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Civ V: why the hexes are such a big deal

in Statecraft

If you haven’t already, grab a look at Ars Technica’s excellent writeup on the history of the Civilization series. I was talking with Jinn over from CommFT earlier this evening and Civ V came up. He seemed incredulous at my comment that I had likely spent more gaming hours deep in Civ games than I have with all other games combined. While maybe slightly exaggerated, that probably isn’t too far from reality for me; I’ve been playing Civ since 1997 when I bought Civ II as the first full-feature game I would install on the Windows 95 PC my pops had picked up from Gateway 2000. (Does Gateway still ship their PCs in the cow boxes or have they lost all sense of identity at this point? Anyway…) Weekends vanished. A few grades slipped. And I was still terrible at it. The only other game that was able to capture my attention to that degree to that point was Chess, which I had already pissed away entire summer vacations on, and Civ was no different.

Hands down my favorite, but not without faults.

Over the years I’ve dutifully picked up every new iteration and it’s subsequent expansions. I take the rather unpopular opinion that the third installment has been the best to date; Civ IV was just too cluttered with excess game mechanics, useless nuance, and a poor implementation of 3D graphics that all held back my enjoyment of the game when compared to its predecessor. But in the end, there’s two things that would inevitably be the spoiler to end a month-long Civ binge: square grids and Stacks of DOOM.

I’ll explain the Stack of Doom (SOD) first. Up until a expansion pack released for Civ III, the combat mechanic was strictly one-unit-per-tile (save for cities) – since the ability to move large groups of unit simultaneously was needed to facilitate multiplayer play, this expansion included the ability to stack multiple units into a single tile on the map. Hence the rise of the SOD – no longer were things like long-term strategic planning or tactics needed, simply group your entire army up on one tile and SMASH it into the nearest unsuspecting city! This turned a game with a relatively interested, albeit clunky, combat system into one that emphasized numbers over maneuvering.

The square grid part is probably only understandable if you played paper/board wargames at some point. At the time that Civ was first being developed, board wargaming was still pretty large, and the designer didn’t necessarily want his game to be thought of as ‘just another one of those wargames’ when he wanted to reach a broader audience. So the decision was made to go with a square grid over hexes, even though it creates unique problems when it comes to things like radiuses and distances between units or movement rules on the diagonal (see: Pythagorean Theorem). Workarounds to these issues were found and implemented in four Civ titles spanning nearly 20 years.

Goodbye dusty old combat system!

In the newest installment, gone are both the awkward square game board and the unit stacking – replacing them is a hex grid and a strict one-unit-per-hex rule for units. This is massively important for Civ players because:

  1. No longer can you count on just cramming 50 units through the one gap in enemy lines in two turns in order to steamroll the first city in reach when attacking. Just as it always has been in reality, moving large armies in concert to achieve their maximum effect is going to take some serious skill. Forcing players to choose what units to put on the ‘front lines’ as opposed to bringing every last unit towards the weakest spot in a defense is going to bring generalship back to the forefront of good Civ play.
  2. Movement is going to feel a bit more…natural. If you haven’t reached the realization yet (or have just forgotten it from geometry) - hex grids are best suited for strategy games such as Civ since movement from one hex to any of the six hexes bordering it is the exact same distance. This is not the case with a square grid, where the squares at cardinal directions are 1 distance unit away, where squares at the diagonals are the square root of 2 units away (or about 1.414 units away). If a game utilizing a square grid didn’t account for this fact (which Civ didn’t) and kept the movement cost the same regardless what direction you were moving, this allowed a piece to cover nearly 50% more ground moving diagonally than it did cardinally over the same number of turns. The switch to the hex grid minimizes this effect as much as a rigid grid-based layout possibly can.
  3. The expansion of a city’s borders will also be a bit more natural. No more ‘fat plus’ city layout! Cities will be free to expand outward in a pattern that will look more like an actual circle than the strangely arbitrary pattern that a city’s footprint had in previous titles. It has also been documented that cities will not experience ‘dumb’ expansion where desert tiles will be greedily snapped up while a resource-rich tile sits three hexes away; instead expansion will be ‘smart’ and cities will reach out towards tiles that will most improve the situation within the city and the nation. Pretty freakin neat.

Anyway, I apologize if you’re only here for my general competitive gaming commentary, but at this point my general giddiness cannot be contained and runneth over into this blog. Tomorrow will probably be occupied with a TF2 show over at TGBF and some SC2 later on; but this game hits Tuesday and the rest of my week is ruined. I hope you’ll join me in screwing over your social life in the back half of September-