There was a time when expansion packs actually meant something. They shaped the core gameplay to create deeper, more expansive mechanics and introduced entirely new play-styles. They could renew a classic with rich content worth exploring, and help the player rediscover what made the game so great in the first place.

With the advent of downloadable content, however, the art seems to have been lost. Weapon packs and multiplayer maps have become the hollow shells of our attention, nothing more than new skins to play in while waiting for the gameplay changes in next year’s installment. However, with Starcraft II’s Heart of the Swarm expansion landing later in 2012 and Civilization V: Gods & Kings out now, it’s clear that some still remember the old ways of doing things.

Civilization V: Gods & Kings is a textbook example of what an expansion pack should be. Besides granting more units, technologies and civilisations to play with, its intelligent reintroduction of religion and espionage mechanics from previous Civilization titles, coupled with calculated changes to the combat and diplomacy features help reinvent what can already be considered a classic strategy title. These changes may seem like small additions, but their impact is immense.

First Civ V: Gods & Kings assets

The biggest change to gameplay comes in the form of religion. Just like gold and food, each civilisation slowly accumulates faith as their cities begin to grow. When enough faith is earned, players are able to pick and manipulate a religion to their tastes, before spreading the good word of their deity across the world. It’s simple in concept and easy to execute.

However, a vast array of customisation options adds another layer strategy to the creation of a faith. Each new religion can have up to five modifiers attached, which provide numerous bonuses based on multiple play-styles. These allow the creation of fine-tuned systems of belief that are of the greatest benefit to the player based on the desired victory conditions.

The spread of religion across the world is almost entirely outside of player control. If other city-states and civilisations decide to follow a player-created God instead, they too will gain the benefits that religion bestows. Or, cities may choose to reject a religion in lieu of another deity, radically changing tactics midway throughout a game. The new strategic possibilities provided are almost endless and great fun to play out.

First Civ V: Gods & Kings assets

The reintroduction of Espionage represents the greatest departure from classic Civilization gameplay. Instead of being a traditional unit that can be produced, spies are awarded at the beginning of a new era. Further, they are not represented upon the game world. Instead, they lie in a separate sub-menu from where they are issued orders and carry out their dastardly activities. Spies can be used to steal technologies from other nations (or protect the player’s), discover intelligence, rig elections and alter diplomatic relations.

Espionage represents a fresh approach to gameplay that the franchise would do well to develop further in future titles, but its application here is underwhelming. There simply aren’t enough substantiative things for spies to accomplish to make espionage more than a distraction.

Combat is fundamentally unchanged, but a series of smart adjustments allow for more tactical gameplay. Unit health has been ratcheted from a 10-point system to a 100-point system, allowing for more nuanced unit damage and variability in battle. This makes encounters slower and more tactically oriented, akin to older Civilization titles. It’s a smart change, and one worth keeping in the future.

First Civ V: Gods & Kings assets

The new races and units also provide a range of benefits for different play-styles. Boudicca of the Celts, for example, provides a faith bonus for to cities. Like all the other Civilizations available, ultimately, their usefulness is dependent on strategy. Want to crush the world? Check out Attila and the Huns, whose battering rams and horse archers will help raze cities. Want to befriend the world? Try Gustavus Adolphus’ Sweden, whose Nobel Prize ability will make keeping allies a far easier task.

Few expansions so intelligently improve on the core game in a way that the original would feel incomplete without it. There are a few missteps along the way – the instructions for the new content is extremely vague, and the espionage system feels unfinished – but Gods & Kings is a truly magnificent expansion to a modern day classic.