The mayor goes to the podium, shining in silk trousers and a turquoise-adorned cuirass, and clears his throat. In the face strip that is visible between the fancy Mesopotamian beard and his tricorn hat, the ancient dignitary’s eyes flicker to a noise in the east. the females attack the city walls. Again. The females are always attack the city wall, so the mayor ignores the screams, and turns his attention back to the mass of humanity gathered in the square in front of him.
“It is my pleasure to formally open this new Taj Mahal,”
Last week I got to take a 48-hour tour with the latest version of humanity, the much-anticipated 4X game on its way from Amplitude. When I last played it, a year ago, I only saw the beginning of the game. This time I got to play through five of humanity’s six technological ages, and got all the way to weapons and steam engines.
Overall, I felt like the game had grown to pretty much what I had hoped it would: a solid, big ticket strategy game with the power to casually undress for the rest of my life, eight hours at a time. It’s beautiful, apart from everything else. The artwork is sumptuous and atmospheric, while the user interface does elegant work to get your eyes on the numbers they need to see, without making you feel like business software. As flimsy as it sounds to say, it’s a game full of heart. It just feels … good. Cares, maybe? The fact that I can not dissect my reaction more precisely than that, I hope, speaks to how well man has been put together. But I do not want to call it an unqualified triumph.
Mankind’s most exciting aspect is also the most salable. At the beginning of each of its six epochs, you can choose a culture that is grafted over the top of your current culture as a new coat of paint. Each culture has a special advantage, in addition to a unique unit and a unique building, and the benefits hold when you shop. Six choices out of ten means that there are one million potential civilization buildings in humanity. As I say, very exciting. But also very problematic. Because a million buildings means a million combinations of stacked cultural benefits, all of which have quite dramatic effects.
Like most 4X games, Humankind is about running a large machine, whose function is to increase its own size. The components are cities, which in themselves are made up of districts, which spread over the hexagons on the map. In this 4X, more than in most, the way you win this game is self-development by picking up modifiers that allow cities and districts to produce larger numbers each turn.
Furthermore, it is a matter of finding the synergies between these modifiers. And with a million potential combinations, there is a lot to find. Add everything additional modifiers a civ can pick up – from religion and civic trees, to smart city location, to efficient district planning – and you have an unmanageable number of ways to turbocharge the ant farm. You also have an incredible amount of mathematical space for completely bristled combinations to hide in, even with how long the amplitude still has to adjust the balance.
I had quite a few moments, while reading potential buffers for my civilization, or when choosing places for districts, where I found myself mumbling “surely not?” the size of the benefit I was about to achieve. The big impact of these changes was in a way big, since it made sure I had to go through a lot of changes in strategic direction, and kept things from becoming obsolete. I really think it can provide excellent multiplayer as well.
But playing as I was, against a bad old artificial intelligence, made that game a massacre. By default, I found myself surpassing AI by such a large margin that I almost felt like I was cheating. And while I have a decent instinct for 4X games, having spent such a dismal percentage of my life playing them, I’m by no means unique. The PC just could not, it seems, detect the potential giga combinations as easily as a human mind.
It’s not like it was no challenge, though. It was just more of a solitaire experience, that’s all. Instead of a fight to compete against other civilizations, the game was reformulated as a question of how brutally I could trounce them. Thanks to the “fame score” system, I had a clear way to measure progress. I was invested in increasing civilization for my own sake, and the crucial “one more turn” compulsion, which is at the heart of any good 4X, was definitely at stake.
Coercion in the case of humanity stems from the importance of the decisions you have to make, how often they occur, and the fact that when it comes to things like civic elections, religious principles and district constructions, the effect tends to kick in after a telegraphed number of turns. Nor are they easy decisions. Which is good, for good strategy games are built from dilemmas. I know from talking to the people at Amplitude that they want the players to feel that there is no right or wrong way to do things, and therefore no superfluous choices. In theory, every decision the game throws at you will have the answer dictated by circumstances.
