Sid Meier’s Civilization

Civilization has a grand history in the computer scene, and one that nearly matches its sheer ambition. In terms of concept, there are few games larger than this one – an attempt to span the development of humanity from the humble beginnings of 10,000 BC, through establishing the first extraterrestrial colony in the early 2000s. You’re tasked with picking a tribe from history and guiding them from their first settlement to the ultimate goal of being remembered as the greatest civilization in history.

There are a few ways you can make this lofty claim. While the happiness, wealth, and size of your empire are periodically ranked (and contribute to your final score), your primary goal is to beat the other civilizations to space. The game ends when someone successfully makes it to Alpha Centauri, or in the year 2080; whichever comes first. You can also try to run the board and wipe out all other civilizations, but this can get pretty damn hard at even the easiest of difficulty levels. Especially when the death of one civilization shortly spawns a new replacement.

City names are randomly picked from a list of your chosen Civ’s notable, real-life towns.

Civilization looks and plays like a strategy board game. Players take turns building structures, moving units, or modifying aspects of their empire, while decades fly by per turn. The game world is viewed from overhead, with various information windows (actually treated as movable, floating desktop windows in the Win 3.1 version) showing stats of cities and tiles you’ve clicked on. Units move along a square grid, and interact with any unit adjacent in all eight surrounding directions. An ever-helpful in-game encyclopedia tracks info and images for all units, tiles, structures and cities within the game, and advisors can be consulted regarding where your empire is deficient (but not so useful on “what to do next”).

The world map is broken into tiles, with randomly-generated terrain. Different tiles offer different benefits, so location is key. Your settler unit can found a new city anywhere on the map, and its citizens then work the surrounding tiles for food, resources, and trade. These tiles can always be improved, and you will frequently need to choose between a production enhancement (trading routes or a mine) or a food enhancement (an irrigated field). Food increases your city’s population, and can support more military units afar. Production increases the speed at which your city is able to build anything.

Details aside, the basic idea is to pick fertile spots of land, plant your settlers, and provide all the terrain and city structure improvements your little citizens will need to embiggen their towns. Repeat until you’ve swallowed the map, and strengthened your empire in the process.

The problem (or fun, if you prefer it) is that the first Civilization game is almost entirely a game of military conquest. Everything that you can build is either a structure that somehow increases the speed of producing military units, or is a military unit itself. The sole exception is the caravan, which establishes steady trade between cities, but this never brings in as much cash as simply capturing the city for your own empire. Even the diplomat, who can create an embassy and meet with opposing leaders, still has most of his abilities dedicated to spy activities (like stealing technology or inciting revolts). Hell, even the settlers themselves act as military units, as the expansionist cities you place have obvious tactical benefits in shutting out opponents, exploiting fertile terrain for production, or establishing forward bases. Later games in the series explore alternate paths to domination (like “culture” victories), but the first game is all about the conquest.

Simply put, you’ve got to expand if you want to win. Aside from being frequently forced into such minor kerfuffles as randomly-generated barbarians or scouting parties from other civs, expanding your cities (through founding or capturing them) has critical benefits to winning the game. Large cities doing well are self-reliant, contribute to faster research, can afford the best city upgrades, and naturally become the best at speedy production. Not only does a developed city build structures and units faster, a large empire of them is required to crank out multiple units at a time. While you could focus on building structures that make certain cities capitals of trade or learning, every city really acts most like a build queue that is inefficient when it isn’t being used.

Furthermore, you need well-developed production capitals to build your best stuff in a reasonable amount of time – cities can’t “pool their resources” on a big project (the exception being that each city can build individual components of the final spacecraft). And again, there’s nothing you can build or research in the game that doesn’t kill things, or somehow make you more efficient at building things that kill things. Even the “peaceful” solution of shooting settlers into space and colonizing Alpha Centauri is built on the progress of strictly military technology.

There are also specific city benefits called Wonders of the World that offer a staggering bonus to the civilization that can afford to build them (and again, any Wonder bonus always comes back to production, either in terms of trade or resources). Developed cities can produce these faster, and as only one of each kind can be built, developed cities can beat other players to them. Wonder bonuses go a long way to helping you keep an edge over your opponents and get to space, so the guy who’s out there stomping balls really is going to have all the best of everything in the game.

You would think then, that Civilization would be better at being a military game than it actually is. Each unit is rated numerically only in attack and defense; exactly like a board or card game. These ratings can be increased by tile-based bonuses or by stacking them within cities with the right fortifications (to be clear, you can only build structures inside cities, so true forts or outposts are pretty much out).

That’s bad.

