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November 29 , 2001 | Another year, another Sid Meier Civilization game threatening to suck up your spare time. For a while it seemed that we might not see another Civilization game from Sid Meier. Though he designed the first Civilization and other gaming classics, last year after a dispute with the owners of the name he set up a new publisher, Firaxis, and produced an excellent game based on the Civilization engine - Alpha Centauri. Now he's back in the saddle - but the new Civilization hasn't advanced as much as I might have hoped.

With a franchise as popular as this one (several million copies of various versions have been sold), it is naturally tempting not to mess with it too much. Players of any of the earlier versions will find it very familiar. You start as a stone age tribe in an unexplored world. You build cities, manage your economy, do scientific research (to get from the stone age to the information age), explore and then deal with the other civilizations you meet. You can trade with them, share technology, form military alliances, spy on them and sabotage them or (principally) you can build mighty armies and try to wipe them out. You usually win either by conquering everyone else or by being the first to build a starship and colonize the stars (though the new game allows new ways to win).

As you would expect the new game does look rather better than earlier versions, though because empires can grow very large and you can end up with hundreds of units the graphic quality of each unit and town is only OK (and the music and sound effects are rather dull as well). You can play at any resolution and can zoom in and out of the map (though at 1152x864 the "zoomed out" resolution is not much use unless your eyes are very sharp!).

There have been some significant improvements in the design of the game, which have reduced the amount of "micro management" it used to require without reducing the game's depth. Trade is still important - arguably more important than it used to be - but you don't conduct it by moving "caravans" around the map - instead you just build roads and it happens automatically. Similarly, you don't have to create diplomat units any more - you just develop different diplomatic "technologies" like writing, spying and map-making and pay for embassies in neighbouring countries. Your units don't "belong" to specific cities any more, instead your total army size is limited by your total population. There are also a number of ways you can "automate" your empire using city "governors" and giving your workers (civil engineers) instructions to produce improvements like roads automatically.

A new wrinkle that has been introduced is the idea of critical "strategic resources" that are scattered around the map. It doesn't matter if you have developed chariots if you live in a region without horses (irritatingly you don't get to see where the resource you need is on the map until after you research the technology that needs it). This, and the luxury trade goods that are scattered over the map make good trade relations with other civilizations more important. There are eight pages in the manual describing the improvements made between Civ III and earlier versions - I can't cover them all - but to summarise they are all welcome improvements that make the game easier to play but without fundamentally changing its character.

On the downside, there still remain several user interface defects that make an already complicated game harder to get your mind around than it needs to be. The manual continues to grow - it is now more than 230 pages - but the 12 page index is still inadequate. For reasons of expense, I suppose, there is no longer a fold-out chart showing the technology tree, the units that can be built, keyboard shortcuts and other frequently-accessed data - instead the charts are in an appendix and the technology tree can only be accessed via the online help - the "civilopedia".

Early users in particular will need to rely on the civilopedia a lot and may therefore be irked to discover that you can't search it for keywords either - instead you have to rely on the index that is provided. There is a 15 page tutorial in the manual but this barely scratches the surface and there is no "interactive tutorial" with customised on-screen prompts or a voice guide to walk you through things, which is becoming standard practice in strategy games these days.

The biggest single problem is still the game's scale. There are no pre-created scenarios that allow you to jump in at the middle of a game and play a fairly developed empire in the middle ages or later. If you want to find out what it is like to (say) use cruise missiles it will take you literally days of playing your way through the game - assuming you don't get wiped out by the other computer players. And speaking of computer players - they are the only opponents you will get. There is no support for multiplayer and none promised, which is pretty astonishing these days (both Civ II and Alpha Centauri were multiplayer), though I admit that it could be challenging to find up to 15 players willing to play a single game from start to finish.

Overall, Civ III is a good 'tune-up' of a great game. If you didn't like Civilization before, the improvements that have been made probably aren't significant enough to change your mind. If you liked earlier versions of Civilization this one is definitely worth a look - for all of my criticisms I still found myself losing days to it, and the many improvements are definitely worthwhile. But if you were looking for a game that would take Civilization to a new level, hang on for Christmas 2002.

update December 15, 2001: Though Civ III has no multiplayer option at the moment, Firaxis is "working on some cool multiplayer concepts that will take a fresh approach to the challenge of making multiplayer for a turn-based game fun" - presumably for an additional cost. I have also noticed as I have continued to play (unable to stop myself despite my frustrations!) that there are a lot of useful - even vital - tasks that can only be accomplished using odd keyboard shortcuts. These are all listed towards the back of the manual, without much explanation.

The first patch for the game is already out at and the best place to keep up to date with Civ III strategies, bug work-arounds and the like is

Special bonus link: - A humorous look at applying techniques from Civilization to the "war on terrorism".

Mindjack rating: 8

David Brake has played all of the Civilization derivatives from the first one yet is still pretty terrible at it.



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