Welcome back to Franchise Festival, where we explore and discuss noteworthy video game series from the last four decades. Older entries can be found here.
This week we’ll be examining the hard-won battles and diplomatic triumphs of Civilization. Cover art, unless otherwise noted, is from MobyGames. Please consider supporting that website, as its volunteers tirelessly catalog key information and art assets for an often ephemeral medium.
Though I will be citing my research throughout the article, I’d like to draw particular attention to a few major sources:
- Jason Schreier for Kotaku – “Sid Meier: The Father of Civilization“
- Benj Edwards for Gamasutra – “The History of Civilization“
- Fraser Brown for PC Gamer – “The complete history of Civilization“
- Arcadology – “The History of Sid Meier’s Civilization“
- The Civilization Wiki
Sid Meier co-founded Baltimore-based MicroProse Software Inc. with Bill Stealey after the two bonded over Atari’s Red Baron (1980) at a 1982 aviation conference. Meier handled programming and Stealey handled promotion for the fledgling studio, which produced three titles for the Atari 8-bit home console line in 1982 alone. MicroProse’s initial software was universally focused on military history and action gameplay.
The studio’s reputation ascended steadily throughout the decade and it was hailed as one of the medium’s most successful companies by 1987. Sid Meier’s Pirates (1987) began to diversify their output with a cartoonish take on Age of Exploration piracy, though this required an uphill battle to overcome Stealey’s inherent skepticism of non-military content. Meier’s name appeared on a box for the first time at the suggestion of gaming enthusiast and comedian Robin Williams. This bought Meier more cache to develop games outside of the studio’s military niche, leading to the highly successful resource management simulator Railroad Tycoon in 1990. With his horizons thoroughly broadened, Meier began to work with Railroad Tycoon collaborator Bruce Shelley on a still-more ambitious follow-up.
Sid Meier’s Civilization (1991)
Development on Civilization began in early 1990 following MicroProse’s rejection of a proposed Railroad Tycoon sequel. By this time, Meier had been bought out of his ownership role at MicroProse and was strictly working as a contractor. He and Shelley worked out a method to guide production on the new project, with Meier frequently developing an updated prototype, passing it off to Shelley for testing and feedback, and then creating a new version the next day. Shelley’s experience working as a board game designer for Avalon Hill gave him a uniquely perceptive eye on what would and wouldn’t play well. Composer Jeff Briggs and writer B. C. Milligan refined the flavor of the game as it progressed through development.
Civilization was initially built as a real-time strategy game heavily influenced by Will Wright’s SimCity (1989). This proved too slow-paced, though, and the complexity Meier and Shelley wanted to integrate was at odds with reacting to events in real time. The team next pivoted to a turn-based structure that let players carefully manage their decisions at a more deliberate pace and slimmed the scope when they found traversal and research took too long. Though the term would not be officially used until an issue of Computer Gaming World in 1993, Meier and Shelley’s decision to emphasize complex turn-based nation-building effectively invented the 4X genre (explore, expand, exploit, and exterminate).
The game was released for MS-DOS PCs in September 1991. Players take on the role of a civilization’s ruler and direct its development from 4000 BC to 2100 AD, with the game ending when the player is defeated, conquers all other civilizations through military means, or wins a technological space race to Alpha Centauri. 14 civilizations are available for the player and AI rivals to choose from, including the Aztecs, Indians, Romans, and Russians. The randomly generated game world – of a size chosen by the player at the start of a campaign – is depicted from a highly abstract top-down perspective.
Gameplay articulates through a number of complex society management systems. The first of these is a city-building simulation, as no cities are extant as the player begins his or her run of the game. Settler units must be dispatched to establish cities, which are then improved by the player over time with infrastructure developments like granaries and workshops. These improvements enhance the production capacity of any given city.
Production capacity influences the second major area of society management: military development. Though violence had been eschewed in Sid Meier’s original real-time version of Civilization based on his inclination to “build things up” rather than emphasize the “chaos and destruction” common in the medium, Meier and Shelley had concluded that bloodless military combat was necessary to avoid the game feeling too passive. Cities can be assigned to generate military units of varying power and technological sophistication as the society’s technology level and resources expand over time. These military units can then be used to attack and conquer enemy civilizations’ cities, expanding the player character’s empire.
