Civ’s militarist bent is clearly something that troubles Firaxis - Civ IV’s religion and culture are obvious attempts to fashion new ways to play, rather than using new tech merely as an adjunct to an arms race. With BtS, they’ve sought to address this and other issues that could be seen to mar the Civ IV experience - such as the weakness of sea and coastal power, and the relative stasis of late play compared to the discoveries and expansion of early play. How they’ve tried to do this is by tweaking some existing elements, like the tech tree, by adding new wonders and buildings, by totally revamping espionage, and by introducing a pseudo-religious corporate element. Oh, and by throwing in yet more military units - they just couldn’t resist.
Of all the new features, it’s the new wonders and buildings that do most to curb Civ IV’s militarist tendencies. Two world wonders make religion far more powerful from the Medieval to Renaissance eras. The first - the Apostolic Palace - acts much like the United Nations wonder, allowing votes on various issues, including ending wars, stopping trade and re-assigning cities to other civilizations. It also opens up the possibility of a diplomatic victory much earlier than previously. The second wonder is the Shwedagon Paya, which does for religious civics what the Pyramids do for governmental ones, namely make them all immediately available, which can give the civilization in question a serious advantage if used wisely.
New national wonder the Moai Statues (those Easter Island heads) gives a production bonus to every water tile, giving watery civilizations a real boost. Similarly, new naval units and rules may at last give naval powers a chance. Privateers are basically pirate ships that let you attack without being identified, while the Ship of the Line is a frigate beater. Modern vessels, the Attack Submarine, Missile Cruiser and Stealth Destroyer, perpetuate the sea battles; the new blockade rules allow all ships to seriously affect a rival’s trade and cut off strategic resources.
Espionage has been completely overhauled and adds potential for the ancient spymaster. Whereas before, Spy units could only be built after learning Communism, now they can be up and running after developing Writing. What’s more, their missions don’t spend your hard earned gold any more, instead drawing on your stock of espionage points. These accumulate every turn and are initially split equally among every civilization you’ve encountered, but can be spread any way you like, enabling you to focus on a particular civilization at a crucial time - before starting a war, say.
While the new espionage system puts Spy units into the action much earlier than before, so the new Corporation feature extends, or more accurately mirrors, the function that religion plays in Civ. Once you discover the Corporation technology, you can - given the right conditions - found a corporation and spread its custom in much the same way as religions spread, with Corporate Executives adopting the missionary position. Those conditions are the limiting factor, though, demanding an additional tech, a Great Person and at least one resource to found it.
One quirky new feature is the appearance of random events. They’re presented as nothing more than simple text boxes that pop up to inform you of all manner of natural and unnatural happenings. A twister may damage some farm lands and you’re given multiple choices of, say, spending cash to repair it or letting the crops fail and suffering a hit in food production. A neighboring civilization could suffer a similar fate and one of your choices could be to help them out - it’ll cost you but will boost your relationship with them.
Of the other additions, the predictable new civilizations - seven in total, replete with unique units and buildings - will guarantee many hours play, even if it’s just to try them out. The Babylonians and the Holy Roman Empire are strong, whilst the seafaring Dutch make the most of the new naval improvements, especially on a Terra or Old/New World map. Of all the new military units, it’s Paratroopers that open up play the most, their 10-tile airdrop range allowing for more sophisticated operations.
Rounding out BtS is a selection of mods and scenarios. Some are the best of the mod scene, others are Firaxis’s designs. Sadly for Firaxis, it’s the already existing mods that shine - the excellent fantasy-set Fall from Heaven, the intriguing, history-following Rhye’s and Fall of Civilizations, and WWII: The Road to War. Of Firaxis’ efforts, only one looks to do what Warlords did with its scenarios and focus on new features - corporate lesson Crossroads of the World.
So, what to think of Beyond the Sword? As an expansion it’s patchy, in more than one sense. The new elements it adds feel more like a patch than a genuine expansion whilst the mods are hit and miss - and you can already get the best ones for nothing.
Would we want to go back to playing Civ IV without what Beyond the Sword adds? No. But should we have to pay this much for the privilege of balancing a game that, by the very intent of this expansion, its developers clearly feel needs it? Again, no.
An uncertain step from Firaxis, then, a sign perhaps of just how hard it is to refine a title that is so revered and defined without damaging what makes it so good.