It might seem a bit of a cheat to label a whole series of games as “the greatest” but I think it is also hard to argue that Civilization is not deserving of being regarded as being one of the best strategy games of all time, in all of its iterations. It’s simply a case that as technology has progressed, Civ has too.
Few developers have a track record as good or as long lasting as Sid Meier – many of the games he’s worked on from the early days to now I could spend ages talking about (Silent Service, Pirates! and F-19 Stealth Fighter are favourites) but there is one that he is most famous for and remains one of the standard bearers for the 4X (eXplore, eXpand, eXploit, and eXterminate) genre.
First released in 1991 for PC by Microprose as well as other computer platforms including the Macintosh, Amiga and Atari ST, Sid Meier’s Civilization (known simply as Civ or Civ1) tasked players to “Build An Empire To Stand The Test Of Time” and it is literally that as you start from a group of settlers in 4000BC you have to work your way through history with the intent of being the dominant faction in the world. Success never came to those who remained idle and you needed to explore the world, settle new cities, research technologies and battle your way to the end against barbarians and a number of competing civilizations controlled by the game.In Civ there were only two ways to truly “win” and that was either through military advancement and conquering your enemies or scientific advancement and being the first player to build a spaceship and reach Alpha Centauri. Getting to either had the potential keep players occupied for hours on end to achieve but when you made it you knew it was a big achievement. Later games would increase the number of victory conditions and provide a substantial number of alternative for players to pursue.
After that initial success, the game would return often with enhancements along the way. CivNet in 1995 brought the game to Windows platforms and included multiplayer options which was popular amongst my friends during late nights on our University’s network. The first true sequel arrived in 1996 with Civilization II which introduced the now familiar isometric/angled perspective. It also included a scoring system tied to the two win goals and your ability to achieve either before the year 2020. This often forced the player to be more aggressive in pursuing goals and created additional incentives to replay the game. However if you weren’t so inclined to beat the deadline, the game still let you continue past 2020 at your own pace, just minus the score.
Post CivII, dramas unfolded at Microprose which lead Sid Meier and colleagues Jeff Briggs and Brian Reynolds leaving to form Firaxis. Though they did not have the rights to make a sequel to Civilization they did the next best thing which resulted in Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri for EA which is a spinoff (of sorts) from the series based on the idea of what would be done after a player completed the space victory condition. That success didn’t go unnoticed because Firaxis would be given the keys again to Civ soon after.
Of all the versions of Civ I’ve played, Civilization III (2001) is easily the one that absorbed the most of my time. Admittedly that was also a when I had a lot of spare time for gaming so it was certainly fortuitous for the game to arrive when it did. What interested me in this version was the new culture mechanic which provided an expanding sphere of influence for cities that could be a useful way to win over neighbours without the need for taking the military option. Personally, I found culture to be such a natural fit within the rest of the game that focusing on it became a key part of many of my sessions. The game also included additional victory conditions (including a cultural one), giving players more flexible options in winning. If all else fails, there’s a final score comparison against opposing civilizations if no victory conditions were met.
2005 signalled another advance with Civilization IV being the first powered by a 3D graphics engine. Religion also played a larger part in the game with seven being featured. The Great Leaders (upgraded units from CivIII) were improved further here with them being broken down into Generals, Scientists and Engineers and all based on famous historical figures. Not only could they provide bonuses on the map but they could also be used once to provide a boost in their respective fields. Using Great Scientists to help research technologies faster was a tactic I used often later in the game. Having Leonard Nimoy provide narration in the game was a great touch with voice really adding some weight to your accomplishments and the quotes that would accompany them.
Though Civilization is primarily a PC franchise, it also branched out to console and mobile platforms in 2008 in with Civilization: Revolution (2008) which takes the core game and tweaks it to make if much easier to play through a whole game in the space of an evening which makes it a really attractive game for console gamers. I really liked the presentation in CivRev and especially the leaders and advisors who were brought to life brilliantly. It was also notable that it was one of the first games since the first that Sid Meier had a more direct role in developing. There was also a mobile only sequel but judging from review scores it didn’t scratch the itch as well as the first game.
Civilization V arrived in 2010 built again on a new engine that really adds life to the now familiar maps. The game was however criticised early on due to the team cutting back on features present in earlier games (such as civics and religion from CivIV) but some of these were brought back through the game’s expansions. The inability to stack units is a very noticeable change that I found a little frustrating but I suppose on the other hand it forces players to be more mindful of the units they have deployed and make it necessary to replace units whereas previously it wasn’t really necessary to dismantle them. Visually I think it takes many of its design cues from CivRev which is definitely a good foundation but they’ve made also it a little more “serious” which unfortunately loses the charm that the console game has in spades.
A return to an Alpha Centauri style game came in 2014 with the arrival of Civilization: Beyond Earth. Taking cues from both that game and CivV, it also allowed connectivity with Sid Meier’s Starships if players owned both games. The game was praised by many for bringing that classic game into a modern setting but was criticised for not taking into account the flaws of the engine it inherits from CivV.
Thankfully, it’s not all ending there. In the year of the series 25th birthday (ie. 2016), we will soon see Civilization VI which incorporates new features such as cities physically expanding across the map as they grow and leaders whose temperaments echo the traits of the historical figures they are based on. That the developers can continue to innovate on a franchise this long lived is an incredible achievement in itself. The newest game will be landing in players hands on October 21st of this year and will have Sean Bean take on the role of narrator this time… which must improve his chances of surviving until the end.
A great video by YouTuber WolfPlayer that shows the series as it has changed over time can be seen below – with twenty fives years now passed for the series, there is much to cover and this does a great job of highlighting Civilization through its own history.
Of any game that I’ve played, Civ and its sequels would be right up there in terms of being the biggest time sinks I’ve ever played. Their ability to keep me playing for hours on end scares me every time I start up a session. The size of the worlds and the challenges on offer would lead me to committing countless hours trying to get my civilization over the line and become number one. That such a game can remain so relevant after a quarter of a century shows just how remarkable and appealing to players the idea is: of building an empire to stand amongst the greatest in history.
Greatest Games is a feature where we highlight our favourite games from the past and try to explain what we think makes them great and worth searching out to play again. If you’ve got your own thoughts on the subject, please feel free to share them in the comments below.