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Succeeding in Civilization: Beyond Earth - Diplomacy, Domination, and Daring to Dream

Enemy mine.

How deep are your bonds with your childhood best friend? I've long been out of contact with my best school buddy, but game designers Will Miller and Dave McDonough share a much deeper connection. From their longtime friendship spawns Civilization: Beyond Earth, Firaxis' upcoming strategy game, on which Miller and McDonough share lead designer credit. By the time you read this, the pair will already have spoken at PAX, where they intend to reveal more specifics about Beyond Earth's many, many facets. Luckily, I was able to pin them down for a sneak peek at their panel, and probe their minds for more details on what makes Beyond Earth much more than a reskinned Civilization V.

I played Civilization: Beyond Earth earlier this week at the event in Oakland. I'm curious about the orbital layer and the units you put there, like the solar collector. What is the focus of the layer, what is the focus of the collector, and how does that inform player strategy?

When we describe the orbital layer, we always start by saying that the terrain map is always the star of the show, and the orbital layer is meant to be another access that augments that. It reinforces the drama happening on the ground. The solar collector is one of several domestic-themed satellites that improve tile yields, push back miasma or generate miasma, if that's what you want to do. There's also a number of military satellites which act as static buffs above your military. They can be used defensively, and if you're very clever, you can use them offensively if you spread your orbital coverage far enough out to get a satellite in range of your enemy.

The orbital layer itself is very simple. Satellites don't move. They are temporal, so they don't last forever. And they can't overlap their influence. So it's this kind of treacherous puzzle you're playing up there, competing with other civs to get the best real estate and to expand your coverage as quickly as you can so you can exercise influence both domestically and militarily.

I know you're introducing the fungal biome at PAX. Can you give me a rundown of what biomes are and what they mean for players?

The main hook of Beyond Earth is that you play on an alien planet. Having the planet feel alien and feel like a strange place is part of the deal for us. So far we've revealed two terrain styles that are pretty recognizable, the lush biome and the arid biome. They're both beautiful and interesting in their own way. The fungal we're excited about because it's really out there. It's a really weird looking and cool biome that gives the game a different feel when you play. You have a whole world in this style of giant fungal trees, and puffy gross-looking hills, and everything feels really iffy and strange compared to a more terrestrial-looking Civ game. It still plays like Beyond Earth on any other biome. We're excited to show it off because we know it's kind of out there and look forward to see how fans react to it.

For each of the biomes, it's mainly an aesthetic change, but there are some subtle gameplay differences between them. For example, the arid biome, you're much more likely to see giant siege worms, just because we're fans of Dune and it makes sense! There are some resource distribution and alien behavior subtleties that come along with each of those biome types. The main difference for gameplay is our maps scripts. That's the second layer of procedurality, the maps. And we'll ship the game with several of these map scripts to procedurally generate maps of different types and for different gameplay purposes. Some of them are designed to generate maps that are fair, for multiplayer games. Some of them generate maps that are more challenging, where you may want an archipelago, where you have lots of small islands and you have to focus on your naval forces to dominate. Or one with no water at all, sort of the opposite problem.

We've got some really interesting ones, like the tilted axis map, where one half is encased in ice and the other half is boiling hot, and there's a Goldilocks zone in the middle. So those scripts can express a wide variety of different ways to play the game. And they're also moddable, so we're really excited to see what our players do with them, and the kinds of things they make for themselves.

I saw the kraken in action the other day. What can you tell me about the navy, and actually, about war in general?

The basic mechanics in Beyond Earth are very similar to Civ V--there are still hexes, still one unit per tile, all the orbital layer is an interesting way of working around that limitation. But the variety of units is pretty substantial, and those unit varieties come from your choices in the tech tree and the affinity you decide to adopt. Each of those affinities has a very distinctive play style. Harmony units at the highest levels are designed to take advantage of the surface of the planet, of the natural resources on the planet. Things that used to be an impediment to you in the early game, like miasma, are now an advantage, and you want to make sure to pollute as much of the planet as possible so that you get the advantage like the aliens did against you early in the game. It's very much about leveraging the landscape against their opponents.

The supremacy player is more of a finesse civ. Individual units are weaker, but when organized in certain combinations relative to each other on the map, they become very powerful. They're all about battlefield geometry and positional play. And then purity is just brute force. 'Let's put more guns on it--that's the solution.' So they're all about raw firepower, and their units reflect that. And then the alien creatures of course are their own sort of special case. The kraken is this giant floating island with tentacles underneath that you can fight. And there's a lot of interesting fauna that will give you a run for it early and late in the game; they're certainly relevant for the whole experience.

The intent here was that mechanically, it stays pretty close to Civ V, so that our core fanbase knows how to use it. But the content is different and the progression of that content is much different throughout the game.

While I played I had the chance to encounter a number of other civilizations, their leaders. I'm curious about diplomacy and how that will work, particularly in regards to alien life. There was an interesting moment when I had attacked enough of the wildlife that many leaders were quite annoyed with me. How will my encounters with aliens affect diplomacy?

