This summary for Playoff Game One was written by Eauxps I. Fourgott. Many thanks for volunteering to put this report together!
The field of leaders for the first playoff game this year was characterized by poor performance in previous seasons. Despite the presence of a two-time finalist and the defending champion, the six leaders in this game had combined for just six playoff appearances and only three wins in the first four seasons! That tempered audience expectations for this game, and they weren't helped by the manner in which two of the second-place leaders had arrived. Louis XIV and Washington both moved into second place during the eleventh hour in their opening round games, advancing only due to the decimation of a stronger rival. On the other hand, the other four leaders had undoubtedly earned their tickets to this game; the other second-placer, Charlemagne, had the most dominant empire in his opener only to lose to a cultural victory, while all three winners, Pacal, Saladin, and Alexander, had led throughout their openers to collect well-deserved wins, with Alex in particular putting on perhaps the most dominant performance in AI Survivor history. This was the chance for these leaders to prove what they were really made of.
Besides the weak field, there were two other factors that made this game's path hard to predict. One was the presence of Alexander, one of the crazier warmongers in the game. Whom he chose to attack and when could very well determine how the rest of the game played out. Also, half of this game's leaders (Pacal, Charlemagne, and Saladin) had a strong religious focus and started the game with Mysticism, and they'd be looking to found and spread their own religion. Religious diplomacy could be critical in this game, and the early race to found a religion would be especially interesting. The audience favorite for the match was Pacal, thanks to his low peace weight + Financial trait + generally being the most successful leader in past seasons (even if his success was mostly to the tune of second place).
As it turned out, NONE of the three leaders starting with Mysticism chose to open by researching for a religion! They went for techs to connect their starting resources instead, allowing Washington and Louis to join the hunt by opening with Mysticism followed by Meditation. That resulted in the unexpected result of Washington founding the first religion of the game in Christianity, while Pacal was the first to head for Polytheism and thus was able to found Judaism. Sal and Charlemagne were BOTH left out of the early religions to start with, although they could easily found their own later to add more major religions into the mix. The real loser here was Louis, who researched all but three turns' worth of Meditation rather than going for any economic techs, and ended with nothing to show for it. It wasn't a good start for the French king.
The early turns also saw an intense settling race, as Pacal & Alex sent their starting settlers straight at each other in the narrow region between them. Pacal had the turn order advantage, but got too greedy and tried to move too far, letting Alex win the race and settle Sparta close to the Mayan capital. But Pacal wasn't going to let him get away with that, and founded Lakamha just three tiles away from Sparta. In addition to making early conflict between the two leaders look very likely, this spelled doom for Alex, as Lakamha quickly became the Jewish Holy City and would soon culturally overwhelm Sparta, especially given Alex's penchant for completely ignoring Mysticism tech and monuments. What really made this bad was that a source of iron outside Sparta, the only metal anywhere near Alex's start, was just in the third ring of Lakamha, meaning it would quickly be swallowed up and leave Alex unable to build strong military units.
Alex did not miraculously research an early Mysticism, and the iron quickly got swallowed up, but what caught the audience by surprise was how quickly Sparta itself fell. The turn Lakamha hit 100 culture and popped borders to the third ring, Sparta had its first revolt. A few turns later, it had its second one and flipped, meaning that Pacal had culturally captured a city from Alex before 40 turns had passed!
This was good news for Pacal, who'd gotten a city completely for free, and terrible news for Alex, who'd lost his second city and his only metal source. This was a game-defining moment right here, and Alex was already doomed to irrelevancy.
Elsewhere, Washington had the early score lead, thanks to a fantastic capital location, his Holy City, and quick early expansion. Due to peace weight, however, his long-term prospects were pretty dicey unless he could get some religious allies. Other than chasing after Meditation to no avail, Louis also had a good start, expanding at about the same pace as Washington, with his Creative culture helping him grab more land. He also built Stonehenge to deny it to the other leaders. Pacal also was expanding at a good pace in addition to getting Sparta for free, claiming a good tract of land in the center of the map and setting himself up to potentially dominate the game. Saladin wasn't looking so hot, with a mediocre start where most of his early cities went to backline locations instead of grabbing land. Charlemagne was also looking weaker early on, settling slowly despite his Imperialistic trait and having the misfortune of a barbarian city popping up right near his capital. Alex was, of course, already a dead man walking, and it would only be a question of when somebody decided to attack him or he decided to suicide against somebody.
