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Civilization 5: Nukes and Liberation Wars

Posted: December 28, 2017 13:55:37 • 2066 words

DisclaimerThis article is about a computer game, "Sid Meier's Civilization V". And while this game does use real-world weapon designs and real-world country, city, and leader names, the game itself is a work of fictional simulation. This article only reflects my own experiences playing this game, and is not meant to be commentary on any real-world political or cultural issues.

In November 2017, my partner got me a copy of Civilization V, and playing it together has become something special for us to share. But I've also been playing it solo, and during a recent solo game, I decided to try something I've never done in this game before: Using nuclear weapons. The verdict, from a game-mechanics perspective? Weirdly satisfying, but also makes me feel like a horrible person.

As far as impact on game mechanics, dropping nukes didn't have quite as severe of a negative impact as I expected; in the other games I've played, my strategy has been to invent them, never build them, and pass Nuclear Non-Proliferation before anyone else can even invent them (I figured out how to monopolize the World Congress/UN on the very first try), thus ensuring a nuclear-weapon-free world. But my latest single-player game (Denmark in an Ice Age map) ended up forcing me into a war for territory control far earlier than I would've preferred, because Indonesia refused to be my ally, conquered its northern and southern neighbors (China and Korea) to have complete control of a vertical hemisphere, and turned an ally on my other side (Babylon) against me.

I went to war with Babylon first, because they declared war on my southern neighbor (Arabia) and conquering other nations is only ok when I do it. It was the most evenly-matched war I've ever fought in this game, which was interesting, but made the whole experience a very drawn-out and bloody struggle. And Arabia was a loyal ally that didn't spend all its time trying to take over my city-states or convert my religion, so I decided to allow them to continue to exist.

Next, it was Indonesia's turn. They were also relatively close in technological development, but not as advanced as Babylon (relative to me), so I pulled ahead in enough key areas to have a major edge in naval and air power, enough to make my relatively-underdeveloped ground forces enough to finish what the navy and air forces started. By that point, they had fully obliterated China and Korea, and were turning my city-states against me faster than I could afford to bribe them back into being my allies, and had nearly obliterated Korea's religion from the map (Confuscianism). Time for a war to liberate Korea and China, and punish Indonesia for their conquering ways. By conquering them.

Korea had settled a couple of remote colonies just off my eastern shores (north of the former nation of Babylon), so I started there with conventional tactics. I kept the closest city for myself, because it increased my oil reserves by almost 50% (and because I didn't see the "Liberate" option for some reason), and then liberated one of their other two northern colonies (the other one was their new capital, with a population of 3, actively under attack by Indonesia). I kept going until all Korean cities were liberated (5 total, excluding the one I annexed), and they weren't exactly grateful to have their territory and capital back; I had to separately negotiate open borders.

At that point, an Indonesian city unexpectedly revolted and joined my empire. I didn't know that was even a thing that could happen in this game, but since it was one of the largest cities and central to that entire continent, I'm not complaining! I decided to reward that city for their unexpected loyalty by keeping it as a puppet; I know that's not actually how the games mechanics work, but it felt right to let them have some autonomy, even though they eventually started leaving their production queue empty instead of doing something useful like turning their massive production capacity into money.

With a new strategic foothold, I liberated China's original capital city, bringing their empire and leader back to life. Despite us not really getting along, she was far more appreciative of the fact that I fought a war for her than Korea was. Reduced only to its original borders (minus one northern city that decided they'd rather join the Taoist Viking Empire of Denmark), Indonesia was still sending diplomatic "screw you" letters and generally saber-rattling at every opportunity. So I built a couple nukes, loaded them onto submarines (which scared the crap out of every other nation; I've never seen "Afraid" as the diplomatic status, but it's kinda fun!), and nuked Jakarta.

The actual impact of nuclear weapons on the city was not as intense as I expected, from a game-mechanics perspective; it took two hits to destroy the city enough to take it with a single infantry unit, which usually takes multiple turns of naval and air barrages, but I expected it to only take one. And the damage to the surrounding areas wasn't that bad; with the right policies and upgrades, I was able to clean up all the fallout and restore all the existing tiles fairly quickly (less than 20 turns, I think; I wasn't really counting) with four or five workers. The real impact, however, was more emotional.

This game doesn't really show carnage when fighting a war, and even the damage to cities and structures usually just consists of adding some shadowy textures and a smoke animation. War-ravaged land certainly looks bleak, but not enough to have much impact while playing, especially since most in-game time is spent with a zoomed-out aerial view. A nuclear missile, however, looks and feels very intense from any zoom level. The animation itself is about what you'd expect, and honestly a bit of a let-down (bright flash, outward explosion, brief glance at a mushroom cloud), but nuclear weapons destroy (pillage, except you don't get resources for it) every single tile within range of where the missile struck. That alone is a staggering visual impact, because it normally takes a LOT of troops and a LOT of turns to do anything like that; seeing it happen in a single hit is disconcerting, and certainly intense for anyone playing this game. But what really got to me was the fallout.

