The board game Clue (Cluedo to those in Europe) was created in 1949. About 40 years later Clue Master Detective was created, leaving the core game intact, but adding more suspects, weapons and rooms. Civilization 5: Gods and Kings follows a nearly identical model. Seemingly a response to criticism that there wasn't enough going on in Civilization 5 as there was in Civilization 4, the Gods and Kings expansion tosses a bunch of balanced mechanics into the game simply to give more.
To understand the present we must look to the recent past. Civilization 5 already had its "Game of the Year Edition" launch last year, normally marketing's indication that a game's development has come to a conclusion. Yet, here we are with Gods and Kings, a $30 expansion that adds new civilizations, wonders and buildings; with two big game mechanic additions being religion and espionage.
I appreciated Civilization 5 for being a better game than any of its predecessors, opening up the series to more players, instead of creating the strategy game feedback loop that only builds mechanics for the hardest of hardcore, thus leaving newbies locked out or working eight times harder to understand what's happening. Civilization 5 streamlined nearly every mechanic in the series and made combat tactical for the first time, only allowing one unit per hex instead of a "stack of doom."
Boiled down: Civilization 5: Gods and Kings takes two years of patches and adds religion and espionage to the mix for those who felt the game wasn't busy enough. Oddly, and not in a negative sense, the new mechanics actually simplify the game in many ways, with religion and espionage supplying bonus options that can be used to devastating effect by those with a strategic mind. Since this is an expansion, the rest of this review is written with the expectation that you've played Civilization 5. Religion works like culture or the happy ticker toward a Golden Age, with "Faith Points" counting up based on religious buildings or civilization bonuses. Once enough faith points have been accumulated, a civilization can create a parthenon, which offers up one bonus in a large list of improvements. The next faith milestone is to get to a couple hundred points and create a Great Prophet to establish a religion. You'll want to get there sooner rather than later, since only a certain number of religions can be established per game (dependent on settings). In other words, if you don't establish one fast enough, you might not establish one at all.
The second major addition, espionage, takes on two roles: either as a catch-up tool if you're falling behind in tech or as a luxury bonus tool against city-states. Once you receive your first spy, you can place it in a city you've discovered and beging a small side quest. Espionage is all handled through a menu system – no pieces to deal with – so it's actually efficient and intuitive. If you're falling behind in tech, just place a spy in a smart civilization's city and let them work their magic to obtain free technology without having to research it. As long as the other civilization doesn't have a spy doing counter-intelligence in the same city, you should be be good to go.
Personally, I liked using spies for city-state election rigging, which will bring a city-state more in your favor for easy luxury resource accumulation. Actually, city-state management is much simpler in Gods & Kings in general, with far more opportunities to get these random tribes on your side. Instead of being a nuisance that you'd have to put effort into in the normal Civilization 5, the city-states definitely feel more part of the game than before. They are still useless for anything beyond their bonus resources, but at least getting those resources doesn't necessitate crushing them or focusing on the patronage civic.
Other tweaks veterans may appreciate include more luxury resources, melee and ranged naval units and a bunch of nit-picky balances to wonders and great people.
With a couple hundred hours of Civilization 5 under my belt and shown on my waistline, I welcome the changes of Gods and Kings. It's more Civ 5 and I could easily wrap my brain around the additional mechanics. Will it satisfy the complainers who thought Civilization 5 was too streamlined? Unlikely, but Civilization 4 Complete is still readily available.
Everything in this expansion makes me feel like we're approaching (or have already hit) the "final version" of Civilization 5. There's certainly some more balancing to be done and bugs to squash in this expansion, but all the major concepts of previous Civilizations have been added and done so in a way that fits Civilization 5.
This review is based on review code provided by 2K Games.
Note: Joystiq does not provide star ratings for downloadable content reviews with the understanding that the quality of the core game's experience is unchanged from the retail release to DLC add-ons; see: Civilization 5 review.