The first conversion to one of the early two religions came when Saladin adopted Pacal's Judaism. This was terrible news for Washington, who now had two of his three neighbors hating him for practicing a different religion. At least he'd already connected copper, so he wouldn't be a complete sitting duck. Better news came for him soon afterwards, as his third neighbor, Charlemagne, converted to Christianity, giving Washington at least one solid ally. Meanwhile, Pacal chose to research Monotheism to bury the religion there, so nobody else would be founding their own religion yet. We figured that, founded in a backline city, Buddhism would become an irrelevant religion - but we were surprised there, as it quickly found a way to spread over to France, and Louis adopted it as his state religion. That was an unexpected twist, and set up three different religious factions of just one or two civs each in the early going. How those factions might clash was anybody's guess.
We'd checked in on the leaders and found out that Pacal "had enough on his hands right now", which meant that he was plotting a war. Thus, it was no surprise when he marched a big stack of units over and smashed them into Greek territory. Pacal had decided to end the pain quickly and take the easy territory. Alex still hadn't found any metal, which meant he was only fighting with chariots and archers. And Pacal's unique unit was a spearman replacement, making the chariots virtually useless! There was no question as to who would win this war. However, as weak as Alex was, he DID still have archers, and he built walls in his cities for a 50% defensive bonus, so Pacal didn't have quite as easy of a time as at looked like he might. He smashed his first stack into a city to no success, delaying his conquest by a bit. However, this wouldn't stop him for long, as he quickly teched to Construction to unlock catapults. Once he had a few of those on the field, the war would be over quickly. Or so we thought:
Louis coming in with a backstab on Pacal! This move didn't make a lot of sense at the time, as Louis had recently converted to Judaism and was Pleased towards Pacal, and had considerably worse relations with Saladin and Washington. From a meta perspective, it was a game-changing move, hitting a strong neighbor when he was distracted and preventing Pacal from waltzing into a runaway position. It was also fantastic news for Washington, who was still the early-game leader and was now mostly protected from aggression. Pacal and Louis would be busy with their own wars for a while, and Saladin had converted to Christianity a short while before, meaning Washington's two neighbors at peace would both be religious allies.
Louis's early attacks on Pacal didn't do much except annoy him; since Louis didn't research Construction until midway through the war, his attack stacks were all getting shredded. Still, it was dragging down the Mayan leader, and when Louis started sending stacks with catapults in them, he might be able to start capturing cities. Then it went from bad to worse for Pacal, as Washington also joined the fray. Pacal was now stuck in a 3v1 conflict with the two other strongest leaders in the game. This was not good for him at all; certainly this wasn't how the picking contest had thought the game would go! The border city of Uxmal quickly came under siege by both American and French armies, with Louis soon punching through to capture the city. Pacal was able to make a strike back and capture the American city of Atlanta, but that only lasted for a few turns before Washington came and took back the city, and now it was clear that this war was becoming a race to see who get gain the most Mayan territory.
However, just because his initial attacker was now getting partitioned didn't mean that Alexander would be totally forgotten and get a stay of execution. Greece was so weak that Pacal was able to take one of his cities with a single war elephant, and meanwhile Charlemagne took advantage of the world's distracted state to march his own army up to Greece, declare war, take Alex's two best cities, and score the kill:
Alex went from having one of the most dominant games ever in the opening round to having one of the weakest games ever in this round. This time, it wasn't even really his fault: his starting position had only one metal source anywhere nearby, Alex sent his starting settler to found right next to it, but then Pacal plopped down a Holy City three tiles away, and Alex's game was over before it had really begun. Even with an early Mysticism + monument in the city Alex probably couldn't have held the metal - his only realistic chance would've been settling on the Iron followed by immediate Mysticism research, and of course he didn't even know that the iron was there. He got shafted pretty badly this game, and never had a chance. At least he can rest with the knowledge that he set multiple records this season...
