Civilization: the franchise that stood the test of time

Like all good stories it starts with the unknown; some intrepid group of individuals exploring the boundaries of existence. Except the unknown here is not just a country, ruin or scientific theory - it’s the entirety of human history from the Stone Age to the Information Age, stone huts to metropolises, bronze-tipped arrows to Giant Death Robots. It is the tale of humanity’s progression from barbarism to Civilization and the entire thing is written by you. image

The title screen that launched a thousand .exe files. Source: Abandonware

The premise is simple. Nurture a civilization from primitive beginnings to rule the Earth. Build cities, improve them with buildings and raise armies to protect your borders. Set your population to improving the hinterland, conducting research and collecting taxes. Unlocking new technologies lets you build bigger and better things including World Wonders which glorify your empire for posterity as well as boosting your commerce and production. As you encounter other civs you can trade goods, knowledge or just plain old go to war. In time, exert your dominance through military conquest or launch into space to populate the stars.

Looking back at screenshots of Civilization I will either bring a nostalgic tear to your eye or disdainful curl at the lip at the basic graphics. As a staple of the 4X genre however - explore, expand, exploit and exterminate - looks can be forgiven when you realise the depth of gameplay on offer. Back in the old days of gaming when instruction manuals were still packaged, Civ I had an encyclopaedic guide listing not only how to play the game but a description of every single technology in the game. In other words, a list of practically every significant technological discovery from the history of humanity. I’m 99% sure reading this back to front helped me pass a number of school exams.
Like your mother told you, don’t judge a book by its cover. Even if the cover is mouldy, stained with coffee and torn in several places. Source: Wikipedia

Although all incarnations of Civilization have followed this basic 4X format, each has had its own flavour thanks to little aspects unique to each version. My personal favourites from Civ I were the leader portraits which appear during diplomatic discussions. Although present in sequels, the original game showed followers to indicate the strength of a civ; more followers meant a more powerful rival, plus their clothes hinted at the level of technological advancement. A few hangers on wearing fur cloaks wasn’t much to worry about. A whole group decked out in yuppie Wall St. suits on the other hand meant the civ was a serious threat!
Three followers in this garb shows Russia is low tech and mid power - any more means big trouble, particularly against the utterly ruthless Stalin. Source: Civfanatics

Civ I was so important because of the template it set not only for the series but strategy games as a whole. An RTS model was rejected in favour of a turn-based model, much like a boardgame (Sid Meier acknowledged that a boardgame of the same name had influenced the PC game), and this has persisted throughout all subsequent iterations despite a strong legacy of RTS games in PC gaming canon for the past two decades. Of course, anything blazing a trail is going to falter in some ways. Ranged combat didn’t really come into warfare - if you had a catapult or archer, they would still have to attack from an adjacent square like any melee unit. Similarly sea warfare did not yet capture the nuance of distance, speed and draft; ships were basically melee units which could enter sea tiles and in some cases ferry land units to other continents.

I remember the first time I encountered Civ I in - of all places - the games section of a Co-op supermarket. Having been raised on console games like Sonic and Streets of Rage, I was taking a foray into the murky world of PC gaming. This was before PC gaming was socially acceptable (ahem) so I was taking a definite risk. After weighing up two options, I chose Civ over XCOM: Enemy Unknown (obviously I had impeccable taste even back then). This fateful decision led to the mind-blowing revelation that games could span so much more than the well-worn platform franchises which typified consoles throughout the 1980s and 90s.

Civilization II built upon its predecessor to make what is often lauded as the best in the series. A testament to its success was a port to the Sony PlayStation 1 - it found a niche market but proved the franchise had legs outside the typical PC scene. A graphical overhaul added a new isometric view making the global map and units much easier on the eyes. The government system which appeared in Civ I became more interesting; previous buffs to science, tax or happiness became seismic and hugely affected the way you played the game. Republics were great for maxing production of science and wealth but the pesky Senate could overrule your warmongering. Fundamentalism, on the other hand, eliminated all obstacles to war (including civil unrest) but at the cost of limiting blasphemous scientific research. Then again - who needs science when you can churn out torch-wielding fanatics to attack your enemies?