Technology represents the third major mechanical system undergirding the game’s structure. The medium’s first technology tree – which would go on to become a consistent feature across genres in the decades to come – allows players to focus on prioritizing certain human achievements as they amass resources during expansion. Technologies include infrastructure improvements, scientific advancements, and even concepts like the alphabet. Each opens up new building projects, military units, and/or world wonders.
World wonders are large scale social projects drawn from human history that offer major bonuses to the civilization’s stats or abilities. While each technological tree branch and accompanying units or improvements can be developed by all rival powers, only one version of each world wonder can be produced in any given game instance. Racing to reach the associated technological advance and then build a world wonder is a key part of most successful game-winning strategies.
Prior to release, Bruce Shelley also wrote a Civilopedia offering an explanation and historical context for over 150 of the in-game civilizations, units, buildings, and technological advancements. At over 200 pages, the document bundled with every physical copy of the game would become noteworthy in its own right as one of the most appealing elements of the package. This was a core part of Civilization‘s success, as ongoing disagreements about company priorities would see MicroProse doing little to promote Sid Meier’s newest eponymous release.
Word of mouth would be sufficient, though, as the game was met with instant critical acclaim. It racked up numerous awards and recognitions in the months after release while fans were loathe to quit play sessions before completing “one more turn.” Middling Japanese console ports to the PC-98 (1992), Super Nintendo Entertainment System (1994), Sony PlayStation (1996), and SEGA Saturn (1997) would do nothing to dim the legacy of what was soon considered one of the most influential games of all time. A 1995 PC remake – Civnet – further expanded Civilization‘s reach by introducing improved graphics and extensive local or modem-based multiplayer options. The biggest question facing its developers once impressive sales figures came in, then, was how they could build upon its ambition with a sequel.
Sid Meier’s Civilization II (1996)
The years immediately following Civilization‘s original publication were not kind to MicroProse. Strong sales of Sid Meier’s strategy masterpiece were not strong enough to right the ship of an already-failing studio, and Bill Stealey sold the company to rival Spectrum HoloByte in 1994; Stealey subsequently left the company to found a new studio called Interactive Magic. Spectrum HoloByte slashed operations extensively and refocused priorities towards licensed titles based on Star Trek, Magic: The Gathering, Mechwarrior and other IPs. While this is generally considered a dark period for the studio’s creative talent, it did produce the cult classic X-COM (1994). It also led to the last Civilization title produced by MicroProse and the first produced without the direct involvement of Sid Meier: Civilization II. Development was led by new designers Brian Reynolds and Douglas Caspian-Kaufman as well as Civilization veteran Jeff Briggs. This team sought to implement a sequel philosophy proposed by Sid Meier in which one-third of each entry remains the same, one-third is a direct reaction to player feedback received following the previous entry, and one-third consists of entirely new ideas pitched by the development team.
Released for the PC in 1996 and Mac in 1997, Civilization II represents a successful evolution on virtually every aspect of its predecessor. Its appearance alone is instantly recognizable as an update, doing away with the highly abstract top-down view of Civilization in favor of a much more detailed isometric perspective. Units are now visually distinct from one another as well. Finally, the audio-visual presentation is enhanced through the addition of a High Council which the player can consult for advice; council members are depicted in pre-rendered live-action full-motion video (FMV) recordings featuring over-the-top performances.
Most underlying gameplay changes are the iterative improvements one would expect in a sequel, including an expanded tech tree, new military units, and additional civilizations. Geography is similar to the original title, but includes a greater variety of features and integrate some details – like rivers – into other land tiles. The result is a more versatile set of options for improving land productivity around a civilization’s settlements.
Surprisingly, the overall structure of the game remains relatively unchanged. Players choose a civilization, a year in which to start their run, and then attempt to conquer all rival powers militarily or build a spaceship and reach Alpha Centauri by 2020. Enhancements have been made around the edges, though, offering players the ability to continue a run endlessly following the formal conclusion of a campaign in 2020 and significantly improved enemy AI. The first game had featured rivals who were fundamentally identical to one another outside of cosmetic differences, but each civilization’s iconic ruler now behaves with a distinctive set of traits. This seemingly small change dovetails with expanded diplomacy options to offer a much wider set of experiences and routes to success during any given run.