With the ongoing collapse of Pacal, this conquest set Charlemagne in a solid third place - he and Saladin had lagged far behind the leaders this game after lackluster landgrabs, and Saladin in particular had done absolutely nothing of note so far. Ironically, the two leaders who played the weakest to get here, Washington and Louis, were now the big two leaders in this game! The focus of the game now shifted to see which of the two would take the most Mayan territory and best set himself up for victory, and while Louis did snag Pacal's capital, including two nice wonders in the Sistine Chapel and the Statue of Zeus, early on they were both taking cities at a relatively even rate. But then Charlemagne declared war and sniped a former Greek city that Washington would have otherwise gotten, and after the early conquests were done, Pacal's remaining cities were all up north by France. That allowed Louis to take the lion's share of the cities, and the kill:
Pacal's early position was great, especially after he crippled Greece in the first forty turns of the game, and he also played well, choosing the correct target for his first war (if not the correct timing) and not making any big mistakes. Even with the absorption of Greece, though, he might've had a hard time facing off against a strong American attack that would've come soon, and his route to victory was hardly guaranteed. But it was the unexpected backstab by Louis that was the nail in the coffin for the Mayan leader, as he couldn't stand up to two powerful attacks at once and crumpled for an early exit that few saw coming. That goes to show that you can't always trust alliances between the low peaceweight civs who can declare at Pleased! Pacal's early elimination wasn't the expected outcome for the game, and arguably not a probable one, but it was the actual outcome, and would now have massive implications for the rest of the match.
In the aftermath of this war, Washington and Louis were virtually neck-and-neck at the top of the scoreboard, and it seemed likely that one of the two would soon be collecting his first-ever victory. Charlemagne had put himself in a solid third place, poised to advance to the championship again if the two leaders came to blows and one eliminated the other. Saladin was in a distant and irrelevant fourth place, and would need a miracle to advance. On the diplomatic news front, Louis had also converted to Christianity, meaning all four remaining leaders now practiced the same religion and thus would be unlikely to fight again until and unless something happened to shake up the diplomatic situation. Charlemagne had founded his own religion earlier by being the first to research Code of Laws, but surprisingly never converted, sticking with the rest of the pack instead. With everybody Pleased or Friendly towards each other, Louis was the only one who was even capable of declaring war!
Thus it was that the next portion of the game passed very quickly, the four leaders just peacefully teching along. Despite their difference in empire size, all four were actually mostly comparable in economic strength and techs researched, leading to Charlemagne building the Taj Mahal and Saladin grabbing the Liberalism prize, with neither of the game leaders getting those! As the turns went on, Louis took over the score lead by virtue of having a slightly larger population, while Washington started to build up a lead in research rate and stayed slightly ahead in power.
However, the game would not stay peaceful to the end. As if he'd heard Sullla's frustration about his earlier attack against Pacal, Louis decided to prove that he was an equal-opportunity backstabber, and made his play for first place by attacking Washington on Turn 204. Louis was throwing all his chips on the table here, even popping a Golden Age to increase his production. He had started to fall behind in tech at this point - Washington had researched Gunpowder and Military Tradition to unlock muskets and curassiers, and was beelining for Military Science and grenadiers, while Louis had none of those techs at the start of the war - but Louis took advantage of his Golden Age to instantly tech Gunpowder and beeline to Rifling himself. He did get the attacker's advantage to quickly capture a former Mayan city, and was looking good for a few turns while America was in disarray, but when Washington organized his forces and got them to Louis's big stack, a brutal slaughter ensued. With Washington now heading for Rifling, this seemed like it might be the beginning of France's downfall, but Louis wisely saw which way the wind was blowing and hastily signed peace with Washington, passing over another former Mayan city in order to secure it. That ended the war without much having happened in terms of city captures, but the war had definitely established that Washington was the stronger leader, and the favorite to win over Louis - and with the war declaration souring relations, we figured they'd later go at it again for Round 2.
With the world back at peace, the surprisingly even tech race continued. Despite his distant fourth place position, Saladin managed to grab the free great people at both Physics and Communism! Washington grabbed a key wonder in the Statue of Liberty, which would be a big boost with his large empire. Shortly afterwards, the big diplomatic shakeup we'd been waiting for happened: Louis revolted into Free Religion! Without the shared faith bonuses in play, suddenly Louis was willing to declare war on anybody, and only Charlemagne still refused to declare war on him. Depending on who fought, when, this could either be very good or very bad for the French leader. Or it could not even make a difference: Washington had started plotting war again even before Louis's revolt, and with only one possible target, we were once again unsurprised when the invasion announcement came in:
Washington was out for revenge, and although the two leaders were currently even in military tech, Washington had both the attacker's advantage and the larger army. That seemed to make the difference, as he quickly took two border cities from Louis, with no corresponding French attack coming in. Once again, it looked like France might be starting to fall apart completely, but once again, Louis handed over a former Mayan city in exchange for peace. Significantly, the city passed over was the home of the Statue of Zeus, meaning that now anybody who attacked Washington would have to deal with its war weariness effects. This war solidified Washington as the game leader, and knocked Louis precariously close to falling out of second place. Charlemagne was less than 100 points behind at the conclusion of the war, meaning one or two more French cities falling would put the Holy Roman emperor into second place.