A bunch of new features elevated the sequel. Civ I let you build diplomats which could initiate diplomatic relations or act as saboteurs, inciting riots or stealing tech from more advanced civs. Civ II added Spies which could steal specific technologies or commit acts of terrorism such as poisoning a city’s water supply or planting a nuclear bomb. Of course, being caught in the act could have severe diplomatic repercussions but these were more nuanced thanks to better diplomacy AI which tracked your reputation as well as a competitor’s attitude towards you; it was possible to have a relationship between the extremes of war or peace, and things like your propensity to break deals or keep your word came into play more. If you did go to war, units had hit points which meant not all battles were a fight to death, as with Civ I. This allowed for tactical retreats which was especially important for retaining your veteran units.
Fancy trying Civ II out? Head over to the FreeCiv Project where they’re developing an entirely free browser-based version which closely models it. Source: Wikipedia

Certainly the terrain and map became more than just a backdrop for your troops and settlers to move across. Pollution now appeared from industrial growth and, if left unchecked, melted polar ice caps which in turn created new desert and jungle areas. Rivers could be used as roads to speed movement of units, to reflect their use in the ancient world for transportation. “Zones of control” were exercised by military units and prevented unallied civs moving across adjacent squares. This was handy for blocking civs from exploring but incredibly frustrating when used against you, particularly by accident from a (seemingly) vacant AI. These reflect a greater interaction between the civilizations and the world; an acknowledgement of the impact players had on their world.

My favourite anecdote of Civ II is from a Reddit thread titled “I've been playing the same game of Civilization II for almost 10 years. This is the result.”. So popular it has spawned its own subreddit and Civ V mod, the thread details a single decade long game which repeats an endless cycle of thermonuclear war between three super nations. The year is 3991 A.D. and what little arable land remains is fiercely fought over. Standing armies are obliterated by ICBMs and so espionage is used instead to detonate nukes and reduce the standing cities to rubble. Peace treaties are always revoked within a turn or two due to decades of mutual distrust and backstabbing. Like a perfect rendition of some hideous Orwellian future, it aptly shows how damn fantastic the game engine is. As a game Civ II has done what it asks its own players to do - “to stand the test of time”.

Civilization III in many ways broke the mould and, as a result, was fairly divisive. Aesthetically eye-catching, the isometric view remained and, as cities grew, coloured borders would spread out to indicate the breadth of your empire. This was an aspect of a new feature - Culture - which made growth and the enmity between neighbours more tangible. More importantly, Culture opened up a new victory condition. Amassed from buildings like cathedrals, colosseums and temples, a civ could win the game by creating a culture so influential that it effectively controlled the world. Even if you went for a more traditional space or warfare victory, culture could still be useful - it put you on a better footing with civs under your sway during negotiations and reduced resistance from conquered cities. Although it didn’t always work as intended - cities which had been in your control could still revolt hundreds of years later because of “native resistance” - it was a nice feature to more accurately represent the role of “soft” skills in international relations along with the “hard” of war and economics.

Attempts were made to put diplomacy to the fore with mixed results. A Diplomatic victory became available to anyone nominated as Secretary General to the UN, but often ancient grievances would prevent any one player being selected. Espionage became streamlined with the replacement of Diplomat and Spy units with espionage orders issued through embassies you had set up in capital cities. This made issuing commands simpler but did lose the iconic units which were missed by some. Civs became more rounded as personalities with perks given to them for their “natural” behaviour, such as expansionist, militaristic or scientific. This meant choosing your civ was the first strategic decision to make as it determined how easy a particular type of victory might be.