A good example of this is the decision on when to move on to the next age, when it is unlocked. If there is a culture available in the next age, if the bonus will suit you perfectly, you may want to jump up immediately before it is claimed by anyone else. But if you are within a few turns of hitting several milestones of fame, you may decide that it is more beneficial to hang on for a while and flush the numbers. You can even take your current culture into the next age unchanged, and keep all your existing benefits, but lose the potential for new unique units and districts.
“Coercion in the case of humanity comes from how important the decisions you have to make are.”
Each of these routes will be the right choice in some situations, and one butt moves in others. The same goes for choosing positions in the outpost, deciding when to upgrade to cities, figuring out whether to prioritize district or unit production, and so on and so forth. By forcing you to assess risk and reward situationally, and constantly shaking up the context in which you work, humanity does a good job of avoiding undisturbed choices. There are no obvious lines, and you are often stimulated to make choices that you have not tried before, because some new factors in the game make them a better deal.
But I can not help but wonder if I continue to feel this way after a few more weeks with humanity, and the chance to discover some really broken synergies. I have already found a tactic that I can honestly never make myself give way to, since it has never done anything less than make me a god: the self-replicating caveman swarm.
Before you found a city and chose a culture, you existed in the Neolithic, with only one kind of unity – a bunch of people, wandering around eating things and looking at bones. Eat enough stuff, and your manswarm buds of a copy of itself, that can do exactly the same thing. I think you should get two or three of these, and then settle down and become a civilization. But I do not.
Every time I play, I stay in younger rock in twenty to twenty-five turns, spamming brute mitosis until the whole world is flooded with a horde of gnawing, groping hunter-gatherers. Then I found a city, went on to ancient times and saw this legion of beastmen become magical to scouts. They are not brilliant military units. But since no one else has managed to build something to defend themselves with yet, they can usually take a couple of cities before the madness can be stopped, and whiz further treasures on the map, which gives me a huge start.
The caveman swarm can easily be made less viable, I’m sure, with a few balance adjustments. But it’s a problem with humanity – and possibly the whole genre of 4X games, to be fair – that can not be addressed so easily.
“Strange decision-making is without a doubt the most powerful force in history. It is certainly the most interesting.”
The swarm is stupid. It is unrealistic and does not even feel satisfying to deduct. But since it’s so beneficial, I can not honestly consider not doing it. And even in humanity’s more elaborate decisions, there are often alternatives whose outcome only puts you too far ahead in the numbers game not to consider. To do that, I rarely chose the cultural choices I actually found the appearance of during my reviews, since it was almost always a culture that gave such a high synergy that I could not say no to it. Similarly, mass-producing sacred sites on some godforsaken tundra just for stability bonuses did not feel convincing … religious. My social choices, meanwhile, were determined entirely by what would move me toward the biggest bonus stacks, with nothing to do with what I actually wanted my culture to be.
This does not make humanity a bad strategy game. But it is a pity, as it undermines the premise “tell the story of your own civilization” which is so wonderfully supported by artistic and narrative direction. You’re not really telling it some story – you try to increase the score in any way that is necessary, because that’s how you get the happiest brain feeling.
Part of being human is doing counter-intuitive things for the sake of faith, passion or pure impulse. Strange decision-making is without a doubt the most powerful force in history. That is certainly the most interesting thing. But with 4X games as they are, there is just nothing that can be simulated. Ironically given its name, I felt that humanity led me to play like a computer.
Maybe it seems unfair that I hold humanity responsible for a problem endemic to an entire genre. I guess that for me is because this game has already done so much to challenge the traditional 4X formula with its design. After all this, I kind of wish it would go all the way and add a fifth ‘X’, which somehow stands for ‘Role Play’. Still, you can bet I’ll be rare to take the self-replicating caveman out for a new spin when the time comes.