The world returned with an uneasy peace. The diplomatic situation from before held, with no wars possible that didn't involve Louis. Meanwhile, while Washington had locked away the win, now noticeably extending his tech, production, and power lead on the other leaders, second place was very much up in the air. Saladin had gained some points when Washington captured French cities on the Arabian border, pushing him within 200 points of Charlemagne and 300 points of Louis. The Arabian leader must have noticed how close he was, because soon he made a move to try and punch his ticket to the championship:
Even though Louis had been ahead of Saladin the entire game, his wars with Washington had battered him badly, and Saladin was actually at military tech parity with a stronger army at the outset of the war. Thus it was no surprise when he started taking cities with no sign of Louis doing the same, ticking up Arabia's score over France's. However, Sal was still stuck in third place at the moment, largely due to health problems brought on by his cities building factories and coal plants. Those added a bunch of unhealthiness, causing the cities to starve down, and actually pushing Saladin farther behind Charlemagne, who was now about 400 points ahead in second place. And then Sal's chances for taking a lot of territory diminished, as Washington came in for Round 3. There was no question about it this time, and no more signing peace for France. Washington was in it for the kill, and was far ahead of France in production, power and technology. With America in the war, French cities started falling left and right. Saladin kept fighting, grabbing some more cities, but several of those were swallowed up by American culture, and Washington grabbed the majority of the cities, including Louis's final holdout of Chartres to score his first kill in AI Survivor history:
Louis made the big move that turned this game on its head, his early invasion of ally Pacal, and while unexpected, that was a move that proved wildly successful, allowing him to absorb most of the Mayan empire and move from a third-place position into jockeying for first place. If he was smart, he would've attacked Saladin next to absorb a weak neighbor and move into the pole position uncontested, or perhaps let the world sit in its peaceful state and use his larger population to out-build Washington. Instead, he went all-in and attacked Washington, and losing that conflict set the stage for him to get gradually battered back and ultimately eliminated. The Sun King had a glorious start to the game, but an ignominious finish, and for those who had backed Pacal, it was a nice bit of comeuppance for the man who had backstabbed him.
Despite the fact that, walled in by American borders, Charlemagne had been just sitting and teching in the west, while Saladin had been out there fighting and picked up several secure French city sites, Sal had actually fallen FURTHER behind over the course of the war! Some of his conquests weren't profiting him at all, and his unhealthiness problems had led to him falling from about 400 points behind to about 700 points behind second place! Saladin was researching all the techs to allow him to build unhealthy buildings like coal plants and industrial parks, while ignoring the Biology and Medicine techs that would allow him to produce more food and fight the unhealthiness that was starving his cities down. He was throwing away his chance at second place here - Arabia had more cities than Holy Rome, but they were all much smaller, with Mecca the only city above size 10! See for example Najran idiotically sitting at size 8 for lack of health:
Saladin was failing to work six mature cottages here for no good reason at all. Charlemagne wasn't just sitting back with his fingers crossed either: he made an inspired move to try and lock down second place, founding Sid's Sushi Co. to provide an extra 5 food per city and grow his population further. As the situation continued, it looked like he would indeed be coming in second place. And with Louis out of the picture, the remaining three leaders were all Pleased or better with one another. With none of the three willing to declare at Pleased, that meant that, barring spy shenanigans, they would all peacefully build and tech until Washington launched his spaceship or won the UN vote.
After the UN was built, the first move Washington made as Secretary-General was to impose Free Religion civic on everybody. That took away the huge shared faith bonus that he had shared with Saladin, and ensured that Sal wouldn't vote for him to win a Diplomatic Victory, so to space it was. As Washington built his spaceship in an unexciting "race", the real focus of the last few turns was the Saladin versus Charlemagne race. Saladin had fallen farther back to about 800 points behind, but then finally researched Medicine, adopted Environmentalism, and suddenly had a huge food surplus in his cities. Arabia's growth rate exploded, and quickly began making up ground on Holy Rome. Saladin's score deficit started to evaporate, even as he passed Charlemagne in population, but had this new growth come in time to move him up to second place and secure a position in the championship game??? 500 points behind, 400 points behind, 300 points behind, 200 points behind, just over 100 points behind...