Diplomacy is like in previous Civs where you can meet with other leaders on matters both large and small. You can trade resources and valuables, but you can also affect their grand strategy by commenting on what they're up to, and vice versa. If you are encroaching on them in some way or offending them in some way, they will call you up and tell you. And if you respond in a way they don't like, that can lead to worsening relations or even war, which you saw when you were overly aggressive toward the aliens. There are leaders on the planet that would prefer you leave them alone.

The aliens are an interesting x factor in the diplomatic landscape. They have their own presence on the planet. They pre-date you and exist in great strength when you first arrive, so everything you do on the new world necessarily affects them. You can try to shove them out of the way, or learn to live with them, but you have to incorporate them into your plan. Every leader in the game will decide how to do that differently, and if you are using a different tact than another leader is, they may conflict.

For instance, if you attack the aliens a lot, the aliens will become more aggressive, more hostile--they'll get generally riled up. This can lead to them making attacks of reprisal against other players' civilizations who weren't necessarily expecting this. That's why it would affect your diplomacy. Leaders would say, 'stop antagonizing the aliens, it's ruining my plans.' But you also have a sort of diplomatic stance to the aliens themselves. It's expressed through the actions that you take. It doesn't show up in the diplomacy window, you don't actually call them up and talk to them. But everything you do they take note of, and they will form an opinion over the course of the game and act on that. So if you attack the aliens a lot,k they will attack you back, and will become gradually more intelligent about it, to the point that they will send sizeable swarms to take out your cities. But if you take a more passive approach to them and let them exist in peace, they'll take note of that too, to the point where they won't attack you ever again, they'll avoid your territory, they might even attack your enemies. Aliens are definitely a player with their own rules.

I didn't get very far into the tech web when I played. I know it's separated into branches and leaves, but what more can you tell me about it?

The goal of the system is to model the future. What could happen to humanity, what interesting powers could we gain over the next thousand years on a new alien world with strange new resources available to us? It's arranged in a web because it's meant to be exploratory. You start in the center with technology you more or less recognize and can use right away. And you build out around threads that represent solutions to the problems that you're facing, whether those are environmental, or developmental, or diplomatic, or military, or what have you. You'll find options for dealing with them along the tech web, and as they branch out, they become more powerful, more elaborate, and more fictitious--more imaginative and in the sci-fi realm.

But you can swing around. You can move laterally and explore the web to get the advantages you want, but also change your mind if your situation changes. The main structure is major and minor tech, which we call branches and leaves, where the branches represent big ideas that have far-reaching impact, and the leaves are smaller specializations that provide more focused power and special rewards like unique units and wonders. The web is bigger than any one player could achieve in a standard playthrough at standard speed. You have all the technology you could pursue, but you can't get all of it; you have to choose what's most important. If you stay focused and determined, you can get the things that really matter, but along the way you're going to leave aside things that are less important.

So by the end of the game, you maybe have 60 to 70 percent of all the technology, but the technology you possess won't necessarily be the same your opponents possess. They may have had different priorities and they may go a different way and end up with different powers. By the end of the game, you've got to match your strength against theirs in a way that doesn't go one to one. You've got to know what makes you strong and what makes them strong, and figure out where the pressure points are. A lot of the exploratory and adaptive discovery of gameplay that makes Civ: Beyond Earth rich is expressed by the tech web, and technologies like planetary engineering or seismic induction are examples of special things that you can get if you prioritize that playstyle. But they're just two of the interesting options in the web.

Regarding virtues, I'm told that you'll be discussing the knowledge branch at PAX, but what more can you tell me about virtues, how they impact gameplay at large, what the various advantages and disadvantages are?

The virtue system is intended to kind of model your government, but more than that--to specialize your civilization domestically, militarily, in the diplomacy system and in other ways. As you gain culture in the game, you can unlock virtues that progress your civilization down these tracks. The big improvement we tried to make in this system over previous Civs… the critical path in Civ V was to focus on a single tree. To deviate from that would waste resources and was not optimal. We've introduced what we call synergy bonuses into the new system, whereby I get bonuses for going deep in a tree, or I can get bonuses by going horizontally across several trees.

These encourage you to multiclass if you want to. You don't have to just pick one of those branches and dive really deep; you can pick and choose the things you want across several of them and still keep pace with the other civs. This is really cool and provides a lot more flexibility to customize a civilization exactly the way you want it.

Hungry for more information on Civilization: Beyond Earth? I explored the astrophysics of space travel and how they relate to Beyond Earth earlier this week.

Got a news tip or want to contact us directly? Email news@gamespot.com

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Kevin VanOrd

GameSpot senior editor Kevin VanOrd has a cat named Ollie who refuses to play bass in Rock Band.
Sid Meier's Civilization: Beyond Earth

Sid Meier's Civilization: Beyond Earth

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