Civilization: Beyond Earth is both familiar and completely new. I grew up playing the Civilization series, with its pseudo-historical war, economics, and diplomacy. Sure, some of the history was unrealistic (Gandhi was aggressively militaristic, and Cleopatra and Columbus could make trade agreements with one another), but the basics were there. I was given an exciting introduction into Earth’s history of civilizations and a set of economic rules to work with that helped my young self get some grasp on why leaders make some of the decisions they do. Beyond Earth is based on those same economic rules, and indeed follows basically the same format as previous iterations of Civilization. The only fundamental difference lies in the naming of things; instead of oil refineries, you create Xenomass Wells. Instead of building the Great Pyramids or sending a shuttle to the moon, you build an Ectogenesis Pod and a Holon Chamber.
There is also, of course, a new look and feel to the game. You are no longer starting in prehistory. Rather, you’ve embarked on a mission to settle a new homeworld after leaving an inhospitable Earth. (The opening sequence of the game is genuinely moving, told from the perspective of a young girl who must leave her father behind.) The updated graphics are a pleasant bonus.
Anyone who has played previous iterations of Civilization will find Beyond Earth’s gameplay basically identical. You begin by setting up your game, choosing a map, and deciding how many other settlements will be sharing the world. An expedition sponsor (such as the Pan Asian Cooperative or People’s African Union) takes the place of the historical empire in the previous games. You may also choose a difficulty level (there are six), the type of colonists you’ll be bringing along, and your spaceship’s capabilities. As in previous games, you will set down on a hexagonal grid with various natural resources scattered around and begin building out your city. Civilization is turn-based, and the more units you have, the longer your turns will take. The same goes for the other “players,” which can make for a very long wait between turns. This is particularly true in multiplayer (although in single player you can set the turn speed at the beginning of the game to speed up the process a bit).
The goal is to expand your territory, survive, and negotiate with other civilizations. This can be accomplished through trade agreements, war, espionage, and diplomacy. For instance, leaders might ask you to help defend their borders from an enemy in return for a later favor. (Personally I find it more fun to attempt to coexist with my neighbors, but other players may make it their goal to wipe them off the map.) Meanwhile, you will make scientific advancements via a tech web, cultural progressions, and build “Wonders,” many of which can be built only once—i.e., if another civilization has already staked its claim, that Wonder will be unavailable. Some Wonders are necessary for certain victories. For a more in-depth idea of what this looks like, check out Apolyton’s interactive tech web.
You will also find yourself battling alien lifeforms. Through a series of research decisions, you can choose to conquer this alien life, merge with it to become one with the planet’s existing life, or transcend to another, new form of life using cybernetic enhancements. These three paths are called Affinities, and are, respectively: Purity, Harmony, and Supremacy. Embracing one Affinity over another dictates how humanity perseveres in its new home. Embarking on one of these paths will slowly begin to change your civilization’s look and feel; I chose Harmony in my first game and found myself ordering around swarms of gentle green insect-like units. Affinities are a new addition to the series, one I quite liked.
Civilization does have a quest system, which mostly boils down to having to choose between two options based on a story development. For example, early on you will receive a quest that simply tells you a rogue scientist has been caught doing dangerous experiments on colonists. If you choose to stop the experiments, you will gain +2 food, while if you let the experiments continue, you will gain +2 science. You can play these decisions as a moral conundrum, but there is little in the gameplay to support ethics or morality. Allowing the experiments to continue, for instance, will not result in a civilian uprising.
Finally, there are several conditions that must be met for victory, but it is up to the player to choose which path to embark on. This leaves room for multiple playthroughs with different goals. Victory Conditions in Beyond Earth include Domination, Emancipation, Promised Land, Transcendence, and Contact. Domination means annihilating your neighbors. Emancipation (available only to the Supremacy Affinity) means sending robotic troops back to Earth to free humanity from the “bonds of flesh”—creepy, right? Promised Land (available only to the Purity Affinity) means sending shuttles to rescue humans from Earth. Transcendence (available only to the Harmony Affinity) involves becoming one with the planet’s ecosystem. And the last Victory Condition, Contact, has you receiving and translating a signal from some alien race, and you must find some way to contact them.
I’ll be honest. It took me a while to get the hang of it, even though I have previous Civ experience. The pathways of progress aren’t always obvious, since we’re dealing with science fiction instead of real-world history. In the original game, it made logical sense that you might have to build the NASA space program in order to achieve the Wonder involving the moon landing. In Beyond Earth, your achievements have less context and therefore less meaning. After a day I settled into a familiar routine, but I missed the sense of accomplishment I earned after completing well-known Wonders in the previous games. Maybe with time I would get to know these new structures and projects, but I’m not sure Beyond Earth would ever hold enough meaning to be as satisfying as earlier Civ games.
I suspect that a new player—someone not familiar with Civilization at all—might have a fair amount of trouble with Beyond Earth. Even after turning on the help hints, I was sometimes unclear on how to fix a problem. There was at least one instance of a mistake in editing (the text reminded me that negative population health was bad and outlined the reasons it was bad, but gave me no solutions despite telling me a paragraph later that I would find the solution “above”). Had I not known most of the basic premises of Civilization, I think I would’ve been quickly at a loss.
Despite some initial hurdles, though, I settled into the gameplay and enjoyed Beyond Earth as much as I had previous Civilization games. It’s an easy game to relax with, since its turn-based mechanic gives plenty of opportunity to take a moment for yourself. Strategy, not reflex, is the skill at play here.
What Will Kids Get Out of It?
Civilization: Beyond Earth (rated E10+) is a very kid-friendly game. Although players can choose aggression over diplomacy and conquer other nations, there is no graphic violence whatsoever. As a learning experience, the game is an inventive way to teach resource management in an entertaining environment. If you allot more food to your military forces, you will be better protected, but your people may go hungry. If you choose to dedicate several cycles to building a Wonder, you may lose time that could have been spent upgrading your city’s miasma disperser. Everything hangs in a delicate balance, and unexpected problems will arise that could send your nation spiraling into decay in a single turn. While the historical aspects of the previous Civilization games have often been touted as the reason for the reputation of the series as educational games, strategic resource management is nothing to disregard.
I do wish that your actions had more consequences for your populace in terms of public approval. “Health” can be interpreted to mean a number of conditions, but I think looking at humans as simple resources is, while an interesting exercise, a bit problematic. Playing the game with kids might be a good opportunity to explore some of these issues. Ask if you think real-life leaders may look at their populace the same way, or if you think real leaders might be at risk of assassination or rebellion had they made the same decisions.
Civilization: Beyond Earth is a fantastic game, but more so for seasoned Civilization players than for newbies. It will take some time for new players to get a hang of the game’s complex mechanics. Its E10+ rating doesn’t diminish its complexity, making it a good option for kids looking for a challenge without the mature content higher ratings entail. Despite some initial complications, I enjoyed Beyond Earth quite a lot.