As it turned out, Saladin was a bit too late, finishing just over 100 points behind Charlemagne. Washington gets the win with a Space Race victory - Washington! A leader who had never accomplished anything before in Civ 4 AI Survivor finally showed what he could really do this game, as he expanded well, founded his own religion and spread it around to cultivate allies, and took advantage of a wacky diplomatic situation to secure his position in the lead. He led in score from very early on in the game, Pacal's downfall cemented him as one of the top contenders to win, and he sealed his victory by repeatedly bashing Louis's army to remove his last competitor. He was undoubtedly lucky to even be in this game, and was also fortunate to suffer no attacks early in the game, but he played a great game and absolutely earned his first AI Survivor victory, as well as a ticket to the Championship game. Could a leader with 0 power points at the beginning of the season win it all???
As for the other two, both Saladin and Charlemagne noticeably performed worse than the top three leaders at the beginning of the game, and neither one proved himself particularly worthy of the championship game. They got into the position of jockeying for second place the only way they could, by having the big leaders tear each other apart and leave only one, and neither Sal nor Charles was ever in a position to potentially win. The main difference in their games was when they made their moves: Charlemagne struck earlier in the game, vulturing several cities off of dying neighbors to build up a better territory base and gain the upper hand over Saladin for ages on end. Saladin did nothing but build and tech for almost the entire game, but finally made a move when the ailing Louis presented an opportunity for him to push forward towards second place. Ultimately, it was Saladin's refusal to tech Medicine for so long that delayed his expansion enough to award Charlemagne the second place position and an unlikely spot in the championship game. Charlemagne will get a chance to defend his title, while Saladin ends the season unkilled, but with a disappointing showing in his first ever playoff game.
Ultimately, there were three key events that determined how this game would go. Pacal's extremely early flip of Sparta hamstrung Alexander and ensured that he wouldn't be a significant threat in this game, and put the Mayan leader in a favorable position to win. That all changed with Louis's backstab of his ally Pacal, the move that sent the picking contest into an uproar and sent Pacal from devouring Alex to become a potential runaway to fighting for his life, a fight which he would lose when Washington jumped into the fray. Then Louis's first attack against Washington sealed the way the game would run, as Washington emerged a definite victor and Louis went from a potential winning situation into a tailspin that ended in his elimination. There were other, smaller events that helped Charlemagne get second place as well: the vulturing of a single Mayan city, the founding of Sid's Sushi, and Sal's refusal to research Medicine - but those only affected the second-place finish and had no impact on the larger game.
Given the past weakness of the leaders involved, this was certainly a game that lent itself to some unusual results, and it delivered on that, producing a match with some unexpected twists and turns and an action-packed early game before petering out into a peaceful conclusion. The next two games will have pools of leaders with significantly more past success, so we'll see if those play out in more predictable patterns. Only three games left in this season of AI Survivor!
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A few days after the game itself streamed, we learned some new information that put its biggest twist in a new light. At the time that Louis made his backstab of Pacal, the general perception (as stated by Sullla, and agreed on by a bunch of the viewers, including myself) was that this was an extremely improbable event, given that Louis had been at Pleased relations at Pacal, while Annoyed at Washington and Saladin, considering the former his "worst enemy". While not out of the question, this seemed like a move that in the vast majority of cases would not have taken place. However, in a post by Kuro on Realms Beyond, he explained some more about the reasoning that goes into AI war declarations, giving his summary of research that's been done on the AI coding. The most important part of this was that shared/contested borders actually have a large effect on which opponent an AI will declare war on; each tile of shared borders adds to the base chance, proximity to an opponent's capital adds more, and only after these and other factors are added is the base chance multiplied by a value that depends on the AI's attitude towards his opponent. Essentially, while there's still a lot that we don't fully understand about the logic, it seems clear that a large shared border has a much bigger impact on an AI's chance of attacking a neighbor than we'd thought.
In the context of this game, Louis's attack of Pacal still was not the most likely outcome; given the diplomacy at the time that he started plotting, he would have had the highest chance of going after Saladin, who had a similarly-sized border (although I don't know if number of overlapping tiles was different, or would've had an effect as well) and whom Louis liked less. However, it does now look as though the size of their shared border meant that there was always a decent chance of Louis going after Pacal unless they reached Friendly relations, and given the much smaller border that France and America shared, it was probably about as likely for Louis to attack Pacal as it was for him to attack Washington. That does help this game make a little more sense, although the result was certainly not what we'd expected (given a little bit of time, Louis and Pacal would almost certainly have become best friends to the end). In any case, it's a good lesson to note for future games - large shared borders make it much more likely for conflict to break out, especially when a leader can plot war at Pleased!