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Long-awaited Civilization World launches public beta on Facebook

Sid Meier’s Civilization World is available today to all Facebook users as the social game enters its public beta test.

After more than 22 months in the making, the social version of the Civilization strategy game series is ready for general consumption. Now we’ll find out soon if it was worth the wait.

Sid Meier, the acclaimed game developer at Firaxis and creator of the Civilization series, personally coded the Facebook game, which lets you build your own city alongside the cities of your friends. It has been hotly anticipated because the Civilization brand has sold more than 10 million units over time and it seems like a perfect title for casual gamers on Facebook, one of the fastest-growing game platforms. It seems like a good match because Civ games take a long time to play and Facebook commands a lot of our time.

I’ve played it for a short time in a closed beta test, where not all of the features were available. As a hardcore gamer who likes titles such Kabam’s Glory of Rome, I feel a little “meh” about Civilization World myself, but it has a chance to appeal to the broader casual crowd.

Civilization World is a step up for Facebook games, but it’s also nothing that hardcore Civilization fans will get that excited about. The game tries to straddle two communities: hardcore strategy gamers and the casual players who like to socialize on Facebook. The art style is definitely skewed toward casual gamers, with cartoon-like characters. But the game has a lot of depth to it, and that will appeal to gaming veterans.

Civilization World marks the entry of the authentic gaming brands — Civilization is a property of Firaxis Games and Take-Two Interactive’s 2K Games label — into the Facebook market. Electronic Arts has also launched its hardcore football and soccer brands on Facebook, but so far it hasn’t taken much market share from Zynga, which has seen tremendous success with home-grown Facebook games such as CityVille. Meier took a long time to perfect the game because his goal is to take social gaming to its next generation.

As I noted in our preview, Firaxis first announced that it was working on a game called Civilization Network in October, 2009. Since many Facebook games are developed in as little as six weeks (FarmVille fits in this category in some respects), a 22-month development cycle for Civilization World (as it has been renamed) is unheard of.

Meier is meticulous and is known to focus ruthlessly on making his games fun. In fact, he worked for years on a game called Dinosaurs — and decided not to do it because it wasn’t fun. That suggests that the game is commanding a huge amount of Meier’s time. That fact alone has made me anticipate the game, and should excite anyone who has followed Meier’s career.

Collaborative strategy

In Civilization World, you start by creating your own capital city, and your goal is to compete against both friends and rivals to create the greatest civilization in the world. It is a persistent world, but it can have a start and an end time for the competition between civilizations.

The game spans the age of known civilization, from ancient times to the space age and beyond. At its core, it is a collaborative strategy game. You work with other people toward a goal. You start with a meager palace on a tract of land. You have to build a house for a citizen. Then you assign the citizen a task, such as being a farmer. You build a garden and then the citizen will start farming the land and taking harvests back to the palace.

You can assign trades to your people, making them scientists, artists, workers, or farmers. When you collect enough food, your population expands. Then you can put the people to work and grow your city bigger. Meanwhile, you harvest resources and buy things with them. You can develop on a variety of fronts, adding to your stockpiles of gold, production, science, food or culture.

The game has more strategy that a typical Facebook game. It actually matters that you place your house close to the palace so that your farmer doesn’t have to walk so far. The point is that you can make a series of smart or bad decisions — it isn’t just random game play. If you place an orchard near water, you get 25 points for your harvest rather than 10. You can grow lots of trees to make scientists happy and attract more of them to your city. The game rewards you for paying attention to the details.

Meier has tried to make the single-player experience of Civilization more social. Some tasks you can do together with friends. For instance, in a test of culture, you can unscramble a mixed-up image to see what the real image looks like. Your friends can help you do this in a timed test. There are a bunch of mini games — like connecting a road for a caravan from one end of the map to the other — that allow you to win more resources.

The multiplayer aspect comes in when you join an alliance with lots of other players. Your players can help you or team up in battles against rival empires.

Each team races to complete an era first. The team that wins a round will get more reward points. As many as 200 people can participate in a game at a time, so you won’t see gigantic empires.

Harmless combat

In a nod to Facebook’s more casual audience, the combat system is fairly harmless. You can’t raze someone else’s city and you can’t attack an individual. Rather, the combat takes place only between major alliances. In the battles, you pick which units you want to take into battle, and the outcome is resolved instantly, with no animations that show what happens in the battle.

You pick your combat units and they line up against the enemy, as if you were both playing a card game like the old-fashioned War card game. Whoever lines up the best cards, or best units, winds up victorious. As a hardcore gamer, I would prefer a greater emphasis on combat, with better animations. But it’s nice to know you can’t be attacked while you are sleeping. I haven’t tested this much. But from my first look at it, I think that Facebook games have a long, long way to go before they will satisfy the combat thirst of hardcore gamers.

The art style is not nearly as pretty as the high-resolution imagery in the PC game, Civilization V, which came out last fall. That game proved to be very popular among hardcore gamers. But the Civilization World game is made for a very different audience: more female, more casual, and more mainstream. The game has to be more accessible.

The art work resembles that of Civilization Revolution, the 2008 game that took the Civ series to the game consoles and handhelds. In that game, the art veered more toward the cute and amusing rather than the realistic and serious, as in Civilization V. As a hardcore player, I greatly prefer the Civilization V art style. But I understand why Civilization World went down this path. But it pretty much means that hardcore games such as Glory of Rome from Kabam don’t have much to worry about.

The game has a system for bragging, a feature essential for any game you play with friends. Civilization World lets you show off your collection of achievements and the other cool artifacts you win in the game in your throne room, pictured right. You can buy things in a market. One of the cool aspects is that the market prices for virtual goods fluctuate with supply and demand. You can buy an item in the market and sell it later for a higher price if the item is in demand.

There is a full-blown technology tree, which graphically shows the path you have to follow to develop certain technologies over thousands of years, from the wheel to the printing press. The tech tree is a staple of Civ games. You can also consult the Civilopedia, an encyclopedic resource that describes all of the buildings, units, wonders, technologies and civic items in the game.

The music from the game is from Christopher Tin, who won a Grammy award for his Baba Yetu song in Civ 4.

At the outset, you can only play one city at a time. But over time, you can control multiple cities. As with the other Civ games, you can win a game in multiple ways. You can get a cultural victory by building the most wonders. Or you can get a military or economic victory.

Slow start

Overall, the game allows for different play styles. But it rewards you for engagement and pursuing a global strategy. For now, I’ve just gotten started with Civilization World and things happen slowly. If you want to speed them up, you can pay real money. That is where the monetization for the game comes in. If you want to get in a race with your friends to build the biggest civilization, it may prove to be expensive. But the game also has a limt on the amount of spending you can do in a day that will affect the game play. The company is still testing exactly what that limit will be; currently, the amount is capped at 10 CivBucks (virtual currency, purchased with real money) per day. That may change based on user feedback.

I won’t pass final judgment on the game just yet. It’s mildly engaging at the start. I’ll check back in a week or a month to see if it holds my attention. But for now, I don’t see any great advances that will make this a threat to Kabam or Zynga.

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