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Good evening, afternoon, or whatever time it happens to be there, ladies and gents! I happen to be Andy, who happens to be a freelance web designer, musician, writer, and whatnot.

Roman Catholic, student of tabletop gaming, and someday soon I'll have my own designs in the field!

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Monday, October 4, 2010

Conquering of the World!!

Well, then. I got Civilization IV: Complete Collection for a pretty good price. It would seem that it has been consuming far too much of my time as well, but...that seems to be the nature of Civilization in any incarnation. "One More Turn Syndrome", I think it's called. Ever since I got started with Civilization II, I've been an apt witness to that. Still, there's some things which I'd never quite been able to shake about the game, which somewhat kept me from the higher tiers of play. The game was still a bit hard to get into, and the magic of running your own empire was, well...a little lost when I had to keep track of so many details.

Along Came a Civ IV...
Well, it's not Civ V, but Civ IV represents a massive leap forward, at least to me. I'd played the original Colonization, Civilization II (including the Test of Time variants), Civilization III, and Civilization IV: Colonization. The last one, particularly, did a little bit of prep, as far as Civ IV went, but I was in no way ready to experience just how awesome Civ IV was for my experience. Mainly, this was because I had very little experience of Colonization to compare with, and because the Civ IV way of doing things is more like the original Civ/Colonization model, anyhow.

That aside. Civ IV breathed new life into the series for me, and the reason I'm posting it here is because it holds a lot of lessons for RPG design, and for playing RPGs. Civ IV made the game far more transparent to me, and it streamlined the mechanics of the game in a way that made it interesting, fluid, and less artificial.

Transparency
Something which bothered me as early as Civilization II was that the game required so much reference to the manual and Civilopedia, at least until you had it committed to memory. To me, that didn't help the fun of the game, or the strategy. It just made things a bit trickier to get around. By Civ IV, that's changed. Not only are important effects of buildings and military units summarized in mouse-over boxes, but a simple right-click is all that you need for instant information access.

The game also makes frequent use of icons and pictures, which act as visual cues and provide more information at a quick glance. Whenever an icon can be used, it is. This, in particular, is the most helpful sort of transparency: it gives a lot of information in a very simple symbol, and it also helps the player connect better. The icon of a sickly green face besides one of your cities says "unhealthy" a lot better than a text notifier.

The other thing is, it's very simple to see what everything does. The icons combine with the transparency here, showing you exactly what your decisions will result in. This makes it simpler to decide on strategy, and how strategy will be implemented. This is possibly the most valuable bit to be learned: the players need to know what impact their decisions will have. They don't have to have all of the information, but they should have some sort of idea.

Streamlining
The other nice thing that Civ IV did? Streamlining. Oddly enough, I consider the streamlining to take two forms: removing mechanics and adding mechanics. Both of them contribute to the flow of the ruleset, bringing it closer into focus. From clear-cut unit promotions to the city health mechanic (something which replaced pollution, and tied it into feeding cities), the game is filled with interesting mechanics that encourage multiple strategies.

One thing which all of the rule changes began to dispose of was artificial restrictions placed in the past. Veterans of the earlier Civs may recall having to build an Aqueduct before a city could expand past a certain size. No more. Instead, large cities naturally become more unhealthy, and an Aqueduct helps keep a city healthy. It does the same thing, but in a much more natural way.

This last bit, especially, is not always something which a GM can change in a game; rules are rules, after all. However, there are many places in which the rules can be applied in a simple way or a complex way. The simple way is generally better, as long as it makes player choices meaningful. Civ IV shows that when you move away from direct simulation, and abstract things a bit, it can lead to a much funner game.

In Short
Apologies to those of you who don't exactly follow games like Civ; the main point I want to get to in this post follows now. The best RPG experiences come when you're not tied up in rules. You need just enough rules to make the game interesting, without having rules that are so complicated they require frequent reference to use. Any time spent looking up rules is time taken away from story, and tension diffused.

Is this something that can be done from the player's side? Not exactly, though you can always write out shortcuts to yourself. Don't rely so much on your character sheet's numbers, and make visual cues for yourself. On the GM's side, take the "I really don't care" attitude with some rules, if they needlessly complicate things. Of course, this means that the players should have a similar attitude. The less rules-lawyering and advantage-squeezing you have going on, the more you can do this.

Now, back to one more turn....

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