Civilization through the ages: 25 years of evolution

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The celebrated Sid Meier’s Civilization franchise represents a cornerstone in gaming history, its 25-year run marked with accolades, Game of the Year awards, and a legion of fans who live by the “just one more turn” creed. A whole generation has grown up with the turn-based strategy series, so much so that it’s one of the few videogames that transcend social barriers – there are friends, family, and lecturers under its spell, even counting high-flyers such as Mark Zuckerberg or Elon Musk (who genuinely wants a settler on Mars) among its numbers.

A quarter century may not sound like much, especially when other console-based franchises have been around for longer, but we’re looking at a time when floppy disks and Windows DOS was king. As players strive to make their civilizations stand the test of time, so too has Sid Meier’s legacy. And its secret can be found in an adjective common to many past and present articles, interviews, and forum posts surrounding the games: compelling.

So let’s take at how the games have evolved over the years. While we’ll focus on the main numbered entries in the series, it’s worth pointing out that spin-offs and spiritual successors, such as Civilization Revolution and Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri, are excellent titles in their own right.

Civilization I
Developer: MPS Labs
Publisher: MicroProse
Release: 1991 (Windows DOS)

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(Image Credit: Civilization.com)

As unbelievable as it sounds today, the first Civilization almost didn’t exist thanks to an unenthused management. At the time, MicroProse was making a killing with its line of military flight and submarine simulators, and they simply did not see the merit in a game as unconventional as Civ was. This was despite the fact that Sid Meier’s Pirates! and Sid Meier’s Railroad Tycoon had already released, and the star designer was hungry for more.

Joining Meier was Bruce Shelley, who has a background in board games. His resume includes working at Avalon Hill, which is significant because they published the 1980’s boardgame Civilization, and the two games bear some striking resemblances. However, Meier claims he hadn’t even heard of it during development, taking inspiration from Risk and the god-game boom of SimCity instead. Whatever you believe, it’s certainly a fun coincidence (or conspiracy!) to chew on.

Sid Meier’s Civilization pioneered a number of things, one of which being the turn-based strategy genre itself, although earlier prototypes were in real-time – Meier made the change to get rid of all the waiting. While micromanagement was required, it didn’t quite go to the extent of other simulation games of the time, giving players a chance to step back and look at the bigger picture, in a way mimicking how monarchs gaze upon their kingdoms. Aiding them in their exploration, warfare, and diplomacy was also videogaming’s first-ever look at the technology tree, a concept that is now adopted across various genres.

Meier called upon his keen knowledge of history rather than diving into extensive research when creating Civ, whereas Shelley took to writing the in-game Civilopedia and print manual. Despite the development obstacles presented by MicroProse, they eventually managed to scrape together a team and ship the game, featuring a total of 14 civilizations.

With barely any marketing to back it, Civilization spread by word of mouth alone and it did so like wildfire, eventually catching the attention and praise of gaming media. To Meier, however, MicroProse was a sinking ship, too caught up in chasing the arcade and console gaming sectors. Shelley ultimately left the company to forge the Age of Empires series.

FURTHER READING: “The History of Civilization” by Gamasutra

Civilization II
Developer: MicroProse
Publisher: MicroProse
Release: 1996 (Windows 95)

(Image Credit: Civilization.com)

(Image Credit: Civilization.com)

In what is probably news to some, Sid Meier did not have a hand in all of the Civilization games, although he does offer his input. Rather, the sequel was thrust in the hands of Brian Reynolds, Douglas Kauffman, and Jeff Briggs.

It was quite the dilemma. How does one create a sequel when there is no inherent main characters or story? As is turns out, they did fine, making some changes to the formula that persist today.

What’s immediately obvious is the shift of perspective, going from the flat top-down view to an isometric one, with more detailed tiles and units, and sounds that are read directly off the shiny new CD-ROMs. It neatly represented the many technological advancements that happened in the five years between releases, updating Civilization for a new era of gaming).

But that alone isn’t what made Civ II a worthy successor. To list some of the major changes, they introduced firepower and hit points to military units, made the AI go through the same processes and requirements as the player (in other words, no more cheating opponents), added unit automation, and a live-action High Council that would actually argue and fight with one another over your empire’s future direction– sometimes they enforce governmental rules upon the player too, restricting unpopular options.

