Real-time strategy fans have been cooing over Sid Meier's beguiling Civilization games for years. They'll quickly tell you there's nothing like building an empire from scratch and leading it forth in a competitive march over the hurdles of history. So to help with all that scratching, marching and hurdling, Civilization V has made the turn-by-turn moves even more fluid and intuitive while adding layers to the series' famed chess-like maneuvering challenges.
Players start out by perusing and choosing from a colorful list of 18 past and present empires—each with its own unique strengths and national advantages. Selecting the French, for instance, delivers special cultural gains in your society's early ages and offers up swashbuckling Musketeers for fighting off foes. Across the Channel, the English have some useful seagoing boons, including the powerful Ship of the Line.
After choosing the civilization you want to develop, everything starts from square one with a small group of settlers plopped down on a vast undeveloped continent littered with potential treasures and dangers. The goal is to find natural resources, invest them wisely, make scientific developments or cultural strides, and grow your tiny cluster into a city, then a nation that will dominate the world militarily, scientifically, monetarily or culturally.
Will you use the gathered fruits of your homeland to build schools and universities and be the first to ply the vacuum of space? Or will you create a wealth-building trade machine that can eventually buy and sell the hapless world around you? Perhaps you'll decide to be a great and powerful military ally that other nations and city-states will gratefully award victory by way of a vote in the United Nations.
Games can be customized with a variety of time periods, map sizes and difficulty levels to suit all tastes. And if you're a newbie who's just getting the hang of things, Civ V's new coat of polish makes jumping into the fray a breeze. A cadre of advisers can step to the fore with a half-dozen tidbits of advice about everything from the best course of diplomacy to the art of war. Your counterparts' leaders occasionally stop in to bend your ear, too. But don't be surprised if Genghis Khan doesn't always have your best interests at heart.
If you already know where you're headed, the game is smart enough to generally stay out of your way and let you do your thing.
As history unfolds there are bound to be military clashes on hand. But we watch everything from an elevated bird's-eye view. So whether the skirmishes are hand to hand, with clubs and swords, or more advanced and explosive, featuring rifles and rocket launchers, they're brief and bloodless. The small defeated characters tumble and quickly blink out of existence. The worst of the warring is a nuclear bomb that makes a one-time obliterating hit on some unfortunate capital.
Other content that prompted the game's E10+ rating includes references to alcohol. Cities can produce and sell wine after building a vineyard, for instance. And there is a brief reference in one civilization's introduction to its once profitable opium trade. The ESRB descriptor also lists "mild language," though I never encountered any in my repeated plays.
The only real drawback, then, might be that once you get hooked on Civilization V it can be a little tough to keep yourself from going back for more and more and more. With so many cultures and so many scenarios to explore, it's hard to resist the siren's call to return for yet another run at being king of the hill. Keep that compulsion at bay by building your empire in reasonable, bite-sized events and you've got a real winner on your hands here that may do more than just fill time. It may actually inspire a second look at that history book gathering dust on your shelf.