Improving greatly upon the base game while bringing new, fun things to the table? Yep, that's how expansions should work. In fact, that's how Civilization V: Brave New World works.
After Gods & Kings, Brave New World is the second big expansion to hit Firaxis' turn-based strategy game, bringing with it nine new civilizations and a bevy of improvements and new features. But are they good new features? Well, these six folks seem to think so.
Civilization V has always had a problem: most of the fun is front-loaded. Finding your place in the world is the height of the game's enjoyment, and the feeling you get when you build your first ocean-faring vessel -- breaking into the dark blue and seeing what else is out there in the world -- is unparalleled. Once you've seen all there is to see things become fairly routine, and you set about either destroying or improving the world as you see fit. It's this problem that Civilization V: Brave New World attempts to fix -- helping stead the downward decline that every Civ match takes once you leave the Renaissance Era. While it doesn't solve it completely, it seamlessly provides plenty of improvements to help make for longer, more enjoyable games.
Along with a number of new playable civilizations to match Gods & Kings -- nine, to be specific -- Brave New World adds major game mechanics and makes substantive tweaks and layers on additional minor elements. And all of these changes are enough to make Civilization 5 the final realisation of the Civ-as-wargame dream. Brave New World's new civs are more than new faces on some reshuffled bonuses -- they’re both thematically different and in some cases fundamentally different, from a strategic perspective. The Venetians and Shoshone in particular radically changed the way I played Civilization 5 -- though they might just break it.
The new interesting civs and their unique units make up for the lack of new military units in Brave New World, but only barely. Building your own X-Com Squad is certainly a nice nod to the other dev team at Firaxis, but the unit comes far too late to make a huge impact on your game beyond a, "Hey, that's neat." The new bazooka unit completes the ranged unit line in the modern era, but Firaxis wisely believes the evened-out power curve of units in the last expansion did not need to be tinkered with further. You could certainly argue that's true, but it would have been fun to wage war with new units.
The revamped cultural victory path is the best part of Brave New World. Splitting the new tourism rating off of the existing empire-wide culture score lets empires pursuing cultural hegemony engage in a slew of new interactions that otherwise-occupied nations can safely ignore while focusing on their own goals. Saturating the world with explorers digging up ancient artifacts once Archaeology is discovered creates new diplomatic pressures and production priorities that are more fun to navigate than the old "build a bunch of Museums, beeline for Radio, and mash end turn" cultural victory. Segregating cultural Great Person generation from the others is a wonderful change that lets one to three cities focus on that, and removes the punishing need for cultural nations to focus exclusively on artist specialists. The cultural endgame is much better delineated in the tech tree, so a culture-pursuing empire develops quite differently than any other as it must invest in expensive late-game buildings to multiply its tourism score.
Everything in Brave New World pushes towards the direction of having more interaction between civs, of broadening the context for strategic decision-making. For instance, caravans and cargo ships now ply the trade lanes between empires, generating gold and extra research for both civilizations. But that’s not the only thing they carry: trade routes also spread religion between cities, and make each side of the trade relationship more susceptible to tourism influence. It lends an interesting dynamic to these exchanges: the gold generated might be more than offset by the way trade opens the door to religious and cultural influence and gives less technologically advanced civilizations a bonus to their research, helping them catch up to you.
Beyond the open-ended single-player "campaigns" and multiplayer matches that have become the staples of the series are various prebuilt scenarios chronicling specific eras of history. Brave New World features two such modes covering the American Civil War, and the second European wave of colonization and the Scramble for Africa. As the peoples of the world are still struggling to slough off the legacy of the late 19th century, these scenarios offer a tasteful, informative, and fun perspective on humanity's ambivalent relationship with colonialism, imperialism, and human exploitation.
I thought Gods & Kings had done enough to turn Civilization V into the best game in the series. The advances made here, turning trade, diplomacy and culture into things you can actually manage, go so much further. In addressing some of the series' longest-standing issues, such as long periods of inactivity and less appealing pursuits of victory, Firaxis have turned Civilization V into one of the best strategy games of all time, regardless of how you want to play the game.
Top picture: Gergő Vas