Two bonus scenarios are also included: The Rise of Rome and World War II. Each isolates action to a smaller, detailed map associated with the respective historical eras and presents the player with the opportunity to guide civilizations through these eras rather than the campaign’s randomly generated world map. These proved quite popular and numerous additional scenarios were added to Civilization II through the publication of three expansion packs in the years following the base game’s release. These expansion packs include scenarios created by MicroProse staff as well as fan-created content while also broadening out the game’s artistic palette to incorporate science fiction and fantasy elements. Fans would continue to support the game through scenario development long after MicroProse’s official support ended.
Civilization II was even more commercially successful than its predecessor in spite of Sid Meier’s absence, making over $21,000,000 by the end of 1996. A PlayStation port by LTI Gray Matter was published worldwide by Activision in 1998-1999 and a version compatible with new PC operating systems was then published by Atari in 2002. In the interim, Hasbro Interactive acquired the Civilization license following a series of fractious legal battles between Activision, Avalon Hill, and MicroProse concerning the former’s unauthorized spinoff Civilization: Call to Power (1999) and Avalon Hill’s claim on the Civilization IP due to its role in producing a strategy board game of the same name. This led to a poorly received 1999 remake of the franchise’s second entry called Civilization II: The Test of Time, which introduced a never-revisited mechanic in which the player can move up or down through up to four layers on a single game map. In spite of these middling follow-ups, Civilization II was regarded as a major critical success upon its release and still considered one of the best games ever released by online outlet IGN a decade later. This would not forestall the internal decay of MicroProse, though, and the next Civilization game would be produced by an entirely new studio following an exodus of MicroProse talent.
Sid Meier’s Civilization III (2001)
The yoke of Spectrum HoloByte’s oversight proved to be too onerous for several of MicroProse’s brightest stars by 1996. Jeff Briggs, Sid Meier, and Brian Reynolds left the studio that Meier had co-founded fourteen years earlier and started up a new studio called Firaxis Games. Electronic Arts (EA) partnered with the young firm based on the unparalleled reputation of its staff, buying 10% of its shares and providing a massive infusion of funds intended to support the development of its first two games. The second of these games was Alpha Centauri, a Civilization spinoff developed by Sid Meier and Brian Reynolds on which you can read more in the Spinoffs section below.
Civilization III, designed primarily by Jeff Briggs following the departure of Brian Reynolds after Alpha Centauri‘s release, would be published by Infogrames for PC and MacSoft for Mac in 2001. The game is less revolutionary than either of its predecessors, opting to almost exclusively iterate rather than introduce new concepts and features. Graphics are improved, though the game is still rendered in 2D and viewed from an isometric perspective.
One significant new mechanic is the inclusion of Great Leaders. These distinctive units, drawn from throughout world history, were originally intended to be part of MicroProse’s Colonization (1994). Great Leaders have a statistically small chance to appear following a battle between one of the player’s elite units and an enemy; these elite units are standard military units which have gained enough experience points from battles to be upgraded into a more powerful form. Once acquired, Great Leaders can be used to generate a powerful army or dramatically hurry production on a city development project.
Corruption, on the other hand, represents a more controversial addition to Civilization III. This mechanic had been present in earlier titles but is now more clearly conveyed to the player and more significant in terms of its impact on gameplay. Cities’ distance from a civilization’s capital determines their rate of generating waste according to a corruption score, in turn weakening the productivity of distant settlements.
Productivity is largely similar to earlier titles with one noteworthy exception: culture. Each city has a culture score, impacted by its trade routes, infrastructure, and resources, which determines the rate at which its borders expand. Expanded city borders bring more resources into its reach and can even cause an enemy city to flip allegiance if the disparity between the cities’ culture is high enough. In contrast to corruption, this system was very popular and would heavily influence the direction of later series entries’ expansion mechanics.
