Gaming, HCI, Psychology, Simulations, Usability

Simplification: A Review of Civilization V

The latest release in the Civilization series has many improvements, from beautiful new graphics to redesigned gameplay. Many features in Civilization IV have been streamlined or eliminated, in favor of a simplified playing experience that will attract new players to the game. Having studied Civilization IV extensively (most of our publications are based upon research in Civilization IV), we will discuss some of Civilization V‘s many changes and the associated trade-offs in terms of player engagement and motivation.

Graphics and Player Experience

Introductory videos, game music, and player briefs (an overview of your character, civilization, and unique strengths while the game loads) add to player motivation by giving a sense of purpose to play the game. Further engagement is provided by the authenticity of civilization leaders during gameplay, as shown in an interaction with ‘Lord Gandhi of India’:

Movement and Unit Stacking

Game movement is improved through the game’s new hexagonal tiles, and diagonal movements are more balanced. In Civilization IV, diagonal movements were less ‘fair’ due to the square game tiles (sideways AND up / down) in the turn-based game. As can be seen below, the graphics are much improved, with beautiful terrain and water effects (including waves and water ripples). A beam of light highlights the selected unit (in this case a warrior):

The new hexagonal map grid and lack of unit stacking dramatically improve game movement, fairness, and visibility, while maintaining game mechanics for veteran players of the Civilization series.

Additional balancing and major improvements in visibility in Civilization V are due to not allowing unit stacking (as in previous games). For example, when playing Civilization IV, military units could be ‘stacked’ in a single tile, with no limits on the number of units in that tile. This violates the usability principle of visibility, since one unit would appear in the tile, even though 30 or 40 units could exist in that tile. Therefore, an approaching military threat was less evident (however, one could click the tile and read the list of units occupying that tile). Cities without a stack of garrisoned military units would easily be overwhelmed, as cities themselves had very little protection.

The lack of unit stacking in Civilization V may initially frustrate veteran players (due to the hexagonal tile design, a maximum of six melee units can surround a city at once). However, the lack of unit stacking, and cities having built-in defenses, simplifies gameplay by alleviating the need to stack multiple units in a city in order to defend it, and avoids the problem of having a single military unit capable of leveling a defenseless city all by itself (assuming it hasn’t been attacked already). A city’s defense strength is displayed above the city, and only one unit can garrison within a city to defend it (also displayed), alleviating the problem of stacked invisible units in Civilization IV. This improvement in visibility allows players to better assess military situations, simply by looking at the map: a drastic improvement game usability through better visual feedback.

Menus and Summary Screens

The game user-interface (UI) has been simplified, with a reduced number of menu items for each major function in the game. For example, the upper-right corner has three buttons, corresponding to advisory functions in the game. Civilization IV had three times that many (nine), which strains a player’s cognitive load. Research shows that humans are able to remember and differentiate among a maximum of 5-7 items at once: a number that would be expected to drop during video game play for secondary advisory functions. The new buttons require less of a break in gameplay to differentiate among them and make use of them, resulting in an increased usage of the buttons (the advisory functions).

The above screenshot is the result of clicking the ‘Advisor Counsel’, which provides advice from four different aspects of the game: economic, military, foreign and science. This design is excellent: it provides multiple forms of advice in one summary screen, allowing players to read and differentiate among the advice without changing screens. Players can focus on reading advice and making a decision using one summary screen, rather than clicking around to gather information. This allows players to act as decision makers rather than information gatherers, supporting overall goals of playing the game (to run a civilization). This is supported by prior research that we have conducted, which supports that well-designed summary screens can support overall objectives to play, thereby raising player engagement and motivation to keep playing. (Read our article in the Cognitive Technology Journal, which examines learning and flow in Civilization IV.)

Other game information available if players want to dig for more information: additional advisors and the ‘Civilopedia’ is available for mastery-oriented players, or players that enjoy gathering as much information as possible before each move in effort to master the game (these players often play the game much slower, with the goal of mastery). However, performance-oriented players (often play games much faster and more competitively) can reach important information faster through the smaller menus, with less of an impact on cognitive load and flow (and therefore less of an impact on their gameplay and engagement level). In other words, Civilization V still has the magic of its predecessors in its ability to create flow: a feeling of engagement where players lose track of time, usually for hours upon end.


A feature from Civilization IV that we miss is the growth chart at the end of a game, showing one’s civilization progressing through the turns alongside other civilizations in the game. This was a great way to display progress, giving players feedback as to specific points in the game when they surpassed (or fell below) other players, which encourages learning. While charts containing one’s current population and resources can be viewed in the game, a historical graph (similar to the post-game of Civilization IV) could provide a history of growth to help players make more meaningful decisions in the game, as key decisions would be illustrated with corresponding results.

