Playing Gods & Kings feels very much like playing Civilization V, yet it is in almost every way a dramatically different game. It is an expansion in a sense more true than that phrase has even been applied.
Let’s start with the basics: There are nine new civilizations to play as or against, nine new wonders to construct, 27 new units to deploy (nine multiplied by three — creepy), and a variety of new resources (I didn’t count). This is the heart of what one would expect from an expansion, and Gods & Kings does not disappoint.
There are also three new or altered game mechanics. This is where [expletive] gets serious.
Let’s take the civilizations first. Each carries a unique attribute and at least one unique unit, adding further variety to a game that wasn’t exactly lacking in it. The Carthaginians, for example, get the unique War Elephant unit, which is about as awesome to play as it should be. It is fast, powerful and massive. During the brief time I played as Carthage, my elephants were never defeated (although they were quickly rendered obsolete by more modern units). Carthage also receives the ability to cross over mountains. On maps with large mountain ranges, this ability alone could turn the tide of a nasty battle, as it historically did for the Carthaginian armies.
But Gods & Kings doesn’t turn Civilization V into a simulation game. It is still Civ, just ... more.
Civilization’s heart has always beat in the haze between simulation and action gaming. In a game where you can simultaneously craft an empire across centuries, evolving technologies and building cities one lighthouse, bank and SAM missile site at a time, and engage in battle at the micro, unit-to-unit level, tailoring the pacing of both aspects of play has always been the trick. Some versions of Civilization have fared better at this than others. Purists would argue that this balance has never been more perfect than it was in Civilization II. Who would I be to argue? The good news for those purists is that Gods & Kings moves the ball down the field.
Building on the strategy-minded improvements from Civilization V proper, Gods & Kings takes it one step farther — arguably the wining step — bumping the combat system from a 10 point to a 100 point scale. Units are not substantially stronger or weaker, but interactions have become deeper. Instead of dealing two damage points and having seven health (for example), a unit may now deal 23 points and have 78 health. It’s a deceptively simple change that has massive repercussions in how the game plays out.