Most significant of all, however, is the introduction of a map editor, paving the way for modding and long-running community activity. And then there were the expansions bringing new scenarios, some of which featured cross-overs from other MicroProse games such as X-COM and Master of Orion.

To underscore it all, the 1997 Gold Edition introduced multiplayer to the series. Let that sink in for a while.

However, the fall of MicroProse that Meier foresaw was already past the point of return, so he leaves with Brian Reynolds and Jeff Briggs to form, you guessed it, Firaxis Games. Douglass Kauffman joins them to later work on Alpha Centauri.

FURTHER READING: “How a fluke video game called the Eternal War became a cultural phenomenon – and changed its creator” by The Kernel

Civilization III
Developer: Firaxis Games
Publisher: Infogrames
Release: 2001 (Windows XP)

(Image Credit: Civilization3.com)

(Image Credit: Civilization3.com)

After a series of lawsuits and company buyouts, the rights to the Civilization name and franchise lands in the hands of French publisher Infogrames. Flush after the success of Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri, which explores what happens after colonizing said space, the Firaxis team is finally given the chance to revisit their baby. Even so, they had a tough act to follow – Alpha Centauri is considered by some to be the pinnacle of the series at large.

Sid Meier opted to oversee the project rather than steer it, handing full design control over to Jeff Briggs and Soren Johnson, who wound up writing all of the AI. Up till now, the civilizations that players chose were mostly done out of flavor than any real game-making or strategic decision. That changes with Civ III, as each nation now has its own unique unit and strengths to take advantage of.

The implications are huge. Now, players are no longer going against two or three rival civilizations, but they’re going up against America and Rome specifically. Or maybe they’re trading with India until the long-running joke of Gandhi going nuclear plays itself out. The Civilization series has a misty-eyed love affair with history, aiming for the revisionist rather than the accurate, but when things all fall into place at the right place and time – when you somewhat recreate an actual historical event – it feels exhilarating.

Other sweeping changes include refinements to diplomacy and the addition of culture as a tangible figure, as well as how it ties into a nation’s borders – have a strong enough cultural output and that expanding border can swallow up smaller, neighboring cities entirely, granting a new victory path for the less hostile players.

The concept of a living map comes to fruition here, with roads, railways, and new strategic resources shaping the land and the cities upon it. They also pared down the technology tree significantly, making it closer to what we’re familiar with today – either rush through the ages chasing a highly specific route, or slowly research all the technologies as they become available.

The list of changes stretches on, with a new Great People system and a redesigned user interface to make things cleaner and more accessible for casual players. Shockingly, the game didn’t launch with multiplayer support, although Firaxis added the feature back with the first expansion. That expansion also saw a new leap for the modding community by implementing mod toggling, removing the need to overwrite original game files.

FURTHER READING: “SOREN JOHNSON: Civilization III Interview #2, 26/Oct/2001” by Apolyton

Civilization IV
Developer: Firaxis Games
Publisher: 2K Games (Windows Vista)
Release: 2005

(Image Credit: CivIV.com)

(Image Credit: CivIV.com)

If the move to an isometric view was ever a point of contention, then the jump to a fully 3D-rendered world in Civilization IV must have had quite the fan reaction. Helmed solely by Soren Johnson, with Sid Meier taking on a directorial role, this iteration pushes the Civ franchise even further in terms of production and budget, courtesy of its new publisher 2K Games.

Building the game from scratch, Civilization IV’s notable additions boil down to religions and alternate leaders, injecting a ton of replayability in a highly cost-efficient manner. Unfortunately, while the introduction of religion did make for fun new dynamics in terms of diplomacy, they tamed it by following a singular, non-descript religion across all nations.

Nonetheless, there were plenty of other new features to make up for it. Civics were added to further diversify the government systems, at the same time improving how diplomacy works. They also updated how those diplomatic ties are presented, as well as how it relates to the United Nations with its new powers. Civilization has always had a militaristic slant to it, and the breadth of diplomatic options that were now available made for a vastly richer experience.

That said, warring players could now see what the odds of winning combat were before plunging their units into battle; they’re incentivized to keep units alive this time, as they can gain experience to level up. These military units also no longer have separate attack and defense values, making them easier to memorize.

Outside of the game’s mechanics, modding and multiplayer received huge boosts respectively. Modders now had a more robust set of tools at their disposal, from simple XML editing via a text editor, to deep diving into programming through a tailor-made SDK (software development kit).