Since ratings are all that matters, combat is strictly a numbers game. Whoever wins an invisible die roll (plus tile bonuses) destroys the other unit, with no other considerations or possible outcomes. This means it’s fairly easy to have notorious chronological impossibilities, like a Roman phalanx behind city walls that defeats a modern steel frigate. It is somewhat offset by a ridiculous jump in the attack rates of late-game units (namely battleships), but the aspect of random chance still offers no guarantees. This complaint is well-documented, and I knew about it going in. I actually thought it could be kind of fun and replicate the uncertainty of a battlefield. That attitude lasted long enough for my first jet fighter to get knocked out of the sky by a spearman. That dude must have had an explosive-tipped javelin and an arm like Nolan Ryan.

In theory, peace treaties offer a potential strategic tool. You could form an alliance to take down the largest empire, or hash out basic Cold War agreements and cease-fires. It probably works in multiplayer, but peace treaties with the A.I. are completely pointless. First, the A.I. has no memory whatsoever. Every time your respective units cross paths, you earn a visit from their leader. This leader will immediately demand a tribute to spare your civilization; essentially forgetting that you currently have a treaty with them. Tell them no, and they will almost always immediately smile and offer you a new peace treaty. So much for the scary Huns. Maybe they just respect a little backbone.

But peace treaties are also flimsy little things broken on a whim. In one game, I was much, much weaker than the Greeks. After the usual tribute-demanding and chest-puffing, I was able to get a peace treaty out of Alexander. Either side can break a treaty at any time, with no repercussions, so Alexander would encounter my next town, sack it, then offer a treaty again. And I took it EVERY TIME because war at my tech level was simply not an option. And every time, he’d sack a town, and throw peace out again. I felt like Neville Chamberlain. Really, there was absolutely no difference between when I had a treaty with the Greeks, and when Alexander just happened to not be attacking that round.

You also have the option to pay off other civilizations to come to your aid, always calculated as a fair percentage of your current treasury (so you can always afford it), but I never found this worth the money. Your new allies don’t take the fight that seriously, and this case, Alexander was busy crushing them too.

The DOS version sports a lowered resolution.

Strategy aside, simply *playing* the game is not for everyone either. It’s a turn-based system that is slow and methodical. When your turn comes up, you need to check in with each of your cities and see what they require. You have to give orders to each unit in the field to end the turn, or alternatively, set them to an indefinite “wait” mode (and of course, try and remember they’re out there so you can call on them when needed). You’re constantly checking the in-game encyclopedia to reference unit stats and match tile icons to benefits. It’s confusing in the beginning, and takes a long time to work out all the details. For example, I didn’t even realize units and buildings cost money to maintain in my first few games, and couldn’t follow why my treasury kept depleting.

Empire-building also requires carefully monitored balancing, and new developments mean you constantly need to put your real goals on hold. If your city hits a sudden growth spurt, you’ve got to stop production of the Colossus Wonder for a granary to support the new settlers, or else suffer famine and mass deaths. If an enemy empire suddenly lands on your coast (and since all maps are randomly-generated continents surrounded by water, they truly can come from anywhere) you’ve got to redirect military units and production to stop them. So on, so forth.

And as you might expect, the computer cheats without remorse. Without being a programmer, it’s hard to know exactly how far the advantages extend, but your enemies do seem to be very adept at magically knowing what you’re up to. They’re excellent at matching your capabilities and beating you to tech advancements or Wonders. I have never seen an A.I. caravan or diplomat out in the wild, but their cities somehow gain those benefits anyway.

They also seem to take advantage of the fog of war (or as the manual awesomely calls it, “the shroud of mystery“) to cover activities of blatant cheating – like popping up instant cities, or randomly “building” completed Wonders. You can only guess at such rubber-banding though, as since you can’t see their activities, you won’t know what’s legit and what’s simply been assigned.

The Civilopaedia never stops being useful.

I’m not really making the first Civilization sound fun, and I’m still not sure that it is. However, it is pretty satisfying in the beginning. It’s ridiculously detailed, down to corruption (more money is stolen the further your cities are from your capital) and global warming (pollution and nuclear weapons leave shit that must be cleaned up or the entire board faces a catastrophic Ice Age). Various government types are represented with fairly accurate strengths and weaknesses – Despotism has few production bonuses, but can keep citizens happy with garrisoned military units, Democracy has increased trade but creates unhappiness when military units are away, the Republic has a Congress that can override your decisions regarding peace and war, etc. You can swap among them as you need, based on the changing political tide, with the side effect of throwing your empire into Anarchy and ceased production for a few turns while you reorganize.