As described previously, the simplified menus in Civilization V help players without breaking flow in the game, and assist players through clear, well-organized feedback. Similar to the ‘Advisor Councel’ shown previously, the ‘Diplomacy Overview’ summarizes relations with other leaders:

While providing a good summary of diplomacy with other leaders and city-states (a new addition to Civilization V), the summary might benefit from an indication of your approval with other civilizations (similar to the bars that convey relationships with city-states). Obviously, those at war have a negative impression of you, but the relationships with other civilizations are less obvious. Civilization IV had a “What do you think of…” button that could be used during diplomatic interactions to gauge civilizations opinions of each other (and be used to exploit those relationships), but is absent in Civilization V. More feedback on one’s social status and the complete social situation (diplomacy among the civilizations) could provide players with information to make more engaged, meaningful diplomatic decisions in the game.

Accessibility and Sustained Engagement

Few games (if any) can come close to sustaining the level of flow, where players lose track of time, as games of the Civilization series. Civilization V is no exception; as with its predecessors, it is highly engaging and fun to play. However, Civilization V appears to be aimed at attracting new players to the series, as it is less complex than Civilization IV, and easier to win.

At this year’s Game Developer’s Conference (GDC), Sid Meier gave a talk which described gamer psychology, and their desire to win while playing games. “The player is always looking for a satisfactory conclusion that doesn’t always involve winning the game, but often does,” according to Mr. Meier. While we do not contest this statement, our current research examining failure within games describes how different experiences of failure lead to different emotions and player experiences. For example, a player experiencing failure during game operations, a term to describe low-level sequences of action will experience high levels of frustration with the game. Alternatively, players experiencing frustration on a goal or motivational level will often experience a different type of frustration that is funneled into new strategies in the game. From a common-sense point of view, this makes sense: the player experiencing a frustration to act in the game will often give up, as new strategies are not possible, while a player with a failed strategy will brainstorm new strategies (an attempt to learn).

At the end of Civilization IV and Civilization V, a player’s score is ranked against other famous world leaders. In Civilization IV, I frequently scored low (Dan Quayle level), while in Civilization V I ranked near the top each time (Augustus Caesar level). Besides scoring, actions in the game seemed much easier in Civilization V as little resistance from other civilizations was encountered. While playing the game on an easy level, it would be nice to see a level of growing challenge on the game based upon player achievement: not necessarily forcing them to lose, but adjusting difficulty to keep players challenged (and learning new strategies) without necessarily making them lose the game. As with sports, a close game is more interesting than a blowout.

Civilization V does an excellent job of teaching new players how to play. For example, early moves in the game will often have an advisor pop-up with a list of common questions related to the move in the game: allowing players to learn more about what happened, and adjust strategies accordingly. However, once the basics are learned, our research supports the idea that players move to a new phase of play: from mastering the game interface to advanced strategy development. As players move to advanced strategy development, game difficulty relates directly to the amount of challenge (and re-strategizing) that occurs. While the player chose a pre-set level of difficulty, a scaffolding (adjusting) difficulty level would seem appropriate for a game that often runs 8-10 hours per game (as learning is likely to occur). Players like to win, but players also like a challenge.

Final Thoughts: Balancing and Scalability

During games of Civilization IV, domination (winning) typically came towards the limit of turns: a pre-set number of turns until a time-victory occurred for the most-advanced civilization. A military victory sometimes occurred, and diplomatic victories were sometimes possible (usually after heavy military conquest). While the systems have changed for Civilization V, military victories seems much easier, and were easily achieved in less than half of the 500 turn limit. Social and diplomatic victories seemed less likely, since military victory is so much simpler with immediate results. This may be a player trait, but our research in Civilization IV suggests otherwise.

Research in our publications (and dissertation) showed new players in history-based real-time-strategy (RTS) games tended to explore and make use of military options first, and utilized other major game components (diplomacy, etc.) after military conquest failed. Comparisons among Civilization IV and Making History: The Calm & the Storm showed similar patterns, where players ‘learned’ to use policy and diplomacy after military failures occurred (and players learned that they were intertwined, complex systems). Basically, the political and economic repercussions taught players that world-wide war would bankrupt their economy and make a lot of enemies.

Civilization V has made many improvements to game operations, such as hexagonal tiles and movement, and the inability to stack units. Visual feedback is much better as a result, and player summary screens allow players to make better-informed strategy decisions based upon well-organized, real-time feedback. However, a difficulty level that scaffolds to player activity, keeping them challenged through long gameplay, might force players to learn to master other game aspects (diplomatic, social and technological) at a faster pace since their incorporation into strategy would be required. Expert players can be challenged at higher difficulty levels, or by playing other skilled players online, but intermediate players might move to expert-level status faster by incorporating this component into the gameplay.

We would like to thank Sid Meier for providing us with a copy of Civilization V. After playing a few times, we will definitely be playing more down the road. All in all, Civilization V is an excellent game, and we wholeheartedly recommend purchasing a copy! We are interested to hear your thoughts, so please let us know what you think below in the comments!

Written by: Matthew Sharritt, Ph.D.
Posted by: Situated Research

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