Members of a civilization can (and should) pool their scientific research to unlock new technology; they can gather their great people to automatically work on the creation of a new wonder of the world.
If you've comprehended even half of what I've described so far, you may have grasped that CivWorld is a complex game. To manage your city takes focus. To be a productive member of your civilization requires coordination, which brings me to…
CivWorld does have some of the most aggravating aspects of Facebook games. You will be able to play it only until the moment when you have to wait to play more or pay real money to avoid waiting. You hit that limit when you run out of harvests and exhaust your moves in the game's sub-games (more on those sub-games later). Harvests are a one-click option to redeem a whole lot of your city-workers' resources at once. Harvests get you resources fast, in big pours rather than in the game's eternal trickle. You'll need to harvest to advance your city, and you may feel tempted to pay money when you run low. You can also use real money to buy gold, which lets you buy units and rare items fast.
So, yes, CivWorld is another free Facebook game that can bleed your wallet one drop at a time, if you tire of waiting to earn your progress. If that was all CivWorld was getting out of Facebook, it'd be worth condemning. Thankfully, it's doing a lot more.
CivWorld, as I've mentioned, lets you build a society with your friends. Should you forge an alliance and build a civilization with the people you know, you'll essentially be embarking on a one-to-two-week project with your Facebook friends. You'll spend that time advancing through history, voting on whether to invade America, strategizing on which forces to build to wage a successful assault, teaming to invent metallurgy and debating whether to adopt meritocracy as a civic for your society. You'll gain roles within your civ that grant you real authority about the course you chart through the game's fake history. You won't merely be badgering a friend for a drum of oil or some rare ore. You'll be earning the right to have one of your citizen marry one of theirs and, without needing to badger them with a Facebook message, you can do it (and gain a productivity bonus in the process).
I've played CivWorld for about an hour per sitting, two sittings a day, for the last four days and not once did I have the typical Facebook-game-interaction of having to beg for some resource or bauble via a post on my Wall or a spam message to friends. Instead, playing with strangers, I took my role as lowly lord and worked, from the background, to help fight wars, invent new tech and establish now policies for our society. In other words, I felt involved, invested and… I felt like I was making meaningful decisions.
I wasn't pecking at this game. I was playing it. And yet I did occasionally feel drowned in stats and terminology. The game is dense with terms and techs, crowded with units and policies and perks for various ranks. It lacks the clean elegance and smooth animation of Zynga's Empires & Allies, to say nothing of the Zynga game's wonderful support for mousewheel-zooming and full-screen graphics. If you plan to play CivWorld, prepare to be squinting at a crowded screen and keep a browser tab open on the game's wiki to translate its many terms.
CivWorld is, on top of everything else, odd. It's odd in that includes little path-drawing and maze-solving mini-games that you can play to earn more of the game's resources. And it's odd in that it is such a busy and complex game on a platform where the most popular games have been so simple. FarmVille derives its challenge from the layering of simple things and the need it instills in its players to repeatedly check in, to add the watering and harvesting of its plants to their daily real-world routine of catching a bus, going to work and feeding the baby. CivWorld doesn't layer its complexity atop simplicity nor does it seem to ask for such mundane involvement. It layers complexity atop complexity. It is, from the start, a game of invisible and mysterious systems. If other Facebook games are hamster wheels; this thing is a car engine. You'll need to tinker with it; and, hopefully, you'll figure it out in the process, with the help of friends.
CivWorld will probably need to run more smoothly and explain itself more clearly to succeed on Facebook. It will need to literally be easier to see, less crowded with data that a Facebook window can barely contain. But through the needle it is trying to thread it may achieve the special success of being a Civ game on Facebook. It both plays by the nickel-and-diming rules of its rivals and shames the shallowness of Zynga-style social-networking. It does this while being about strategy and civilization-building.
This game, like all Civ games a format for telling the stories of decisions people have made, of chronicling the fake path of societies blazed by a handful of gamers, all of them together poking through the opportunities of what-if and calculating the consequences of what-just-happened.
CivWorld is most definitely a "real game" on Facebook, by anyone's standards. Let's see if it's too complex and inelegant to survive or whether it is the graduation to a new complexity that Facebook gamers have been getting themselves ready for, one watered crop at a time.