Just completed my first game of of Civ IV: Beyond the Sword. Loved it. It’s a very solid mix of a return of older elements of the game with new improvements. Some specifics:
- Better units. The addition of a Ship of the Line unit (and the Trireme unit that came with Warlords) improves pre-modern naval combat considerably. Also like the Missile Cruiser, Stealth Destroyer, and especially the return of the Privateer from Civ III; the latter is just about the right strength, able to threaten a galleon but inferior to a frigate. Mobile artillery and mobile SAM were absolutely necessary; artillery in CIV IV became useless late in the game because it couldn’t keep pace with mechanized infantry and armor. I like the introduction of the airship, although it should probably promote to fighter rather than bomber.
- Operations short of war. With the Privateer and a very well developed espionage system (although I don’t know if it’s completely balanced right yet; it’s hard to protect your own cities even late in the game), it’s possible now to seriously mess with another country without starting a war. The Privateer is especially effective against sea improvements like fishing and clam boats, and can also institute a blockade. With espionage, which allows the sabotage of improvements, poisoning of wells etc., severely damaging the economy of a competitor without actually going to war is pretty easy.
- Colonies and Vassalage: Vassals were introduced in Warlords, and represented a considerable improvement over the total wars of annihilation that would normally develop in Civ games. When faced with a hopeless war, most foes will capitulate, giving you control over their foreign policy, freedom of movement in their territory, and access to their resources. Not infrequently, a civ will offer to become a vassal while it’s losing a war to another civ, which then puts you at war. While you don’t have control of a vassal’s military forces (which makes planning offensive wars a bit more tricky), the system does allow you to concentrate on your core group of cities. Beyond the Sword introduces colonies, which allows you to grant independence to overseas groupings of cities on the condition that the new civilization will become a vassal. This helps to keep maintenance costs low while preventing other civs from occupying vacant territory. In the game I played, I ended up creating four colonial vassals (Greece, the Holy Roman Empire, America, and the Celts) in various parts of the world, while accepting three start game competitors into vassalage. Due to war or luck, a colony will occasionally exceed the power of its mother country, and there are mechanisms that allow capitulated vassals to regain independence.
- Air-Naval/Ground interaction. I still don’t like the way that Civ IV handles air-naval interaction, and in fact this is a hold over from Civ III. It is still, apparently, impossible to destroy naval units with air units. They can be dropped to half strength, but this doesn’t even seem to slow them down. Cruise missiles can kill naval units pretty effectively, but they don’t appear until late in the game. This is really absurd; you can bomb the snot out of enemy transports loaded with invaders approaching your coastline, but if you don’t have a destroyer around, they’re still going to invade. There are some other interaction problems as well, again holdovers from the first iteration of Civ IV. Naval units can damage city defenses, but cannot attack improvements; complete domination of the coastline should be more helpful, I think. Also, bombers and other air units can no longer conduct strategic bombing. I don’t care for Curtis Lemay, but I loved to play him in video games; one of my favorite tactics in Civ III was to grab an island city near some big enemy cities, send a fleet of bombers, and proceed to reduce a modern age 26 population city to a 1 population hovel without any improvements. This option is no longer available, since air units only attack city fortifications or units (although you can destroy territorial improvements). I do, however, like the fact that cities have a limited air unit basing capacity in Beyond the Sword (4 without an airport, 8 with). That tends to limit the damage that air units can do, and to increase the usefulness of aircraft carriers.
- Space ship: The space ship mechanics appear to have reverted to their superior Civ II form, in which you could customize your spaceship, changing the duration of the journey to a new planet. This means that you have a choice between a cheap space ship that will take a long time to arrive, and a more expensive one that will get their quicker. Although it usually doesn’t matter, the distinction is occasionally critical to victory.
All told, it’s a worthy waste of 45 hours of your time.