Civilization V: Striking a blow for complexity

The Civilization series is a complex turn-based PC-only strategy game that manages to have a similar sort of mainstream crossover appeal as some of the big-console action hits.

Dan Ackerman Editorial Director / Computers and Gaming
Dan Ackerman leads CNET's coverage of computers and gaming hardware. A New York native and former radio DJ, he's also a regular TV talking head and the author of "The Tetris Effect" (Hachette/PublicAffairs), a non-fiction gaming and business history book that has earned rave reviews from the New York Times, Fortune, LA Review of Books, and many other publications. "Upends the standard Silicon Valley, Steve Jobs/Mark Zuckerberg technology-creation myth... the story shines." -- The New York Times
Expertise I've been testing and reviewing computer and gaming hardware for over 20 years, covering every console launch since the Dreamcast and every MacBook...ever. Credentials
  • Author of the award-winning, NY Times-reviewed nonfiction book The Tetris Effect; Longtime consumer technology expert for CBS Mornings
Dan Ackerman
2 min read
2K Games

Hearing tales of everyday regular folk skipping work to play a new game happens a couple of times a year, usually around the release dates of a new Madden or Halo installment. Much more rare is seeing same "taking the day off" messages via Twitter or Facebook in reference to a PC game. That's part of what makes the Civilization series so unique; it's a serious turn-based PC strategy game that manages to have similar mainstream crossover appeal as some of the big-console action hits.

What makes Civilization V even more of an anomaly is that the game strikes a blow for an endangered concept in interactive entertainment: complexity. It's become a cliche for core gamers (a more polite term for those super-hard-core gamer types) to complain about the dumbing down of games for casual players, citing things such as assisted aiming, for-purchase unlockable extras, and even Nintendo's Demo Play feature, where games literally play themselves for a few minutes if you get stuck on a hard part.

Civilization 5 (screenshots)

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But there's some truth to the complaints, with game publishers forced to walk a very fine line between keeping traditional customers happy and attracting new audiences. Don't forget that Zynga's FarmVille, arguably the most popular PC game around, is built around a sort of anticomplexity, engaging users in Zen-like repetitive motion instead of brain-taxing strategy.

It's not as if the storied Civilization series hasn't dealt with this issue as well. In 2008's Civilization Revolution, the basic premise was boiled down to fit living room consoles, resulting in a game that looked and felt much like a foreign film given a big budget Hollywood makeover, with more-colorful graphics and simplified commands mapped for the buttons on an Xbox controller. The same basic game was even adapted for the iPhone and iPad.

Turning its attention back to the PC as a gaming platform, Civilization V returns to the kind of deep, involved nation-building of the classic Civ games. At the same time, it also keeps much of the glossy finish from its console cousin, with new, easier-to-use menus, cartoonlike animations for the world leaders you come up against, and a focus on military combat over diplomacy or trade. Plus, unlike many strategy games, there's a series of in-game tutorials that actually teach you how to play, instead of giving you a few keyboard command shortcuts and throwing new players in the deep end.

This big-picture balancing act is what helps the game appeal to such a surprisingly large and varied audience. Any time we see nongamers threatening to play hooky over a game that hypes a new hexagonal mapping system and the inclusion of city-states as selling points, a blow is struck for the cause of complexity.