Nuclear fallout has to be cleaned up by workers before they can repair tiles, which is annoying, but it otherwise doesn't have much in-game effect; land isn't poisoned for a certain length of time, and fallout doesn't seem to cause any negative health effects to units standing on it. But the visual impact of it was one of the most powerful and heart-wrenching things I've ever seen in this game. Maybe it's because I studied nuclear science when I was a kid, but the visual metaphor used for fallout in this game is an eerie orange glow covering every single tile within the target city's circle of influence, and seeing that for the first time immediately prompted an intense feeling of regret. The fact that it was fairly easy to clean up didn't diminish the realization that the weapons I had just used were not something to take lightly or use trivially. A truly excellent use of visual storytelling in a type of game where storytelling is inherently difficult at best.

And suddenly, after that attack, Indonesia was a lot more interested in cooperation and peace treaties. But they were still conquest-focused jerks, so I refused their peace offering and conquered them anyway.

The status quo was peaceful for a while; I forgot to disable "Time victory", which was a bit of a let-down (I was hoping for a cultural victory, because that sounds fun), so I kept going. I built enough nukes to have one per non-Danish city still standing, and then enacted Nuclear Non-Proliferation before anyone else could figure out how to build them. Korea kept trying to get me to join them in a war against China for no reason, and I wasn't having that; aside from being the least powerful nation still standing, their leader is a woman, and even though she never likes me, I respect her. She didn't really have her own defense capabilities, though, so I gifted her a couple of battleships and a Mechanized Infantry unit; not enough to pose any real threat to me, but enough to instantly make China the second most advanced military on the planet, and adequately defend their one remaining city (Indonesia had razed China's second city, those jerks). And I was FINALLY able to sign a defensive pact with China, just like I had done with Arabia and Korea. Korea stopped pestering me to help them attack China, and everything seemed fine. I was just about to go to bed, and started my final "this will be my starting point for my next game" turn...

...And I was suddenly informed that I was at war with Korea. Because they had declared war on China (fighting alongside Arabia, for some reason), and our defensive agreement kicked in. Not cool, Korea; I liberated you, I can un-liberate you.

Which is what I did. I didn't even bother with nukes this time, because I wanted to save them for an opponent that's more evenly-matched, and fighting Korea was just pathetic; I was going up against knights and lancers with death robots and stealth bombers. The whole war lasted maybe 4 turns, total. Once I got involved, Arabia immediately brokered peace with China and left the conflict, so I allowed them to continue to exist, for now; they've been pretty friendly for most of the game. But Korea persisted until they were right back where they started before I liberated them from Indonesia; reduced to one tiny city on an island that barely even counts as territory, with almost zero population. I let them continue to exist instead of conquering their last city, mostly out of pity.

And what did I get for defending China? She called me a blood-thirsty warmonger and refused to renew our Open Borders agreement. I'm not amused, China; I build a highly-advanced defensive military force for you when your own forces were depleted, and fight a massive (albeit brief) war to defend your sovereignty, and this is how you show your appreciation? I liberated you too, ya know, and most of my remaining nukes are in a city that you can get to by land in a single turn; you should think very carefully about your manners before calling me a blood-thirsty warmonger.

I was pretty tired when I finally got to another stopping point, so I actually don't fully remember the state of the world when I went to bed. But, I stationed my remaining military forces in strategic positions within Arabia and Korea (funny, they were all too happy to renew our open-borders agreement after I shoved them into an isolated arctic corner and destroyed every single unit of their military), and along the Chinese border, just to make sure no one else gets any ideas. And to deal with the situation quickly and efficiently if they do.

Overall, this particular single-player session was a fascinating experiment in numerous ways; the "Ice Age" map posed a significant challenge to my usual tactics, and while I prefer to play as one of the indigenous nations (Polynesia is quickly becoming my favorite, but there are several I haven't tried yet), playing as a European nation that prefers to start near tundra or snow was certainly a change of pace. Probably not going to play as a European nation again, but I figured I should try it at least once. Nor am I in a hurry to play an Ice Age map again (especially in the middle of this hemisphere's winter in the real world), but I'm glad I tried it. Exploring interesting tactical challenges is the entire point of this game, after all. My biggest takeaway from this session, however, was the in-game impact of nuclear weapons. The developers did an exceptional job of implementing that feature, and conveying the seriousness of such weaponry in a game where it's difficult to feel any real connection to the combat mechanics or weaponry.