Civilization III was another critical and commercial success for the franchise. Sid Meier had long since ceased designing the games, instead remaining a consultant and namesake as he spent his time exploring new IPs, and the success of two sequels confirmed that he need not be closely involved for the spirit of his creation to live on. Two expansion packs adding new scenarios, civilizations, and multiplayer functionality were released between 2002 and 2003. In spite of its popularity, Civilization III would be the first series entry to not receive a console port.
Sid Meier’s Civilization IV (2005)
2K Games purchased the Civilization IP from Infogrames in 2003 and then acquired Firaxis as a subsidiary in 2005. Soren Johnson, a designer who had joined Firaxis midway through the development of Civilization III, took the lead on designing Civilization‘s fourth entry. According to an interview with PC Gamer, Johnson and his team sought to truly reinvent the franchise for the first time since its debut over a decade earlier. They evaluated each element of the game and stripped out what didn’t remain appealing to modern players while adding in new features that reduced friction.
The most immediately recognizable update is the introduction of 3D graphics based on third party Numerical Design Limited’s Gamebryo game engine. This allows maps to be easily zoomed in to enhance detail or zoomed out to gain a broader view of the surrounding environment, while polygonal units are now fully animated even while stationary. The isometric perspective has been discarded in favor of a checkerboard grid to enhance the legibility of unit movement.
Legibility is more generally one of Civilization IV‘s strongest enhancements, touching every aspect of the UI. Bright menus favoring visual representations over blocks of text make understanding tech trees and development projects clearer than ever. Even micromanagement is simultaneously simpler, thanks to a new city overview page where the player can easily reassign his or her workers to tiles or tasks, while also being less necessary due to more options for automation.
Resources are one of Civilization IV‘s less visible yet important improvements. Earlier titles had generally emphasized mining and farming as the primary means of exploiting the land, but Johnson’s developers extensively deepened the variety of resources and technological advances needed to access them. This makes reading the map clearer while also rendering any given run more dynamic over time as new resources appear once their corresponding tech tree research is completed.
The tech tree – which has been updated in appearance alongside the rest of the UI – includes full voiceover work for the first time. Leonard Nimoy’s iconic tone introduces each technological advancement as the player completes research while also delivering a memorable pop culture quotation on each topic. The game’s theme song, a Swahili rendition of the Lord’s Prayer called “Baba Yetu”, would achieve a new distinction for the medium when it won the first Grammy received by a piece of video game music in 2005.
Gameplay is largely identical to earlier series entries aside from paths to victory open to the player. Goals are no longer limited to defeating all rival powers or winning the space race. Instead, players can achieve diplomatic victory through being elected world leader by the United Nations, cultural victory through increasing the culture rating of three cities to legendary status, development victory through holding over ⅓ of the map’s land tiles, or one of the two classic victory conditions. This flexibility reflects improved implementation of underlying diplomacy and culture mechanics.
Expansions would introduce religion as a new game system, along with an accompanying new victory condition, and numerous scenarios to play. Of these, Civilization IV: Beyond the Sword‘s Rhys and Fall of Civilization stands out as a particularly extensive modification of Firaxis’ core experience. While corruption had been largely stripped from the base game, Rhys and Fall conveys the ebb and flow of real-world history by integrating culturally specific goals and geographical parameters for each civilization on a map carefully crafted to reflect Earth’s geography in miniature.
Civilization IV‘s 2005 release on PC and Mac was a massive success, garnering near-universal critical acclaim and selling over a million copies within six months then reappearing on NPD’s Top 20 annual PC game sales list again in 2008. Though Sid Meier remained the franchise’s creative heart and is credited as Civilization IV‘s creative director, Soren Johnson had become the key player in establishing a tone for the next decade of Civilization games.
Sid Meier’s Civilization V (2010)
Production on the next Civilization game began in 2007, around the time of Civilization IV: Beyond the Sword‘s release, and 21-year-old lead designer Jon Shafer aimed to make as many sweeping changes as his predecessor had done. Planned updates to the series’ presentation and mechanics were so extensive that it required an entirely new underlying infrastructure. Though the earliest prototype of the game would be built in Civilization IV‘s Gamebryo engine, development eventually shifted to a new bespoke engine called Firaxis LORE. Civilization V was released on PC and Mac after a three year development period in late 2010.
