Civilization III: Yet Another Wonder of the World

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Sid Meier’s Civilization III is the latest strategy game from Sid Meier (what, you were expecting Dani Bunting?) and which, in the grand style of its predecessors Civilization, Civilization II, and Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri, calls upon the player to take control of some poor group of villagers and turn them into a nation-state that will change the fate of the world.

If you’re interested in turn-based strategy games, but have never played a Sid Meier game, then don’t bother reading beyond this paragraph- just get a copy of Civ III. Sid Meier is a legend in his field because he puts out games that have great concepts behind them, and has the ability to turn those great concepts into fun games, and Civ III is no exception. Each civilization you can control has its own advantages and style, and between that and having each world randomly generated, it is almost infinitely replayable. The game concepts are simple to understand, but take a while to master, and even on lower difficulty levels you can expect a challenging game until you’re able to take all of the details into account.

The graphics are clean and well-done, and the animations are fun to watch. The music is nice, and while it eventually gets repetitive, I can’t think of any game I’ve spent eighty hours playing where the music didn’t eventually get boring.

The only real problems the game has are twofold. First, on the very large maps with a lot of opponents, you can expect serious delays between turns unless you have a top-of-the-line processor. Second, the manual is erroneous on a few matters, so read the readme file and check in occasionally with the in-game help.

If you’re a regular player of Sid Meier’s past titles, such as Alpha Centauri and Civilization II, then Civ III is still a great purchase, with amazing new features- but there are a couple of design issues you may find you dislike.

In terms of “amazing new features”- where to begin? Well, first is the new concept of “special terrain.” No longer do little “extra” resources merely mean a bonus to the food/industry/commerce production of the square. In some cases, those resources are luxuries, and having a road connection to them makes people in your civilization happier. In other cases, those resources are “Strategic Resources,” and are required for the production of units. No iron, no swordsmen. No oil, no tanks. No uranium, no nukes. This changes the focus of the game dramatically- wars are no longer fought simply for tech gains (in fact, you no longer steal techs by capturing enemy cities) or control of population, but for access to the materials they need to keep population in line or to keep the assembly lines rolling.

Second, and much more overwhelming, is the concept of “culture.” Each civilization has a culture associated with it, and the strength of that culture is determined by the buildings you’ve built, and how long they’ve survived. The stronger your culture, the better other civilizations will treat you in negotiations, and having a much higher culture than opponents gives the chance of having their cities convert to your civilization (which may be why the French hate McDonald’s so much.)

Likewise, each city’s individual culture rating determines the borders of that city, meaning that small cities can’t even reach the squares immediately outside of it, while huge cities can lay claim (though not directly access for production) squares up to three or four spaces away.

Third, the negotiation between civs is much more detailed. You can still trade techs and make pacts, but now you can add in so much more- trading money for strategic or luxury goods, giving loans, spacing out payments over 20 turns, giving right-of-passage agreements and setting up alliances against other countries. The negotiation is also much more fun- the computer has plenty of things to say to you, and the portraits of the leaders are well animated and expressive.

Fourth, the AI is very strong. Don’t expect to simply walk over them in negotiations or in war- they know what their units do and how to use them, and they’re not afraid to work together if you seem to be a major threat. The computer isn’t the patsy it was in Civ II, and even on Monarch level it’s a fight to keep up with it.

Now, the bad news. Fans of the original Civilization and of Civ II probably remember the joy over the changing of the combat system between the two. The addition of Firepower and Hitpoints as statistics for units meant that later units had a serious advantage over earlier units, and the old “one phalanx just killed three tanks” was practically impossible. Well, Civ III goes back to the original model, with the removal of Firepower and having Hit Points determined solely by the experience of the unit (as in Alpha Centauri).

I’ve seen plenty of arguments on various message boards as to whether this is good or bad: on the one hand, it keeps civs that have a serious tech advantage from being able to wipe out those who lag behind; on the other hand, we’re back to tanks being knocked out by well-trained pike-wielders. In addition, the concept of “Zone of Control” has been removed, so we’re back to Civ I standards where any open space is one the computer tries to put a unit into. Now, in theory one can establish borders (through culture) and tell the computer player to get out; but unless the computer player actually considers you to be very strong, you’re likely to be ignored.

Still, that’s not enough of a weakness to make the game a clunker, or even make it sub-par in comparison to Civilization II. It’s not merely a worthy successor, it’s a better game- there are more concepts to keep in mind, more things to keep track of, more ways to win and more strategies to try. If you liked Civ II or Alpha Centauri, get Civ III. And expect to lose quite a bit until you finally get all of those old strategies out of your head and your mind wrapped around all of the new things that Civ III has to offer.

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