Civ III had a pleasing way of developing the map as you played the game. Source: Amazon

Changes to trade were put in place to make it more interesting and intuitive. Trade routes were now built by linking resources and cities via roads and, later on, harbours and airports. Maintaining a trade network was important for maintaining happiness (think imports of luxuries to Britain during WWII) and building armies. Take iron, a key resource to build powerful early- and mid-game units. First you’d find a source, then build a settlement to start working it (to get it within your sphere of influence). But at the moment only this small town can build units which need iron - setting up a trade network let you transport the iron to your older, larger cities where you could start to churn out units with your better production. Although intuitive this feature had its pitfalls; capturing late-game resources like uranium required quickly building a city in the middle of nowhere, if you were unlucky enough to not have a source nearby (or a willing trading partner). A city’s corruption (wasted production) was calculated by proximity to the capital which meant you gained a resource but only by maintaining this poxy outpost on the edges of your empire. At times the whole thing seemed a bit far-fetched.

A massive overhaul of the units was very welcome. Unit movement and exploration became easier with more lenient zones of control and support from a central treasury (as opposed to food from individual cities which required a great deal of micromanagement). Workers to build roads and improvements made their first appearance which freed up Settlers to concentrate on building cities.

Combat improved a little from the addition of bombardment, which could be used to devastating effect by fleets of bombers, but still suffered in a number of respects. The infamous Spearman Vs Battleship scenario illustrated some fundamental problems with the combat mechanics and the Stack of Doom remained - a system which appeared in a few different forms in all prior civs where units could be stacked into one tile and then marched around the map obliterating everything in its path.

Civilization IV was, to many, the epitome of the series. It represents the fruition of many systems and ideas refined over three iterations and pulled together into a single pleasing package. Most critically, it had Leonard Nimoy doing the voiceover for the entire game. I will never again experience quite the same thrill of installing Civ IV for the first time and hearing Spock narrate the genesis of the Earth..

Religion, which had until now played a passing role, took on a more sizeable part by creating wealth, affecting diplomatic relations and shaping the course of the game. Being the first to research a relevant tech (such as Meditation for Buddhism) allowed you to found a religion and, by producing missionaries, spread it to foreign and domestic cities. Cities with a religious population could build religious buildings to boost income, happiness or culture. Sharing a religion with another civ could also grease the wheels of international relations.

The governance system received a fantastic overhaul thanks to the Civics system borrowed from Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri. Instead of a singular choice of government type - monarchy, democracy and the like - you had five civics representing strands of governance with a choice of five options for each. For example, within the Government civic you could choose Representation for a system of elected representatives to boost happiness and research, or impose a Police State to create national fervour for war and bolster military production. Additional choices were unlocked through tech research which made you pick between researching something with immediate impact, like the ability to build tanks, as opposed to the long-term gains given by a shiny new civic. This accommodated a wide variety of playing styles - want to create a modern utopia of equality? Pick Universal Suffrage and Free Speech and reap the benefits of a cultured, happy and productive workforce. Fancy a militaristic state propped up by religious zeal? Try mixing Theocracy and Nationhood.
World maps became living, breathing entities in Civ IV. Source: Steam

Similarly, civilization traits present in Civ III were now enhanced by a choice of your real-world historical leader. Selecting England would give you access to the powerful Redcoat unit but you also had a choice between its two greatest female leaders, Elizabeth I and Queen Victoria. Although both had the commerce-boosting financial perk, Elizabeth’s philosophical trait accelerated the development of Great People whereas Victoria’s expansive perk promoted healthier, more rapidly expanding cities.

Great People were first introduced in Civ IV to represent the birth of history’s greatest characters and their often profound impact on the geopolitical stage. GPs brought a number of benefits to a player including contributing towards scientific research, accelerating production or starting a Golden Age (which temporarily boosts all production and commerce). Additionally, each type of GP - Great Engineers, Prophets and so on - had special abilities related to their field. Artists, for example, could culture bomb a city which greatly increased its cultural output and, in turn, expanded its borders more rapidly. Scientists could build academies to hasten research of new technologies. GPs represented a significant development in the series for peaceful victory; it was now possible to outpace a hostile neighbour by focussing on the creation of miraculous historical figures which would bring huge benefits to scientific research and the creation of wealth. Although somewhat abstract, it certainly acknowledged the capability of the many civilizations renowned for their art, literature and contributions to humanity over their prowess as conquerors.
Whichever game you're playing, you can't go far wrong with War Elephants. Source: Steam

This is not to say warfare had been dumbed down however - quite the opposite. Improvements were made to calculating battles which better recognised the outcome of a fight. Taking our Spearman Vs Battleship example above, a Battleship would now be able to easily destroy a Spearman irrespective of any damage it had sustained. A new system of Promotions allowed players to choose the perks gained by units when they levelled up. In this way it was possible to build an army with specialist units, like focussing some naval vessels on attacking cities but others on bombarding land units.

