Editor's note: the Mac version of Civilization V is due out on 23 November.
Strategy fanatics have lost hundreds of hours of their lives to Sid Meier's beguiling creations over the years, and they should prepare to lose hundreds more. Civilization V is yet another glistening example of turn-based bliss that will keep you up long past your bedtime. It exercises its power over your mind using many of the tricks the series has long been known for: varied ways of accomplishing your goal of world domination, the thrill of expanding a paltry city into a bustling empire and the suspense of venturing into unknown territory. The latest Civilization game takes those basics and layers onto them new features that make moment-to-moment gameplay feel more dynamic than in the past. Most noticeably, the square grids of previous Civilization games have been jettisoned in favor of hexagons that nicely accommodate the other most consequential transformations: military units can no longer be stacked, and ranged units can fire from multiple tiles away. The tactical combat that rises from these modifications is a lot of fun and makes warfare a lot more exciting than in Civ games of yore. AI quirks and a few other minor issues become apparent the more you play, but these are wholly forgivable foibles in an attractive and sophisticated game that constantly begs you to remain at your keyboard for just one more turn.
First, here is a quick primer for newcomers. Civilization V, like previous games in the series, is about leading a nation through the eras of history, starting with a single city and expanding across the map. At the outset of any given game, you select a leader (in this case, one of 18, or 19 if you purchased the special edition from Steam), each of whom possesses a particular benefit that disposes his or her civilisation to a particular style of play. Americans get a range of sight bonus; the Siamese get diplomatic bonuses with miniature nations new to the series called city-states; the English get naval perks; and so forth. From here, you collect resources; make deals with other civilizations; manage your economy; and go to war and attack the cities of your enemies when the time is right. There are four main ways to win a typically lengthy game of Civilization V. You could dominate through military means and defeat every civilisation's capital city. You could be the first to gun through the technology tree and build the parts necessary for a spaceship that whisks you away to Alpha Centauri. You could ally with nations and city-states across the globe and win a diplomatic victory via a vote at the United Nations. Or you might become the cultural envy of the world by developing a large number of government policies and researching a mysterious undertaking known as the Utopia Project. There is also a fifth victory condition: possess the highest score when the turn limit has been reached.
What would strategy games be without the Roman Empire? (Credit: 2K Games)
Whether Civ is new to you or not, it's easy to appreciate the newest game's user-friendly interface, which makes figuring out what to do next a breeze, meaning more of your time is spent strategising and less of it is spent fumbling around. The organised nested menus are intuitive and easy to get used to, and Civ V does a good job of only displaying vital information on the screen while making other information easily available with just a few clicks. A single action button leads you through every aspect of your turn. If a unit is waiting for orders, the button says so, and clicking it takes you to the unit in question. If it's time to research a new technology, you click the button and it opens the research menu. There are a few aspects of the interface that could have been cleaned up. Switching between a city's production menu and the production queue is needlessly clunky, and the diplomatic overview doesn't label the tiny icons indicating what luxury resources other civilisations are producing. But most of the time, you always have the information you need when you need it, and neophytes should never feel in the dark.
A few of Civilization IV's features have been eliminated — most notably, religion and espionage — though many players aren't likely to miss them. However, longtime aspects of the series have returned. Your advisors are there if you need a bit of direction, though unit automation and little icons representing each advisor's suggestion in the production menus mean you won't often need to pay them a visit. The exhaustive Civilopedia is only a click away and offers a wealth of information on every aspect of every feature. You still build wonders like the Egyptian pyramids, the hanging gardens and the Great Wall, which generate the culture resource and provide other tangible benefits, without coming with the turn-by-turn maintenance cost of standard structures. The culture you gain is spent on social policies, which have replaced the governments of Civilization IV. Each time you reach the cultural resource benchmark, you select from the policy list, which is split into multiple policy types, each of which has its own sub-tree. The benefits you reap are cumulative, and while there are certain balancing restrictions in place, you still get a lot of freedom in how you want to progress. The mid- and late-game flexibility make it an excellent addition to the franchise. The first change you'll notice, however, has even more impact on Civilization V: the map is divided into hexagons rather than squares.
It looks like a lot to keep track of, but the terrific interface makes all of this easy to manage. (Credit: 2K Games)
The move to hexagons sets the stage for Civilization V's tactical combat. In the past, you could stack units into one army of doom (or a few armies) that rolled across the map. Now, with the exception of special units (the great general, for example) and workers, units cannot occupy the same space. As a result, you must be extremely conscious of each unit's weaknesses and strengths; a unit's position in regards to both its enemies and other friendly units; and whether or not any terrain bonuses apply. There is a rock-paper-scissors relationship among units that further deepens as units level up and you progress through the eras. When units level up, you choose one of several upgrades for them, such as an attack bonus when attacking from flat terrain. As they level up further, the possibilities expand, which means healing bonuses for the unit, as well as neighbouring units, or greater degrees of the same enhancements. Helpfully, you can also choose to fully heal the unit when it levels at the expense of choosing another bonus, which is a mighty handy ability that can save a veteran unit from the jaws of defeat. This excellent new system layers tactical combat onto the strategic map, making battles much tenser — and much less abstract. It also encourages you to keep your veteran units alive. And while it costs you a bit of gold, you can also upgrade units into more powerful iterations (a trebuchet into a cannon, for example) when your research path allows it.
That sounds complex, but it's extremely simple to keep track of battles in Civilization V. When you hover over your intended victim, you get a quick preview of the likely outcome of battle, though a preview won't tell you of other potential consequences. You might win the battle but move into range of a city's defenses or next to a squad of riflemen prepared to defeat you. In fact, similar points could be made about most of Civilization V: it's complex enough to support all of your schemes, but it's easy to interact with it. Veterans who are into micromanagement and like to plan at a snail's pace can manage every worker's actions, select an automated focus for each city's citizens (gold, culture, and so forth), and control each scout's moves hex by hex. But if you'd rather concentrate on the broader aspects of your strategy, you can leave a lot of these actions to the AI, which does a mostly creditable job of doing the right things at the right time.
Nevertheless, you do need to keep an eye on automated processes. Minor civilisations called city-states are one of Civilization V's newer additions. While you need an open-border agreement to pass freely through the territories of other civilisations, you may pass through a neutral city-state's borders without such a treaty, though city-states that aren't friendly to you will take offense at trespassing. Units set to automatically explore will think nothing of passing through neutral territory. The damage to the relationship is small, but it's still an annoyance to get a notification that you've irritated a city-state because your scouts weren't conscious of the borders. A toggle to allow or disallow exploring units to pass through city-state borders would have been a helpful addition.
Napoleon has the crazy eye. (Credit: 2K Games)