How long can Sam make it without gushing over Civ?
I thought this would be easy. I love Top Tens, and I love Real Time Strategy. How could this not be a laughably easy write? And yet I'm here, staring at a near-empty screen,
The trouble is twofold.
First and foremost, I'm trying to fight my instinct, which is to populate the list solely with Civilization games. It's a hard thing to do. Not only is Civ probably my favourite series of games, but it is also quite rightly a collosus in this genre. But I fear becoming too predictable. Already, my work at NZGamer consists mainly of reviewing and previewing games with Sid Meier's name attached to them. With feature, I prefer to change tack – even if it is only slightly. And – alas – I could really only fill up the whole Top Ten with Civ if I included spin-offs (not a problem) and the cheap knock-off Civilizaion: Call to Power, and its sequel, (and I am loathe to stoop that far).
Secondly, (following hot on the heels of problem numero uno), trying to compile the list has made me realise that, in spite of the countless hours I have sunk into RTS gaming, the number of titles that I have played is actually very low. Lower still if condensed into series. Civ isn't standing alone here, but it isn't exactly a large gathering. And I'm already starting to worry that I'm walking into a disaster... that as soon as I put forward any list, the fans with legitimate complaints about overlooked gems will be onto me, and I will be unable to defend my lack of knowledge. And that's assuming I can even get to a list of ten...
Faced with this predicament, I really wanted to cheat. I figured I could dodge the assignment that had been given to me and, rather than a Top Ten that gets me into trouble, I'll create more of a neutral revue of turn based strategy games; something that lets me talk about the games I know, mention some key titles I haven't played – and avoids the somewhat aggressive nature of ranking things from best to worst.
But then I remembered what Top Ten lists are all about. They're about joyfully swinging between righteous approval where the writer affirms your opinions, and righteous condemnation where your opinion differs! Top Tens are meant to be adversarial; are meant to piss you off; are meant to invite angry letters to the editor; are meant to get you writing your own (obviously much better thought out) list and posting it in response. And, with all that in mind, I present to you The Refusal-To-Compromise Compendium Of Games Sam Thinks Are Awesome (And If You Don't Like It You Can Jump Off A Rock), also known as...
The Top 10 Turn-Based Strategy Games
10. Medieval II: Total War
I'll freely admit that this one takes some justifying. But even though the the Total War battles are in real-time, the turn-based map screen is equally important to the game. In fact, the brilliance of the the series is its effective blending of the two strategy genres. And Rome and Medieval II took the turn-based strategy portion beyond the simplistic board-game style, adding extra levels of strategy to this half of the game.
If it was a pure-breed, it would be ranked higher, but it squeezes in.
9. Heroes of Might and Magic III
Some would rate this as the peak of the series – which is itself the best of fantasy turn-based strategy. Certainly the third installment brought a darker and grittier aesthetic (I don't want to say more realistic because we're still talking about wizards leading armies of demons...) It also added more complexity – which I'm still not totally convinced was a good thing.
Further Heroes games have fallen off my radar. I'm assuming they're crap. If I'm wrong, feel free to berate me below.
8. Civilization I
Where it all began, back in 1991. I haven't gone back to play this since the early nineties, and I'm pretty confident it won't have dated well. But what of it? 17 years on, what is important about the original Civ is the platform it created for the future. Like Dune II for real-time strategy, and Wolfenstien 3D for first-person shooters, Civ I is a gaming icon; a touchstone for future generations of gaming; a role-model.
I do go on, don't I? Bottom-line: Sid Meier is awesome.
Seventh place is a bit crowded, because I figured any of the computer versions of Risk can pretty much be exchanged. Graphics are just a frill (nice, but unnecessary) for this board game which seems to translate very well to the (other) small screen.
I've let this in ahead of my precious Civ because I think I could still stand to play an ageing version of Risk.
6. Alpha Centauri
I may well lose some of my Sid Meier-loving allies by placing SMAC outside the Top Five. But for my money, this Civ spin-off/sequel never quite had the same magic as its more historical relative. I have a lot of respect for what Alpha Centauri was, and in some ways it was superior to both Civ II and Civ III. But its original story in a new world never re-captured the joy of rewriting history back on earth.
With Colonization being revived as a Civ IV rebuild, though, maybe it's also time for another pass at what happens after the spaceship reaches its destination...
5. Shining Force II
Yes, it's an RPG. Yes, it's a Mega Drive RPG. But the Shining Force series actually had a really effectively worked battle system that gets it a legitimate place as a turn-based strategy title. If you ask me, there's room for room turn-based strategy roleplaying games (honest ones, that is – great RPGs like Baldur's Gate are in actual fact turn-based, but they like to pretend they're operating in real-time, so I don't feel I can count them).
4. Heroes of Might and Magic II
I'm going against the grain here, but I think, for all its cheese and cartoonishness, Heroes II was a better game than its successor. This may be partly fuelled by nostalgia, but there is also something to be said for not over-complicating a good formula. Better graphics and more content don't always mean a better game. Extra hero types in III watered down the core dynamics.
Heroes II wasn't necessarily all that cool. But it was a perfect pseudo-Tolkeinian generic fantasy set-up, and easy to pick up – letting you more quickly get on with the actual strategising.
Bonus points for being the game that introduced me to the concept of hotseat play.
3. Civilization II
This one comes within an inch of beating the Civ that followed it. For many, this was the defining moment in the series. It leaped ahead of what Civilization I achieved, and it remained an immensely enjoyable game long after its release. Hell – if there hadn't been new Civs since, I doubt very much that I would be the only one still playing this.
Civ II also saw the rise of modding in Civ. The game was released with an excellent World War II Europe scenario (fortunately, this was a fair while before we'd played that setting to death in first-person shooters), but the ability to customize elements of the game meant that expansion packs added both developer and fan content.
Not perfect, by any means. And I will concede that it wasn't as good for its time as Civ II. But Civilization III was still a step up, and brought it many new features that really matured gameplay.
Small touches – such as a Beatles reference when you change your government – lent this title a real touch of class. However, it does not feel like a complete game without its expansions (not that they're amazing; they just put in everything that one feels deserved to be there from the outset).
Die-hard Civ II fans might not have accepted this installment fully, but I was playing it right up until the release of (you guessed it)...
1. Civilization IV
The latest and greatest in the series that dominates turn-based strategy. This is a no-brainer. Civ IV not only took the series in new and exciting directions, making gameplay more dynamic, the engine more moddable, and the epic Civilization experience more accessible than ever before.
Civ IV deserves this spot absolutely – expansions or no. But the latest expansion should possibly hold this spot, because Beyond the Sword takes this masterpiece from being just the clear winner to being head, shoulders, torso, and probably thighs too, above the competition.
I don't apologise for giving Civilization the top three spots. I stand by my picks. But I welcome your disgruntled responses. Feel free to berate me angrily, as long as mothers are kept out of it.
That is all.