I’m a sucker for these kinds of nuances and little details, which Civ has barrels of. On that hand, I really enjoyed the game, really appreciated all the thought that went into it, and wanted to play more. But I’m not so sure about the intense micromanagement. The people who are ready to sit down and dedicate consecutive days to this probably won’t have an issue. The people like me, who will spend a few days between play sessions, will almost surely forget what’s going on when it’s time to return.

Oddly enough, when the tables finally turned and I had learned enough about the game to be that asshole civilization in the lead, I started completely losing interest. I think it’s because, despite all the military talk and suggestions of strategic planning, Civilization is ultimately a production game and not a tactical one. You win battles by cranking out better units than your enemy, and you crank out better units (and the research to earn them) by building, capturing, and defending massive fortress cities. So when you’re on top, you’re on top. When you’re not, there’s not a hell of a lot you can do about it. Frankly, I didn’t find it fun to be the best – it was too easy. And it was equally no fun to be the underdog – there was no way out.

Luckily, there’s little reason for anyone to have to put up with these issues. The later Civilization games allegedly fix (or at least consider) these concerns, and offer more polished, modern engines to boot. This is a good first try of a fantastic idea, and some may really get into it if their ideas of empire-building dovetail with what this game offers. But all considered, I don’t feel the final product does the promises justice. I always talk about starting a series from the beginning, but in this case, Civ comes off more like an early prototype with some grating rough edges. It’s revolutionary for sure, astounding for when it was the only game in town, but its brilliance lies more in the idea than the execution.


The Good

Incredibly detailed.  Oh-so-satisfying to carve out a path to domination.

The Bad

Essentially a conquest game, with conquest only determined by your production capabilities. Civ’s more defining features come in later versions.


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3 thoughts on “Sid Meier’s Civilization

  1. Interesting notion about Civ as a military game; I’ll be pondering that for a while.

    As for the spearman vs the jet fighter… never had that happen to me, but I have inflicted serious damage on battleships with chariots! I think the thing to do is to take this in stride; it isn’t LITERALLY true that a spear carrier is going to defeat a jet, but now and then the jet suffers mechanical problems or runs out of fuel and the barbarian is left in possession of the battlefield. That could happen today, after all. Be philosophical — and what kind of civilization are you building if you have no Philosophy?

    Worth noting that the DOS-based Civilization, over time, had 5 versions. In version 1, a barracks once constructed cost nothing. Clever people discovered that if they built a number of small cities with no buildings but barracks, they could crank out hordes of veteran spearmen and conquer the world while other nations were still researching iron. So in version 2, a yearly cost was stuck on barracks, to make horde strategies less effective. This wasn’t perfect, and in version 3 or 4 the yearly cost was raised again.

    So versions 2-5 had better play balance. BUT version 1 was apparently a copy of the version the play testers had worked with. So you could enter CTRL-F5-F6 (if I remember righly) and have a godlike view of the entire board, You could see your opponents’ cities; you could edit your opponents’ cities, to knock down their walls, destroy their temples, disrupt their production, etc. You could watch your opponent triemes blithely crossing oceans in which your ships would surely sink. — always annoying. You could watch your opponents fight with each other — always most enjpyable. On the bright side of things, it turns out the typical computer AI opponent rarely had more than 4 or 5 cities — I suspect that was a matter of play balance as well.

    Civ’s one of my favorite games, and I thank you for reviewing it,

  2. Did not know about the different versions; interesting stuff, and I can imagine how it changed the balance. Editing cities would have been an especially fun feature to leave in. Great to hear from a fan of the game, and thanks for reading! I haven’t played any of the Civs previously, so I’m looking forward to seeing what the future ones hold.

    Also glad to hear I didn’t completely biff the review. Civ’s an… intimidating series for a newcomer to write critically about 😛

  3. Civilization is a wargame for sure. After all, it draws much more from Empire than the board game it took its name from. I think the simplest road to success is the “warmachine” using chariots. These are quite overpowered for their time, so in each city, only build barracks and then chariots. Only.

    I have to agree on the diplomacy. It is basically useless in this game, but at least it showed what could be done. Look at Master of Orion: that has got almost identical diplomatic options and the diplomacy is great! The opponents act much more rationally and, perhaps even more important, you don’t need to waste your time and resources building diplomat units.

    Talking about diplomats, another fun thing to try is winning the game without building a single military unit. Only build diplomats and if you have got barbarians attacking you, you can bribe them to join your service instead. Even these units, you have to disband immediately. Quite a challenge.

    What I always missed most in Civilization is the concept of separarionist movements. So you’ve got oversea colonies – why don’t they drift apart from your core country culturally? This is the one thing which has brought down every single empire in the history of the world yet. As it is in Civilization, corruption is the only problematic factor for huge empires – and Communism solves that neatly.

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