As for multiplayer, a new play-by-email mode and support for a persistent server, called PitBoss, gave players better options for hosting and running the game. Not everybody had the time to finish it in one sitting, given the length and pace of a typical game, making these additions highly welcome.

And where the extra budget is concerned, Firaxis actually managed to hire the late Leonard Nimoy of Star Trek fame to voice all of the technology quotes. Civilization IV also made its own mark in history with the Grammy Award-winning “Baba Yetu”, the opening song composed by Christopher Tin (who happened to be Johnson’s college roommate).

Alas, this would be Johnson’s final time with the series, as he left Firaxis in 2007 to work on EA’s Spore. Then-president Jeff Briggs also departed the company that year, following the successful sale of Firaxis to 2K’s parent company, Take-Two Interactive.

FURTHER READING: “Making Of: Soren Johnson on Civ 4” by Rock Paper Shotgun

Civilization V
Developer: Firaxis Games
Publisher: 2K Games (Windows 7)
Release: 2010

(Image Credit: Civilization.com)

(Image Credit: Civilization.com)

With Soren Johnson no longer at the company, Firaxis passed the Civilization torch to Jon Shafer, Ed Beach, and Scott Lewis. Lead designer Shafer was one of those that grew up on the series and other strategy games and, thus, had plenty of bold ideas brewing.

Civilization V abandons its square-tiled system for a more versatile hexagonal grid, completely revolutionizing how players see movement and combat. Alongside that radical change is the one-unit-per-tile rule which, together with the hex-based system, is meant to reward smart tactical maneuvers. We also got ranged units, self-defending cities, and the inclusion of health points so units take damage instead of immediately dying – all of which builds upon the new flavor of combat.

There’s plenty more. They introduced Natural Wonders, which grant unique bonuses to adjacent tiles, as well as city-states, smaller civilizations that served as allies or enemies depending on how allegiances sway. They ditched the Civics system for the cumulative bonus approach of Social Policies, in addition to dropping technology trading in favor of Research Agreements, which provide boosts to Science output once complete. Great People could now build unique tile improvements for larger, long-term bonuses but, in exchange, players lost the religions and alternate leaders that they had grown fond of.

This is where the soaring progress of Civilization actually dips, as the team simply attempted too much in too little time. Shafer himself dishes out some harsh criticism on his decisions in a post-mortem years afterward, detailing the many mistakes, their causes, and what the solutions should have been. But hindsight is always 20/20 and Civilization V wasn’t a lost cause yet.

Following two great expansions, religions returned stronger than ever with a customizable system that grows alongside their empires. Ideologies revisited how governments can be tweaked according to current player preferences, and trading routes opened up a whole new network of commerce (and plunder). After the many changes, fixes, and improvements, Civilization V rose back into the limelight.

It’d be an injustice not to mention that civ leaders now all speak in their native tongue too, even if it meant tracking down the last few people on earth who speak some of these dead languages. While these leader screens don’t show up as often compared to the rest of the game, they do impart a great deal of personality to the nations you’re competing with – giving these leaders an authentic voice helps sell the whole dance with history that Civilization thrives on.

Shafer eventually left Firaxis to successfully crowdfund his indie game, At The Gates, while Ed Beach is now lead designer for Civilization VI.

FURTHER READING: “Knowing The History: Behind Civ 5’s Brave New World” by Polygon

Civilization VI
Developer: Firaxis Games
Publisher: 2K Games (Windows 8)
Release: 2016

(Image Credit: 2K Games)

(Image Credit: 2K Games)

And here we are in the modern age. It’s clear by now that Firaxis’ modus operandi is to surprise with each entry and, with Civ VI, they’ve seemingly done it again, by rebuilding the very core of a civilization: its cities. They haven’t strayed so far from the formula that it’s beyond recognition but, in their attempts to shake up players’ expectations and habits, they’ve done a pretty swell job.

We recently had a chance to speak with Civ VI’s lead gameplay designer, Anton Strenger, on a host of topics ranging from development to gameplay and the series in general. You can find that interview here.

All that’s left now is to get comfortable, grab a large mug of your preferred beverage, and lead your own people to greatness. Perhaps you’ll get to settle Mars too! It’ll only take a few extra turns.

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Ade Putra

Ade thinks there's nothing quite like a good game and a snug headcrab. He grew up with HIDEO KOJIMA's Metal Gear Solid, lives for RPGs, and is waiting for light guns to make their comeback.