Caesar IV observations

Over the weekend I picked up a copy of Caesar IV for $30 at Fr-’s -l-ctr-n-cs. I played the demo a few weeks ago and was interested to see how some of the gameplay mechanisms were put together, since the new engine no longer uses “walkers” like in Caesar III.
Those walkers caused people a lot of problems in the previous game, myself included. Some walkers, like temple priests, would simply wander around at random, turning randomly at intersections. This meant that if you designed your streets where some houses had a small probability of getting a service over some interval, you would end up with these chaotic patterns where neighborhoods would devolve due to the lack of a service, and then the service would walk by and the houses would evolve upwards again. It was frustrating, but if you watched it long enough it would teach you something about randomness and probability.

Another quirk of the Caesar III walkers was that if you added some streets to a previously stable area you could really throw things off. Your prefects would go wander down some lonely road, meanwhile a building or two would catch on fire. Of course the most frustrating feature of the game was the market with its obstinate market ladies.
There were two market ladies, one for supply and the other for distribution. The distribution lady walked the streets at random, so again you had these chaotic shortage patterns. Worse was the supply lady, who would walk twenty miles to a granary instead of 1/4 mile to the granary down the road. This was due to the game’s programmed logic, wherein the granary that was the shortest straight line distance from the market was chosen, regardless of how far the walking distance. Put that together with a distribution chain of granaries also using the shortest straight line distance and you would get some baffling behavior. Houses would starve while nearby granaries were overflowing.
C4 does away with the random walkers, instead allowing services to “flood fill” outwards for some determined distance. New businesses also no longer use random walkers to find employees, they simply draw from any qualified housing in the city, instantaneously. This has a dramatic effect on gameplay, as there is no longer the delayed gratification in getting new services up and running. There is no longer the feel of keeping a system carefully in balance, you simply plunk down buildings and move on to the next thing.
They have also changed the granularity for housing. The smallest working class home will house 70 workers, and improves at 40 person increments to a max of 150. Everyone in a house needs a job, there are no children or elderly. That means your demand for employment is going to grow in chunks, not a steady trickle. Each industry has its own employment requirements, which you can only discover by creating a building and looking inside. (The manual does not include any sort of chart of this information. You’d think they could have at least printed an insert.)
While services are filled instantly, production of resources is agonizingly slow. It takes half a year or so for a sheep pasture to start producing wool, after which there will be a steady supply. As in C3 there seems to be a 1:2 ratio between producing commodities to manufactured goods, you’ll want one clay mine for two pottery factories and so on.
Most of the game elements for the main campaign are pretty blunt. Rome will demand resources without any fanfare (C3 had some animated clips), hostile natives will appear with only three months notice. Once you dismiss one of these notices, you’ll have to hunt around the interface for the correct advisor to view the information again. Frustrated yet?
Most of the reviews I have seen complain about the mouse controls in placing buildings. I don’t have as much problem with that as with the fact that the whole user interface is miserable: there are no hotkeys to change the overlay, there are no hotkeys for each advisor (F4 simply takes you to the last advisor you had selected), there is no [at least none documented] way to bookmark a camera view for quick navigation. Overlay keys and easy advisor access were part of what made C3 enjoyable to play.
If I hadn’t played C3 I wouldn’t know how to play this game. The system provides poor feedback about what is going on.
Aside from the nice 3D textures and special effects, the visual design is a failure. Overlays present risks using color gradations, chosen seemingly at random. A red-green color gradation is pretty much the worst user interface choice one could make. I feel pretty strongly about this. It bears repeating, with emphasis: Never, never, NEVER use a red to green color gradation to indicate value gradations. And don’t rely only on color gradations to present visual information.
The food icon, a loaf of bread and some cheese, turns green when food needs are satisfied. Green bread and cheese? Tell your designer to create more icons.
Perhaps it is my video card, but hilly terrain (can’t build) is hard to distinguish from flat terrain (can build), there should be a grid overlay that could be toggled. The build menus should provide way more information about the building you have selected, other than just its price.
More comments later.

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