For the second consecutive series entry, Civilization‘s map design has undergone a heavy revision. Hexagonal tiles replace the tried and true square tiles which had governed map layout since the franchise’s 1991 debut. This enhances the mobility of units, who can now reliably move in one of six directions a standard number of times rather than the four-directional movement options of the first three series titles or the different movement requirements governing diagonal navigation in Civilization IV.
Troop movement and combat, in fact, represent Civilization V‘s most important mechanical updates. Units can no longer be stacked on one another to form massive armies and repeatedly bash themselves against defensive fortifications. Instead, any given hexagonal tile only permits a single military unit. The results are numerous: military campaigns are inherently more limited in scope, troops take longer to build in order to discourage clutter, and battles between units no longer necessarily result in the annihilation of one combatant. Units can now withdraw from combat after suffering non-lethal wounds, allowing units to persist longer than they would have in earlier games. Naval troop transports are also removed in favor of land units converting temporarily to troop transports upon reaching water (after discovering optics technology).
Two final major mechanical updates round out Shafer’s series overhaul. Due perhaps to its middling reception in Civilization IV, religion has been stripped out of Civilization V. City-states, on the other hand, are an entirely new addition that impact how players conquer their surrounding environment. These AI-run rivals behave like miniature civilizations, developing territory and fielding military units without the ability to build new cities. They can be defeated, befriended, or turned into vassal states depending on the player’s inclination.
Not all of Civilization V‘s changes are mechanical, of course. The presentation has undergone a revision which significantly increases players’ system requirements. Though less noticeable than the leap from 2D to 3D between Civilization III and IV, art lead Dorian Newcomb’s ‘living world’ approach to Civilization V’s map graphics deepens the sense of place which permeates randomly generated worlds’ various biomes. Animals roam about, bodies of water are realistically animated, and so on.
Civilization V proved to be another popular entry in a consistently popular series. Development challenges on its multiplayer component led to a less robust system at launch, but this was improved in subsequent patches and expansions. These expansions include Civilization V: Gods and Kings (2012), which reintroduces religion mechanics, and Civilization V: Brave New World (2013), which expands in-game options while adding tourism, ideology, and world congress mechanics. As with its two predecessors, no home console port of the game was released.
Sid Meier’s Civilization VI (2016)
The six years separating the publication of Civilization V from Civilization VI would be the longest gap between entries in the franchise’s history. Still, Civilization VI director Ed Beach seems to have swung the pendulum back toward the iteration of Civilization to Civilization III rather than the evolution of Civilization IV and V. He laid out a development road map based on lessons learned from Civilization V and sought to improve what had been found lacking in that otherwise impressive game. The resulting title was released on PC and Mac in 2016.
Visual presentation is quite similar to Civilization V, including the use of hexagonal map tiles. The overworld map, though, would otherwise see one of the more subtly engaging mechanical improvements to a system which had remained largely static since Civilization IV. Cities now spiral out into districts which must be consciously arranged by players on the terrain within a city’s sphere of influence. Where these districts are placed, and their relation to nearby geographical features like rivers or mountains, influences a city’s productivity and culture. Beach intended this to replicate for city development the more intentional military unit development John Shafer had introduced in Civilization V.
A new in-game randomization system was likewise intended to resolve an issue which had been present in all earlier Civilization titles. Early game options usually offered variety while mid-game options had tended to see players meaningfully growing their empires, but Civilization‘s late game had historically been hamstrung by limited actions and highly automated routines. Fatigue associated with clicking repeatedly through the ‘next turn’ button was a common sore spot among habitual Civilization enthusiasts. To resolve this, Beach and his team integrated a so-called Mayhem Level which had been quietly pioneered in Civilization V‘s expansions. This sees the AI growing more restive and experimental as the player’s routines grow more static.
Civilization VI was even more commercially successful than its predecessors, becoming the fastest-selling franchise entry within months of its release. Critical reception was similarly positive, with the improvements to city-building being particularly lauded. Two expansions in 2018 and 2019 introduced city loyalty, civilization golden ages, and the potential for massive environmental catastrophe. For the first time since 1999, the series would also receive a home console release when a surprisingly faithful Civilization VI port was published on the Nintendo Switch in 2018.
