Sid Meier’s most famous series is the quintessential time sink, but for me it’s not because of red-eyed nights spent hooked on playing just one more turn. The far more effective way Civilization has remained a mainstay of my gaming habits for twenty-five years and thousands of hours played is because of the superlative variety possible with each new playthrough.

The hundreds of hours I have logged on Civilization V don’t include the kind of low-impact padding you find in grind-heavy MMOs or loot treadmills like Diablo (though I’m happy to have both of those well-represented in my history as well). Instead, each roughly twelve-hour playthrough has seen me explore a different aspect of the game.

Often, the impetus for me to try something new is the masterful job Firaxis has done with achievements in Civ V. An excuse to play through with every nation and use each unique unit and explore every corner of the tech tree is exactly the kind of simple metagame Civilization benefits best from. I’ve never enjoyed chasing achievements so much as with Civ V. Rather than being wrapped into a terrible compulsion loop like chasing down reputation grinds in World of Warcraft, my Civ V achievement list is a record of what I have yet to accomplish. I’m not annoyed by every expansion and DLC pack adding a bunch of achievements I’ll never unlock; instead, I’m happy to be reminded that I haven’t yet pulled off a promising religious/diplomatic combo (Papal Primacy is way better than I originally thought) or that I hadn’t played as Babylon yet (that free Great Scientist is an insane ancient-era boost, by the way).

Interviewing Sid Meier during the XCOM cover trip remains a highlight of my career.

Every map presents its own challenges. There’s nothing like catching Suleiman moving a huge force into position for a surprise attack just in time to counter with a defensive mobilization, then turning him into a game-long ally after ending the war in a draw and joining him in an assault on a third mutual neighbor. Turning an awful starting location into a hard-fought victory by throwing your entire empire’s weight into a pre-emptive ancient war of survival (Genghis declaring war is just a matter of time when our capitals are that close – why wait for him to unlock his unstoppable Keshiks?) is a completely different beast. I’ve never done anything like launching a suicidal intercontinental invasion of Beijing just to slow down the Chinese space program enough to win a cultural victory of my own.

Not only is every playthrough massively different based on hundreds of factors, but your decisions are the most important determinants of all. Playing through the same map in parallel with my friends and watching the course of our worlds’ histories diverge as we blaze our own trails has been one of the best gaming experiences I’ve had in years. The power to choose what I’m in the mood for – a quick and bloody war for survival as soon as a key unit like Frigates are unlocked, or a steady shepherding of the world to a utopian era of enlightenment – is a key element of Civ V’s appeal. 

Civ V’s ability to surprise me, even after all this time, is incredible. Turning what looks like a woefully underpowered trait (Interfaith Dialogue, a religious founder belief that gives a small amount of bonus science when you spread your religion into a city of a different majority faith) into a borderline-abusive game-winning strategy (by focusing on exploration and diplomacy, and customizing my religion entirely around generating cheap, efficient missionaries) made me giggle the entire time I was lapping the field in research.

I’m unapologetically in the Civ V camp, though some fans prefer Civ IV for its careful balance and intricate systems. The first expansion did a wonderful job of breathing new life into a game I’d already played to death, and Brave New World sounds like it’s likely to do the same when it comes out next week. I, for one, can’t wait.