There were some big changes to non-combatant units too like Workers which could now build plantations, quarries or pastures in addition to their usual jobs of laying roads and irrigating fields. This was all played out on a vibrant new world map which teemed with moving wildlife, flowing rivers and ebbing tides. It was a beautiful canvas to lay your story onto and, better yet, one very open to modding thanks to the developers opening up a range of tools for users to create their own content.

Finally, Civ IV is notable for its expansions Warlords and Beyond the Sword. These both introduced new civs, leaders and scenarios (preset games based on historical or mythical scenarios for players to jump into). Warlords, as the name suggests, introduced tweaks and balances to warfare whereas BtS had a wider remit to tinker with systems like espionage and the victory conditions. Collectively they represented significant changes to a game well past its release date which undoubtedly lengthened its life cycle (both were favourably received by critics) but also normalised DLC as a means to flesh out a game.

Last but not least, Civilization V. With some big shoes to fill the fifth instalment was always going to have to pull some tricks out of the bag to match up. These were numerous, extensive and dramatic and created my personal favourite civ game, but this was not universally the case.

Combat received an overhaul. Hexes replaced squares and only one military unit could occupy a hex at a time. This did away with the Stack of Doom and forced strategic placement of units to support one another. For example, putting your tougher melee units up front so that archers can pepper foes with their ranged attack and horsemen chase down stragglers. Furthermore, cities were now able to defend themselves where previously military units had to be stationed within or nearby them, permanently, for their protection. This allowed battles to range around the map instead of being focussed near cities, as was traditionally the case. It was bold to reject a tried-and-tested system but, at least to this commentator, successful.
Civ V's presentation and systems immediately jump out at you, especially if you're a veteran of the franchise. Source: Steam

Changes to some management aspects also proved controversial. The tech tree was truncated to have fewer dead ends and routes of progression. The introduction of Social Policies allowed some mixing of governance types, akin to Civ IV’s civics, but along particular “themes” (like Honour for a military focus). There was perhaps a little less flexibility for variation with this system but nothing game breaking. There were now fewer trading options although for the most part there was some quid pro quo in effect. For example, direct trading of techs had been removed and replaced by Research Agreements (knowledge sharing agreements for a one off boost to both parties). The amount of tax, research or luxury generated by your civ - which until now had been player determined - was removed. These things were still made but were no longer interchangeable. Manually adjusting this balance had big strategic value when, for example, you were broke and needed a short-term injection of cash (often the case during prolonged wars). Removing this feature simplified empire management but also removed flexibility for the player.

City States were introduced to make diplomacy more interesting. Although the NPCs could be captured as any other city, it was often more interesting to befriend them and thereby gain access to their resources and, later on, their vote on UN resolutions. Their usefulness in truth was mixed - it was irritating to be peppered with requests for help from them all the time, like hyperactive toddlers. On the other hand civs with traits that boosted city-state relationships (like Greece) could become immensely powerful by forming these alliances.
The art deco style is indicative of a clean, simplified UI and a streamlined experience. Source: Author's own.

All in all the changes Civ V ushered in led to accusations of dumbing down, that the franchise was catering to a “civ-lite” crowd which could not appreciate the game proper. Whether this is true or not largely comes down to personal opinion; to this commentator, the changes enhanced the game by simplifying a number of overly complex systems thereby freeing up time to focus on other aspects of your long-term strategy. It’s worth highlighting, however, that the game was still plagued by age-old issues like the erratic and dodgy AI for trade deals. Many of these changes only felt complete after the release of the two expansions which added a significant amount to the vanilla game - Gods & Kings and Brave New World.

