Retrospective: The Civilization Series



If there's one thing you need to know about me as a games' writer, it's that I love strategy games: I love tactical strategy, real time strategy, turn-based strategy, grand strategy, all of it. Since I was a little kid, I’ve played strategy games. Yes, I was that kind of a kid.

One of my all-time favourite series, in a genre overflowing with them, is Civilization. This series has spanned six games, many spin-offs, and an enduring legacy -- there is a large subset of gamers that associate the phrase “Our words are backed with nuclear weapons” with Mahatma Gandhi, after all.

So let’s stroll through the series, my personal experiences, and see just where the games have gone! Ready?

1. Civilization (1991, MicroProse)

The game of Civilization was developed by Sid Meier and Bruce Shelley in 1991 for PC-compatible MS DOS, though it would end up being ported to a host of other machines. The Amiga port is a particularly excellent port, to the point where many think of Civilization as an Amiga game to this day.

The point of Civilization, and indeed the entire series following, is to build up your (real-life) civilization from absolutely nothing in the stone age to a massive, towering empire in the glimmering future. All the while, you’ll be meeting other civilizations -- trading with them, signing treaties, and more than not clobbering them to death.

One of the brilliant things about the series, and it’s present even in the original games, is the multiple victory conditions. This didn’t have to be a game about world domination, you could win by using your brains or a silver tongue instead of brute force. Brute force tends to be the most fun option in most of these games, but there is always an alternative way to play and win.

The first game only has two victory conditions: conquering the other civilizations, or by the winning the space race. The space race: proving this is a bit of a cold war game at heart.

How does the original game stand up? The original iteration is interesting to look at because I didn’t play it as a kid, starting instead with the second game, and I came to the original Civilization years later by trying out an open-source remake. So I’ll kind of be talking about that version, more generally, and my experiences won't be especially influenced by any childhood nostalgia.

For its time, Civilization was a great game, and it still retains a lot of that quality in modern play. It still has depth, it flows, and though the diplomacy is a little weak (I mean, this is famously where nuke-hungry Gandhi came from thanks to a stack overflow error) it is very serviceable for a strategy game of the era.


2. Sid Meier’s Civilization II (1996, MicroProse)


Oooh fancy, Sid Meier gets his name before the title now! Sid Meier was one of the rare semi-celebrities of the computer gaming world, though now I think he’s almost forgotten outside of the Civilization series. Does anyone talk too much about Sid Meier’s Pirates!? They should, it’s a very good game. But people remember Civilization, and this dude’s name is still on that, even as it’s switched studios and developers and publishers.

Civilization II is, like I said, the first game I played in the series. So while it’s a leap forward from the original, don’t forget that five years separate them and a hell of a lot happened in computer gaming development in that time.

Civilization II is not just a nostalgic treasure for me, the game holds up. It has strong AI, a more complex diplomacy system, and the sprite-based overworld system has aged better graphically than either III or IV in my opinion, not to mention the original game.

The game retains the two original victory conditions: conquest, and building a spaceship that can colonize Alpha Centauri (more on Alpha Centauri later, of course). One of Civilization II’s most memorable additions to the game is advisors, and these advisors provide their counsel to you, in glorious 90s style, through full-motion video! This is among the more fondly remembered uses of FMV in the decade, and it works pretty well. They all change their costumes to be period appropriate as you move through time, and it’s straight-up hilarious when you change political ideologies and they all get executed in the revolution. Ah, sometimes in history you gotta laugh. Oh, and Elvis is one of your advisors; the 90s were still not above making games very goofy.

Civilization II is an unimpeachable classic, something that built on the fantastic base of the original game and made it into a franchise.


3. Sid Meier’s Civilization III (2001, Firaxis)


We’re no longer with MicroProse, Sid Meier is no longer the developer (but retains his name in the title -- nice work if you can get it), but this is still Civilization. Civilization III, to a lot of people, is the strongest of the first three titles. It plays a lot like II in most ways, just a little beefed up, and your ability to see the interiors of your cities as you build them is definitely pretty nifty.

I like III, though I’m not sure I prefer it to II -- I certainly go back to play II more. Some of the graphical updates are nice, but I find the UI a little clunky compared to II and combat doesn’t feel as fluid to me. These are minor quibbles, of course, as Civilization III is still one of the top entries in the series.

The game introduced more victory conditions, giving you so many more styles of play, there are cultural and diplomatic victories now. How about that, winning through diplomacy? I remember that being a being selling point to my video game-violence adverse mom when I wanted to buy this as a kid.


4. Sid Meier’s Civilization IV (2005, Firaxis)


In 2005, Firaxis came out with the fourth edition in the series, and it was received extremely well with both critics and fans. It was seen a triumph, and sold very well to boot,

Okay, here we go: hot take alarm! Get your pitchforks ready, open another tab to the contact page and call me an idiot, but...this has always been my least favourite in the series.

There are a few concrete things I thunk IV gets wrong: ugly, colorless graphics, terrible sprite design, a UI that sprang from hell itself, and slow clunky play once you get into later eras (even on a modern gaming PC today).

What it comes down to, though, is that the game doesn’t feel good to me, it’s too samey and I get bored and feel that even high-level CPU opponents are predictable and staid. It doesn’t coalesce, it’s less a great leap forward from III and more a piecemeal reworking of the three previous games. I’m in the minority, so here's what it does well: an incredibly advance diplomacy system, lots of new options for empire building, some great expansions packs, improved combat from III (stacks of doom!), and an absolutely stunning soundtrack by Christopher Tin. Please don't yell at me for not liking for IV. 


5. Sid Meier’s Civilization V (2010, Firaxis)


Civilization V is an odd one. This long-awaited follow-up in the series arrived in 2010, boasting a gorgeously rendered 3D overworld view that still looks fantastic, especially if you have a great graphics card. The game looked great, but was it great?

On launch, the game wasn't really great at all. Civilization V lacked the depth of IV, so much had been removed, diplomacy felt childish, and it was pretty buggy to boot. Other than the graphics, V kind of felt like a bit of a bomb.

But developers Firaxis, to their credit, sat down and listened. They read forum threads, they listened to the Reddit community, they talked to top Civ players. With this information, they patched the game, and then released two stunningly good expansion packs along with that.

If you play Civilization V now, with its expansion packs, it is the finest Civilization game ever made. Deep, engrossing, a million ways to win and a trillion ways to lose. The storylines that emerge from your game are always epic tales, and it’s a fun game to lose yourself into. You can put away hours on this game on not even realize it -- it’s become a total masterpiece. This is definitely the game I have put the most hours into of any modern game, and I still play it at least once a month.


6. Sid Meier’s Civilization VI (2016, Firaxis)


For now, this is the last game in the series, though there will undoubtedly be another. The game was a little stronger on release than V was, but it has also not quite reached V’s heights. Its slightly cartoonier art style is a turn-on for some and a turn-off for others, but the gameplay remains stellar, and I applaud it for trying something different than V.

I personally still prefer V to VI. VI has depth, yes, but seems to lack the incredible feeling that anything can happen that V has -- my games of VI all tend to follow similar trajectories. It’s not as bad as IV in this way, but it can get a little tiring.

It’s absolutely worth buying, though, and the Rise and Fall expansion pack is a big improvement on the vanilla game as well. As there also is with V, Civilization VI supports a huge modding community that can make the game into exactly what you want it to be, so that’s always worth checking into.


That’s it for the base games! In the next article, we’ll be looking at the series’ various spin-offs! Because there are a lot of them.