Though Sid Meier would remain only indirectly associated with the Civilization series following its first entry, he did have a hand several of the franchise’s spinoffs. Sid Meier’s Colonization (1994) was a spiritual successor to Civilization focused entirely on the European Age of Exploration. The player takes on the role of a European expedition to the Western hemisphere, engaging in warfare or diplomacy with indigenous peoples and seeking to establish a society with enough self-sufficiency to declare independence from its mother country. A remake produced by Firaxis using the Gamebryo 3D game engine would be released in 2008 as Civilization IV: Colonization.
Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri (1999) was the second collaboration between Sid Meier and Brian Reynolds (following Colonization). Though it did not feature the Civilization name, this PC/Mac game was heavily inspired by the mechanics and presentation of MicroProse’s magnum opus. The player chooses one of seven leaders who are vying for control of the planet Chiron in the 22nd Century. Gameplay articulates as a 4X turn-based strategy game reminiscent of Civilization II, though local alien factions and even the planet itself represent unique challenges to overcome. Reynolds’ writing for Alpha Centauri is much more extensive than it had been for Colonization, reflecting inspiration from science fiction authors Frank Herbert, Vernor Vinge, Larry Niven, Jerry Pournelle, Kim Stanley Robinson, Greg Bear, and Stephen R. Donaldson. Alien Crossfire, an expansion spearheaded by Alpha Centauri producer Timothy Train and focusing on the experience of humans caught in a war between alien species, was released in 1999 on PC and in 2000 on Mac.
Nine years after the release of Alpha Centauri, Firaxis produced a more explicitly connected spinoff to their popular strategy series for the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 home consoles. Civilization: Revolution (2008) was the first title with the Civilization name to feature Sid Meier as a designer since 1991. Though it makes use of an interface and mechanics dramatically streamlined from its PC and Mac counterparts, Civilization: Revolution still integrates four methods to achieve victory over rival powers. Gameplay is turn-based and represents an impressively faithful recreation of the core series’ 4X design. A sprite-based Nintendo DS version was published alongside the home console release, while a still-further simplified iOS version launched the following year. A poorly-received sequel was published on iOS and Android in 2014 and in an expanded form on the PlayStation Vita in 2016.
In keeping with the changing times, particularly the rise in social media-based video games during the late 2000s, Civilization World was released on Facebook as Civilization Network in 2011 before undergoing a name change. This massively multiplayer Flash title featured real-time mechanics rather than the turn-based gameplay for which the core series was known, and allowed players to compete with one another to climb leaderboards. After two years of updates, including unique minigames, Civilization World was discontinued in 2013.
The following year’s Sid Meier’s Civilization: Beyond Earth (2014) serves as a direct follow-up to Alpha Centauri. Sid Meier was not a part of this game’s development, with design shifting instead to Will Miller and David McDonough. Gameplay was based directly on Civilization V while the development of Beyond Earth‘s complex science fiction-based technology tree, amusingly, began with a visit by Miller and McDonough to the Alpha Centauri Wikipedia page. Generally positive critical reception would be followed by a 2015 expansion, Sid Meier’s Civilization: Beyond Earth: Rising Tide, which introduces aquatic cities.
Civilization burst from the minds of Sid Meier and Bruce Shelley in 1991 and has never slowed in momentum over the following 25 years. Neither a lack of marketing, corporate acquisitions, the absence of its original creators, nor the introduction of a third dimension served as genuine obstacles to Civilization‘s success. It seems that Sid Meier’s original instinct was right: “find the fun” and success will follow.
What do you think about Civilization? Which is your favorite or least favorite series entry? Who is your favorite civilization or leader? Do you like your tiles square or hexagonal? Would you prefer that I had consistently referred to the series with the “Sid Meier’s” naming convention?
In consideration of my own capacity to maintain a level of quality in these articles, I’m planning to take August off. It dovetails with a vacation I’m taking so that works out well. Expect the series to return in September with four new articles before we move on to the column’s second annual Spooky Month marathon in October. Here is a tentative list of planned upcoming Franchise Festival articles:
- September 6: Danganronpa
- September 13: Wario
- September 20: Ultima
- September 27: Uncharted
- October 4: Castlevania