Gods & Kings, released almost two years after Civ V in June 2012, added the usual panoply of extra civs, techs and units but crucially two big features missing from the vanilla version - religion and espionage. As with Civ IV founding a religion brought bonuses to trade and production but here you could choose which bonuses you had. It was therefore a reflection of the civics/ideologies system which let you mix and match benefits to suit your playing style. For example, one perk gave your troops a defensive bonus when near a city with their religion, whereas another gave your troops a similar bonus for attacking a city which had been converted to their religion. Espionage began in G&K from the Renaissance period and allowed stealing of technology, viewing enemy city screens and other such features but rather disappointingly fell short of the Civ II heydays where proper skulduggery could be used.
The Swedes under Adolphus play a great diplomatic game, so if they're angry you must have done something really bad. Source: Author's own.

Brave New World came out a full three years after Civ V was released and, although extensive in its breadth and scope, was perhaps too long to wait for an (effectively) finished version of the game, as our own Luciano Howard concluded in his review. It is fair to say (although perhaps slightly reductive) that BNW’s main contribution was to improve upon the victory conditions of the game by adding new mechanics.

Diplomacy became more interesting with the introduction of the World Assembly. When founded it provided a forum for all civs to vote on issues of global importance. The number of votes any civ had were determined by things like who was hosting the Assembly and allied city states (which would give their vote to you). It was a very powerful tool as resolutions had wide ranging effects, such as imposing trade embargoes on a particular civ or resource. As it was possible to buy the votes of other civs by placing a diplomat in their capital (instead of a spy), wheeling and dealing became more important. These changes elevated the importance of city-states from the vanilla version of Civ V and made diplomacy a viable tool for winning the game.
Trading can carry the day for some civs, so long as they maintain their fragile trade networks. Source: Author's own.

Trading could now be conducted by building caravans or cargo ships which would wend their way across the map in addition to the invisible routes agreed through diplomatic agreements. Commercial civs like Venice could reap huge benefits from multiple trade routes, not limited to financial gain; they also spread science and religion much like the Silk Road did for Buddhism two thousand years ago. But the relationship was two way - rival religions could creep into your cities when the cargo returned, and so you had to balance the gains from trade with the pitfalls of opening your borders to outside influence.

BNW also introduced Tourism, an adjunct to Culture whereby a culturally sophisticated civ could gain sway over others by dint of its cultural impact. The obvious real world example would be the influx of American culture to the UK during and after WWII. If this seems like a fait accompli, it’s worth remembering that this sort of cultural influence is strongly contested in another European country which could easily have fallen into the same relationship: France. Tourism and Culture build over time to make other civs more familiar with you - if all your competitors reach a tipping point in this familiarity, you win the game. Units new to BNW like the Archaeologist (a worker unit specialising in finding culture-boosting artefacts) or Great Writer (a new GP which can produce culture-boosting political treatises) let you pursue a culture/tourism victory late in the game, in addition to the usual victory conditions on offer. In a recent game I managed to overtake the French in cultural stakes - which is their speciality as a civ - by churning out archaeologists at an alarming rate to collect all the world’s antiquities (think: Elgin Marbles).

So what about Civ VI? As a priority we would like to see multiplayer addressed. Arguably this was never a key selling point for the franchise (see the befuddled Play the World expansion for Civ III) but making Steam a proprietary requirement for Civ V sent a very strong message regarding the series’ direction. Sadly the usually reliable Steam match-making did not live up to its own high standards and multiplayer Civ V has always been a troublesome beast. Correcting this would undoubtedly please old and new players alike.

Continuing the legacy of great civ mods would also be welcome. Modding was actively encouraged by the Civ IV development team and facilitated some fantastic mods like Fall from Heaven II. The incorporation of Civ V to the Steam Workshop has made a panoply of mods available for easy download to newcomers.

In a recent interview with PC Gamer, Sid Meier emphasised the Civilization philosophy that “with every new feature we put in, we need to take something else out”. As Civ V already had a pared down feel compared to earlier iterations it would be interesting to see how this applies to the next game. One request if I may - put player-built throne rooms and palaces back in!

Last updated: 30/05/2018 23:40:38

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