From the past to the present: how the Civilization series has evolved over the years

Now that Civ 6 is announced, it's a good time to look back.

Ask an eight-year-old what they want to be when they grow up. Chances are, you’ll hear something like “astronaut”, or “football player” (mine was “paleontologist” because I was a weird kid). Rarely will a kid say “macroeconomist” or “city planner”. Deciding on infrastructure and taxation policy is probably not the average person’s idea of fun?

But Sid Meier’s Civilization series gets the intricacies of urban infrastructure, trade route positioning, and government policies to enthrall us all. Civilization remains one of the most popular franchises in PC gaming. When I was editing this article (late June 2016), Civilization V was third in terms of peak number of players on Steam out of all their games, despite the fact that Civilization V was released in 2010, and saw its last expansion released in 2013.

With the recent announcement of Civilization VI, the gaming world whipped itself into tizzy of excitement. I, for one, unhappy with Firaxis’ last installment (Civilization: Beyond Earth) was eager for something fresh.

But hey, since the game’s still months away, all I can do is hype about it, and maybe take a stroll through what it really means to be a Civilization game, and how that has evolved through the years.

Expand

“Build An Empire to Stand the Test of Time,” proclaimed the original 1993 box containing Civilization’s whopping 2 floppy disks. Note the word “Empire”: from the start Civ games have always been a colonial wet-dream, focused on aggressive expansion. The first game had only two victory conditions: defeat every opponent on the map, or win the space race. Even if you focused on the latter, expansion into new territories, by founding cities in unclaimed land, was vital if you had any realistic hope of winning. The more philosophical gamer might even argue that the space race itself is a kind of expansionism: the desire to expand becomes so powerful that it escapes the meagre boundaries of the Earth.

It was only in the third installment of the series that the idea of cultural expansion, now considered an indispensable component of a Civ game, appeared. Modelled after the “zones of influence” mechanic from Alpha Centauri, the series’ first space-themed spin-off, improving your civilization’s culture through temples, libraries and wonders was how you expanded your borders to wrest control of resources in the land, and even convert enemy cities to your cause. Civ 5 extended the use of culture by introducing social policies that could be bought using accumulated culture, injecting much more flair and agency to what had been a relatively passive system.

The power of religion as an expansionist force only arose in Civ 4. Where it had once been a simple technology, religion became an important game mechanic in its own right, affecting your civic options, choice of buildings and international politics. While absent from the Civ 5 base game, religion fully came into its own in its two expansions: Gods and Kings and Brave New World.  Players could now found their own religions, fashioning a name, symbol, and properties according their strategic desires (a commentary on the purpose of organized religion in society, I’m sure), and even establish it as a World Religion.

While imperial expansion is clearly a part of Civ 6, it’s unclear what the role of religion will be. I myself am excited to see how Firaxis evolves this game mechanic.

Exterminate

If the 4Xs are the pillars of a Civilization game, “Exterminate” would be the friggin load-bearing, gothic-ornamented central column, relegating the others to the role of decorative pilasters extruding prettily from the walls that make up the game. Even if you play Civ the peaceful way, focusing on diplomacy and culture (the wussy way, like I do), armed conflict is inevitable, even if it’s just against the native “barbarians” who seem to have appeared on the land before you and annoyingly keep getting in the way of your expansionist vision (sound familiar?). Of course, this focus on bloodshed is hardly an inaccurate portrayal of the Anthropocene: even a high-school student understands that “human history” can be understood almost entirely as a patchwork of “who killed whom” and “who conquered whom”.

So yeah, every gamer loves a bit of combat, and Civilization delivers plenty of it. Initially, Sid Meier wanted to make it all in real-time. However, as he told Kotaku, “[real-time gameplay] was a much more passive kind of process. There was more watching than doing. It was just not happening,” and the familiar, turn-based, carefully tactical style of combat stuck.

A classic Civ IV stack-of-doom A classic Civ IV stack-of-doom

The original game defined a style of combat which the first few sequels more-or-less maintained: stack a bunch of fighting units together to form an army and plop them onto a tile occupied by an enemy army. The sequels ironed out the kinks (chariots destroying battleships was an oft-mocked part of the original), but it was only Civ 5 that overhauled the system by removing the ability to stack units into armies. Now, each unit was its own army. While this change infuriated some fans, it seems to have hit a chord with most of the others, since the system is making a reappearance in Civ 6.

Civ 6 is changing a few things, though, and it looks exciting: it will add the ability to attach support units (such as an anti-aircraft gun or a battering ram) to an existing army, army formations, and the power to name your armies (which might lead to an XCOM-like emotional attachment to your battalions).

Explore and Exploit

What really gets me excited about Civilization 6 is probably the biggest announced change: making terrain crucial to both economic and military progress. No longer will all your buildings be ensconced inside your city walls: each city will have 36 surrounding hexes within which to build your buildings. These will be called “districts”, and proximity to certain terrain (say, mountains) will effect what you can or cannot build in each (in this case, an observatory). While elements of this were featured in earlier Civ games—for example you need to be near a river to build a mill in Civ 5—the new game promises to make terrain even more integral. For example, specific terrain will provide bonuses to researching specific technologies.

These changes are fundamental, especially since resources, exploration and scientific research have remained largely the same throughout the Civilization’s history. And while positioning near special resources has always been important, resource management hasn’t always been very active. In Civ 3, for example, just including luxury resources within your cultural border automatically added them into your supply.

If one had to point out major flaws in Civilization 5, it’s that players often get stuck in rut of building the same things and pursuing the same technologies in a specific order, every single game. This problem was even worse in Civilization: Beyond Earth, where the technology web was so vast, complicated, nonlinear and lacking in historical grounding (I mean, I can get what kind of new things “Architecture” or “Flight” will offer, but what the hell do “Biometallurgy” and “Field Theory” do?), that once I found a technology path that worked, I almost always stuck to it.

The fact that Civ 6 will randomly be plop you into any terrain, and that this terrain will affect what you build and how you research, will force you to think on your feet. “We want to throw different things at the player at different times and make them have to adapt,” Civ 6’s lead designer Ed Beach told Polygon.

Of course, with exploration comes contact with other civilizations and diplomacy. Diplomatic options have existed since the first game, as have its weird bugs (remember Nuclear Gandhi?). And with each installment, more and more diplomatic options were added. While the first game basically had a war versus peace binary, Civ II added ceasefire agreements, strategic alliances and a more important reputation factor. Civ III streamlined the whole system, doing away with diplomats, caravans and spies, and added even more treaty options. In Civ IV, nations would attack you based on your “heathen religion”, and a Secretary General could vote for you to win a diplomatic victory. Civ 5: Brave New World’s World Congress let you impose crippling economic sanctions on annoyingly powerful opponents.

With Civ 6, Firaxis has decided to spice up diplomacy by tackling enemy AI. “In Civ 5, different civilizations felt very different when you were playing as them, but when they were AI opponents they felt very similar in that they had the same way they go about playing the game,” Ed Beach commented to IGN. To counter this, the design team decided to crack open their history textbooks. Each leader will have a focused agenda based on real-world history, meaning Cleopatra, for example, will look for big bad boys to ally with. Additionally, they’ll also harbor secret agendas, to keep players guessing, and add much more fun and flavor to international politics.

A nod to the past while looking towards the future

The amazing thing about each subsequent Civilization game is that the game is always familiar enough to appeal to fans of the series, but there’s always something new for those who crave novelty. And it looks like Civilization 6 will continue with this trend: a good old 4X empire simulator, (albeit with some swanky new art), and a whole host of new features that are likely to appeal both to veterans and to new players just itching to dive into the world of “just one more turn.”