Civilization V dropped a little while back, and it's good—so good we lost sleep over it. Not so much that we had to wipe it off our machines and get help, but enough to make us feel more hungover than usual. In some ways, it's just a prettied-up version of the same world-building-and-destroying game it's always been, but a few simple, radical changes make warfare, diplomacy, and governing more challenging but more predictable. Read more after the jump.

Those arent fireworks.
  • This is you (somewhere in there, really).

Gamers who already know and love/hate the franchise should already have Civ V in their queue by now, but if you've never played before, you might want to try Civ IV ($20 on Steam without add-ons) or even Civ III (just $5 on Steam!) before making the investment. The whole series is rightly praised for its smart tutorials, though, so you shouldn't feel lost even if you start out with the shiny new version.

In fact, in some ways veteran players are more likely to have problems. Warfare is completely different now, thanks to the simple rule that combat units can't stack. Older versions featured preposterously huge gangs of army men and horsies and helicopters and cannons and whatnot that could just park on a nearby hill and whittle any city down to splinters over the course of a few turns, which was both anti-fun and counter-intuitive. Attacking cities in Civ V feels much more like a siege, and warfare spreads out a lot farther on the (now hex-based and hence nerdier) map.

Diplomacy is deeper and richer as well, thanks to the addition of tiny AI city-states that offer fat bonuses in exchange for gold and protection. Diplomatic victory is much easier to come by (in older versions, it was basically impossible at any serious level of difficulty), but it takes thoughtful investment from the very earliest stages of the game—as do all the other means of victory, really.

That investment may be one of the major differences between Civ V and its predecessors. It's hard to win the game without knowing exactly what you want to do from the very beginning—no more switching to a Space Race victory late in the game when France starts churning out culture more quickly than you can. It feels a little weird to be making long-term decisions while you're still fighting off barbarians and wolves, but maybe that library is worth more down the road than that archer is right now. Decisions like that really get the dopamine flowing and keep us nerds up all night, and that's what it's all about.

The Stranger Testing Department is Rob Lightner and Paul Hughes.