A game review will do a number of things. It will provide basic information about what’s in a new title and detail it all in such a way that the reader knows how it all fits together and works - the mechanics of that game if you will. They’ll know how long it could last them, what their options are and how it looks and sounds. If it’s a good game review all of the above will be presented in such a way that the writer is able to provide objective analysis on each part of the package and indicate their thoughts on the quality of the whole for any level or type of gamer. Even if they don’t succeed, the score at the bottom of it would bluntly reach the same goal, if only by brute force. That’s why writing this review is a peculiar affair. Not a single person looking at Civilization V: Gods and Kings will need to be told how it all looks, sounds or works. They might want to know what new things are added to the game but in terms of needing to know how it all fits together and whether it forms a coherent whole? This extra content is for Civilization fans and nothing we say is going to change people’s minds - you all already know if you’re going to buy it. The question we’re more likely going to help answer is do you get it now, is it essential or is it just a simple modifier to be experienced along the way whilst we wait for the sixth full iteration? Will it reignite the latent addiction you’ve all been harbouring since finishing your last turn or will it just wither away into the swirling maelstrom of extra content leaving players longing for a true sequel?
What Gods and Kings is, is meaty. It may only be an add on to the near-two year old Civilization V but Firaxis have made sure that the weight of time and expectation are tackled head on. We have twenty-seven new units, nine wonders of the world, thirteen buildings, new playable civs to the tune of nine and, most importantly of all, two significant new mechanics - religion and espionage redux. To many folks the chance to play as Boudicca of the Celts, or Attila the Hun and at the same time make the Hubble Telescope and the greatest firewall of them all is probably all that was needed. The original game is loved by many the world over (despite the lingering belief that the fourth iteration is the better game) and for those players who have been a Civilization fanatic since the first title in 1991, would likely be played even if it was actually a port of Super Mario and called Civilization. Of course, the wealth of new content is impressive and reinvigorates many a playthrough considering the multiple combinations of effects that can be seen for the first time as a result of their addition. New avatars for the player and different people and attitudes to deal with over six thousand years. New products of your civilization to give you an advantage - however fleeting - and new wonders to push you towards your culture victory goal whilst also benefiting you in other ways (religion, for example). It is a fact though that the content is not the key selling point of the package, merely the price of entry. It’s really all about the changes to the actual gameplay.
The major conclusion to take home from this expansion’s big two additions is that neither is a game-breaker or game-maker. The series as a whole is such a well-founded structure built together over twenty years and multiple iterations that bringing religion back in and bigging up the spying game won’t impact your gameplay in terms of strategy or enjoyment unless you let it, and even then it will only bend your path rather than dictate it. It’s not like when Civilization III came along and threw a culture bomb at everyone; these are not new victory conditions. There is no epic fail bug stopping William I from winning if he didn’t found the first religion. It’s all layered additions from which different people will get different mileage.
Let’s take religion first then, seeing as it was unceremoniously dumped after the fourth game only to be brought back here. In its new guise religion is a force in the early to mid-game in terms of getting ahead of others and putting yourself in a good position for the end game. What it doesn’t do is cede a significant advantage in that end game, merely it allows somebody to manoeuvre themselves into a better position if used wisely. Anyone can found a religion in the game after collecting a nominal amount of the new faith resource. Founding a religion first requires a pantheon. Founding a pantheon means you choose a name (anything on offer or your own witty concoction) and a basis for your religion which will be carefully chosen to fit with your playstyle in that game, e.g. if you want a cultural victory your religion basis will deliver a culture bonus. As the game goes on you’ll eventually be rewarded with a Great Prophet who can found your actual religion for you and in so doing detail a couple of basic beliefs; again, the choice here is key as you want something which benefits you and if at all possible does the opposite to AI civs. From here your religion game can be played in a couple of ways - get more faith, get another prophet and add on more beliefs is one thing you can do. Or you can use your prophet to spread the religion to other cities in other civs and gain benefits from that - for example you may have a belief which gathers more gold as more cities follow your religion. If religion is a big part of your gameplay and faith is a resource you actively want to gather, it can be put to good use by buying certain buildings in the same way gold would normally be used. You can even buy inquisitors to stop other religions spreading to your cities if you want.
Religion is a great early game modifier. Founding a religion is a nice change and the benefits you can get are varied enough to warrant experimentation. Spreading your religion to other civ’s cities is incredibly satisfying when up pops the diplomacy screen and they have a go at you. The correct response is effectively ‘tough’ and depending on who you’re up against they may go away tail between legs, or, if it’s Napoleon, declare war. But it won’t win you the game. It isn’t a victory condition and by the time you start thinking about closing a game out (as opposed to setting yourself up to win one way or another) religion has faded away (a game design choice which resulted in a certain level of criticism for Firaxis). Ignoring victory conditions there’s just so much going on in a modern day Civ game that religion in this guise would not be missed were it stripped away, or redone next time around. At The Digital Fix we’d much rather have a new wonder or three.
Espionage however, is different. It doesn’t come across as so significant a change. It doesn’t bias any player or NPC throughout the game but what it does do is make the interactions with other civilizations much less predictable and much more fun if you fancy an up and at ‘em style of game. What the new espionage mechanic does is provide you with spies from the Renaissance era onwards. Pretty much around the time you’ll have stopped noticing any real effect from religion, then. You can situate your spy in a city of your choosing, either one of your own to facilitate defence against attacks or theft attempts, or in one of another civ’s in order to steal technology from them or learn about the growth of their army as they strengthen ahead of an attack. It’s great fun, in a throwaway manner.
Each spy can develop and level up by achieving success, ensuring they have more skills and more chance of doing whatever they are next set to do. Stealing a civ’s technology is immensely good fun, again, especially when they come and tell you off. You can use it to spark war or to really irritate minor civs. You can use spies to impact City State influence over time, or more riskily, affect an immediate coup, but this isn’t any fun and therefore would only be considered if City States are part of your grand plan. Which they won’t be.
Yes, City States have been tweaked in this expansion too but they’re still pointless on the whole. They’re just a bunch of very small faceless civilizations who make you chuckle when you build the Sydney Opera House and not the Sydney City State. We now have religious and mercantile City States, there are more quests and bribes have a lesser effect than before - which will be really upsetting for the laziest players. The way City States interact with you, what they ask for and how much war results from it has changed significantly and for those who dislike battlefield conflict and normally avoid attempts at a domination victory that can only be a good thing. Still though, nothing here makes them integral to the game or important unless you want them to be. They’re still a slightly twisted misstep from Firaxis in this reviewer’s mind (although certain folk will disagree vehemently with such a suggestion!) with no discernible reason for being for the majority of players.
After six thousand years or so when you’re basking in the glorious cultural wealth you’ve generated turn by turn, or when you’re headed off to Alpha Centauri to begin over again on your way to future technology two hundred and three, Gods and Kings is an excellent track pack type downloadable addition to the game. The extra content is broad and generous in the amount provided and Firaxis have endeavoured to make meaningful changes, some in part to fan concern after the initial game’s release (why no religion anymore?). Ultimately though it doesn’t really change anything no matter how hard it tries. But it does ensure that getting from the same A to the same B - whichever way you choose - can look a bit different and everyone likes to change the scenery once in awhile.