Digging in for a quest of cultural domination, I was taken aback by Civilization V's streamlined new look, replacing much of Civ IV's interface bulk with sleek icons and intuitive information flow. It looked and felt great, but I feared simplification could reduce the depth of the game. What I found instead was a medley of combat complexity and general accessibility.
It was 3900 BCE. I'd settled Athens. It was time to research my first technology; lo and behold, you can now view the full tech tree straight from the window showing your research options. In the tech tree, many dead-end ones from Civ IV have been dropped in the hopes of making every tech more valuable.
I took my new found ability to hunt to the arid planes beyond my capital. My first patrols encountered Venice, the first of many city-states (single-city, mostly static settlements that don't try to win, but serve as diplomatic and tactical lynchpins). The Venetians had already grown to favor Wu Zetian of the Chinese, but I quickly bought my way into their affections.
As my Greeks flourished, I lamented the lack of religion and espionage from Civ IV, but was surprised by a system called Policies. Ten policies unlock as you accrue culture points, with each holding bonuses. I picked Honor, which boosted my damage against barbarians. Policies are a condensation of Civ IV's governmental choices, but they shifted my focus to the important stuff: political intrigue, space races and wars that begin with a horseback charge and end with armored vehicles.
The improved combat may actually be the feature that nets Civ V the most new players. Terrain is more important than ever: one way I mounted a defense was by using a hill or founding my city near a river. You don't often find yourself in a land of hills, so the daring removal of the long-standing ability to stack units bumps up the tactical value of high ground.
At one point in a battle, when I thought all was lost, my adviser showed me how to make the city defend itself. Without a single unit garrisoned, cities can now bombard enemies within two hexes. A few well-placed shots and Athens was safe before rescue even arrived.
Later, my scouts announced the discovery of Mt Everest, generating happiness across my empire. The map's littered with such bonus-granting natural wonders. In a ruin, I came upon survivors, who founded Sparta at the base of Everest, and there in the mountains, I created my own version of the Hot Gates.
Civ V is richer for its condensation of features, and a more intuitive interface will soften the weight of that depth for previously-intimidated players.